Daughter of the Priest of On

by Gershon Ben-Avraham

He gave him Asenat, daughter of Poti Fera, priest of On, as a wife.
—Gen. 41:45 (Steinsaltz)

Beloved Sister,

I must start with an apology. I promised to be more faithful in writing to you; unfortunately, duty and responsibility have made that difficult. I’m sorry. You asked about my marriage in your last letter—if I am happy with my husband and our life together. I will share with you something of it, but I must ask you to keep secret what I write; my husband has many enemies.

Let me begin by saying that I am happy with him, more than I expected to be. He is pleasing to look at, as you have said. His eyes are beautiful. I also love his voice and the way he speaks our language. He works hard at pronouncing it correctly, and I help him as much as I can. Still, it is easy to hear that he is a foreigner. An advantage of this, though, is that our boys will speak more than one language, for he’s teaching them his. He is a busy man and feels the weight of his work, yet, as much as possible, he reserves time to spend alone with us.

There are problems, though. Rarely does a night pass during which he doesn’t wake me to tell me about a disturbing dream he has had. It is sweet how he does it. Beneath the covers, he slides a foot over until it brushes my calf lightly, barely enough to get my attention. If I move, he asks me in a whisper if I am awake. Sometimes, grumbling, I say no. I must confess that if I am tired, I lie as still as possible and don’t answer him, at least not at first. But his need is fierce, and his fear persistent.

There is one dream he has had repeatedly. I wish I could rid him of it, but have been unable to do so. He awakens, trembling as if what he tells me has just happened. I can’t help him, only listen to him. He has forbidden me to speak with his physician about it.

In the dream, he is in a pit. It is dark. He cannot see his own hands in front of his face. He’s cold, shivering. He hears things moving near him, feels them crawling on him, crossing his feet, or running along his back and arms. He draws his knees up close to his chest to make himself as small as possible. He can barely discern the sky above him when he looks up, framed in the pit’s opening. He hears the voices of the men who threw him into the hole. He catches snatches of their conversation. They are eating and laughing. Sparks from their fire rise into the air. Some of them float across the pit’s circle of blue above him. He cries out to the men, begs them to help him. There is no answer.

He pulls me to him and embraces me, gently strokes my face and hair with his strong hands. I tell him I love him and that he is safe. I remind him of our two sons asleep in the room next to ours. I recall our firstborn’s name for him and the reason we chose it. Often, he will rise then and walk into the boys’ bedroom. I find him there in the morning, sleeping in a chair he’s placed between their beds.

I turn now to something distasteful. I don’t know how much of this you may have heard already. My husband spent time in prison. The wife of a prominent official said he attacked her, tried to rape her, but fled when she cried out for help. At the time of his capture, he was half-naked. The woman said he’d left a garment behind when he ran away in panic.

He has told me his side of the story. Oh, my sister! I could never have imagined that I would find myself in such a situation. Yet, my husband is intelligent, kind, a good father, and the gentlest of lovers. I believe him when he tells me he is innocent. I must trust him. What else can I do?

Many at court are envious of him, hate him, this foreigner, this criminal who rules over them. For in their eyes, he is a criminal. They quickly remind anyone who will listen that no official, no court, has ever declared him innocent of the charge against him. They say he is out of prison merely because of a favor he did for someone in a position of influence. And he remains in power, they argue, only because of his mastery of divination. If people judge him, how I wish they would do so based on what he does, not what they hear, on who he is, not who they want him to be.

I have to stop. The boys’ mathematics tutor has asked to speak with me and is here now. In closing, I’d like to request a favor from you. Would you visit the Temple of Neith and give an offering for Tzafenat Paneah? Pray that he forgets his past hardships and parental home. We needn’t mention your favor to him.

I miss the City of the Sun and look forward to your visit in spring. You will find your nephews much changed, I think.

All my love,

Gershon Ben-Avraham’s work has appeared in Big Muddy, Gravel, Image, Rappahannock Review, The Bookends Review, and other literary publications. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) earned “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. Kelsay Books published his poetry chapbook God’s Memory in 2021.

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