In Zuleikha's House

by Kass

Potiphar's wife is not named in Genesis. There's a medieval commentary which names her as Zuleikha, a name which is also used in a famous Persian love poem about Joseph and Zuleikha. Thanks to Lomedet for beta. Written for In The Beginning, the Bible fanworks fest, fall 2009.

Potiphar was a heavyset man who carried himself like someone accustomed to getting what he wanted. When he beckoned sharply for the head of the caravan to bring him Jo, she felt the first pang of terror she'd experienced since leaving home. It wasn't unreasonable for a master to consider a slave's body his to do with as he wished. But Potiphar hadn't laid a hand on her then, and he hadn't laid a hand on her since.

In fact, she'd hardly seen him. He seemed to spend most of his time at the Pharaoh's palace, doing God-alone-knew-what. After he deposited Jo with the overseer of his household slaves, he left her alone and he didn't come back.

There was a lady of the house, the other girls told her; their mistress was named Zuleikha, and she was a noblewoman, and she was not overly cruel. More than that, Jo couldn't find out. She had learned some Egyptian in the caravan coming down to Egypt, but her language skills were still basic, and the other girls didn't trust her.

She slept in the slaves' quarters on a pallet beside the laundrywoman, the cook, and the woman who cleaned Potiphar's house each day. The overseer dispatched her to assist each of them in turn.

Her stint in the kitchen was a disaster. She didn't know any Egyptian cooking, not even the most basic recipes, and she'd never seen such abundance even on a feast day. Laundry work was boring but at least she understood it. Scrubbing the floors likewise.

But the first time she was sent to the market to purchase foodstuffs, she came home with more money left over than the overseer apparently expected. Once the overseer realized that she had a head for figures, going to market became one of her regular duties. She went almost every day, in search of whatever spice the cook needed but didn't have in her inventory, or ropes of braided garlic and fresh green onions, or fine woven linens to add to the household supply.

Jo liked the market. Most of the vendors were local, but some came from further afield. She hadn't met anyone from Canaan there yet, but she lived in hope. A merchant might be able to take word back to her family that she was okay. Not that her brothers cared, obviously, but what had they told her father? And what about Benjamin? With her gone, Benjamin would be the lone outsider; the rest of their brothers were probably picking on him now. She tried not to think about that.

Still, even without any Canaanites selling familiar wares, the market was a relief. It was good to get out of Potiphar's compound, to revel in her -- illusory -- autonomy for a while. And sometimes she spent a few tiny coins on sweets for the other slavegirls, which ingratiated her to them a little bit.

The language barrier got in their way, though. Jo mostly kept to herself when she wasn't working. After a month she noticed she was feeling out-of-sorts, and realized that what she was feeling was loneliness. Having grown up in a household with twelve children, the sensation was so unfamiliar that she hadn't recognized it. Potiphar's house bustled, but she was always on the outside. She missed her father and Benjamin and some of the lambs she had nurtured into sheep. She even missed her other brothers.

It was the loneliness which first led her to talk to God. Late one night under the familiar moon she poured out her heart, and when she had run out of things to say she felt...comforted. Knowing that God had heard her made her feel less alone.

The overseer must have approved of her relative isolation; he promoted her, and then promoted her again. Six months in to her service, she was second in command to the overseer.

That was when she got called in for her first audience with Zuleikha.

"I confess, when my husband brought you home I was dubious. We've never purchased a foreigner before." Zuleikha reclined on a low couch. She spoke a clear, understandable Egyptian and her voice was strong.

Jo knelt on the ground with her eyes low, as befit her station. "Yes, ma'am."

"Oh, for the sake of Pharaoh! Look at me," her mistress commanded, and Jo did.

Zuleikha was younger than she'd expected, at least fifteen years younger than Potiphar. Her eyes were lined with kohl and her lips were reddened with the bright pomegranate paste Jo had seen at the souq. Her hair was uncovered -- even married Egyptian women did not veil in the solitude of their own compounds -- and it gleamed dark and lustrous around her shoulders.

"Have the other girls been treating you well?"

"Yes ma'am."

Zuleikha seemed to be waiting for a more extensive answer, but Jo wasn't sure what else to say.

"My husband is pleased with the household accounts," Zuleikha said finally. "He is inclined to promote you to chief book-keeper, steward of our household budgets."

That was a surprise. "I'm honored by his trust."

Zuleikha looked amused. "Ordinarily our household steward would report directly to my husband, but that might seem...improper."

Jo felt herself blush. "Of course, I understand." For a young slavegirl to meet alone with the master of the house? Of course it was inappropriate. Well, she could hope that the overseer hadn't heard any rumor of her possible promotion; if he had, now that the promotion obviously wasn't coming, he would make her life miserable.

"I have considered suggesting to my husband that he promote you in the overseer's place, on condition that you report to me instead of to him."

"Oh!" Jo hadn't considered that as a possibility. "I mean, you are too kind; I thank you."

Zuleikha waved a hand idly and her golden bangles jingled. "I trust you wouldn't object to meeting with me every few days to discuss...things?"

"Not at all," Jo said hastily. "Whatever my mistress desires."

Zuleikha's mouth curled up in a smile. "We will think on it. Dismissed."

Jo bowed and then backed out of the room.

It didn't occur to her then that she had escaped the kettle by leaping into the fire.

"You may serve," Zuleikha said, motioning toward the small tray with the filigree silver pot of herbal tea and the two inlaid cups. Jo poured tea for her mistress and pressed the cup into her hand. Zuleikha smelled of sandalwood and when she reached for the teacup her deep neckline gaped open further than she probably intended.

The second cup on the tea tray confused Jo; there was only one settee in the sitting room, and a single pillow set on the floor in front of it, so it didn't look like her mistress was expecting another guest.

"It's for you," Zuleikha said, intuiting her question.

"Thank you," Jo said, and poured herself a cup, and seated herself on the cushion.

There was a pause as they each sipped the fragrant liquid. It tasted of mint.

"So you'll want to know what you're spending money on," Jo offered.

Zuleikha laughed. "The accounting book tells us what we need to know at this time."

"Oh," Jo said, surprised.

"I find myself...curious," Zuleikha said. "Tell me about where you come from."

"I am the only daughter in a family of boys," Jo said, and blinked away the tears that threatened to form at the mention of her family. "My younger brother and I were born to one mother, Rachel daughter of Laban, but she died as my brother was born."

"I am sorry," Zuleikha said, and it sounded like she meant it.

"My other ten brothers were born to our mother Leah daughter of Laban, and to Bilhah and Zilpah, our mothers' handmaidens, but my elder brothers never loved the children of Rachel."

"And your father? Does he yet live?"

"As far as I know," Jo said, and took a long gulp of her tea to conceal the quiver which wanted to creep into her voice. "My brothers sold me to a passing merchant because of their jealousy; our father favored me, and therefore they resented me."

"It can be difficult when the father favors one child over another. Or when the mother does."

The mention of motherhood reminded Jo of something she'd been wondering. "I have seen no sign of children here," she began. A shadow passed over Zuleikha's face and Jo bit her lip, realizing that she had stepped onto shaky ground. Was Zuleikha barren?

"My husband travels often," Zuleikha said smoothly. "Perhaps someday the gods will see fit to grace us with a child."

Or maybe Potiphar wasn't interested in women. Jo wasn't sure which was a more awkard possibility: either she'd just asked a barren woman about her lack of children, or she'd inadvertantly teased out the information that Potiphar preferred the company of men! "I apologize," Jo said awkwardly. "I should not have asked."

"It is nothing," Zuleikha insisted, waving her hand as if to dispel Jo's concern. "In truth," she said, leaning in conspiratorially, "I am somewhat relieved. I have seen the rigors of childbirth! I cannot say that I mind being spared them."

"I can understand that," Jo said, and she could.

"More tea," Zuleikha said imperiously, holding out her cup, and Jo picked up the pot to pour.

It came to seem normal that Jo was called to Zuleikha's chambers every few days. Always there was tea; often there were little cakes, sweetened with honey and spiced with cinnamon and sesame. She told Zuleikha everything she could remember about Israelite life in the land of Canaan, and in return Zuleikha tossed her tidbits of Egyptian lore.

By now Jo had the habit of praying every night before she slept. She still shared a room with two other girls, and actual solitude was rare, so most nights she went to a courtyard on the far side of the house where no one important would be disturbed by the sound of her voice. She spoke to God in Hebrew, which meant that even if she had been overheard, no one would have known what she said.

She talked about Zuleikha, about what it was like to tell stories about home, about how sometimes she was afraid she was forgetting what home had really been. She talked about Egypt starting to seem familiar. About living in a metropolis instead of under the wide-open sky. God never answered her in words, but the sense of being enfolded in familiar presence was always there.

At least once a month Potiphar breezed into the house. Usually he came with guests, parties of men who ate and drank until late into the night. Jo served at one of the banquets, but he didn't seem to notice her at all. Zuleikha was cool with her, as befit the lady of the house, but her eyes still smiled.

And then the next morning he would be gone again, and his guests along with him, and the household would return to its usual sleepy status quo.

Jo still yearned to send a message home to her father. She worried that he might think her dead, or -- worse -- that the loss of his only daughter might have aged him to the point of death. But aside from that, and aside from her occasional bouts of homesickness for Benjamin, life in Egypt was actually better than her old life had been.

She missed her multicolored tunic, but Zuleikha had her tailor make robes for Jo which fit her better than any of her old clothing had done. (The robes were cut closer to her body than she was used to -- the Egyptian style was more revealing than the robes she had known back home -- but she got used to that.) Even household slaves, in the house of Potiphar, ate better than she and her family had ever eaten.

And although she knew Zuleikha was her mistress, not her sister or her friend, when they were sitting in Zuleikha's chambers drinking tea and telling stories that distinction was easy to overlook.

Until everything changed.

The silver teapot wasn't there: in its place was a heavy golden jug filled with wine.

"My husband won't be coming home this week," Zuleikha said, by way of explanation. "I thought that merited a celebration!"

"As my mistress desires," Jo said, pouring the wine.

"You don't have to put up with him," Zuleikha groused, tipping back her glass and drinking half of its contents in a single long swig. "You don't know what he's like."

"Is marriage so onerous?" Jo wouldn't ordinarily have asked, but the wine was stronger than she expected -- fortified with brandy, maybe? -- and after a first gulp she was feeling more light-headed than seemed reasonable.

"Let us not speak of it," Zuleikha said, and finished her goblet. "More wine!"

And Jo poured.

They had drunk half the pitcher when Zuleikha patted the couch beside her. "Sit," she said.

And Jo sat.

There was a pause. Jo could smell the sandalwood oil her mistress wore at her pulse points. She was unaccustomed to wine, and the bells which hung in the window rang in her ears.

Zuleikha reached out and took Jo's hand. Zuleikha's hand was warm and Jo felt light-headed and confused.

"I am not so unlovely as my husband would have it," Zuleikha murmured. "Am I?"

"Of course not!" Jo protested. "Surely you know that you are beautiful." And she was. Her hips were strong, her cheekbones were high, her breasts were firm.

"Lie with me," Zuleikha said, and pulled on Jo's hand so that Jo, caught off-balance, tumbled atop her mistress.

Zuleikha's body was solid beneath hers. She could feel Zuleikha's heartbeat -- or was that her own, racing? -- and the heat of Zuleikha's body. Zuleikha licked her parted lips and pulled Jo down for a kiss.

Her mouth tasted of spiced wine and her tongue was insistent and for a long heady moment Jo gave in.

And then she pulled away, breath coming fast. Zuleikha looked up at her, eyes lazy with triumph, and she knew she could not do this.

"Your husband has entrusted me with all that he has," Jo said. Even as she spoke she knew Zuleikha would be furious, but she couldn't stop. "Even his most precious possession. How can I take advantage of his trust, and sin against God?"

"To the gods we are of little account," Zuleikha insisted. "It is they who made my husband, who has never desired me. And you do desire me; I know it."

And Jo did.

But adultery was a crime before God.

"I can't," she said desperately, and gathered her energy to rise.

"Please," Zuleikha said, her voice low, and clutched at Jo's robe. Suddenly panicked, Jo pulled away and her robe tore along the seam, leaving a piece of cloth in her mistress' hand.

The gust of air on her newly-exposed skin was shocking. Jo leapt back, stunned. "I -- I'm sorry," she said desperately, and fled.

When one of Potiphar's men dragged her out of her bedchamber and into Potiphar's salon, Jo was afraid, but she wasn't surprised. Zuleikha was enthroned on his carved wooden chair, her face perfectly made-up, and she did not meet Jo's eyes.

Potiphar held the torn scrap of her robe in his big meaty hand. "You tried to thrust yourself on my wife." His voice was hard. "What have you to say for yourself?"

Jo blinked back tears. What else had she expected? She had rejected the mistress of the house; there was no way she could serve Zuleikha now. Her very presence would be a reminder of her refusal. She had lost not only her place in Egypt, but the only female friend she had ever known.

"Nothing, my lord," she said, keeping her eyes low, and let his men take her away.

The End