Leah

(The idea for this story is still one I may revisit at some point. I used it as a creative writing assignment which forced me to complete it much sooner than I otherwise would have. Maybe someday I’ll rewrite it and finish it the way it deserves to be finished)

Morning had always been my favorite time of day. Even in winter when the frozen blue-gray stillness would catch my breath and set my teeth chattering the thick, heady taste of new-born day would not let me sleep. My sister liked evening best; she loved sleep. Most mornings I would all but drag her from her mat and dress her like a doll to ensure her help with father’s sheep.
On this morning, my eyes opened when the darkness still lay like a woolen blanket over our hill. I shook Rachel before I reached for my dress. I would shake her again when I finished putting on my clothes, and again as I fastened my sandals. Then perhaps when I came back from the well she would at least be sitting up blinking foolishly, groaning about how sleepy she was.
“Sister,” I whispered “Rachel, wake up.” She snorted violently, rolling her body away from me. I squatted for a moment beside her mat suppressing my amusement. My beautiful sister lay splayed on her back, arms flung over her eyes, her luxuriant curls a tangled mane around her head. Her mouth hung open letting out noises that reminded me of a sick goat. Ah, if only the men who swooned and pined with love for her could see what I see. Reaching for the water pot, I stepped out of the tent quickly so I would not wake our mother with my giggles.
I paused for a moment and filled my lungs with the wild freshness of the morning breeze, perfumed with eucalyptus, and spring lilies. Then placing the empty jar on my head, I turned and wandered down the east side of our hill towards the well. A faint band of scarlet had begun to spread itself across the sky that hangs just behind the eastern mountain’s teeth. I walked past the stone corral where the sheep were already awake, and the shepherds who guarded them were just beginning rouse themselves. Off the hilltop the comfortable smells of livestock and sweat tamed the wildness of the air. The stars trembled and vanished one by one as the scarlet streaks ripened to orange and pink. I reached the well and filled my jar. Then turning my back on the dawn hauled it back up the worn path. I paused for a moment outside the tent’s door, turning back to drink in the sight of the sun yawning and stretching brilliant fingers from between the mountains to stain the undersides of thin, pearl-gray clouds. I closed my eyes and took another great draught of newness flavored by rain-soaked pastures and blooming red wood lilies.
Rachel sat disheveled but dressed on her mat in the dim staleness of the tent. I slung the satchel filled with the day’s provisions over my shoulder and motioned for her to follow me. She made a soft pouting noise through her nose and reached her arm toward me pleading innocently with her eyes. I shook my head at her laziness taking up our staffs from where they leaned against the goatskin wall beside the door flap. I tossed hers to her and ducked outside as she hauled herself to her feet. She followed me down the hill toward the corrals in sleepy, disgruntled silence. I like Rachel in the morning. Though about as sociable as a thunderhead until the sun is at least halfway to his zenith, she is silent. I far prefer Rachel’s silence, stony as it may be, to the empty chatter that pours incessantly from her lips all the rest of the time.
The small flock entrusted to our care was restless and irritable. They hurried anxiously in no particular direction, bleating stupidly, unable to find the opening in the low stonewall. It took the both of us guiding with our staffs and clicking our tongues gently to direct their random jostling out of the chorale. It was later than usual when we finally herded them onto the wide path tread into the hillside and across the plain to the pastures.
“Father said for us to take them to the valley today.” I called to my sister across the rolling sea of noisy, wooly backs. “He said the new grass is growing faster there.”
“When I am married,” she said coming nearer to me, “My wealthy husband will have so many servants, I will not have to tend flocks.” I smiled a little at the way her mind drew everything back to that. She marched ahead of me pouting, swinging her hips with the sophisticated air of a wealthy mistress. She still looked more like a spoiled child. Then she paused suddenly and looked over her shoulder at me. I braced myself for a jest, but she did not have the malicious glint that would steal into her pretty eyes just before she would make some jab about how thin I was, or my colorless hair, or my left eye that wanders toward my nose when I forget. But instead, it was a look of almost kindness, if Rachel knew what kindness was. She tilted her head a little to the side and scrutinized.
“You know Leah, you are strong and well tempered,” she said. My mind leapt to set a shield in place against what cruelty could possibly come after such an introduction. “Perhaps, one day, a man will want to marry you.” She turned on her heel and walked on, clicking softly to the sheep. For a moment I could not follow. My shield had shattered. She had meant her words as a sort of compliment I thought, but they carried a deeper sting than if she had slapped me. Suddenly the sun burst gloriously from behind the eastern peeks. The birds began trilling lustily and the warm rays fell gently on the side of my face and shoulder. But a chill had settled over me and a hard cold knot froze slowly in my stomach, squeezing my insides. I shook myself a little and setting my face into the wind, I walked on.
We reached the valley by the time the sun was halfway to its zenith. The thin slivers of cloud I had seen lingering near the mountain peeks in the early morning had long since melted away and the sky arched above us a perfect unbroken bowl of lapis lazuli. The hint of leftover winter chill that had sent down inside my dress at the well this morning had also vanished. The sun gloated brazenly from his place in that endless arch. His hand was already heavy on our heads and shoulders. The sheep were beginning to pant like dogs and drag their feet. The worn path narrowed as hills began to rise on either side gently at first then more steeply on either side finally filtering between two sheer cliffs. Rachel led the flock into the pass and I guided them from behind. They became edgy and anxious when the sky was out of sight, but the thin place was not very long, and before stragglers were into the thinnest part, the leaders were filtering out into the valley, singing excitedly at the tantalizing aroma of new grass. Sheltered from the scorching wind by two cliffs, and fed by a deep, gigantic well, the small valley for the first few weeks of spring (till the sheep have chewed it clean) is by far the best pasture. I urged the last of the sheep along the path, anxious to reach the quiet solitude of the valley. We were rarely alone in such a lush grazing field, so Rachel would always wander off to flirt with the other shepherds, and I would be left alone. I loved to lounge in the sprawling shadow of a tamarisk tree, pick scarlet wood lilies and daydream.
Rachel’s backhanded comment from the morning still twitched in my mind, and I longed for the peaceful shade to chew on it, and spit it out. I impatiently prodded the sheep with ferocious little jabs. One scuttled squealing away from me when the butt of my staff met him hard in the side. Why should one careless insult from the lips of my foolish little sister could get under my skin and irritate me so? She had cast a shadow on the faceless man I spent countless mornings and afternoons in this valley creating in the air. I chewed my lip, trying to remind myself how he would come and find me someday. He would love and desire me more than flocks of sheep and goats, or crops; more even than life itself. I smacked a straggling ewe soundly on the rump. She looked at me dolefully, and plodded along at the exact same pace as before. I felt foolish for ever believing he existed. It was childish to feel so close to a shadow.
Gloomily I wandered out of the pass after the last stubborn ewe. The thick fragrance of the valley washed over me, and I felt my spirit lifting slightly. The heavy sunshine was perfumed with hyacinth, narcissus, cyclamen and the cool flavor of new grass and fresh spring mud. I scanned the valley absently for my sister and the rest of the flock. I found her near a small gathering of shepherds beside the valley’s well. The large stone that blocked the mouth of the well was moved aside, and our flock was already gathering around to drink. One of the young shepherds seemed to be confused and was watering my father’s sheep, instead of his own. He was standing very near my sister, talking with her. Clicking my tongue, I gathered the rest of the flock and drove them toward the water, wondering a little. It was unusual for the stone to be moved so early. Most days the shepherds wait till afternoon when more have arrived to help lift the heavy and cumbersome stone. Before I was half across the pasture, Rachel came bounding toward me. “Sister,” she called, “Leah,” she was out of breath as she approached me. Her striped head covering had slipped off her dark, bright hair, her face was flushed, and her eyes were round and shining. “Sister,” her breath came in excited little gasps. “I have met one of father’s kinsman. He has found his way here… all the way here to this valley. He is our father’s sister’s son. His name is Jacob and he has moved the stone from the well to water my sheep.” ‘My’ sheep? I wondered. “I must run and tell father at once.” she said. She was smiling in a way I did not understand. I had always thought my sister pretty, but there was a mysterious radiance that had rested on her face as she stood panting before me. She turned her head for a moment to gaze over her shoulder at the young man coming up the small hill to meet me. Then she turned and ran laughing toward the pass through which we had just come.
I turned to inspect this supposed kinsman of my father. I saw at once that he was no shepherd but clearly a traveler. His dress was foreign to me and worn. In many places the cloth had grown so thin I could see the sun shining through it, and in other places it had rotted away entirely. He carried no curved shepherd’s staff, but one thicker and straight, for walking. Slung over his shoulder was a small sack. His head was bare and his feet might as well have been for the state his of his sandals. He approached me, and I had to tilt back my head a little to examine his face. I had known very few male faces in my life. My father’s, with its great looming forehead, bulbous nose, and the rest covered in billowing gray beard; the shepherds’, with their cheeks like leather and their beards bleached from endless wind and sun, black eyes trained on my sister’s body as she walked among the sheep. I dropped my eyes and dug the toe of my sandal into the grass. To this day, the face of Jacob, kinsman of my father, is the most beautiful I have ever seen. He approached me and spoke.
“Greetings. Are you a servant in the house of Laban?” The sound of his voice set my stomach ill at ease and my heart fluttering in my ears.
“I am Laban’s elder daughter,” I said, surprised at how steady it came out. I feared he would notice me fidgeting with the edge of my head scarf but he was not looking at me. He was searching beyond me toward the pass where my sister’s form had disappeared. So I added, “Rachel is my sister…whom I believe you just met.”
“Yes, Rachel.” His gaze flicked over me briefly and I looked down so he would not see my heart pounding in my throat. But he was already watching intently after my sister. “She has gone to tell your father that I am come. How far are his tents? When will she return?” his questions all tumbled out at once. I swallowed a few times and tried to answer, again surprised at the steadiness of my voice.
“Out of the foothills, across the wide plain to the outskirts of Haran is Padan Aram. She is running, but my father is slow. If he returns with her, they may not arrive till the shadow of the mountain has come as far as that stone.” I motioned to a large boulder, the shape of a crouching man near the center of the valley.
“That long? Are you certain?” he looked crestfallen at the prospect of three or four hours delay. A tiny sting at the back of my throat, half of disappointment, half irritation told me it was not the arrival of my father he so anxiously awaited. I swallowed it fiercely, remembering my manners.
“Perhaps you are weary from your journey? Come and sit in the shade of that tree, just there, and take something to eat.” I said, hoping to pull his attention away from the mouth of the pass. “I have no great fare to offer, but perhaps it will refresh you?” My mind wandered for an instant to an image of Rachel arriving with my father, and Jacob and I so deeply engaged in conversation that he did not even notice their return. I blinked, dismissing my foolish thought as quickly as I had childishly allowed it to enter my mind.
“Yes, I am weary. I will be glad of some food.” He said. Then almost as an afterthought, “you are very kind.” This meaningless courtesy set my head spinning my fingers fumbling in my satchel like an idiot. I could feel the heat rising in my cheeks. I looked up to see if he had noticed my blush but his eye closest to me was shut where the sun hit the side of his face and the other still searched the shadow of the pass that had swallowed Rachel’s form. A tiny frustrated sigh escaped my lips, and my foolish nervousness melted. I turned toward the shade, motioning for him to follow.
He sank down between two large roots that stuck up from the ground creating a little hollow. I perched on one of the roots and began unpacking our provisions for him while he leaned his head against the trunk, closing his eyes in exhaustion. I handed him the food, and for a while he just ate. Ravenously tearing at it, the way the sheep go after new grass. I rose twice to bring him water, to which he nodded but did not even empty his mouth long enough to speak a word of thanks. I watched him closely. I memorized them each feature, creating a map of his face in my mind. His skin was fair; darkened and deeply freckled by the sun, but the insides of his wrists showed blue veins, and his forehead beneath the light hair that fell across it was white and smooth. His eyes, the reddish golden color of honey were large and widely set beneath proudly arching brows. His nose was straight as though it had never been broken (as all the shepherds’ had) and not large, with a gentle hook at the end of it. He had no beard, only light, silky stubble, and his jaw stuck out sharply as he chewed. When I was alone with the wood lilies, I would rebuild his face in my mind, and make up stories about him. He finished eating, and leaned back against the tree with a sigh. A smile creased his cheeks, squinting his eyes, and revealed straight teeth as white as lamb’s wool. The shade suddenly seemed brighter than the high noon sunshine, and I found myself smiling as well.
He began asking me questions about my father. Was he a wealthy man? How large were his flocks? Did he have many servants? His voice dropped to the slow lazy lull of a man well-fed. So I answered him, embarrassed at my meager woman’s knowledge of things that interest men.
“What gods does your father serve?” he asked. I smiled. The gods had piqued my interest since I was old enough to wonder why they had not made me beautiful like my sister, so for this question I had an answer.
“He has many small household gods, and once a year he makes a sacrifice to the Great Unseen God, but he has no love for deities.” I said.
“What is the name of this Unseen God?” Jacob asked. I smiled again.
“He has many names. Each name describes a little about him. He is far to great to be contained by only one name.”
“How is it that you, a woman, have knowledge of the names of a great God?” his brows drew together digging a little furrow between his eyes. Delighted to be able to speak on a subject that interested him, I continued as respectfully as I could, bowing my head to conceal my excitement.
“An old blind slave of my father’s knew of this God intimately. I believe He had spoken to him in a dream once. When I was a little girl, this servant saw that I had an interest in the gods, and…” I blushed a little, and dropped my eyes, “he taught me the names of God with flowers.” I felt foolish. A hint of a smile played along the corners of Jacob’s mouth and eyes revealing one of his dimples, but he did not mock me.
“He taught you the names of the great god of the flowers. I see. I had thought you were speaking of a different God.” He said.
“No, no,” I was anxious that he should understand, “He is not the god of the flowers, that is merely how my father’s servant taught me His names.” I plucked a little white cyclamen, its white petals drawn up in the center like the wings of a butterfly. “This cyclamen is poisonous, if the sheep eat it their stomachs bloat and they will die. My father’s slave told me to look at it and remember the name Jehovah-Rophe, the great Healer.” I realized I was kneeling, clutching the little flower out to him in my earnestness that he not misunderstand. He took the flower and held it to his nose for a moment, the smile that had lingered behind his eyes beginning to spread slowly across his face.
“Tell me another.” He said. I allowed myself to smile back at him for a moment before I rose quickly and picked a white hyacinth from a little way off. I handed him the cluster of blossoms,
“Jehovah-Rohi, the Lord our Shepherd.” I said. He nodded, grinning wider,
“Because the little blossoms cluster together like a flock of sheep, I see. Tell me another”
“Eyaluth, God my Strength,” I pulled a tiny rockrose from its twisted, woody stem that had crept over the surface of a large flat stone behind our tree. “Because it’s home is the rock.” He laughed a little, and I laughed with him. And so I told him one after another, gathering narcissus, a brilliant purple iris, a few late crocuses, and as many others as I could find. Jehovah-Shalom, the Lord our Peace, Jehovah-Nissi, the Lord our Banner, Jehovah-M’Kaddesh, the Lord who Sanctifies. I cannot remember how many names I spoke, but as the shadow of the mountain crept silently across the valley, Jacob’s lap began overflowing with flowers, and the weary, drawn look that had hung on his face began to melt away with his laughter.
I plucked a perfect, scarlet wood lily from a patch of sunshine that filtered through the branches to lie golden on the grass. I had saved my favorite for last. “the wood lily, the most abundant flower in this valley. El Shaddai.” I held it out to him. “God the All-Sufficient.” All-sufficient to give me the desires of my heart. So much promise rested in these scarlet petals. Jacob’s smile had vanished when I had spoken this last name. He gazed solemnly down at the delicate blossom in his hand.
“I have met this God.” There was no laughter in his eyes as he said it. His voice was hushed as though this valley had become as holy as the place of which he spoke. My heart began to pound, and I shifted my body closer to him to listen. “It was not far from here. A little more than a day’s journey in a place called –” He was interrupted by a loud shout from the far side of the valley. We looked up to see the hulking form of my father lumbering across the golden hills, my sister’s graceful form just behind him. Jacob leapt to his feet, his story forgotten. He carelessly brushed the blossoms from his lap, and crushed them beneath is feet as he hurried to meet them.

“How long has my kinsman, Jacob, been with us?”
“It will be seven years this spring, father.” I said, not looking up from the garment I was mending. The sleeve had torn as I had become tangled in thorns chasing a lamb. Seven years. They had passed like hours. We had been little more than children, Rachel and I, when he had come to us. Rachel had ripened since then, rounding and darkening like a fig. Plump and luscious, but her beauty had lost its childish innocence. The years had dropped her lashes hooding her guileless eyes with coyness. I had only grown taller. My hair, still dull and lank now fell past my waist, and my hip bones jutted out like cliffs. My angular frame was built for function, but had no beauty. Men were forever telling my sister she was beautiful. As she sauntered, swinging her voluptuous hips down the path to the will, the young men of the village would bring her flowers they had “risked their lives” to procure from some unreachable cliff. With each gift they would tell her she was beautiful. She would blush and smile at them through her lashes, pretending to be surprised by the gifts and praise. Often I wondered if perhaps she had become so accustomed to feigning humility that she actually believed it herself. No one had ever told me I was beautiful. My father’s old blind slave had loved the smoothness of my hands, but that was the nearest.
“Spring is nearly upon us.” my father’s voice startled me from my reverie. “In a fortnight, we will have a feast. And I will marry you to him.” I smiled a little at the grim humor of my father’s mistake. I almost did not want to correct him; to bask for a few moments in the delicious lie and believe it was true. But a lie, no matter how sweet or longed after is still a lie. With a tiny inaudible sigh I corrected him. The truth was like rubbing gravel in an open wound.
“Forgive me, my father, but you are mistaken.” I said, surprised and relieved at how gentle and respectful it sounded. I had feared for an instant that the bitter irony would seep into my words and betray me. “I am your eldest daughter, Leah. It is my sister, your youngest daughter, Rachel that you shall wed to your servant Jacob in a fortnight.” Only a fortnight. So little time left in which to yearn and long after the man who was to be my sister’s husband. It would be indecent to love him once they were married. I wondered if my heart would stand to break this habit I had foolishly nursed for seven years.
“Foolishness.” It sounded more like a cough or a curse, and startled me. My work dropped into my lap and I looked up at his face. “Foolishness,” My father said again, shifting uncomfortably in his chair, “it simply is not done. Who ever heard of such a foolish thing as the younger being given before the elder. It is not done.” He did not look at me, but stared into the fire as though frustrated with it. I feared he would look around and discover that I was still in the room, the true cause of his irritation. I was the thorn matted in his wool, worked down to the tender skin beneath, tickling him till he bled—the ugly daughter who he could not be rid of. He stood suddenly and violently, and strode across the great room like a thunderhead till he came up against the door. “It is foolishness to marry the younger before the elder. It is not done. In a fortnight you will marry Jacob.” He threw aside the door flap and disappeared into the night leaving me with the words stolen from my throat. I had not even the strength left to breathe.
The preparations for the banquet filled the days that followed so completely I had no time to flee to the valley to sit alone and think. I had no time to dwell on the truth that all I had longed for since I was a child would soon come to pass. A voice fainter than a whisper seemed to taunt me in the place just between sleeping and waking that this was too good to be true; something must be amiss, but I had no time in all the endless chores to give it heed. Rachel and I were kept from the pastures to aid our mother and her maidservants in the slaughtering and preparing of dozens of lambs, young goats, and even a bull. My father was a wealthy man and made a show of his wealth at any opportunity. The celebration of a favored kinsman, and the marriage of a daughter were each significant affairs on their own. So the combining of the two with my father’s boastful nature must be a grand thing indeed. With all the thousands of tasks to be done, I wonder if my mother slept at all in those fourteen days.
I wished more than anything for a word with my sister. Though little friendship was shared between us, I wondered endlessly at the thoughts that must have been spinning in her head at this turn of events. I had often suspected in the years Jacob had worked for my father, that Rachel loved the romanticism of his tireless years of service to win her more than she cared for him. So as I slaughtered and stirred and scoured, in my heart, (I confess) I nursed a smug little chuckle of satisfaction. It was I who truly loved him. And it was I who had won him.
The day of the feast dawned hours after we had risen and begun the final preparations. My mother fretted and scurried from tent to tent to fireside to the grant pavilion set up for the occasion, always muttering and whining to herself how much was still yet to do and how it “never will be done in time.” The day wore on indistinguishably from the past fourteen—a haze of tasks followed by more tasks followed by another order from my mother.
Then suddenly before I had time to gather my wits, I was seated in the pavilion beside Jacob. We were dressed in brightly colored robes, and I was veiled. Guests, relatives and friends of my father, (or anyone else who had heard of the feast and had pretended to be a relative or friend of my father,) were wishing us well, calling down all manner of blessings on our union. The room spun around me, probably from the sacred wine I had been made to sip again and again and still again as my father had droned the sacred ceremony that sealed our marriage. The air was thick with the smoke of incense and roasting animals. Long low tables in the hazy, flickering light of torches were spread with loaves of bread glistening with olive oil, platters of dates, figs and pomegranates arranged in designs, and bowls overflowing with honey soaked pistachio nuts. The pavilion was decorated with as many flowers as could be gathered this early in spring. The smells of roasting meat, warm fruit, smoke, sweat, wine and more wine, swirled nauseatingly around me. I felt as though I were in a dream.
The feasting seemed to last for hours and hours. In my inebriated state, I thought I saw the faint smudge of dawn just appearing above the mountain as my mother and a maidservant helped me to the marriage tent. They removed most of my finery, and my veil and left me in the darkness, trembling with a little with excitement, mostly with fear. But even then, I had no time to quiet myself, clear the haze from my head and remember what had happened. Almost before I realized they had left me, the tent flap was pushed aside, and I saw the early morning sky with its spreading grayness, and slowly vanishing stars for a split second before my husband entered.
I jolted awake, and sat straight upright at what must have been noon. I was confused for a moment as to what had startled me. Jacob was not asleep on the mat beside me; he was standing on my other side leaning over me. When I tilted my chin to look at him his face was near enough to mine that I could smell the faint trace of wine still lingering on his breath. It was the only moment in my life that he really and truly looked at me. His handsome features were distorted with fierce, silent rage. His lips were pressed together so tightly that a white ring showed around them. He was clenching and unclenching his fists at his sides, the knuckles turning white. A large vein stood out from his neck, and he trembled slightly as his eyes ravaged and dissected each minute detail of my face. I did not recognize him. I opened my mouth to speak, but only a tiny squeak escaped from my throat. “Leah.” He softly flung it at me like a curse containing both question and realization. He straightened and dropped his eyes to the ground as if trying to gain control of his anger. His cheeks turned scarlet, then white again his breath came in heavy rasping gasps. Suddenly his thin veneer of control snapped like a bolt of lightening. Letting out a shout that would have awakened the mountains he hurled himself out of the tent bellowing my father’s name. I could hear the answering voice, confused by sleep and surprise, then honeyed and wheedling in a vain attempt to settle his son in law’s rage. I drew my knees slowly up to my chest, hunching my body over them, wishing I could fold up smaller, collapse into myself and disappear entirely. “Who is lying in my tent?” he raged. I could not distinguish my father’s stammering reply. A great sob seized my frame, clutching my ribs and squeezing till I feared, (and hoped) that they would snap one by one like twigs. My lungs seemed to have imploded. I pressed both of my hands over my mouth to keep from making a sound. A black haze seemed to be closing in from the corners of my vision. Jacob’s thunderous questions continued to tumble one over the other, “What is this you have done to me? I served you for seven years for Rachel, did I not? Why have you deceived me? You wretched, lying…” I heard no more for the great roaring that came into my ears as the darkness closed in around me.
In the hours that followed, I knew nothing. Apparently my father had deceived Jacob, who had still thought he was marrying Rachel. My father’s excuse for pawning me off on him was that the younger is never given before the elder. He then contrived to sell Rachel a second time to Jacob in return for another seven years of his labor. By the time I revived, Jacob’s only chore was to finish the bridal week with me, and he would be given my sister also.
Young women plan for their bridal week from the time they are old enough to know what it means. Seven days where one’s only work is to make herself beautiful. She would bathe in heated, perfumed water and comb oils into her hair. She would sew intricate flowing garments of softest fine linen and dye them to match the spring flowers she would weave into her hair. She would also string garlands matching those adorning her hair and neck, in her husband’s tent and light many candles in the evening when her husband would come to her. A skilled woman, with many servants to aid her, and abundant means will have a different color awaiting her husband each night. But even the poorest of servant girls will gather flowers, and perfume herself to be more radiantly beautiful than she has ever been, for her bridal week.
I was robbed of all of this. I was in despair and lay weeping in my tent the remaining few hours of that first wretched day. Not that Jacob would have noticed any preparations had I bothered to make them. He entered long after dark, and was gone before I awoke at dawn. In the days that followed, while my mother thought I was at my ministrations, I fled to the solitude of the valley. I would lie in my tears between the roots of the tree where I first talked with Jacob. The wood lilies were just beginning to bloom again. I would pick all that I could find and tear the petals off one by one till a great scarlet pile of them lay like blood on the ground at my feet. I avoided Rachel at all costs. She married him at the end of the week.

Before the first blossoms of the following spring had opened their petals, I had born a son to my husband. A cruel glimmer of hope began to fester like a wound. What purpose has a wife but to bear sons? And Rachel, beloved beautiful Rachel, was barren. I named him Reuben, for Jehovah-Jireh, the Provider had seen my misery, and surely he would turn my husband’s heart to love me now. But Jacob loved Rachel all the more for her pathetic emptiness, and again, I was forgotten.

The summer Reuben was two years old was a ferocious summer. The wind from the plains grew angry and filled with a gray dust. It ceaselessly hurled against our tents, stinging the eyes and noses of the sheep making them whine and moan. A simple trip to the well filled my eyes, nose, mouth and clothing with it this dust, finer and hotter than ash. On a night when I feared the wind would tear the whole tent from the ground and fling it into the blackness, I gave birth to my second son. He was larger than his brother had been with a round pink face, and large hands and feet. Though my heart had forgotten joy, I felt a grim satisfaction as I laid Simeon to sleep beside his brother. The Lord had seen that I was not loved. Though my sister had beauty and I had none, I had children, and she had none. I picked a bouquet of the little flowers that hide in the shadow of great rocks and hung them in my tent with the blossoms of the fig tree. El Roi, the God who sees, and Shephat the Judge had become my favorite names.

Simeon was not even a full year when I bore Jacob yet another son. I had long ago abandoned childish dreams of love, but now that the Lord had given me three sons, I hoped at least my husband would take notice of me. I was far more valuable to him than Rachel, who remained barren. Though I knew he would never look on me in love, as he did my sister, he would now at least grow to appreciate me. But it was Levi himself who grew attached to me, and not Jacob. He would only sleep as long as he was close to me. If I gave him into the care of Zilpah, my maidservant, or laid him with his brothers at night, he would awake and fret until he was in my arms again. I fashioned a sling for to hold him against my heart (almost as though he were still inside of me) that I wore as I worked. In it, he never once cried, but slept and grew as healthy and merry as a young goat. That spring, I was so busy with the care of my children I had no time to steal away to the valley and tear up the wood lilies.

Since I had been married, I had ceased rising to greet the sun. When the day ended, I would collapse with weariness, sometimes even before eating. I would then be awakened in the night by the cries of my hungry babies, so the colors of the dawn could no longer seduce me from sleep. It was late spring after Reuben was six years old and beginning to follow his father out to the pastures with the flocks, when was heavy with my fourth child. The pains came upon me just as the scorching heat of noon that promised an early summer had cooled to dusk. Having born three sons already, the labor was easy and swift. Before even the middle of the night the child slipped easily from my body into the arms of my maidservant. “Mistress, you have another son.” Another son. The Lord had given me four sons. My lovely, favored sister lay alone in the tent beside me, and I held a fourth son, wrinkled and purple with newness in my arms. I had not wept since my bridal week, but suddenly then, nearly seven years later, tears began to fall on my naked child. “Four sons, my lady, your God has blessed you. Surely your husband will love you now.” Zilpah smiled at me encouragingly.
“No Zilpah,” I said, “Jacob will never love me. He has eyes only for my beautiful, barren sister.” But the tears that continued to pour from my eyes were not tears of sorrow.
“What shall his name be, Unloved?” She looked confused. I laughed,
“Take my baby and wash him, and then help me clean myself so I will not infect.” I smiled at her and brushed the tears from my eyes. Why was my heart so glad? It was almost dawn when we finished. My child lay asleep, replete from his first nursing, scrubbed with water and salt and wrapped in clean linen. Zilpah had dropped off herself a few hours earlier, but I could not close my eyes. Taking hold of my staff for support, I stepped out of my tent, not daring to walk far in my weakened state but with a strange longing to see the rising sun. The crimson sky was just ripening and stretching out a rich, golden red, the color of wood lilies. The breeze from the valley swept up lifting the hair from my forehead and neck, singing in my ears and filling my lungs with its fragrance. “I will praise El Shaddai the All-Sufficient,” I said to the morning. Laughing a little at my foolishness, I entered the tent once more and shook Zilpah from her slumber. “I will call my fourth son Judah.”

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~ by ifindthisamusing on April 3, 2005.

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