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1997 - The Red Tent, Page 2

Anita Diamant

  Zilpah talked about gods and goddesses almost more than she spoke about people. I found this tiresome at times, but she used words in the most wonderful ways, and I loved her stories about Ninhursag, the great mother, and Enlil, the first father. She made up grandiose hymns in which real people met with the deities and together they danced to the sound of flutes and cymbals, singing them in a high, thin voice to the accompaniment of a small clay drum.

  From the age of her first blood, Zilpah thought of herself as a kind of priestess, the keeper of the mysteries of the red tent, the daughter of Asherah, the sister-Siduri who counsels women. It was a foolish idea, as only priests served the goddesses of the great city temples, while the priestesses served gods. Besides, Zilpah had none of the oracle’s gifts. She lacked the talent for herbs, and could not prophesy or conjure or read goat entrails. Leah’s eight-seeded pomegranate was the only dream she ever interpreted correctly.

  Zilpah was Laban’s daughter by a slave named Mer-Nefat, who had been purchased from an Egyptian trader in the days when Laban still had means. According to Adah, Zilpah’s mother was slender, raven-haired, and so quiet it was easy to forget she had the power of speech, a trait her daughter did not inherit.

  Zilpah was only a few months younger than Leah, and after Zilpah’s mother died, Adah gave them suck together. They were playmates as babies, close and loving friends as children, tending the flocks together, gathering berries, making up songs, laughing. Apart from Adah, they needed no one else in the world.

  Zilpah was almost as tall as Leah, but thinner and less robust in the chest and legs. Dark-haired and olive-skinned, Leah and Zilpah resembled their father and shared the family nose, not unlike Jacob’s—a regal hawk’s beak that seemed to grow longer when they smiled. Leah and Zilpah both talked with their hands, thumb and forefinger pressed together in emphatic ovals. When the sun made them squint, identical lines appeared around the corners of their eyes.

  But where Leah’s hair was curly, Zilpah’s black mane was straight, and she wore it to her waist. It was her best feature, and my aunt hated to cover it. Headdresses caused her head to pound, she said, putting a hand to her cheek with silly drama. Even as a child I was permitted to laugh at her. These headaches were the reason she gave for keeping so much inside the women’s tents. She did not join the rest of us to bask in the springtime sun or find the breeze on a hot night. But when the moon was young—slender and shy, barely making herself known in the sky—Zilpah walked around the camp, swinging her long hair, clapping her hands, offering songs to encourage the moon’s return.

  When Jacob arrived, Bilhah was a child of eight, and she remembered nothing of the day. “She was probably up in a tree somewhere, sucking on her fingers and counting the clouds,” said Leah, repeating the only thing that was remembered of Bilhah’s early years.

  Bilhah was the family orphan. The last daughter born of Laban’s seed, she was the child of a slave named Tefnut—a tiny black woman who ran off one night when Bilhah was old enough to know she had been abandoned. “She never got over that hurt,” said Zilpah with great gentleness, for Zilpah respected pain.

  Bilhah was alone among them. It’s not just that she was the youngest and that there were three other sisters to share the work. Bilhah was a sad child and it was easier to leave her alone. She rarely smiled and hardly spoke. Not even my grandmother Adah, who adored little girls and gathered motherless Zilpah to her inner circle and doted upon Rachel, could warm to this strange, lonely bird, who never grew taller than a boy of ten years, and whose skin was the color of dark amber.

  Bilhah was not beautiful like Rachel, or capable like Leah, or quick like Zilpah. She was tiny, dark, and silent. Adah was exasperated by her hair, which was springy as moss and refused to obey her hands. Compared to the two other motherless girls, Bilhah was neglected dreadfully.

  Left to herself, she climbed trees and seemed to dream. From her perch, she studied the world, the patterns in the sky, the habits of animals and birds. She came to know the flocks as individuals, giving each animal a secret name to match its personality. One evening, she came in from the fields and whispered to Adah that a black dwarf she-goat was ready to give birth to twins. It was nowhere near the season for goats to bear, and that particular animal had been barren for four seasons. Adah shook her head at Bilhah’s nonsense and shooed her away.

  The next day, Laban brought news of a strange event in the flocks, with a precise retelling of the little girl’s prediction. Adah turned to the girl and apologized. “Bilhah sees clearly,” said Adah to the other daughters, who turned to stare at this unseen sister and noticed, for the first time, the kindness in her black eyes.

  If you took the time to look, you could see right away that Bilhah was good. She was good the way milk is good, the way rain is good. Bilhah watched the skies and the animals, and she watched her family, too. From the dark corners of the tents, she saw Leah hide her mortification when people stared. Bilhah noticed Rachel’s fear of the dark and Zilpah’s insomnia. Bilhah knew that Laban was every bit as mean-spirited as he was stupid.

  Bilhah says her first clear memory of Jacob is from the day his first child was born. It was a boy—Reuben—and of course Jacob was delighted. He took his new son in his arms and danced the baby around and around outside the red tent.

  “He was so gentle with the boy,” Bilhah said. “He would not let Adah take Reuben away from him, even when the little one began to wail.

  “He called his son perfect and a miracle in the world. I stood beside him and together Jacob and I worshiped the baby. We counted his fingers and stroked the soft crown of his head. We delighted in him and in each other’s joy,” Bilhah said. “That is when I met Jacob, your father.”

  Jacob arrived late in the afternoon in the week of a full moon, ate a simple meal of barley bread and olives, and fell into an exhausted sleep that lasted through most of the next day. Leah was mortified by the simplicity of the food they had offered him at first, so the next day she set out to produce a feast seen only at the great festivals.

  “I suffered over that meal like nothing else I had ever cooked,” said Leah, telling me the story during dull, hot afternoons while we rocked the narrow-necked jars, straining the water from goat curd.

  “The father of my children was in the house, I was sure of it. I could see he was smitten by Rachel, whose beauty I saw as if for the first time. Still, he looked at me without flinching, and so I hoped.

  “I slaughtered a kid, an unblemished male, as though it were a sacrifice to the gods. I beat the millet until it was as soft as a cloud. I reached deep into the pouches where I kept my most precious spices and used the last of my dried pomegranate. I pounded, chopped, and scraped in a frenzy, believing that he would understand what I was offering him.

  “Nobody helped me with the cooking, not that I would have permitted anyone else to touch the lamb or the bread, or even the barley water. I wouldn’t let my own mother pour water into a pot,” she said and giggled.

  I loved this story and asked to hear it again and again. Leah was always reliable and deliberate, and far too steady to be giddy. And yet as she recounted her first meal for Jacob, she was a foolish, weepy girl.

  “I was an idiot,” she said. “I burned the first bread and burst into tears. I even sacrificed a bit of the next loaf so that Jacob might fancy me. Just as we do when we bake the cakes for the Queen of Heaven on the seventh day, I broke off a piece of dough, kissed it, and offered it to the fire as an offering of hope that the man would claim me.

  “Don’t ever tell Zilpah about this or I’ll never hear the end of it,” said Leah, in a mock-conspiratorial whisper. “And of course, if Laban, your grandfather, had any idea of how much food I put together for a beggar who showed up without so much as a jug of oil as a gift, he would have flogged me. But I gave the old man enough strong beer that he made no comment.

  “Or maybe he made no mention of my extravagance because he knew he’d be lucky with this kinsman. Maybe he guesse
d he had discovered a son-in-law who would require little by way of a dowry. It was hard to know what the old man knew or didn’t know. He was like an ox, your grandfather.”

  “Like a post,” I said.

  “Like a cooking stone,” said my mother.

  “Like a goat turd,” I said.

  My mother shook her finger at me as though I were a naughty child, but then she laughed out loud, for raking Laban over the coals was great sport among his daughters.

  I can still recite her menu. Lamb flavored with coriander, marinated in sour goat milk and a pomegranate sauce for dipping. Two kinds of bread: flat barley and raised wheat. Quince compote, and figs stewed with mulberries, fresh dates. Olives, of course. And to drink, a choice of sweet wine, three different beers, and barley water.

  Jacob was so exhausted he nearly missed the meal that Leah brought forth with so much passion. Zilpah had a terrible time waking him and finally had to pour water on his neck, which startled him so badly that he swung out with his arms and knocked her to the ground, where she hissed like a cat.

  Zilpah was not at all happy about this Jacob. She could see that his presence had changed things between the sisters and would weaken her bond to Leah. He offended her because he was so much more attractive than the other men they saw, foul-mouthed shepherds and the occasional trader who looked at the sisters as though they were a pack of ewes.

  Jacob was well spoken and fair of face. And when he met Lean’s gaze, Zilpah understood that their lives would never be the same. She was heartsick and angry and helpless to stop the change, though she tried.

  When Jacob finally awoke and came to sit at Laban’s right outside his tent, he ate well. Leah remembered his every bite. “He dipped into the lamb stew over and over again, and had three helpings of bread. I saw that he liked sweets, and that he preferred the honeyed brew to the bitter-flavored drink that Laban gulped down. I knew how to please his mouth, I thought. I will know how to please the rest of him.”

  This line would always get my other mothers shrieking and slapping their thighs, for although she was a practical woman, Leah was also the lewdest of her sisters.

  “And then, after all that work, after all that eating, what do you think happened?” Leah asked, as though I didn’t know the answer as well as I knew the little crescent-shaped scar above the joint on her right thumb.

  “Jacob grew ill, that’s what happened. He vomited every morsel. He threw up until he was weak and whimpering. He cried out to El, and Ishtar, and Marduk, and his blessed mother, to save him from his agonies or let him die.

  “Zilpah, the brat, she sneaked into his tent to see how he fared and reported back to me, making it sound even worse than it was. She told me that he was whiter than the full moon, that he barked like a dog and spewed up frogs and snakes.

  “I was mortified—and terrified, too. What if he died from my cooking? Or, just as bad, what if he recovered and blamed me for his misery?

  “When no one else showed any ill effect from the meal, I knew it wasn’t the food. But then, fool that I was, I started worrying that my touch was hateful to him. Or maybe I had done wrong with the bread offering, given not in homage to a god or goddess, but as an attempt at magic.

  “I got religious again and poured the last of the good wine out in the name of Anath the healer. That was on the third night of his suffering, and he was healed by the next morning.” At this she always shook her head and sighed. “Not a very auspicious beginning for such fruitful lovers, was it?”

  Jacob made a quick recovery and stayed on, week after week, until it seemed he had always been there. He took charge of the scrawny herds so Rachel no longer had to follow the animals, a job that had fallen to her in the absence of brothers.

  My grandfather laid the blame for the state of his herds and his dwindling wealth upon the fact that all his sons had died at birth or in infancy, leaving him nothing but daughters. He gave no thought to his own sloth, believing that only a son would turn his luck around. He consulted the local priests, who told him to sacrifice his best rams and a bull so that the gods might give him a boy-child. He had lain with his wives and concubines in the fields, as an old midwife suggested, and all he had gotten for that effort was an itchy backside and bruises on his knees. By the time Jacob arrived, Laban had given up his hope of a son—or of any improvement in his life.

  He expected nothing from Adah, who was past childbearing and sick. His other three women had died or run off, and he couldn’t afford the few coins for a homely slave girl, much less the price of a new bride. So he slept alone, except for the nights he found his way up the hills to bother the flocks, like some horny little boy. Rachel said that among the shepherds, my grandfather’s lust was legendary. “The ewes run like gazelles when Laban walks up the hill,” they hooted.

  His daughters despised him for a hundred reasons, and I knew them all. Zilpah told me that when she was a few months away from her first blood and the task fell to her of taking my grandfather his midday meal, he reached up and put his thumb and forefinger around her nipple, squeezing it as though she were a she-goat.

  Leah, too, said Laban had put his hand under her robes, but when she told Adah, my grandmother had beaten Laban with a pestle until he bled. She broke the horns off his favorite household god, and when she threatened to curse him with boils and impotence, he swore never to touch his daughters again and made restitution. He bought gold bangles for Adah and all of his daughters—even Zilpah and Bilhah, which was the only time he acknowledged them as kin. And he brought home a beautiful asherah—a tall pillar, nearly as big as Bilhah—made by the finest potter he could find. The women placed her up on the bamah, the high place, where sacrifices were offered. The goddess’s face was especially lovely, with almond eyes and an open smile. When we poured wine over her in the dark of each new moon, it seemed to us her mouth broadened even farther in pleasure.

  But that was some years before Jacob came, when Laban still had a few bondsmen working for him, and their wives and children filled the camp with cooking smells and laughter. By the time my father arrived, there was only one sick wife and four daughters.

  While Laban was glad enough of Jacob’s presence, the two men disliked each other heartily. Although different as a raven and a donkey, they were bound by blood and soon by business.

  Jacob, it turned out, was a willing worker with a talent for animals—especially dogs. He turned Laban’s three useless mongrels into fine shepherds. He whistled and the dogs raced to his side. He clapped and they would run in circles and get the sheep to move after him. He yodeled and they stood guard with such ferocity that Laban’s flocks never again saw harm from a fox or jackal. And if there were poachers, they ran off rather than face the bared teeth of that fierce little pack.

  Jacob’s dogs were soon the envy of other men, who offered to buy them. Instead, he traded a day’s work for the stud of the male cur with cunning wolfish eyes. When the smallest of our bitches bore the wolf-dog’s litter, Jacob trained her puppies and traded four of the five for what seemed a mountain of treasure, which he quickly converted to gifts that proved how well he had come to understand Laban’s daughters.

  He took Rachel to the well where they had met and gave her the blue lapis ring she wore until her death. He sought out Leah where she was combing wool and, without a word, handed her three finely hammered gold bangles. To Zilpah he gave a small votive vessel in the shape of Anath, which poured libations through the nipples. He laid a bag of salt at Adah’s swollen feet. He even remembered Bilhah with a tiny amphora of honey.

  Laban complained that his nephew should have turned over the profit from the puppies directly to him, since the mother was his goods. But the old man was mollified by a bag of coins, with which he ran to the village and brought back Ruti. Poor thing.

  Within a year, Jacob became the overseer of Laban’s domain. With his dogs, Jacob led the flocks so the lambs fed on the gentle grass, the sheep grazed on patches of juicy herbs, and the full-grown rams r
ummaged through the tough weeds. The flocks did so well that at the next shearing Jacob had to hire two boys to finish the work before the rains came. Rachel joined Leah, Zilpah, and Bilhah in the garden, where they enlarged the wheat patch.

  Jacob made Laban agree to sacrifice two fat lambs and a kid to the god of his father, as thanks for the bounty. Leah baked raised cakes from the precious stock of wheat for the sacrifice, too, which was carried out as Jacob directed. In the manner of his fathers, he burned entire loaves and all the choice parts of the animals rather than a few portions. The women muttered among themselves at the waste.

  It was a year of change for my family. The flocks multiplied, and the grain flourished, and there was a marriage in the offing. For within a month of his arrival, Jacob asked Laban about Rachel’s bride price, as she had said he would that very first day. Since it was clear that his nephew had no means or property, Laban thought he could get the man cheap, and made a magnanimous show of offering his daughter for a mere seven years’ service.

  Jacob laughed at the idea. “Seven years? We are talking about a girl here, not a throne. In seven years’ time, she might be dead. I might be dead. And most likely of all, you could be dead, old man.

  “I will give you seven months,” Jacob said. “And for the dowry, I’ll take half your miserable herd.”

  Laban jumped to his feet and called Jacob a thief. “You are your mother’s son, all right,” he raged. “You think the world owes you anything? Don’t get too proud with me, you afterbirth, or I’ll send you back to your brother’s long knife.”

  Zilpah, the best spy among them, reported on the argument, telling how they haggled back and forth over my aunt’s value, about how Laban stormed out and Jacob spat. Finally, they agreed on a year’s service for a bride price. As to dowry, Laban pleaded poverty. “I have so little, my son,” he said, suddenly the loving patriarch. “And she is such a treasure.”