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1997 - The Red Tent, Page 3

Anita Diamant

  Jacob could not accept a bride without a dowry. That would have made Rachel a concubine and him a fool for paying with a year of his life for a girl who had only a grindstone, a spindle, and the clothes on her back to her name. So Laban threw Bilhah into the bargain, giving Rachel status as a dowered wife, and Jacob the possibility of a concubine in time.

  “Also you must give me a tenth of the lambs and kids born to the flocks while I stand guard over them for you during my year of service,” Jacob said.

  At that, Laban cursed Jacob’s seed and stormed away. It was a week before the men finished their negotiations, a week in which Rachel wept and carried on like a baby, while Leah said little and served nothing but cold millet porridge, food for mourners.

  When they worked out the final terms, Laban went to Adah, so she could start planning the wedding. But Adah said no—“We are not barbarians who give children to wed.”

  Rachel could not even be promised, she told her husband. The girl might look ready to marry, but she was still unripe, having not yet bled. My grandmother claimed that Anath would curse the garden if Laban dared break this law and that she herself would find the strength to take a pestle to her husband’s head again.

  But threats were unnecessary. Laban saw the advantage in this delay and went immediately to Jacob with the news he would have to wait until the girl was ready before they could plan a date for the marriage.

  Jacob accepted the situation. What else could he do? Furious, Rachel yelled at Adah, who cuffed her and told her to take her temper elsewhere. Rachel, in turn, slapped Bilhah, cursed at Zilpah, and snarled at Leah. She even kicked dust at Jacob’s feet, calling him a liar and a coward before bursting into pretty tears on his neck.

  She began to nurse dark fears about the future. She would never bleed, never marry Jacob, never bear sons. Suddenly, the small, high breasts of which she had been so proud seemed puny to her. Perhaps she was a freak, a hermaphrodite like the gross idol in her father’s tent, the one with a tree stalk between its legs and teats like a cow. So Rachel tried to rush her season. Before the next new moon, she baked cakes of offering to the Queen of Heaven, something she had never done before, and slept a whole night with her belly pressed up against the base of the asherah. But the moon waned and grew round again, while Rachel’s thighs remained dry. She walked into the village by herself to ask the midwife, Inna, for help and was given an infusion of ugly nettles that grew in a nearby wadi. But again the new moon came and again Rachel remained a child.

  As the following moon waned, Rachel crushed bitter berries and called her older sisters to see the stain on her blanket. But the juice was purple, and Leah and Zilpah laughed at the seeds on her thighs.

  The next month, Rachel hid in her tent, and did not even slip away once to find Jacob.

  Finally, in the ninth month after Jacob’s arrival, Rachel bled her first blood, and cried with relief. Adah, Leah, and Zilpah sang the piercing, throaty song that announces births, deaths, and women’s ripening. As the sun set on the new moon when all the women commenced bleeding, they rubbed henna on Rachel’s fingernails and on the soles of her feet. Her eyelids were painted yellow, and they slid every bangle, gem, and jewel that could be found onto her fingers, toes, ankles, and wrists. They covered her head with the finest embroidery and led her into the red tent. They sang songs for the goddesses; for Innana and the Lady Asherah of the Sea. They spoke of Elath, the mother of the seventy gods, including Anath in that number, Anath the nursemaid, defender of mothers. They sang:

  “Whose fairness is like Anath’s fairness Whose beauty like Astarte’s beauty?

  “Astarte is now in your womb, You bear the power of Elath.”

  The women sang all the welcoming songs to her while Rachel ate date honey and fine wheat-flour cake, made in the three-cornered shape of woman’s sex. She drank as much sweet wine as she could hold. Adah rubbed Rachel’s arms and legs, back and abdomen with aromatic oils until she was nearly asleep. By the time they carried her out into the field where she married the earth, Rachel was stupid with pleasure and wine. She did not remember how her legs came to be caked with earth and crusted with blood and smiled in her sleep.

  She was full of joy and anticipation, lazing in the tent for the three days, collecting the precious fluid in a bronze bowl—for the first-moon blood of a virgin was a powerful libation for the garden. During those hours, she was more relaxed and generous than anyone could remember her.

  As soon as the women rose from their monthly rites, Rachel demanded that the wedding date be set. None of her foot-stamping could move Adah to change the custom of waiting seven months from first blood. So it was arranged, and although Jacob had already worked a year for Laban, the contract was sealed and the next seven months were Laban’s too.


  THOSE WERE NOT easy months. Rachel was imperious, Leah sighed like a cow in labor, Zilpah sulked. Only Bilhah seemed untouched by the turmoil, spinning and weaving, pulling weeds from the garden, and tending Adah’s fire, which was always lit now, to comfort her chilled bones.

  Rachel spent as much time with Jacob as she dared, slipping away from the garden and the loom to find her beloved alone in the hills. Adah was too ill to keep her from such wild behavior, and Rachel refused to obey Leah, who had lost some of her status now that the younger sister was to become bride and mother first.

  Those days in the fields with Jacob were Rachel’s delight. “He would look at me with wonder,” said my beautiful aunt, “his fingers in my hair. He made me stand in shade and then in the sun to see the different light play across my cheek. He wept at my beauty. He sang the songs of his family, and told me about the beauty of his mother.”

  Rachel said, “Jacob made up stories about how beautiful our sons would be, too. Golden boys, like me, he said. Perfect boys, who would be princes and kings.

  “I know what they all thought—my sisters and the shepherds—but we never touched. Well, only once. He held me to his chest, but then he began trembling and pushed me away. After that, he kept his distance.

  “Which was fine with me. He smelled, you know. Much better than most of the men. But still, the smell of goat and of man was overpowering. I would run home and bury my nose in coriander.”

  Rachel boasted that she was the first to hear the story of Jacob’s family. He was the younger of the twin boys, making him his mother’s heir. He was the prettier one, the clever one. Rebecca told her husband, Isaac, that Jacob was sickly in order to keep him at the breast for a year after she weaned the brother.

  Giving birth to the twins nearly killed Rebecca, who bled so much there was nothing left to sustain another life inside her. When she realized she would have no daughters, she began whispering her stories to Jacob.

  Rebecca told Jacob that Esau’s blessing was rightly his, for why else had Innana made him the finer of the two? And besides, in her family, it was the mother’s right to decide the heir. Isaac himself was the second-born son. Left to Abram, Ishmael would have been patriarch, but Sarai had claimed her rights and named Isaac instead. It was she who sent Isaac to seek a bride from among her family, as was the custom from the oldest days.

  Even so, Jacob loved Esau and hated to do him any kind of harm. He feared that the god of Isaac his father and Abram his grandfather would punish him for following his mother’s words. He was haunted by a dream that woke him in terror, a dream in which he was utterly destroyed.

  Rachel stroked his cheek and told him that his fears were groundless. “I told him that had he not followed his mother’s bidding, he would never have found me, and surely the god of Isaac who loved Rebecca smiled upon the love of Jacob for Rachel.

  “This cheered him,” she said. “He told me that I gladdened his heart like a sunrise. He said such pretty things.”

  While Jacob spoke sweetly to Rachel, Leah suffered. She lost weight and neglected her hair, though never her duties. The camp was always well run, clean, provisioned, and busy. The spinning never ceased, the garden
flourished, and the herbs were plentiful enough to be traded in the village for new lamps.

  Jacob noticed these things. He saw what Eeah did and learned that it was she who had maintained order during the lean years while Laban moped. The old man was completely worthless when Jacob had a question about whether the black-bearded trader from Aleppo was trustworthy, or which of the boys to hire at shearing time. Leah was the one to ask about the flock; which ewes had borne in the previous year, which goats were the offspring of the black sire and which of the dappled. Rachel, who had worked among the animals, could not tell one beast from another, but Leah remembered what she saw, and everything that Bilhah said.

  Jacob approached Leah with the same deference he showed to Adah, for after all, they were kinswomen. But he approached her far more often than necessary, or so it seemed to Zilpah.

  Jacob found a new question for the eldest daughter every day. Where should he pasture the kids in the spring? Had she any extra honey to barter for a likely-looking ewe? Was she ready for the sacrifice of the barley harvest? He was always thirsty for the beer she brewed from wonderful recipes her mother had learned from an Egyptian trader.

  Leah answered Jacob’s questions and poured his drink with her eyes averted, her head nearly tucked into her chest, like a nesting bird. It was painful for her to look at him. And yet, every morning when she opened her eyes her first thought was of him. Would he come to speak to her again that day? Did he notice how her hand trembled when she filled his cup?

  Zilpah could not bear to be anywhere near them together. “It was like being near rutting he-goats,” she said. “And they were so polite. They almost bent over not to see each other, lest they fall on top of each other like dogs in heat.”

  Leah tried to ignore the desire of her own body and Rachel was unaware of anything but the preparations for her wedding, but Zilpah saw lust everywhere she looked. To her, the whole world suddenly seemed damp with longing.

  Leah tossed and turned at night, and Zilpah had seen Jacob in the fields, leaning against a tree, his hands working his sex until he slumped over in relief. For a month before the wedding, Jacob stopped dreaming of battle or of his parents and brother. Instead, he spent his nights sleepwalking with each of the four sisters. He drank at the waters of a stream and found himself in Rachel’s lap. He lifted a huge boulder to find Leah naked under it. He ran from the awful thing that chased him, and fell exhausted into the arms of Bilhah, who had begun to grow the shape of a woman. He rescued Zilpah from the acacia tree, untangling her long hair from the branches where she was caught. He woke up every morning, sweating, his sex aroused. He would roll off his blanket and squirm on the ground until he could stand without embarrassment.

  Zilpah watched as the triangle of Jacob, Rachel, and Leah grew into a wedge she could use. For as much as she loved Leah, Zilpah had never cared for the lovely Rachel. (That’s what Zilpah always called her—“Ah, and here comes the lovely Rachel,” she would say, vinegar in her voice.) She knew there wasn’t much she could do to stop Jacob from becoming the family patriarch, and indeed she was as impatient for children as everyone else. Still, she wanted to make this river flow in a direction of her choosing. Zilpah also wished to make the lovely Rachel suffer just a little.

  Zilpah suspected that Rachel feared her wedding night, and encouraged her to confess every worry. The older girl sighed and shook her head in sympathy as Rachel revealed how little she knew about the mechanics of sex. She had no expectation of pleasure—only of pain. So Zilpah told her nervous sister that the shepherds spoke of Jacob’s sex as a freak of nature. “Twice the size of that of any normal man,” she whispered, demonstrating an impossible length between her hands. Zilpah took Rachel up to the highest pasture and showed her the boys having their way with the ewes, who bleated pitifully and bled. The older sister commiserated with the trembling girl, whispering, “Poor thing,” as she stroked Rachel’s hair. “Poor female thing.”

  And that was why, on the day of the wedding, Rachel panicked. Jacob’s chaste adoration had been pleasant, but now he would demand everything of her and there would be no way to refuse. Her stomach rebelled and she retched. She pulled out handfuls of hair. She ran her fingernails down her cheeks until she drew blood. She begged her sisters to save her.

  “Rachel wept as we tried to dress her for the banquet,” Leah said. “She cried, claiming she was unready and unwell and too small for her husband. She even tried that trick with the crushed berries, lifting her skirt and whining that Jacob would kill her if he found moon blood in the nuptial bed. I told her to stop behaving like a child, for she wore a woman’s belt.”

  But Rachel wailed and fell on her knees and begged her sister to take her place under the bridal veil. “Zilpah says you will do it,” she cried.

  “I was struck dumb,” Leah remembered. “For of course, Zilpah was right. I had not permitted myself to imagine such a thing—that it might be me with him that night. I could barely admit it to myself, much less to my sister, who was not so lovely at that moment, her eyes red from crying, her cheeks streaked with blood and berry juice.

  “First I said no. He would know at once, for no veil could hide the difference in our height. He would refuse to have me, and then I would be damaged goods, unmanageable, and nothing to be done but sell me for a slave.

  “But all the while I protested, my heart pounded its own yes. Rachel asked me to do what I wanted more than anything in life. So even as I argued, I agreed.”

  Adah was too ill to help dress the bride that morning, so Zilpah took charge of the plot, rubbing Leah’s hands and feet with henna, drawing the kohl around her eyes, covering her with baubles. Rachel sat in a corner, hugged her knees to her chest, and shivered as Leah prepared for what was meant to be her wedding night.

  “I was happier than I had ever been,” said Leah. “But I was also filled with dread. What if he turned away from me in disgust? What if he ran out of the tent and shamed me forever? But something in me believed that he would embrace me.”

  It was a simple banquet with few guests. Two flute-players from the village came and went quickly; one of the shepherds brought a gift offering of oil, which he left as soon as he had filled his belly. Laban was drunk from the start, his hand under poor Ruti’s dress. He stumbled over his own feet when he led Leah to Jacob’s side. The bride, crouched low under her veil, circled the groom three times in one direction, three times in the other. Zilpah served the meal.

  “I thought the day would never end,” Leah said. “I could not be seen through my veil, nor could I see out clearly, but how could Jacob not know it was me? I waited in misery for him to expose me, to jump up and claim he had been swindled. But he did not. He sat beside me, close enough for me to feel the warmth of his thigh against mine. He ate lamb and bread, and drank both wine and beer, though not enough to make him sleepy or stupid.

  “Finally, Jacob stood and helped me to my feet. He led me to the tent where we would spend our seven days, with Laban following, hooting and wishing us sons,” Leah remembered.

  “Jacob did not move toward me until it had fallen silent outside. Then he removed my veil. It was a beautiful garment, embroidered with many colors and worn by generations of brides who had lived through a hundred wedding nights filled with pleasure, violence, fear, delight, disappointment. I shuddered, wondering which destiny would be mine.

  “It was not fully dark inside the tent. He saw my face and showed no surprise. He was breathing heavily. He took off the rest of my clothes, removing first the mantle from my shoulders, untying my girdle, and then helping me as I stepped out of my robes. I was naked before him. My mother told me my husband would only lift up my robes and enter me still wearing his. But I was uncovered, and then, in a moment, so was he, his sex pointing at me. It looked like a faceless asherah! This was such a hilarious idea, I might have laughed out loud had I been able to breathe.

  “But I was afraid. I sank to the blanket, and he moved quickly to my side. He stroked my hands and he
touched my cheek, and then he was on top of me. I was afraid. But I remembered my mother’s counsel, and opened my hands and my feet, and listened to the sound of my breath instead of his.

  “Jacob was good to me. He was slow to enter me the first time, but he finished so quickly I barely had time to calm down before he fell still and heavy upon me, like a dead man, for what seemed like hours. Then his hands came to life. They wandered over my face, through my hair, and then, oh, on my breasts and belly, to my legs and my sex, which he explored with the lightest touch. It was the touch of a mother tracing the inner ear of her newborn child, a feeling so sweet I smiled. He looked at my pleasure, and nodded. We both laughed.” And then Jacob spoke tenderly to his first wife.

  “My own father rarely addressed me and seemed to prefer my brother’s company,” he whispered. “But once, while we were traveling, we passed a tent where a man was beating a woman—wife, concubine, or slave we had no way of knowing.

  “Isaac, my father, sighed and told me that he had never taken any woman to his bed but my mother, even though she had only given him two sons early in their marriage. Rebecca had welcomed him with tenderness and passion when they first were married because as her groom he treated her as though she were the Queen of Heaven and he her consort. Their coupling was the coupling of the sea and the sky, of the rain and the parched earth. Of night and day, wind and water.

  “Their nights were filled with stars and sighs as they played the part of goddess and god. Their touches engendered a thousand dreams. They slept in each other’s arms every night, except when it was her time for the red tent, or when she gave suck to her sons.

  “That was my father’s teaching about husbands and wives,” said Jacob my father to Leah my mother on their first night together. And then he wept over the loss of his father’s love.

  Leah wept out of sympathy for her husband, and also out of relief and joy at her good fortune. She knew that her own mother had cried on her wedding night, too, but those had been tears of despair, for Laban had been a boor from the beginning.