Vayishlach: Jacob’s Soliloquy by David Hartley Mark

Once I got away from Lavan, that leech, that bloodsucker, I thought we were in the clear—I could settle back, let my donkey do the walking, while I rode up and down the caravan, proudly beholding my family and property, like a desert chieftain ought to do: there they were, my wives, all bedecked properly, covered up to their faces with their chadors, so that no Bedouin riffraff might cast a wayward eye and try to attack me—I had very few men-at-arms, you understand, and just an invisible God to protect me; not that He hadn’t shown His true worth toward me up to that point, just as He had promised, years before, but you can’t be too careful….

And I had sent out scouts; a big luggage train like ours—women, slaves, babies, cattle!—that would be a great prize for any pack of desert brigands, and I had worked hard enough for them, all those years away from Ma and Pop in Charan, living with Lavan, that thief….

“Lord God of Grandpa Abraham, Father Isaac, Mysterious God,” I asked the scudding clouds overhead, “When do I get a chance to enjoy my family and the little wealth I have been able to build up?”

Suddenly, there he is, that little Asher, one of—who?—Zilpah’s boys—can’t tell them apart, really—saying to me, “Ta, I’ve been forward, about three mil, and there, they’re coming.”

I couldn’t tell what he was saying, little fellow like that, mumbling, though it turns out he’s about sixteen years old. Who knew? Short, like his mother, same dark hair and eyes—I thought he was saying, “There, there,” but he was telling me about other people coming at us—

“Who?” I asked him, reaching for my goatskin waterbag, “Who? Just straighten up, Boy, and get the sand out of your mouth: take a drink, spit it out, there! Now speak, loud and slow, speak directly.”

“Coming,” he gasped behind the water, “Coming.”

“Who’s coming?” I said again.

“Esau,” he said, “Big Uncle Esau. Him, you told us about. With four—“

“Four men?”

“Four hundred.”

Which made me pause, and wonder, and shudder. What was I to do? And my mind, the way it works, it goes automatically to, survival mode—split the wives and livestock; get Eliezer to set aside the better cows and goats and sheep; get him to choose five men to help, with some of the bigger boys, and clean off the road slop from their hooves—make them presentable-like.

“We’re sending these off,” I tell Eliezer. I like him: big, bluff, can-do fellow.

“Who to?” he asks, looking at me, confused, knitting his big, hairy brows.

“My brother. To Esau.”

He understands; he’s been with me from the start, has Eliezer. One of Lavan’s Hittite slaves, but I bought his freedom, and he’s my overseer. Good detail man, the kind I like.

It all goes pretty quickly after that: split up the cattle. Divide the women and the kids: four groups. Concubines in front: Bilhah, Zilpah. Leah and her boys behind, with Dinah—my poor little Dinah! The only filly in the herd. And Rachel, and Joseph. Poor little Joey. He cried a good deal when he saw me staying behind, and stretched out his baby arms. But now, they’re all gone, and Eliezer himself is leading the men who bring the gift to Brother Esau. I shudder to think of my brother: Big Red, from years ago. That sword he wore: it makes my shepherd’s crook look like a toothpick.

I watch them all go, turned, cross the river—Yabbok, I believe it’s called. I will wait for Esau to arrive. He will come when he comes. Is God here? I cannot feel His Presence. I bend, and pull a bit of swamp grass to chew. I smooth down the earth beneath me, squat down, and sit back against a terebinth-tree, alone. The sun is setting. It feels too quiet, here.

David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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