Part Three: The Strength of a Woman

1.

The two women who ran out to greet this stranger
and offer water to me and my flocks
were my wives Judith and Basemath.
They stopped when they knew me,
offering nothing.

As we stood, measuring each other,
I heard my mother’s voice, yelling for my father.
“Isaac,” she yelled, “throw open the tent.
He has returned!”

She ran toward me, and I swear I saw
the light from her tent streaming behind her, reaching for me.
I wanted to fall into her arms
and I wanted to hold her head under that stream
until she admitted to the truth I suspected –
that she would not have run so fast had she known
which of her sons awaited her.

Caught between wind and the water
I stood upright
and allowed her to embrace me
as I smiled in the mouth
but not the eyes.
“Isaac, Isaac, it is Esau, our eldest son, come home to us.
Come quickly, Esau, to your father’s side.”

2.

Never will I be able to say all
that passed between my father and I
in his tent that morning.
His face that I carried, blooming, in my field
was no longer his face. Each year
and each sorrow
were measured there.

“Esau,” he said, “my oldest son.
Come close, give me your hand,
that I may know you have returned.”
At this I clamped my lips.
“Father who loved me” I said,
“I have returned home for peace, not for revenge,
but I will not give you my hand.
You do not need it.
For I, Esau, say that I have returned.
And I have never lied to you.”
I struggled to speak this only as a necessary truth
yet still my father shrank from my voice.

“Esau.
Esau.”
He stopped, searching for the right question.
“How is my brother?”
I told him about Ishmael and his family,
about my partner Mahalath, about my flocks,
but not about the desert years, not about the thirst.
And then we sat together
listening to the life of the camp around us.
“I see you have a new well cover, Father, heavier this time.
I do not think a storm big enough to break it
is likely to happen again.”
This made my father laugh, such a laugh
as I had dreamed of in the desert,
the laugh that Mahalath had come back with me to learn.

Then we sat together in warm silence until he spoke.
“Did my brother then teach you
what he fought to learn?”
“Yes,” I said. “And what he didn’t know
I found out for myself.

Now I have returned to you
for the only thing Ishmael and the desert
couldn’t tell me.
Why, Father? How could you not know me,
your beloved son Esau?
Why Jacob?”

“My beloved son Esau, whom I love,” he said,
my heart will break, and surely I will die,
if you leave me again.
Yet, the answer to your question
may push you back into the wilds.
So I ask you, as your father, to promise me
you won’t flee again,
promise me you will try to understand,
promise to let me make peace between us.”

I watched him, and thought of promises and covenants
for a long time before I spoke.
“I believe in your sorrow, father.
And I am here.
I am here,
but after all that happened, what could a promise mean?
Think of the story you taught me of our ancestor Noah.
All the world was destroyed by water, and afterwards
God promised – God promised –
to never again let water destroy us.
Yet do we not, even now,
look to the sky in fear,
and pray,
when the rains come for days without ceasing?”

My father wept. “Esau, my son,
for what I now say, know that I have been sorrowing
and always will be.
That day, on which your mother and I
drove away both our children,
I was not as foolish or as blind
as I wish I had been.
I did not know Rebekah’s plan.
I knew only that I loved you
but that Jacob,
who would be willing to do whatever might be necessary,
was to be the chosen son.
Esau, what else could I have done?
There was to be only one,

but I could not be my father, and send my one child
to die in the desert, so the other could be chosen.
Abraham was willing to risk both of his sons as sacrifices,
willing to lose both of them for a promise.

I was not,
So when Jacob came to me
in his pathetic disguise, serving me a dish from my own flock –
did Rebekah think I wouldn’t recognize the taste? –
I understood that she was the one who would be Abraham.
And I drank from what she had drawn,
as she had known I would.
Jacob got the blessing, and the covenant.
But the weight of history can break you, Esau,
and I think now that I was trying to save you,
my beloved son,
by keeping that weight from your back.”

In my mind,
I heard a deluge coming, a roaring that would burst out
and sweep away everything.
Inside, my own voice thundered, “oh, I understand,
old man,
how easy it is for the old to tell themselves such lies.
You were not trying to save me,
you were trying to save yourself
from the responsibility
of the choosing.”
But before the sound broke from my lips,
I looked into my father’s face,
watching the blind eyes
straining to see me,
and I sobbed.
I sobbed, for myself,
and for the young brothers a generation before me.
“How can I stay to walk here beside you, my father,
when the weight of this truth
is more crushing than the weight of the lie
and pushes my shoulders to the sand?”

My father reached for me, and I allowed him
to cradle me
as if I were again his child.
“I am not the one
who can teach you how to bear this.
I have carried
all I that I could of it.
It is Rebekah
who has borne both me
and the weight of our actions.

Go to her, Esau, please,
that she may also support you,
for neither of us
could bear losing you a second time.”

At this, I closed my mouth tightly.
I said I could not talk more that day.
I said Mahalath and the flocks….
I said no to my father’s offer
of his own tent.
I said I would be just beyond the edge of his camp.
I said I could not promise to stay.
I left his tent,
turned my back to my mother,
waiting for me in her open doorway,
and walked out past my father’s well.

3.

Later, Deborah came to me.
With what joy did I greet her, she who
had suckled me,
she who was the only one
who did not betray me.
She sat, and told me years worth of news.
I told her everything,
about Ishmael,
about Mahalath,
and about the desert nights

When I finished speaking, Deborah turned to me.
Her eyes,
which always somehow saw that it was my hands
which had hidden the stolen sweets in Jacob’s bed,
these very eyes pushed so deeply into mine
that I looked away.

“Esau,” she ordered. “Look at me. Or do I once again
need grab your ears and point your face
toward what you must do?
You have not changed so much as you think,
for you are yet my stubborn little camel child.
Your mother, Esau, waits for you.
Every day, she sends you from her own tent
bread from her own bowl.
Every morning she has come to draw water for your flocks.
She has left her door open day and night,
praying that the light
will pull you home.
I raised her Esau, same as I raised you and your brother.
No child of mine would continue to lie
after I have seen the truth.
And if you cannot listen to her now,
then you are no child of mine.”

And then Deborah flicked her fingers
to brush me away from her, sand from the stew,
a movement she knew could make me do anything,
even plead,
and so I did.

“I have tried! I have! But between my heart
and her tent door is a stone I cannot move.
I know here, in my head, that she
is no more to blame than my father,
and yet I have reached for him.

But I cannot forget knowing here, in my hands,
that she plotted to take from me what was mine.
I know these two things, and they
twist inside me, neither one able to win.”

At this my dear one smiled, “You are so much like her.”

“Like her?” I yelled “Like her? How can you say this?
Even she herself always called me
my father’s child.”

“Esau, my little wild one” Deborah crooned.
“That name was not a rejection,
but a blessing. Why do you think
you cannot go to her until you are settled?
Do you think she cannot understand
what it feels like to be twisting inside,
she who carried and bore you and Jacob
from a single womb?
Go to her. ”

And so, because Deborah,
of wisdom and strength,
was not a woman to be ignored,
I rose
and walked to the light
of my mother’s tent.
4.

My mother met me in front of her doorway,
holding food, and new cloth. “Sit, my son, ” she said softly.
“Here is bread and wine and fruit.
Eat and be nourished,
for there is much to say between us.”
And so I ate, glad for something to do,
content to be again in the warmth of my Grandmother Sarah’s tent.

When I finished, my mother spoke.
“You have questions Esau, I know.
Today everything may be asked.”

“It is not questions I bring, mother,
but knowledge. More knowledge
than I can bear.”

Rebekah stood up, towering over me
as if I were a child,
her arms and shoulders
and voice
still strong,
her eyes still bright.
“Do not speak to me of what
can and can not be borne.
I am Rebekah, the Water Bearer.
All my life I have
carried jars of water, even while running
or dancing.
I have borne twins who will fight until my death.
I borne the weight of my husband’s life, all these years.
I have borne the weight of my mistakes, all these years.
I can bear anything, and you, Esau,
whose shoulders were so wide
your birth almost killed me,
I know that you, like me, can endure and thrive
under any weight.”

With her, I could contain the bitterness,
but I could not hide it, and so it snarled forth,
“What are you saying, my mother,
that because I was strong
you were willing to hurt me more?
That once you decided to act as Abraham, you felt obligated
to choose the blessings for the weaker son?
Spare me such praise as that.”

She sighed,
and folded herself down
to sit next to me.
“Ah, so my husband tells you
I am like his father?
He is so broken, Esau,
that sometimes even his truths
come out feet first.
If I must be compared, I would say
I was my aunt Sarah, trying
to interpret my life
as clearly as I could.”

“Like Sarah, mother?
Choosing your son,
over your husband’s son?”

She reached for me then
and I let her, hoping my heat
would burn her hand. “No, Esau,
although I see through your eyes
how I appeared.
I can not apologize to you
for I don’t think
you would believe me.
And I can’t say
I would have acted differently
because I don’t think I could have.
But let me tell you a story,
a different truth, perhaps,
than what my husband would tell.

When I first came to Isaac
he was so hurt,
and I loved him, fiercely,
as if I could heal all that had happened.
My aunt’s death I could repair,
but there was nothing to be done
for the scar left by Abraham’s knife.
Isaac’s vision was always weak, you know,
although I hid that from you boys
so you would think your father strong.
I think that his eyes never recovered
from the sight of his father standing over him that day.

When I conceived and bore two sons,
Isaac was delighted and destroyed.
How could he see his boys
without seeing himself and Ishmael?
If only one of you had been a daughter,
for me to have kept with me, for your father
to love without hesitation.

Before you and Jacob were born
Isaac’s God spoke to me
and told me that I would bear twins,
and that the younger would rule over the elder.
Before you were born,
I did not understand why
God would decree this,
but I knew it would be so.
And then you were born, my beautiful boys.
And from the first day
I knew why God had chosen Jacob
and I knew that when the time came for Isaac to choose
that he must also choose Jacob.

But I was Isaac’s wife
and well I knew
the exact measurements of the weight
of the covenant.
So I decided, with my own two sons,
to separate the covenant
from the weight.
Esau, this you must believe —
I thought my plan would work
and would save us all.

You, the strong one with the big heart,
I pushed always toward your father.
I called you your father’s son.
I hoped that, being by him,
knowing his sorrow,
you could also find his laughter,
and carry it away with you.

Jacob, of the quick mind, I kept by me
and away from your father’s brokenness.
I hoped I could mold into him wisdom
and the responsibility of making choices,
so that the destruction wrought by being chosen
would not be carried another generation.

But as the time drew near
for the granting of Isaac’s blessing
and the passing of the covenant,
I saw my work unraveling.
Isaac had been too deeply hurt,
and he had come to love Ishmael too fiercely
and you too deeply
to be able to make the right choice,
or any choice.

I panicked, Esau, and resorted to sneaking
and lying. I am not proud of this,
but even with all these years to think about it
I don’t know what other choice
I would have been able to see.
I thought that, just as I knew
I would hold up Isaac afterwards,
I could hold you.

But I did not fully measure your strength,
or that you would flee, and tend to
your own wounds.
In this you were my child, not your father’s.
You are a water bearer, Esau,
with the strength of a woman.”

My mother’s voice faltered. I
sat, unable to speak,
feeling the weight of her life
slip onto my shoulders,
as the weight of mine fell onto hers.
She had borne the consequences of her choices
for so long
that they lay lightly on me,
and under their small force
I found more room to breathe.

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