Scaly aggressor

 When Laban died from a fit the year after Jacob quit Charan, the brothers were unprepared for how little their father was worth. They were equally shocked by how little he looked. The runaway cut not just with family assets, he cut my grandfather down to size. Laban and kinsmen returned empty-handed from their gallop after the caravan, ostensibly to kill Jacob, recover the stolen teraphim gods and livestock, and rescue the ‘hostages’ –Jacob’s bigamous brood  of wives and children. The old master of all he surveyed had dwindled to a gnome. The strutting, stroppy, swagger gave way to a forward-leaning gait, as if Laban scanned the horizon for his enemy. The leader who once held gatherings in thrall turned into a brooder who muttered. The dealer who left trails of ruination became the butt of mirth. The patriarch of an extended family was left with no one to manipulate .The fruitless chase proved to be my grandfather’s backbreaker. Jacob took away his life and property together. On top of all, a run of poor crops and trifling deals followed the great escape.

After Laban was gathered up to his people the sons were left with tracts of difficult land and no technique for using it. As for the flocks which had multiplied under Jacob’s care, they atrophied with everything else. The turn of events crippled brothers Beor and Chazzer. They blamed their poverty on the duplicity of their cousin; they grew bitter from complaining. After a lay-about existence under the family roof the young men now faced the mundane and demeaning task of supporting themselves. Of all habits self-indulgence could be the most difficult to unlearn. They were not up to it. My uncle more than my father had no talent or will to craft a livelihood.

The grudge they bore cut deeper than the loss of property and status. The complaint that Jacob had wheedled the family out of everything was no simple contractual argument, it was faith, and over time it solidified into dogma. The sons of Laban came to believe in the innate malice of the sons of Jacob. It was, like the belief in one God, piously held. It owed more to the idea than to what the cheating cousin had actually done. A lifelong grudge with a scorpion in the tail (Beor would nearly be one) stung my father and uncle where it hurt. No – they weren’t Jacob’s first victims – Esau had that honour. But the havoc he left behind got to them; it infuriated before it infatuated the sons of Laban. Their bowed shoulders carried everyone ruined by Jacob, past and present. The complaint, ‘Israel acquired its wealth from us’ grew into a battle cry of men at war. I know, because when God endowed me with divination I heard the echo in the canyon of time.

Cast adrift by the patriarch of Israel, the brothers went different ways. Chazzer found a tenant for the rundown estate and moved to the city of Ammon far from Charan and Laban’s vacant pastures. He rented a homestead erected in the courtyard of a ruined manor. The location smiled on the libertine; a quick walk brought him to the marketplace from which radiated alleys teeming with houses of harlotry and taverns with doors that never closed. Here the moderate income of an immoderate man went on gambling, drinking and gratifying a taste for pretty girls close enough to womanhood.  

My father had his inclinations – quite the opposite they were to my uncle Chazzer’s. He had a wild sporadic mind. Beor acted before he sometimes thought; and when he did think it came from the seat of his pants. And he liked things for wrong reasons. He liked war but hated fighting; liked making children but shirked raising them; liked indiscipline but hated disorder. That Beor fathered children here there and everywhere, half siblings who for the most part did not know half their siblings, seemed his way of vaunting indiscipline. He lived for licence – perhaps a reason why he preferred being a mercenary for different kings rather than fight for one.

Beor ‘fought’ in military escapades for freedom –for his own flighty existence. Let full time soldiers do the bloodletting, he thought. “I never been one for a club in hand, my boy – nor a bow or sword,” I can hear him murmur while he lay back on his bed in our palace flophouse. “I guess your father’s better at telling others how to kill.”

Battlefields and taken towns meant hunting grounds to him, which meant looting at will. Wild boars, goats, wine vats, virgins – all were fair game. Animal, vegetable and mineral were for the taking. Beor preferred that his human prey would run from him and not tamely submit to violation. The sport was in the chase. Wild since birth (“Another Esau, aren’t you!” his mother Dina and father Laban would chortle over their boy), being an Esau type tickled his fancy until the ripe age of thirty eight when ravages from syphilis and an abused liver ended him off. Whether he marched east with battalions on Midian or south on Hazor or west on Gibeon or north on Barak the chief of the Kedesh, Beor thrived on seeing countries, on helping himself to livestock and poultry, and chasing girls up into haystacks. He was not subject to the discipline of the regulars. Nothing on the march was prohibited – violent or playful.   

I was born a few months before my father went off on one of his long campaigns. Two years passed before he returned with one eye, a body wracked and ruined and a face inflamed by fierce heat and cheap drink, and hobbling, not from any wound, but from discomfort in and around the top of his uncircumcised pride. The clap did nothing to his vitality; but his swagger of old became a hobble. Soon after daybreak he banged at the door of our flophouse in the palace compound. It woke up the servant who slept in a lean-to on the side of the rambling quarters. Before he went away Beor hired this young Moabite woman named Orpah for a housekeeper. While he was gone the teenager who had shared his bed abandoned their infant for a spice trader double her age who took her away no one knew where. I was left motherless and fatherless. On his return my father hobbled about town for a day seeking word of the escapee. He told drinking mates what he would do if he found her, brandishing the tavern owner’s carving knife. He planned to alter my mother’s face so that “even a drunk eunuch won’t take out after her.” His light of love seemed to have got word of Beor’s intentions, for she was never found….While I got a better mother. Without ado the housekeeper took the place of the girl who had pushed me out then dropped me off. My father took comfort in Orpah differently.

When she opened the door he stumped through to the cheerless living room where he slung down his bundle on the grainy flagstones and flopped into a chair before a fireplace with old coals. His tunic was soiled from having been slept in for a week. The looted boots he pulled off had no laces and emanated a stink of dirty socks and excrement. He looked moistly through bloodshot eyes. He gave an order for something to eat and for his son to be brought to him. When Orpah led me up by the hand my father said huskily, “This the boy?” He roughed the dark curls of the scared mite who clutched onto the maid’s skirt. It was as if he roughed up the inside of my head with my curls.

My proxy mother had all the right qualities. Orpah took wire brushes and buckets of lime to the walls and floor to make our flophouse cleaner than a pigsty. Her teeth were crooked and her skin freckled; she was not pretty like my runaway mother, so Beor had no need to watch her. She had health and strength, and never complained when some months after Beor’s return she fell pregnant with my half brother Mahlon. Whether she loved us no one knew because no one wanted to know, and she never said anything . When Beor talked she gave a vague impression of listening while she went about the housework.

The youthful hard working taciturn woman turned out to be just right for my father who entered on a new career – that of advisor to the King of Moab.  All that energy which had made him wild now made him thoughtful.  Officers of the king listened respectfully to Beor explaining what mistakes in combat had been made at what point, and what would have been a better plan. The streak which made Beor ruthless now made him crafty and creative. Soon his penetrating military mind led to other commissions. The Midianite and Philistine armies consulted him. They took advice on matters of organization, of personnel, of weapons of war. He acquired inside knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of different enemies and added this to his armoury. He travelled from Moab to Midian, from Gaza to Jericho. We did not see him for months on end.

Father told us to be thankful our wellbeing was in the hands of Orpah who treated us equally and washed and fed us. To be motherless, he said wheezing from one working lung and rolling the one good eye, was more gain than shame. “Old family rule – fathering not mothering. Always was. Don’t you forget it!”

I remember, so I wouldn’t forget, the way he stabbed lessons into my ribs with a heavy finger. So began my induction into the enormity of birthright and lineage. When father spoke of the progression from motherless Lot to motherless Laban and Beor, he gave way to a shrill, more terrifying manner, draining the colour from young cheeks and impressing two boys with their gargantuan gift of Moabite blood. He told us we’d have our day of reckoning over the clan of Abraham, blessed and commanded, so they thought, to shine God’s light on mankind. “Enough” I can hear my toddling self say, “I don’t want to listen. It’s not fathering I need.”

For all his bad health Beor retained vigor. The spoil of war on his manly organ had a different repercussion. It soon became clear that my father was prone to mania. We learnt when to keep out of his way…Not always possible, after he began to look around for a remedy for his pain and discontent.

From where comes discontent? You are warm enough but you shiver. You are fed, yet hunger gnaws you. You are loved but you wander on paths of yearning. And to prod you on there’s Time. The end of life is not terribly far away – you know in the way you see the finish line, when you come into the stretch – and your mind asks, “Have I done enough? Have I eaten enough? Have I had women enough?  What has my life meant so far; what can it mean in the time left to me?” And now we come to the poisoned dart. It isn’t vanity or ambition when you ask, “What am I worth?” Man seems to be born with a debt he can never pay, try as he .might. It piles up ahead. If he ignores the debt it poisons him, and if he tries to make payments the debt goes up.  

Beor’s deep in himself discontent led to an obsession with a cruel critter. He collected and studied and preserved and experimented with the scorpion. New and old types crawled on the floor of cages stood on shelves in a disused barn. Every week new specimens abandoned themselves to a life of captivity and ease. Beor put day old chicks in the cages, field mice, sometimes, heavily mitted, his own fingers, to make his pets strike out with tails of venom which produce apoplexy and agonized death.   

That the venom and sting of a scorpion resides in the tail enthralled Beor more than anything. While fangs administer the poison of snakes and spiders, a scorpion attacks with the tail. It does have fangs, and grasping pedipalps to pin down prey. But death comes from an unexpected quarter: a venom-injecting barb at the tip of a coiled tail. Imagine a foe which comes at you with three weapons and you don’t know which of the three he will kill you with. And how well calibrated is the killing blow. A scorpion kills fast and it kills economically – precisely the right amount of venom for the right size of prey: a weak dose for rodents and insects, heavier doses for mammals. The scaly body not just kills efficiently, it self-protects. When food is scarce the metabolism of a scorpion drops close to death, allowing it to survive on a single insect for up to a year. In the blink of an eye – or seven (two eyes atop the head and five fronting the armor-plated body) the look-alike corpse, to the cost of its unlucky prey, will spring to life. 

My father favored the green and yellow variety which could be painted dummies. He fed chicks or mice into a cage, then recorded the time it took to die after the attack. He observed the females, how many males would come calling, and how many the female would favor. He recorded gestations and births, notching up to fifty at a time, all carried on the back of the mother for five months. Once, in the grip of icy weather, he froze four specimens for two days in ice; then he watched what happened when the rigid bodies thawed. To his utter amazement they revived. None the worse for wear the mini monsters stalked away as good as new. 

His two sons bore the brunt when Beor’s fixation hit on a new outlet. An impatient man has no business educating. Beor was not an educator who waited for a boy’s gradual development. The sooner a boy could make his mark on the world the better. Our father detested quiet orderly respectful conduct in a boy; that was always the slow type. To his way of thinking a quick learner is a scared learner, and a scared learner is alert and active, and these are the fruits of fear. They are also the qualities of a soldier. Beor’s schooling methods were shot through with combat ideas. To abbreviate the learning process he made use of fear. One thing he did not do, and perhaps it was clever of him: he never made himself the educator, an object of fear. He never wielded a stick or cracked a whip or manhandled us. He let his scorpions do the talking. He let scaly aggressors panic boys into shape.

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