So from the beginning my education bred taut feelings in the barn. The endurance of unrelenting peril warped us – Beor, Zadoc and me – in different ways. My father made enormous demands on the tutor’s accommodating good nature. He would make Zadoc sit up till midnight developing a new test for me while he ranted about the injustices meted out to our family. They were now very thick; but the healer hated my father and, to say the truth, I did the same. I had matured enough to catch him out; to understand that Beor was not super wise; that his judgements could be faulty, his thinking selfish, his dedication to me not the expression of paternal love. With the fall of my god went all safety.
One thing about the fall of gods: they do not fall little by little. They topple and shatter. To build them up again is the devil of a job, and gods anyway never shine the way they did before they crashed. A boy’s world is never whole again, and he grows into an adult aching and angry. What I endured made Zadoc furious. He cursed my father for persecuting a harmless boy, as he called me. At my young brother’s death, which happened at the end of my programming, I had learnt to regard Beor as an oppressor rather than a father, and had contracted a gutful of injured feelings.
Contrary to his crude ways and rapid judgements, Beor, enigmatically, could surmise connections more shrewdly than anyone I know. I remember the instance when he set me, through a protesting Zadoc, a problem more teasing than any so far. We were in the barn, in our usual habitat and positions, when Zadoc, after giving my father a dirty look, addressed me:
“Boy, you be careful. Attend closely. See if you can take your mind off that – that thing on you. Ready your mind for a problem close to your father’s heart.”
I half gleaned what it was going to be – the fundament of Beor’s collected gripes about the brotherhood of Abraham snubbing its nose at the men folk of our family We were only good enough, my father understood, when Abraham’s lackey and Isaac’s brat came looking for wives. Beor’s grandfather Besuel and his father Laban were there to produce daughters for the Hebrews to marry. I told myself I’d have to counter this impertinence to win the right to be left alone, to be unfettered from the tortuous threat of being stung to death. Through a fog of apprehension I heard Zadoc put the problem to me.
“Your family’s always been there for the Abrahams’ – you agree?”
“I agree, Sire, I agree.” Sweating, I could’ve murdered the one man who loved me. Zadoc looked affirmatively at his accomplice. My father nodded sombrely.
“Well, then Balaam,” resumed Zadoc, “Listen now. Isaac, the chosen son of Sarah and Abraham, was matched with Rebecca, a daughter of Besuel, your great grandfather. Correct?”
I pursed my lips and nodded impolitely.
“So, in other words, Isaac did not marry a born Hebrew?”
“No. Clearly not, Sire.”
“Then tell us, boy – how did Rebecca come to be a Hebrew. When and how did it happen? What conversion rite did the lady have to go through, as a male must go through, to join the house of Abraham?
Zadoc swam before my eyes. My father, out of sight at my left shoulder, bore my degradation pretty well, according to the low chuckle I caught.
My faint, quivering voice: “Rebecca? I don’t believe she got circumcised.”
My father, breaking down with a guffaw, took the unwitting jest well. As for Zadoc I saw his spare frame fold as if to express, ‘Lad, you sail too close to the wind!’
“So Rebecca did not convert,” pursued my interrogator. “Well, lad – then what did she do? How was it that Rebecca, a daughter of your family, got accepted into the house of Abraham?”
I fought not to yield to a fiendish temptation to glance back and glean whatever clue might be written on Beor’s face. I stammered, “Sire –
“Nothing. Sire, Rebecca didn’t do a damn thing, if I’m right. Abraham believed his daughter-in-law was selected in heaven for Isaac. Abraham and Sarah considered that no rite of passage was needful,”
A deadly quiet fell in that chilled barn. Time hung for an eternity. I imagined the scorpion, a tail length from my drop earlobe (a legacy from my family) waiting on Beor as keenly as I waited. There was Zadoc, eyes sunk more than ever; it gave me a start to be looked at by eyes hidden from me. At my back a porky hand jerked me so that I stumbled forward.
“Hey, clever young fellow! What you don’t know! My word – who taught the boy wicked truths like those? God be with you, son!” My father close up with leering scorching eyes, blocked my squinting vision. It took a few moments before I observed the critter clutched in his leather mitt – my reward for the daredevil answer. Imagine, if you can, my sudden joy. Imagine with what speed the nightmare fled from my thoughts, as I bathed in the extraordinary way I had acquitted myself.
And Beor, close to loving me, let Zadoc decide. “Sir, what do you think? We let the prodigy tell us more truths without the help of this thing?”
Zadoc put on his hat. Without a word he made for the door.
“Hi!” Beor, distraught, Zadoc, hand pushing open the barn door, looked back long and hard. Beor – “Where you going in a hurry?
Zadoc, vinegary – “Death doesn’t like being played with too much. Enough’s enough.”
Beor: “Enough? What is?”
I crying out: “No – Come back; Sire. Do. Not cruel… It made me see things. No harm done. Thoughts are luminous to me now. Don’t stop. Give more questions.”
This brave outrageous claim was, in fact borne out by immediate events, because Zadoc resumed his role of interrogator, and I, giving way to a devilry which had been lurking inside of me, spoke more truths about the brotherhood of Abraham, which set me on a road at which end there’d be a confrontation with the Lord Himself.
So back on his box Zadoc got me to divine the ultimate truth dear to my father’s heart – if he knew it. Rebecca was no Hebrew – so much was clear. But what did it mean for Jacob, born from her? Completely, stunningly free from imminent agony, I applied myself to the question like a runaway carthorse.
“Sire, from mother to son. How could Jacob be one of Abraham’s when his mother carried the despised blood of our family?”
Beor with intensity not healthy for the abused vital organs in his body, prod me on. “And?” – Coaxing me with hands atremble. “Tell boy! What follows from it? Don’t get shy now.”
You may ask: you an eleven year-old? Yes, but. You say: can a wet behind the ears lad unravel the genealogy of a family that criss-crosses boundaries and even nations? Even allowing for the truth of your supposed miraculous mind, can we believe that an urchin spoke like a sage with a beard? I say, maybe not so wet behind the ears, considering what my father did to spur my thoughts – the way he afflicted me. Anyway, not all children in our family were children. Beor’s great aunt Rebecca was less than half my eleven years when she hit on the idea of Isaac for a mate. The precocious skittish Rebecca divined that her cousin was her match made in heaven. So certainly – I do fall within the realm of possibility. Maybe the words poured out of me from a terror-purified sub-conscience. Maybe this is what did it for me.
“Jacob’s four wives?” I said to Beor’s ferocious injunction.
“Ay, ay – they have to mean something further. Boy, don’t stop till the finish, boy. ”
I knew Beor knew the meaning as well as I. His overwrought mind I could tell, wanted me to know, and to speak the meaning which, to placate my father, I did. All of Jacob’s four wives, I reminded both men, came from the house of my grandfather. Not one of them came from Hebrew stock. Rachel, Leah and their handmaidens, Bilpah and Zilpah – none entered the brotherhood of Abraham through any rite of passage. So what of the twelve sons they bore Jacob, himself from half and half blood stock? And here, I’m sorry to say, I revelled in my wisdom. Jacob, I concluded boastfully, bequeathed all Israel the blood of his detested uncle Laban.
The son of Laban – my disturbed father – who had been tramping to and fro like an endangered hen, stopped in his tracks. His cry of, “Israel!” startled Zadoc who was pulling on his riding boots now that the proceedings, as he thought, were over.
“What now, Beor?” he said with pique. “What’s Israel done to bother you?’
“What – I tell you what. Israel’s busy, if you hadn’t heard, making Egypt its own. God confound the nation. Seventy times seven times Jacob’s plague has multiplied at the cost of the host Egyptians. Like father like son. As Jacob paid back my father who gave him shelter and a new life, so the children of Jacob are paying back Pharaoh.”
From this fanatical drift in our damp smelly barn, I skip a moon to preparations and a journey to serve Baal-peor, our diarrhoeic idol. The summer shone in full prime; it was a morning to make the city of Ar into polished brass, and the stone point on distant Mount Peor to stand up clear against the west. There was a glow on the land, and red wall flowers burned the air around them. Ponies rolled in green pastures and fowls made a dreadful gay racket. It was so magic a day that Beor, who took pride in his ugly mood before noon, greeted the servant in the kitchen. For his two boys it was the day of truth and, since my brother Akai and I were to bear the brunt of it, Orpah cooked us a hot breakfast.
Rarest and most improbable prize of all, Beor sat me down for a blessing. Making me stare into the crotch of his brown stained breeches, he laid unwashed hands on top of my dark curls.
“Balaam – you, all my family living and dead shall acknowledge. Your hand will be at your enemies’ nape; kings will prostrate themselves before you.”
Oh, we were contented brothers, Akai and me. Though the blessing left us bemused it was a favour and eminence we could hardly bear. But my poor Akai – I must tell you that there are certain things in which he did not believe, against all possible evidence to the contrary. One was in a good father, another was in his blessing me. The fact that he had seen both did not make him believe them one bit more. His soul must have crawled with horror, for how can you believe in something that does not exist? For a punishment our father sending us to Mount Peor for the new moon rituals would have been cruel; but as a prize, a gift it was an honour. We felt more solemn and golden than at a good funeral. .
Our pilgrimage started by the pony stalls; it should have ended there but did not. All in good time though….On this perfect morning we are pampering and harnessing Akai’s piebald pony Seth and my coquettish donkey Sheba to a state of readiness. I made the farmhand rub the harnesses and polish the brass till they reflected the sun. With a tender touch I braided a red ribbon into Sheba’s mane, and made a red bow for her tail. I helped my brother do likewise with his pony. It may be that we bestowed on the animals the loving care our father never gave us. Rather than out and about here, Beor, not a man patient of his injuries, real or imagined, skulked about the dank house thinking and doing God alone knew.
How different Seth and Sheba were! Of peaceful, placid natures with not a jarring element, our pets had scarce heart to retaliate upon a fly. “Go!” I said to an overgrown one buzzing about her nose. I was eleven at this time. Whether my action was in unison to happy feelings at an age of pity, or to some unknown harmony in tune with mercy, I know not. The lessons of goodwill to animals I learnt from Sheba never wore out till the day I played games with Almighty God. I could bear most cruelties, but the mere thought of a donkey in distress speared me through the heart.
We had stitched conical leather hats together. Orpah stuffed into our saddlebags lumps of cheese and strips of salted pork, and bunches of beets and fig rolls with walnuts, telling me what she wanted us to complain to Baal on her account. I had described to young Akai the spectacle ahead of us. It had been a time of plenty for farmers, their flocks and their herds, so no child sacrifices would be burnt on the altar. We could look forward to nothing but sensuous and amusing rites. It would be my second ceremony on the mount. While we trotted along I made Akai picture the cursing and swearing in the name of Baal;, opening the bowels in front of the idol, offerings of beet-reddened excrement; wild, mixed togetherness of strangers. Baal, I warned him, selected pilgrims for blessings with no apparent logic or consistency. Some who had served Baal month in and month out, afterwards died horribly, whilst others attended upon him once after a record of utter neglect, yet went away to live long, bountiful lives.
We were by no means early arrivals. Pilgrims from distant parts had been gathering on the heights since the day before. A part of the melee was munching on beet; others, having eaten this obligatory red root, were spread out on their haunches before the temple, robes above hips, defecating in divine and sacred duty to the golden idol on its mahogany dais, his arm stretched upward. We covered our noses; the reek had a way of offending you and making you wretch .Worshippers by the hundreds attended nature’s calls in rows of gullies, mingling in a congregation of dark red waste. And flies! Clouds of excited buzzing flies over steaming heaps, pests along with pilgrims celebrating with freely-given offerings to the God of Opening.
There was the din of ribald chatter which non-believers wrongly construe as irreverence. Outside of their tents celebrants had set up tables laden with cheeses, jars of wine, melons, roasted fowl, meat pasties, shared around smoking fires with neighbors. Groups of laughing girls strolled about, arm in arm, smiling sideways at potential partners, and boys, pretending to ignore them, stood about in knots, gesticulating and waving their drinks. `Priests swarmed together, discussing points of worship with immense gravitas, their grey beards augmenting the patriarchal effect of gold chains and flapping white robes.
But in truth the scenes of merriment, indignity and ecclesiastical debate were a disguise for the anxiety of everyone there who anticipated, who feared, to witness the inexplicable – the trepidation of mortals waiting to witness the breaking of the veil between this world and the next. The nervousness swelled into a tightening of the chest and a susceptibility to tears when a bell tolled for a quorum of ten priests to chant the communal dirges. But then – a rude disruption. A hefty swinging fellow broke away from a group of obvious-looking Israelites. Before the priests standing behind the idol understood what was happening, the fellow had leaped onto the dais, turned around, raised his rear end to the idol, and lifting his robe high, wiped himself on Baal’s thick nose.
A deathly hush, caught from those nearest the temple, spread out and behind. The silent shock wave reached Akai and me on the fringe of the crowd. We heard the roughness of tongues, of whispers rising in rebuke. Whereupon the Israelite, emboldened by the outrage he had caused, turned on the mass and denigrated its beliefs. Fists were shaken, cussing broke forth. A quiet fury may acquire more power than a loud one. The quiet forced the gathering onto the gesticulating offender, who stood between ten priests, idol and murmuring horde. Hands reached out towards his legs to yank him off the dais. This was the story that reached me, trying to balance my brother on my shoulders, to give him a view of the eye of the storm. “Do you know what gives? Hey, brother, what’s going on?” – I shake with the struggle to stabilize Akai’s dangling legs. But now the gathering applied itself to pulling the Israelite down by the legs; but a hand he stuck out had managed to grab hold of the idol, and would not be detached. The god rocked on its base. Baal seemed about to topple. In the hot afternoon seized by a demonic muteness an improbable, spontaneous cheering erupted. My brother, shouting down at my head, informed me that a circle of priests had the offender in their midst and were chanting while they skipped around him. Then the cheering broke into a roar.
“And now?” I shouted up at Akai. He laughed and laughed. “Tell me or I let go!” I screamed.
“Balaam – a priest’s wiping himself on Baal’s nose. Like the man did. God almighty – a line’s forming for the chance to do it!”
My eyes, standing halfway out of my head, had salty sweat dripping into them, Given the circumstances, I saw that a carnival of singing, praying, excreting and fornication would be natural and inevitable.