• Joanna Seldon


  • Isaac Lies Waiting - by Joanna Seldon
  •  I am gagging, suffocating on the scent of my son’s stew. It is the stink of goat. If I could, I would get off this couch and escape into fresh air. But I’m old now, and blind. If I tried to sit up or step down, I would fall. All my life, it seems, I have been falling. Sometimes failing, too.

     My son’s stew I call it – for Esau claims that he is the cook in the family, the one with the secret recipe for my favourite meal. Savoury venison. But what I smell now is not venison. It lacks that rich, gamey sweetness. I have to admit that I even suspect it is being concocted by Rebecca. The goat stink is accompanied by an angry, pounding noise, whose vibrations thud in my head. It’s painful. And it’s Rebecca’s style. I don’t know who to believe any more. But of one thing, mind you, I am certain. The other, the twin, the younger lad, younger by one minute and that’s made all the difference in our lives, he won’t have lifted a finger.

     I blame Rebecca, of course. He always was her favourite. Me, I liked Esau. His mother couldn’t understand why, and rather despised me for it, but then she’d always been dismissive of my achievements in growing things. She grew our two sons, and their birth was a battle, Jacob grabbing at his brother’s heel as he dived out after him. It’s been a battle ever since, in fact. I grew crops. I sowed seeds carefully, tilling the soil, tending the plants, praying to my father’s God for rain. I dug wells, and the water I found stirred my neighbours to envy. And Esau, like me, is a man of the land. He’s even gone one step further, being a hunter. Perhaps, when he comes in tonight with the venison or whatever it is, I should tell him about his half-uncle, the archer. The other ‘I’.

     When Esau was young, he helped me, just as I used to help my father. Yes, I was a dutiful son – too dutiful, you might say. There I was, walking alongside the donkey, picking up likely bits of wood on the way, always on the look-out for a suitable animal to sacrifice. But I’m running ahead of myself. Let’s begin at the beginning.

     In the beginning there was darkness. And God’s hand moved through the darkness and created light. Now I move in darkness, but uncreating. My hand stretches out, but still there is no light. Sometimes, my fingers are caught by my wife, or a servant, or one of the sons. I grip, identify who it is, then let it fall. I think I would rather be as lonely as God was in the beginning. The lives of others have done me little good.

     But to return to the Lord, Blessed be He. The loneliness became too much: creating the world was not enough. Presiding over the shenanigans of Adam and Eve or the Tower of Babel proved unsatisfactory. Even Noah – the righteous man in his generation (and that wasn’t saying much) – let the side down and turned to drink. Enter my father Abram, son of Terah, dealer in idols, from Ur of the Chaldees. The Lord needed someone who could be special to him, and he fixed on my father. Made promises about a multitude of descendants. My father, as his part of the bargain, found himself performing some fairly unpleasant self-mutilation with a sharp stone. You could call it his first, great act of sacrifice. He did the surgery on me too, of course, along with all the servants. I don’t remember the occasion, having been only eight days old at the time. Ishmael, on the other hand, must be able to recall it with painful vividness. He was thirteen, apparently. I’ll come to Ishmael later.

     By way of sealing the contract, my father’s name was changed to Abraham. How he felt about that I’m not sure. Maybe he liked the status conferred on him by that extra syllable. For my part, I’d be wary about the ‘raham’ (which denotes ‘many’, as in ‘father of…’), being someone who prefers to avoid the multitude. Too used to loneliness, you might say. The second syllable of the old name – now I could identify with that. Ram. That’s me. The ram. The one to be sacrificed.

     As for my name – well, I ask you. Laughter? How clumsy can you get? Perhaps that’s the Lord’s little game with me. On my father he conferred a new name. In my case, he announced my imminent arrival in a spectacular seraphic side-show, one which was met – not by the stillness of rapture, not by an awed, prayerful genuflection, but by laugher. Why did both my parents, on two separate occasions, laugh when they heard I was going to be born? The family story – the one my mother always told me, ran as follows: it was because she was too old to have children; they were both too old. But I don’t believe her. There were angels present, after all. You don’t laugh in disbelief in the company of the heavenly host. My father’s version had it that each of them – he in the presence of God, she in front of their angelic visitors – laughed for pure joy. Whatever the explanation, the name doesn’t suit me at all. I never laugh, nor make people laugh. I never did. So you could say I’m not at ease with my name. God changed my father’s name. For all I know He might decide to change the name of one – or both – of my sons. But He seems to have forgotten about his relationship with me – apart from that welcome bit of help he gave me with those wells in the valley of Gerar. Yes, I really think he’s all but put me to one side. Ever since that day. I had my uses then. I carried out the role for which (it appears, according to God’s will) I was born. Then, that was it. From wood-pile to scrap-heap. I suppose I may prove, with hindsight, to have been useful in producing twin sons. Though, to be honest, I see no future ahead of them apart from hunter-farmer and layabout. The dull and the bright. God’s darkness and His light. In darkness I lie here now, blind, redundant, my job done years ago when I was too young to understand what was going on.

     But to return to my mother, Sara. (Formerly Sarai. Another name change courtesy of the Lord.) My sight, which can never again catch anything new, looks always backwards. And it stops, like a skipped heartbeat, at the moment when we left her, my father and I. I was excited about the journey of course – just my father and I together, with two young servants and a donkey, going forward into the unknown. My father seemed even more focused and intense than usual, and when I asked what place we were travelling to, he snapped at me. “God will lead us,” was his retort, and I knew I had to keep silent. For most of my childhood I kept silent. These days, too, I find the less said the better.

     So I turned and kissed my mother farewell. She was weeping. Already – yes, an old woman, she fingered tears that strayed in the wrinkles lining her cheeks, like winter rainwater slipping through runnels in the dried-out ground. “Good bye, Yitzhak. Take care. Always do as your father says.”

     How was I to know I would never see her again? Returning home to find she’d died was the second great blow of my life. I sometimes ask myself whether what killed her was the thing that almost happened on that strange, silent journey. But how did she know about it? Had my father told her of God’s preposterous demand? I know now that one can die of a broken heart. That is how my mother died. But you could say she was lucky. To her, it happened fast. I, meanwhile, perish slowly, the crack splitting wider as each day passes.

     But I remembered her words. I did as my father said, collecting firewood as we walked, helping the servants to load it onto the donkey’s back, instinct keeping me to my resolve: after that one inept question as we set out, I would say as little as possible. And when a mix of curiosity and strange dread prompted me to ask about the animal for sacrifice – well, there was just another laconic reference to our Lord. It was then that my guts started to melt. Yes, I understood.

     My father never was much of a talker – certainly not with me. He held conversations with God: I once overheard him arguing into the air, and realised immediately that this was a private dialogue between two special friends and I needed to keep out. To his family he rarely offered more than a few words. But my mother – she was something of a raconteur. I liked listening to her talk about the adventures she and my father, and my cousin Lot, had been through. When she died, it felt like a continuation of the silence that had wedged itself into that journey I made with my father. The silence has been leaking into my life ever since.

     There was one family story my mother told me with something bordering on reluctance, and it’s perhaps because of this that it has stayed with me always. And maybe it appeals to me because it features my father coming out with a sudden torrent of words, like something uttered in an alien tongue.

     The story has stayed with me also because it has at its heart an argument between my parents. An argument about Ishmael and me. It was probably all my fault, even though I was only a baby at the time. Too passive. The passivity which has been the soft, flabby material muffling my life was to blame even then. But passivity was not the way my mother chose to deal with Ishmael, you may be sure. She was not one to pretend she didn’t care. Now my way of dealing with – say, Rebecca, has always been to turn away with a half-smile on my face and no betrayal of the arrow’s perfectly struck mark.

     But my mother, far from meeting young Ishmael’s taunts with a charade of indifference, flew like a buzzard to the defence of her young. She was, so she assured me, protecting my dynasty. In what must have been some kind of noisy rehearsal for that big, soundless moment of my childhood when, once more, I became (as always, fleetingly) the centre of attention, I was the subject of my parents’ quarrel. The subject; the victim. From the voices inside my head which chatter through this solitary darkness, my mother’s high-pitched fury rises above the cacophony.

     “Your whore has spawned a monster to torment our child!”

     Perhaps she cradled me in her arms as she rebuked him. I imagine myself, lying there as powerless as I lie here now, bewilderment edging into terror as I heard the familiar voices hardening into strident combat. When I was older, and the silences were from time to time broken by such volleys, I would run and hide in the wooden hut where the goats sheltered. I have a memory which, when it takes me by surprise, almost winds me with its punch. I think it must have been the moment when my father announced to my mother that we were taking that journey together, he and I. She was wary, and wounded too. It was she, after all, who had accompanied him on those wanderings in the old days. I didn’t want to hear their noisy clash, so I ran and hid in the goat shed, where a newborn kid lay against its mother. I snuggled up close, rubbing my cheek against its soft coat, still sticky with birth, taking in the sharp scent. I can smell it now. But these days it stinks. Goat no longer means comfort, but dead meat and deception. I know they’re hatching something out there by the cooking pot.

     When I finally emerged from my hiding place, the silence was waiting for me like the absence of God. This battle my mother had lost. The one over Ishmael and his mother – that was her greatest victory, she informed me. I wonder if, a baby stowed, swaddled, in a corner of the tent, I took in that earlier silence, the silence announcing that Hagar and Ishmael had gone.

     These days I have plenty of time to think. There’s not much else to do in the darkness. And, thinking about it now, I sense that my twin sons combine in them aspects of Ishmael, the half-brother who was the dark angel of my infancy. They are his true descendants. Esau has inherited his physical prowess. I heard that Ishmael, having practised metaphorically on my mother and me, became a most accomplished bowman. Jacob is the heir to his quick, sharp tongue, and his cunning. Call it nastiness, if you like. And what have I bequeathed? Victimhood. For that legacy future generations may choose to curse me. And I wouldn’t blame them if they did.

     I sometimes regret that my mother sent Ishmael away. I would have liked a brother, even a cruel one. Learning to deal with him might, after all, have made me less of a victim in the end. My childhood was a lonely one. As lonely as my old age is now. I envied my twin boys growing up together. It breaks my heart that they have always been rivals and never friends. That’s probably my fault, too. And Rebecca’s.

     Let me reach out and feel one of those small, cool stones. That normally works to soothe me. My servant collects them for me from the hillside. He assures me that they are all white. I insist on only white stones. Sometimes, when the sun shines brightly, my eyes can just manage to pick them out in the light. I like the round ones best. I hold them like hard worlds waiting for God to bring them to life in some new act of Creation.

     In the beginning.

     He’s a competent servant, this one. I know I can trust him to bring me only the white ones. Of course, he’s not like Eliezer, my father’s faithful servant, the one who met Rebecca at the well and, charmed by her generosity in offering him and his camel water, marked her out as a suitable bride for his master’s son. I do not blame him. He was doing his best. It was important to the dynasty, you understand – the dynasty that my mother had fought to protect. After that most terrifying moment of my life, as the scent of burning ram rose in smoke to the heavens, I watched my father standing there, head cocked in a gesture of listening. My observations had by then taught me what this meant: one of those special conversations with God. In this instance, God seemed to be doing all the talking. Later, my father told me what God had promised him as He bent His majestic countenance over that alternative sacrifice. To reward him for being prepared to do such a terrible thing, He would make his descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and the grains of sand on the seashore. That’s our dynasty. I couldn’t hear this promise, of course – I just took my father’s word for it. But I had been able, in my frozen horror, to catch the angel’s first words as they were called out. I might have been able to see it there, directly above my head as I lay outstretched on the pile of wood, the fibres that bound me cutting into my flesh, my face turned up to heaven. In my fear, however, I kept my eyes tight shut. I knew what was coming, and I didn’t want to catch sight of the knife. Screwing my eyes closed also helped me in controlling my bowels, which felt ready to explode. So I saw nothing. I’m pleased about that, on the whole. It probably wouldn’t have been allowed, and I’d have been blinded years earlier than I eventually was.

     My ears, however, were wide open. As I said, I heard the angel quite clearly. What struck me more than anything else, at the time, was the fact that he had to call out my father’s name twice. One “Abraham!” wasn’t enough to stop him. I could already feel the cold blade brush my throat in the pause between the two enunciations of his name.

     I try not to think about it too much. But now, when I consider that the stars in the sky so far are my two sons, who have spent their youth locking horns like billy goats, I would like to ask the Lord God, “Do you think the reward has been worth that childhood agony I was made to endure?”

     Those were good servants too, the pair of young lads who accompanied my father and me on that journey. We left them, and the donkey, at the bottom of the mountain as my father placed the pieces of wood on my back and, together, we started to climb. Despite the painful burden on my back, I rejoiced silently. For I realised this was the closest we’d ever been. Just the two of us. It was then that I was foolish enough to speculate out loud about the creature we were to sacrifice. When we came back down, the servants were very discreet. Asked no questions, didn’t even let their eyes flicker across to each other in silent speculation, as far as I could tell. But they must have noticed that I was still trembling, and that my arms and legs were striped with red whorls and gashes. They might also have observed that my father, all the way home, brooded with a ferocity almost incandescent.

     The stone is warm now in my hand. If I just shift a little on my couch – there, I can replace it carefully on the little ledge next to the others, making sure it doesn’t drop to the ground. I’m superstitious about that sort of thing. Then I shall lie here in darkness, quietly breathing in the smell of stew. In a few minutes, I am certain, Esau will bring me that dinner he promised. And I shall do as I promised him. I shall give him his blessing, and his inheritance. Tonight I must do it, I know. For it will not be long now.

     I want to bequeath only good things to him. I must warn him about victimhood. Still, with a twin brother like Jacob, he’s probably learnt plenty about that already.

     You could say it’s a pity, in some ways, that I never saw that angel. My parents conversed with angels. Maybe my sons will. Or maybe it will be a matter of struggling with angels instead. It might not always be so companionable, after all – this relationship with the divine.

     My birth was foretold by an angel; an angel descended when my father tried to sacrifice me. Is this how I will be remembered? Perhaps it will take someone else – someone whose passivity, whose victimhood can be made into a positive virtue – to re-live my story and cast it in a different mould. Then, surely, the world will be able to see my story for what it really is. I am the special son. What my father nearly did to me has saved the dynasty. Yes, I am a saviour. But who will see it that way?

     I’d better put those thoughts aside for now. The scent draws nearer; I can hear a footstep by the entrance. To my sharp ears, it sounds like Jacob. But I was told it would be Esau. So Esau let it be. I have decided that, as the end approaches, I need to try a little harder to trust people.

     And it smells now like an offering fit for heaven.