Rebekah’s mother died a few days after she was born, but she never thought of this as something that happened in her childhood. Since she had never known her mother, she had never felt the loss, or at least had not felt it as a change in her life. It was simply the way things were. Other children had mothers to take care of them and scold them and dress them and whack them and tell them stories; Rebekah had her nurse, her cousin Deborah, fifteen years older than her.
Deborah never yelled at Rebekah or spanked her, but that was because of Deborah’s native cheerfulness, not because Rebekah never needed scolding. By the time Rebekah was five, she came to understand that Deborah was simple. She did not understand many of the things that happened around her, could not grasp many of Rebekah’s questions and explanations. Rebekah did not love her any the less; indeed, she appreciated all the more how hard Deborah worked to learn all the tasks she did for her. For answers and understanding, she would talk to her father, or to her older brother Laban. For comfort and kindness she could always count on Deborah.
Rebekah no longer played pranks or hid or teased Deborah, because she could not bear seeing her nurse’s confusion when a prank was discovered. Rebekah soon made her brother Laban stop teasing Deborah. “It’s not fair to fool her,” said Rebekah, which made little impression on Laban. What convinced him was when Rebekah said, “It’s what a coward does, to mock someone who can’t fight back.” As usual, when she finally found the right words to say, Rebekah was able to prevail over her older brother.
The real change in her life, the one that transformed Rebekah’s childhood, was when her father, Bethuel, went deaf. He had not been a young man when she was born, but he was strong enough to carry her everywhere on his shoulders when she was little, letting her listen in on conversations with the men and women of his household, shepherds and farmers and craftsmen, cooks and spinners and weavers. Riding on his shoulders as she did, his voice became far more than words to her. It was a vibration through her whole body; she felt sometimes as though she could hear his voice in her knees and elbows, and when he shouted she felt as if it were her own voice, coming from her own chest, deep, manly tones pouring out of her own throat. Sometimes she resented the fact that in order to say her own words, she had only her small high voice, which sounded silly and inconsequential even to her.
But when she spoke, Father heard her, and since he was the most important man in the whole world, however weak her voice might be, it was strong enough. Even after she grew too big to ride his shoulders, she was at his side as much as possible, listening to everything, understanding or trying to understand every aspect of the life of the camp, the work and workings of the household. He, in turn, called her his conscience. The little voice always at his side, never intruding, but asking him wise questions whenever they were alone together.
And then, trying to keep a cart from sliding down a muddy bank into the cold water of a brook in spring flood, Father slipped himself and fell into the water, the cart tumbling after him. The men swore later that it was a gift of God that Bethuel was not killed, for the cart was held up by the spokes of its own broken wheel just enough that he was able to keep his mouth above water and breathe while the men hurriedly unloaded the cart enough that they could lift it off him. He seemed at first to be no worse the wear for the hour he spent in the cold water, but that night he awoke shivering and fevered, and for two weeks he came back and forth between fever and chills as if the icy water still had a place in him.
When he rose at last from his pallet, the world had gone silent for him. He shouted everything he said, and heard no one’s answer, and when Rebekah ran to him and covered her ears and cried, “Father, why are you angry with me?” he bent down to her and shouted for her to speak up, speak up, he couldn’t hear her. Louder and louder she spoke until she was red-faced with screaming and Father gathered her into his arms and wept. “Of all the sounds that I shall never hear again,” he murmured into her hair, “the voice of my sweet girl is the one I will miss most of all.”
Father remained master of his household, but there was no more ranging out in the hills to oversee the herds. There was too much danger to a man who could not hear a shouted warning, or the roar of a lion, or the cries of marauders. Instead, Father had no choice but to trust his servants to oversee his flocks and herds. It embarrassed him to have to ask people to repeat everything, to talk slowly, to pronounce their words carefully so he could try to read their lips. He did not have to tell Rebekah that she could not stay with him all the time that he was in camp, as she had used to. She could see that he did not want her there, partly because he was ashamed to show his weakness in front of her, and partly because, when she spoke to him, she saw how much it hurt him that he could not hear her anymore.
“Why don’t you go with your father?” Deborah asked her. “He likes you beside him. He used to carry you when you were little. You’re too big now.”
Rebekah had to explain it to her several times. “Father is deaf now. That means he can’t hear. So I can’t talk to him anymore. He doesn’t hear me.”
And after a little while, Deborah understood and remembered. Indeed, she took to informing Rebekah. “You mustn’t go to your father today. He’s deaf, you know. He can’t hear you when you talk to him.” Rebekah didn’t have the heart to rebuke Deborah for the frequent reminders. Instead, she would ask Deborah to sing her a song as she plaited Rebekah’s hair or spun thread beside her or walked through the camp, looking at the work of the women and children and old men. Everyone looked up when Deborah came singing, and gave her a smile. And they smiled at Rebekah, too, and answered her questions, until she understood everything she saw going on, all the work of Father’s household.
Rebekah was ten years old when Father lost his hearing, and her brother Laban was twelve. It was just as hard on him as it was on her, for as she had been Father’s constant companion in the camp, Laban had been his shadow on almost every trip to visit distant flocks and herds where they grazed.
To Laban it was like a prison, always to be in camp because his father rarely traveled. And Rebekah was no happier. Once she would have rejoiced to have Father always near the home tents, but he was short-tempered now, and bellowed often for no good reason.
Everyone was ill at ease. But the work of the household went on, day after day, week after week. People get used to anything, if it just goes on. Rebekah didn’t like the way things were, but she expected this new order to go on unchanged.
Until, a year after her father’s deafness began, she happened to come up behind several of the servant women boiling rags, and overheard them talking about Father.
“He’s an old lion, with all that roaring.”
“A lion with no teeth.”
And they started to laugh until one of them noticed Rebekah and shushed the others.
Rebekah told this to Laban, and at first he was all for telling Father. But Rebekah clutched at Laban and held him back. “How will you even tell him? And if you make him understand, then what? Should he beat the woman for saying it? Or the others for laughing? Will that make them love him better?”
Laban looked at her. “We can’t let them laugh at Father behind his back. Soon they’ll laugh in his face, and then they’ll do what they want. Already the servants don’t even try to tell Father half the things that happen. Pillel makes decisions all by himself that he used to never make, and Father knows it but what can he do?”
“We can pray to God for him to hear again,” said Rebekah.
“And what if God answers us the way he answered Abram and Sarai when they prayed for a son? Can Father wait ten years? Twenty? Thirty?”
They knew well the tales of their father’s uncle Abraham, the great lord of the desert, the prophet that Pharaoh could not kill, and how his wife Sarah bore him a baby in her old age.
“But what else can we do?” said Rebekah. “Only God can let Father hear again.”
“We can be his ears,” said Laban. “We have time to explain things to him. Let the men tell us, and we’ll tell Father.”
Rebekah had her doubts about this. She had tried talking to Father many times, speaking slowly so he could read her lips, and at first he had tried to understand her, but most of the time he failed, or got it only partly right, and the resignation in his eyes when he looked away from her and refused to try anymore made her so sad she couldn’t even cry. “What, you’ll press your mouth into his ear and scream?”
Laban rolled his eyes as if she were a hopeless simpleton. “Writing.”
“That’s a thing for city priests.”
“Uncle Abraham writes.”
“Uncle Abraham is far away and very old and spends all his time talking to God,” said Rebekah.
“If the priests in the city can write, and Uncle Abraham can write, then why can’t Father and I learn to write?”
“Then I can, too,” said Rebekah, daring him to argue with her.
“Of course you can,” said Laban. “You have to. Because as soon as I can, I’ll be out with the men, and you’ll have to be able to talk to Father, too.”
For three days, Laban and Rebekah spent every spare moment together, working out a set of pictures they could draw with a stick in the dirt. Some of the words were easy—each of the animals could be drawn quickly, as could crops, articles of clothing, pots, baskets. Day and night were easy enough, too—the sun was round, the moon a crescent. Water was a bit more of a challenge, but they ended up with a drawing of a well.
“What if you want to say ‘well’?” asked Rebekah.
“Then I’ll draw a well,” said Laban.
“What if you want to say, ‘There’s no water in the well’?” asked Rebekah.
“Then I’ll draw a well, point to it, and then rub it out!” Laban was beginning to sound exasperated.
“What if you want to say, ‘The well has been poisoned’?”
Laban pointed to his well drawing and then pantomimed gagging, choking, and falling down dead. He opened his eyes. “Well? Do you think he’ll get it?”
“That can’t be the way Uncle Abraham does it,” said Rebekah.
“We aren’t trying to write to Uncle Abraham,” said Laban. “We’re just trying to talk to Father.”
“What if you want to say, ‘I’m afraid there might be bandits coming but Pillel says they’re just travelers and there’s nothing to worry about but I think we should gather in the men and sleep with our swords’?”
Laban glared at her. “I will never have to say that,” he said.
“How do you know?”
“Because I would just…I would just tell him that bandits were coming and bring him his sword.”
“No!” shouted Rebekah. “The men would know it was you who decided and not Father. And they can’t follow Father into battle anyway, so it would have to be Pillel in command at least until you’re tall enough to lead the men yourself, and anyway the whole idea of this is to help Father keep the respect of the men, and if you aren’t telling him the truth and letting him decide then they won’t respect him or you and they won’t trust you either and then we’ve lost everything.”
It was obvious Laban wanted to argue with her, but there was nothing to say. “Some things are just too hard to draw,” Laban finally admitted. “But you’re right, we have to try.”
“I think writing isn’t worth much if you have to be right there to make faces or fall down dead,” said Rebekah.
“There’s a trick to it that we don’t know.”
“If priests who are dumb enough to pray to a stone can do it,” said Rebekah, “we can figure it out”
“If we make fun of their gods, people in the towns will shut us out,” Laban reminded her. It was one of the rules learned by those who moved from place to place, following green grass and searching for ample water.
Rebekah knew the rule. “I was making fun of the priests.” She looked again at Laban’s drawings in the dirt. “Let’s show Father as much as we’ve figured out about writing.”
“I don’t want to show him until we have it right.”
“Maybe he can help us get it right. Maybe he knows how Uncle Abraham does it.”
“And in the meantime, how will I draw a picture of us not knowing how to draw pictures of things we can’t draw pictures of?”
“If you draw something and he doesn’t understand, then at least he’ll understand that we don’t know how to make him understand, and that’s what we’re trying to make him understand.”
Laban grinned. “Now you’re sounding like a priest.”
Rebekah laughed. “The Lord is not made of stone, he is in the stone. The Lord is not confined by the stone, he is expressed by the stone. Since the Lord was in the stonecutter who shaped the image, the idol is both man’s gift to the Lord and the Lord’s gift to man.”
Laban whistled. “You listen to that stuff?”
“I listen to everything,” said Rebekah. Her own words made her think of Father, who could never listen to anything again.
“I listen to everything, too,” said Laban. “But you remember it.”
“That has to be the worst thing for Father,” said Rebekah. “That he remembers being able to hear. Being at the center of everything.”
“What, you think it would have been better if he had always been deaf? Who would have married him, then? Who would be our father?”
“Father would,” said Rebekah. “Because Mother would have loved him anyway.”
“But Mother’s father would never have given her to a deaf man in marriage.”
“She would have married him anyway!”
“Now you’re just being silly,” said Laban. “Would you marry a…a blind man? A cripple? A simpleton?”
“I would if I loved him,” said Rebekah.
“That’s why fathers decide these things, and don’t leave them up to silly girls who would go off and marry blind, deaf, staggering fools.”
Laban said this so loftily that she had to poke him.
“But Laban, someday Father will have to find a wife for you.”
“I’m not a…I don’t…I refuse to let you goad me.”
Rebekah laughed at his dignity. “Let’s go show Father as much writing as we’ve got.”
“I don’t want him to see how bad we are at it.”
“The only way to get better is to do it wrong till we get it right. Like you with sheep shearing.”
Laban blushed. “You really do remember everything.”
“I remember eating lots of mutton,” said Rebekah. “I remember you wearing an ugly tunic woven out of bloody wool.”
“You were only a baby.”
“Come on,” she said, pulling him toward the brightest-colored tent that marked the center of their father’s household.
They did not clap their hands outside the tent, or call out for permission to enter—what good would it have done? That was one of the things Rebekah knew Father hated worst—the fact that people now had no choice but to walk in on him at whatever hour they thought their need was more important than his privacy. Or his dignity. He had tried keeping a servant at his door, but either his visitors ignored the servant or kept out people Father needed to see, and besides, it was not as if the household could afford to keep a man away from his real work just to sit at the master’s door all day. So Laban parted the tent flap and peered inside.
Father was going over tally sticks with Pillel. Because Rebekah knew that Pillel had just been to hills south of river, she knew the sticks were a count of the main goat herd, and from the number of marks below the main notch she knew that it was a good year, with many new kids thriving. Last winter’s rains had washed away dozens of houses built on land that had been dry through two generations of drought. But the hillsides were lush this spring, and the herds and flocks were fat and strong; and if there could be rains again this winter, they might not have to sell half the younglings into the towns for slaughter, but could keep them and grow the herds and become wealthy again, wealthy as in the days when Abraham had been a great prince whose household was so mighty he could defeat Amorite kings and save the cities of the plain.
Only she would trade such wealth and power, would trade even the herds they had, would give up the whole household and labor with her own hands at all tasks, hauling water like a slave and wearing only cloth she wove herself, if Father could only hear again.
Though of course that was a childish thing to wish, because if Father could hear, then he would have his great household and all his flocks and herds and there’d be nothing to fear. No, the way the world worked, you didn’t trade wealth to get wholeness of body. It was when your body ceased to be whole that you also lost your wealth, your influence, your prestige, everything else. It could all go away—would all go away, once something slipped. Everything we have in life, Rebekah realized, depends on everything else. If you lose anything, you can lose everything.
So do we really have anything at all? Was that what God was showing them by what he had allowed to happen to Father?
Only Father had not lost everything. Had not really lost anything yet. Pillel was still serving Father, wasn’t he? And Pillel was keeping everything together.
But didn’t that mean that now the herds and flocks and the great household belonged to Pillel? Out of loyalty, he served Father—but the men served Pillel. And there would come a day, surely, when Pillel would see the great dowry Father would assemble for Rebekah and wonder why his daughters had nothing like it to offer a husband, or when Pillel would look at Laban and wonder why the son of the deaf man was going to inherit everything Pillel had created instead of his own strong sons.
Why was she thinking this? Pillel would never betray them.
And yet how was it better that all of Pillel’s labor, all his life, should belong to another man? Why shouldn’t he be able to pass along great flocks and herds to his sons? Instead he would give them only the yoke of servitude, though his life’s work had created great wealth. It was not fair to him, or to his sons. Any more than it was fair to Bethuel to be deaf.
A thought came to the verge of her mind. About fairness, about the way God deals with people. It was a thought tinged with anger and fear, but also with that thrill that came when she finally understood something that mattered. But as quickly as it came, the thought escaped her without her being able to name it, without my her being able to hold it.
Wrong, Laban, I don’t remember everything. The best things, the ideas that matter most, they slip away without my ever really having them.
Again the important thought verged on understanding. Again it fled unnamed.
Bethuel saw Laban and Rebekah because Pillel heard them and looked up and beckoned them to come all the way in.
“Ah, my children!” boomed Bethuel.
His voice was so loud, now that he was deaf. Though she knew he could not help it, it still made Rebekah a little ashamed when he boomed out his words at inappropriate times. Father could keep no secrets now.
“I’m done here,” said Pillel. He rose, gathering up the tally sticks.
“The goats are doing well this spring,” said Laban.
Pillel grinned. “The billies were frisky last fall.”
“Or the nannies were too lazy to run away,” said Laban.
Pillel glanced nervously at Rebekah. She hated it when people acted like that. Just because she was the daughter of the house and her purity had to be protected did not mean she was blind and did not know how lambs and kids and calves were made.
“You can stay,” said Rebekah.
“No he can’t,” said Laban, annoyed.
“Only your father bids me stay or go,” said Pillel mildly. “And he has asked me to leave.”
Rebekah looked sharply at him. Father had said no such thing. But there were many things Pillel and Father were able to communicate without words—there always had been. A glance, a wink, a tiny gesture; they understood each other so well that words were often unneeded. Of course that had not changed with Father’s deafness. But what was to stop Pillel from claiming that Father had told him something when it was merely Pillel’s own decision?
Trust, that’s what. Pillel had earned the family’s trust, and just because he could lie did not give Rebekah any right to suppose that he would. When a man had earned their trust, he ought to have it, and not lose it just because a foolish girl noticed that he could probably get away with any number of small betrayals.
When Pillel was gone with the tally sticks, Laban wasted no time. He pulled back three layers of rugs to expose a patch of hard sandy soil. Rebekah watched Father as Father watched Laban draw his pictures. He grew more and more puzzled, and Rebekah could not help agreeing with him.
“What are you drawing” she whispered. “This isn’t anything we worked out together.”
“I’m trying a new one,” he said.
“Well I can’t understand it.”
Angry, Laban rubbed out the drawing with his sandal and began again. This time he drew the symbols that they had worked out for saying what was being prepared for dinner. The fire, the spit, the pot. Only this was absurd. They hadn’t even been to the kitchen fires today. “Laban, what are you doing? We don’t know what’s for dinner.”
“I’m not telling, I’m asking,” said Laban. “What he wants. And then we can go tell the women.”
He turned to Father, who was studying Laban’s drawing with an odd expression. Laban waved a hand down within Father’s field of vision, and Father looked up at his face. Laban elaborately mouthed his words.
“Dinner,” Laban said, then pointed at the parts of the drawing. “Food. Dinner. Kitchen. Cookfire. The pot. The spit. See?”
“If you use all the different words, how will he know what each picture means?”
Laban whirled on her. “If you think you can do better, give it a try!”
“Yes, I will,” she said. Taking the stick from Laban’s hand, she began her own drawing. She drew a tall man, a short man, and a short girl. She pointed to Father, Laban, and herself, then back at the drawings.
Father nodded. That was more than he had done with Laban’s drawing, but she did not look at Laban lest he think she was being triumphant. He got huffy when he thought he had been shown up.
Rebekah rubbed out her pictures, then drew just the boy and girl, and this time the girl had a stick in her hand and under the point of the stick Rebekah drew a very tiny picture of the very picture she was drawing—the boy, the girl, the stick.
But Rebekah wasn’t done. She drew a picture of an ear, then scribbled across it. Then a picture of an eye, and a dotted line going to it from the drawing the girl was making.
Then she knelt before Father and mouthed her words carefully. “I draw. You see. That is how you hear us.” She touched the picture of the eye, then reached up and touched Father’s ear. Then his eye, then his ear again. “You see, and that’s how you’ll hear.”
Father shook his head.
He didn’t understand.
No, he did understand. Because he wasn’t just shaking his head. He was smiling, then laughing, but it was a rueful, affectionate laugh, and he gathered Rebekah into his arms and then reached out for Laban as well and embraced them both. “My children, wonderful and wise.”
“He likes it!” said Laban.
Father must have felt the vibration of Laban’s voice, because he pulled back and looked expectantly at Laban’s face.
“It’s writing,” Laban said. “Like Uncle Abraham.”
Father wrinkled his brow—he didn’t understand Laban’s words. But it hardly mattered, since the next thing he said was, “It’s writing. You’re trying to write to me.”
“Yes,” said Rebekah, and Laban almost jumped out of his clothes in his excitement, jumping up and down, obliterating the drawings with his feet.
“But you don’t do it with pictures of the thing,” said Father. “You make pictures of the sounds.”
Father reached out a hand. After only a moment’s hesitation, Rebekah realized he wanted the stick and gave it to him. He thought for a long moment, then made three marks in the dirt.
“You make marks that stand for the sounds of the word,” he said. “That’s your name, Rebekah.”
“It doesn’t look like anything,” said Laban.
Father didn’t hear him, but explained anyway. “This mark is always ‘ruh.’ And this mark is always ‘buh.’ And this one is ‘kuh.’”
He made three more marks. “‘Luh,’ ‘buh,’ ‘nuh,’” he said.
“Look, your name and mine are the same in the middle,” said Rebekah.
“But my name isn’t ‘luhbuhnuh,’ it’s Laban.”
Father was studying their faces, as usual, and saw Laban’s resistance.
“We just write down the solid sounds,” Father said. “The ones that don’t change. The Egyptians do it foolishly, and so do the Babylonians and Sumerians—the priests have a separate picture for every possible sound. Bah, beh, bo, bee, boo, bim, ben, ban—a separate picture. So you have to learn hundreds and hundreds in order to write anything. But we use the same mark for all the ‘buh’ sounds. ‘Bah,’ ‘beh,’ ‘bo,’ ‘bee,’ ‘boo,’ we just make this mark. ‘Bim,’ ‘ben,’ ‘ban,’ we make the same mark but we add this one, for the sound of the nose. See? Look, I’ll show you.”
Using just the marks from their names, he wrote them in several different combinations, then said the words. Sometimes the same two or three symbols stood for two or three or four different words at the same time. “But it doesn’t matter,” he said. “Because one word will make sense and the others won’t. So you always know which is which. And if you don’t, then you just add a word so we know which one you mean.”
Rebekah’s head was reeling. She started making sounds with her lips and tongue and trying to count them. “Kuh buh muh tuh chuh nuh guh luh…”
Father saw what she was doing and stopped her with a touch. “I’ll show you all of them that I remember. I learned this when I was a boy, you understand. I haven’t used it much since then. There was no one to write to, and nothing to read. I never taught it to you because if was so useless. I almost forgot that I had ever learned it.” He laughed bitterly. “It was for sacred writings. Tally sticks are enough for counting goats and sheep, which is all I’ve ever needed. Abraham had all the ancient writings. Once he had a son, I knew his boy would have the holy birthright and there was no more need for me to remember how to write. Was my son going to be a priest? I never thought of using writing for something else. For myself.”
Rebekah heard him, but her mind also raced in its own direction. “But this means we can write anything,” she said. “If we can make the word with our mouths, we can write it down, once we know all the marks.”
Father must have read enough from her lips to know what she was saying. “I’ll teach them all to you, all that I remember. This is a good idea, children. You can write to me to tell me what I need to know. It’s too hard to read lips. Too many sounds come from the back of the mouth. Everybody talks too fast. Or they shape their mouths so queerly when they’re trying to talk to me. But this way—you’ll give me my ears again!”
Then he frowned. “But I don’t know if I should teach you, Rebekah.”
“Why not?” she asked. Trying not to overshape the words. Trying not to say them too fast. Trying not to show how indignant she was at the idea of being left out.
Father calmed her with a hand on her arm. “No, you’re right, Rebekah. It was always for the boys. Writing was part of the birthright. The keeper of the ancient writings had to know it. But now we’re going to use it so you can ask me what I want for dinner. Of course I must teach you, Rebekah.”
They set to work learning the alphabet. At first Father could remember only about two-thirds of the letters. But by the time they had been writing messages to each other for several days, Father remembered them all, or at least remembered signs that worked well enough. And as long as they all remembered the same signs for each sound, what did it matter if they were exactly the same as the ones Abraham used on the sacred books? Uncle Abraham was far away and very old, if he wasn’t dead already.
Of course the servants and freemen of the household saw what they were doing and how these marks allowed Bethuel to speak aloud the words that others were trying to say to him. When Laban saw this, he tried to close the others out by rubbing out the marks when he was done, or concealing them from view with his body. At first Rebekah followed his lead and tried to keep the secret from the other children and the women who were the first to try to learn. But then she remembered how she had felt when Father suggested that he might not teach her how to read and write the letters.
Why should anyone be shut out of this? The next time Laban started trying to shield his writing from one of the servants, Rebekah challenged him and called the woman over to see what they were writing. “Don’t you see?” she said. “We’re not priests, trying to keep this a secret. This is for Father, so he can hear. It’s better if everyone in the household can speak to him, isn’t it? Every little child, every woman, every man. Because who knows when a bear might come into the camp, or a troop of bandits might be seen, and everyone ought to know how to come in and scratch a word in the dirt so Father has the warning.”
Laban was still reluctant, though Rebekah could not think why. But after he saw that Rebekah was going to teach everyone in camp who wanted to learn, he gave up and joined in.
For many of the servants it was only a novelty, and they quickly lost interest without learning more than a few marks. Some, like Deborah, tried to learn but never really understood; they ended up drawing pictures after all, and called it writing. But others, especially children, got caught up in the game of it, and soon many of them were making dirt scratches all over the campsite, so that you could hardly go anywhere without seeing something scrawled on the ground.
Which included some nastiness, too. Ugly words and mean gossip. Rebekah didn’t like that, how people used these marks to be able to say cruel things that they would never have dared to say with their mouths so people would know who had said them. She was especially hurt at how often she found “Rebekah is ugly” and “Rebekah is stupid” among the words written in the dirt. Sometimes they were even scratched into stone so they couldn’t be erased.
Who was writing such things? Who hated her? She looked at all the other children with suspicion for a while, wondering who it was who despised her but was too cowardly to say it to her face.
Maybe it was all of them.
And why just children? Could it be that this was what everyone thought in the whole camp?
Rebekah did not speak of these things to Father or even to Laban. Nor did she rub out the offending words, lest someone take satisfaction from knowing it bothered her. Still, it was not as if she could keep them secret from Father. After all, he was not confined to his tent, and now that so many people could write messages to him, he was out and about the camp more than he had been in many months. This was a blessing, the greatest blessing of all, Rebekah thought, because people could see that he was still the ruler of this house, the master of all things. But it also meant that he was bound to see the cruel words about Rebekah, too.
One day Rebekah found out just how seriously he had taken it when she heard someone crying out in pain and ran from the kitchen fires to see what was happening. Deborah met her, frantic with worry. “He’s beating people! Make him stop, Rebekah!”
“Uncle Bethuel! Don’t let him beat me, Rebekah. I’ve been very good!”
Deborah wrung her hands as Rebekah led her to ward the cries. “Deborah, Father won’t beat you.” Deborah always took other people’s beatings as if they were only a prelude to her own, though Father had never beaten Deborah and, in fact, rarely beat anyone. Whatever had happened must have been terrible.
A servant boy named Belbai lay naked and writhing on the ground as Father towered over him, thwacking him so harshly with his staff that each blow drew blood and Rebekah was certain that some bone was bound to break, if it hadn’t already. “Father, what are you doing!” she cried. But of course he didn’t hear her. So she ran to him and caught at his arm and clung so he could not strike again…clung until Father stood there, his chest heaving with anger and exertion, as she wrote her question into the dirt. “What did he do? You never beat children.”
“You tell her what you did!” Father roared at Belbai.
Belbai, who was panting and sobbing in pain, could not speak.
Rebekah saw Khaneah, Belbai’s mother, standing helplessly nearby. She dared not interfere with her son’s punishment, and yet clearly it was unbearable for her not to be able to go to the boy. So Rebekah beckoned to her, and stopped Father when he raised his staff to drive her off. In a moment the woman was on her knees, cradling her son’s head and shoulders in her lap.
Rebekah wrote in the dirt: “Will you kill him? Break his bones?”
“Yes!” cried Father. But even as he said the words, he stepped back, showing that he would not kill him, would not break his body.
“Forgive me,” Belbai whimpered. “I never meant it.”
“Never meant what?” asked Rebekah.
“Don’t you speak to him!” roared Bethuel. “I won’t have you speak to him! I’ll tear off his ears before I let him hear your voice!”
That was when Laban arrived at a run from the bean fields, having been told of the commotion by one of the children. He demanded to know the cause, and Belbai, encouraged by the way his mother’s arms enfolded him, finally said, “I was the one writing against Rebekah.”
It was Belbai? Why him, of all people?
“You!” cried Laban. He seemed to explode with fury, and he stomped hard on the boy’s ribs.
Belbai cried out and Khaneah shrieked, but no one raised a hand to stop him. Except Rebekah. “It was nothing but words,” she cried. “He’s been punished more than enough for words.”
“I should have known it was him,” Laban said. And he started to gush out an explanation, but Father stopped him and made him write it. Laban spoke slowly, writing each word as he said it.
“Last summer he saw Rebekah walk by and he said, ‘A rich man is going to pay a lot to get that pretty one in bed.’”
Bethuel’s eyes grew wide with rage, but it was not his anger that made Laban hesitate—it was Rebekah’s presence that stopped him.
“Go away, Rebekah,” Laban said.
“Not a chance,” she said.
“I don’t want you to hear this!”
“I should have heard whatever it is months ago.” Then she wrote on the ground, so Father would know what she was saying: “I will hear this.”
Father seized Laban’s shoulder and pointed to the ground. Enough talking, write.
Laban resumed his account. After the phrase “get that pretty one in bed,” Laban wrote, and said aloud: “If some lucky boy doesn’t get there first.”
Khaneah wailed in grief and Belbai hid his head in his arms. They both knew that he had said the unsayable, and what it would mean to them. Even Rebekah understood now. This was not just words.
Bethuel was furious, not least at Laban himself. “Why didn’t you tell me at the time!” he roared.
Laban wrote, “That was before writing. I warned him that if he ever said such a thing again, I would tell Pillel and he and his mother would be sent away. He must have started writing bad things about Rebekah as soon as he learned how. Out of spite.”
“I never meant them,” cried Belbai. “I was angry at Laban.”
“What did he say?” demanded Father.
Laban wrote down Belbai’s words.
Father turned to Belbai with contempt “Laban showed you and your mother mercy, and you were angry with him? Fool. And because you were angry at Laban, you wrote words to torment my daughter? Meanness on top of foolishness.”
“But everybody knows how beautiful she is!” cried Belbai.
When his words had been written, Father spat upon them. “All my daughter knew was the words you wrote. I saw how they stung her, and how she held up her head in pride so no one could see she was ashamed.”
Deborah listened to all this wide-eyed. “All this drawing, Rebekah, it was about you? Bad pictures of you?”
Rebekah had no chance to explain, for at that moment Khaneah, weeping, began slapping her son’s face, so that it was from her that he cowered now. “This good man found me whoring for bread and took me into his house and took away my shame!” she cried. “But you are still the son of a whore!” She rose and forced him to his feet, though he was still bent over with pain. She shoved him away from her. “Out of the camp! Out of the camp! You have no place here!”
Then she ran to Bethuel and threw herself prostrate before him, and with her lips against his feet, 1 she cried out, “You were merciful to me and my son, and we have repaid you with shame! We are the lowest swine who live in their own filth! We deserve to die, we deserve to die.”
Laban started to write her words, but Father stopped him. “I know what she’s saying.”
At first Rebekah thought, How can he know? Does he hear through his feet? And then she realized: She is saying the only thing she can say. She is thanking him for not slaying her son for his disloyalty and ingratitude, for slandering his daughter and speaking of her as if she were any man’s woman, a harlot. She is begging for mercy.
Father spoke to Laban. “Have Pillel give her three days’ provisions, and let her take her clothing, and her son’s clothing, and coppers for a room.”
Laban was outraged. “Coppers!” he wrote. “If he touched Rebekah, would he get silver?”
Father slapped his son lightly across the face. “I will not have you face me down. I forgive you because you spoke in anger, on your sister’s behalf. But if you had told me at the beginning, we would not have come to this day, and your sister would not have seen or heard any of this. So do not condemn me for showing mercy to Khaneah and her son, when you depend on my mercy as well.” He reached down and took the woman by the hand and lifted her up. “If she returns to harlotry that is her choice, but let God never reproach me that she did it because I sent her away penniless.”
Weeping, she clung to his hand and kissed it until he drew away from her. As soon as his back was to her, several of the servant women threw stones that landed at her feet. The message was clear. It was time for her to go.
Laban spoke to her. “Wait there, by that cedar tree, until I come to you with the coppers my father is giving to you because he loves God, and not because you deserve anything but stones from us.”
Still weeping, she nodded, and shambled over to her son. Roughly she dragged him along behind her, heading for the cedar.
Rebekah saw no more, because Father took her by the hand and, gently but irresistibly, led her to his tent. Rebekah wanted to wait until she could calm Deborah down, for her nurse was still agitated, on the edge of crying. “Laban, explain it to Deborah,” she called. She could see Laban forcing himself to calm down so he could soothe the poor woman, and then Father had her inside the tent.
He spoke to her haltingly, filled with shame. “That a daughter of mine should have suffered such things. Heard such things, and in my own house, and from the son of a whore.”
Rebekah wrote in the patch of dirt they always kept open inside his tent “She was not a whore in your household.”
Father embraced her. “You are a child of mercy. But how will I ever erase his words from your memory? You remember everything, and so this ugliness will be inside you forever, poor child, poor child.”
Rebekah let him hold her for a moment longer, until her question was about to burst from her. She pulled away from him, took the stick, and wrote:
“Am I really beautiful?”
Father chuckled, then embraced her again, so that her face was held against his belly as it shook with laughter. “I suppose you don’t want to forget everything he said, do you!”
“You never told me,” she wrote.
“What good does it do for a woman to know she’s beautiful?” asked Father. “Did she cause it to happen? What if you got the pox, or some injury that marred your face? If you never knew you were beautiful, you would not grieve at the loss of that beauty.”
“Did you command everyone else not to tell me?” she wrote.
“It was not their place to tell you,” said Father.
A boy had been beaten and he and his mother had been sent away because he had said something about Rebekah’s beauty. Any servant girl could be pretty and she would know it because everyone would talk about it. But Rebekah was the daughter of Bethuel, so no one could tell her, no one could speak about her.
All these years, and I have not lived in the same world as everyone else. There are things people don’t tell me, because of who my father is. It’s like being blind. When it comes to things I can’t see myself, I only know what people tell me.
Just like Father, in his deafness. Laban and I worked hard to make sure he was told everything. But nobody told me, and I wasn’t even deaf or blind or anything. My whole future will be different than I thought it would be. Men will want to marry me, and not just for my dowry. Maybe a man will want me out of love.
For a moment she felt herself dazzled by the future. Beautiful! I might be mistress of a great house! I might marry a prince, a king!
And then she remembered Belbai, bleeding, staggering, his mother supporting him as she led him away. Belbai could easily have died today. For her. For his desire for her, for his anger at being forbidden even to speak of her. His mother was ruined again, after having once been saved. Father had been generous to Khaneah, but it did not change the fact that she once again was without protection.
Because Rebekah was beautiful.
Rebekah did not want to cry in front of Father. She pulled away from him and fled to her own tent, suddenly ashamed and afraid.
Alone in her tent, Rebekah threw herself onto the rugs and wept. In moments Deborah came in and lay down beside her, covering her with a comforting arm. “My poor baby! Did Uncle Bethuel beat you, too?”
“No, no, I’m all right. Father would never hit me. I’m just sad.”
“Because of Belbai?”
“I’m sorry he and his mother have to suffer so much because of what he did.”
“He shouldn’t have made mean pictures of you.”
“No, he shouldn’t,” said Rebekah. She patted Deborah’s arm. “See? I’m all right now.”
“No you’re not,” said Deborah. “You just want me to leave you alone, but I don’t want to.”
“Because I don’t want to go out there. What if Uncle Bethuel sends me away?”
“He’ll never do that. As long as I’m here, you’re my nurse.”
“But the other women say you’ll soon get married and go away and then I won’t have any work to do and I eat too much, everybody says so. Uncle Bethuel can’t afford to feed people who don’t work.”
Which was a common thing for Pillel to say. How could Deborah know that it didn’t apply to her?
“Deborah, you’re family, not a servant. You’re my cousin.”
“What if he sends me home? I don’t want to go home. My papa is angry with me.”
“No, he’s not.”
“He’s angry because of the baby. I wasn’t supposed to have a baby.”
“You don’t have a baby,” said Rebekah.
“I know,” said Deborah. “He died.”
She said it so simply, as if it made her only a little sad. “I never knew you were married,” said Rebekah.
And then she realized how stupid a thing that was to say. Who was the simple one? Deborah had never been married. Simple as she was, some man in her father’s household—or perhaps some stranger—prevailed upon her when she was very young and begot a child on her. How could Deborah even have understood what was happening?
“I’ll never get married,” said Deborah. “Men don’t want ugly stupid girls. They want pretty smart girls like you.”
Suddenly Rebekah understood what it meant that all her life Deborah had told her how pretty and smart she was. Deborah was saying, without even realizing it, How unlike me you are. I’m ugly and stupid, you’re pretty and smart.
“Deborah, don’t you know? I don’t want to be pretty. I didn’t even know I was pretty.”
“I always told you,” said Deborah. “You’re so pretty all the time.”
“I wish I weren’t,” said Rebekah, her whole heart in the words. “I should take my knife and cut a deep scar right across my face and then nobody would be troubled about me.” She even reached for her knife, though she had no intention of actually cutting herself
Deborah did not know that, however, and clutched at her hand, clung to it, refusing to let Rebekah take the knife. “No, no, you can’t, you can’t! Not my little Bekah baby! Nobody can ever hurt you, not even you!” Deborah wept furiously.
“I know, I know, don’t worry, I didn’t mean it. Please, Deborah, don’t be frightened, I won’t cut myself, I just…wish something would happen so I could get away from my face.”
Deborah laughed through her own tears. “How can you get away from your face? Your face isn’t even chasing you, it goes in front!”
“Why do I have to be beautiful? Laban isn’t handsome. It isn’t fair!”
“Laban is very strong and good,” said Deborah.
Yes, that was the truth. A man didn’t have to be handsome; nobody cared what a man looked like as long as he was mighty in battle or commanded a huge household. Laban was heir to all that Bethuel owned, and so he would be beautiful enough to attract every ambitious girl for many miles around. He could have his choice of wives. Even if Father picked his first wife for him, Laban could take whatever additional wives and concubines he wanted.
But even if she were extraordinarily beautiful, which she doubted, the choice of husbands would not be Rebekah’s. Father would not force her to marry someone awful, but he would choose carefully for her, and whatever man be chose, that would be her husband for life. If she were ugly, then it would be ordinary men who sought her, men that she could easily persuade Father to turn away until one came who was decent and good that she could love. But being beautiful and the daughter of a prominent household meant that men of wealth and power would also be attracted to her, and Father would be tempted by the bridegifts they might offer, by the possibility of connection to a great house. He would not force her even so, but it would be harder to persuade him if he liked a man that she could not bring herself to love. It would hurt him, anger him, and Rebekah hated even to imagine such a thing. She had spent her life trying to keep her father happy. Whatever beauty she had would fight against her now, unless by some miracle the first great man who came to court her was also a man that she could love.
Not likely. She had seen plenty of rich and powerful men, and almost all of them were ugly of soul, greedy and grasping, bossy and mean-spirited. They smiled at Father because he was rich and powerful, but to their servants they were curt or surly or brutal, demanding always and praising never. Rebekah knew the truth—that as a man treated his servants, so would he treat his wives. Married to such a man as that, she might please him at first but soon he would grow tired of her, irritated at her ways, because such men were never pleased for long. She had seen the wives of men like that, shadowy women who lived in the small circle of their children and womenservants, finding such happiness as they could but always under the cloud of their husband’s disdain or even, now and then, outright hatred.
Father would never choose such a thing for me. But he would choose a man who seems to be cheerful and happy, and that is the face that all men show to him, so how can he know the truth? How can he understand what marriage to one of his friends would be like for a girl like me?
“Rebekah,” said Deborah. “You should pray to God to make you ugly.”
Rebekah laughed. “God doesn’t grant prayers like that.”
“Yes he does!” said Deborah. “Father said that God made me ugly.”
“You are not ugly, you silly goof. You’re beautiful.”
Deborah pursed her lips. “Everybody but you says I’m ugly, so who’s the silly goof?”
Rebekah sat up and hugged Deborah tightly. “They are, anyone who would say that,” she said.
“Are you happy now?” asked Deborah.
“Yes, I am. I’m happy.”
“Happy as can be?” Deborah could never be happy until she knew she had cheered Rebekah up.
“Happy as can be.” Rebekah showed her a big toothy grin—the grin that had always been the end of this childhood game.
“I’m so glad you’re my little girl,” said Deborah. “They would never have let me keep my little boy even if he hadn’t died. So I’m glad they gave me you to nurse instead.”
Rebekah had a sickening thought. When her mother died, and Rebekah needed a wetnurse to feed her as an infant, had they taken Deborah’s baby away from her so that Rebekah could have the infant boy’s place at Deborah’s breast? Or was it simply a coincidence that Deborah’s baby had died just when Rebekah needed a nurse?
If they took Deborah’s little boy, was he still alive, perhaps? Or had they…could they possibly have…killed him?
No, no, they served God, all the descendants of Terah, and that meant that they did not sacrifice human beings and regarded all children’s lives as sacred, even those born in bastardy. Those who served God did not take the lives of the innocent, certainly not for the mere convenience of the baby daughter of a powerful man.
Deborah’s baby must have died, that’s all. Perhaps God in his mercy took one child to himself so that Deborah could have the care of a little girl that she could stay with forever, instead of a little boy who would have been taken from her as soon as he was weaned.
“Poor Deborah,” said Rebekah. “I didn’t know you lost a baby. That must be the hardest thing in the world.”
“I didn’t lose him,” said Deborah. “I took very good care of him. I always knew where he was and whenever he cried I fed him. God wanted him, that’s all. Father didn’t want my baby around the camp, he got angry whenever he saw me with him, so God took my little boy to his own house where he could love him all the time.”
“Who told you that?” asked Rebekah. Whoever it was had been very kind to Deborah, to tell her a story so filled with comfort.
“Nobody had to tell me, silly,” said Deborah. “That’s just the way God is. Everybody knows that.”
“God doesn’t always do nice things,” said Rebekah. She felt wretched immediately for saying so, and not just because Deborah looked so dismayed.
“God does only good things,” Deborah insisted.
Although she already felt bad about it, Rebekah was in a defiant mood and refused to back down. “Not to me. It wasn’t nice to make me beautiful.”
“He gave you a beautiful face because you have a beautiful soul,” said Deborah. “I heard Uncle Bethuel say so.”
Rebekah realized at once what this had to mean to Deborah. Since she had been told God made her ugly, wouldn’t that imply to her that it was because she had an ugly soul? It made Rebekah angry, to realize that Deborah had lived all her life with the sort of things being said right to her face that Belbai had written about Rebekah. Deborah should not have to believe such things.
“I’d rather be good than beautiful,” said Rebekah, “and you are good.”
“You’re good and beautiful.”
“I’m not either one,” said Rebekah. “I’m not really beautiful, either, because I’ll get old just like everybody else and if I get married I’ll have babies and get fat and nobody will think I’m beautiful then. So beautiful is not something I am, it’s just something I have to put up with for now.”
Deborah reached out and touched her face, “You’re my pretty girl,” she said. “Always and always.”
“I don’t mind being your pretty girl. I just don’t want some man to see me and think of me as his pretty girl. I don’t want someone else to get angry and get sent away like Belbai.”
“Then always stay in this tent with me!”
“If only I could.”
“Just like during a storm, when the sand is blowing everywhere, you stay in here with me and nobody has to cry.”
One of Rebekah’s favorite memories was the first big sandstorm she remembered. It had begun terribly, with everyone running around the camp in a panic, tying things down, getting animals into the shelter of caves and tents. A dozen sheep crowded into the tent with Rebekah and Deborah, but from that moment on the memory was a good one, of Deborah singing louder and louder to outshout the wind outside, the feel of her arms around Rebekah triumphing over the horrible sound of a million grains of sand pelting against the tent walls. When the storm was over it took two hours for the men to dig out their tent entrance, but through it all Rebekah had never been afraid because Deborah had her arms around her and kept singing songs and saying, “God knows where you are, God knows where you are.”
Maybe that was an exceptionally strong sandstorm, or maybe she was simply old enough not to have to hide in a tent, but there had been no more storms that drove her inside. Nowadays Rebekah just put on her veil, tied it at her neck, and helped the others get the animals to shelter and staked out long cloths over the beans and vegetables. The veil kept the sand out of her eyes without keeping her from seeing what she was doing, until the job was done and she could go inside a tent with the others.
She thought of all the women wearing veils during a windstorm and how no one could tell who was who until the veils came off. Women in veils were not beautiful or ugly. They were simply invisible, indistinguishable.
O God, she prayed at once, Is this what I should do? Thou gavest me the burden of prettiness, but may I not bear that burden in privacy by wearing a veil?
She wasn’t sure what kind of answer God would give. At least she got no warning not to do it, and in moments she had Deborah helping her search for her veil.
“Is there a storm coming?” asked Deborah.
“I’m keeping storms away,” said Rebekah. And now she had the veil in her hands, then over her head and tied at her neck. “Look, am I pretty?”
“Silly, of course you are,” said Deborah.
“I mean, can anybody see whether I’m pretty?”
“Take off the veil so I can see.”
“I mean with the veil on.”
Deborah was a little impatient with her for not knowing. “Nobody can see anything with a veil on, of course.”
“That’s how I like it,” said Rebekah. “I’m going to wear this always, whenever I’m out of my tent. So you won’t have to fix my hair up anymore, because no one will ever see it.”
Deborah burst into tears. “Why won’t you let me fix your hair?”
“Of course you can,” said Rebekah. “You just don’t have to.”
“But I want to.”
“Then you will,” said Rebekah. “Don’t you fret”
“Take your veil off, then, so I can fix it.”
“No, I’m going to wear this veil all the time, so get used to it.”
“It’s time to do your hair,” said Deborah. “Don’t be a brat.”
So Rebekah took off the veil.
“Doesn’t that feel better? Don’t wear that silly veil.”
“I will,” said Rebekah. “Because that’s what God wants me to do.”
“Did he tell you?”
“He didn’t tell me not to,” said Rebekah.
Deborah thought about this as she ran a brush through Rebekah’s hair. “You mean if God doesn’t tell me not to fly, I can fly?”
“No, but I prayed and…never mind, Deborah. I’m going to wear the veil until I lift it for my husband.”
“I hate wearing veils. They’re heavy and they make me sweat.”
“Me too,” said Rebekah. “But I’d rather sweat than show my face.”
“What else isn’t God telling you not to do so you can go ahead and do it?”
Rebekah looked at her sharply, sure that this had to be ironic. But it was Deborah saying it, so there was no irony in it.
“I don’t know,” said Rebekah.
With her mind on God, as Deborah kept on brushing, Rebekah began to pray silently, the words forming on her lips but making no sound. “Let me not marry a man who wants me just because I’m beautiful,” she prayed. “Let me live my life with a man who cares nothing for beauty, but who serves tee. Like Sarai, the princess from the ancient lineage of Ur, who married Abram, the desert priest. Abram loved her through all the years that she was barren. Loved her even when she was old and had lost all her beauty. Let me be loved like that, by a man who will not replace me with concubines when I’m old and ugly. Let me be loved by a man who loves God more than me.”
“So?” asked Deborah, when she was done.
“What?” asked Rebekah.
“You talked to God, what did he say?”
“I don’t know.”
“What did you say to him?”
“I said, If I am to have a husband, let him be a man like Abraham. And since there’s nobody much around here, if I’m going to have a husband like Abraham, God will have to bring him to me, however far the journey is.”
Copyright © 2001 by Orson Scott Card This book was originally published in 2001 by Shadow Mountain.