a word to the wise

Did I always hate my sister Rachel? Looking back, I don’t think I did. But I hate her now, God forgive me. I don’t think I’ve ever hated anyone as much as I hate her. Not even my father.

My name is Leah, and I’m the first-born daughter of Laban, the Syrian. I suppose you’ve heard of him? He owned a few acres, kept a few sheep and thought he was God Almighty. I was just a possession as far as he was concerned, and so was Rachel. He never loved us. The only thing that brought a smile to his thin-lipped, rather cruel-looking mouth was the sight of gold pieces. He wasn’t a nice man, as I expect you’ve gathered. 

I don’t intend to write a lot, so I’ll tell you at once that the trouble between Rachel and I really began when our cousin Jacob, whom we had never clapped eyes on before, turned up at our house in Haran and asked my father for work. He had been involved in some scrape or other back home, which was more than four hundred miles away, and had been sent to his uncle for a while to get him out of the way until it hopefully blew over. He was so handsome, his face clean shaven and not too tanned, his hair black and his eyes dark, and I wanted him immediately. As for Rachel herself, well, I saw her push her breasts forward in the way she always does in the presence of a handsome man. She liked him, yes, but I don’t believe she set her heart upon him until she perceived that I was taken with him. That’s always been the way of it, now I recall, whether it be a man, a robe or a bracelet at stake. 

Jacob desired Rachel before you could snap your fingers, and could think of nought else but lying with her, may the plague disfigure the woman. My father promised Jacob faithfully that he could have Rachel as his wife. When the wedding day came the old devil hustled my sister out of sight and told me that it was I who was to marry Jacob. Was he, Laban, going to incur censure by flouting the tradition that an older daughter should be married first? No!

Was I worried about this switch from one bride to another? Well, what do you think? I donned Rachel’s bridal clothes with alacrity, thankful for the heavy veil that concealed my face very effectively. 

A bride’s complete silence on her wedding night is a tradition, of course, and this too assisted me in concealing my identity. As I lay in the shadows awaiting Jacob, I caught one glimpse of his beautiful, totally naked body in the poor light from the oil lamp. His member was sticking out stiffly and proudly from plentiful black hair and I was suddenly as wet as a drab who couples with her man behind a hedge. He extinguished the light and I heard him approaching the bed. As he took me and I found myself meeting each lingering thrust he made, I was tortured in the midst of my pleasure by the thought that this might be the only time he entered me willingly, for what would be his reaction the next day? 

Now, I’m pleased to say, I know better than to give way to such a disgusting display of carnal lust. These days, I concentrate upon baking a good loaf, keeping a clean back yard and attending prayer meetings regularly. In fact, having produced my six boys, Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar and Zebulun, and my daughter Dinah, I made it clear to Jacob that I was no longer interested in the sordid side of married life. It is, after all, a sin, and excusable only because children result from it. Jacob told me - can you believe it? - that I had betrayed our relationship and tossed it aside without a second thought! Surely our marriage is the purer for the absence of such indulgence? No, I feel in my bones that I’m not at fault. If the gulf between us has widened, the blame belongs at the door of that sister of mine. Damn her whore’s tricks! Yes, I know you want to know about the day after my wedding. I’m coming to that. I was only making my position clear! 

Well, when the morning light came Jacob looked at me as if I were a piece of mule dung. He cursed me, cursed my father, and stormed off in search of the latter. I lay there, crushed and quite unable to stir myself, my exhilaration of the night before utterly dissipated. Would Jacob abandon me and disappear into the sunset before we had been married for a full day? If he did, I thought, it would be worse than if I had never wed him at all. 

But Jacob stayed, and at the end of my bridal week I found out why. My father, may Satan pick his bones, had offered his permission for Jacob to take Rachel to wife as well. In exchange, Jacob was to work like a donkey on the land, and tend those wretched sheep, for no payment. Jacob, blinded by the prospect of conjugal delights with Rachel to all else, had foolishly accepted the proposition. 

This second marriage was, I discovered, imminent, and in fact took place exactly two weeks after mine. I was compelled to attend. My false smile, which I’m sure looked ghastly, was nailed firmly to the mast. I had lost my husband to my sister, who was now my successful rival as a wife, for I knew very well that it was she whom Jacob would love and cherish. To make it even worse, she looked so beautiful on her wedding day, her black hair glossy and shining, her expressive eyes so appealing. God rot her. 

As it turned out, I did have one important advantage over that sly-eyed strumpet, where the bearing of children was concerned, for Rachel was seemingly barren, which made her deeply jealous of my fertility. 

‘You begin to look old, sister, and your body is thickening,’ she said to me once. 

I looked at her, my face full of concern. ‘I mind not your words, Rachel,’ I told her gently, resisting a wild urge to lay my hands on her. ‘Rather, you have my pity, and my prayers that your barren womb may yet bear fruit.’ 

She stalked away, and later I heard her lashing Jacob with that vicious tongue of hers, telling him that I had insulted her and urging him to take me to task. But he said nothing to me, then or ever. I was the mother of his four sons, after all, and was carrying again. Yet I know I meant nothing to him, not in the way she did. 

At one time, perhaps because he had no real desire for me and because Rachel was berating him more than usual in her frustration over not bearing a child, Jacob lay with first one whore, and then another, who both bore him sons. I didn’t mind (well, yes, all right, I did really), especially when I saw Rachel’s reaction. Jacob introduced the whores into our household, calling them maids, but their real role was obvious. They were sluts through and through, anyone could see that. I certainly knew their sort well enough. They would have opened their bedcovers to a monkey if the creature had had a coin or two about it. 

Rachel and I both dutifully agreed, eventually, to care for the whores’ offspring. Jacob now had ten sons by three women, but still none by Rachel. 

Yet she remained the only one he truly loved. 

Rachel. Always Rachel. 

My eyes are getting tired.They are rather weak and tend to do so easily. But perhaps you already know that? Is it one of the things about me that are recorded in this Bible the Doctor spoke of? Oh, I’m forgetting that I haven’t mentioned the Doctor yet. Never mind. Soon he will make his appearance in my story. But I must persevere with the writing. The Doctor assured me that certain events I shall cover here will not appear in the official version, and I want to get them down, and unburden myself. Will my manuscript survive, though? That’s a question I shall never know the answer to. 

The years have gone by, and my father has long since gone to his reward, whatever that may be. We are now making our way to Bethel, covering a few miles a day, in the company of a large group, including a guide who knows the best directions, and of course where water is to be found. In order to avoid the debilitating heat as much as possible, the greater part of our travelling is done at night, with the guide navigating with the aid of the stars. 

It was during this journey, just a few days ago, that I made first a discovery, and then, following a certain event that occurred which sent my fury almost out of control, a bold plan to resolve the exasperating situation with my infuriating sister once and for all. 

Rachel still hoped for children, and I had continued to pray that she should be denied them. She had begun, I discovered by way of maids’ gossip, to take a concoction prepared from the roots of mandrake plants as a fertility draught. I laughed scornfully at this news and thought no more of it. Not then. 


Two days later, just as the sun was dropping below the horizon and we had begun to move again, some merchants travelling in the opposite direction to our group warned us that a large band of thieves roamed nearby. The merchants had only narrowly succeeded in evading them. Our company had proceeded only another mile before we saw, in the distance, a contingent of riders. Jacob was foremost in helping to organise us all to resist an attack as best we could. In the event, the robbers, if it was they whom we had seen, passed on without coming very close to us at all. I breathed a sigh of relief and offered up a prayer of thanks. Then I saw her, at the very rear of the company, where Jacob had placed her for safety. Yet my children and I were, if not at the very front, then certainly nowhere near the back. I watched as Jacob approached her and put an arm around her. 

Suddenly her eye caught mine, and she smiled. Yes, the bitch couldn’t resist it. She tilted her face towards him for his kiss. 

Am I a bitch, too? Yes, a bitter, jealous, resentful, unwanted one. You would have been, too, I assure you. 

Soon we were under way again. Gradually, my anger, which had never before burned quite so fiercely, subsided to some extent, and a new determination rose up in me, which soon hardened into absolute resolve. 

We were encamped once more, with the sun beating down upon our tents, and I, in spite of the heat, had walked quite a way from the group, scouring the ground in pursuit of my resolution, when, glancing up, I saw it. 

At first I was able to see right through the box, then it became solid. It was tall, with a strange sort of lamp on the top of it, and stood in the midst of a few withered bushes. A narrow door opened and three people came out. The old man had long, flowing silver locks and a sharp stare, which I found a little unnerving as he walked the few paces across the dusty ground to where I stood. The boy had curly, red-gold hair and well-cut features, and will one day be quite a good-looking young man, if I’m any judge. He reminded me a bit of my son Zebulun. The girl was small and dark, and most unsuitably and outlandishly garbed. Why, her legs were quite bare! A measure of maidenly modesty would, I thought, give her a much better chance of securing in due course a husband of decent character. Mind you, the raiment of the old man and the boy, though not immodest, was some of the most extraordinary I have ever seen as well. 

Yes, I know. You want me to get on with the actual tale. But just have patience, will you? All good storytellers put in some description and a modicum of comment, don’t they? I’m only doing my best to make it more interesting. I’d like to see you do better, if you suffered as I do with my eyes! 

Where was I? Ah, yes… 

‘My good woman, would you be kind enough to enlighten us as to our exact whereabouts, hmm?’ 

The old man’s countenance had undergone a complete transformation. His eyes were kind now, and he was smiling in an engaging manner. He could have charmed birds from a tree. 

‘You are lost?’ It was obvious that they were, of course, but their manner of arrival had been unusual, to say the least, and I thought a question from me might encourage him to expand upon it. 

I was mistaken. ‘I’m afraid so, my dear.’ His smile had waned a little. 

I shrugged, and then enlightened him to the best of my own knowledge. ‘I am Leah,’ I added, thinking that I might as well introduce myself. 

‘Leah?’ Was that recognition of my name I detected in his voice? I was all but certain that it was. 

‘I am wife to Jacob,’ I told him, watching him closely. But he had recovered himself, and waved towards his two companions. ‘My grandchildren, John and Gillian,’ he explained. 

‘A fine boy, and a pretty girl,’ I responded politely. 

The old fellow’s eyes were on the plants I held in one hand. ‘Mandrake,’ I informed him, moving the assortment behind my back and thus out of his sight. ‘I would brew a fertility potion as a gift for my barren sister. I was always mightily better at preparing herbs and suchlike than she is.’ 

‘A kind thought, indeed.’ 

Was that a touch of sarcasm there? As I wondered exactly what this old sage could possibly know about my sister and I, he beamed at me. ‘Might I prevail upon you to offer us the merest refreshment?’ he enquired. ‘I wouldn’t presume to ask, except that my grandchildren and I are already somewhat parched.’ 

They stared at him, as if surprised, I thought. But I couldn’t refuse, and anyway my curiosity was quite aroused. 

‘The sun will soon bake such pale skin as theirs and yours. Come, we shall hasten to my tent.’ 

‘My dear lady, you are consideration itself.’ 

Jacob was with Rachel (naturally), and my children were playing somewhere, so just the four of us shared freshly baked bread and a drop of the wine I make myself (I’m rather pleased with the last batch, incidentally - a goblet or two and nothing matters much to you any more). I watered the wine down for the two children. At one stage I made a point of excusing myself to fetch something or other, then stood slightly to one side of the tent entrance and listened intently. They didn’t talk very loudly for most of the time I was absent; in fact I’m fairly sure that the old man told the children to lower their voices quite early on. A wily old bird, the Doctor. Oh yes, indeed. I caught something about Kleptons, whatever they are, and some mention of a queen who was dominated by her favourites. A little later, the girl did exclaim once: ‘I can hardly believe she’s really a relative of Jesus, Grandfather!’ This was in a tone so awestruck that I wondered who this Jesus could possibly be. I had certainly never heard of anyone of that name, well known or otherwise. Was the child referring to me as being related to this person? Perhaps, or perhaps not. It was only an isolated remark I had heard, after all. But there had been something in the way she had said it… 

Consumed even more by curiosity now, I picked up a pot I had left outside the tent and went back inside. I was followed in almost straight away by my sons Issachar and Zebulun, already two strapping young lads, and I immediately suggested that they take the Doctor’s grandchildren off with them to play a game. When the four had gone I glanced at the Doctor, to find him already regarding me with a shrewd look that made me feel distinctly uncomfortable. 

‘I suppose you’ll want to begin preparing that potion for your sister, hmm? Don’t let me delay you any further, my dear. Indeed, I shall help you with it. It’s the very least I can do in return for your hospitality. I should tell you that I, too, have some knowledge of herbs and plants, and their use in beneficial - and other - concoctions. My parsnip elixir was much praised once upon a time. Oh, yes, I assure you.’ 

‘Oh, I couldn’t possibly allow a guest to undertake, or share, such a task,’ I told him hastily. 

‘Nonsense, my good woman. Nonsense.’ Even as he spoke, he was sifting through the plants, mandrake and others, which I had earlier laid inconspicuously to one side. I had been certain that he hadn’t seen me place them there. He held one of them up and gazed at it keenly. ‘Ah, now that is a most unusual ingredient. Most unusual. Are you working to a recipe of your own devising?’ 

I looked at him directly. ‘Nothing is too much trouble when your sister is as dear to you as Rachel is to me,’ I replied, ambiguously. 

‘I’m sure that’s very true.’ His smile was unwavering. 

‘Who are you?’ I demanded. ‘As I recall, you introduced your grandchildren, but not yourself.’ 

‘I do believe you’re right.’