“You’re grandmother had the sight, Zondur,” my father often told me.
My father, Parag, was the largest landowner of the tribe of Gad. We owned two hills-worth of land east of the Jordan, on the southern hills of Gilead, outside the city of Yaazer.
The year I turned twelve Joshua died. My father did not mourn him.
Father reminisced most heavily in the spring, when we sheared the flock. The musky smell of their sweaty wool resurfaced his memory. The fluffy wool kept the flock warm throughout our sharp winters. Now it was our turn to benefit from the valuable wool.
“It made her bitter, always knowing, always being right, never able to do anything about it,” father said half to himself, half to me. “The same day…hand of a loved one,” he murmured under his breath. He held the thick wool between his fingers and ran the sharp knife close to the skin without hurting the sheep.
Father had unusually long grey hair, tied at the back of his neck. An old scar dominated the right side of his face, missing his eye and running down to his clean-shaven granite chin. Gold rings adorned his beefy hands. I twirled a knife just to keep my little hands busy.
I never knew my father’s mother or father. All I knew was that they died shortly after Joshua’s conquest of Canaan. The rest of the story was a mystery. No one talked to me about it.
Every spring my father entered a dream-like trance as he sheared the sheep. An incredible array of emotions crossed his face: sadness, anger, hate, sorrow, exultation and sadness again.
“How did they die?” I asked the year the first hairs appeared on my chin.
“When you’re older,” he answered.
That spring I went from watching the shearing to doing the shearing. I took our large flock for longer and longer treks through our tribal territory. Three guard dogs accompanied me, barking happily. Our tribe of Gad had one of the largest portions of land from amongst the Israelite confederacy.
“I’m older now, Father,” I said the following spring. “What happened to your parents? What was your mother so painfully right about?”
My father looked at me as if noticing me for the first time.
“I can’t, Zondur,” he looked at me sadly, “it’s too painful. Maybe next year.”
The next year dewy hair covered my chin and my voice got deeper.
“Father,” I stood up straight and faced him. “Why do you keep the death of your parents such a secret? None of our neighbors say anything about it. They seem afraid of you. Who should I ask if you won’t tell me?”
Father walked quietly to the flock with the shearing knife in his hand. He sat down heavily on the ground next to a large white sheep. I mimicked his motions and sat by a smaller sheep next to him.
“Better you should hear it from me, Zondur, than from someone else,” he concluded.
He started to shear the sheep and did not notice the blood he accidentally gouged. It stained the white wool.
“I grew up without my father. He went with Joshua and the other tribes to conquer Canaan. He left mother and me here to tend the enormous flock he had acquired on our side of the Jordan. ‘It’s a mistake,’ mother would repeat. ‘Why did Moses agree?’ she said to herself. ‘We should have crossed the Jordan with the rest of Israel. This separation will only lead to tragedy.’
‘Why, Mama?’ I asked. ‘Greed, Parag,’ was her answer. ‘Who needs such a flock when there is no husband? How can I raise you alone? We are widows with living husbands.’
‘You’re not alone, Mama,’ I said.
‘You’re sweet, Parag,’ she grabbed my seven-year old chubby chin, ‘but I need my husband. Years and years with no word, no message. We hear of their conquests. What do I care that the walls of Jericho tumbled? Joshua stops the sun, but does he send my husband back? Your father said he is doing this for us, but he travels throughout Canaan for years on end.’
Then she sighed. ‘But Moses had no other choice. Reuven and Gad, our impetuous, greedy tribes would have left the rest of Israel altogether. Would it have been so bad to cross the Jordan? To remain with the rest of the tribes? I would have settled for less. I didn’t need such an ambitious husband. Will we enjoy this wealth?’
‘But Mama, you said father was on an important mission. To conquer Canaan is God’s will.’
‘Yes, but we should have gone along, Parag. The tribal leaders, your father amongst them, demanded of Moses to give them this land and not take their flocks or families across the Jordan. Moses berated them. Moses warned that if they didn’t cross, if they weakened the heart of Israel, God would destroy us all. They made a pact with Moses. The men would cross the Jordan and fight with the rest of Israel until Canaan was conquered. The flocks, the women and the children would stay behind.’
Years passed. Mother claimed to have visions. ‘We will be the first to be exiled,’ she used to say. She became bitterer every year. I became wilder. She complained about fate and future. I disappeared for days at a time.
I joined other wild teens. We let our hair grow long. No fathers and overwhelmed mothers was the perfect formula for disaster.
We went out in packs. At first it was to stop and capture Geshurite thieves. We got good at it. We enjoyed it. We hunted them. We captured them. We tortured them. We even killed the nastier ones. Eventually we hunted them for fun.
Mother became frantic and repeated her vision of ‘on the same day… by the hand of a loved one.’ She would look around like a startled animal and then weep. After a few minutes she went back to tending the sheep, as if nothing happened. She seemed petrified that she would suddenly drop dead, without any warning. I didn’t care. I imagined myself an Israelite soldier, killing Canaanites and looked forward to the next outing with my friends.
It was on such an outing that it happened. Mother was alone, near our house, returning the sheep to their pens as the sun set on that balmy spring evening. Four men approached carrying a makeshift bier. Our three dogs barked loudly. Her heart filled with dread as she saw them in the distance.
Then she recognized Uncle Ze’ev, my father’s older brother. His three sons were with him carrying the body. That left only one possibility as to the identity of the body. She fell on her knees and wailed as the body approached.
Fresh tears poured down the dirty faces of Ze’ev and his sons. Clean swords hung from their hips. Uncle Ze’ev said, ‘So close. We were so close. After seven years of battle in Canaan and not a scratch, he was killed less than a mile from home. Less than an hour ago.’ A large red stain covered her husband’s chest.
‘On the same day,’ Mama finally said and collapsed to the ground, dead, of a broken heart.
That day haunts me forever.”
Father noticed the bloody sheep in his arms. His hands were covered in crimson down to his elbows. He dropped the knife and wiped his hands on the remaining white wool of the docilely sighing sheep.
“Who killed your father?” I asked ignoring the sheep and my father’s grief.
“It is too painful. I cannot go on.”
“Please, Father. You have told me this much. I must know the whole story.”
“I will tell you, Zondur,” he looked at me through moist eyes. “I will tell you so you do not make the mistakes I made, or that my father made. Of what use is wealth if you cannot enjoy it? Of what value is family if you cannot be with it?
That day. That horrible, fateful day, I had gone on an outing as was our custom. Eager to fight, eager for blood. Five weary-looking warriors approached. We thought they were Geshurites.
There were nine of us, young and rested and hungry for battle. There were only five of them, tired, unworried, walking and talking and not paying attention to their surroundings.
‘I’ll take the big one,’ I said hidden with the others in a large oak tree. ‘On my signal’ I whispered as they walked on the path underneath our position.
Like a cascade of rocks we fell on them and knocked them to the ground. The big one was surprisingly quick for his age and sliced at my face with a short knife. He looked me in the eyes and he suddenly stopped. I was troubled by a hint of recognition. As I drew my sword, he yelled: ‘Stop! These are our children! Our children!’
I didn’t understand what he was talking about. As I ran him through with my sword, I finally remembered the face, so similar to my own. This is my Father.
Everyone else stopped fighting. I pulled my sword out of his chest. He clutched me to his body as he fell backwards to the ground. I eased him down.
‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I didn’t realize. Father!’ I cried.
Uncle Ze’ev pushed me aside and tried to stop father’s bleeding.
‘It is too deep,’ Ze’ev said.
‘Let me talk to my son, Ze’ev,’ father said as blood dripped from his mouth. I had penetrated his lung.
‘Parag, my boy,’ he said tenderly. ‘You have grown into a man. I’m sorry I was away so long. We rushed home as soon as Joshua released us. We were to be the first soldiers to return to Gad.’
‘Don’t speak father,’ I cried, ‘Save your strength.’
‘I have just a few moments left, Parag. I’m happy I lived to see you at least. How are the sheep? How is the flock I left?’
‘The flock has grown and is doing very well. Mama has been working hard tending them,’ I said.
‘That is good about the flock. That is what we worked for, what we fought for. Remember that, Parag.’
‘Yes father, but mother is not well. She missed you terribly.’
‘Tell her I’m sorry. Tell her I’m sorry it didn’t work out like I hoped. Don’t blame yourself son. It was an accident. Tend the sheep. Grow strong and wealthy.’
And then he died.
I ran. I ran as far as my legs would take me. I don’t know where I went. I found myself next to a river and collapsed by the water, panting, letting the stream wash over my head. I was ashamed to go home. I slept that night in the forest. I returned to my home in the morning. There were two graves side by side. I finally understood what Mama had been muttering all those years: ‘we will die on the same day, killed by the hand of a loved one.’
In one day I had made myself an orphan.
My uncle Ze’ev asked me to move in with them, but I refused. I tended the sheep. I worked hard. I made sure our wealth would grow, that my parents’ sacrifice would not be in vain. But I never forgot. I never forgot my guilt. I never forgot the bitterness of my mother and the ambition of my father. That is what I’m continuing. That is what you will hopefully continue, Zondur.”
My mouth hung open as my father finished his story. I could not believe it. But now it explained so much. It explained why he did not mourn Joshua’s death. It explained his drive. His ambition. During the telling of his story the silent sheep in his arms had bled to death.
“How sad,” Father looked down at the sheep. His hands were stained yet again.
“Don’t worry, father,” I said twirling my knife and gritting my teeth. “I will work hard too. Your parents’ sacrifice was not in vain. This one,” I pointed to the dead sheep, “we can feed to the dogs.”
Parag smiled. For the first time I noticed the reddening of his scar on his smooth chin.
* * * * * *
Notes: Based on a midrash of which I have vague recollections. It recounts how the soldiers of Gad and Reuven returned from Canaan and fought their unrecognized long-haired sons until someone figured things out. I don’t recall the source or further details. If someone out there does, please let me know.
“And this land we took in possession at that time; from Aroer, which is by the valley of Arnon, and half the hill-country of Gilead, and the cities thereof, gave I unto the Reubenites and to the Gadites.” Moses to the Children of Israel, Deuteronomy 3:12