Wineskins Archive

February 12, 2014

Book Excerpts: “Jabez: A Novel” (Jan-Feb 2002)

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by Thom Lemmons
January-February 2002

Chapter 1

The first thing I remember was my mother’s crying. Sometimes I think she fed me on her tears instead of her breast milk. Even then, long before she told me the story of my beginning, I think I tried to guess it in her eyes. A child sees many things that he cannot name.

And then, when I was old enough, I heard it in the taunts of the other boys in the village. “Hey, Pain-boy, it hurts me just to look at you.” I was small for my age and an easy target for bullies. They tripped me and hit me and rolled me in the dirt. They told me they were making me match my name. They said it with a dirty laugh and an upturned lip. My brothers, especially, used my name that way. Like a switch on my backside or a lump of dung tossed at my feet.

I liked it when the Amalekites came through. They squatted on their mats in the square by the well with their camels tethered behind them. On the ground they spread their trinkets, their packets of spices, their god-totems and the shiny cloth woven with strange designs. I loved wandering among them, listening to the unfamiliar lilt of their words. When I said my name to the Amalekites, it was just a name. On their foreign tongues, “Jabez” meant me – nothing more. Jabez was the boy who talked to them, who wanted to know the names for things in their own language. He was not the boy with no father, the one who fit nowhere.

I was always sad when the Amalekites left. I longed to follow them, my longing as dry and hovering as the dust kicked up by their camels. I wanted to be away from the taunts, the mocking looks. Away from the despite of my brothers. And away from my mother’s silent, dark weeping.

How does a boy know when he is the cause of pain? How can he give words to himself that he doesn’t have? How can he understand why his presence is a wrongness, a hurt? I don’t know. But so often when I heard my name in the mouth of someone who knew me, the wrongness slapped at me. My name was better to me when it came from the lips of strangers.

There was an old woman, Gedilah, who lived in our village. She wandered about Beth-Zur, talking as if someone was with her, but most always there was no one there. She would sit down beside my mother when she was grinding grain. She would talk to her. No one else in Beth-Zur would sit down and talk to my mother.

Sometimes I would see Gedilah on her way to the well, walking past our plot of scraggly olive trees. Sometimes, when I was pulling weeds from our chickpea patch beside the road, she would stop and settle her old, dry haunch atop the stone wall with a grunt. The bent woman would start talking to me. I don’t know why.

Gedilah would talk like someone continuing a conversation she had started some other time. She had a few teeth left in the back of her mouth, but none in front. Her leathery lips flapped around the words and made it hard for me to understand her. As she spoke, she stared off at the horizon, at the straw-colored hills, creased with faint green, that surrounded Beth-Zur. Gedilah told me stories, but she never looked at me.

I knew of no one in the village older than this woman. She talked about the days of her mother, when our people had wandered through the desert, a time before we came to live in the country between the Salt Sea and the Great Sea. A god had followed our people through the desert, she said, or maybe she said the god led them. Why this god took such an interest, she did not explain. She never even said the god’s name. Once, when I asked her, she said the god had no name. Or maybe her mother had told her, but she had forgotten it. At night it was a fire god, and by day it was a dust god, a towering whirlwind, she claimed.

“What good is a god with no name?” I asked her one time. “How can you talk to it? How can you ask it for things?” Everybody in the village had a few gods they kept in a safe, dark corner of the house. They were of wood or clay or stone. People rubbed them with oil and whispered in their ears and decorated them with feathers or bits of cloth or daubs of paint. My oldest brother had one that he carried out to the olive trees just before the winter rains each year; it was a sitting woman with heavy breasts. To me it looked like a small, fat water cup, but he said it was the Great Lady of Moab and that her womb was the earth. He kept the basin in her lap full of oil, and sometimes he mixed in the blood of a pigeon or a rock badger. He said she would protect our olive trees and make them bear. From the look of our trees most years, I sometimes wondered why he didn’t try a different god.

But the desert god, the woman said, had no name and no image. “What would a desert god need with an image?” she said. “He blows with the wind; he shimmers in the heat.He is That’s all I can say.”

Maybe that was why for so long I never heard anyone but the old woman talk about this god. What did we need with a desert god? We weren’t wanderers anymore. We had settled down. We had groves and vineyards and fields. We had flocks. We needed gods for seed and bearing, not for roaming.

Still, something in me ached for roaming. At night in the summers, when the heat drove us to the housetop, to peel off all but the most needful clothing and lie limp as rags hoping for a breeze, I lay on my back and stared up at the stars. They hovered close, glittered like tears in the eyes of a hurt child. I tried to imagine their names, tried to call out to them. I wanted to know what they knew, look on all the lands they could see. I lay still and listened. Sometimes, I thought I could hear – something. Maybe it was the heat singing in my head. It could have been no more than the shrilling of my own blood. But it could have been something else.

My mother was neither ugly nor beautiful, though I suppose she had once been pleasing enough to look at. She was of normal size, but in my memory she is always small. Even as a child, I felt a need to be careful with her, the way you have to be careful with babies or sick people. Since I was the youngest in the household, I was the one at her beck and call. I was her errand runner, her helper. I fetched and held and stirred and carried for her. As best I can bring to mind, she struck me but a single time in all my life, and I guess I deserved that one blow. She almost never spoke harshly to me. But neither do I remember her smiling at me or singing to me. I think I would have endured a beating every day if it would have bought me her smile.

Gedilah’s tiny little hut was not far from our house. Sometimes she would come and help my mother with the spinning or the churning. Sometimes my mother would send me to her with a little bit of meal or some oil in a small pouch. Gedilah and my mother would speak of times before I was born. Once I heard Gedilah telling my mother, “If he had lived, this child would not.” My mother motioned at me with her eyes, and Gedilah said no more. She patted my head when she left.

My brothers paid my mother no mind. As long as there was something in the stew pot and their sandal straps got mended, they kept to themselves. I think they would have forgotten her if they could. But she was there, a constant reminder. And as if that weren’t enough, I was there too. Mostly, they looked away.

I noticed, even as a child, that when I went with her to the well, the other women kept their faces turned from her. Their talk melted away when we came near, then resumed again as we passed. The other women would help each other settle their pitchers and urns on their heads. My mother had only me.

Sometimes I wanted to ignore her too. Sometimes the silence that surrounded her made me feel ashamed or sad or wrong. But now I know why I could not treat her as the others did; it was because she, at least, saw me. Even if she looked at me with eyes full of tears, my mother would not turn away her face the way everyone else did. Even if the most accustomed language between the two of us was silence, that was better than scorn. A sparse diet for one so hungry, but better than nothing.

Often, in the evening, she would go alone into the hills. A few times I followed, at a distance. When the sun was touching the rim of the world, she would walk out in the orange light, down the road until she turned aside at the draw that led to the pastures of Tubal and his sons. She would follow the ravine’s crooked climb into the hills, picking her way among the rocks. Now and then, she would have to stop and free her garments from the grasp of a thorn bush or the spines of the briars that clung to the dry cracks between the boulders. She would climb until she came out on the breast of the Hill of Zur. She would go to the top and stare toward the west.

For a long time she would stand there, as still and straight as a pole, until the sun had dropped below the edge of the earth and the purpling night began to drift across from the east. I saw her lips move, though I was never close enough to hear any sound. Sometimes, I think, her eyes would be closed. And then, after a while, whatever secret thing pulled her there told her the time was long enough, and she turned to go the same way she had come. I would scamper out of sight to reach home before her.

I don’t think anyone but me ever saw my mother perform her lonely, silent ritual. Most likely, no one else cared enough to notice. When she came back, I tried to read her face when she wasn’t looking. I tried to see if her time on the hilltop had made any difference. But I could never see any change in her.

I had a certain dream of my mother that came to me several times as a boy. In my dream, I am walking through the doorway of our house. I am carrying something – a jar of oil, a sack of flour, I don’t know – and I’m bringing it to her. When I come in, my mother is sitting on her mat, and black things are flying all around her head. At first I think they are birds, but when I look closer I see that they have many legs and jointed bodies, like insects. Their flying makes a clicking noise, like dry bones rattling together. I try to cry out, but no sound will come from my mouth.

She is looking at me and holding out her arms, but I cannot go to her because I know that she will clasp me to her and the black things will have me, too. I drop whatever it is I carried into the house and run outside, but instead of the street of our town I am running up a mountain of sand, the kind I have since seen in the wastes of the Arabah. I had never known such a sight as a boy, but that is the way of dreams. I am running up the side of the sand mountain, but with each step the loose sand slides under my feet. I cannot make any headway. When I am tired from trying to run in the sand and my breath feels hot in my throat, I stop and turn around. There is my mother, standing at the base of the sand mountain, still holding out her arms to me. The black flying things are gone now, but I am afraid they will come back. I want to go to her but I am afraid. I sit down in the sand and weep.

Each time I woke from this dream, I felt a terrible sadness, like a heavy bundle tied to my chest. Sometimes, in the dark, I would hold my breath and listen for the clicking sound. If I had known the name of a god of dreams, I would have asked it to take this dream away and never let it come back. I would have given it oil and some choice bit of meat. But I didn’t know the name of a god for dreaming.Wineskins Magazine

Thom Lemmons

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