The fabric of the tent moves as if its a veil pulled across a face, in and out with the breath of wind. She watches it, prone among red blankets. They’re musty with her sweat, and smell like the goats that the wool was sheared from. In the center of her body, there is pain. A full, struggling pain. She cries, but there’s no one to see her, no one to complain to. Isaac is out by the cook fire. She can hear his voice as he talks to the men. She can smell the seared flesh on the spit. Alone, she talks to God, rattles out her complaint in the same wheedling voice she’d use with her husband. “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” She feels the struggle in her womb, places her hands over her stomach. A smooth, hard shape moves beneath her skin. She feels with her fingers, and her voice falls away. She neglects the tears in her eyes, and gazes up at the side of the tent, the fabric breathing in and out. She feels another arm, or another leg, with her hands on her womb, and understands. This is a different child. There are two in her womb, and they’re wrestling.
The second baby is born clinging to the first baby’s heel. She nurses them both. The first baby, the red one, covered with soft down, is stronger, more vital, and less interested in taking the breast. It is the second infant, who is slight and smooth, who wants to cling to her, who’s little mouth is always clutching at her nipple. He walks later but speaks first. He lies with her in the nest of blankets and she teaches him words. The day is bright outside the tent, and shadows move across it, voices drift in. They watch together as Esau, her red son, toddles past the screen of fabric. The men take Esau to the fields, up onto the hills with the flocks, into the wilderness, and he clutches their shins as they shoot their bows. He has come home from the hunt even redder, with the blood of a gazelle smeared across his cheek. But when the men are gone, she and Jacob, the heel grabber, watch the side of the tent and see it breathe in and out, and she whispers to him about the voice that told her “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.”
“My brother is greedy,” Jacob says. He’s nine now, and will often go and wander by himself across the land, from the well to the pasturage, his toes scraped by the grit that kicks up into his sandals. But he comes back to spend the soft part of the afternoon with his mother, laying on the blankets still, listening with her to the voices of the camp. He likes to go to the well with her in the morning, and carry the water back for her, and to sit with her beside the fire as she cooks, staring into the embers and letting the smoke tease his eyes and nostrils, resisting the urge to turn away from it.
Outside, the men have come back from the hunt. They’ve spitted a gazelle, and are laughing. Mother and son don’t know what they’re laughing at, until they hear Isaac say, “It won’t cook any faster, with you turning the spit so much.” Jacob sits up and feels the blood rush to his head. He peers out through the slit of the tent’s entrance, and there’s his brother, beside the fire, his hands on the handle of the spit, his head tilted towards the searing meat, and Jacob can see the greed in his eyes. He feels his mother sit up behind him. She’s staring, too, and he can feel the slow working of her mind. He steadies his own mind into a similar readiness, and they wait for the idea to come.
There are lentils in his hand. It’s evening, and the sunlight slices into them, and follows them as they drop from his palm into the heart of a kettle. They are so smooth and dry, and he regrets their dribbling away from him, and lays his palm against the skin of his own shoulder, so that he can feel a similar hard smoothness. His mother is whispering to him, showing him how much water to pour in, and her hands are dusted with red spices. Away in the hills they can hear the goats, and she bends to add fuel to the fire. He’s content to sit, to watch the water boil in the kettle, to see the scum rise on it and then dissipate, and then to wait, observing how the lentils, beneath the tinted, simmering water, slowly, slowly begin to thicken and surrender their smooth form.
“Give me some of that.” It is his brother, lurking over him. The smell of goat wafts from his clothing. His eyes are wide and dark with hunger.
Jacob looks into the pot. He wants to raise his head, to see where his mother has gone, but he doesn’t. The men are still coming in from the hills, his father is striding among them, making sure the day’s work is done. For the moment, he and his brother are alone. He mutters, his voice no louder than the voice of the stew as it simmers. “First sell me your birthright.”
His brother leans in to hear him. There’s a pause, and Jacob wonders if he’s understood. Esau squats down, jabs his fingers into the stew, licks them. “I’m dying of hunger. What’s the use of a birthright to me?”
“Swear to me first.”
A crooked smile on Esau’s red face. “I swear. Let me eat.”
Jacob spoons stew into a bowl. He gives bread to his brother. He can see that Esau thinks they’re playing, that he doesn’t believe in the transaction that’s just occurred. He will tell his mother this later, when they’re alone, and she’ll say “He’ll come to believe it.” But for now, they’re peaceful together, Esau eating and Jacob watching the thick stew bubble and gasp. A wind picks up. It’s large and billowing. It feels like a hand in his hair.