The quality of the wind changes. It doesn’t breathe against the tent sides, but is sharp and thin. It lifts dirt from the ground and scours their faces. It seems to shrink the rivers, and there’s no rain. The sun is heavy in the sky. Jacob and Esau follow their father as he walks through the herd, his palm skimming over the backs of the goats. Jacob reaches out his own hand, feels the rasp of wool against his fingers. A rope dangles from his father’s other hand, with a loop tied at the end of it.
They lead a white goat out of the flock and along a steep path to an old well. There’s an altar there, built of stones. The goat goes to chew some sparse grass that’s still growing in the shade of the altar. Isaac watches it, and there’s a kind of kindness on his face. Then he throws his body down over it. The goat splays against the dry earth. It scrambles and bleats, but Isaac draws its legs together and lashes them, his hands fast and competent. When he stands the goat is trussed in the dirt. Isaac wipes sweat from his forehead and holds out a hand so that Esau can give him the water jug. He drinks, and both boys watch the precious water. It courses down his beard, and Esau, laughing, goes and stands in front of him, and cups his hands, and catches the rivulets. But Jacob is watching the goat. It’s side expands and contracts and the sharp sunlight seems to move with it.
After Isaac kills it on the altar he stands with his eyes closed for a long time, and Jacob closes his own eyes. In his mind he sees the sides of the tent moving, and listens for the voice that spoke to his grandfather Abraham. The day has gone very still. The wind has dropped away, and he can feel the thin layer of grit that it’s left against his skin. His father stands, and he wonders how long he can stand there, his hands raised, the smell of new blood sharp in the air. He hears his brother scuffing the dirt with the toe of his sandal, and then stealthy footsteps as Esau slips away. But Jacob keeps his eyes closed, waiting.
Night, and his father is talking, addressing the men around the campfire. Jacob and Esau are sharing a tent now. Esau’s scent fills the air. He smells like dirt and wood smoke and blood. He is asleep, snoring softly, but Jacob is sitting by the tent flap, listening.
“The Lord says to go to Gerar,” Isaac says. “Not to Egypt, as my father Abraham did.”
“To the Philistines?” one of the men asks.
Isaac is quiet for a moment. Then he says, “The Lord told me to reside in their land, as an alien. We have nothing to fear. The Lord will be with us, and he’ll give the lands to me, and to my descendants, just as He told my father. He will…” Isaac pauses, and when he speaks again, there’s a fullness to his voice, “He will make my descendants as numerous as the stars, and they’ll inherit the lands of the Philistines, and all of Canaan, and they’ll be a blessing to all the nations. Because my father obeyed the Lord’s commands, and kept His statues, and His commands, and His laws.”
Jacob slips out of the tent and creeps along through the shadows. The wind is large and sharp again, and the night is hot. He can feel it desiccating the land. He slips closer to the fire, to a place where he can see across it, to the women’s tents. His mother Rebecca is there, sitting cross legged in the opening of her tent. She is looking at the sky but she is listening, and she seems to sense him watching her. She lowers her face and looks at him, then looks back up at the sky. He follows her gaze and sees the stars, numerous and quiet above the dry, heavy earth.