There is a wall, and beyond it, the sea. The heat is heavier, here. It strikes the houses’ red roofs and the tops of the green trees. There is quiet – a deep quiet that stills even the sound of the water, lapping against the shore at the city’s edge. Everyone is sleeping through the heat of the day.
They have been taken to a room on the second story of a small house. There’s a temple to the household god on the floor below, and a bath in the room next to it. But the god is neglected and the bath is empty. The house’s owner is dead, and Abimelech, the King of Gerar, uses it now as a waiting place for his guests, for the wandering peoples who have been coming into the city because drought is on the land.
Their herds, their men, their wealth is beyond the city gates. Isaac has left Rebecca there, and the other women. He has come only with his sons, quietly, and the king will greet them, and look at them with boredom, because he has seen their kind before.
They’re allowed pasturage outside the city walls. They provide the city with meat from the goats, and trade from their wanderings. But there are men who walk among them, Philistines, soldiers who come into the camps to barter and haggle, and look at the women.
In the morning, Jacob wakes early and goes and stands by an old, dried up well with a few knotted trees providing him a small piece of shade. He is looking at the city, at the walls and the road that leads into it. He is wondering if there are more people outside the city walls than there are people inside them. He has the sense of being part of a large and living thing, of breathing in and out with the goats, and the men who tend them, and the women who are still sleeping with their children. He has never thought of himself as belonging to a people before, but now he understands that his people don’t live under red roofs, or bring water into houses for baths, that they don’t go to sleep at night to the sound of the sea, or expect their gods to stay in a house. He turns and looks back at the tents of his father’s people, and frowns, because a Philistine man has come out of one of the tents and looks like he spent the night there.
The man comes up the incline to the trees and the abandoned well. He stops and rests there, squinting his eyes at the morning sun. He doesn’t seem to see Jacob, although they could reach out and touch each other. He is wearing the short skirt and breast plate of a member of King Abimelech’s guard. He turns and looks down the incline towards the tents, where the women are emerging to light the cook fires. Jacob sees his mother come out of her tent. She is wearing red cloth, and it hangs against her dark hair. The man is looking at her as well. Jacob shifts his gaze and watches him. The man has swollen lips, and gray stubble along his lip and chin. He raises a hand and scratches his cheek, then draws his fingers across his mouth and down, playing with his bottom lip. His eyes are narrow and wet as he watches Rebecca.
“You have a very beautiful wife, I hear,” King Abimelech says to Isaac. They are seated in his reception room, and Jacob is chewing a sweet date. The men of King Abimelech’s guard are all around them, and the light slants in from the open windows, and wreathes their hair with gold, so that each of them looks as if he’s been crowned. They seem very big to Jacob, and he glances at his father and sees the same thought in his father’s eyes.
“She is my sister,” Isaac says, and reaches for a piece of bread.
Jacob has heard this story before, told about his grandfather. That when Abraham and Sarah were in Egypt, Abraham told Pharaoh that Sarah was his sister. When Pharaoh realized the truth, he gave Abraham gifts because he was afraid of the Lord, that the Lord might strike him down for coveting another man’s wife. But these men of the Philistines are different. Jacob doesn’t think that they care much about other men’s wives.
Rebecca hides inside her tent. Still, the men of the Philistines come to the dried well under the trees and stand there, to catch a glimpse of her. Jacob has never thought that his mother was beautiful, but now he sees that she is, that there is a lightness to her face and a mischief in her eyes, and a slow languor in the way she moves her arms. His brother is often with the Philistines, gambling with them, drinking their spirits. His brother has gone down to the sea with them, and gotten on a boat. But Jacob is staying close to the camp, somehow hidden by the shade from the trees beside the well. He is watching the Philistines, and thinking how he could take one of their swords and kill them.
It is night, and his brother is snoring, but Jacob is awake. There is a breath against the wall of the tent. He reaches his hand up and holds it against the fabric, and feels the breath resist his fingers. He lifts his head and presses his lips to the fabric and tries to breathe the breath into himself. Then he gets up and goes outside, where the stars are tall in the sky and the sea sounds deep beyond the city. There are men by the dried well. They’d don’t see him as he slips up the incline and into the shadows of the trees. They smell of wine, and seared meat, and they’re in the skirts and breastplates of the guard. A large figure sits on the rim of the dried-up well, and Jacob waits until the wind blows through the trees and moves the shadows off of him. It is Abimelech himself. They are watching the camp. And as they watch, Isaac comes walking past the damped down cooking fires, stepping over the men who sleep beside them, and slips inside Rebecca’s tent. The men by the well go very still. Jacob feels their anger. They are all wearing their swords.
After awhile Jacob’s father comes out of his mother’s tent. He turns his head towards the well, as if he senses that someone is there, but he doesn’t seem to see the men. He crosses the camp to his own tent. Jacob’s mother emerges. She goes to the cistern where the rain water is kept and fills a water jug. Jacob can see the sheen of her hair in the moonlight. “She is as you said,” Abimelech says to one of his men. “Very beautiful.” And the men laugh, and relax, and loosen their swords.
“Do you want her?” a playful voice asks the king.
“The man is her husband.”
“That can be ended. Say the word, and we will procure her for you, my king.”
The king is about to answer, when Jacob releases the breath he’s been holding inside of him, the deep breath that played on the tent walls and that he’s hidden beneath his regular breathing. He can feel its power and the trees seem to feel it. They shake with it. The shadows move rapidly across the king’s face, and he looks up, surprised, his face open to the wide sky. All the men seem to feel it, too, because they go still again, and wait. And Jacob can sense it, what he felt when his father sacrificed the goat. A tremor in the air, a beating in the earth. The heavy smell of blood rises up around him. Abimelech draws back into the shadows, afraid. He doesn’t say anything to his men. He is very still, and then he stands up from the well and turns, and walks quickly as they follow him, back to the walls of the city.