Hot sun beat down on the sands of Moriah. The leather of Jubal’s footbindings, worn smooth by months of walking and wear, felt soft and familiar, each foot leaden and worn like wooden hooves at the end of his legs. Wound strips of finer leather, braided together, ran up in a weave around, holding the goatskins in place. Jubal had become one with the walk; Moriah could be a year away and he would not mind. He had his leathers; he had his daggers; he had his sticks and he had his brothers.
This was the second day of the journey, and Jubal could feel himself losing his fears and concerns in the work of the walk. The first day of the journey had been arduous. The bundle of sticks, resting against his back, reminded him of the tent his family had pitched at the river, with their sheep and camels and goats. There is where they had gathered the sticks – sticks which now, in a bundle, scraped against the small of his back as he walked. Those long wooden strands that would not be found amongst the short, scrubby brush and brambles of Moriah. Jubal was a thoughtful man, a man who watched the sky and the movements of birds, and had always been less healthy than his older brother. Their relationship had been strained – perhaps because by the time father had circumcised them both, Jubal was barely in his sixth year, while his brother was almost thirteen – a man.
Then there was their younger brother still – walking before them, by father’s side. His bundle of sticks was smaller than Jubal’s. Jubal’s bundle wasn’t the largest, either – but father carried no sticks. No, father carried in one hand a slow-burning torch of pitch, a clay pot with which to refresh it, and a knife, the knife for the sacrifice.
Under his breath, that first day had been full of most inappropriate grumbling from Jubal. The voices father had started to hear in his old age had gotten louder. They had yielded… strangeness from him. He claimed to be older than he was, that his wife and concubines had been selected and bargained between the gods, that he had been chosen by one of the gods most specially – and every time he had done it, Jubal had found himself afeared. As the middle son, his was the challenge of seeing things from the outside. His older brother, son of the concubine, was never going to inherit the birthright of father; nor was he, son of another concubine. And then the youngest brother, the third son – and given father’s age and work of circumcision, probably the final son – was the one to whom birthright, supposedly, belonged.
Thus, Jubal was the one that watched. Never seething with his older brother’s stung pride, nor endowed with the power and strength that he seemed to have from the gods themselves, he never spent his days angry for what he could not have. Jubal never would be the heir; but in his older brother’s mind, just maybe – maybe it could come to pass. If father could just see his worth…
Then the youngest son, who had been born into the arms of a father that had always been insane. Er, blessed. Father was the head of the house; father was the seat of god in the home, and father had raised his least son – his youngest son – with a wisdom and a care, filling his head with those teachings and ideas that struck him as wise from day to day. It had been he who had his father’s ear, the one who had the means to ask questions, without himself being rebuked for his pride. Such as, in that first day.
Jubal’s left foot swung forwards, dull and easy, unfeeling and sweeping like a rock on a string, arcing without effort and becoming the new support for his frame. This was how to walk in the desert – make as little effort as possible. Yesterday, they had left behind the green of the rivers and ventured off into the badlands of the desert; today, the pounding heat of the sand, packed down into clay.
“Father!” had said the youngest.
Father, as if he and his chosen heir were alone, turned, steps unwavering, driven on perhaps by the energy of madness, “Yes, my son.”
“We have the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb we will burn as a sacrifice?”
And he had smiled, and his eyes wrinkled, his voice thin as papyrus, but with the courage of conviction that normally spoke only of a young man deep in Egyptian wineskins, “God will give us the lamb for the sacrifice, my son.”
His hand gripped his knife anew. Fingers slid along the bound grip, blue veins under white skin, and Jubal worried. Steps fell one after the other, and the middle son tried to disregard the ache in his thighs and the fear in his heart. Father was not so insane – and he had his youngest son here. He would not do … any of those fears that lay in Jubal’s heart. Coming to camp with a sliver of stone in his hand and claiming he and his sons were ‘chosen’ had been the worst of his madness.
Surely with his three sons together, he would not do such a thing again.
Jubal’s feet felt riversands turn to clay beneath him, the hard worn ground where no rain or tears fell.
Desert foliage had given way to rocky outcroppings; outcroppings to scrubby brush. Under the brush there were brambles – wide, risen thorns of withered wood, studded about with thorns and the dust of the heated lands. Through many a twisted forest, they walked, until they came here, to this… flat tablet of stone. Had father known about it, ahead of time? No matter how much Jubal wished to say, to hear his brothers scoff their father with him, he did not.
He still remembered the morning with the sharpened stone.
Father took the sticks from his sons, one by one, piling them on the stone, laying them about most carefully in a pyre’s arrangement. They did this before, at turnings of the moon and great festivals; the slaughtered lamb was to sit in the midst, and there roast, so that its blood could seep out, onto the stone, and be tasted only by the stars in the sky. Food that no man would eat – a sacrifice in the most literal sense of the word. Jubal so wished he could say why that felt strange, why it felt wrong to his mind to do such a thing.
“Kindling,” father said. “Rush back, now. Rush back. The god will provide our lamb,” he murmured, finger twitching on the handle of the knife. Was he even aware he’d spoken aloud? Perhaps. Perhaps not. The brothers spread out, heading into the brambles.
Brown brambles of old weather were good for kindling, but they were hard to grasp, covered in thorns. Perhaps Jubal’s older brother had simply gripped one and snapped it, taking the pain and walking back to his father. Perhaps his younger brother had slid through gaps in the brambles and claimed sticks, fallen from the oldest of brambles, and brought them back. No such luck found Jubal.
Jubal’s path through the rocks and thorns took him up; around the rise of the hill they had found, up past a knot of desert brush still too dense with thorns to be touched. Pulling his knives from his belt, he tested one – the thorns flicked off easily, snapping from the dry vine and leaving it clean. It seemed an easy solution, then.
Drawing knife along the brambles, he began to strip them clean, one after another, lost in his work until he heard the voice. Looking up, and down, he realised that, through the brambles, he had found his father’s rock. From above, he could push through, cutting the thorns, and arrive with the kindling.
His brothers were already there; they had already brought kindling, and it had already been arrayed, father’s hand still gripping the knife, working slowly. He would put down the torch; he would not put down the knife. Jubal shifted closer as he worked towards them – making out the strangeness in his mumbling.
He could not tell what his father said; he could only see the fear in his brother’s faces. Watching them holding their breath, eyes wide, looking one to another as he spoke – something about stars. About a mighty nation, about gods and kingdoms and the mountains that supported the world. About a god of gold and horns, who lived in the sun and spoke of war. A god who would kill all other gods.
Then they spoke – suddenly and with energy, speaking out at their father; brother older pointed to brother younger; while brother younger recoiled in fear – then spat back the same words, with the same energy. He was a man now, too, after all – and he, more than either of his brothers, believed their father’s madness.
“Then which?” Father said, raising his voice loud enough. “Which of you will be the lamb?!”
Jubal’s heart leapt in his throat, and he stepped backwards. A soft patch of leather hit a soft patch of stone, and he slid forwards even as he stepped back, falling – screaming in pain as he tumbled into the bushes, skidded down, knives clutched in his hands, stabbing them into the ground to try and still his fall. Suspended in the knot of the vines and brambles, Jubal felt as though he had bathed in thorns, his skin torn with as many spearheads as a Caananite army.
“Father-” he managed, hanging as he was before them, his knives high in the brambles, tangled and lost, out of his grip.
Looking up at him, his father’s rheumy eyes blinked.
“Ishmael? Cut down the lamb.” he said, drawing a breath, that gave way to a shudder. “Isaac, bring your father the torch.”
Jubal’s blood fell to the floor; spattered on the rocks of the stones of Moriah, where its last drop would be sacrificed.
Not spent – but wasted.