Slowly, reverentially, the funeral procession approached the cave that served as the family tomb. Jacob the patriarch raised his hand and his entourage of wives, children, daughters-in-law and grandchildren halted abruptly. Leaning on Benjamin, his youngest and favorite son, the old man bent his head as he tread upon hallowed ground. His four oldest sons lit a torch and followed closely.
Their steps faltered in the stench of death that accosted them as they stepped into a small cavern tunneling deep underground.
Jacob hesitated. Perhaps I have come too soon.
He studied a shrouded body laid out on a shelf hewn into the rock wall. The scrape of sandaled feet on the uneven ground behind him fell silent as his oldest sons kept their distance. Benjamin resisted as Jacob tugged on his arm then shuffled forward to his father Isaac’s bones.
Breathing shallowly, Jacob extended a trembling hand and touched the linen shroud. Benjamin retreated hurriedly, releasing his grip on his father’s arm. As the old man tottered his fourth son, Judah, stepped up to steady him.
The odor of decay grew pungent as Jacob cautiously drew back the facial covering. A blanched skull stared back at him with empty eyes. Jacob swelled with relief. We are not too early. His flesh has fallen to dust. He quickly replaced the linen wrap and motioned for his older sons to come forward.
“Gather the bones …” The putrid air made him cough, muffling his words.
Levi held their torch aloft while Reuben and Simon picked up the shrouded bundle and carried the bones into the deepest hollow of the cave. Judah supported Jacob as he hobbled after them while Benjamin retreated to the entrance.
The fires’ golden tongue licked the rough walls, exposing a tangle of skulls and bones. Old wounds broke open as unhealed sorrows gripped Jacob’s heart. My mother … my grandparents … all dead. Now, in the dark of the moon when the veils between the tangible and intangible worlds grew thin, he knew he should ask his ancestors to intercede for blessings on behalf of his family. He tried to pray but his thoughts drowned out by his overwhelming grief.
His sons deposited their burden then retreated hurriedly. Levi stumbled, dousing his torch against the rocks. It guttered and nearly went out. As shadows flooded over them, Jacob’s three sons scrambled toward the exit. Only Judah steadied his step as he supported his father. They followed slowly, just beyond the periphery of torchlight.
Judah cleared his throat before they stepped into the sun. “Will you bury my mother here?” His voice was a whisper of anxiety.
Jacob looked around, momentarily disoriented by the foul air that tainted his memory. “I should have buried her here … returned to collect her bones.” A terrifying recollection seized him. “We were fleeing blood avengers … I feared to go back—” His eyes blurred with tears. “By now wild animals have dug up her grave.”
Judah spoke gently. “You are thinking about Rachel, Benjamin’s mother, who is buried at the crossroads. I meant my mother Leah, your first wife.”
“Leah,” The old man muttered and looked back, expecting a veiled specter to emerge from the shadows. Then he remembered she wasn’t dead.
Judah’s mother and sisters-in-laws were waiting at the mouth of the cave with bowls of water so Jacob and his sons could wash away the contaminating dust that might link them to the spirit realm. Joyful now that their solemn task was complete, the family strolled across the field to a cluster of goat hair tents where a lavish funerary feast had been prepared.
Although she was as frail and withered as a dried husk, Leah directed her servants as Jacob and his sons reclined on pillows set around a fine carpet spread with heaping dishes. Judah settled his father then stepped aside to let Benjamin take the place of honor at Jacob’s right side. An indolent boy and slightly corpulent, Benjamin eagerly tore off a chunk of roasted meat. He devoured it then reached for a platter of honey cakes.
“Sit, Mother, let the servants pour wine,” Judah pleaded as Leah refilled her husband’s cup.
Jacob looked up and caught her eye. “As is our custom, you will be laid to rest beside me in our ancestors’ tomb when the time comes …” His voice broke and he turned away.
Leah gently touched his arm. “Thank you.”
He nodded but kept his eyes averted. Better to imagine her as she had been in her youth—a bride veiled in scarfs sewn with row after row of coins that jingled alluringly as she walked, swaying lightly from side to side. She seemed so tall, so regal, like a palm tree. After his first son was born, she grew plump and shapeless. Her flaccid breasts hung limply under her robes—he could no longer bear to see them. Now her hair was thin and gray; her skin wrinkled like an ancient tree trunk.
His wife whispered as she stepped away. “You have made me so very happy.”
She only said that once before, on our wedding night. I knew as soon as she spoke that she wasn’t my beloved Rachel.
Jacob gazed after Leah sadly. Why did Rachel have to die—why did you live? He shook his head in resignation. Poor woman, it was not her fault that her father tricked him into marrying her. It was not his fault that he couldn’t bring himself to love her. Maybe, when their bones were finally joined together for all eternity, he could accept his fate and sleep in peace.
Published in Stories