Chapter 1: Rachel

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        The women whispered that Rachel was too sick with love. They tried the secrets their mothers passed down to them—rubbing lavender oil into her temples, counting backwards from me'at, warming a pot of milk over the fire for her to drink—but nothing worked. She did not sleep.

        When the evening fires were snuffed with dirt, the camp descended into darkness. But Rachel was just beginning to burn, as she sat and tried to be still while Amit, the eldest woman in the group, changed the sheets on Rachel's mat. Wisps of her silver hair were visible through her headscarf, even in the night.

        "But what if I sleep through the wedding?" Rachel asked in earnest as the others fussed over her. Two of her father's female slaves, Vered and Uzi, put damp cloths on her forehead and sorted through Rachel's tangled hair with combs carved from bone.

        "And risk missing the wedding night?" Mirah, Amit's granddaughter, said with a grin. She looked between the women as though they were all in possession of the same secret.

        Amit, the old owl, shut Mirah up with a click of her few remaining teeth. "She needs to rest. Never mind her, Rachela. Close your eyes."

        Rachel obeyed, curling up beneath the thin covers on her mat. They bid her goodnight, shaking their heads and laughing amongst themselves as they padded back to their own warm tents.

        Once they were gone, Rachel opened her eyes and smiled. The wedding night. She felt her cheeks warm at the fantasies hidden in the words. Jacob. Her husband. Where would his hands touch her first? Would she know how to please him?

        Her body ached as she tossed and turned through the inky darkness. She would not sleep. Not yet. There was far too much to dream about.

                                                            ****

        Daylight, bright as a ripe persimmon, winked through the slits between the goatskins lining Rachel's tent. She stirred, smiling.

        After seven long years, the preparation for the wedding would finally begin. In two days she would belong to Jacob.

        Her heart raced, remembering each sun-kissed freckle brushed by his lips—and all the ones he didn't reach, for she always pulled away before they went too far. Everything about Jacob had tempted her from the moment they met: his boldness, the stark curve of his jawline, the way he made her shiver with a single word. Even his curiosity over her little clay idols, when he had his own god, El, who lived in the wind and trees and water, was fascinating to her. If they were alone before the wedding even once more, she feared her body would betray her. 

        Suddenly, with the shifting of wool sheets, Rachel realized that Leah was awake. She tried to remember if she heard footsteps during the night after Amit and the others left. Where does she go at night, alone? Rachel thought, squinting slightly to see beyond the veil of her eyelashes.

        Leah rose, folded her sheets and rolled up her mat, placing them in the corner of the tent. Then she dressed silently in the dim light. She pulled on her modest mourning robe in the same shade of black or gray Rachel had seen her wear for the past thirteen years, ever since their mother died. Rachel's cheeks reddened with guilt. As she was lost in her wedding reverie, Leah was grieving right next to her, still as a stone. 

        Rachel was not supposed to fall in love first. Love was meant for Leah, her elder sister.

        Neither of them had thought too seriously about the matter of marriage when they were young. It was a custom they had witnessed, since girls in their camp—and indeed in the nearby town of Haran—were often betrothed according to their age, but as children, Rachel and Leah were too busy with adventures to care. They spent their days with their mother drawing water from the well, washing and carding wool and twisting it into thread on spindles, cooking, tending the vegetable plots, and learning to weave cloth on the little wooden loom. They loved running barefoot along the riverbank of the Perath, carrying clay jars for collecting pretty stones; baking little mutqû and cutting them into the shape of animals; and learning the names of the shamnum, the holy oils, that when repeated together sounded like music. Cassia, chelbena, mor, lebonah.

        But then Ummi died. She tripped on a rock, slicing her foot—a minor injury that left her uncomfortable, but otherwise healthy—or so she thought, until an infection spread beyond their healer's control. In less than a month she was gone. By then Rachel was ten and Leah was eleven, and without their mother to care for them, their father, Laban, grew eager to marry them off.

        Years passed, and Leah did not marry. Some men thought she was too young; others complained she was too quiet, too sad. One man, a cloth trader from farther down the Perath River who was deeply religious, would only take her if she cut her hair short according to his tribe's marriage traditions. Leah wailed for days until the deal fell apart. At that time, Rachel was glad: twelve seemed so young to be parted from her sister, even though she knew girls her age already married.

        When preparing a meal with other women in Laban's camp, fourteen-year-old Leah burnt another suitor's meat. "With five sons at home, I need a wife who can cook!" the man exclaimed, throwing down his wool napkin at Laban's feet. Laban was so insulted at the gesture he never once thought to himself, as Rachel did, that Leah had ruined the meat on purpose. They giggled underneath the covers of their shared mat, Rachel imitating the man's face as though smoke was blowing out of his ears.

        Then, without warning, Jacob came to the camp and everything changed. One moment Rachel was sixteen, waiting for her life to begin—which felt at a standstill as long as Leah remained unmarried—and the next, a young traveler asked for water to nourish his donkey. The sight of his dark eyes and large hands, built for work, made her swoon. But it was the way he teased her that first day, bringing a smile to her face for the first time in a long while, that made her feel alive and full of purpose.

        Together, he and Rachel begged Laban for permission to marry—a betrothal for Leah would surely not be far behind, Rachel insisted. But Jacob had no mohar, no bride-price to pay Laban, so he proposed an arrangement: working seven years with his flocks and herds in exchange for his blessing on Rachel and Jacob's marriage. If Leah married within those seven years, then Jacob could wed Rachel immediately.

        Six months stretched into two years, which soon became five. Rachel had watched her childhood playmates find husbands and journey to their new homes. Some did not go farther than Haran, where they lived in houses with real walls, married to modest shop owners. Others left with traveling merchants for cities far beyond the borders of Haran, cities with names like Nineveh, Uruk, and Kish. The few who had stayed behind were married to shepherds and soon became mothers.

        Leah was not among them, and so neither was Rachel.

***

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