Anita Diamant is an award-winning journalist and author of six books about contemporary Jewish life, including The New Jewish Wedding and Choosing a Jewish Life. Her works of fiction include Good Harbor, The Last Days of Dogtown, Day After Night, and The Boston Girl. She lives in Massachusetts.
THE RED TENT (Chapter 1)
Their stories began with the day that my father appeared. Rachel came running into camp, knees flying, bellowing like a calf separated from its mother. But before anyone could scold her for acting like a wild boy, she launched into a breathless yarn about a stranger at the well, her words spilling out like water into sand.
A wild man without sandals. Matted hair. Dirty face. He kissed her on the mouth, a cousin, son of their aunt, who had watered sheep and goats for her and told off the ruffians at the well.
"What are you babbling?" demanded her father, Laban. "Who is come to the well? Who attends him? How many bags does he carry?"
"He is going to marry me," said Rachel matter-of-factly, once she had caught her breath. "He says I am for him and that he would marry me tomorrow, if he could. He's coming to ask you."
Leah scowled at this announcement. "Marry you?" she said, crossing her arms and throwing back her shoulders. "You won't be marriageable for another year," said the older girl, who, though only a few years older than Rachel, already acted as head woman of her father's small holdings. The fourteen-year-old mistress of Laban's house liked to take a haughty, maternal tone with her sister. "What's all this? And how did he come to kiss you?" This was a terrible breach of custom--even if he was a cousin and even though Rachel was young enough to be treated as a child.
Rachel stuck out her lower lip in a pout that would have been childlike only a few hours earlier. Something had happened since she opened her eyes that morning, when the most pressing matter on her mind had been to find the place where Leah hid her honey. Leah, that donkey, would never share it with her, but hoarded it for guests, giving tastes to pathetic little Bilhah and no one else.
All Rachel could think of now was the shaggy stranger whose eyes had met hers with a shock of recognition that had rattled her to the bone.
Rachel knew what Leah meant, but the fact that she had not yet begun to bleed meant nothing to her now. And her cheeks burned.
"What's this?" said Leah, suddenly amused. "She is smitten. Look at her," she said. "Have you ever seen the girl blush before?"
"What did he do to you?" asked Laban, growling like a dog who senses an intruder near his herd. He clenched his fists and beetled his brow and turned his full attention to Rachel, the daughter he had never once hit, the daughter whom he rarely looked at full in the face. She had frightened him from her birth--a tearing, violent entry that had killed her mother. When the baby finally emerged, the women were shocked to see that it was such a small one--a girl at that--who had caused so many days of trouble, costing her mother so much blood and finally her life.
Rachel's presence was powerful as the moon, and just as beautiful. Nobody could deny her beauty. Even as a child who worshiped my own mother's face, I knew that Leah's beauty paled before her younger sister's, a knowledge that always made me feel like a traitor. Still, denying it would have been like denying the sun's warmth.
Rachel's beauty was rare and arresting. Her brown hair shaded to bronze, and her skin was golden, honeyed, perfect. In that amber setting, her eyes were surprisingly dark, not merely dark brown but black as polished obsidian or the depth of a well. Although she was small-boned and, even when she was with child, small-breasted, she had muscular hands and a husky voice that seemed to belong to a much larger woman.
"The wives of Jacob gather in the red tent, and in that image Anita Diamant has found the heart of a pulsing and moving novel. The tent is red because of the falling sun, and because of the flowing blood. The tent is, as the narrator says, 'an earthbound rainbow,' which is also true of this novel. Dinah, famously a daughter and a sister, finally tells her own story-and the story of that unknown legion, God's women. When the light is refracted through their experience-and through the lens of Anita Diamant's moral imagination-the colors couldn't be more vivid, and the oldest story of all could never seem more original, or more true."—James Carroll, author of An American Requiem