Chapter 12 : Honour the father
As soon as I was old enough to lift a basket of seed, I worked with my father in the fields, ploughing, scattering, threshing and winnowing, burning chaff and gathering straw for cattle. I learned fast and became as adept with a sickle as with a mattock or pruning blade. I heaved baskets of freshly harvested figs and olives, and did not stand idle when sheaves of wheat were bundled onto donkey carts bound for the threshing floor. My father and I worked tirelessly together, one guiding the plough, the other picking out stubborn roots, rocks and stones. We did not toil alone, for in a small village like ours the labour of one is the labour of the whole community. If there was work to be done I hitched my tunic and rolled my sleeves with the rest, enjoying the festive mood which often accompanied these tasks. But there were also times when I longed for my own company, for the stillness that falls over the desert before dusk or the sound of the wind inscribed on canyon walls.
As a young child I wandered wild in the hills. In those early days my duties in the village were not too taxing, but the older I grew the harder the tasks became. By my seventh year all my time was spent either working with my father or studying with the other boys in the synagogue. For a long time, I resented the loss of my freedom; I missed particularly the freedom which drew me into the hills, exploring the caves and deep ravines which plunged the desert into a subterranean world of echoes and silence. I grieved this loss dearly, more so because the new regime of work and study seemed to me like a prison. I kicked around the village with my head hanging, unable to meet the eyes of parents and neighbours or enter into any conversation. I incurred the wrath of my father and the pity of my mother who, day after day, watched me trudging towards the fields in his wake.
One morning the tension between us became unbearable and my father’s temper, always unpredictable, erupted without warning. As I was leaving the house, hoping to drift into the hills without inviting his attention, I heard his voice bellowing from behind me; it was my name on his lips but uttered with such menace and cold threat that it stopped me in my tracks. I hesitated, torn between my desperate need to escape and fear of my father’s rage. For that hesitation I paid a heavy price. The next thing I knew his huge hands were on my shoulders, hauling me back from the threshold. How many times had I watched a jackal hunting a desert rat, jumping its quarry and shaking the life from that soft, limp body? In that moment I felt like a rat, my breath wrenched from me by the force of my father’s grip. His anger was a wild thing, an elemental force unleashed to devastating effect. As much as I struggled and fought, he kicked and punched, using the wall to help knock the resistance out of me. There was no way of escaping, nowhere to hide from the storm.
By the time the bruises faded our relationship had changed course entirely. All my pent-up frustration and anger, and the resentment of seasons spent toiling at my father’s side without so much as a murmur of encouragement, all this began to boil inside me. As my hatred of him grew each day, I could no longer pretend to myself that his fits of violence and his domination had anything to do with love. I did not realise then, but his violence expressed itself through the colonisation of those weaker than him. Like an invading army it forced itself upon me, exploiting my vulnerabilities and leaving the wounds naked and raw. As I weakened he became stronger, less subtle, more brazen in his attacks. Whereas in the past he waited until my mother was far from the house before unleashing his anger on me, soon he grew confident enough to bring me down in front of her. She berated him viciously, the protective instincts of a mother emblazoned across her face, but gradually he wore her down.
One time, as I sat with my back against the cool stone of the house drawing patterns in the dust with my heels, my father appeared, his face dark with rage. Anticipating what was to come, I leapt to my feet, ready to defend myself in whatever way I could. He said nothing as he approached. Nearly always outspoken, on this occasion my father needed no words. He walked up to me – so close I could smell the earth on his skin – and shoved my shoulders roughly against the wall with his fists. Much taller and broader, his extra weight pinned me so I could not move. By now I had learned not to waste all my energy resisting him, but to wait instead for the right moment to make my move. Instinctively, I made myself as small as possible, as animals do when under threat from a more powerful predator. I managed to shrink into my body, my flesh losing its tension. This strategy served me well for, in trying to hold me as I squirmed, my father lost his advantage. For one precious moment he was left unbalanced, swaying on the balls of his feet. This was the opportunity I was hoping for. I thrust my shoulder against his arm with as much force as I could manage and somehow toppled him into the wall. As he reeled from the shock, I ran as fast as I could: around the back of the house, through the gap between the fig tree and the barn and along the track that led from the village, through open fields and into the hills.
I did not return home for several days but set a camp in a place known only to myself. Even if my father searched the hills for weeks there was little chance he would find me. I had a talent for hiding equalled only by my knowledge of the land and, if I chose to, I could remain out of sight for as long as I needed. Even lacking food and water I could still provide for myself without too much trouble. I knew the plants, the wild fruits and berries; I knew which parts of an animal could be eaten and which to avoid; I could even tell from a glance the terrains most likely to provide me with a meal. Water was harder to come by, but at the right time of year normally parched riverbeds would gush and overflow, while in deep underground caves water pooled in cracks and crevices, protected from the savage intensity of the sun. In these caves I hollowed out my secret world, a place where no one would find me, where I knew I was safe.
Of course, I could not stay away forever. There would come a time when I had to return to the village and face the consequences of my actions. Sometimes whatever had angered my father would be forgotten or eclipsed by the weather of his moods. Other times that anger hardened in my absence, and I knew by looking into my mother’s eyes that she had received my share of it as well as her own. My father was a force unto himself, unpredictable like the wind, dangerous as fire. Tracing the patterns of his moods was like trying to follow a single bead of water in a raging torrent. What few friends he had tended to accept his unpredictability the way they accepted the will of God; it was merely a fact of life. But I never accepted it. The scars, bruises and insults were a constant reminder of an injustice that would one day be righted, their promise to me a seed nurtured in my heart.
I tell you this not out of a need for sympathy but because there is a power in truth which cannot be ignored. This power strives to be heard and understood, and those who cannot abide the truth, those who would suppress it or bury it in the earth, they will one day wither in the intensity of its light. My father was a man like any other, but there was a violence in him which could not be contained. I carry the truth of his violence inside me, and its shadow will not leave me nor diminish with the passing of years. As a boy I was taught to honour the father – the Father in heaven and a father’s authority here on earth: ‘Obey your father who feeds and clothes you and who gave you life; follow his example and heed his will, for in doing this you honour and obey the mandate of heaven.’ If I were to follow my father’s example, if I were to live my life as he lived his, then I would be feared for my vengeance and wrath; I would cause the weak to suffer injury at my hand and stamp out the fire of truth in their hearts.