Lent 35: Man and Boy

After yesterday’s Mrs Noah, I promised another bible-inspired story. This one is by Patience Agbabi, from her collection Bloodshot Monochrome, and is based around two bible stories – that of Abraham being prepared to kill his only son Isaac on god’s request, and then of Isaac’s later deception by his wife Rebekah and their youngest son, Jacob on his deathbed. This is the same period in which The Red Tent which I mentioned yesterday is set.

I think it’s probably fairly obvious that you get more out of such a poem by being familiar with the stories it refers to – but I’m never sure how much more. I have basically zero education in literature or anything else vaguely relevant, so there must be huge swathes of mythology and literary tradition alluded to in the poems I read all the time – but how would I know? I can still appreciate most of it, one way or another, even if I am ignorant of a backstory or reference.

In this case, the first stanza is Isaac’s conversation with his eldest son, Esau. He asks him to go hunt a deer and prepare his favourite food for him. He intends to pass on his “blessing” to him, which despite probably just being words, is irreversible, valuable, powerful, and enviable. His wife overhears, realises what’s going to happen, and decides to disguise Jacob as his elder twin, thus allowing the blessing to pass to him. It’s the conversation he has whilst Jacob is disguised that you see in the second stanza (and, thus, the third too, which is actually Isaac telling the story about what happened between him and his father at the near-human-sacrifice). The fourth stanza is when Esau returns, but Isaac has already passed his blessing onto Jacob and it’s too late. See, the bible is JUST like Shakespeare – full of people who are both stupid and mean.

     Man and Boy

     And Abraham stretched forth his hand,
     and took the knife to slay his son.

                     Genesis 22:10

     Open the blind, son. Wide. I’m not dead yet.
     Did you hear the hail? Like it was deep frying.
     Your mother says forked and sheet lightning
     at the same time spells trouble. I know she is.
     What’s it like, the sky? Blue-gray? Grey-blue?
     I wish I could see it too. Like surround
     sound with the ghost of a picture.
     What’s the use? I’m dying. Give me your hand.
     Hairy from day one, you were. Born old.
     We knew your mother was expecting twins,
     expected one of each. You brother Jacob
     followed, gripping your heel, a born tackler.
     He takes after your mother. Never trust
     a woman. He intends to run the business,
     but you were first. There’s something I must tell you . . .
     I’ve so few pleasures left. Will you prepare it?
     It’s OK. Use the Volvo. I’m not going
     anywhere, am I? Son, I know you do.

     Who is it? Son, is that you? Back so soon?
     Come off it. Do you take me for senile?
     I’ve taken leave of one of my senses
     not five. Come a bit closer. I don’t bite.
     You smell, feel like my eldest son yet sound
     like Jacob. Is this some kind of a joke?
     Forgive me, son. Must be the side effects,
     it isn’t age that kills you, it’s the drugs.
     You know there’s too much pepper in this soup.
     OK. I’ve kept it buried long enough.
     Do something for me first, though. Lock the door
     and if your brother knocks, don’t answer it.

     No one knows this. Not even your mother.
     I wish you’d known your grandfather. We’re all
     cut from the same plain cloth. Identical.
     I was an only child, my father and I
     did everything together, man and boy.
     I’d just turned twelve. My father woke me early,
     We’re going for a drive. There were two men
     I didn’t know, the one on the back seat
     beside me had black hair, a nervous twitch.
     The car smelt of sweat and burning leather.
     The journey took forever. No one spoke.
     The next thing I remember is the office.
     A huge black director’s chair, a table,
     a telephone, the decor was old-fashioned
     but classy. Me, my father, no one else.
     Sit down, son. I’ve never felt so small.
     And then he did the thing that shocked me more
     than anything that happened since. He tied me.
     Tied me to the chair. No. I didn’t.
     He was my father and his word was law.
     He pressed a gun hard up against my head,
     my inner eye. Twelve years flashed in a second.
     Then the explosion of the phone ringing.
     It rang eight times before he answered it.
     He didn’t speak. Just put down the receiver
     and fired the gun towards the candelabra.
     We never talked about it. In the car
     on the way home, I noticed his grey hairs
     for the first time. I never blamed him for it,
     I understood. He always kept his word.
     He would have fired that shot. He knew I knew.

     Bless you, son, I’m fine. I need to sleep.
     Wake me in three hours’ time. I’ll drink to that.
     Who is it? Who? I’m far too old for this.
     If you are who you say you are, then who
     the hell sat on my bed, shared my secret?
     I’ve lived too long. He should have pulled the trigger.
     Where are my tablets? I’m a dead man.
     I have two sons . . . forked and sheet lightning . . .
     first come, first served. The sins of the father . . .
     Forgive me, son. He let it ring eight times.
     I’m sorry, I’m too weak now. Ask you brother.
     There’s too much salt, I have no appetite.
     He went grey overnight. Where are my tablets?
     What time is it? Where am I? Who are you?
     I only have one son, never had two.

View the intro/roundup.

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