Odd Man Out

By Henry Bean

Published November 12, 2004, issue of November 12, 2004.
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He was strong and handsome, and he was the first born; but his mother, indifferent to all that, preferred his brother and viewed him, largely, as a dullard. When she talked with his brother, their conversations were so darting and subtle that his head hurt. He could not follow them and came to think that they were using a kind of code to keep things from him. She spoke to him as she might have to a foreigner or to a child, explaining everything with a laborious simplicity. I’m not that stupid, he wanted to tell her, but didn’t.

His father hardly spoke to him at all, though, it must be admitted, he said precious little to anyone. He was kind and “pious,” whatever that meant, but remote. A servant had hinted that in his youth, the father had suffered some sort of shock, a mysterious incident that had changed him somehow, though no one would talk about it.

Did he start going out into the fields because they did not love him, or did they not love him because he went out into the fields? Whatever the reason, it was there that he found the first makings of himself. He spent endless days hunting and tending the flocks, days in which he might do nothing but track an animal, or sit with the sheep watching clouds form and dissipate — days that, as the poet says, were as long as some men’s entire lives.

In the fields he was part of things, part of the whole, in a way that he never felt part of his family. He did not speak out there and nothing spoke to him — neither human nor divine — and he came to love this silence. In silence, he was fluent; he read the world with his eyes and ears, and his hands spoke for him. This was his birthright: the hot sun, the rough clay, his own appetites and senses. When his brother came out there with him, he jumped at every skittering in the underbrush, but he was master of this realm they knew nothing about. It occurred to him that he might kill his brother out here and attribute it to an animal. The thought so comforted him that the actual killing became unnecessary.

With his gift for silence, he began to feel a kinship with his father, and they spent ever-lengthening intervals together during which hardly a word was exchanged. His own silence, he recognized, lacked the depth and complexity of his father’s, was not born of a mysterious “incident,” yet the surface resemblance pleased him and made him proud. Where his mother or brother might have seen only emptiness in these wordless hours, his father understood their value. Or so he believed — for the old man, taciturn as always, never mentioned it.

Years passed. One day he traded his birthright for food, giving up centuries for a moment of gratification. His father was furious and his mother disgusted (and his brother quietly content), but the loss did not especially trouble him. The birthright seemed to him like piety or the sparkling conversation of his brother and mother: a subtle thing of unfathomable purpose. It seemed to him less a loss than an acknowledgement, a confirmation that he was not part of these people, that their story was not his.

Some time afterward, he took a wife from among the local women, and once again his parents railed at him. He would become a pagan, his mother screamed. He pointed out that his father had married a pagan without becoming one; indeed, the wife herself had grown pious. Why should it be different with his own beloved whom he found as irresistible as red lentils? His mother did not reply, but he knew the answer: He was not like his father. His silence was a mark not of profundity but of its opposite.

It had long since come to seem that when he went out into the fields the world brightened, and when he came home it grew dark. (His brother suggested that perhaps this had something to do with the time of day, and his mother couldn’t stop laughing.) So it was almost unsurprising when he came back that famous afternoon with the venison to find that his father already had eaten (and mere goat at that) and given away the blessing that was due to him. He and his silent father wept at this deceit while his brother and his mother sat quietly in their tent with nothing to say for once.

He hadn’t missed the birthright, but with the blessing they had stolen his father’s love, and their hatred astonished him. Would he have stolen his brother’s blessing, or bartered with him for soup? And was it even hatred, or just their conviction — which had now become his — that he had no place here?

His father died. His brother left. He rarely saw his mother. Gradually the murderous thoughts quieted. He took a new wife from among his own people, hoping to find favor with the mother he had renounced, and she praised him without meaning it. The wife did not please him. He founded a great nation, greater than his brother’s, and rarely had time for the fields.

Henry Bean is a writer and director. His new film, “Noise,” will be shot next spring.

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