By Ellyn Bache
Why did I follow him?
Because he was old, newly recovered from illness, and I feared he had no strength?
No; I was old myself. We had been married for many years. I knew what he could do.
Because it seemed senseless to travel three days just to offer a sacrifice?
And yet he had been called farther. He always went.
Because he was not himself?
He was never “himself” after one of his Encounters.
Some people called them spells. Spells, as if describing some small complaint, disturbing but transient. Or maybe he was restless again—a good man, a good leader, but filled with wanderlust, despite his years.
They were not spells. He had always claimed he talked to God. One God. The Only. The Eternal.
Was he mad?
I sometimes thought so.
But also there was this: In the presence of the Eternal, the light is not golden as people expect, but a cool silver-green, balmy and warm on the skin, fecund and alive, like the miraculous beginning of the world. It is light that has traveled from that time to this, a great, moving, nurturing mass, benevolent in a large and mysterious way. There are no doubts then. You know without knowing.
Then comes the erosive passage of time. Yesterday’s miracle does not suffice for today. Yesterday was easy, with the radiance of the Eternal still shimmering from his clothes, his eyes. Today is hard: the harsh light of a desert morning, the sour breath, a dull ache settling behind the eyes.
On that day, his color was not good. His expression was not joyful with the memory of yesterday’s Encounter as it often was, though in truth his pleasure was always tempered by the burden of being chosen, the sharp clarity of an Eternal too large for a mortal mind.
“Husband?” I touched his cheek above the thinning beard. He offered a frail smile of reassurance. The worry-lines around his eyes were deep. Weren’t they always? Was he still sick?
I did not think so.
I followed him because he took the boy.
“Saddle an ass,” I said to Mute, his tongue cut out when he was yet a child.
My handmaid frowned, said in her blunt voice, “Mistress, you should not set forth alone.”
“Not alone. With Mute.” He was big, stronger than most men, dumb but not stupid. He had been with me many years. I trusted him. More than that, I welcomed his silence.
“Mute is no protection if. . . ”
I held up my hand. We were hours behind already. My maid gave Mute the provisions she had packed. I wrapped some of the cheese in cloth and bound it to my waist, along with an extra portion of water.
I did not welcome the journey. We were spoiled, living so long in the watered land. Cookfires burning on the same ground day after day. Tents with an air of permanence. A camp that made us forget the long desert pilgrimages from well to well, the drought, the hardship. But not just that. My body, in the eight years since Isaac’s birth, had begun to seize up inside itself. Fingers so stiff that sometimes I could not hold a distaff. I had long ago stopped carding wool. Some nights I lay awake, shifting position to comfort my aching hips. Other times, it was my knees. And when riding a donkey, my back ached with every movement.
On that day I felt no pain, just a great heaviness. My mind, not yet slowed by age, was weighted down with worry. Was I afraid? Of course. From the look on my husband’s face when he parted from me, from the reluctance of his gait as he set out with knife and firewood but no animal to sacrifice, to do what he thought was the bidding of the Eternal, I sensed the gravity of my mission. The Eternal was a harsh master, stronger than I. Hadn’t I been warned of that the day I laughed at Him for saying that, in my old age, I would yet bear a son?
What would become of that son now?
You sense in the presence of the Eternal a superior force against which you cannot prevail. Yet sometimes you want to. You cannot help acting like a mother, wanting to protect your child. It is your reason for being. Why else did the Eternal make it this way?
Or perhaps my husband had met not with the Eternal this time, but with Satan, the Devil, the Enemy. I would not rule it out. The thought made me hope my husband was merely mad. Merely. Against human madness, it was possible to prevail.
Either way, I meant to try.
I shuddered and wrapped myself tight in my shawl.
We picked our way through the dryness. Away from the source of water, into the wilderness, sharp pebbles underfoot, the cruel sweep of sand. I thought of Hagar then, who lives even now in this parched land. I had loved Hagar once, more the fool was I. Loving her proved almost as pure a source of pain, in those days, as not being able to bear a son.
In the end, Hagar taught me my capacity for cruelty. She did not teach me shame.
Mistress, she had once called me, in a soft, syrupy voice that made me believe it was true.
Why did I offer Hagar to my husband? Because I loved him then, this great, troubled man who believed in the Eternal with such steadfast hope. Because he suffered. Because the Eternal had told him he would be the father of nations, and I had not yet borne him a child. We were old, and well-accustomed to each other, but beneath the busy surface of our lives, loneliness was the place we dwelled, a wasteland needing a son to fill it. I believed the idea of presenting him with Hagar came from the Eternal. In that silvery Presence, everything is itself and yet not itself. Itself infused with glory.
It was not unusual for a woman of my station to offer her slave. Hagar was loyal and would do what I told her. She was not a beauty. Her skin was dark, her hair, unruly. In my own haughtiness—I had once been the beauty, after all—I imagined he would not want her. He would turn her away. What arrogance! A man will lie with almost any woman. She does not need silky hair or a pretty face.
I did not realize how much, by giving her to him, I would also give to her. I did not realize how much I would be diminished.
She did not understand at first, either. Then, as her belly swelled, so did her awareness. Although a slave, she carried the only child of a great man. I, her mistress, carried no child at all.
One morning, she failed to clap outside my tent to announce her presence, a common courtesy even my husband observed. “Sarai!” she called—no longer “mistress”—and lifted the flap to enter. She never clapped again. Inside her, ambition grew from a tiny flame into a conflagration, consuming her until she was the burnt crust of the mild woman she had once been.
She demanded special foods. Olives unlike the ones in our nearby groves, but such as grew a day’s walk away. Salt fish such as she had enjoyed in Egypt, impossible to come by here, though she begged my husband to send a servant to procure some. When he refused, she rumored it about that I was the one who had denied her. She held her head in a high, self-important pose. I, who knew the changes power can wreak in those who covet and attain it, all the same was taken unawares. Hagar turned into someone none of us had seen before, but many welcomed, at my expense.
I had quelled rebellions larger than this one, seen to greater issues than this. I did not count on the sharp ache of my own jealousy, the wild rush of envy that filled me, even hate. I was harsh with Hagar, glad when she fled into the desert to escape me, sorry when she returned. Gone was the fire within her then; now power lived within her like a disease, a leprosy. Even my husband found her difficult, treating her only with the courtesy her fruitfulness demanded.
I did not anticipate the ferocity with which he would love the child, Ishmael, when he was born. A bright-eyed, rowdy boy who made his elders laugh. For a time I almost loved him myself.
But not after Isaac came. Not then. Then, to my peril, it was Abraham who most loved Ishmael. Loved him more than he’d ever loved his nephew, Lot, to whom he remained devoted. Loved him more than he loved me, his wife, though he swore not. Above all, he loved Ishmael better than he loved Isaac. Oh, yes; think of it. Isaac, a thoughtful, quiet boy, his second son, his God-favored son, who must have seemed a dim light compared to feisty Ishmael, his first-born, full of laughter and tricks. My husband would have favored Ishmael in every way if he’d had the choice, his infatuation so great that he dared even to ask the Eternal to favor his firstborn son. It was a bold, foolhardy request. But when the Eternal refused and said my husband’s line would pass through Isaac, Abraham acquiesced, I sometimes thought, only because Ishmael was promised greatness, too.
I pondered these things as Mute and I traveled through the desolate landscape, as we stopped for our evening meal, as we made our meager camp. On the second day of our travels, we climbed into the high country, on rough paths that led into bleached, unwelcoming hills. There was so little vegetation, even the shepherds did not venture here. We saw no one. Then Mute raised his arm and pointed out a fine ram wandering alone in the distance. This was exceedingly odd. Perhaps the beast had long ago separated from its flock, though it did not seem starved. Nor did it seem a wild thing. It stopped as we approached, unafraid, regal in repose, studying us with ancient eyes.
A dome of silver hovered in the air then, as Mute secured the ram by a tether. The beast offered no resistance. A silvery radiance shimmered from its fleece, and it bore its bindings with majestic grace. I saw that this was no ordinary creature, either of flocks or mountain wildness. I did not know what to make of it. I was afraid.
My back hurt. Mute noticed and might have gestured a question except for my sharp glance. We journeyed on.
Ours had been a love-match, mine and my husband’s, though I often wished it otherwise. Even as a child I had watched him, marveled in him as he came into his manhood, the strong limbs, the wild halo of hair, the hazel eyes sparked with gold fire. Everyone loved him. Everyone honored him. There were days, later on, when I was sure he loved, in return, only two of us: his dead brother’s son, Lot, whom he had vowed to protect. And me.
It is hard to wish away sweetness. For more years than were seemly, we shared the honeyed melting of flesh against flesh. He took little note of the sanctity of our bed, but I forgave him. Say you are my sister because your great beauty will sway them and they will kill me in order to get you, he told me twice, in the presence of two different powerful men. He did not seem to mind that I might have been taken from him forever, except for the turn of events that freed me each time. He said I was saved not by circumstance but by the intervention of the Eternal. I was not so sure of that.
Nor had I been sure, years earlier, that the order to leave home had come from the Eternal rather than from the mind of my husband. We had been in Haran long enough. We were not old, though the storytellers later would say we were. No: neither old nor in the first flush of youth, yet strong and capable, honed to a fine point of readiness. My husband had become wealthy in his own right, yet remained under the dominion of his father. We were childless, restless, ripe for adventure. Even before the Encounter, we were disposed to go. Everything was before us. Go to the land that I will show you. The command, whether from the Eternal or from my husband’s imagination, was welcome indeed.
The desert, the many towns, the travels. Water and drought. Egypt. Canaan. The Promise that his descendants would number as the stars in the sky. A life of wakeful clarity, not always easy, pocked by the promise of dreams.
Except for my barrenness, I served my husband well. While he waged wars and bartered animals, while he came and went as he wished, it fell to me to run the camps. Outside my tent, I used the distaff, spun wool, heard all that passed, tendered judgment. I was respected. I was fair. On his return, my husband came to my tent to gather information and, with equal urgency, pleasure. He had all he needed from me—except, in those earlier days, a son. I knew him well. I knew, as others did not, that sometimes he heard things he did not really hear.
Inside the sacred bonds of marriage, this is something a wife is bound not to tell. This was my secret.
Mute and I reached the land of Moriah and found my husband’s men at the base of a mountain. My husband and Isaac had ascended not long before, they said. His men had been instructed to wait until their return.
I beckoned Mute to stay with the young men. His eyes were shadowed with worry as he surrendered the ram’s tether, but he took care that the others did not see his concern. The ram offered no resistance. Even so, the way was hard. There was only the hint of a trail, overgrown in places with weeds and shrubbery. My legs ached; my old heart pounded. A truth whined within me, kept me going, saying, even now, your husband loves Ishmael best.
Abraham had held a great feast of celebration when Isaac was weaned. Still a baby then, the boy already loved meat. My husband was proud of this. Meat would make him strong. The baby would stick great chunks of it into his mouth. Sometimes, truly, we had to pry it out.
In the midst of the celebration, Ishmael took a laden plate and led his little half-brother towards his mother’s tent. Ishmael was nearly grown then, mischievous as always, but with a willful, angry edge that grew sharper as he became more and more a man. Still, he was mostly playful.
“Look, the big brother is going to feed the baby,” someone said before the two of them disappeared around the side of the tent. “So sweet.”
I was in the midst of company. Someone was laughing. The gathering was loud. I heard the words almost as an echo: so sweet. And I thought, no! Not sweet. I dislodged myself from the crowd. I found them on the far side of Hagar’s tent, nearly too late. Ishmael, a glory in his strong young body, said to the baby Isaac, Oh, you can eat more than that! Already the baby was choking. Ishmael smiled at him as the boy opened and closed his mouth, making no sound, his airway blocked by a huge, half-chewed chunk of lamb. Hagar, to the side, stood in the doorway of her tent, watching. I grabbed my son, smacked his back, sent the wad of meat flying out of his mouth.
I summoned my husband, who came unwillingly, not wanting to be called away from the celebration.
“See, the boy is fine!” Hagar said, arms crossed in front of her chest. “This is Sarah’s jealousy speaking!” Not my mistress. Though I was.
With my bare hands, I lifted the mangled chunk of lamb from the ground.
“She put that there herself!” Hagar cried.
I think Abraham would have believed her.
“No, she did not put it there,” a small voice said, a witness, a young woman who happened onto the scene and had no reason to lie.
“Ah, but the boy put the meat into his mouth himself,” Ishmael said. “I did not realize it was too much for him to chew.” Full of charm, he glanced at the young woman.
“You fed it to him,” she whispered. “You urged it into his mouth.”
Because of those innocent words, my husband banished Hagar and Ishmael to the desert. It would not have happened otherwise. Even then, he sent them unwillingly, reluctance in his eyes, but with a firm hand, too.
Despite that, I feared them. I still do. He always loved Ishmael best.
The way up the mountain grew so steep that I had to stop for breath. Small, prickly shrubs brushed against my legs. The path nearly disappeared.
As I sat, parched, sipping water, gathering strength, I imagined I heard voices. Abraham and Isaac? It did not seem possible. We were not yet close to the summit. Perhaps it was the wind. Or the Eternal, nudging me. I rose to my feet. Some lessons I had learned well.
On the day the Eternal promised me a son, I laughed at myself for wanting to believe it. I was too old. An internal laughter, safe inside my doubting mind.
“Why did Sarah laugh?” the Eternal asked my husband. “Is anything too wondrous for the Lord?”
“I did not laugh,” I said, fear sweeping through me like wind-driven sand.
“You did laugh.” A gentle admonition, no anger in the words, just a Power too great to name. In such a Presence, even a mild rebuke with a smile behind it can strike like a spear, the sharp edge of wrath that pierces the heart without cutting the flesh. Some things you do not ignore.
On the mountain, my legs grew strong again as I began once more to ascend the path, my stride unaffected by the aching in my knees. Despite the exertion, I felt chilled. A gift from the Eternal was never really a gift. It was always purchased at a dear price. Leave your home and I will give you land. Enter into this covenant of circumcision and I will give you a son. Was that not a harsh and terrible command? Who but a madman would obey? Bad enough to mortify his own flesh, but that of his men? He had not hesitated. Urging them to submit, he’d spoken with a strange, unearthly power behind his words—hypnotic, irresistible; I can hear it still.
A few men fled and did not come back. He let them go. Of those that stayed, some had to be held down. There was an agony of screams. Some died of infection, but most, more than was natural, healed.
My husband loved Ishmael, but he circumcised him all the same.
A year later I gave birth to my son. Then, the price of circumcision did not seem so high.
From that time to this, the loneliness that had been my home for so many years was a memory no thicker than fog.
The Eternal could be kind. And cruel.
What terrible command lay before my husband now?
At the top of the mountain, adjacent to the clearing, I tangled the ram’s horns in a bush that obscured the view in front of me. I undid the tether. I knew to do these things; I am not sure why. I could feel the beast’s great, shuddering fear, though it did not in any way resist.
I turned my eyes to the clearing before me. Upon the altar, my young son was bound. Over him stood his father.
I watched as he lifted the knife, a great wild brightness in his eyes, horror and determination warring inside him. And over it all such madness as I had not seen.
Isaac, his face bloodless, did not scream or utter the slightest sound. His eyes were wide with terror, his voice gone. My son, as mute as the man who’d traveled with me, rendered so not by an attacker’s knife but by fear.
“Stop!” I cried.
With the knife at the apex of its trajectory, Abraham stopped. Had he heard me? What did he hear? His mouth fell open; he raised his eyes, cocked his head toward something I could not see. The air on the mountaintop crackled, as if infused with fire. Transfixed, unmoving, he listened.
There was no sound. It was as I had feared. Abraham was in the presence of Satan. His anguished face looked up.
“Stop!” I screamed again. “Don’t harm the boy. Unbind him!”
As if in a daze, he stood immobile.
A dome of silver embraced me then, and a wondrous translucence informed my vision, so that for that brief moment, as I stood in the silvery light, I could see very clearly things that are impossible to see.
I saw that the ram was no ordinary beast, but one that had roamed the earth since the Creation, carrying within it the dawn of time and knowledge of its fate. Still, it did not move. Not yet.
Then, while Abraham stood in the fiery air, looking upward, the ram shifted, trying to free its horns from the thicket. There was a rustling of leaves.
Abraham saw the ram. He lowered the knife. He understood.
My mad old husband began to unbind his son. He cut the ropes with a sure hand, not quickly. Gently, one might have said. Isaac shivered all the same. When Abraham lifted him, the boy stumbled and then stood. He watched his father slaughter the ram with a swift, clean slice across the throat. He watched the thick red spurt of blood. He stood unmoving and said not a word.
I took hold of my son while Abraham lit the fire, absorbed in his task. He did not see us. The boy was shaking badly. I wrapped him in my shawl and led him toward the path. When we reached the place where the thicket cut off the summit from view, I did not turn for one last glimpse at my husband. That was over now. We would live far from Abraham’s camp. My son’s breathing grew more steady as we walked down the mountain. His footing became more sure.
They said I would be mother of a people.
All I wanted was to be mother to my son.
Copyright © Ellyn Bache 2012
Ellyn Bache is the award-winning author of more than a dozen books, including the novel, Safe Passage, which was made into a film starring Susan Sarandon, a collection of short stories that won the Willa Cather Fiction Prize, and an interfaith holiday novella that was named to the Publishers Weekly “Recommended Holiday Reading” list. Most recently, her novel, The Art of Saying Goodbye, was named by the Southern Independent Booksellers Allliance (SIBA) as a summer 2011 Okra Pick, recognizing books of special interest, and later became a SIBA Book Award nominee. A native of Washington, DC, Ellyn has lived in the Carolinas for many years. More information is on her website, www.ellynbache.com