Thine Only Son - and Mine

The story of the sacrifice of Isaac is traditionally linked to Rosh Hashanah. In this fictionalized rendition, Galina Vromen wonders what would have happened had Abraham told Sarah of his planned sacrifice

Galina Vromen
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The mountains soaked in the oncoming darkness, turning black against the orange sky as I ground the grain for tomorrow's bread.

In the distance, Abraham approached, more slowly than usual, bent over his walking stick, his neck craning from side to side like a hungry bird. His headdress and robes billowed around him, so that he seemed to sway unevenly, although he moved quickly for a man his age.

When he reached me, he bent and touched my shoulder in greeting and I tilted my cheek to meet the knotty hand he had already withdrawn. I continued grinding while he went inside. He coughed up phlegm and rummaged for a cloth before emerging to wash himself by the flat stone where we keep the water jugs.

I rose to prepare dinner. My knees ached as I stood; my legs could no longer straighten completely. My back too refused to reach its full height. The earth these days seemed to beckon, pulling my body down as if about to claim it.

"I almost lost a sheep today - the foolish beast tried to cross the canyon when I wasn't looking - but I got her back," he told me, patting his beard dry.

I nodded in sympathy and put the soup on the fire to boil.

"Isaac not back yet?" he asked.

"No," I said.

"Good."

I looked up in surprise.

"It will give us a chance to talk," he explained, meeting my gaze.

"What about?"

"You must promise not to be upset," he said, sitting on the mat beside me.

I was startled. "Why, what am I going to be upset about? Has Isaac gotten into some mischief?"

"No, nothing like that. You must listen to what I have to say calmly to the end, without interrupting."

"Abraham, what is it?" I said annoyed at his presumption that he - or I - could rule my emotions.

"Sarah, Sarah, my good wife, we have been through so much together."

"Yes," I answered, but it was more a question than an affirmation. What could he want from me now? What new notion had he gotten into his head? Maybe it had nothing to do with Isaac. Maybe he was thinking of getting a new wife.

"Last night, I had a dream. More precisely, a vision - from God."

My eyes searched Abraham's face, my heart filled with fear. Heaven knows, we have enough to be grateful to God for. He has given us happiness, with each other and with Isaac. He has given us of His bounty and I pray in thanks to Him every day, as I should. Like most people, I have a straightforward relationship with Him: I pray and He either answers or He doesn't. But with Abraham, things are more complicated. God is always coming to him with demands. Of course, it is a great honor, but deep in my heart - this is difficult to admit - I think Abraham is overburdened by God. My husband considers me too ignorant to understand, but when you hear my side of the story you will understand that I have come to know far better than Abraham the mystery of God's ways. Sitting by the fire that day, however, I was terrified.

"What did God want?" I asked Abraham.

"Well, He told me to take Isaac to a mountain in the region of Moriah and - sacrifice him."

"What?" I said incredulously.

"Sacrifice him, like a lamb."

"Are you mad," I said, so startled I dropped my usual deference for my husband. "Is God mad?" I whispered. I peered at his face for a glimmer of hope. But he clenched his sharp jaw, just visible under the sparse white beard, and his nostrils flared in determination, offering me no comfort.

"I don't know, Sarah. The truth is I don't know. I didn't mention it this morning, because I had to think about it, try to figure God's reasoning. We waited so long for Isaac, wanted him so much and now," his voice broke in bewilderment, "God is asking us to give him up."

"Are you sure you understood right?" I rushed to interject, my voice suddenly shrill and insistent with trepidation. "Maybe God meant something else, maybe the vision has another interpretation."

"No, no Sarah. I am...," he hesitated, overcome with emotion, "absolutely sure of the vision." Holding back tears glistening in his eyes, he added hoarsely. "And out of love of God, I must obey Him, just as you, out of love for me, are obliged to obey me. Oh Sarah," he sobbed.

I put my arms around his thin shuddering shoulders, trying to comfort him. I myself was tearless. My mind was racing. "How can it be? Can He really want us to do this? Why? How can He be so cruel? Huddled on the mat, we clung to each other in misery as layers of night washed over us.

After a while, I rose and silently served Abraham his soup in one of the green earthen bowls he had brought me when we first settled on our land. My mouth was too sour with rage to eat. "Please give Isaac some soup when he comes. I cannot stand to face him. I am going to bed." I went inside and lay down, drained and numb.

On my bedding I thought about Isaac, the miracle of my old age. No one can imagine how fervently I had prayed for his birth. No one can fathom the jealousy with which for years I had watched women suckle babies - such jealousy that once, when Hagar, our servant, was feeding her son, I found myself imagining the baby biting off her teat, leaving the breast badly gashed and oozing blood. I was so humiliated at the time by my thoughts that I ran to a field and vomited. Afterwards, I lay in that field for a long time, with my eyes closed, trying to calm myself. But the cacophony of the bugs was as insistent as the dull longing in my hollow womb. I opened my robes and looked at my pitiful belly, already sagging with age like the toothless smile of a beggar. Much as I love my husband and wanted him to have a son, even if I could not give him one, it drove me crazy to see Hagar with their son Ishmael. I know I agreed to the whole arrangement - I even encouraged it - but afterwards, it took all my restraint not to kill her.

When I became pregnant, I didn't realize it for six months. When Isaac was born, I would wonder for hours at the light brown tufts of his hair, fine as threads of a spider web, catching the light in all the colors of the rainbow as he suckled at my breast. Later, I was stunned by his dogged determination in learning to walk. He would totter, drunk on the elixir of mobility, his eyes fearless from effort, defying my predictions of his imminent fall.

A few years later, while running after a sheep, he scratched his face badly in the brambles. I cried for hours when I realized a few months later that the tiny scars on his translucent conch skin would never disappear. Recently the child had been melting away, like clay streaming down a mountain in the flash floods of spring. He was turning all gangling sinew, an excess of arms and legs mysteriously held together by bulbous knots of shoulders, knees and hips. The tufts of dark hair tentatively sprouting under his arms and on his chest made him seem more vulnerable than manly. Like clay, he would re-form into something else, the same and yet different and I would still love him. These days, he brushed me aside if I tried to kiss him. But I could tell - by the slight hesitation before he pulled away - that he did not entirely reject my affections. He still liked to tell me in his careful, pedantic way about whatever he had noticed while tending the sheep.

If he saw a plant new to our region, he would bring it to show me and through him, rather than from Abraham who was much more reticent, I first heard about the plagues that visited our neighbor's sheep, or the birth of a new calf.

But what was I doing, reminiscing pleasantly after what Abraham told me?

God is impossible, I thought to myself. How can He be so unreasonable? We judge our own success in life by our ability to learn the art of moderation, knowing how to ask in moderation, knowing how to give in moderation. But God is immoderate, both in what He gives us, and now, in what He is asking us to give up.

Suddenly I imagined the scene. Abraham tying up Isaac. Would the child resist? Abraham would talk to him, try to soothe him at first. Then the look of horror in Isaac's eyes as he realized what his father planned to do. Would he call for me and scream in terror as Abraham grabbed his neck? Would Abraham hesitate a moment before pressing a glistening knife to the throat? I saw the vein in Isaac's neck, convoluted and pale blue, always bulging at the slightest provocation. It was the vein that had strained when he had first tried to hoist himself over the wall near our encampment; that had throbbed as he screamed more from outrage than from pain, when he fell on the other side. It was the vein that pulsated when he lugged jugs of water and when he called out to his father in the field. It was the vein I stroked when he occasionally still laid his tired head on my lap as he had loved to do as a child.

I envisioned the knife descending towards the vein. First the gleaming metal squeezed against the meager fat on his neck, like a hand gripping a thin arm in fear. Then a line as it cut through the skin - a clean cut. A last scream. Then blood. Rich, dark, fresh. At first oozing hesitantly, then gushing. The child whimpering, each whimper prompting a fresh spurt. Would the blood cover Abraham's hand? Would he hold Isaac as he died or turn away?

Over and over the scene surged through my mind. Abraham's fingers grabbing the soft skin. Visions of the wound ripping open flashed like a never-ending lightning storm against a red sky of blood.

I tried to stop the visions. But they were replaced by yet more horrible ones. Abraham lighting a fire under the limp body. The flames blackening Isaac's slim, pale chest, licking the cavity under his ribs to mere bone, then ash. The dark curls on his hair in flames, his eyes sizzling to nothingness. Would Abraham turn away and weep? Or would he stand, facing the fire, leaning on his stick, and mutter "it is God's will" in a litany against pain? Would it work? Could one diminish pain with such words?

No, I concluded. If this is God's will, then He is an outrage. I, for one, will not do His will. If Abraham insists on fulfilling the demands of such an unjust God, I will take Isaac away, we will run as far as we can.

But I could think of nowhere to go. Abraham would have used all his resources to track us down. He would have sent messengers and scouts far and wide to apprehend us. And in the end, I am sure, he would have succeeded - with God's help or without. No, there was no place to run to. I had to think of something else.

The shadows from the fire outside leapt and dimmed on the tent wall like my feverish thoughts. I twisted and turned, discarding one idea after another. I considered telling Isaac what his father planned, in hopes the boy would resist. But Isaac would either bow to his father's will or he would have to kill Abraham. Knowing Isaac, he would probably honor his father and agree to his own death; for, he adored his father no less than Abraham adored God. It was too cruel to fathom - Isaac knowing his father was ready to kill him, like that very occasional lamb at the slaughter who, sensing his fate, ceases bleating, and arouses our pity more than the scores of other beasts who cry out for mercy.

I considered killing Abraham myself, but feared my will would desert me at the last moment; for, truly, I loved Abraham, fool though he was in succumbing to his vision. Besides, I could see no way to do it. Grab a knife and drive it into his heart? He was no longer a strong man, but than neither was I as strong as I had been. He was sure to resist, fend me off, perhaps even kill me.

I was amazed at my own thoughts, astounded that God could bring me to such despair that I would consider killing my own husband. God heaps nightmares on us as carelessly as a child pouring sand on a colony of ants.

As I tossed and cried, dismissing one thought after another, I heard Isaac approach the fire outside the tent.

"Isaac, I want to go look at some sheep in the Moriah region. I've heard say they are especially good for breeding. I want you to come with me," I heard Abraham tell him.

Isaac sounded pleased. "Shall I gather provisions first thing in the morning and get the donkey ready?"

"Yes, we'll leave at sunrise."

"Well, then I'd better get some rest."

Abraham wished his son good night and soon turned in himself. He lay by me, tried to hug me from behind. But I stiffened. "How can you?" my mind protested. Soon I heard him snoring, sleeping soundly. How peaceful perfect faith is! It must be easier to sacrifice your son if you believe in perfect causes. But where does perfect faith end and utter madness begin? How are we to know the difference? It is the doubters like me, who through some lack of grace or some excess of vision, either do not see enough or see too much, who cannot sleep. Abraham is resigned. I am not. But Isaac is no less my son than Abraham's. Doesn't God have to ask, if I, too, agree to this sacrifice? I do not and I will not. I don't know how I will stop Abraham, but I will.

In the morning, Abraham rolled out of bed just as the dusty light of early morning filtered into our tent. He coughed, stumbled outside and splashed water on his face. He went to the wood pile and began to chop up branches, loading them onto the donkey while Isaac boiled water for tea, got food for the beast and awoke the two servants who were to accompany them.

I was already alert, having been unable to sleep all night. I lay taut and tense, waiting for them to leave. Isaac, bless him, came in to kiss me. I pretended to sleep as I did not want him to see the terror in my eyes. I feared that if I allowed myself to look at him, I would grab him and refuse to let him go and he would come to know the true purpose of his trek to Moriah. So I only moved slightly and murmured a bit so he should know that his kiss had been, somehow, acknowledged. My heart cried as I inhaled his must with the kiss, trying to imprint on my mind that sweet smelling mixture of sheep, burnt wood, sweat and the trace of mint from the morning tea still on his lips.

Abraham came in also to kiss me. He stood and looked over me lovingly, imagining me to be peacefully slumbering. I opened my eyes, stinging from lack of sleep. "How can you?" I hissed at him.

He shrugged. "What I must do is harder than what you must do. You just have to resign yourself to our fate. I, by my own hand, must implement it."

"What foolishness. You think because what you must do is difficult that it is somehow right. I will never forgive you, Abraham, or that God of yours. No mother would," I whispered. "I will not let you do it."

He shrugged again. He scowled, his jaw pointed firmly forward, his lips narrowing like a closed oyster shell in that stubborn look I had known in him all our life together. "Peace be upon you," he said quietly and left the tent.

No sooner had they left than I rose from the bedding, washing and dressing as fast as my clumsy limbs allowed. I rebraided my long gray hair and put on a white robe. The color accentuated my skin which was darker than my son's and had gone spotty and rough like a lizard's with age. My frame, always small, had become more brittle and sparse with time so that the robe hung on me as loosely as on a peg. I grabbed a small bag of flour from the storage hut, filled a leather water flask and strapped it and the flour on my back. I dug up money from the hole under our bedding where Abraham hid our coins. I took all there was.

"Do not wait for me tonight," I told one of the shepherds who normally helped Abraham. "I'm leaving you in charge here until Abraham or I return."

I set out as the sun finally made its full face visible over the horizon, bathing me in its light. Despite my distress, I closed my eyes to greet it. At this hour, its warmth was still welcome, although I knew I would curse its heat well before the day ended. I figured Abraham had to be heading northeast towards Moriah and soon I picked up his tracks. My every joint ached with the effort. "Never mind," I muttered to myself, shaking the pebbles out of my sandal with each step, my feet almost ankle deep in sand. "I'll get used to this. Old bones are always stiffest in the morning. The important thing is to keep up." I looked ahead, where Abraham, Isaac and the servants fell from view and reappeared again, as they made their way through the dunes.

It was early spring; the tenderest grass spread across the sand, thicker in the gullies where the winter rains had collected. It looked as if an Almighty hand had sprinkled the hills far and wide with a layer of fine green dust. There was nothing around but sky, sand, grass and that undulating speck of humans in the distance to which I remained riveted like a hungry dog to a dangling bone.

By noon I was gasping for breath, my ankles and fingers were swollen but at least my bones no longer ached. I was covered in dust. I could feel the grains of sand lodged deep in my wrinkles. My throat was parched although I had made generous use of my water flask all morning. "How much further can it be to the Moriah region?" I wondered.

It turned out to be another two days. I will never know how I managed to keep up with the men. But I did. I suppose I should be grateful that Abraham has aged no more gracefully than I have; the trip must have been difficult for him too, and it must have been he who slowed down the others. I was so exhausted at night that when a beetle crawled across my forehead and headed down my cheek as I rested, I did not even lift an arm to brush it away. My back throbbed dully on the hard ground; my fingers were so swollen I could hardly grasp the water flask for a drink.

On the second night, they bedded down in a nomad settlement. I set up my far more modest camp just out of their hearing. Fortunately, in the course of the day, I had come across a caravan loaded with merchandise from the south of Sinai. I stopped the leader, hoping he might sell me a blanket, which he did. Then, being an adept merchant, he tried to sell me fabrics as well, some marvelous pieces such as I had never seen before. I was about to reject the idea, for I think it is foolish for a woman with as many wrinkles as I to bedeck herself with finery. But then it occurred to me that some magnificent fabric might be just what I needed to carry out the plan which had been forming in my head as I stumbled across the desert in pursuit of my son. So I bought some white gossamer cloth and some brilliant blue fabric, both of which were intertwined with threads of the most delicate gold.

On the third day, Abraham had awoken and was staring at the distant mountain when I spotted him from my own camp behind a nearby bush.

Instantly, I knew that was the mountain he planned to climb to carry out his mad mission. I folded my blanket and scurried away just as Abraham was unloading the wood from the donkey and instructing the servants to await him. I passed a tent at the end of the settlement that was out of sight and sound of Abraham's camp. Before it, I found a young man fixing a cutting tool. He was unusually tall, his hair red curled and cascaded down his shoulders.

"I wonder if you might help me," I said.

He looked up, startled. Before he could dismiss me, I rummaged in my clothing for the bag of coins I had hidden in my bosom. "You must do as I tell you and you will be handsomely rewarded."

He shrugged in a movement at once indifferent and inquisitive.

I beckoned him to follow me, signaling him to keep quiet. We came within sight of Abraham, who, having left the servants behind, was proceeding up the mountain alone with Isaac. "You must help me up the mountain, after those two men. But they must not know of our presence."

Rock by rock, we wove our way up the mountain. I could feel my heart pounding, my head too, first from the effort, then also from the heat. My strength almost failed me but the young fellow was of the helpful unimposing sort: he pushed me when I needed pushing, and pulled - gently - when I needed to be pulled. I was grateful for his silence. By the time we reached a plateau near the top, I was shaking from exhaustion. "Now what?" he asked. He had to wait for me to catch my breath before I could answer.

"Now we wait a bit," I whispered, still gasping. Abraham was just a stretch above us. There was a rustling in the bushes near us. "What's that noise," I asked in a whisper.

"Probably a mountain goat," the young man whispered back. "Would you like me to try and catch it for our lunch?"

I was about to reject his idea as a feast was the last thing I could imagine at the time. But then it occurred to me that a mountain goat might serve us well. "Do you think you can catch it without harming it?"

"I can try," he said.

"Do. But be quiet about it," I instructed him. He leapt into the bush, rope in hand, and emerged a few minutes later, slightly scratched on his arm but with the animal - a ram as it turned out - in tow, the rope around its neck.

"Please tie it to a tree," I instructed him. When he was done, I took the rich fabric I had bought out of my bag. "Wrap yourself in these," I told him.

"What is this?" he said. "Are you mad, woman?"

"This is what I am paying you for. Put it on, let the cloth puff around your neck." When he had done so, I gave him a piece of gossamer to add at the last moment. Then I told him what to do. He proceeded ahead of me.

Truth be told, he followed my instructions perfectly. The white cloth was almost like a cloud, billowing around his face, and the gold threads made the blue cloth blinding as it caught the full sun of midday. Nothing could have looked more angel-like than that nomad, with his brilliant red hair. "Abraham, Abraham," he called out.

"Here I am," Abraham answered.

The nomad stepped into the clearing. "Do not lay a hand on the boy," he said. "Do not do anything to him. Now I know you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son."

My savior said his lines in a marvelous sonorous voice, just as I had ordered him to, then backed away and allowed himself to be hidden by the thicket. I stood not more than three arm-lengths away, holding onto the ram.

When the nomad - I never learned his name - had moved away, I let the animal go. The poor beast was so overcome by freedom that as he bound to the top of the mountain, his horns caught in the thicket. Abraham seized him and offered him as a sacrifice to God. So the ram lost it, that precious freedom to be alive. But my son, my beloved son, regained his.

And whenever Abraham retells the events of that strangest of days, as he so likes to do, I remain silent and nod solemnly, particularly when he reminds all who will listen that God works in mysterious ways.

Reprinted by permission of Invisible Cities Press, Vermont, from "With Signs and Wonders: An International Anthology of Jewish Fabulist Fiction," edited by Daniel M. Jaffe.

© Galina Vromen