by K.L. Nappier
Yah-weh. What happened to Your promise?
When I was young, when I was still called Sarai, I took my husband into me on our wedding night, sure of children to come. Abram, so young himself, though ten years my senior; strong and atop me and below me and inside me. Brother. Husband. Sister. Wife. We were these things to each other long before You named me Sarah, before You named him Abraham. Before the promise.
So many years together. So much horror. So much wonder. But no children to help me soften into old age. No sons for Abraham’s name. No daughters for wisdom.
I hate my body! It’s as empty as Your promise!
In Haran, the torpor of famine was so thickened by self-loathing and shame the families were pressed into their tents by the weight of it. At mid-morning the pavilions stood empty, without even the healthier children beneath them playing games to keep their minds off hunger. Only two men were in the open, squatting with cudgels in hand, their backs to a goat hide tent; sentries, guarding the couple inside.
Sarai’s hands trembled as she wrapped Abram’s mangled wrists. The trembling was common, but this time it was the aftershock of all that had happened, not the morning’s dry chill or the nagging of starvation.
Abram was shivering too, but he was so weak he didn’t even wince as she finished his wrists and moved to his ankles. Linen, the only piece they owned, was shredded into long strips as wide as her palm. She had soaked them in olive oil; a poor ointment for any wound, much less these, and precious food during any time, much less famine. But the oil was the only balm she had. The linen had to be kept from sticking to Abram’s raw, swollen wounds.
At least the slashes across his arms, chest and back were not as severe. The leather straps that had bound him ’round had been cinched into place just before the priests hoisted him onto Sun’s altar; as though Abram might’ve struggled, bound as he already was, hand and foot, for three agonizing days of slaughter. Forced to watch the women die as his goat hide bonds withered, tightened and bit through his flesh nearly to the bone.
Sarai risked leaving the lesser wounds untended for the time being, but would watch them over the course of the coming days. Her eyes began to burn with thin tears as she worked.
Her mind was still too frantic for her to feel elation. It was still running numbly from Onan’s decree of heretic. Running from the families’ shame, from the awful and failed bargain her father, Terah, had struck. Running from the warm smell of human blood and the screams of the women betrayed by him. Running from the brilliant memory of what had stopped it all so suddenly.
What a simple matter it is, she thought, when people starve, to bend their judgment. Even if the thing demanded of them is beyond horror.
She finished wrapping her husband’s ankles and sat back unsteadily on her folded legs. Abram stirred.
‘Sarai ” His voice was hardly more than a rasp.
‘Here,’ she said immediately, but couldn’t move right away.
He looked around, then struggled to sit upright. His battered arms wouldn’t support him.
‘Don’t,’ Sarai ordered, finally able to scoot toward his head, ‘stay down.’
He obeyed, but only, she knew, because he had no choice. His shivering worsened. Sarai reached for the blanket she had thrown aside earlier, when Lot and Iscah had carried Abram in for her and laid him on the pallet. He was all but naked. A loincloth wrapped around his lanky hips was the only modesty Onan and his priests had permitted.
Sarai lay next to him on their pallet and covered them both with the blanket. A wave of vertigo surged through her. Seven days had passed since she had lain so with him, two since she had slept.
After a few moments, Abram’s shivering lessened. He drew a breath and, exhaling, asked, ‘Did you see?’
She knew he wasn’t speaking of the sacrifices. Everyone had seen that. The families’ presence had been required at every awful day of carnage.
‘I never ‘ I would have never ‘ Sarai, did you See?’
‘Did the others? Did any others?’
‘Some, I think. Lot, for certain. I saw his face.’ Sarai’s forehead contorted as she recalled, too, how the eldest priest had shrunk away from Abram, bound upon the altar. The blood of the last young woman had still been steaming in the cool light of dawn. ‘I think Onan Saw, too, before he died.’
Abram closed his eyes. His long, craggy face was less ashen in the tent’s tawny light, an effect of the hide walls.
‘Onan,’ he repeated, as if he were speaking out of dream. ‘I have to learn to not hate him. And Terah. Especially.’ His voice strained against a sob. ‘How can I learn that, Sarai?’
Her belly convulsed at the mention of their father’s name and she had to roll away from Abram, fearing that the bile might rise. Had there been any food in her, she might have lost it.
‘I can’t talk about forgiveness. Not now. Not when I’d rather taste his blood on my tongue!’
‘If you Saw, then you know ” Abram’s voice was growing weaker. His words slurred and faded away before he finished.
Frightened, Sarai turned back to him and pressed her hand to his chest. But he was only sleeping. Relief weakened her and she laid her arm across him and let her head drop, willing at last to surrender to fatigue. Even hunger wouldn’t find Sarai now. The trauma of the past days was eclipsed as she lay more unconscious than asleep. Nothing stirred her mind. Not even the white-hot awe, the wonder, the painful, brilliant experience of glory she had Seen.
Sarai dreams. The young women shriek again, so loud not even the leather gags muffle their cries, and three days of sacrifice contort into one. She smells their blood. She smells her own sweat and is ashamed when her mouth waters at the odors.
She is consumed with agony and dread. She is wailing as Abram is hefted onto the altar. It takes three men to hold her fast. She is screaming at Onan, his arms smeared with the gore of three dead women, as he poises the bronze knife above Abram’s heart:
‘Nothing will change! Nothing will change, no matter how much blood you give to Sun!’
Then the Seeing bursts onto her. Before Onan’s knife can plunge into Abram’s heart, before the leather straps chewing into her husband pop apart like dry grain husks.
The blinding terror and then Sight, the flood of glorious torment slashing through her. Even Abram’s sudden freedom means nothing to her now. She is aware of him tumbling off the altar, she is aware of Onan burying his stricken face in his hands as he stumbles backward. But what is any of this to her, consumed by the Seeing? Of what concern are the terrified bellows of the lesser priests, clawing their way through the hysterical crowd, all screaming, screaming’
Screaming! Sarai was suddenly awake, sitting upright before her eyes were open and aware at last that the screaming was one woman somewhere near. Abram had heard it too, and was writhing on his back, unable to rise. He was saying to her, ‘Go look! Sarai! Go see what’s wrong!’
But there was no need. Wide-awake now, she recognized the screaming for the familiar keening it really was. Another loved one lost. An elder, perhaps, too full of years to survive the famine. Or a child, too frail, too lacking in them. A moment more, and Sarai heard others join the woman’s mournful ululation.
Abram was calmer. He, too, must have recognized the cries, all too common any more. Sunlight dappled his wiry body, stealing through the gaps and imperfections in the hide tent’s roof and eastern wall. They had slept well into the next morning.
Sarai’s senses were strangely crisp, as though she was half her age and fully fed. She drew a deep breath and shifted toward Abram, surprised to see his eyes so clear. Surprised to see him there at all. Now at last came the elation, the realization:
Alive! He’s alive and here with me!
Her very next thought leapt to breakfast. Yet she stifled the gnawing urge and examined Abram’s wounds. He had enough strength to wince at her touch this morning, but the swelling was remarkably low, far less than yesterday, as though three days of healing had past instead of one. The cuts across his ropy arms were barely inflamed.
Her hunger finally muscled its way through her curiosity. Without a word, she padded to the woven chest that held their stores. She was generous this morning. Two precious bread patties for her husband, because the priests wouldn’t have spared much, if anything at all. They wouldn’t have seen any need to waste food on a condemned man. Sarai dipped Abram’s cup into the water jar and began to murmur a prayer to Yah-weh.
A sob choked her, so that she couldn’t finish. Abram lifted one wounded arm and rested it in her lap. She leaned over, kissed him and wanted to weep again at the feel of their dry lips pressed together. Then she helped him sit up so he could drink and draped the blanket across his bare shoulders.
They ate their breakfast in haste, unable to help themselves. Then Abram said, ‘you should go see,’ as he worked his way down onto the pallet again. ‘See who it was.’
Sarai nodded. ‘If you’ll be all right. I won’t be very long.’
‘I’ll be fine.’
Even in the muted, speckled light of the tent Sarai could see that he would. The mourning woman struck up her keening anew, startling Sarai, making her think again of the three young women, their naked backs on the cold, rough-hewn stone. She helped Abram dress and wadded the bloodstained loincloth disdainfully in a far corner.
‘Leave off your belt,’ she said, ‘at least while you rest.’
Abram nodded, grimacing at the scratch of the tunic’s coarse woolen weave across his back.
Oh, for linen, right now, Abram. For smooth, cool linen on your shoulders’
He tried to comb his hair and beard, but they were matted from days of forced neglect. His hands were stiff and the gestures pained his wrists. Sarai took the wooden comb from him and worked his tangles, a confused weave of ash and kohl.
She began to lift his cap to his head, but he caught her hands and kissed them. Tears threatened again. She fit the cap to Abram’s scalp, and smoothed her palms against his bushy, mottled beard. Then she wrestled the comb through the thick jet of her own hair.
She was already dressed, belt and all, having fallen asleep in her long-sleeved shift. She draped on a head covering, tossed its long end across her chest and shoulder, then grabbed a ram’s bladder hanging from the tent’s center pole.
‘I’ll go down to the river before I come back,’ she said. ‘I won’t be long ”
‘I’ll be fine,’ he repeated, ‘you go.’
Sarai stepped into the harsh light of morning and picked up her sandals. Lot and Iscah were still on guard. They stood quickly, but kept their gaze down out of respect for her matriarchy; the standard courtesy regardless of their close kinship as first-blood nephews.
She spoke first and, in doing so, permitted them to meet her eyes. ‘Have you been here all night without relief?’
‘Nahor and his oldest spelled us when Moon was low,’ Iscah replied. ‘They woke us just before Sun did.’
Somber Iscah. Only the closest of family might know he was regarding Sarai with concern. His expression was always in his eyes, rarely in his flat, broad face.
His brusqueness, the memory of his stature and agility as they once were, still intimidated people. There was a time when Iscah could have guarded Sarai and Abram single-handedly against a half-dozen enemies. Now, along with the muscles of his stocky frame, the famine was devouring his hair, gobbling it in large patches. If the surviving priests were bold enough to call for Abram’s arrest again, Iscah couldn’t have defended his uncle, even with Lot’s help.
Lot was losing his hair, too, though mostly in his beard. Lot shared his brother’s coloring, but his build was their father’s, long dead. The wedges that were his face and frame were so sharpened, his shoulder bones poked beneath the flesh like the cross poles of a pavilion.
‘How is he?’ Lot asked, as unguarded in his affections as Iscah was circumspect. Especially concerning Abram, whom he had cleaved to as a very young boy after losing his father.
Sarai managed to smile for the first time in days. Lot seemed as rested as Sarai, especially compared to Iscah. But he also seemed bewildered. There were questions in his eyes, and he couldn’t seem to ask them. Whether this was because he didn’t know how or because he couldn’t bear the humility of asking a woman’s advice, even a matriarch’s, Sarai couldn’t tell.
She lost her smile suddenly, matching her nephew’s gaze. She wanted to ask him something, too. Was I right about you? Did you See, too?
But Abram called her back again. She poked her head through the door flap as she laced on her sandals, balancing on one foot, then the other. The stark shift between outdoors and in left her blind. Abram’s voice came to her through the dark:
‘Last night. You said you Saw.’
Sarai blinked, trying to clear her vision. ‘Yes.’
‘And others ‘?’
‘Yes. Lot, at least. He’s here right now.’
‘You said Onan, too,’ he reminded her.
Sarai couldn’t bring herself to reply.
‘When you come back, we’ll pray, decide things.’
Sarai had a sudden, awful thought. ‘The priests must be deciding things, too.’
She could just make Abram out, now, as though he sat within the dim mouth of a cave.
‘But they’ll have to attend to Onan’s burial first,’ he said. ‘That allows us some time.’
She ducked out of the door flap and into the glare of day as she called back to him, ‘I won’t be long.’
River Balikh had flowed through every drought the families had seen since they had come to this land. Sarai had just entered womanhood back then, enduring seven cycles of menses, before they’d left Ur in the southeast. Newlyweds, she and Abram had been, fleeing the worst famine of that long ago time with their father Terah, his wives and forty-five families of brothers, sisters and cousins.
All along a dwindling River Euphrates, their people had found no land unused by the desiccation. There were no welcomes by settlements hardly able to sustain themselves, let alone newcomers; only a wary hospitality based on the patriarchs’ word that the families would soon move on.
Even the fireside stories were designed to discourage any prolonged stays: lamentations of what used to be. Of a harsh desert land made harsher still. Of precious, trickling wadis sucked back into the cracked soil, of the vanishing kestrels and eagles ‘even of the hardy desert bustard, which seemed more lizard than bird.
Long before Sarai’s kin had entered the shrub desert, the people of this wasteland had begun competing with starving jackals and hyenas for the carcasses of oryxes and gazelles rotting beside the wadis’ withered rushes and reeds. There was no room for more competition.
Then Abram had persuaded Terah and Onan to risk turning north up a tributary instead of following the main course. His cunning was already earning him respect and his certainty of a One greater than Sun was already strong. This move secured his and Sarai’s standing. Here was a place with no other families, no other settlements, barely touched by drought. The river was low, but her current was swift and clean.
Her hillsides sustained stepped layers of pine, carob and fig. Carpets of daffodils and irises spread across the lowland at season’s turn and tough, dense grass fed deer, ibex and mouflon that, in turn, fed lion, lynx and jackal. The pale, stony slopes of River Balikh had been grooved with recent erosion, and the scrub bushes growing on them were a deep, living green.
Sarai was slipping on the loose, sun-bleached stones of those slopes now, catching herself by gripping one of the bushes. Brown, brittle. Dead as Terah’s son, Haran, for whom this land was named; lost so many years ago in Ur during the drought that had driven the families here.
Was this famine so much worse than that one? Too hard to remember. The seasons had turned too many times since then, had held within them many cycles of plenty and scarcity. Was Ur stricken now, as well? Was Sippar? Was Mari? Would another slow, agonizing march of ninety-six days have to be risked to find the end of this one?
The riverbanks grew broader and drier every morning, it seemed. Sarai stood on Balikh’s eastern edge. She could have waded across and not dampened her waist, where once young men endured the icy water up to their noses, just to impress each other. Six autumns of meager flooding, six springs of even less. This spring, there had been no flood at all.
Before then, there had been seasons of devastating excess to match those of lack, when Balikh had raged over her banks and caught whole herds of livestock unawares. But not once, until now, had the floods failed altogether.
Sarai looked down current, to the largest and most fertile patches of soil. There the families’ paltry bulgur crops struggled to grow. The crops were rendering half the harvests from the past meager seasons. Older girls and beardless boys stood guard, ready to drive away desperate, foraging livestock. Several women, their youngest children straggling along, were making their way down the slopes toward the wheat. A few must have spied Sarai. They stopped and stared.
Sarai turned away and back to the puckered edges of Balikh. As she pressed the ram’s bladder below the cold water, she glimpsed her reflection in a murky, white puddle formed in a hollow of mud and rock.
It startled her. She hadn’t seen herself since her hunger had become a dull, perpetual ache. But what surprised her wasn’t the hollowness in her cheeks or the way her eyes were beginning to recede above them. No. In contrast to everyone else, Sarai was buxom.
But, then again, she had always been so. Her large-boned beauty resisted years and hardships. She was a stunning and perfect balance of Terah and Tamar, his first wife. Sarai had her father’s regal, square jaw, and the unique almond slant of her late mother’s eyes, her remarkable, flared nostrils. But Sarai was darker than her mother. Instead she had inherited Terah’s nut-brown skin, just as Abram had, her half-brother and husband.
She rose suddenly, leaving the bladder to wobble about on the bank. She turned this way and that, struggling to fix an angle above the puddle that would reflect her whole body. She pressed her palms against her broad hips, so much the envy of smaller women when Sarai was young.
Pointless envy. Hips so perfect for birthing children, birthing instead pain and blood and grief. Always, the life remained trapped in Sarai’s womb. Twice those stirrings of life survived for six of Moon’s cycles. But only the tiny bodies pushed free, hardly bigger than Abram’s cupped hands. One son. One daughter. Which of the two had been so terribly deformed? She couldn’t remember.
Yet in spite of it all, without so much as a single child to justify the envy, the resilience of her beauty was respected. That wasn’t what she wanted anymore. Sarai had outgrown youthful vanity years ago. The respect she yearned for now was as a just and wise matriarch and, indeed, she had that ‘ before Onan’s grief and panic became hatred and violence. Before Terah betrayed his own son, his own daughter.
But the dearest respect Sarai desired had always eluded her: To be called Mother, not as an honored title of her inherited matriarchy, but by children to whom she had given birth.
Sarai felt the old urgency grip her belly. It had not visited her since true hunger had usurped its place. Her fertile years were waning, and this famine was robbing her of yet another one.
Sarai snatched up the bladder of water and turned from her reflection. Of what use was her beauty? It had outlived its purpose.
Author’s Note: The novel’s title is derived from the early Greek Christians’ title for the Holy Spirit, which was considered feminine. This chapter is from Book One of an intended series.