The following is a work of fiction, but it incorporates details from Genesis 16, 21, and 22. My story was inspired by the song, “Abraham’s Daughter” by Arcade Fire.
I clutched at my mama’s skirts, tearing them. Screaming and kicking, I tried to get back to her. I dug my fingers into the sand but sand is sneaky, and the man dragging me away gripped me so hard I thought my ribs would crack. I sobbed and choked, my tears drying the instant they hit the hot ground. I watched my mama throw herself at the old woman’s feet, wailing like a mourner at a burial. But Sarah kicked my mother in the face, dusting her head with dirt and bloodying her nose.
“Leave,” she spat.
My mother lay on the ground like a pile of used women’s rags. Ishmael lifted her to her feet. She stood crooked and empty, a broken cistern. And Ishmael led her slowly away, soft wisps of dust marking their footsteps.
* * *
They sent my mother and brother away when I was five. The old man put the water sack on my mother’s shoulder and handed her a loaf of bread. Her black eyes stared at him, daring him to speak—to say some word of apology, some word of blessing to Ishmael. But the old man closed his eyes and turned his back in silence. I held my mother’s hand as we stepped away.
“Not her,” the old woman said.
We paused. My mother turned.
“Not her,” the old woman said again, pointing at me with her clawed hand. “She will make a good slave for Isaac.” I felt my mother stiffen. I clung to her legs. When no one moved the old woman snapped her fingers at the male slave who grabbed me.
The old woman kept me just to spite my mama. Through my tears I saw Sarah, bone arms around Isaac, smiling in triumph. But the old man’s face was sullen. I never saw my mother or brother again.
* * *
I am Abraham’s daughter. My mama bore me the same year Sarah bore Isaac in her old age. My father doesn’t even know my name. But he knows Ishmael, my brother, his firstborn son. When Isaac came along, the “impossible” baby, birthed in Sarah’s old age, everything changed. Ishmael was firstborn, but Sarah kept crowing that Isaac was firstborn because he was Abraham’s son through her.
“She’s a crazy one,” Mama told me. “Watch out for her. She uses her fists and words to get her way. But Abraham loves your brother, Ishmael. He is his firstborn.”
That was true back then. Abraham took Ishmael with him everywhere—to count the flocks, to pluck the grain in the fields, to check the olives and grapes for ripeness. As Isaac grew older, he sometimes went with them. But Abraham showed the boy no special favors, for he was not the firstborn.
Until that day.
Until Abraham sent my mother and brother away with a skin of water and a loaf of bread and no words.
* * *
I wept often in the years that followed, careful not to let the old woman see. I watched as Isaac replaced Ishmael, and I became a slave like my mother. Now, I see the world through hyssop eyes—green and full of bitterness.
I love picking olives because the shade of the trees soothes me and I can sneak fresh olives when no one is looking. Olives taste like tears. I can spit the pits further than some of the older slaves. The olive trees whisper like wise elders, telling tales of the ages. I imagine myself as their daughter, sometimes telling them my own stories and stroking their wrinkled skin.
When I was nine, Isaac came with the old man to inspect the trees. The boy walked to my tree and picked an olive. He said, “Shalom.” I said nothing. He smiled and returned to his father.
* * *
One morning, a couple of years later, the old man came into the tent and awoke two male slaves. He told them to get ready for a journey. Curious, I followed them into the gray-dark before the sun. One lit a torch; the other saddled the donkey and filled the water skins. I saw Abraham lead Isaac out of his mother’s tent. The boy was full of questions. “But, why, Father? Why are we going to sacrifice now? Won’t Mother worry? Where are we going?”
“Hush,” the old man said. His face twisted in the shadows from the flickering torch. His eyes looked like empty caves.
I grabbed two water skins and some bread and followed at a distance, knowing it was foolish. Mama told me I was too curious for a girl. But she let me explore the camp while she worked and never scolded me when I came back thistle-haired and dirt-dusted.
So, I kept to the shadows and followed them. I had to know. What would the old man do to Isaac if he so cruelly sent Ishmael away? I tracked their footprints and the donkey’s dung piles. The old man had said they were going to the Mountain of the Seeing. I did not know of such a place.
For three days we walked. Then I saw Abraham and Isaac leave the slaves and head toward a mountain. I hurried, running hard to catch up, stumbling over sharp rocks and threading through prickly bushes to the place of the sacrifice.
Gasping, dripping with sweat, I crept up on them. I peered through the bushes, watching as Isaac and Abraham stacked the wood to make an altar. But where was the animal for the sacrifice?
Then, the old man grabbed Isaac and forced him onto the altar. The boy screamed and struggled, but the old man shoved him down. He bound up the boy with rope as if he were a calf. Isaac cried out, “Daddy! Daddy! Why are you doing this? Daddy?” The ropes cut into his arms and legs as he strained against the bindings. But the old man stayed silent, sharpening the blade of the cleaver back and forth against his leather belt. He never looked at his son.
My whole being trembled, and my heart pounded like a hand drum. Abraham went to the altar. Isaac stopped screaming. Terror trapped his tongue. The old man lifted the blade up.
I could not stay silent. I could not! I screamed my master’s name, “Abraham! Abraham!”
The old man hesitated and turned toward the sound of my voice. But he lifted the cleaver again. So I ran. I threw myself at him, grabbing his leg. He looked down at me. His eyes were hollow circles. His face was gray. When he saw it was only me, he turned back towards Isaac. I grabbed at his arm. I scratched and kicked and beat on his back with my fists. I yelled for him to stop. But I am only a girl.
Suddenly the old man looked towards the heavens as if he heard a voice. I heard nothing. He dropped the cleaver and fell to his knees. I saw clouds in his eyes.
I climbed to Isaac on the altar. He shivered and couldn’t find his voice. Piss and blood stung my nose. I hurried to untie the knots, fumbling in fear that the old man would rise up again with his cleaver. Slowly, the knots loosened, and I pulled Isaac from the wood. I held him, and we cried, and we looked for a way to escape.
But then the old man stood. Isaac cowered against me, and I pressed my arms around him as we backed away. The old man came toward us . . . smiling.
The bushes clutched at us. No escape. The old man snatched Isaac from my arms and the boy screamed again. Abraham pulled him to his chest and said, “It’s all right, my son. Yahweh told me it is enough. I proved my faith.”
Isaac could not look at his father. He squirmed against the embrace, and finally Abraham released him. Isaac collapsed on the ground and called for me. “Yireh!” he cried. “Yireh!”
I started toward him, but a rough hand grabbed my arm. I shouted and tried to run. The old man dragged me by my hair to the altar. He bound me with the ropes.
I shrieked. I thrashed against the bonds. But the ropes did not loosen their grip. Through my tears, I could see Isaac where he fell, his face haunted, his eyes red. When I looked up, I saw the cleaver in Abraham’s hand.
“On the mountain of Yahweh it will be provided!” he shouted.
Provided. That is my name—Yireh.
My eyes hunted the heavens hoping that Abraham’s God would stop him. I strained my ears for the voice from above. But the heavens spoke no word for me.