Sunday, March 4, 2012

Hagar in the Desert

A little fictional exploration of Genesis 21 and 22 for our Lenten journey through the desert ... Longer version originally published in the Recorder and Times, March 2011

Tired, thought Hagar. I am so tired. The desert sand burned through her sandals, and the wind cut through her veil. Ishmael stumbled already, his legs not sturdy enough to keep up with his mother's stride. The heat was ruthless, the wind relentless, and the water nearly gone.

Soon Hagar would have to carry Ishmael again. She willed her legs to keep moving, her arms to keep holding, her breath to come in and out with the rhythm of her footsteps. And tried not to hate.
* * *
Abraham nudged her awake before dawn, in that silence before birds find their voice. Hagar thought at first that he wanted her again, a surprise at his age. Not so, thank God. He said little, simply commanded her to take Ishmael, all she held precious, and go.

Hagar forced herself to sit up, confused by the dream that still held her, one of cool branches and deep wells. Abraham whispered in her ear, "Have no fear, it is God's will." As if that made everything alright.

She rubbed her eyes, shook her head. Abraham's face glowed in the strange dark light filtering through the tent wall. He waited, head bowed, eyes down. She could not believe this was happening. Even if she was just his slave, she had delivered him a son, his first-born, his pride. But then the bent shadow of Sarah spread between them, filling the tent. The crone stood outside, listening, spying, demanding: Abraham's first choice.

And Hagar knew in her heart, suddenly, without hesitation, that she could not forgive them this.

* * *
That was three days ago.

Ishmael’s feet dragged, and Hagar, exhausted herself, reached down and gently picked him up.

The sun passed overhead, and began its slow descent. The wind which had cursed them with sand in their faces and under their cloaks, died down, leaving a leaden heat. Hagar's legs buckled. She stopped short of collapse and looked around. Up ahead a jumble of boulders surrounded by spindly thorn bushes promised some shade for the child.

Long enough for death to take him. Long enough for time to end.

She staggered towards the bushes, nearly dropping the boy. He gave a thin wail as she pushed him into shadow. She collapsed and felt the rush of heat from the ground hit her face. There was no room for her in the shade. Hands shaking, she unstopped the ever-so-light skin of water. Only a swallow or two remained. Gently she raised Ishmael's head and tilted the opening. She tried to sing to him but only a croak came from her own split and suffering mouth. Ishmael choked a little as the water hit his throat, then swallowed, grabbed at the skin for more. There was none. He cried then, tearless, voiceless, empty, defeated, and Hagar looked away.

"Sleep my child," Hagar rasped, and Ishmael closed his eyes. This alone frightened her, for her son was never willing to sleep, never willing to let life go by without him. She traced his cheek with her finger, stared down at his tight, suffering face, then bent and kissed him.

Ishmael whimpered as Hagar lurched away. The bow Abraham had given her jabbed insistently at her thigh. She knew what she must do.

She positioned herself an easy bowshot away. When Ishmael slept, when all hope was gone, she would do it. He would not suffer. She would not allow that. Before she was sold into slavery her brothers in Egypt had taught her to shoot, and she would not miss.

The sun was sinking lower now, and Hagar felt the relief of fading heat. Soon she would even be cold. She strung her bow slowly, bending the supple wood tenderly, and placed an arrow on the string. Her son would be the last thing she shot. She would wedge an arrow in the sand afterwards, if her broken heart didn't kill her, then fall on it and lie beside her Ishmael forever, letting go of every memory.

* * *
The women had been up since dawn, fetching, grinding, sweeping. The sun, well over the horizon, signaled that the men not designated as the day's shepherds would soon be up. The others had left earlier, so for now the day belonged to the women and children.

Abraham's s cry riveted Hagar. Sarah dropped the earthen pot she carried, precious water flowing everywhere, and moved toward his tent at a speed that belied her years. Isaac, barely walking, grabbed Ishmael, who in turn hung on to Hagar's dress. Both boys began to cry. Hagar deposited her own pot more carefully and gathered the children.

Abraham threw open the tent flap before the other men, rushing from their tents half dressed, could reach it. He stopped and whispered something to Sarah. She stumbled back, then grabbed his arm and her screaming drowned all else. Abraham ignored her and strode out toward Hagar, with Sarah still clinging to his arm.

Hagar held both boys closer, and then realized that Sarah was yelling at her.

"Run! Don't let him have him! Please!"

Hagar turned, confused. The men stood motionless, mouths gaping.


Hagar turned and ran.

The path serpented away from her up into the hills. Hampered by the boys whose wails now matched the adults, she forced herself to move, to fly.

It wasn't enough. The men caught her easily, and took Isaac. Abraham marched his son out of camp, impervious to Sarah's cries.

All day, the old woman keened and wept, and Hagar sat with her.

The horizon turned scarlet before Abraham returned, Isaac sleeping in his arms, safe, alive. And Sarah ran to them, grabbed her son, fell, kissed Abraham's feet, and spat on them.

The story came out over the next few days. The sacrificial command from God, the miraculous appearance of the scapegoat at the last minute, the horror, and the relief. Abraham seemed elated, drank more than usual, celebrated. But Sarah was forever changed.

Abraham had been ready to kill her son. Not Hagar's, hers. And as long as Abraham had an alternative heir, it could happen again.

* * *
A strange sound. Hagar looked up, around. A flock of birds flew across the sun. If they came near, she decided she would shoot one, for practice. She shuddered at the thought of injuring Ishmael, making his suffering worse, prolonging the inevitable.
The birds circled, then headed directly toward her. Hagar raised her bow, waited, prayed. Still they came, clearly unworried by the tiny woman who silently threatened them. Hagar pulled back, took aim, waited some more. Her hand shook.

The birds were lowering, approaching as if to land. They called as they came, singing, celebrating, and, before she could let the arrow fly, landed not beside her but behind the boulders, whose shadows now grew long and wide.

Hagar listened. Then frowned, wondered, listened again. The splash of water could not be real.

Dropping her forgotten bow, she crawled then, desperately, urgently, disbelieving toward the sound. Clambering over and between hot rocks, scraping knees, smashing toes, she saw at last the impossible pool crowded with impossible birds.

"Oh," she trembled. "Oh..." Wings flicked water towards her, beaks dipped, life called.

She rallied, turned and ran with strength she didn't possess back to Ishmael. He hardly protested as she grabbed him and tottered back. She knelt by the water, scattering startled birds, and cupped her hands to help her son.

The boy drank, and drank, and Hagar joined him and drank and stopped and drank again. The two sat, water dripping down their faces, birds circling overhead. Ishmael leaned against his mother, still exhausted, but Hagar knew that the incredible was credible, that hope was inexhaustible, and that God was present, here, now.

No more Abraham for her. No more Sarah. No more slavery. She was free. It was time to live, to eat, to drink, to celebrate, to believe, and maybe even, to forgive.

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