February 01, 2012
the tramp of sacrificial animals says good-bye
they go carnal and bright carrying warmth on their necks
and ignorance of fate on foreheads marked with horns
they fall on their foreknees very surprised at their own blood
The elements the animals shout to you the road is open
-from “Altar” by Zbigniew Herbert
Once upon a time there was a girl who heard the story of Abraham in a Sunday School class. Abraham’s faith was tested, the teacher explained, holding up a popsicle stick with an image of a bearded man wearing sandals Superglued to the top. “He was ready to sacrifice his child, Isaac,” she picked up another popsicle stick in her other hand, this one fixed with a picture of a young boy, “to show his love for God, but at the last minute God stayed his hand. God revealed his grace and Abraham proved his faithfulness.” The child, being simple and pious, thought this was a ridiculous story, a cruel test. Why would a loving God require a parent to sacrifice their child for the Biblical version of fame and (limited) fortune? The girl was beloved to her parents, and could not imagine that either her mother or father would strike and kill her with a knife out of love to prove their faith in God or anyone else. The child did not yet know the word sadism but felt a cool, hollow place in her belly that would never again be filled. How could Abraham, a father, bear such a gruesome task, such a monstrous duty? For three days, trotting up that hillside to Mount Moriah with Isaac, his son, at his side, preparing to murder him violently? And the mother, Sarah, waving through the window and then sitting passively at home until her husband returned, covered in the blood of their son? Who could love such a creator or such parents?
The girl became a woman who went on with her life, and although she yearned to understand the story, even studied it in several languages, she could not grasp its meaning. She had been told it was a simple test, that the story had a simple plot, that faith itself was simple, but it actually felt quite complex in the way that rare and significant things always are: true love (which was a kind of full faith, she believed, with the threat of a wild grief attached to it), seriously good novels, well-written songs, elaborately baked layer cakes. God took note of the girl’s confusion.
And then the woman became a mother, and she understood the story even less. God saw her resistance go up like a blaze in her heart. He couldn’t get it out of his bigger-than-the-sky mind or make it disappear from his epic radar, this image of her too-alive and flaming heart, and he could not spend so much time worrying over just one person when billions of others required his divine attention and some part of the world was blowing up or getting flooded or being overcome by violence or overrun with war every time he turned around. He was exhausted. This woman and her hot little heart were getting irritating and dangerous. Some action was required.
If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the foundation of all there lay only a wildly seething power which writhing with obscure passions produced everything that is great and everything that is insignificant, if a bottomless void never satiated lay hidden beneath all – what then would life be but despair? (Kierkegaard, “Panegyric for Abraham”).
It was early in the morning when the mother was visited by God — shortly after her baby, a son, was born. You will have to give him up soon, God said, trying (for once) to be gracious about this request, because he’d seen her heart and although he would not admit it, he feared her, feared all mothers because he didn’t have one of his own, but he tried the soft, persuasive approach first. You must sacrifice him for me, to show that you love and fear and trust me. You must prove you believe, make an offering. But this mother, unlike Abraham, did not want to believe in the preposterous and had no interest in being exalted. She didn’t want to be great in the eyes of God. She wanted her child to live. I never liked your story about Abraham and Isaac, she reminded him. This is why I’ve chosen you, God replied, as if doing her some terrific favor. The father of the woman’s child had been knocked unconscious and drugged by some bullying angels and locked in a relatively comfortable basement in an undisclosed location.
Meanwhile, there was a three-day stand-off between the mother and God, during which time they both threw tantrums. The woman flung trays of food at the nurses who entered the room with her child’s catastrophic blood test results, which became increasingly worse the more she resisted this sacrifice business. She pulled out her IVs and would not let the child spend the night in the nursery. God sent hurricanes and thunderstorms to show how serious he was, how ardent. The woman broke all vows and would swear no oaths. She kept her child close to her, and when the electricity went out during one of God’s mood-generated lightning storms, she hugged her baby against her chest, covered them both in an overcoat, slipped out of the hospital and hit the road. God, momentarily blinded by her disobedience, and strangely shocked by his ability to feel hurt and rejected, could not find her straight away. Fear made the woman fast. It made her stealth. It made her an expert liar, able to answer, “Who are you?” to strangers with a totally made-up name and make them believe her. Grief and determination altered her face and nobody recognized her from the photos that God had put up all around the world by planting them in people’s heads — he had no time for telephone polls or billboards or news announcements or radio warnings. This will be a haul, the woman said to her child, who looked unconcerned and blinked at her like the innocent being that he was.
This woman was a thinker, and she thought it ridiculous that God wanted her to be “remembered” for relinquishing her child. Such a remembrance was not enviable or glorious, it was stupid. She found some of God’s old angelic crew that had since defected and could teach her ways to hide. They fed and washed the baby and then held her within an inch of her life for hours at a time, which is just what she wanted. They required nothing for their love and when she left them they embraced her and kissed her.
This woman had studied the Bible for many years, but in the end, in this moment, she found no hope in it. God could be monstrous, she thought, but she did not have to play along. The mother never weaned her child or let him out of her sight.
It was early in the morning when the mother and son set out, day after day. They traveled a long way to be free of God. Early daylights on empty roads, shivering nights in unlit trains, sleeping bags on bumpy cabin floors, a few hours of dreamless sleep in cheap hotels. A whole network of rebellious helpers had sprung up across the country, across the world, annoyed at the whole thought control experiment God had started with the planting of a strange woman’s mug shot in their brains. They encouraged the mother to stay on the move, to stay away from any mountains where sacrifices might potentially take place as they had in the Biblical story. Finally the mother and her son boarded a plane to Asia, the baby’s passport as small as his thumb, a tiny, magical packet not unlike putty that the mother slipped beneath her tongue and kept safe. This was a trick she learned from the fallen angels and it made the baby invisible. Nobody knew they were on the lam from God, who was busy checking flight manifests. The baby appeared on none of these, and the woman changed her name every minute. They flew to Bangkok, where cabbies slept in shorts and t-shirts on the tops of their cabs, and women sold crackling treats from carts in the middle of the steaming street. We can do this the woman thought, buoyed by the idea of living life with her child but without God, and she rented a by-the-week room in a hotel where every morning she heard a man’s footsteps in the alley beneath her window, sandals slapping his feet as he placed his garbage in the largest bin. But then the woman began to notice that when she and the baby were walking around the heat was always intolerable, the women were dressed up very early in the day in clothes that should be reserved for the night, in too-tight shirts and glossy, faux leather heels, and that everywhere she looked men were stumbling around, drunk, looking for depravity or release or both. There was longing in their eyes and this frightened her. She packed her bag and the baby’s few things. In the cab on the way to the airport, statues crumbled along the road. God she thought. He had found them, and she cursed him.
God thought perhaps that becoming a woman, even briefly, would appease this stubborn mother; that woman to woman he-now-she (He would even drop the use of the capital letter if it pleased her, if it made him more relatable somehow), could convince her to give up her child. Did she not want to be known as Abraham was known? Greater than all, great by reason of his power whose strength is impotence, great by reason of his wisdom whose secret is foolishness, great by reason of his hope whose form is madness, great by reason of the love which is hatred of oneself. The mother did not trust this new female god. Her beauty looked untrustworthy and manufactured; her hairstyle and lipstick choices were woefully out of date. She wondered if this God had ever heard of the feminist movement that had raised her; she knew enough to resist the pro-self-hatred line and she was no Abraham’s Sarah. It’s 2012, she insisted to the girl God, who was slowly turning back into the male God that the mother could recognize because she had been taught to see Him; the “she” God had been a bit of a stretch for her. (And God wanted the capital “H” back, too). But she would not separate from her child. What have you ever weaned? She asked God. What life have you grown with your life? When God responded with yours she did not believe him. You don’t think I know what slaughter is? She demanded. If you want a sacrificial lamb just visit a farm! She was not sending her child up any ramp to any slaughterhouse. God was getting frustrated and pissed off and raising his voice as well, disturbing worldwide weather patterns. He made his heart a stone and filled the woman with despair as if pouring an endless stream of water into the deepest bucket. You can’t have my faith, she insisted, although she was frightened now, swimming in this weird and troubled water, holding her baby over her head, and you cannot have my child.
It was early in the morning, and God decided that he would move the mountain that the mother feared, and this would force her to climb it and he could end this story, once and for all. Everywhere the mother looked there were mountains, sharp and snow-covered; pointy slaughterhouses looming all around her. She was trapped. Ride with me, God said, and pulled up on a horse, knowing how much the woman loved cowboys. The woman, with her child strapped to her, got on. She was just pretending to be impressed; she had decided that she would ride with God to the top of the mountain and push him off and this, and only this, would be proof of her faith. In the meantime, she focused all of her rage and love on making him small; she pictured every member of her family, every friend, every lover, every triumph, every time she cried, and every time she felt her heart grow swollen and bright with unexpected, logic-shattering love. She harnessed all of her wrath, remembered each of her passions, all of her desires. She counted her blessings like crazy as the old hymn her mother used to sing to her suggested. All of the despair and sadness God had poured into her spilled out into the world, into God, and she felt him growing weaker; she was softening him, shrinking him. The scenery flew by: snow-tipped blue spruce trees, arroyos full of blooming violets and crisp daisies, then alpine lakes ringed in grass the deep-green color of seaweed. God was shriveling beneath her palms, and the child strapped to her chest was growing stronger and stronger, bigger and bigger, his limbs casting long shadows on the ground. The horse limped to the top of the mountain and collapsed. The woman and her child were as big as the world and they stood over God. The mother drew a knife, calmly and quietly, but then her child began to speak, as he had grown up a great deal on their long trek up the mountain. He is so weak and small, the child insisted, and the mother delighted in his voice. Shouldn’t we take pity on him? The mother looked at her child’s wise face and a tremor passed through her. She looked at the body of God, at the mouth of God, which was screaming have I not shown you some grace in your life? Can you not show some to me? He was a mirror for her fear. A beggar, at the last, as we all are. God was tiny and almost snail-like, shining and white, his wiry hands over his head, his whole body — his soul — trembling with terror, and she dropped the knife and wept. She turned to her son, who was dry-eyed, and looking pretty sturdy and robust. She smiled at him and then looked down at God. Pity I’ll give you, she said, but that is different from grace.
Years later, the mother would still wonder about this story, about God. She would sink down with weariness, fold her hands, and wonder who was capable of understanding this weird, supposedly all-powerful and benevolent God who, in that moment when she’d had the power to kill him but stayed her hand out of love for another, had been a thing reduced to its unknowable and deepest desires. She wondered how, knowing this about her creator, she would ever understand herself. In the end, nothing was revealed to her.