Elijahu, a word please.
She leaps from the birth bed faster than a woman who has spent the last 40 hours sweating, heaving, grunting, shifting positions, pushing away needles and other doctor tricks.
On the first day, she paces the room, soaking through her blood rags. The standard-issue plastic hospital wrist-band chafes like a shackle. Their daughter has sent a boy in her place.
She does not have much time.
They escape before nightfall with a baby in their arms.
He opens his black eyes on the second day.
Will you do it, what will you do, how can you, how can you not, everyone wants to know.
On the third day they give him his first bath.
On the fourth day they take him out for coffee.
On the fifth day, he attends a birthday party. He does not blow out the candles.
We’re so happy they agreed, says her mother. It is the first Covenant with God, she says. The most important one. Our great ancestor promised.
It’s tribal, he explains to his parents, testing a foreign tongue. I’m not of their tribe.
What about our tribe, his parents want to know. What will become of our tribe?
You mean your tribe, he replies.
On the sixth day she places him in a sack and takes him to the river. The river is a road, she tells him as they walk. All roads lead to the ocean, she says, from whence we came. To which we return.
A long time ago there was a traveler who grew tired, she says. He had been lost for many days in a desert. Do you know what a desert is?
A desert, replies her son, is a place where memory dances for life on dry wind.
His new mother continues:
The traveler didn’t know it, but he was very close to his home. Very close to his barren wife, who in fact was the cause of his traveling the world in search of runes and potions that would swell her belly.
Who in fact was not very barren at all.
There was a heat in those days that we have not known since, but will surely know again. The sky yawned in pain above the traveler. The sun singed and bleached everything in sight. By and by, he was reduced to a weightless eggshell of a man, tossing hither and thither in the steep desert winds. He was very miserable, and miserably he remembered the flood and fertility of his homeland. Miserably he cursed the earth for forsaking him, as the desert drowned him with dry sand and hot air.
As he thought these thoughts, voices began to rise in the wind. They said, I will make you a great nation. They said, I will make your name grand. I will bless those who bless you, and curse those who cross you.
They said, the earth is a whore, no?
I will give you a land for your nation, for your seed, forever more.
Yes, thought the traveler, but can you fetch me a drink of water.
He rasped like a man with paper lungs.
Pardon me? said the wind. You must be thirsty. Excuse my lack of grace and hospitality.
There was silence. The traveler continued to flip and fly, now filling like a sail, now crumpling like an old letter. He thought of his faraway land which was not so far away, and of his barren wife, who was not so barren. He thought of his seed, and in his mind’s eye he pictured the dried pits of a date palm, scattered in a buried trail in the sand. In his mind’s eye, he pictured the buried trail leading home.
I will make you a great nation, came the voice again. What will you make me?
The traveler felt a burning at his lip.
Are you thirsty, asked the voice.
What will you make me, what will you make me, the voice whistled.
A drop fell to the traveler’s thick, dry tongue.
I will make you a great nation, the voice urged again.
The traveler croaked.
I am the sun, said the voice. I am the sky. I am the lion of the heavens, and the cosmos is my domain.
The traveler flipped and floundered, and the words danced like angry orange hornets around him.
I will make you a pistachio soufflé, he thought. I will make you a robe hewn of ice shavings, for scorchers like today. I will make you a reed flute that plays only melodies of seduction. As an afterthought he wondered, what is a great nation?
All is one, said the voice. I am all.
The traveler did not enjoy his weightlessness, and he felt himself dancing perilously on the brink of combustion. Half-mad in the clutches of death, he muttered:
I will make you…a great nation.
There was a heat in those days that we have not known since, but will surely know again. There is nothing so much as sun sickness to fill a man’s heart with burning singularity.
Dipping her hand in the murky river water, she continues,
Traveling males are a strange breed. Had my daughter not sent you in her stead I would have instructed her in their ways. As it is, there are those who are already claiming you as a prophet. A prophet!
Thoughtfully she adds, a woman can hunger for the poison that will destroy her, as though her very life depended on it.
Tomorrow, she said.
Tomorrow your people will cut you. They will cut you as the great ancestor cut his son, to mark you as a son of the great nation.
Shifting slightly in the sack, the boy asks,
Are there fish in this river?
Looking out into the green rush, she says: There were fish.
There were Oilfish and Silk Butterfish, Brass Tacklefish, Spinemonkeys, Starry-Eyed Futurefish, Kettlebottom Sinkfish, Holyfish, Heckle and Jibe fish, Old Crankfish, Kissyfish, Heliofish, Fistfish, Furyfish, Wishfish, Blue Knucklefish. There were Ante-Bellum fish. There were fish who dressed in finery well beyond your imagination, who dined with silver forks on hammered sheets of filigreed algae. There were fish whose clear song on a spring day would shatter the most hardened fisherman, and fish whose piercing, wind-like whistle rose as a portent in the final seconds before calamity.
What do you know, sighs the new mother. You are only a tadpole.
Maybe, he replies, but you married a reptile.
We’re not married, she snaps.
And he will not swim, adds the boy.
No, she repeats, suddenly tired, he will not swim.
I have a question for you, she says after a long silence.
Shoot, he chirps.
I love you. I love your black moss skull, I love each finger petal. I love your little mouth working, your fat fist around my finger.
I ask only out of curiosity.
Where is my daughter?
The infant hiccups. His tears flow free and silent as she turns her back on the river and wearily begins the long walk back.
When she reaches home, her womb suddenly seizes. The stitches throb. Her back stiffens. It is a warning. It is the sixth night.
So on the seventh day, they rest. They are still and wary, quiet like birds before a storm. They plan in whispers. This we accept. These words we will not utter. This we adapt. This we forbid.
And as dusk sets on the eve of the cutting, the non-Covenant grandparents fall like the first clap of thunder.
You are using him to make babies.
You have made nothing of your life.
You have erased our way, now you are erasing our name. It is as though we had only daughters.
She holds her baby to her heart, streaming milk and tears. Oh child, our child.
He holds his gaze to the ground and his fist to his heart to stanch ancient rage. Quietly they hurl hurt in the low, modulated tones of the civilized, poison-tipped spears of love soaring across the living room.
Deep into that night he thumps around the kitchen, clearing and scrubbing in preparation for the sacrifice.
Deep into that night she whispers into her breast, ancestors do not come and go.
On the morning of the cutting, the neighbour arrives with trays of lox, bagels, cream cheese, fresh fruit, and four different kinds of cake. The house fills quickly with friends and strange kinsfolk.
They scurry and fidget and busy their hands.
Elijahu, oh Elijahu. What have we done.
There are rivers of tears that feed into oceans of old-growth sadness. We in this cutting room are swimming now and those who will not swim will surely drown.
The blade flashes silver. The surgeon has a sure hand, and Lo, there is a sudden streak of black, followed by the first uncertain whimper.
Amen, comes the murmured chorus in the room.