In his sleep Roeh, the shepherd, had a vision. Spirits in white robes entered his tent, their faces obscured in fiery clouds. They swirled around him. Raised him into the rushing wind. He struggled to free himself…The fiery pit was coming closer. Flames licked at his feet…
Outside, the wolves were howling. Eyes open, heart pounding, Roeh lay still, not daring to breathe until the black of night turned gray and the spirits were gone.
He shook Abba and told him what he had seen. “Is it a sign, Abba?” he asked.
“It is a child’s dream,” Abba said. “The lord of Father Abraham doesn’t give signs.”
“But hear the the wolves?” Roeh said. “They, too, have scented the spirits.”
“They have scented the lambs,” Abba said. “You did not make the fire large enough to keep them away.”
Imah sat up. “What does he want now?”
“He thinks he has been given a sign,” Abba said and pushed Roeh away from his bed. “Go out and make two more fires by the fold. Bring your cloak and stay with the sheep tonight.”
Roeh scraped a spark off the firestone. The flames leapt to the sky, but gave no warmth. Was that the spirits whispering in the darkness, or leaves rustling in the cypress trees? The fallen branches crackled as if under prowling feet. Was that the gleam of watching eyes? Or the evening stars sinking behind the mountains? Abba said the world died every night and was reborn in the morning. The dying moonlight glowed white in the mist rising over the hills. And the world was reborn in the blue of dawn. Abba said Father Abraham’s lord watched us from the heavens. We must follow his laws and be sure not to displease him or he would not send the sun to bring the day.
Roeh took olives, figs, a jug of water and a chunk of yesterday’s hard bread. It was a long walk along the narrow trail to the mountain. He had to leave before sunrise to get to the lush grasses before the heat of the day. He entered the fold, calling softly to the flock—“Hava, Brynna, Miryam.” At the sound of their names, the sheep rose and followed him.
The village was always silent at daybreak, the animals, still asleep. But now he heard Mother Sarah asking: “Is your lord speaking to you again? What does he want now?” And Father Abraham calling softly: “Isaac…”
In the rising light Roeh saw Isaac coming out of the tent, rubbing his eyes, complaining: “Why must we leave so early? The meadow will be there all day.”
Mother Sarah sounded angry as she often did when talking to Father Abraham. “Where are you taking my son?” she asked.
Father Abraham answered: “Shah, go back to sleep.”
The village boys led the donkey out of its stall and Isaac opened the gates of the fold.
“Close the gates,” Abraham said. “We are not taking the sheep.”
Isaac laughed and turned it into a question as he always did. “So why are we taking the shepherds?”
In the beginning Roeh would walk behind the flock, letting them find their own way. But they would stop to fuss with each other or graze by the roadside and he was always late to the meadow. “You must lead them,” Abba told him. “You are their lord. You must show them the way.”
Now he walked ahead. Layla, the mother dam, trotted along behind him. And the flock fell into line behind her. Even Arad, the donkey, came when called and ducked his head so Roeh could loop the rope around his neck.
But today the flock was troubled. The lambs gathered, bleating, to the dams. Imrah, the ancient ram, groaned and grunted and jumped out of the cart, his hooves slipping in the wet dirt. “Where are you going, my friend?” Roeh said. He lifted Imrah, feeling the pitted skin under his coat. “Rest, you will need your strength for mating…”
Then they had to stop to find the sick one.
The runt with the rotten foot had been jostled off the trail into a pile of wet leaves. It had been born dying. Unwanted by its dam who nosed it away from the teat. Roeh had fed it goat’s milk until Abba made him stop. “Food is for the living.”
“How can Father Abraham’s lord give life to a creature just to make it suffer and die?” he had asked Abba.
“Don’t question what you can never understand,” Abba answered.
Roeh knew this day would be its last. If he took it to the mountain the healthy lambs would push it away from the grass. It would limp off on its rotten foot and he would find it at dusk, on its back, maggots crawling out of its swollen belly. But if he left it in the leaves the wild dogs would surely tear it to pieces. “Better to take it along,” Roeh said. “Maybe Father Abraham’s lord will look down on it and let it live.”
Roeh whistled through his teeth. The sheep stopped. Arad turned his head. The flock stirred and pushed closer. He poked in the leaves with his crook and found the runt, scrambling and squealing. Put it in the cart next to Imrah. “Watch over it, my friend.”
But Imrah, usually so agreeable with the lambs, bucked like a goat and butted it away. He turned and tried to gore Roeh with his splintery horns. Snapped at him with blackened teeth. Kicked so frantically that Roeh had to tie his back legs together ”Do you have worms, my friend?” Roeh asked “Thorns in your wool? Do you scent a lion in the wind? What is troubling you?”
The walk seemed very long today. The forest thickened. The trail became dark as night. It wound so steeply Roeh could only see a few sheep behind the cart. As he came around a bend the mountain rose suddenly, as if it had sprung up at his approach.
The dew still sparkled on the meadow. Roeh led the flock through grass so tall he could hardly see the lambs. The ewes gathered around the plants at the top of the hill and nibbled at their broad, green leaves. Roeh sat in the shade of a gnarled white tree, and ate his meal. In the cart, Imrah slept, the runt nestled under his heaving flanks. The air was cool. Roeh closed his eyes.
He awoke to the sound of the flock milling and complaining. How long had he been asleep? Imrah, his nostrils flaring was pursuing the ewes up the hill, sniffing their hindquarters, nuzzling their necks. How had he gotten out of the cart?
There were voices on the trail. Who could it be? Roeh felt a stab of terror. Was this Ishmael and his band come to steal the sheep?
It was Father Abraham and the two shepherd boys gathering wood in the thicket. Isaac was sitting in the cart, laughing: “Such a long trip just to eat?”
Father Abraham pushed the shepherd boys away. “Go back.” Isaac jumped out of the cart to follow them, but Father Abraham took his arm. ”Gather more wood,” he said. Isaac laughed. “But don’t we already have enough to roast a donkey”?” Isaac said.“Fill the cart,” said Father Abraham.
Roeh ran along behind the trees. Another hill had risen out of the clouds. A deep pit had been dug. Abraham filled it with branches. He drew a long curved slaughtering knife from the folds of his cloak and sharpened it on the firestone.
Isaac watched, laughing again. “But haven’t you forgotten something, Abba? The lamb for the burnt offering?”
“God will provide the offering, my son,” Father Abraham said.
Father Abraham picked up Isaac and lay him gently on the pile of branches. He cut vines off the grape bush and tied Isaac’s feet to his wrists, trussing him like a sheep about to be slaughtered. Isaac sighed and turned away from the glinting blade. “God demands a perfect offering, Abba,” he said. “I am stunted and have weak eyes. I have many flaws…”
Father Abraham bent over Isaac, raising his knife.
Was Isaac to be the burnt offering? Roeh tried to cry out, but his tongue was thick with fear. He gasped and coughed and try to free the word.
Father Abraham turned.
Roeh stumbled through the thicket, thorns scraping his hands and face. “Stop Father Abraham” he cried. “You are breaking Father Noah’s law…”
The spirits from his dream rose up in front of him. “Go back, boy…Go back.” He pressed his ears to mute their angry voices. He tried to run down the hill, but a hot wind blew him off his feet. ”Your lord will punish us and make us live in darkness, Father Abraham,” he cried. “He will send flood and fire to destroy us as he did before…”
Blinded by the sun burning through the trees he dropped to his knees. “Please Father Abraham,” he cried.
Roeh heard Isaac’s childish laugh. “Good bye Abba…”
He opened his eyes.
Isaac was running down the trail, the vines that had bound him hanging loosely from his hands and feet. Father Abraham chased after him, calling:
“Isaac my son, come back for the offering.”
“Not if it’s me,” Isaac said.
“But it is God’s command.”
Now Isaac’s laugh was hard and mocking. “No God who would eat me can command me,” he said. “I’m going to my brother Ishmael. l’ll feast there. I’ll hunt and sing…And be free…”
An anguished cry filled the forest. Imrah was thrashing in the thicket, his horn stuck in a tree. Roeh pleaded:
“Don’t take our only ram, Father Abraham. Without him our flock will die out…”
Father Abraham stunned Imrah with the hilt of his knife. Drew the blade across his throat. Imrah’s blood poured out of the wound onto the ground. Father Abraham raised him before the roaring fire.
Roeh was running. Smoke rose in the trees behind him.The fragrance of roasting meat raised the hot bile in his throat. The darkness was so thick he couldn’t see his hands in front of him. He ran until his breath wouldn’t come and he fell on the wet earth. Silence. Had the flock wandered off? Had Father Abraham’s lord punished them and taken the sun away?
A cool white mist settled from the sky. A ribbon of blue spread through the darkness. The village appeared before Roeh’s eyes.
Isaac was watering his flock at the well. “Did you fall asleep Roeh?” he asked. “Your
flock came home without you.”
“You didn’t go to your brother?” Roeh asked.
Isaac laughed. “Why would I go to Ishmael?”
“After what your father did to you.”
“What did he do?” Isaac laughed. “You’re still asleep.”
Abba ran to him, arms outstretched. Roeh cringed waiting for the blow. But Abba took him by the hand. “Come in, your mother was worried.”
In the tent Imah was baking bread on the hearthstone. “We almost lost the flock while you were dreaming,” she said.
“It was not a dream,” Roeh said. “It was a sign…”
“Useless talk, “Abba said. “Today is good. This is all we have to know.”
Abba took Roeh outside. A ram with a sleek black coat and golden horns was waiting by the fold. Abba opened the gate and the ewes gathered to him, sniffing and nuzzling.
“You see, Roeh, Father Abraham has given us his best ram,” Abba said. “And look…”
The runt with the rotten foot was nibbling the weeds in the yard. “ Father Abraham’s lord has spared the sick one.”
“But Father Abraham broke the laws,” Roeh said. “He was going to kill Isaac, but Isaac escaped. Then he stole our only ram and murdered him. Why did he do that?”
Abba hugged Roeh hard to his chest. Kissed his forehead.
“Shah, my son.” Abba said. “Don’t question.”