Variation on Genesis:
Hagar and Ishmael
To Hagar, Abraham’s orgasm looked like an intense shiver and felt like it too, even though his body was slick with sweat and Hagar lay beneath him, blushing and radiating her own animal heat. He looked like he was sick, stricken with sudden illness. But just as suddenly, the bolt of cold ran its course through his body and now his penis was limp and he was panting. He was not a young man. Hagar let out a long breath; she had been holding it the entire time (which was not very long). Abraham had not noticed. He was trying not to notice anything, she could tell. They had both been trying to think of his wife Sarah or of nothing—clear their minds and get it over with. Now it was over with. What a relief.
Hagar knew she was a woman with a round, supple body that most men wanted to fuck so badly. That she had dark, thick, luxurious hair down to her waist that most men wanted to run their fingers through and grasp tight. She kept her hair twisted and wrapped up on top of her head whenever she was working and she made sure to wear her hair this way when Abraham came to her tent that night. She knew Abraham did not want to sleep with her. Sarah was the one the one who wanted Abraham to sleep with her, so that they could have children. They had tried so hard and Sarah was convinced she was barren. Abraham was not worried. God had promised him more descendants than hairs on his body, than grass in the fields. But Sarah was his wife and they were therefore of one flesh, and therefore of one desire—so her desire became his. He did what she wanted because, in a way, he wanted it too, though it was a wanting he felt without roots in his own heart.
Hagar did not want to sleep with Abraham either, but she did want to sleep with Sarah, so she agreed. She could have said no if she wanted to, there were plenty of other maidservants who would have been more than willing—but since Abraham and Sarah were married and therefore of one flesh and one desire, it would be as if Hagar were sleeping with Sarah herself, as if Sarah desired her and her body, not just the child it could produce. She imagined running her tongue down the dip of Sarah’s collarbone and up the length of her neck. She imagined feeling the flesh and bone of Sarah’s fingers slide into her as if she were pushing a seed into the damp, dark soil.
Sex with Abraham did not feel like this. As Abraham put his robes back on like a worm wriggling into its papery, silky cocoon, Hagar covered herself, not out of modesty but because she was cold. She stared up at the folds of her tent while Abraham muttered something and she hummed in response as if she were listening. When he finally left, she washed her face and her crotch at her small basin, then put out her lamp and curled up in bed alone, as she did every night after she tended to Sarah.
That night, Hagar dreamt of Sarah. This was not an unusual occurrence in and of itself—Sarah often populated Hagar’s dreams. But tonight, Sarah was not just Sarah, she was also a wasp, black and slender, and Hagar was a grub, plump and green. Sarah circled above—buzzing, buzzing, buzzing—her shadow passing over Hagar like a specter, like an angel, before she descended upon Hagar and held her down with her strong, sharp jaws. There was not much Hagar could do but writhe in Sarah’s grasp as Sarah pushed her stinger into Hagar’s soft flesh and held it there for several moments. Hagar thought she would die soon after that, but when Sarah pulled out of her and flew away, Hagar went on living and the dream continued. Now she was baking bread in an impossibly large oven, the fire both comforting and maddening as if she would melt, or expand, or dry out, or wake up.
For the next month, whenever Sarah asked Hagar if she felt anything different, anything growing inside of her, Hagar would shrug her shoulders and say with a sly smile, “Why don’t you feel for yourself?” To which Sarah would not hesitate to run her long, boney fingers over Hagar’s belly and press firmly against her flesh as if checking to see if a batch of dough had been properly kneaded. Hagar would breathe in deep at Sarah’s touch and try not to shudder. Sarah’s eyes were always closed and her mouth slightly open. Hagar wanted to crawl into that mouth and hibernate like a fattened bear in colder climates, where winter meant stillness and snow and freezing and death.
Hagar’s belly did swell, larger and larger. She never knew she could become so big, or feel so sick, or look so radiant. Her thin reflection in her wash basin looked like a woman she had never seen before—a woman who had felt the hot tongue of the sun wet her cheeks and taste her breasts, heavier and fuller each day, glistening with sweat. Or maybe she was the sun and Sarah was the moon, chasing after her, drinking up her good light, and Abraham was the earth, watching their dance from a distance as they threw everything into light and shadow.
Sarah made sure to take care of Hagar, to spoil her. She made the other servants pick up Hagar’s usual duties. She fed Hagar bread and figs sweetened with honey and even ordered a goat to be slaughter on more than one occasion so that Hagar could eat well and the baby could be strong. One night, when Hagar felt faint, Sarah followed her to bed and slept beside her. Hagar, with Sarah so near, felt herself burning all night, so hot she could barely fall asleep if it weren’t for the exhaustion of pregnancy. Every night after that, she continued to burn and burn as Sarah continued to share the bed with her, nestling closer and closer till the only thing between them was the baby, thumping inside of Hagar. The heat Hagar felt never dulled, but she grew accustomed to it to the point that she could not sleep without it.
On the day Hagar gave birth, she bit into a fig and found her mouth full of small wasps. The rest of the wasps rose from the other half of the fig in her fingers as a small swarm, buzzing in her face, black specks swirling in her eyes.
Hagar and Sarah named the baby Ishmael. Abraham agreed that it was a good name. Ishmael was plump as a baby should be. Whenever he reached for Hagar, she looked at his fingers and knew they would become long and skinny like Sarah’s—good for grasping and holding on tight and not letting go.
When Abraham died, it was no surprise to anyone. He was an old man. He coughed frequently and could not walk far without resting every couple hundred feet. It was a cool day, the wind sweeping the fields, and Abraham looked blown over. He had fallen somehow onto his back and his eyes were wide open as if in awe at the sun that burned above him.
Sarah was sad. They had been one flesh, after all, but now her flesh was all hers. Hagar was sad for Sarah, but they didn’t stop to mourn for too long. They had goats and sheep to tend to and a son to raise. Ishmael was cold like river water—shocking yet refreshing, fast and clear—his touch forceful, his smile kind, and his voice a current that carried its listeners far away, to the silver and shadow of the moon and back. He loved to sing. Every night he nestled between Hagar and Sarah in bed and sang them to sleep, inventing lullabies. Every night he listened to their softened, steadied breaths fall into synchronization. He listened very carefully to the warm air that rushed in and out of their nostrils. In the silence between each breath, he thought he heard God. God was a buzzing that filled him with joy.
Carl Napolitano is a writer and ceramicist from Little Rock, Arkansas. He holds a BA in English-Creative Writing and Studio Art from Hendrix College and is currently pursuing his MFA in fiction at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. His work has appeared in Assaracus and Cicada Magazine. He is an associate editor for Sibling Rivalry Press.