Sarah (Women of Genesis Series #1)by Orson Scott Card
Sarai was a child of ten years when she first met Abram. He appeared before her in her father's house, filthy from the desert, tired and thirsty. But as the dirt of travel was washed from his body, the sight of him filled her heart. And when Abram promised Sarai to return in ten years to take her for his wife, her fate was sealed. Abram kept his promise, and Sarai… See more details below
Sarai was a child of ten years when she first met Abram. He appeared before her in her father's house, filthy from the desert, tired and thirsty. But as the dirt of travel was washed from his body, the sight of him filled her heart. And when Abram promised Sarai to return in ten years to take her for his wife, her fate was sealed. Abram kept his promise, and Sarai kept hers. They were wed, and so began a lifetime together of both great joy and great peril, for with the blessing of their God, who bestows on them new names, a great nation would be built around the core of their love.
"This series is definitely for those interested in women in the Bible, and in such novels as The Red Tent."--Kliatt
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Sarai was ten years old when she saw him first. She was mistress of the distaff that day, and was proud of the steadiness of her spinning, the even quality of the yarn she drew from the spindle. She had a gift for closing off the outside world, hearing nothing but the words that raced through her own mind, seeing nothing but woolen fibers as she transformed them into yarn. And today she worked with wool of the finest white, for it would be woven undyed into the bridal dress of her sister Qira.
Into the yarn, from time to time, she added a red-gold hair plucked from her own head. It would be almost invisible, yet in the sunlight there would be the slightest sheen of color in the dress. Her sister would be embraced by Sarai even as she was given to her husband; a part of Sarai would go with her to the distant places where she would live.
A desert man, a wanderer. What was Father thinking? And all because the man was supposed to be of an ancient priestly lineage. "There's power in their blood," Father said. "My grandchildren will have it." As if Father were not the rightful king of Ur, with plenty of godly power in his own blood. The difference was that Father still lived in a city, with many servants around him, while this desert man lived in a tent and surrounded himself with goats and sheep. Let us buy his wool, Father, and pay for it with olive oil, not with the life of my dear sister, my truest friend!
As she thought of words she wanted to say, her eyes filled with tears and she had to stop the spindle, lest she mar the yarn through her blindness.
Only now, with her spinning stopped, did she notice the flurry of voices at the door.
"Then come to the courtyard! My younger daughter will draw you water from the cistern."
Father's voice. Which meant that Sarai was the daughter who must draw the water for this visitor.
She laid aside distaff, wool, and yarn, and blinked her eyes to clear them.
Two feet stood before her, greyish-white with the dust of travel, creased and cracked from the dry air. She had never seen feet so weary-looking.
"I'm afraid I've interrupted you," said a voice. A gentle voice, pitched so only she could hear. But also a strong voice, full of confidence. Already she knew that she wanted her name to be spoken by this man, so she could hear the sound of it spoken with such authority and yet such kindness. If the gods could speak, this would be the voice of a god.
"Sir," she said, "will you have water from our cistern?"
"I would have water from your hands," said the man, "since you are to become my sister."
At once the tears leapt back into Sarai's eyes. This must be the desert man, her sister's husband-to-be. She should have known at once, from the feet! Who but a desert wanderer would have feet like these? And he smelled like goats and donkeys!
But his voice ...
I don't want to see his face, she thought. For what if he is beautiful, so my sister will love him and not be sorry to leave me? And what if he is ugly, and I have to be afraid for her, going off into the desert with a monster?
"I will draw water for you, sir." Not looking up, she strode to the cisternwalking boldly, so he would know she did not fear him, though she would not raise her eyes to see him.
She climbed the short ladder and pulled upward on the waterdoor. She could hear water gurgling out of the cistern, splashing down into the jar. It would take much to wash those feet, so she left the water flowing until she could hear the pitch of the falling water begin to rise, telling her the jar was growing full. Then she put all her weight onto the waterdoor; it slid downward and closed off the flow from the cistern.
When she had climbed down, she turned to the jar and, to her surprise, looked the stranger in the face. For instead of standing, he had sat down on the tiles of the courtyard and now looked, smiling, up into her eyes. "You're so serious at your task," he said.
Was he mocking her? "I'm not serious when I play," she said, "but I prefer to work. There's pride in work, when it's done well. And someone gets the use of it."
She ladled water out of the jar and poured it over his feet. The dust on his legs turned into black mud, and then into slime. He immediately put his hands right in it, scrubbing away the dirt.
Ubudüe, the courtyard servant, at once protested. "Sir, it is for my hands to wash your feet."
"Your hands?" asked the man. "They're as clean as the king's dishes. Whereas my hands need washing almost as much as my feet do."
"And your face," said Sarai. The words came out of her before she realized how outrageous they were. She blushed.
"Ah!" cried the man. "My face! I must be as pretty as a locust." He held out his hands to her.
She poured water into his cupped hands, and he splashed it at once on his own face. And again. And again. Only then did he take the linen cloth from Ubudüe's hand and vigorously rub his cheeks and brow. When he pulled the towel away and revealed his face to her, his eyes were crossed and his mouth deformed into a grotesque shape. "Better?" he asked.
She couldn't help it. She had to laugh. "A little," she said.
He rubbed again with the towel. This time he made a much more threatening face. "Do I need more water?"
"I'm not sure it will help."
He held out his hands all the same, and she poured more into them, and he washed again, and now when the towel came away, he was grinning.
It was the face of a god, his eyes so bright, his smile so warm, his cheek so golden with sunlight.
"I see that my sister will do well," said Sarai. She said it politely, but inside, her heart was breaking. Qira will forget me quickly, with this man as her husband.
"She will do well," said the man, "and better than you think. For I am not Lot. I'm only Lot's uncle, come with the bride-price for your father and to help prepare for the wedding. Lot is much better looking."
"His uncle?" asked Sarai. "But you're so young. He must be a child."
"He's the son of my elder brother Haran. My much elder brother. My late elder brother. Lot grew up in my father's tent, as if he were my own brother. He is my brother, in truth, since my father adopted himand more to the point, he's the same age as me. Twenty years in the world our gracious Lord has given us."
"I'm ten," said Sarai, wondering even as she said it why she imagined that he would care.
"Before your age is doubled, I expect I'll be coming back for you."
"Why? Have you another nephew?"
He laughed at that as if it were the cleverest thing she could have said. She had no idea why.
"No more nephews," he said. "But still these two feet, much in need of washing."
She poured more water as Father came into the courtyard, followed by servants carrying cups of beer and a basket of bread. "Barley for the traveler," said Father. He took one cup from the servant's hand and gave it to the visitor himself.
"If the elder daughter is as pretty as the younger," said the visitor, "my brother Lot will be the happiest man in the world."
Sarai was astonished. No one spoke of her as pretty.
"Oh, now, don't be getting thoughts," said Father. "The younger is already spoken for."
"Before the elder?" asked the visitor.
"Spoken for by the goddess Asherah."
At once the visitor's face was transformed into a mask of rage. This was no game of making faces with a child, either. "You mean to slay this child?"
"Abram!" said Father. "You misunderstand me! She is marked to be a priestess. One daughter of the king's house has always tended a shrine of Asherah."
Abram was his name.
His body relaxed a little, but he was still upset, Sarai could see it. "Even though you live six days upriver from the city where your great-grandfather was once king?"
"The duty of kings does not end just because the gods are pleased to let another have our throne. A king is a priest before he is a king, and he still must intercede for his people, even if he no longer rules them. What right would I have to return to the throne of ancient Ur, if I slack in my duty now, with my people under the harsh rule of the Amorite?"
Sarai poured another ladle of water over Abram's feet and lower legs. The dark slime was almost gone, and the bronze color of his sunworn skin was visible now. His legs were strongthis man ran as much as he rode.
"You speak the truth," said Abram. "But God does not ask parents to give their children to him. He asks people to give themselves, by their own free choice."
"Well," said Father, "it's not as if we're going to force her. But she was god-chosen from her infancy. She sang in the cradle. She danced before she walked."
"One can be chosen by God, and yet still marry and raise children. The soul with many children is rich, though there is no bread, and the one without is poor, though there is oil enough to bathe in."
This idea struck Sarai like a thunderclap. Who had ever heard such a thing? Marriage was fine, and these princes of the desert had their own sort of prestige. But to be a priestess of Asherah was the highest work of all. She would make music in the temple and sing before the goddess and minister in her holy name. Yet this man seemed not to understand it.
No, he understoodhe simply did not believe it.
"Sarai," said Father, "I fear that our visitor is too weary for company right now."
"I have spoken too boldly," said Abram. "I did not mean to give offense. But you see, your news came as a surprise to me, for I had already promised Sarai that I would return in ten years to marry her."
Sarai dropped the ladle. To marry her? That was what he meant when he said that he'd be coming back?
"My daughter is normally graceful," said Father. "But lookyou've made her clumsy. Leave the ladle, Sarai. Go inside with your spinning."
Still blushing, Sarai strode to her distaff, gathered up wool and yarn and all, and rushed into the house.
But she did not stay indoorsit was too dark for good work, wasn't it? In moments she was on the roof looking down into the courtyard. Without quite planning it, she found herself positioned so that Father's back was to her and she could see the face of this earnest stranger, this Abram, who had been so furious when he thought that Father meant to slay her in sacrifice to Asherah. It was as if he thought himself fit to judge a god. To judge a king in his own house!
Was he joking when he said that he would return to marry me?
No matter. Sarai knew her life's work. It had no marriage in it.
But such a man as this. Filthy from travel, yes. But there was a light inside him that even the dust of the desert could not hide. Everyone in Ur-of-the-North treated Father with great respect and honor, even though he was a king without a city. But this Abram did not need to have others give him his honor. He carried it within himself. He was more a king, arriving filthy from the desert, than Father was, here in his fine house.
The disloyalty of this thought made Sarai blush with shame. She would never speak it aloud. But she would never deny it, either. If the desert is traveled by such men as this, no wonder they are fit husbands for the daughters of kings.
* * *
Qira was born to be a queen, and this marriage covenant with a desert man was the disaster of her life. When Father returned from the temple of the Lord of the city full of talk about a desert priest named Terah, Qira had to fight to stay awake. Why would Father bore her with talk about some Amorite who claimed a special kinship with Ba'al? It was Sarai who was going to be a priestess. Qira was going to be a queen!
So when Father said, "And I want you to marry his heir, Lot, the son of his eldest son," Qira did not quite understand.
"Whom?" she asked. "You want me to what?"
"Marry him. Terah's grandson, the heir to his great and ancient priesthood. Not to mention the greater portion of his flocks and herds."
"Marry him? What city is he king of?"
"Not king of any one city. He says that the Ba'al of one city is only a statue that reminds us of the true Lord, who has a true name known only to a few, written in signs known to none outside the lineage of the true priesthood."
Qira could not resist throwing some of Father's own teachings back in his face. "'It's an arrogant man who says that the worship of others is false, and only his own is true.'"
Father shook his head. "Daughter, theirs is the lineage of Utnapishtim, who rode above the flood. What is the royalty of a mere city, compared to him who is priest to all the world?"
"If they don't live in a city, how are they any better than the wandering Amorites?"
"The Amorites are barbarians who raid from the desert and destroy what they cannot conquer. As we know to our sorrow."
"What cities has this Terah conquered?"
"He is no Amorite, that is my point, Qira. There is no need for him to conquer cities, when he is the chief priest of God in the world!"
"Father," said Qira, "with all respect, I must still point out to you that a beggar could say the things this man said to you, and it doesn't make him a king unless there are people somewhere who obey him."
Father's face turned red then, and Qira realized that in denigrating this Terah, she had said the unspeakable thing: She had denied that a king without a city could truly be a king. "I did not mean ..." But there was no way she could put a good face on what she had said.
"Very well," said Father. "Let me speak no more of priests and kings. Let me speak of money. A real prince, to marry you, would demand a dowry, and we have no dowry for you, living as we do on the gifts of my brother, king of Ur-of-the-North. While this Terah is rich in herds, and promises me a very sizeable bride-price for you."
"Everyone knows the Amorites trade in slaves," said Qira savagely, "but I never thought you would sell your own daughter to one."
"As a slave," said Father coldly, "you wouldn't be worth two shoats, since you do no work and have no skills."
"Should I callus my fingers with spinning, like a common woman?"
"Your sister is not ashamed."
"Sarai is born to be a temple servant. I am born to be consort to a king!"
"And I was born to rule a great city," said Father. "We don't always live the life we were born for. Would you rather marry some tradesman who will put you in the house behind his shop and trot you out to show his visitors that he has married royalty?"
"Once you decide that my shame can be purchased for money, what difference does it make?"
At once she saw that she had goaded Father too far. "Your tongue is enough to drive a man to beat a woman!" shouted Father. But he quickly got control of himself. "If I marry you to Terah's grandson Lot, you will be the wife of a wealthy man with a claim to an ancient priestly lineage. No one will say you married down."
"Yes they will," she murmured.
"Despite the fame of your beauty and the majesty of my rank," said Faither dryly, "there has been no queue at our door of ruling princes begging for your royal company."
Qira burst into tears. "I will not live in a tent!"
"Is that all?" said Father. "I'll make that a condition of the weddingthat you never have to live in a tent. But this is the best marriage I will ever be able to arrange for you."
Qira was no fool. She might be bitterly disappointed, but she knew that Father would not lie about such a thing. "I will do my duty," she said miserably.
And so it was that she consented to this miserable wedding, wrecking all her hopes, discarding all her dreams.
Ever since then, she had wondered: What god was it who hated her so much?
Still, for days at a time she had been able to forget what lay in her future. Desert men were unreliable. They changed their minds. They broke their word. Or perhaps her future husband died in battle and would never come for her. Or starved to death out in the deep desert where not even grass could grow. She had all sorts of hopeful fantasies like that.
But now the filthy uncle was here, and Father insisted on parading her forth as if he were selling a milk cow.
"Wear the scarlet," Father said.
Her most precious gown. Well, she would not wear it, not for the mere uncle. What did desert men know of scarlets and other bright and precious colors? Everything was the yellow of grass and sand to them, everything smelled of the hair and dung of animals, and the only music that they knew was mooing and bleating. Scarlet would be wasted on him. If Father was unhappy that she disobeyed, what would he do? Beat her with a stick in front of the uncle? Father could insist on the marriage, but she would show her independence where she could. Qira was not one for submissive obedience, and Father had better remember it.
So it was her blue and brown woollen dress that she pulled on over her linen shift, only one step up from what a tradesman's wife might wear.
"Qira, what are you doing?"
Sarai stood in the door of her room, looking stricken.
"Showing proper respect to my uncle-to-be," said Qira, feigning innocence.
"You mustn't," said Sarai.
"He's a desert manwhat will he know?"
"He will know," said Sarai. "He's not what you think. He doesn't talk like an Amoritehis speech is as pure as ours, the speech of Ur the Great. And he's a man of refined senses, I know ithe'll understand what you mean by this coarse dress."
"It is a dress belonging to the daughter of a king," said Qira. "All my clothing is far above his station." Why she was bothering to argue with a ten-year-old was beyond her, anyway.
Sarai stood in the doorway, contemplating her.
"Yes, after all, I think you're right," said Sarai.
Since Sarai never changed her mind easily, Qira grew suspicious. "What do you mean?"
"It's good to begin your marriage with honesty, not pretending," said Sarai. "With this dress you'll show him that you're the daughter of a fallen, beggarly house that lives on the gifts of another king. The royal scarlet would be nothing but a sham."
"I hate you," said Qira. "Asherah may never forgive Father for giving him such a nasty daughter."
"You don't hate me," said Sarai. "You love me because I remind you to do what you already know that you should."
"I don't like doing what I should."
"Neither do I," said Sarai. "But we both do what we must."
Qira burst into tears and embraced her sister, who also wept. But as they clung to each other, Sarai spoke softly. "If your bridegroom is like his uncle, you'll not be cursed by this marriage, you'll be blessed. The uncle is a handsome man, and he speaks like one who is born to rule." She told Qira all about Abram, saying several times that since this was only the uncle, the husband was bound to be even better.
But Qira saw the truth behind the words, and she was astonished. "You've fallen in love with the uncle!" she said.
Sarai looked startled, then embarrassed. "I like him," said Sarai.
"I know all about such 'liking,'" said Qira. "You're all set to keep him in your dreams, I know it from the way you talk!"
"The servant of Asherah has only such dreams as the goddess might send."
"You aren't bound over to Asherah's service yet."
"I'll help you put on the scarlet dress," said Sarai.
"You know I'm right. That's why you change the subject."
"I know that the uncle is waiting, and Father is impatient to show you off to him."
"Ten years old, but you have a woman's heart."
"It would do me no good to love him," said Sarai. "You know that if one who is intended for Asherah should turn away and marry a man, the goddess will never give her children as long as she lives."
"So I've heard," said Qira. "They say such things to keep temple-bound girls from wishing for a wedding. But who knows if it is true?"
"I don't intend to find out," said Sarai.
"And yet you will dream." Qira began to hum and sing a wordless melody as she held out the voluminous skirt of the scarlet dress and turned and turned.
Sarai could not help laughing. "You are such a foolish child," she said.
"The ten-year-old says this to her almost-married sister?"
"You're a dreamer," said Sarai. "So you think everyone dreams."
"You're telling me you don't? I won't believe it."
"I'm a very practical person," said Sarai. "I keep my hands busy with work. I keep my thoughts on what my hands are doing."
"And you speak nonsense all day long."
"Come now," said Sarai. "Father's waiting."
"Down to earth," said Qira. "Practical. Handy. What a sturdy wife you'd make for a desert man."
"Don't say any such thing in front of him," said Sarai, suddenly angry. "Don't you dare shame me like a little child who has no feelings!"
"But you are a little child," Qira teased. "And you just said that you had no feelings for this desert uncle."
The fury in Sarai's face would have been frightening, if she were not so small. "If you mock me in front of him I will never forgive you!"
"I do what I want," said Qira, and she flounced on out of the room, Sarai scampering furiously at her heels.
Thich Nhat Hanh
Edited by ROBERT ELLSBERG
Copyright © 2001 Thich Nhat Hanh. All rights reserved.
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