The Binding of Isaac

by Stanley Jenkins


"Behold, the fire and the wood; but where is a lamb for the burnt offering?"
Genesis (22:7)

Snow on the mountain. A thicket trembling in the wind. The brittle crackling of twig against ice. Around the bush the snow is broken and trampled.

There is a clearing. There is a fire. And in the clearing, the smoke and fire consume the carefully constructed pyre. The day is gray. In their struggle, the man and the boy are cloaked. The knife alone, gleams.

Hands grope and reach for thick handfuls of the coarse wool. Legs are thrashing, breath is visible. The boy is sweating.

"Hold him!"

"I can't"

"Father..."

The black bone handle of the knife presses firmly into the palm of the father's hand. The cool metal dances in the smoke. The boy struggles to hold horns and neck twisted and bound in the crumpling snow. Behind them the fire convulses heavenward.

"Father..."

The thin blade pressed against the neck. The muscles in the father's arm tighten, the grip is clenched. Pressing downward, he can hear the whimper of the ram. Wool snaps beneath the blade. Eyes are rolling, exposing pink-gray lids. The smoke mingles with the breath of all three. A quick lunge and the flesh is ripped. The blade disappears as if it has been dipped into a puddle.

"Father..."

***

Snow on the mountain. Father and son standing together. The old man looks away, the boy directly into the fire. The melting snow hisses. The boy begins to sweat in the heat.

***

Snow on the mountain.

"How much farther?"

"Not much."

"The wood is heavy and my hands are cold."

"We are almost there."

The old man walks a few steps ahead of the boy. In one hand he carries the bowl of fire, in the other, the knife. The flame creeps over the edge, fanned by the wind, reaching out toward the long folds of his cloak. The boy struggles to keep up with him.

"How will we know when we get there?"

The snow crunches beneath their feet as it is broken up and the perfect whiteness of the landscape is scarred.

"The clearing lies just beyond."

"Father..."

"Hush child."

The boy shifts the wood in his aching arms. They walk in silence, the wind beating at their exposed flesh and swirling the flames about the rim of the bowl.

***

Legs are thrashing, the blood throbs and gurgles around the blade. It is thick and dark, staining the snow, hissing and steaming as it boils out over the matted wool. His hands are covered and seem to melt under the tide of red. The knife is removed. The snorting slows, the gurgling hushes. Legs are still.

***

Father and son walk together in the snow. The boy trails a few steps behind, struggling to keep up. His small feet, thickly wrapped, dart in and out of the white sea. A dull ache starts at the small of his back and proceeds into his thin arms. His nose is running.

The old man walks steadily looking straight ahead. He grips the knife tightly. The cool metal gleams, scattering sharp light fragments across the unbroken whiteness. The flame leaps frantically from the bowl. In the distance is a small clearing, surrounded by harsh black rocks and scraggily bushes. The climb has been gradual, but begins to increase now as they come closer to the rocks.

"Is this the place father?"

"This is the place."

"Will we rest a while before we get there?"

***

Snow on the mountain. The ram lies still. Eyes are rolled upward. The troubled snow around them is pink. They stand together, the old man looking away, the boy directly into the fire.

***

"We cannot rest yet."

The boy nods, trying to ignore the sting of the wind and the ache of his burden. They walk together silently, the wind absorbing all sound in its dull howl. The flame licks at the father's long cloak, the knife gleams.

"Father..."

"Hush child."

***

Each log is placed precisely where it needs to be to sustain the flame. The kindling has been carefully laid in the center, the snow scooped away by bare hands. All is ready. The wind rustles through a thicket. The crackling of twig on ice. The old man stands motionlessly staring into the bowl of fire, the boy looks away.

"Father..."

***

The legs stop thrashing, the blood continues to flow, but slowly now, more thickly. The boy's hands are stained as well, they begin to grow cold again as the sticky liquid dries and hardens. He loosens his grip on the coarse horn. Eyes are rolled upward showing pink-gray lids. The head feels sickeningly loose at the throat as he lets it flop in the pink snow. He stands up slowly and turns to look into the fire.

***

"Hush child."

"But where is the lamb?"

The old man reaches into the bowl and pulls out a firebrand. He stands up slowly and turns to face the carefully constructed pile of wood. He does not look at his son.

***

Snow on the mountain. A thicket trembling in the wind. The brittle crackling of twig on ice. An arm is tautly extended to it's full length at the end of which a knife trembles. The blade is poised. All is still. Muscles strain, veins strain.

***

Father and son stand together. The old man looks away, the boy directly into the fire. Quietly, his arms begin to rise, stretching out. The flames leap upward ripping at the sky, lashing the cold whiteness. Slowly, he turns. The old man looks away. Slowly the boy turns, his arms open wide.

***

All is still. The father looks up at his raised hand, held in suspension. Eyes follow the the length of the arm and reach the hand, resting on the blade. The tension mounts, the restraint is waning, the muscles stretch as if they will snap. Eyes are closed. The tension breaks. The knife released like an arrow. Down. Down. Eyes are closed.

***

Abraham looks away. The boy begins to turn faster and faster before the flame, his arms outstretched. Slowly, his feet leave the ground and he spins faster and faster. As the flame shrieks and dances hysterically he is rising. Isaac is rising. Snow on the mountain.


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