Our Mouths are Stained with Bitterness: Raising Isaac

by Ani King


Now Sarai was childless because she was not able to conceive.

~Genesis 11:30


Sarai, 1890 BCE, Canaan

You are surprised at how tart pomegranate juice is, the first time Abram works the seeds out of the sacred fruit with blunt fingers. He offers small, bright scoops up again and again, his own lips red and wet like a woman’s from sharing, and neither of you can help but giggle.

“You look so beautiful, brother,” you say, smiling. So often he is serious as a stone, back bent from labor and prayer.

After, you lie together on the ground, palm to palm, but not speaking.

In time, you cannot count the number of seeds you’ve eaten, waiting for just one to take root in your aging body. Your fingers are stained up to the first knuckle, redder than your Kushite skin, red as blood, but you have not entered the women’s tent in a long time, and being bloodless means being childless.


Sarah, 1980, Georgia

After all the fertility treatments, and Abe’s affair with the pretty church secretary, and her son, their son! with a face so much like your husband’s: fierce and dark, after you have given up, it happens.

But not before you are forced to sit on the red carpeted floor of Covenant Southern Baptist Church, while Abe and the elders pray for your barren womb, referencing the original Sarai and shouting in tongues for hours.

“Lord, give us a son, a healthy boy to lead people to your glory and light,” Abe begs. Nothing so weakly made as a girl will do for him. “Everyone, put your hands on Sarah, and be faithful that God is with us!”

In the end, it isn’t the invasive questions, or sterile procedures, or the humiliation of all those post-sermon prayers that catch you. Instead it’s cheap red wine that you share in the driveway that opens your womb; while you try to decide if one of you will make a break for it, get out while you can.

“I never wanted this, you know, never wanted children. I was doing this for you.” Neither of you have told anyone about the treatments. It was important to appear faithful, long after you lost all remnants.

“I don’t know, Sarah. What is it you want me to say?” Abe asks, in that voice, the one that God speaks through:  booming and rich.

“Say you don’t need this from me. That we can stop. Say God doesn’t expect this from us. Say that it’s you, and it always has been.”

“Baby, please, you know I’m sorry.”

It feels good to watch the rest of Abe’s faith bend and yield a bit, just enough for the surface to break, and that’s the moment where you love him again, when you remember what he was like when you were young. In the morning, you retrieve clothing and shoes from the living room, where a glass has tipped over and wine bleeds across the beige carpet. Your mouth is dry and purple, and you feel like crying.

“I’m leaving you,” you tell him, and he looks relieved.

You find out about the baby on the day Reagan is elected, just after packing all your things.

“God is great,” Abe intones, the following Sunday, looking at every face but yours from his pulpit. “Look what he’s done for Sarah and me.” He holds his hand out to you, and you smile as best you can. You certainly can’t leave now.


Serah, 1090, Armenia

You swell and your flesh strains and stretches. You want dark cherries, tart and cool, all the time. Pushing the seeds out and wearing the fruit on your fingers, then popping them off one at a time with your teeth and chewing slowly, has become one of the most pleasurable moments you can imagine. If not for the lurid meat of the cherries, you might not be able to tolerate any food at all. Not the fragrantly spiced meat Ibrahim wants you to eat for strength, not the chewy bread other women swear will help.

“Al-Hamdu lilla,” Ibrahim says every time he spreads his hands across your expansive body. “Our son will be a great man, Serah. A very great man.” Sometimes, he will pluck a cherry from your thumb with his teeth and let his tongue linger.

“Like his father,” you say, and his ancient face splits like a walnut when he smiles.

“God has done so much for us,” he demurs.

“What has God done for me,” you used to ask when month after month you bled but now, your back aching, breasts so pained, you believe he has favored you.

And you are fond of your husband, more than ever before. Especially now that he will bring you anything you ask. This isn’t a surprise; Ibrahim was kind from the start and has cherished your hands, your legs, your black river of hair with nothing but indulgence. You gaze out at past the lemon tree, into the horizon where the muezzin calls out the azhan, his voice dipping and soaring like a hawk. Inside, the child you always prayed for turns and swoops as if flying.

“Al-Hamdu lilla,” you murmur.


Zarita, 2007, Spain

Birth was not a pain you could prepare for. Your body opens like the impossible mouth of a snake from a time-lapse film you once played for your students in science class, but in reverse, as if the snake’s prey is wriggling its way out, and you bite down hard on your lip.

“Abrán, I’ve changed my mind,” you shout, teeth bared so you look like some savage old woman from some untouched place in the world. You try to catch your own eye in the rectangular mirror, but the nurse positions it again so you are forced to gaze at the pulpy, swollen red of your vulva.

In the short instant where you can breathe, right before the baby crowns, you look across the room at Abrán, whose hands are liver spotted and trembling already, and you cannot help but laugh out loud, like a dog barking.

“We’ve made a mistake,” you try to say, but the words are lost in the agony of bearing down. The bells of the Almudena Cathedral sound out, just when the baby slips the rest of the way out. They ring seven times, old and heavy and serious as your breasts have become. You call your son Isaac and kiss his head, anointing with him with blood as you wait for the moment when you will love him.

“Te amo, hijo mio,” you will whisper, while you take your antidepressants and wait to feel anything at all.

“Just remember how much we wanted this,” Abrán offers. At times, he is incapable of helping:  diapers baffle him and his arthritic hands. But he will hold the baby against his chest all night, so that you can sleep. What will you do someday, when he is gone? What were you thinking, having a child at this age?


Sarka, 1944, Leningrad

The boy is difficult to keep track of, and you can’t understand how other women keep sight of their six, seven, however many children they have managed to keep alive. Izaak runs and leaps and evades your hands like a deer or a fox. He seems to be made entirely of hunger and movement, and when at last all you have left are the beets, you are reluctant to give him half, because you love him, but you too are starving.

Other children freeze, and you thank God for Avraam’s paranoia and hording. You know you should share with the neighbors, with the girls Avraam has other children with, though he won’t admit they exist. Still, you don’t, even as their eyes glitter with the last light of life. You know you are hard and that heaven won’t so much as consider you, but you have never been a martyr. Even your husband used to say you were a she-bear; that you slipped back into your true form at night. Well, he said such things back when you used to talk. Now you save your breaths like silver coins.

Leningrad freezes and contracts like an empty stomach. Time itself is sluggish. Avraam gives all his food to Izaak, and you feel guilty when you eat. But who else will keep them alive?

You are surprised to live through it. Emerging into the light, your bones clatter together in the spaces carved out during the siege. The only way to fill them is to eat until your belly is as full as you can stand. Avraam bares his teeth at Izaak over a loaf of bread, and for the first time, the boy shrinks away like beaten animal.

“Ty zlish’sya na menya?” Izaak cries, skinny shoulders shaking.

“Net. I am not angry.” But it is not the last time Avraam will lie about his anger, to you or your son.


Ameerah, 1801, Lahore

Every morning your knees ache. None of your remedies fully relieve the swelling around your joints or the stiffness of your fingers. Still, you don’t complain. Instead you praise God, quietly and whenever Isa does not demand your complete attention.

Isa is often mistaken for your grandson. He’s beautiful, like Akaash was when you were both children. Smooth skin, hair that women envy. For all the beauty he has, you wish he was a good boy; that he would help you up the steps to the gurdwara, but instead he runs wild. You hear stories about girls, fights, and thievery. Nothing proven, of course, but you can see the way his friendship with other wilder boys brings the noise in him right to the surface.

“Mata, do you like my crown?” he asks, and his giggles set the jasmine blossoms he’s wreathed around that beautiful head to dancing. And you wonder why can’t he just be serious? He is too old for all these games. And yet, you indulge him, because he is such a gift, such a treasure that you and Akaash could not have expected.

Beloved that he is, Isa often threatens to cut his hair when he is older; to shave the wispy beginning of a mustache, and Akaash laughs it off. “He is still just a boy, Ameerah. Let him be. You’d make him as old as we are!”

Witnessing the way your son is always restless, you believe one day he will emerge from the night shorn and grinning, perhaps with blood on his hands, or a pocket full of some other man’s coin. He will break your heart.

In the lush garden where you prefer to rest, you drink golden milk, made of bright turmeric, with other old women and lie. “Of course he will make a good match,” you crow, lips spotted with orange. “What woman would not love to marry a good boy like Isa?”


Sai, 1570, Japan

Suddenly, your home is full of silence so loud that it deafens you further, old ears not what they used to be. Aizakku flinches away from his father as if he is a mere servant, not a pampered and adored son. You have to look away from Jun, unable to reconcile the betrayal on your husband’s face with the man who cradled this boy in his ancient hands and wept openly at his cloud of black hair and shell-pink mouth.

“It was a gift he offered you,” Jun finally shouts. “A gift to enter into the daimyo’s service!”

“It is not the gift I would ask,” Aizakku says, firmly, before turning his back.

“It doesn’t matter, I promised him you would serve, before you were even born. You don’t have a choice.”

And then you understand. Your son does not wish the hot breath of an old man’s empire, no matter how powerful, on his neck, nor does he wish to lay his body down on his father’s altar of swords and history. You sympathize, but do not intervene. That would be unforgivable—Jun worships the daimyo, Yasuda Matabei and always has. He would give the ancient man every grain of rice, every shred of fabric, anything he could, if his loyalty and sword were not enough. In fact, you have resented this as much as your son and more. And what then is Jun offering in his promises to Yasuda Matabei? Just the most beloved of everything Jun has to give:  Aizakku’s future sword, his future grains and fabric, the pacing worry of his future wife.

You recite a poem by Shōtetsu, to break the silence,

With what harshness

they come blowing

towards me-

the mountain winds

from deep


the heart

of one who asks

no lodging.

You wake and feel the violence still in the air. You wish Jun would stop coming for you and stick to his concubines. He always looks at your body as if it has betrayed him by aging. And yes, at times it seems one moment you were a girl and the next you were so old, but time has been no kinder to Jun.

The feeling doesn’t pass by. Instead it travels over your skin like winter wind and ruffles your hair. It carries your son’s familiar cry of surprise with the chill. If you moved a little more easily in the morning, you would leap out of bed, but instead, hobble to the window and see the child of your winter years being pulled across the courtyard to a horse laden with supplies. No, Aizakku is not really a child, he is too nearly a man.

“I must do this, you are a gift, the thing I love most,” Jun announces to the morning air. “I promised, son, I must keep my word.”

Aizakku stops fighting and kneels before his father and lowers his head. You can still taste salty shōyu and semen on your lips, and even though you should not speak, you cry out, scream at a volume you did not know you were capable of and shatter the morning. “No, Jun, not our son!”

And your heart stops. Just like that, you crumple. It might please you to know Jun runs to you, and that he weeps.

Despite his sorrow, Jun won’t utter your name again, not when you have demanded with your dying breath that he break his word. Still, he won’t send Aizakku to serve Yasuda Matabei, who will fall with all his men in open battle on the side of a hill. Aizakku’s star will still rise, without you, and because of you.

Once again you have given your son life.

Ani King is the Editor in Chief/Founder of Syntax & Salt: Stories, A Journal of Magical Realism. Ani currently resides in Lansing, MI with her family and her day job. You can also find her at thebittenlip.com.