Reprinted from the collection Eyes, Stones
I will make the son of the maidservant into a nation also,
because he is your offspring.
_ _ —Gen. 21:13
First you were the only
and two mothers cooed
and chewed your food
to make it soft.
Then he came. The choice cut
of lamb, milk with the skein
for strength and you were told
Bring it in a silver bowl!
That was all she’d say to you,
the one who’d begged
you to be born. He smelled
like the soil after rain.
He was small enough to crush.
Her laugh like ankle bells,
returning from the well, a vessel
balanced on her head. Or squeezing
milk from our goats. At night
when she unbraided and brushed
my hair, her hands were like birds
and I imagined the lightness
of owning nothing. I wanted
to wear her laugh like skin,
I wanted to flood her eyes—
I sent my husband in.
Like sisters before
the child came.
I was the younger
and she scolded me
but when I made her laugh
I’d get my way.
And on the nights when lonely
drifted in like smoke
she’d call me to her tent.
A woman who can’t bear
a child? What belongs to her?
Can I say I didn’t gloat
to have a son, fat and laughing
in my lap? Of course
it all belonged to her:
the clothes, the meat, the tent.
Even the child I’d birthed. Hers
to snatch back like an angry god.
The morning I sent Hagar and Ishmael away,
the sun closed its eyes. Nothing shone
on the muscled back I’d oiled in the dark
of the tent, her back, that shouldered the skin
of water, sack of bread, our boy.
I watched until they shrank into ants
and the desert whitened.
I could have given away anything after that.
After he left I was stuck
with their desire
and their invisible god.
Father shrank and mother paced,
counting steps like silver coins. At night
the goats circled and their bleating
filled the camp like rain.
When the one I’d helped to birth
dried up like a fig in the sun,
I brought the knife.
I filled the bowl with blood.
Elana Bell is featured in AGNI‘s Emerging Poets Interview Series. Her first collection of poetry, Eyes, Stones, was chosen by Fanny Howe for the 2011 Walt Whitman Award and published by Louisiana State University Press in 2012. Her work has appeared in_ Harvard Review_, AGNI, Massachusetts Review, CALYX Journal, and elsewhere. She has led creative writing workshops for women in prison, for educators, for high school students in Israel, Palestine, and throughout the five boroughs of New York City, as well as for the pioneering peace building and leadership organization Seeds of Peace. She is writer-in-residence at the Bronx Academy of Letters and poetry editor of Jewish Journal. She lives in Brooklyn and can be found at www.elanabell.com. (updated 1/2013)
Read “Living on That Land: A Conversation with Elana Bell” by Eric Higgins in AGNI Online.