Abraham's daughter picks her way among the rocks and pebbles of the mount. She is careful to stay far enough behind Abraham and Isaac that they do not see her, but close enough that she does not lose them. She has had much experience in blending into what is around her, in becoming silent and almost invisible, and it is not hard to follow them.
She cannot quite name the feeling of disquiet that has led her to go with them. A look in her father's eyes as he announced the plan to go with Isaac to the mountain? A tension in the way he lifted the wood that was to be used for the burnt offering? There is something, however: a wordless fear for her little brother that causes her to take her bow and a little food to follow them on the journey.
They are now almost at the top of the mount. Abraham has left behind the servants that went with them. She sees the two of them, their silhouettes stark against the sky, along with the sharp rectangular profile of the stone altar there. Almost she relaxes. It is only a father and a son together.
And without warning there is a being in her path. It might have been human, if any human were made of light, blazing like the sun, but without the sun's warmth. She shields her eyes against it. "What are you?" she manages to choke out: quietly, so that the two in front of her do not hear.
"I am an angel." She has never heard anything like its voice, like many bells ringing together. It seems to be the loudest thing she has ever heard, and yet the two on the top of the mountain do not turn.
She frowns at it. "What is an angel?"
There is a ripple of chimes. "A messenger of the Holy One. A repository of probabilistic scenarios. Choose one."
She does not understand, but she ignores its answer in favor of a more relevant question. "Why are you here?"
She had thought the angel's voice was loud before, but now it seems to fill the whole world. "This is a place where futures lie balanced on a cusp; I come to bear witness to the choice that is made."
"The choice to sacrifice the son of Abraham, his son Isaac whom he loves, for a burnt offering."
She turns startled eyes to the top of the mount. There is only one figure standing there, shadowed against the sun. And the altar. The altar, whose profile is now lumpy, as if there is something bound upon it.
She hears, through the thin air, the unmistakable sound of a child crying.
Isaac! Isaac whom she saw being born, Isaac who took his first wobbling steps to her, Isaac who followed her and made a pest of himself when she was trying to hunt, Isaac who patiently taught her how to read when he found that their father had instructed him but not her.
But their father-- She remembers the great tumult and pomp he caused to be made when Isaac was born, the way he boasts of Isaac's quickness, trotting him out whenever there is a visitor. How could this be? "Why?" she cries to the angel. "Why would he do this?"
"For he has seen what happens if he does not," the angel says, and the figure of light bends over, beams of light like wings reaching out to her. She backs away, but not fast enough. The light surrounds her, envelops her, and in the light she sees:
Abraham does not sacrifice Isaac. There is an uneasy peace between Isaac and Ishmael while they live. But their descendants distrust and fear one another. When they meet, there are misunderstandings that coalesce into hate and war. There is blood, and men shouting, and the noise of battle; mud, and loud sounds, and dead everywhere. Time passes. Sometimes there are more dead between them, sometimes less, but always distrust. And then: fire and smoke, far larger than she can comprehend. Fire falls from the sky, onto the peaceful and the struggling alike; and then there is only fire and ash.
"Is this the future?" she asks hoarsely. "If Isaac lives, this is what will happen?"
In answer, the light from the angel enfolds her again.
Abraham does not sacrifice Isaac. There is an uneasy peace between between Isaac and Ishamel during their lives. Their descendants seek to maintain the uneasy truce. When they meet, there are misunderstandings, there are deaths. Time passes. Sometimes there are more dead between them, sometimes less, but there are those who struggle to understand one another. There are those who call for the fire, but they are overmastered, finally, by those who seek peace.
"There are two visions," she says slowly, trying to think. Isaac is still crying, on the top of the mountain: uncontrollable, gasping sobs that make her heart knot up. "Why one, why not the other?"
The angel holds out hands of light. "It is not known with certainty which will happen. Others will choose their own paths. But Abraham your father has studied and thought, and he believes that men will not choose the second vision, that it is the first which will come to pass."
"Is he right?" The outline of her father on the mountain shifts; she takes a step towards the altar, and then away.
"It is more probable," the angel says. "Men tend to choose pride and fear over mercy, and aggression over tenderness."
"And if he kills Isaac? What will happen then? Show me," she commands.
Ishmael becomes heir to all his father has. Ishmael's children inherit, and spread over the earth like the stars of heaven, or the sand upon the seashore. Rancor is removed from their hearts; at their feet flow rivers, and the earth becomes their garden.
She blinks. Remembering the other futures the angel showed her, she asks, "Is there another way? Or is what you showed me what must happen if Isaac dies?"
And she is answered:
Ishmael becomes heir to all his father has, but his children inherit a world where human sacrifice continues, and continues, and continues. Blood stains the altars; the mud runs red with it. Wars are fought for no other reason than to placate with blood the old gods and the new. The dead choke the rivers, and disease kills those who are not already dead.
She reels back.
"And does my father then think that the first vision will come to pass?"
"Yes," the angel says serenely. "He believes that men are more angry than they wish to think themselves, but less cruel than they fear."
"Do you agree with him?"
"My task is neither to evaluate nor to decide," says the angel. "These are tasks for men. Mine is only to show what may happen. But I will say that nothing I have seen in my dealings with men have negated Abraham's hypothesis."
She is silent, thinking about blood and fire.
The outline of Abraham above her stretches out a hand to the figure bound on the altar.
"Which futures," says the angel, "will you choose?"
Fire falls from the sky.
"No," she murmurs, as much to herself as to the angel. "The future will be what it will be. There is only now, and what is right."
There is a knife in her father's hand --
She steps forward so that Abraham and Isaac can see her, and she raises her bow.