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Born to Trouble as Surely as Sparks Fly Upward

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The angels had already killed her father once.  Of course, he wouldn't have seen it that way, but that was exactly what had happened, and it gave her comfort when she raised her bow and shouted "Stop!"

And then the angel did what she most feared.  It turned to her and demanded her name.

You see, names were precious things back then, and had to be guarded closely.  Nowadays, of course, someone who does great things deserves to have their name spread far and wide, and angels are rare, so I shall tell you that her name was Yiskah, because she did the world a great service.  But she dared not tell the angel her name, for she feared, and rightly so, that the angel might kill her, as its comrades had killed her parents.  For where Abram and Sarai had so longed for a child, Abraham was willing to kill his youngest son to please the angels, and if Sarah had had any objections to the sacrifice of her son, Yiskah hadn't noticed.  Yiskah had asked Hagar to say something, but if Sarah'd ever listened to Hagar, she certainly didn't anymore.

So it was all up to Yiskah.

Angels are difficult to resist.  They're terrifying beings of light and fire.  Some of them have four heads, all different, and some of them have wings covered in little black eyes like poppyseeds, but their voices are honey-sweet and they get inside your head and make you want to follow them forever, between the clouds and into their heaven.  When they claim to speak for God, you believe them.  There aren't many left here nowadays, and I hope they've all gone back to whatever place they came from, but I have seen them and I know.

So Yiskah had to bite her tongue to keep from telling the angel who she was.  And when the angel looked at her, turned all those beady eyes on her and waited, it felt to her like she had to say something or she might catch fire, or melt, or like maybe the angel knew her name already and hiding it any longer was pointless.

And gritting her teeth, she kept that arrow pointed right at her father's heart, even as he had his sword at her brother's throat.  Isaac was crying, but he was tied up, and his father was acting for all the world like he couldn't hear his own son.

"What is your name?" demanded the angel, once more, and Yiskah felt the angel's voice might shake her to pieces if it asked her a third time.

She picked a set of eyes to look the angel in, more or less at random.  "I haven't got a name," she said.  She felt like the angel was looking through her like she was made of glass, so she decided to invent something the angels might believe.  "My father didn't name me.  Can't have a name unless your father gives you one, everyone knows that.  And he's busy, it looks like."  She gestured at her father with the bow.  "I'm waiting.  Tell him to stop."

The angel blinked, all its eyes closing at once, and for a moment, Yiskah could think properly again, could breathe without feeling all her secrets were the angel's, and she took the opportunity to steady herself before the angel turned its gaze on her again.

"You are a disobedient child," snarled the angel.

When an angel says something, you listen, and some little part of you believes it no matter how crazy it is.  So sometimes I think maybe that was the angel's mistake, telling her she was disobedient.  Once it said that, once it had her believing on some level that she was fundamentally, inherently rebellious, she was never going to change her mind no matter what else the angel said.

So the angel strengthened her, and help from an angel, no matter how accidental, is about as powerful as you can get.  "Are you going to tell him to stop?" she asked the angel, turning her gaze back to the spot where her father stood, frozen, waiting for a decision from on high.  She did not want to kill him again, but there was Isaac to consider, the youngest of them and the most trusting, and nobody else was around to stop Abraham.  It would have to be Yiskah.  "You'll be out a prophet if you do, and I won't let you get Isaac.  You'd better let him go or it won't end well for any of us."

She hadn't taken her eyes off of Abraham for all that time; after all, her brother was in danger, and he couldn't imagine abandoning him.  What if, she started thinking, what if I kill him by accident?  What if Father moves?  But she ignored these thoughts.  She decided they were the angel's doing and ignored them.

And then a strange thing happened.  For while the angel was doing all it could to harden Yiskah's heart against her brother, to flee and save herself, it could not watch over Abraham as it had been, and she saw something in his face that she hadn't seen for years, not since Isaac had been born.  She saw doubt, and worry, and confusion.  Abraham looked like a man awakening from a terrible dream, trying to figure out how much of it had been real, and he lowered his sword, let it fall from Isaac's throat, and cut the bonds he had tied Isaac with instead.

Isaac ran to his sister and hugged her around the waist.  She was seven years older than him, and he had always admired her -- he wished he had her skill with a bow, and listened avidly to the stories she told at the cooking fire.

And Yiskah turned her bow on the angel.  "Will you leave us now?" she demanded.  Angels, for all their power over the mind, are fragile things.

"The sacrifice must take place," insisted the angel.  "Abraham, do as you have been --"

But the angel never finished its sentence, because Abraham was his old self again, and he had a sword in his hand and two frightened children in front of him.  He charged at that angel and ran it through before it could tell him to do anything else.

There's a special word for angel blood -- it's called ichor -- but it turns out it's red, just like everyone else's.

After that, the three of them were fearful.  What would the angels do to them once they realized one of their number was missing?  They took the body of the dead angel, all flimsy white wings and beady black eyes, and cut it up as if it had been a sacrifice.

"Yiskah," said Abraham, his voice ragged.  "I have been... I have been changed."

"I noticed," said Yiskah, sullen and mistrustful.  "Listen.  Don't tell them my name.  They already have yours."

"I -- I will try," said Abraham.  "Thank you.  You saved me.  Isaac, I --"

"Leave me alone!" said Isaac, clinging to Yiskah.  For he'd never known any father but the one the angels had left him with, and he didn't yet understand that the man who'd tied him to an altar to kill him wasn't the same man who stood before him.

"It's all right now," said Yiskah.  She kissed Isaac's forehead.  "It's going to be fine."

"No it's not," said Abraham.  "They'll send somebody.  They'll --"

"Someone's coming," said Yiskah, and shushed him.  A figure was hurrying up the hill.  It might've been an angel, one of the low-ranking kind that look like men made of gold.

They scrambled for cover, hoping the burnt remains of the angel looked enough like a little boy to fool another angel, but when the figure screamed -- a woman's scream -- and started running, Yiskah knew they wouldn't have to lie.  "Isaac!" she shouted.  "Abraham!"

"Isaac," Yiskah whispered, "it's Mother.  Go to her."  He looked at her, uncertain, because he'd already been betrayed once today.  "Go!" said Yiskah.  "Look, if she's not all right I'll shoot her."

He started to cry in earnest for the first time that day -- because that was reassuring, and because it was such a horrible thing to find reassuring.

"Go," insisted Yiskah again.

Isaac went.  "Oh, Isaac," said Sarah, grabbing him and hugging him as tight as she could.  "You're all right.  You're all right.  The angels said --"

"What did they say?" demanded Yiskah, turning her bow on her mother.

"What are you doing here?" Sarah asked.  "You should be home."

"I could ask you the same," said Yiskah.  She didn't move.

"The angels said Abraham had gone mad, that he'd rejected holy instruction, and that Isaac was the price, that he --"  Sarah paused.  "That isn't what happened?"

Isaac struggled out of his mother's arms.  "He was going to kill me!" he said.

"That's what they told me," said Sarah.  "I couldn't believe it.  They must've stopped him in time, or else --"

Abraham stepped out, and Sarah gaped at his hands and sword.  Both were stained red with angel blood.  "They lied.  They've been lying to both of us.  I'm so sorry," he said, laying his sword down.  "Yiskah saved us."

And Sarah looked at Yiskah, her daughter, who she'd loved and then nearly forgotten.  "Well, you can put your bow down, Yiskah," said Sarah, sharply.  "As long as nobody's dead."

Yiskah lowered her bow, reluctantly.  "No one's dead yet," she said.  "Where's Hagar?  Where's Ishmael?"  She hadn't told Hagar where she was going, but now she was worried.  She didn't know how fast angels could move, or how soon they would figure out what happened.

"They vanished this morning," said Sarah.  "I've no idea where they've gone."

"You know," said Abraham, "maybe the angels weren't lying.  Maybe it was just the one.  If we asked them for help..."  I don't really blame him for wanting to fall back on the angels, really.  The thing is, they'd helped his family thrive while others struggled to get through famines and droughts.  And it's difficult at the best of times, changing your mind when you'd been willing to stake so much on being right.  The angels had been feeding him lies for years and years, and that kind of thing changes the shape of your mind, so it's just more comfortable to listen to them and forget what you used to think before.  He was still shaking it off.

"It wasn't just the one," said Sarah, darkly.  "Come on, Isaac.  We should go home."

"They'll find us there, that's the first place they'll look," said Yiskah.

"Yiskah," started Sarah.

"And don't use my name," Yiskah insisted.

"Well do you have any better ideas?  Of course you haven't," said Sarah.  "Come on, we're going home.  I'll just explain to the angels --"

"But Ishmael and Hagar won't be there," said Isaac.  "What if the angels took them?"

"It's very likely," said Yiskah.

"Well, then, we should be glad it wasn't us," said Sarah.  "Now, come on --"

"You aren't listening," snapped Yiskah.  "That's fine too.  I can manage without you."  She turned away from them and walked down the hill.

Now Isaac was torn.  He loved his parents, he really did, but it didn't seem like they knew what they were doing.  But Yiskah was just sixteen and she was only armed with a bow.

"Isaac," said Sarah, "come on.  Come with me.  We'll go home and everything will be all right."

Isaac looked at her for a long moment, then turned and ran after Yiskah.

I don't know what Sarah and Abraham did after that -- they never talked about it afterward -- but I suppose they went home like they planned to.  I do know Yiskah was surprised to see her brother following her, because she'd left more out of anger than anything.  Sarah was right -- she didn't have a better plan.  She didn't have any plan at all.

But she didn't tell Isaac that.  She hugged him.  "Are you all right?" she asked.

"No," he said.

"I wouldn't be either," she admitted.

* * *

Well, they walked, and they walked, and Isaac started to wonder if maybe his sister didn't know where she was going, and Yiskah started to worry about if she was going the right way, and the further they got from Moriah the less familiar the terrain became.  But Yiskah had decided that if Hagar and Ishmael had gotten away from the angels, probably they were the best people to turn to, because the angels had never liked them much and the feeling was mutual.  Ishmael was good with a bow, too, better than Yiskah.

So she led Isaac towards -- at least, she hoped -- a town she and Hagar had visited often to sell the extra milk from their cattle.  Yiskah had never been this way before without Hagar or her mother; she was usually out with the cattle, protecting them from prowling creatures and thieves.  They moved as fast as they could, but Yiskah kept glancing up at the cloudless sky nervously.  There was no cover, and if the angels should find them, she didn't know if she could protect Isaac.

It was not uncommon for the angels to ask parents to sacrifice one of their children.  Ishmael often went travelling for weeks on end, and he came back to them with tales of the world beyond.  He'd told Yiskah of a kingdom where they called angels daeva and tried their best not to listen to them.  And in Egypt, where Hagar was from, she said they'd had no angels whatsoever, although Hagar had not been there since her girlhood.  But it was tales like this that made Yiskah hold out hope for a safe place, where the angels couldn't get her and Isaac, and they didn't have to whisper their names and hide them away.

 So she and Isaac hurried along, jumping at small noises and flinching when birds flew past.  When the sun was high in the sky they reached the top of a hill, not nearly so high as Moriah, and looked down into the valleys below.

There was a great open plain, and across the plain was the town.  Someone had made camp nearby, though; Yiskah could smell cooking.

Isaac smelled it too, and his stomach growled, and he was terribly homesick.  "Where do you think Mother and Father are now?" he asked.  "Do you think they made it home?"

"I don't know," said Yiskah, although she suspected they had not.  "We can't protect them.  They wanted to go home."

"You could've made them come with us," said Isaac.  "You could've threatened to shoot them!"

She sighed.  "And how long would that have lasted?"

And Isaac saw that she was right.  "Not very long."

"Come on," she said.  "Let's go see if whoever's got that campfire is friendly."

"And if they're not?" Isaac asked.

"I can take care of them," she said.

They crept slowly down the hill, following their noses, until they saw the smoke rising up from the fire.  It was being tended by Hagar, and Yiskah nearly forgot her common sense and shouted her name in joyous greeting.  But she couldn't stand to see Hagar changed or unmade by the angels.  So instead, she simply smiled.  "I'm so glad we found you," she said in relief.

"You made it!  And you have the youngest," said Hagar, relieved.  "I sent my son out to look for you."

"Can we share some of your meat?" asked Isaac.

Hagar wrinkled her nose.  "No.  It's angel."

"You mean..." Yiskah asked, horrified. It had smelled like lamb, rich and delicious, but now she just felt ill.

"Oh, we weren't going to eat it," said Hagar.  "Just destroy the evidence.  One of them tried to tell us to go back, but I refused, and -- well, he killed it.  They'll be after us now.  What happened to you?"

"My father came to his senses," said Yiskah.

"I notice he's not with you," said Hagar.

"Well, it was very brief," said Yiskah.

 Ishmael returned, then, and he was pleased to see Yiskah, though he frowned at Isaac's presence.  "Where are your parents?" Ishmael asked them.

"They went back home after -- well, it's a long story," said Yiskah, and she filled them in.

After she had finished, Ishmael looked at Isaac.  The two had never gotten along, really -- they were too far apart in age, and Isaac had emphatically been the favorite.  But Ishmael felt sorry for Isaac then; it was clear to him that being the favorite wasn't all it was cracked up to be.  "He was going to kill you?" he asked.

Isaac, for his part, didn't want to talk about it.  "Maybe.  Yeah."

"That's not important anymore," said Yiskah.  "If we get to the town, can we hide there until the angels forget about us?"

"I think so," said Hagar.  "The last time I was in town, everyone was whispering about Abraham."  It was obvious how little she cared for her master, that she spoke his name so openly.  "They're only jealous of his prosperity, but they don't like that the angels have chosen to treat with him."

"The thing is," said Ishmael, "they're waiting for us."

"The townfolk?" Yiskah asked.

"The angels," he said.  "You see those shimmery places between here and the town walls?"

"Oh," said Yiskah.  She hadn't realized they could hide themselves so well.  "How are we going to get past them?"

"No idea," said Ishmael.  "I think there are three of them."

"Three?" Yiskah asked.  She'd never seen more than two at a time, and only from a great distance.

"There were four," said Ishmael, "but then..."  And he gestured to the fire, where the angel's body had been.

"We'll never get there," said Isaac, despairingly.

"Yes we will," said Yiskah.  "Have faith."  But she couldn't have much faith, not really.  She couldn't imagine how they would ever get past all those angels.  She had to, of course, for her little brother, but...

"Do you think we could get all of them?" Yiskah asked Ishmael.

"We only have bows and arrows," said Ishmael.  "And they have their voices.  We'd never last."

"We might not," she said.  "But your mother will be safe, and our brother."

"Not if we can't --"

"They can go around the plain, to the other side of the town," said Yiskah.  "We'll go by ourselves and keep them busy."

"What?" Isaac said, horrified.  "No!  That's too dangerous."

"You're the youngest," said Yiskah.  "And they don't want to kill you."  They want Father to do it for them.

"But Yiskah --"

"Don't say my name so loudly," Yiskah snapped.  "Will you take him?" she asked Hagar.  "And protect him?  If we don't come back..."

"Yiskah, you don't have to -- we can find somewhere else to go," said Hagar.  She sounded bone-tired, and after all, she had every right to be; she'd been travelling since the morning

"They'll track us down, though," said Yiskah.  "Look, I want my little brother to be safe.  If that's all I can do today, that's all I can do."

"I'll do it," said Ishmael.  He turned to his mother.  "If you go west --"

"I'm not leaving you behind," said Isaac.  "I'm --"  Hagar shushed him.

"If you go west," Ishmael continued, "the sun will be in the angels' eyes as it sets and they won't be able to see you.  They have too many eyes to shade them all from the sunset, and if Yiskah and I are successful, we might see you in town.  But you should start now.  Head west as far as you can, and when the sun touches the horizon, start toward the town."

"Wait," said Yiskah.  "Don't start just yet.  We'll need one more thing from you, Hagar."

* * *

So it was that Yiskah and Ishmael set out across the plain to challenge the angels.  Ishmael was not well pleased, given that he was dressed in his mother's old clothes.  They were fine clothes indeed, beautifully embroidered as befit the handmaiden of a rich man's wife, but they were not much to Ishmael's taste.

When he grumbled about it to Yiskah, though, she laughed and told him to get used to it.

They had made it halfway to the gates of the town when the strange shimmering in the air condensed, and the three angels appeared.

Yiskah felt like she might die of fear, just then.  Instead, she raised her voice.  "O mighty angels," she said.  "We have come to treat with you!  I am Abraham's daughter, and with me is his eldest son's mother.  We ask only for news of our family, and for your forgiveness."

Ishmael nodded.  He dared not speak.

"You are the girl who stopped the sacrifice," said one of the angels.

"Yes," Yiskah admitted.  "But my brother would have died!"

"That was our intent," said the second angel.

"You defied us!  And you defied your father," said the third.  "It is no wonder he never chose to name you."

"I love my little brother more than anything," she explained.  It frightened her that the angels seemed to know exactly what had happened on Mount Moriah, but she didn't want to show them that.

"We may yet forgive you," said the first angel.

"We have a proposal," said the second angel.

"If you accept it, your brother shall live," said the third.

Now, if Yiskah had thought of reasoning with the angels before, or haggling with them for her brother's life, she surely would have paid any sum to them, maybe even given her life in exchange for Isaac's.  So when she heard this, she was genuinely glad.  "Oh, good," she said.  "What do I have to do?  You are truly merciful and just," she added, for flattery can get you anywhere with some people.  Ishmael shook his head 'no,' but she ignored him.  If this worked, Isaac wouldn't have to stay in hiding with Hagar forever.

"You will tell us your name," said the first angel.

"No creature is entirely nameless," said the second.

"You must think of yourself as something," the third reasoned.

"...And what will happen then?" she asked.  She did not trust them at all.  Once she told them her name, they could do anything they wanted with her, even turn her against her brothers.

"We shall unmake you," said the first angel.

"Never fear.  It will not be painful!" said the second angel.

"And no one will remember you when you are gone," the third said.  "Your loved ones need not mourn."

"...I see," said Yiskah.  She was not normally a very tactful person, and had never had much need of it, but she thought it might be a very bad idea to tell the angels just how bad their bargain was.

"You dislike our bargain?" asked the first angel, all of its eyes wide in disbelief.

"We were more than generous," reprimanded the second.

"I told you she would never go for it unless we explained the whole thing," the third told them.

"What whole thing?" asked Yiskah.

"Girl," said the first angel, "we have reflected upon the matter, and we believe it is in our best interests for your brother to remain alive."

"His survival will be the foundation of our power," said the second.  "Abraham will be the father of nations, and for thousands of years after this, people will tell of the day a man chose to sacrifice his son, only to be shown mercy!"

"When you cease to exist," said the third, "we shall spread it about that we provided Abraham with a ram to slay in his stead, and we shall never demand another child.  It makes a fine story, don't you think?"

"But why can't you do that now?" Yiskah asked.  "Why do I have to die?"

"You have to not exist," said the first angel.

"It is the only way," the second added.

"You are a very messy loose end," said the third.

"...And what happens if I tell you no?"said Yiskah.

"Oh dear," said the first.

"That would be very bad for you," said the second.

"Besides," the third angel said, "if you said yes, your brother would not be the only child to be saved!"

I wonder sometimes what the world would be like now, if Yiskah had said yes and everyone forgot about her.  I wonder what I'd be like never having known her.  I wonder, and then I'm glad I don't live there.  Because this is what Yiskah did, and this is why we remember her, and this is why I'm telling you this story: Yiskah said no.

Actually, she shouted it.  "No!  Absolutely not!"

The first angel called down a bolt of lightning from the heavens.  It didn't hit Yiskah, but it scorched her left side.  Through the pain, she managed to raise her bow and shoot the angel through the flames.

"Desist!" shouted the second angel, and Yiskah paused for a moment, but its eyes were turned on her, and it did not see Ishmael shooting it until it was too late.

The third angel fled, flapping its wings in a panic.  Yiskah strung her bow and shot one of its wings, and watched in silence as it fell.

"We should kill it, so the others don't find out where we've gone," said Ishmael.

"What's the point?" Yiskah asked.  "These angels knew everything that happened on the mountain, and Father killed the one we met there."

Ishmael strung another bow.

"Stop it!" she said.

"I am sorry," said the third angel.  "We were wrong.  I see that now.  I will try to convince them.  I will fail, but I will try."

"It's lying," said Ishmael.

"My name is Lamedh," said the angel, "and I swear to you upon that name that I speak the truth."

"Angels have names?" Yiskah asked.

"Does it surprise you so?" asked the angel.  "My comrades have seen all through my eyes.  They will finish me off."

"But that's horrible!" said Yiskah.  She hesitated, because leaving the angel to die seemed wrong, but she didn't see how she could help it.

"We should go," said Ishmael.  "Before they get here."

"You're right," said Yiskah.  She took a deep breath, and turned to the angel.  "I'm so sorry."

"Go," it told them, and for once, they listened.

* * *

Well, after that they got into town and met up with Hagar and Isaac, who told the townsfolk all that had happened.  So when the angels came to destroy the town in order to keep the news from spreading, the townsfolk were prepared, and they repelled the angels.  A few days later, Abraham and Sarah staggered into town, tired and hungry but very much alive.  Abraham wasn't a prophet anymore, but he was a real father again, and things were harder after that, what with the war with the angels, but I think they were better, too.

Now if you want to hear the story about that first war, I'm afraid that'll have to wait for another night, and your aunt could tell it better than I could -- her, or your uncle Ishmael.  After all, they were there for all of it, and I was just a kid.