Abraham and Issac
(and Cain)
<A note about this reading.
José Saramago has a rather alarming literary style. Little punctuation, few capitals, constant run-ons, occasional (random) paragraphing. Thus, what we have below is exactly transcribed from Margaret Jill Costa's excellent translation.

The place would seem to have been created on purpose to provide cool shade for weary travelers and their respective beasts of burden. Running parallel to the trees was a line of bushes that concealed a narrow path going up to the top of the steep hill. Relieved of the weight of the saddlebags, the donkey had surrendered to the delights of lush grass and the occasional rustic flower, neither of which he had ever tasted before. Cain took his time choosing his lunch menu and ate it right there, seated on the ground, surrounded by innocent birds pecking up the crumbs, while memories of blissful moments spent in lilith's arms once more heated his blood. His eyelids were just beginning to droop when he was startled into wakefulness by the voice of a young boy calling Father, this was followed by a much older male voice asking What is it, isaac, We have the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering and the father replied, The lord will provide a lamb as the burnt offering. And they continued on up the hill. While they are doing so, it would be as well to know how all this began, as further proof that the lord is not a person to be trusted. About three days ago, at most, he had said to abraham, the father of the young boy carrying the firewood on his back, Take your only son, isaac, whom you love, and go into the land of moriah and offer him up for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains, later I will tell you which one. Yes, you read correctly the lord ordered abraham to sacrifice his own son and he did so as naturally as if he were asking for a glass of water to slake his thirst, which means it was a deep-seated habit of his. The logical, natural and simply human response would have been for abraham to tell the lord to piss off but that isn't what happened. The following morning that unnatural father rose early to saddle up the donkey, prepared wood for the sacrificial fire and set off to the place the lord had indicated, taking with him two servants and his son isaac. On the third day of the journey, abraham saw the aforementioned mountain from afar. He then told his servants, Stay here with the donkey, the lad and I will go over yonder to worship the lord and then come back again to you. In short, as well as being as big a son of a bitch as the lord, abraham was a consummate liar, ready to deceive anyone with his forked tongue, which in this case, according to the personal dictionary belonging to the narrator of this story, means treacherous, perfidious, false, disloyal and other similarly fine qualities. When he reached the place of which the lord had spoken, abraham built an alter and placed the wood on it. He then tied up his son and lifted him on to the altar, on top of the wood. Without pausing, he took up his knife in order to sacrifice the poor boy and was just about to slit his throat when he felt a hand grip his arm and heard a voice in his ear shouting, What are you doing, you wretch, killing your own son, burning him, it's the same old story it starts with a lamb and ends with the murder of the very person you should love most, But the lord told me to do it, said abraham, struggling, Keep still, or I'll be the one who does the killing, untie that boy at once, then kneel down and beg his forgiveness, Who are you. My name is cain, I'm the angel who saved isaac's life. This isn't true, cain is no angel, that title belongs to the being who has just landed with a great flapping of wings and who is now declaiming like an actor who has finally heard his cue, Lay not thy hand upon the lad, nor do anything to him, for now I know that thou fearest the lord, being prepared, for love of him, to sacrifice even your only son, you're late, said cain, the only reason isaac isnt dead is because I stepped in to prevent it. The angel looked suitably contrite, I'm terribly sorry to be late, but it really wasn't my fault, I was on my way here when I developed a mechanical problem in my right wing it was out of synch with the left one, and the result was that I got completely turned around, in fact I wasn't even sure I would get here, and given that no one had told me which of these mountains had been chosen as the place of sacrifice, it's a miracle I arrived at all, you're late, said cain again, Better late than never replied the angel smugly, as if he had uttered a great truth, That's where you're wrong, never is not the opposite of late, the opposite of late is too late, retorted cain. The angel muttered, Oh, no, a rationalist, and since he had nor yet completed the mission with which he had been charged, he rattled off the rest of his message, This is what the lord commanded me to say: since you were capable of doing this and did not withhold your own son, I swear by my good name that I will bless you and multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand upon the seashore and they will possess the gates of his enemies, and in your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed because you have obeyed my voice the word of the lord, That, for those who dont know it or pretend to ignore it, is the lord's double accounting system, said cain, whereby one man can win and the other not lose, apart from that, I dont see why all the people of the earth will be blessed just because abraham obeyed a stupid order, That is what we in heaven call due obedience, said the angel. Dragging his right wing and with a bad taste in his mouth after the failure of his mission, the celestial creature departed, and abraham and his son are also walking back to where their servants are waiting for them, and now, while cain is once again loading the saddlebags on to his donkey, let us imagine a dialogue between the would-be executioner and his victim saved at the last moment. Isaac asked, Father, whatever did I do to you that would make you want to kill me, your only son, You did nothing wrong, isaac, So why did you want to cut my throat as if I were a lamb, asked the boy, if that man, may the lord's blessings be upon him, hadnt come and grabbed your arm, you would now be carrying home a corpse, It was the lord's idea, he meant it as a test, A test of what, Of my faith and my obedience, What kind of lord would order a father to kill his own son, He's the only lord we have, the lord of our ancestors, the lord who was here when we were born, And if that lord had a son, would he order him to be killed as well, asked isaac, Time will tell, So the lord is capable of anything, of good, bad and worse, Yes, he is, What would have happened if you had disobeyed the order, asked isaac, Well, the lord usually sends down ruin or disease upon anyone who fails him, So the lord is vengeful, Yes, I think he is, said abraham quietly, as if he were afraid of being heard, nothing is impossible for the lord, Not even error and crime, asked isaac, Especially error and crime, Father, I dont understand this religion, But you have to, my son, you have no choice, and now I must make a request, a humble request, What is it, Let us forget what happened here, Well, I'm not sure I can, father, I can still see myself lying bound, on top of the pyre, and your arm raised, the blade of the knife glinting, That wasn't me, I would never do such a thing when in my right mind, Do you mean that the lord makes people mad, asked isaac, Yes, he often does, almost always, replied abraham, Even if that were true, you were still the one with the knife in your hand, The lord had everything planned, he would have intervened at the last moment, after all, you saw the angel, The angel arrived late, Yes, but the lord would have found some other way of saving you, he probably even knew that the angel was going to be late and that's why he had that man appear, Cain his name was, dont forget the debt you owe him, Cain, repeated abraham obediently, I knew him before you were born, The Cain man who saved your own son from having his throat slit and being burned on the very firewood he had carried on his back, But neither of those things happened, my son, Father, it isnt so much a matter of whether or not I died, although obviously that matters to me a great deal, but the fact that we are ruled by such a lord, as cruel as baal, who devours his own children, Where did you hear the name baal, In dreams, father.
--- From Cain
José Saramago
©2012 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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