Their eyes locked: the handmaiden and her mistress. In earlier days, Hagar would have looked away. This time she held Sarah’s gaze and redirected it to her own swelling belly. Sarah turned, blinking furiously. Hagar smiled with satisfaction.

“I am as good as you are-better!” Hagar’s eyes told Sarah. “I am giving the Master a child. You who are barren-you should have been returned in disgrace to your father’s house.”

No matter that Sarah was so beautiful, men gasped when they saw her. It had been a tribulation and not a blessing that Pharaoh, who ruled the greatest empire on Earth, coveted her as his own.

Hagar smiled grimly. When Pharaoh sent her away to rid himself of a punishing plague, Sarah took gifts of gold as well as Hagar, her handmaid. The young Egyptian girl’s shocking ugliness emphasized Sarah’s beauty. The slave guessed that jealousy simmered in her mistress’ heart. She no doubt feared that a handsome servant might tempt her husband.

The handmaid’s look taunted her mistress. “Look at you, pretty woman. Your beauty fades to dust and ashes every day that you age. Even now you veil your face so that men will only remember you as you were.”

“Comb my hair!” Sarah barked as if mitigating her servant’s contempt. Hagar took a carved, ivory comb from her mistress’ treasure chest and ran it through the tangles in her long, dark hair. She took care not to pull at the roots. Her mistress’s hand was heavily bejeweled with rings and bracelets. They bruised Hagar’s skin whenever Sarah lashed out in anger. But Hagar couldn’t resist tugging a little- just enough to inflict pain.

Sarah pursed her lips. “These desert winds. They dry my skin.”

“Yes, Mistress.” Hagar made no effort to reach for a jar of ointment.

Sarah grappled the jar and forced it open. She rubbed fragrant, soothing balm over her chapped hands. “It won’t be your child, you know,” she told Hagar. “I will hold you on my knees as you birth it. That way the law will recognize the infant as my flesh and blood, not the offspring of a slave…”

Hagar said nothing but her comb continued to tear through her mistress’ hair.

The pain exacerbated a yearning that swelled Sarah’s empty womb. It forced the breath up her throat, erupting into a nervous laugh that masked her anguish.

“What amuses you, Mistress?” the maidservant asked.

“Nothing and everything. I laugh because life is bitter though sweet.” Secretly Sarah felt that if she didn’t laugh, she would cry.

One of the old women who cooked for the shepherds appeared at the tent flap. She waited to be recognized, then obsequiously shuffled onto the patterned, turquoise carpet with a platter of honey cakes.

Hagar spoke first although Sarah hadn’t given her permission to do so. “Aia promised to place a divining rod on my stomach.”

“Whatever for?” Sarah asked crossly.

Old Aia bowed. “If the stick turns to the left, Mistress, a girl is growing in Hagar’s womb. If it turns to the right, the child will be a boy.”

Hagar sounded eager. “The Master must have a boy, an heir to his fortune.”

Sarah crumbled a honey cake between her fingers. If she bore a son, Hagar would become unbearable although a child would be the answer to her husband’s prayers. As she stared dry-eyed at her handmaid she wondered why God, who had always answered her in the past, had refused her desperate pleas for her own child. Now she was forced to endure the worst humiliation that could befall a woman. Although her husband Abraham was too kind-hearted to divorce her, Sarah noticed the joy that lit up his eyes when he glanced at her maidservant.

She swallowed her bitterness, letting it fill the emptiness in her womb.

Aia waited patiently as Sarah inclined her head. “Go,” the mistress waved her hand wearily. “See if the child is a boy.” As Hagar raised the tent flap to leave with Aia, Sarah raised her eyes to the blue tent of heaven stretching beyond her own small, black tent. Her despair festered into words. “I would gladly exchange all my wealth and beauty for a child.”

A light wind wound through the opening. As it fingered her hair, Sarah imagined rueful laughter. “You will have a child,” it told her.

“Don’t mock me,” she pleaded.

A voice whispered in her imagination. “The laws of men will recognize Hagar’s child as your own.”

“It’s not enough,” she said bitterly.

“Prayers bring consequences you cannot foresee.”

“I don’t care.” She pulled her veil across her face. The wind lifted an edge then fled away.

For the first time in years she dared to hope that her prayers had been heard. Her hope also engendered fear. “I must have a son!” she declared but secured the tent flap hurriedly, afraid to hear God’s answer.

Published in Stories