and the Lord had closed her womb.” 1 Samuel 1: 5
Elkanah’s face was steeped in heat as he plucked
his benison of meat from off its stick -
a two pound steak settled on her plate,
the fat and blood running out together in a pink
juice which the child beside her mopped up
with bread. “Why not?” his mother seethed,
her tongue ploughing gristle from between her teeth,
“It’s not as if she’s got her own to feed”.
Hannah said nothing. A sinewy bolus perched on
the edge of her throat. She could barely swallow,
replete with an absence so long considered it was
now a chimeric lump in a stomach as hollow
as a shell that holds its shape long after its life
has crawled away. At times her phantom child
would bump about and flood her head with thoughts
of a womb soupy with blood, water, bile,
limbs; she brooded over lists of names.
But in the end it always came, with bright flecks
that sent her traipsing down to the river.
Once she’d walked in right up to her neck.
“Aren’t I worth more to you than ten sons?”
he’d murmured then, towelling her hair dry
before the fire, and asked again as she stumbled
from the table, briny pools collecting in her eyes.
As she approached the temple, the priest
appeared to float inside a kaleidoscopic orb
until her lids drew a cordon round her mind
and, kneeling down before the Lord, she poured
out her stagnant soul, now barging torrentially
through dams, along canals and riverbeds,
overflowing into barren fields as she prayed,
and in her heart pushed away a lump of dead
wood. She watched it bob awhile then disappear.
Turning to the priest, her gaze
snagged at a movement near his left ear -
in the shadows the curtain before the Holy Place
had buckled in the wind. Inside, a small figure
was lit by a row of golden cups,
flames budding from the blossoms of seven
sculpted almond flowers. A boy was reaching up
to the altar, incense curling from his palms.
His long hair coiled under his earlobes,
falling in soft folds down his linen ephod.
Recognising the stitching on his robe,
she edged closer, looked again - the child was gone.
Hannah felt her spirit surge, the shock
waves steepen in her chest, toppling her onto land
where she smashed in droplets against a rock.
As she lay in broken puddles a lump
of driftwood washed up on the beach;
the sea had stripped its bark to leave a milky skin.
She took it up, felt its smoothness on her cheek,
then vowed, ‘In return, I’ll give my son up
to the Lord, if only He’d remember me.’
Meanwhile, the priest had watched this woman
stare into the temple, her lips twitching noiselessly,
and concluded she’d had too much wine,
‘How long will you keep getting drunk?’ he asked
but as she explained his ancient face began
to change, uncrumpling like a paper mask,
and croaking after her to ‘Go in peace’.
Back at camp,
Elkanah was warming her steak up on the spit -
he smiled as Hannah then sat and ate, ran a fingerround her empty plate, licked clean its salty tip.