I wrote an essay recently in which I described laughter as a form of prayer and this got me thinking about Sarah’s laughter at the news that she was going to bear a son. The following story is based, loosely on the story of God visiting Abraham and Sarah found in Genesis 18:1-15. I know that infertility is a very difficult and painful experience for many women and please know that my thoughts here are meant to reflect the overall arch of the story of Sarah and Abraham and in no way reflect an opinion about the reasons for or experience of infertility.
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It came out sudden and sharp, more like a bark or a cough,
surprising her as she knelt, crouched at the entrance to the tent. Unwilled, unwelcome, the laughter split her
dry lips open, cracking them, like parched ground.
She felt a wave of shame at the sound as it escaped and the
visitors turned in surprise. Her husband
turned too, that old fool, and she looked at him, helpless, feeling again
powerless over her own body, unable to stop the sound once it broke free.
She was afraid when she saw the visitor look toward the tent and her breath caught in her throat when she heard him question Abraham about the sound, “Why did Sarah
Again, as if by instinct, the denial rose and slithered out like
a snake between her teeth, “I did not laugh.”
Her hand flew to her mouth, as if to catch her words and shove them back inside, but she was too slow and they shot out, arching through the air like an arrow aimed directly at the place where the man sat.
He turned then and looked at her, full on, his eyes
piercing despite the distance between them and Sarah felt a shiver of fear run down her
spine. She felt the flour and dough that
clung to the under-side of her finger-nails, the dirt and dust that lined her
Under his gaze, she became aware of how dead she felt, how
the life had drained slowly from her face and chest over the years as she
crumbled inward upon herself like some craven creature. Looking into those eyes she felt her own
dryness and thirst, her bones that crackled and clicked with each movement, she
felt the emptiness of her body, of her soul, as though nothing was left of her but a walking corpse.
This was her fear, of course, but as the man held her gaze
the fire in his eyes softened until the gentleness there came to resemble
something like the look of love she’d seen in Abraham’s eyes during those early
hopeful years. The softness there, the
love, both heightened and quenched her thirst as it crossed the distance
between them. The love circled her and fell like a heavy
rain, sudden and fierce, washing over her empty body. His gaze was like a heavy downpour in the
desert that runs in rivulets over the dry ground, seeking entrance into the
depths of the earth.
When she saw the love in his eyes her mouth opened
involuntarily and something like a little gasp, a small rush of air escaped and
at that moment his love entered in.
Pouring in past her lips and teeth and tongue where just moments before
the lie had slithered out. Love entered like
summer rain and settled deep inside in the small crack the laugh had hollowed
Sarah shut her mouth tight, quickly, when she realized what
had happened, but the man’s eyes only softened further until they crinkled at
the corners and twinkled with humor.
Then his mouth cracked too into a wide and generous smile like the sun
as he said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”
She denied the laugh, but she couldn’t deny its effect, the
way it opened her, split something deep within. It started as a derisive sound, a reflexive rejection that rose from deep within her dried-up body at the mention of a child. But even that small hacking, choking sound broke something free within her. The laughter moved inside her like a fault-line as it made its way through, dividing and realigning as it took hold of her body.
When she would tell the story, years later, of their son and his long time coming, people would accept it all without so much as a blink until she came to the part where he smiled. There was no question that God might walk up out of the blue for lunch, might open the womb of an old woman, but the part where the face of God cracked wide open, split in two by a smile, that, was more than they could accept and, so, over time, it was dropped from her story.
Though it took years to come to pass, Sarah secretly credited the laugh for opening her womb, at least the smallest bit. But who’s to say whether it was the laughter that grew steadily over weeks and years or the tears that followed, springing from the same deep riven place within, either way life had come and it dwelt now within her. After all, if the world can be created through words, then surely a womb can be opened through laughter, split wide like a seed when the sprout of new life unfurls.