The King’s Daughter
by Tala Bar
Table of Contents|
Chapter 10 appeared
in issue 176.
Chapter Eleven: Yerushalem
part 1 of 3
Mikhal’s life is a story of pagan worship and sacrifice, of love, wars, kingship and death. She is the daughter of the Biblical king Saul; her mother is Ahino’am, a priestess of the goddess Ashtoret. Born to a king, Mikhal is married to the future king David. She is separated from him and joined to another man, to whom she bears a child. She is then torn from her family and carried away by a criminal brother. At last she is brought back to her former husband, king David, in Jerusalem.
Mikhal thus lives out her life in the vortex of social, political and religious upheavals in the days of the first kings of Israel.
I was awakened at dawn, finding myself lying on some beddings in a tent. As I opened my eyes, Avner was standing at the opening. “We are moving,” he announced.
I sat up. “But were are we going? Where are you taking me now?” At once I saw before my eyes Palti’s house in Galim. “Not — home?” I whispered.
“I am sorry,” he said, lowering his eyes.
“Yerushalem?” I wondered. What was there in that city for me?
“To David,” he explained.
“To David!” I almost shouted. “To David? But why? Does he want me?”
“He wants you,” still with his eyes lowered.
David wants me... My heart missed a beat. Does he really love me? After all these years?... I glanced at myself. I had to admit that despite my disheveled appearance I looked well — it seemed, as in my first pregnancy, this state caused my normally thin body to fill up — my face, my breasts, my thighs — and look more attractive. My hair looked softer than its usual stiffly curled appearance, and my eyes glimmered; the mental anguish I had suffered served only to add more depth and interest to them. I was almost beautiful. Will David love me now? Will he love me more than he had done when I was a skinny, inexperienced girl? I declined to talk any more with Avner, did not ask any more questions. I wanted to see for myself.
* * *
Yerushalem was called after Shalem, God of Evening and Death who, together with his twin Shahar, the God of Dawn and Birth, formed the whole figure of Naaman. This ancient site, more sacred than any other place I have heard of, dwells on top of the highest mountain between the areas of Binyamin and Yehudah. For years untold it had served as the sacred place where the Goddess’s son, brother and lover died and was reborn.
For many years the Yevusite city of Yerushalem was like a sore in the heart of Israel, until David, for seven years the king of Yehudah in Hevron, conquered it in order to enlarge his kingship over the whole of Israel.
During my long life in Yerushalem, I found out that throughout his years of ruling from that city, David had managed to justify its name as the site of the entrance to the Kingdom of the Underworld. He had imprisoned a great number of men and women to keep them from revolting against him. He made them the living dead of the King's court.
When we arrived from the Giv’a and rode through the city to the King’s House, I saw it for the first and the last time of my life. It was the only walled city I have ever known, and more crowded than any place I had been to.
The houses, many of them having more than the one story I was used to, were built close together with only very small courtyards separating them from each other; they kept no farm animals in them and had only a few fruit trees planted there. Everything in the city astonished me for its size and magnificence; from the wall around the city, and the gate where the elders and judges sat, through the paved streets and the big houses. The people themselves, in their fineries and their sophisticated air, filled my mind with wonder and amazement.
As we were nearing the King’s house, my heart started pounding. I was not sure whether I wanted to meet David straight away, or first to wash myself and my clothes from the dusty road. A thought popped into my mind suddenly — he is king now, higher than me in rank... This troubled me, and I tried to avoid reflecting on it as we arrived at our destination.
* * *
If the city astonished me, the palace was overwhelming. It was the largest structure I had ever seen, covered on the outside with some kind of brightly polished stone which I later learned was marble. It was surrounded by a stone wall, and we rode into the vast, paved courtyard through a pair of wonderfully wrought iron gates, passing by a couple of armed guards. I noticed that Avner had no trouble getting in.
As we entered the courtyard, having helped me down the mule, Avner gave the beasts into the hands of some servants and told me to wait, himself going on some business unknown to me. I found myself completely on my own in that empty strange place.
With palpitating heart I held the Ashtoret image tight in my arms as my sole comfort. Between the vaguely hopeful expectancy, the apprehension in face of the unkown, and the feeling of sudden loneliness, any emotion I might have had became numb, I could only look around me to try and absorb my new surroundings. Like everything else I had seen since we reached the city, the courtyard also was immense in its dimensions. At the time I was not sure of the function of its size, since it was not used for the purposes I had been used to — mainly food preparation and animal keeping. These, I learned later, took place in an inner, smaller yard, while the place I was at had been appointed for royal ceremonies.
In front of me loomed the palace itself, a magnificent building with its columns, gables, balconies and stairs leading up to the main hall; I was unable to name all these marks of Grandeur which seemed to me — not much more than a simple country girl — far too ostentatious. In time, I learned to live with that magnificence, accept it as natural and even like it.
Out of an upper window of a building on my right, detached from the main structure, two women’s heads suddenly appeared, revealing to me the site of the Women’s house. The shining stone of that building was covered almost completely with climbing vines clinging to it. It was smaller but prettier than the palace itself, and seemed to have been erected for more pampered though less important inhabitants. I did not think of it then, but it was obvious that David had not built that palace; he had taken it over as it was from the King of Yevus when he conquered the city.
* * *
The minutes passed. The realization of my loneliness at the place — no relative, no servant girl or even a soldier to accompany me — was beginning to press on my heart. Then a storm broke over me, a small dark figure burst from nowhere, her purple vails flowing around her like the wings of some fancy bird. “Mikhal! Mikhal! My poor little child!”
She attacked me with burning kisses, hugged me passionately with her small hands, raised dark eyes clad in mystery to scan my face and I saw my mother, Ahino’am!
“Mother? — How? — From where?” I stammered. I forgot entirely that she belonged to the court of David.
“Come, come, let me get you washed, change your clothes, freshen up and rest.” Girls who had come with her took me into the Women’s house, led me upstairs and into a room which seemed to have been prepared for me, with flowery carpets and soft cushions. They took care of me without my lifting a finger — stripped me of my torn clothes which had not been washed for a very long time and threw them in a corner. Then they washed my body and hair in fresh water, annointed me with scented oil, combed my hair and arranged it in a fancy shape. At last they covered my tired body with soft, pleasant linen and sat me comfortably on the carpeted floor, leaning on the soft cushions.
Ahino’am, then, waved her hand at the girls and they left, leaving us alone together. She stood over me, her hands supporting her waist. “Let me look at you, now, as you seem more human.” I felt embarrassed.
“Tell me, I want to know everthing. I heard something from Avner.” Her face darkened and a heavy cloud appeared in her eyes. “That son of mine — I always knew he would come to no good.”
I lowered my eyes. Her soft words melted my shield and the hard, aweful memories brought tears into them for the first time, choking my breath. My mother sat down by my side, and I wept into her bosom. At last I had a bosom to weep into, a shoulder to pour my heart over.
“I asked David to send you back to Palti, but he did not want to listen to me,” she said, stroking my head, my shoulder, my back, her hand mesmerising my mind, bringing calm into my heart, giving me a sense of being protected.
“But why? Does he really want me?” I raised a questioning look to Ahino’am.
She kissed my cheek. “You will see him, he will tell you himself.”
“Mother! It’s so good for me to have you with me here, I don’t know what I would have done without you.”
She hugged me. “Poor Avino’am! I am sorry he did not live long enough for me to enjoy him.”
* * *
My eyes, which had been dry all these months, filled with hot tears again. Poor Avino’am! His poor mother!
“But you’ll have the daughter, remember? The daughter I expected!”
“Why did you expect her? Did you know how she would come into my womb?” I shivered, shaking with my whole body. I could never love that daughter!
“I know you could not love her,” she answered my thought, “but she is my granddaughter, the heiress to Ashtoret’s priestess. I shall take her off your hands to raise her myself.”
I did not want to think of the child who had been conceived in such an abominable way — and how did Ahino’am know it was a girl? “But what about you, Mother? What did you get out of joining David?” I turned the conversation.
“I have got a son from him — as a matter of fact, he is David’s eldest. His name is Amnon, a beautiful child.”
“I can imagine,” I said, remotely.
She laughed, with a slight bitterness. “You should get to know David. You had nothing to fear of his loving me — David does not love anyone, especially not any woman. He only uses other people’s love for him — who should know that better than you?! We were together very little — one wedding night and a few more on the road. Happily, it was enough for me to conceive. But the following year, after Amnon had been born, David already had another woman, and she also did not last by his side longer than getting pregnant. I think that, beside taking women for his own pleasure, David regards them basically as birth machines for his children.”
“But Ahino’am, do you love David?” The thought shook me up — I was in two minds about it: on the one hand, it gave me a strangely pleasant feeling; on the other, it was revolting.
“Mikhal, how is it possible to love David? What is he but the glitter of the sun, the light shining on water? For one moment it blinds your eyes — then it passes as if it has never been there at all. A wonderful illusion which you can’t, you mustn’t, take hold of, because it may burn your palm.”
“But once you thought of taking hold of that illusion, didn’t you?”
“Once I thought the man would be useful to me. I still hope it is possible.”
For a moment, I sank into reflections of the past, feeling again the blinding glitter of that wonderful illusion which surrounded the man I had loved so much. “But why does he want me now? Why didn’t he let me go back to Palti?”
“How could he risk it? You are his first wife, you are the daughter of Sha’ul and the priestess of Ashtoret. Who could vouch for him that another man would not come along, like Ishbaal, take you and demand kingship on the strength of having you?”
That was, then, the secret. As much as it hurt, at least it enabled me to muster courage enough to stand before him, to accept the painful fact with indifference.
* * *
A few weeks passed, however, without David even bothering to come for a visit, to ask about my health. When at last he felt like seeing me, he sent to call me to stand before him, as if I were one of his servant girls. That was David’s way.
I can’t say I was not excited. My spirit was agitated, almost too disturbed to know what I was doing in choosing my best clothes, wide as possible so as not to show off my pregnancy, or in sitting quietly when the maids were painting my eyes with the most delicate lines and doing my hair according to the latest fashion. A copper mirror returned me a reflection strange in its prettiness — making me agitated when it reminded of my preparation for Ishbaal. If David was ready to submit to any charm, I have no doubt he would have submitted to mine then.
I can’t describe the astonishment which came over me when I stood before him; I don’t know why Ahimo’am had not prepared me for the sight — perhaps she wanted me to open my eyes at once and for ever. If that was her goal, it succeeded above anything else. Since that day, I stopped completely thinking about David as a lover, as a man, even as a human being; for me he had become a tyrant king, the youngest son who reveled in the power that had come into his hand almost by accident.
* * *
When I was taken into the ancient Crown Hall built for the King of Yevus, instead of the handsome boy with the golden head and green eyes I had known, I saw before me lying on the throne an enormous lump of fat. In place of the golden hair, a few pale threads sprouting from the advanced baldness covering a huge head. The green eyes, so clear in the past, were clouded, sunk between fat cheeks and swollen eyelids; fat hands, covered with many gold rings, played with the fringes of his clothes which shone over a swollen belly; the feet, inserted in golden sandals, were white, flowing over the straps. My stomach almost turned at the sight.
“Nice, nice,” he said in a voice of ice. “So, how are you, my first wife? I heard you did not have a good time with your brother.”
I raised my eyes to him, wondering at his large head. I did not answer. What could I say to that strange, revolting creature? He almost looked to me like my brother. At least, however, David’s behavior was not aggressive or wicked; only cynical and insulting.
“I see you have nothing to say,” he continued in his cold voice. “I thought once you were more talkative, but I think I prefer you like this, silent.”
“And what do you want with me, David?” I burst out.
“I don’t want you, Mikhal,” as much as I was hot he was cold. “I need your heritage, your possible standing. In order to unite the people I need Sha’ul’s daughter from the Giv’a, from Binyamin, the daughter of Ahino’am, priestess to Ashtoret. I am sorry if it inconveniences you, but you have no choice in the matter.”
Copyright © 2005 by Tala Bar