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Anata was small and round, with exaggerated motherly features, but she had never been a mother; she had not been interested. “Any cow can be a mother,” she used to say; “I have other interests to fill my life.”
She looked nothing like the common idea of a seer, a necromancer, a witch, as people used to think about those. She had light brown hair and eyes, a snub nose and small mouth with full lips. In her youth she did not deny herself the use of these lips or her other female organs for the purpose for which they had been formed; some men had even fallen in love with her lovemaking. But not she. Men were good for pleasure, and a few of them might even be good friends. But she would not tie herself down. She did not need the kind of security a man would give you, together with the kind of slavery she would never put herself under. Not her.
So, when she had reached the age when she knew what she wanted to do — about eight or nine — and before the family could begin thinking about getting her betrothed, she found the nearest oracle base, went there and stayed, to study, work, and become one of the known sibyls in the land.
That was in Ein Dor, not far from the village of her birth in Shunem. Since then, she had travelled through the land, ended up at the Hills of Binyamin, and now she was serving at the Temple of the Three Asses oracle there, not far from the King’s town of Giv’at Sha’ul. That was how she happened to be there when the King came on his final visit, this time with his daughter Mikhal.
* * *
The most characteristic feature about the Temple of the Three Asses was its loneliness and isolation. The Oracle was situated at a remote place difficult to approach, because going there could never be a mundane business; to reach it a person needed a directed intention, no one would start on the way there unless answering a deep heartfelt need or a firm command.
The shrine was built in the middle of the steep, rocky slope of an arid mountain, hard and even dangerous to climb; it faced southwest toward the sinking sun of winter, getting the full blast of summer’s hot sun and winter’s rainstorms. One skeleton of a dried-up tree stood above it, its bare, dead branches hovering over the building without sheltering it from any harsh weather. All day a clutter of ravens flew above in confusion, and at night, when the noise of the birds subsided, the howl of jackals would join the occasional hooting of owls to haunt the lonesome visitor.
The Three Asses Oracle was never mentioned in company; its mere name carried with it terror and apprehension and anyone who went there left and returned furtively, keeping the visit secret.
It was Maakha who had commanded her grandson, King Sha’ul, to consult the Oracle of The Three Asses about the health of his wife Re’uma, although his soul cried out against it. The mere thought of the Goddess ruling and judging in the Underworld was painful for his mind, always recalling to him his own avoided sacrifice. But his grandmother would hear nothing of his protest.
“And take Mikhal with you,” she added in her croaky old voice.
“Mikhal? Why?” He was obviously reluctant. “Isn’t it enough that I have to stand this trial a second time?”
“It is a trial every one of Ashtoret’s faithful servants must withstand at least once in a lifetime.”
“But she is too young! Maybe in a few years time?”
“She is exactly the right age.”
“I don’t want to take Mikhal! I still remember my own ordeal going there and I want to spare her this terrible experience.”
“Your wish to spare people trouble is not helping them to live their lives, Sha’ul. You can’t avoid the inevitable.”
Maakha always used a very quiet voice for admonition, emphasizing the force behind her words. When she talked to him in that tone of voice, he knew he really had no choice in the matter.
* * *
Anata knew of their coming. The ravens, in their flying and crying around the dead branches of their tree, had shown her the King and his daughter walking across the land, in the company of a boy and a donkey.
“Sha’ul is coming again,” she told her two colleagues. Each one of the three sibyls looked quite different from the others. Adma was of a big frame, getting rather thick in her old age; her hair would always fly about her moonlike face, and there were laughing wrinkles around her black, round eyes. Baraka was the only one who had ever looked anything like a seer. She was tall and thin, her face and body bony and unbending. Her most striking feature was her wide-open eyes, which were white, with no color in them; she was completely blind, and thus the best seer possible. Baraka saw the soul of people; Adma understood the meaning of events; and little Anata saw and heard people at a distance.
It was an autumn day. It had started with remnants of the night’s chill in the air, but toward noon it had grown hot and heavy. The small party had arrived at the peak of the hill overlooking the steep slope leading to the Temple. An enormous therebint tree, sacred to the goddess Ashtoret, grew on top of the hill at the brink of the abyss, a long way below. It was the only tree as far as the eye could see. As the travelers reached it, with the sun high in the sky, Sha’ul sat down heavily in the tree’s shrunk shade, his back leaning against the stem. The boy, having taken some dried fruit from a sack and given it to the King and his daughter to eat, sat at the edge of the circular shade, while the ass browsed among the dry weeds under the sun.
Rejecting food, the girl rose and roamed restlessly around. She picked some squill blossoms growing among the boulders; she then sat down at Sha’ul’s side, cut the stiff stalks and made a white garland which she put on her head.
“Why is the temple called ‘The Three Asses’?” she asked him.
“Maakha told me about it once,” he said.
The Oracle had been called after the Ass, mother of all oracles, sister-lover to the wild desert donkey. The ass had been sacred to the people of Israel as long as memory could carry; three times in ancient days it prophesied the future of the People. Once it told the ancestress Rivka, who was riding it, about the birth of her twin sons; the second time it foretold through the mouth of the prophet Bil’am of the victory of Israel over Amalek in their war in the desert; and the third time it proclaimed the judge Shimshon’s victory over the Philistines and his death at their hands.
“Didn’t the Three Asses tell of your kingship as well, Father?” Mikhal asked, innocently.
“I could do without their telling,” the King mumbled darkly, but he consented to relate the circumstances of his being declared king.
Before he was crowned, during his many wars against the Philistines, Sha’ul had sometimes returned home tired, falling straight on his bed, barely managing to remove his outer garments. Falling into a heavy sleep, he would be troubled by dreams, which were repeated in many diverse and strange forms: Some of them showed him leading his army to battle: an army of ants! They attacked trees and shrubs, denuding them of leaves and blossom, sometimes falling on animals and devouring their flesh to the bones. Sha’ul would wake up from those dreams drenched in the sweat of disgust and nausea.
In other dreams he was carried on the wings of a vulture, the great divine bird of Israel. They flew up to the sky and then, when they were hovering over the cliffs, the bird’s feathers started falling off and they sank like a stone out of the sky... down... down... Sha’ul’s heart was pounding hard when he woke up.
In still other dreams he was sitting on a high throne with Re’uma at his side; the people gathering around them would come in throngs, crowding up at him, getting nearer and nearer until he was filled with terror from their very closeness, afraid of being suffocated... In his fear, he moved his chair closer to Re’uma’s, taking hold of her, trying to use her as a shelter against the people... But, as he did that, she melted in his arms, vanished, leaving him alone to face the crowd...
“So, what happened then?” asked the King’s daughter. He had paused, breathing hard; she had never seen him in such a state.
“I am not a prophet,” he replied in short; “I asked Maakha’s advice, and she sent me to the Oracle of the Three Asses, saying, ‘There you will get a true answer, without any delusions.’”
“What did Re’uma say about these dreams?”
“Re’uma is not a person to tell dreams to.”
His face darkened again, and Mikhal did not know whether he was filled with resentment for his wife’s inability to help him, or whether he was sorry for her present illness, even feeling guilty about it.
“Re’uma is a very clever woman,” Sha’ul continued, “but very practical, earthly; that is also what her beauty is like – a physical, blossoming beauty. I still remember the way she looked after giving birth to each of our four children – healthy and radiant, even more beautiful than when we married. Seeing her giving suck to this or that of the children, she looked to me like the great Mother Goddess herself...”
* * *
“What happened when you went to visit the Temple of the Three Asses?” Mikhal recalled Sha’ul back to his story when he paused.
It was the most difficult journey of his life, both physically and mentally. He went on his own, accompanied only by one boy and a donkey carrying provisions. It was a spring day, but Sha’ul was sunk deep in his meditations and did not notice the blossoms, the birds and insects in the air, even the hardship of the way.
Instead, the visions of his dreams kept popping out in broad daylight – trees stripped of their foliage, and beasts’ skeletons strewn along the road, having suffered the attack of the army of ants. When he was climbing down the slope to the temple, heaving left the boy with the donkey on top of the mountain he nearly fell to the abyss below... It was the withered tree trunk above the building, which suddenly appeared before him, as a miracle, breaking his fall. He grasped at it, clinging to the dry branches until he recovered, then climbed down and reached the Temple safely.
The three priestesses in the Temple, their faces covered with black veils with long ass’s ears sprouting from the top of their heads, waited for him as if he was expected. In a dark threatening ceremony they surrounded him, sat him on the floor and formed a circle around him; they began a twisting dance, chanting a disharmonic tune, one continuing song taken up by each of them in turn, running in a circle spiralling round and round like their dance. In a weird, frightening way, Mikhal was able to visualize the scene...
Here he comes
The anointed one
A shining star
A falling star
Truth and lie
Is world custom
The coming world
Go with your destiny
Your appointed time
Here it comes
Your appointed fate
The day of choice
Your fate is come
All words of truth
All words of lie
Over and over again and again... Sha’ul’s head turned, his mind went blank, filled only with that one voice.
Finally, it stopped. In the silence he found himself lying on a bench in the entrance hall. One of the temple’s maids — not a priestess — gave him water, helped him to sit up, and waited until he recovered. When he looked out, he saw dawn rising, understanding he had spent the whole night there. He worried about the boy staying out with the donkey, but the girl told him — as if hearing his thoughts — that there was nothing to worry about, that he would find them all right.
Through a thick fog, not sure whether it was hanging over the earth or inside his head, he climbed up to the top of the mountain, mounted the donkey, and let the boy lead it home.
The next day the people’s representatives appeared before him as he was sitting as judge, demanding that Sha’ul be made King. The dreams stopped then, never to recur; it was possible, he thought, that his everyday troubles outweighed anything he could dream about.
Proceed to chapter 2.
Copyright © 2004 by Tala Bar