The King’s Daughter
by Tala Bar
Table of Contents|
Chapter 10, part 1 appears
in this issue.
Chapter Ten: Ishbaal
part 2 of 3
“Anyway, be careful. I don’t know how I could ever bring such a man to the world as Ishbaal. In him, all the bad features of mine and Sha’ul’s have collected together, with not one good one.”
I smiled at her. “What bad features?”
She remained serious. “Sha’ul’s weakness of spirit, my love of power. I am aware of my ambitions, and hope I shall know what to do with them. But the combination of the love for power and the lack of determination can lead only to tyranny.”
“But what can he want with us?” I repeated Palti’s question.
She did not answer for a while, as if not wanting to voice her fears aloud, as if fearing she would realize them by the mere uttering of their definition.
A few more days Ahino’am stayed with us before returning to Hevron, trying to mitigate the apprehensions she had caused with her words by keeping her spirit up and us amused. Actually, we were not bothered too much. And if we were, could we have defended ourselves against my brother’s army?
During the dark days that had fallen on me, I heard in my sketchy talks with Avner how things had come about; I complete the missing parts with guesses.
Avner was a rather simple man, although uncommonly brave; he was not basically a bad man, but not very clever. He never tried to harm anyone intentionally; but from my experience, I know that senseless people are sometimes much more dangerous than people who are clever and able to consider their actions, even if not especially good-hearted.
Ishbaal had thought that a sacred wedding under the tutelage of Ashtoret, or even an ordinary marriage with the Goddess’ representative, would do much to stregthen his position as king. Having destroyed Naaman’s temple at Naama, Sha’ul had left the Giv’a without its best source for a representative of Ashtoret. The injured priestesses had scattered all over: some returned to the holy service in more distant Love-temples, others found shelters in Oracle shrines; one or two of them got married and dropped out of the service altogether. In his predicament, the thought of his own sister had come to Ishbaal’s mind.
I had never found out if the idea was his own or had been planted in his mind by someone else. It was possible that our close relations with the House of Yosef, who had constant relations with the Egyptians and their culture, opened before my brother the possibility of royal marriage between brother and sister — an act that was considered abomination among the people of the desert.
Ishbaal’s way to fulfil his ambition to be king was not easy. When he brought his idea before Avner, the army chief balked. He reminded the King that Mikhal was the wife of Palti who was a relative, and that she was given to him by Maakha herself; none of the people of Binyamin or the family of the Father of Giv’on would dare take her from him by force. But Ishbaal had an opposite argument. He reminded Avner that Mikhal was first of all David’s wife, and David himself might one day decide to take her back, to claim kingship over Israel on the strength of his early marriage to her. That was enough for Avner to agree to Ishbaal’s plan.
* * *
The soldiers arrived with darkness, on a rainy, stormy night. The workers of the field and house had gone to bed, Nurse Naama had taken her last look at the baby sleeping in her room, while I was preparing to join Palti in our bed. Suddenly, as if for no reason at all, the child burst out crying. Naama lifted him from his cot, and when her rocking would not quieten him down, she brought him to his mother. I sat on the bed, the baby in my arms and Palti’s arm circling around me. I loved sitting like that, when security and love surrounded me on all sides.
Avino’am quietened a little, but was not completely calm; I felt a nervous shiver passing through his body from time to time, and could not understand why. His eyes were closed but his mouth quivered, and when I gave him the nipple he did not take hold of it.
Then the soldiers broke in. They took hold of me, the child cried out, I screamed. They tore me away from Palti’s arms, and when he fell on them, they slapped him hard and he fell back on the bed, a couple of them then pinned him down. With my free hand I caught hold of the statue of Ashtoret standing in a corner, trying to wave it as a weapon, but one of the soldiers held my arms tight to my body, pulling me toward the door.
Naama tried to attack the soldiers, but they pushed her rudely away, burst out among the servants who had gathered to the noise, and ran, lifing me in their arms as I was holding the baby and the statue. By then I had lost all my faculties except those telling me to hold tight to Avino’am to prevent him from falling to the ground. The soldiers put me on a mule and one of them mounted behind me, and we galloped into the darkness of the wet, stormy night. When we reached the Giv’a just before dawn, I was too exhausted from weeping and the hardship of the road; I felt some relief when they took me into a dry room, threw me on a bed and left me alone. I fell into a long faint.
* * *
The child’s cry woke me. A coarse laugh accompanied it. “You look well, my sister, in spite of your crying. Motherhood suits you!” I heard a man say, bursting again in his vulgar laughter.
I held the child tightly to my breast, and raised my eyes to see Ishbaal standing before me. In the light of the rising sun pouring in through the open door, his white hair blinded my eyes; his pink skin shone in perspiration; his pale eyes burned with Sha’ul’s strange fire in his height of madness. Ishbaal’s voice scorched my ears and I thought again of taking the statue lying on the bed by my side and throwing it at him. Avino’am’s burst of crying stopped me, and I turned to him.
“You’re frightening the boy,” I said quietly, rocking the child in my lap, trying to calm him down. But Avino’am, so used to love around him from birth, sensed evil dripping on him from above; for the first time in his life he encountered such emotions which seemed unbearable for him, and he would not stop crying.
“Silence him!” My brother screeched, lashing the whip in his hand.
“He will not be silent until you are gone,” I informed him.
“You’d best call one of your maids to help me feed and take care of him.”
For a moment he stood there, staring at us; then he cursed, turned and left.
* * *
We were left alone. The child exhausted himself gasping for breath until he calmed down. Some time later an old servant woman came to answer to our needs. She was a coarse-looking person, her unkempt hair falling on her wrinkled face, her clothes old and stained.
“What does he want with us?” I asked her as she appeared. I did not think she would know, but there was no one else to ask.
“I don’ know, Lady.” Her voice was untrained, as if she had been used to look after animals rather than highborn people. Her name, as I managed to discover with difficulty, because she talked very little, was Azuva, or Zuva, as she called herself. I did not know whether she only lacked education or also brains, but the little she had to do she did with enough devotion.
Ishbaal did not appear again. I was left alone with Avino’am and Azuva, feeling oppressed with the loneliness, the lack of knowledge about what was going to be done with us, and the absence of another person with whom to exchange a few words of sense. At least, I hoped, they would not separate me from my child.
The rains continued to fall, the sky was heavy with clouds, the earth I could see out of the window was dark and muddy. The trees stood bare, black and bent, and the grass was covered with slime. This weather lasted so many days I lost count.
One morning, a sun ray shone through the clouds, and the water in the puddles gleamed like a rainbow. On that day Avner came to my room for the first time. “Avner! I am so glad to see you!” I cried, a faint beam of hope shining in my heart.
He scrutinized me with indifferent brown eyes. We had never been great friends, but he was a faithful servant to Sha’ul and there was no cause for hostility between us, I thought. But his face did not tell of good tidings. At last, I lowered my gaze under his look, because his lack of compassion brought tears to my eyes.
“You can prepare for the great day,” he said in an odd, remote, uninvolved voice.
“What great day?” His behavior alarmed me.
He did not answer, turned and left.
More days of loneliness passed, but it seemed the weather had changed. The rain was only occasional now; the sun shone from time to time and strong winds scattered the clouds, dried the puddles out. The grass sprouted among the hardened lumps of mud, and some flowers appeared among it. My heart calmed down, hope sprouted and blossomed in it as if by force, with the blossom of spring. If spring can come again, I thought, illogically, I might hear again from my family...
* * *
One day some girls appeared. They were very different from Azuva, pampered town girls who talked and pratted among themselves, full of joy for some reason. From scraps of sentences, sometimes directed at me, I managed to understand what they did not explain to me directly.
Spring is coming
The sun is shining
The air is warming
The blood is fermenting
Time for the Sacred Marriage
Our Lord’s wedding
Time for joy
Time for gaiety
Time for love
They burst out with a jolly, ringing laughter, with me sitting among them in deep depression. The girls brought with them equipment for washing and cosmetics. With joyful cries they started working on the young mother and on the child who received them gaily. They hugged and loved him, and caressed me with their ointments. A strange feeling came over me, a mixed sense of revulsion and pleasantness. Suddenly, my blood also stirred... which wedding were they talking about?
Then I was taken with hidden fears — images of men, of lovers, rose before my eyes: Palti’s image, warm and kind; David’s image, golden glitter; Sha’ul’s image, shining black; Yonatan’s image, fair and bright... Who did I want as my lover? All of them together — or each one separately... I took Avino’am from the maidens’ arms, held him tight to my bosom. How could I reflect in this way at that mysterious, frightening hour?
* * *
Suddenly, the ghostly image of Ishbaal darkened everything around me, freezing my blood. Was that what Ahino’am meant when she warned me against my brother?”
“Look, a beauty, a perfect Spring Queen with her godly son in her arms!”
I looked at the child in my arms, crowned with flower blossoms. I looked at myself in the copper mirror the girls had set before me: a white dress clinging to my body decorated with blossoms, silver sandals to my feet; a pale face with black eyes, dark hair crowned with gold. I had never seen myself a celebrating bride, I had never been an Ashtoret priestess crowned as Queen. Still, was I not the daughter of Ahino’am and Sha’ul? I straightened, my eyes glittered. I did not reject the glamor of royalty, which rested on me for a moment. I still did not understand the full meaning of the act.
It came to me like a sudden flash of lightening in a dark night. If I were Spring Queen, who was my godly mate? What am I doing here, the beloved wife of Palti Ben Lyish, the first — albeit rejected — wife of David, celebrating another marriage? With whom?
The blood drained from my face, and I sat weakly on the bed. With my brother, my flesh and blood... With that revolting albino creature who had assumed the kingship of the house of Sha’ul... All sense of celebration had left my heart, leaving me with a dizzy head and the tears springing into my eyes.
“Our Lady Mikhal! Why are you crying? This is your day of joy, your day of crowning!” The girls flocked around me with worried faces.
No! They could force no crown on me, certainly not through mating with that vulgar, revolting creature who was called my brother; certainly not through the act of incest, which had always been shunned among the Israelites! I did not know what to do. The girls were confused, one by one they left. I remained sitting there, forlorn, the tears dropping on my son’s rosy cheeks, misery eating at my heart.
* * *
Avner came in, his face blank.
“Avner! Can’t you help me get away from here?” No doubt he heard of my trouble, but I saw in his face no intention to help me.
“We have to celebrate your marriage to Ishbaal to establish the kingship of the house of Sha’ul against the strengthening of David,” he said, his voice as blank as his face.
He grasped my arm, lifted me by force from the bed. I had to strengthen my other hand in order not to drop the child. “Azuva!” he called the servant, who was standing in the corner, waiting for orders, “take the baby!”
“No! No!” I screamed. But the woman was stonger than me, and Avner held my arm forcefully. My weeping increased. We went, Avner pulling me after him, the servant behind us with Avino’am.
We came out into the courtyard. Two thrones stood there, Ishbaal sitting on one of them, a golden crown on his head, his thin hair flowing in the wind like white wool. For a moment, I recalled the joy of Sha’ul’s and Ahino’am’s wedding days. There was true joy there, full of hope and expectations. What was left of it all? The audience, confused by my miserable appearance, cheered weakly. The instruments burst out with music, but no one could ignore the fact that the divine bride was led to the throne by force, pushed rudely onto it. I turned my head to see the servant holding my son, and encountered my brother’s gaze.
“So, sister? Shall we join for a high purpose?” His lips parted with a twisted smile, sending shiver down my spine. Join? What horror is still in store for me? I stared at my son, so as not to see anything else. I saw he was crying in the woman’s arms, and all her efforts to calm him down were to no avail. At last, I saw a soldier — one of those who were never lacking around Ishbaal — pushing her back, out of the circle of gatherers.
Copyright © 2005 by Tala Bar