The King’s Daughter
by Tala Bar
Table of Contents|
Chapter 10, part 2 appears
in this issue.
Chapter Ten: Ishbaal
part 3 of 3
“My son!” I called out, but fear silenced me. I heard the music increase, the noise of the crowd strengthen, the dancing quicken. Hands took hold of me.
“No! No!” I shouted, but my voice was drowned in the sound of music. I was pulled and led in front of the celebrating crowd, Ishbaal holding my arm as with pincers. I pulled back with all my power, my feet dragging on the ground, but my strength was nothing. We arrived at the field, I was pushed down to the ground. Hands held me tight, joining me to the earth. A white, revolting naked body crouched over me, pulling my dress up. I shut my eyes, tightening my hands into fists. The pain pierced me as he penetrated my body, and his shout of victory penetrated the fog in my mind. I lost my senses, giving myself in to the darkness around me.
I have no idea how long I had been unconscious of my surroundings. When I woke up, I found myself lying on my bed back in my room, aware of the servant bending over me. She took care of me with a primitive devotion, as before. Days, maybe weeks, passed before I noticed the silence in the room.
“Avino’am!” I cried out. For the first time I rose, sat up in bed. “Where is my child?”
She shook her head, but, as usual, was unable to utter a clear message.
“Avner! Avner!” I called out, “call Avner!” I was sure he was the one man from among Ishbaal’s courtiers who could tell me anything meaningful.
Avner appeared only the next day, a spark of worry in his eyes.
“How are you feeling?” He asked; I detected some sympathy in his voice, for the first time since I had arrived at Ishbaal’s court. Many days had passed beforeI learned from words he let fall that, although he must have known about my brother’s intention to celebrate his marriage with his sister, he had never visualized it ending in rape.
“Where is my child?” I whispered, weak of much worry and fear.
“I am sorry,” he said.
“Sorry? For me? But where is Avino’am?”
“I am sorry, I could not prevent it.”
It took many halting words to clarify his meaning. The boy was taken to be kept for being used as the midsummer sacrifice. In the midst of Avner’s words I fainted.
* * *
Many days I lay in a foggy consciousness. This time I had really lost everthing in life, my very entity. I did not want to eat or drink — no wish was left in me except to elliminate that superfluous, bereaved body. My spirit roamed in the heights, through unknown distances. Sometimes it flew over Giv’at Sha’ul, watching past-time sights: a black-circled girl running in the fields, sometimes in the company of her tall, noble father; or else she was held between the knees of her grandmother Maakha, listening to the tales of Ashtoret the creatrix. Then my spirit would soar over the high ground, watching the hills of Binyamin, fields and herds, gardens of fruit and vegetables, clay houses and ant-people.
It travelled in places I had never been to, had never seen. Mountains and rivers passed before my mind-eyes, royal palaces and thick woods. Ashtoret’s priestesses dancing on the waves of the sea, their light blue gowns flowing in the wind. Bloody battlefields scattered with torn bodies filled the valleys of the earth; eternal kings crowned with gold moving ahead of ghostly processions in the Underworld. Sometimes my mother accompanied me on my wanderings, her spirit dark but transparent.
“Don’t be sad, Mikhal,” she motioned to me with her arms, her whispers hovering around me. “This is life — sometimes sorrow, sometimes joy; death and birth, sacrifice and love...”
“What love is it — to be raped, to sacrifice your child!”
“Ashtoret receives all, comforts all,” she answered. But I did not want to be comforted.
“I want to die,” I told my mother’s spirit, but she only sighed. “Your time to die has not come yet, my daughter.”
And so, I did not die, as I am still alive today, though not for long, thanks to the Goddess. My body, which was then young and healthy, recovered, ready to face more troubles. I thank the Goddess for being able to remember the rest of my life without the need to visualize my brother’s wicked face; after that sham ‘wedding’, I did not see him again.
When the Festival of Sacrifice arrived, when the sun was at its highest place in the sky, I knew what was going on but detached myself completely, thus managing to keep my life and my sanity. For me, Avino’am died the minute he was torn from my arms. As I was not able physically to leave this world, I detached myself from it mentally, turned inward and denied all my surroundings. It was not hard, because no one came to visit me, no one talked to me or took any interest in my doings; and I did not take any interest in the world outside my own mind.
True, I was unable to block my ears to the blasting of horns and the monotonous drumming accompanying the spirit of the victim as it separated from his body, seeing it on its way to the Underworld. But I could block my mind from understanding the meaning of that sound, denying the very existence of the ceremony of the Midsummer sacrifice.
A few days later Avner appeared in my room.
“I’ve come to say good bye, Mikhal,” he said in a strange voice.
“Good bye?” I was not really interested.
“Yes, I’ve decided I must get away from here. Nobody knows. I mean to disappear.”
I looked at him curiously, while he was staring at me. I was sitting on the bed, my back leaning on cushions at the wall. My naked body was covered with a light blanket in spite of the great heat, but the shape of my swelling belly was clear under it.
“What happened?” I asked; “why now all of a sudden?”
“It isn’t sudden, it’s been going on for some time,” he replied without removing his eyes from me; he made no comment about the experiences he had been through, which I could only guess based on information I had gleaned from scraps of conversation outside my window.
I knew Ishbaal was insufferable — I could still remember his obnoxious personality in childhood. But since he found himself a sole, unlimited ruler after his father and older brothers had vanished from his life, even though it was only in the small world of the Giv’a, he snatched everything he felt like for himself — land, property, women. The actions ascribed to him — rape, murder, torture — sounded shocking when they reached my ears, even if I believed only the tenth of them. I could never understand Avner’s loyalty to that hateful brother of mine.
“My loyalty was to Sha’ul and his house, you know,” he answered my unasked question, “but even that has a limit.”
“So, what will you do? Where will you go?”
He paused in his answer.
“To David, isn’t it so?” I guessed.
He nodded. “Have you heard he has taken Yerushalem? It should belong to us, the tribe of Binyamin, although we had never conquered the city from the Yevusites. I suppose he intends to rule over the whole of Israel, and it’s better for me to go to him before he comes on us with his army.”
“I wish you success,” I said.
I did not grudge him his going, although I did not particularly like him. My own life, I felt, was behind me, smothered under an inaccessible past. As to the new life in my womb, I let it grow thoughtlessly, unconcerned with its fate.
“But no,” he said, “I intend it for your benefit as well,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I aked, vaguely wondering.
“You think it over for yourself, I don’t want to enlarge on it now.” He waved his hand as he went out into the coming evening.
* * *
Having no one else to talk to, I grasped the Ashtoret image which I called Maakha, silently holding it tight to my body, rocking it on my arms like a baby, my mind empty. In years to come, the little sculpture would become my closest companion, in which I saw different images of people who used to be a part of my life. Sometimes it would assume the spirit of my grandmother Maakha, teaching me the ways of the Goddess. Other times I saw in it my mother Ahino’am, exhuding all the love I had not received from her as a child. At times, it took on the figure of the Sibyl who had come to Galim, inspiring me with unwanted visions; and in later years it even appeared occasionally as my daughter Tamar, whom I could never love. In essence, I suppose, it expresses a part of my own soul, my spiritual double standing on the side, watching; a separate entity which is never hurt by my misery.
The summer with its burning heat passed and autumn came, and one day, just before the arrival of the first rain, I heard the Birth Festival celebrated with music and dancing. Indifferently, I half listened to the sounds; it never even crossed my mind that my son’s soul might get into the live body of a newly born baby. I knew that I myself could never hold him again in my arms.
But as midday arrived, instead of the enhancement of festivities with the advanced state of drunkenness of the celebrants, the revels seemed to have been disrupted in their midst; suddenly the noise assumed a disorderly character, and after a while I realized I was hearing cries and screams which had nothing festive about them.
Azuva stopped what she was doing at the moment, looked at me searchingly, and when I did not react, she peered out. “Lady, soldiers!” a shout erupted from her, and she started running around the room, clasping her hands.
“Silence, Azuva!” I cried. “Let me hear what’s going on outside.” I rose heavily from the bed and approached the door.
“No! No! Soldiers, Lady, danger!” Azuva screamed, taking hold of my arm, trying to get me away from the door.
“But I have to know what is happening! Let me go!” I struggled with her.
Usually she was stonger than me, but as she herself wanted to get away from the door as far as possible, she was not able to block my way. I peered out, saw people running around in a shambles — soldiers waving their swords, women lifting their skirts, trying to hide their children under them, old men stumbling and falling underfoot... I saw blood spilt, torn bodies strewn on the ground... I felt no fear for myself, the possibility of death did not deter me — I had nothing to live for. Then someone came running toward me — Avner! — right into my room. “Come! Come! Hurry!”
I snatched the statue of Ashtoret, ran out after Avner and he lifted me onto a mule, jumped on another by my side, and in the company of soldiers we started galloping.
Completely confused, I held to dear life so as not to fall off, ignoring my surrounding, constantly keeping my eyes on the rear of Avner’s beast. We kept on riding until evening, then stopped for a night’s rest.
* * *
Panting, I slipped from the back of the beast; but I felt no ill effect from the mad riding. The agitation in my mind in no way affected the state of my physical health — if anything, the exercise seemed to have been good for me after months of inactivity.
I sat next to Avner at the bonfire made by his men. It seemed they feared nothing of Ishbaal’s men. “What’s happening, Avner?” I asked, while munching on some bread and cheese he had given me. For the first time in a long while I suddenly felt strangely alive.
He kept silent for a moment, and I let the food drop from my hands. “Avner, tell me what is happening,” I demanded forcefully.
“At least, I saved you from him,” he nodded his head in the direction we had come from.
“There was no need to save me,” I said harshly. “It could not be any worse than what had already happened. Ishbaal would not touch me again, he finds himself a new victim every day.”
“He won’t find any more new victims,” Avner said darkly, a blank look of withheld fury on his face.
What personal evil had Ishbaal done, I thought, to make Sha’ul’s army chief regard him as a traitor? Had he taken by force any of his daughters, concubines, or even his wife? I did not want to think about it, I did not actually want to know.
“Did you destroy him?” I asked at last.
“We wouldn’t leave the Giv’a without seeing him lying dead. He became himself Ashtoret’s annual sacrifice this year, out of season.”
Suddenly, as if a sharp sword pierced my body. “Avino’am?” Hope is a terrible thing, born into a new false life out of death and final acceptance before leading back to suffering and another death.
“I am sorry,” he took my hand in his, touching me for the first time in our lives, “we could not save your son. You know he was put on the altar at midsummer.”
I had known, of course, but at hearing these very words, darkness fell on me, hiding the blinding light of the fire. I had been revived from my mental death only to die again.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2005 by Tala Bar