Bewildering Stories

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by Tala Bar

Chapter III

Hard times for the sibyls followed the death of Sha’ul’s wife Re’uma. His grandmother Maakha, who used to be Ashtoret’s priestess, died soon after and was buried in the Temple’s grounds. Then Baraka died suddenly, Adma barely managing to forecast the event before it happened. The two sibyls left parted company then; Adma moved to the Naaman Temple of Love, which was destroyed soon after, and Anata went back to her former shrine in Ein Dor, on the borderline of the Valley of Yizre’el.

On the other border of that valley, up on the slopes of Mount Gilbo’a, Sha’ul was conducting his last war against the Philistines.

He had been left almost alone of all his family, with Re’uma’s youngest son, Yonatan, left to him after the death of the two older ones; they had been used as surrogate sacrifice to Ashtoret in Sha’ul’s place. He had clung to life in all his essence, but the fate of the many such sacrifices had troubled his mind and soul. In the end, he was trapped in a situation from which there was no escape.

The Philistines were deployed for battle at the foot of Mount Gilbo’a, while the Israelite army had spread on the slopes above. The night of midwinter had fallen full of agitation and apprehension when King Sha’ul told Yonatan of his intention to go to Ein Dor.

“Father,” Yonatan cried, “don’t go! Look at the night!” Terror gripped his heart as he felt all the devils of She’ol, Queen of the Underworld, had escaped to see Sha’ul on his way.

“I have no choice,” the King said, his voice low, hoarse, shaking with his own fears; “she is calling me.”

“Who is calling you?” Yonatan shivered.

“Ahino’am... Ashtoret... She’ol... I must go, I am bound to submit to her word.”

“But you have stopped believing in her. Why don’t you put your trust in Yhwh?”

“Who?” The King stared at his son as if he had never heard the name of God.

Yonatan stumbled back, alarmed by what he saw in Sha’ul’s eyes. It was a black, flaming fire, which threatened to engulf him, to scorch his fair hair and stain the blue, innocent eyes.

“I shall come with you, then!” he said, decisively.

“No!” almost shouting. Then, in a quieter voice, his father added, “Keep to the way of Yhwh, and let me go in the way of Ashtoret; that is how I started, that is how I must end.” His determination sounded in his voice and Yonatan felt powerless.

“At least, wait for the morning!” he begged, “look at the night!”

“It is a very fitting night,” the King whispered. “The morning will be too late!”

What could be too late? Yonatan asked himself, trembling. But there was no way he could help his father, only put his faith in the boy who accompanied the King.

* * *

The wind stormed around them as they set out of camp. The rain galloped, tree tops bent to the earth threatening to catch hold of the wanderers; the heavy, muddy earth, clinging to the soles of their shoes, hung heavily on their feet, pulling them back, but Sha’ul was driven forward by the angels of She’ol.

Untold time passed as they prevailed over the obstacles of the road, from time to time beckoned by the magic of flickering fires which lit parts of their way with an illusory glitter. Lightning flared in the sky, and in the rolling thunder Sha’ul heard his name called again and again; but the word ‘Sha’ul’ interchanged sometimes with ‘She’ol’, the name of the Death goddess herself, making his skin crawl and his heart miss more than one beat.

Midnight came, with a distant cry calling the watch. There was a lull in the storm and they paused, catching their breath, looking for the right direction. A sudden lightning pierced the blackness, in which they discerned a lone building a short distance away, clinging to the rounded side of Mount Tavor.

“This must be it,” Sha’ul murmured to himself, starting reluctantly toward the temple as if overcoming some hidden obstacle.

Quivering light flickered in the window, twinkling and beckoning, the only fixed point in the midst of a shattering reality.

Reaching the house, Sha’ul signed the boy to knock on the door, but this opened before he touched it. An oil lamp hanging from the ceiling, rocking in the wind threw shaking shadows on the walls. No one was in the entrance room. Sha’ul closed the door against the powers of the night. They removed their wet coats, and Sha’ul signed to the boy to sit in a corner and wait for him; he had already noticed the other door in the opposite wall. A monotonous sound of nasal chanting came from behind the door and filled the silent anteroom; the boy shrunk in his corner, trying to hide himself from any mysterious entity, which might approach him. Sha’ul ignored him, went to the door which must have led to the actual shrine, opened it with a shaking hand.

He stopped on the threshold, as if physically prevented from entering. It was a bare, windowless room, full of smoke. Fire burned in a pit at its center, and by its side stood a bending black-clad figure, chanting incantations in a strange, murmuring voice. She was Anata, a refugee from the Temple of the Three Asses, but Sha’ul did not know that. He only knew what he was seeing, and that did not put any cheer in his heart.

The sibyl was hovering over the fire, and from time to time she put her hand in her dress pocket, taking out a closed fist and scattering some powder over it; the flame would burst with flashing, glimmering sparks, then sink down again.

“Sha’ul, Sha’ul,” the woman hissed as he paused at the entrance, “come closer; come closer.” As he approached, hesitant, the smoke rose, curling over the fire like a hissing serpent, rising and twisting over the heads of the prophetess and the King.

He recoiled for a moment. “I have seen you before. You were at the Temple of the Three Asses,” he said hoarsely.

The sibyl ignored his comment. “Sha’ul, Sha’ul,” she whispered, “come and I shall tell you your future, come and I shall show you your destiny....” Slowly, hesitatingly, he stepped up and stood at her side, near the fire.

“Come and I shall tell you what the Goddess has in store for you...” she whispered, chanting nasally...

With a sinking heart Sha’ul shut his eyes; he breathed in deeply, chocking on the stench of the smoke rising from the belly of the earth.

“What is the Goddess saying?” he asked, his throat grating, his breath gasping.

“Come and I shall show you your destiny in the fire.”

The woman repeated as she waved her hand, scattering the mysterious powder on the fire; the flames rose and shone for a moment, then sank back.

“Whom will you see? Whom do you want to see?” she asked in a whisper, her voice rising and curling in the smoke over the fire.

“Can I see Maakha –”

The priestess dropped to the floor, her head bent between her knees. The fire flared out, throwing a cluster of thick smoke, then retreated; inside the smoke a dim dark figure appeared, quivering in the rising smoke.

“Grandmother!” the King cried out, full of hope.

“Sha’ul, Sha’ul!” The sound was thick and unnatural, nothing like Maakha’s soft voice.

“What’s going to happen to me, Grandmother? What future is in store for me?”

“Your life is over, my grandson,” the voice burst out of the image; “your destiny is marked, your future is signed, there is no return.” Then the image dissolved in the smoke and vanished with it.

“Grandmother...” Sha’ul begged, not wanting to let her go.

“Whom will you see? Whom do you want to see?” He heard again the dim voice of the necromancer crouching by the fire.

“Re’uma, my wife?” Sha’ul said, hesitating.

Again the fire flared out, emitting thick smoke, sinking back. It left behind a bright figure whose sight made his eyes shine for a moment.

“Re’uma, is that you, my wife?”

“No more your wife. The wife of She’ol is waiting for you there!” The sound was as dim and thick as the prophetess’s voice, nothing like Re’uma’s high, clear articulation as he remembered it.

“Re’uma, please...” he started begging.

“You see my two sons...” two more figures appeared beside the first one, “my two sons you sacrificed in your place. Here they are, with me, comforting me in my sorrow. All of us are waiting only for you now, Sha’ul.”

Then the figures were absorbed in the smoke and disappeared.

“Whom will you see? Whom do you want to see now?” The priestess asked again in her muted voice.

“Who else can I see?” Sha’ul uttered sorrowfully. “Maybe my father, maybe Kish will stand by me?” Doubt and despair filled his heart and his voice.

The priestess waved her hand; the fire flared again, then sank and left behind it the twisting smoke.

“My son –” he heard the same thick voice, softened a little.

“Kish, Father! I am so tired. Why don’t they leave me alone all of them?”

“Why do you complain, Sha’ul? You chose the way of your life. Your mother and I will be happy to receive you in She’ol!”

“But I am not ready yet!”

“King Sha’ul!” Kish’s fatherly appearance suddenly changed into a tall, harsh, splendid figure.

“Shmu’el!” The King fell on his face before the stern image of the prophet; “can you help me, in the name of Yhwh...”

“You have deserted Yhwh!” the dim voice thundered, its sound filling the room. “You chose to go in the ways of Ashtoret; you did not obey, you did not keep the commandments, you did not maintain your ways pure, you did not...”

“Stop! Enough!” Sha’ul raised his head pleadingly; “you have always been too harsh. Yhwh did not help me, did not support me, why should I cling to him!”

“Your time has come!” the thick voice rolled over his head.

Suddenly, the fire burst out of the pit, filling the room, scorching Sha’ul’s hair. He fell on his face and the fire sank again, the smoke evaporated; only ashes were left, and some glowing embers.

The priestess rose from the floor, her bright eyes watching Sha’ul keenly; she then went out into the entrance room. Dawn shone at the window, the storm had subsided; the boy was dozing in his corner. The sibyl woke him up, and together they raised Sha’ul from where he had fallen by the pit, brought him to the entrance room and washed his face with water from a bowl standing in a corner. Just before sunrise Sha’ul recovered a little, and Anata sent him and his boy on their way.

* * *

The people of Israel waited for the King’s return, shaken and worried. As the sun appeared over the mountains of Gil’ad in the east, Sha’ul arrived and stood in front of his men, wrapped in prayer. Suddenly, the spirit of some divinity had come to rest on him and he began to prophesy, his mouth drooling, his body twisting this way and that with no physical control. Yonatan approached him, trying to calm him down, but Sha’ul raised his sword. In one blow he sank it into his son’s heart.

“Receive, oh Goddess, the sacrifice of my most precious son!” he cried out, then he raised the sword again and plunged it into his own heart. “The sacrifice of my life, oh Goddess! Receive the offer of my life!” he screamed to his death.

Stunned, Sha’ul’s men screamed, horrified out of their senses; then they stirred, raised their feet and ran for their lives. The Philistine soldiers, watching all this in wonder, ran up the slope with shouts of battle, their spears waving to no purpose. In a few moments they found among the bare rocks the bodies of the King and his son. They stopped, standing over their greatest enemy which had been defeated by a mysterious hand. The Philistine chief then gave an order, and a soldier waved his sword and cut off the heads of Sha’ul and Yonatan. The men raised the bleeding heads up to heaven, and carried the sacred trophies in a procession to the town of Beit Shan, fixing the heads on the wall surrounding it. They would serve the city of their enemies as protectors against any attack that might come.

* * *

Staying behind in her desolate shrine, Anata saw at a distance the fate of the first King of Israel. He had been chosen by the Goddess as a sacred mate and leader of his tribe. But, unable to fulfill his destiny to its conclusion, she had turned her back on him. Anata contemplated the Goddess’s ways and saw many troubles to come, though she did not yet know what they were going to be.

Return to chapter 1.
Return to chapter 2.

Copyright © 2004 by Tala Bar

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