The Book of Voices

Biblical Microfictions by Joseph Zitt

The Shulammite

(Context: Song of Songs 1:5)

It’s hot here. It’s hot here, and it’s always raining. It’s hot here, and it’s always raining, and the way people talk is strange. It’s hot here and it’s always raining, and I just forgot what the third thing was that I was complaining about. I’ll have to start the game again, hopping on my left foot this time and tossing the stones from my left hand to my right.

I wish my mother were here. I wish my mother were alive. I love my father (though he’s back at home in our city, far from here) and I love my aunt, but it’s not the same. And I don’t get to spend much time with my aunt. She’s so busy doing all the things that a queen does.

But the time that we do get to spend together is good, on these damp summer nights when the stars are full and all you hear are the waves and the insects. We sit together then, just quietly sitting, talking, up there on the palace roof, overlooking the sea, her guards close enough to protect us from everything, but not close enough to hear what we’re saying.

One of the best things about my aunt is that she looks like me. Everybody here—well, almost everybody, except the ambassadors and traders from elsewhere—looks like me. I’m not a freak here. And I’ve gotten so tired of being a freak, of having people point at me and laugh at my skin, at my hair, of hearing little children scream, “Mama! Look at that girl! She’s all black!”

My Aunt Makeda understands this. (I call her Aunt Makeda, though her official name is Bilqis, Queen Bilqis, just like me, since my mother named me for her.) She grew up in a foreign land, too, since her parents, my grandparents, who I never met, were traders in Tyre. She learned to deal with the people who would laugh at her and be mean to her, and she grew up to be a grand woman, a powerful and beautiful woman with whom no one dares disagree. What she wants done, gets done. What she doesn’t want, doesn’t happen.

I’ve only argued with her once, when I first got here. It was a beautiful night, and I wanted to go down to the beach and play with the seashells in the moonlight. She told me it was late, and that I was to go to bed. “No!” I said. “I won’t!”

The people around us gasped and suddenly got quiet. My aunt looked at me for a long time, then lowered her head and gave me a glare that was almost frightening, a glare that I had only ever seen before from my mother when she disagreed with my father. “Little Bilqis,” she said, “come here,” and I came over to her, almost as if her eyes had frozen me in place then grabbed me by the shoulders and dragged me forward.

When I got to her, she knelt in front of me to talk eye to eye. (And I saw a few people near her also kneeling or sitting on the ground. I found out later that they didn’t think that it would be proper to have their heads higher than the queen’s.) “Little Bilqis,” she said, speaking softly so that only I could hear, “I can’t have you disagreeing with me. For one thing, I am your aunt, and your father has said that you are to listen to me as you listen to him. For another, I am the queen, and it’s my job to give orders that people obey. If you disobey, everyone will think that they can disobey, too, and the kingdom will fall apart. So I’m giving you a big responsibility in asking that you obey me. If you ever disagree with me, please speak to me in private, where no one else can hear us. I promise that I will listen to you—though you will still have to do what I decide. Do you understand your responsibility? Can you do that?”

I stood straight up, looked at her, bowed deeply, and said, as seriously as I could, “Yes, your majesty.” She smiled and winked, kissed me on the forehead, and said, “Good! Now go to bed.”

But she does take time, almost every night, to talk with me before I go to sleep. She asks me about how my day has been, and what I have seen. She says she likes hearing how things look to me, since I see things that grownups and people who are used to always being here in Sheba don’t. And she asks me about things back home, and how things seem to my father and me.

Things back home are a bit crazy, though not as crazy as they have been. The tribe of Judah and the other tribes connected to them all seem to agree on who their king is right now, now that the old King David’s sons seem to be done fighting and killing each other and throwing each other out of the city, Solomon is in charge. My father says that he’s a good man, fair and wise. I can see that he’s very handsome, and very, very rich.

Last night I asked my aunt if she thought that I might marry a king someday. “Are you sure that you would want to?” she asked.

I was surprised. “Well, you did,” I said, “and you became a powerful queen.”

“Yes, I did,” she replied. “But things seem to work differently where you are. Solomon already has a lot of wives, and King David had even more. The wives don’t seem to have much influence at all. Maybe Bathsheba does, but she’s the mother of the current king, and even she had a very hard time at first. You don’t have to marry someone to be important. You are lovely, and I know that you are going to grow up to be very beautiful. And you are very smart, and talented—I’ve seen the pictures that you draw, and heard the songs that you make up when singing to yourself. So you don’t have to depend on anyone else to be important. And you shouldn’t have to marry anyone just to live in the shadow of their importance.”

“When you married the king here, did you love him?”

My aunt looked far off, across the waves of the sea, and sighed. “I thought I did. I convinced myself that I did. But no, not as much as I would have wanted. It was an official marriage, to tie together my parent’s business and his kingdom, just like your parents married to connect the business and the city of Shalem. But he was a good man, and we decided that we would learn to love each other, and we did. It’s been such a long time since he died, and I still miss him, like your father misses your mother, like I miss your mother, like you.”

I slid closer to her on our chair and rested against her side. She shifted her arm (slowly, so that my head slid down to rest against her side) and put her arm around me. She looked down at me, then off into the distance, then down at me again.

“Little Bilqis,” she said, almost sternly, “listen to me. I did marry for business, for politics, as did your mother, and both of us learned to love our husbands. But you should never have to marry for anything other than love. No one should ever force you to do anything that you don’t feel in your heart is right.”

She paused and hugged me mre tightly. “Bilqis, if anything should ever happen to you, if you ever need to get away from Shalem, you are to come right down here. I am the queen. I can protect you. And I’m always listening to hear how you are doing. Word can reach me down here in Sheba faster than you can imagine. If you are ever in such trouble that you cannot get away, my sisters in Shalem will know and will tell me, and I will come to help you myself. You are not alone. Do you understand that?”

I nodded my head, my cheek rubbing against the side of her dress.

“Let me hear you say it,” my aunt said.

“I understand,” I said.

“What do you understand?”

“I am not alone,” I said. Then, letting myself slide into the understanding, as if I were sliding into a perfectly fitted robe, I said it again: “I am not alone.”

“Good!” my aunt said, and smiled, warmly, her thoughts no longer such a distance away. “Now let’s go eat something—I’ll have my people bring up some of the goat’s milk yogurt you like so much, and fresh bananas—then it’s time for you to go to bed.”

I love bananas. I love bananas and I love my aunt. Let’s see, I think I was hopping on my left foot and tossing the stones from right to left. I love bananas and I love my aunt and I love the sound of the waves…

(Next: Joseph.)

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November 23, 2007 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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