The Book of Voices

Biblical Microfictions by Joseph Zitt

Ahinoam

(This is the first new Book of Voices text in a while, written as I prepare an expanded and enhanced edition of the book to be released in 2013. As with all the texts here, it is an early draft, and may change significantly by the time that it is officially published in the book.)

Ahinoam was the wife of Saul, the first king of Israel. She is mentioned only twice in the Bible. The first is in a listing of Saul’s family, where it says:

Saul’s sons were Jonathan, Ishvi and Malki-Shua. The name of his older daughter was Merab, and that of the younger was Michal. His wife’s name was Ahinoam daughter of Ahimaaz…

(1 Samuel 14:49-50 NIV)

The second is when Saul is yelling at his son:

Saul’s anger flared up at Jonathan and he said to him, “You son of a perverse and rebellious woman! …”

(1 Samuel 20:30 NIV)

King David also had a wife named Ahinoam. Opinions differ on whether this is the same person. But David married Michal, Saul and Ahinoam’s daughter, too, though, and his marriage to both a mother and her daughter would have made the family tree all too complicated, even by Biblical standards.

Ahinoam speaks to us on the night before Saul’s coronation.

The people of Israel want a king. I’m not sure why — maybe because everybody else has one. And they want my husband, Saul, to be that king. I’m not sure why — maybe because every other woman around here has had him.

(Yes, I know about that son of his that that woman in Gilead bore. I take some scornful pleasure in one of the few things that my friends who can see the future have told me: that long years from now, the memory of the boy’s name will be garbled, and people will remember him, if at all, as Ish-Bosheth — Embarrassment Man.)

It is far too warm tonight, and it will be hot tomorrow, when Samuel the prophet and the elders of Israel come to officially anoint and crown him. The air is far too still and damp within the house, so we have come outside to sleep, lying here in our courtyard atop a layer of skins, beneath the stars. Saul lies snoring beside me as I stare into the sky, wishing that the moon would rise.

I know that Saul isn’t perfect. Far from it. He does have his rages, though he always apologizes later, saying that “an evil spirit from God” had come over him. (I think the evil spirits are in what he drinks.) We have had to cover over too many holes in the walls of our house from when he threw his spears at things that we couldn’t see. The children and I have grown attuned to when his rages are coming, though. Before leaving or cowering in another room, we try to hide his spears where he won’t find them.

He is far too zealous, also, in defending his God, whom he insists is the only one. I still believe in and love Asherah, the goddess, alongside his God, but I have learned not to mention her in his presence or to have any items in the house that he would know to be sacred to her. That is all right, though. I know that I am with her whenever I am outdoors among all the trees of this world that she has blessed.

When I am indoors, wishing to be far away, I close my eyes and imagine myself to be in my favorite place, the grove of Asherah trees near Miriam’s Well, the Well of Generations.

It was there that I had wandered so many years ago, during the four days of the festival of the forgotten girl. We all would go out then, all the girls would otherwise be stuck at home with our families.

Each year they had to let us wander. They would give us our packs with food and provisions for four days. We knew that we would be safe. No man dared touch us if he encountered us then. Even the beasts of the forest kept their distance. (Whether this was by the doing of Asherah or of our fathers’ God was a matter of much chattering debate among us, though we would always come to the conclusion that it didn’t really matter whether it was due to either, both, or sheer luck.)

I was always glad when these days came, and never more so than in that year. I had grown to be just a bit more than a child, and the way that the men in my town looked at me seemed even more menacing than before.

My father had taken to picking fights with men whom he suspected of looking at me askance. He won some of the fights. He lost many. Often the other men would just step aside or trip him when he attacked, leaving him sprawled in the dust or mud, leading them to speak to and of us even more jeeringly and harshly. Then my father would blame me for his shame, saying that the way that I was dressing or walking or speaking was enticing the men to approach me and leer at me.

I had wandered far that year. I found myself in a dense grove, facing a sheer rock wall. At the foot of the wall was a deep well. Within it, the water reflected the light of the full moon.

I stared into the well for a long time. After a while, I said “Hello” to the image of the moon.

“Hello” came back up from the well, in a voice not quite my own. The water shimmered with the vibrations of the voice, making the moonlight seem to spell a momentary message.

“Can you help me?” I asked. “I am tired of my family, of this life in which I am trapped. I don’t want to return.”

“Perhaps we can help,” the voice said. This time, it came not from the well, but from behind me.

I stood and turned. A tall woman stood there, dressed in a simple robe. She smiled gently, the warmth of her voice enhanced by the fine wrinkles surrounding her oddly green eyes.

“I am Yael,” she said. “We are here to protect you. Please, come inside.”

“Inside?” I said.

Yael gestured to her right. There, where I had seen nothing but sheer rock before, a door had opened. The voices of more girls and women came from within.

Yael stepped through the door. I followed. There, in that room, many girls had gathered. Most carried the packs from their wanderings, though some had set them down. Scents of warm bread and healing teas filled the room. A few older women, dressed like Yael, spoke to individual girls or watched from a distance, gathered along walls that were engraved with endless texts.

“Where are we?” I asked.

“In one sense,” Yael said, “you are a few steps from where you just were. In another, though, you are far away, safe from that world. Where we are is outside of the world of your birth, outside of its time. We can step out of here into many realms, though most of us stay inside. You are welcome to stay as long as you like. If you care to leave after a while, you can return to your world at the moment at which you left it, or step into the future or the past.”

“The future or the past? At any time that I would wish?”

“There are a few limitations. You can’t return to a time earlier in your own life, since there can’t be two of a person in the world at once. And things grow far too unclear more than a couple of thousand years or so before or after your time. But other than that, yes, such things are possible.”

“Have you been to the future? What becomes of my world, of me?”

“I’m afraid I can’t tell you that yet,” she said.

“Why not?”

“Because you may choose to return to your world. And without proper training, your knowledge of the future might compromise and complicate history too much. But if you stay long enough, you will learn of these things.”

I sighed. “All right,” I said.

“Come join the others and eat and drink with us. These girls, too, have needed to find refuge from your world. You all are safe here.”

I set my pack down. With the other girls, I ate their bread and drank their tea. When we tired, they offered us each a simple room, and we slept.

I stayed there for what seemed like a long time. Months passed, perhaps, as I counted the days, though after a while I stopped counting. I lived and studied with the women there, learning the skills that too few of us learn in the outside world: how to read, how to write, how to work with numbers, how to do the simplest of magic, and how to speak to God and the other spirits of the world so that they might hear and might respond. Most importantly, our teachers taught us how not to be afraid, how to counter with our demeanor, our thoughts, our words and, yes, if needed, our fists and weapons the many assaults against our souls and selves that come upon us in this world.

Then one day, Yael came to visit me in my room. “Ahinoam,” she said, “It is time for us to talk. You have come to the end of the first stage of your learning. If you wish, you may stay and continue and become fully recognized as a Sister of Sarah. But you may also choose to return to the world as it was when we first met. The choice is yours. You may take time to decide, but you must make a conscious choice before you continue with your training.”

I closed my eyes and thought, though not for as long as I would have expected the thought to take. “Yael, I love this place and the people here, But I find that I miss my world and my family. I have a sister just a bit younger than me, and she needs my help and, if I can offer it, my protection. And I miss my mother and even my crude drunken idiot of a father. Will I forget and lose what I have here if I go?”

“No,” Yael said. “You will not forget us and will not lose us. We will stay in touch with you over the years. Should you again need refuge, come back to the Well, and we will be here.”

So I said goodbye to the school, to my teachers, and to the other girls who had chosen to remain. Yael brought me my pack, preserved exactly as it had been when I came there. Together, we stepped out into the grove.

I looked down into the well, down at the reflection of the moon, still full. “Goodbye,” I said.

Yael’s voice, behind me, said “Goodbye,” then echoed from the well, “Goodbye.” When I stood and looked behind me, she was gone.

I left the grove and rejoined the girls with whom I had been wandering. Most were as they had been. A few, though, whom I had seen in the school when I was there, seemed, like me, a little older, a little more serious, a little more prepared for the world to which we had returned. We gave a nod of recognition when we saw each other, but nothing needed to be said.

I returned to my village the next day, trudging up the road to my house. As I approached, I heard my father’s drunken shouting. “Clean that up, girl!” he said. “It’s enough that I have to feed the both of you. Make yourself useful! You are just going to end up like your big sister, lazing around the house, dressing to taunt the men into approaching her –”

“Stop.” As I stepped into the house, I was surprised that the powerful voice came from me. “You will not speak to either of us like that again.”

“Who do you think you are?” my father said.

“I know who I am,” I said. “Who do you think you are?”

“I am your father!”

“Yes,” I said. “But that does not give you permission to speak like that.”

He stood there silently, mouth agape, then slammed his glass down on the table, turned, and walked out. I embraced my sister and we stood there, equally silent, until her tears and shaking stopped.

My father died not long after, worn out by his drinking and his fights. My sister grew into a fine woman. I tried to teach her all that I had learned.

But I may not have learned enough, since when I married, I married Saul. When we met, he seemed strong and charismatic, with a certainty about him that seemed to override all his faults. Now that we are wed, however, he has proven to be all too much like my father, too prone to drink and anger, unable to stay faithful to me. He has become a warrior and leader, but while he has helped to protect Israel from its enemies, all too often I find myself protecting my family from him. I’m not sure that I love him anymore. But he is my husband, and this is my life.

Yael comes to visit often, though never when he is at home. She has said that she has been told that they can never meet. She has helped me raise our children to be good people and strong. Someday one of them will become king or queen — probably Jonathan, our oldest, though he shows little interest in being king. Our youngest daughter, Michal, shows the strength to lead, though she has developed a streak of grimness, perhaps from seeing all too clearly her father’s ways.

And tomorrow, her father, my husband, my Saul, will become Israel’s king. I suppose that that means that I will become its queen. As I lie here beneath the summer sky, I look quietly to God, to my Asherah, and to my friends in the place beyond time to grant me wisdom, to grant me strength.

“You are awake.” Saul’s voice murmurs in my ear. So, apparently, is he. “What are you thinking, my queen?”

“I am thinking about tomorrow morning. I wonder if we have to go through with this. Saul, are you sure that you want to be king? Can’t we just run off and not be home when they get here? We can duck away, just the two of us. Maybe we can go to the shores of that lake I showed you. I can bring those scented oils that you like…”

Saul puts a strong arm around me, pulls me closer, and quietly laughs. “You, my queen, are a perverse and rebellious woman,” he says.

“But you love me,” I say, moving closer to him.

“Yes,” he says. “Yes, I do.”

October 13, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments