CHAPTER ONE: Land of the Living
Endor, Kingdom of Israel, 1005 B.C.E.
It was sundown, as good a time as any for Elisheva to remove from the oven the cakes she'd baked for the Queen of Heaven, and put them outside to cool.
A little burnt on top, this time, she thought, inspecting them. But then, I've yet to see Ashtart actually come down and eat these things, any more than Ya-Huwah the storm god actually eats all that meat his priests in Shiloh are said to offer him. Still, as a show of respect, when you need gods to lend you power, or at least not to smite you...yeah.
She took a knife and carefully scraped off the burnt portions. Don't say I never do anything for you, Lady. She put the knife back and stepped outside once more to take in the cool autumn evening air. Smiling, she sat down and, smoothing back her hair (dyed with two different concentrations of henna), gazed at the view of the Jezreel Valley.
In the distance, two figures on donkeys were drawing near. Elisheva watched and listened, trying to get a sense of whether they were travellers seeking a rest stop, potential customers or, given her profession, enforcers for the cult of Ya-Huwah. In case of the latter, she went inside to conceal her images of Ashtart and other deities, as well as her libation dishes, censers and incense, in the hole she'd dug in the floor, then covered them with the matching clay lid which doubled as her altar base. She went back outside to observe.
As the figures came closer, she could make out their voices but not exactly what they were saying. They were men, and the older of the two had a vaguely familiar voice with a Benjaminite accent. The younger, taller and heftier man spoke with a Naphtalite growl.
It was growing dark now, so Elisheva built a small fire in the pit. As they came close to the entrance of her house, she lit a torch and walked out to greet her visitors. "Come in peace, my lords," she said. "May heaven's blessing shine on--You!"
Recognizing the older man, she nearly dropped her torch.
The man smiled a wry smile. "Peace also to you, Elisheva daughter of Mehitabel."
"But--you're alive. I'd heard--the battle last year at Mount Gilboa--the Philistines--."
"My dear lady. Do I look dead? Do I look like a shade up from Sheol from which no one returns, unless...raised?" He winked at her.
"N...no. I guess not." Elisheva jammed her torch in the dirt and prostrated herself before him, not even waiting for him to dismount. "Long live Saul son of Kish, anointed of Ya-Huwah, King of Israel."
Both men dismounted. Saul handed the reins of his animal to the other man, who tied them, and those of his own donkey, to a small post in front of the house.
"No need for that, my lady," said Saul. "I'm no longer your king. Please get up."
Elisheva complied. "So David son of Jesse really is--?"
The younger man stepped forward, clenching his fists. "You will not mention that name in front of my master." Elisheva swallowed as unobtrusively as she could. He was a big one.
"Enough, Bul." Saul cuffed him on the forearm. "The shepherd's son may be my enemy, but this woman is a friend and you will treat her with respect."
Bul shrunk back and mumbled apologies.
"Please excuse my servant," said Saul. "Bit rough around the edges, but as you can see, he's good for...protection."
"Not to worry," said Elisheva. "Oh, but where are my manners? Please come inside. I'll draw water for you to wash your feet and for you and your animals to drink. Hungry?"
Saul looked at Bul.
"My master hasn't eaten since before daybreak," said Bul, nodding. "It wouldn't be a bad idea."
Saul nodded back. "Well, then," he said to his hostess, "I wouldn't say no to a meal. A light one. Please don't trouble yourself on my account."
Four helpings of lentil stew with chunks of lamb, two loaves of pita with hummus and olive oil, and a skin of wine later, Saul finally spoke again. "Mm. That hit the spot. Thank you."
Elisheva smiled. "You're welcome. Sooo...if my lord will pardon me for asking...what's the deal? How is it you survived that battle and yet are no longer king? What about your heir, Jonathan? And do you still even go by 'Saul?'"
Saul wiped his mouth and nodded. "Hrm. Last question first. For reasons that should be obvious, I am 'Saul' only to those very few I trust. Bul here. You. A select few other contacts here and there. To all others, I'm Zemer son of Bethuel, musician for hire." He pointed outside to the oud neck sticking out of the sack on his donkey. "In fact, my instruments serve more than one purpose, as you may have heard."
"'Is Saul also among the prophets?'"* said Elisheva, quoting the proverb with a knowing smile.
"Indeed. Although some accounts of my prophetic ecstasies have been wildly exaggerated--as if I would, even in a trance, strip naked and roll on the floor like an animal!--I have always relied on music to gain knowledge that I can't get from spies, astrologers...or a certain unkempt, nest-bearded prophet who, for reasons I'll never understand, is the apparent favourite of Ya-Huwah."
He spit on the earth. "Samuel, that bastard whoreson who made a big show of anointing me Israel's first king even as he told the people they were making a big mistake not letting him go on being judge. Who decided Yahu had rejected me when I refused to slaughter and burn every last Amalekite and their cattle, like some Ammonite barbarian, and endorsed that young, 'Lookit me, I'm so pure and innocent' upstart shepherd's boy in my place. Who wouldn't give me the time of day for the rest of his life...or beyond."
Elisheva lightly touched his clenched fist. "Like the night before the Battle of Gilboa."
"Yeah, like then. The first time we met." Saul broke into a sudden grin. "Heh. You were so scared of me even before you figured out who I was, given I wasn't wearing the royal garments."
She snorted. "Well, what was I supposed to think? You were the one who banned my livelihood and sent thugs throughout the kingdom to bump off anyone who defied the ban. So for all I knew, you were here for a sting operation. But yeah, when you asked me to raise Samuel's ghost, I figured it out." She grinned. "And maybe took a moment to relish the irony."
Saul hung his head. "Elisheva...you know I only did all that because Samuel told me it was Ya-Huwah's will. All things considered, you sure were good to me that night."
The necromancer's expression softened. "Yeah, well. When Sammy's ghost--rising up rubbing his eyes like some old, doddering fool--told you in the rudest way possible that you and your sons were as good as dead, you just went to pieces on the floor. You wouldn't budge. By Asherah's tits, in spite of all you'd done I couldn't just leave you that way. If I hadn't lectured you into getting up and eating something, you might've died right there and then."
"Yes indeed. Your compassion gave me strength, and--" he leaned forward to whisper out of the hearing of Bul, who was nodding on and off in any case--"the other thing you gave me that night gave me the will to go on." He touched her cheek lightly and she blushed.
"More than one thing a woman's hand is good for," she whispered, then grinned and grazed his cheek in turn. Then, gently, she pulled back and he did the same. "But uh, what did happen the next day at Gilboa?"
"Well." Saul looked down and rubbed the back of his neck. "This may sound shameful, but I never so much as set foot on that battlefield. I dressed a loyal footsoldier, who resembled me enough, in my armour and sent him off in my chariot to fight in my place. I told no one, not even my eldest three sons Jonathan, Abinadab and Malki-Shua, all of whom died, along with my stand-in, at the Philistines' hands. Good boys. Even Jonathan, for all he betrayed me in befriending the shepherd's son." He sighed and brushed a tear away.
"Anyway. Whoever saw 'me' on the battlefield that day saw 'me' die with dignity, falling on 'my' sword, and making a big show of it for the royal chronicles, as I'd instructed my stand-in. Meanwhile, the real me had gathered up some plainclothes garments, my instruments, and Bul here, and took off in the guise of Zemer the musician."
"But why? Why not regroup your forces and take back the throne?"
Saul put his hands, palms down, on the table and looked at her. "Because, dear Elisheva, I never asked to be king in the first place. And to tell the truth, I wasn't very good at it. I couldn't keep those Philistine bastards at bay long enough for the kingdom truly to be at peace. I couldn't ensure David's loyalty to me, not with my daughter Michal's hand, not with an officer's appointment, not even with an appeal to compassion on behalf of the...foul spirits that overtook my mind for many years and made me act not like myself. Shit, I couldn't even keep my own firstborn loyal to me. Always wondered just what he and David were up to behind closed...Anyway." He cleared his throat. "On top of all that, Samuel kept rubbing it in that Ya-Huwah had rejected me and my seed for the kingship. So I finally figured, well, if Yahu indeed no longer needs me, then maybe I no longer need him. Despite what hardliners like that decrepit old man will tell you, other gods are real. I know. I've seen them.
"And thus I decided it was time I worked for the good of the people. All people. And that meant opening myself up to the service of any deity, any spirit that could help protect them. As you do, my lady."
"So, taking on a new name and new mission, I wandered west to Taanach, north to Megiddo, Bethlehem and Acco, even east across the Jordan to Ashtaroth...the name of your patron goddess, I believe."
Elisheva nodded. "Close enough."
"All that time, alternating between playing at weddings and banquets for hire and tripping with nomadic bands of prophets. Then finally, I made my way back west, to you. You see, Elisheva, in three of my recent visions, four of my late trances, I saw something that once again makes me--" Saul leaned forward. "--in need of your...special services."
His hostess blushed and bit her lip. "Look, Saul, it's not that I don't go for older men, but that night a year ago was really just a one-time thing, and even then, we didn't go all the--".
Saul shook his head, grinning in spite of himself. "Not that service, you crafty trickster you. No, I need you once again to consult with a spirit. Not for my sake, this time, but for that of all Israel. Perhaps even of all creation."
Elisheva exhaled. "Wow. Sounds heavy. But I believe you. So, whom shall I bring up this time?"
Saul massaged the back of his neck and looked away. "It...may not entail bringing someone up. To prevent a catastrophe of this size, it may be necessary for you to go...down."
The necromancer gulped. "Down...there?" She pointed to the earth.
"Even as far as Sheol, the pit, the netherworld."
"And the safety of all Israel, all creation, is really on the line?"
Elisheva got up from the table. She sighed and paced back and forth for a few moments. She sat back down. She looked Saul in the eye.
"You realize I gotta charge you double my usual for this, right?"
"Sure, no problem."
--TO BE CONTINUED--
* I Samuel 10:11, 19:24
"Life doesn't wait forever." --Lisa Winklemeyer