Inspired by a post from Steel Breeze I'm putting up this excerpt from the first draft of a historical novel based on the translation of the memoirs of a Canaanite who served as a scribe and diplomatic emissary of the Courts of King David and King Solomon. This is his recollection of an official visit to a gathering of the tribal chiefs of Midian, one of whom is his paternal grandfather:
"Dressed in my best clothing, I dismounted Bilhah and handed her reins to Gideon. Opening my scroll case I performed my duty as Messenger to King David, reading his greetings to the Chieftains and Priests of Midian and announcing that his son Adonijah came to their country as an official emissary the Kingdom with gifts from the people of Israel . When I finished I hoped that my father would translate so that all of the Midianites could understand, but Oreb spoke to my father in their strange language and said something that made him smile. I was about to ask my father to translate when Oreb walked up to embrace me saying in perfect, though heavily accented Hebrew, “You are a splendid grandson, even if your father tells me that you have no experience as a herdsman. Now introduce me to King David’s son so we can meet your wife and children.”
To my relief all of my Midianite family, as well as the chieftains and priests, spoke Hebrew and after a somewhat round of introductions of the leadership to Adonijah. I introduced Yael and my children to my father’s family. In turn my father and mother introduced Rebekah and her husband Jesse and their children. Oreb embraced us one and all and when my mother inquired about our grandmother, he looked to the ground and with a sad smile, looked into her face saying, “I’m glad you arrived today, she’ll be so happy to see her grandchildren and great grandchildren.”
With a quick command in the Midianite tongue, four of the younger men walked to the entrance of the closest tent and brought out my father’s mother on an ornately decorated pallet fashioned from two camel saddles. Oreb’s six younger wives followed behind the family matriarch who was so frail that she seemed beyond age.
Draped in knitted black wool from head to toe, her hair, neck and shoulders were adorned in chains of silver and colored stones of amber, lapis and jade that set her apart from the other women of my family and clan. When the young men placed her pallet beneath the shade of the canopy, Oreb formally introduced all of his younger wives to us and with great deference announced his first wife’s name and title to the embassy, “…Bilqis, Baht bin Baht bin M’lakhim Saba Halivah.” Adonijah turned to Abiathar and asked, “Does he mean that her mother is from the Kingdom of Saba or that she is the granddaughter of the King of that land?”
My father explained to the principals of the embassy, “Bilqis is my mother’s name and she is the granddaughter of a King of Saba and Halivah, a proud lineage she has always impressed on every person of this family and clan.”
These ritual introductions continued until every member of the clan embraced each and every one of us. Our children were the favorites of the women and while the men and boys gathered around me and my sister, I could only smile when Bilqis laughed and clapped her hands as the children played at her feet. Abiathar and Adonijah held an informal council with Oreb and my father and the throng of Chieftains and Priests, and they gave instructions to our escort who busily set about preparing the gifts that King David sent for the leaders of Midian.
Clapping his hands Oreb announced that it was time to eat and without any instruction, the small crowd took their places beneath the canopy. My mother, Yael and Rebekah joined the Midianite women to serve their men drink and food. Seated in a circle with Oreb facing north opposite my frail grandmother, everyone seated themselves in an unspoken order: my father and I sat to the right of my grandfather, while Adonijah, Abiathar and Jesse sat on his left hand. Each chieftain and priest according to his age and rank sat around us and their sons and grandsons carried the roasted goats into the center of the circle and carved the meat while the women served bread and dates on silver platters. In addition to wine, the Midianites drank goats milk fermented with dates which had an almost sweet and nearly sour taste and felt smooth on the tongue.
The celebration lasted through the day into the night and in the course of feasting, music, dance and presentation of gifts, Bilqis took time to speak with and present a piece of silver from one of her many chains to each of the women of my family. When the full moon rose to meet the evening star, she sent my mother to bring me to her side where she took a small piece of silver from her chain and pressed it into my right hand. My father translated her words for she spoke only Midian and the language of Saba. “Heed me Sidon,” she whispered, “for this is the last thing I do. Place your left hand upon the silver in your right.”
I did as she asked and my father said, “Now return the silver to her right hand.”
Holding the silver between the palms of her hands she touched her thumbs to her forehead and began to speak. My father translated as she paused, “Your life has been blessed in many ways and you, like your father, have faith in service to the power of justice…”
“Little in your life has challenged that faith, to the contrary, your faith in justice has brought you power, wealth and prestige. You and your family enjoy the patronage of Kings, Priests and even Prophets. Such have been the blessings of the G_D of your father.”
“You have healthy children from a loving wife as well as loving parents and true friends who love you as well. They are all blessings from the Wife of G_D who is known to you through your mother. How can such a blessed and beloved young man know anything but love for his life?”
“You know that life is fragile. You have witnessed birth and death, but until this day you remain untouched by death. Today through me for the first time in your life you will feel the touch of death and it will begin to change you.”
“In coming years the touch of death will challenge you and your faith in justice. You will question all that you know and more than anything else, that will change you. Just as we women suffer with the birth of our children, you will suffer with death and how it changes your life.”
“As your faith is challenged, you will doubt yourself and you will feel hopeless, alone and lost. As much as your patrons, family and friends try to protect and comfort you, betrayal and injustice obscure your path until you are exhausted, blinded and stumbling on the edge of the abyss. It is there that you will find yourself reflected in the eyes of a child and only then will you understand your purpose. At that moment you will recognize the man you have become.”
“None can know the future, and if we could, there is little we could do to change how it unfolds. We are at the mercy of time and memory. Long after we are gone and returned to dust, we are forgotten and all that remains of us are those who knew us and those who descend from us and however they may remember what we have done.”
“This is the way of life and death and we cannot know how we will be remembered. Without knowledge we can only doubt or hope. In doubt we suffer, while with hope we may find some solace in faith. This is our struggle. Without doubt, suffering and hope there can be no faith. Without faith and hope we are lost in life, death and memory. Lost we have no future and we are no different than wild beasts.”
Bilqis lowered her hands and placed the silver in my hands, and my father said, “Keep this and remember your grandmother.”
When we returned to the feast circle, my father spoke with Oreb who in turn spoke to four young men who carried Bilqis to the entrance of her tent. Oreb’s wives and daughters started to follow but with a wave of his hand and a hissing whisper Oreb made them stay with the feast. The music and dancing continued along with wine and song and stories of the history of the clan until the Eastern edge of the night sky turned dark blue and then purple and pink. My father pointed to the Morning Star and spoke to Oreb, who clapped his hands and said, “Our guests must attend to their morning prayers and we must prepare the pyre for Bilqis.”
With that everyone got to their feet and as the men of Israel walked east to pray, Oreb’s clansmen built a funeral pyre while their women prepared the body of the matriarch and distributed her clothes and jewelry in accordance with the instructions of her bequest. As we returned from our prayer I looked down upon the encampment and imagined how it would appear after we all went our ways: Windblown sand would partially fill the fire pits that roasted the goats for the feast. The remains of the pyre would be a grey smear of ash over the sand and in a week or so nothing evident would remain that we had ever gathered here. The only testimony of our presence and the death of my grandmother would be our memory of that day and night.
My father and I walked along the beach and gathered driftwood to make our contribution to the pyre. Because Oreb’s clan constantly moved throughout this sparse landscape to bring their herds to fresh pasture, their funeral custom was the pyre followed by the transportation of the bones to a prescribed burial ground. In the case of Bilqis, Baht bin Baht bin M’lakhim Saba Halivah, the four young men who carried her pallet would carry her bones south for nearly three months to the home of her royal family in the Kingdom of Saba. I wondered if, when they returned after their half year’s journey, they might find anything in this place to remind them of this morning.
As the flames and smoke dwindled, I set down a record this reunion and the words of my father and his mother. My recall of the spoken word had grown acute over my years of service to King David but it still did not compare to my father’s extraordinary memory. When I finished writing I read my words to him and noted the necessary corrections. I was concentrating on my notations when I felt his hand touch my hair. “I wish,” he said, “that I could be with you when find yourself in the eyes of that child.”
“You will be father, whatever happens you will always be with me. You and mother and Abiathar, Hushai, Uzal, Deborah, Joab and King David are all with me in my heart and mind and I am who I am because of you.”
“Today you are that man, but when you lose us I wonder how you will come to know the man who emerges from loss and suffering. Until today I have never known the loss of anyone who I loved. When my mother told me that she was dying she said that she was at peace with her life. That it was her time to pass on, that I should not mourn her passing but keep her in my heart and celebrate her memory,” my father said, “Her last wish was to live long enough to see all of her grandchildren and great grandchildren and I felt so happy and blessed to watch her laugh and smile with them playing at her knee. For that memory I will be grateful to G_d until the day I die.”
I wrote down his words and added a passage of verse and then I read it to him: “…long after the flames consume her flesh and the winds spread her ashes, and the sons of her sons gather her blackened bones to carry them back to her family, this great woman will be remembered for her smile and her laughter and how she clapped her hands with delight at the play of her great grandchildren on the day she died…”
“These memories are the true legacy of Bilqis, Baht bin Baht bin M’lakhim Saba Halivah, whose noble blood flows in hearts of our family. Her smile and laughter are gifts we will cherish until the day we die, and we can only pray that we too can pass on such a legacy to our children and grandchildren.”
Tears flowed over my father’s cheeks as he knelt next to me, put his arms around me and whispered, “Thank you.”
We held each other for a moment and then he stood and said, “We should prepare to leave, bid farewell to my father and the clan. You are needed in Jerusalem and I am needed by the people.”
As I put my pen and scroll away I prayed, “G_D has blessed us with this day and we thank Him. G_D has blessed us with this life and we thank Him. G_D has blessed us with each other and we thank Him. As the L_RD is our shepherd we shall not want, for blessed is the Name of the L_RD and blessed are His children and the Nation of Israel.”
My father smiled and said, “Amen.”
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