Bathsheba sends a messenger to the king when she finds she has conceived, not too long after his last summons. It is the only thing she can think to do. Her husband Uriah is no fool, and he has been on the battlefield for months now.
Within the hour she hears a knock at the door, and opens it, relieved. But the figure at the door is not King David, nor is it one of his servants sent to take her to him. The figure unwraps the shawl from her head, and Bathsheba gasps. It is Abigail, the king's third wife. The one who was said to be the most beautiful of his wives when she was young; the one who is said to be the wisest. Abigail is perhaps twenty years older than Bathsheba, with a grown son and daughter, but her face still has a classic beauty that is instantly recognizable.
"I do not have much time," Abigail says swiftly. "It was luck that I intercepted your messenger. Bathsheba, let me help you."
"What is your counsel?" Bathsheba asks, eyes narrowed. She cannot forget that this woman has also been in David's bed, and has borne David's children. And Abigail is famous for having talked David out of killing her former husband and his servants. Bathsheba silently resolves not to let Abigail convince her of anything she does not want.
"My first counsel," Abigail says, "is to tell your husband what has happened. The king commanded; Uriah is a soldier of the king; he of all men will understand."
It is all very well for Abigail to say that, but Bathsheba herself does not know that Uriah, who loves her, but who is so careful and scrupulous himself in obeying all the commandments and laws, will understand. Bathsheba stands still, without speaking.
Abigail sighs. "Very well. Hear my second counsel. Joab, the commander of David's army, can arrange for your husband to be away from you while you are pregnant, perhaps sending him to a distant land during that time. Uriah is obedient; he will obey and not question the order. You will sequester yourself in the house, claiming sickness, and I will do the same, claiming David has got me with child. When your time comes, I will take the child and raise him as my own son."
"You will take my child," Bathsheba repeats.
"Yes," Abigail says gently. "I know it is hard. I know. But this way is the safest. I know that David can be overwhelming; you need never see him again, if you wish. You may stay married to Uriah, and you will have other children to love."
Bathsheba says slowly, "I love my husband. But to give up my child -- I will not do that." She does not say, I cannot give up King David's child. A child who may be an heir to Israel.
Abigail sinks down and bows her head to the ground. Bathsheba is shocked at the sight of the king's wife kneeling before her. "Bathsheba. I beg you. For your child's sake. And for your husband's. I fear greatly for them."
Bathsheba shakes her head, and shakes it again. "Not my child. No. All Israel knows of you, Abigail mother of Daniel. Only one son for the king, after all these years, and that son lately departed to a distant land, no longer in line for the kingship. You are jealous, because I shall have the king's child, and your son is gone far away. I love my child too much to give him up to you. He shall not leave me, as your son left you."
Abigail closes her eyes, and Bathsheba knows the shaft has gone home. Then she is a little frightened by her daring, in mocking the king's wife. She braces herself for -- what? -- but the only thing that happens is that Abigail opens her eyes again and rises. "So be it," she says quietly. "I shall take my leave of you. Please tell me, should you wish to do this thing."
As soon as Abigail departs, Bathsheba sends another messenger to the king, promising the servant double wages if he runs. This message will not be intercepted, not by Abigail.
That evening David comes to Bathsheba. "My love," he says, "my dove, my lily, my beautiful one. Do not worry. Do not fear, do not doubt. All will yet be well." Bathsheba clings to him. David will take care of her. David will save her.
And so she trusts in the king. And her trust is repaid. The issue of the baby's father becomes irrelevant, in any case, when Uriah heroically and tragically dies in battle, in the most heated part of it, somehow separated from the comrades who might otherwise have saved his life.
And David is there, comforting her. He holds her while she mourns her dead husband, who had loved her, who had only ever wanted the best for her, who had walked before the LORD in righteousness and uprightness of heart always. Whom she had loved, though she did not realize how much until he was gone.
When her mourning period is over, David is still there, and carries her off to be his wife. One of his wives. But she is the beloved one, the one that he visits every night.
The baby is born. It is a boy. She thinks she has never loved anything as much as she loves this tiny infant, his little perfect fingers, his long eyelashes, the small cooing cries he makes, the greedy way he roots at her breasts for milk. She calls him Shimea, Listen, and sings to him as he nestles against her. She is glad she did not give up her baby to Abigail; she does not have Uriah, but now she has both David and Shimea.
Two months later, her baby takes sick. David spends hours publicly fasting and weeping. The king's other wives cluck over her. Even Michal, David's childless first wife, unbends from her usual haughtiness to offer a few words of sympathy. Ahinoam, the mother of David's oldest son, brings ointments and salves. Maacah, David's fourth wife, speaks sweetly to Bathsheba and brings herbal mixtures for the baby to drink; her son Absalom, a handsome young man, brings Bathsheba bread and roasted grain, presenting them with flowery speeches in his beautifully modulated voice. Abigail brings rich blankets to keep the baby warm and fig cakes for Bathsheba to eat, and twice she asks whether she may take Shimea and minister to him in order that Bathsheba may rest. Remembering their conversation in Uriah's house, Bathsheba refuses, and Abigail does not ask again.
Shimea dies. Bathsheba is devastated. Her firstborn child, so small, so innocent. David understands her sadness; he is a rock, a tower of support, not mourning outwardly but holding her while she weeps. He comes to her bed every night, comforts her. And she is safe, in his arms.
And soon enough another child will be be born.
Abigail has been unfailingly courteous to Bathsheba the whole time Bathsheba has been David's wife, but for the year since Shimea's death the older woman has not sought out Bathsheba's company, and Bathsheba is surprised when Abigail enters her chambers. "I see you are near your time," Abigail says.
"Yes," Bathsheba says proudly. "If all goes well, the child will be born in less than a month."
Abigail says, "I would gladly assist you with the birth."
"That will not be necessary," Bathsheba responds, smiling. "I had no trouble with the previous birthing, though it was my first, and I do not expect this one to give me more trouble."
"As you wish," Abigail says. Her dark eyes study Bathsheba. Bathsheba almost thinks Abigail has a worried look on her face. "I would speak, if you would hear my words."
Bathsheba bows her head. "Your servant." She is learning, too, not least from watching Abigail, how to comport herself as the king's wife.
Abigail nods. "I ask pardon for what I should have seen; I have lately learned -- " She grimaces. "No matter. I would advise that the princess Maacah is not a fit companion on the day the baby is born."
It is not bad counsel, Bathsheba thinks. Maacah and Bathsheba often exchange confidences, their friendship having grown since Shimea's death, but Bathsheba has seen her scream at her son Absalom, and seen her strike David's younger children for minor offenses, and Abigail too must have learned of that. And Maacah never offered to so much as hold Shimea; it is reasonable that Maacah will be little help with a newborn squalling child.
"I will remember," Bathsheba says kindly, and takes her leave of Abigail.
And Bathsheba thinks, now we both have one son who has left us, but I -- I shall have another, and I have the king in my bed. I shall triumph over you, Abigail.
That evening, as Bathsheba is returning to her chambers, she hears women's voices, raised in anger, with an unaccustomed wild note to them. She hesitates, unsure of what to do, and in that moment she sees Michal, sweeping past her. "Come with me," David's first wife snaps imperiously, continuing on her path towards the voices without glancing back to see if Bathsheba is coming.
Bathsheba hurries behind her. "What has happened?" she asks.
"Maacah's son Absalom has killed Ahinoam's son Amnon," Michal returns bleakly, walking faster.
Ahinoam and Maacah are in Ahinoam's chambers, crying and shouting accusations at each other. Abigail is there already, keeping the two shrieking women apart with her slight body and murmuring in her low voice, though neither seems to listen. As Michal and Bathsheba enter, Abigail exchanges a look with Michal and flicks her eyes in Maacah's direction; Michal nods very slightly. Bathsheba finds herself and Michal flanking Maacah and leading her away, Michal's hand clamped on Maacah's shoulder, while Abigail stays with the wailing Ahinoam.
Maacah is still shaking with emotion as Michal and Bathsheba deposit her in her own chambers. "It was determined from the day Amnon violated my daughter Tamar," she spits. "My son swore then that Ahinoam's son would pay for what he had done."
"That was two years ago, and Tamar is long gone with Daniel," Michal says drily. "I suppose you will claim that Amnon's status of eldest son, and his position as Absalom's principal rival for the kingship once Daniel renounced his claim, had nothing to do with it."
Maacah flinches, but immediately rallies. She snarls, "And if it does? Who will hear you, daughter of Saul, mother of none, wife of David in name only?"
A mask comes over Michal's features, and she says coldly, "It is as you say. But Abigail is with Ahinoam now. I bid you remember this before you confront her again to gloat." She turns on her heel and leaves.
Bathsheba, not knowing what else to do, follows. After a moment Michal begins to speak under her breath; Bathsheba is unsure whether she is speaking to Bathsheba or to herself. "David must look to his own house and his own sons now; who can know how this will end? If Daniel had not departed -- that boy is the only one of David's sons who is not power-mad -- perhaps this latest tragedy would not have come to pass. But perhaps he would have been Absalom's target instead, and even Abigail could not have protected him. I cannot say she was wrong to encourage him to leave."
Michal continues, low and agitated, "But now Absalom is the eldest remaining son, and he is the most ambitious of all David's children. This is only the beginning. He will continue to make trouble. David should order Absalom's death; it will be the only way to be done with him, in the end."
At this last sentence, Bathsheba stops walking. "How can you say such a thing?" she cries. "David cannot put his own son to death!"
Michal stops as well, looking at her with a strange blend of pity and contempt. "Do you not understand the ways of a king, even after knowing what Absalom has done for the kingship's sake?" Michal says. "You do know how your husband Uriah died, do you not?"
"He died in battle," Bathsheba stammers. "A hero's death, they said, besieging the city Rabbah."
Michal blows out a breath. "A hero's death, indeed. And how do you think he came to be so near the city wall so as to procure that death, wife of David? How was it that Uriah, alone of his men, was in the most heated part of the battle? A childless, powerless wife of the king can still hear many things, and here is what I heard. David said to the commander of his armies, Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, that he may be struck down, and die. And when Joab sent word of his death: Do not let this matter trouble you, for the sword devours now one and then another."
Bathsheba's eyes widen in horror, but she manages to hold on to her control, though only by a hair; she has learned that much, at least, from watching Abigail and now Michal.
Michal says grimly, "And do you think the death of your child, right then, was a coincidence? You may have known the little one was David's, and David might have known, but all Israel does not know, and the boy would have been in line for the throne. Better to get rid of the problem entirely. And that business with Uriah. Better that all hints of . . . impropriety, on our beloved king's part, be done away with."
She sighs. "I do not know the truth. But the timing does seem extremely convenient. And suspicious, as well, that David did not mourn the baby at all, once it was gone. And there are certainly many mothers of a king's sons in this house, who would have enthusiastically volunteered to help, for the sake of furthering their sons' chances."
Bathsheba is utterly stricken. She cannot help herself; she lets out a small wail. Her firstborn child, her darling child she loved too much to give up to Abigail....
"It is the price of power," Michal says; her voice is harsh but not unkind. "A man's death here, a woman's life there, a child lost: they start to lose meaning, for a king."
She is not safe. She never has been.
She tells herself that she does not even know whether Michal has spoken the truth. But she knows.
She thinks of Abigail's warning not to have Maacah with her when her child is born.
She had thought she was learning how to be a wife of the king. She now understands that she does not understand anything.
When she goes into labor, she refuses to have anyone with her but Uriah's old servants. She welcomes the pain, for it means that for minutes at a time she cannot think about Uriah and her firstborn. The new baby is another boy. She finds she loves him even more, if it is possible, than she loved her Shimea, with an edge of grief to her love. When he smiles at her for the first time, she thinks her heart will shatter with the joy of it.
David shows great excitement over his new son. Bathsheba cannot help but notice that he displays much more emotion about this son than about their previous child. He swears to her by the LORD, the God of Israel, that this child, if he lives, will be king after him. If he lives. Of David's sons, Amnon is dead, and Daniel is gone, and Absalom is exiled; and Shimea is dead. Uriah is dead. How many others will die? How will her poor defenseless baby live, when his mother does not know how to navigate the politics she has blundered into? When she has caused the death of her husband? Of her first baby?
She knows what she has to do. She will suffer, but her child will be safe. Will thrive. May, even, become king.
She goes to find Abigail, her baby swaddled and warm against her. Abigail is gathering supplies for making bread, but turns when she sees Bathsheba. "Ah, Bathsheba," Abigail says, composed as always, and Bathsheba hates the other woman's equanimity for a minute before she pushes the feeling down. "I am glad to see that you and the child are well."
Bathsheba places her son in Abigail's arms. Abigail's arms instinctively curve around the child, and she rocks him back and forth. Bathsheba feels an emptiness in her own arms and tries to ignore it.
"Abigail," she says. "Here is my baby, my son, whom I love, the only living child of my body. I cannot teach him the things he needs to know."
Abigail watches her, continuing to rock the child, but says nothing.
Bathsheba takes a deep breath. "I ignored you, before, when you had the wisdom that would have saved my husband Uriah's life, and perhaps my firstborn's. You have only ever offered me friendship, and I have repaid it with scorn." She bows her head. "I know you can protect my child. I know you can teach him what he needs to know."
Bathsheba kneels at Abigail's feet. It is the first time Bathsheba has ever seen Abigail surprised. Bathsheba blinks away the tears in her eyes as she says steadily, "Abigail, do you take this boy to be his mother, and I his wet-nurse only. Take this child to be your own, to raise as your own son. In the name of the LORD --"
"No," Abigail says quickly, before Bathsheba can complete the oath. She crouches down to where Bathsheba is kneeling, places the baby back into Bathsheba's arms, and shakes her head, as if she is trying to convince herself. "No," Abigail says again, cupping her hand around the infant's soft cheek, and in that moment Bathsheba knows how much the older woman must have been tempted.
Abigail says softly, "Now I know what great love you bear for your son, that you would not withold him from me, that you loved him enough to let him go. But I will not be his mother, and he will not be my son. I will be his protector, and his guide, and I will teach him what he must know to be David's heir. But you, not I, will be his mother, all the days of his life."
The tears stream down Bathsheba's cheeks. "I thank you," she manages to say. "I thank you for my son."
Abigail embraces Bathsheba and strokes her hair, as if Bathsheba were a child. "Oh, my sweet sister, you must not thank me," Abigail murmurs, with a deep sorrow in her voice that Bathsheba does not understand. "Yes, I will not raise Solomon as my son. I will raise him to be a king."