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A Song of Ascents, III

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After Ishba'al had been killed by his captains and David had come forth from Judah to seize the kingship of Israel, the women of Saul's household stood in silence and grief as their new lord looked them over.

"I'll take you to Hebron," he said at last, the Judean accent stronger than ever, as though he had cultivated it in the years since they had last seen him. "I'll think what to do with you there. Don't fear, I'll treat you decently; is that not the mother of my dear friend?" He grinned at Ahinoam, breaking into full laughter as he strode back into the public rooms.

"Sheep fucker," Ahinoam said, and all her women flinched to hear her speak so vulgarly. "Let us pack."

In Hebron they were crammed into a small house and, it seemed forgotten, for which they were all grateful. David held sacrifices of thanksgiving to the Lord Yahveh, and the Judean maidservants assigned to care for Saul's kinswomen and their children took pleasure in recounting the number of sheep slaughtered and how the town smelt of blood and roast meat. For years they lived quiet, dusty lives, even when David took the great city of Jerusalem by his wiles, but then David remembered them, and they wept once more.

David's new hall was wide and spacious enough for all the warriors crowded into it. Rizpah held tight to her sons' hands as she followed Ahinoam and Meribba'al's slow progress towards David's chair. Beside her walked the elder daughter of Saul, Merab, new taken from her husband, her five sons arrayed about her, trying to shield her from other mens' sight. They bore the signs of combat, their faces bruised and battered. Beside Ahinoam, her back straight and her face set in calm hatred, walked Michal, younger daughter of Saul and David's wife. She had, Rizpah saw, a black eye. Perhaps the king had visited her in the night.

They all stopped a respectful distance from the throne, and lowered themselves in the dust, Meribba'al being helped by his grandmother and aunts. When they stood again, David was looking at them with grim satisfaction, as if the solution to a problem had at last presented itself.

"Yaush ben Elika, stand forth," David said. A man of middle years stood out from the crowd, glancing once at the group of Saul's kin and then away. "You come from Gibeon, and have an oracle for me regarding the famine that is in the land?"

"Yes, lord king," Yaush said. He looked at Saul's kin again and then fixed his gaze upon David. "A prophet told the elders of Gibeon that surely this famine is because of Saul's past mistreatment of my people."

"I am wealthy," David said. "What compensation do you ask?"

"Neither Saul's house nor you can recompense us with silver or gold," Yaush said, and licked his lips nervously before adding, "neither is it for us to put any man to death in Israel."

David nodded solemnly. "What would you have me do?"

"Give us seven men of Saul's house –"

"No!" Ahinoam cried.

"Seven men, and permit us to hang them up before the Lord Yahveh at the sanctuary at Gibeon. Alive, until the Lord Yahveh himself take them, and they die."

"I permit it," David said as Ahinoam tore her veil and Michal cursed his name, while Merab and Rizpah tried to hide their grown sons behind them. "Meribba'al the son of my great friend Jonathan I will not give you, because of the oath I and his father swore together. Take these others – Joab, have your men take these sons of the house of Saul to Gibeon."

"Lord David," Joab said, and signalled to the warriors clustered around the hall.

The women screamed as the sons of Merab and Rizpah were torn from them, Joab snorting with contemptuous laughter as Meribba'al tried to interpose himself to save his cousins.

"Move, cripple," he said, pushing him, and Meribba'al staggered aside to be caught by his kinswomen.

When Rizpah could see through the crowd again, her sons were gone.

* * *

No one paid attention to a lone woman leaving the gate of the city, barefoot and with a basket on her head. She might be any peasant, but that under her tunic she had all the gold still possessed by the women of Saul's household, tied into a belt. Surely, away from David's eyes, the lives of the young men of the household could be bought.

Rizpah looked up at the sun and turned north, hurrying up the Way of Shur, hoping that she would reach Gibeon in time. By the time the sun was high she was exhausted and her feet hurt, and when a woman looked down from a cart on the road ahead she raised her hands beseechingly.

"Please, I must go to Gibeon – I am tired and I must not stop."

"You're from the northern hill country, I can tell by your speech," the woman said, as her husband looked steadily ahead. "Why are you coming on the road from Jerusalem?"

"Your speech is similar," Rizpah replied. "If my eyes never fell on Jerusalem again I would die happy."

The woman nodded, then said, "Husband, move over."

Gasping with relief, Rizpah hurried to be pulled up onto the cart.

She was too late.

Rizpah stood, tearing the hair from her head at the sight of Armoni and Mephiba'al her sons, and the five sons of Merab, hanging by their heels outside the sanctuary at Gibeon. They had not been left to die, but had had their throats cut.

"I curse you, David ben Jesse," she screamed, "May the sword never leave your house! May your children devour one another! As the Lord Yahveh lives, I proclaim you a coward, afraid of those with no claim on Saul's throne, afraid of women and boys with broken legs! The shades of Saul ben Kish and Abner ben Ner are still better men than you, though they eat dust in Sheol!"

The priests came out to wave their hands at her and the gathering crowd.

"Are you mad, woman?" one of them cried. "David's men are everywhere! Be quiet!"

"I curse you Gibeonites!" Rizpah screamed. "Traitors to Saul, murderers!" She advanced on the priests. "If you want silence," she said, "take down these men and send their bodies to Saul's last kin in Gibeah for burial."

"The king wants them left to rot," another priest said, backing away from her fury. "They are not to be buried."

"I will have justice," Rizpah said, and turned her back on them all, fixing her eyes on the bodies of her sons and their cousins.

* * *

Throughout the heat of the days and the cold of the nights she sat by the gibbet, keeping away the crows and the lizards, the creeping things and the jackals. She spread out her veil over her for a shade in the heat of the sun, and to keep the wind from her by night. The great people of Gibeon kept their distance, for if they came close she recounted the crimes of David for them to hear. The mothers of Gibeon, however, crept to her side and left bread and water for her, and held her when she could not help but weep.

After four days she no longer noticed the smell of the corpses. After the first new moon she found she had no more fear of the creatures of the field that crept about the gibbet. After the second new moon, even the servants of the sanctuary avoided her, for her appearance struck fear into all who had not gainsaid the king. I am become a cry unto the Lord Yahveh, she thought, and charged, snarling, at a jackal that grew too bold.

After the third new moon she saw finely dressed men come up the road more and more often, to stand downwind and stare at her. She saw their bright-dyed cloaks, and their donkeys led by servants; she felt that she had something to say to them, but could not remember the words any more. More and more men came to stare, and well-dressed women too. The women came closer, and wailed with her, before leaving food as carefully prepared as if they left offerings for the Queen of Heaven.

After five moons had passed, Joab ben Zeruiah strode up the hill followed by his men. He looked her up and down, then waved the men forwards.

"Take the bodies down for burial." He bent close to her. "Be silent now, woman. You get what you wanted. As the Lord Yahveh lives, I regret the Philistines didn't get to Gibeah a little quicker to kill you all."

Rizpah looked at him and knew she hated him, though she could no longer remember his name. She moaned when they took down the stinking bodies that no longer resembled men, but the warriors handled the bones and scraps of flesh gently, wrapping them in linen and placing them in wooden boxes scented with camphor to hide the smell. Joab seized her arm and shook her to gain her attention.

"You come with us. Know that I counselled that word should be given out that you attempted to flee on the journey to Jerusalem and that you fell and broke your neck. If you give but a moment's trouble, woman, that is what will happen. Do you understand?"

Rizpah looked at him, trying to remember the words of men. "I am a cry unto the Lord Yahveh," she said at last, in a voice that forced itself from her throat and out of her mouth like hot dust trickling down an empty road. "My noise is too great to vanish."

"Your stink is too great," Joab said viciously, then, louder, to the men, "Put the Lady Rizpah on a donkey. We're going."

* * *

"Rizpah bath Aiah, you have shamed your father's house," David said, stretching his legs before him. The inner chamber was cool and calm, the colours on the plaster pleasing to the eye. No great crowd could come before the king in this chamber, only those whom he wished to see. Rizpah kept her head up, feeling still the harsh heat of the sun, the cold wind at night, hearing only the cries of crows and kites, the whines of jackals.

"It is not my father's house I have shamed," she said, feeling the words burn their way out from her lips like hot gravel while she herself stood silent behind her eyes, watching the distant world of men.

David frowned, looking aside at Joab who lifted his hands in a way that seemed to say, You know my counsel. The king leant forwards peering at her.

"You should not have run away. It is clear to me that you were deranged by grief; no one need fear the words of a madwoman. I will have that made known."

"The Lord Yahveh grants me justice."

David sighed in annoyance, as if he could not see that every word was fire, crackling in the air. "The Lord Yahveh need not be concerned with the ravings of a madwoman, or the fate of the by-blows of Saul ben Kish."

"And yet their bodies are buried," Rizpah said, the words building to a great flame in her mouth. "And are not Saul and Jonathan's bones brought from Jabesh-gilead to a more fitting burial?"

David blinked, and sat further back, as if edging away from a furnace. "Who told – no matter, it will be told forth to all soon enough. I gave those orders out of charity. And I spare your poor life from charity also. You are from a humble family, I give you leave to serve your mistress as a maidservant." He looked towards the corner of the room. "Ahinoam, take your maidservant and withdraw."

Rizpah heard footsteps behind her, and then felt a hand on her shoulder.

"Your mercy to my family astounds me," Ahinoam's voice said, sounding dry and old. "Come, Rizpah. Do not fear, it is I who shall care for you. Let us leave this place."

"Show some respect to your king," Joab said.

"Is he not my daughter's husband and my son's great friend? May I not speak to him without formality?" Ahinoam said bitterly.

"As you wish, Mother," David said. "Go now. Neither of you shall come before me again. Joab, see that they reach their house in safety. I want to hear of no broken necks."

Joab mockingly showed them to the door. "I'll have you escorted home," he said. "Alive, more's the pity."

Rizpah looked him in the eye. "When you need it," she said, "you will have no sanctuary."

Joab took a half step back, as if caught unaware by a hot desert wind, then stood in silence, looking at her as if he had no more words to say. Rizpah felt the words of men return to her, all the words for the things she saw and heard, and none of them burnt in her mouth or throat any more. Her grief, though deep, no longer savaged her like the bite of the wild creatures of the field, or the terrible heat of the sun at mid-day. As she stepped outside, fat raindrops began to fall as if they had been waiting to greet her, starting to wash away the filth of her months apart.

She walked unsteadily with Ahinoam towards the little house set aside for their use. Justice she thought. She had received what she asked for, and more besides with her strange, strong knowledge that Saul and Jonathan would be properly buried. She made herself straighten her back. The Lord Yahveh's time was not as the time of men. She could wait to see her curses on David's house fulfilled if she waited for the rest of her life.

Rizpah's Kindness Unto The Dead, by Gustav Doré