Afterwards, we sit in the ruins of the temple gardens. The wild ducks who fly north every summer have returned and whether they are surprised or not by what has come upon the city in their absence, by the ruins and the smell of death, they’ve settled back on the grounds around the ornamental lake. They nibble the dead grass along the paths, quacking softly, as if content with such small things.
Herod follows them with his eyes. To his mind they’re not ducks but white peacocks, shining and pure, with jeweled collars and crimson feet and terrible cries which bring rain down from the clouds.
It had seemed a wonderful joke, at first. That my mother, who wore too much make-up and was silly in a way that could only have been attractive when she was much younger, should marry such a man as Herod! My mother, that they should fight a war over her! It was exquisite. Herod was much too young for her and not the type to be soothed by a woman who liked to talk about why mangoes don’t taste the same anymore and how hot the summers were now and how much she enjoyed her last trip to Egypt. (Eleven years ago, and in every one of those eleven years I’d had to hear about the temple crocodiles and the Nubian boys riding donkeys.)
One day I said to Herod: “Why don’t you send her to Egypt again – for a long time?”
He just smiled and stretched out and asked me to dance for him again.
He had gray eyes and curling hair and he never spoke his thoughts. He’d had people killed, but then so had my father. It takes some nerve to point to a man, any man, and say, kill him – but after all that’s what having royal blood means.
It was another joke to call what I did dancing. I’d tuck up my robes so they wouldn’t catch my feet and hop around, twirling and clapping my hands. Once I saw one of the dancing girls – the real ones, who entertained at banquets – watching me and laughing out loud. But Herod didn’t mind. He’d watch my bare feet kicking the dust up and smile lazily, ignoring my mother and the fact that everyone else was bored already.
How should I know what I wanted? Staring off into the air he’d list things – things he’d had once maybe, or things he thought we ought to have, if our luck turned. Dishes shaped like cranes and fish; painted bowls that turned your hands blood-red while you washed them; salt from distant lands, less brittle than our local salt, with the taste of the sea and tints of purple; little potted trees, that we might plant and see if they would thrive; the bones of ancient giants – collecting such things was a craze in Rome; tiny grains of rice, with all the wisdom of the world written on them by blind men. Also jewels, of course – but after Mama no one could be impressed with jewels – and every kind of clothing and scent and headdresses.
Herod believed in these things. If I’d named just one, he’d have found a way to manage it.
Around that time a fad took the court for a new kind of drum that had been invented to the south, in the marshlands. It was a tiny thing, stretched with ostrich skin, but played right anyone could dance to it, they said. I found this to be true. Somehow I could catch the rhythm and then I hardly knew the hours passed, even as drummer after drummer stumbled away with swollen hands.
I wanted no more than to dance for the sun, outside, in the morning and again in the evening.
Now I like the city. I like the streets in the evening, when people come out to walk and boys and girls look at each other as they go by. But in those days I never went into the streets of the city. It wasn’t permitted. So I don’t know where the prophet came from. His name was John, and I believe he was arrested first for sleeping in the streets. Later they said he had insulted Mama, but I never believed that. Any real prophet could have seen that she wasn’t worth it.
I thought maybe the real reason was that he wanted to be arrested, to get inside the palace and see what we looked like.
I laughed every time he opened his mouth. No one ever wore clothes, it was always “raiment.” Every snake was a “viper.” When it thundered he foretold the future from it. He was scared of all birds but particularly the tame ducks and would circle away, muttering incantations, if one came near him.
Herod thought he must be very holy.
You see what I mean? If I’d chosen anything off that list perhaps Herod wouldn’t have wanted to keep the prophet. Now at last he had something worthy of the glory of our court. A holy man – a seer – who shook his fists and called down the wrath of heaven, who spoke in riddles, who bathed in the ornamental lake more often than any normal person would have thought necessary.
Perhaps the prophet would have liked me more if I’d bathed more. Perhaps he’d have noticed me if my feet weren’t dusty and my hair didn’t hang in rat-tails after I’d been dancing. It’s well-known that prophets don’t understand women unless they’re beautiful.
He was in the ornamental lake and I thought he wouldn’t come out because of my presence. But he did. He strode out without shivering, water running from his long hair. His body was brown and twisted, his legs like the legs of the beggars and cripples outside the temple. I had to shut my eyes. It was terrible to think of such a twisted body being permitted in Herod’s presence.
I knew then what I wanted.
“Why not myrrh?” Herod said. “I can get you myrrh anytime.”
We hadn’t had myrrh in months, truly.
“A water clock,” he said. “A white rabbit with pink eyes. A room full of finches.”
After that when Herod saw me coming he would turn aside. Even at dinner he ignored me. So I waited, and when Mama came back from Caesarea I asked again.
“But what do you have against this man?”
“A dead holy man is worth more than a live one,” I said. “People will come to see where he died. They might build a shrine and leave offerings.”
“Ha!” Mama muttered. “Nothing of value. Just flowers and such.”
“But if I put him to death…” Herod said, making a face.
“Besides,” I told them, “I think the holy man is unhappy. I think he’s going to run away.”
At this Herod jabbed his spoon into the air. “If he runs away, I’ll have him brought right back.”
I looked over at Mama. “And when I dance the holy man looks up at the ceiling, just like those philosophers from Rome used to, Mama, at father’s court, when they came to visit and laughed at us.”
“What a memory you have!” Mama said.
“Ah, I see it now,” Herod said. “Spiteful!”
Let him think that. Sooner or later the prophet would run away. Already he sighed in the mornings, by the lake.
“Has it been enough?” he would say. “I called out to them, I called them, I warned them… Is it my fault if…? What was I supposed to do, then? Wasn’t it enough?”
He was looking at me but not looking at me. I danced away from him and turned a flip or two.
“You’ll never get what you want,” I said. “But I will.”
Then his eyes, gold-brown, his thick eyebrows with their coarse strands of white hair here and there, rested on me, as if he’d never seen me before.
“Why, what could you want, child?”
What could I want? Better to ask, what could I have? All those things Herod had spoken of bringing me, and yet I knew if he moved heaven and earth he might only produce a droopy yellow-white peahen to peck in the gardens, or a single bowl or bag of salt, to be given to the care of the servants. And in time I would forget about them, or the peahen would die, and there would always be something else, a new craze from Rome, perhaps, a new drum, a new dance.
But the head of a prophet, a holy man…
It would cost us nothing and no one else would ever have one. I knew it would please Herod, to be able to give me a gift like that.
They used the last silver tray, the one we always passed after dinner, with nuts piled on it. The neck part was horrible, so I didn’t look at it. The eyes were open. They looked like my father’s eyes, after he was stabbed.
It wasn’t that different from the way I had imagined it. Still, I understood at once that it would be impractical to put the prophet’s head on display. I ordered the servants to preserve it in brine and place it in a storeroom. Perhaps in time I’d know what to do with it.
But the next week another one of my uncles declared war on Herod and brought Roman legions with him. Mama and I went to the seashore, until Herod signed a peace treaty. Then we didn’t have the countryside anymore, just the city, and the city was in ruins.
The Romans had destroyed the palace and the temple gardens. The city was empty, for the citizens had been sold as slaves, but gradually those who fled came back. The servants who’d hidden and survived said that some of the other servants had taken the prophet’s head and buried it in the gardens. They thought it would protect them from the Romans. I made them dig for days but they said they couldn’t find the spot again.
Later I thought that maybe they were lying. Maybe the Romans had taken my prophet’s head. They took my little drum, after all, and, tell me, what would those big Roman soldiers want with a little drum like that?
So I lost the prophet’s head, before I even knew what I wanted to do with it.
Herod tells me I’ll marry his son. I’ll be Queen of Armenia and I’ll have peacocks and myrrh and golden lyres and all the horses in my stables will be shod with silver horseshoes.
But I want what I’ve always wanted. Nothing more than to dance for the sun, outside, in the morning and the evening.
LAURA CANON lives in Henderson, Nevada and writes historical fiction, primarily young adult. She has been previously published in The Waterhouse Review.