Long ago, in the days of King David, the tribes of Israel were united as one nation. David’s son Solomon ascended the throne and built a temple for God and a palace for himself, both in Jerusalem. The tribes remained at peace with each other. But Solomon’s son Rehoboam had none of his father’s wisdom and vision. When he took the throne, the kingdom was immediately and bitterly divided. Ten tribes tore away to create the nation of Israel in the north. The tribes of Judah and Benjamin remained in the south. They became known as the House of David in the kingdom of Judah.
Over the years, war broke out many times between the kingdoms. The house of David had the prized temple, the focal point of the nations’ shared religion. The wealthy northern tribes of Israel built trade relations with the mighty Phoenicians by their King Ahab’s marriage to the Phoenician princess Jezebel. Both nations were surrounded by hostile armies, however, and at times rose up together in battle.
But the real war between all nations was an ideological one, for when the tribes of Israel had first taken the Promised Land, they were commanded by God to expunge all those who worshiped other gods. This they did not do, although they clung to their own religion, strange and new to other nations, a religion that claimed there was but one God who chose to remain unseen, who was angered by any representation of Himself in clay or gold. Like the hundreds of other gods in the land, He demanded sacrifices and worship. Unlike the others, He would share none of His power or glory, not even with gods and kings. He could install and remove rulers as He pleased, and to this end, He had promised the people that in Judah, a light from the house of David would always shine. The promise meant that a king descended from David would always reign. Future generations would understand this as a promise of the Messiah, a descendant of David who would save the people for eternity.
This God who made such extravagant promises was to be called Yahweh, the great “I Am.” He would let no one see His face, but He demanded all of their hearts. And yet He was a loving God, caring for anyone who sought refuge with Him. But as the house of David fell into complacency, assured by the promise of a covenant with this God who was like no other, a foreign woman slipped quietly onto the stage. She loved the old gods best and was bent on reclaiming glory for herself alone.
Her dark robe swept the floor behind her as the servants clung to the wall to avoid touching her. A pile of rejected amulets and broken clay goddesses lay outside a thick linen curtain.
“How long has she labored?” Athaliah demanded of a servant girl who would not look up. The wife of the future king noticed the girl trembling and felt a glow of satisfaction. The men in her husband’s court did not tremble — yet. An older servant stepped between Athaliah and the girl.
“My Royal One, I heard her first cry in the darkness of morning, in the third watch. She begs for a midwife who worships Yahweh. She refuses your healers.”
Athaliah stared at each servant and narrowed her eyes. “Leave us. If she refuses a healer, she shall not be healed. The people of Yahweh have despised my line; I will not suffer a new generation taught to bite and snap.”
The servants fled down the hall. Athaliah smiled to see their haste, then she swept back the heavy linens sheltering her enemy.
Miraiah was standing, grasping onto the edge of the window for support. Her pale face glistened and she grimaced as a contraction took her breath. A servant was motioning for her to be seated on the stone birthing stool. A plain, framed bed and a little table swept clean were the only furniture in the room. All the items brought by Athaliah’s priests had been tossed outside by Miraiah.
The servant pressed her hands together as if she were praying, then shook them at Miraiah. “You cannot stop the labor! This child is coming! You will not be attended by a midwife from your people! It is too late! Athaliah has won!”
“That snake! Would a man crush her like one!” Miraiah spat. She opened her mouth to take another great ragged breath and saw Athaliah. Athaliah watched fear seize Miraiah’s muscles as her mouth opened. The servant’s back, which was to Athaliah, stiffened, but she did not turn around.
“Athaliah is the wife who will be queen!” the servant said too loudly. “You are a lesser wife who will never rule. You’ve been at her throat since she got here!” The servant turned and feigned surprise. She bowed and scurried from the room. “Please call if you need anything, my Royal One.”
Athaliah let the servant pass and then approached Miraiah. Miraiah pressed her back against the wall.
“How naive men are,” Athaliah crooned, edging closer still, “thinking their many wives are content to live as sisters. Our secret lives would surely shock their gentle hearts, and yet you cry out for such a man to save you. What man has ever saved a woman who deserved to live, Miraiah? Show me your strength, my sister. Make me tremble at your fierce will to see this child born.”
Wailing incantations of an ashipu healer rose beyond the curtains. He pleaded with the underworld to cease the struggle and permit the child to be born.
“I would rather die alone in the sight of my God than submit to your sorceries,” Miraiah said.
“How strange you Hebrews are, giving such allegiance to an invisible God and refusing the assistance I offer.” Athaliah shook her head and settled herself on the edge of the bed. Miraiah exhaled and tried to move back to the support of the window ledge, but a contraction hit and she groaned.
“Be reasonable, my sister, and we will make our peace. For too long you have smeared my name among the other wives and poisoned my husband against me when you were in his bed. Now I have favor only in my son’s eyes. Let us make our peace in this room and perhaps, if your words find me in a forgiving mood, I will call a Hebrew midwife for you. We could even send for your mother, if she’s done in the market.”
Miraiah curled her hands into fists and lunged toward Athaliah, but a contraction caught her midstep. Falling to her knees, she pressed one hand beneath her belly and moaned. Athaliah grinned. “I’ll wait for your answer.”
An hour stretched on as Athaliah made herself comfortable on the bed, sampling the grapes left on a tray with a watery wine. She had never liked this birthing room and was thankful she had been here only one other time. The room was too plain, and old blood that could not be cleansed from the wood floorboards produced a musty smell. And in this room, the wives gave birth. No sound pierced her ears so terribly as that of a newborn male.
She took pleasure in seeing the pains break over Miraiah’s body in unrelenting waves. The Hebrew crawled a few feet in between contractions, trying to get to the stone birthing stool in the center of the room. A fever came upon her, slowing her progress, and she sprawled on the floor, gasping. Athaliah watched as her face grew hot and red and her head lolled from side to side between contractions. Blood came, but no child.
“When the child is born, I will withdraw my offer of peace,” Athaliah said as she examined her hands. Riddled with veins, they were the only feature she was not proud of. Her hair was thick and black like the midnight sea, her skin as clear and smooth as a river stone. She was a woman crafted by moon and tide; her body’s curves called out and receded in perfect proportion, and she followed the rise and fall of her flesh with admiring eyes. An air of perpetual dampness clung to her, as if she was never free from the waters that birthed her, as if they returned every hour to draw her back into the depths. Her eyes, however, were a perfect shade of green, the green of earth, not sea, the green that promises a lush spring bloom to those who were patient enough to see her secrets pried open.
She licked a ring on her finger and rubbed it vigorously against her robes, then held it to the light and examined it once more. “If it is a boy, I will call down curses on you both. I will depart and send no one in for you. We will see whose god is stronger then.”
Miraiah spoke a soft rush of words Athaliah could not understand. She swung herself off the bed and leaned closer to Miraiah, who was clinging to the birthing stool, her wet red face resting on the cool stone.
“Yes, speak once more,” Athaliah urged. “I may yet forgive.”
“My mothers, the mothers of Israel!” Miraiah strained. “Rachel, Sarah! You are beautiful. I will . . . I will cross to you. But no . . . I must do this. Do not go! Wait for me!”
Athaliah frowned and jerked her head back. She glanced at the door. Seeing no one, she wished now she had not sent all the servants away.
Miraiah’s outstretched hand tried to touch her vision, but with a cry she pulled her hand back and turned her face away, moving to all fours and roaring with each push.
“The child will be born in this world, not the next!” she gasped. Tears ran down her face, mixing with the spittle running from her mouth. The child came forth in a sudden rush of blood and fluid as Miraiah screamed. It took its first breath and let out a rattling cry.
Miraiah collapsed, laughing, turning onto her back and trying to pull the infant to her breast. Rivers of blood ran in all directions. Miraiah’s eyes fluttered as she lost her hold on the baby.
The Hebrew was going to die.
Athaliah realized her own body was trembling. She tried to steady herself and call a servant, but a living Presence moved into the room and silenced her. She watched as the hairs along her arms stood straight up, and the hairs unseen everywhere on her body raised as well. Her breath stopped and terror overwhelmed her; perhaps, if she looked out of the corner of her eye, she would see the God Miraiah had called. She bit her lip until blood flowed and forced herself to look, but there was nothing.
When she turned her head back, she screamed. Miraiah was standing, though there was no blood left in her body. Her arms were outstretched and she wore a strange smile. She seemed to see what stood next to Athaliah. She moved like a puppet, her lifeless body animated only a moment longer by her spirit, which was breaking free.
Miraiah’s head snapped to look at Athaliah, and Athaliah could see there was no life in the eyes any longer, yet something there saw her. She screamed again and stumbled backward. Something brushed against her arm as if to steady her and she screamed once more, swatting the air, climbing onto the bed.
“This child will be your doom.” Athaliah heard Miraiah’s voice, though her mouth did not move. “He is near.” The body collapsed into a pile. In that moment Athaliah thought she heard the sound of laughter, of distant sisters speaking a tongue she did not know.
The Presence was gone.
Athaliah shook and began to heave, vomiting over the side of the bed. The silence of the room was marked only by her ragged breath. She wiped her mouth and forced herself to look at Miraiah’s corpse.
“You died from the birth,” Athaliah said. “I did not cause this.” She could see the infant shaking, lying on its back in the cooling pool of blood. Miraiah’s hand had come to rest low on its stomach. No one would know it had been born alive.
Athaliah reached for it, her hands just like her mother’s. She saw her mother’s thick-veined hands, recalled the thousand nights her mother had reached for an infant just before its death at Asherah’s temple.
“I cannot.” She moaned and turned her face away.
It began to cry, and Athaliah heard a footstep outside the hall. Someone was creeping near. She looked from the entrance to the child, whose cries were growing louder and more indignant.
In a panic, she scooped up the child. Its cord was still attached, smeared with birthwax and blood. The placenta was stuck under Miraiah’s body. Athaliah lowered herself to the floor, trying not to touch Miraiah’s body, kicking at it with one foot as she held the squirming infant.
“I need a servant! Quickly! Help us!” she screamed.
The linens swept aside at once and Miraiah’s loyal servant ntered. She looked at her mistress lying dead and Athaliah clutching the infant.
“The stupid woman refused all offers of assistance,” Athaliah said. “I stayed with her but could be of no help. She lost too much blood. Call a nursemaid for the child.”
The servant ran from the room and Athaliah could hear her shouting to the other servants for help.
Her mind raced but could find no way that Miraiah’s death would harm her claim to the throne. If Athaliah told the tale well, would she not be the heroine of the story? Could she not benefit from this turn of events? This wet infant, its tiny eyes now squeezed shut and hands curled into the weakest of fists, was no threat. Not now. It could be dealt with later.
A nursemaid entered, followed by two of Miraiah’s servants peering over the nursemaid’s shoulder to see if their beloved mistress was really dead. Athaliah looked at the three faces, then handed the baby to the nurse, wanting them all to see how grateful she was to wipe the sad tears from her eyes at last. The nursemaid took the baby and scooped up its placenta, turning her back to Athaliah. She dipped a cloth in the basin of water in the room and she began wiping the blood and yellow waxen coating from the child. She tended to the cord and then removed a bag of salt and rubbed the baby with it as it cried.
“We both knew she was dying, but she didn’t want any help. She said she was ready for death, glad to be free of a husband she despised. I swore then to love this child as my own. In this way we two women at last made our peace,” Athaliah said.
The servants’ chins trembled, and Athaliah had to swallow back her smile as tears welled in their eyes. They had all loved Miraiah. The nursemaid turned back now, uncovering her breast to let the child nurse.
In this calm moment, Athaliah understood it was a girl. She laughed; she couldn’t help it. She covered her mouth with her hands and tried to keep her shoulders from shaking as she willed herself to stop.
She knew Miraiah’s maids were staring at her, condemnation in their expressions overcoming their shock. She swallowed hard and spoke.
“I’m sorry. The grief was simply too much for me for a moment and I lost myself. It hit me, all at once, that Miraiah is dead and I have another child I must raise.”
The servant girls nodded, looking at each other once and then away from her, and they began to move, calling for men to carry the corpse away and arguing under their breath about which one would clean the blood. The nursemaid watched them all but did not speak.
Athaliah held up her hand. “Do not clean the blood yet. Call Jagur to me.”
No one moved.
“Do not be afraid,” Athaliah said. The servant closest to the door called the hated name down the dark passageway. Each remained still, even when they heard the weight of his feet pound the cedar planks of the hall and the terrible sound of iron against iron as his dagger swept against his sword, both worn over his back in a leather brace.
His hair was black, slicked back across his head but ending in long curls down his back. Swollen veins ran between taut rises of muscle and sinew. His eyes were rimmed with black kohl, a thick long line stretching out to the hairline, so that his darting eyes looked like rats scurrying in an unlit room.
He walked past them and bowed before Athaliah. He did not raise himself until she spoke. She pointed to the two servant girls.
“Kill them both.”
Athaliah pushed the nursemaid from the room and let the linens fall behind her as she heard the first sweep of the sword.
She shoved the nursemaid along the hall until they were near the children’s quarters.
“You may nurse this child, but it will never be said again that she was Miraiah’s, or I will kill you too. I will blot her name from this place forever.”
The nursemaid held the child and tried to reply, but she was breathing too hard. Athaliah saw her ribs heaving under her robes, and the woman’s fear pleased her immensely.
“There is nothing to fear if you obey,” Athaliah said, stroking her cheek. “I am as generous as I am vengeful and will repay you many times over for your loyalty. Yes, I will repay anyone many times over for what they do.”
“But Prince Jehoram,” the nursemaid whimpered. “He will always know.”
“The truth is, Miraiah never loved him. I entered as she died and saw her servants stealing from her warm body, ripping the rings from her fingers and the gold from her neck. They watched as she died, refusing to call a healer, circling like jackals as she weakened. Jagur killed them in their dishonor, and it would be this child’s heartbreak to know her mother was so despised and so full of hate for her father. For the child’s sake, her name must never be spoken again.”
“Yes,” the nursemaid replied, her voice more steady. “Yes, her mother was despised.”
Athaliah walked away.
“My Royal One?” the nurse called.
Athaliah turned and raised an eyebrow.
“What shall we call her? In our land, the mothers name the child.”
Athaliah paused, then a name came to her, flashing in her mind from some forgotten conversation.
“She will be called Jehoshebeth, daughter of Jehoram, the future king.”
The nursemaid nodded and retreated into her unlit room.
Athaliah walked back to her chambers, a sigh working its way through her.
“A girl.” She laughed once more.