The Handmaiden

That first night I lay in a state of mortal fright. He snored loudly but he never once touched me.

The old goat was finally dead. The worst was having to sleep in his bed, smelling his old-man stink, listening to his old-man ravings.


What good is such a life? His death put an end to his misery and the misery of many others who had to take care of him. It was an act of mercy. It took only a few minutes. In the middle of the night, a pillow over his face. He never once struggled. I think he knew it was for his own good. God waiting for his favorite on the other side. Afterward, I fell asleep and slept soundly through the rest of the night—the best night’s sleep I’d had in months. In the morning they all tore their clothes and launched into a wail. But I knew they were glad. They said: such a long life . . . what a blessing . . . such a peaceful death.


When I was brought here from my village, they explained that I was to be king David’s handmaiden—take care of him during the day and sleep in his bed at night. The priests said my “youthful warmth” would be transferred to the king and restore his vigor, which had greatly declined with his age. That first night I lay in a state of mortal fright. He snored loudly but he never once touched me.


Every morning the priests would come and take me aside. They would ask, “Did the king have intercourse with you?” Every morning I would answer the same way—that the king had never stirred out of his sleep, except to urinate into a jar or ask for water. I began to see that they had no interest in his welfare. They wanted to know if he was still man enough to enjoy a woman.


Soon everyone knew what the priests knew, and the scheming began among those who hoped to succeed him—the eldest son Adonijah or Solomon. Seeing the king grow weaker and weaker, Adonijah set out to make himself king while David was still alive but Solomon’s mother Bathsheba was determined to see that her son Solomon become king.


I was tending to David when Bathsheba came to tell the king what Adonijah was doing. The king,  who was as sick of life as he was of his quarreling relatives, scheming wives, and many ambitious sons, was reluctant to do anything.


“It is fitting, Bathsheba,” the king said, “that your son Adonijah, as the eldest, becomes king when I die.”


“My lord,” Bathsheba said, “my son is Solomon. “It is Adonijah who wishes to proclaim himself king while you are still alive.”


“Is that so?” the king said, staring as if to a distant place. Suddenly he asked, “What about the Philistines?”


“They are subdued, my lord,” Bathsheba said. She reminded him of his solemn promise to leave the throne to Solomon. The king said he remembered no such promise. Bathsheba reminded the king had sworn before God and that God could only be counted on to keep the kingdom in the house of David so long as he remained true to his solemn oath.


The king shook his head. “What do I care for such things?” he said. "Soon I shall be dead."


“Give your son your blessing,” she said. Let him become king now before Adonijah can swindle him out of the throne. Your son loves you as no other and does you the honor of beseeching your blessing—not scheming behind your back to take your throne away.”


The king had no interest in an argument. “Yes, you are right, Haggith,” he said. “I am glad you have come to me and told me of this. I will give orders that Adonijah is to be proclaimed king.”


“My lord,” she said, “It is Adonijah who is about to seize your throne.”


“Well, I meant the other one—you know.”


She said, “Yes, it will be done as you say.”


Later, when the official proclamation was finished, the priests and other court officials were assembled in the king’s presence to hear the statement read. It was a long statement and by the time Solomon’s name was spoken, the king was asleep. His attendants carried him back to his bed.


The next morning David was found dead. They said he had passed away peacefully, mercifully, blessedly in his sleep. I had just helped him along.


What was to become of me? No one seemed to know or think it was important. I think they expected me to go back to my village. Why would I want that? What was the charm of poverty that they could see and I couldn’t? No straw pallet on an earthen floor for me. I was made to sleep in a king’s bed.


I prayed to the goddess Ashtoreth for guidance. Only a goddess can truly know the heart of a woman. I had been blessed with great beauty, but that was all men cared about. I had also been blessed with a mind that made men uneasy because I could see through their lies. I understood very well that in Syria and Egypt women could rise to be queens. In Israel women could rise to be chief wife. Our priests said that God made the world, but in Egypt and Syria the priests taught that the world was born, not made.


In the end, Ashtoreth answered my prayers, but not before sending me Adonijah.


I could see the heat in Adonijah’s eyes when he looked at me. I gave him encouraging looks. One day, he took me aside and said, “You are the most beautiful woman in Israel, Abishag. No other man can love you as much as I can.” I was not deceived by Adonijah’s love. I knew he suspected what I had helped old king out  of this world and that I had done so at Solomon’s urging. With me by his side I could help him challenge Solomon and seize the throne.


I pretended I was as much in love with him as he was with me. Then I told Solomon what had happened, and he immediately ordered Adonijah’s death, saying that here was clear proof that his half-brother was plotting to steal his throne. The next day, I watched from the rooftop of the palace as Adonijah’s head was cut off in the courtyard below. Not long after this, Solomon took me as his wife. Everyone knew of the king’s appetite for beautiful women and so no one was surprised that he should choose me among all the women in Israel. But I don’t think beauty had anything to do with it. I didn’t much care that he never expressed his love for me, or that he took many wives. Solomon found it inconvenient to express his love for any woman. His trade in women was important to the business of being king.


So Ashtoreth had listened to my prayer and answered it—not by giving me what I wanted but by showing me how I might obtain it for myself. Only fools believe that a god or goddess gives us outright the things we most desire. What they give us is the courage and understanding to do what must be done to achieve them on our own. And so it ought to be.


How insignificant and fleeting is the pleasure of an unearned gift in comparison to the prize for a race well run.