The Shulamite woman lay in bed, dozing, until the footsteps of the guard patrolling outside woke her. Startled, she started to sit up, but a weight held her down. She brushed her hands over it, feeling the shape and warmth of it, and after a moment, she recognized the body in her arms as the king. In the moonlight through the window she could make out the shape of her room, the tapestry on the wall, the robes on the floor where they’d thrown them, but she never truly got used to waking up so far from home.
Solomon looked up at her as if his eyes had never closed. “Not quite asleep yet, beloved?”
“I was close,” she answered with a sigh. In the distance, a guardsman shouted orders, punctuating her statement. They’d attacked her once, when she was newly installed in Solomon’s house, mistaking her dark skin and foreign accent for an intruder. She had never been comfortable around them since.
“Would you like me to entertain you?” the king asked.
“Only if you’re referring to a bedtime story. I’m still tired from your earlier entertainment.”
“Are you turning me down?” There was frustration in his voice, and she sighed.
“That depends. Is it my king who asks me, or my lover?”
He stared at her for a minute without replying, and then nodded his head. “They call me wise, but you show me what I am lacking.”
“You are wise, and the people of your kingdom respect you for it.”
“I am wise enough to recognize your beauty.”
“You are powerful, binding demons to your will.”
“I am weak-kneed before you, unable to stand in your presence.”
“You are king, chosen to rule a chosen people.”
“I am ruled by you, beloved.”
She found herself nearly laughing at him, but she swallowed it. He might be weak-kneed before her right now, but he was still the king, and she did not wish to hurt him. “You have so many wives, so many concubines,” she reminded him. “How can I believe that you are so entranced by me?”
“You are the choicest of the blossoms in my garden, beloved, a lily among thorns.”
She shook her head. “You should not call them thorns, my love, when I so often find you in your garden, admiring their beauty.”
“Then perhaps your beauty is at another level, another garden altogether. Something that serves me with more than just beauty. Your eyes are the color of fresh dates, and your skin sweet to my lips.” He leaned in to her and she closed her eyes. He gently kissed her eyelids. She felt her lashes flutter against his lips.
“Your cheeks arch like the curve of a fig.” He kissed them.
“Your breasts are like persimmons, ripe and sweet,” and he kissed those too, lingering.
“Your hips curve like the hills in the distance.”
“Ah, we’ve left your garden completely now.” She let herself enjoy it as his kisses trailed across her thighs.
Solomon didn’t look up. “I suppose we have. I always seem to end up in the wild.”
“Why don’t you come into my garden,” she finally offered, sliding her legs apart.
“Do you know what I like best about you?” Solomon asked afterward.
She seemed to consider it for a moment. “Unless it’s the obvious? No, I couldn’t guess.”
“How unspoiled you are. Innocent, perhaps.”
She did laugh at him this time, unafraid. “You seek to destroy what you love, then?”
“Of course not,” he shook his head. “I love you. You will always be innocent to me.”
She put up a hand, silencing him. “I am myself, and nothing more, lover.” And then she slept.
Several days and nights passed, during which the king seemed distracted to all who knew him. Then Solomon announced he had a new song to recite, and all gathered eagerly to hear it. He had written many poems and proverbs, all of them known for their wisdom and beauty, but this one carried on in two voices, and was unlike those that had come before.
And as she heard the words he recited, she wept for love of him. Many who heard it remarked on the beauty of the words, of the exquisite metaphors, and she smiled behind her veil to hear them.
It was later, in her own chambers, that she was able to truly thank him. She undressed, then, slipping the soft fabrics off her body and letting them fall to the floor. Her skin was darker than shadows in the starlight. His hands were large and pale on her hips, like the moon against the darkened sky.
Solomon, too, let his fine silks slip to the ground like water. He lay on the bed, daring her to join him, and she did. He could lift her with his big hands. Her body rose to meet him and curved away.
She had the strangest feeling, as she rocked atop him, that she’d been here before. Not just in her bedchamber with the king, as of course she had. But she felt as if she could see the pattern of her life laid out before her, a well-worn path. She took Solomon’s hair in her hands, and she saw herself shaving another. She saw a needy look in his eye and felt she would see it again, and she would ask a favor he could not deny.
She had the taste of pomegranate in her mouth, and it was so sweet. Warmth spread through her until she felt as though she were on fire. In that moment she felt she knew all the secrets and all the stories, all that there was to know about good and evil. She had tasted wisdom, and she saw the pattern, and in that moment she loved Solomon as much as she ever had.
And in that moment she knew she had to leave him.
It is whispered that before she left, she composed a song of her own and taught it to one of her companions in the harem, that Solomon might hear it after she had gone, and that the court might hear it as well.
“Daughters of Jerusalem,
the fate of Israel rests
far too often between your legs.
Welcome the strong, young form
of Fate into your bed;
do not shun him. Let him give
the pleasure that is yours by right.
But remember that it is yours
to choose who you love,
whatever your circumstances.
Your heart is always your own.”
None can say whether he has seen her since, but in the darkened chambers of women it is said that she went back to the life she had before, to a home in Ethiopia and to the shepherd who she loved there, rather than the king, shepherd of men.
Wisdom herself might be in love with Solomon, but a moment’s glimpse of what that wisdom contained showed a path she did not wish to walk. Solomon’s downfall would come some other way. She loved him too much to stay, to ask the questions that would weaken him.
But my own vineyard is mine to give;
the thousand shekels are for you, O Solomon,
and two hundred are for those who tend its fruit.
Song of Solomon 8:12
Written for Imricita, using the character of the Shulamite Woman from the Song of Solomon, for Yuletide 2009.