The Judgment of Solomon
by Eric Friesen, Copyright © 2016
The Wisest of Kings descended into darkness. His pinprick candlelight passed slowly through the stone depths, uncowed. After many echoing steps the king came to a doorway overgrown with blue-green flames. He stopped and brought a finger to his lips as though quieting a child, and the candle in his hand went out. The vacuum of that light inhaled the fire from the door until only an empty doorway remained. The candle lived again as a smokeless blue-green flame, and the king continued through the threshold.
More steps brought him to a second entryway that was draped with large, luminescent blossoms. He plucked a flower, ignoring the rustling that continued after he’d withdrawn his hand. It had once been his custom to pause in this moment, slide the silken petals between his fingers, and marvel at the slowing pulse that reminded him so much of a heartbeat. Now he simply brought the blossom to his candle flame until it burned. A soft keening rose from the doorway. The king breathed deeply of the purplish smoke. He scattered the charred petals and pushed through the unresisting veil.
At last, he came to a door fashioned entirely of bones. All manner of dead—identifiable and otherwise—watched his approach through dusty black hollows. The king clasped the pale doorknob proffered by a skeletal hand, turned, and entered the chamber beyond.
Long years later, the wise of Babylon would discover this room, and upon further study, would reseal the chamber with shaking hands and hasten back to sunlight, collapsing the passageway behind them.
The air was scented with spice and decay. His candle revealed two adjoining walls pocked with hundreds of scroll-filled holes. In the shadows between them stood the unmoving figure of something like an enormous man, but without curve or detail—something perhaps like Adam, before the hand of heaven first molded him from the mire. The other walls were given entirely to shelving. Containers of all shapes, sizes, and contents were stacked from floor to ceiling. Many held wonder. Others held horror. All held mystery. The king strode past them without notice.
He visited the torches in the corners of the room, sharing his candle’s cold flame. Once the chamber flickered with unnatural light, he extinguished the candle and set the holder on the floor, softly moaning at the pain in his knees. He slowly straightened and steadied himself against a swell of dizziness.
A circle of red chalk lay inscribed at the center of the stone floor. Within the circle was an unlit bronze brazier. When his faintness had passed, the king took a moment to study the script that, by some trick of light, seemed to blur and writhe around the circle. Satisfied his writing remained undisturbed, he searched the shelves until he found a small onyx box. From it he withdrew a pinch of sparkling powder. An observer might have mistaken the tremor in his hands for age, or possibly fear. One look into his eyes, however, would have betrayed his scarcely-controlled eagerness.
He stepped into the circle, careful not to smudge its writing, and sprinkled the powder into the brazier. Outside the circle once more, he faced the pedestal and folded his hands into the long, thick robes that weren’t nearly warm enough. He spoke a word and a sickly green flame wavered over the brazier. The king began to speak a long series of words that had not been uttered since Babel. His cracked and faltering voice slowly gained strength until the chamber seemed to vibrate in the thundering cadence of syllables. The flame in the circle grew stronger, flickering red and then silver. The torches in the corners died, yielding the room to the brazier.
The last word of the king’s invocation was as quiet as all that had preceded it was not. It released with his breath, soft and almost reverential. “Nicaula.”
The flame became gold. A woman appeared in the heart of the blaze—tiny, perfect, and seemingly as ephemeral as the flickering which clothed her.
She stared at the room, uncomprehending. “Where am I?”
“With me. Once more.” For a moment it seemed as though the king might cross the circle. There was such desire and vulnerability in his face as to make him virtually unrecognizable to his dearest ones.
All, perhaps, but one. “Solomon?”
“No, no longer. Not in death.”
“Always in my heart.”
She smiled, but did not answer, examining her surroundings. “Of course, raising me is forbidden,” she observed, glancing back at him. “Not long ago, another Israelite king attempted such a thing. As I recall, the conclusion of those events did little to recommend the practice.”
Solomon smiled. “I am not Saul.”
Anger extinguished desire. “I am not insane, jealous, or a fool!”
She waited while he slowly mastered himself. “Then why have you summoned me from the deep places?”
“I begin to wonder myself,” he muttered and then looked away. “But initially, companionship.”
“My lord has no companions?”
From the shadows he pulled a small stool and slowly sat down with many creaks and grunts. “None like you.” He finally answered. “No man—certainly no woman—was ever like you. You who traveled so far to me with your clever riddles and probing questions.”
“You answered them all.”
“Yes. And with little difficulty.”
“Oh? Pray forgive me, lord, for offering so meager challenge.”
The king kept his face carefully blank. “The challenge you offered wasn’t in your questions.”
“Indeed?” She arched an ember eyebrow. “Was I the ‘garden enclosed?’ The ‘spring shut up?’ Perhaps others are easily wooed by metaphorical husbandry, but I always thought better of myself.”
“‘Strength and honor are her clothing and her position is strong and secure.’”
“Yes, something like that.”
“I didn’t write it.”
“I know.” She paused. “Was that all you truly cared for?”
“Of course not. ‘A beautiful woman without good sense is like a gold ring in a pig’s snout.’”
“Marvelous. Better than swine and commensurate with goats—no wonder I swooned.” She snorted. “For all your wisdom, you still know surprisingly little of women.”
The king laughed. “On the contrary, I know all that can possibly be known of women. I am, after all, surrounded by them. But in truth, there’s little to know—simple, manipulative, ornamental, envious, and, above all, spiteful.”
“Indeed?” Her eyes blazed. “Once you enshrined Wisdom as a woman.”
“Yes, and as you may recall, Foolishness also.” He smiled. “Which do you think more apt?”
The flame brightened, forcing him to shield his eyes. When she spoke again, the fire had dimmed to the point of going out. “And just how much foolishness have you surrounded yourself with, my lord?”
He grew tense, like a fox scenting smoke. “What do you—”
“Your wives and concubines, my lord. How many?”
“I don’t remember.”
“Of course you do, oh wisest of lords.” The flames hissed as though sprayed with water. “You just don’t want to tell me about your seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines. Frankly, I’m astonished you have any time for ruling at all.”
Solomon didn’t respond.
“Tell me, wisest one,” she pressed, “how was it such simple and ornamental creatures convinced you to give the Temple over to idols?”
He suddenly relaxed. “Oh, I’m sure each congratulated herself for every image and shrine I bestowed,” Solomon chuckled. “But it was all politics. Such small sacrifices helped ensure peace abroad and at home. I had greater priorities than to be dragged beneath a maelstrom of nagging wives and in-laws.”
“David would never have allowed it.”
He stood, his physical limitations forgotten in an eruption of rage. “I am not my father!”
“As you say.”
“I built the temple of his dreams!” The froth of his anger sizzled against the brazier. “I eliminated the enemies he was too naive to acknowledge! I gathered the wealth of nations to Israel and led her to heights grander than any attained by the sword!”
“Apparently by marrying every eligible princess from the Gulf of Aqaba to the Euphrates.”
“No longer queen, I see.”
“Do not mock me!”
With a crack of thunder that made the distant cooks look curiously to the floor, the fire exploded into a blazing pillar. The brazier pooled and evaporated. The burning woman—no longer small, but towering—stared down at the old man who struggled to sit up amidst collapsed shelving and broken glass. “Who, indeed, is the mocker, wisest one? Who is the child who claims birthright to all that has been given him?” She boomed and stepped from the circle.
Though his face was scorched and blood ran from his ears, the king showed no fear. He spoke a word and made a gesture.
The woman continued her advance as though nothing had happened. “Because you have forsaken Him for Ashtoreth, Chemosh, and Milcom, because you have not walked in His ways, because you did not keep to His statutes and judgments, as did your father, David, the Name will rend the kingdom from your hand.”
“Yes, it unfailingly comes back to David, doesn’t it?” Solomon laughed bitterly. “Exactly which of the statutes that my father assiduously kept are you referring to? Those that concern adultery? Or murder? Is there one that dictates you do nothing while incest, and murder, and betrayal consume your children? Answer me if you can, because I’d really like to know which standard I’m expected to follow!”
The flaming pillar halted. “David’s conviction and contrition were a potent preservative.”
The king gave up on rising. “Is that all that’s required? Oh, well then I’m deeply and truly sorry for not failing so utterly as my father before me.” He spat. “Do you think losing the kingdom distresses me? It doesn’t! None of it matters! It’s all meaningless! Remember? ‘I’ve hated all my labor in which I’ve toiled under the sun, because I must leave it to the man who will come after me. And who knows whether he will be wise or a fool?’” He rubbed at his head and sneered. “Well, let me assure you, Rehoboam is indeed a fool. Of that there is no doubt. I’ve known my heir was so for a very long time. In fact, I’ve counted on it. Let Israel know her peak while I ruled her. Let her lie broken and shamed after. Let David’s failure be evident in the final ruin of the kingdom for which he sacrificed his honor and family.”
The woman looked down at him sadly, speaking as though to herself. “‘Give the first woman the living child, and by no means kill him; she is his mother.’”
The king laughed again, but it seemed forced. “Don’t go quoting my fabled judgements back at me. It never happened thus. It’s a fantasy, nothing more.” He rubbed his head again, breathing heavily.
“Sometimes fantasy and truth mingle in strange ways.” The woman replied. “This room, for instance. Are you truly present, or are you in your bed chamber where you’ve lain insensible and dying for months? Is this conversation actually taking place, or is it some vivid fiction caused by a vein in your brain about to give way?”
Solomon began to say something dismissive, but his tongue no longer supported his words. They fell from his mouth, gibberish. Pain suddenly flooded his head, like the torrent from a burst dam, and he bowed forward until his head touched the floor.
The woman watched him writhe. “Give the child to the mother who will extend peace to him like a river, and the wealth of nations like a flooding stream; who will nurse him, carry him on her arm, and dandle him on her knees.”
Nicaula sighed. “Perhaps if you’d understood more of women, you wouldn’t have so completely misunderstood God.”
The woman who was once a queen vanished.
The flames died.
And so also the Wisest of Kings.