I stand on my courtyard and watch her, spying, feeling the guilt burn in my chest, tangling with desire and excitement. I stand and watch her, unable to turn away, knowing I should. She leans over and dips a hand in the water, lifts a cupped palm-full, watches the drops fall and I can see the prism-reflections as the sun catches them and they shine like slow-falling diamonds, splashing down to send ripples running to the edge. She shrugs out of her shift and lets the material fall gently to the marble tile at her feet in heap around her delicate ankles. She stands bare in the sunlight, unashamed, thinking herself alone and unwatched.
I was transfixed, hypnotized by her beauty.
Her skin was flawless and tanned, her flesh firm, her breasts high and full and swaying slightly as she stepped away from the shift piled on the tile floor. She stood with her arms crossed over her chest, her head turned to look over her shoulder with her weight back on one leg, the other slightly bent. She stood for several moments in that pose of feminine grace, just long enough to burn that ones single memory in my mind for all time, then stepped into the basin and sat down, dipped her head backward into the water, back arched in a parabola, her hair spreading in the water like an ink-stain on pure white paper. She bathed herself slowly, leisurely, enjoying the warmth, calling once for more hot water, luxuriating in the day's dawning brilliance. I watched her the entire time, feeling all the while a hot burning pit of shame searing my soul. At last she rose and toweled herself off and stepped back into her robe, the thin material clinging to her still-damp skin, tantalizing me yet more. Then she was gone from view and I felt a hollowness within me, a burgeoning hunger in my gut for that woman, that vision of perfection, the epitome of womanhood.
I returned to my chamber, slumped into a chair and called for strong wine, not even acknowledging the servants as they bowed, exiting. The day was long, full of images of the woman I had seen, consuming my attention so that I gave little thought to the business brought before me. By day's end I was nearly feverish. I had to have her. I fought against it with all my strength, but found myself powerless against the tide of desire that was sweeping away my good reason.
Wine clouded my sight and my mind as I flopped to my bed and fell into a restless, dream-shattered sleep. I dreamed of her in a thousand scenes, but the one dream that has stayed with me, to this day, is also a dream that haunts with its vividness, its lurid reality. I woke, in the dream, from a drunken slumber tangled in sweat-sodden sheets to see her in the doorway of my chamber, outlined by flickering torch light. She came to me, in the dream, swaying seductively towards me, hair loose and gleaming dully. She untied the neck of the shift so that the V of her breast showed silver in the moonlight streaming in from the open window, shrugged off the shift in that lithe, sensual movement that sent shivers down my spine. She came over to me and put a hand to my face, eyes large limpid pools of soil-brown, pressed herself against me. I reached up a hand and ran it down the curving line of warm silken skin from strong legs like pillars, to hips full and firm to the swell of her breast to the hollow at her neck, where I placed a soft and gentle kiss...
And then I woke up, alone, sweating, chest heaving, a gut-wrenching sense of loss ripping through me.
I ached. I was filled with longing, overcome by obsession....
These dreams, these awful, sweet fantasies, they are nearly nightmares, now. Days have passed, filled to saturation with dreams and thoughts of her. I wake, soaked in sweat, steeped in a pall of all-consuming obsession that I cannot contain, that I know will lead me to sin.
God, help me. I am bewitched. Waking or dreaming, I have but to close my eyes and I am whisked away to some far pasture bathed in the sun, a lush green valley ringing with birdsong and eagle cry, sheep bleating softly and a breeze blowing, the grass waving their million hands heavenward. She is there with me in that place, resting against my chest as we lay in the shadow of a tree, wine-muzzy and love-sated, content and alone in that paradise. The heavy weight of the crown is cast aside, the burden of the nation is lifted, if only for an afternoon.
My mind races and my blood boils, caught up in the burning web of that fictive memory. I lay awake all night, tangled in sweat-soiled sheets, my forehead fevered in the coolth of my marble hall; I am restive, restless, reckless. I pace my room furiously, waging a war in my soul.
I must have her. I must. I am king, I cannot be refused. She will be mine, and no alternative will be countenanced.
Servants bring word that her name is Bathsheba. Bathsheba. They say also that she is married to a soldier, a Hittite named Uriah. My desire and my guilt wage a heavy and fearsome war within me, and I fear my righteousness shall be defeated.
She comes! I have sent messengers to bring her to me. It won't be long now, and I will have this woman, this treasure. My limbs tingle with anticipation, my brow is sweating. I pace my throne room restlessly, a lion in a cage, silent on massive padded feet, crossing and recrossing, roaring and rumbling as it stares out between the bars of its prison.
She stands now in the doorway of my throne room, garbed in a simple, becoming dress of green linen, inexpensive but tightly fitted, clinging to every curve. My mouth goes dry at the sight of her, my groin tightens with desire. I clench the armrest of my throne so tightly I hear the wood creak under my grip. She approaches the dais, timid and confused. Her long black hair is loose around her shoulders, her head covered by a piece of cloth that matches her dress. She kneels before me, head down. I can see her hands trembling.
“You sent for me, my lord King?” Her voice is low, musical.
“Rise, come here.” It is difficult for me to speak. My voice is thick, my words come slowly, my breaths are long and deep. She rises, climbs the dais, lifts her eyes to mine, hesitantly, then more boldly. I can see in her eyes that she is confused, but unafraid. She stands barely a foot away now, and I stare at her greedily, hungrily. She returns my gaze, and I see comprehension dawning on her face.
I rise from my throne, take her hand in mine, lead her to my chamber, dismiss the servants. Her hand is warm and dry, steady. She knows what is happening. She doesn't resist, doesn't speak a word of refusal. I've seen the look in the eyes of servant girls when the soldiers take them to their rooms, some of them go willingly, their eyes shimmer with eagerness, others, those with husbands or lovers, go less willingly, and I can see in those eyes the unspoken “no” clear and apparent. I turn my head to look at Bathsheba, and I see no demurral in her eyes. She must see the question in my glance, for she squeezes my fingers, lifts her head proudly.
We arrive at my chambers and I sit on the bed. She stands before me, and I am burning like a torch, more alive than ever, as full of life and energy as before a battle. My vision, my fantasy, the dreams that have haunted me for a week are become reality. She reaches for me, pulls at my belt, removes my tunic. The afternoon sunlight streams in through a window, bathes her in a pool of gold as she undresses. I can see lust beginning to well up in her eyes, in the shallow panting of her breath, in the way she leans over me, circles her arms around my neck.
Her breath smells of mint, her hair of jasmine.
The moon is high and the stars bright when she leaves me. I walk to her to a postern gate not far from her own doorway. She kisses me, briefly, like a lightning bolt.
“What now, my lord king?”
“I will send for you.” She curtsied, darted across the street and was gone into the shadows.
I stood there in the street, concealed in a shadow, for a long time, watching the moon descend slowly, thinking.
A month later, a servant hands me a slip of parchment folded into quarters. I unfold it, read the single line written in a neat, feminine hand.
I am pregnant.
I fall back against my throne, panic welling in my stomach like bile, now it grips my heart, now is rising to burn my throat. She is with child? What have I done?
A plan takes shape and I call for writing materials and a fast messenger. I pen a note to Joab, telling him to send me Uriah, the husband. Her husband. I suppress a pang of guilt as I watch the rider bear the note eastward to Rabbah.
Uriah arrives, dusty from travel, a bandage around his arm, spotted red with blood. He is a tall, dusky, unattractive warrior. He has a hard face, his eyes tell of many battles, his scars tell the story of an accomplished fighter. I ask him how the siege of Rabbah fares, and Joab. He describes the battle in short, succinct statements, little imagination or poetry to his descriptions, just the details and facts of a life-long soldier. I send him home to wash his feet, send him gift as a mark of my favor.
Servants tell me that he refused to go home, sleeping instead with the servants.
I summon him, saying to him and he explains: “The ark and Israel and Judah dwell in booths, and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field. Shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do this thing.”
I grudgingly respect this man, this poor doomed soldier. He is honorable, courageous, determined. What must be done, must be done. He stays with me for two more days, at my insistence. We drink skinfuls of wine, share war stories, compare scars and sword techniques. I can sense him beginning to question his presence with me, however. At the end of the second day, I send him back to Rabbah with a sealed letter for Joab:
Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, that he might be struck down and die.
Word came, a month later. Uriah was dead, fallen valiantly in battle. I send for Bathsheba. I tell her myself. To lessen the blow? Perhaps. “Your husband is dead," I say.
She stands shocked for many long moments, her lovely face blank. She sinks down to her knees, tears her garment down the middle. Even in her visible grief, my lust warms. She laments loudly, returns to her home to observe the period of mourning. When the mourning is done, I send for her again, and she comes to me.
We lay in my bed, drowsing and talking of such things as lovers do, after. She lifts up on an elbow, her hair a curtain of black against her skin, against mine. Her eyes presage a hard question. “Did you do it, David?” She asks me, her eyes demanding truth. I know what she is asking me. I cannot deny her this. I cannot meet her eyes as I struggle to admit it to her.
“Yes.” The single word of affirmation sits heavily between us. I force myself to say it all, to put it in words. “I sent him to the siege at Rabbah. He fought like a wounded tiger, I am told. He was struck by arrows taking the gate. He died like a man, like an honorable warrior.”
“I saw you bathing, once. From that balcony, right there. I saw you, and I had to have you. And I now I do.” She is at a loss for words. “Did you love him?”
She thinks carefully before answering. “He was a good man. Kind, in his way.”
“You did not answer the question.”
“Yes, I loved him, I suppose. It was a marriage made by my father, when I was more girl than woman. I learned to care for him, in time. He took care of me, he was gentle with me. He was a warrior, though, through and through, and the son of a warrior. Tenderness, affection, gestures of love were...unlike him. And there were many battles far afield. There were many days spent alone.”
I feel something sharp bite my spirit. Guilt, that ravening beast, lurks. I push it away, bear up under the pang until it subsides. I turn to her, take in her beauty, and I forget the beast within.
She bears me a child, a son. He is as lovely and perfect as his mother.
Nathan, the prophet, has come to me. He stands before me, tall, strong, dark from days in the sun, work-rough hands, hair long and wild and his eyes full of fury, righteous anger. He tells me a story of a rich man with many sheep who steals the single ewe lamb that belonged to a poor man. I become angry at the avarice of the rich man, until Nathan tells me that I am the rich man. He rails against me, reminds me of all that the Lord has given me. The Lord God of Israel speaks to me, from Nathan's mouth. I hear His words, and I feel the guilt I have been denying, that I have been hiding in my heart, and it wells up within me, a tide I cannot any longer hold back. It overtakes me, squeezes my heart until it cracks. At Nathan's last words, it breaks: “Nevertheless,” he says to me in a voice heavy and sepulchral, “because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child who is born to you shall die.” He pins me to my throne with his piercing, penetrating gaze, then turns away and leaves, abandoning me to my guilt.
The child, my precious baby, has died. I can even now, as I sit in darkened room, weeping, hear the child piteous cries, weak with fever. I pleaded with the Lord, fasted, lay on the ground and begged Him to spare the child and punish me, but after seven days, seven long, endless days of agony and guilt, the child died. It was nameless, buried in a shallow grave under a tree in a palace garden.
Bathsheba lays in our bed, alone. The pillow is wet with tears, her lustrous hair is tangled and matted, a heavy curtain blocks the sunlight, closing her in with her pain. It breaks my heart further to her thus. I go in to her, lay down next to her, take her lovely face in my spear-roughened hands, kiss her deeply.
“Will God give us another baby, David?” Her eyes glisten, search mine. I do not know, and I cannot speak to say so. She sense my doubt, weeps against my shoulder.
I stand on a balcony, look down into a courtyard. My son, Solomon, sits in the dust next to a splashing fountain. I watch him as he struggles to his feet, wobbles, balances, toddles to Bathsheba, chubby arms outstretched. I feel joy spring up in my heart, welling up like the fountain below. The deep waters of joy, however, are salted still with the knowledge of the child who is not here, who should be sitting on Bathsheba's lap as little Solomon learns to walk, laughing and clapping perfect little hands.
Bathsheba turns and looks up at me, sensing my presence. She smiles at me. Motherhood has made her lovelier still.