Bernard Mann's short fiction and poetry have been published in Ardent, New Millennium Writings, Poetica, Poetry Superhighway, Cyclamens & Swords, Dos Gatos, Voices Israel, Atlanta Review, and WinningWriters.com as well as in anthologies––Tom Howard 2013, Voices Israel 2013, Ardent 2010, Di-Verse-City 2003, 2006, 2007, and 2008; and Poetography 1992. Short fiction includes Sea Change and Least Heard Sounds. Non-fiction (writing as Roy Mann) includes Rivers in the City, a volume on waterfronts in Europe and the U.S., also translated into Japanese, and chapters on waterfronts and coastal environment in other works. His newest non-fiction work is Groundbreaking Riverfront Cities on New Frontiers--Fighting Sea Rise, Wrestling Down Highways, Creating Sustainable Streamsides, Crafting Art and High Design on the Water's Edge (Texas A&M Press, 2016). Mann lived in Israel from 1957 to 1964 and presently resides in Austin, Texas.
The following work is copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. No distribution or reprinting in any form whatsoever without written permission from the author.
David and Avshalom ~
Life and Death in the Forest of Angels
Leaves and branchlets luffed in the soft breeze that touched the old forest. Above, clouds pushed by a silent but muscled wind covered the sun, then moved on, replaced by others in their wake. Warblers and bulbuls nesting here were away, their far calls speaking of engagement with others, a remoteness that scored the glade’s isolation.
Dappled light on the leafy floor shifted without pause, mirroring breeze-tugged movements of green foliage above.
At the lower edge of a level stretch of the wooded hill's slope stood a giant and ancient oak, its great branches spreading wide, reaching out to the blue sky with its flock of scudding clouds. The oak was a double tree and behind it stood a man, very still. With a lowered bow half-drawn, his head turned to peer between the trunks.
The hunter had waited here for some while, at moments moving from foot to foot with the least possible motion, drawing and undrawing the bow, turning his head slowly from side to side to rest his neck muscles yet almost never losing sight of the glade. Then, when he had nearly abandoned his quest, the quarry came into view. He quickly drew the bowstring to its fullest and slowly raised bow and arrow behind a cluster of branches and leaves sprouted from the tree's stout girth.
There were two adamdam deer, the stag leading the hind carefully along the slope and through the slight leveling that ran past the oak. The stag boasted antlers full grown, the broadened middles catching the mottled light as easily as did the glade floor. Both he and she were flecked with the small white spots against reddish tawny hide that mark the adamdam. Every few steps the two would freeze and raise their muzzles, attempting to catch sight or smell of the predators their inheritance had taught them to fear.
They are beautiful, the man said to himself, out of familiarity rather than revelation, for he had hunted them before and seen them on days without number, each time murmuring the same praise. The feeling of wonder never left him.
In his inner eye, he went over what was to come. The arrow would hurtle straight at the very front of the male's chest. As the stag sensed the danger and sprang forward, the arrow would arrive and bury itself slightly further back, in the animal's heart. He would fall to the earth and lie still. The hind, startled, would bound three or four times to the woods beyond and be lost to sight.
Be safe, my lady, and multiply, the hunter would whisper in her direction.
But this time the hunter simply lowered his bow. He clucked his tongue. The deer turned their heads to the oak and in the next instant fled. The man looked up at the sky above, the white clouds dazzling above the shrouded woods. My thanks to you, my Lord. You are a good shepherd to your most beautiful of beasts.
Then he took the knife he would have used to gut the stag and brought it instead to one of the oak’s trunks. With its tip he carved three letters into a broad and smooth patch of bark. Two equal-sided triangles, each the letter daled, and in between a stem with a cuplike mount at the top, the letter vav.
Daled. Vav. Daled. It spelled his name.
He saw the spear out of the corner of an eye, hurtling at him.
Left hand freezing on the lyre’s frame, he wrenched in some unearthly reflex to the right, every muscle from the soles of his feet through legs and torso flinching as one.
The spear tip thudded into the cedar wall a finger’s length from his head, the shuddering shaft resounding in his ear and burned into memory for all time.
The last chord played on the lyre, a sharshar of three good notes, echoed within the long throne room’s walls, innocently, incongruously.
He looked up at the king, but only for an instant, only for a fleeting second in that bloody moment of ugly menace, and spun and rose and strode from the hall.
He had seen the hate and anger in Saul’s eyes, the hand that threw the spear now shaking menacingly at him and the bull voice roaring. These, too, were seared into his mind forever.
The king’s bellowing came at David first from ten paces away, then pursued him through the throne room’s door and down the palace corridor.
“You treacherous bastard!” was the reverberating shout, rolling and echoing like thunder in a canyon. “You surely deserve to die! And you’ll not be so lucky next time, you low-crawling, string-plucking unworthy son of a snake!
“Go! Run like the village dog that you are!”
And then silence.
But David, even as he left the palace entry, nodding to his perturbed guards, men under his command who defended this miserable king’s life, could see Saul in his mind’s eye, seated again on his raised throne under the bullock carving, head lowered onto his clutching hands, sobbing in that strange mixture of explosive ire and remorse that belonged to the tall and broad and troubled son of Kish.
In the layered darkness of that night, with the moon waxing from its half fullness behind clouds thin as gauze and silvered, hoof beats tapped the blackened landscape like calloused fingers on a hard leather shield. The riders, one on a chariot horse and two on mules, moved ahead at a cautious gallop past open fields where only a lone watchman’s lean-to might stand, then slowed to a soft trot skirting a walled village or past a clan homestead. They took care to leave the road and route around the approaches to Geva, more than an hour’s ride from Saul’s palace at Giveah. At the head of the narrow defile west of the town, they passed with even greater care the stone lodge where two tens of the king’s garrison were quartered, slowing to a walk. Once past the lodge, and looking to notice whether any might emerge to challenge them, they gently urged their mounts on again, yet not at such a pace that the moon’s deceptive light might bring them to ground.
The three were not strangers to the road, nor to this land.
They were her sons.
Where others might ride here by night at a slower pace, under this less than brightest of moons, the three knew the road well, having ridden it many times past counting. Now and then with armor and shields, on their way in pitch dark to reach by dawn the anticipated field of battle with marauding Ammonites. Or during the day to scout or carry the king’s wishes or break bread with clan chiefs. Their mounts, too, knew the land, and not merely the road beneath their hooves.
The lead rider was David. David son of Jesse, Jesse––the grandson of fabled Ruth and Boaz. David, the fugitive from King Saul’s spear and venom. He did not speak with his companions at the outset, though they were as close to him and as trusted as his own father.
He could only speak, and grapple with, his own inner, tormented being.
A day of grief and agony. And humiliation. He glanced often to one or the other side, as if to avoid looking straight ahead, into the reality of his flight from the king. Forced out of Giveah and the court, he muttered to himself, as if I were an enemy of the throne, some low thieving scoundrel. Forced to run to save my own life, like a hound with tail between legs. Insane, detestable Saul and his damned spear. It is he who’s the base knave, robbing me of my home, my Michal, all those good fighters under my command, all those singers in the chorus I formed only to sing praises to the Lord on his behalf.
My brigade of one thousand, how many of those men will keep any affection for me? Saul will send Avner to take command of it, to make sure none will leave to join David.
And my command of the palace guard. Who but David could Saul so trust?
They were passing field huts now, and the three looked to their left to make sure no mounted guard caught sight of them.
The chorus, fifty voices full, that Saul loved but now hates, through me. All gone. My harp, my lyre. My friends. My brothers, and my brothers-in-arms, who are now in danger of his wrath, because I have escaped, and escaped with the help of these two good brothers.
This snake of a king will yearn for my songs at each new moon. And the chorus of fifty that only I could lead to sing his praises.
The two souls I love the most. Brother and sister, Jonathan and Michal, the king’s favorite son and daughter, the son my own beloved friend, my fellow warrior on the field of battle, the daughter my wife. Jonathan and Michal. Michal and Jonathan. How deeply each loves David. And how fiercely their father, Saul the Insane, hates me.
I should have taken Michal with me. Taken her away from her father’s court, away into the black night, out into the unknown ... yes, but at least with me ... yes.
How tightly Michal embraced me and in that hoarse whisper clouded by tears swore her love. How she stuffed clothes beneath the blanket on our bed to form my shape as if I were there asleep, while I rushed to gather my cloak, my fighting thong-shoes, and the few fig cakes and pressed raisins we had in the house. All this I spun into a roll that I bound around my waist, tightly to keep it from standing out, beneath my cloak. I slipped a dagger, its green patina a reminder of the early days as shepherd, into my belt. The sword would need stay on our wall, for were I to be seen with it on the way to the stables, the guards could easily take me prisoner if Saul had let it slip I might rouse their suspicions.
The three riders reined in their mounts a bit, now, and David broke off his reverie, for they had reached a brook and took care to pass down into the nearly dry streambed of summer and clamber up the far side.
As they moved on, David tried to stay clear of this whirlwind of bitter wounds. Best to focus on the steps that lay ahead. But it was no use. He thought again, and again, about his Michal, and her clasp, and his love for her, and hers for him.
Michal’s embrace was an echo of Jonathan’s. Only a few hours earlier, in the archery field beyond the oaks, where he and Jonathan had met with their bows and each shot a quiver of arrows to deceive Saul’s spies, Jonathan revealed his father’s evil intent on the son of Jesse. “You must leave tonight,” was Jonathan’s terse message, spoken in a low, slow voice. After a final volley of arrows, and Jonathan’s arms-bearer sent to gather them up, they embraced tightly, with the strength of the love of warrior comrades no other love can challenge.
And they wept. Their deep bonds and dreams of working greater and greater deeds in Israel’s battles with the Philistines were dashed. And now he, David, beaten and disgraced, was running, running off into the shadowed valleys.
It was not his doing that in this past year, the maidens of the towns would dance in the streets and sing, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands!” It had amused David, to be sure. But it maddened Saul, even more certainly.
How could such simple words, sung by women and maids, stir resentment in a grown man, a confident king?
He had no designs on the throne of the son of Kish. He would serve Jonathan, when the prince succeeded Saul.
Whenever that might be.
If he had dreamt of ruling Israel, it was a dream that he guarded silently in the recesses of his heart. A dream for the far future, after the time of Saul and beyond the reign of Jonathan.
Prince Jonathan will be King Jonathan, someday, David mused, as he had countless times, and I will be at his right hand. That, for me, will be enough, would God do thus to me and more so if this be not true.
He recalled kissing Michal’s lips, the touch and warmth still vibrant on David’s own, then her temple. He held her to him. “I love you, Michal. I will come for you. Soon. I swear it.” It was the briefest of moments. “You must hurry,” she said, reaching her fingers up to touch his cheek. “Father’s guards might soon tire of waiting outside the front and come through the door.” He turned, tightened his cloak again about him, and looped his belt. With that, he climbed to the high window that was set into the rear wall, placing his feet nimbly on the rungs of their house ladder. David peered carefully through the narrow, leather-curtained window to each side. Seeing no sentry of Saul, he slowly, cautiously, quietly squeezed out the smallish window opening, let himself down the rope they had hurriedly knotted into place on the ladder’s lowest rung, with Michal now standing on that step to help hold down the ladder and the rope end. David touched softly down in a crouch, looked about again to make certain he had not been spotted or heard, and walked round-about at the rear of the cluster of densely set houses, those of his fellow warriors, before turning to the left. A russet sunset had now morphed into mauve twilight, and the growing dusk aided his stealth. He walked toward the chariot stables. Slowly, casually ... he forced himself to slow the step, without any display of haste. The stables were less than a hundred cubits away, with turns here and there forced by homes and shops and storehouses, but it seemed to David that it took an eternity to reach it. “My Lord,” he muttered half aloud, “protect your servant now as you have never before. I will be ever in your service.” No one was on the narrow road, for all were supping. Only he was not where he should have been. At Saul’s table. Now, if he could only reach the stables and fool the king’s horse guards, he would be on his way.
If the guards or the sentries at the gate did stop him, it would be over. And Saul would thrust him through.
Within moments, he thought, Saul would be asking where David was and Jonathan would answer David was ill and had asked the king’s leave. Or that he had gone to Bethlehem to join his family for the annual offering of the first yield of the vine. And Saul, David knew, would disbelieve Jonathan and send men to signal the guards already posted to storm the house and take and bind the son of Jesse and drag him to the throne. But David hoped the men would believe Michal’s wringing of hands, and, were they to peer into their darkened bedroom to test the truth of her story, would see the mounds under the covers and believe the form to be his. So the hopes were drawn. The gamble of broken clay. But David also understood the other lot, that none of this would succeed and Saul would order his forces to hunt the son of Jesse and slay him. He harbored little faith in the ruse and would trust only his own speed, and his own mount.
Greetings exchanged with the stable grooms and the two guards on duty, he slowly led Barak out of his stall. Barak was trained to pull chariots, as most horses were, but had been broken for riding as well.
“Where are you going, David son of Jesse?” came the gruff voice of the head stable guard, a son of the Clan of Kish. “It is the time of the king’s dinner. Are you not sitting at his table tonight?”
“I will be there in a moment. I ride to just beyond the redbuds, to fetch my sire fresh figs.”
The guard said nothing but rose from his seat.
David flung the blanket over the horse’s back, took the saddle and cinched it into place, and placed the bridle and bit over Barak’s head, trailing the reins. All this he did as quickly as he could without revealing haste, and then led Barak out into the open. Without showing that he cared, he looked about for the guard and found him seated again.
“I will see you soon,” David called. Then, with a foot on the mounting post, he leapt into the saddle, grabbed the reins, wheeled, and moved out, still without haste, through Giveah’s north gate, passing the sentries who manned it, and greeting them with a salute and a broad smile. “I will see you soon, too, good guards”, he called. “David!” they hailed, with sparkling eyes. He rode slowly until he was around the bend near the stand of ancient oaks. Then, and only then, did he bend his knees to Barak’s flanks, snap the reins, and gallop on.
Almost at once, out of the very same oaks, two other riders emerged.
“Peace, my brothers,” David called in a low voice as their mounts drew together in full gallop.
“Peace, David! I’m at your side till the end!” one answered back, with a huge arm carving imaginary sword strokes through the darkening air. “I’m yours, David, forever!” roared the other, his booming voice morphing into the laughter of one touched by the moon madness.
Their thundering down the road left notes that still rung in his ears, he recalled years later, much as did the shuddering shaft of Saul’s spear as it buried itself into the cedar wall next his head ... at the end of his time on earth, as Death, silent-footed, walked in to claim him for the Deep.
And now the three of them were on the road of flight together, a road that ended who knew where. Yet they were not without cunning. They first rode to the northeast, toward Geva, so that their first heading would lead Saul’s pursuers toward that town of the high hills. Then they turned southeasterly toward Parah, and from there they rode southwesterly, finding the trails of the easterly flanks of Almon and Anatot and Laishah, to reach Nov.
Yet Nov was a walk of only half a watch distant from Giveah, that is, the time it might take a king to enjoy his dinner with good leisure. It would even be visible from Saul’s palace but for the forested hill––the Hill of the Thunder-Rider––that stood between them. In this round-about flight conceived to baffle their pursuers, David hoped they could gain hours, if not a day, on the swords at their backs, yet they had traveled a loop that now brought them perilously close to the king’s palace, before branching to the south.
They rode on, picking out the barely discernible road not too far ahead of the horses’ muzzles, under the waxing moon, the thin clouds masking, then leaving her silvered half face. “I bless you, Sin,” muttered Eleazar, under his breath, as if to curry the moon goddess’ favor.
Eleazar was not certain the moon was inhabited by a goddess. He believed what his father and father’s father had taught him, and they had learned this from their own fathers before them. There was only one God, and the one God was the Lord. The door to a clear head, to fearlessness in the forests, to knowing in battle that it was only one’s skill and strength that would determine the outcome, not the hexes and cauldron boils of sorcerers.
Still, what harm was there in tossing a kiss to Sin, whether or not she reigned as goddess of the Lesser Light?
They came to the curve in the road that all called the Coppersmith’s Hammer, and Eleazar, in the lead, took care to guide his mule through a proper turn. He looked over his shoulder to see David, close behind, then Yoshev, as before. The road straightened and their pace picked up once more.
This will be good, thought Eleazar, his nostrils flaring at the vision of dangers and challenges ahead. Big-framed, with arms like boughs of oak, he had survived, nay, prevailed in every battle. Many more Philistines and Amalekites had turned on their heels and fled than were brave enough to stand and test his mettle. He had survived several spear wounds, cuts where swords had found their way around his shield and between his greaves, and an arrow that pierced his cheek, cracking three teeth loose. That was the battle in the field of lentils, where the poor farmer’s green crop was laid waste that day by blood and struggle and death. Nay, that was only half the story. When the arrow struck, he staggered on his heels. The two or three Philistines closest surged at him, but he lunged toward them in turn, swinging both his sword and his shield, felling one and buffeting the other two back on their own heels, the arrow whipping back and forth from its cheekroot and Eleazar spitting blood and teeth at his foes. So forceful was he that Eleazar gained a flash of respite and in this moment clenched what teeth he could muster tightly on the arrowhead, took the sword in his shield hand, and, grasping the arrow’s shaft with his right, broke the offending missile in two. Then he spat the arrowhead, crimson with his blood, into the face of the nearest enemy warrior, grabbed his sword with his fighting hand again, and with hardly a break in rhythm, went back to work where he had left off. With the blood still flowing and spat from his mouth on every count of seven or ten, he moved forward with a strength drawn from some secret realm, and felled another three, then another five, then another seven, till the remaining warriors in that luckless Philistine company, awed and cowed by Eleazar’s savage sword, powerful arms, and blood-spewing mouth, suddenly buckled, turned, and fled.
Wounds could not often slow him down nor dampen his taste for battle.
But he thought of more than the exploits that might lie ahead. Hanina and her smile. Her eyes, her lithe and wondrous body. Their sons and daughters. His father, from whom he had learned the arts of sword and axe and sling. He thought, too, of Saul, for whom he had sworn allegiance close to nine years before. Once a good king, a fearless man in battle. One who had done wonders to wrest Israel’s lands back away from the Philistines and their hellacious chariots. One who once inspired.
Now he was breaking that fealty. This lay uneasy with him, to go back on his oath to the king, God’s chosen monarch through Samuel’s sacred anointing.
But David, Saul’s mere subject, had been blessed on every road traveled. And he had the heart of the multitudes of Israel with him. The maidens of the towns would sing and dance to that refrain whenever David, or any company of the king’s men, would pass through – now, how did it go – ah, yes, “Saul has slain his thousands, but David ...”, is this not proof that Israel, and the Lord, are with the son of Jesse?
Poor Saul, that he labors under this burden.
God would forgive Eleazar his breaking of that oath, for protecting David could only be at one with God’s will, or so he wanted to believe.
There must be an illness, or a demon, in Saul’s head, Eleazar pondered, for who in his right mind would turn on David so? Just because of the maidens and their brash song?
Eleazar smiled at the thought and urged his mule on.
They were coming closer to the thick grove where they would catch some sleep, now that it seemed Saul was not on their heels this night.
At the sanctuary at Nov they reined in to a halt at the courtyard wall. David alone dismounted. The two others stayed in their saddles, moving quietly to a corner of the wall where they would less likely be seen, but not so far away that they could not race to the gate if need be. Only the moon illumined them.
David pushed open the gate, strode through, and knocked forcefully on the building’s oaken door.
After a few moments of silence, the heavy wood door creaked open and a voice called out half aloud, “Who comes to the sanctuary so late in the night’s first watch?”
“Peace. It is I, David son of Jesse, and I wish to speak with Akhimelekh, the priest.”
“Ah, David,” came the reply, with a trace of wonder. “Come in, come in. It is an honor, my lord.” And the Levite that had cautiously opened the door a crack now swung it wide and gestured David in to an anteroom where lamps flickered amber light. “I will call Akhimelekh”.
David waited just inside the small space and looked all about, but not a soul could be seen. Some asleep, he thought, and some in prayer. He drew in a deep breath and exhaled slowly, sensing his quickened pulse.
He thought again of the events of the past few hours, the past few days. He was gripped by a continuing sense of loss and humiliation. Waiting in the dusky corner of the sanctuary’s vestibule, shifting from one foot to the other, a sense of unease and failure and foreboding weighed heavily on his mind. This is the beginning of the end, he thought. I stand here like some poor beggar, waiting for the head of a house to seek the favor of some food. I will run for a week, or two. I will end in some sorry pit, cut down by spears and stones. And Saul will feast at the news of my death.
“David?” the quiet voice penetrated his reverie.
“Ah, Akhimelekh, honored priest. Peace to you. Are you in good health?”
“Yes, yes. And to you, good peace. But what brings you here, and at this hour? Are you alone?”
Several other figures, all in priestly robes, younger and older, came into the hall. And as the two spoke, others came as well. Out of respect for their father, they did not greet David with words but with widened eyes and smiles that honored the visitor.
“My sons, of the priestly line of my house, of the House of Eli, as you know, and some of our Levites, too ... “
“Yes, greetings of peace to you all”, said David, impatient and hurried but taking care not to reveal it.
“They ... “, Akhimelekh started.
“Forgive me,” said David, abandoning his restraint, “my mission by the king urges me to hurry on this very moment. Do you have any bread that we might take with us? I and my two companions were all in haste and took little in provisions.”
Faces froze in a mixture of confusion and curiosity.
“The baking of new common bread has not yet begun, will not begin until the night’s third watch, an hour before dawn,” the priest began, somewhat hesitantly, “and the ritual khalot breads are the only breads we could share. But none, as you know,” he added with a slight raising of eyebrows, “may be eaten by any who has been with a woman for the past day and night.”
“My men and I are clean. I will take them, with gratitude. Can someone bring them here?”
“Noam”, the priest turned to a young acolyte, “bring the sacred breads”.
“One more request, good Akhimelekh.” David went on, slightly tilting his head toward the door as he listened for possible shouts of alarm. “Do you have a sword to spare?”
“A sword?” the priest sniffed, self-consciously. “We are not warriors, by the will of God, as you know. But the Sword of Goliath of Gat still hangs on our wall, from the very day you yourself bequeathed it to us as an honor to our House of Eli and to Samuel, whom Eli reared.”
“I was hoping that another sword could be had. Goliath’s sword belongs here, as I granted it in good faith. But I will borrow it and return it to you one day soon. Leaving Giveah in haste, on the king’s mission, without proper gear, my own sword hangs lonely on the wall in my home’” David ended with an open smile to allay the consternation that had grown with each utterance.
And, indeed, smiles and a bit of laughter, hollow and self-conscious, broke the tense silence.
“Yekhiel”, Akhimelekh turned to another, “bring the Sword of the Gittite”.
In a few moments the weapon was brought. It was large and heavy, the bronze hilt showing out of the worn leather scabbard, green with patina. Few would wield a sword such as this. David, though, now could. Goliath had stood three heads taller than the seventeen-year old David on that fateful day of battle in the Vale of Elah Brook. But that was five years ago and the youth-turned-man had grown stronger, taller, and broader.
“It is good,” is all that David said as he took the sword by the hilt and raised it, still within the scabbard, first this way, then that.
All eyes followed in admiration, and recollections of the saga of David and Goliath, told and retold by every clan saga-reciter in Israel endless times were conjured up again in each one’s mind.
“Then care for it well, and forget not to pick up your own sword when you get a chance,” Akhimelekh said, with not a trace in his voice or his eye that betrayed either a taunt or admonition.
“And here are the seven sacred loaves.“
“I must leave now,” said David, kneeling at the priest’s feet and embracing his legs with respect.
“My blessing,” Akhimelech insisted and, holding his hands to David’s forehead with thumbs and forefingers touching and fingers fanned in the priestly manner, recited the blessing of protection. “May the Lord bless you and keep you. May He watch over you and preserve you. May He guard your comings and goings in peace.”
“My deepest gratitude, Akhimelech. May the Lord keep you in good health and peace forever”. Then David turned to leave.
“Peace, David,” came a voice the visitor recognized. It was Doeg, the Edomite, chief of the king’s flocks, who stood just inside the door.
“Peace to you, Doeg. How are the king’s sheep?”
“They are well, as always.”
David’s eyes stayed with his for a moment, then the son of Jesse swung the wooden door open and left. The door returned on its hinges but Doeg held it with his hand and reopened it softly, stepping outside. He followed David’s figure as he mounted his horse, handed the loaves to two companions, and set off at a gallop on the road that lay westward to the Jebusite city of Salem and beyond.
Had one been close enough, he would have seen Doeg’s eyes narrow slightly and the trace of a crafty smile settle on the chief shepherd’s lips.