I am just finishing up edits on my novel, David, and thought it good to post another excerpt.
This chapter has Michal, Saul’s daughter and David’s estranged wife, recalling how the prophet-judge Samuel figured into her father’s kingship.
Hope you enjoy.
I’d love to hear your comments and suggestions.
My first remembrance of my father was of his wondrous tallness. Even after I had become a woman, and he was old and worn by his own accumulation of years and misery, he loomed. He was always thin, even when in later years a little sack of stomach, like a smuggled idol, bulged beneath his tunic. But he was never thin in the way some men are, brittle and gangling, ivied with vein, vulnerable to windgust. My father’s thinness was like a judgment against other men’s excess, their indiscipline. His tallness he bore like a vindication.
I recall looking up from the ground upon his great height. Perhaps I was four. Literally, to me, his head was in clouds, swarmed with sky and thunder, defying heaven. Even then he was distracted, fretting at some shadow, something that only he saw or sensed. I loved him the way daughters love fathers, simple and complicated, full of hope and anger. And once in a while he would turn his full attention to me – I was his momentary obsession – and it terrified and exhilarated me altogether, as if one of the hill country’s legendary giants had deigned to make me its personal doll. He would take me in his lap and move his face so close to mine I felt the rasp of his beard on my cheek and could smell him, muttony and sour, though his hands smelled like he’d been forging metal, smoky and oily and acrid. He spoke in a low soothing voice. It had the thinnest edge of menace.
“Do you want to know how I became king?”
“Which story do you want to hear, the true one or the pretend one?”
“That one, papa.”
“Yes. Good. The land was dark. It was overrun by heathen armies, heathen tribes, cruel and stupid and always hungry. Men consulted witches to try to find some clue to the madness, some path through it. But it only got darker. Israel became like everyone else, senseless, foolish, godless. Priests were wicked. Prophets were solitary, and some no better than madmen. In those days the rains came rarely, and the winds refused to rise, and men plowed the dry hard ground only to watch the seeds die in the sprouting. The temple lay in ruins, like a house after war or famine. Which it was. The shutters were bolted and inside there was no more light than when the great shadow falls over the sun.
“Those were terrible times. But then God did what no one expected. He put his hand on a child. Samuel. He was only about your age, Michal. A little boy. A little boy whose mother Hannah dressed him in a fresh linen ephod each year when she visited him at the temple. The darkness stopped with Samuel. It did not reach him, could not touch him. He grew tall and strong, and he never wavered in obedience, and Eli was like a father to him, and he eased the sadness in Eli’s heart.
“And then a night came when the Voice came. ‘Samuel,’ the Voice said. Samuel leaped from his bed.”
And my father would leap up from where he sat, swooping me in a wild arc of motion that made my insides tickle, and I would gasp with both the anticipation and surprise of it. Then standing, he would hold me. The ground seemed far below.
“‘Yes,’ Samuel said, running to Eli. ‘Here I am.’
“Now Eli was old, Michal. So old. His eyes could only see in strongest daylight, and even then it was like seeing when your head is beneath water. He was menaced by the weight of air. He was a good priest, you must know that, Michal, but he held his authority no tighter than he held his cane, and wobbled on both.
“His sons were desperately wicked. You are too young to hear most of that tale.
“But Samuel was eyes and strength to him. Samuel, though no one knew it then, was that for all Israel.
“‘Here I am,” Samuel said to Eli. ‘You called me.’
“No old man likes being awakened, Michal. Remember this. So Eli, much as he loved Samuel, was ill-tempered by the intrusion. He sent young Samuel back to bed, and the boy lay there, puzzled.”
With that, my father sat down heavy. He fell silent and brooding. He would even close his eyes, feign sleep.
“‘Samuel!’” he would shout, and I would leap in his arms, and he would leap from his sitting posture and swoop me again.
This would go on three times.
“Now the third time Samuel stood in Eli’s presence,” my father said, “and this time he did not wake Eli, for Eli was wide awake, thinking thoughts. Yes, my Michal, thinking thoughts: could this be what I have waited all my life to hear and never heard? I want you to imagine that, Michal. The struggle that such a thought would be for an old man, a man who has done his best, his best, had been faithful. And yet the Voice had not come to him. Only blame. Only rebuke. Only warning.
“But not the Voice.
“What should a man do, Michal? How can man serve a God who does not even like him, will not even speak to him except sideways, through minions? But Eli was a good priest. Faithful. He said to Samuel,” – and here my father softened his voice to mimic Eli’s, the sadness and weariness and defeat and jealousy of it – “My son, go back and lie down, and if he calls again, simply say, ‘Speak, for your servant listens.’”
My father fell silent here, always, and I would wait. Sometimes he would end the story here, abrupt and irritable, saying he would tell me the rest later. I knew not to prod him.
He never made good on his promise.
But other times he would burst back into the telling with almost a demon vigor, his voice mounting with urgency and vehemence, as if he had to press the telling of the tale into a mere sliver of the time it demanded, as if he was telling me as we fled an attack, instructing me on what I must do to survive. Samuel heard the Voice again, answered as Eli said he should, and the Voice told Samuel terrible things about Eli’s doom, and then the next morning Eli, who never fell back to sleep, forced young Samuel to tell him the whole awful truth.
And he did.
The point of all that was to conjure Samuel, a man I saw in actuality only ever from a distance, and whom I feared. It was to make Samuel huge and vibrant before me, bigger than he was, for this same Samuel, now a man who never smiled, figured into my father’s kingship. And here there were two tellings, so tied together I did not know which to believe. Old as I am now, forgetting and remembering so much, I think maybe each telling was just one, both true. My father was variously a coward and a hero, ambitious and modest, vengeful and merciful. He lusted for the crown. He shunned it. He longed for men’s approval. He disdained it. He was Samuel’s covenantal friend. He was his oathed enemy.
Either way, Samuel one day poured oil on my father’s once black and curled locks, so much oil it flowed down and damped and slicked his beard, so much it flowed down and drenched the collar of his robe so that even now dark stains are visible there, undeniable proof. And pouring, Samuel spoke the words that no man could revoke: King.
On a recent trip to Ireland, my host gave me a guided tour of the Belfast murals. A whole section of that city, like Chemainus, the city next door to my town, tells its history in pictorial form: large bright depictions of key events and personages emblazon the sides of buildings. But unlike our sister city, the Belfast story is grim, bloody, and heavily slanted on one side of the sectarian divide or the other. It is a montage of outrage and vendetta, almost entirely preoccupied with the time of the “Troubles,” a nearly 30-year stretch, from 1969 (though with much deeper roots) to 1998 (though with ongoing repercussions), when Catholics and Protestants clashed violently over their very different visions of Ireland’s national identity and destiny. It’s much more complex than that, as any Irishman would be quick to tell you – there are layers upon layers of political, cultural, educational, economic, and class issues involved – but for simplicity’s sake that’s as good a summary as any.
Most of these paintings, both in the Protestant sector and the Catholic one, are freshly done, though the subject matter of most dates back to the 70s. The same meta-narrative is painted and repainted, so that a new generation learns it by heart. Every day, as people walk and drive past, the images of their heroes and martyrs, villains and Judases, loom large, shaping public identity and imagination. The images recall the past, but determine the future.
The story is essentially the same, regardless of which side of the very real divide – a 12-foot-high wall topped with coiled barbed wire – you’re standing on: we are innocent, righteous, and fair, and our enemies are treacherous, evil, and cruel. We love peace and they love war. The Catholics say it about the Protestants, and the Protestants say it about the Catholics.
I found the experience profoundly sobering, how two people can look at a single event and, depending on the accident of their birth, render completely opposite verdicts on it.
And I found sobering the power of story. We are, in many ways, the sum of the stories we tell ourselves. Our sense of who we are – our place in the world, our rightness and virtue, or worthlessness and bad luck, or victimhood, or entitlement – is tied to what story we believe, and the story we believe is the story we keep repeating.
The gospel has been described as a better story than all the ones we might otherwise hear or speak. It is a story grand and sweeping and beautiful – of a God who creates in love and for love, of a creation that rebels and sins and runs away, of a God who pursues his creation to the ends of the earth and gives himself wholly to win her back, and who spares no expense to restore his creation to its original design.
It’s a good story.
The world is trying to tell us a different one, one that diminishes us, confuses us, misleads us, divides us. Let’s resolve to tell ourselves the good story, the gospel story, often enough, vividly enough, truthfully enough, that it displaces all the lesser stories, and shapes who we really are.