Excerpted with permission from the author.
in which Jezebel is homesick
She is not conventionally beautiful. She is, rather, utterly striking. The long aquiline nose, the heavy shaped eyebrows, the proud, almost disdainful set to her mouth, all speak of a young woman born to wield authority, used to being obeyed. Except by sleep.
She wakes in the night with her throat parched and dust in her nostrils. Itís been just a few hours since her attendants sprinkled the floor with citronñscented water to freshen the air, but the relief hasn't lasted. The heavy tapestries on the walls hold the heat, and now it seems to close in on her. She needs to get out into the open air. Perhaps there she can breathe free.
The truth is she has not slept through the night since she arrived in this landlocked kingdom, though it would be beneath her to complain of it. She was born a princess royal, after all, the leading daughter of the first great maritime empire in the world, and everything about her declares her status. The regal carriage of long neck and straight spine, the head held high so that she seems tall even by modern standards, the fluid motion as she rises and drapes a deep purple robe over her shouldersóshe is every inch the aristocrat.
This is Jezebel at age fifteen, newly arrived in Samaria for her wedding to Ahab, the king of Israel. The weekñlong celebration of her marriage is nearing its end. In the morning she will be crowned queen, and she and Ahab will become husband and wife. She is not sure if this is something she wants or dreads.
A peacock's cry, that's what woke her. She hears it again, the long mournful high-pitched sound echoing through the stone courtyards, as though the creature had to pay for being so beautiful to look at by being so discomforting to listen to.
She steps carefully, barefoot. If she is quiet, she can have this time to herself and be alone for the first time since she left Tyre. The maidservants lying on the floor at the foot of her bed stir but don't wake. The sleeping eunuchs outside the doors guard a chamber empty of royalty as she heads for the stairs to the tower of the western gate. In the light of the full moon, perhaps she can catch a glimpse of the sea.
She can never let anyone know how much she misses that great expanse of water. Her lungs long for the rhythmic breath of it, her ears for the sounds of seabirds wheeling above it. Tyre was an island city, surrounded by water, and only now, in its absence, does she realize how the sea has cradled her life. There are sea people and there are hill people, she thinks, and she is a sea person marooned in a country of hill people. Even the way they speak reflects the harshness of the hills-the Phoenician and the Israelite languages so close, essentially different dialects of the same tongue, yet so different to the ear. Where the Phoenician is soft and sibilant, like lapping water, the Israelite Hebrew carries the harshness of stone and dust. It is the dialect of a warrior people.
She took water for granted in Tyre. It splashed in fountains in the palace courtyards and the temple forecourts; idled mirrorlike in ornamental pools planted with lotus, the flower of the great goddess Astarte; was poured gracefully from silver jugs into glass goblets filled with fresh mint. The sweetest water to drink, soft and refreshing. Yes, she thinks, even the water was gentle.
Here in Samaria it tastes hard, like the stone it comes out of. Here, nobody can take water for granted. They live in constant fear of its absence, in terror of drought and the starvation that accompanies it. How not, when their god Yahweh seems to use it as a weapon, threatening to withhold it? He is so like and yet so unlike Phoenicia's Baal Shamem, the Lord of the Skies, who rises anew each year with the first rains, willingly giving the gift of water when he is rescued by his sister Anat from the jaws of the death god Mot. Both Yahweh and Baal Shamem ride the storm clouds. Both carry lightning bolts in their chariots. Both speak in thunder. They could be brothers, even twins. But no, this Yahweh of Israel turns his back on all the other gods and rules alone in this land, the one and only Israelite god, at least according to his prophet Elijah, who claims to hear his voice and to speak for him. Jezebel thinks it all very strange. Surely the more gods you acknowledge, the safer you are in the world they rule. How could there ever be too many gods? But she is willing to respect the Israelites' choice. When you believe in many gods, you respect those of other people, even if they only have one. It has never occurred to her before that the tolerance might not be mutual.
She feels almost sorry for Yahweh. A god with no family is surely lonely; no wonder he is so jealous of all the other gods. Still, she is intrigued by the awe he provokes, and by the way people whisper the name of his prophet Elijah as though in fear. They say he lives in the wilderness, this prophet, and rarely appears in the city. When he does, he seems to come out of nowhere, and the drama of such sudden apparition makes his declarations all the more dreaded. He sounds fierce and harsh and unforgiving, the opposite of everything Jezebel holds dear, yet the more she hears, the more she wants to see him for herself. Her advisers warn that the last thing she should want is to attract his attention, but at this she just laughs. She has already attracted his attention, simply by being here. Besides, she is a princess, now to be a queen; what threat can such a man pose to her?
The peacocks settle down as she passes. Tiny white monkeys—a wedding gift from the Egyptian pharaoh—chatter softly in their cage, as though speaking in their sleep. Hidden in the moon shadows by the dark purple of her robe, she slips past the sentries and climbs to the topmost level of the tower. The air here is so clear, it seems to ring with silence, a pure bell, like sound that will last only another couple of hours, until dawn wakes the city below. She leans against the parapet and looks down through the hills of this landlocked kingdom, this strange land in which she is to be queen. She looks down past the stones and thorns, past the marshy coastal plain, and there she sees the faint glimmer of the sea in the distance and her eyes fill with tears—moisture at last.