Dance of Death

Herod’s friends reclined about the tables, their bodies still warm and sweating from the steaming water of the baths they’d spent the afternoon enjoying. These were high captains and many of the chief politicians of Galilee, most of them Roman gentiles. They felt privileged to be here, invited to celebrate the Tetrarch’s birthday. When Herod gave a party, one could expect wondrous and unexpected pleasures. The hot baths followed by opulent feasting and flowing wine were powerful tools in the hands of someone like Antipas. He had not his father’s penchant for unilateral control nor would that kind of power ever again be conferred upon a provincial king. But this Herod still knew how to play the game. He knew how to get what he wanted from Rome. The affectation of his birthday celebration was a perfect device for such political purposes. Before these men left, he considered, his power in Galilee and perhaps beyond would be consolidated.

And they were his “friends,” as much as anyone in his position could possess friends. They at least lent the appearance that they endorsed him. After all, Caesar was far away, and Herod could offer, well, amenities.

An attendant appeared who approached the Tetrarch whispering in his ear as Herod gorged his mouth with a large, succulent, black Medjool date, imported from Morocco. Thereupon he smiled and clapped his hands for attention. “Friends,” he announced, “Distinguished guests, dignitaries, tribunes and captains of Caesar’s legions.

I have just been advised that my wife has prepared a gift for my birthday.” Smiling with pleasure, he gestured toward the curtain-shrouded colonnades and said, “May I present to you Salome (he pronounced “Sal-O-May,” enhancing the drama), the most exotic flower of Israel . . .”

Another cymbal loud enough to shock-assault the ears, sounded; reverberating among the marble columns of the palace; and followed instantly by wild beating African drums. Entering the room from both sides, two lines of dark skinned young women moved rapidly and gracefully into a circle, clothed in colorful beads, gold chains, necklaces and ostrich plumes, pulsing to the music of drums, jingling bells and boshghabaks from Persia.

After a moment of stunning pageantry, just enough to accentuate the heady sense of anticipation, all of the instruments ceased on precise cue, creating a dramatic, silent, pause. Having formed a circle, and raising dark arms in such a way that it gave the appearance of blossom petals swaying in the wind, the lovely brown maidens kneeled. Suddenly, Salome arose from the center, a white petal, appearing as it were, from nowhere, a vision of shimmering sensuality, her white flesh giving the appearance of a rising, emerging, receptive stigma from the midst of the human flower.

Her hips and legs were draped with sheer, translucent blue silk; a bright gold cluster of olive leaves barely covering the convergence of her thighs held in place by wisps of gold chain.

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