Herod had arrested John, put him in chains, and sent him to prison to placate Herodias, his brother Philip's wife. John had provoked Herod by naming his relationship with Herodias "adultery." Herod wanted to kill him, but he was afraid because so many people revered John as a prophet of God.
But at his birthday celebration, he got his chance. Herodias's daughter provided the entertainment, dancing for the guests. She swept Herod away. In his drunken enthusiasm, he promised her on oath anything she wanted. Already coached by her mother, she was ready: "Give me, served up on a platter, the head of John the Baptizer." That sobered the king up fast. Unwilling to lose face with his guests, he did it—ordered John's head cut off and presented to the girl on a platter. She in turn gave it to her mother.
[A servant opens the door of the mansion, and ushers me silently down a hallway. The house is filled with expensive art work and statues, opulent pieces next to peeling paint. The servant opens a creaking door and I walk through. He closes it behind me.]
[A woman sprawled on a couch raises her arm. I kiss her perfumed hand.
She fits her home, a dusty creature covered in expense. I had been expecting a beautiful, if aged, woman. Instead, before me was a woman that had never been beautiful, only very rich.]
So, you’ve made your way to me, have you? Your letter said you want to know about one of the messiahs.
A Nazarene named Jesus, Pilate had him killed about twenty years ago.
There were so many, they were always leading uprisings, always being put down. I should have written you not to bother with me.
[Salome says this very slyly, looking at me from under tar lashes.]
This particular man was John the baptists cousin.
[Salome snatches up a fan.]
You are very bold to ask me about my first murder, Josephus.
I’m not here about John the baptist, I’m hear to see if you remember anything about the year after that. When his cousin Jesus was crucified.
I don’t. I was a very little girl when that happened. But...but I can tell you about that night. Do you want to hear that story, Josephus. Surely you’ve heard of my dance?
I have. But my research is only for-
And what have you heard about it?
[She leans toward me, her eyes lighting with some strange emotion. Maybe cruelty, maybe desperation.]
I heard…I heard that you danced the dance of the seven veils for the king. That he so desired you he promised you anything you wanted-
[Salome leans back on her couch, laughing. Her laugh is a beautiful thing, for a second I see a pretty woman behind her oils and paints.]
Josephus, have you learned yet? To separate the truth from the dog shit in your stories? You must hear so many, so many lies and exaggerations. Do you have an ear for the truth?
I think so.
Would you like to record that truth? I know it is not about your messiah, but it is still a wonderful story.
Have you never told anyone this before?.
Of course not. The story you heard was an asset to my political career, dear Josephus. Oh, the stories I have heard. I have had told to me the most wonderful stories of myself over the years. A supple sixteen year old girl dancing the most scandalous dance in the Orient. My body covered only in seven veils, sliding each one off until I am bare before the royal court. And the king, the king promising me whatever I wanted in a moment of lust. And then I, with the court watching, declare that I want John the baptizers head on a platter. How vicious, how dramatic. This what you have heard, historian?
[Salome suddenly looks very tired. She droops back onto her couch and motions to servant to refill her wine glass. Salome looks somewhere over my shoulder and her voice drops its coquettish air.]
I was seven years old when I danced for the king.
Indeed. It was the kings birthday, and I was not allowed to come, I was not allowed anywhere near the party. I threw a temper tantrum about it. But my mother wouldn’t budge, so I made my own plan. My nurse put me to bed, and I waited for her to leave. I put on my prettiest dress and snuck down the hallways. I joined the crowd streaming into the great hall. There are certain things you can only experience in your youth. I looked at these beautiful dresses and only saw colors, not prices. I saw handsome men, not royal titles or gossip labels. I felt very alive.
My mother and stepfather sat in the place of honor, velvet lined chairs in front of the musicians and dancers. They looked so beautiful together, my mother and her new husband. My own father never paid attention to me, I only saw him a handful of times in my life. That is the curse of being a firstborn princess, all my fathers love died when he looked between my legs.
I was crossing through the dance floor when I was caught. Agrippa, one of my stepfathers advisors, pointed me out. I could see that my mother was furious. She rose, but Herod put a hand on her arm. He was grinning at me, he looked happy, so happy. Thrilled to see me. Herod was a merry man, he only wanted to drink and be liked. It was a shame he had to be king. I think he would have really been happier as the owner of a tavern. He clapped his hands twice and the music stopped. The party looked toward him expectantly.
My new princess has joined our merry party, he said.
The people around me laughed and petted my hair, fussed over my dress. It was the first time in my life I felt like a princess.
My mother sat back down, but I could still tell that she was very angry. She had tried to keep me out of Herod’s way as much as possible. Maybe she thought the king would be confused looking at a person that was both his niece and his step daughter. Maybe she didn’t want him to see me and be reminded of his brothers green eyes and snub nose. My mother was a very clever woman, and she tried to shame me.
Daughter, it’s your stepfathers birthday. Surely you have not come without a present?
I shook my head slowly. I tried to think of something, anything I could give him. The idea of going back to bed was monstrous, terrible.
What do you have for me, daughter? Herod asked, his speech slurred slightly.
You don’t know what that word meant to me at the time, Josephus. I remember everything about what that sounded like in my ears.
A dance, I said. I have brought you a dance.
Herod smiled like the sun and said I accept!
Herod motioned the music leader to talk to me while everyone laughed and clapped.
I remember he was a tall, Arabic man who stooped very low to speak with me.
What will you be dancing to, little princess, he asked me.
Oh, you should have seen his face when I told him that I wanted him to play a sailors song. It was a song that my nurses husband sang to me, and she taught me the simple steps that accompanied it. The celts would call it a jig.
Royal dancers did not dance jigs. Have you seen them, Josephus? They twirl and spin and move like snakes. There was nothing sensual about my dance, it was peasant steps performed on royal legs.
The music started playing, a tavern song and I danced with all my heart. My arms swam through the air and I spun around. I held onto my dress and kicked up my legs.
It seemed that everyone held their breath and looked from me to the king. The king doubled over with laughter and began clapping. The court followed his lead and the hall shook. They loved it, they loved my silly little dance. Me, they loved me. I looked at my mother and knew that I had won.
When the song ended I was out of breath, the happiest I had ever been. The king was smiling, beaming. It was a wonderful thing.
But my mother had slipped away from the king. She was in the back of the hall now, watching, she was always watching. I don’t know if she knew what would happen next. My mother could read people, situations. Everything was a calculation to her.
The king held up his hands and the crowd quieted.
You have put the royal entertainment to shame! I accept your gift, and would like to give you one as well. Anything you like, up to half my kingdom! Any more than that and you’ll have to fight with your mother over it!
Everyone laughed and my mind raced. I wanted to ride horses in the stadium. Or a ruby tiara. Or ten new dresses. I had decided on the tiara when my mother spoke.
Well perhaps the little princess had better first confer with her mother, to avoid any political missteps.
My mother moved to the center of the dance floor. The crowd whispered. For the first time, Herod stopped smiling.
By all means, he said.
The crowd felt the change, the tension slip from a childs delight to a queens plan. My mother knelt by me and a ran her hand down my cheek.
I want you to ask for John the baptizers head . I want you to ask that it is brought to me, immediately. Now, my dear.
It’s a terrible memory. All the joy bled out of me and I only wished I had stayed in my bed.
Who? I whispered.
John the baptizer. He has said very mean lies about your mother. You love your mother, don’t you?
Then this man must die. Repeat after me. I want John the baptizers head.
I repeated it, but the tears were falling. I didn’t want to kill a man. I wanted a ruby tiara.
My mother melted back in the crowd and I faced Herod.
Herod was very pale, sweating. He must have known.
What is it, Salome? What is your wish?
John the baptizers head.
But I whispered it, and only a few heard.
Louder, Agrippa called.
John the baptizers head!
There was silence. But everyone was watching, thinking. . A woman said, Yes! Bring it to us!
More people called out for his death.
Herod looked at the crowd, the blood lust on their face, those who knew what it meant. It meant trouble, and more deaths and perhaps a Jewish uprising. I knew none of that.
Herod nodded. Two of the guards left the room and Herod clapped twice. The music started and I saw several people wearing Jewish robes leave. One pushed by me as he passed. The way he looked at me, Josephus. I have not forgotten that look, and I have seen it many times since.
I don’t remember how long it took. Only that I tried to go to my mother and she told me to stay among the dancers. But nothing was beautiful to me now. I was terrified. I lost sight of Herod.
Then the music stopped and the guards came back. One one of them was holding the head by its hair. The other guard swept grapes off a silver platter and placed the head on it.
Bring it to her, Herod said.
They handed it to me, and it was heavy, so heavy. I remember the filthy, matted hair. It must have been very long, because the ends were dripping in blood. The face was turned away from me, and I just stared at his hair. It smelled terrible.
I brought it to my mother, I was afraid that I would drop it. My arms started shaking and bright blood slid down the front of my dress.
She picked it up from me. She looked into the face I did not see, thank the gods I did not see it, and smiled. Then she looked at my step father.
My nurse came and picked me up. I suppose I was crying, I don’t remember.
Herod never looked at me again. My nurse, who was a jewess, never treated me with love again. I learned a great many things about being a princess that year.
I was married to my first husband a few years after.
So there it is. The truth. I’m sorry I have nothing for you about your jewish god.
This story should be told, I will record it, Salome.
[Salome nodded, sipping from her wine glass.]
It doesn’t matter now. People will believe what they want to, whatever makes a better story. You know that.
I read this story today in Matthew, and couldn't get it out of my head. I assumed that Salome was a teenager, the dance was provocative. But the greek words in the story tell something different- the original Greek word used in the New Testament account used to refer to Salome as a korasion, meaning a little girl not yet old enough to have breasts or menstruate. Also, the word used for the dancing done by Salome in the original Greek is orxeomai, which not only means dance, but playful goofing off of young children. And so came this story. And the dance of the seven veils, the idea of Salome that many of us have, comes primarily from an Oscar Wilde play titled, Salome. In it she is quite the vixen.
I'm not sure about the format, I would like to do more of these. I like the idea of oral history (shamelessly stolen from one of my favorite books- World War Z- ) but I'm not really sure why I did away with quotation marks. It might be better if I wrote it in classic literature form. I'm not sure.
Also Josephus was a Jewish historian who wrote 'Jewish Antiquities' which is where we find a lot of information about Jesus, and new testament characters that are extra biblical and therefore a little more reputable in non-christian circles. I love his stuff, but I don't think I should keep him as the main character.