Sulayman sat cooking in the sun, fanning himself to no avail, a long line of his citizens before him. Water did not sate him, sweated out before he could hydrate. He cursed David’s traditions that demanded he go among his people clad in the regal purple robes of Judah’s kings. One by one, he was beset by subjects and their problems. He dispensed justice, and they left satisfied that their king had done right by them. That the truth was known. One by one, he judged, until two women approached. One held a child. The other had nothing but tears.
“Your Majesty,” Began the crying one, “This woman and I live in the same house. We are sisters, I am Rachel, she Beulah. Not long ago we both became pregnant. I gave birth first, she followed three days later. No one else was home, our husbands work as traveling merchants, you see…”
The wise king Sulayman did not interrupt, but he fanned himself faster, sweat dripping from his brow onto his fine velvet clothes. Rachel knew his patience grew thin.
“One night, after our babies were both born and we were all asleep, she rolled over on top of her baby, and he suffocated. While I was still sleeping, she crept into my bed and replaced my live child with her dead one. She placed a dead infant next to me!”
“She lies!” Beulah cried, silence by Sulayman’s regal glare. He turned back to Rachel and gestured for her to continue, no longer fanning. This tale had piqued his interest.
“In the morning, as I rose to feed my son, I saw that he was dead. I was bereft. But when I got another look at the child in the light, I knew instantly that he was not my Adlai. I knew instantly what had happened. Beulah took him from me.”
“No!” Her sister shouted. “That was your son. Kaleb is alive! This is my child.”
Rachel turned back to her sister Beulah, fire in her eyes. “Even now, you will not admit what you’ve done. Taken another’s child. Carelessly killed your own. And you call yourself a mother!”
“I AM a mother. I’m not the one who killed her son in her sleep.”
“Liar! That is exactly what happened.”
They bickered back and forth for a few more minutes, until the King began to feel the heat again, oppressive and heavy on the desert wind. Sulayman motioned to a nearby guard. “Someone bring me my sword.” He said, yawning and fanning himself once more.
Soon his blade was brought forth, held reverentially in the guard’s hands. It was translucent, and hummed. It vibrated in the bright sunlight, like its edge reverberated with power to cut the Earth in twain. He stood before the women, holding each gaze for a long while. When he spoke, he was calm and quiet, but each word held a king’s authority. His was the voice of a man whose orders were never countermanded, whose whims guided the destiny of an entire nation.
“I will cut the baby in half. That way each of you can have part of a son.”
Rachel’s first instinct was to protest, but Beulah spoke first, a vengeful glee in your eyes. “Go ahead, slice him up.” She said, oblivious to the babe that began to mewl in her arms. “Then neither of us will have a baby.”
Sulayman shook his head. “You misunderstand. I will not kill the boy. I will split his soul, each child will live half a life. Have half the feelings, the potential, that the single child would have had. They will live tortured lives, growing always feeling that something is missing from them. A depth of feeling that they will never know how to name. It will be a curse for the rest of their days… and the rest of yours.”
The true mother, Rachel, was paralyzed by indecision. She could let her sister have a whole child. Watch knowing it was hers. Or she could let herself accept… what? Some monstrous half-breed? Some soulless cretin of a son? It was no choice at all. And yet. And yet…
I cannot be alone. I cannot let him go. Half a son is better than no son at all.
And so, weeping once more, she nodded her silent assent. Let the child be split.
Sulayman took the boy, who looked up at the king and scratched at his beard with his pink, pruny fists. He lay the child, still gurgling, on a broad wicker bassinet. And raised the blade high above his head. The sun cast through it like it was nothing, like it, presumably, would cut through the child before it.
The King looked once more at the pair. He looked straight at Rachel, as though he knew the truth. “Are you sure this is what you want?” He asked, and it seemed the question was meant for her alone.
“I cannot lose him.” Was all she said. Beulah sneered. A child, after all this. More than she could have hoped for. Another chance, another opportunity to redeem her unforgiveable sin.
Maybe there is a God, she thought.
The blade fell. There was no noise as it cleaved through flesh. The child did not cry out. No blood spilled from the bassinet. Rachel, who covered her eyes as Sulayman moved to strike, looked through her fingers. There lay two children, both entirely still. Only the slight rise and fall of their concave chests indicated any life. Sulayman picked up both children, hefting one in each arm as if they were weightless, and approached the aggrieved mothers.
“Adlai.” He said, handing one to Rachel.
“Kaleb.” And handed the other to Beulah.
Standing before them, he held both their gazes. His eyes, a light gray-blue, filled with tears of their own. “I hope you will not come to regret your decision,” He said to both women. “But I already know you will.”
He kissed the quiet babes on their foreheads, and whispered in each of their ears something neither mother could hear. Then he returned to his throne, and resumed fanning himself once more.
“All right,” He said, dismissing the mothers from his memory. “Who’s next?”
Beulah, baby strapped to her back, strode off, not giving Rachel a second glance. Rachel stood to the side, watching her child, watching Adlai, trying to spot what was lost. She could not tell. Had he always been so quiet? Always looked at her so knowingly, so judgmentally? Was she imagining the emptiness behind his stare? A thought struck her, and she turned back to the king, already embroiled in some dispute over livestock.
“Wise King!” She shouted, and Sulayman turned back, an annoyed expression pursing his lips. “O Wise King! Forgive my one more question. If… if I had offered to let my sister keep him. To save his soul and my own, would you h-”
“Every mother loves differently,” He interrupted her, anticipating what she would ask. “There’s nothing nobler than sacrifice, but not all are capable of it in their love. Some love selfishly, some are determined to cling to what little they have, even to the point of destruction. Others are selfless, and find that selflessness brings them greater joys than they imagined. Know this-” Rachel stumbled backwards at the fury that smoldered in the King’s soft eyes. “You will never know what might have been had you chosen differently. Satisfy yourself with what remains… if you can.”
He turned away from her then, back to the farmer with complaints of a thieving neighbor. It was clear her audience with the king had ended. She swaddled up her child, still quiet, strangely so. Before the… dividing, he had never gone a full half-hour without crying for affection, or food, or just to be heard. Now he simply stared, as if the capacity for wanting had been stripped away.
Hiking eastward, she considered what to do next. One thing was clear, she dare not return to her sister. The one who had stolen everything from her, who had betrayed her and proven herself capable of a heretofore unfathomable dishonesty.
Yes, it was clear: First she must find a new home.