Solomon and Shulamite

by Boris Sandler, translated by Jordan Kutzik

These two miniatures were originally written as a diptych but published in the mid-1980s under separate titles. Boris Sandler felt that the two pieces should appear in English under the shared title of “Solomon and Shulamite” while retaining their original titles “The Silver Serpent” and “Before the Mirror” as subtitles.

Each miniature imagines the later years of one of the subjects in the Song of Songs. Sandler shifts between lofty biblical and pseudo-biblical language and a plainer everyday idiom to juxtapose the ordinariness of these figures in their old age with their exalted portrayal in the Bible.

The first miniature, “The Silver Serpent,” is a satire that was published shortly after the death of Leonid Brezhnev. Brezhnev’s final years as leader of the USSR were marked by his declining health and faculties, and Sandler positions King Solomon in a similar role.

The throne in the story is mentioned briefly in the Hebrew Bible and described in greater detail in the Targum Sheni (a Midrash from the seventh, eighth, or ninth century) and in later Jewish folktales. The Targum Sheni details a magical mechanical device built into the throne that will attack anyone who dares to tell a lie before it. While the description of the throne varies from source to source, it almost always features a silver serpent that strikes the liar. Boris Sandler adopted the description of the throne in this story from Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Rawnitzki’s collection of Jewish legends Sefer HaChaim/Di Yidishe Agodes. The legend of Solomon’s throne is also widespread in Islamic literature.  — Jordan Kutzik 

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The Silver Serpent         

King Solomon sat upon a wondrous throne of ivory overlaid with gold. Strewn with pearls, the throne was encrusted with all manner of gemstones: red rubies, blue sapphires, green emeralds, and other jewels of many colors, the likes of which the world had never seen.

Now in his golden years, King Solomon could, it seemed, relax a bit and take a break from difficult royal matters. He could spend more time outdoors, catch pretty butterflies, or play with his grandchildren. But how could he ever hope to find the time when one king was unwilling to pay his taxes and another king was preparing to wage war upon him? Plus, a plague had begun in one part of his realm, and in another, a famine. And then there was the matter of the woods: there were fewer animals than usual, and in the seas, a shortage of fish. Even the seventy old wise men—with whom Solomon had faithfully consulted over decades of adjudicating disputes among his people—had recently begun quarreling among themselves and denouncing one another. Truth be told, not everything was going perfectly in his own family either. His wives were tearing him apart and driving him mad. Each of them wanted her husband to make her God his own temple. And his sons? He had raised a whole band of useless, good-for-nothing bums. They were just waiting for their father to close his eyes for the final time so that they could divide up his inheritance. 

“Oh, Lord,” Solomon would often sigh, “happy is the emperor who has good luck in his old age!”

Now the emperor was sitting on his wondrous throne. Like an old man who was going deaf, he cupped his hand against his ear to better hear the song that his royal bard had composed in his honor:

King Solomon is always young and strong;
Fairer and smarter is he than all others!
Kings cower before him,
Mighty tribes and great peoples bring him tribute,
The fish of the seas, the birds of the skies
Turn in mass to meet his gaze,
Animals and beasts of forest and field
Stand before him in prayer: “Slaughter us for your feast.”

The bard, a short, middle-aged man with a powdered wig and a colorful shirt, underneath which protruded a fat belly, wore a pair of blue pants held up by a wide leather strap. Perched atop a pair of high-heeled sandals, he stood before the bottom step of the king’s throne singing his ode:

Solving riddles, revealing hidden worlds
His eyes peer into the deepest of secrets.

Coiled next to King Solomon’s feet was a silver serpent. She fixed her round, flaming-green eyes upon the bard. The whole world knew that if anyone dared to say even one false word, the silver serpent would coil up like a spring and all of the throne’s mysterious wheels, hinges, and screws would start spinning and unwind themselves. Then the golden animals and birds that adorned the steps would cry out in a multitude of voices: the lions would roar, the leopards snarl, the bears growl, the wolves howl, the oxen bellow, the deer bell, the goats meh, the sheep bleat, the peacocks scream, the eagles flap their wings, the kestrels caw, the doves coo . . . and a terrible fear would befall the liar, and he would tell the whole truth, no matter how awful.

Enemies and adversaries turn into friends,
Kings receive his orders with reverence—
They stand before him and jostle for position to look upon his countenance
And swallow his words with great thirst . . .

On high golden chairs surrounding Solomon sat seventy old men with long beards, long side curls, and roguish eyes. Though they nodded their heads in agreement, each wise man thought only of himself. One wished that he could take his swollen feet out of his tight shoes and place them in a bowl of cold water; a second craved a nice piece of fish with horseradish, and a third desired to close a business deal. In short, each of these seventy wise men was consumed with his own concerns and barely listened to the bard’s words:

Pious and honest, no evil and no wickedness,
Only truth and justice encircle his throne.

And his words were carried far into the air, hovering and twirling like wisps of smoke alongside the spicy scents that the throne’s ivory peacocks sprayed in all directions with their golden beaks.

Finally, the bard stopped singing.

“Well, gentleman,” the king called out after a long pause. “Your verdict?”

At first there was silence. The wise men looked at one another, stroking their beards and plucking at their side curls. Then one of them said: “We need to think it over!” They all shot a sideways glance at the silver serpent.

The creature lay still. The golden animals and birds did not make a peep. Suddenly a muffled hissing was heard, and the serpent stuck out its venomous brass tongue. The bard turned pale. The seventy wise men raised their eyebrows. But it wasn’t to be. A short metallic bang was heard, followed by a crash. The snake remained inert, its tongue hanging lifelessly from its mouth. Soon the beautiful palace was quiet again.

“I thought it was okay,” Solomon called out.  

Tired, he shielded his eyes with the palm of his hand, as if he were ashamed.

His seventy advisors became more enlivened:

“Just okay? It was wonderful!”

“A first-rate ode!”

“Exemplary!”

“Not one word a lie! The truth from beginning to end.”

The snake was still, its eyes shut. The golden animals and birds laid down their heads. For many years now, all of the wheels, hinges, and screws of the mysterious mechanism had been rusted, rendered immobile by all of the lies told before Solomon’s throne.         

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Before the Mirror

For Raisa

 

Shulamite awoke to the haunting melody that she had just heard in her dream.

“My holy hour has come,” she thought.

She crawled out of her bed, lit a candle, and approached the mirror.

The great rectangular mirror was sealed into the wall. Dusted with despair, it was reminiscent of that long-bolted door through which bygone generations had passed into eternity.

The weak shine of the candle fainted onto the mirror and became entangled in the thick darkness, cutting it in two. An ancient woman, reminiscent of a dried-out apple tree, suddenly sprouted before Shulamite. Her wrinkled, yellow face resembled a piece of parchment that preserved an ancient life story.

Shulamite stood for a while before the mirror, peering into the ancient woman’s weary eyes as if looking into the depths of a well that had not held a drop of water for a long time. “Yes,” her heart pounded, “the holy hour has arrived.”

Trembling, a frightened shadow retreated onto the ceiling and remained suspended there.

The ancient woman turned her stooped back toward Shulamite and slowly sank into the darkness. Shulamite returned to the head of her bed, removed a piece of white fabric, and folded it a few times.

More than once Shulamite had set out to walk her final road. But how could she? She, the wife, the mother, carried with her the golden thread of generations. How many times had it been torn? And who, if not a mother, would tie the two broken ends into a strong knot so that the thread would continue onward? Oh how many bloody knots her golden thread of generations had! Difficult struggles had befallen her fruits, the sweet sour fruits that had ripened for nine months beneath her heart. She knew well the price of birth pains, of labor. But what could be greater than the blessed moment when from between weakened legs wriggled a living soul; when from a mother’s bitten lips escaped the holiest of prayers: “My child, my God.”

Shulamite unfurled the piece of fabric, tore it into several sections, and threading a white strand through a needle, began to sew a funeral shroud.

“The best time,” she thought, “to reflect on one’s life is when sewing a funeral shroud.”

She had long forgotten the tally of her years; days had turned into nights, weeks into months, and months into years. For days, she wandered restlessly like a sleepwalker, lugging the piece of white fabric from one place to another as if trying to hide it from herself. Even at night, when sleep finally overtook her, Shulamite found no rest but blundered about all alone in her visions.

Tonight’s dream had brought her to a narrow path coated with ash. People clad in white garments stood on the sides of the path. Shulamite walked barefoot over the glowing ash. Looking deep into the pale faces, she soon recognized people with whom she had once shared air and bread. Many years had passed since they had left our world for the world to come.

“Go, Shulamite,” they whispered. “Walk straight and don’t look back.”

So she walked. The ash singed her feet, her wounds festered, but Shulamite felt no pain. “Walk . . . don’t look back!”

Suddenly she heard his voice behind her. He sang just as he had on that night in the vineyard when they first met, when they were still as young and beautiful as life itself. She froze, as if turned to stone. Had she walked by him and not noticed? Or perhaps she had failed to recognize him? Unable to resist, she looked back.

And with that, the song was interrupted. Upon the spot where the people had stood holding candles white goats now grazed leisurely.

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Sewing her shroud, Shulamite thought: “Man enters the world naked and barefoot though an easy life does not await him. But when his holy hour approaches, he comes prepared with proper garments. Perhaps there, in the world to come, things are even harder.”

And the needle moved in her fingers, rushing like a silver ship approaching the final shore of eternity.

It was time to get dressed.

Shulamite approached the mirror and once again found herself face to face with the old woman. The figure in the mirror looked as if she had been waiting for her. She stood before Shulamite naked. Her hips, thin like worn-out rusted hoops, caught her distended belly—her empty vessel.

The melody, that bird of youth, hovered over their heads, listening and looking around.

“I’m asking you, oh melody,” whispered Shulamite, “has this old woman already forgotten everything? Has her memory trickled away along with her tears?”

The old woman raised the lower half of Shulamite’s shroud.

“Remind her, dear melody, of the songs of her beloved.”

And suddenly a song rang out in the air:

Behold, thou art fair, my love;
behold, thou art fair;
thine eyes are as doves behind thy veil;
thy hair is as a flock of goats
that trail down from Mount Gilead.

Then the old woman placed the long upper garment of the shroud upon Shulamite and fastened it with a belt.

And the melody sang louder and louder:

How fair and how pleasant art thou,
Oh love, for delights!
This thy stature is like to a palm tree,
and thy breasts to a cluster of grapes.

“Well, then, dear melody, is the blood in her veins so congealed that even the heat of love is unable to melt it?”

The old woman remained as silent as stone.

I will climb up into the palm tree,
I will take hold of the branches thereof;
and let thy breasts be as clusters of the vine,
and the smell of thy countenance like apples.

“Know, old woman,” cried out Shulamite, “that I have not sewn any pockets into these shrouds. I will not be taking even the smallest grain of sand with me. But how can one depart without the memory of those enchanted nights, which were imbued with the glimmer of his eyes, the smell of his hair, the rapture of our love?”

Despondently, Shulamite rested her forehead against the mirror.

“You’re so cold, old woman.”

Suddenly she stretched her hands unto the heavens. Her stature was to a tree with two branches, to that last remaining apple tree from the Garden of Eden that had survived after God, in his fury with man, uprooted and squandered all of the others in the Garden’s orchard.

“I thank thee, dear Lord, that thou hast created me according to thy will. But why hast thou, I ask, breathed life into me and given me of it to taste if nothing of me shall remain after I traverse the threshold of thy world?”

The shadow upon the ceiling wrung its hands.

Shulamite, now fully clothed in her shroud, stood before the mirror like a white goat that had been separated from its flock.

Thou art fair, my love, behold, thou art fair.
Thy eyes . . . Thy hair . . . Thy teeth . . .

The mirror, the door of time, opened before Shulamite. Standing at the threshold, her heart at ease, her pale lips did not waver: “No, old woman, my love will remain in this world. It is immortal.”

Shulamite’s transparent silhouette was suspended for a moment and quickly vanished, like a wisp of smoke from an extinguished candle.

A curtain of morning light fell from the empty world upon the mirror.

 

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Excerpted translations from the Song of Songs: JPS Tanakh, 1917.