Pnina Fenster (University of Cape Town, South Africa)
There is a cool slice of moon and not a star in the sky, but down in the Valley of Sorek, fires blaze like jewels.
I can imagine their faces, ecstatic on the thumping drumbeat, slick with lamb fat. They will dance and drink until daybreak, the men and women in the valley. When they stumble awake at noon, dry-mouthed and aching, they’ll stop the bitterness with another pitcher, and the singing and dancing will begin again.
Perhaps the ballads about me will go on forever. The wind that carries their praises up here will float across the land, and the world will know my name.
‘Delilah, the night that vanquished Samson’s day,’ sing the women.
‘Tantalising Delilah, as sweet and small as the grapes on our vines,’ sing the men. ‘A dark grape with no seeds, easy to swallow.’
I found teeth on the carpet. My cushions are stained with blood. Even in the darkness, I know it’s there. The spattered track that leads from my bedroom and along the path past the city gates to the threshing mill. The stain that marks his undoing.
It has been ten years since my parents threw me out of home, cursing my ingratitude. They’d been pleased at first: I was fifteen and Caphtor the flax trader had made an offer.
‘You’ll have a life of spices and Indian tapestries,’ said my mother. ‘Your father will be able to pay off the moneylender and buy new slaves. And think of the jewellery.’
Caphtor was old, with a mouth like a whip.
‘Don’t think your hair will gleam like this forever,’ said my mother. ‘And don’t shake your head at me. You think your beauty will save you? Do you think I wasn’t beautiful too?’
My father was sure he knew what women were for. ‘Breed, knead and obey,’ he liked to say.
They locked my bedroom door for three days. Just a little bread to stop me from fainting while I smelled garlic roasting and watched a goat broil slowly in a pit of coals under the window.
‘I should throw you into that pit,’ shouted my father when I still refused. ‘A little thing like you won’t take long to crisp.’
‘Think of the jewels,’ said my mother.
Most girls would have obeyed. But I wanted something that no girl or woman I knew possessed: my freedom.
The reason for the goat and garlic was soon apparent. Caphtor was coming to see his intended bride.
‘Smile when you serve his wine,’ instructed my parents. ‘Kneel at his feet and look up and smile.’
I’ve never seen my father’s thick legs move as fast as they did after I stood stubbornly in the centre of the room and let the pitcher drop to the floor. He pushed me to the floor – my knees were slick and purple with wine – and slapped my face. Men sometimes wonder at the gem-shaped mark on my cheek. It’s the only blemish on my honey-coloured skin, the scar from my father’s ring.
‘Starve or be the whore!’ My father slammed the gate and I found myself in the street, wondering if the trees in the distance had grown wings until I realised that it was only the vultures.
It was cold in the alley where I slept that night, making myself small for fear of the dogs and soldiers. The next morning I found an apple in a pile of peelings and went down to the river to wash.
The women stared and I thought it was because I was dirty and alone. Then I saw that there were many lonely, mud-smeared girls at the river, some sitting on the rocks, weeping, and some lying at the water’s edge, their faces crazed with what they’d seen.
No, I realised, the women weren’t staring because I’d been banished from my father’s house. They were gawping at my supple hips and slanting eyes, at the black hair that coiled down my back.
If there were vultures in the trees the battlefield would be empty soon and by nightfall the generals would be marching into town, a human chain of prisoners behind them. They would be in a greedy mood, those generals. I wasn’t going to starve.
Now that word of my brilliant newfound fortune is spreading through the streets, my family has found me again. They arrived my door, garlanded in smiles and carrying flowers.
‘Sweet Delilah,’ said my mother.
‘Beloved daughter,’ said my father.
‘Precious sister,’ said my brothers, who used to tease me horribly and threaten to slice off my ears.
My mother embraced me as if ten years hadn’t passed and we’d only ever been best of friends. Her cloak was scented with sandalwood. Her armpits smelled of old sweat.
My brothers fingered the purple wall hangings and swallowed olives by the fistful.
‘Close on ten thousand pieces of silver,’ exclaimed my mother. ‘That’s lifetimes of silk and salt, and more than enough to go around!’ My father scanned the room, looking for the place where I might have hidden the loot.
And do you know, that even though they are crocodiles, my parents, clawed beasts getting drunk with the others in the valley, I would give them every last glistening piece if I could just see his eyes again.
‘Shoulders are as broad as sixty cubits,’ say the soldiers who carried him away, their own shoulders broadened by the telling of it. ‘Arms and legs so strong that he plucked mountains from the earth and leapt from Zorah to Eshtaol in a single step.’
Of course this isn’t true. The accounts grow more fantastical by the minute. But who wants to hear the truth these days? It’s best to hold your tongue in perilous times or you won’t have a tongue for long.
It was winter when the Philistine lords first arrived, bringing oil and incense and promising the world. Some were known to me – well known. Most, though, had visited my home for the company and music and fine wine. They’d mapped out military campaigns under the canopy in my garden and played high-stakes dice on my cedar wood dining table. Do you think they would have come in person, those lords, for a common harlot?
If you’d just smelled my cinnamon perfume or seen me at that time, dressed in yellow and gilded as a queen, bracelets stacked to my elbows and huge hoops in my ears, you would have thought me the most blessed of creatures. The butcher kept the best cuts for my table. A trail of orphans followed when I sauntered through the marketplace. I always had coins to spare.
But it was winter when the lords came…my tenth winter of silphium and rue so I could stop up pregnancy or get rid of the evidence. Black winter, when war had raged for twenty years, when Righteousness had turned His back on all of us. The gods were angry and their creations even angrier.
I’d dreamed of a home with no master except myself, and instead I’d made myself many masters. Hollows were forming under my eyes. There was a bruise on my thigh that wasn’t healing – my customers paid a high price and in return, they were allowed to sink as low as they liked.
I told Helah to bring wine and almonds. ‘Don’t worry about her,’ I told them, for she was mute and deaf, as perfect a serving girl as anyone could want.
I was as silent as Helah when they made their first offer.
I smiled and stayed silent when they made the second. If you haven’t learned about men in ten years of saving yourself from starvation, you don’t deserve to know anything at all.
The third offer was better.
In determination at least, I am my father’s daughter.
I stretched out on the cushions and when my robe slithered over my shoulders I pretended I hadn’t noticed. They were willing it to fall further.
Then I called for more wine. ‘This wine,’ I told them, ‘costs more than the prize you’re offering. So let’s just drink to deals that can’t be done.’
And that is how the deal was eventually done.
I’m sure you’ve heard the tales by now. My story has been embroidered until you can barely see the cloth below. But it began very simply: he was a big lug of a man.
He had a reputation for rages and deadly riddles and Helah shook so badly that she spilled half the water in the bowl she set at his feet. When I looked at his hands I imagined the men he’d dispatched. He’d killed a lion with those hands. Then I reminded myself that it was the end of summer. The price of oil was rising. Fresh, new women were rolling into the valley.
As everyone knows, I welcomed him in.
When he returned the next night and the nights after that, I shimmered with pride. My body had subdued what the weapons of his enemies hungered for.
People said his mother had been gifted with visions and his birth foretold. I told them, ‘There’s nothing like the sight of a burning city and an army in retreat to inspire a rash of prophecies.’ And yet, when he said that he adored me, well, that felt a little like a vision too.
In the beginning, he only visited after dark. Then he started arriving in the afternoons. He sang as he walked up the path to my door and his approaching voice, deep as a lake, began to delight me. I wanted to dive into that song.
Shoulders and chest lashed by scars. A back pitted by the lion’s claws. I kissed those brutal souvenirs and poured honey, drop by drop, onto his tongue. It felt like flying when he carried me on his shoulders to the marketplace, like constellations when carried me home and filled the night with caresses.
I wasn’t his wife, no. I’ve never wanted that. And yet… How peaceful were the silences we shared, my head on his shoulder in the rain-soaked dawn.
So I’ll understand if you ask why I agreed to trade him. I asked myself the same question, over and over again after the lords had come, and sometimes I wavered for an hour or two. Then the answer came back, always the same: the mightiest dream of all was the dream of liberty.
You boast about your honour and ask the gods to witness your piety? Try my life for just a tiny time – from one new moon to the next, say. Put a smile on your lips and a price on your skin. Then tell me that you wouldn’t exchange just one man for the key to salvation.
Besides, it all started to feel like a long game the two of us were playing. I thought I was reeling him in when, in truth, he was already there, right beside me.
At dawn, when he was half-asleep, I stroked his chest. ‘Marvellous warrior,’ I whispered. ‘Tell me the source of your power?’
‘Bind me in seven fresh goat leather straps and I’ll be yours forever,’ he said.
That night I bound him with the straps the lords had sent.
‘The Philistines are at the door,’ I cried.
‘Oh, my heart’s desire,’ he said, snapping the leather in an instant and tumbling me onto the cushions. ‘Let them in now!’
I tried again when he praised my cleverness. ‘How clever can I be when you make such a fool of me?’ I asked.
‘Constrain my wrists and ankles with new ropes that have never been used and I’ll be yours for the taking.’
The lords sent new ropes. He was strung across the bed.
‘The Philistines are right here, behind the curtains,’ I said.
‘Let them stay if they have nowhere else to go,’ he laughed. ‘They can decorate your shawl with these broken threads.’
There were no gifts next time the lords came to visit. They carried spears and shouted that Hellah should leave the room.
They shoved me up against the wall. The room was spinning.
‘His people are laying waste to our shrines! Would you like to see how they smash up the statues of our gods? They start with the arms and legs. They leave the head for last.’
I knew what they could do, the lords and their soldiers, and all I could think of then was that silver river flowing to the ocean of my release.
Finally, that night, I used the words he’d longed to hear.
‘I love you,’ I told him. ‘I’ve shown myself entirely. I’ve turned away all the others because you have my heart. Why won’t you trust me with your secret?’
But I’ll tell you something that you won’t find in any of the stories – about his massive head in my lap and his tender dreaming face, and how, for that final time, he held my hand and murmured my name in his sleep.
I’ll tell you the truth although it isn’t in any song. That at that moment, when the barber’s blade was tearing his life to shreds and he saw what he had done in telling me and what I had done in hearing it, and he knew that his enemies were waiting in the garden… he kissed me. His eyes were open all through that kiss. He stroked my face and whispered ‘Delilah’. He traced the tears on my cheeks all the way down my neck. He saw every part of me – everything beautiful and broken in the woman from the Valley of Sorek.
‘Delilah, Delilah, Delilah.’ He was as holy as the temple and my name was his prayer when the lords and their soldiers burst in, brandishing chains and knives and torches. They shattered the night with their calls of ‘Dagon the God’. They laughed and cursed.
He had no club of bone for his salvation then.
He has no eyes to weep with now.
You’d think there was an angel for every fallen leaf for all the talk of angels you’ll hear in the cities and fields these days. An angel for every child put to the sword. An angel for every grandmother scrawny with hunger.
‘Don’t make me laugh with your superstitions,’ I used to say. ‘I’ve been to Ashkelon and seen palaces inscribed with the name of Baal. There are jewels the size of your fist on the sacrificial slabs. The priests promise a great day of reckoning and the slaves pray from dawn to dusk. And the only angel who visits our land is called Death.’
Yet a being of wonder found me on the cliff tonight. My body melted into a soft, white light and I found myself, suddenly, far from the edge, standing in a clearing in the woods. The air smelled of salt.
There were no songs, no beating drums. Only the mist rolling up from the valley. At first I saw only a ghostly vapour. And then, in that vapour, I saw it all: my destiny and his, woven on a loom that reached back to the beginning of time. I saw my beloved, burnished by sanctity, his hair grown thick. I saw the pillars crashing down. I knew that when that day comes he will see my face again and know what I know now.
I’ve left a pile of silver on the table. My mother was right. There’s more than enough to go around. Enough for the crocodiles. Enough for Hellah to find her freedom too.
The dancing and drinking will end soon. The wheel must spin and spin again. Omens in entrails. Thirsty gods.
Soon the generals will be rounding up men, finding new ways to slaughter the strangers they call the enemy. They’ll round up the boys too. Boys will murder other boys.
The lords will surely be singing my name when they wander back to my house, ready for voluptuous salves.
But I will be long gone. I’ll be riding past the borderline.
It will be summer when Sampson’s daughter is born in a place where the waves crash relentlessly onto the shore, doing only what they know to do, and the shore forgives them still.
Pnina Fenster is taking the Masters in Creative Writing course at South Africa’s University of Cape Town. She is the launch Editor-in-Chief of Glamour South Africa, where she currently works, and prior to this, she was the launch Editor-in-Chief of Marie Claire South Africa. Pnina was an award-winning journalist and newspaper columnist before moving into editing. She is currently working on her first novel, a period piece about psychic connections, suffragettes, romance and magic.