Authors: Beatrice Gormley
To my agent, Susan Cohen
SALOME’S FAMILY TREE
If I’d never hoped to live in a world of goodness and truth—if the priestess of Diana, then Leander, and then Joanna hadn’t shown me glimpses of it—maybe I wouldn’t have minded being shut out of it. Maybe the preacher’s death wouldn’t have trapped me in a dungeon, the dungeon of my own self.
Have you ever seen a dungeon? This is what it would be like if you visited the dungeon beneath Herod Antipas’s palace in Tiberias. First the prison door thuds behind you. A guard walks you down the corridor. His torch shows rough stone walls on either side, stone underfoot, stone overhead.
Stone steps lead down to the lowest level. It’s cold underground, but not too cold to smell the stink from the cells. Past the last cell, steps lead down again, and there’s an iron grate in the floor. The grate covers a hole in the rock. A deep hole, like a well. Only instead of water, this well is full of despair.
I put myself in the well of despair.
How could this be, that I came to choose death-in-life? I’m not sure I know how it happened myself. But one thing you have to understand: Herodias and I were best friends before
came along. Or I thought we were.
(“You have to understand,” I say. Of course, I don’t have any special right to be understood. Neither does Herodias, although she often uses those words, as if everyone should understand her—everyone should sympathize with her.)
My mother, Herodias, was more like an older sister than a mother to me. She’d been only thirteen when she married my father, Herod. “Herod of Rome,” he was called, to set him apart from his late father, King Herod of Judea. His friends called him “Junior.” He was much older than my mother—in fact, he was one of her uncles.
Growing up in Rome, I knew my father as the paunchy man who left our house early in the morning and came home after I was in bed. When he was home, he was usually in the dining hall with friends. I overheard bits of their talk about the chariot races or about which officer the Emperor was supposed to appoint to some post or other.
Those dinner parties sounded as dull as dust to me, but my mother managed to get a great deal of fun out of them. Instead of listening to the talk, she’d notice how my father always leaned forward with his eyes wide and forefinger jabbing to make a point. Or how his friend Secundus would answer, “Well, well,” no matter what was said and give a series of burps. Later Herodias would amuse me and my nursemaid, Gundi, by imitating my father and his guests. Her light, musical laugh could cut anyone down to size. It was reassuring to me, because I was a little afraid of the men, including my father.
Sometimes at night I overheard my parents quarreling. It often started when my father accused Herodias of throwing away his money on her spendthrift brother Agrippa. Herodias then called my father a skinflint to his family who threw
money away on his racetrack friends. My father called
a poor excuse for a wife, producing only one girl (me) in all these years. Herodias asked why he needed a son and heir, since he hadn’t become king of Judea after all. At this point Gundi would give me lambs’ wool to stop up my ears, but she stood at the door to listen.
I never called Herodias “Mama” she was always “Herodias” to me. When I was little, I called Gundi “Mama,” but I grew out of that. Herodias and I laughed at my childish mistake. The idea that my nursemaid, Gundi, a slave from a northern land, with her ruddy face and harsh accent, could be the mother of Salome, descended from the royal Herodian line!
So I was a girl without a “Mama.” But I thought I was lucky, because I lived with the most wonderful friend.
When Herodias was around, everything was fun and treats. Gundi did the dull, unpleasant things with me, like combing the snarls out of my hair and correcting my manners. She tried to get me to stop twirling a lock of my hair, a habit I fell into when I was anxious. “After all my trouble to groom your hair, Miss Salome!”
Sometimes, when I missed my mother, I would hit out at Gundi. She held my wrists and made reproachful clucking noises, but she couldn’t punish me. She was, after all, a slave.
Returning home from a shopping trip, Herodias would call my name as she stepped into the atrium. I came running to see what little gifts she’d brought me from the market—fresh dates, maybe, or a trinket—but the real gift was the way she drew me into a charmed circle just for the two of us.
When she was home, Herodias played clapping games with me and sang me songs. After Gundi had put me to bed, she would come to my room and give me a sip of honeyed wine from her own goblet. “Sleep well, my dearest pet.” I worshiped Herodias more sincerely than I worshiped any god. For the longest time I had faith—a faith so deep that I didn’t even know I believed it—that I would grow closer and closer to my mother as I grew up. If I was worthy, the two of us would become inseparable.
As I grew older, Herodias did spend more time with me. She took me on outings to the theater, picnics on the Tiber River, holiday trips to a resort on Lake Sabazia. I only wished these events didn’t include other people, often relatives visiting Rome from other parts of the Empire.
Herodias didn’t have close women friends, but she delighted in giving parties for other ladies and their children. It was a good excuse for her to show off her talents. Like most women, Herodias hadn’t had much education, but she had an excellent memory. She loved to read poetry and novels, and she could recite many long poems by heart.
Sometimes I would ask Gundi, “Do you think I will be as pretty as Herodias when I grow up?” or, “Do you think I will be as clever as Herodias?” I didn’t mean that I wanted to rival my mother—only that I wanted to be worthy of her love.
Gundi wouldn’t answer these questions, except to say, “What nonsense,” or, “Clever is as clever does.” I was afraid her answers really meant no, there was no chance that I would deserve to dwell in the charmed circle with Herodias forever.