A Night Visit to Endor

by Alex Myers

The witch knew right away who he was — the goddamn king — but there was no sense saying anything. Let the big boy think his disguise was perfect, gave nothing away. Let him think he was safe and powerful even though she could smell his fear, so strong it was almost a taste, metallic and bitter, like the coin they shove in your mouth when you die.

Saul took a step towards the woman who stood there with her mouth open slightly, head tilted back so he could see up her nostrils, flared as if she were sniffing him, like a dog, her eyes two slits that were almost closed. God, he had to know. God. There was no God anymore. He moved from one foot to another, like a small child who has to pee. But he was no small child, he was the king of Israel, anointed by the Lord through Samuel, and he wanted to seize the woman in front of him, gather up the folds of her cloak in his hands — big oxherd’s hands — and shake her back and forth until she told him what she knew. Was he a fool to come here, to this simple house with its low roof and dirt floor, the cows bedded so close to the wall that he could hear them chewing? But he had no choice.

“Divine for me,” he said, fear making his voice rasp in his throat.

“King Saul has forbidden it,” she replied, pulling her shawl closer to her face. But she spoke with defiance, no trace of fear, and Saul felt that she mocked him with these words, throwing his own laws back in his face.

“Do it,” he said, and took another step closer to her, meaning to be threatening, but the woman just lifted her chin higher, peering at him.

Saul loomed over her, but she held her ground; the hand that clutched the shawl to her neck did not tremble. She pressed her lips together, trying not to show the satisfaction she felt at denying the king. His decree had been hard on her, driving away business, keeping the spirits restless. Let Saul sweat now; let him feel desperation. “It is against the law,” she said, “and you know it. Do you lay a trap for me?” Her eyes flickered to the two men standing behind him, two boys who would be better suited to tending their father’s flocks. They stood there, surely girded with short swords under their cloaks, just as nervous as their master. Was this what Israel had come to? A nation safeguarded by tender shepherds? Where was the Lord?

She was a pious woman, for all that kings and priests might malign her. She brought her pigeons to the shrine at Shiloh and kept from travel and labor on the Sabbath. She knew the Lord to be great and wonderful, knew from the spirits that she raised about the terror of Sheol, the dusty dark realm where there is no God, just the endless world of the grave, a pale reflection of what was, whispers from above that gradually fade away as you are forgotten, the heavy sleep where memories flicker and pass by. And all this made her fear the Lord more, love life more. “Yes,” she said to the coward standing before her, “you lay a trap for me and mean to get me killed.”

If the witch wouldn’t do this — or if she couldn’t — Saul shuddered. She had to. The battle was coming; he knew it. The Philistines had gathered an army at Aphek, an open challenge that Saul must answer. It was the season when kings rode out to battle, and his commanders awaited his orders for the field. But he could not go without knowing. A king was an agent of God, God’s anointed. Saul had to know what the Lord wanted of him, what he was meant to do. For days now, he’d had the priest casting the Urim and Thummim, the holy lots, but they turned up no reply. Saul himself had even spent a night shivering on the floor of the shrine at Shiloh, hoping for a dream, a vision, some voice to tell him what to do. Where should he camp? How many men to bring? Where should he ford the river? But there was no answer to his questions. And as he lay there that night on the ground, filled with cold and dread, he wondered if God was closed to him, ignoring him. Yet he was still king and the Philistines stood on the boundaries of his kingdom; he must know what to do.

“Woman,” he said, “I mean you no harm. But you must do this for me.” Saul felt his knees buckle, just a momentary hitch. “Name your price.”

Beneath her shawl, the woman smiled, seeing the king sway before her. “Yes, it would cost him,” she thought. “We’ll settle the price once I have divined for you. You pay for the knowledge you receive.” “Just as you would pay a prophet or a priest,” the witch thought bitterly. Those foolish men who cling to their power, declaring her method of gaining wisdom illegal, claiming only their means were legitimate. She’d heard Ahimelech the priest rail at Shiloh against mediums, those who consort with the dead, he’d called them. But didn’t all knowledge come from the Lord? The priests were just boys, foolish boys, dressing up in fancy robes and playing with power that they did not understand.

Saul had stepped back to confer with the two men. One of them reached under his robe and removed a small bag, which jingled as he gave it to Saul. The king held out the purse to the witch, but she didn’t reach for it. Saul let the purse drop to the floor between them.

“Who do you want?” asked the witch, turning away from Saul to search for the right powders and herbs, those inessential tricks that created the smoke and smells expected of her craft.

Saul wished she’d face him — people shouldn’t turn their backs to the king. He reminded himself that he was in disguise, that the witch didn’t know he was king, but he still felt his anger rising — the humiliation of this situation. He, the king of Israel, having to consult with some medium in Endor, a tiny cluster of buildings that barely merited a name. He, the king of Israel, having to travel by night, hide his face, because God had hidden His. She didn’t know he was the king; he was nobody.

Quietly, so the men behind him wouldn’t hear, Saul said, “Samuel. Bring up Samuel for me.” He snapped his eyes shut as the familiar ringing in his ears began. He clenched his teeth against the dizziness he felt coming over him. He would not faint; he would not have a fit, would not lie twitching on the floor as he did so often now that David was gone, David with his lyre that could soothe Saul. The music usually quieted him, kept the ringing from his ears. But for months now David had been gone and Saul was subject to these fits with such violence and frequency that even his closest advisors believed he was possessed by an evil spirit — he knew what they thought of him. Many had left the palace and gone to David’s camp; others, thinking Saul would not hear, muttered that the king had gone mad. Soon, Saul feared, all his guards and advisors would leave him, the cursed king, the Godless king, and flock to David, as sheep flock to a shepherd when it is time to return home.

Fighting for control of his thoughts, fighting back the ringing in his ears, Saul opened his eyes. The witch had turned around and was facing him, a curious expression on her face. What did she see? Saul tried to stand tall; he’d always been the tallest boy in the town of Gibeah, head and shoulders above his brothers, his father, but now he felt stooped and shrunken with age and worry.

Before him, the woman lit a small fire in a brazier, sprinkling the coals with some leaves or powder that sent out sparks and heavy coils of smoke. The yellow smoke swirled briefly in front of Saul’s face before a draft carried it away. It smelled sharp and tangy, an odor meant to awaken rather than soothe. Saul could hear the witch humming, almost chanting, her back now turned to him again, her shoulders rocking as she moved her arms in front of her. “Samuel, bring me Samuel,” he found himself thinking. Was he praying to God or the witch? Saul knew he needed Samuel, had to talk to him, had to ask him what God wanted Saul to do. But Saul drew no real comfort from the idea of seeing Samuel again. He’d last seen the old prophet in Gilgal, that city on the banks of the Jordan; what a day that had been. The Amalekite army had been routed and Saul had led the final charge, hundreds of soldiers at his back, a mighty wave of power and glory. Giddy with victory, he had led the triumphant army and its spoils up to Gilgal, driving the flocks of captured sheep to sacrifice to the Lord, dragging Agag, the captured Amalekite king, in chains. “See what happens to the enemies of the Lord, how the mighty have fallen!” Saul thought as he rode in his chariot at the head of the troops. And Samuel had been there at Gilgal, waiting, not to help with the sacrifice of the sheep, not to bestow his blessing on the victory, but to tell Saul that he had sinned and disobeyed God’s orders for the conquest and that God had rejected him as king over Israel. “Surely he must be mistaken,” Saul had thought at the time. “Surely I can repent and receive God’s favor once more.” But then Samuel had seized Saul’s sword and hacked Agag to pieces. The Amalekite king just lay there, dusty and destroyed, and Saul couldn’t take his eyes off of him, the blood that flowed from every limb, lying there without making a sound. Chest heaving, Samuel looked at Saul. “Thus has the Lord cut the kingship away from you,” he said and tossed the sword at Saul’s feet. That was the last time Saul had seen him.

The useless smoke drifted around the witch as she waved her arms. She chanted, a small hovering tune with nonsense words, just to fill the air, like the smoke. None of this mattered; bringing up the dead was accomplished through thought and feeling, concentration. It was an act only a woman could do, for summoning someone from Sheol was an act of creation, like giving birth. In fact, if she could feel anything, she could feel it there, between her legs, the warmth and pulse and flow that she needed to wake the shades, to remind them of what it means to be alive. Her bare feet grew warm against the ground and she knew, as she always knew, that she had made contact. “Gently now,” she thought, for the dead were like children awakened from a nap: drowsy, confused, liable to be fussy.

She’d learned the art from an older woman, who taught her how to ask permission, first from the Lord to enter Sheol and then from the dead to wake them up. The witch had learned how to send her thoughts down to Sheol, not in words but in feeling, and how to stir up the spirits, gently nudge them with emotions, feed them little bits of warmth and light, remind them of who they are, or were, rather. “Samuel. Samuel. You are Samuel,” she thought. Sometimes she would imagine palm trees, a wadi in the spring, a simple home in the hills near Jericho. These images or the sensations associated with them seemed to rouse the shades, make them mumble and murmur — oh yes, yes, yes, sun and shadow, light and warmth, yes, yes. Sometimes too many wanted to come up, a whole crowd of them, like moths to a flame. Then she’d have to close her mind, focus her thoughts to a pinprick, wide enough only for one slender spirit to slip through.

Tonight they were sluggish. Perhaps they could sense Saul’s fear hanging over him like a curse. A man carrying his own doom with him. Even the dead would shy away from such a man. Or perhaps the Lord did not approve of this visit and wasn’t allowing the witch to entice the spirits. “The earth and all it contains are the Lord’s,” the witch thought, letting the brief prayer press the doubts from her mind, return her to her purpose. “Samuel. Samuel.”

Samuel had been sleeping. A deep, heavy sleep, where he had dreamt — Was it a dream? It seemed so real — that he was back at Shiloh, just a small boy running errands and keeping the shrine clean for Eli, the priest. And in his dream someone was calling him as he slept, “Samuel. Samuel.” And he knew this had happened, that it was God calling him; he knew it was. So he kept answering, “Here I am,” as he knew he should reply. But the voice kept calling him, “Samuel. Samuel.” And so, wrestling with sleep and memory that was dream, he thought of Eli and how the old priest had told him to answer, “Your servant is listening.” Yet even this did not quiet the voice, which kept summoning him until he fought himself clear of the dream, found himself to be not a child but an old man, and not an old man, but a shade of an old man, in this place of dust and cold and damp dark that he discovered he knew very well. This place of nothing, crowded with other dingy forms, other shadows like himself. Except now, far above him, like a star in the sky, except he knew there were no stars here, was a pinpoint of light. Light. He hadn’t seen light in so long — even his dreams were full of darkness. And he reached for it and pulled it to him. His star. And found it to be a hole, a tiny hole, but he was so small he could fit through it. A hole of light, and the light came from a smoky brazier in a small room. But it was light and it was good.

The room grew darker all of a sudden. That’s all Saul could tell. The coals of the brazier still glowed, the torch on the wall behind him still flickered, but somehow the dark had … increased. He looked around, saw a growing puddle of black at the witch’s feet, like a stain, like spilled wine or pooling blood, but richly, deeply dark, a dark that swallowed the light greedily, giving off no reflection of its own. “What do you see? What is it?” he asked, fear making his voice louder than he intended.

The witch’s eyes were closed, so she couldn’t tell what Saul was seeing when his questions interrupted her. Now, it was crucial to keep her focus, to keep her mind open, to let the spirit be there. She, herself, was nothing but a channel, a canal, river banks to hold the spirit flowing through her, past her. “What is it?” she heard Saul ask again. “It” wasn’t anything; it didn’t matter what “it” was. But she needed Saul quiet so the spirit could fully enter. Holding her concentration on the passage she’d opened to Sheol, she answered curtly, “An old man. In a robe.” The spirit was nothing of the sort, but Saul would be satisfied. He couldn’t see. Behind her, she heard a sound like the roof had collapsed and then she heard nothing else as the spirit filled her, overwhelmed her, streamed forth from her, from every opening.

Saul had fallen to the floor, and the two men stepped nearer to him, thinking that the king had fainted again and was having another fit. But they saw that he wasn’t twitching, that he had drawn his knees beneath him and had his forehead pressed to the ground as if bowing down in obeisance. One of the men saw the shadow spreading across the floor in front of the witch, like a pool of black water. He pointed and scuttled back to the door; the other man followed, leaving the king alone.

The first thing Samuel saw was the brazier, glowing and warm, and he rushed to it, wanting to wrap himself around it. He still heard the voice, a woman’s voice he now realized, calling, “Samuel. Samuel.” And he wanted to tell her he was here. Her voice was insistent, like locusts on a summer night, a noise at once pestering and reassuring. “I am here. I am,” he thought. “This world, this light. I am here.” But he did not feel warm. He looked down at himself and saw only darkness, a shadow like a hole cut out of the night. He could have wept. Long ago, he could have wept. “Samuel.” The woman’s voice filled his thoughts. “Samuel, speak to him.” “Who?” he wondered. He looked around at the room, for the first time seeing beyond the glowing source of light and warmth. There was a man, crumpled on the floor, his face pressed to the ground. “Who is that?” Samuel thought. “Saul, I believe,” said the woman. “He wants to talk to you.”

Saul. The name filled Samuel with anger; he had thought he was done with Saul long ago. It outraged him that Saul should still be here in this land of light and warmth, in this land of the Lord and the living. “What do you want?” Samuel felt his words roar out of him, dark and heavy. “Why have you disturbed my sleep?” The moldy comforts of the grave seemed preferable to dealing with this failed king.

Saul rose halfway, lifting his face from the floor but staying on his knees. He brought his arms up before his face, reaching out towards the shadow. “Please,” he said. “I’ve been cut off. I plead to the Lord to answer me, but I hear nothing. Yet the Philistines gather to fight, and I do not know what to do. Help me. You must help me.”

In his life, Samuel had been a great prophet. He wasn’t like Moses, speaking to God one mouth to another; God visited Samuel in dreams and visions. But still, when he was living, Samuel had merely to close his eyes and he could hear God’s voice, that voice of devastation, trust, violence, and reassurance. It was always there. Now, standing in this simple room, this room of increasing darkness, he closed his eyes, shut out the cowering king before him. The darkness was around him once more, but it was the darkness of the grave, a night sky without stars, a place full of dust and rot but no divinity. The silence pressed against him; he heard nothing, not even the sound of his blood rushing in his ears. He was nothing. He was dead and meant to be sleeping in Sheol. What was the sense in bringing him up to ask him these questions? He could tell Saul anything from the past, all those dusty memories that were still his own, but he couldn’t hear the Lord. He thought of this, of what it meant to be dead, to be without God, this emptiness, a void within him. He was a fool to have answered the woman’s call, to have been lured here on the promise of light and warmth, the hope of God, a place in the world of the living.

“Saul,” he said in a voice thick with sleep, grimy with memory. “The Lord turned from you long ago. God took the kingship from you and gave it to David. You have been without God, as good as dead, for all those years. Tomorrow you will meet the Philistines in battle, and they will blot you out from the land of the living. For when I ask the Lord what your future holds, I hear nothing.”

The coals in the brazier had faded, were furred with gray ash, as Samuel slipped back to Sheol. The witch swallowed, her body shuddering with chill. She felt scoured, not clean, but more like a gourd that had been scooped out: hollow, empty. Saul too shook as he lay on the floor, though not with cold or fear. The two men came in from the night to steady him as he twisted and flailed on the ground; there was no one, nothing, to save him.

Usually, the witch had to push the spirit away, extinguish the lamp and drive the shade back down to Sheol. Never before had one torn away from her like this one, this Samuel. On all other nights, she had felt sorry for the souls that she pushed back into the underworld, sorry to deprive them of the light and warmth, of the communion with humans. But feeling within her the tail ends of the spirit’s fury, and looking out onto the body that convulsed with tears and uncontrollable twitches before her, she realized she felt more pity for this king, this man, who lay before her.

One Response to “A Night Visit to Endor”

  1. Mark says:

    enjoyed this one a lot

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