This piece was developed during the first Bartimaeus Institute Online Cohort (2015-2016), aka “The Feminary.” These pieces will eventually be published in a Women’s Breviary collection. For more information regarding the Feminary go here
By Adella Barrett
The king took the two sons of Rizpah…whom she bore to Saul…and the five sons of Merab… and gave them into the hands of the Gibeonites, and they impaled them on the mountain before the Lord. The seven of them perished together. They were put to death in the first days of harvest, at the beginning of barley harvest. Then Rizpah the daughter of Aiah took sackcloth, and spread it on a rock for herself, from the beginning of harvest until rain fell on them from the heavens; she did not allow the birds of the air to come on the bodies by day, or the wild animals by night.
2 Samuel 21: 8-10
It was during the time of the dry winds,
the barley white for harvest, the apricot and almond trees in bloom.
It was when the land began to ripen,
when the hands of the people were ready for gathering,
that Rizpah lost her sons.
The people brought the grain to be set before the Lord.
I have brought the first fruits of the fruit of the land, which Thou, Hashem, hast given me.*
They bowed down and remembered the sojourn and labor,
the signs and wonders, the milk and honey.
And Rizpah, upon the hill, guarded the fruits of her womb,
which Thou, Hashem, had given her.
To love the bodies of your sons,
to guard them when they are but bone and rotting flesh,
who are you, maternal rock,
you burning coal, abiding one?
The month of flowers came and went,
the peach, olive and fig ripened.
Woman unmoved by the turning of seasons,
unflinching before the snarl of the beast,
how long does a mourning song last?
What were you doing those many moons?
Keeping watch over their corpses, mouths agape, broken bodied,
did you recall the taste of their newborn skin, the way they needed you
when they were small?
The rains came
and the names of your sons vanished
like the smoke of a burnt offering.
The people began to feast, famine passing.
The blood of your children was their seal of repentance.
But were not your young the songs that you sang
even while they hung from the gallows tree, blood covered,
even while the stench of them filled the air,
were you not the mighty wind encircling them
in your wailing and your prayer?
Was not your watch a defiance?
Rizpah, vigilant and aflame, many are the women
who have joined in your terrible and holy song,
that echoes here at my kitchen table,
when I read the news of our public spectacle,
another mother’s child lying in the street, a sacrifice of empire.
It is a haunting song of blood and sweat,
of the love that stories bodies and gives language to their decay,
that rises and grows mysterious in power,
steady and aflame,
the song of a mother naming her son dignity,
worthy to the bone.
Rizpah- Coal, a hot stone or a baking stone.