Like Inanna Descending – Danielle Perry
Salome taps one foot on the stone floor. Her stepfather the king has called upon her to dance again tonight for the entertainment of his guests. She cannot refuse the king; she can only hope that he is in a beneficent mood. She remembers the words of her mother: dear girl, make sure you get what you want, and if you can’t get what you want, make sure you get whatever you can.
Sometimes what Salome can get is nothing except the humiliation of Herod’s eyes on her moving body. Sometimes what she gets is even worse than that. (She stands while he looks at her near-naked form. She stands while he runs his honey-stickied fingers down her arm. She stands while he places his wine-purpled mouth on her breasts. She leaves when she is excused.) She suffers these humiliations the only way she knows how, by continuing to live and continuing to dance.
Salome thinks of the handsome preacher instead of what her life has become. She wonders what it would be like to be plunged into the water, in his arms. She wants to know, despite herself, what his beard would feel like against her skin. She would go to him again, now, in the dungeons, if she could. She would taunt him with her body.
When Salome first saw the preacher, she could see the ghosts in his eyes. It scared her but it also drew her to him. She liked the fear he made her feel; it seemed less real than the fear Herod made her feel. The preacher believed in things he could not see. Would he have taught her these things had he not been imprisoned? Would he have dipped her into the river and let the cool water flow over her body for his god? She likes to think so. Instead he said nothing when she approached, just looked at her with those haunted eyes. He backed up as she came closer until he was against the wall of his cell. They stood there staring at each other in silence until Salome could not stand it anymore.
The preacher looked at her body and then squeezed his eyes shut. He muttered to himself in a language Salome did not understand, or perhaps it was just that he spoke so softly. She felt sorry for him, caged like a beast. She wanted to pour the water over him for a change, she wanted to wash the dirt from his skin, she wanted to ease the tangles from his hair. She wanted to feel the bones under his flesh and she wanted to feed him until she no longer could. She wanted to press her mouth to his neck and feel his heart beat faster. She wanted to run her hands over him and feel his body respond.
I want to help you, Salome said to the preacher. His eyes narrowed. She said, please, let me help you.
His head tilted to one side like an animal and Salome remembered what they said about him, that he had spent too much time alone in the desert, that he lived on locusts and wild honey, that he was himself wild. She held out her hand with the palm up, like she would if she were trying to coax a dog to come to her. She smiled at the preacher and he said in a voice like a growl, do not tempt me, girl.
Salome wanted to tell him that she wanted to tempt him and that she wanted to do more than tempt him, but she did not. Instead she repeated that she wanted to help him, but the preacher had huddled in a corner of his prison and she knew that nothing that she imagined would ever come to fruition. She left him to his wild-eyed solitude and hoped his ghosts consumed him.
Salome taps one foot on the stone floor, feeling its coolness on the sole of her foot. Soon her stepfather the king will ask her to dance and she will litter this floor with veils and the attending royal guests will applaud. Salome, he says, regally, accustomed to getting what he wants because not only is he a man but a king, dance for me. Her mother frowns but she knows even better than Salome what comes from disobeying the king her husband.
She stands and makes her way to the center of the room, feeling all eyes on her. There is only one dance that Herod wants and so she has been dressed like Inanna descending into the underworld. The goddess passes through seven gates and must shed a piece of her royal signifiers at each one. In the dance these are represented by veils. Salome drops the first one. The tables full of guests line the walls but the center of the room is all hers and she glides across the cool stones. The second. Her hips seek out the beat of the drums; her body curls in on itself. The third. Her stepfather the king leans forward in his throne. The fourth. Her mother closes her eyes. The fifth. Salome can feel the hunger in the room though they have just finished feasting. The sixth. Salome closes her eyes; she is as vulnerable as a goddess. The final veil drops and she – Salome, Inanna – falls to the floor, naked and at the mercy of her audience.
From the floor, she looks at her stepfather the king. He smiles and she hates the look in his eyes, pride not in her dancing skills but in her obedience. You have pleased me, Salome, he says. Ask of me what you will and you shall have it.
Salome thinks, feeling the cold stone against her warm body. This is her chance to get what she wants – but what does she want? She wants to be free. She wants the preacher but he will not have her. She wants to tear out Herod’s eyes and tongue. She wants to cut off his fingers. She wants to destroy him.
She knows that there is a reason that the preacher has not been executed. Herod fears a rebellion led by the people who love the preacher. He fears what it would do to his kingdom.
A smile grows on Salome’s face and she stands, suddenly proud, not caring who sees her naked body. She feels the power running through it like wildfire. She has been playing at being a goddess and this, this feeling, must be only a small fraction of what it is like. There will be no cool water for Salome, only this burning.
Bring me the head of John the Baptist, Salome says, her voice filling the room.
There is silence. Her stepfather the king pales. Ask me anything but that, Salome, he says, desperation edging his voice. Even unto half my kingdom, I will give you whatsoever you desire, but do not ask this of me.
Salome remains resolute. She says nothing. She does not repeat her request because that feels like giving in and she will not give in any longer. She cannot back down now. (His desperation tells her she made the right choice, much as she longs for freedom.) She does not know for how long this stand-off goes on; the seconds and minutes glide over her skin and she feels herself immortal in this moment. It will last forever.
Her stepfather the king gives in. He does not acknowledge her victory with words but the defeated look on his face is enough for Salome. He nods at one of his guards and her smile widens. She collects the veils from the floor, looks at her royal parents, and then leaves the room without being excused. She dresses herself in her room and waits. A giddy feeling overtakes her, one she is unused to. She wonders who will bring the head to her; part of her wishes it will be Herod himself but she knows that will not happen.
There is a knock at the door.
Salome stands and strides across the room to open it. A guard stands there, disgust wrinkling his nose and making him frown, holding a silver platter with a cloth-covered lump and a small note on it. Salome points to a table and the guard sets it down. She does not dismiss him but he leaves quickly enough. She sits in front of the platter and cannot help the smile that curls her face. It smells; somehow she did not expect that but it matters little to her. She pulls off the cloth (the note flutters to the ground) and there is the head of the preacher, haunted eyes closed. Blood has pooled under the neck. She touches the cheek and finds that it is still warm. Her caress continues. The preacher’s beard is softer than she thought it would be. It is a pity that it came to this, she thinks, but he refused her and thus became a play-piece in the game her stepfather the king forced her to play.
She leans in, kisses the lips of the dead preacher, and imagines they taste like honey. They taste like nothing except perhaps salt. She sits up again and stares at the head in front of her. I could have saved you, she says, out loud. She did not expect a response but she’s disappointed when one doesn’t come.
Salome sticks a finger into the sticky blood and stares at it before pressing her finger to her wrist as though she is applying perfume. A small oval of deep red remains when she pulls her finger away. After a moment of consideration, she licks the blood off her finger. The metallic tang of it doesn’t bother her; it pleases her to have some small part of him inside her. She could have saved him but she did not. The wildfire within her has cooled but now she knows what her true nature is. She picks up the note and reads it: her stepfather has banished her to another city. He wants her gone. She touches the bearded cheek of the preacher again and says, thank you.
Salome dances by herself in her empty room while the head of the preacher does not watch, and she feels herself saved.