Friday, July 9, 2010


I loved this painting, by the Symbolist artist Gustave Moreau, when I was a teenager. My father will probably deny this, but he once made me remove a poster of it from the living room because he said it was depressing. For those who don't know the story, Salome dances for her stepfather, King Herod, who promises in return to give her anything she wants. At the suggestion of her mother she asks for the head of John the Baptist on a silver charger. Herod says, "Well, I didn't mean that." But she insists and Herod has sworn an unbreakable oath, so that's the end of John the Baptist. A week or so ago, after re-reading Oscar Wilde's play Salome (banned in England for 34 years!) I found myself writing a story about her. It's historical fantasy, which is a genre I'm both attracted to but unsure about my ability to work in. For Moreau and Wilde, the point of the story of Salome is that women are lustful and evil (call me crazy, but I don't think that Wilde really has street cred on that theme.) The original Biblical story, however, doesn't mention sex at all: John the Baptist's death is a palace intrigue, no more.

I found myself writing from Salome's point of view, trying to understand a character who is willful and spoiled but not wanting to go in the women-are-evil direction. And what came out was a focus on desire for things -- luxuries, material goods that, in my story, Herod promises without being able to provide.

How should I know what I wanted? Staring off into the air he’d list things – things he’d had once maybe, or things he thought we ought to have, if our luck turned. Dishes shaped like cranes and fish; painted bowls that turned your hands blood-red while you washed them; salt from distant lands, less brittle than our local salt, with the taste of the sea, and tints of purple; little potted trees, that we might plant and see if they would thrive; the bones of ancient giants – collecting such things was a craze in Rome; all the wisdom of the ages, written by blind men on grains of rice. Also jewels, of course – but after Mama no one could be impressed with jewels – and every kind of clothing and scent and headdresses.
Herod believed in these things. If I’d named just one, he’d have found a way to manage it.
Around that time a fad took the court for a new kind of drum that had been invented to the south, in the marshlands. It was a tiny thing, stretched with ostrich skin, but played right anyone could dance to it, they said. I found this to be true. Somehow I could catch the rhythm and then I hardly knew the hours passed, even as drummer after drummer stumbled away with swollen hands.
I wanted no more than to dance for the sun, outside, in the morning and again in the evening.

I enjoyed writing it but I'm not sure what to do with the result. It needs work and I've never felt short stories to be my forte. For now I'll probably just file it away. This is the second history fantasy I've written in the past two months, when I'm supposed to be concentrating on my WIP. I'm not really sure what my brain is up to.


Mary Aalgaard said...

It appears that your brain is in high creativity mode. Let it wander, then get back to the work you're trying to concentrate on.

With Salome, I don't remember why her mother wanted John dead. And, why did Salome follow her mother's request. Maybe there was something else going on. Control? Keeping her away from something? Stopping John?

Laura Canon said...

The Bible story doesn't really answer those questions. John had criticized Herod for marrying Herodias because she had divorced his brother and the implication is that this was her revenge. Certainly there is a lot of room for interpretation. Would a queen care what a figure like John the Baptist really thought?
Salome has the least power of anyone in the story. She's described as a child and she simply carries out her mother's orders.
BTW, the historical Salome married one of Herod' sons (yes, her own stepbrother) and became Queen of Armenia.