Another time, some days later, as they strolled in the cool of the evening in the royal garden, amid the flickering glow of bronze lamps hung upon wooden poles, they stopped by the golden cage that held the king’s two apes, who were hooting loudly, one scuffling after the other. Solomon pointed out to the Queen of Sheba that the male ape was seeking the attention of its mate.

 

The queen said, “I am intrigued by everything I see in your court, but I am most intrigued by your household—so many wives and so many concubines! I thought of this when you spoke of the first man and woman created by Yahweh—how he created them as equal partners, husband and wife. And yet in Israel, women are as so much property belonging to a man, who is free to do with them as he pleases.”

 

 “It was the woman who first sinned by eating the forbidden fruit,” the king said, “and then tempted the man to do likewise. Her punishment was to fall under the dominion of the man, and so it is to this day, thus proving the truth of the sacred scripture.”

 

“In my country,” the queen said, “all men are under my dominion.”

 

“You are a truly remarkable woman,” the king said. “I confess I have a weakness for the unique specimen, the rare prize! One of my wives is Pharaoh’s daughter. I built a separate palace for her in Jerusalem. Her father sends me a gift of a hundred talents of gold every year. Another of my wives is a Moabite princess, a giantess. Two of my concubines are twins, beautiful Sidonian girls, scarcely ten, who even at such a tender age have made themselves sages in the arts of love!”

 

“Truly you have found favor in Yahweh’s eyes,” the queen said.

 

The two walked in silence through the garden, which had been designed to look like the paradise in Eden, full of running streams and fragrant flowering plants and trees bearing all manner of fruit.

 

“As you have in mine,” the king said, rapidly stroking his beard. Above them a sickle moon hung in the velvet black sky amid a horde of stars.

 

“I tell you in all sincerity,” the king said, “I would like nothing more than if you would remain with me here. Join your kingdom to mine, join your life to mine.”

 

“I am very flattered,” the queen said, “and surely unworthy.”

 

“No, most worthy,” the king said. “I once thought that my court could not be any more splendid than it is, but I see I was wrong. It is but a trifling thing without you as its crown jewel.”

 

“Your praise is most generous,” the queen said, “but—please forgive my frankness—I could never become a part of your harem—just as you, if I were to ask you to become my husband, could journey to my country and share your queen with the rest of my own harem.”

 

The king’s head jerked as the quiet of the garden was shattered by the screech of the royal peacocks.

 

“You have then, if I take your meaning correctly, more than one husband?”

 

“Such is the custom in my country,” the queen said.

 

The king stroked his beard. “The night is beautiful,” the he said. “Like a night in Eden.”

 

The queen pointed to the moon. “Mut sleeps with Tarani tonight.”

 

The king turned and parted the queen’s veil, exposing her face to the flickering glow of one of the oil lamps. He looked into her eyes, and she returned his gaze. Suddenly he dropped down onto the soft ground, seizing and tugging her hand for her to follow. She did so eagerly, laying her body upon his, then slowly rising up on her knees, pulled at her robe until her smooth black thighs shone like polished ebony in the fiery light.