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Book excerpt: 'The Secret Chord' by Geraldine Brooks

"The Secret Chord" by Geraldine Brooks (Viking, October 2015) Credit: Viking

A man alone in a room. Not such an extraordinary thing. Yet as I stepped into the chamber I had a sense of something out of place. My eye traveled around the space, the woven pillows, the low tables set with sweating ewers of cool water . . . all was in order, yet something was not right. Then I grasped it. It had been a while since I had found him in a room by himself. For a long time, it seemed, he had moved in a press of people: members of his household, the men of his army, his sons, servants, sycophants.

He stood by the open window, his back to me. From my place by the door I could not see what he saw, but the sounds made plain enough what held his gaze: the snap of banners in the breeze, the stamp of hooves, the wince and grind of iron on stone. And woven among these, like a bright thread through homespun, the sudden excited shouts of little boys. For them, born in the years of victory, muster for war was cause for uncomplicated joy. I knew that giddy thrill. I had been such a boy myself, once. When he, little more than a youth, led the band that sacked my village.

His fists, balled tight, were planted on the wide sill of the window embrasure, his arms encircled by polished copper cuffs. His hair, the same color as the copper, was undressed, and fell in a dense mane against the fine black wool of his mantle. The cuffs glinted in the low slant of early light as his arm muscles flexed. He was clenched from head to foot.

I am not a coward. Being in his service does not allow for it. My life, at certain times, has required me to draw upon deep wells of courage, and I am glad to say that I have never yet come up dry. But as I have resolved to set down a full account here, so I must begin with an honest accounting of myself. That morning, I was afraid. I had been summoned from my bed when it was still full dark, and though my slave, when he called me, had thought to bring a tray of warm bread fresh from the ovens, I had not touched it. Now, my empty stomach churned. Sound carries, at that hour, and as I waited in the anteroom, even the heavy cedar door could not muffle the angry voices within.

When Yoav exited the room, he burst through the door so abruptly that the young guard barely had time to come to attention, the butt of his spear striking the stone floor a few seconds after his general had already swept past him. Yoav's lips were drawn thin as a sheet of linen, his skin as pallid. He paused for a moment, fiddling with a strap on his greaves. His hand, which I saw was trembling slightly, could not manage the buckle. I have known Yoav since I was a child and he a youth thinking to kill me. I have seen him outnumbered on the battlefield and watched him run a man through at close quarters. I have seen him stand accused of murder, awaiting a death sentence. But never before had I seen his hand shake. He saw that I noticed, and he scowled. "Go in," he said tersely. "He wants you." Then, as I edged past him: "Take care. He is in a rage. His mood is foul."

The guard opened the door for me, looking to neither right nor left as I passed from the anteroom to the inner chamber. I stood, just inside, waiting for acknowledgment. After a time, unsure if he knew that I was there, I cleared my throat. Still he did not turn. I held myself motionless, my gaze on the yellow shaft of sunlight widening upon the flagstones. Although it was early, the room was warming. Soon enough, it would be hot. I felt a bead of sweat forming on my brow.

Suddenly, he opened his fists, reached for the shutters, and slammed them shut. He turned, his light mantle swinging. I, who had served him for years, was used to that face, its grave beauty, the bright glance that could kindle love or fear. But the expression was not the one I had expected. Yoav was son of the king's older sister; they had become men together. He knew David as well as anyone alive. Yoav had said anger, and anger was there, but I could tell he had not read his uncle in full. Anger was there, but not anger only. The tense set of David's body showed will at work, containing wrath, but also grief. The glint in his eye was, I believe, a tear.

From "The Secret Chord" by Geraldine Brooks. Published on October 6, 2015 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Geraldine Brooks.


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