Schooled in Depravity ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
John the Baptist was brought before King Herod Antipas and his wife, Herodias. He was disheveled from the rough treatment he had received at the hands of his captors, but he maintained his dignity and his composure. If he was afraid of what King Herod was going to do to him, he didn’t show it.
King Herod looked John up and down, a sneer on his lips. “Are you the Messiah everybody keeps talking about?” he asked.
“No, I’m not him,” John said. “He’s coming, though.”
“How do you know this?”
“How do I know the sun is shining? I know because it is.”
“The man is impertinent,” Herodias said.
“I hear you are a troublemaker,” King Herod said. “You preach sedition wherever you go.”
“Only peace,” John said.
“I hear you are dangerous.”
“I am but a voice crying in the wilderness.”
“You are a reckless cur!” Herodias spat out. “You should bow down before your master. You should kiss the hem of his garment and beg his forgiveness!”
“I have but one master,” John said quietly.
“What are we going to do with him?” King Herod said to himself, but out loud so everybody could hear him.
“Let’s burn him over a slow fire and hear him beg for mercy,” Herodias said.
“Is not your cup of abomination already full enough, woman?” John said.
“Are you going to let him speak to me that way?” Herodias screeched at her husband.
Salome, step-daughter of King Herod, heard the commotion and knew something interesting was going on. She entered the room and stood beside her mother, Herodias.
“I heard you just insult my mother, the queen,” Salome said to John, a cruel smile on her lips.
“I just spoke what is the truth,” John said. “It’s time somebody did.”
“Don’t you know it’s dangerous to insult the queen, the wife of Herod Antipas?”
“When I look at you, child,” John said to Salome, “I see someone who is not yet entirely rotted through with the corruption that permeates this place and these people.”
“What kind of talk is this?” Salome said with a laugh. “It sounds as if you’re giving me some kind of a warning.”
“I am giving you a warning, child, for your own sake. Leave this wicked place tonight while there’s still a chance for you. Leave and never look back. I see when I look at you that you haven’t yet crossed the threshold that these others have crossed. They are beyond redemption, while for you there is still some hope because you are so young.”
“And if I left my home and my mother, just where would I go?” Salome asked.
“The Lord will guide you in your path if you let Him.”
“I have never heard such crazy talk in all my life!” Herodias said. “I say we kill him before he lives one more day. I say we have him tortured and listen to his bones crack!”
“No,” King Herod said quietly.
“What? Do you mean you’re going to let him live?”
“I mean I haven’t yet decided what I’m going to do with him. I want to keep him alive for now until we see how this thing with the Messiah plays out.”
“You coward!” Herodias shrieked. “You’re afraid of him! You’re afraid that the stories you’ve heard of him might be true. You believe he wields some kind of mysterious power that he might use against you.”
“Hold your tongue, woman,” King Herod said, “or I will make you wish you were never born.”
As the guards led John away to the dungeon, Salome watched him go. “I don’t like him,” she said. “He makes my blood turn to ice water.”
That night, when Salome was alone in her bedchamber, she couldn’t stop thinking about John. She imagined him beside her in her bed, his huge hands running over her body, his lips on hers. The thing about John, she realized, was that he moved her in some mysterious way that she didn’t understand. She hated the power he seemed to have over her but also in a way found it thrilling.
The next day was King Herod’s birthday. A huge feast was held in the palace with dozens of honored guests. The food was rich and abundant and the wine flowed freely. There were musicians, dancing girls, acrobats, even a trained bear. King Herod knew how to throw a memorable party.
All during the festivities, King Herod kept his back to Herodias and pointedly ignored her. He was disappointed in her as a wife. She was far too outspoken for her own good or for his; he cringed at the sound of her voice. She was becoming more and more like a thorn in his side that he couldn’t remove.
Salome, on the other hand, was becoming lovelier every day. She had left girlhood behind and was now a woman with a mind and a will of her own. For beauty and cunning, she could match any woman twice her age.
King Herod kept drinking more and more wine. The drunker he became, the more he abandoned caution. “Why don’t you dance for us, Salome,” he said, unable to take his eyes from her. “For me?”
Herodias bristled at these words, but Herod didn’t notice.
“I don’t feel like dancing,” Salome said petulantly.
“There is nothing I would like better at this moment than to see you dance,” King Herod said.
“Why should I?”
“Because your king requests it and today is the anniversary of your king’s birth. Won’t you grant your king a birthday wish?”
“What will you give me?”
“I’ll give you my entire kingdom.”
“And what would I do with it?”
“I have riches that your mother doesn’t even know about, jewels as big as a goose’s egg. They are yours if you will but dance for me.”
“Ho-hum,” Salome said comically, drawing a laugh from those who heard her.
“Anything I have, anything I can get, is yours.”
“You will give me anything?”
“You can name your price.”
Everybody knew that King Herod was being foolish but they watched in silent fascination to see what was going to happen. How far would he go to get Salome to dance?
She stood up and assumed a dance posture, her face covered by a veil. As if it had all been rehearsed, the musicians began playing a dance tune.
Salome danced seductively for the assembled guests but especially for King Herod. She swiveled her hips, put her arms in the air, moved her head from side to side. She used her veils to great effect to show off her face and her body. She bent forward and balanced herself on her hands; backward and joined her head with the floor as if she had no bones in her body. She shimmied and she shook. She moved all about the room so as to be seen by everybody; there was no eye that wasn’t upon her. She demonstrated a skill and dexterity that nobody believed her capable of.
When she came to the end of her dance, everyone was silent with awe. King Herod stood up and held out his arms to her and she ran into them.
“That was heavenly!” he said. “It was divine! I’ve never seen anything lovelier. You may name your price, my child, and, no matter what it is, it will not be too great!”
“I’ll tell you what I want,” she said, speaking out so everybody could hear her.
“Yes, what is it, my child?”
“I want the head of John the Baptist on a plate!”
King Herod was surprised at her request. He thought at first she was making a joke. He had offered her untold riches. Why would she want a trophy as grisly as a severed head?
“I don’t think I heard you correctly, my dear. What was that you said you wanted?”
“You heard what I said and so did everybody else.”
“This is the thing you want above all others?”
“I said so, didn’t I?”
“And what will you do with the head of John the Baptist when it is presented to you?”
“I want to look at it.”
“Are you prepared to deal with the consequences, no matter what they are?”
“Yes, yes,” she said with an impatient gesture.
King Herod clapped his hands to summon the guard. He instructed two of his most loyal and obedient men to go below with a large sword and forthwith bring forward the head of John the Baptist on a plate to present to his step-daughter, Salome.
Within minutes, two men came into the banquet hall bearing a tray between them. On the tray was the severed head of John the Baptist. King Herod motioned for them to set the tray on the table on which he and the others had earlier been eating.
Salome approached the head slowly, her eyes glittering with bloodlust. She had never been happier in her life than she was at that moment. She picked up the head by its hair in both hands, the neck dripping warm blood. She looked into the half-closed eyes and kissed the dead lips passionately. The assembled guests, schooled in depravity as they were, were utterly enchanted. It was the best birthday party they had ever seen.
Copyright © 2012 by Allen Kopp