King Herod

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Dante descends a pass
and enters desert sand
stretched to a blue horizon
marred by a far brown mound.

He wipes stinging sweat
        from his eyes
makes way toward the smudge
which shimmers as if dancing.

Desolate–lost
love close
        yet beyond
                his
                        reach.

Then beyond a dune
a severed human head
like a stamen in blooded petals
        of sand
gray hair coiled
eyes bright in death
beard crusted and shot
        with scorpions.

Steps away, two Centurions
their helmets pitted and tarnished,
stand as skeleton statues
blood-rusted swords raised
        like an arch
frame the distant rise.
Beneath the swords
a headless torso
wears rotted raiment
        of a king.

“I am Herod the Great, King of Judea.
I built the fortress you see out there.
It’s called Herodium.”

Dante regains his voice.
“You massacred innocents in hopes
        of killing a Savior.”

The parched lips grimace.
“Had Jesus lived
He would have sparked a challenge.”

“So you slew all children
two years and older.
Forced Mary and Joseph to flee
        the manger to Egypt.
There is blood
on your hands and soul
and also on the soul of your son
who ordered the head
of John the Baptist.”

“The sin of a son,” says Herod.
“Now place my head with my body
and take me back to my tomb.”

Dante stares.
“I will not.”
He retreats
shields his face
from sand on wind
and seeks another path.

Herod the Great (also known as Herod I) was a Roman client king of Judea. He has been described as “a madman who murdered his own family and a great many rabbis,” “the evil genius of the Judean nation,” “prepared to commit any crime in order to gratify his unbounded ambition.” He ordered the beheading of John the Baptist.

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