33. Bernice

But Zim bounced to his feet. “We got any more apples?”


Zarephath, Sidon, 869 BC

1 King 17:17-23

Elijah sagged against Nathan. What had happened up in the room? Zim’s body had been stiff. And now… was this Zim chomping on an apple, grinning in his face, marching to the door and the veranda and back? Elijah slid to the floor.

Nathan pushed a goatskin to Elijah with his foot and plopped on a skin next to him. “‘The Lord is great and greatly to be praised.’”

“Mph.” Elijah bowed his head in his hands.

Zim eased onto the dining skin next to his mother. “I think I’m ready for a nap.” He put his head in her lap and closed his eyes.

Elijah sat up on his goatskin and leaned toward the mother and son.

Zim’s skin glowed pink. His chest rose and fell in perfect rhythm.

“Sleeping.” The widow turned to Elijah. “Would you make us some breakfast, son? Give Neetz something to eat. Then Nathan should take her home to tell her mother and father.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He jumped up.

Neetz took quick strides beside Elijah onto the veranda. “Let me make the flatbreads.” She reached for the flour barrel. “Zim’s always saying you’ve got plenty of flour and oil.”

From the doorway, Nathan watched Neetz kneading flour and Elijah striking sparks into leaves.

“Boys.” The widow called. “What about Uncle Hashabiah’s waterskins?”

Elijah lifted his head toward Nathan. “They won’t stay hidden under those vines for long.”

“You boys go.” Neetz turned to Nathan. “I’ll see that Zim and his mother have something to eat.”

Elijah tossed two apples to Nathan.

The widow sat up straight, holding Zim’s head and shoulders in her lap. “Wait, son.”

Elijah turn and dropped by her on one knee. “Yes, ma’am.”

“The Lord sent you to us.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Elijah drew his eyebrows together. “We’re all grateful to have Zim back.”

“And the Lord puts truth in your mouth.” The widow continued.

“Thank you, ma’am.”

She turned to Neetz and then to Zim. “See that you remember this.” She patted him on the wrist. “Go now, boys.”

Elijah rose. To Neetz and the widow, he was a boy. To Hashabiah, a man. He ran fingers through his scraggly whiskers. If he could grow a thick, dark beard like Nathan’s and a barrel chest like Dad’s, then he would be a man.

Elijah extracted a pair of stale flatbreads from his pack, poured two cups of red wine, and handed one to Nathan. On the way downstairs he wrapped an arm around his brother. “I could load the waterskins by myself, but we need to talk.”

Elijah led his donkey out the south gate of Zarephath and tipped his turban to shield his eyes from the sun peeking over the distant mountain. He flexed his fingers several times and scanned the garden plots. No black tunics out for a stroll, so no need to hunker down.

Nathan led his donkey beside him. “So, what do we need to talk about?” He flopped an arm around Elijah’s shoulders. “And where did you dump those waterskins?”

“Straight ahead in the center.” Elijah ran his tongue along his lips. He ducked out from under Nathan’s arm and hopped sideways in the path to face him. “When are you going to tell Neetz about Bernice?” He flipped back to a normal stride.

Nathan took several silent paces then shrugged. “I’ve met no one by that name.”

“Well, Mother and Dad have, and Neetz deserves to know about her.” He left the garden plots and entered the vineyard. “Two rows to the right.” Elijah pointed to the pile of waterskins.

A family of white-faced chukars lowered their coral beaks and scuttled under several rows of grapevines on their tiny pink legs. With a roar of wings, they fluttered over ten or more rows, settled among the vines, and sent strings of chuck-chuck-chuck back to Elijah.

“Listen to me, Nate. Neetz is not just another girl gawking at your handsome mug. You see how she cares for Zim. Helps the widow. Okay, so she comes across a little bossy. But you can’t let a girl like her think you’re available when Dad has promised you to—”

“To the daughter of some childhood friend he hasn’t talked with in eleven years. Who may or may not live off in some place I’ve never seen.”

Nathan halted his donkey at Elijah’s pile of waterskins. “Looks like nobody bothered these.”

A light breeze off the ocean ruffled the vines and touched Elijah. He lowered his turban to shade his neck from the rising sun.

Nathan tossed a skin to Elijah. “I don’t think this Bythiah person exists.”

“Bernice.” Elijah dropped the skin into a pannier. “Mother and Dad think she exists.”

He pulled the donkey closer to Nathan. “Every time they talk about the butcher’s family in Ramoth, Dad turns to you and says, ‘and his beautiful daughter, Bernice.’”

Nathan sighed. “Well, there’s no reason to get your loin cloth in a knot.” He handed Elijah more skins. “Dad hasn’t seen his friends in Ramoth for eleven years. Maybe a plague wiped them out. Or marauding bands from Arabia captured their daughter. Or carried away the whole family.”

Elijah swiveled south to hide his surprise. Which was Nathan hoping for—plague or marauders?

“Plus you have to understand Neetzevet,” Nathan continued. “That classy lady has no lasting interest in a country boy.”

Elijah whipped back around and froze over a pannier. “Country boy?”

“Hashabiah’s shipping business makes him one of the wealthiest men in Sidon.” Nathan reached for two more skins. “You heard him boast, ‘My daughter reads and writes both Hebrew and Aramaic.’” Nathan shifted his feet and gazed back at the south gate. “For a bookworm, she sure is good looking.”

Elijah took the two waterskins from him. Maybe country boy vs. unattainable lady was the way to keep Neetz from stealing his brother. “She’s kind too. For a lady with so much money and high culture, she treats us all… is ‘decently’ the right word?”

Nathan grunted. “Decent, kind … and beautiful.”

When the waterskins rested in the panniers, Elijah pushed hair off his brow. “And another thing. Because you look so much like your handsome brother, the king wants to lift your head from your shoulders. You wouldn’t want to risk Neetz’s life. Not that a woman of her wealth would be interested, but it might not be healthy for her—or her father and brothers—to be associated with you.”

“Mmm.”

“And if we need to make a run for it, it wouldn’t be fair to Neetz—or any girl—to expect her to skedaddle at your side.”

“Message delivered.” Nathan slapped the waterskins and turned toward the city. “Can we go home?”

“Right, Nate. Home.” Okay, so Nathan had heard all he wanted to hear about Neetz. “Zim’s got the right idea. I need a nap.” But how well could Elijah rest with his brother attracted to this girl? And how would Nathan handle working beside her tomorrow?i

When Elijah arrived at the widow’s house with Nathan and the waterskins, a wide-eyed Hashabiah greeted them at the door. “I came back as soon as I could. I can’t believe it. ‘We poor men cried, and the Lord heard us. He delivered Zim out of his trouble.’ The Lord brought our Zim back from the dead!”

“Yes, sir.” Nathan grinned and shook his head. “We’re all amazed.”

Neetz moved to Nathan’s side and turned her face up to him. “Nathaniel sent Zim upstairs cold and gray, but Elijah brought him down warm and kicking.”

Zim jumped up and latched onto Hashabiah’s arm. “Sat on me. Choked the life out of me.”

Hashabiah grinned and shook his head. “I’ll take Neetz home.” At the door, he turned back. “Her brother will have her here at dawn.”

The next morning, a junior version of Hashabiah brought Neetz to the gate. Firm jaw, hair and beard trimmed. Plain gray turban. “Glad to meet you, Nathan, Elijah. It’s no problem for me to escort Neetz through town. We’re all happy she’s learning the vineyard from the ground up.”

Elijah licked his lips. “Thank you.” As Neetz’s brother departed, Elijah raised an eyebrow at Nathan. So the beautiful heiress was roughing it in the hot sun to learn how to manage her wing of the Hashabiah business empire.

Elijah turned to the little group of irrigators, “As I was saying before that scorpion bit Zim, the vines may not look much better at first, yet if we keep hauling, the water will save them. We’re still a little tired, but let’s rescue as many as we can today.”

“And everybody watch where you step,” Zim added. “If there’s another death talker out there, we don’t wanta find it.”

“Stalker.” Nathan whispered. “Deathstalker.”

After six trips hauling water from the spring, Elijah paused in the center of the vines. The huge orange globe of the sun hovered low over the sea. “Everybody’s waterskins are empty. Let’s call it a day. We don’t want to keep Neetz’s brother waiting.”

At the end of the week, Elijah tossed an empty waterskin into his donkey’s pannier and turned to Nathan, “What would you think about hauling with more donkeys?”

iOptions from Sherry “It had almost been too easy. Did Nathan mean it? Easy for him to say at night, what about tomorrow when Nathan had to work beside Neetz, and every day after that?”

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