[move a lot of this to his courtyard conversation with Gera.] “I never knew I was bringing in slave traders.” Biah spoke to his chariot driver. “But I made money for the king with olive oil, he built his palace in the Samaria town square, and Jezebel followed with her Asherah temple.”
Biah hired Gera the first day King Omri sent him to get his olive oil business going. Gera treated Biah like a younger brother. His son, Baruch, called him Uncle Biah. He went to Baruch’s wedding and helped little Tola take his first steps.
Gera showed Biah and the other managers everything he knew about keeping olive trees healthy and pressing oil. He became chief manager as naturally as olives grow on trees.
And now Biah went to tell him that Baruch lay on the doorstep with his throat cut. The idea should be outlawed. The words should remain uncoined. Biah’s pain went deep.
Gera met them on the path. One glance, and his face turned white. “Where are your guards?”
The guards stood at the gate to protect Hodiah and Keren from curious eyes, but they could not protect Baruch from the queen’s slavers. Biah groaned and got down from the chariot. “With Hodiah.”
Biah opened his mouth, but nothing came out. He lowered his head and gave it a slight shake. He took two deep breaths and looked up. His eyes filled with tears.
Gera seized Biah’s tunic and shook him. “Where’s Baruch?”
“Baruch is dead. Slave traders.”
Gera grasped the rail of the chariot and eased himself down. He sat on the chariot floor with his feet flat on the ground. His shoulders drooped, and he buried his face in his hands while his sobs shook the chariot. “I love that boy.”
Biah sat beside Gera and felt his sobs. Finally he stood, and a piece of him died as he pulled Gera to his feet. “Let me take you home.”
As the chariot pulled up to the trees in front of Gera’s house, he jumped off, pushed neighbors aside, and dashed up the path to his. He knelt and laid his palm against Baruch’s purple cheek. “My boy. My boy. Look what they’ve done to you.”
Many of these paragraphs feel choppy. Need smooth connections.
He looked up at Hodiah and Keren. He took a deep breath and stood. He draped an arm around Hodiah with Tola in her arms and pulled them to him. Keren brought Kvellar into the embrace, and Gera clung to them all as they sobbed.
Gera released his family and tugged on Biah’s sleeve. “Biah, I need you to help me put my son in the ground.” He knelt and put his arms under Baruch’s chest. Biah stooped and picked up Baruch’s knees. They carried him into the house.
Biah tipped his head toward his chief guard. “We need warm water.” In the courtyard cooking pit, the guards built a fire and heated water in the family’s cast-iron pot.
In the house, Biah and Gera laid Baruch on a long board and covered him with a white sheet.
The guards carried in clay jars of warm water.
Hodiah and Keren stood outside and held Tola and Kvellar in their arms. The women wept, and the babies watched the guard carry jars in and out of the house.
Biah and his guard stood Baruch upright while Gera poured warm water over his entire body. He wiped Baruch dry and opened the clothing chest.
“Keren, maybe you know his best tunic?”
She came in with Kvellar on her arm, pulled two tunics aside, and held up a third. “This is his best.” She stood outside again at the door.
Biah and his guard held Baruch as Gera slipped the tunic over him and laced it at the neck. They laid Baruch back on the board.
Gera grabbed a shovel and marched into the outer courtyard. At the corner of the tool storage wing of his house, he turned right. He leaned the shovel against the wall and wiped tears on his sleeve. Then he grabbed the shovel with both hands and stabbed it into the ground. He stepped back, stumbled, and stood straight again. With his foot on the shovel, he pushed it into the ground.
Biah found a shovel. In his most terrible nightmare, he never dreamed he’d be digging a grave for Baruch. He helped dig out the top layer of soil while wept beside Gera.
When the hole was about a hand deep, the chief guard held a shovel in his hand and touched Gera on the arm. “Let me and my men dig the rest of this.”
The bodyguards removed the soil, making a hole more than knee deep.
Gera walked beside the guards as they carried Baruch on the board, from the house to the grave.
Hodiah placed a hand on her husband’s arm. “Wait.” She cocked her head to one side and made her way into the house. In a few moments she returned and handed a linen scarf to Keren. She lifted Baruch’s head, and Keren tied the scarf around his neck, so that it covered the wound in his throat.
The guards lowered Baruch into the grave. Gera kept a hand on Baruch’s chest and guided him in with words from the psalm.
He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High
shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.
He stood straight and locked eyes with Hodiah as he grasped his lapel and tore the cloth. Hodiah and Keren, Biah and his guards then tore their lapels and threw in handfuls of dirt.
Hodiah stood and wept as she rocked Kvellar in her arms. Keren stood next to her and gripped Tola’s hand. She dabbed a cloth at her face and then reached toward Hodiah’s cheeks. The older woman sniffled. “Thank you, dear. I want to scream.”
Keren pulled Tola up into her arms. “We have every right to scream, Mother.”
Gera picked up a shovel and scowled at Biah. “The last thing I get to do for my boy.” Biah grabbed another shovel, and together they filled the grave and mounded the dirt.
The sun hovered low over the Mediterranean. The two men sat on goatskins near the door to the house, on the hard-packed clay of the courtyard. The babies clambered over them.
“Uncle Biah, this is my wife, Cozbi. Uncle Gera, you know Cozbi.”
“Pleased to meet you, Cozbi.” Both men rose from their seats.
Gera sucked in a quick breath and glanced at the gate.
Biah eyed Ulam. Did this young man not realize the queen had spies everywhere? Especially where people mourned a young man who challenged her slave traders.
Each day the following week, Biah and his men inspected the king’s olive groves and oil presses. Each evening they sat with Gera’s family. If Ulam returned, perhaps he could convince him that caution is not cowardice. [what else is he thinking?].
On the fifth day of the week, Biah did not inspect groves. Instead, he brought his men to Gera’s house at mid-morning. “I would like to spend today with you, for tomorrow I return to the fort to bring in the Sabbath with Yedidah and our children.”
Two guards carried the family’s one table into the outer courtyard. The chariot driver set a roast leg of mutton and a jar of pickled cucumbers on the table. The guards brought baskets of apples and grapes, bags of figs, and fresh bread—and a goatskin of red wine.
Biah raised his palm to Gera. “Not a word, my friend. Please. It is our ancient custom during these seven days to bring food to the family.”
A guard at the head of the long, low table invited visitors to eat, and with a broom the same guard shooed away curious goats and chickens.
Biah took an apple from the table and joined Gera by the door. Hodiah and Keren sat opposite, next to the wing of the house which held fodder for goats and sheep. Keren finished feeding Tola and pulled Kvellar to her breast, both her hands visible on the child’s back, the hands that had tried to cover the slash in Baruch’s throat.
Biah sucked in a breath. What if the slavers had slit his own throat while Yedidah was carrying their third child? They lived in an army headquarters apartment, ate goose from the king’s kitchen, and dressed their children in clean tunics. But if Yedidah had returned to their village as a young widow, she would carry water to a cave in the hill and beg from house to house to feed her unwashed little ones.
Biah set the apple down untouched.
Kvellar burped against his mother’s shoulder. When she let him down, he crawled straight onto Biah’s lap. As the big hands cupped the tiny back and bottom, Biah’s breathing relaxed.
He turned to Gera. “How long did Baruch manage olive groves? Seems like he started when Omri was King.”
“You know, he always took us where an invasion of parasites was trying to get a foothold. Baruch felt like he had to show us the wrong, so we could make it right.” He raise his eyebrows at a guard, and the guard nodded at him and then at the others. Biah nestled baby Kvellar against his chest. “Sometimes he led me far outside the grove to a hole where he buried diseased olives he pulled off the trees. Baruch hid nothing. He wanted everything in plain sight.”
Gera looked at his wife. “He even told his mother when he thought there was too much salt in the stew, didn’t he, dear? That boy couldn’t hold back.”
Her lips spread in a weak smile. “Our Baruch has a way of letting the truth bubble out.”
Keren cleared her throat and glanced up at Hodiah. “I can’t talk like he’s gone, either, Mother.” She pulled Tola onto her lap. “I know how it happened.” Her eyes went to Hodiah and then to Gera. “The day before…” A sniffle stopped her. She shifted Tola against her shoulder, took a breath, and began again in a new, louder tone.
“The day before the queen’s men killed my husband.” Heads in the outer courtyard turned, and she set her jaw. “It was all bubbling out of him and Ulam and their friends about how the Lord hates Asherah.” She glanced up at faces in the courtyard. “Quoting Moses about smashing temples. So, when my Baruch. Saw that poor little girl. Lying in the dirt. He could not hold back. He spouted off like always.”
Hodiah nodded. “A bubbler. That’s our Baruch. Opens his mouth and spouts truth.” She laid a hand on Keren’s arm. “We can talk like he’s still with us if we want to.”
Biah stood. “We will remember Baruch as a bubbler.” He looked down. A dead bubbler. Baruch was honest, but if he had been more careful, he might be alive.
He handed Kvellar to Hodiah. “Thank you, dear. I give you back this child for the moment, and next time I’m in Samaria I hope to hold him again. I’m taking my men to our rooms, for we leave at dawn. Dear, dear friends, goodbye for now.” Biah reached for Gera’s hand.
A man burst through the gate. “Ulam! They killed Ulam!”
Biah sat on the ground like the man had struck him in the chest.
Keren dropped Tola in Gera’s lap. “Hold that child. Cozbi needs me.”
She grasped two bodyguards by the arms. “You’re coming with me.” They looked at Biah. He opened his mouth, and Keren shoved them toward the gate.
She jerked her mother-in-law to her feet. “Come!” The two women grabbed the messenger and scuttled out the gate with him between them.
In the new quiet of the inner courtyard, Biah and Gera took slow breaths.
Kvellar squirmed. Biah sat up and pulled the child to his chest.
Tola captured Gera’s thumbs, but Gera stroked the baby’s cheek with a forefinger. “Count on being here a while. She won’t be back until she feels her milk ready for these two she left in our charge.”
Biah let out a breath. “Why, Lord?”
Biah rubbed his temples. Two precious young men murdered by order of the queen. Bubblers. Spouters of truth. Wasn’t the Lord supposed to protect the righteous? And the queen. “Oh, Lord!” He stopped, his head rocked back, and his hands flew up. “Deliver us from these evil, evil people.”
His hands fell across his chest. He hugged himself and rocked in place. He repeated familiar words of anguish. “‘Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble, Lord?’”
Gera rocked the child in his arms and continued the psalm. “‘In his arrogance the wicked hunts down the weak. From ambush he murders the innocent.’ Good words, Biah, but they didn’t help Baruch or Ulam. They had no one to protect them.”
Biah groaned. He turned to Gera, hands open as if to were the assembled elders at the city gate. “So these good men hide in the hedgerows. They can’t… they won’t keep quiet. Children of my friends. And they starve.” His shoulders drooped. “How many more boys will not remain quiet, but let the truth bubble out?”
“That’s what the queen is asking, Biah. And her thugs will hunt them down. Plenty of good people would like to protect them, but someone has to take charge.” Gera’s hints landed like anvils.