Fort Jezreel, Israel, 871 BC
1 Kings 17:1
Elijah stepped off the Beitshan-Megiddo road and tramped into a grove of oaks. “We’re here, Lord. A few words for the king?”
Rocking from foot to foot, he pressed his fingers against the crusted gash on his forehead. Behind him, squirrels rustled leaves, and overhead a hoopoe called oop-oop-oop.
The Lord stayed silent.
Elijah shed his cloak and tugged Dad’s moth-eaten goatskin from his pack. He slid the rough hide over his tunic and chuckled as his knees and elbows poked out at the edges. He stepped out of the oaks. A breeze ruffled his scraggly new beard, and he squinted against the afternoon sun. He took in a deep breath, let it escape through his open mouth, and held his hand against his swollen jaw. “Well, Lord, words or no words, here goes.”
He fell into step beside a farmer leading a donkey with huge sacks of beets and cabbage dangling from its sides.
Elijah gulped twice, working up saliva. “Good morning, sir. The Lord be with you.”
The farmer smiled. “And with you, son.”
Elijah raised an eyebrow. He could do this.
Geese blocked his way, but a girl who looked no older than seven poked at them with a long stick. “In the gate, ladies.” A goose waddled up the rise to the fort, and the whole honking gaggle hurried after.
Elijah followed them over the plank bridge and peeked through the gate. Mounds of pomegranates, cabbage, and melons announced market day.
The little girl settled her honkers among clusters of geese tied by the wing and watched by four little girls holding long sticks. Next to the goose girls, six women sat on goatskins by woven-reed cages of clucking chickens.
Shoppers stepped around puddles from the recent shower.
Elijah inhaled the wondrous mix of aromas—smoke, dirt, sweat, manure, fur, feathers.
At the far end of the busy street, in front of the king’s compound, shields flashed in the sun. Did they guard the king? “Good timing. Now what about words?”
The goose girls looked up at Elijah and giggled.
Elijah raised his chin and marched toward the cluster of guards. The shaggy goatskin flapped, his elbows and knees pushed at his tunic, and titters followed each stride.
Were guards listening? Would they let him see the king? Sheerah’s tease echoed in his head. “You can’t just say, ‘God’s gonna get you.’”
The words, Lord. What are the words?
As he marched up to the oval of shields, laughter followed.
From behind three tight rows of shields came a barked command. “Open!” Three shields swung left and three right.
Elijah clamped his fingers over his open mouth.
The handsome cheekbones and bright black eyes which peered out at him looked so much like Jubal, the eldest son of the blacksmith, that Elijah glanced at the hands. No dirt under the fingernails. No callouses. Soft, with a jeweled ring on the middle finger of the right hand. The king’s face flickered into a smirk and then, as he lifted his hand to shield his eyes from the sun, a puzzled frown.
Elijah closed his mouth. He checked his escape route to the gate and planted his feet next to the guards. “They won’t touch me,” he had bragged to Mother.
Um, Lord, these guys look fast. A head start would be nice.
With one hand braced on a knee and the other shoved against his aching jaw, he stared into the king’s eyes. “As the Lord lives—the God of Israel whom I stand and serve—for these next years we will have neither dew nor rain unless I say so.”
While the king’s frown turned beet-red, Elijah sprang toward the gate, but a donkey turned across his path, and he smacked into its load of onions. “Uhn!” The air left Elijah’s lungs.
“Grab that kid!”
The load tipped, and the donkey sidestepped.
Elijah took two quick breaths.
The woman leading the donkey whirled, but before she found words to describe his clumsiness or the morality of his ancestors, Elijah grabbed the heavy onion sacks and pulled them back to the center of the packsaddle. He patted the donkey’s rump and spoke in the same tone he used while adjusting loads on Balak or Balaam. “Sorry, fella. Better now?”
Shouts came from behind Elijah. “Grab that goatskin!”
He dashed for the gate and slammed into a cart of prickly pears. Elijah pulled up with his knees pushed hard against the side board and his arms arched over the load. “Ah!” He rolled away from the forest of tiny spines and rested his hand on the rump of the donkey which pulled the cart.
Behind him, guards thumped and bumped through the crowd. “Grab that kid!”
On the right, two solid-looking men grinned at him from beside a heavy cart. The shorter one extended a large basket of apples to Elijah. “One silver.”
On the left, four little boys tossed sacks onto a wagon high with pomegranates.
“Grab that kid in the goatskin!”
Elijah patted the rump of the donkey hitched to the prickly pears. “Excuse me.” He dove under the belly, and his knee slid through a pile of fresh droppings. Hmm…. Better than a sharp rock. He poked his head out the other side.
A mother with a baby on her back jumped away and tugged two dirty-faced children with her.
The children screamed and grabbed their mother’s knees.
As Elijah scooted past, most of the donkey dung fell to the ground.
“He’s getting away.”
Elijah lunged for the gate, but a load of melons hung from both sides of a donkey standing in the opening.
“Hey, you. Stop!”
He nodded to the donkey’s owner, stood tall, sucked in his belly, and squeezed sideways past the bulging sacks. His sandals slapped the plank bridge, and he dashed down the grade into the trees. He ripped off the goatskin, jammed it into his pack, and stepped into the flow of travelers toward Beitshan.
From the gate—“Find that goatskin. He hasn’t gone far.”
He passed person after person but kept his mouth closed, his eyes on the road—no longer Dad’s friendly wine salesman.
Elijah laughed. “Thanks for the head start, Lord. But, ‘neither dew nor rain unless I say so’?” He shook his head.
A quiet voice in his head answered. “Go east and hide yourself by the Jordan by the brook Kerith. Drink from the brook; I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.”
Elijah gave three quick shakes of the head. “Ha! Hear that, Lord? Something about ravens feeding me. Not to worry, okay? I’m not falling for any voice-in-the-head tricks.” He stretched his long legs into an easy lope toward the river. The sun still rode high, so he should be home well before dawn to help Nathan load wineskins.
Under an acacia tree several paces ahead, a tall, skinny boy stood, ambled out, and blocked the path. “‘Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following you.’”
Elijah’s jaw fell open, and he threw his arms around Nathan. “Hey, you big pile of knees and elbows.”
Elijah squeezed, let him go, and stepped back. Only this morning, Nathan had stared at the floor with his mouth glued shut. And nine hours later, he felt good enough to quote scripture. But why was he barefoot?
Elijah squinted. “Your sandals.”
He patted his bag and stared past Elijah, toward the fort. “What about the soldiers?”
“Forget those guys. I’m putting your sandals on you.” Elijah pulled Nathan over to the acacia tree and pushed him onto a rock seat. He lifted Nathan’s foot. “Bad bruise. Did you kick a stone?” He frowned at the bottom of the foot. “Why didn’t Dad put your sandals on you?”
Nathan leaned back and let out a loud breath. “You think he wants to lose two sons in one day?”
Elijah looked up, stretched and shook out his arms. “Maybe not.”
He grimaced at Nathan’s other foot. “Your feet must really hurt, Nate.” He sucked in a quick breath. His big brother had hiked half a day—barefoot. To check up on him? To join him? Elijah placed both hands on Nathan’s shoulders and searched his face. “Is everybody okay? Why did you come?”
“Everyone is fine.” Nathan’s eyes flickered. “I came for Omar. I came for you.” A tear welled up, and he turned to watch a warbler on the upper limb of an oak flip its long, tapered tail.
Omar. Elijah shivered as the baby’s scream echoed in his head.
Nathan cringed. “How’s the jaw, little brother? That goon knocked me out, but he tore your face apart.”
“It’s still sore.” Elijah laced Nathan’s sandals and then his tunic.
“Thank you! Let’s get going.” Nathan grasped his elbow, turned him east, and limped along beside him.
Without breaking stride, Elijah reached over and slugged Nathan on the arm. “Hey, I’ve got a fig and half a piece of bread.” The voice in his head had said ravens would feed him, but Elijah shook off the thought. “You bring anything to eat?”
“Raisins. And a few flatbreads.”
Nathan patted his bag. “Plus, water. We can refill our skins at the brook.”
“The Kerith. Tastes better than the river.”
The Kerith again. Had they tried that voice-in-the-head on Nathan? Elijah stopped. “Nate, you don’t understand. We’re going home.”
Nathan yanked him toward the Jordan. “We are not going home.”