From across the vines, the last breeze of the night brought the scent of donkey fur and fresh droppings. East of the hill, light streaked up in beauty undimmed by the pain in his jaw. Children in the far north must be pausing to smell their own animals and watch the same light grow into dawn. The Lord cared about little girls in the north as much as little girls in Gilead.
A pair of Elijah’s donkeys stood nose-to-tail and toothed one another on the back. The Lord saw Red and his partner with their heads together. He heard their plans but did nothing.
A few donkeys sucked water from the narrow stream in the southeast corner of the pen, and a few nosed around the feed trays lipping at small drifts of hay. But instead of his old friends, Balak and Bilaam, the faces of little girls swam before Elijah.
The hopeless pain in their eyes sapped his strength. His knees gave way. He reached for the gate but missed. He sank and pounded his knuckles in the dirt. “Are you blind, Lord? Okay. I know better. But really—”
Nathan strode out of the house in his bare feet with his sandals in his hands. “Load ’em up, Lijah. Twenty skins of Tishbe wine for Dad’s friends in Jabesh.” He paused. “What’s wrong?”
“Those little girls.” Elijah sat in the dirt.
Nathan’s voice dimmed. “I kept seeing their faces all night.” He reached for Elijah’s hand and pulled him to his feet. “And Dad says Moab’s been importing girls for years, but you and I weren’t out on the highway to see it.”
Elijah stared at the dirt. “The world’s wrong, Nate. And the Lord isn’t fixing it. Sandals, please.”
“Well, of course it is, little brother.” Nathan dropped his sandals by a stool.
“Who can straighten what the Lord made crooked? Hang on. One of those needs a new lace.” Nathan strode over to the shed at one end of the donkey pen and came out with a lace in his hand. He put a foot on the stool and handed the lace to Elijah.
Elijah inserted the new lace and tied Nathan’s sandal. “Why doesn’t the Lord send a whirlwind and toss those slavers into the ocean?”
Nathan took his foot down and put up the other. “Tell me why my fingers don’t tie laces, and I’ll tell you why the Lord doesn’t blow slave traders away.”
“Milkah?” Nathan wiggled his eyebrows. “Who said anything about Milkah?”
Elijah stood and tied Nathan’s tunic while the beginnings of a smile played at the corners of his mouth. “I’m going to marry Milkah.”
“You wish.” Nathan rolled his eyes. “Why should she marry a village boy when she can have the butcher’s son in Jabesh? He wears silk tunics and already has a beard.”
“Oh yeah? That beard better not come sniffing around these hills. If I even catch him on the ridge, I’ll… I’ll…” Elijah narrowed his eyes, and a donkey brayed from the pen.
“Uh-huh. That’s what you’ll do all right.” Nathan put Elijah in a headlock and ground knuckles on his skull / head.
Elijah ducked away. He whipped his fist up and stopped it against Nathan’s jaw. “We’ve got ten donkeys waiting for wineskins.”
On the main street of Jabesh, at his dad’s side, Elijah led five donkeys loaded with ten wineskins. “Good morning!” He raised his free hand and gave the baker a broad smile. “Morning! Good morning!” He addressed the cobbler, the butcher, the blacksmith. He nodded “Ma’am” to any passing woman, and winked or grinned at every child.
On Dad’s other side, Nathan led five donkeys and stared at the street. Every child in sight called to him. “Morning, Mr. Nathan.” He gave each one a nod and a smile.
Elijah squeezed his dad’s arm.1 “So, Dad, what do you say was David’s greatest moment?”
“The five smooth stones.”
Elijah’s dad nodded. “Why so?”
Elijah laughed. “I thought you were gonna tell the one about Goliath’s four brothers.”
“Nathan outgrew that one. What moment do you choose, Elijah?”
“I like it.” Their dad lifted his chin and his beard rose off his tunic. “My sons are scholars. Keep searching.”
As the mill came in view, Nathan said. “Um, Dad. Wait just a second please.”
Dad paused. “Sure, son.”
Nathan swallowed and scratched his cheek. “Um, well, when you t-told that slave trader, Red, that e-every puller on the trail is your f-friend…”
Elijah pulled on Dad’s other arm. “Yeah, me too. There’s so many pullers on the road, and you’ve you’ve barely met a one in a hundred.”
Dad winked. “Yesterday I was sure glad you boys kept your mouths shut. Come on. Here’s the mill. But I don’t see the miller.”
The miller liked to meet them at the front of the mill and make his bushy white beard bounce with jokes about dad’s too-tall teenage bodyguards. But today he stood at the far back of the mill, and his white beard drooped around a glum face.
Elijah’s dad clasped him by the shoulder. “What do you grind today, my friend?”
“See for yourself.” He jutted his white bush toward a large room. Low walls separated piles of barley, spelt, millet, beans, and lentils. The miller looked down on the largest bin, where a sprinkling of barley lay scattered on the floor.
Elijah pointed to an empty bin. “What’s in here? I mean…”
The miller brought a shaky hand to his forehead. “That’s okay, son. Wheat. There’s no wheat.”
Elijah’s dad gave a deep sigh. For weeks farmers had been talking about the bad wheat crop, but Dad tried to make conversation. “Why so empty?”
The miller played along. “Only six families have brought in wheat, and their flour sold the moment it fell from the wheel.” His shoulders slumped as he turned to Elijah. “I should have enough customers this week to empty one skin.” He sighed. “That’s all, boys. One skin.”
Elijah grabbed one end of a goatskin full of wine and Nathan the other. They eased it off Balak and lugged it behind the counter. As soon as the skin rested on its rack for the miller to draw wine for a customer, Nathan slunk out of the shop to stand with the donkeys.
Elijah, however, stayed and listened to the miller.
“Something’s wrong with our fields, but in Sidon they’ve got an Asherah temple and a Moloch. Their crops are good. Sounds like what we need here in Jabesh.”
How could the miller say such a horrid thing? Elijah took in a sharp breath. “Bu—”
Dad put his hand on Elijah’s arm.
Squeaky voices carried in from the street. “Can I pet Balak, Mr. Nathan? Hi, Mr. Nathan. Can I pet Bilaam?” The miller’s face relaxed. At least the neighborhood children were still normal.
But Elijah’s dad needed answers. “I can’t believe you would want a whorehouse just so you can sell more flour. And a Moloch?” He nodded toward the door to the miller’s family quarters. “What about your grandson? They come with red ink and mark that boy’s wrist. Next week, into the fire. You want to burn your grandson so you can turn a profit?”
The miller scuffed the floor with his sandal. “You make it sound so…. But they only want one child. What are the chances of me drawing the short straw?”
Elijah gasped. Heat flooded his face, and he took a step forward, but Dad squeezed his arm. “You’ve read it, my friend. ‘Anyone who sacrifices children to Moloch — stone him.’”
Out on the street again, Elijah fell into step beside Nathan. “The miller talked about drawing straws for whose baby they feed to Moloch!”
Nathan frowned. “Everybody in Jabesh stuffs the miller with2 Moloch talk. Dad comes to town and pokes holes in it, but Moloch is the only thing our old friend knows.”
The potter greeted them at his shop door. The usual splatter of red clay covered his face and arms, but for once he did not kid Elijah and Nathan about being all knees and elbows. Instead, he waved his powerful clay-covered hands toward his racks of unsold plates and bowls. “No wine for me, boys. I haven’t seen three customers this week, and I don’t expect any next week. I can fire up that kiln all I want, but when the crops fail, people use their old, cracked ware.”
Elijah’s dad cleared his throat and tapped his heel on the packed-earth floor. “Yes. Um. Heard a crazy idea about crops. Said in Sidon they—”
“Sidon. Have you heard about those shops in Sidon?” The potter wiped his hands on a clay-filled rag and turned wide eyes on Elijah’s dad. “All the customers that Asherah temple brings in?”
Elijah zoned into a heavy stare. [trance] Two of Dad’s oldest friends talking Asherah temple.3 The miller in his bushy white beard. The potter from his clay-splattered chin. The skinny camel puller floated in and wiggled his long black beard. “Ready to serve.” Bilaam set up a bray that went on and on.
Before Elijah could burst out at the potter, Nathan gripped his elbow, and Dad gave a short laugh. “Those Sidon merchants are in for a serious letdown. They’ll find out Baal only works when the weather cooperates. What we need is another King Asa. He cut down the Asherah pole that belonged to his own grandmother. Burned it in the Kidron.”
On their way to the fruit and vegetable shop, Elijah huddled by Dad and gripped his belt.4 People passed. He smiled and nodded, but the only faces he saw were on little girls who stared at the heels of the girl ahead.
Elijah’s dad rested a hand on Nathan’s arm. “I wish it were as simple as I told it, but I’m afraid the whoremongers in Sidon will prove me wrong.”
Nathan put his shoulders back. “But you changed the potter’s mind, Dad.”
“Not a chance. Business is so bad, he only thinks about shekels in his hand.”
Elijah came out of his trance enough to complain to Nathan. “It’s rotten. Even Dad’s friends talk like girls are livestock.”
“Give them time to think, Lijah.”
The grocer opened his shop door wide. “My old friends from Tishbe. Come in. Come in.” He gave them a broad smile. Even his droopy eye perked up as bright as the other.
Yet Elijah’s dad placed his hands on his hips and tilted his head back. “We just left the miller and the potter.” He let the words hang in the air while he tapped his foot.
The grocer’s droopy eye closed. He blinked the other eye several times and combed his hand through his beard. “Um, well.” He turned to Elijah. “No wine for me today, boys. Not enough customers. Sorry.” He glanced at Elijah’s dad. “So, yes, the miller and the potter. Don’t suppose you—”
“One skin for the miller. None for the potter.” Elijah’s dad folded his arms across his chest and scowled. “They been talking to you about how to fix the crops? ’Cause you and I’ve had this conversation before.” His scowl turned black.
Elijah’s dad jabbed his finger in the grocer’s chest. “You told me yourself how in Tyre they said crops failed because they only burned six babies and only from poor families.”
The grocer sighed and nodded.
“You know what kind of game he plays.” Dad flared his nostrils and raised his voice. “So, now he burns nine children every spring. You think he won’t touch your family? His control is so tight that he even harvests victims from elite homes. Is that what you want? Toss nine little babies into the fire? Some of them your grandchildren?”
Elijah gasped. Dad had left the friendly wine salesman in the street with Balak and Bilaam. But Nathan held Elijah by the elbow.
The grocer pointed to his shriveled-up apples and rotting cabbages. “It’s not personal, you know. It’s just business.”
Elijah snorted and touched his dad’s arm. Even Nathan’s grip on his elbow could not contain him. He would explode. Dad had to let him speak.
His dad lowered his voice and turned to Elijah. “My old friend can’t hear me.” He stepped aside and gave a broad sweep of his arm toward Elijah. “Will he listen to my son?”
Words flew from Elijah’s mouth. “What do you mean it’s not personal?” He took a step toward the grocer. “You’ve just never heard those tiny babies scream when they throw them into the fire. Maybe you haven’t seen the skin all scraped off the ankles of the little girls the slavers lock into their chains, but I have. And the look in their eyes.”
The grocer cocked his head. “Oh, I wouldn’t expect a boy like you to understand business.”
Elijah’s face burned. “Business? You wanta understand their business?” In one stride, he towered over the grocer. “Go splash his red ink on your own wrist. Jump in his Moloch fire yourself. I got donkeys out front talk more sense than you.”
The grocer flushed. He turned to Elijah’s dad. “You should teach your son to hold his tongue.”
Dad’s nostrils went back to normal size. His smile returned. “Thank you, old friend, but we do not need the horrors of Moloch, and I’ll not ask my son to hold his tongue.”
Elijah closed his mouth until he got out on the street. He grabbed Nathan’s arm. “We have to help those girls.”
“The miller wants to draw straws for whose baby they kill. The potter and the grocer want a Moab whorehouse. Don’t you see? It’s up to us. We’ll get swords and chase those slavers out.”
“We’ll take lessons. I never saw that knife until it was in my face. But we’ll learn. We’ll strike like…like…how’s that go about the Lord’s wind and fire?”
Nathan looked at Dad.
“Go ahead, son.”
Nathan clasped his hand over Elijah’s.
Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind.
Your lightning lit up the world.
The earth trembled and quaked.
“That’s us.” Elijah pumped his fist in the air. “Lightning for the Lord.”
1Space out the arm grabs and add other gestures.
2gives the miller an earful of
3Don’t start with this summary. See Caroline’s CRIT.
4Sounds like a little child. What do you mean here?