24. Last supper

“Stick with me, Nate.” Such a gracious lady. Had he really said that about flour and oil? He pushed into the crowd and followed the woman through the city gate.


Zarephath, Sidon, 869 BC

1 Kings 17:10-16, Luke 4:25-26

Elijah followed x10! the woman into the first turn inland.i

Nathan lagged behind in the crowd.

The woman followed a side street parallel to the beach, walking among a few scattered couples and several children.

Elijah gawked, his hand to his mouth. Two chariots, each drawn by a pair of horses, could race abreast here. Unlike the dusty paths of Tishbe and Jabesh, stone blocks as long as his forearm paved the street, and limestone walls on both sides rose as high as he could reach.

The aromaii of fish and salt water, along with the muffled rattle of ships’ rigging, tickled his senses. Oak branches stretched from behind the walls, and the fading light played upon more brown leaves than green.

In two long strides Elijah skipped ahead and walked beside the woman.

Nathan rushed up on his other side. “Not so many people on this street. I can breathe.”

The motherly/kind/awesome/strange womaniii glanced across Elijah and smiled at up Nathan. “We’re almost there. My name is Ellisa. What do you boys call yourselves?”

“Elijah, ma’am.” He jerked his thumb at his brother. “And Nathan.”

She nodded and smiled.

He followed the woman past several houses.

She paused at a gate higher than his head. Its wrought iron design sculpted a low, sleek ship with a sail full before the wind. She tripped the latch, nudged the bar, and crossed a small courtyard.

Elijah followed. He breathed in the crisp fall scents and glanced at Nathan tripping along beside him. What had they gotten themselves into?

Instead of the rough-hewn limestones of Tishbe, the wall of the house rose in smooth blocks, each an arm long and a hand high. Tishbites climbed ladders to the second floor, but this house jutted three times as high as Nathan with no ladder in sight.

She twisted a key in the lock as big as her hand, and the lock clunked twice. Grasping the wrought iron handle, she leaned back and tugged open the thick oak door. “Come in, boys.”

As Elijah stepped through, he drifted his fingers over a hinge shaped like the sail of the ship in the courtyard gate. He nudged Nathan. They weren’t in Tishbe anymore.

Nathan pulled the door closed behind them, and Elijah leaned into the opening on the other side of the narrow entryway. On the ground floor at home, Dad’s ten donkeys and seven goats radiated warmth. But dead air touched his cheeks. Instead of the snug odors of hay and manure, a stale smell hung in Elijah’s nose. Donkeys should snort or bump their gates in greeting, but silence came from these stalls.iv

Elijah craned his neck. The mangers stood empty, the gutter clean. Not one donkey or cow poked a nose into the aisle for a nibble or massage.

He stood still. No snorting or blowing of nostrils. No cow chewing her cud. He stroked his eyebrow. Did this kind woman really have nothing?

She tipped her head toward the empty stable. “I sold the cows and donkeys long ago.” The woman turned right and climbed the stairs. “Watch your step.”

Elijah trailed his fingers along the smooth stone walls of the stairway. He bumped his brother with his elbow. Nathan had told him tales of houses with stairs.

The stairs mounted a ramp wide enough for two between the outside wall and a parallel inside wall. A finely worked black slab of basalt capped each step, and a barred window twice as high as Nathan admitted light.

At the second-floor landing a smaller oak door hung on sail-shaped hinges. “Here we are.” She pushed through and beckoned the boys.

Elijah pictured a house for Milkah built of these smooth, straight blocks, and he smiled. He rose on tiptoe. In Tishbe, he could stand flatfooted and touch ceilings, but to reach this one he’d have to sit on Nathan’s shoulders. “Very nice, ma’am!”

“My husband built this house with his own hands. He was a metal worker, and while he was alive, we ate well.”

A small boy with an eager face bounced in and stood next to the widow.

“This is my son, Zimrida.” Her pale lips formed a stiff smile, and she laid her arm along his shoulders. Although she had olive skin with coal-black eyes and curls, the boy had pale skin with light-blue eyes and straight blond hair.

Elijah slowly released a deep breath. Elissa. Zimrida. Foreign names to go with foreign stairs and walls and ceilings.

“Glad to meet you, Zimrida. My name’s Elijah, and my big brother is Nathan. We come from Tishbe in Gilead.”

Zimrida turned a sober glance up at his mother then smiled at Elijah. “Happy to meet you, too, Mr. Lijah, Mr. Nathan.” His eyes rested on Nathan.

Nathan dipped his head toward Zimrida. “You show good manners, young man.”

The widow led them out to the back veranda. The air was still. Dusk touched the sky, and a few stars appeared. She pointed to the well in the yard. “With this drought, you must play out the rope, but the water’s good to drink.”

Elijah and Nathan trotted downstairs to the back yard. As they drew water, the child’s soprano came from behind them. “My proper name’s Zimrida, Mr. Nathan. My father named me for a really great king who lived long, long ago. But you can call me Zim. You, too, Mr. Lijah. I’m six years old.”

Elijah turned his head and smiled.

Nathan held the bucket in both hands and angled his body toward the boy.

Zim tipped his head back. “See up there, Mr. Nathan? That’s my treehouse.”

Nathan looked up. “A treehouse in an Absalom oak. Like home.”

Zim slid his fingers over the bark. “Absalom?”

“That’s what we call them in Tishbe.”

“The Absalom who tried to kill his father, the king?”

“That’s the one.”

Elijah cocked an eyebrow and met Nathan’s gaze. How would this little foreigner know this bit of Israel’s history?

Nathan asked, “You’ve heard about Absalom, Zim?”

Zim knit his blond brows and bobbed his head. “Uncle Hashabiah says Absalom hung there for the longest time. But I never knew my tree was the one that grabbed him. In my treehouse we can see a hummingbird.”

Elijah pursed his lips and tapped Nathan on the shoulder. Hashabiah? He didn’t need to consult with his scholarly brother. This little pagan had named a Hebrew as his uncle.

Zim bounced on the balls of his feet. “You’d really like Uncle Hashabiah, Mr. Nathan. You would, too, Mr. Lijah. He’s the bestest tutor in the whole world. You wanta go see him, Mr. Nathan, sir? See, he lives way at the other end of town. I can show you in the morning. After we see my treehouse.”

“Um, yes, I would, Zim. I’d like to meet your uncle.”

The little boy with his odd coloring and strange name hopped on one foot at Nathan’s side. “That’s great, Mr. Nathan. My dad used to make iron things for Uncle Hashabiah, see. Uncle Hashabiah’s got ships that sail all over the whole wide world, see. And my dad took me to his house for lessons. I’d show you my dad’s forge, but my mother sold all that.” He pointed toward a low stone wall and a pile of ashes beyond the tree. “My dad made lots and lots of things for people all over town.” He flipped blond locks off his forehead. “I got my dad’s hair. Skin, too.” He gave a somber nod.

“That’s a good way to remember your father.” Nathan ruffled the boy’s hair.

The three of them took turns drinking from a long-handled gourd dipper.

Elijah carried the bucket sloshing with water and followed Nathan and Zim up to the veranda. For sure they had to meet the mysterious Hashabiah.

The widow joined them carrying a small barrel and a jar. She sighed and turned the barrel upside down on a bowlv and spanked out a final dusting of flour. With the oil jar upside down, she held it for the last— ultimate—dribble.

Elijah gulped. Why had he jabbered so about flour? He left Nathan and Zim with the oak tree and approached the widow. “I built many fires for our mother, ma’am.”

She handed him a flint and a piece of pyrite.

From the woodpile he selected leaves and twigs and poked them under the low clay baking cone. He struck the flint against the pyrite several times, until a spark landed in the leaves. Cupping his hands around the curling smoke, he blew gentle puffs and smiled when a flame sprang up. As the tiny blaze grew, he laid on three twigs, then four more.

Elijah reached up several times and touched the cone while he added larger twigs to the fire. At last the heat made him jerk his hand away.

The widow laid four tiny flatbreads on the cone and wiped a tear from her cheek. In no time the breads cooked on one side, and she flipped them with fingers as fast as Mother’s.

Elijah sighed. Because he had told the king no more rain, Mother’s soft, slender fingers might never again stroke his cheeks.

“Come, boys.” She lit a candle from the coals and handed it to Zim. She carried the flatbreads into the house, and they followed. Zim stood the candle in a tiny, elaborate, iron candlestick on the dining skin, and she placed the bread beside the light.

They sat on the floor on goatskins around the large skin for dining.

“You’re Hebrews, so Zim and I will ask you to pronounce the blessing.”

Elijah wrinkled his nose. Was this pagan woman asking for a Hebrew blessing? “Thank you, ma’am. But our father says the prayers. And, um, he prays after we eat.”

“You’ll do fine, boys. I’m sure you know how it goes. And the Lord won’t be offended this once if we thank him before we eat.”

Elijah nodded and poked Nathan. In Dad’s absence, the privilege of pronouncing the ancient words belonged to the older brother.

In slow, even tones, Nathan recited, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe Who brings forth bread from the earth. Amen.”vi

“Mother, may I take Mr. Nathan to my lesson?” Zim winked at Nathan. “You’d like Uncle Hashabiah, Mr. Nathan. He’s got blessings he says too.”

“No doubt he would like to meet our guests.” The widow’s smile appeared to be a cheerful mask.

Elijah rubbed his chest and winced. She had said this small fare would be their last meal.

The widow used two clean fingers to place a flatbread on the skin in front of Nathan and then one before Elijah. “For our honored guests.” She broke nibbles from her bread, and Elijah did the same. He took tiny bites, chewed well, and swallowed in sync with the widow. Nathan followed Elijah’s lead, and Zim mimicked Nathan.

The widow focused her attention on Zim, and her eyes welled.

Before her tears could spill, Elijah broke the silence. “Zim studies with a tutor who says blessings, ma’am?” If she couldn’t buy bread, how did she pay for a tutor?

She wiped her eyes and gave a crisp nod. “Uncle Hashabiah is the best tutor in Zarephath.”

Elijah’s eyebrows furrowed. The boy had a Hebrew tutor. But how could a Hebrew be their uncle?

Zim squirmed and chewed and waved his half piece of flatbread. “Got the best treehouse in the world and the best tutor in town. Can I take Mr. Nathan to my lesson, Mommy? In the morning, okay? Mr. Lijah, too. They gotta meet Uncle Hashabiah.”

Elijah laughed and shook his head. Zim tugged at the topic like a puppy to a root.

His mother gave him a soft smile. “If our guests are interested.” She bit her lip and made a slight bow to Elijah.

He nodded. “Yes, ma’am. Our pleasure.”

Zim pushed in the last bites.

Elijah held his breath. No way could one small piece satisfy a boy of six.

“Mommy, can I have more, please?”

The widow’s smile dried flat across her face. “I wish we could, dear.”

Elijah twisted his hands together then rubbed the front of his tunic. When the Lord had put “neither dew nor rain” in his mouth, the brook stopped flowing. He tugged on his lower lip. Out at the city gate today, did the Lord have him say, “bake up a storm?” Or had he invented those words?

He stood and pulled the flour barrel off the shelf. Would an empty barrel heft like this? Three sets of eyes followed his fingers. Elijah lifted the lid and turned the opening toward the widow. “Your flour barrel, ma’am.”

Her eyes widened. “Eh?”

He shifted the oil jar toward her and jerked out the stopper.

“Wha…” Her mouth fell open.

“So, Mommy, can I have another piece?” Zim led them onto the terrace and poked more twigs under the baking cone.

“Wow!” Elijah laughed and turned to Nathan. “I think the Lord did that!”

Nathan’s mouth went slack then curled into a broad smile. “Bake up a storm, little brother.”

Her face locked in a daze, the widow let a handful of flour fall through her fingers into the mixing bowl. “I can’t believe…” She tipped the jar, and oil ran into the flour. “Your chatter out by the gate… I didn’t think you…” Tears ran down her face.

Elijah laughed. “That’s okay, ma’am. I couldn’t believe how I ran off at the mouth like that. Then when I saw how really empty your flour barrel was I got scared.”

He knelt with Nathan and helped Zim feed twigs into the fire. “Thank you, Lord.” He turned to Nathan. “The Lord yanked this bread from the earth and plopped it into our hands.”

The widow dropped three more handfuls of flour on the skin and dribbled in a generous puddle of oil. As she spread the cone with giant flatbreads, a tiny giggle escaped her.

The hot bread silenced Zim until his last bite. “So, Mommy, can I take Mr. Nathan and Mr. Lijah up to Uncle Hashabiah’s in the morning? Can I?”

Elijah laughed out loud. “Your son’s persistence is to be admired, ma’am.”

“Like his father.” Her face relaxed. “But not in those filthy rags. Zim, go find them something of your father’s, and show them the guest room.” She tipped her head toward the stairs. “You boys are tall like my husband. I couldn’t bring myself to sell his tunics and robes. You’ll want to wash up at the well.”

“Thank you, ma’am.” Elijah and Nathan spoke as one. They followed Zim to the roof, where he opened the door to their room. They descended to the back yard, bathed at the well in the dark, and pulled on their first clean tunics in six months. Back on the roof and inside the room, they curled up on a goatskin.

Elijah pulled a fresh robe over them. “What’s a man named Hashabiah doing in this pagan place?”

“And how can he be their uncle?”

iAnne. I’d like to have a better idea of the age of Elijah and Nathan.

The widow could ask them their age.

ii dankness of mildewed wood, the fishy-ness of many places, sometimes the smell of death and decay of sealife, both plant and animal and sometimes the freshness of an offshore breeze

iiiFrom Ch 23 – The fading light showed her eyes red with dark rings. Her face looked strong, kind, and tired. She stood straight, about as tall as Sheerah, but older.

vSee “kneading bowl” in Bible.

viThis blessing does not appear in the Bible and may not have existed in Elijah’s time.

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