Vultures flared up and flapped out of view over the trees, leaving behind a body with several chunks of meat missing from its back and legs. Beside the body, four men aimed arrows at Elijah and Nathan.
“Drop the bags, my children, and take off your rags. Face down beside that fellow and keep your hands in sight. You move, and the vultures get another one.”
The accent was different, but Elijah understood. He and Nathan stripped and knelt beside the body in its cloud of stench and flies. Maggots bubbled on a gash in the ribs. As Elijah’s knees touched the ground, the point of an arrow pricked under his right shoulder blade.
“All the way down, my child. Flat out.”
Elijah rocked forward on his knees and stretched onto the ground. With each move, the arrow continued to prick under his right shoulder blade, even when he finally lay face down in the dirt.
“That’s right, my children. Now try not to move because my fingers on this bowstring get nervous.”
On the King’s Highway, when a slave trader’s knife backed Elijah into a camel’s ribs, he could see the face which belonged to the hand on the knife. If the eyes signaled a thrust, he might have sidestepped. But here no eyes signaled, so he had no way to guess when the fingers might release the bowstring. What would it feel like when that arrow shaft stabbed its bronze head into his lung?
The real options belonged to the vultures. They could tear pieces out of his back this afternoon or let him ripen in the sun. Either way, Mother and Milkah would wonder why he didn’t come home. The dirt pushed into Elijah nostrils as he turned to face Nathan. Maybe his brother would escape and tell the family how he died.
You’ve got this one, Lord.
“Look what the moths did to this goatskin.”
“Not enough meat on these children to make vulture spit, but what have we in these packs? Meat and fresh bread. Oh, you shouldn’t have. But how kind.”
“Thank you for lunch, my children. Put your rags back on and take your packs and moth nest.”
Elijah and Nathan slid into their tunics and grabbed their packs. As they hurried around the first bend, Elijah glanced back at the bandits. “Thank you, Lord!”
“For sure, Lord,” Nathan echoed.
They followed the ravine down to the coast and rolled in the surf while the sun sank below the waves.
“Nate, I’m numb from waiting for that bowstring to snap my life away.”
“Every vulture I see, I thank the Lord it’s not pulling meat out of my back.”
Behind a dune, Elijah found a tiny fresh trickle coming from the hill. He and Nathan stretched face down in the water and filled their bellies. Hidden here from the salt breeze, they curled up and listened to the surf.
“When the Lord said Zarephath, those bandits were not what I expected.”
“I don’t think you hoped for those black tunics in Tishbe either.”
The next morning, Elijah led them along the beach toward Zarephath.
Nathan shielded his eyes with his hand and gazed up the strand. “How much farther?”
“I hope we get there today. I’m hungry.”
They came to a bay, and Nathan pointed to an island on the other side with dozens of freighters and warships at the docks. “Tyre. This beats knocking on the palace gate in Fort Jezreel. Introduce yourself to King Ethbaal. ‘Your daughter, Jezebel, sends her regards. What’s for lunch?’”
“What he dishes out is not good for my health.” Elijah settled into his long-legged stride. “Besides, farther north, the Lord has a widow waiting to feed us.”
As dusk touched the sky, the smell of rotting fish guts floated in with the jingle of ships rigging knocking against masts.
Elijah pointed to the city gate. “Zarephath.”
Nathan shuddered. “Strangers. A whole city full.”
“You’ll be all right, Nate. Just stick close.”
“Sorry, but gardens are not—” Elijah poked Nathan. “Look.” A woman carried a small bundle of sticks. “I’ll ask her for water, like Abraham with Sarah.”
“You mean Abraham’s servant. With Rebekah.”
“I knew that.”
Elijah took several quick strides up to the woman. “Ma’am, can we please have a drink of water?”
She gave a polite nod to Elijah and then to Nathan. “Come along, boys.”
“Thank you, ma’am. Would you have any bread, please?”
The woman looked up in Elijah’s face and spoke with the same accent as the bandits. “I have no bread.”
He pointed to Nathan. “Just a piece for me and my brother?”
“Listen, son. My little boy and I have a handful of flour and a thimble of oil, and I’m going home to make our last meal. See these sticks? You accent says you are a Hebrew. Well, just as sure as the Lord, your God, is alive, these will make our final fire.”
She turned away but stopped and looked back over her shoulder. “You boys come along.”
Elijah spread his feet, thrust back his shoulders, and raised his voice. “Don’t you worry about a thing, ma’am. Just make a piece for me first.”
People stopped and formed an oval around Elijah, the woman, and the four paces between them.
The woman turned and opened a slow smile.
Elijah returned her smile and pointed to Nathan standing next to the gate pillar. “And a piece for my brother, ma’am. Then bake up a storm for you and your little boy because this is what’s going to happen. That handful of flour? That thimble of oil? The Lord says they’re going to last and last and last. Ma’am, you’re going to be pouring that oil and sifting that flour and baking that bread until the Lord sends rain on this land.”
Mouths opened, and stares shifted between Elijah and the woman.
“Guess I’ve heard everything now.” She walked off, and the oval of spectators melted back into the crowd.
Such a nice lady. Had he really said all that about flour and oil? Elijah swung around. Where was Nathan?
Elijah followed the woman into the city. “Stay with me, Nate.”