This chapter can feel repetitive. Take out some explaining and give more staging.
Describe the back yard layout. Back door, well, tree, low wall, ashes.
Zarephath, Sidon, 870 BC
Elijah dreamed, [telling] Balak jumped around, jerking the straps on the packsaddle out of reach. “Easy there, old friend.” He draped his arm around Balak’s neck. What was frightening this little donkey? As Elijah wrestled the lead tight to the gate, a crested lark ushered in daylight with its familiar whee-whee-wheeoo.
The guest room door creaked.
Elijah woke. Balak’s fur faded under Elijah’s arm. The odor of donkey droppings drifted out as wisps of salt spray and rotting fish guts tickled Elijah’s nose. The warble of the lark gave way to the faint rattle of rings and chains beating on yard arms.
“Time to get up, Mr. Nathan. You too, Mr. Lijah. Mother asks, can you build her a fire, please?
Elijah rolled off the goatskin and pulled Nathan with him. At the well, he hauled the rope up hand over hand and poured the cold water over Nathan’s head.
Nathan rubbed his face clean and finger-combed his hair and beard. He took the bucket and spilled water on Elijah’s head. [Critic didn’t know Elijah has a beard. So compare Elijah’s beard to Nathan’s.]
The fresh-faced brothers mounted to the veranda. [OMNI POV]
The widow knelt at a goatskin with her fingers kneading oil into a large mound of dough. “How many flatbreads can you boys eat?”
Elijah, Nathan, and Zim each ate three pieces, and the widow ate two. [Telling. Replace with dialogue?]
Zim tugged Nathan’s sleeve. “You never know when you’ll see a hummingbird, Mr. Nathan. Up in the treehouse, my dad said you should always be ready.” He nodded very slowly.i “The most beautiful hummingbird you’ll ever see in your w h o l e l i f e.”
Elijah followed Zim and Nathan into the backyard and joined them at the oak. Sea gulls called, and a breeze touched the upper limbs. “Like home, Nate.” Elijah let his fingers roam the hills and valleys of the bark.
“Ready, Mr. Nathan?” Zim reached [where? (into his hip pocket?)] for a rope ladder.
Elijah tipped his head back. The treehouse floor perched on a limb more than twice as high as Nathan.
“The highest treehouse in the world, Mr. Nathan. And the most beautiful. It’s the best anywhere. My dad helped me build it. And up there we’re gonna see a hummingbird.” Zim undid a knot and caught the ladder as it swung out from the trunk. “This ladder held my dad.”
Elijah [show the tree right outside the back door] slouched against the house. “Ready for a ride, Nate?”
When Zim stepped onto the bottom rung, the rope swung wide and carried him with it. “Waaah.”
Nathan steadied the rope.
“Thanks!” Zim caught his breath, scrambled up and inside and stuck his head over the low windowsill. “Come on up, Mr. Lijah.”
Elijah leaned back against the doorjamb. “Thanks, Zim. How about I help from down here today?” Nathan needed a friend, and Zim needed a brother. No way would he horn in on their fun.
Zim hollered, “Your turn, Mr. Nathan.”
Nathan surveyed the length of the ladder, put his foot into the bottom rung, and grinned at Elijah in the doorway. After a climb three times slower than Zim’s, he stood at the top of the ladder with his head in the entry hole. “Yes sir.” His voice reverberated from inside the treehouse. “Most beautiful in the world. Better than the one my brother and I built in Tishbe.”
Nathan disappeared through the hole in the floor and stuck his head out the window beside Zim. “If you talked Milkah into living in a tree instead of that house on the ridge, you wouldn’t have to chip blocks at the quarry.”
“Right, Nate.” Elijah grinned toward the ground. “She’d go for that if it had a hummingbird.”
“You gotta keep on the lookout for that hummingbird, Mr. Nathan. It’ll show up when you least expect it. If you say the blessing for our treehouse like you did for our bread, there’d be lots of hummingbirds, huh. Wouldn’t there. Lots and lots of ’em.”
Nathan pulled his head in. “Blessing for a treehouse?”
“Uncle Hashabiah says there’s a blessing for everything. I bet he knows the blessing for a treehouse.”
“Hey, Zim.” Elijah raised his voice. “Ask Mr. Nathan about our mezuzah.”
“What’s a menuzah?”
Elijah kept his head down and let his smile grow.
“Meh-zu-zah.” Nathan corrected. “It’s a scripture scroll. Very small. You tuck it inside a tiny box and tack it up on the doorpost. Your Uncle Hashabiah must have one on his door.”
“That little box he touches?”
“That’s it.” Nathan patted his hand on the doorframe. “When we built our treehouse, we put one in the doorway. Elijah carved the box from Absalom oak, and our sister wrote the scripture on the scroll. I held the ladder while they tacked it up.”
“Okay, Mr. Nathan.” Zim’s little hand slapped wood. “We’ll put it right here.”
“You better ask your mother. She might not want one.”
“Don’t know why not.” Zim slithered down the ladder.
His mother stuck her head out the door. “What do you need to ask your mother, young man?”
“It’s a mezunah, Mommy. A box with writing that brings hummingbirds.”
Elijah stood behind Zim and addressed the widow. “Most of us put them inside our doorways, ma’am, but it’s a Hebrew thing.”
“Please, Mommy. It’s real good for the treehouse, and Daddy would love it.”
The widow stepped off the threshold and pulled him to her. “Zim loves his treehouse, don’t you, dear.” Her eyes watered. She tilted her face toward the treehouse and pasted on a smile. “The highest in the world. And always with a hummingbird about to visit.”
Zim twisted and grinned up at her. “The nuzah’s like the blessing that brought flour, Mommy. It brings lots of hummingbirds.”
“Now slow down, little man. I want to hear about this . . . this box. What’s it for?”
Nathan hit the ground and slid to a stop between Zim and the widow. He bent with his nose a few inches from her face. “Yes, ma’am. A mezuzah box is about as long as Zim’s hand and as wide as his two fingers.”
Like the locust, Elijah extended his antennae. People in tiny Tishbe had often seen his brother get excited about a new thing and were used to such a close approach.ii As Nathan beamed his full smile down into the widow, though, her head and shoulders tipped back. Her eyes opened wide, and her eyebrows pulled together.
Before she could give his brother another bad experience with strangers, Elijah touched Nathan’s arm. “Eyes. Distance.”
Nathan frowned and backed off.
The widow’s face relaxed. She glanced at Elijah. “I understand your brother better than you might think.” She stepped in and laid a calming hand on Nathan’s arm. “Go ahead, Nathan. Say what you were going to say.”
Elijah’s eyes welled up. He swallowed and let the tears slide down his throat.iii
Nathan’s face cleared. He shot quick glances at his hands and at Elijah, then produced a steady smile for the widow.
“They make mezuzah boxes of olive wood, ma’am. And stone, glass, copper—even silver or gold. In Tishbe, we carve them from oak.” Nathan pointed. “The same oak that grows here.”
Zim hung on Nathan’s arm. “And the blessing for a treehouse goes inside, right, Mr. Nathan?”
Nathan leaned down to him. “Oh, way better, Zim. The parchment reads, ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God—’”iv
“It gets long, ma’am.” Elijah ruffled Zim’s hair. “It tells us to teach the Lord’s commands. To put them on our heart, our hands, between our eyes, and on our doorposts.” Maybe some other day they would be ready for Nathan the scholar to teach them the full text of the mezuzah.
Nathan’s smile held.
The widow nodded.
Zim jumped up and down. “So can we have one, Mommy? Can we make one? Please?”
Her silence lasted only a moment. “Uncle Hashabiah writes. Zim can take you to his lesson tomorrow morning.”
Elijah nodded to Nathan. “How do we get to your uncle’s house?”v
i [too much nodding and glancing]
ii I’m guessing somewhere earlier you mentioned Nathan’s stare and his getting embarrassed by it.
iii Made is a red flag for me. In my writing I break the sentence up into what the character did and the next paragraph the hero’s reaction. I.E. You already have the widow being kind. So next paragraph just put Elijah’s reaction.
iv The dash tells the reader Nathan was interrupted.
v Better hook?