Elijah’s belly fluttered. “Figs, Mother?”
Fort Jezreel, Israel, 871 BC
1 Kings 17:1
Elijah leaned into Mother’s shoulder. The only person Mother saved figs for was Milkah.
Mother held him by the arm while Nathan caught up. She hooked her arms through their elbows and walked between them. “You’re both to bathe thoroughly. Put on clean loin cloths and clean tunics. I want you sparkling. At first light, I’m sending my figs with you to Milkah.”
Elijah covered his mouth with his hand. So Milkah had not married the… “She’s still here?” He choked back a sob.
“You should thank the Lord for Milkah with every breath you take, my son. Why she waited is more than anyone knows. I admire that girl as much as I do any of my own.” She grinned first at Nathan then at Elijah. “And wash behind your ears.”
Nathan marched along with her, beaming at Elijah.
Inside the gate, everyone collected around Mother in a tight circle. Nathan and Elijah pulled Balak up between them and rested their hands on his neck. Mother turned to Nathan. “Now we’ll all listen while Nathan tells his father what’s troubling him.”
Elijah and Sheerah spoke together. “It’s that Bernice—”
Mother pressed fingers to their lips. “Nathan.”
He tugged at the collar of his tunic and stepped back.
Dad swept his arms wide. “Since I found these children on the path, they’ve been muttering about Ramoth, Bernice, and the butcher.”
Mother grasped Dad’s hand. “Dear, shouldn’t we let Nathan—”
Dad yanked at a string, opened the neck of his tunic, and turned his neck from side to side. “I know Nathan’s story better than he does.”
Mother put a hand to her mouth and an arm in Nathan’s arm. She drew him in close to her side.
Dad’s nostrils flared. “I always thought a promise was a promise.”
Elijah let out a soft moan. A promise was a promise. Hashabiah’s exact words.
Dad’s neck grew red. “Then my old friend Jadon showed up.” He cracked his knuckles. “‘How’ve you been? Butcher shop’s doing great. Your Nathan about ready to marry my Bernice? Be my apprentice. Take over when I retire.’”
“Nathan, a butcher’s apprentice?” Elijah stood perfectly still.
Nathan’s hand flinched against Elijah’s wrist.
“That’s right, son.” Dad huffed out a breath. “A secure future for your brother.”
Elijah rubbed at his mouth. Nathan, sweat dripping from his nose, swinging a meat cleaver. Shy Nathan talking face-to-face with customers. Trapped behind a counter, never to smell the hot breeze over vines or taste the salt air of Zarephath. He might remember how the sun pulled away from Mt. Hermon into a light blue morning, but he would never see another azure-bellied bee-eater pinch a dragonfly in its beak.
Dad’s fierce face melted for a moment as he tucked Elishevah under her chin. “I was counting grandchildren and planning their visits from Ramoth.” He laid a soft hand on Natania lying in Sheerah’s arms. “But Nathan was gone without a goodbye.” Dad threw his hands up.
Elijah kept his head down. If he hadn’t mentioned Bernice, Nathan could have stayed gone. If he’d kept his big mouth shut, Nathan could be happily married to a woman who worshiped him. Some wives mocked their men. Was Bernice a kind girl? How would she treat his brother?
Elijah squared his shoulders. Dad had to hear about Neetz and Hashabiah and the vines of Zarephath. Elijah laid a hand on Dad’s arm. “Let me—”
Dad brushed his hand away. “And do you think Jabon, my oldest and dearest of friends, would listen? I told him your brother would be right back. That your mother and I would bring him to Ramoth. Make a special trip for the wedding as soon as he got back.”
“But old Jabon kept repeating, ‘Back from where?’”
Dad rubbed his forehead with his fingertips. “My sons were gone, and I didn’t know where.”
“Jabon knew a fine young man in Ramoth who would make a good son-in-law and apprentice. So, Bernice has two little ones with another on the way, and the son-in-law is expanding the business into a second shop on the other side of Ramoth.”
Dad laid a hand against his breastbone. “Nathan, I am so sorry.” He lowered his gaze and shook his head.
“Thank you, dear.” Mother beamed. “We all enjoyed Nathan’s story.”
# # #
That evening, Elijah scrubbed himself from head to toe and back again. He wrapped a clean cloth around his loins, slipped a fresh tunic over his head, and handed one to Nathan. “My sparkling brother. As soon as we see Milkah, I’m sending you to Neetz.”
In the morning, he accepted a brick of figs from Mother and paused while she checked behind each ear. He led Nathan up the ridge behind the house. “I’ll show you and Milkah the exact spot I’m going to build her house and where I’m getting the limestone. She’ll be so excited.”
When Elijah topped the ridge, instead of Milkah’s one flock, three flocks of sheep spread out in the valley, and three shepherds sat by a boulder. Whose were the extra flocks? Who were the shepherds?
Elijah cupped his hands as he had so often. “Milkah!”
Milkah stood, her slender figure outlined against the grass.
Elijah’s heart flipped.
The other two shepherds stood.
Elijah paused. Who were the two men with her? Why were they in her pasture?
She gave a small wave.
Elijah scrambled down the ridge. Why didn’t she do her normal flamboyant wave? Was she not feeling well? As he hurried across the grass, he rehearsed.“I found where we can quarry the limestone for our house.”
The morning sun touched her hair, and Elijah’s breath caught in his throat.
He stopped a full pace from the little group of three shepherds and pushed his foot against a clump of ______ grass.
Her eyes opened toward him. Soft, round, black as Mother’s.
Elijah’s lips numbed, and his feet tingled. He should have asked Nathan to teach him words from the Song of Songs about a woman’s dazzling beauty. He smoothed the sleeves of his tunic. Why were those two men staring at him? Gawking as if he didn’t belong?
Milkah turned from him toward the ridge. “You’ve been gone a long time.”
He rubbed at an eyelid. “Milkah, every day I …”
Nathan stepped up next to him, so their elbows touched.
The two strange shepherds closed in on either side of Milkah. They stood about the same height as Elijah’s father and wore beards much fuller than Elijah’s. Who were they?
She flashed smiles at them. “Gone a very long time.” She turned her face away from him.
Elijah closed his hands then stretched his fingers open at his side. “I…” Her eyes. If only she would look at him. “I wanted to come to you, but …”
“You didn’t even tell your mother or father. Sheerah didn’t know.” She waved a hand toward the ridge. “You and Nathan just evaporated like a morning fog.”
Elijah cocked his head at Nathan beside him. To mention Zarephath in front of these strangers would be to put the widow and Zim, Neetz and Hashabiah all in reach of the queen and her friends in Sidon. His voice dragged up from deep inside and came out hoarse. “I can’t tell you.”
“Of course.” Milkah flipped her hair over her shoulder. “You disappear for months – for years – and never tell me where you are or what you’re doing. Just leave me alone with my sheep.”
“But Milkah, I…”
She crossed her arms and put her head down. “Then you come down over your ridge, but you won’t say where you’ve been.”
Mother’s brick of figs slid from his fingers and dropped at his feet.
Nathan picked up the figs, leaned in, and whispered in her ear, “Too many blows to the head.”