15. A time to mourn

Samaria City, Israel, 868 BC
Ecclesiastes 3:4

“Hi there!”

Obadiah glanced up from his seat by the front door between the two wings of Gera’s house.

Beyond the wings, in the outer courtyard, a happy young man turned from a knot of mourners and slapped a man on the back. “Hey, buddy.” The boom of the greeting turned heads near Obadiah.

“The boisterous fellow coming our way. Help me with his name.” Obadiah handed Liam’s three-year-old to Gera.

Keren spoke for her father-in-law. “Oh, that’s Ulam, Uncle Biah. He’s good friends with Liam.”

As Ulam and the nice-looking woman at his side passed another group of mourners, he yelled to them, “Good to see you!”

The couple entered the inner courtyard, and wound a path through chatting mourners toward Gera’s little group and zeroed his smile in on Obadiah.

Obadiah rolled off his goatskin and stood. “Ulam.”

“Uncle Biah. My wife, Cozbi.” Ulam’s voice rose over the buzz of greetings and condolences.

“Pleased to meet you, Cozbi.” Obadiah gave her a solemn bow.

Gera handed his slice of melon to Hodiah and shifted on his goatskin as if to rise.

“Don’t get up. Don’t get up. Good morning, Gera, Hodiah.”

A group of mourners four paces from him closed their mouths and gawked at Ulam.

He turned his bright beam on Cozbi and announced, “Uncle Biah’s the king’s right-hand man. Liam calls him Uncle, so that’s what I call him.”

Heads turned and eyes fixed on Ulam.

Ulam broadcast his words over the few remaining voices. “You’ve seen his big chariot at the palace. He runs the king’s enterprizes, but he’s got nothing to do with those slimy thugs from Sidon.” Ulam curled his lip and gave a vigorous nod to Keren.

She took a quick breath. “Ngh.”

Conversation between the wings ceased, and voices from the outer courtyard leaped into the silence.

A woman nearby gasped and slapped her fingers to her mouth. She turned and stared at Ulam.

Obadiah pursed his lips and narrowed his gaze. Only yesterday slavers had slit the throat of this young man’s good friend. Did he not realize the queen’s spies gather with those who mourn?

Gera sucked in a quick breath and glanced at the gate. Obadiah followed his gaze. Too late to lock out undercover agents.

Obadiah searched for normal words and spoke in a soft tone. “My men will inspect olive groves with me during the seven days of mourning.” He turned on a hyper smile to cover the tightness in his throat, retrieved the baby from Keren and nestled him on an arm. “But we plan to join Gera and this little fellow each evening. I hope to see more of you.”

Cosbi tipped her head to him, and Ulam beamed. “Thanks, Uncle Biah.” His eyes darted around the crowd. “See you soon.” He led Cosbi through the mourners.

Obadiah sat on the goatskin, and Liam’s baby resumed clambering over him. “Someone needs to teach that young man that caution is not cowardice.”

Gera watched Ulam thread his way to two young couples in the outer courteyard. “He’s a good boy. Works with his father and uncles in their pomegranate and apple orchards.”

###

On the seventh day of mourning, Obadiah completed his grove inspections in the morning and met Gera at his door. “I would spend this afternoon with you, for early tomorrow I return to the fort, to Yedidah and our children. The men brought food for the mourners.”

Gera gave a grim nod and opened the door. Obadiah’s guards hauled out the table that held Liam a week ago and placed it in the outer courtyard. They scrubbed it with soap and water, rinsed it off, and dried it with a clean towel.

In the center of the table, the guards set a roasted leg of mutton and a jar of pickled cucumbers. On one end, a wine-filled goatskin beside a tray of fresh bread. On the other, baskets of apples, grapes, and figs. A guard invited mourners to the table while he used a broom to shoo away curious goats and chickens.

Obadiah selected two figs and joined Gera in the inner courtyard, opposite Hodiah and Keren.

Keren cradled a child in her lap, holding the child the same way Yedidah had supported their babies.

Obadiah took in a sharp breath. With those hands, she had tried to cover the slash in her husband’s throat.

Obadiah paused with the figs in his fingers. What if thugs had slit his own throat while his wife was carrying their third child? How would Yedidah and the kids survive? He dropped the figs into a pocket of his robe.

The baby climbed down from Keren and marched straight to Obadiah, who cupped the tiny back and bottom in his palms and pulled him to his shoulder. Obadiah turned to Gera. “How long did Liam manage olive groves? He started during Omri’s reign.”

Gera pursed his lips. “Six years.”

“You know, if that boy found parasites he showed us. Didn’t want to hide a problem. He wanted to make it right.” He raised an eyebrow at two guards.

They nodded in unison. “Liam.”

Obadiah nestled the baby against his shoulder. “Sometimes he led me far outside the grove—whether I wanted to go or not—to a hole where he buried diseased olives he’d pulled off the trees. Liam hid nothing. He put everything in plain sight.”

Gera lifted his chin and shifted to look directly at Hodiah. “He even told his mother when he thought there was too much salt in the stew, didn’t he, dear? That boy couldn’t hold back.”

Her lips spread in a weak smile. “Our Liam has a way of letting the truth bubble out.”

“Yes, he does.” Keren cleared her throat. “I know how it happened.” She looked at Hodiah and then at Gera. “The day before…” A sniffle stopped her. She shifted on her goatskin, took a breath, and began in a louder tone.

“The day before the queen’s men….”

Conversations paused. Heads in the outer courtyard turned.

She set her jaw. “…killed my husband.”

Hodiah and Gera locked eyes for a moment and then gave their attention the last living parent of their grandchildren.

Keren raised her voice a touch. “It bubbled out of Liam and his friends about how the Lord hates Asherah.” She glanced up at faces in the courtyard. “They were quoting Moses about smashing idols. So, when my Liam—saw that poor little girl—in the dirt. My Liam couldn’t hold back. He spouted off like he does.”

Hodiah’s face flushed, and she spoke, perhaps more loudly than she intended. “That’s our boy.” She ducked her head and glance around. Then she looked up wide eyed and continued more loudly than before. “Opens his mouth and spouts truth.”

She laid a hand on Keren’s arm and returned to a quiet tone. “We can talk like he’s still with us if we want to, dear.”

Obadiah stood holding the baby. “We will remember this boy’s father for how he put truth first.” He looked at Keren. How could he have helped Liam live? “I’m taking my men to our rooms while the sky is still light, for we leave at dawn. Dear, dear friends, goodbye for now.” He handed the baby to Keren and reached for Gera’s hand.

A man burst through the gate. “Ulam! They killed Ulam!”

The bolt knocked Obadiah on his rump.

Keren jumped up and dropped the baby on Obadiah’s belly. “Cozbi needs me.” She shoved a bodyguard toward the gate. And then another. “You’re coming with me.” She snatched her other child from Hodiah and plopped him in Gera’s lap. “You and Uncle Biah stay here.” She snapped her eyes at Obadiah. “Take care of my babies.”

The two guards knit their brows and looked at Obadiah.

“Go. Protect her.” He waved them toward the gate.

She jerked her mother-in-law to her feet. “Come!” The two women grabbed the messenger and scuttled out the gate with him between them.

In the new quiet of the inner courtyard, Obadiah took slow breaths.

Gera sighed. “Excuse my daughter-in-law stealing your men like that, but Cozbi needs her.”

Obadiah sat up on the goatskin and pulled the two-year-old with him. “If Ahimelech could feed David’s men the bread which only priests were to touch1, I can loan my guards to Keren.”

Gera surrendered his thumbs to capture as he stroked the cheek of the child in his lap. “Count on being here a while. She won’t be back until she feels her milk ready for these two.”

“Why, Lord?” Obadiah let out a loud breath.

“I’m not the Lord. But Ulam spouts off like Liam. Hates Asherah and the slavers. Doesn’t care who hears. Plus, he has a loud voice.”

Obadiah rubbed his temples. Two precious young men murdered with the consent of the queen. Spouters of truth. Bubblers. Wasn’t the Lord supposed to protect the righteous? And that queen. “Oh, Lord!” He put his head back, and stared at the clouds. “Deliver us from these evil, evil people.”

“Why, Lord?” He repeated familiar words of anguish. “‘Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble, Lord?’” He hugged the baby and rocked on the goatskin.

Gera moved the baby in his lap to the same beat. “‘In his arrogance the wicked hunts down the weak. From ambush he murders the innocent.’ Good words, Biah, but they didn’t help Liam or Ulam. They had no one to protect them.”

Obadiah groaned. He opened his arms as if to the assembled elders at the gate and let the baby roll onto the goatskin — “Boom, Uncle Biah. Boom, boom.” — The little one climbed back on his lap.

“Good men hide in hedgerows, Gera. They can’t… they won’t keep quiet. Children of my friends. And they starve or they die at the hand of the queen.”

His shoulders drooped. “How many more will not stay quiet, but speak the truth?”

“That’s what the queen is asking, Biah. And her thugs will hunt them. Plenty of good people would like help, but someone has to take charge.” Gera’s hints rang like a blacksmith’s hammer striking an anvil.

Obadiah stared at the doorstep where the slavers had thrown Liam’s body. “We’ll need a cave.”

1 1 Samuel 21-31

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