“I’m naming my donkey ‘Shamgar.’ What you gonna call yours?”
Zarephath, Sidon, 869 BC
1 King 17:16-17
The next morning, Nathan sat up and slipped a sandal over his foot.
“Gonna try it again?” Elijah swung around on his rump and faced him.
Nathan winked. “It’s all in the wrist.” He wrapped one lace over the other into a loose knot on the arch of his foot. Then came the second knot, the bunny ears, and the final tug. “Nothing to it, little brother. Let’s go wash up.”
At the well, Elijah hauled the rope up hand over hand and eyed the strange knots on Nathan’s sandals. Where was his happiness about Nathan’s independence? He poured water over Nathan. What was this chasm that separated them? Nothing had changed. Everything had changed. Neetz had transformed Nathan into a self-sufficient stranger.
Zim bounced up the stairs carrying packages from shops.
“Smells good, Zim.” Elijah slid over to let him sit.
Zim dropped two bundles on the dining skin. “Roasted mutton from your favorite shop, Mommy. And apples from that stand beside the goldsmith. Sure feels good spending silver again. Look what else I found.” With a flourish, he brought a small wineskin from his pack and laid it in his mother’s hands.
“Bless you, my dear.”
After breakfast, a cloudless azure sky greeted them in the courtyard, and chaffinches sang from the wall by the street.
Zim pointed to Nathan’s sandals. “I like the bunny ears, Mr. Nathan.”
Nathan nodded. “They work well.”
“You think Neetz is already in the vineyard, Mr. Nathan?”
With the widow and her donkey at his side, Elijah led his donkey across the courtyard, along the street, and out the city gate. No black tunics. “Thank you, Lord.” He stepped aside, swept his arm toward the vineyard, and smirked. “You first, ‘Mr. Nathan, sir.’”
Nathan turned his face as he passed but too late to hide a grin. He led the way toward the vineyard.
Zim pulled Shamgar past Elijah and tugged on Nathan’s sleeve. “Can you see Neetz yet, Mr. Nathan?”
“She’ll be there, Zim.”
“But can you see her?”
Nathan maintained full-length strides.
Zim skipped and hopped at his side, holding tight to Shamgar’s lead. “She should be coming out.” He bounced three times on tiptoe while he gawked across the network of garden walls.
Elijah frowned. Was Zim simply eager to see Neetz? Or was he eager to see Neetz and Nathan together?
Nathan turned his head. “She’s probably waiting for us up ahead in the vineyard.”
As they neared the vineyard, Zim slapped his donkey’s lead onto Nathan’s arm. “Take Shamgar.” He dashed ahead to the vineyard and gazed left, up the path between the gardens and the vines. “She’s here.” Zim disappeared around the corner.
Nathan blushed, stopped, and stared at the ground. “Please.” He motioned Elijah and the widow past.
As Elijah stopped at the corner, Zim appeared, holding Neetz by the hand. “Where’s Mr. Nathan?” He pushed past Elijah and around the corner with a blushing Neetz. She lifted a hand to hide a sheepish smile.
Neetz freed her hand and watched Zim sail around the widow and zoom up to Nathan. “I found her. I found Neetz.”
Nathan gazed at Neetz. “Um, yes. Neetz.” He shook his head then pressed his palms against his cheeks. “Good morning, um, Neetzevet.”
Elijah’s throat thickened. That’s it. Nathan’s gone. I’m alone.
Neetz glanced at Nathan, stroked her neck, and smiled at the widow. “Good morning. Everyone. Beautiful day.” She dipped her chin.
This was happening too fast. Elijah squared his shoulders. “Good morning, Neetz. Glad you could make it. Okay, everybody. Neetz is here. Zim, lead us to the spring, and let’s see how much water we can haul.”
Zim took Shamgar’s lead back. “Come on, Mr. Nathan. Stick with me and Neetz, okay?” He led his donkey past the widow, took Neetz by the arm, and marched east between the rows toward Mt. Hermon.
The widow stepped aside to let Nathan follow with his donkey. She moved up beside Elijah, hooked her arm in his, and gazed up into his eyes. “You’re tall. But your brother’s a might taller. Did you know that?” She smiled and patted his wrist. “Your brother’s going to be all right. It’s true, son. Nathan will be just fine, and so will you.”
Elijah pressed his lips into a grim slash. The widow meant well, but she had only known them a few days. She could not understand Nathan’s fragile nature.
He flashed a lips-only smile. “So, how about that Shamgar, eh? Zim knows how to pick a good name. What are you going to call your donkey, ma’am?”
She strode beside him, holding his arm, her eyes focused on their path between the brown rows of grapevines. “You will learn that even those we love are beyond our control.”
Elijah jerked his head toward the widow. Control? How could she think such a thing? He loved Nathan, and Nathan needed his protection.
“Boaz.” The widow smiled up at Elijah. “I’m going to call my donkey Boaz.”
He let a slow smile spread across his lips. “Boaz. I know that story. Yes. You picked a good name.”
A northern raven patrolled the Zarephath skyline. Tiny clouds rose from the sea and floated over the city and its garden plots, but their breeze stayed aloof from the grapevines. As clouds rose over the rumpled purple foothills, they dissolved into the morning sky. The merciless sun broke free from Mt. Hermon and found Elijah trudging between the vines.
“It’s going to be a hot one, ma’am.” Elijah inhaled the dry odor rising from the leaves then followed Zim out of the vines and into the hills. Stonechats flitted among the branches near the path, twittering and clicking like pebbles knocking together.
Zim parked Shamgar at the edge of the spring and pointed to his right. “Here we are, Mr. Nathan. I saved a spot for you next to me.” He beckoned Neetz to his left. “Don’t you worry, Neetz. There’s room for you too.”
“Would you like to work here?” Elijah stepped back, so the widow could take the spot next to Neetz. “And I’ll take the end.”
Elijah tied the lead to a bush next to the bank and stroked the donkey’s neck. “Patience. We’ll find you a name.” He lifted two skins from a pannier. “But there will only be one Balak.” He knelt at the water’s edge and submerged a skin.
“Mommy, how do you do this?” Zim shook a flat waterskin. “Mine doesn’t want water.”
“Like this, my son.” She blew into her skin and expanded it, held her thumb over the opening, and forced the bottom of the skin deep under the water. When she submerged the mouth pointing upstream, water fell in and filled the skin. She popped the plug into the opening and set the full skin into the pannier.
“And that, Zimrida, is how it’s done.” Nathan swept his arm ahead and made a full bow toward the widow.
She laughed. “My beautiful boy only knows the modern convenience of a well with a rope and bucket. But Zim is a quick learner.”
When the panniers on all five donkeys were jammed with full waterskins, Elijah announced, “The water makes a heavy load. Our donkeys are more sure-footed than we are, but let’s still walk slowly and avoid rocks or stumps that might trip them. All right, Zim. Lead us to the vines.”
“Ready, Shamgar?” Zim picked up his donkey’s lead and plopped Neetz’s hand on his arm. “Follow me, Mr. Nathan. You and Mother bring up the rear, Mr. Lijah.” He led the little group out of the plane trees.
As they threaded through the folds in the hills, Elijah turned to the widow. “We all love Zim.”
“My Zimrida’s a good boy. He gets his curiosity from me and his brains from his father.”
“And his hair?”
“Eyes, too. My mother-in-law used to talk about her great-grandfather who was kidnapped by pirates in a harbor where ice from the sky covered the rigging and broke the yard arm.”
Elijah followed Zim’s little troop out of the hills and into the brown vineyard. The hot, dry air dragged at his nostrils and the song of the chaffinch faded behind him.
He glanced at the widow trudging with him through the vineyard. “The vines will act like they haven’t tasted these tiny drinks, but the water will save them.” He patted the rump of Nathan’s donkey ahead of him. “We just have to keep carrying.”
“Ee-yah!” Zim held his foot and hopped along.