The miller stood at the far back of the mill, his white beard drooped around a glum face.
Dad clasped him by the shoulder. “What do you grind today, my friend?”
“See for yourself.” He jutted his white of a face bush toward a large room. Low walls separated piles of barley, spelt, millet, beans, and lentils. The miller looked down on the largest bin, where a sprinkling of barley lay scattered on the floor.
Elijah pointed to the next bin. Completely empty. “What’s in here? I mean…”
The miller brought a shaky hand to his forehead. “That’s okay, son. Wheat. There’s no wheat.”
“Oh. Yes.” Elijah heaved a deep sigh. For weeks farmers had been talking about the bad wheat crop.
Elijah’s dad leaned in toward the miller. “Why so empty?”
Elijah backed out of the way. Dad was trying to make conversation with his friend.
The miller played along. “Only six families have brought in wheat, and their flour sold the moment it fell from the wheel.” His shoulders slumped as he turned to Elijah. “I should have enough customers this week to empty one wineskin.” He sighed. “That’s all, boys. One skin.”
Elijah grabbed one end of a goatskin full of wine and Nathan the other. They eased it off Balak and lugged it behind the counter. As soon as the skin rested on its rack for the miller to draw wine for a customer, Nathan slunk out of the shop to stand with the donkeys.
Elijah, however, stayed and listened to the miller.
“Something’s wrong with our fields, but in Sidon they’ve got an Asherah temple and a Moloch. Their crops are good.”
How could the miller think such a horrid thing? Elijah took in a sharp breath. “Bu—”
Dad put his hand on Elijah’s arm.
Squeaky voices carried in from the street. “Can I pet Balak, Nathan? Hi, Nathan. Can I pet Bilaam?” The miller’s face relaxed. At least the neighborhood children were still normal.
But Elijah’s dad needed answers. “I can’t believe you would hint about a whorehouse just so you can sell more flour. And a Moloch?” He nodded toward the door to the miller’s family quarters. “What about your grandson? They come with red ink and mark that boy’s wrist. Next week, into the fire. You want to burn your grandson so you can turn a profit?”
The miller scuffed the floor with his sandal. “You make it sound so…. But they only want one child. What are the chances of me drawing the short straw?”
Elijah gasped. Heat flooded his face, and he took a step forward, but Dad squeezed his arm. “You’ve read it, my friend. ‘Anyone who sacrifices children to Moloch — stone him.’”
Out on the street again, Elijah fell into step beside Nathan. “The miller talked about drawing straws for whose baby they feed to Moloch!”
The potter greeted them at his door. The usual spatter of red clay covered his face and arms, but for once he did not kid Elijah and Nathan about being all knees and elbows. Instead, he waved his powerful clay-covered hands toward his racks of unsold plates and bowls. “No wine for me, boys. I haven’t seen three customers this week, and I don’t expect any next week. I can fire up that kiln all I want, but when the crops fail, people use their old, cracked ware.”
Elijah’s dad cleared his throat and tapped his heel on the packed-earth floor. “Yes. Um. Heard a crazy idea about crops. Said in Sidon they—”
“Sidon. Have you heard about those shops in Sidon?” The potter wiped his hands on a clay-filled rag and turned wide eyes on Elijah’s dad. “All the customers that Asherah temple brings in?”
Elijah turned away and covered his mouth. First the miller in his bushy white beard. Then the potter with his clay-splattered chin. Two of Dad’s oldest friends talked up Moloch and Asherah.
Dad gave a short laugh. “Those Sidon merchants are in for a serious letdown. They’ll find out Moloch only works when the weather cooperates. What we need is another King Asa. He cut down the Asherah pole that belonged to his own grandmother. Burned it in the Kidron.”
On the way to the fruit and vegetable shop, Elijah huddled by Dad and gripped his belt like he was four years old again. People passed. He smiled and nodded, but he only saw a little girls who crawled away from a slave trader.
Dad stopped in the street. “I wish it were as simple as I told it, but I’m afraid the whoremongers in Sidon will prove me wrong.”
Nathan put his shoulders back. “But you changed the potter’s mind, Dad.”
“Not a chance. Business is so bad, he only thinks about shekels in his hand.”
Elijah complained. “It’s rotten how they talk like girls are livestock.”
“Give them time to think, Lijah.”
The grocer opened his shop door wide. “My old friends from Tishbe. Come in. Come in.” He gave them a broad smile. Even his droopy eye perked up as bright as the other.
Yet Dad placed his hands on his hips and tilted his head back. “We just left the miller and the potter.” He let the words hang in the air while he tapped his foot.
The grocer’s droopy eye closed. He blinked the other eye several times and combed his hand through his beard. “Um, well.” He turned to Elijah. “No wine for me today, boys. Not enough customers. Sorry.” He glanced at Dad. “So, yes, the miller and the potter. Don’t suppose you—”
“One skin for the miller. None for the potter.” Dad folded his arms across his chest and scowled. “They been talking to you about how to fix the crops? ’Cause you and I already had this conversation.” His scowl turned black.
He jabbed his finger in the grocer’s chest. “You told me yourself how in Tyre they said crops failed because they only burned six babies and only from poor families.”
The grocer sighed and nodded.
“You know what kind of game he plays.” Dad flared his nostrils and raised his voice. “So, now he burns nine children every spring. You think he won’t touch your family? His control is so tight that he even harvests victims from elite homes. Is that what you want? Toss nine little babies into the fire? Some of them your grandchildren?”
Elijah gasped. Dad had left the friendly wine salesman in the street with Balak and Bilaam.
Nathan leaned into Elijah. Their dad could speak freely with his old friend the grocer, but his sons should only listen.
The grocer pointed to his shriveled-up apples and rotting cabbages. “It’s not personal, you know. It’s just business.”
Elijah snorted and touched his dad’s arm. Even Nathan’s weight at his side could not restrain him. He would explode. Would Dad let him speak?
“My old friend can’t hear me.” Dad lowered his voice. He stepped aside and gave a broad sweep of his arm toward Elijah. “Will he listen to my son?”
Words flew from Elijah’s mouth. “What do you mean it’s not personal?” He took a step toward the grocer. “You’ve just never heard those tiny babies scream when they throw them into the fire. Maybe you haven’t seen the skin all scraped off the ankle of a little girl or the look in her eyes.”
The grocer cocked his head. “Oh, I wouldn’t expect a boy like you to understand business.”
Elijah’s face burned. “Business? You want to understand their business?” In one stride, he towered over the grocer. “Go splash his red ink on your own wrist. Jump in his Moloch fire yourself. I got donkeys out front talk more sense than you.”