In Jabesh, Elijah helped Nathan set a wineskin on its rack behind the counter in the bakery.
A warm, round little body crawled over his feet. A baby.
Nathan picked the baby up.
The baker beamed. “Omar.”
Keeping his eyes fixed on his squirming bundle, Nathan moved to the next person. “Omar is so glad to see you, ma’am.”
Elijah’s father collected his five silver shekels from the shopkeeper, shuffled back a step, and studied Nathan.
Elijah allowed himself a private smile. His eyes flitted from brother to father and back again. Was this his brother? Normally, the moment a wineskin sat ready for the shopkeeper to draw wine, Nathan ducked out and stood among the donkeys. If anyone came close, he bent and fiddled with cinch straps.
But Nathan stood the baby with his feet touching the floor. “Show everybody how you walk.”
Omar plopped down on his bottom.
Their next wine sale at the bakery, Elijah stood back as Nathan hoisted Omar onto the counter and wiggled his little toes. Customers gawked and grinned while the young man and the baby giggled and chattered.
Each trip into Jabesh brightened Nathan’s eyes, and that summer, he started calling the bake shop “Omar’s Place.”
Early that fall, with two weeks to prepare for the Day of Trumpets, Elijah led their ten donkeys loaded with twenty wineskins into Jabesh. Shoppers surrounded him and his father and brother.
A grinning miller came out of his shop and met Elijah on the street. He ordered two large skins and led the vintners into the mill through a sea of customers. “Wine. Tishbe wine.”
No customers, however, collected at the bake shop which Nathan called “Omar’s Place.” Elijah tried the door. Locked. He tugged on a shutter, but it did not open. With all these shoppers, why would the bakery be closed?
Elijah’s father went into the shop next door but came out and shook his head. “Something’s wrong at Omar’s Place, and the cobbler doesn’t want to talk about it.”
At the grocery, Elijah pushed through a knot of customers at the door and then more clustered around the fruits and vegetables. The grocer looked up. “Can you sell me three skins today, boys?”
On the way to the pottery, Elijah inhaled the smoky city air and laid his arm across Nathan’s shoulder. Nathan looked up.
Elijah shook his head. Where was Omar?
Customers waited three deep in the pottery shop to carry home new bowls or cups or plates. Elijah helped Nathan lug in two wine skins. “Excuse us, please. Tishbe wine.”
As they settled the second skin in place, the potter opened his cash drawer and used his old phrase. “Can you boys organize your elbows and knees to bring in another skin?”
Shop by shop, Elijah helped Nathan lift wineskins from donkeys and set them onto low tables behind counters. He smiled at shopkeepers and spoke politely with customers. So many customers. But what had happened to close the bake shop where Nathan’s little friend, Omar, played?
When the wine was gone and the pack saddles empty, Elijah turned their donkeys toward the city gate.
But a drum tapped eight times and then gave a boom. The eight beats and the boom repeated, and Elijah’s father stopped in the middle of the street.
Half a block away, the grocer’s door popped open and slapped against the wall. Customers rushed out. A man with cabbages tucked under his arms stooped to retrieve cucumbers that dropped from his fingers. Beyond the grocery, the mill door opened, and people ran out clutching bags of beans and flour.
The grocer and the miller followed their customers out and then locked their doors. People poured from shops and marched toward the beat.
Elijah’s father swung around to face the sound. “It’s the Moloch, boys. Moloch.”
He groaned. “I got tired of my friends telling me how Asherah would improve business, and they wearied at my talk of its evils. We became deaf to each other.
“But we’ve had two years of thin crops, and that priest keeps hammering away that his new god will fix things. These shoppers are not in town to prepare for the Day of Trumpets. They’re here because they believe that priest. First, he shows them Moloch. Later the temple.”
Elijah’s father turned toward the drum. “‘Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Moloch.’ We have to watch. We have to keep it out of Tishbe.”
At the back of the throng, the too-tall brothers, Elijah and Nathan, stood flat-footed and looked over heads while their father balanced on tiptoe, lifting himself by his hands on their shoulders.
The crowd stared at a bronze statue of the god Kronos with palms extended over a roaring fire. Surges of heat reached over the crowd and touched Elijah’s face.
In front of the idol, a man in a black robe officiated, and behind it a tall man in a black tunic tended a waist-high stack of sticks.
Elijah tapped Nathan’s elbow. “What’s that design on their shoulders? A pink something.”
Nathan shook his head. “Can’t make it out.”
Three couples approached the priest with their backs to the crowd. The man behind the idol fed sticks to the fire, and the flames rose up around Kronos’ empty palms.
A couple walked up to the idol and presented a naked child. The priest held the boy up for the crowd. He wiggled like Tuvia, Elijah’s three-week-old cousin.
Nathan disappeared behind the donkeys. Elijah’s father craned his neck and pulled himself higher by putting more weight on Elijah’s shoulder.
Elijah gave a nervous laugh. That priest was pretending, right? He was going to hold the baby up in front of the fire and then hand him back to his father. “Dad? They’re not going to burn that baby, are they, Dad?”
But the priest slammed the baby onto the palms of Kronos.
The baby screamed. The idol’s palms opened and dropped the baby into the fire. Before the child could pull in a second breath, the flames sucked away his sound, and the stench of burning flesh touched Elijah’s nostrils.
With every eye upon him, the priest turned to the next father and reached for his baby. Elijah gagged and lurched over to the gutter. While this second baby shrieked, Elijah retched. But he wiped his mouth, came back, and hid his face in his father’s beard.1 He could not watch, but he could stand with his father.
His father’s chest shuddered with sobs. A hot drip fell on Elijah’s ear, and he looked up at glistening streams on his father’s cheeks.
Elijah stood tall. He would tell his own children. The family would keep it out of Tishbe.
A black tunic moved through the crowd toward Elijah.
The third pair of parents approached, stiff as posts. But their child struggled. Another boy. Bigger, older. He understood what was happening. His little head turned and…
“Omaaar!” Elijah charged between two men.
Omar sent out a long squall.
Elijah slid between two more onlookers, and the baby screamed again.
“Omaaaar!” Nathan scrabbled through the crowd beside him. “I’m coming, Omar!”
From behind him, Elijah’s father: “Nathan! Elijah!”
A fist from a black tunic knocked Nathan to the ground.
A foot snagged Elijah’s ankle, and he reeled forward. His face smacked the dirt as Omar’s voice died in mid yowl. Beside him, Nathan lay still, face down in the dirt.
A knee pushed on Elijah’s spine and a hand gave his arm a sharp twist. “Leave it alone, kid.”
The hand yanked Elijah’s arm, and he yelled. A fist hit his mouth, and the hand dragged him to his feet. He twisted. The left shoulder of the black tunic held a pink insignia of Kronos spitting flames. A black patch covered one eye.
Elijah’s father lunged for the man’s throat. “Let go of my son!” But the man twirled and stuck out a foot. Elijah’s father sprawled in the dirt.
Elijah jumped to his side. “Dad!”2
The fist came again. Elijah dodged, but the fist drove into his belly and doubled him over.
A hand jerked him up by the hair. “The priest don’t want yer noise.” One hand grasped his upper arm and another his ankle. His face dragged along through the dirt.
Elijah landed in his own vomit. “Omaaaaaar!”
A foot kicked his face. “Shut it.”
The miller grabbed the black-tunic man by the arm. “Stand back, Sakkar!”
Sakkar’s high pitch came back with, “But the priest don’t want no noise.”
The grocer pushed his hand against Sakkar’s chest and shoved twice. “Back off, Sakkar. It’s a simple boy who talks to his donkey.”
The potter shoved his chin into the eyepatch. “Listen, son. We’ll keep this one quiet and put in a good word for you with your boss. Now get out of here.”
Elijah’s father dragged Nathan by the armpits. “You men stood up to that priest’s hireling for my boys. You are my brothers. Thank you. Please help me load my sons onto my donkeys, and I’ll take them home.”
1Does this spot need more thoughts or feelings from Elijah?
2 Does this spot need more thoughts or feelings from Elijah?