26. The professor

Neetz leaned back, tugged the door open, and lowered her eyes. Her cheeks flushed as she stepped inside. “Father, remember the talk at minyan about the boy from Gilead?”

  • blush, or lower her eyes in the presence of Nathan

  • drop or bump into something – distracted by Nathan.  

  • Shy or awkward around Nathan.

  • (Maybe right now, she’s a little too sure of herself.)

Zarephath, Sidon, 869 BC

1 King 17:16-17

Elijah followed Neetz into the study with Nathan and Zim at his side. Nathan maintained his chin-down, elbows-in posture.

The professor stood by a window with a text pointer in his hand and a scroll opened on a high oak table. He smiled for a moment at Elijah and Nathan, laid the text pointer on its silk cover, and addressed Neetz. “Please make sure no other visitors enter the house while these men are here.”

Neetz turned and let her gaze brush across Nathan as she stepped out the door.

Nathan’s face flushed.

Elijah rubbed the back of his neck. Back in Jabesh, girls stopped in the street to watch his brother walk by, but Nathan ignored them.

This one had the black eyes and olive skin of Gilead, but her smooth beauty and erect posture would draw men’s eyes. Did the professor keep her locked away from public view? She would back off as soon as she discovered Nathan’s special qualities.

In one corner, a basket of scrolls stood on a small table, and several more scrolls occupied wooden shelves on the smooth-faced limestone wall. Large green plants grew from pots next to the walls. Latticed windows allowed illumination from all sides. On the back wall, under the longest window, a low oak desk claimed the center of the room, and on a corner of the desk, a calico cati lifted her head and studied the three intruders with pupils opened to full-circle.

The professor left his scroll and nodded to Nathan. “Welcome.” He stood about the same height as Elijah’s father, but with smaller chest and biceps. His curly black beard and hair were trimmed and sprinkled with enough gray to make him look a few years younger than Elijah’s father.

Nathan wrinkled his forehead and smiled. “Thank you.”

The professor nodded to Elijah. “Welcome.”

“Thank you.” Elijah pasted on a smile. Merchants in Jabesh had grown accustomed to Nathan’s reticence and greeted Elijah first so as not to embarrass Nathan, but this stranger meant no harm.

Zim bounced between Elijah and the professor. “Good morning, Professor. I brought my friends, Mr. Nathan and Mr. Lijah.”

The professor put his hands on Zim’s shoulders and smiled into his eyes.

Zim stood on tip-toe. “They brought us lots and lots of flour.” He sank back on his heels. “And oil too. Lots of oil.”

The professor raised a hand, and Zim rose with it. “Mr. Nathan can show your grapes how to grow.”

“Zim?” The professor held his hands cupped on Zim’s shoulders.

“You wanna hear about their tree house, Professor?”

“Zim, what I want to hear is your promise.” A straight, serious face replaced his smile, and he stared into Zim’s wide-open eyes. “Promise me you will never, never mention these men to anyone outside this house. Ever.”

Zim snapped his little frame straight and wagged his blond head twice. “Oh, never, Professor. I proooomise. They’re my friends, and Mother says I have to keep them away from crying eyes because their elbows stick out. But you should hear what Mr. Nathan says about your vines, Professor.”

The professor’s eyes twinkled. “Thank you.” He reached around Zim and gripped the forearm of Nathan, then of Elijah. “Welcome to Zarephath and to my home.”

Elijah rubbed his nose to hide his smile. The professor’s firm, kind manner and the twinkle in his eye reminded Elijah of his father.

“Mr. Nathan and Mr. Lijah are from Tishbe, Professor.”

“Tishbe near Jabesh?” The professor addressed his question to Nathan.

Elijah edged over and let his elbow touch Nathan’s. Feeling Elijah near had often helped Nathan relax. “Yes.” Elijah answered for Nathan. “Our father keeps a vineyard. You’ve heard of Tishbe wine?” Elijah angled toward Nathan. His brother could speak easily about vines and wines.

“I’ve not had that pleasure.” The professor brought his goatskin seat from behind the desk. “Please.” He pointed to a group of skins and dropped his at the edge. Nathan sat between Elijah and Zim. The professor sat opposite Nathan.

Neetz returned. “No one is listening in.” She sat on a skin beside the professor. “A man was selling pomegranates, but Mother sent him on his way and locked the gate.” Neetz beamed a quiet smile at Zim. Her eyes strayed to Nathan. She blushed and dropped her gaze to the floor..

Nathan’s neck grew red.

She batted her eyelashes, redirected her gaze to Zim, and composed a quiet smile.

Elijah squinted from under joined eyebrows. Did the professor notice his daughter’s attraction to Nathan?

“My daughter, Neetzevet. A cook to make any father proud, plus she reads and writes both Hebrew and the Sidonian script.” The professor extended a hand toward Nathan. “These men are from Gilead near Jabesh.”

Neetz gave Elijah a crisp nod and sighed as she lowered her eyelashes toward Nathan.

The professor rolled his shoulders and shifted on his goatskin. “Allow me to introduce myself. My family are Levites from Hebron. King Solomon sent my great-grandfather north to teach his men who sailed with Hiram. We’ve had several decades to put down roots.”

“I see.” Elijah didn’t see. His lineage was in Tishbe, and he would never be comfortable anywhere but the ridges of home among Dad’s vines and wines. “We’re country boys, sir. Such a change to take up residence among foreigners. But how do you — I mean, in this city, there can’t be many parents who — ”

“Who send their sons to tutor with the local Levite?” The professor finished Elijah’s sentence then cocked his head at Zim.

“What’d I tell you, Mr. Lijah?” Zim lifted his hand from Nathan’s shoulder and brought it down again. “The best tutor in the whole world.”

“Thank you, Zim.” The professor cleared his throat. “What Levites do might surprise us. Like your father, I cultivate vines.” He leaned back on his goatskin, reached up, and laced his fingers together behind his head. “But I dare say Nathan can list several fields of Levite success beyond viticulture.”

Elijah put his hand to his mouth. Could Nathan handle this attention?

Nathan scowled at Elijah. He glanced around the room and then focused on the table where the text pointer lay on its holder next to the open scroll. He let out a slow breath. “Your pointer, Professor. An elegant design.”

Elijah bit his lip. Would the professor appreciate the compliment? Or resent the delay?

“From Safed in Naphtali. My great-great-grandfather’s. Thank you for noticing.”

Zim gave Nathan a quizzical look.

Elijah looked sideways at Nathan. Any time now, big brother.

Start talking, Nate.

Nathan glanced at the professor but fixed his gaze again on the pointer. He used precise words. “I have heard of Levite expertise in legal matters — both Mycenaean and Hebrew — medicine; vocal and instrumental music; publishing and cataloging; architecture and building. In some places a Levite is the magistrate.”

Wow! Where’d old Nate get all that? Was he blowing… No, Nathan did not blow hot air.

Elijah’s eyes filled.

The professor smiled. “Thank you, Nathan.”

Zim jumped up and down. “What’d I tell you, Professor. Mr. Nathan can show your vines how to grow too. Plus he told me about the memuzah.”

Professor Hashabiah unlaced his fingers and studied Zim’s face. “Zim, how would you like to help Neetz clean the coriander?”

“That’d be great, Professor.” He jumped up and tugged on Nathan’s sleeve. “Come on.”

The professor wiggled his eyebrows. “I’ll keep Nathan here with me. But ask Neetz to show you the new coriander from her garden. She’s proud of those coriander, aren’t you, Neetz.”

“Yes, I am.” She rolled from the goatskin to her feet, took Zim’s hand, and glanced at Nathan.

Zim lowered his head, gave a reluctant nod, and followed Neetz out of the room holding her hand and looking back at Nathan.

Nathan remained stone still. He breathed after the door closed behind them.

The professor leaned forward. “My young scholar has given us much to discuss. First, the prying eyes. You heard what my daughter said about talk in the minyan.” He pursed his lips. “News of your announcement to King Ahab came to our little circle, and I see what Zim means about your elbows. I’ll do my part to keep him silent, and you’re in good hands with Zim’s mother. She is an honest woman. But your parents—do they know where you boys are?”

“No, sir.” Elijah shifted on his seat. “If we went near, the danger to them—”

“I understand. So, why is Zim talking about a mezuzah?”

Elijah frowned. “That’s my doing, Professor. I mentioned the one in our tree house back home. Is there a rule against a mezuzah in a tree house?”

“Oh, I’m sure someone, somewhere, has dreamed up a rule, but let’s not search for it.”

“Well then, um, my brother and I are not good at writing. Nathan can show Zim how to carve the box, but…”

“I can be of some slight help. A tutor should be able to write the mezuzah scripture.” The professor laughed but cut it short. “We have one cause for concern. What if the neighbors think Zim’s mother is my convert?”

“Oh.” Elijah frowned.

“As long as this mezuzah goes on the tree house, but never on the widow’s house, we’ll be okay.”

Nathan nodded. Elijah raised an eyebrow. “We’ll make sure it stays on the tree house.”

“Very good. Let’s help Zim make a mezuzah.”

Elijah cleared his throat. “If I may, Professor, Zim’s mother told us you’re the best tutor in the city, and his studies seem important to her. But I don’t understand how she pays for his lessons.”

“Oh, she doesn’t pay.” The professor shook his head. “After her husband died, she didn’t have the money, but Zim is such a faithful student I couldn’t bear to see him break off his studies, and I canceled her fees. Zim says she follows each lesson with him.”

Elijah chuckled. “So, one Levite teaches Hebrew scriptures to two Sidonians.”

“And at no charge.” The professor winked at Elijah and turned to his brother. “Nathan, my star student says you can show my grapes how to grow.”

Nathan sat up straight, took a deep breath, and stared at the pointer from Safed. “Yes. A passing farmer said your man traveled north.”

“And what would a vine dresser from Gilead do for my long-neglected vines?”

“Bring water from the hills.”

The professor nodded. “A long haul.”

“I could save some vines with water in buckets, but to save the vineyard would require donkeys and water skins and helpers. Not next week, but now.”

“Is it too late to save the vineyard?”

Nathan’s eyes narrowed. “It all depends on how much water we find.”

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