Tishbe, Gilead, Israel, 870 BCi
1 Kings 17:5-9
Elijah swung his rock at the head of the nearest thug.
Dad would have said the thug was made in the image of God, yet the noon-day sun showed him aiming a kick at the neighbor about to propose marriage with Elijah’s sister.
The rock connected with a dull thud, and the man hit the ground.
Elijah spread his feet and thrust out his chest. “‘The Lord trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle.’”
A high-pitched nasal snarl came from behind. “You’re that kid I put down in Jabesh.”
The screams of babies in the flames screeched across his memory. The stench of burning flesh stung his nostrils.
Sakkar sneered and lunged.
Elijah dodged, but the thug snatched him by the robe and yanked him around. As Elijah spun, he opened his arm full length and smashed the rock into Sakkar’s face. “For baby Omar.”
Sakkar dropped beside the first black robe.
Elijah loosened his grip, and the rock thunked to the ground. He leaned with his hands on his knees and sucked in deep breaths.
“Hey, you. Stop!” A trio in black robes shouted from the weaver’s yard three doors down the street.
Racham moaned. How to snatch him from these three? Elijah grabbed Racham under the armpits and dragged his solid, chunky form to the potter’s entrance. Somebody had to be home. The whole village couldn’t be empty. “Rocky’s hurt.”
He tried the door.
He kicked the door then punched the window shutter.
“Gone.” Racham slurred the word.
Hmm…. No goats in the gardens. No smoke from the chimneys. Where was everyone? Blood poured from Racham’s nose, and one eye swelled shut. But he had spoken.
A groan came from a thug on the ground.
“Sorry, Rocky. I thought I put those guys down to stay.”
Sakkar grunted twice and rose to his knees.
What now? Elijah yelled toward the ridge, “I’m getting Rocky out!”
The three black robes from the weaver’s yard dashed over to their downed companions.
“You Sidonian sons of salamanders!” Nathan’s long, drawn out syllables floated down from the ridge.
The black robes turned toward the voice.
Elijah chuckled. “My ever-clever brother.”
Racham groaned. His face contorted in pain.
Nathan drew out each syllable. “Your mothers never saw you slither out of the scum.” He taunted. “They’re lonesome for you hunks of slime, so slide back to your sewer.”
Elijah dragged Racham around the corner and stood him against the house.
Racham’s head sagged. His knees buckled.
“Rocky!” Elijah slapped him.
Racham flinched. “Muh.”
Elijah held Racham’s hands up as high as he could reach, turned, crouched, and heaved him up onto his own back. “You better live, Rocky. You hear me?”
With Racham’s face dangling over his shoulder, Elijah waddled through the fruit trees and into the woods. He stumbled, and Racham shifted. Elijah’s foot caught on a root. He lurched ahead and lost his grip.
Racham rolled under the bushes and lay in the leaves.
Elijah held his side and gasped. “You’re like a dead donkey on my back.”
“The woods!” Sakkar’s high nasal voice pierced the air, no longer woozy or weak. “Forget the ridge. I want those two in the woods!”
“Lord, help us.” Elijah heaved Racham up again and tottered through the undergrowth to a small rise. He eased Racham onto his backside against the grassy bank.
“Can you walk?”
Racham rolled over.
“Back here. This way.” Sakkar yelled. Twigs snapped. Sticks struck bushes.
Elijah lifted Racham’s chin. “Where can we hide?”
“Thorns.” Racham tipped his head.
“But the black robes are there.”
Racham dragged himself up to eye level. “Thorns.”
Here in Racham’s backyard, maybe he should follow Racham’s lead. Elijah got under him, lifted again, and grunted from the strain. Donkey? More like a cow. “This way?”
“Mm.” Racham dipped his head.
“Here!” Sakkar called. “They’re in here! I can smell their foul breath.”
Elijah stumbled. Those black robes were closing in, yet he could only slog through the underbrush step-by-step.
Tiny daggers stung and pulled at Elijah’s arms.
Racham bumped with his head. “Here. Thorns.” His words came clear, free from slurs.
“Other… side.” Did the change of timbre in Racham’s voice mean happy or desperate?
Elijah lugged him around to the other side of the thicket and plopped him on his rump.
“Door,” Racham said.
Thorns formed a solid wall. Cicadas buzzed, crickets chirped, and mold floated from leaves layered year-upon-year.
“There’s no door, Rocky.”
Racham turned his head away from the wall of thorns toward a huge oak tree. “Pole.”
Elijah jumped over to the oak. What pole was Rocky talking about? There’s nothing over here but… On the far side, standing on a rock, a pole as long as Nathan leaned against the trunk. Elijah grabbed it and dashed back. He poked it under the thorns where Racham’s finger pointed. He lifted the pole, and a roof of briers rose with it.
Elijah sucked in a quick breath.
The ground lay undisturbed between dense, prickly walls of brambles leading into the heart of the thicket.
“You sly dog, you. Can you crawl?”
Racham looked up with a frown. “Leaves. Leaves.” As he crept into his tunnel, he tried to pick up a handful of oak leaves, but they dribbled from his fingers.
To keep the roof of briers up, Elijah set one end of the pole on the thorn bush while he gathered an armful of leaves. He backed in and sprinkled leaves over their tracks. “I bet nobody found you during hide and seek.”
Racham entered, and Elijah followed. In the center of the thicket, they dropped into a slight depression. Elijah lowered the pole, and the roof of thorns settled to the ground, sealing them in.
Elijah flattened in beside Racham. “Did you hollow this out when you were a kid?”
“Shh.” Racham elbowed him.
A stick tapped the ground closer and closer, and Elijah sank lower and lower. Sweat beaded on his forehead, yet he shivered. Vultures were going to clean their bones. Sheerah would never have her Rocky, nor Milkah her house on the ridge.
“We’ve checked everywhere.” A bass voice blared from above Elijah. “They’ve got to be here.”
Racham pushed Elijah’s head into the dirt. Where’d he get such energy? Elijah inhaled the mold. In a few weeks, his rotting corpse would sweeten these dank odors.
“They’re somewhere close.” Sakkar’s eager, nasal tones came strong and virile. “I recognized that kid as soon as he charged up with his rock. I’ll crush his head.”
The man with the bass voice growled, “You hear that? Back by the houses?”
“They’re circling.” Sakkar cackled. “Like rabbits headed for our pot of stew.”
The thump of stick on dirt faded off toward the village, and Racham released Elijah’s head. “If you hadn’t popped in when you did, those nice men might not have let me live.” Racham was back and full-strength.
Elijah breathed long.
In unison they rolled onto their backs and faced the dappled streams of light that fell through the leaves.
On a branch waving over their feet, a graceful prinia warbler landed and shook the dangling acorns.
Elijah wiggled his toes and let the tension drain. “Do you remember the acorn skit?”
Racham snickered. “My line was, ‘If you wait in one place long enough, an Absalom Oak will grow from between your toes.’”
“What part you play, oak or squirrel?”
“Oak.” Racham laced his fingers behind his head. “Sheerah told us oak trees where to stand, that’s when I really saw her.”
“Sheers loves to run things. She assigned Nathan and me to be squirrels.”
Racham propped up on an elbow but winced and lay back. “Sheerah’s gone to Ramoth with your mother. They’re with your Uncle Hiram. My parents traveled with them to my aunt’s place. Milkah and her mother went too. They’re at her brother’s.”
“Why’s everybody leaving Tishbe?”
“The black robes,” Racham replied. “Nasty people. That Moloch priest hires thugs off the street, and they answer to no one. Women hide.”
Heat rose into Elijah’s face. So, while he was gathering asparagus and munching on mutton-with-onions, Mother was running for her life. He flexed his fingers. “How’s your nose?”
Racham wiped his hand across his upper lip. “Not much blood. I think I’m okay.” He rolled to face Elijah. “Look, Lijah. Don’t go home. You can’t help your mother.” He laid a hand on Elijah’s elbow. “The goons don’t know exactly who challenged the king, but they’ve been asking around about a tall kid with weird knees and elbows. They search every place. We never know when they’ll show up. They’ll kill you and your whole family. Milkah’s too.”
Elijah stared through the brambles up into the sky. First Nathan and now Rocky telling him not to go home. And Dad said the mouth of two or three settled a matter. He nodded and gave a deep sigh. “What about the vines, Rocky?”
“I take care of your father’s donkeys and haul water to the vines. We sell wine, but with this drought there’s not much wine to sell. I sneak back here for melons and cucumbers. Usually at night.”
“Yeah, sneaking goes better in the dark.”
A whitethroat warbler scolded them with its hoarse, scratchy song.
“Those black robes are looking for us in the village now.” Elijah stretched and crawled out. He returned the pole to the oak tree and followed Racham through the woods to the path. “You’re as strong as ever, Rocky.”
“I’ll make it. Thanks.” Racham planted both feet across the path and gave Elijah a lopsided grin. “Go find Nathan and lose yourselves again.” With one hand over his blackened eye, he laid a palm across Elijah’s cheek. “I’ll get back to your dad now.”
“Have him look at that eye. He’ll know what to put on it.”
Racham strode toward the vineyard, and at a bend in the path he waved.
Elijah waved back, watched him disappear, then climbed the ridge and leaned against a limestone outcropping under huge old pines.
Beneath him, far to the left, Racham trudged up the path and pushed in through the gate that had close behind Elijah a few days before the Feast of Trumpets.
Racham had said Milkah was gone to Ramoth, but Elijah stepped around the limestone to see for himself. Milkah’s pasture lay empty. No sheep. No Milkah. Empty.
A hand grasped his shoulder. Elijah’s stomach lurched. “Unh. Where’d you come from?”
Nathan spread his legs and dangled his arms. “Not where, little brother. How.” He squinted at Elijah. “Is Rocky okay?”
“He’s walking again. He helps Dad. Mom and Sheerah are at Uncle Hiram’s. Milkah and her mother are with family over there too.” Elijah bowed his head. “The Lord said Zarephath.”
Nathan grinned. “Zarephath. What route would you propose?”
“The Beitshan road?”
Nathan turned Elijah and gave him a push down the ridge. They cut through the Yarmuk River valley and up onto the Gilead plateau.
“Nate, back there in the ravine I dreamed I hiked this road to the fort.”
Nathan frowned. “Whatever for?”
“In my dream, black robes were chasing Mom and Dad. Fangs as long as your fingers.” He curled his hand into a claw. “But if I’d confess, they’d go away. So, I wore the goatskin to show the guards it was me. I got to the gate and reached up to ring the bell.”
Nathan turned and opened his eyes wide.
“But I ran away.”
“Smart.” Nathan pursed his lips and nodded.
“Chicken.” Elijah shook his head and sighed. “See, if I’d do the right thing—go tell them I’m the guy who told the king ‘no more dew nor rain’—they’d call off the black robes and Mother could come home.”
“Not so.” Nathan wagged his finger in Elijah’s face. “That’s not how kings do it. When Baasha butchered King Nadab, he wiped out Nadab’s whole clan. Zimri killed King Baasha in the evening, and that night—not next morning, but that night—he slaughtered every one of Baasha’s relatives and friends.”
Nathan stepped in front of Elijah and bored in with his eyes. “King Ahab won’t smile just to watch your handsome head bounce in the street. His men will slice the throat of everyone connected to you. That includes Milkah and her family.” Nathan backed off half a step and held Elijah’s gaze.
Elijah shuddered. “There’s no hope.”
Nathan shook his head and grinned. “Not true. Go to Zarephath, and they won’t find Mother.”
Just do what the Lord said? That didn’t sound safe. Elijah balled his hands into fists and then released his fingers. He loved his brother, but a man should make his own decisions. Control his own life.
They used the remaining daylight to trail through Gilead toward the Jordan River. At sundown, they edged under the leafy green of a pomegranate grove outside Kamon village and drifted into sleep with the hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo of an owl overhead.
In the morning, they dropped into the thick grass of the Rift Valley and trudged up to the lower end of the Sea of Galilee. Nathan waved toward three dirty white boats on the bright blue water. “I could like it here. I’d farm sheep and vines, and my wife would teach our kids to fish.” He looked up at the Golan. “Protected by the bluff.”
“With the king’s spies staring down on you?” Elijah shrugged. “Not this country boy.”
They followed the Upper Jordan River through the Hula swamp grass to the tiny Banias stream and hid in a shed at the edge of Maacah meadow.
As the sun rose, Elijah gawked at a white-crowned mountain under the clear blue sky. “Snow? Mt. Hermon?”
“I think so.”
They crested a ridge, and the Mediterranean stretched before them. They descended into a ravine toward the sea.
Elijah rounded a bend, and two vultures flared up from a body face down in the dirt.
Four men strode out from behind a boulder. They held bows drawn tight to the shoulder and fitted with arrows, two aimed at Nathan and two at Elijah.
i Check this for too much eyes, gazing, looking. NO MORE STARES.