In the city square of Samaria, Jephunneh1 whistled2, ‘Your Word Is a Lamp.’ He bounced on the balls of his feet in time with his tune and circled his donkey, pausing to release the ties which held a net over his many bags of figs on the packsaddle. He stretched his legs in a wide stance, and in one fluid movement, bent and looped his donkey’s lead line around a stone at the corner of his market stall.
The sun already tinted the last of the night sky and showed farmers setting up all over the market. Donkeys blew in friends’ nostrils and then nibbled on each other’s necks and shoulders while they dropped fresh manure, the first layer of market-day smells. A few customers began the swarm which would soon fill the town square with warm chatter.
Jephunneh lifted his head of messy brown hair and gave a thumbs-up to his cousin Imri in the next stall. Imri nodded and slung a sack of pomegranates down from his donkey.
Between the stalls, two little boys knelt next to a circle of polished chestnuts. They flipped nuts into the circle and sometimes tucked nuts from the circle into little cloth bags.
Jephunneh squinted toward the far side of the plaza, and stopped whistling. “It’s still there.” He spoke in Aramaic, the language of his village. The hulking shadow of the Asherah temple showed lighter colors every moment.
The little boys looked up at the temple.
Imri yanked a string and let pomegranates slide into a pile at his feet. He replied in Aramaic. “And Baruch and Ulam are still dead. If it weren’t marble, we could sneak in here some night and burn it down.”
Jephunneh tipped his head back and laughed loud. “Or if old Joshua were here, you could help him organize a march.”
Imri held his empty sack and watched a black-robed man swagger down the steps of the palace. Imri switched to Hebrew. “Here comes its rotten manager.”
Jephunneh’s laugh died, and his smile slid to one side of his mouth. He held a bag of figs and waited for the temple boss to approach. He should rip that pink Kronos design off his shoulder and tear it from his robe, but the evil lay too deep for that. The man came into spitting range, and Jephunneh trembled. His nostrils flared. He leaned into the path and crammed Hebrew in the man’s face. “Pour your fury on them red-hot, Lord.”
A scowl fell over the man’s face.
The two little boys collected their polished nuts into tiny cloth bags.
Imri twisted his empty sack and unleashed more words from the psalm. “Blast them with your anger, Lord.”
The man glared at him. “We’ll see who gets blasted.” A Sidonian accent marred his Hebrew.
Jephunneh set the fruit down and stepped into the man’s path with his lopsided smile. He crossed his arms. “When?”
The black-robed man stepped to the side and looked at the temple on the other side of the plaza.
But Jephunneh raised clenched fists and thrust up his chin. “Not your hired thugs. You and me. Right now.”
The two little boys clutched their bags and dashed out of sight.
The temple boss’s face blotched red. He ducked around Jephunneh and scuttled between farmers and donkeys to the side door of the temple.
Imri wadded the empty bag and threw it to the ground. “That door’s where the slavers delivered those little girls Baruch tried to help.”
Jephunneh’s nostrils continued to flare. He took a deep breath, crouched over a sack of figs, and with exaggerated care, rolled the sides down to display the fruit.
He stood and smoothed the front of his tunic. His mouth puckered for a tune but blew only air. Maybe he shouldn’t spout off like that. Ha! He’d almost knocked knuckles with the chief thug of the Asherah temple. Such fun. But what would it accomplish?
Just as the sun popped free from the horizon, the two little boys returned. Both looked solemn, and instead of bags of polished nuts, they brought Keren and Hodiah, Baruch’s wife and mother.
Keren looked straight at Jephunneh. “Gera sent us. He needs you and Imri right now. Mother and I will sell your figs and pomegranates.”
Jephunneh opened his mouth and knit his brows at Imri, but Keren stepped into his line of sight. “It’s urgent. He needs you this moment. Mother and I have sold more fruit and vegetables than you’ll ever see, and we’ll make more profit for your families.”
Keren rested her hands on the backs of the two little boys who shot polished nuts in the dirt. “My helpers will take you to Gera.”
Hodiah touched Jephunneh’s arm. “Go now, son, please. For Baruch.”
Jephunneh shrugged at Imri and together they followed the little boys to the tiny hut where Gera managed the olive groves of the Samaria district. Jephunneh searched Gera’s brown, weathered face. “How can we help you, Uncle Gera?”
Gera grasped the hands of both young men. “Thank you for coming.” He nodded to the two little boys. “And thank you for bringing them.” The little boys left.
“You can help me by staying alive.” The older man sat on a crude bench that faced out across the hill and patted the spaces on either side. “Sit with me, please.”
They sat on either side of him.
Jephunneh tugged on his ear. Yesterday, he and Imri worked all afternoon picking and sorting and bagging figs and pomegranates. Their fathers assigned them two good donkeys, and this morning they trudged through the dark for an hour to set up their market stalls at first light. Yet when Keren said Gera needed him, he left his stall. He would not pass up a chance to do something for Uncle Gera. He scratched his chin. It seemed Gera only wanted to sit and chat.
Gera draped his arms across their shoulders and pulled them close. “You two are what I call ‘bubblers.’”
Jephunneh ran his hand through his hair. “Bubblers?”
“You’re like my Baruch. Either too stubborn or too stupid to keep your mouths shut, and I don’t care which. I just want to keep you alive.”
Jephunneh stiffened. “But I can’t keep quiet. Like this morning…”
“I know about this morning. Keren posted those two little boys beside you two weeks ago.”
Jephunneh glanced at Imri bit his lip. He should be angry. Act annoyed. Defend his dignity. Against Uncle Gera? He stared off across the hills. “You’ve been spying on us.”
Gera lifted his arms and rested both hands on his knees. “Do you trust me, boys?”
Jephunneh leaned forward, locked eyes with Imri, and opened his hands. “If we can’t trust Uncle Gera….”
Gera slapped their knees. “You boys helped me mourn Baruch, and then you helped bury Ulam. So you’ve seen how spouting off puts you and your families in danger.”
Jephunneh turned his face to him. “But…”
“The Lord puts it in some of us to name good and evil for what they are, but it doesn’t matter now if you keep your mouths shut or not. That black-robed snake has marked you, and his thugs will kill you. Boys, I want to hide you in an olive grove.”
show we are in olive grove
Show time elapsed
Jephunneh put both hands behind his back and held his wrist. [Does he whistle?] He pinched his lips together and paced between Zophal and Imri. Zophal sat with his back to a low stone wall while Imri whittled a piece of olive wood. The trees breathed green and edible. Out near the entrance to the grove, birds flew up and then settled. Company coming?
He peeked over the stones. Enough of this waiting and wondering. He should not have listened to those women. If Baruch’s wife wasn’t so forceful and his mother so tender… No, he shouldn’t blame them. When Uncle Gera said “hide,” he could have refused.
A sandal kicked a stone. Who was that?
He pushed Imri and Zophah down beside him. To show one mop of hair over this low wall might be safe, but three such bumps could grab the eye.
Gera’s sandal [what about it?] pushed into view, and Jephunneh scrambled over the stones. He dodged through the trees and down the slope. Imri and Zophah bounced behind in his footprints. Thud. Thud. Thud. Zophal bumped Imri into Jephunneh. Gera stepped aside, and the three crumpled in a pile at his feet.
“I thought my Baruch made noise, but you three thunder down the hill like a herd of wild bulls. You’ll invite the queen’s assassins onto our necks.”
“Sorry Uncle Gera. We don’t want to see those goons.” Jephunneh sat up, plucked a low branch and snapped it in half. “What happened? Did they get another bubbler?”
Gera pulled Jephunneh to his feet. “No, no. Good news.” He pulled Imri and Zophal up. Imri put his whittling knife away and took the wineskin Gera extended. “Our friends found a cave by Megiddo. One with no black tunics snooping around. You leave at sundown.”
Jephunneh tossed the sticks aside. “Tonight!”
Gera put a finger to his lips, gesturing for quieter voices. He glanced behind, then faced them again. “But we don’t want people to notice you. I didn’t hide you in my trees all these weeks to send you into the hands of the queen. Can you follow two rules?”
Jephunneh saluted with a grin. “Whatever you say.”
Zophal shuffled backward, his face pointed toward the sky as he juggled pebbles. Then he froze. “What was that?” He closed his palm around the pebbles.
The others stood stock still while Zophal tip-toed around the nearest tree.
He returned with a shrug. “Sorry, guys. I guess I’m just not made for all this waiting.”
Gera squeezed his shoulder. “You’re not alone, Zophal. And tonight you will not be waiting. Now the first rule is, I need you to spread out far away from each other. Don’t bunch up. It draws attention. Second, no contact with anyone. Don’t talk to people. Don’t even look at them. Keep your eyes down, your mouth shut, and keep walking.”
He looked each young man in the eye. “Can you do that?”
Jephunneh grinned. “Unfriendly, but we can do it.” He accepted the skin from Imri and swigged a drink.
“It might save your life. Plus the lives of the others. Remember what the queen’s thugs did to Baruch and Ulam, and they’re still searching for that boy in the goatskin. I don’t want them to touch you.”
Imri stepped between Jephunneh and Gera. “We can keep our mouths shut, but how far do we spread out?”
“I asked Hodiah, and she showed me, ‘Your Word Is a Lamp.’”
Jephunneh’s brow wrinkled. “The psalm?”
Gera nodded. “Don’t laugh. She said after each man starts, if the next one waits until he has recited all 176 verses, the man ahead would be far enough down the road for safety. Can you do that?” Gera gazed at each man.
“‘Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord.’” Zophah turned to Jephunneh. “Can you say the whole thing?”
Imri nodded and patted his belly. “But what do we eat?”
Gera stroked his chin. “Keren will bring bread and raisins. And small skins of wine. Fill your water skins this morning and sleep. You’ll start before sundown and arrive after sunup.”
“Send me first.” Jephunneh thrust his shoulders back.
“You are my lead man, Jeph. You know the route. To Jenin and then west.”
“I’m ready. Mouth shut, eyes down, and west at Jenin. Whose house in Megiddo?”
Gera stooped to the ground and made a crude map with his finger. “Do not turn at Megiddo. Go past the Megiddo cut-off to a tiny grove of date palms surrounded by pomegranates.” He pointed to the lines in the dirt. “Our friends in the Valley tacked a brown scarf to the trunk of a palm on the west side. That will be on your left. As far after the cut-off as from here to the village of Geba, your village.”
Jephunneh crouched beside him and repeated Gera’s gestures at the map. “Beyond Megiddo. Brown scarf on the left.”
Gera put his arm around Jephunneh’s shoulders. “You’re my man. After you get there, watch for the next men. Don’t let them pass you. Pull them into the pomegranate trees, and after everyone arrives, a guide will show you the cave.”
Jephunneh shook his head. “But, Uncle Gera, we can’t ask directions? Middle of the night? Jenin’s such a tiny place, and Zophal’s never been out of Samaria City. He’ll miss the turn and march right up to the fort.”
Gera ruffled Zophal’s hair. “You’re my city boy, aren’t you. May the Lord give you good eyes. After all my work to keep you alive, I couldn’t bear it if you hiked into the arms of those thugs who killed my Baruch.”
Imri stepped up. “I know that cutoff, sir. I’ll show him where to turn.”
“Good! We’ll send you right after Jephunneh and post you at the Jenin cutoff. I wonder how many others need you to show them that turn?”
“Others?” Jephunneh gripped Gera’s arm.
“Seventeen of you in all.”
Jephunneh’s eyes widened. He exchanged glances with Zophal and Imri. Imri shook his head. “Seventeen?”
Gera beamed. “That’s right. What you didn’t know, you couldn’t tell.” He lost his smile. “Boys, it must stay that way. I’ve hidden the others in twos and threes, and I’m not telling them how many you are. But Imri, you need to know how many to turn left at Jenin. And Jeph, you need to know how many to pull in at the palm tree. So, Imri, can you stand at the Jenin cutoff and direct the others?”
“I’ll stay right there and turn every man, Uncle Gera.”
“Hmm…” Gera shook his head. “Some of these boys come from villages, so you haven’t met them. You’ll need a password—no.” He rubbed his mouth with his hand. “No passwords. No talking to people.”
Jephunneh raised his eyebrows. “A blue patch on our shoulders? A scarf?”
Zophal held up Imri’s wrist. “A cloth on the wrist. Any color.”
Imri grinned. “That’s it. The left wrist. No moon tonight, but I can make out a little cloth tied to a man’s left wrist.”
Gera looked at each man. “So, do you agree?”
Jephunneh glanced at Imri and Zophal. “Agreed. Tell everyone to tie a small cloth on their left wrist and wear it past Megiddo, so I can flag them down at our palm trees.”
# # #
The next morning, Jephunneh arrived at the palms and pulled the other bubblers in behind him. He rubbed his back up and down against the bark of a palm tree. “Ah!” If he must hide, Jephunneh preferred to lie back in the tall grass let it tickle his face. He could take all afternoon to smell the wild blossoms of the grass and watch birds fight and clouds scud across the sky to drop their little storms. Sky stretched over palm trees, olive trees, and tall grass.
But caves had no sky. Caves smelled like rats and bats and moldy bread. If they had bread. He licked out the last drop from his skin of water. In a cave he would have to suck up yucky liquid that floated with slimy things whose only purpose was to crawled into caves, die, and pollute.
Sky. A man needed sky. Overhead, a swallow-tailed kite screamed at the kestrel it had fought off three times. The kestrel came back for more. Jephunneh peeked through the pomegranate branches. “Here’s Imri.”
Imri ducked into the trees, and Jephunneh turned him to face the fourteen others. He kept his voice low. “Imri is the man who waved you west at Jenin. Uncle Gera said our guide would find us here in the pomegranates.
“No talking. But if you have extra food, maybe hold it up for whoever’s hungry.” He yawned and then shook his head. “Someone needs to stay awake.”
“Shh!” Zophal pointed toward the road.
A little girl about eight years old skipped up to the intersection and pushed her scarf back on her head. Tight black curls fell around her face as she pulled a branch aside and squinted under the trees. She scanned the faces and locked eyes with Jephunneh. “Follow me.” This little child cannot be part of Uncle Gera’s team. Seventeen men would never trust their lives to a little girl.
She paused and re-tied the scarf over her curls.3 Then she struck off through the trees, and Jephunneh followed. He turned to Zophal. “We don’t have to spread out in the woods, but I need you to bring up the rear. Make sure everybody stays with us.” He and Imri followed right behind the girl and let the others trail them. Imri squeezed his arm. “Who is she?”
Jephunneh shook him off and took an extra stride that landed him beside the girl. “Who are you?”
She flicked him a sober glance. “No talking.” She led away from the road toward the gurgle of a stream that splashed over rocks and rushed down chutes. The men obeyed, so the only sounds came from the wind that ruffled through the leaves overhead, and the stream which splashed over rocks at their side. The girl paused. “No tracks by the bank, please.”
Jephunneh examined the ground. No path. They would make the first footprints.
She trudged ahead through thick bushes, keeping several paces from the stream. The morning sun reached through the trees and brought sweat to Jephunneh’s brow.
Jephunneh relayed her message and followed.
Uncle Gera had no control over the quality of his helpers way down here in the valley. This tiny, bossy girl could lead these seventeen independent men to safety or to a slow death. And even if safe, how could he and Imri help feed their families from a cave?
Sure-footed as a deer, their little dictator crossed on the large rocks and stepped into the stream. When Jephunneh put his feet into the water, they showed wavy but clear beneath the icy flow and unaccompanied by slime or pollutant.
Keeping to the center of the stream, their guide approached a large opening where the current gushed out of a limestone cliff. She led them into the dark. Jephunneh stepped out of the stream up onto the bank, and the men followed him. They all stood gazing back at the daylight.
The girl lingered in the water and pointed into the deeper darkness. “Stay back inside. No singing. No fires. This water is good to drink. Food comes soon.”
Finish up with Jephunneh whistling again?
1eyes that saw deep into a person’s heart. And joy. Such joy.
2Put a few more whistle times in for Jephunneh.
3 Maybe a thought that shows that although he’s nervous about her, they can’t just sit there in the trees like sitting ducks. And she is wearing a scarf.