In the city of Samaria, Baruch unlatched the door and glanced across the dark courtyard. Light from the east already tinted the sky, but if he hustled, he could bring Keren her fish and still help Dad prune olive trees before the sun got too hot to work.
From the bedroom, Kvellar squealed and crawled toward him while Tola toddled into the doorway. Keren leaned against the doorjamb and let her gaze slide across their sons and up to Baruch’s eager face.
She brushed her falling hair back from her face and returned a soft smile. The baby in her belly rode lower this morning.
He followed the kiss with a whispered line from the Song of Songs, “Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.” But she deserved words shaped for her alone. Words which he would compose on his way to the pickle shop. A tiny bluethroat sang in the olive tree across the yard. Perhaps he would compare her neck to the contours of the bluethroat’s delicate iridescent bib.
Mom took three quick steps across the kitchen, scooped Kvellar onto a forearm, and leaned into Baruch’s chest. “What are you looking at?” She winked at Keren. “The only thing she requires of you is fresh bread and pickled fish.”
While Kvellar poked fingers between Baruch’s lips, Mom laid her palm against his cheek and pushed his face around toward the courtyard. “Now go, boy. Tell her how good-looking she is when you get back. Your father wants to get an early start and leave the groves early. Your Uncle Biah will be here to bring the Sabbath in.”
Baruch ducked away from the two hands on his face and sneaked one more look at Keren. Then he strode out the door and through the trees to the dirt street. He climbed the grade as the sun came up over his shoulder.
“Keren even drinks the juice. So, first I get fish, then I grab hot bread from the baker, hustle home, and lay it warm in her hands.”
“Only the baker for me. Fresh bread for the Sabbath.”
“Uncle Biah’s coming.”
“Must be nice having the king’s right hand man for a guest.”
“Uncle Biah? My dad taught him everything there is to know about olive trees. I love it when he brings the Sabbath in with us. And his guards are fun guys – like cousins.”
Beside the street, a gentle breeze played in the dark-green olive leaves and flashed a silver sheen from their undersides. The sun painted Baruch’s striding shadow on the foliage and then mixed it with the silhouette of his neighbor.
At the main street, the neighbor turned toward the bakery, and Baruch hustled to the last shop before the town square. Inside, he bypassed the fruit, vegetables, nuts—even the smoked fish—and strode straight to a barrel of pickled herring at the end of the counter.
The owner lifted the lid. “So, your third child will be with us soon.”
Baruch showed him his empty jar. “She ate the last little fish this morning.” He paid and hurried out with his full jar and turned toward the bakery.
Back at the intersection where he parted from his neighbor, a crowd blocked his way to the bakery, so he pushed through.
Shoppers stood gawking at a ragged row of little girls. Mud matted their hair. Filthy, torn tunics hung from their bony frames. A chain fastened the girls at the ankles, where blood oozed and crusted on their feet. They stared at a child on the chain who lay silent in the dirt.
A woman by Baruch whispered, “She’s hurt.”
Another woman sneered, “She’s a whore.”
A man stood over her and muttered words from the far north. He jerked the chain and yanked her foot.
Baruch gawked at the man’s red hair and at his forearms as thick as Baruch’s thighs. Red kicked the girl in the ribs. She groaned, and he kicked again.
A woman gasped.
Another woman chuckled. “Get up girlie. The temple’s only a few blocks more.”
As Red drew back his foot, Baruch took one quick stride forward. “Stop.”
Red sneered. He snarled out more foreign words and poised to kick again.
A second stride. “I said, ‘Stop.’”
A growl came from low in Red’s throat. He raised his hand, but Baruch caught his wrist. The jar of pickles smashed at their feet.
Two words escaped Red’s mouth, two red-haired men grasped Baruch by the arms and broke his hold on Red.
Baruch twisted in their grip and glared at them. “‘Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, and cut down their Asherah poles.’”
Red let out a string of words from the north.
Baruch glowered. “Do not erect any kind of Asherah pole.”
Red clenched his fist and flashed a knife.
Baruch swallowed twice and set his jaw. “The Lor…” His voice cracked, but he thrust his shoulders back. “Oh, Keren! I’m so sorry. Help me, Lord.” He gulped a deep breath and shouted. “You heard me, you demon. The Lord said to break down your altars and smash your idols!”
Red narrowed his eyes to slits, raised his hand to the top of his tunic and slid his finger across his throat.
The two men lifted Baruch into the air.
He twisted and kicked and bit at them. Red flashed his knife again, and hot pain slashed across Baruch’s throat. Warm liquid flowed onto his neck, and the grip on his arms released. He dropped in the street beside the little girl on the chain. Dirt flew up and burned his neck.
Obadiah’s chariot pulled into Samaria City while the sun still rode high over the Gilead mountains. He stopped the chariot by the olive trees which surrounded the house of Gera, his manager over all the groves in the Samaria district.
Obadiah got down into the street and turned to his chief bodyguard. “Put the basket of pomegranates in Hodiah’s hands yourself and say they’re from Yedidah. Be sure to let her know we’ll bring more food when we finish today’s inspections.”
Three men with red hair strode out of the trees.
Obadiah tensed and scanned them with a cold eye. What was this scum doing at Gera’s house?
They sneered as they passed.
A shriek rang out.
Obadiah dashed through the trees.
Baruch lay sprawled on the doorstep.
Hodiah knelt with her check pressed against his face. She sobbed.
Keren stumbled out the door and knelt beside them. At first she tried to close the gap in Baruch’s throat with her fingers, then she clenched her fists and threw her head back. She glared into the sky, her mouth open wide, but no sound escaped. She took a deep breath and screamed.
Tola tumbled out the door and spread his arms. He leaned his face into her robe and rocked with her screams. Kvellar crawled into the open doorway, raised his head, and whimpered like a lonesome puppy.
The next door neighbor dashed up the path, but Obadiah’s guards stopped him at the gate. “It was those slavers.” He spoke across the courtyard. “They were kicking this little girl, and Baruch tried to make them stop.”
A sharp pang gripped Obadiah’s chest. Those men killed Baruch, dumped his body like a sack of trash—a message—and laughed because they operated beyond the authority of King Ahab.
He fell to his knees and clutched his head. Pain rippled through him until, at last, he yelled into the sky. “Why, Lord? Why do you stand so far off?”
But she clutched at his arm and his beard. “Oh, Biah! Biah!” She smothered her face in his shoulder. “I just sent Baruch out for bread and fish. That’s all. Just bread and fish. And he didn’t come home, and he didn’t come home. We thought Gera took him to the grove. Just bread and fish, Biah. Bread and fish.”
Obadiah stepped into his oversize chariot and stood alone by the driver. “To Gera.”
The chariot rolled, and Hodiah’s voice came through the trees. “Bread and fish. Just bread and fish.”