While Zim dug a hole, Elijah sat with Nathan in the shade of the vines.
Satisfied with the cup shape he created, Zim headed over to collect a young plant.
Elijah held his breath. How would the teacher correct the student’s classic error?
Simple. Nathan cleared his throat.
Zim flashed a grin, hoisted a water skin, filled the hole, and watched the water soak in. Error solved.
Nathan pointed to the empty water skin. “Why did you pour good water down that hole?”
“Now it’s not thirsty and won’t steal water from my baby.” Zim bowed, and his mother, Elijah, Neetz, and Nathan all nodded.
Zim swaggered. “Behold the Transplant King.” He padded over and slid his shovel under a young plant. But as he lifted, an uncut root clung and dragged the tiny vine off the shovel. When it landed, most of the dirt fell off the roots.
“No worries, King. That happens. But see those little hairs on the roots?” Nathan pointed. “Move fast now, before they dry out.”
Zim sliced the offending root with his shovel, and when he lifted, the whole plant came free. Without spilling a spoonful of dirt, he walked his transplant over and plopped it into the hole. One hand scooped in loose dirt while the other tamped it onto the roots. He glanced over at Elijah and Nathan’s transplants and then dug out a little hollow around his to match the cups around theirs. Finally he filled the hollow with water.
“Hurrah!” Elijah cheered. “He’s got it, Nate.”
Yet, as the transplant king bowed to applause, Elijah stepped out of the shade and away from the group. He stood in the row with his head up and shoulders back. He listened to a now-familiar voice. “Yes? Now?” He took a deep breath and turned to Zim’s mother.
She shaded her eyes and looked up at Elijah. “What is it?”
He took her hand and pulled her to her feet. “The Lord’s going to let the rain fall.”
“Rain.” The widow murmured. “I would love to feel rain on my face.”
Nathan glanced around at the others. “Last time I saw that look, you were telling Zim’s mother about flour.” He scratched his temple. “Just what did the Lord say, Lijah?”
In the Kerith Ravine, Elijah had invented his own meaning for the Lord’s message and downplayed the actual words, but he had learned his lesson. “The Lord said, ‘Show yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain on the land.’”
“Ahab!” The widow clamped her hand over his arm. “That can’t be right. The king will kill you.”
Neetz jumped to her feet. “What are you talking about? That’s too dangerous.”
Elijah’s lips shaped a steady smile. “It’s back to Israel, Neetz. But first I should tell your father.”
Nathan and Neetz led the way into Professor Hashabiah’s study. Zim and his mother followed. On their first visit to the professor, Elijah led the way, but today he entered last, a position he had grown to enjoy. Nathan dropped back, took Elijah by the arm, and propelled him to the front.
Elijah looked the professor in the eye. “This morning the Lord told me, ‘Show yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain on the land.’”
For a long moment, the professor frowned. “Are you sure it was the Lord?”
Sweat beaded on Neetz’s pale forehead.
The professor cocked his head and smiled. “I don’t want to sound like Balak trying to persuade Balaam, but is it possible you misunderstood the words? The Lord needs strong young Levite men in Sidon.”
“Thank you, Professor.” Elijah draped a hand over Nathan’s shoulder. “My brother could tell you what happened at the Brook Kerith when I purposely misunderstood the meaning of the Lord’s words.”
“Twisting the Lord’s words is a dangerous game.” The professor edged a scroll on his desk into line with the others. “Everyone’s glad you told that foolish king what’s what, and we would be pleased if the Lord were to allow you to continue among us.”
Neetz wiped her brow and shot a quick smile toward Nathan.
“Very kind of you, sir,” Elijah said. “I must first show myself to Ahab.”
Professor Hashabiah strode out from behind the desk and took Elijah by the shoulders. “As the Lord advised Joshua, ‘Be strong. Be of good courage. And be careful to obey everything Moses taught.’ You and Nathan have rescued my vines, so when the rains come, I hope to market Hashabiah Wines.”
Elijah nodded. “You have an excellent crew of vine dressers, including Zim. When Nathan was his age, he managed our father’s vineyard.”
Neetz stared up at Nathan with a troubled look. “Well?”
Nathan blushed. “My brother paints my early responsibilities much too large.”
But Zim grabbed his arm. “That’s not what Neetz is asking, Mr. Nathan.”
“Huh?” Nathan looked away from the anguish on Neetz’s face.
“She means, will you manage the professor’s vineyard or go with Mr. Lijah?”
Elijah let out a deep breath. “Needs” was right. After Elijah told the king neither dew nor rain, Nathan bloodied his feet to steer him into hiding. Nathan huddled within rescue-reach even while Elijah tried to twist the Lord’s orders. When black tunics hunted Elijah in Racham’s woods, Nathan drew them away. Passing a hand over his face, Elijah wiped away a knowing grin. Nathan would go with his brother.
But Neetz could no longer contain her sorrow. She gushed out sobs and ran from the room.
Nathan stared at the empty doorway. “Why…?”
Zim released Nathan’s arm. “Neetz needs you, Mr. Nathan, and so do I.”
Professor Hashabiah gazed at the door. “Zim says it well. We need you.”
The widow threaded her arm through Nathan’s. “The Lord will work this out, son.” She patted his hand. “Yes, He will.”
On the path back to the vineyard, Zim fell in by Elijah. “As soon as you’re done seeing that old king, you can come stay here with us, Mr. Lijah. Mom’s got plenty of flour and oil.”
The widow looked back and beamed at Elijah.
Zim hopped to try to match his strides to Elijah’s. “And now that your beard’s growing, it’s still a little ugly, but it’ll get better. Like Mr. Nathan’s did. We hope. And tomorrow we’re gonna see a hummingbird. I’m almost twelve, so I’m not supposed to care about hummingbirds, but I don’t know what to say.”
“I just think it’s rotten Mr. Nathan going away and not marrying Neetz. Who’s gonna teach me how to make sick vines well? Or how to cure a new wine barrel? Or when the wine’s ready to go into skins?”
Zim looked back at Nathan. “And who’s gonna look at my treehouse? We haven’t climbed up there much. Mr. Nathan’s busy showing vines how to grow, see. But he still looks up there with me. And we talk about the mezuzah. I pronounce it right, and I can even still say the blessing. I think. And just because the Lord told you to go home doesn’t mean Mr. Nathan has to go…”
Zim jumped away from Elijah and jerked on Nathan’s arm. “Does it, Mr. Nathan? Does it mean you have to go with Mr. Lijah?”
Elijah turned in the path and studied his brother’s face. Zim’s foolish questioning of Nathan had already made Neetz cry. Why didn’t his brother put a stop to it?
But Nathan only ran his fingers through his hair and squished his eyebrows together. “What are you talking about, Zim?”
“Did the Lord speak to you? Or do you get your messages from Mr. Lijah?”
Nathan brought a shaky hand to his forehead. “I don’t like this kind of talk, Zim. I don’t like it at all.” He pulled his arm free and strode on down the path.
But Zim stood with his hands on his hips and called, “Why would you leave Neetz, who loves you like you’re the only man alive?”
Elijah pounded his foot on the dirt. What does a little child know about love? But he pushed the words down before they could explode aloud.
As though the widow heard his question, she turned around and stared past Elijah into Nathan’s face. “It’s true, you know. That girl adores you.”
Nathan’s face took on a bewildered look as color rose in his cheeks. He turned away and spoke to the vines. “Neetz is far too beautiful for someone like me, ma’am.” He scraped his foot along the ground. “She’s intelligent and refined. When she taught me how to lace my sandals and talk to strangers, she was only being kind to a village boy.”
The widow tilted her chin at Elijah. “Is that how you see it?” She gave him a sly smile. “The professor’s daughter, kind to the country bumpkin?”
Elijah brushed dust from his shoulders and he glanced from the widow to Nathan. The “village boy” quoted freely from Moses, the writings, or the prophets. And the “bumpkin” from Tishbe knew more viticulture than anyone in Zarephath. Elijah bit the inside of his cheek. This conversation was not going well.
Zim stretched on tip-toe trying to peer into Nathan’s face. “Neetz laughs and you sigh. The sun hits her hair and you sneak a look. You talk to her in a soft little voice like she was a new kitten.”
And the widow was not about to let go. “Nathan, you have to stop lying to yourself about Neetz. We all see how she adores you—and that’s the right word, so don’t deny it. Any man who says Neetz is too good looking or smart or classy for him would be right. She’s all of that, yet she carries a big sign. ‘My heart belongs to Nathan of Tishbe.’”
She slipped a hand through Nathan’s arm. “So, what are you going to do?” She threaded her other hand through Elijah’s arm and eyed him sharply. “This is Nathan’s decision.”
Nathan locked eyes with Elijah. “Yes it is, ma’am. And I need to talk with my brother.” He lifted the widow’s hand from his arm, took Elijah by the elbow, and guided him up the path. “Do I sigh and gawk and mew like Zim says?”
Elijah put his head down and walked along in silence. Brothers were supposed to talk straight with each other, and that’s how it had always gone with him and Nathan. But they never discussed going googly eyes in love.
Everybody—even Neetz’s father—could see Neetz adored Nathan, but so did half the girls in Jabesh. Yet, if Nathan was sighing and gawking like Zim said.… No. He wouldn’t go there. What made sense was Nathan and Elijah, Elijah and Nathan. Nothing else mattered.
“You’re being nice, Nate. Neetz teaches you how to tie laces and how to talk politely with strangers. One kind deed deserves another. She’s nice to you, you’re nice to her, and we all get along.” As he lied to his brother, a sharp twinge of guilt pinged his chest and something sour stuck in his throat.
Nathan tightened his grip on Elijah’s elbow. “Listen, Lijah, you and I don’t talk much about girls, but… Maybe with Neetz I’m a little more than nice.” He took several silent strides. “You never say much about Milkah or how she makes you feel, but…but you’ve heard Neetz laugh. Like a clear, high bell, right?” Nathan’s eyes grew bright. “And the way the morning sun makes her hair glisten? I want to pick her up and hold her close and whirl her around.”
Elijah hunched down and crossed his arms over his chest.
“Listen to me, Lijah. Don’t close up on me. You know how girls in Jabesh seem pretty when they get all cleaned up? But Neetz is beautiful even when she’s been lugging water and digging holes.”
He gazed out at the hills full of sunshine and birdsong while he took several longing breaths. Then he looked at his feet. “But I can’t see how the widow thinks Neetz…”
Elijah grasped him by the shoulders and shook him. “Then you haven’t got a working brain in your head, Nate. Neetz adores you.”
What have I said?
What happened to Nathan and Elijah, Elijah and Nathan? The truth was escaping. “I bet she writes poems about you. Goes to sleep with your name on her lips and dreams about your nine children and how she helps you teach them viticulture.” He held his brother’s face in his hands. “Nathan, you need to go talk with Neetz’s father.”
As Nathan gripped Elijah’s wrists, a smile spread across his face, and his eyes grew big like goose eggs. “The day is still young. Water the vines without me.” He rushed past Zim and the widow. “Professor Hashabiah.”
Zim shaded his eyes with his hand and watched Nathan jog down the path. “His smile could knock you over, Mr. Lijah.”
After breakfast the next morning, Nathan rested his hand on Zim’s shoulder. “The professor wants us to stop at Neetz’s Uncle Uzziel in Acre—a Levite cousin I never knew we had.”
Zim prodded. “So, does this mean you and Neetz married?”
Zim’s mother joined them. “Consummate means—remember when your father first talked about a treehouse? You hadn’t built it yet, but it was in your head?”
“Right, Mommy. But Neetz and Nathan have been in each other’s heads since I introduced them. It just means they won’t have sex yet.”
“It means, Zim, when my big brother walks down the street in Jabesh, all those girls will have to quit smiling and giggling. And it means he’ll be back a lot earlier than anybody dreamed.”
At the widow’s front door, Elijah’s smile failed. “Ma’am, I, um…” Tears welled up in his eyes.
Nathan pushed Elijah aside, wrapped the widow in a quick hug, and then backed off.
Elijah straightened and forced a smile. “Let’s not cry too much. As soon as Mr. Nathan has kissed our mother, he’ll be back to marry Neetz and help those vines grow. That old king’s not gonna touch me, Zim. And who knows, maybe I’ll bring Milkah to meet you.”
Elijah headed down the widow’s tree-lined street and out the city gate. On the Grand Trunk Highway, he and Nathan joined a spice caravan headed for Cairo.