16 Unhappy camper

The Kerith Ravine, Gilead, Israel, 870 BC
1 Kings 17:5-9

Elijah winced at his sore muscles and rolled his head to work the kinks out of his neck. Beside him on the rock slab, Nathan lay with his head propped on his arm, his snore sounding like the growl of a hyena. Elijah worked one eye open.

Beyond a brief patch of grass and trees stood a wall of red rock. Part way up, a cedar tree perched on a tiny crag. And at the top, a patch of blue sky and a donkey. No, not a donkey. “Nate, there’s a deer watching us.”

“Ibex.” Nathan propped his head on an elbow. “Nubian ibex. We’ve invaded his home.” He poked Elijah. “Climb up there and make friends.”

Elijah rolled to the edge and reached down. Pebbles. He sat, dangled his feet, and slid until he stood on gravel. He grabbed their waterskins and strolled through a few acacia trees to a noisy little brook where he refilled the skins.

Back at the ledge, he grabbed Nathan by the arm and pulled him onto the gravel. “I see dandelions. Strength for your climb, big brother. Tell the ibex I sent you.”

They munched on dandelion leaves, filled their fists with the greens, and then wandered into a small stand of acacias to inhale the yellow fragrance of the blossoms.

Nathan yanked Elijah to his knees in the thick Abraham’s balm shrubs at the base of the trees. As Elijah opened his mouth to ask why the rough treatment, Nathan whispered, “Horses,” and put a finger to his lips.

Elijah held his breath while five horses clump-clumped through the tall grass. Short swords hung from the riders’ shoulders, while shields and spears dangled from their saddles. The first horse in line tossed its head and nickered. His rider peered ahead, the next two riders searched the low ground around the brook, and the last two scanned the sides of the ravine. The five trotted out of sight around a bend, and Elijah cocked his head as the hoof beats died away.

Nathan clutched Elijah’s arm. His grip hurt, and his voice shook. “The king’s guards?”

“Same gray tunics and leather vests.” Elijah’s neck grew warm, and he hunched his shoulders. They won’t touch me, he had bragged. There are no guards, he had insisted. But they had followed him across the river and into this isolated wrinkle in the hills.

As the brothers sat on their ledge and nibbled dandelions, Nathan gave Elijah a shaky smile. “Greens do it for you?”

Elijah shrugged. “Better than grass and bark.” He looked sideways at Nathan. What a rise he could get by telling his brother of the voice that had said ravens would feed him here at Kerith Brook. But Elijah had tried to ignore that voice, so he kept his mouth closed.

Kraa-kraa-kraa. Six large birds with glossy-black feathers floated over the ridge. They perched on a flat boulder two paces from Elijah and emitted low, gurgling croaks as they lifted their talons and deposited two chunks of roast mutton and four pieces of bread.

Nathan stood, and the birds flew.

They flapped over the ridge. Kraa, kraa, kraa.

He shuffled over and picked up a flatbread. “It’s clean.” He tore off a piece with his teeth, chewed, and blinked.

“Nate.” Elijah coughed. “Um, you were right to bring us here. The Lord tried to tell me the Kerith. He even said ravens would… feed us. I wanted to go home, so I…”

Nathan grabbed a piece of mutton and spoke in deadpan. “So you ignored the voice of the Lord? I should break both your arms and legs.”

“I thought the voice was a trick. I… wanted to… think it was… a trick.”

Nathan moved in close to him. “That’s okay, little brother.” He squeezed Elijah’s shoulders. “But next time?” He kept steady eye contact. “I start by breaking your pinkie.” He pinched Elijah’s cheek a little too hard.

Elijah kept an arm around Nathan’s waist and eased himself onto their ledge. “Nate, I don’t like this.”

Nathan dropped next to Elijah and nibbled on the mutton. “You prefer dandelions? This cook knows how to use garlic and butter.”

“No. The food is … Thank you, Lord!” Elijah dropped his head into his hands and took several breaths.

He stood and paced back and forth. “They killed Omar, so I marched to the fort to tell the king off. I thought I was just being me. Reacting. Mad. But the Lord put dew-nor-rain in my mouth. Then he said the Kerith.” Elijah waved at the walls of the ravine. “And ravens.” He tested the bread with his teeth.

He stopped pacing and opened his hands toward Nathan. “The Lord’s mixed up in this, Nate. Way more than I planned. And … and I’m…” His chin trembled, and Elijah pressed his elbows into his sides. “Look, Nate. This bubbler thing is not for me. All I want to do is load wineskins and marry Milkah.”

Nathan draped his arm around Elijah’s shoulders. “The Lord will work it out, Lijah. He will. Meanwhile, ‘Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe Who brings forth bread from the earth.’”

“Amen.” Elijah took a deep breath and pointed to their ledge. “Your feet need to heal. Sit here and nibble while I get greens. If you hear horses, hide behind the dinner rock.”

“Keep your ears open, little brother. Stay near trees or boulders.”

That evening the ravens flew in with more bread and mutton.

Nathan spread Dad’s goatskin on their ledge and stretched out on it. Elijah covered him with their two wool cloaks and crawled in beside him.

In the morning, the kraa-kraa-kraa of ravens floated over the ridge. They settled on the dinner rock and put down bread and large chunks of roast beef. Nathan stood. “They just keep bringing food?” He sampled the meat. “Wow, Lijah. Thank you, Lord! Different cook. Lots of pepper and onions. Good. Very good.”

Three days later, royal guards rode through like before, five men searching on horseback. They came again after four days. The guards established a pattern, searching the area twice a week.

The daytime skies turned sharp blue, and the nights grew chilly.

Nathan pointed to a fragile circle in the sky, the new moon. “The Day of Trumpets.” He dropped his head on his chest. “I miss Mother and Sheerah. Do they have any idea what happened to us?”

“Maybe they got some kind of message from the Lord that we’re okay.” Elijah let out a slow sigh. “Nate, remember when Sheerah first took us to see Milkah? It was the week of trumpets. And Milkah told that sheep, ‘We’ve got company, Chops.’”

Nathan rubbed his chest. “I remember.”

Three days after the new moon, Nathan stood and stretched. “My feet have healed. Let’s find more asparagus.” They explored the ravine, nibbled wild asparagus, and plucked leaves from tall salt bushes.

The guards rode through, and the brothers dropped behind a boulder.

When the sound of their hooves had faded, Elijah asked, “Why don’t they ever get down and walk around behind boulders? They’re as regular as sunrise, but they only ride through.”

“Lord, please keep them up there on those horses.”

The tenth day after Trumpets, no kraa-kraa-kraa floated over the ridge and no ravens touched down on their dinner rock.

Elijah grinned. “Did the Lord tell them about the Day of Atonement?”

Nathan tilted his head. “He could have. Or the families are fasting where they find food. I’m just amazed that birds bring us food. The Lord must think one of us is special.”

The next day, the ravens resumed their morning and evening deliveries.

Five days later, Nathan broke several small limbs from oaks and acacias. He stripped bark from branches. “You enjoy this. Remember? Come on. Live a little.”

Elijah licked his lips and took his time lacing a branch to the limb of a small tree and across to the next tree.

“Whoa.” Nathan picked up a branch but dipped his chin and shuffled back. “What are we going to do with this booth when the guards come through?”

“Ai-yah.” Elijah cut the laces and dropped his branch to the ground. After he picked up the branches and bark strips and hid them behind the dinner rock, he laughed. “Our ledge is as good as a booth.”

That evening, as they crawled onto their ledge, Elijah murmured, “I liked the booths we built with Mom and Dad and Sheerah out by the well. With strips of sky peeking through the branches. He nudged his brother. Tell me again how Moses says it.”

“‘You shall live in temporary shelters for seven days: All native-born Israelites are to live in such shelters, so your descendants will know that I had the Israelites live in temporary shelters when I brought them out of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.’”

“Sometimes I’m glad my big brother’s a scholar.”

The next morning, Nathan hugged himself in a shiver. “We need a warmer place to sleep.” He led Elijah to the north side of the ravine and studied the upper part of the south wall. “There? No.” After several paces through the grass, “Up there? No.” Then he pointed. “See how the sun hits that opening early in the day? Let’s check it out.”

Nathan zig-zagged up the side of the ravine with Elijah after him. He stepped into the little cave and pointed to a flat spot on the floor. “We can spread Dad’s goatskin here.”

Day after day, week after week, Elijah saw neither dew nor rain. He drank from the shrinking brook, ate bread and meat from the ravens, and munched on greens.

One afternoon in the grass beside Nathan, he lay on his back with his fingers laced behind his head and pictured Milkah’s face as she said, “There? You want to build a house there?” He closed his eyes to let her voice echo in his head.

A familiar low grunt floated across the dry floor of the ravine.

Elijah opened one eye.

A squat, plump rodent as long as Elijah’s forearm stood and stared at him over its pointy nose. It grunted, wiggled its tiny round ears, and grunted again.

Elijah scowled. A common rock coney, the same one that had grunted at them since day one in the ravine, had interrupted his memory of Milkah.

Nathan laughed. “He’s a cousin to the one behind our house.”

“Don’t try to cheer me up, Nate. Coneys are cute, but haven’t we been hiding long enough? You know me, Nate. I’m basically a patient person—”

“My little brother.” Nathan smirked. “The patience of Job.”

Elijah yanked a weed from the rock wall and ripped it to shreds. “Wouldn’t you like to load wineskins on Balak and Balaam? I’d even laugh at Dad’s jokes.”

“Know what you need, little brother? Mental stimulation. Which psalm would you like to learn. Your teacher awaits.”

Elijah squirmed. “Know what you need, big brother? Physical stimulation. Race you to that boulder.”

As the weeks passed with neither dew nor rain, the trees high on the sides of the ravine showed more brown than green. Each week, the search for dandelions, salt bushes, and asparagus took them farther from the dinner rock. Ravens kept flying in morning and evening with fresh bread and delicious meat, but less and less water flowed through the brook.

With the new moon of Aviv, Nathan reminded Elijah, “Passover in just fifteen days. I’m going to pick greens.” He took a few steps and turned around. “You know, I’ll never get used to ravens bringing us food. You kicked a hornets’ nest, and they keep looking for us, but the Lord hides us and feeds us. Amazing.”

With Nathan off exploring, Elijah sat in the dry stream bed and massaged his temples. “It’s been over six months, Lord. The king’s guards rode through only last week. Why can’t they forget us? It’s time to go home.”

He dug a hole with his fingers in the sand. When he had first arrived in the ravine, the brook had gushed like a river and bumped small stones into each other. After several weeks with no rain, a small stream glided along without offending so much as a pebble. Yesterday a trickle slipped through and made no sound, but today the water had disappeared.

“Go at once to Zarephath in Sidon. I’ve told a widow there to feed you.”

Why was Nathan joking about Sidon? Elijah swiveled. No Nathan. Why had he thought the voice was his brother? In the feathery pink flowers of a tamarisk tree, a warbler flipped its tail. Across the ravine, a rock coney stood guard for his furry family. And at a distant bend in the dry bed of the brook, Nathan sauntered toward him with dandelion greens in his hand.

“Was that you, Lord?” Elijah’s eyes opened wide. “That was you. You said Zarephath.”

He pressed his lips tight together and turned again to check on the approaching Nathan. With a detour through Tishbe, he could hug Mom, Dad, and Sheerah. Zoom over the ridge to tell Milkah about Fort Jezreel, and be off to Zarephath before the king’s guards caught his scent.

If Nathan would cooperate.

Leviticus 23:42-43

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