Nathan set the bucket on the ledge. “How about we leave my knees and elbows here to guard the tree house and give you a complete hummingbird report when you get back.”
The widow turned Zim by the shoulders. “These boys are twice your age, but it’s still your job to keep their knees and elbows away from prying eyes.”
Nathan handed Zim a water skin. “And black tunics.”
“Do the black tunics have crying eyes, Mr. Nathan?”
The widow squeezed Zim’s shoulders. “Pry, my little man. Prying eyes. Take them out the gate and then clear to the other end.” She turned to Elijah. “Our streets all run close along the shore. That’s why we call Zarephath Qrita Arikta, Long Village.”
“Don’t worry, Mr. Lijah. I’ll get you there.”
In the house, the widow distributed hot pitas. “After your lesson, take them to the hills. These boys need sunshine and birdsong.”
Elijah opened the door to leave. “It will soon be light, Nate. Let’s get Zim a mezuzah scroll.” And let’s meet this professor from the tribe of Levi.
As Elijah crossed the courtyard, an owl hooted three times, exactly like the owl that called when he went out before sunup to water his father’s donkeys. The cool, damp air smelled of fish and saltwater. A breeze sighed through the canopy of leaves, and no one walked with him in the dark but Nathan and Zim.
The tinkle of small bells and the nattering of goats announced a herd. Elijah followed them out the city gate and between low rock walls like those which protected gardens in Tishbe. After he passed several garden plots, he paused at an intersection. “Which garden is yours, Zim?”
“Way out at the edge, Mr. Lijah.” Zim pointed up the cross path. “We should turn here. Mother said, ‘Clear to the other end.’”
Elijah led the way up the new path, stretching his arms and leaning to brush his fingers first against stones on one side, then on the other.
The sky spread dark and gray, but as the stars dimmed, the gray lightened to blue, and thin clouds skimmed overhead. Garden plots held shriveled cucumbers or onions, dried up flax or wheat, empty pomegranate or fig trees.
In this magic moment before a Tishbe dawn, Elijah would rub Balak’s nose, make sure the tiny stream at his feet flowed clear, and then carry a melon from the family garden to his mother. Yet, this morning he trudged between the gardens of foreigners and swallowed his tears.
Sidonian voices muttered in the dark.
The voices came from two dark tunics.
Elijah flipped around, clamped his hand over Zim’s mouth, and scooped him up under his arm. He lunged past Nathan. “Priests.”
In soft, silent strides, he lugged the wide-eyed Zim back to the intersection and stood him on his feet. He knelt with his lips to Zim’s ear and his hand over Zim’s mouth. “Those guys in the black tunics killed Omar, and they tried to kill Nathan and me. They knocked our father down, and our mother and our sister had to run from them. We can’t let them see us.”
Zim’s eyes bulged, but he nodded.
Nathan touched Elijah’s arm. “He’ll be quiet.”
Elijah lifted his hand, and Zim put his lips to Elijah’s ear. “Those guys were going into the middle gate, Mr. Lijah. Lots of black tunics in there by the temple, see.” He pointed to the path where the goats had disappeared. “Let’s go around—out by the vines.”
Nathan knelt and whispered. “You visit the professor with Zim and I’ll wait for you back by the widow’s gate.”
Zim wrapped his arms around Nathan’s neck. “No way, Mr. Nathan. I’m taking you to meet Neetz and the professor.”
Elijah led them along the path after the goats. They passed several garden plots and came to a vineyard, but the vines, instead of running up to the ridge behind his father’s house, stretched toward low hills which stood back from the sea. These foreign hills might have sunshine and birdsong, but they could never hold beauty like that of the Tishbe ridge.
Zim pointed up the path between the garden walls and the vines. “This way.”
As Elijah followed the path, more light came over the mountains and revealed the city wall on the far side of the garden plots. Elijah pointed to a path coming from the wall. “The middle gate?”
“Yup, Mr. Lijah. Lots of black tunics in there. We don’t want that path. We’re way, way out, but let’s hurry.”
“Zim, how about Nathan carries you, so we can make good time?”
Zim chuckled, and Nathan slung him over his shoulder. “I smell black tunics. Go, Lijah.”
Elijah stretched into long-legged speed and zoomed up to the next cross path. “What about the tunics here, Zim?”
“We’re safe, Mr. Lijah.” He pointed up the path. “That gate’s the other end of the city.”
But Nathan stared in the opposite direction. “Would you look at that.” He pointed down into the rows of vines. Although the sun still hid behind the eastern mountains, the light now showed the structure of individual vines. Nathan set Zim down and felt around the roots. “Come see this, Lijah.” A branch from a mature vine lay buried in a shallow trough where tiny new shoots poked through.
Elijah knelt and tucked his fingers under the shoots and their tender leaves. “It’s been in the ground too long.”
“They’re all like that.”
A man came out of the gate balancing a broad-bladed hoe on his shoulder. His belt held a machete and a small sheath knife.
Could Elijah trust this worshipers of foreign gods? If the farmer reported them, the black tunics would trace them to the widow. As the man passed, Elijah pulled up his collar and turned his face away.
Yet the rough water skin and the ancient pack hanging from the farmer’s shoulders nudged at Elijah, and the patches on patches on his tunic spoke a language of their own.
“These your vines, sir?”
The man stopped. “Not mine, son. I go to dig sweet potatoes [No such thing. Give him different crop. Nuts? Figs?], the few left me from the drought.” His words carried a strong accent like the bandits, but his voice felt kind. He swung the hoe down and leaned on the handle.
Elijah grinned big. “Are your potatoes out in the hills, sir?”
The farmer tipped his head toward the rising sun. “Just this side.”
Elijah pointed to the new shoots and leaves by Nathan’s foot. “My brother noticed this starter, sir. It might have been ready to cut and move four months ago.”
“You’re right there, young fellow. Nobody’s been giving these vines care for some time now.”
“You know whose vines these are?”
“The professor. You hear good things about him for a foreigner. Lives right here in the north end.”
Zim’s head went up. “Professor Hashabiah?”
“Right, lad. That’s the professor.”
“You sure, mister?”
“Sure of half of what I see, none of what I hear.”
Elijah cleared his throat. “Who dresses these vines, sir?”
The farmer swung the hoe back onto his shoulder. “Nobody for these months now, son. The way I hear it, his uncle took the whole family north. Better work for ’em all. This drought, you know. Such a shame—all these beautiful vines with nobody to show ’em how to grow.”
Elijah glanced up the path. “Thank you, sir. The Lord bless your digging.”
“Gotta dig, son, blessing or no. Fine day to you.”
Elijah walked in among the rows. He reached under the top layer of colorless, bleached-out leaves, and pulled up several from the next layer down. These held a normal green except for their scorched edges. Beneath the leaves, small, hard grapes hung in wasted clusters.
He handed a bunch to Zim. “Not the famous fragrance of Sidon. Nate, that king who gave bread and wine to Father Abraham, is this where his vines grew?”
“Melchizedek. The text doesn’t say where they grew, but they had more rain than these.”
Zim poked a few grapes into his mouth. “The professor never talks about vines.”
Elijah headed for the gate. “My brother could show these vines how to grow.”
Zim pointed them onto a street with its own canopy of oak leaves over seven-foot walls. Half a block from the corner, he opened a heavy iron gate into a small courtyard.
Elijah beckoned Nathan closer. “You’ll be fine, Nate.” Nathan came behind with elbows tucked in and chin down.
Zim rang the bell, and a young woman opened the door. She pulled Zim in and laid her arm across his shoulders. She gave Elijah a quick glance and stared open-mouthed at Nathan.
Zim tipped his head back. “Good morning, Neetz. I brought Mr. Nathan and Mr. Lijah. They’re my friends, and Mother said I could bring them to my lesson, so we can make a nuzah for our tree house.”
She frowned. “Why are you so early, Zee-zee?”
“Had to come early, see, so we could hide their knees and elbows from the black tunics with the crying eyes. You should have seen Mr. Lijah zoom past the middle gate.” He turned. “Mr. Nathan, sir. Mr. Lijah. This is Neetz.” Zim beamed. “She’s the professor’s daughter, and she’s my friend.”
Neetz studied Nathan’s face. “Come in.”