25. Vines

Zarephath, Sidon, 869 BC

1 King 17:16-17

Elijah jerked to a halt and reached behind him to stop Zim and Nathan.

Sidonian voices muttered from the dark path, their accent like the thugs Elijah had escaped in Tishbe. He squinted ahead into the murk.

Black tunics emerged from the fog.

Elijah whirled, clamped his hand over Zim’s mouth, and scooped him under his arm. He lunged past Nathan. “Moloch.”

In soft, silent strides, he lugged Zim back to the corner and stood him on his feet. He knelt with his lips to Zim’s ear and his hand over the boy’s mouth. “Those guys in the black tunics killed Omar. They tried to kill Nathan and me. They knocked our father down. Our mother and our sister had to run from them. We can’t let them see us.”

A tiny animal rustled the dry grass next to the path.

Zim’s eyes bulged over Elijah’s fingers. He nodded.

Nathan touched Elijah’s arm. “He’ll be quiet.”

Elijah lifted his hand.

Zim breathed in Elijah’s ear. “Those guys were going into the middle gate, Mr. Lijah. By the temple, see. So, we have to circle around by the vineyard.” He waved at a path leading away from the sea, toward the soft glow spreading over the snows of Mt. Hermon.

Nathan knelt beside them. “You two visit the professor. I’ll wait for you back by the city gate.”

Zim wrapped his arms around Nathan’s neck. “No way, Mr. Nathan. I’m taking you to meet the professor.”

“Okay, okay.” Nathan dipped his head at Elijah.

Elijah stood and led them along the path toward Mt. Hermon.

An owl hooted three times like the owl at home who greeted Elijah as he watered donkeys in the dark.

At home, his mother’s garden nestled in an open sunny spot next to the house.

Here in Zarephath, though, low rock walls protected gardens from goats.

Striding along between the walls, Elijah stretched his arms and indulged a childhood habit. He leaned and brushed his fingers against stones on the left of the path, then on the right.

Once in Tishbe his sister Sheerah had seen him trailing his fingers along stone walls. “Why do you have to touch them, Lijah?”

“Don’t you like rocks, Sheers?”

The Zarephath sky spread dark and gray, and the stars dimmed one by one. The gray lightened to blue, and thin clouds skimmed overhead.

If Elijah were home in this magical moment, he would carry a melon from the garden to his mother.

But these sad Zarephath plots of baked-brittle soil held shriveled up runners showing a few rigid bulbs that would never become melons. The flax and wheat lay in brown, headless stubs. Trees intended to bear pomegranates or apples stood brown and naked.

Nathan asked, “Which garden is yours, Zim?”

“I’ll show you, Mr. Nathan. It’s way out.”

They came to the end of the community gardens.

“This is ours. Right here on the corner.” Zim pointed over the wall to tiny unformed leaves drooping from brown runners that should have born melons and cucumbers.

“Sad.” Nathan shook his head. “So sad.”

From the edge of Zim’s garden plot a vineyard stretched toward low blue hills that spilled out from the long white hump of Mt. Hermon. Over the snow, a crown of gray faded into white. These foreign hills had drama, but Elijah’s heart ached for the simple ridges of Tishbe.

“Turn here.” Zim pointed to a path that separated the gardens from the vineyard.

As Elijah hiked north, the new light in the sky showed the broad stone pillars of a gate in the wall of Zarephath far to his left. “The temple gate?”

“For sure, Mr. Lijah. Lots of black tunics in there. 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, little brother. Let’s hustle.”

Elijah stretched into long-legged speed and zoomed ahead to the next cross path. “What about the black tunics here, Zim?”

“We’re safe, Mr. Lijah.” He pointed to another city gate. “The other end of town. No need to hurry now.”

A cool, damp breeze smelling of fish and saltwater sighed through the dry gardens. Enough light came over Mt. Hermon to show the structure of the vines from the top of the row down to the base coming from the soil.

“Look at that.” Nathan set Zim on the ground and knelt in the vines. Nathan felt around the roots. “Come see this, Lijah.” A branch from a mature vine lay buried in a shallow trough where tiny shoots poked through.

Elijah knelt and dug his fingers into the baked soil and under the shoots and their tender leaves. “It’s been in the ground too long.”

Nathan waved at the row. “They’re all like that.”

A man hiked out of the gate balancing a broad-bladed hoe on his shoulder. His belt held a machete and a small sheath knife.

Elijah stood and rested his elbow on Nathan’s shoulder with Zim pinned between them. This farmer would know the history of these vines, but could they trust a worshiper of foreign gods? More than the safety of the brothers was at stake. If the farmer reported them, the black tunics would trace them to Zim and the widow. As the man approached, Elijah looked away and let his turban fall across the side of his face.

“Good morning.”

“Morning.”

The man passed them on the path.

Elijah pulled his turban aside.

The ancient pack hanging from the man’s shoulders spoke Elijah’s language, and the patches on patches covering his tunic announced, “Farmer. Friend.”

Elijah cleared his throat. “These your vines, sir?”

The man stopped and turned around. “Not mine, son. I go to dig around my trees. Yesterday I found a few apples. Today maybe I’ll fill my pocket with figs or pomegranates.” His words carried a strong accent like the bandits’, but he swung his hoe down to the sun-baked earth and leaned on the handle like any farmer in Tishbe.

Elijah flashed his teeth in a wide grin. “Are your trees out in the hills, sir?”

The farmer tipped his head toward the rising sun. “Just this side.”

Elijah pointed to the 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. No one to care for these vines some time now.”

“You know whose vines these are?”

“The professor.”

Zim’s head shot up. “Professor Hashabiah?”

“Right, lad. That’s the professor.” He gave Zim a crisp nod.

“You sure, mister?” Zim squared his shoulders.

“Sure of half of what I see, none of what I hear, young man.” He winked at Zim. “You hear good things about him for a foreigner.”

Elijah shifted his weight and flashed his teeth again. “Foreigner, eh? Does he sound like me when he talks?”

“No, lad. He sounds just like my brother. Born and bred here, you see. Lives with us here in the north end. A local foreigner.”

Elijah cleared his throat. “Who dresses these vines, sir?”

The farmer swung the hoe back onto his shoulder. “Nobody these months now, son. The way I hear it, the vine dresser’s uncle took the whole family north. Better work for ’em all. This drought, you know. Shame—all these beautiful vines without a hand 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. These held a normal green hue 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.” Nathan shrugged. “We’re not told 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 Zarephath city gate. “My brother could show these vines how to grow.”

They passed between the massive pillars, and Zim pointed them onto a street with oak trees reaching their limbs and brown-edged leaves over seven-foot walls. After half a block, he pulled open a heavy iron gate into a small courtyard. “The professor’s house.”

Elijah beckoned Nathan closer. “You’ll be fine, Nate.” Nathan came behind with elbows tucked in and chin down. They followed Zim across the courtyard.

The hinges on the door came from the same ornate pattern as those on the widow’s house.

Zim reached up from the top step and rang the bell.

A tall, shapely young womani opened the door. “Zee-zee.” She pulled Zim in and laid her arm across his shoulders. She gave Elijah a quick glance and stared open-mouthed at Nathan. “My father is in his study.”

Nathan moved up to rest his ribs against Elijah’s shoulder blade.

Zim tipped his blond head back against her arm. “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. Nathan and me zoom through the vineyard.” He stretched an arm toward Nathan. “Mr. Nathan, sir. Mr. Lijah. This is Neetz.” Zim’s blue eyes beamed. “She’s the professor’s daughter.” He rose on the balls of his feet. “And she’s my friend.”ii

Nathan’s beard brushed Elijah’s ear.

Neetz studied Nathan’s face and leaned forward. “Come in.”

Elijah sucked in a loud breath. How to protect Nathan from this girl?iii

The moment they stepped inside, Neetz latched the door. “I’ll take you to my father.”

She led them up the stair well past the ground-floor stalls for cows and donkeys, past the second floor living quarters for the family, and onto the roof.

Laundered robes and tunics draped the parapet. Flax dried in the sun.

“This way.” Neetz stepped around piles of flax, glanced back at Nathan, and tripped. “Unh.” She turned away and walked straight.

A room built of smooth-cut limestone took up one end of the roof. Its oak door hung on hinges of ornate iron like those on the main entrance.

Neetz leaned back and tugged the door open. She averted her eyes from Nathan. As she stepped inside, a flush grew up her neck and across her cheeks. “Father, remember the talk at minyan about the boy from Gilead?”

i Did she wear a veil? “Hebrew women generally appeared in public with the face visible (Genesis 12:14; 24:16; 29:10; 1 Samuel 1:12).” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veil#Biblical_references

ii More of Zim’s characteristics?

iv Is this too early for Elijah to be concerned?

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