Jabesh, Gilead, Israel, 870 BC
1 Kings 16:30-32
Elijah planted his feet in the street and let the shoppers flow around.
A few people followed his gaze to the empty bread counter. One stumbled into Dad. “’Scuse.”
Dad grinned and lifted his chin. “Haven’t seen so many customers since Passover.” As he fixed his eyes on the baker’s door, his face clouded. “Nathan, go see where the baker is.”
Nathan handed his lead lines to Dad and raised a hand in front of the next man in the stream of pedestrians. “Pardon me.” He stepped in front of the man and vaulted the bread counter.
In two long strides he stood at the door. “Locked.” He tugged on a shutter. “Nope.”
A donkey passed with its load of live chickens in woven-reed cages. Elijah placed a hand on the rump and pulled his five donkeys through the line. Dad followed with Nathan’s five.
As he joined Nathan, Elijah scratched at his temple. Instead of the yeasty whiff of fresh bread, the baker’s doorway held the aroma of roasting eggplant from a child’s fire across the street.
Nathan disappeared into the narrow gap between the baker’s house and the cobbler’s. He emerged with his hands open to the sky. “No fire in the ovens.” His eyebrows drew together.
“No fires?”Elijah yanked at the door. “Ngh!” He pried at a shutter with his fingertips as if he might break in.
Nathan sat on the counter, pulled his knees up to his chin, and wrapped his arms around his shins. “Where are they?”
“I’ll ask the cobbler.” Dad handed Elijah the lead lines and rapped on the neighbor’s door.
The door cracked open.
“Where’s the baker?”
The door closed.
Dad knocked again.
The latch snicked.
“Brute.” Dad folded his arms across his chest and set his jaw.
Nathan jumped off the counter. He charged the cobbler’s door but hauled up short. “Uncle Hiram’s not been well. Maybe the baker took his family to Megiddo for the funeral.”
“Funeral?” Dad scowled and shook his head. “No reason for the cobbler to lock his door on me.” Dad pointed ahead at a column of smoke. “The blacksmith. He’ll talk.” He led the way toward Tubal’s hearth.
Leaves lay in a brown-gold carpet under naked tree limbs that stretched toward the clouds. A light rain touched Elijah’s face, and a low blanket of smoke spread from a small fire in the ditch. A lad with black curls and blacker eyes glanced up from the fire. “My Tishbe friends.” He trotted over and ducked under Nathan’s elbow.
Nathan jerked his arm away and looked straight ahead. He kept walking.
The boy stepped around to Elijah’s side. “Chestnuts,” he squeaked.
Elijah’s voice cut. “Not now, lad.” He brushed him aside.
While Elijah was still a good hike from the blacksmith, Tubal stood. His voice filled the street. “Two of your largest skins, boys.” He waved his tongs and made a path through patrons. “Wine. Tishbe wine.”
With Nathan attached to him, Dad crowded in next to Tubal. “Did the baker’s Uncle Hiram die?”
Tubal’s grin disappeared, and he rubbed an eyebrow. “Hiram?” His face relaxed. “No, no. He’s better. They got word a few days ago.”
Elijah lowered his head. Omar’s family had not gone to a funeral.
Tubal stopped and swung around, his nose a finger width from Dad. “Why?”
“The baker’s gone.” Dad rubbed the back of his neck as he twisted to make way for a farmer. “This throng of shoppers needs bread, yet he lets his ovens go cold?”
Tubal pursed his lips. “Hmm. My runner brought us hot bread… maybe from the bakery on the other side of town.”
Dad nodded. “And the cobbler won’t talk about it.”
Tubal shook his head. “Don’t know.” He smiled at a peasant who pushed his way in. “But look at these customers.”
Elijah wrinkled his brow. Dad look at customers? Not with Omar missing.
At the pottery, a man scurried out the door, his arms loaded with new plates and bowls. In Peleg’s display shed, chatting customers crowded three-deep around him in his clay-dappled smock. Their excitement could not lift the cloud of gloom that clung to Elijah. Did these citizens not know the baker had disappeared with his family and precious baby boy?
Elijah grabbed the sleeve of the man beside him. “Where’s the baker?”
The man jerked away and dropped his gaze to the floor.
Elijah clenched his jaw and swung around to the next man. “You know where the baker is. You and the cobbler.” He raised his hand. “I should beat it out of—”
Dad grasped Elijah’s arm. “No, son. Not like this.” He nodded at the men. “Pardon my son, please. Pardon.”
Peleg held two fingers up. “Two skins, boys. Two.”
Lips sealed, Elijah followed Nathan out and helped lift a wineskin off a donkey.
Nathan kept his eyes lowered.
Elijah’s nostrils flared, and his breaths came long. “You think the baker is in Beersheba? His niece was getting married.”
“Huh?” Nathan shook his head. “A wedding’s not gonna shut the cobbler’s mouth.”
Elijah’s chin trembled, and the knot in his stomach tightened.
With the second wineskin in place, Peleg opened his strong box to pay Dad. “Can you boys organize your elbows and knees to bring in a third skin?”
A drum tapped eight beats and a boom.
Elijah snapped straight.
Peleg jerked his head back and eyed the exit. As he slapped his strong box shut, his keys dropped. He bent and fumbled. He stood, keys in hand, a sheen of sweat on his face.
Eight more beats. Another boom.
Elijah scraped a hand through his hair. His eyes grew big, and he turned to Nathan. “The black cart.”
Nathan’s jaw fell slack.
The drum continued.
Dad bristled and squared his shoulders. “It tried to run us over.” He stood aside and let Peleg’s customers scoot out the door.
Elijah and Nathan slid next to Dad.
The thump of the drum continued its steady eight counts and a boom. Dad followed everyone out with Elijah and Nathan tight against him.
Pallid-faced people poured into the street. The mutter of the crowd muffled any yellowhammer or hoopoe songs.
A little boy across the street collected his unsold mutton and backed up to the wall. He glanced around. The sun hung high, near its zenith, yet he dashed off, leaving his tiny cooking fire to smolder in the mist.
Customers lurched away from Gaddi’s piles of fruit and vegetables. A successful shopper hauling cucumbers and apples in his arms stumbled and dropped apples. He clutched them against his belly and waddled past the blacksmith.
A farmer strode out from Tubal’s hearth with plow points tight in his fists. Tubal tossed his tongs in the house and locked the door. He hurried into the street, his gaze turned toward the beat.
A grim-faced Peleg mouthed, “Moloch.”