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Ch. 11. The bubblers

Obadiah took Shelemiah home. Before the chariot rolled to a stop, Shelemiah jumped out and strode up his path, through the gate, and over to Abdel lying on the doorstep.

He knelt and laid his palm against Abdel’s purple cheek. “My boy. Look what they’ve done to my boy.” He looked up from Obadiah to each of the guards and bit back a sob. “Help me put my son in the ground.”

Obadiah motioned to Guni. “Warm water.” Guni’s men built a fire in the courtyard cooking pit and heated water in a cast iron pot.

Shelemiah carried Abdel inside and took the clothing off him. He laid him on a long board and covered him with a white sheet.

Guni and the other guards carried in clay jars of warm water, and Obadiah held the sheet in place while Shelemiah fought back sobs and washed Abdel all over. Then two guards stood Abdel up while Shelemiah poured warm water over his entire body. After he wiped the body dry, Shelemiah selected the best tunic from the chest, put it on Abdel, and laid him back on the board.

Shelemiah marched to the corner of the tool storage wing and turned right. There, in the outer courtyard, next to the storage wing, he stabbed a shovel in the ground.

Here.” He sobbed. He bent over and sobbed again. Then he stood, put his foot on the shovel, and pushed it into the ground.

Obadiah found a shovel and helped Shelemiah dig out the top layer of soil for Abdel’s grave. The bodyguards dug the rest of the hole and carried Abdel out on his board. They wept as Shelemiah slid Abdel into the hole. People stood tore the lapels of their clothing and threw in handfuls of dirt onto Abdel’s corpse.

Shelemiah picked up a shovel. “The last thing I get to do for my boy.” Obadiah grabbed another shovel, and together they filled the grave and mounded the dirt over Abdel.

Shelemiah carried his one chair out of the house and put it by the door. He beckoned to Obadiah. “Please sit here in my chair.”

Your grandsons belong on that seat.” Obadiah set Tola and Kvellar on the chair. He picked up a rake and a hoe that leaned against the house and stood them over against the wine and oil storage wing. The two men sat on goatskins on the hard-packed clay while the two babies climbed around on the chair.

From these seats outside the door, Shelemiah and Obadiah exchanged quiet greetings with visitors who filled the inner courtyard. A young couple entered and walked over to Obadiah.

Uncle Biah, this is my wife, Yedidah. Uncle Shel, you know Yedidah.”

Pleased to meet you, Yedidah.” Both men stood.

Ulam’s voice turned several heads. “Abdel’s Uncle Biah from Jezreel, the king’s chief of staff. You’ve seen his big chariot behind the palace? But he’s got nothing to do with those slimy priests from Sidon.”

Shelemiah sucked in a quick breath and glanced at the gate on the other side of the courtyard.

Obadiah froze. Didn’t Ulam realize the queen had spies everywhere? Especially here at the seven days of mourning for a young man who challenged the priest from Sidon?

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The following week, Obadiah and his men inspected olive groves and oil presses during the days and sat with Shelemiah’s family in the evenings. If Ulam, the young man with the loud voice, returned, perhaps he could convince him that caution was not the same thing as cowardice. But Ulam did not return.

On the fifth day of the week, Obadiah did not inspect olive groves. Instead, he brought his men to Shelemiah’s house at mid-morning. “I would like to spend today with you, for tomorrow I return to the fort and start the Sabbath with my wife.”

Two guards carried the family’s one table to the outer courtyard. The chariot driver put a roast leg of mutton and a jar of pickled olives on the table, and three guards brought baskets and bags of apples, grapes, cucumbers, and fresh bread, as well as a goatskin of red wine.

Obadiah raised his palm to Shelemiah. “It’s the ancient custom during these seven days to bring food to the family. Besides, these are mere nibbles from the king’s table.” Guni posted a guard at the head of the long, low table who invited visitors to eat. With a broom the guard shooed away curious goats, sheep, or chickens.

Obadiah took an apple from the table and joined Shelemiah on their two goatskin pads between the chair and the storage wing. Abdel’s mother and Rizpah, Abdel’s widow, sat opposite them, next to the wing which held fodder for goats and sheep. Rizpah clasped her hands around her knees.

With those hands she had tried to cover the slash in Abdel’s throat. Obadiah held his breath.

What if they had slashed my throat when my wife was carrying our third child?

Everyone in Fort Jezreel smiled at the wife of the king’s chief of staff. She lived in an army headquarters apartment, ate goose from the king’s kitchen, and dressed his children in clean tunics. But if she were a widow, would she carry water to a cave in the hill and beg from house to house for scraps to feed her filthy brats?

He set the apple beside him on the goatskin.

Obadiah welcomed Kvellar, Rizpah’s youngest son onto his lap. As his large hands cupped the tiny back and bottom, he breathed more easily.

He turned to Shelemiah. “How long did Abdel manage olive groves? First for King Omri and now for King Ahab.”

Six years.”

He always took me where the tiniest invasion of parasites was trying to get a foothold. Abdel felt like he had to show me, so I could see what he was doing to discourage them.” Obadiah nestled baby Kvellar against his chest and smiled at his guards. “Sometimes he led me far outside the grove to a hole where he buried diseased olives that he pulled off the trees. Abdel never hid anything. He thrust it out in plain sight.”

Shelemiah looked at his wife. “He even told his mother when he thought there was too much salt in the stew, didn’t he, dear? That boy couldn’t hold back.”

She gave a weak smile. “Our Abdel has a way of letting the truth bubble out.”

Rizpah cleared her throat. “I understand, Mother. I can’t talk like he’s gone, either.” She pulled Tola onto her lap.

I know how it happened. The day before…” A sob stopped her. She shifted Tola against her shoulder and took a breath.

The day before the queen’s men killed my husband.” She set her jaw. “It was all bubbling out of him and Ulam and their friends. Quoting Moses about stoning anyone who burns babies. How the Lord hates Moloch. So, when my Abdel saw his cousin standing by that idol, he couldn’t hold back. He spouted off like he always does. Did.”

Shelemiah’s wife nodded. “A bubbler. That’s our Abdel. Open’s his mouth, and truth spouts out.” She laid a hand on Rizpah’s hands. “I’ll talk like my boy’s alive if I want to, and so can you, dear.”

Obadiah stood. “Abdel is and will be remembered as a bubbler.” A dead bubbler. Obadiah admired Abdel’s honesty, but if he had been more careful, he might be alive.

He handed Kvellar to Shelemiah. “Thank you. I give you back this child for the moment, and next time I’m in Samaria I hope to hold him again. I’m taking my men to our rooms, for we leave at dawn. Dear, dear friends, goodbye for now.” Obadiah reached for Shelemiah’s free hand.

A man burst through the gate. “Ulam! They killed Ulam!”

Obadiah sank to the ground like the man had struck him in the chest.

Rizpah jumped up and plopped Tola onto Obadiah’s belly. “Hold that child. I’m going to Yedidah.” She looked Shelemiah in the eye. “You and Uncle Biah take care of Kveller and Tola.”

She grasped two of Obadiah’s guards by the arms. “You’re coming with me.” The two guards looked at Obadiah. He opened his hands, and Rispah shoved the two men toward the gate. She jerked her mother-in-law to her feet. “She needs us, Mother. Come!” The two women grabbed the messenger and scuttled out the gate with him between them.

Obadiah and Shelemiah breathed slowly.

Tola squirmed. Obadiah sat up and pulled the child to his chest.

Over in Shelemiah’s lap, Kveller captured his grandfather’s thumbs, and Shelemiah stroked the baby’s cheek with a free forefinger. “Ulam is like Abdel. Spouts off about that priest whenever he feels like it. Plus he has a loud voice.”

Obadiah let out a breath. “Why, Lord?” Two precious young men murdered by order of the queen. Bubblers. Spouters of truth. Wasn’t the Lord supposed to protect the righteous? Obadiah repeated familiar words of anguish from King David. “‘Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble, Lord?’”

Shelemiah continued the psalm. ‘‘‘In his arrogance the wicked hunts down the weak. From ambush he murders the innocent.’ Good words by a good man. But they didn’t keep my son or his friend alive. They needed someone to protect them.”

Obadiah groaned. “How many more boys are there like Abdel and Ulam who will not be quiet, who let the truth bubble out?”

That’s what the queen is asking, and her thugs will hunt them down. We have to protect them, Biah. No one else can do it.

Obadiah sighed. “You’ve always been the man who could get things done, Shel, and by your side, I feel like a little brother. But I look around, and…we’re the adults in the room. Looks like it’s up to you and me.”

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