A string of twelve camels peeled off the caravan, shuffled over, and stood next to Elijah. Their puller nodded toward the large goatskins full of wine.
“I’ll take one, boy.”
Elijah rested his hand on a skin. “We’ll load it for you, sir. You can pay my father.” He pointed toward the trunk of the oak tree three paces away.
The camel puller reached deep in his robe, extracted a money pouch, and stepped over to Elijah’s father. “Nice seat you got here.”
Elijah’s father stood up and gave the puller a broad smile. Behind him two chattering squirrels collected acorns, and from a limb over his head a yellowhammer sang.
“Thank you, sir.” He glanced at the clumps of pink cyclamen blossoming on his left. “I rolled this stone into the shade before my boys were born.”
He glanced up at two more pullers who left the caravan with their camels and stood in line for Elijah’s wineskins. “Do you carry spices?”
The puller nodded. “For the Nile market.”
“Next week we celebrate the day we left the Nile.”
Elijah’s brother, Nathan, poked him in the ribs. “Wait for it.” He looked sideways at the camel puller.
“The Nile? When were you at the Nile?”
“Thutmose was pharaoh. We left Egypt 621 years ago.”
“Hmpf!” The puller snorted. “Hebrews.”
Elijah’s father flashed a twinkle at his sons and returned a full smile to the puller. As he opened his hand for the five pieces of silver, a slight breeze ruffled his beard.
The brothers chuckled and turned to Balak, the first donkey in line. They loosened the lashes of one of the two skins on Balak’s packsaddle. Elijah grabbed the front legs of the goatskin and Nathan the back.
Their eyes met. “Ready?” They eased the heavy skin off Balak and swung it up toward the side pack on the lead camel.
But Nathan glanced over Elijah’s shoulder, and his eyes flew wide open. He dropped his end of the skin and crouched behind Balak.
The wineskin slipped from Elijah’s grip and hit the road intact, unopened.
He spun around.
A line of girls trudged along beside the line of camels. A steep hill pushed the caravan out of the beating sun right up into the shade of the oak grove and against Elijah’s row of donkeys.
Elijah stood in the girls’ path.
They would stumble over his wineskin.
His father looked up. “Make room, son.”
As the first girl brushed by, Elijah knelt and slid the heavy skin under Balak, first one end then the other.
Each girl stared down at the heels of the girl ahead. One long rope at the ankles linked them in a column that stretched out of sight around the curve of the hill.
A short man with thick shoulders strolled along beside the girls and looked Elijah over.
Elijah stood up and stared. This man was no camel puller. “Who are you? Who are these girls?”
The thick-shouldered man twitched one corner of his mouth and touched the knife at his belt. He shoved Elijah aside and sauntered past. He never looked back.
But the girls. Torn shirts. Dirt. Hair matted with mud or worse. Where did they come from?
Elijah backed up against the camel. As the girls squeezed past him, a few raised their heads, but none met his gaze.
If only his mother could see these girls!
He would take them to Mother. She would wrap her arms around each girl and help her down to the Yarmuk. Into the water and scrub, scrub, scrub. Then out and drape her in a fresh, clean robe.
But how could Mother mend their numb, empty stares?
Elijah’s father pointed to a fourth puller who brought his line of camels off the King’s Highway and waited behind the first three. “Nathan. Elijah. Look lively now with wine for these men. They have customers waiting at the Nile.”
How could his father think about wineskins?
Couldn’t he see the pus that oozed from that girl’s shoulder? She could be sister to Milkah, the girl next door.
Adults talked of Asherah temples and slave girls, but they never said they were so young, and none of these girls looked older than Elijah. He stroked his chin. A beard would show up any day now.
A girl squeezed past with a second man beside her, the same size as the first. A scar ran from the corner of his eye to his neck. Who were these men? Their knives. That rope.
The girl tripped, and the rope jerked the ankle of the girl ahead of her. The man slapped her and knocked her into Elijah. The odor of dried feces invaded his nostrils, and he grabbed her shoulders to keep her from falling.
Elijah’s father looked up from the silver falling into his hand. “Watch out!”
A thick hand knocked the girl aside and shoved Elijah hard against the camel’s side. Another hand flashed a razor-edged knife before his eyes. A blade that sharp could slice his jugular just as fast as his own butcher knife at home opened the vein of a goat.
Elijah froze wide-eyed, teeth clenched. “Careful with that thing, mister!”
1 Kings 17:1 – “Now Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead…”
Did you ever feel suspicious about what someone is doing?
What did you say, do?