As Elijah helped set a wineskin on its rack in the Jabesh bakery, a warm, round little body crawled over his feet.
The baker nodded. “Omar.”
Elijah’s brother picked the baby up, and the baker beamed. Nathan gazed deep into Omar’s eyes and held him up to the face of a man buying bread. “Good morning, sir.”
Keeping his eyes fixed on his squirming bundle, Nathan smiled and moved to the next person. “Omar is so glad to see you, ma’am.”
Elijah’s father collected his five silver pieces from the shopkeeper, shuffled back a step, and studied Nathan’s face.
Elijah stood still and allowed himself a private smile. His eyes flitted from his brother to his father and back again.
Was this their Nathan? Normally, the moment a wineskin sat ready for the shopkeeper to draw wine, Elijah’s brother ducked out and stood among the donkeys. If anyone came close, he bent and fiddled with cinch straps.
Nathan stood the baby with his feet touching the floor. “Show everybody how you walk.”
Omar plopped down on his bottom.
“Well, maybe later.”
Their next wine sale at the bakery, Elijah stood back as Nathan hoisted Omar onto the counter and wiggled his little friend’s toes. Customers gawked and grinned while the young man and the baby giggled and chattered. Each trip into Jabesh brightened Nathan’s eyes, and that summer, the bake shop became Omar’s Place.
Early that fall, with two weeks to prepare for the Day of Trumpets, Elijah led their ten donkeys loaded with twenty wineskins into Jabesh. Shoppers surrounded him and his father and brother.
A grinning miller came out of his shop and met Elijah on the street. He ordered two large skins and led the vintners into the mill through a sea of customers. “Wine. Tishbe wine.”
No customers, however, collected at Omar’s Place. Elijah tried the door. Locked. He tugged on a shutter, but it did not open. With all these shoppers, why would the bakery be closed?
Elijah’s father went into the shop next door but came out and shook his head. “Something’s wrong at Omar’s Place, and the cobbler doesn’t want to talk about it.”
Eleven customers jammed the fruit and vegetable shop, and seventeen looked in from the street. The grocer bought an extra wineskin.
Elijah collected their donkeys’ lead lines and led the way to the pottery. He inhaled the smoky city air and rested his hand on Nathan’s shoulder. Nathan looked at him. Where was Omar? Elijah shook his head.
At the pottery shop, five shoppers gawked through the open door at customers three deep waiting to carry home new bowls or cups or plates. Elijah helped Nathan lug in two wine skins but paused five times. “Excuse us, please. Tishbe wine.”
As the second skin settled in place, the potter opened his cash drawer. “Can you boys organize your elbows and knees to bring in a third skin?”
Shop by shop, Elijah helped Nathan lift wineskins from donkeys and set them onto low tables behind counters. He smiled at shopkeepers and spoke politely with customers. So many customers.
Finally, Elijah’s father sold the last skin of wine. With every pack saddle empty, Elijah turned their donkeys toward home.
But as he started out the city gate, a drum tapped eight times and then gave a boom. The eight beats and a boom repeated, and Elijah faced the sound.
Half a block away, the grocer’s door popped open and slapped against the wall. Customers rushed out. A man with cabbages tucked under his arms stooped to retrieve carrots that dropped from his fingers. Beyond the grocery, the mill door opened, and people ran out clutching bags of beans and flour.
The grocer and the miller followed their customers out and locked up. People poured from every shop and walked toward the beat.
Elijah’s father groaned. “The furnace. Moloch.”
Nathan whispered. “Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Moloch, for you must not profane the name of your God. I Am the LORD.”
Elijah’s father sighed. “I got tired of hearing how my friends needed a Baal temple, and they wearied of me telling them those poor temple girls are slaves. We became deaf to each other.
“We’ve had two years of thin crops, and that Baal priest keeps hammering away that his new god will fix things. These shoppers are not in town to prepare for the Day of Trumpets. They’re here because they believe that priest.”
At the back of the throng, Elijah stood flat-footed and looked over heads while his father balanced on tiptoe with his hands on the shoulders of his sons.
The crowd stared at a bronze statue of the god Kronos. But this Kronos did not hold his usual harvest sickle. His hands extended palms-up over a bronze basket containing a roaring fire. Surges of heat reached over the crowd and touched Elijah’s face.
In front of the idol, a short, blond man in a black robe officiated, and behind it a tall man in a black tunic attended a waist-high stack of sticks.
Elijah nodded toward the two men. “What’s that design on the priest’s shoulder? A pink something.”
Nathan shook his head. “Can’t make it out.”
Three couples approached the priest, and each father carried a baby. The man behind the idol fed sticks to the fire, and the flames rose up around Kronos’ empty palms.
A couple walked up to the idol and presented a naked child. The priest held the boy up for the crowd. He wiggled like Tuvia, Elijah’s three-week-old cousin.
Nathan disappeared behind the donkeys, and Elijah’s father put more weight on Elijah’s shoulder.
Elijah gave a nervous laugh. That priest was pretending, right? He was going to hold the baby up in front of the fire and then hand him back to his father.
“Dad? They’re not going to burn that baby, are they? Dad!”
But the priest slammed the baby onto the hands of Kronos.
The baby screamed. The idol’s hands rotated at the wrist and dropped him into the basket of fire. Before the child could pull in a second breath, the flames sucked away his sound, and the stench of burning flesh touched Elijah’s nostrils.
With every eye upon him, the priest turned to the next father and reached for his baby. Elijah gagged and retched in the gutter while this second baby shrieked. Elijah wiped his mouth, came back, and hid his face in his father’s brown beard. I can’t watch, but I can stand with my father.
His father’s chest shuddered with sobs. A hot drip fell on Elijah’s ear, and he looked up at glistening streams on his father’s cheeks.
Elijah stood tall. Tell my own kids. Keep it out of Tishbe.
In the crowd, a man in a black tunic moved.
The third pair of parents approached, stiff as posts. But their child struggled. Another boy. Bigger, older. He understood what was happening. His little head turned and…
“Omaaar!” Elijah charged between two men.
Omar sent out a long squall.
Elijah slid between two more onlookers, and the baby screamed again.
Beside him Nathan shouted, “Omaaaar! I’m coming, Omar!”
Elijah’s father called, “Elijah! Nathan!”
A fist knocked Nathan to the ground.
A foot snagged Elijah’s ankle, and he reeled forward. His face smacked the dirt as Omar’s voice died in mid yowl. A knee pushed on Elijah’s spine and a hand gave his arm a sharp twist. “Leave it alone, kid.”
Nathan lay still, his face in the dirt.
The hand yanked Elijah’s arm, and he yelled. A fist hit his mouth, and the hand dragged him to his feet. He twisted. The left shoulder of the black tunic held a pink insignia of Kronos spitting flames.
Elijah’s father lunged for the man’s throat. “Let go my son!” But the man twirled and stuck out a foot. Elijah’s father sprawled in the dirt.
“Dad!” The fist came again. Elijah jumped aside, but the fist drove into his belly and doubled him over. A hand jerked him up by the hair. “The priest don’t want yer noise.”
One hand grasped his upper arm and another his ankle. His face dragged along on the dirt, and Elijah landed in his own vomit. “Omaaaaaar!” But a foot kicked his face. “Shut it.”
The miller grabbed the black-tunic man by the arm. “Stand back!”
“But the priest don’t want no noise.”
The grocer pushed his hand against the man’s chest and shoved twice. “Back off. It’s just a kid who talks to his donkey.”
With both hands, the potter gripped the man by the wrist. He shoved his chin into the man’s face. “We’ll keep this kid quiet and put in a good word for you with your boss. Now get out of here, Sakar.”
Elijah’s father dragged a limp Nathan by the armpits. “You men are my brothers. Thank you. Please help me load my sons onto my donkeys, and I’ll take them home.”