Feast Of The Torn by Brandie Tarvin
Feast Of The Torn
by Brandie Tarvin
The star sliced a silent arc through the midnight sky, a burnt-yellow ribbon of fire trailing in its wake. The first recorded sightings came from China, while the star was large and fiery and seen as a omen of good fortune. For the wise men of India, the star presaged a great time of change despite its somewhat diminished appearance. Persian astrologers proclaimed it a messenger of the gods and never knew how much smaller the star had become. A few Assyrian shepherds, tending their flocks during the night, saw a tiny light in the heavens, huddled together in fear, and prayed for Baal’s protection.
By the time the star reached Israel, it was but the barest of bright smudges against the sky. Aramaean soldiers, standing watch over their army, assumed it to be a fire arrow. Their commander sent out scouts to find the army who dared come to the aid of their Israelite enemy.
And in the Hebrew city of Samaria, under siege by Ben-Hadad of Aram and his army, not a single Israelite noticed the remaining bit of rock drop into the well which supplied the city’s western quarter.
Steam and water showered into the sky. The bottom of the underground cistern stopped the sky rock’s momentum, but shook from the impact. The surrounding ground bucked, a minor earth tremor that rolled outward to the edges of the sleeping city. Lime and stone cracked, opening a shallow fissure through which a small trickle of water escaped. If anyone could have seen the bottom of the cistern at that moment, they would have noticed a tiny cloud of whitish-green fragments leaching from the rock and mixing with the water.
But the cistern was deep, and no one in the western quarter was awake enough to care.
Dawn came to Samaria like an inept thief stumbling across a threshold–sudden, loud, and brazen. The city woke in fits and starts, the uncomfortable silence of night slipping away as the usual morning wails arose. Men bemoaned their inability to feed their families. Women complained about starving babes underfoot. Children chased after startled birds, rats, and insects, desperate for any food that would ease their hunger pains. Streets echoed with the trumpeted cries of terrified horses and frenzied barks of watchful dogs. The earth itself bucked and groaned, leaving behind shattered pottery and cracked walls.
Having sacrificed sleep to scavenge food in the predawn hour before the priests awoke, young Ekubeth grimaced. Her fingers were already bloody and raw from scrabbling after insects too fast to catch. Tired beyond measure, her stomach no longer wasting the strength to growl, she moved in shuffled paces about the Asherah pole, hoping to find even the slightest sliver of food.
Dawn meant the priests would come, and only they were allowed atop the hallowed hills that Asherah claimed. For anyone else, to be caught here meant death by stoning.
Ekubeth risked it anyway. The western quarter of the city had little food left. The richest of farmers, and the king, lived in the eastern quarter. They feasted on the crops and livestock gathered before the Aramaean siege, leaving the rest of the city to starve.
So Ekubeth searched the sharp rocks, hoping the priests had left an offering which hadn’t been completely stolen away. A brown-gray speck caught her attention. Shredded fingertips left bloody streaks along the rocks as she reached for it.
A seed pod.
Her heart thundered in her chest, sharp beats of sudden elation. Unlike horses and dogs, seeds were not treif–food forbidden by the laws of kashrut. Bird droppings lay scattered within inches of the Asherah pole, bits of dung revealing seeds that had not been digested. Heedless of her sore fingers, the thirteen-year-old girl scrambled for the pods.
“You there,” called a male voice.
“Stop what you’re doing!” cried another.
A third yelled, “This is holy ground!”
Ekubeth caught her breath, fear urging her to speed her gathering. She no longer looked for seeds, but grasped at every pile of dung close to her. The cold droppings squirted in her grip. Footsteps pounded against the rocky ground behind her.
As the three priests closed in on her, she lurched to her feet and ran. A heavy hand missed her arm. A horse whip slashed into her shoulder. Sharp agony traveled along her arm, but she kept hold of her treasure. She ran, the holy men chasing her away from the Asherah pole, all shouting in rage, one louder than the others.
“Asherah curse you, girl. Any food on this hill belongs to the goddess. Return it this instant or suffer Her displeasure!”
Hungry Israelites gathered at the bottom of the hill, snarls of greed adorning their faces. Hunger pushed Ekubeth forward, fear tried to hold her back. She could not fight a crowd.
She didn’t try.
“The priests are hoarding,” she yelled.
Faces swung upwards, gazes snapping toward Asherah’s holy men. A man growled, the sound of an angry lion ripping from his throat. The crowd shuddered and surged forward. The hill shook with their passing, rocks tumbling down behind them. All charged the priests save for an elderly woman and an emaciated potter. Both came at her, their hands outstretched.
“Give me what you found,” the potter said, his tone smooth, his lips frozen in a rictus smile that did not reach his eyes.
“Greedy fool,” the woman snapped. “I have a family. You must share.”
Ekubeth kicked the potter in the shin, evaded the woman’s grasping hands, and tripped her. The woman flailed for balance and fell against the potter. Ekubeth fled as fast as her feet could carry her.
Weariness soon overcame her fear, though, and she soon slowed her pace. The air carried familiar scents of dust, sand, burning dung and scorched porridge. Stomach twisting in need, she weighed keeping her unknown number of seedpods against stealing the porridge. Before Ekubeth even finished the thought, though, the loud accusation of “Thief” stopped her in her tracks.
A man in rags lay on the street, begging for forgiveness. The woman accusing him shook her head, speaking to a pair of King Joram’s soldiers.
Ekubeth tried to listen. She took a step toward the conversation.
“. . . breaking Moses’ Commandments . . .” The woman saw Ekubeth, glared, and reached for a stone.
Another burst of fear sent Ekubeth scurrying away as the soldiers turned to follow the woman’s gaze. No prize was worth arrest by the king’s men. The rest of the way home, she kept her head down.
Home was a two-room stone house which, on the outside, looked the same as every other house in the Western Quarter–painted clay walls, rush-covered roof, wooden doors, and windows open to whatever breeze might come calling to chase the summer heat away. Waking neighbors gossiped and bartered in knife-edged tones that spoke of tempers seething behind formal courtesies. Loud laughter echoed along the streets, biting in its vicious intensity. Soft-spoken complaints were cast about with careless abandon, as if the mere sowing of misery would somehow yield a harvest of bountiful solutions. As Ekubeth approached her destination, the ground rumbled underfoot like the earth itself starved along with Samaria.
The inconsolable wails of a toddler rose over the sounds of earth and neighbors. Ekubeth sighed.
She knew that voice. Jacob, her two-year-old half-brother, son of her father’s second wife, Sarah. No neighbors turned toward the sound of his distress. Hungry, wailing children were all too common in these bitter days.
Inside, Jacob sat sobbing on the floor, gnawing on his favorite toy: a wooden horse. Her step-mother Sarah came from the back room as Ekubeth entered. Ekubeth offered her blood-and-dung streaked hands for inspection.
“You’ve done well,” Sarah said.
Ekubeth flushed from the praise, but ducked her head in a show of feminine humility. “Forgive me, Mother. I saw more. But these were all I could save.”
“It’s better than nothing. Clean them up and we’ll eat.”
Ekubeth nodded. “Where is Father?”
“Gone to the market to barter our blankets. We may have bread today.”
Ekubeth fetched a small bowl for the pods. The household’s water barrel, sitting just inside the front door, had a scant few handfuls of liquid left at the bottom. Ekubeth ladled out enough water to wash both her hands and the pods. “We’re near to dry. I need to run to the square.”
“Eat first. The chores can wait for you to fill your belly.”
Grateful for her step-mother’s kindness, Ekubeth counted her bounty. “Twelve seeds. Three for each of us.”
“Good. Give me Jacob’s portion.”
While Sarah calmed and fed Jacob, Ekubeth chewed as if every bite would be her last, savoring her small portion of the morning’s bounty. When she finished eating, Ekubeth took up the water jugs and left for the local well.
Like all the wells in the western quarter, this one drew from a common cistern deep beneath the quarter. Though the path forced her to walk up a steep hill, Ekubeth loved fetching the household water. The wells of Samaria were the one place where women truly ruled. Only male slaves showed their faces in the square. They hovered at the square’s edges, waiting for the women to finish. Only then would the slaves be allowed to draw water for their masters.
A lone tree gave comforting shade and the half-height walls made excellent benches. Women and girls both gathered here, lounging and sharing news. Some braided each other’s hair while others used water from their jugs to rinse the dust off their feet. Despite the hard times, everyone took their time at the well, speaking with their friends and drinking deep of the bucket. Only then would they fill their jugs and move aside. Ekubeth pushed her way past a clutch of slaves and took her place in line.
“Eighty shekels,” exclaimed the woman ahead of Ekubeth. “Can you believe it, Mary? Eighty shekels for a donkey’s head.”
“Would that I had the money to buy it, Barania,” Mary replied. “Then my family would feast.”
Pressing her lips together to contain her sudden drooling, Ekubeth searched for a different conversation to follow. Everyone seemed to be talking about food. Her mouth watered in response to the images the conversations conjured–soup and bread, meats and stews–she almost missed her turn at the well.
Someone shoved from behind and Ekubeth stumbled forward. She placed her jugs on the well’s edge and reached for the rope.
“How does your family do, Ekubeth?”
The unexpected question, spoken right into her ear by a snide and familiar voice, startled Ekubeth. Minor earth tremors buzzed along the soles of her feet, shaking the well. The tree rustled. Women grabbed the walls or their friends to keep from falling. Ekubeth fell forward, bumping a jug. It toppled over, falling down the well with a loud splash. “No!”
The tremors stopped. Loud sighs of relief echoed in the square as the chatter resumed.
“Rebekah,” Mary chided. “Stop this nonsense! That’s the second jug lost this morning because of your antics. Apologize to Ekubeth this instant and go home. You’ve already taken your share of the water.”
Rebekah smiled, showing yellowed teeth. Her shrunken gums turned the expression into a sharp grimace. “Pardon, little one. I didn’t mean to frighten you. I just wondered when your mother planned to cook the rooster.”
Motion stilled and conversation ceased, like the lull before a sudden sandstorm. The women straightened their shoulders, tilted their heads as if trying to catch the slightest hint of noise, or rumor. Their poise reminded Ekubeth of animals sensing the presence of a lion.
Or of lions sensing prey.
All eyes found Ekubeth. Remembering the crowd at the Asherah pole, she swallowed against the sudden dryness in her throat.
“I don’t understand. What rooster?”
“The one I heard crowing in your house earlier this morning. That cock made quite a noise. I could hear it from three houses down.”
Ekubeth shook her head, denying the question-turned-accusation. “There is no rooster. My family had a few seeds. Nothing more.”
Rebekah moved close, pinning Ekubeth against the well’s wall. “Don’t lie to me, girl. I heard it. Where did you get the creature?”
Trembling, Ekubeth snapped back, “We don’t have a rooster!”
Rebekah glared for a long moment before making a rude noise in the back of her throat. “Very well, then. If you won’t tell me, your mother will. Sarah and I are old friends.” She turned and stalked out of the square. As Rebekah passed, the discussions started up again in fits and whispers.
Suspicious stares burned into Ekubeth’s back as she filled her remaining jug. The bucket slipped in her hands, spilling precious water onto the desiccated earth. Rather than linger to drink or wash her feet, Ekubeth chose to leave. But when she turned, Mary and Barania stood waiting for her.
“Are you all right?” Barania asked, her tone dripping with sympathy.
Ekubeth nodded, not quite trusting her voice.
Mary smiled, brushing back a lock of Ekubeth’s hair. “Please tell us, won’t you, where your family got the rooster.”
Something in Mary’s voice, a gentle edge like the potter’s, scared Ekubeth even more than Rebekah’s ranting. She remembered the crowd’s anger when she’d accused the priests, falsely, of hoarding. Swallowing again, Ekubeth grabbed her jug and backed away. “I’m sorry. There is no rooster.”
Ekubeth waited until she passed the slaves before she once again broke into a run for home. Water sloshed over the jug’s lip, shedding fat drops of water like the tears threatening to splash down Ekubeth’s face.
Ekubeth received a cuff upon the head for her loss of the water jug and counted herself lucky the punishment hadn’t been worse.
“And where are we to get the money to buy a new one?” Sarah demanded in shrill tones. “Give me that ladle. No water for you until you fill the barrel. Back up the hill and be quick about it.” Sarah drank the ladle dry and hung it back on the wall.
“Yes, Mother.” Ekubeth longed to quench her parched throat, but placed the lid back on the barrel.
Concern flashed across Sarah’s face. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to yell. Please understand–”
“I do understand. It’s been a . . . strange morning.”
Sarah sighed. “I’ve noticed. Well then, off with you. Fetch as much as you can without seeming greedy. If we can’t have a proper meal, at least we can have enough water to fill our complaining stomachs.”
Mindful of the city’s uneasy tensions, Ekubeth returned to the well at a cautious pace. Examining the faces around her, she found reflections of her own suspicious, fearful glances. Not only the citizenry huddled and scurried by, but groups of patrolling soldiers stalked the streets, hands on their sword hilts, eyes flicking side to side.
On one street corner, tempers flared and caught fire in the day’s increasing heat. Two men fought over a nearby straw cart. Or so Ekubeth assumed, until the sharp words reached her ears.
“I saw the goat first!” one yelled, punching the other in the gut.
The second man defended himself, swinging his fist into the other’s jaw. “And I claimed him first, you fool!”
Confused, Ekubeth searched for the goat. She spotted restless birds atop roofs, a boy hiding behind the cart, a few children chasing roaches, and several adults who avoided the corner with deliberate care. Even King Joram’s soldiers turned away from the squabble, and no one else cared to call their attention to the matter.
The boy behind the cart froze, his face turning ashen when Ekubeth’s gaze returned to him. A scream tripped over his lips, ending in a squeak. He pulled back from the cart, attracting the attention of the two men. The men seized the boy’s arms and pulled him in different directions.
“Mine,” the first man growled.
“Let me go,” the boy cried out.
The second man gave the boy a considering look, then said to the first man, “Solomon’s wisdom. Let us split the goat and each take half. Then we both eat well tonight.”
The first man grinned. “Agreed.”
The boy loosed a strangled sound from his throat, struggling and kicking. But the men didn’t even notice his distress. They dragged him down the street and out of sight.
Uncertain, Ekubeth took comfort in the routine of her daily chores. She continued to the well, refilled her jug under the uncomfortable glare of the remaining women and returned home to find the house empty and the water barrel dry. The ladle lay on the table, cast aside like refuse. Ekubeth returned the ladle to its hook and poured the water into the barrel.
Wishing for a drink, knowing she’d be cuffed again if she didn’t first fill the barrel, Ekubeth called out, “If the barrel’s empty when I come back, I’m not making any more trips.”
No answer came. Ekubeth shook her head and left, trudging up the hill yet again.
Four more trips she made, from house to well and back again, as the hot morning drifted into an oppressively humid afternoon. Activity on the streets slowed. Each time, fewer soldiers patrolled the western quarter. Some stood watch atop the city walls. Though she could not see them, their spearheads–burning torches of reflected sunlight–poked above the wall’s height at even intervals.
On her third trip, younger children–no older than six–tore through the streets with terror on their faces. Angry parents pursued them, muttering all manner of strange comments.
“Cursed chickens!” came a cry from across the streets.
Ekubeth bit her lip. Hunger could make a monster of any man. No doubt evening would come with tendered apologies for lost tempers, like the one Sarah had given Ekubeth earlier.
The fourth time she walked up the hill, she collided with a frantic woman and dropped her jug into the dirt.
“Where are they?” the woman demanded.
Confused, Ekubeth collected the jug. “Where are who?”
“Not who. What. Sheep, chickens. The goats?”
“I’m sorry. I’ve seen nothing.”
The woman cursed.
Ekubeth blushed at the strong language. “Where did you see these animals?”
“In the streets. King Joram has at last acknowledged his duty to protect Samaria from starvation. He loosed his herds for us.”
“Why would he loose the herds? Wouldn’t he just invite the head of each household to the palace and hand out the animals?”
The woman snorted. “Maybe the animals got loose on their own.”
Mouth watering at the thought of meat, Ekubeth looked around for any sign of sheep or chicken.
The woman thrust her face up against Ekubeth’s, her glare sharp. “You’d best not trying to take my share, girl.”
“N . . . No.”
For a long moment, the woman stared at Ekubeth, hands clenching and releasing, her rotten breath wafting over Ekubeth’s face. Then the woman made a noise in her throat, turning and discarding Ekubeth’s presence as easily as one discarded horse dung.
“Here, little lamb,” the woman called, wandering away. “I have a treat for you.”
When Ekubeth returned from her fifth visit to the square, the streets were near deserted. Only a handful of Israelites walked the streets. The king’s soldiers had left. Ekubeth might have questioned it had work and hunger not conspired to exhaust her ability to care. After dumping her load into the barrel and returning the jug to its shelf, she stretched out on the floor and slept.
Growling lions and screaming goats filled her dreams. The lions flushed the goats out of hiding by shaking rushes at the clay amphora in which the goats hid. Pottery shattered when the goats jumped out. Then the lions roared again, and the world quieted.
Much later, singing filled the silence of Ekubeth’s dreams. Sarah’s voice caroled with joy. Fire cracked and popped. The scent of roasting meat tickled Ekubeth’s nose. Two men conversed in low tones–her father, Eli, and Simon, Rebekah’s husband. The two men seemed full of mirth and laughter while the shrieks of a happy toddler echoed around them. Beneath her, the ground rumbled like a purring kitten.
Then someone stepped on her hand. Ekubeth sat up with a cry. The toddler fell back on its rump and wailed in protest. Simon stepped across her and swung his son Timmon up in his arms.
“Let me see.” Eli knelt, examining her hand. “Nothing injured.”
Ekubeth sniffed, smothering her initial indignation. “He just surprised me, that’s all.”
“I know, dear.” Her father kissed her on the head and helped her to her feet. “Forgive me. I didn’t want to wake you until supper.”
At the hearth, Sarah and Rebekah basted a spitted roast, but their backs blocked Ekubeth’s view of the meat.
“What are they cooking?”
Eli grinned. “The largest cock you’ve ever seen.”
Her heart skipped a beat. Swallowing against her dry throat, she asked, “Where did it come from?”
Simon stroked the arm of his son as one might soothe a frightened animal. “Sarah and Rebekah found the pair of them nearby. Tonight they’ll cook yours and tomorrow we’ll share ours. For two nights, at least, both families will feast.”
Ekubeth tried to smile, but her throat tightened. She went to the water barrel, and was stopped by her father’s grasp.
“Find Jacob, will you?” Eli asked. “He’s been missing all afternoon.”
She stepped out onto streets so empty, not even a breeze played upon them. Carts sat abandoned on the road. No birds snoozed upon rooftops. A light breeze wound around houses, carrying the heavy scents of spices and cooking food. For the first time in months, since the day Ben-Hadad had come to Samaria, the city felt silent. This lack of activity should have been peaceful. And yet, the quiet whispered warnings of danger to Ekubeth. She wrapped her arms around herself as she looked for Jacob.
Her brother had just learned to walk, so she didn’t expect he’d go far. She searched his favorite hiding places, underneath carts, behind market stalls. She bent down to check under one cart and saw a pair of sandaled feet walking on the other side.
“What you seek you cannot find here, Child,” said their owner. “Go instead to your father’s house and ask your stepmother what happened to her son.”
Surprised, Ekubeth stood. A bald, older man examined her with sharp eyes. “Who are you?” she asked.
“I am Elisha, prophet of the one true Lord of Heaven. Go you home now and do not partake of tonight’s meal. If you repent and taste nothing from your father’s table, you may yet be forgiven and survive the night and next day.”
His manner and foreboding glower sent shivers through Ekubeth. She knew of Elisha. The whole city knew him. “But this is the first time we’ve had meat in months.”
“And so it is, but are you willing to risk the wrath of the Lord, our God, for what is a momentary easing of your suffering?”
Ekubeth tried to swallow. Coughed instead. “No, sir.”
“Then let nothing from your father’s table pass your lips.” He took a goat’s bladder from his belt and squirted water into his mouth.
She almost asked him for a drink. She wanted to grab that bladder out of his hands and slake her own thirst, but she caught herself. Ekubeth ducked her head, flushing with shame at her own impertinence.
“Understand?” he asked. “Not one thing.”
Ekubeth nodded, backing away from him. She half-feared God would strike her down for daring to question Elisha’s wisdom. “Yes, Prophet.”
A scream sounded from a nearby house. Curiosity peaked, Ekubeth peeked through a window and froze. A man wrenched back his son’s head and sliced the boy’s throat. Blood spurted, flooding a bowl held by the boy’s mother.
Ekubeth’s stomach twisted. She spun on her heels and fled back into her house.
“Jacob! Where’s Jacob?”
Simon and Eli looked up from their discussion. Sarah and Rebekah continued with dinner preparations while Timmon played on the floor. Five sets of bowls and cups had been laid out, waiting for the food to be served.
“I sent you to look for him, Ekubeth,” Eli reminded her, frowning.
“I’ve seen the prophet. He was just outside now and told me to come in. He said Sarah knows where Jacob hides.”
Simon laughed. “And which prophet is that, then? Of which god?”
“The prophet of Abraham’s Lord.”
Surprised, all four adults moved to the door. After a moment, they came back shaking their heads.
“There is no one there, Ekubeth,” Rebekah said. “Perhaps you had a vision. Hunger does strange things to the mind.”
Sarah patted her shoulder. “I’m sure Jacob will return when he smells all this delicious food. He’s as hungry as we all are. Now go to the table so your father may perform the blessing.”
With Elisha’s words ringing in her ears, Ekubeth took her place at the table. She found comfort in Rebekah’s explanation. No parent would kill their child like a sheep at God’s altar. A famous man like Elisha would not speak to a simple girl like herself.
Everyone bowed their heads and Eli recited the proper prayers. When he finished, they all added their amens.
Sarah and Rebekah pulled the meat onto a platter while Eli filled the cups with water. Precious, clear, sparkling water. Ekubeth licked her lips, pulling her cup close. This was the first drink she’d had today and it tasted like heaven. She sipped only a little, not wanting to ruin her appetite. Not until the meal was set upon the table did she get a clear view of the meat–a rib roast the size of a lamb.
“This is no fowl,” she whispered.
Rebekah gave Ekubeth a light smack across the back of the head. “This is the same cock I heard crowing in your house this morning, girl. I told you your mother would let me know when she planned to eat it.”
Eli carved thick, juicy slices off the meat, placing a large portion in each bowl. The smell tantalized her. Vision or not, she found herself torn between need and Prophet Elisha’s terrifying words. She failed to understand why her parents told her this lamb roast was a rooster. Mouth too dry for comfort, Ekubeth sipped at her water.
“I would like a drumstick, I think,” Simon asked.
“Oh, yes. Let me fetch the rest,” Rebekah said. She brought a bowl heaped with meat from the hearth. “The legs were rather large. We had to chop them into bits. The wings are oddly shaped, but certainly edible. Would you like one, Ekubeth?”
Without waiting for a reply, Rebekah dropped a chunk of meat into Ekubeth’s bowl. The child-sized hand lay there, dripping with juices, covered with spices.
Ekubeth couldn’t help herself. She screamed.
She pushed away from the table. The bowl went flying and the hand fell onto the floor. Remembering the boy dragged away by the two arguing men, Ekubeth ran into her parents’ room. “Jacob. Jacob, where are you?”
A few robes hung on pegs on the walls. A shared pillow, stuffed with straw, sat against the wall and one thin blanket lay folded next to it. Her brother was not there.
She came out of the room and found four concerned gazes upon her. Timmon sat under the table, sucking happily on the hand Ekubeth had knocked to the floor.
“No!” She rushed to grab it away from the tot, but was stopped by her father and Simon.
“What is wrong with you?” Eli chastised, forcing her to sit.
“Maybe her mind is addled,” Simon suggested.
“Eat something, dear,” Sarah cooed. “You’ll feel much better.”
“No! I won’t! You’re eating Jacob. You’ve cooked your own son!”
“Oh, now, don’t be foolish,” Rebekah scoffed, draining her cup in one gulp, then refilling it from the water barrel. “The child is mad. If she doesn’t want to eat, more for the rest of us.”
“You can’t,” Ekubeth wailed.
Eli shook his head. “Ekubeth, apologize to our guests this instance. You are being rude.”
“I will not apologize! Why don’t you see it? That’s no rooster on the table. Those drumsticks are the legs of a boy.”
She made a grab for the bowl, intent on tossing it into the street. Sarah slapped her hands away and cuffed her ear. Ekubeth landed on the floor.
Against the backdrop of the hearth fire, Eli loomed large, shadows filling his eyes. “If you won’t behave yourself, then leave my house. No child of mine insults guests under my roof.”
With those words, he disowned her. She cried out, her soul aching. His expression showed no sign of forgiveness as he pointed to the door.
Sobbing, Ekubeth stumbled outside. Prophet Elisha knew. He’d warned her. Perhaps he could make her father see reason. She searched, but the prophet had vanished and she didn’t know where he lived. So she went to her neighbor’s house, pounding on the door until the wife answered.
“You have to help me . . . ” The words spilled from her lips until she spotted the meat on their table. Ekubeth glanced around, counting the children. Only there were none where there should have been three. In their place, two lambs sat at the table, one sucking marrow from a child-sized rib bone and the other chewing upon a human foot.
“Would you like to join us for dinner, Ekubeth? We found a nice fat mule today and have plenty for all.”
Horrified, Ekubeth backed away and ran for the next house. This time she peaked inside before knocking and saw a woman basting an infant on a spit.
Unable to take anymore of what she saw, Ekubeth ran.
And ran. And ran.
“Please,” Ekubeth begged the guards at the palace entrance. “I must see the king.”
The taller of the two guards sneered down at her. “What would you like him to do? Go to the threshing floor and produce flour out of non-existent grain for you? King Joram is too busy for the likes of your nonsense. He has as little food as the rest of us and he wages war against the Aramaeans. Go back to your house and leave him in peace.”
“You don’t understand. It’s my little brother. He’s–”
“Dead,” interrupted the short guard. “Many have died from the famine. You haven’t. Praise the gods for that luck and go back home.”
“My parents are eating him!”
The guards looked at each other in surprise, then shared a chuckle. “And where might this grand dinner be held?” the shorter one asked.
“Third street up from the boundary, western quarter.”
The guards exchanged another chuckle.
Frustrated, Ekubeth shouted. “They’re not the only ones. All my neighbors are eating their children. I saw a woman roasting her baby. They violate the Law of Moses. The food is treif!”
The guards shook their heads in disbelief, lowered their spears and poked at her, making her jump away.
“What would a girl know about Moses’ Law? Go home,” the taller guard said.
“I’m nearly grown,” she shouted. “And all women know the laws of kashrut. We could not cook for our families if we served torn food.”
The shorter guard snorted. “If you’re so experienced, then ask your father for a husband. You’re too old to be telling tales and maybe a proper spouse can beat these notions out of your head.”
His comment seemed to settle the matter. The guards fell into silence, ignoring her no matter how she raged. She begged, pleaded, and even fell to her knees, tearing at her clothes and sobbing in grief.
But they no longer answered her, and their gazes stared over her head as if she were not even there.
At some point, the words stopped coming, the tears ran dry, and she was left with nothing. No anger. No fear. No hope.
Defeated, Ekubeth left the palace grounds. The setting sun burned red, leaving streaks of imagined blood across the horizon. Disowned, she could not return home. She dared not even seek sanctuary with friends or neighbors while everyone feasted upon torn food.
‘Tonight they’ll cook yours and tomorrow we’ll share ours.’ Simon’s words. The way he stroked his son’s arm held a sinister significance she hadn’t understood earlier.
“Oh, Asherah help me. Timmon’s next.”
And she knew whatever else happened, she had to save the boy from his father’s knife.
At the palace, the guards watched the girl run off and enjoyed another long laugh. After several long moments, the tall guard turned to his comrade and said, “A strange tale. She certainly sounded as if she believed it.”
“What do you want to do? Tell the king?”
The tall guard shrugged. “It would do no harm. He did say he wanted to know about every request made, even if nothing could be done about it.”
“You deliver the news then. I don’t want to be laughed out of the palace.”
The tall guard chewed his lip for a moment. “I’ll be back shortly. Sound an alarm if the Aramaeans breach the city walls.”
The short guard snorted in contempt.
The thinnest crescent of the waning moon hung above the silent city. Outside the city walls, the boisterous carousing of the Aramaean army reminded hungry Israelite sentries who held true control of Samaria. The city walls had yet to fall, but everyone knew Ben-Hadad had already won.
Ekubeth prowled along the walls, slipping from shadow to shadow as she made her way back home. She didn’t know how far the madness had spread and didn’t want to risk one of those sentries seeing her as their next meal. At a certain point, though, she had to leave the safety of the wall to enter the western quarter. An owl hooted in the distance, startling her as she crossed a street. Heart pounding, she made it back to her neighborhood and considered her next move. People still stirred in their houses, though many had retired early. If she meant to rescue Timmon, she’d have to wait until she was confident she wouldn’t wake anyone.
First, though, she’d need a good hiding place, a way to keep the hungry tot quiet, water, and food that wasn’t human flesh.
“I have no money,” she cried softly to herself. “Where am I to get food?”
Grunts and moans came from the windows of Rebekah’s house, sounds she’d heard often from her father and Sarah’s room. Ekubeth bit her lower lip, considering her options.
“Hiding place first. Water will be easy to come by. Food will have to wait.”
She paced the streets looking at the carts as a possible place, then discarded the idea. She and Timmon would be discovered the instant someone tried to use them. Timmon would be taken from her and eaten. Ekubeth considered the houses, but each house started where another ended. There were no hidden spaces between them to hide in. And the rooftops could be seen from houses on the streets higher up. She had to widen her search.
She finally settled on a stable one street over from her home. The hayrack provided a nice cover while the two horses remaining in it might make enough noise to cover Timmon’s cries. With her destination now known, she snatched a goat’s bladder from the stable wall and returned to Rebekah’s house. She waited at the window, listening for any sign of wakefulness, but heard only snores. Satisfied, she crept into the house.
Ekubeth groped around, searching for the house water barrel. Rebekah didn’t keep it near the door, but at the hearth. Ekubeth stubbed her toe on the barrel and yelped in pain, then bit her lip as she silently rubbed her foot. A snort came from the back room, the sounds of a waking sleeper. Ekubeth crouched low, waiting to be discovered. After a few moments, the snores began again and she remained safe.
After filling the bladder from the barrel, she slung the strap over her shoulder and began a slow search for Timmon. Her knees and toes hit every obstacle in the dark house. She whimpered with every injury, but kept looking. When she finished searching every stretch of floor, she had to admit defeat. Timmon was not in the main room, which meant he slept with his parents.
She hesitated, fearful of being caught. But if she didn’t rescue Timmon–his parents, and hers, would eat him on the morrow. Bracing herself, Ekubeth moved to the back room and pushed aside the curtain.
She dropped to her hands and knees, moving forward bit by bit. Reaching out, she ran her fingertips along the packed earthen floor until she felt woven wool. She followed the blanket until she encountered a foot, which she seized.
The foot twitched out of her grasp and the sleeper sneezed, rolling over. Ekubeth pulled back, realizing she’d grabbed Simon’s foot by mistake. Taking a deep, calming breath, she started her search again. Bit by bit, she followed the blankets, touching Rebekah’s hand once and getting slapped away as if she were a bug. After long moments of searching, Ekubeth found the sleeping Timmon, curled up in a nest of blankets at a far corner. She moved to a crouch, pulling the toddler into her arms. He sniffled and struggled, the way any sleeping child would when disturbed, but calmed back into sleep when Ekubeth kissed his forehead.
Her foot caught in the blankets of Rebekah’s and Simon’s pallet as she walked out of the room, but she caught herself before she fell and shook the blankets free. Ekubeth forced herself to patience, leaving the house with slow, careful steps. Getting caught could be the death of her, as well as Timmon.
Once out of the house, though, she abandoned all pretense of calm. She broke out into as quick a run as she dared and fled to the comforting walls of the stable.
Exhaustion numbed her to the dreams of grumbling stomachs, shaking hills, and screaming children. When morning broke her slumber, she woke to horses bugling out their fear, Timmon squalling, and the hayrack toppled over, laying across her. She pushed it away, shoveling hay off her and the toddler. On the other side of the stable, the horses shied, eyes rolling wildly.
“Mama,” the toddler complained as he pushed himself up.
“Hush,” Ekubeth started, then inhaled large quantities of dust. The coughing fit caught her by surprise. Unable to breath, she grabbed for the goat’s bladder and washed her mouth out. When she finished drinking, Timmon was gone.
She capped the bladder and dug through the hay. Bits flew everywhere but she couldn’t find him. The horses thumped around in restless fear. They tried to push open the doors with their noses.
Scared, Ekubeth went over to calm the animals. “Timmon, please don’t be underfoot!” She could see no sign of him there, and the horses refused to be soothed. They shoved and pushed until Ekubeth pulled open the doors. They almost trampled her as they galloped past, and trumpeted their fear to the late morning sky.
The horses drew the attention of those outside the stable. A woman glared at Ekubeth and a man cursed loudly. But no one chased after the horses or came after Ekubeth. They chose instead to run down a few loose goats.
Timmon was nowhere to be seen. She stood right outside the door, looking up and down the street to be sure. The toddler couldn’t have gotten far. So she turned back to the stable and called, “Timmon? Timmon, please. I’m trying to help you.”
With a sigh of relief, she searched for the source of the noise and found him curled up underneath the hayrack, the one place she’d not checked earlier.
“Thank the Lord. You frightened me, Timmon.” She pulled the reluctant boy out and clutched him tight. He struggled, trying to break away from her.
“Shhh. Hush, Timmon. Would you like some water?”
She took a swig herself, to get rid of the dust still in her throat, then squirted a bit into his open mouth. He spit it out, yowling again for his mother. Aggravated, Ekubeth held him tightly until he drank.
“I’m trying to protect you from your mother, you ungrateful wretch.”
Her words set off another coughing fit and she half-drained the bladder before stopping herself. Timmon stared at her, his eyes wide. He sniffed, his expression so scared and heartbroken that she handed him some hay.
“Poor, Timmon. You don’t understand any of this, do you?”
While he chewed at the hay, she reached over to brush the feathers from his hair.
The door to the stable squeaked open. Startled, Ekubeth looked up and saw a mule slip through the door. She relaxed, turned her attention back to Timmon, and tensed again when she saw the beak on his face. Shaking, she reached out to touch him. Her eyes saw a beak, but her fingers felt only soft skin and a human nose.
“No,” she whispered to herself. “I tasted nothing at my father’s table, just as Prophet Elisha instructed. I cannot be struck with this illness.”
Still touching Timmon, she closed her eyes tightly, then opened them again. The beak and feathers were nowhere to be seen. Relieved, she clutched the toddler close to her despite his wiggling protests. “Hush, hush. Everything will all right. The prophet said so.”
She looked up at the sudden bleat and found herself staring at a pair of goats. The mule huddled in the corner looking miserable. Several chickens surrounded the goats, clucking with frantic abandon.
Ekubeth blinked in surprise. “Now where did you all come from? I could have sworn there weren’t this many of you in the whole district.”
The goats lay down beside her, sending up a throaty chorus of an almost conversational nature. Bemused, Ekubeth listened as if they actually answered her question.
“Well if you want to stay here, I won’t stop you. But you can’t make so much noise. Timmon and I are trying to hide.”
The goats immediately hushed as if they understood her words. Some of the chickens even quieted while others continued to cluck. One goat pawed at a particularly noisy chicken, pulling it close with a hoof.
Ekubeth tried to chuckle but could not because her throat was too dry. She reached for the bladder again only to have the goats rip it out of her hands.
“That’s mine!” she cried, grabbing for it with her free hand.
One goat fought back, stomping her on the foot with a hoof. Ekubeth yelped and released the bladder as she fell back. The goat pried off the top and dumped her precious water all over the ground.
“Why did you do that? What am I supposed to drink now?” she asked.
The goat shook its head, bleating a desperate complaint.
“Is someone in there?” came a gruff voice from the outside.
The animals cowered and Ekubeth froze.
“It might just be John’s horses,” came a man’s voice.
A dusty tickle stretched the inside of Ekubeth’s parched throat. She tried to swallow, but it only made the sensation worse.
“Those horses got loose a bit ago. They’re not in there any longer,” a third voice answered.
The tickle strengthened in intensity and she lost the battle, letting out another violent cough.
“So that’s where she hid the rooster,” Sarah proclaimed.
The stable doors slammed open and the animals screamed in unison, running everywhere. A crowd of women and men thundered in, going after the livestock with the aspect of madness in their faces. Ekubeth clutched Timmon close only to find her hands closing on feathers.
“No, no, no.”
It was still Timmon. She could see the toddler’s face and eyes. He had wings, though, where once there had been arms. That’s when she knew the truth.
“Oh, poor thing. You’ve been cursed because you were chewing on Jacob’s hand. Oh, Timmon, Lord help you.”
“Give me that cock!” One of the men tried to pull Timmon from her arms.
Ekubeth screeched, kicking at the man. She aimed for the shin and instead caught him between the legs. He howled in pain. Shamed at her behavior, she nonetheless caught up Timmon and ran for the door. The toddler wailed in fright, kicking and punching with his strong little fists. Hands grabbed at Ekubeth and, as she made it out into the crowded streets, she stumbled. Timmon broke free, running on tiny rooster feet, only to be scooped up by her step-mother Sarah.
Rebekah, standing beside Sarah, made a grab for the toddler. “That cock belongs to me!”
“Halt in the name of King Joram,” a voice bellowed over the mayhem.
Soldiers forced their way into the crowd, separating the fighting adults and making a path. The king walked forward slowly, leaning on the arm of a servant. His haughty gaze glared down upon everyone. Ekubeth kneeled in abject terror. The rustle of robes around her indicated many others did the same.
“Help me, my lord the King!” Sarah cried, throwing herself in front of him.
King Joram sighed and straightened. “What grieves you, Mistress?”
Sarah pointed to Rebekah. “This woman said to me, ‘Give us your rooster so we may eat him today and tomorrow we’ll eat my rooster.’ So we cooked my rooster and ate him. This morning, I said to her, ‘Give us your rooster so we may eat him’, but she had hidden him. Now I have found the rooster, but she tries to renege on her word and take the bird back.”
“And where would this rooster be?”
Sarah looked confused for a moment, then nodded toward the still-struggling Timmon. “Why in my arms, my lord.”
The king, his servant, and the guards around him stood silent at Sarah’s words, their faces paling to the color of chalk.
Unable to hold her peace any longer, Ekubeth leaped to her feet and came forward. “Please, King Joram. It’s not true. Rebekah didn’t hide him. I did. I was only trying to protect him. He’s just a child.”
“So I see,” the king replied, his voice hoarse.
“My King,” one of the soldiers spoke out, “This is the girl who came last night to the palace.”
Ekubeth started in surprise, then recognized the tall guard from the palace gate.
The king gave her a sharp look. “Speak your name, girl.”
“Ekubeth, my lord.”
He nodded, then turned to the guard. “Do you separate the children from their parents. They will be welcomed into the palace as my wards until the truth of these happenings is properly sorted.”
“No!” both Rebekah and Sarah cried as the guard took Timmon.
“My King, we are starving!” begged another man as the goat was ripped from his grasp by a soldier.
Tears filled King Joram’s eyes. “I well know your suffering,” he said to the man. “But what has been done here today is a great crime against the Law of Moses and the Lord, our God. I shall have words with Elisha that he did not warn me of this.”
Ekubeth trembled as she listened and watched. The soldiers took up every chicken, both goats and even the mule. They forced most of the adults back against the stable wall. But Sarah, merely two paces away from Ekubeth, spun around and smacked her across the face.
“You fool,” Sarah hissed. “But for you, we’d have eaten well tonight.”
At a gesture from the king, two soldiers pulled Sarah away from Ekubeth. The king nodded at Ekubeth, a gesture of respect. “You too shall stay at the palace. I wish to hear all the details of this from you later.”
With the livestock, Timmon and Ekubeth in tow, the soldiers and king made their way back to the palace. Just as they left the western quarter, buildings shuddered, swaying as if struck by a great wind. A nearby portion of the city wall collapsed. The air filled with the echoes of rushing chariot wheels and running horses, and the ground shuddered as if in protest.
“My King,” called one of the soldiers. “That is the sound of the Egyptian army. Ben-Hadad must have asked for their aid in attacking us.”
“Get the children safely to the palace,” King Joram ordered. “And summon my generals to me immediately.”
The earth rumbled and bucked. Giant chasms split the landscape. Sand flew into the air as if it had been given wings. Outside of Samaria, the land tossed and churned. Trees fell. Streams overflowed their banks.
Within the city walls, rooftops and walls collapsed. The shallow fissure in the western quarter’s cistern broke wide open with a sharp snap. What had only been a triclke became a loud rush of draining water, raising a noise that could be mistaken for thundering horse hooves and chariot wheels.
And the sky rock, cause of the cistern’s crack, was pulled along by the rushing water under the rocky foundation of Samaria.
“The King of Israel has surely summoned the Hittites to his assistance,” the Aramaean general cried, prostrating himself before Ben-Hadad, king of Aram.
Ben-Hadad listened, hearing a roar like the rolling of chariots, and watched his tent shake vigorously as if a great stampede of horses approached from nearby. “Have you actually seen the Hittites,” he asked.
“No, Sire,” the general replied. “But great clouds of dust rise from all around, even from within Samaria itself. Their offensive is in motion. They will slaughter us all!”
The Aramaean king hesitated, unwilling to abandon his siege when victory was but a few weeks away. Samaria starved. Joram could not hold out for much longer.
A great thundering arose. The ground heaved and cried out. Swords clattered in their sheathes. The tent shook so hard, three of the poles unseated themselves and fell to the ground.
“Sound the retreat,” Ben-Hadad ordered. “We leave immediately. They will not take us during the night.”
By dusk, the lepers living at Samaria’s gates crept out of the city to raid for food. They came upon the deserted Aramaean camp, discovering no sign of Egyptians or Israel’s enemy. Ecstatic, they carried word back to Samaria.
“The Aramaeans are gone! Ben-Hadad’s army has fled!”
The cry passed from gatekeeper to sentry to the markets to the residential areas. With wild cries, the Israelites flooded the streets and stampeded out of the city. They tore the Aramaean encampment to shreds, looting everything in sight–weapons, silks, clothing, food–then burning the tents. The blaze lit up the night sky like a star on earth.
Ekubeth watched the commotion from the balcony of the royal palace, wishing she could be part of it. A heavy hand landed on her shoulder, drawing her attention away from the fires and to the guard beside her.
“King Joram commands your presence.”
She followed the guard into the royal audience chamber, rubbing her parched throat. The king sat upon his throne, attended by his advisors, a group of court scribes, and a young Ethiopian slave wearing a robe with the royal crest embroidered on the sleeve. Elisha stood in the far doorway, his eyes hooded and dark. His lips tightened, he shook his head at her, then he turned in a swirl of robes and left the room.
His abrupt dismissal left Ekubeth feeling ashamed, though she could not name the source of her shame.
“. . . just an earthquake, my King,” one of the advisors said. “It frightened the Aramaeans as much as it did us. Ben-Hadad’s army cannot be found anywhere in Israel.”
“How bad is the damage to the city?” King Joram asked.
Another advisor bowed. “Nothing too great. We lost a few sections of the wall, some poorly built houses. The worst damage is in the western quarter. The cistern has cracked and run dry. We’ll need to divert water from the other quarters until the architects repair it.”
The king nodded and waived his advisors away. He smiled warmly at Ekubeth. “Sit,” the king indicated a wicker stool. “Tell me everything.”
So she sat. Then swallowed. She opened her mouth, only to choke as she tried to speak.
The king snapped his fingers and the slave brought her a goblet. She gulped at the watered-down wine, finding her thirst difficult to quench. But when she’d emptied the goblet, she handed it back, fixed her sight on the king and began her tale.
Throughout the telling, she stopped to sob, overwhelmed with the horrors she’d seen. While she talked, the goblet would be refilled and she would drain it again, usually in three swallows. No matter how much she drank, her parched throat would not moisten. But she continued giving her narration of events, watching the court scribes write the details as she shared them.
“. . . and that’s when you came to the quarter,” Ekubeth finished, wiping her eyes with her sleeve hem.
The king and his advisors exchanged disturbed glances. The scribes finished writing and waited, quills poised, to record the next words to be spoken.
A servant approached the king, whispering in his ear. King Joram frowned. “Ekubeth?”
“Yes, my King?”
The king folded his hands together. “Why are the children terrorizing my staff?”
“I don’t understand the question.”
“They’ve empted every water barrel, every amphora, every bowl filled with water. Poured them out onto the ground. One child cut the rope to the palace well. Explain this.”
Ekubeth wilted under the king’s silent regard. Fidgeting with her robes, she said, “I can’t.”
King Joram gave a short, stiff nod.
Heat filled Ekubeth’s cheeks. Thirst scratched at her throat. She turned to the slave boy to ask for more wine, but standing beside her, goblet in its mouth, was a little black lamb wearing robes embroidered with the royal crest.
Her pulse thundered in her ears. The king’s voice rose above the noise. “Take four units, one per quarter. Sweep the city and find out who else has been affected.”
Guards passed in and out of the edges of her vision. The lamb bleated, cocking its head at her. Her thirst gone, Ekubeth found herself salivating at the thought of a well-spiced stew for dinner.
She reached out her hand, petting the creature on the head. “Nice lamb,” she whispered. “Pretty lamb.”
The lamb started in surprise, then tried to run.