Keslote, Issachar, Israel
Obadiah stood and steadied himself against the ladder while his mother descended a rung at a time. In the fading light, her cheeks seemed dry of tears, yet her eyes, red and swollen.
His mother held him by the shoulders as she searched his face. “You came.” She wrapped him in a hug. “My boy. My boy. I didn’t know if they could find you.” She released him and slid her arm through his.
Skipping rungs, Obadiah’s younger brother, Tola, bounced down the ladder and landed—thump—on the sod.
Although his face sagged, he draped an arm around Obadiah’s ribs and gripped him by an elbow.
Wedged between mother and brother, Obadiah stared with them at the grave.
His mother broke the silence. “Your father was out pruning and didn’t come home. When it got dark, the neighbors lit lamps.”
Tola’s wife and five children appeared at Tola’s elbow. The children cast furtive glances at Obadiah. How had they arrived without a sound?
Tola planted his feet wide. “The baker found him. Over near the quarry. His pruning saw was in the grass.”
Arrows flashed through Obadiah’s memory—thunk, thunk—next to the young Obadiah and Ahab on their stallions. Syrian scouts should return to Damascus satisfied with information on troop movements. But no. They needed to pick off a pair of young Hebrews or a farmer.
“Biah. They found you.” Yedidah’s mother pushed through the gate and hurried across the courtyard. “Oh, son. I’m so sorry. Your father was such a good man.”
Tola stood back and offered her Obadiah’s side.
“Still is a good man.” Yedidah’s father marched in, followed by Yedidah’s brothers and sisters. His nostrils flared as he stared across the mound of dirt. “The village’ll never be the same, boy.”
Yedidah’s mother glanced up. “Are Yedidah and my grandbabies…?”
“The fort. Safe. Messenger found me. Samaria.” The few words came out with a struggle. As he pulled her to his side, his knees shook. He sagged against the two women.
Tu-cu-chee-yo, a nightjar called, and a faint breeze touched Obadiah’s cheek.
From across the mound of dirt, Yedidah’s father cleared his throat. “Look at me Biah.”
Obadiah lifted his head.
The man frowned. “You’re exhausted. The gang of you. We’ll stable your horses, and we have rugs for your men.”
Mendel, Ahab’s grandfather, strode through the gate. He stood taller than Ahab or Obadiah, and a pure white beard jutted from his chin. “Such a racket of wheels. Buckets bumping the well. Horses breathing loud enough to scare a mountain lion. Your man Zak takes charge out there.”
Obadiah lifted a hand and let it drop. “Zak. Whatever Zak says.”
Grandpa Mendel’s enormous paw clamped on Obadiah’s shoulder, jolting the two mothers from their grip and spinning Obadiah around. “I made a token attempt as a suitable host and fried up the mutton for your gang. Then I turned him loose in the kitchen. He’s finding stalls in my stable and rugs in those rooms my son built to invade my privacy.”
Obadiah gave one soft chuckle for the old village joke—King Omri had posted guards, but his father had sent them back to the fort.
“So sorry your dad is gone, boy. The Lord makes none better. Not these days. Knew they’d find you. Just didn’t think it would take so long.”
Long? He’d left the moment Gallant had arrived. Obadiah’s shoulder relaxed under the familiar grip. He bowed and let the too loud voice flow over him.
“Did you get my son laid out in his tomb?” Mendel stomped a foot in the grass. “Don’t you start on me about hiking across the valley and up into those hills to pay my respects.”
Obadiah’s mouth twitched. King Omri had said, “My father will outlive me, but he’ll never visit my tomb.”
While Mendel’s hand rested on Obadiah’s shoulder, his voice moved far away. “I let my son know square and proper, if he wanted his bones in a tomb, I couldn’t stop him. But he comes from farm stock, and an honest farmer takes his final sleep in the earth.”
The grandpa’s face washed-out, and he faded to a distant hum—how his son had commanded armies in foreign places when Beitshan was far enough for any man to travel.
Obadiah closed his eyes and leaned against his little brother. His own tiny grave plot waited beside his great grandfather’s. Why had he left home? Gera didn’t need him in the olive groves. Seba ran the stables on his own. The bookkeeper from Nazareth did an admirable job with the accounts.
‘Smoke, fog, vapor’ the Teacher called these tasks. ‘How does all this labor under the sun profit a man?’ Obadiah sighed long. Instead of working at his father’s side, he had run after smoke and fog. Let someone else be the king’s man.
His mother held the ladder. “The trip has worn Biah out. He needs to sleep.”
Sleep? Obadiah lifted his head from Tola’s shoulder. “Just got here.” He placed a foot on the first rung of the ladder. “I need…”
Tola scurried past him up the ladder then reached back over the parapet.
Mendel and Yedidah’s father lifted Obadiah by the arms.
With his feet on the third rung, he made a desperate lunge upward.
Tola steadied him by the hair.
Hands pushed his rump, raising Obadiah’s feet to the fifth rung.
Tola gripped his wrists, dragged him up, and laid him with his head hanging over the parapet.
“Sweet dreams, boy,” the grandpa boomed. “We’ll talk in the morning.”
Obadiah reached through the dark and found the base of the limestone wall. He ran his fingers over the letters B I A H he had chiseled in at the quarry. Cheered by his father’s fond gaze, he had struggled with the block and slid it into place in this wall. He and his father built this room together.
Faint dribbles of light strayed under the door.
He rolled to his knees, stood, and tiptoed into the main room.
Mother sat next to a tiny, flickering lamp, and he knelt at her side. “What did old Mendel mean? I came the moment I heard.”
In the shifting flame, the rings under her eyes looked deeper.
“I mean, when did…?”
“When did your father die? Say the word, son.”
“How long ago was it?”
“No. You must pronounce the words. Your father’s not lost. Not sleeping. Each morning, I force them out. ‘He’s dead.’ Yet, in the afternoon, I look for him to walk in from selling pears at Beitshan.”
“When… when did my father… die? Two days ago?”
“Five. No, six. Oh my. Eight days ago. I miss him so.”
Eight days, and the message didn’t get to Obadiah until yesterday noon. Digging the grave and laying his father in with proper respect would have taken his brother one day.
Tola padded in, sat next to Mother, and held her hand.
She sniffled and wiped her nose with a cloth. “We didn’t know how to get word to you. Your brother didn’t want to leave me alone.”
“As he shouldn’t,” Obadiah said.
Tola sat up straight. “The village hasn’t changed, Biah. The nearest horse is in Beitshan.”
Obadiah nodded. “Did old Mendel…?”
His mother squeezed his hand. “Oh, Ahab will be so proud of his grandfather. He badgered men all along the path for days and got up a brave little band who carried the news to the fort.”
Obadiah pulled his mother to his shoulder. Brave indeed. If arrows could cut down a man in his pear trees, they could strike messengers on the road. “I never should have left you.”
She moved the lamp closer to the center of its dish. “Yes… yes, you should have left us, son. That boy, Ahab, needs you at his side. Keep your eyes open, and you’ll see why you’re there.” His mother patted his hand. “What can I feed you? We have mutton, chicken, beef, pickles, beer, wine. The courtyard’s been full of friends for days, and they keep bringing food.”
“Nothing tonight, thanks.” Obadiah sat and took in the tiny world shown by her lamp. This was not his home. Not anymore. He had laid up these blocks, but they were no longer his. Neither the blocks nor the walls, the house nor the orchard. They were here for him to visit. But they belonged to his mother and brother.
And Mother had it right. Ahab needed him. He served the king. Although he hated the Baals, he was the king’s man.
Obadiah stood, cupped Tola’s cheek, and kissed his mother’s forehead. “Will soon be light. Let’s get some sleep.”
Back in his room, he snuggled into the rug. Mother had said, “Keep your eyes open.” The latest version of the fishmonger.