23. Misliya

23. Misliya i

Market, Megiddo, Israel

864 BC ii

Obadiah stole a glance at Yeskah. Why was his sister-in-law allowing her daughter to direct? He gripped Yedidah by the hand and looked up. “Lord, please send Ruthie the right helpers.”

Amen” came from Ruthie, the sisters, and the guards.

Ruthie jumped into the middle of the group and whispered. “Uncle Biah prayed, and we agreed with him. So, I wait by the onions. If someone asks how to help me, I tell them. But only if they ask. Does everybody understand?”

Every face was blank.

Obadiah cleared his throat. “Um. I . . . I don’t understand. You’re not a cripple, and you’re not carrying a sign. Your scarf and robe are like all the other children in the market. Why should anyone think you need help?”

Ruthie clapped her hands. “You do understand, Uncle Biah! The only way anyone will think to ask is if the Lord gives them a poke. And when they ask, I tell them I need secret help buying bread. I give them a handful of your silver and tell them I need pitas for three men for three days.”

She pointed to Elder Zillethai’s courtyard by the livery stable. “Now you go sip wine with your muscle men and ask the Lord to send me shoppers.”

The guards, the sisters, and Obadiah gawked at each other. Then Obadiah led them into the elder’s courtyard.

Out in the market, women whose arms dangled with woven-reed bags examined a large pile of yellow onions. Beside them, Ruthie adjusted her scarf over her curls and hooked her arm through the handles of her own bag. She picked up an onion and turned it over in her fingers.

Obadiah’s shoulders tightened.

Yeskah whispered, “When you first mentioned secret shoppers, I pictured little old ladies in the dark of night, not my baby girl.” She took a deep breath then eased it out.

Okay, Lord.” Obadiah squinted. “Ruthie’s in place. Where are her helpers?”

A woman picked up a large onion, waited while the other women strolled over to the cucumbers, and turned to Ruthie as if she were speaking to her.

Yeskah whispered, “The blacksmith’s wife. Good people.”

As Ruthie looked up, the woman cupped Ruthie’s chin.

Obadiah leaned forward. “The silver, Ruthie. Show her the silver.”

Ruthie dug her fingers deep in her bag and stepped in. The woman’s robe shielded their hands.

The woman looked down then squinted at Ruthie.

Ruthie bobbed her head.

The blacksmith’s wife opened her mouth, peeked around the market in a hurry, and closed her robe. Then she marched straight to the baker and loaded three tall stacks of pitas into the bag on her arm.

Yeskah breathed out. “Nice job. Men eat lots of bread.”

The blacksmith’s wife stopped next at a pile of squash.

Obadiah turned to Yedidah. “Did I tell Ruthie no fires in the cave and squash needs to be roasted?”

Yes, dear. Twice. Ruthie will find a way to cook squash for a caveful.”

The blacksmith’s wife transferred the pitas and squash to Ruthie’s bag.

Yedidah sighed. “This isn’t going to work. I’m sorry, Yessie, but look how her bag is bulging already. Over and over, people meeting with Ruthie, then buying bread and bringing it back to Ruthie. People will notice. Spies will hear about the one little girl with all that food.”

Yeskah shook her head. “Don’t be in such a rush, Sister. So, we haven’t worked the wrinkles out. Give us a moment. We might have to bake the pitas at home. Or Ruthie could get up a network of helpers who bake pita’s.”

Obadiah raised his eyebrows to Zak and got a shrug in reply. Who knew the inner workings of a mother’s decisions?

A young girl made a path through the crowd to the onion pile, gripped Ruthie by both arms, spoke, then laughed in her face.

Ruthie tossed her head back and responded with laughter of her own. Her lips moved too fast for Obadiah to follow.

As Ruthie opened her bag, the new girl shot glances in several directions. Ruthie sheltered their hands from view and then thrust deep into her cloak.

Yeskah raised her fingers to her lower lip. “Is it okay if a friend helps with the buying?”

Obadiah let out a sigh. “If the Lord sends a friend, we can’t say no.” He raised his hands. “Thank you, Lord. Now how to get the food to the cave?” iii

When Ruthie joined them, Obadiah turned to her. “You’ve explored the caves here since you were how many years old? How can we inspect the Misliya cave without anyone following us?”

“I’ve been there one time,” Ruthie answered. “With my friend Susanna. If we go now, the sun’s hot. Not many people will be on the path.”

Obadiah followed Ruthie out the gate and onto the road. He turned to Yeskah and Yedidah beside him. “Who are we kidding? Bubblers have all been men and boys. Will they follow our little Ruthie?”

Yeskah grinned. “No, but they’ll follow Little Pharaoh.”

He tipped his head back. The drought had worn on so long a bright blue sky shone through the branches. A swallow-tailed kite screamed. Three times it fought off a hawk, yet the hawk returned for more. Buzzards soared and empty clouds scudded across the sky.

Out here under the pale blue was the place to hide. If rain ever fell again, the smell of blossoms and the tickle of tall grasses would touch a man’s face.

In a cave, flowers never bloomed. Hawks didn’t circle. Rats scurried, and bats fluttered, and mold spread. And there was nothing to drink.

Obadiah licked his lips. “Why didn’t we bring a skin of water?”

The women shook their heads, but Ruthie glanced back. “You can drink in the cave.”

The child didn’t understand. The only water in a cave was a stagnant puddle floating with slugs and snails that died and turned to slime. His skin crawled. He brushed at his arm.

Ruthie looked back at him and pushed her scarf up on her head. “Are you okay?”

Obadiah stopped mid-stride. His legs felt heavy. He couldn’t ask healthy young men to bury themselves in such a putrid place. “Maybe this isn’t—”

“Don’t chicken out now, Uncle Biah. We’re almost there.” She skipped along, her curls falling around her cheeks.

He inhaled deep through the nose, tightened his fists, and caught up with the little girl.

At the Megiddo cutoff, she pointed to coconut palms. The once deep-green fronds hung crisp and brown, rattling in the breeze. On the pomegranate trees at their base, a few gray leaves stuck to flimsy limbs that would hold no fruit this year.

The call of a hoopoe came from behind Obadiah. A young short-toed eagle circled overhead.

Ruthie re-tied the scarf over her curls. “Follow me.” Then she struck off through the leaf-sparse trees.

An extra stride landed Obadiah beside her. “I don’t see any cave.”

She flicked him and the women a sober look. “No talking.”

Not another person was in sight. Did she sense someone eavesdropping, or did Pharaoh Ruthie control her friends with mysterious commands?

As Obadiah left the road with Yedidah and Yeskah, he followed Ruthie into the silent trees. The wind ruffled the dry leaves. Then water gurgled among the bushes. No doubt slithering in slime.

“The stream was good to drink but much bigger when I was here.” She pointed through the bushes. “No tracks by the water, please. If you decide to hide bubblers here, we want this looking undisturbed.”

The ground held no path. Their footprints would be the first.

As he followed Ruthie through balm bushes several paces from the flow, the sun sent a bead of sweat trickling across his brow.

Many paces into the grove of sorry-looking trees, she pointed to a bed of rocks at the edge of the stream. “Step only on the large stones. Follow me.”

Yedidah stopped. “You all go ahead. I’ll wait for you here.”

“Oh, me too,” Yeskah said. “Take good care of your uncle, Ruthie. And if you need our help, yell real loud.”

Obadiah glanced first at the adults standing among the trees, then at the little girl by the stream. Men would wonder if she led to protection or torture. As they resigned themselves to obey the only one who offered help, they would place their feet where directed

Sure-footed as a deer, she crossed on the large rocks and stepped into the tiny stream.

When Obadiah put his feet in, he cringed from the icy flow, but his toes showed wavy and clear.

No slime. Nice.

His guide followed the stream to a limestone cliff. The stream flowed at the base of a wide hole as high as his chest. Ruthie ducked under, and he followed her into the dark.

The overhang of the cliff blocked the sky but allowed faint daylight.

Several paces inside, as his eyes adjusted to the dimness, Obadiah passed Ruthie, stepped onto the bank, and looked back at the opening.

Down in the stream, Ruthie lingered and pointed into the deeper darkness. “They’ll have to stay back inside where it’s cold.”

He shuddered.

“Well, what do you think, Uncle Biah? Will your guys stay put in here? Let’s do this. Pretend you’re a bubbler in here all alone while I go back outside.” She picked her way downstream and disappeared through the opening.

As the stream trickled in the dark, the cave closed around him.

“Lord, let me out of here.” He moved down the bank and tripped on something in the dimness. He reached to catch himself but fell into the stream, his hands and knees crunching on the gravel of the stream bed. “Ruthie?”

i[Shoppers help buy food, and Obadiah looks inside the Misliya Cave.]

iiScene 1. Shoppers volunteer to help Ruthie buy for the bubblers. 630 words]

iii[Scene 2. Ruthie shows Obadiah the Misliya Cave. 774 Words]

Leave a Comment