Approximately 870 B.C.E.
Zarephath, near Sidon (about 1o miles north of modern Tyre, Lebanon)
Rashida was up to her knees in the Great Sea*. Between waves, the water lapped at her son Salim’s bellybutton. She closed her eyes against the sight of his hollow stomach. Of course that’s when a big wave came and pushed him down, which made her stumble because they were holding hands. Her eyes flew open and she used her panic to yank his head free of the sea and drag them shallower. He came up laughing, although that changed to sputtering when he licked the salt in the water on his face. She used her head scarf to dry his eyes.
This last trip was supposed to be a pleasant diversion, but it was turning out to be a cruelty. To surround her son with water he couldn’t drink, that could cause him pain … she was a terrible mother.
“I think I see a cloud,” Salim piped up. “Way over there.”
Although it was hopeless, Rashida shaded her eyes with her hand and peered over the sea to the west. Nothing but cruel blue sky. “My old eyes can’t see it, so I hope you’re right.”
Salim giggled. “You’re not old, Mama.”
No, twenty wasn’t old, or, at least, it shouldn’t be, but she was almost as gaunt and shuffling as her mother had been last seedtime*. And her hair, her glorious hair, was falling out, which was really why she’d grown so particular about wearing her most beautiful head covering all the time. “Come on, silly Salim. Let’s get dry.”
She swung their arms until it took all their energy to walk in the soft sand and she had to let go.
There was the sound she hated: Salim wasn’t just panting, he was wheezing. “I’m too old to keep going,” she said. “Is it okay with you if we rest here?”
He nodded and flopped down. She sat with her back to the water, put his tunic back on him, and tucked him onto her lap. The breeze wrapped the ends of her head scarf around them like a hug.
“Why was there drought again this winter?”
Trust her Salim to ask the unanswerable question. “I wish I knew.”
“Is Baal angry at us?”
“That’s what the priests are saying.” She hugged him tighter. There was only one advantage to their situation: Salim was too scrawny to serve as a good sacrifice.
“Yesterday, in the square, they said that’s why there isn’t even any dew.” He picked at the embroidered hem of her scarf. “What is dew?”
Tears burned behind her eyes. What a terrible world when children had no memory of dew. “When you were little.” She poked his side to tickle him, but her finger jabbed too far between his ribs and he whimpered. She stroked his side and tried not to cry. “When you were little, every morning, the grass and leaves and roofs of the houses would be covered with a fine layer of water. It was different than rain, because you never saw it in the air, but it was on the ground every day.”
His voice was a whisper. “Wow.”
“Are you ready to head home?”
He nodded, so she pushed him onto his feet. She had to roll onto her hands and knees for a moment before struggling upright. It was like reverse stars formed in her vision, instead of white light, there were black dots, but they cleared after she blinked a dozen or so times. “Let’s take a different path.” She pulled him to the right and waggled her eyebrows as if they were in for a treat. “I think I saw a caper vine with leaves.”
Their progress was slow, but they eventually made it to the place she’d spotted. Even the wild capers were struggling. This was a plant that would crack a stone wall, that would send up shoots days after going up in flames, but after two years of no rain, it sent up only a few stunted branches. But if she had Salim lift up the dead upper growth, she could harvest the new branch tips and young leaves, as well as six ripe caper berries, without getting too scratched up.
The berries went in the jar of seawater she’d refilled and then she divided up the leaves. Even Salim’s tiny palm was barely filled. Although her instincts told her shove the meager meal into her mouth all at once, she forced herself to eat like a civilized person, to take no more than two leaves at a time, chew them into a pulp, press the slimy lump against the roof of her mouth to squeeze out every drop of liquid she could before swallowing. Salim followed her lead. He was such a good boy.
She smoothed his hair and cupped the back of his head. If staring at her son were food and drink, she’d be full.
On the way home, they found some bitter herbs that were still barely edible and sucked on some pebbles to try to trick their mouths into producing more spit. The trip home took half the morning. It would’ve taken longer, but Rashida eventually swung Salim onto her back, where he fell asleep, his breathing shallow. Despite it being near the heat of the day, he shivered. At the house, she laid him on his mat, draped one more layer of wool over him, and went out to gather kindling.
The white broom bushes right outside of town were clean, so she had to go a little farther afield to find one with dry sticks underneath. By the time she got there, she had to rest, so she slumped in the shade of the bush, scooped kindling into her lap and let herself cry like she couldn’t in front of Salim.
Rashida screamed and scrambled away from where the voice came from, scattering the branches. It was an older man. On the road. While she stared rudely at him, he plopped down in the dust.
“I didn’t mean to scare you.” He had a funny accent, but she could understand him.
“I’m the one who should apologize, Stranger.”
And then he just sat there. According to all the customs of her people, she should offer him drink and food immediately, but how could she?
“Where have you come from?” she asked.
“I am Elijah, a prophet of the Lord God of Israel, but I came from the other side of the Jordan.” He leaned in as if telling her a secret. “My king is upset with me.”
Rashida glanced down the road, but there was no cloud of dust.
Elijah chuckled. “King Ahab doesn’t know where I am. There will be no soldiers. At least, so long as you don’t tell anyone from Sidon I’m here. His queen grew up there. She might hate me even more than her husband.”
What an odd thing to admit to a stranger. “Nobody has passed by here in months, not since the wadis* dried up.”
“The stream I lived near ran out a few weeks ago, and my God told me to come here.”
“I’m sorry that your God has such bad taste in destinations,” she said. “We’re in our second year of terrible drought.”
“Why are you still here?”
Her voice was thick as she spoke around the lump that formed in her throat. “We waited too long. Now my husband and his parents are dead and my son and I are too weak.”
He raised his right hand as if to touch her, but he left it in the air. “I am sorry for your drought.”
She snorted. “Why? You didn’t cause it.” The words jumped out before she could stop them. Who was this bold, sarcastic woman?
His hand lowered. “Then I’m sorry to have to ask you for a little water in a cup.”
“My cistern is empty, and Zarephath’s well isn’t consistent, but they’ll let me draw some water for you. Come.” She rebundled her sticks and headed towards town.
He followed behind her, and didn’t try to engage her in any more conversation until they approached the first houses. “Bring me a bite of bread, too.”
Rashida stood as if suddenly rooted to the spot. She didn’t dare face him. “I swear by the Lord your God that I don’t have a single piece of bread in the house. And I have only a handful of flour in the jar and barely enough oil left in the bottom of the jug.” She hung her head and whispered, “I was just gathering a few sticks to cook us a last meal before we curled up by the embers and waited for death.”
“Don’t be afraid.”
She let out one choked sob. Afraid didn’t begin to cover how she felt.
Elijah spoke more gently. “Go ahead and do just what you said, but make a little bread for me. Use what’s left to prepare a meal for yourself and your son.” He walked around to face her and waited. “Look at me.”
“You’re not like Baal’s priests.” She looked up in time to watch him spit.
“Thank you. My God, the Lord God of Israel, has told me something for you.”
Her eyes grew wide.
“There will always be flour and olive oil left in your containers until the time when the Lord sends rain and the crops grow again.”
Although there was no reason why it should be so, his words were like a balm on a rash.
She went straight to the well, where she convinced the guards to let her have some water for her guest. Then she went to her indoor fire pit and lit the white broom sticks. She dumped out the last of the flour, mixed it with a drop of the water and the last of the oil, and shaped it into three tiny flats of bread that cooked up in no time. Rashid was right next to the fire, but none of this woke him up. The prophet was still at the outskirts of town, so she took the food to him there.
He drank one gulp of the water and chewed the bread thoughtfully. “Let’s take this to your son.”
Rashida took him home. Together, they woke up Salim, who was so over-the-top grateful for the sip of water Elijah had left him, that it made her laugh-cry. They ate their little loaves, and then sat in silence until it was time for the evening meal. She took the caper berries from that morning out of the sea water brine and put two in each of three bowls.
Elijah smiled at her. “Aren’t you going to make some more bread?”
Because he’d been kind to Salim, she humored Elijah by taking the flour jar and turning it upside down over her lap. “See?” she said to him.
“Look,” he said to her at the same time Salim clapped and pointed at her.
She looked. It was flour.
The jar hit the floor. She licked her fingertip and dipped it in the flour. It was wheat. Glorious, fresh wheat. To replace her stale mixed spelt and barley. She couldn’t take her eyes off it, so she had to fumble around until her hand hit her mixing bowl. She rose on her knees and carefully tipped the flour into the bowl, shaking out her robe to get it all. It looked like there were four handfuls of flour in there. Her eyes grew scratchy from lack of blinking as she reached for her oil jug and upended it over the mixing bowl. Soon, there was the right amount of oil, but it was still coming out, so she stuck Elijah’s cup under the spout until the oil ran out.
Nobody spoke as she mixed the dough, blew on the white broom embers until they flamed up again*, and cooked the bread. She divided the oil into three cups and set the feast in front of everyone: one loaf of bread, a few swallows of oil, and two barely pickled caper berries.
As they ate, they laughed.
And the next morning, the same thing happened. Just enough flour and oil came out of the containers to make food for one meal. At the midday meal, it happened again. By the evening meal, Rashida believed it would be there, just as Elijah’s God said.
Great Sea = Mediterranean Sea
seedtime = season of fall
wadi = streams that were filled with rushing water in the winter and spring, after the rains. Most wadis are seasonal. Some have water in them all the time, but in times of severe drought, even those run dry.
According to Nogah Hareuveni (a researcher who studies biblical landscape and plants), white broom embers will actually do this. This is how he describes it: “The traveler who looks on the ground beneath the white broom will also be able to see the mattress that served Elijah when he slept under the broom: a layer of thin, dry branches that drop off in the arid periods when the bush cannot supply nourishment to all the branches. These branches that cover the ground burn readily when gathered into a pile for kindling. Amazingly, this fire does not go out as quickly as expected. On the contrary, it grows quietly, producing great heat, dying down very gradually, leaving a pile of gray, charcoal-covered branches. A gentle puff into the pile proves that there is still a fire smoldering inside.” (Tree and Shrub in Our Biblical Heritage, Neot Kedumim Ltd., Israel: 1984, page 32)