Natan, the child I had not asked for, was lying dead in my arms. All children are gifts from God, but an unsolicited gift is much rarer. You must not mistake my meaning, my son was not unwanted, but I had never sent up long and loud prayers to call him forth. I had not offered sacrifices in exchange for this blessing. I was content with my lot. My husband, my wealth, all was well with me and I was not greedy for more. Nevertheless, I had been given a gift; I had received and cultivated the gift. And yet there he was, head on my lap, breathing no more. I cast my mind back to the beginning, before the boy, before the blessing, to that first day when I had met the prophet.
I was out for my morning walk. I loved the way the town looked in the soft light of the rising sun. Everything looked fresh and new, as if the morning had created our whole world afresh. I was also grateful for some peace before my busy days. Whether instructing the manager of the farm, coordinating seamstresses or liaising with merchants, my days were full of conversation and commerce; but my mornings were quiet and contemplative. As I reached the edge of town I could see the labourers heading out into the fields, and the travellers entering from distant regions. Amongst them was a man. There was something about him that made him stand out. I had met many powerful men and women in my time, but his was a different power. The very air around him seemed to resonate and radiate.
I found myself walking behind him. His path was taking him across town, towards my house. He was about my height, but slender and with a confident yet leisurely gait. As he walked, I could see him looking and considering the various food items for sale by food sellers in the streets. Before long, he was standing in front of my house, gazing up at the bright white walls of the only two-storey building in the town.
“Sir, I see that you have journeyed a great while,” I said. “Rest for a while with us and dine with us at midday.”
He turned to look at me.
“Madam I am grateful for your kindness,” he said. “My name is Elisha and I have indeed travelled far. Some sustenance would no doubt give me the strength I need to complete my journey.”
“It is settled then, follow me,” I said and we entered the house.
We sat in the shade on the veranda. A feast was laid out. At the centre was freshly baked bread, the aroma of which permeated our very hearts. The bread was delicious, light and fluffy and heightened by my secret ingredient, a few sprigs of rosemary from my herb garden. There was honey fresh from a dead hollow tree at the end of the garden where a hive of bees had made their home. It was sweet and runny and utterly addictive. Fresh olives offered a sharp salty taste to our palettes; both green and purple they glinted like jewels in the bowls. A steaming pot of lamb stew, a masterpiece from our 60-year old cook was the final addition to the menu. Chunks of lamb and various vegetables in a reddish-brown sauce quickly vanished, all remaining drops soaked up by bread and sent to our bellies.
“I never eat so well when I travel,” said Elisha. “Blessings be upon your household for your hospitality.”
“You are most welcome prophet,” I said.
His eyebrows arched in surprise.
“Beauty, business acumen and a most discerning spirit,” he said with a smile. “This truly is a blessed household.”
My husband smiled and squeezed my hand, “OK, tell the rest of us how you knew.”
“A number of things, but mainly the eyes,” I responded. “When he’s looking at something, it’s as if he’s seeing, something more. When he looks at the olive, it is as if he can see the olive tree, the soil, the rain that nourished the soil, the wind that fortified the branches, the seed, the hand that planted the seed and everything in between.”
“Not even the poets have put it so eloquently, Madam,” he said folding his napkin and placing it in front of him. “I see that you possess a portion of the gifting also.”
I could feel my cheeks getting hot, “I am grateful for every gift God has given me, and the ability to use them for the good of my household and gracious guests.”
As the servants cleared the table, my husband and I spoke with the prophet. Intense political and religious debates punctuated with the slamming of the table were interspersed with jokes and raucous laughter. Elisha was as witty as he was wise. We had made a new friend.
Over the following months, Elisha visited us fairly regularly. His presence was such a blessing. The whole household was even more joyful for days, either side of his visit. He never sent word of his travels through town, but the presence of the holy man always went before him. After his third visit, I made up my mind to make a more permanent place for him to rest when he came to our home. I set up a room for him in the upper part of the house. I contacted the local craftsmen to build a bed, a table, a chair and a lamp. On his next visit, he was visibly exhausted and I was excited to show him to his room. He was delighted. His young servant Gehazi was accompanying him and we all enjoyed dinner followed by conversations long int the night.
I awoke the next morning, completed all of my morning tasks and was about to take my morning walk when Elisha’s servant came to me and told me that the prophet wished to speak with me. I followed him up the stairs and into the room. Elisha was out on the balcony. The three of us leaned on the balcony wall, me, the servant in the middle and then Elisha on the other side; we gazed out over the front of the compound and the town beyond.
Elisha turned to his servant, “Say to the woman of the house, ‘You have gone to all this trouble for us; what can we do for you?’” Would you like to be mentioned to the king or to the captain of the army?’”
As instructed, the servant repeated the message to me.
“Tell him that I live peaceably among my own people, the king and the captain of the army can add nothing to me,” I said sending a message back the other way.
There was silence after that. And though he did not look in my direction, I knew that Elisha was seeing me, scanning me, searching me out. As the hustle and bustle below us in the streets increased, I left the two of them on the balcony and went about my work.
As I was finishing up for the day, Elisha’s servant came to beckon me again. They had already packed their things together and were about to set off. Elisha was already at the edge of the compound.
“Safe travels,” I said. “May God go with you.”
He looked back at me and said, “At this season next year, you will embrace a son.”
I stared at him. It was as if I could not understand the words coming out of his mouth. A son. A child. In all of our lively, thought-provoking discussions we had never spoken about children. It did not make sense. I struggled to come up with a response.
Finally, with a tentative half-smile, I responded, “Don’t lie to me.”
“I could not lie to you if I tried,” he responded. “God be with you.”
He turned and left.
Almost exactly a year from that day I gave birth to Natan. A house full of mostly quiet, serious adults was suddenly filled with a baby’s cries, cooing and joyful laughter. Natan was the perfect child for a household of conversation and commerce. Before he was even able to sit upright by himself, he was already watching and listening intently as the adults around him spoke. He was insatiably curious. When he was able to walk he regularly chose a new person to follow around the house and the compound. One glorious spring day when he was about three years old, I was lucky enough to be his chosen subject for the day. We walked down to the bottom of the garden, to the honey tree.
“Mama, why do the bees make honey for us?” he asked when we got to the tree.
“They actually make it for themselves,” I told him as I reached in and broke off a piece of honeycomb. “The honey is like their store cupboard, they store up the food for when it gets cold.”
“Why are we taking their food then?” he asked, his eyes wide in confusion.
“We only take a little bit,” I assured him as I placed the swollen honeycomb into the linen-lined basket I had brought with me. “They make more than they need and we leave them with more than enough.”
“Oh, OK,” he said.
He walked up close to the tree and shouted into the honey-filled core, “Thank you bees!”
I leaned down to kiss his forehead and gave him a piece of honeycomb. A broad smile took over his face and clutched at my heart. My sweet darling boy, my gift. I took his empty hand and we walked back to the house.
I looked down at the lifeless body in my arms. He did not look dead. He looked like he was sleeping, but his chest did not rise and fall as it had done on the many nights that I had watched him. I was not sad. There was something in the air. An unanswered question. I knew who could answer it.
I carried him upstairs and laid him on the prophet’s bed. The servants had been trailing me from a distance.
“Ready my horse,” I said. “I am going to the prophet.”
As I was approaching Mount Carmel, I suddenly saw Gehazi running towards me.
“Is it well with you? Is it well with your husband? Is it well with the child?” he asked.
“It is well,” I replied.
I followed him to the house where the prophet was. When I saw him, I could not control myself; I fell at his feet and hugged his ankles. Gehazi tried to pull me up.
“Leave her,” instructed Elisha. “I can see that her soul is desperate and troubled within her; and the Lord has hidden the reason from me and has not told me.”
I looked up at him and said, “Did I ask for a son? Did I not say, ‘Do not give me false hope’?”
Realisation dawned on his face; then he said to Gehazi, “Go there straight away. Greet no one on the way. When you get there, lay my staff on the face of the boy.”
Gehazi ran off to carry out the instructions that he had been given. I sensed that Elisha expected me to follow him out but I did not move.
“As the Lord lives and as your soul lives, I will not leave you,” I told him.
So he arose and followed me.
As we approached Shunem, Gehazi was already running back towards us.
“The boy has not awakened,” he told Elisha.
I followed the two of them as we ascended the stairs. When we reached the room, Elisha motioned for me to wait outside and he shut the door behind the two of them. I could hear him praying. No, more than that. I could feel him praying. The air resonated and radiated, just like that first day that I had met him, but this time it was stronger. There was something in the atmosphere. Something heavy. So heavy that I sunk to my knees under the weight of it. I found myself praying too. The words drawn out of my belly, continuous and strong, like a thick rope being pulled from my belly by an angel. I barely noticed the prophet walking out past me and then back again, shutting the door a second time.
Suddenly, I heard seven sneezes in a row. I knew it was my boy. Gehazi came out and beckoned me in.
“Pick up your son,” said Elisha.
For the second time that day, I fell at the prophet’s feet. Then I stood up, took Natan in my arms and carried him downstairs.