Jacob almost wheezed as he set his heavy burden next to the dry-stone fence at the top of the grassy knoll. He glanced behind himself to be sure neither of his dogs had followed. As far as Jacob could tell by squinting, the dark specs [specks] he assumed were sheep dogs still slept in shade by a well. He wiped sweat from his stinging eyes with a sleeve, brushed his nearly ink-black hair out of the way, and looked up. A white puff in the summer sky hid both Aqua and Azure from his gaze. [I’d prefer to have them identified as sister-suns here.]
He grabbed up the cloth-covered reed basket, and gingerly leaned over the rock fence. Jacob stretched and let go. His mother’s basket dropped but did not topple. Jacob heaved himself to the other side, picked up his burden once again, and started down the other side of the hill. About half way down, the full fury of the sister-suns beat upon his back again.
A bleat from a goat caused Jacob to look eastward across the narrow valley where a few of the animals milled about near a stone hut almost too small to be called a house. The stone structure did not seem to get any bigger once he found himself at the bottom of the valley. He stepped onto a wooden foot-bridge which spanned a mountain stream. Thick planks bounced under his weight. Jacob shifted the bulging basket to his other hand and started up the hillside towards Eder’s home.
He purposefully avoided looking to his right, where a bow-shot away, a burnt-out oak tree stood alone. The dark, leafless remnant was a contrast to forested peaks in the distance. He hastened on.
The goats which grazed on the eastern slopes mostly ignored him, but some chewed their cud almost thoughtfully as Jacob passed by. Their curious heads turned to follow. After passing Eder’s well, Jacob shuffled up the dirt path made hard by frequent use.
“Jacob, is that you?” came a voice from within the stone hut.
Amazing. How did he hear me? Jacob hadn’t made a sound, or so he thought, and the only window in Eder’s home didn’t have a clear view of the pathway.
“Yes – mother sent me to market this morning. Did you know the grapes are turning? I brought you some.”
“Wonderful! Please come in!”
Jacob turned the door handle and stepped into the dimly lit, but cool room. He left the door slightly open. The thin beam of light which fell upon Eder’s round table, swirled with dust. Just the thought of it made Jacob sneeze.
“Thank you, Eder,” Jacob said as he pushed the basket to the center of the table. He turned and shut the door. The small home was a single room furnished only by the table, a wide, stone fireplace, a dry sink, cupboards, two chairs, and a goose-feather bed in one corner. Eder sat on the edge of the bed with hands clasped in his lap. He looked as if he had been recently napping. Jacob pulled a chair close and sat down.
Eder reached for Jacob’s knee, and then fumbled until Jacob moved a hand where the old man could find it. The gray-haired goatherd pulled Jacob closer, and patted his top of his hand.
“I am so pleased you came, Jacob! It has been awhile since you have come to visit. Where is your younger brother?”
“Mother sent Micah to check on the flock.”
Eder patted Jacob’s hand more firmly. With a knowing smile, he said, “I asked your mother to send you in Micah’s stead.” The old goatherd didn’t let go.
Guilt swept through Jacob like a winter blast. I knew I should have come last week, Jacob thought. He sighed.
“I am fine, Jacob. But I miss our visits.” Eder reached for his walking stick which leaned against the bed, and stood.
Jacob followed him to the table. “I am sorry. I have been so busy.”
“Hmmm. What did you bring?”
Eder was feeling his way into the basket with both hands. He found a cheese wheel and pulled it up to his nose, inhaling deeply.
“Ah! This is a ripe one! Good and strong.”
Jacob smiled. “Picked it out myself.”
“It will be delicious. Can I share lunch?”
“I thought you might ask, so I packed our lunch separately.”
“You are a fine young man, Jacob! Just like your father.”
Eder sat at the table expectantly. Jacob pulled two leather bags from the basket and set them to the side. Jacob described the rest of the items as he placed them carefully on a cupboard. In addition to the cheese, there were grapes, breads, dried meats, dried fruits, a bag of wheat flour, a flask of oil, and oats – enough to feed the old man for a few days. Eder was particularly excited about three tin containers: salt, sugar, and dried mint leaves.
Jacob tidied the area, filled two fired-clay goblets from a water bucket, grabbed a wooden platter, and sat down. He opened the first bag and placed a chunk of cheese and small sausage on the platter. He watched Eder’s reaction closely as he pulled a small wicker bowl from the second bag. It was brimming over with berries. Eder’s eyelids fluttered over lifeless orbs as the scent of the berries reached him.
“Ooh! Thank you Jacob, those are my favorite! May I pray?”
“Yes, of course.”
Eder thanked their creator for the bounty. He asked for a blessing to be upon Jacob, Micah and their mother. The words he chose in closing were heartfelt and touched Jacob deeply. They ate in silence.
When they were done, Eder insisted that they take chairs outside to sit in the growing shade of a birch tree next to the house. They were grateful for a cool mountain breeze flowing down the valley. Eder’s goats still wandered over the grassy hillside.
As they sat there, both quite content from their lunch, Eder began to sing a tune known throughout much of Gideon. He sang about the beauties of mountain flowers, verdant trees, and cold, pure waters. He sang about a king who would come from a far-away land, and a promise of a peace.
Eder’s voice was clear and strong, the notes in perfect pitch. Jacob’s chest tightened as he recognized the melody as one his father would often sing when Jacob was a boy. Jacob turned away from his father’s closest friend, and fought back emotion.
When Eder finished, he sat as if in quiet reflection. Jacob was grateful for the silence. He did not comment on Eder’s singing.
“Joshua was a fine singer. He actually helped me to improve my technique. Do you remember your father singing?”
Jacob looked down the hillside, and his eyes found the burnt-out oak tree. Why he had associated the tree with his father’s singing, Jacob did not know at first. Then it came to him. [What? We need to know.] He looked away.
“Yes?” Jacob replied after some delay.
“I am going away – the day after the crossing of the sister suns.”
Jacob was shocked. “Where are you going?”
“I am going to live in Hasor for a while, but I do not know when I shall return. Would you help me?”
“Yes – with my herds. I have asked your mother. Dinah has consented for you to stay here at my home. She is proud of the young man you have become.”
Jacob swelled with pride. Mother considers me a man? He was only fourteen, but having her confidence meant the world to him. He looked over at Eder who was smiling.
“Yes! I . . . I . . .” Jacob stumbled over his words.
“Thank you. It is settled then.”
Almost two weeks later, Jacob sat in the cool of a summer evening. He waved one last time as his mother and little brother, Micah, disappeared over the dry-stone fence at the top of the hill between [the] two homes. Yes – I have two homes now, Jacob thought. It is nice that they now come to visit me.
His mind wandered to recent days when he would visit Eder [awkward–to days recently past?]. Jacob missed him. He worried if Eder had arrived in Hasor safely, but dismissed the thought. Jacob remembered the contingent of Gideonite soldiers which had escorted Eder as if he was a king. Eder the Goatherd: Ambassador and Counsel to the people of Daniel. The idea warmed Jacob.
As Jacob reflected, he once again heard Eder’s song in his mind. He softly hummed it. The burnt out oak tree seemed to call to him.
Jacob retrieved his shepherd’s staff. With an almost leisurely pace, he left Eder’s home, and walked towards the tree. Today he was strong. He wanted to go. Jacob had put this off for far too long.
When he found the valley floor, he followed the stream until it veered away, then arrived at the tree. Most of the upper trunk was pure charcoal, except for one spot where it had been split. The large fallen branch still lay on the ground, and was nearly rotted through. Grasses around the branch were tall, undisturbed by the herd.
Jacob reached. He touched the splintered wound. It was dry and rough. His fingers traced down the blackened trunk. Jacob looked down. At the base of the tree was the place where Jacob was on that fateful night [awkward sentence structure]. He knelt there and brushed his hand across the ground. Jacob looked up again, and rolled off his knees to sit. He could almost feel the rain and hear the thunder.
“Eder does not blame me,” Jacob said to the tree. [Why would Eder blame him? Did Jacob do something to cause this? Is this why Eder is blind? Need to answer these questions.]
The tree did not answer.
“I realize now I was protected, even though . . .”
Jacob did not complete the thought. He remembered his father in the field. Joshua was with Eder. Both of them were running to him. He heard them calling loudly. The lightning was fierce. Jacob hugged the trunk of the tree. As they approached, Jacob let go. A bolt of energy hit the tree and sprang forward.
He saw them fall.
Jacob wiped his eyes. Low in the eastern sky, Aqua and Azure were now touching. By morning, their weekly cycle would be complete. Their crossing would mark the Sabbath day. He looked away for a moment, then again checked on their progress.
When the suns finally dipped below the eastern horizon, all of the color of a typical evening filled the sky. But then, just as the last beams hurled themselves over the mountains, the heavens brightened.
The light came from the west, just like any other suns-rising Jacob had ever seen. Jacob watched the curious display, his eyes full of wonder. Jade, Ebony and Sienna, the three moons of Gan, all rose, nearly together. The sky was full of light.
Then he heard music. There was singing! Unseen voices from above increased in volume until, like the unrolling of a scroll, the heavens opened. Jacob saw the angels. The magnificent power of their shining presence, all in shimmering white, caused Jacob to fall onto one elbow. He raised his other hand as if to call to them.
The angels declared their message with boldness. Worlds away, the King had been born. [I’d end it here.] They sang His praises. Their voices lifted again heavenward. They began to depart.
One angel turned. Jacob saw joy in his face. The angel smiled.
“I love you, Jacob.”
You have a good sense of place. I like the slow and thoughtful way the story unfolds. I like the idea that angels announced the birth of the Savior on other worlds, to other shepherds. However, Jacob’s world is just a little too much like ours. I’d suggest making it more different—unusual names, unusual animals, unusual customs.
What I liked best: Angels announced the birth of the Savior on another world. Unique twist on the shepherd story.
Magazine ready? Not quite, but close.