Ruth dug her thumb into her right side as far as it’d go, but she couldn’t reach the itch on her stomach. She grimaced and plucked at the wrappings, but they were too wet from sweat to budge.
“Look alive,” Naomi said. “Shepherds.”
Two youngish boys, not quite within hailing distance, walked the same path straight at them.
“Keep the donkey between you and them,” Naomi said. “They might be from Bethlehem and that,” her gaze dropped to Ruth’s stomach, “won’t help anymore.”
Ruth slid back until she was at the donkey’s left flank, which put her on the downhill side of the animal. “Red,” she whispered, “you’d better not slip.” Its footing was sure, but its side bags kept bumping her stomach, which kept knocking her off the path.
“Good morning,” the boys yelled.
The women waved.
“Good sons,” Naomi called when the boys were close. “What is the nearest village?”
Naomi crumpled to the ground as if she were a grain sack with a large tear. Ruth was used to it, so she merely cried, “Oh no,” and reached out one arm, but the boys dashed forward.
The older one was fast enough that he caught Naomi before she fully hit the gravel, and eased her down. “Do you have water?” he asked Ruth.
Ruth leaned over the donkey as much as her stomach allowed and looked as pitiful as she could. “We ran out yesterday.”
“What are you waiting for?” He snapped at the younger boy, who scrambled to pull out their water skin. The older one held it to Naomi’s lips and she miraculously recovered enough to take a healthy gulp.
“Did you say Bethlehem?”
Ruth never stopped being amazed at how weak Naomi could make her voice sound.
“Yes, mother,” the older boy said. “Two hills over.”
Naomi brushed her hand over her forehead. “Who is your father?”
“I am Enoch of Hiram.”
“And your grandfather?”
Naomi managed a weak smile. “I grew up here, but I’ve been gone a long time. Seth is my cousin.”
“Was,” the younger boy said.
“His legs were like tree trunks.” Naomi sighed. “Hard to think of him as gone.” She pushed herself up on her elbows and accepted another drink of water. “I used to take care of your father and his brothers when– You don’t want to hear an old lady’s stories. Help me up.”
He hoisted her up and she put a steadying hand on the donkey. “Time to go, daughter. Time to see whether anyone remembers old Naomi.”
“Brother,” Enoch said. “Run home and let them know Naomi is coming back.”
“But the sheep–”
“I got the flock. Go on!”
The younger boy took off across the grass. By the time Ruth got the donkey going again, he was out of sight.
“You are a good son,” Naomi said to Enoch. “May God bless you for your kindness.” She trudged away with a stooped-over posture until Ruth gave her the “all clear” signal.
Ruth’s breath came faster as she allowed herself to hope. “Does this mean I can finally take these pads off?”
Naomi waved a careless hand. “Being pregnant would only be a problem now.” She kept moving forward.
Ruth whipped off her scarf and robe and clawed at the knot between her hip bones until it gave way and she could unwind the wrappings and let the lump of wool that had passed for a baby for the last month fall to the ground. She’d daydreamed about this moment many times a day, every day, but now that she was staring at the bundle in the dirt, her first instinct was to rush to pick it up and brush off the dirt and cradle it. Which was ridiculous. Why was she on the verge of tears about losing the lump that had caused her so much discomfort for so long?
Her breath hitched. It seemed like her hand migrated to her stomach without her wanting it to. She’d lost that baby years ago. It shouldn’t be able to still make her cry.
She gritted her teeth, picked up the wool and shook it out of its balled-up state. When it flapped freely in the breeze, it lost its power, and she hurried to catch up to Naomi.
The path wound down to a valley and around one more hill, and then the village was in sight. From here, she could see the grain fields ripening on every slope. She wrinkled her nose. Those wheat fields were a month away from ripeness, so again, it was barley. They’d been following the barley harvest since they left Moab.
Naomi motioned for her to come closer. “Remember to look down as if you’re younger and more insecure.” She grabbed Ruth’s chin and tilted her head up. “At least the oil we used on your skin every day hasn’t been wasted. You could pass for eighteen, which is still a little old, but that can’t be helped. You are a widow, after all.”
As they trudged up the path, Naomi transformed back into the bent old lady and Ruth tried to look sweet and innocent, although all she felt was raw and exhausted. A couple of women ran down from the village, crying out, “Naomi, Naomi. Is it really you?” They fussed over her, but didn’t give Ruth a second glance.
When they were in the village proper, Naomi picked up a handful of gritty dirt and let it slowly trickle over her head. “Naomi? Who is this Naomi?”
More women crowded around. “It’s you.” “I know it’s you.” “We were children together.” “We were married the same year.”
“Don’t call me by that name. I’m no longer beautiful. And pleasant? Bah!”
The women herded Naomi toward someone’s compound, even as she was speaking. Ruth followed, unnoticed, with the donkey.
“No,” Naomi continued in her public speaking voice, “call me Mara, for the Lord has made my life bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi when the Lord has caused me to suffer, when He has sent so much tragedy to me?”
By now, the village’s children had joined the women, and also a few men in from the fields for their midday meal. They jostled Ruth as they pressed closer to the scene, and she was pretty sure she felt at least one hand grab her behind, which meant the end of the meek and innocent act. She was not a servant to be groped at will.
“Mother,” Ruth said. “Mother Mara!” She let a hint of panic into her voice, which wasn’t much of a stretch.
“Ruth, my Ruth,” Naomi cried. “My one blessing from the Lord. Daughter, where are you?”
The two women pushed their way through the crowd. Naomi put her hands on Ruth’s shoulders and kept her at arm’s length a moment. The longer they looked in each other’s eyes, the tearier they got. When Naomi whispered, “We’re here. We did it,” Ruth felt it as a genuine moment, not one manufactured for the greatest crowd impact. They embraced, rocking back and forth.
When they separated, Naomi kept one hand firmly around Ruth’s arm. Their moment was over; time to get back to the performance. Ruth kept her gaze downcast.
“This girl.” Naomi paused as if overcome by her emotions. “This girl is not of my body, she is not even of our people. She is Mahlon’s wife.”
“Where is Mahlon?” someone shouted.
Naomi gave a keening mourning cry that raised the hair on Ruth’s arms, especially when some of the women joined in. “The Lord took him. The Lord took him and my Kilion and my Elimelech.”
The noise of the crowd became too loud for any one person to be heard over until an older man raised his hand and hushed them.
“This is Ruth.” Naomi walked them in a circle. “You could call her a foreigner, a Moabitess, but I call her daughter in truth. She left her family and her people, rejected her gods and idols for the Lord Almighty, and kept this old woman alive on our journey. If the Lord is just, he will bless her for what she’s done for me.” With that, she collapsed and had to be half carried into the nearest home.
Women put their arms around Ruth and patted her head and ushered her through the doorway, up stone steps built into the wall of the house and over to where Naomi sat in the center of the room, weeping, allowing herself to be fussed over. A bowl of goat’s milk was placed in Ruth’s hands and someone crumbled a dried raisin cake into it. She didn’t bother keeping her tears in checks as she ate and drank.
It was suddenly too real. She would be living among strangers. Strangers who were being kind now, but who knew how long that would last. Where were they going to live? How would they eat? When would life stop being a performance?