No matter how close to sunrise Ruth woke up, Huldah was already at the village cistern, waiting with her “helpful advice.” Lately, that made Ruth turn tail, but today, she waited longer than usual to make sure Huldah and her cronies were there. Today, she was on a mission.
And she had a friend. “Orpah,” Ruth whispered. “Are you ready?”
Orpah just sighed.
Since their husbands had died, sighs were her main form of communication. Ruth would have to take that for a “yes.”
“I hear a loose sandal flapping.” Huldah’s voice was too loud to be just for her cronies’ benefit. “It must be Ruth.” She turned to face the path. “Ruth, honey, is that you?”
“Yes. It’s Ruth.” She plastered a smile on her face. “Good morning, everyone.”
None of the dozen women there bothered to be subtle. Their gazes dropped to Ruth and Orpah’s midsections while they got the morning pleasantries out of the way.
“It’s been how long since Kilion died?” Huldah’s head was tilted and her forehead furrowed, as if she truly were concerned.
Ruth took her place in line. “Over two new moons ago.”
“So neither of you is….”
Orpah sighed and shook her head.
Huldah smacked her tongue. “We were just talking about you and your situation now that there are no men at your house.”
Ruth smiled as if she were interested in her opinion.
“You really don’t have any ties to that foreign woman anymore,” Huldah said. “You should move back to your father’s house and let him find you another husband. One of us.”
First, her father hadn’t invited her to rejoin his household. Second, “Who? I was married for ten years and had no children.” Her father hiring her out as a servant was more likely than him negotiating another marriage.
“You’re not barren,” Beulah, who’d always been a real friend, said. “It’s all the fault of those foreigners. The voice of their god cancelled out all the offerings we made to Ashtoreth for you.”
Behind her, Ruth could hear Orpah begin the low keening sound that meant a wail was coming soon. Better start their conversation now. “Orpah–”
“That’s right,” another woman said. “Just get out of that house and back with your own people and I’m sure your troubles will be over.”
Huldah sidled near Ruth. “My brother-in-law was talking to my husband just this morning. You know my husband is the father of the household now? Anyway, he might be interested in bringing you into the fold.”
“As what?” Ruth asked.
“As a wife, of course.” Huldah giggled. “Don’t be silly.”
“Oh, good.” Ruth kept her voice as level as possible. “Which brother?” The one too stupid to keep his face out of the way of a donkey’s hoof or the one with cheeks so sunken he looked about to die?
The stupid one. Ruth nodded and tried to look regretful. “That’s so kind of your family, but it won’t be necessary. We’re leaving.”
There was a chorus of “leaving?” “how can you leave?” “where are you going?” as the women pressed closer.
Ruth elbowed Orpah.
Orpah cleared her throat. “Our mother-in-law is taking us back to her land.”
The women circled around them like buzzards. “Why?” “Are you crazy?”
“The traders that came through here a while back said that there’s rain in her land, Judah, now,” Ruth said. “She wants to go and we will support her.”
“She’s in Kerak now, figuring out the best route,” Orpah said.
Ruth gave Orpah a real smile. Those were more words than she’d said in ages. “We’re just waiting for the barley harvest, so we’ll have food for the journey.” Ruth lowered the bucket into the cistern, speaking louder so she could be heard over its banging. “I hope the wild animal that destroyed some of our fields doesn’t come back. If it does, we’ll have to wait another moon until the wheat harvest.”
She gave all her attention to filling their two water skins while the other women whispered amongst themselves, and several of them left in a hurry. With the real purpose of this chat over, she could relax. Her mother-in-law Naomi was right: the women’s network would get the word out that whoever was sabotaging their fields should stop, and without openly accusing anyone or confronting any of the men.
“What’s going to happen to the house and fields?” Huldah asked.
Ruth grunted at the effort of hefting the full skin over her shoulders. “Naomi will sell it. Maybe back to the man her husband bought it from. Maybe to the highest bidder. Your fields are next to ours, aren’t they?”
“That’s right, they are,” Huldah said as if it had just then realized it. “But you won’t get top price for it with your cistern problem.”
“How did you know there were issues with our private cistern?” Ruth asked.
Huldah scratched behind her ear. “You’ve been coming here for water every day. You used to come every five days or so.”
Yeah, right. But it wouldn’t help to directly question Huldah. It wasn’t like the woman would publicly admit to fouling their water. “I’ll tell Naomi to expect a lower price. Come on, Orpah, we’d better get back and keep packing.”
“Don’t forget to fix that sandal,” Huldah called, prompting a hailstorm of tittering from the other women.
Ruth had her back to them already, so she indulged in an eye roll before giving a thumb’s up. She couldn’t wait to leave this place.
Fourteen days later.
With every step away from the village, the echoes of her “friend’s” words faded. Only the faintest strains of, “You’ll wind up a veiled woman,” and “Maybe the bandits won’t kill you,” remained.
But they weren’t even half a morning’s walk away when Naomi pulled the donkey to a halt. “I can’t do it. I can’t do this to you.”
“You aren’t doing anything to us,” Ruth said. “We’ve been preparing for this for days. There is nothing for us in Moab.”
“Your families are in Moab. Go back to your mothers’ homes.” Naomi put her left hand on Orpah’s cheek as her right hand cupped Ruth’s cheek. “You’ve been so kind to me and you were so good to your husbands. May the Lord bless you with the security of another marriage.”
Ruth couldn’t keep her tears in when Naomi kissed her, and soon they were all crying and wiping their eyes with each other’s head scarves.
“N- n- n- n0,” Orpah said.
“We’re going with you to your people,” Ruth said.
“Come on,” Naomi said. “There’s no reason for you to come with me. Can I give birth to any more sons who could grow up to be your husbands? No use waiting around for that.”
Naomi’s attempt to make them laugh failed.
“Think about it.” Naomi shook their shoulders. “Even if were to get married again and the Lord blessed me with a miracle to equal the mother of my people who had her first baby at age ninety, would you refuse to marry other men while you waited for my sons to grow up? Ridiculous.”
Ruth shook her head more vigorously than did Orpah.
“My daughters,” Naomi said. “My beautiful daughters. I’ve sold you a lame donkey. Things may not be more secure where we’re going. They have rain, but nothing can change the fact that we’re three widows, and we’ll have to survive on the kindness of people who are strangers to you. The Lord himself has caused me to suffer and there will be more suffering on this journey. I can guarantee it. The path to the Salt Sea from Kerak is easier than trying to cross the valley of Amon or of Zered, but it’s still steep and treacherous. The rains have just ended, so where there’s water, it’ll be plenty, but there will be stretches of this journey when we can’t find any. Not to mention the crevasses, the bandits, the heat. Show the good sense I know you have and stay here with your people.”
They huddled together, weeping, again. This time, Ruth wasn’t sure if she was crying out of shock at hearing the depth of the bitterness in Naomi’s voice or because she knew Orpah wasn’t strong enough for such a journey. When Ruth pulled back, Orpah was gazing up the road at their village.
“Go,” Ruth whispered to her. “We’ll be okay.”
Orpah’s breath came in whooping gulps, but she managed to kiss Naomi and hug Ruth before heading back where they’d come from.
Ruth smacked the flank of the donkey and followed it. She glanced back at her mother-in-law. “How long are we on this road?”
Naomi crossed her arms and stayed put. “Orpah is the wise one now. You should follow her example for once and go back to your people and your gods.”
Ruth ran back to Naomi, clenching her fists at her sides to prevent herself from poking her finger into her mother-in-law’s chest. “Don’t ask me to leave you again. I will go wherever you go and live wherever you live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.” Her voice became louder and louder until she was shouting. “I will die where you die and be buried there. May the Lord punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us!”
For a few heartbeats, the only sounds were the wind through the fattening heads of wheat and the donkey’s plodding hoofs.
“You’ve always been the sweetest girl,” Naomi said. “So easy-going. Except when you really make up your mind.”
Ruth was still panting from the passion it took to get her to speak her mind so bluntly.
Naomi gave an almost-smile. “Let’s pray that death separates us later rather than sooner.” She linked her arm with Ruth’s. “Come on. Let’s catch up to that donkey.”