Returning to Bethlehem

By B.B. Royvensteyn

Published June 02, 2006, issue of June 02, 2006.
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‘We should never have left Bethlehem,” the older woman was saying. “It was bad enough when Elimelech died; what a shock to my system. I blame him for what happened to my boys. Not to mention, there was this parcel of land….”

“Your boys…,” Ruth thought sadly. The sentence began but, like so many in her head, never ended. She watched as her fingers curled around the older woman’s ankles. She massaged the dry skin there, felt rather than saw (she’d closed her eyes) how the bones had thinned. Ruth was sitting on her haunches in the sand.

“Death, the final mystery,” Naomi said. “Here comes you know who.” At the words “you know who,” Ruth felt a proleptic quiver in her loins, which were located below her brain and above her feet. “Feet are so…, ” she thought, rising. The thought trailed across the sand and stopped. A tiny crab had attached itself to the hem of her robe. She flicked it off.

“You look wonderful,” Naomi said accusingly.

Ruth eyed her sister-in-law, Orpah. The two young women had never quite gotten along. “I don’t see what’s so wrong with enjoying life,” Orpah had been known to opine, turning her neck when her foreign mother-in-law evoked the names of the dead: Elimelech and Mahon and finally Chilion, Orpah’s husband.

Orpah looked nonchalantly from Ruth to Naomi and, following Naomi’s gaze, down at her own raiment, upon which she’d spilled a little sacrificial blood and perhaps some bodily fluid. It was a great time to be young.

“I’m out of here,” Naomi said abruptly.

“Wait for me,” Ruth cried.

Orpah might have run after them, Ruth thought, had not a false idol poked its head out of a nearby cave. Heathen music rose against the backdrop of silence that had so often plagued Ruth. She never knew what to say, except when (or so it seemed) something or someone put words in her mouth.

“You mean,” Orpah said, “you guys are just going to ride out of here? The two of you?”

The journey to Bethlehem took several weeks. Each day, as the sun rose, the women rested or studied. Ruth would forever associate God’s alphabet with an eerie midday feeling, the too hot tent and Naomi’s vituperative version of history. Hers was not a list of begats but of smotes, it seemed. The terrain, by day, glimmered. Blue rocks jutted. One evening they approached a largish body of water; “Oh, goodie,” Ruth cried. She even clapped her hands.

“Can’t you see?” Naomi intoned. “Everything here is dead, too.”

“Barley,” Ruth replied. “Redemption.” Each day, newly learned words bubbled in her head, which was located somewhere above her loins. She barely restrained a desire to prostrate herself before — who? She realized that whole starry nights had gone by without her once recalling the greatness of her loss.

“Whom,” Naomi said.

When they got to Bethlehem, Naomi told her tale of woe to anyone who would listen. Ruth felt the gaze of young Bethlemites, particularly the men, upon her. In Moab she had lived as wife and princess; in Bethlehem she felt free, anonymous, powerful. She was almost never homesick. Her accent improved. She wondered, however, just how long Naomi’s relatives would put up with them. She suggested a to her mother-in-law that she might go into the fields and “… you know.”

The very next morning, as Ruth was still getting her bearings, Naomi’s kinsman, Boaz, rode by on his nice new donkey. Ruth felt a somehow familiar you know what in her loins.

“Wow,” Naomi said when her daughter-in-law walked in that evening. “You gleaned all that? And cooked it, too?”

“I think we’re in like Flynn,” Naomi went on, munching. “Just remember, there is no God but your God. I mean our God.”

“Are we sure about this?” Ruth asked her mother-in-law a few minutes later.

“Absolutely,” Naomi said. “Repeat after me: ‘next of kin.’”

“Hold on,” Boaz whispered.

The expression on his face was half-sleepy, as if he’d eaten and drunk his fill. The threshing floor smelled of human sweat and a beery thing. “If only Orpah…,” she thought, not for the first or even the second time. Boaz lay with his hand to his heart. “Bum ticker,” he muttered.

She remembered, suddenly, the soft skin below her dead husband’s bellybutton. She recalled the coarseness of black hairs that grew on the “top” of each lithe foot. What was the Hebrew word for that body part? she wondered. Other words, ones that she and Naomi had rehearsed, bubbled instead to the surface. Would he…? As next of…?

“Sure I will. At least if… what’s his face… doesn’t.”

Ruth’s eyelids shut. The impressions of her husband — her deceased husband — were already fading. As she reached down, there arose in her mind’s eye a vision of barley; field after field of golden barley, all ripe for the gleaning.

B. B. Royvensteyn is the pen name of a writer who lives and works in Brooklyn.

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