The ripping sound as she straightened was almost enough to make her cry. Ruth carefully settled her pack on the ground and edged her hem upward several inches to survey the damage. The shorn stalks scraping her shins had finally wormed their way through the much-worn fabric of her mourning clothes.
“Of all the brazen…” The none-too-quiet whisper drifted clearly to Ruth’s ear.
She edged her gaze to the right, catching the disgusted glances of several Jewish widows who had been pointedly shunning her for the last week. Their scandalized tongue clicks preceded another barrage of gossip as Ruth attempted to keep the tear from lengthening. The clothes had been her mother’s parting gift.
“They say she only came because her family wouldn’t have her back…”
“I heard she brought her idols with her…”
“Poor Naomi. What a trial the girl must be to her…”
Ruth tightened her lips and gave a good huff through her nostrils. Let them try living with a grief-deadened mother-in-law and see how they fared.
Forget their existence. That would be Orpah’s advice. How Ruth ached for her sister-in-law’s company. After the trying weeks in Bethlehem, she was beginning to see the wisdom of staying in Moab. She gave one more wide-nostrilled breath and bent to raise her bundle, scooping a few heads of grain into her hand.
“This is my share.”
The sharp tone was not unexpected, but the sudden appearance of the woman at her elbow was. Ruth’s hand opened reflexively, dropping the kernels away from her sack. “I apologize. I did not realize.”
The woman snatched at the falling grain with a throaty gasp of frustration. “Do they teach children wastefulness in Moab?”
“As the children in Israel learn selfishness.” Ruth bit her lip immediately, futilely calling the words back. The sun’s rays had not managed to bring such a blush as now darkened her cheeks.
The woman looked remarkably self-satisfied as she stepped closer, leaning down slightly to keep her eyes level with Ruth’s slight frame. “No God-fearing Jew should allow you in his fields.”
“Are not the injunctions of the law to help the poor, widows and strangers in our land?”
The new voice made both women jump. Somehow neither of them had seen the field’s owner approach. Ruth’s heart sank even as it pounded in the surprise of his arrival. He had overheard her insult one of his own people – in her country that would be grounds to expel the stranger from the village entirely. She opened her mouth to interrupt, but her tongue faltered. The man’s question hung unanswered in the stifling air of midday.
“Indeed, Ben-Salma,” the Jewish woman said reluctantly. “But surely the law does not include those who intentionally waste.”
Ruth found her voice, “You must accept my apology, kind lady. I was startled, that is all.”
“If you must come and work in our fields and take food that would go into hungry children’s mouths, you ought to learn not to be so careless.” The voice dripped honeyed poison. The woman turned to Ben-Salma for support.
“Peace, Jael,” he said, smiling gently at both of them. “There is grain enough for all this harvest, thanks be to the Most-High.”
Jael pressed her lips together, nodding her agreement even as a slight harrumph came from her throat. It was clear she did not place rejoicing over the Lord’s bounty above the virtue of a full loaf of bread on her table at the end of the day.
“Come, both of you, and draw some water at the rest tent,” Ben-Salma offered a smile that seemed to magnify the sunlight, dissipating some of the tension. “The midday heat makes fools of those who toil under it.”
He stepped past them, leading the way. Ruth found herself a mere half-step behind him, separated from Jael who had turned aside to find another companion. Boaz Ben-Salma had spoken to her only once before, to ascertain that she was indeed Mahlon’s widow. There was something achingly familiar in his bearing and the timbre of his voice. His kinship to Mahlon could not be denied.
“How fares my cousin this week?” Boaz asked as they reached the tent.
Ruth’s heart fluttered for a moment, and she berated herself. “Naomi is gaining strength now that she is home.”
His smile widened and Ruth responded with a small one of her own. Behind her, she heard the tongue clicks of the other widows, felt the stares. For that moment, it didn’t matter.
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