“Ruth, more fish!” Papa was frantic. We had more guests in the inn than ever, and it seemed that everyone wanted their evening meal at once. I lifted a wooden tray laden with fire-roasted fish above my head and made my way through the crowd of tired and unhappy travelers. People called out to me in unfamiliar dialects.
“Girl! Bring me some bread!”
“Paugh! This wine is no better than vinegar!”
I delivered the fish to my sweating and red-faced father, then ran back to the hearth to help my mother with more food preparations. She bent over the coals, testing a loaf of bread atop the baking stone by flicking it with her finger.
“It’s not ready yet, Ruthie. They’ll just have to wait.” Mama passed the back of her hand across her brow. Her eyes were shadowed and weary; she had toiled with hardly any sleep for days.
For nearly a fortnight, travelers from every corner of the country had crowded into our inn. We brought in fresh straw daily, tossing an extra coin to the boy who brought it, his donkey loudly protesting the extra load. But still, the rooms stank—my father was doubling and tripling the number of visitors in each room.
Cramped quarters, road-weary sojourners, unfamiliar foods—I don’t wonder that occasionally tempers flared. I didn’t mind when the guests rudely demanded more work of me—I am only a girl. But I had to fight back tears when they abused Mama and Papa. As I fetched and carried water, or tossed soiled straw out the windows, I repeated over and over the words that Grandmama had taught me: when Messiah comes…a whisper of hope.
I was about to go to the well for another jug of water—the twelfth of the day—when I saw that more travelers had arrived. They stood in the open doorway, the late afternoon sun casting them in darkness, with a glow about their heads. Papa rushed to the door, waving his hands. “Go back! Go back! I have no room for you here!”
The man talked earnestly with Papa, offering him coins and indicating his wife, who leaned heavily against the door frame. She was only a few years older than me. I wondered what it was like, to travel to distant villages with a husband. My mother was born here, and she has never left this place. Perhaps I will die in this village too. Papa turned his back to the pleading couple and strode away.
“Ruthie! The water, and quickly!” Mama pushed me toward the door.
A guest grabbed my sleeve as I made my way out of the room. “Bring me more olives, girl, and not the puny ones!” When Messiah comes…
On the way to the well, I saw the man comforting his wife, who sobbed quietly into his shoulder. She could have been my sister…”Come with me,” I told them, and I led them to the grotto where we stored the food for our three milk goats and the ornery old donkey. It was cool there, and clean, and the young woman sank to the ground, leaning against a pile of straw with a grateful cry.
“Thank you, child.” The man grasped my hands, then turned to minister to his softly panting wife. I picked up the water jug, filled it at the well, and hurried back to the inn.
“Where have you been, girl? I need some more water!”
“These figs are spoiled! You’ll not get my silver!”
“You call this fish? I can hardly swallow it!”
When Messiah comes…
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