by Christina St. Clair
My name is Naomi. Much will be said about me in the scriptures.
I did not want to leave Bethlehem, but I had little choice.
I could not possibly go without one final goodbye to my best friend, Leah.
I slipped on my robe, the one I’d woven myself when I’d first been married. The wool was frayed now, and the color had faded from purple to lilac. Still, it felt warm and comfortable over the thin inner garment that I’d once thought so pretty, but as I gazed up at the chilly sky, I now realized it was impractical. What good were fine clothes and gold coins these days? Would we ever share bread and wine at festivals? Would we ever put on our best clothes and dance together to the sound of flutes and tambourines?
The moon shone so brightly that I could not see the stars, but its silver light gleamed on the stone stairs so that I didn’t need to bring an oil lamp with me. I soon tiptoed past the room where the Moabite trader was staying. I could hear his unfamiliar snores amongst the grunts and restless movements of my kin in the other rooms. I hurried past the donkeys, dozing behind the gate. They’d soon be readied for our departure. I prayed that the one with the hairy tufts in her floppy ears, the one my boys fed with fig treats, did not begin braying and wake the whole household.
Outside in the cobbled alley, I stopped and ran my hand over the hard mud and straw brick in the walls, remembering the hired workers laying them so that my house would stand for years and years. I little knew that the time would come when I would have no choice but to leave. My shoulders drooped at the thought of having to let go of such a home, bigger than many, with three rooms downstairs, stalls for the livestock, and a cistern in the courtyard. It made it easy to get clean water in times of rain and plenty, but not now. Our buckets only yielded a few inches of muddy liquid hardly suitable for drinking.
I picked up a pebble from the ground and rubbed the grit and dirt off with my veil. To try to lessen the sick feeling that I couldn’t seem to escape, I put the stone in my mouth and sucked on it, but my empty stomach cramped. I doubled over until the pain eased. Oh, I did not want to go! But I so wanted to give Leah something to remember me by and thought perhaps I could give her the ankle bracelet she’d always loved. Except it was packed in a pot at the bottom of the cart. What good was jewelry, anyway, in days like these?
I went back into the courtyard and grabbed a small sack of grain, and slung it over my shoulder. The straps cut into my flesh, but I dragged myself outside and crept silently down the alley to Leah’s home. I could not make out the color of the coarse bricks in the walls to her house. This depressed me as if all pigment were draining from my life—this might well be the last time I’d ever share with my friend. How often we’d clapped our hands together and danced in her central courtyard, surrounded by her family, enjoying their warmth, their salty breads full of pistachios, and their finest ceramic mugs filled with cool clean water.
Leah and I had raised our children together. We’d hoped my sons would someday marry her daughters, but although I wanted the best for my boys, I realized many young men would compete for them. We no longer had much money to offer as bridal dowries either. It wouldn’t matter that Leah’s girls and my boys were all such good friends and loved one another. Girls had little say in the matter of husbands. If only I’d had the chance to choose, what might my life have been like? But Emilelech, the husband selected for me, was a good man in so many ways and I’d come to care for him. Besides, life was what it was, and I loved my young sons. Truly, though, I hoped my next baby might be a girl. I patted my belly. Since the boys were not expected to do woman’s work, a girl would help with the household chores. But my longing for a daughter was much more than a need for help. I yearned for the same kind of fun Leah had with her daughters. I looked forward to sharing cooking, teaching her to dress, to sing, to dance. I imagined the joy I would feel getting a daughter ready for her wedding.
This rocky passageway, even in the dark of early morning, was so familiar to me that I could have walked it with my eyes closed. Everything smelled dusty, and I had to pull my veil around my nose and mouth as I made my way to Leah’s house. We’d always been able to read one another’s thoughts and so it did not surprise me to see a lantern glowing within her peaceful courtyard. She set the light down on the ground and rushed over to me, drawing my veil away from my face and looking deeply into my eyes. At last, she threw her arms around me and we held onto each other tightly. “I knew you’d come,” she whispered.
As we let go of one another, the tears glistening on her cheeks almost made me break down too, but I spat out the stone and held my tongue between my teeth, willing myself to be strong. The pebble fell between her feet.
“What was that?” she cried. “Are you spitting rocks at me!”
She always could catch me off-guard with her quick wit. “No!” I cried. But in the dim light, her sorrowful eyes made me want to kiss her beautiful rosy cheeks. Instead, I stroked strands of her shaggy hair off her forehead, wondering if the next time I saw her, it would be streaked with gray. Mine already was. Neither one of us had any words to convey our misery. We clutched one another’s hands. But soon we were both sobbing as if we’d never stop, but of course we did. We became so silent that we could hear someone snoring from inside a nearby house.
Normally Leah would have some sharp remark about heavy breathing that would make us grin, but when she spoke, her usually deep voice was hoarse. “Now I truly live up to my name.” She’d always hated her namesake, Leah, the unloved wife of our ancestor, Jacob.
I patted her back just as I always did whenever she’d bemoan her name, except I knew her agony now was not about her name, but about loss. Of me. She alone was my confidante who knew my heart as I knew hers. She alone understood how I’d sorrowed about not getting to marry Boaz, the boy I’d admired and loved. It simply wasn’t possible for girls to choose. We both understood our options were few, but I’d always been the one, when we were girls, to tell Leah how strong she was and how her life would not be bitter like her namesake but full of joy. I’d tell her she would have a husband who would be a prophet who understood women. He’d be so good to her that she would live in luxury with servants doing all the chores. Often, we’d grab hands and swing one another in circles until we got dizzy and fell giggling to the ground. I told her every day how much I loved her. I did. I do. I always will.
Leah reached into the pockets of her robe and took out a pair of leather sandals, thrusting them into my hands. “For you,” she said.
I stared at the shoes, knowing she’d sewn these specially. I held them up and stroked the leather straps. I held them to my heart.
“You need sturdy footwear for the trail you will be taking. I’ve heard the road across the mountains of Moab on the other side of the Salt Sea is steep and rocky.” She patted my belly. “Take care, Naomi. Come back as soon as you can. Send me word once you’re settled.”
“I’ll try,” I managed to murmur. We stared into one another’s eyes. Hers were swimming in mist. How will I manage without her, I thought, but didn’t say because it would only make us cry again.
“Be brave,” she said at last. “This drought cannot last forever and then you’ll be able to come home.”
Suddenly I remembered the grain. The straps from the sack on my shoulder hurt, but I had forgotten they were even there. I clutched my sandals and managed to put it into her hands. “Remember me,” I said, “when you are baking barley loaves.” Her eyes filled with tears, but before she could refuse, I turned and went back to fetch my sons and begin the wretched journey away from all that I held dear.
I walked slowly home, dragging my feet as if I could put a stop to what I knew was coming. All too soon, whether I liked it or not, the two donkeys would be laden with our blankets, grain and whatever we could put in our saddlebags. My household goods, with our clothes wrapped around my most precious breakables, were already loaded in a cart to be pulled by our one remaining ox. We’d sold the others long ago. This beast was getting old but at least it could be relied upon to obey our wishes, unlike the unbearably hot and dry weather. The parched ground, crisscrossed with fissures, looked as if it would crack open and devour us all. It certainly would not grow crops anytime soon. The now-barren fields reminded me of that other time before my sons were born, when the wispy white clouds that floated across the sky never yielded rain. Some said it was a punishment from the god whose name we were not allowed to speak, except to call him Hashem. All I knew was that my dear mother did her best to help others and lived in obedience to the law of Moses, but she still got weak from hunger and perished.
I could not bear it if the wedding platter she gave me were to get broken. She’d died too soon after my marriage. She’d never even gotten to see her grandsons. Oh, how I’d wailed and mourned for her, and I’d been grateful for the other women who’d mourned with me. I now felt her loss even more strongly and was overwhelmed by dread as if I were going to my grave. I felt myself as fractured as a broken water pot, but I needed to be strong. At least we had sacks of barley piled near the cistern to take with us.
I went upstairs to our living area and looked around slowly. It was dark now, but I wanted to remember this room where we took our meals. Every afternoon, we would gather and we would be so noisy, eating and talking. There had been squabbles too but now those times, even when we’d had to squint from the sunlight radiating through the open beams of the roof, now those times seemed sacred.
What might we face in Moab? What sort of housing could we hope to find? We knew from past encounters that once, as our thirsty people escaped from Egypt, the Moabites had denied them water. We were at peace with them now but could they be trusted? Yet this trader who’d come seemed kind and welcoming. Clearly, he’d appreciated our hospitality and wanted to help us. But I couldn’t imagine with whom I would bake bread, or with whom I would sew, or how I’d get water from a central well rather than my own cistern in my own courtyard. It was my one remaining luxury. And though the Moabites spoke Hebrew, the trader didn’t sound the same as us. I’d pretend to understand him and nod my head while I served him bread and chickpeas, but really I often didn’t know what he was saying. I worried too that I’d not given this big husky man enough to eat, but I was scared our meager supply of food would soon be gone–perhaps even before we left—and then we’d have nothing to eat on the journey.
It did no good to stand around feeling sorry for myself. I must wake my sons.
Mahlon and Chilion lay on the roof, their backs against the low brick wall I’d insisted we build when they were little. I did not want them to roll over accidentally and fall onto the stone tile below. I pulled the fur blanket—given to me by Emilelech as a wedding present—away from Mahlon’s shoulders. He did not stir. Chilion, too, still fast asleep with his arms above his head, was breathing softly. “It is time to go,” I whispered. I almost added that their father was waiting in Jerusalem, but I clenched my teeth, unable to say the words. Everyone was angry with my husband. Until now, I’d not admitted how hurt I felt that he’d left me and the boys and slipped away early. I not only didn’t want to answer for him or try to make things right with people, I suddenly had a desire to punish him. Let him get on with life by himself! See how he liked having to prepare meals, tend to goats, make clothes for our sons from scraps of cloth, not to mention weave blankets to sell for a few shekels. Yet, people would certainly feel little sympathy for me if I were to complain or refuse to go.
“Wake up, boys,” I said half-heartedly. I wished I could somehow summon a sense of adventure, especially for my sons. But I couldn’t. All I could do as I stood looking down at them was worry. They took after their father, already too thin. I could not bear to think of any of them dying because we ran out of food. I hated this famine that had already taken the lives of a few of our aged ones. My eyes filled, remembering old Sarah with her frail little wrists lying on a blanket, her blank eyes no longer seeing. She’d been my granny-woman, the midwife who’d birthed most of our babies. Oh, how could our village still be called Bethlehem, “a house of bread!” At least, by leaving, my family might survive. Am I a coward for following my husband? Am I a traitor to my people? Or is it that I, like all women, have to meekly obey? How can I help but seek life for my family? I must go, but I am shriveling inside. I don’t know how I will manage, yet somehow I will.
“Wake up!” I shook Mahlon’s shoulder. He opened his eyes and stared at me.
“Come on,” I said. “You too, Chilion. It’s time to go! The Moabite fellow is going to take us to Jerusalem, where your father is waiting.”
Chilion groaned, but soon both boys were following me down the stairs.
While we waited for the man to get ready, Mahlon and Chilion relentlessly questioned me. “How far is Moab? Will there be enough for us to eat? Where will we live?”
My own questions loomed large: Why couldn’t Emilelech just go by himself or take his kinsmen with him? Why did I have to move there? Oh, I knew the answers, and it wasn’t only his fault or this wretched drought. I’d complained about needing to eat more for our next baby and I’d been overwrought after burying old Sarah. I’d been so emotional. My ups and downs, my tears and worries, gave him permission to take us away. “Everything will be all right,” I said, biting my lip, watching the trader tying saddlebags on the donkeys. “There is plenty to eat in Moab,” I muttered.
“There is,” the trader said, nodding at me. “Your husband is a good man. He wants to protect you.”
I said nothing.
“Boys,” he said to my sons. “You are to follow behind the cart with the donkeys.”
My sons grabbed the lead ropes and led the beasts outside, where they waited for me.
I stared around the gray courtyard, but I could not focus. I crouched down and ripped off my old sandals. It was unlike me to waste anything, but I felt so desolate that I tossed them into the cistern and waited for the splash—that did not come. Standing barefoot, I felt as if what had once been holy ground was now tainted.
“Ma,” I heard Chilion calling. “Come on!”
“Just a moment,” I whispered. I slipped my new sandals onto my bare feet. The soles fit snugly, but the backstraps cut into my heels. I knew that if I did not break them in slowly, they would give me blisters, but what could sore feet matter? These were a gift from my best friend, who’d labored over them and even made them pretty. The wheat pattern she’d embroidered into the straps were for good luck. I felt wretched, but as I left my precious house so full of memories, I forced myself to keep moving. With every slap of the leather sole and with every pinch of the ankle straps, it was as if all my heartbreaking steps would somehow keep me tethered to my beloved friend and all that I held dear.
(An excerpt from the novel, Naomi and Ruth: Loyalty Among Women)
Christina St. Clair, pastor/spiritual director, has degrees in philosophy, women’s studies, pastoral ministry, and spiritual direction. She practices Reiki distance-healing, an intercessory prayer practice. She is also a published author of both fiction and non-fiction and was awarded a grant by the Kentucky Foundation for Women for a historical fiction novel.