The Garden of Ruth
By Eva Etzioni-Halevy
From: The Garden of Ruth, Plume/Penguin, December 26, 2006
IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF RUTH
By the time Osnath entered her chamber night had fallen over Bethlehem. But the moon shed its silvery light over it, so she had no need to light the oil lamp that stood on the table. She prepared to slip off her shoes and slide into bed when a muffled noise arose from it. Her senses suddenly alert, she inserted the small stick of wood lying on the table into the pan that kept the fire alive. Once the wood caught fire, she lit the lamp and lifted it above her head. When she bent over the bed, she heard the noise more distinctly: a rustle, accompanied by a flicker of movement under the sheet.
She straightened herself and stood motionless, her throat tight and her eyes wide with the quiver of fear that ran through her. Gathering her courage, she lifted the sheet with a swift sharp movement. She was aghast at the sight of a snake, a poisonous brown and yellow patterned viper, writhing before her eyes, until its head buried itself under the cushion, followed by its lengthy wriggling body.
Osnath's mouth opened to a soundless scream. Dropping the sheet, she dashed out to the backyard on which her room opened, with the lamp still in her raised hand. Once she had shut the door behind her, she uttered the strangled cry that had been sitting inside her, and it tore the night's silence.
There was a patter of hastily-shod feet, as the relatives with whom she had been visiting for over two months came tumbling out of the house. At their head was her old kinswoman Hagith, with her headscarf askew. Annoyed at being startled out of her sleep, she admonished Osnath, "What were you about, to scream like that?" But when a scrutiny of the girl's face revealed the terror in it, her heart softened and she enfolded her young guest in her arms and whispered soothingly to her.
After Osnath had been prevailed upon to tell what had transpired, several lighted lamps were brought into her room. Her bedding was lifted up and closely inspected. The table and the chair that flanked it were moved out of the way, the colorfully woven rug on the floor was folded up, and her belongings were removed from the little wooden case that stood against one of the walls. The entire room from floor to ceiling was searched, but there was nothing. The snake had vanished.
From the dubious looks on her relatives' faces Osnath knew that they doubted it had ever been there. They knew the fifteen-year-old girl to be given to dreams, on whose wings she soared to bygone times and distant places; and they believed that the viper had been yet another one of those dreams. But Osnath was not pacified, and her heart continued to race with wild fears and suspicions.
Her scream and the commotion that followed it also woke the inhabitants of the adjacent house. The father, Jesse, hastily adjusting his garment, followed by his wife and all his eight sons spilled into the common backyard of the two houses, bearing flaming torches in their hands.
The firstborn son, Eliab, the tallest of the lot, was the one she suspected, after what had previously transpired between them. She angrily quizzed him with her eyes. The sadness in his as he noticed her suspicion momentarily melted her mistrust. Then she took in his dark looks and overbearing demeanor, and her suspicion reared its head with even greater vigor.
When Eliab saw that her misgivings had not been laid to rest, he stepped forward and told Hagith that it would be well if Osnath were to spend the night with her in her room. The girl pointedly ignored him, but he did not wait for her response. As one accustomed to having others defer to him, he put his hand under her elbow and helped her to that room.
But when all had calmed down, and Hagith, her breath rasping through her open mouth, was sleeping peacefully beside her, sleep would not come to Osnath. Even in the worst of the nightmares that occasionally troubled her at night, she had not conjured up an event of this harrowing nature: that a man to whom she had done no harm would conceal a poisonous snake in her bed. Was it because by digging into the history of his great-grandmother, Ruth the Moabite, she might discover a murky secret that he was determined to keep from her prowling eyes?
Ruth. A name so short, so beautiful. How could such a small name contain such a big mystery? One so devastating that a man was willing to kill to keep it safe?
The next morning, Eliab gave instructions for all cracks in the walls of the two neighboring houses to be filled and plastered over, so that no snakes could lodge in them, and for all low growing plants in the two families' joint garden to be cut down, so that serpents would no longer be able to find shelter in their foliage. He also ordered whatever snakes might be found in the vicinity to be killed and their nests to be destroyed. But even this did not restore her trust in him.
For a man who could take advantage of a young girl's innocence to penetrate her locked garden, was capable of any despicable deed.
* * * * *
The sky had been washed clear by the previous day's rain. When the trees that lined the fields were already casting lengthy shadows, but before the sun slid down behind the hills in the west, she followed a bend in the path that rounded itself alongside a small hill. Emerging into an open terrain, she was startled by the sight of arrows flying, then lodging themselves into a large tree a mere twenty paces from her.
Wary of being hit by a stray arrow, she was about to turn on her heels and tread the path around the hill once more, when she heard a voice calling, "Cease!"
and saw an unknown young man striding towards her. Some way behind him was a contingent of some fifty youngsters, lowering the bows in their hands.
Catching her unsteady breath, Osnath found herself face to face with the young man. He was red-haired, with skin as light as a sunlit day, eyes as dazzlingly blue as the summer sky, and a body as lithe as a deer.
"Who are you?" she gasped in surprise.
"I am David, the youngest son of Jesse and the shepherd of his flock. And you must be Osnath, Hagith's young guest and the niece of the prophet Samuel. How is it that you came this way on your own?" he added sharply.
"I was merely going for a stroll. But what are the strange goings on here? I cannot see that you are tending any flock," she retorted indignantly.
"I have bestowed it in the sheepfold. And now I am teaching the young men of Judah archery."
"People may inadvertently be hurt."
"All the townspeople know not to approach this spot before apprising me of it. You must not do so either."
Her indignation now gave way to curiosity. "What is the purpose of this?"
Suddenly his eyes came aglow with a strange light, as if a fire had been lit behind them. "We must study war, so that when our enemies attack we may be able to defend ourselves."
"Are you not too young to be coaching others?" she persisted.
"I am sixteen years of age," he replied stiffly, as if she had hurt his pride. "I have been practicing archery, and battling with a sword and shield, and the slinging of stones ever since I was a child; and now I am well versed in all manner of warfare."
Having put his second-in-command in charge of the contingent, he announced, "I will accompany you home."
At first he walked in silence, his gaze straying from the path in front of them to her face. He regarded her intently, his blue eyes delving into her blue-gray ones.
"Why are you looking into my eyes?" she asked shyly.
With a smile lurking in his, he declared, "Because I can see your soul reflected in them, and I like what I see."
"You are funning," she protested.
"Why else would I be looking into your eyes?" he teased her. "You cannot think I am doing it merely because they are so beautiful."
Her cheeks assumed the color of red roses. Noticing the rosy blush on her face, he inclined his head toward her and recited words from a famous love song: "'I am the rose of the valleys.' Imagine a rose of the valleys in the hills of Judah!"
"You are jesting again."
"No," he contradicted her, the smile vanishing from his eyes. "I am entirely serious."
By that time they had reached the edge of the two houses' common garden. He opened the gate for her and she entered it. Then he retraced his steps, leaving her to wonder about this young man, so unusual in his coloring and his demeanor. Wondering also whether she had truly found favor in his eyes.
* * * * *
The next day, upon Eliab's return from the fields, he coaxed Osnath to enter the scroll room with him. It was a square chamber, three of whose walls were covered by shelves on which rested a welter of scrolls arrayed in layers, one on top of the other. Its fourth wall held a stone bench and a window. A blue curtain hung over it to shield the writings on the shelves from the strong sun streaming in, and the light that filtered through the hanging was pleasantly subdued. The scent of parchment and the musty smell of years long past hung in the air.
Eliab made Osnath sit at the table, showed her some of the room's many treasures and assured her again that she had his permission to come there whenever she was moved to do so. Since then, she went there daily and ploughed her way through the books, shelf after shelf. She delved into times of old, reading the most wondrous stories about heroes
* * * * *
She had a way with words, and liked to spin them into yarns of days long gone. At times her daydreams were so powerful they almost seemed real. Even so, she was aware that they were only figments of her imagination. She yearned to write a tale that would record as-yet-undiscovered momentous events that had truly occurred.
A few days later, as her hand moved about on a high shelf in search of another book to read, it came to rest on a tiny scroll. It lay hidden in a dark corner under a much larger one that she had just dislodged. She pulled it out and unrolled the tightly rolled-up parchment and held it up to the light. She began to read:
Hear me, my loved one.
You are red haired and fair.
As a wild goat in the desert
yearns for a spring of water,
so does my body yearn for you.
Abandon him, who is unworthy of you,
and give your love to me alone.
So speaks the man to whom you are pledged.
Osnath was mystified, a hundred wonders in her heart, a thousand questions in her mind. The missive had without doubt been written by a man to the woman he loved, who was pledged to him, yet preferred another. But who had written it and to whom?
In the flicker of that instant, a bold notion took shape in her mind: to trace the mystery enfolded in the words she had read.
She would be like the spies Moses had sent out to explore the Promised Land. As they had explored the unknown country, so would she trace the life of the unknown woman, and of the two men who had formed part of it. Then she would write a scroll in which their veil of secrecy would be torn off and their story brought to light.
While she stood gazing at the letter, Eliab, who had returned from the fields, came in, recalling her from her reveries. With his eyes even darker than usual, he drew the scroll from her hand without uttering a word, and placed it on the highest shelf. But its contents had already engrained themselves in her memory.
"Did you write the missive, sir?" she marveled aloud.
He laughed. "Can you not see that the parchment has assumed a brownish color? The letter was written long before my birth. So long ago, that I had forgotten its existence."
"Who wrote it?"
"This is part of the saga of my family, which cannot be of any concern to you. There are enough other scrolls for you to peruse."
"Still, it has made me curious. Can you not tell me anything about it?"
"Let the dead rest in peace. Withdraw your hands from them."
His words held a note of finality. Disappointed, she left the room with hunched shoulders, and went to recline against a tree in the garden.
Eliab followed her and tried to distract her by telling her about other members of his family. But she sat with her chin resting on her drawn-up knees, and a churlish look on her face, until he gave up and went to wash away the sweat of the day's labor.
She was not left sitting on her own. Before long, David came back from tending the family's flock on the hill, and, after hustling them into the sheepfold, sat down next to her.
Apart from the rare colors of his eyes and hair and skin, the bones of his face were splendidly shaped, like what she imagined the sculpture of a Canaanite god to be. Thus she did not find it surprising that there were several girls from neighboring houses who looked at him seductively from under their eyelashes. But since he had first encountered Osnath in the fields a few days ago, he'd had eyes for her only. He sought her out in the garden whenever he was not engaged with his flock or with his archery, and now he chatted gaily with her about her life and his.
It occurred to her that since he was red-haired and fair, he might be a descendant of that red-haired fair loved one to whom the words in the scroll had been addressed.
When she inquired if it was so, he concurred. He said that Ruth, the mother of his grandfather, had been red haired and milk-skinned, and had also had blue eyes like his. She had brought those unusual features with her from the land of the Moabites, where she had lived before she became part of the people of Israel. He also resembled her in that he composed poems, as she had been wont to do.
He had no answer to the question of who might have written Ruth the love poem she discovered. But he recalled some vague rumors that had been rife in his family that she had been a widely-acclaimed beauty, and that there had been another manbeside his great-grandfatherwho had succumbed to her charm.
Then David lost all interest in his great-grandmother, and plucked a flower and lightly brushed Osnath's face with it, and told her softly that he preferred her shiny black hair, in which the rays of the setting sun sparkled like diamonds, to that of any other color.
While she was searching for suitable words to voice in response to David's, her eyes alit on Eliab, who was at the window of his sleeping room, watching her keenly. There was an intense look in his face that at first made her feel vaguely uneasy. Then she realized in astonishment that it was not entirely unpalatable to her, and the words she was about to utter withered in her mouth. She took leave of David and returned to Hagith's house. And it was quite a while before the turmoil in her soul subsided
* * * * *
Osnath resolved that the deed would have to be done in a clandestine fashion, under the mantle of darkness.
That evening after the meal she stretched out on her bed, but kept herself awake. Once night had descended, and all lay asleep in their beds, she arose from hers. For a while she sat on the threshold of her door, waiting until the last part of the night when, she knew, their sleep would be the deepest. Then she walked as noiselessly as she could to the edge of the garden, opened its gate stealthily and walked out.
Not far away, at the side of the plot of land that belonged to Hagith's family, there stood a tool shed. Its door was not locked and Osnath entered it and took hold of a shovel. This she brought back with her, and placed at the foot of the terebinth tree.
The crescent moon was but a sliver in the sky, hardly disturbing the dimness of the night. In its faint light, the branches of the tree were like crooked arms reaching out to her, set on strangling her. The shadows created by them were deep and dark and frightening. For a while she stood still, straining her ears for sounds that might herald someone's approach, fearful of the rustle of the leaves in the gentle night breeze.
By now she had deep misgivings about the propriety of her endeavor, and she regretted her rash decision to do her deed in the thick of the night. But she inhaled the fresh air, moist with dew, and it soothed her. Besides, she was staunchly determined to make Ruth's scroll relinquish its secrets to her, and there was no other way to achieve this. She was enmeshed in this already and could not draw back. So she warded off her doubts and began digging.
For a while, the shovel overturned clamps of soil but nothing came to light other than more soil. As time slid by and all she could see were growing mounds of dug out earth, it struck her that she might be engaged in a backbreaking but futile endeavor.
She did not doubt Samuel's instructions. But the jar she was searching for might be close to the tree, or more distant from it; in a shallow spot, or deep beneath its roots. Even if she continued digging through the night, it was as probable that her labor would bear fruit, as hale was in summer. Yet she was unwilling to give up and stubbornly continued her labor.
Then, to her utter amazement, she heard the clang of the shovel's iron, as it hit a hard object. Her heart gave a thud, then continued hammering feverishly as she went on digging, until a long narrow clay jar, caked with the soil in which it had been encased, stood out from the ground like a watchtower in a city wall.
She bent down and lifted it up with trembling hands. It was closed with a bowl-shaped lid, but with some effort she managed to pry it off the jar. She inserted her hand into its opening and removed from it a lengthy bundle, a rolled-up scroll. It was wrapped up in a cloth and tied with a string, both of which must have been white initially but had darkened with age.
which Osnath had been tracing for so long, had finally surfaced.
She was elated.
Before she had a chance to fill the hole she head dug to cover the traces of her deed, a faint, muffled noise reached her ears, making her start. When she looked around her she could discern nothing; but she sensed that someone was watching her, and the sweat of fear began trickling down her back.
All at once she heard another noise from her rear. She swung around and was startled by the sight of Eliab almost upon her. She hid her right hand, with the scroll in it, behind her back
he confronted her. He was so close that she could feel his breath on her face. His wrath was evident in his eyes, which, in the dawning day looked ferocious. She was overwhelmed and shrank back before him.
"What are you doing here, burrowing in the ground like a rat?" he demanded sharply.
Her cheeks were burning in shame, and she was thankful for the dimness of the light that prevented him from perceiving this.
"What have you uncovered, and why are you so secretive about it? Why are you getting up to mischief again?" he plied her with angry questions.
She cast about in her mind for a reply that would appease him, but could think of none. She just stood there, wordless, with her head dipped and her hair tumbling down over her temples, in confusion.
He noticed her right hand behind her back, came even closer until his chest was pressed to hers and wrested the scroll from her hand. Then he stood back and shoved it under his arm
"You had no right to plunder our possessions," he fairly shouted at her.
She gave vent to her own rising rancor. "You are a bad-tempered man," she said testily.
"You are quick to find fault, but the fault is yours," he replied irritably.
Recognizing his words as true, she bit her lip. "I have accused you unjustly. I repent my words."
Those were the kindest words she had ever addressed to him and he laughed out loud in joy.
Then she spoiled their effect by adding, "If I came here in an underhand manner it is because you have tripped my investigation with your heavy foot every step of the way. Pray, sir," she pleaded urgently, "let me look at the scroll before you stow it away."
"You have overreached yourself this time. Your uncle was without doubt behind this travesty. You would not else have discovered this scroll
for even I was ignorant of its whereabouts. Did he truly condone your committing such a theft?"
Osnath admitted shamefacedly that Samuel had enjoined her to seek permission before she set out to dig in soil that did not belong to her.
Since she had yielded to him, and had even admitted her transgression, his wrath dissipated again and his face softened. "No matter. You are nothing but an unruly child," he said indulgently.
With these words, he gazed into her now clearly visible, large blue-gray eyes, which were raised to his.
She was glad that he had let her off so lightly and returned his tender gaze with a forlorn smile. He brought his mouth close to hers. But when he was on the verge of kissing her, she became reticent and averted her face from his. Then she turned it back, but the damage had been done: he felt that she had withdrawn from him again. He released her. The tender moment between them faded with the fading stars.
Osnath, feeling the chill from him, looked dejectedly at the dug out soil at her feet, signaling the wreckage of her hopes.
After she had helped Eliab to mend her destructive handiwork by filling up the hole, and the earth around the tree head been smoothed out, she returned to her quarters. The sun began to rise behind the hills, so there was no time left to sleep. Instead, she sat on her bed, contemplating her discovery.
Her elation at her success had subsided, and she was downcast again. She was no longer in possession of the scroll
and Eliab would never let her set eyes on it again.
* * * * *
When, after so much searching and guessing and wondering, Osnath finally held Ruth's scroll in her hands, they shook so much that she could hardly unroll it.
But once her eyes ran down its rows of letters, there was a delighted gleam in her eyes. In her mind, she saw Ruth and heard her and sensed her, following every ripple of her initially tortured soul, as if it were her own.
from the December 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine