They were sitting by the side of the road. One old enough to be the other’s mother. And beautiful with it. Scowling but beautiful. The younger woman was smiling. Not a beauty but smiling. And her eyes showed she had spirit and strength. She held my gaze as I approached. I stood in front of them. They were both dirty, and they didn’t smell great. Beauty and dirt, spirit and strength. It was a strange mixture.
‘D’you have some money, sir?’ the younger woman asked, but the older one slapped her outstretched hand down.
‘Not that, ‘she hissed, we haven’t come to that.’
‘Come to what? We’re helping him.’
‘Helping me?’ I said.
‘You need to worship, don’t your sir?’ the younger one said. ‘And we need money. We’re giving you the chance. Giving to the poor is an act of worship, isn’t it, sir?’
I dug into my pockets and found coins, I didn’t figure they’d be any use in this strange world but I handed them over anyway.
The younger woman smiled again and stood up. She held up the fistful of coins and waved them about. ‘A godly man, giving to the poor, praise God for a godly man like this. Bless you, sir. God honours you.’
I looked around. There wasn’t a soul in sight.
‘No matter,’ she said, ‘God hears us. And he sees you with your kindness.’
I wished I’d given her more. But the old woman just went on scowling.
‘Where are you going?’ I asked.
‘Back,’ the older woman mumbled out of the side of her mouth, and the word came out as if she was spitting an olive stone. ‘I told her to go home but she’s a fool, she won’t listen. And if she thinks I can give her another husband she’s mad. Look at me. As dry as an old twig.’
She coughed and spat in the dirt. It was not a good colour.
‘I’m Ruth,’ said the other woman. ‘This is my mother-in-law, Naomi.’
‘Mara!’ the woman snapped, ‘I told you, it’s Mara now. Forget Naomi. It’s Mara. Bitter.’
Ruth leant into me and whispered, ‘It’s Naomi, sir.’
I liked her. She smelt no doubt as bad as I did, but I liked her.
‘She’s a foolish girl don’t listen to her. She’s made a rash promise and is no doubt regretting it already.’
Ruth’s cheeks coloured. ‘It wasn’t rash… it isn’t rash. It’s what I choose.’
‘She swears she’ll stick with this bitter, old woman,’ Naomi said, ‘whatever happens. And look at us we have nothing.’
‘You have your farm back home,’ said Ruth, ‘that’s where we’re going.’
‘Probably overrun by squatters since we left, and no doubt anything good from it has been pilfered. Plus there’ll be gossip to high heaven when they see us coming. And none of them will lend us a hand. You could die girl,’ Naomi spat the words forcefully. ‘I don’t want your young blood on my hands, and I’ve already told you, it’s no use waiting for me to produce another man for you to marry. My name’s not Sarah and there’s no Abraham in my life. No man at all.’ She shook her head and spat into the dirt again.
‘I’m not leaving you,’ said Ruth, ‘it’s no good shouting at me. Where you go I go, wherever you live, die and worship, that’s where I’ll be. For better or worse. And I’m tired of this conversation now. Look, there’s some water over there, I’ll fetch some for that ‘bitter’ mouth of yours.’
I followed her.
‘Wow, that’s quite a promise,’ I said.
‘No it’s not, it’s just life. We’ve had good days and now we’re facing difficult ones. But I believe in her God, even if she’s angry with him. There’ll be a way.’
She knelt and scooped up water.
‘What happened to you?’ I asked.
‘My husband died, and so did his brother. Naomi was already a widow for ten years by then. So we lost all the men and found ourselves with nothing. We’re broke. Completely. But she still has the farm she left back in Bethlehem. She and her husband left it when a famine hit and times got hard and that’s why she thinks they’ll all laugh at her when she goes back. Returning with her tail between her legs.’
‘I wish I had more money to give you,’ I dug into my pockets again but they were empty now.
‘You’ve been kind enough. The famine in Bethlehem has gone now. I’ll find work and food. We’ll be all right. And Naomi will smile again.’ She smiled at me herself then. ‘One day.’
‘You’re obviously an optimist,’ I said.
She shrugged. ‘Things have been all right so far.’
‘Things have been all right? But you lost your husband!’
She nodded. ‘I miss him, he was a good man. And he loved me, I mean really loved me. Respected me and treated me with dignity.’ She filled a small pouch with water and stood up. ‘Perhaps I’ll find another good man, with God’s help,’ she said.
‘I’m sure you will. I’m sure things will turn around for you.’
She nodded again and took the water back to Naomi. I watched her walk away from me.
[Take from Breaking Into the Good Book]