Ruth finds herself responsible for cleaning the bodies of Malhon and Chilion's bodies after they have died from a mysterious sickness while fattening their goats in the high pastures.


The flies. They were everywhere drawn by the two dead bodies. I wanted to scream and run out of the house. My hand waved across my face without my thinking chasing the three flies on my face away only to spread the smell of his discharge and sweet stench of rotted flesh to my face. The smells hung in the back of my throat causing a heave in my stomach.

“But this not my duty!” I whispered to myself gagging, “he is Orpah’s husband, is it not her’s to do?”

Still, I knew someone had to wash Chilion's lifeless body before it could be placed in the cave. The late afternoon shade was hot in the open room which faced out into the courtyard of our small house. Tilting my head back I tried breathing through my mouth, only to find that the flies sought moisture there too.

Our house, like all of the others around my village in Moab, was built of mud brick and stone along a road that led into the center of the village. There were two pens for our small herd of goats and a field on one side which separated us from the next house.

Above there was a long room up the ladder where we slept. I stood in the courtyard where I was preparing my husband’s little brother Chilion to be carried away to the cave where my mother-in-law’s husband rested.

Washing his body and preparing him for his shroud was the duty of his wife, but my sister-in-law, Orpah was so young, she was hardly more than a child herself.

“Orpah!” I had called to her as I had lifted him my hands under his arms onto our table, “child get his feet!” Reluctantly she put her hands on his ankles not wanting to touch him. “No,” I grunted, “lift him from under his knees.” The dead boy’s head rested stiffly against my chest. As short as I am, my legs and arms are strong. Getting his back up onto the table so that he would not slide off I said, “ok, Orpah,” just hold them so he does not fall.” I slid beside her lifting the already stiffing knees up for her.

“Here,” I said as I handed her the cloth to wash the filth from them, “I will pull his tunic off so that you may wash him.”

“No!” the girl screamed then her voice became a whimper, “no, no, no, he cannot be dead. See he will wake up, see...” My impatience boiled up inside of my stomach. The girl was barely fourteen summers, she was so much younger than I had been when I came to this house to become a wife.

“Sister,” I said forcing myself to speak to her quietly, “go see what you may do for your mother-in-law. She is out in the courtyard.” Grabbing her arm shaking her, a little harder than I intended, I pulled her face before my eyes.

“He is dead Orpah,” I said sternly into her face, “now you or I must do this, as see he is beginning to rot, it must be done quickly, tomorrow we must lay him in the caves.” Taking her shoulders I softly pushed her out into the courtyard. The shadows were soft there as the sun had begun to drop below the hills.

My mother-in-law, Naomi, had ripped her tunic and screamed when her sons had been brought to our house. First her husband had died after they came here from among her people, now both of her sons were gone. A lifetime of struggle only to see her children dead. She now simply sat in the courtyard staring without seeing, long rasping wails coming from her. The childish young widow sat down next to her clinging to the old woman.

Mahlon and Chilon were not expected to return for several days. My mind saw again how they were brought back from the high pastures some hours ago.

“We found them up in the high pastures,” the older shepherd said as they carried in my husband four of them each holding a corner of a blanket, “some others led us to them. My sons and I know of them from across the fields.”

“He still lives,” my neighbor’s oldest son said pointing a finger at the older man, “the other boy, the young one, he does not live.”

“Some others are bringing the boy,” the older man said as they laid my husband on the dirt floor of the lower level of our house.” As I knelt beside my husband I heard a scream from the upper rooms. It was my mother-in-law Naomi.

“Oh God,” she screamed as she climbed down the ladder from our rooms, “my boy.” she kneeled down beside me. “Malhon!” she said her eyes searching his face. “Does my boy hear me?” she asked me in a whisper. In truth he was barely breathing.

Two more men entered the small courtyard of our house calling to the shepherd, “we have him over the donkey’s back, is this…” Their eyes fell upon Naomi and I as their words ran out. From outside Orpah’s scream told us of whom they spoke.”

Like all houses here in Moab the lower level was also where we cooked, on one side there were stalls where we sometimes kept goats. There was no way to get the bodies up the ladder to the sleeping area so my husband had died laying on a blanket in the dust.

“Was my husband not dead also?” I said swallowing my bitterness. He lived but a short time after they brought him home. But someone had to do this thing, I would have to prepare my husband, Mallon, next. My mind rummaged among the things of my life so it would not have to think on what was before my eyes.

The Moabitess

by Neal Arnold


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