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Naomi lifted the hem of her robe as her feet fairly flew down Bethlehem's streets toward the outskirts of town. Neta, second wife of her brother-in-law Melek, trailed two steps behind. The sun beat high overhead, its rays licking the sweat along her brow. Some of the townswomen who were not inside their homes resting at this hour hurried to catch up with her.
"What is it?" one of them shouted, breathless.
"Please, Naomi, slow down." The voices included Neta's, and Naomi realized the woman could not run nearly as fast as she, especially when something urgent beckoned. Memories of childhood races with her brothers surfaced, but she stopped the smile such thoughts always evoked. This was not a time to smile.
She slowed her steps and glanced behind her. "Boaz's wife Adi is in trouble." She turned and kept running, shouting as she went. "I'm going to see if I can help."
The heat made breathing difficult but she pressed on. Surely Gilah and Liora and the midwife should have delivered Adi of the child by now. Surely Neta was wrong.
But the fear in her gut would not abate.
She came to the edge of the village where Boaz's house spread along the wall that bordered his vast fields—fields inherited from his highly respected father, Salmon, the spy who had helped capture Jericho.
As Naomi stopped before the great doors and rapped on the wood, memory surfaced again of Boaz's parents, Salmon and Rahab. Neta drew up beside her, her breath coming fast.
Please, Adonai, blessed be Your name. Let Adi live. How Boaz doted on this wife who had remained barren for so long, had waited even when his sisters Gilah and Liora suggested he take a second wife. And now . . . surely the Creator would not give the woman life in her womb only to steal hers in return?
The door opened before Naomi could ponder that thought, and the two women were ushered into the cool interior of the limestone house. She wiped the sweat from her brow, not allowing the servant even a moment to wash their feet.
"Take me to her," she commanded, forcing the rising panic to remain hidden. The servant led them down a long hallway to a room Naomi recognized as having once belonged to Rahab. The memories rushed through her again—so many days of helping care for Rahab during her failing health and so soon after Boaz had lost his father . . . Please, Adonai, don't put Boaz through such grief again. Though she had been a young, inexperienced bride herself at the time, she came. Elimelech was Salmon's cousin, after all, and family came first, no matter how awkward she felt or how useless she seemed. Anyone could carry water or grind flour or bake bread.
Perhaps she would find that was all she could do now for Adi or her child, but one look into the darkened room stopped her short. The acrid scent of blood and sweat assaulted her. Female servants stood immobile along the wall while Gilah and Liora helped a weak, fragile Adi to her bed. The midwife stood in a corner, holding an unmoving bundle.
Naomi blinked, adjusting to the lack of bright sunlight, her heart constricting, blood draining from her limbs. Neta touched her arm as the two took in the scene. Adi's body grew limp, and it took both of Boaz's sisters to settle her among the cushions.
"It's all right, Adi," Gilah said softly. "Come. Let us clean you up and you can rest."
Naomi glanced at the midwife, then grabbed a stack of blankets and carried them to the courtyard to heat them over the fire. Once the blankets were warmed, she hurried into the room again and handed them to Neta. "Make sure she is warm enough." She whirled about and faced the useless servants. "Find some broth—surely there is some left from last night's stew—and bring it quickly." They hurried to obey while she turned her attention to Adi. She touched Gilah's arm. "Was it a hard labor?"
Gilah nodded but did not speak. One look at the woman told Naomi all she needed to know. She motioned Gilah out of the way and quickly examined Adi. She had been through this with several of the women of the village, some of whom had died in childbirth. She could not let that happen to her husband's cousin's wife.
"There now, my child. Rest. All will be well." Naomi accepted a warm compress from Liora and put it on Adi's forehead. Suddenly, she could take the dark no longer. "Pull the curtains aside,” she demanded as she continued to press the cloth over Adi's face, gently smoothing it. The light would encourage the woman to live, whereas the darkness tended to pull the soul toward despair. Adi did not need to add darkness to her loss.
Moments later servants entered with the broth. Naomi took the piece of flatbread and dipped it in the bowl. "Open your mouth, Adi. You must eat, even if it is only a few drops." She coaxed the slight girl, who obeyed in silence, until at last Adi shook her head, unwilling to open her mouth anymore.
"My baby," she whispered, her eyes turned toward the window where the midwife bent over the child, wrapping him for burial.
"A boy," Naomi said, cupping Adi's face. "Adonai Elohim, blessed be He, has taken him to Himself." It was not something a woman in such a weakened condition should have to hear, but the truth could not be avoided.
Tears slipped over Adi's cheeks, wetting Naomi's hand. "I want to hold him."
"You will be unclean." Gilah, always one to pick at every letter of the law, spoke from the foot of the bed.
"She is already unclean with the birth." Naomi forced back the irritation Gilah's words evoked. "Bring the child here."
The midwife gave Naomi a quizzical look, but she brought the wrapped babe to Adi and lowered her arms to show the mother a perfectly shaped infant.
Adi lifted weak hands, and Naomi helped her settle the child against her chest. Weeping filled the room, Adi's voice a deep, guttural sound.
"It is time to send for Boaz," Naomi said to a servant standing idle. "Tell Reuven to find him. He will want to see his son, and we must prepare for the burial before nightfall, which will come too soon." She faced Liora. "Where are the ointments to treat the cloths?"
"They are in the cooking rooms." Liora slipped away while Adi rocked back and forth, her groans turning to deep sobs.
"Should I get Melek?" Neta leaned close to Naomi, her eyes wide with near terror at the utter sorrow coming from Adi. She looked like a bird about to give flight.
"You!" Naomi called to the departing servant. "When you have found Reuven, go yourself and get Elimelech and Melek." She patted Neta's arm. "The men will come." Despite her relation to Melek, she had never cared for Elimelech's brother, but his presence at the burial could not be helped. "In the meantime," she said, facing Neta, "go and gather the women of the town. They will want to organize the trip to the cave."
Naomi glanced back at Adi, who clutched the child to her chest, eyes closed, her cries filling the bedchamber.
Naomi stood and backed away. She leaned close to Gilah's ear. "She is not strong enough to walk to the cave. How will we get her to release the child?"
"Boaz will be able to convince her," Gilah whispered. "She always listens to him." An action Naomi knew Gilah scorned, for everyone was aware that Boaz's older sister controlled her husband at every turn.
"Let us hope so." Naomi did not doubt Adi's submission, but where this long-awaited child was concerned, she had her doubts that even Boaz would be able to convince Adi to let them lay the boy to rest without his mother.
The afternoon sun warmed the soles of Boaz's feet, and the rocky terrain dug into his knees as he knelt, face to the earth, in the fields beyond his house and the walled village of Bethlehem. He should go home, stand at her side whether the midwife wanted him there or not, but ever mindful of the law and the embarrassment to Adi, he had fled when they shooed him away. He told himself this was just the way of women, and men had no part in such things as birth. Hadn't his own father told stories of how he had paced Joshua's tent during his mother's labor with him?
Adi would be no different. Please, Adonai, give her peace. Let the child be safely born and my Adi's pain leave. Her screams as he'd reached the edge of the outer court had nearly made him turn back. His gut clenched with the sound of it still ringing in his ears.
Tears filled his eyes, trickled into his mouth. She had wanted a child so badly. He had done all in his power to make her happy through the barrenness and miscarriages, and still they waited. Why had the Creator caused the wait to be so long? Yet he had refused to question the Lord in an actual prayer, lest he accuse the Almighty somehow of wrongdoing. He understood waiting, so he assured his beloved that they would wait. Hadn't his own birth been something of a miracle? His mother had considered herself incapable of begetting and bearing children—and yet God had stepped in. As God had finally stepped in for Adi.
He wiped the sweat from his brow and glanced toward the distant town. How much longer should he stay away? He slowly stood and brushed the dirt from his robe, donned his sandals once more, and walked the edges of his fields. Planting season was still a few months away. By then Adi would have gone through her purification and the child might be old enough to take with him on a short walk in the sunshine while the sowers sowed the wheat and barley.
The sun had passed its midpoint now, a time when the workers would have returned to harvesting the grapes in his nearby vineyards. He should ride out and see how things were getting on, but could not bring himself to go too far, in case . . .
His overseer Ezra would make sure all went well.
The assurance comforted him a brief moment, quickly replaced by the nagging fear he could not shake. His pacing accomplished nothing except to exacerbate the agonizing pain of not knowing.
He turned back toward the town, where his estate sprawled on the north ridge, and squinted against the sun's bright glare. Was that Reuven, his manservant? He shaded his eyes and peered intently. At the sight of old Reuven running, robe girded into his belt, Boaz's heart melted and his knees nearly gave way. His stomach soured as it had the moment he'd first heard Adi's screams.
Reuven never ran.
Boaz stared, his feet rooted to the earth, his mind whirling. Adi. Something was terribly wrong. The thought jolted his deadened limbs and forced him to move. In one fluid motion, he tucked his own robe into his belt and bolted forward to meet his servant. They both stopped several cubits from the city gates, chests heaving.
"What has happened?" Boaz placed a hand on the servant's shoulder. "Tell me."
Reuven drew in a few short, gasping breaths. "Adi . . ." His wife's name on the servant's lips, so choked, so anguished, sucked even the mild hint of breeze from the air around them.
Boaz fought the urge to drag the words from the man. "I must go to her. Is the child safely born?" He turned to run, but Reuven stayed him with his hand. The fear that had wakened Boaz every night this past week returned with too certain clarity. "Don't tell me," he whispered.
But Reuven spoke at the same moment. "Adi has birthed a stillborn child, my lord." The words were a double-edged sword, sinking deep into his gut.
"And Adi?" His tongue felt thick, the sound gravel. His arms were weighted, lifeless.
"She lives." Reuven grasped Boaz by the arm and guided his feet forward. "But she is very weak. Naomi begged you to hurry. We must build a bier for the babe and gather men to open the cave. Of course, the child must be buried by nightfall."
Boaz nodded numbly, his world a sudden whirl of impossible images, his body moving with Reuven’s aid to the city gate.
"Naomi has taken charge," Reuven said as they stepped under the stone arch. "She fears Adi will not release the child, and Adi is too weak to walk to the cave."
"Adi will live then?" He barely heard the rest of Reuven's words. He had heard the tales of women who lost their senses after the loss of a child, and of those who died soon after when the grief grew too great.
"Naomi is doing all in her power to help Adi do just that, my lord."
Boaz blinked, all at once aware of his surroundings. "The child . . . was it . . . ?"
"A boy, my lord."
A boy. The sword twisted deeper. His firstborn—a son at last—lost to Sheol.
"Come, my lord, we must hurry." Reuven tugged his sleeve, and Boaz moved as one in a dream. Of course they must. Tradition required the dead be buried within a day or by nightfall, whichever came first, as they did not embalm bodies as the Egyptians did.
He looked up and saw the elders sitting beneath wide awnings on the roof of the gate. "I need men to help me bury my dead," he called up to them. "Send them at once." Though truly, if it was just the infant, did he really need the whole town to follow, to watch his grief?
He did not wait for a response. He knew the men well enough to know they would find out and come regardless. News traveled fast in Bethlehem.
And suddenly, he could no longer move as one in a dream. He rushed ahead of Reuven until he thought his lungs would burst. Sweat coated his back. In the distance, the sound of men's voices told him Reuven had stayed behind to answer questions. Boaz could not bring himself to face words of sympathy.
He opened the door and slipped into the cool halls, stopping suddenly at the nearly complete absence of sound. No more grunts or cries or commands coming from the birthing room. Even the servants, if they were still about their work, seemed to be walking on tiptoe or bare feet lest they disturb the sacred silence.
A new fear drew him up short. Had something happened to Adi while Reuven was out fetching him from the fields?
"Adi?" He called her name as he always did and tilted his head to listen. The indistinct sounds of women's voices drew him closer to the birthing room.
"I'm here." Her voice was so faint. He forced back a sob and hurried into the room. He stopped at the threshold. Adi's gaze met his, but in an instant his eyes traveled to the unmoving wrapped bundle in her arms. Oh, Adi! This time a sob did escape him, but he swallowed hard, forcing his emotions under control. He would not weep. Not in front of her, lest she be driven to despair.
He dragged himself into the room. Naomi stood from where she'd been kneeling at Adi's side and allowed him to come forward. He knelt beside his wife and cupped her cheek. "You are well?"
She shook her head, tears filling her eyes. She turned the babe so he could see the face of his son. "He's so perfect."
He searched her face for some sign that she understood that the child's gray pallor was not perfect at all. She held him up but did not release him.
Boaz stared at her, uncertain. He glanced at Naomi, who motioned for him to take the child. He looked into his wife's eyes, saw the expression of sadness, the love. He swallowed hard, then slowly placed a hand on the child’s wrapped body. "Let me hold him?" The fragile look in her eyes sent a stab of fear to his heart.
She nodded but would not release her hold until his third attempt to take the boy. He breathed a sigh when at last he held the unmoving bundle, but as he turned to hand the child to Naomi, Adi clutched his arm with strength he did not think she possessed.
"Don't take him!" Her voice rose with her weeping. Adi leaned her head against his arm.
He looked at Naomi, his thoughts churning. "We cannot keep him, beloved," he soothed. "He needs the midwife to clean him for you." God forgive him. He had lied to his own wife!
"No! She will hurt him. I will do it."
Naomi came up beside him and managed to grab the child from his arms, but the action brought on more screams from Adi. "Don't take him!" She turned on him, her gaze wild like that of a she-bear. "They won't bring him back, Boaz. You must go and get him."
It took all of his strength to hold her down. Somehow in the chaos he sensed his sister Liora put cloths on Adi's forehead and heard Naomi call for the town physician. Adi needed herbs for calming, Naomi said in the distance, but Boaz could barely hear her above his wife's screams.
"It's all right, Adi. There will be more sons." He heard his voice calming, soothing her, but her normal willingness to listen to him had fled.
His thoughts churned, his prayers silent, desperate. Adonai, my Elohim, what can I do? How do I help her? Where, how, do we go on from here?
He could not bear to consider why this had happened. Did not the Creator have the right to give and take away? And yet, had Boaz not been righteous? Had he not kept the laws? What possible good could there be in denying them this child? In denying Adi, whose screams made him want to flee but for his need to hold her, to console her, until someone could help.
Please send help.
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