This story is a byproduct of the writing contest I just submitted to. I was struggling with the story I was working on and decided to try something else. Ultimately I went back to the other story for the contest submission, so thought I would post this one.
Ruth balanced the water jug on the top of her head to start the long walk back home. People bustled through the streets of Jerusalem, some off to market pushing against those on their way up the hill to the temple. She expertly stepped to the side as a laden donkey lumbered up the tiny street. Not a single drop of water fell upon her head as she sidestepped and she smiled.
She weaved her way through the throng until she reached a small side street. Ruth heard a commotion behind her and turned to find a mob headed her way. People shouted and jeered, forcing bystanders aside as they drove a solitary figure ahead of them. The crowd opened a wider birth around the figure than seemed possible in the narrow confines, but as the mob drew close, Ruth could see why. The woman that hobbled before the mob was trying to cover her face, but the corruption around her nose was still visible. A leper. “Unclean!” the woman shouted as she drew near.
The woman tripped and fell hard to the ground in front of Ruth. Ruth moved to help the woman, forgetting the water jug she held. The cool water that splashed on her head shocked her to awareness and she froze, no more than a hand’s breadth from the woman. Realizing her mistake, Ruth recoiled.
Brown eyes haunted and full of tears, the leper met Ruth’s eyes. Her face contorted with fear and anguish as she forced words from her blemished lips. “Unclean!” she shouted as she stumbled to her feet. She choked out a sob, covering her face with her shawl as she fled before the mob. Ruth ducked back into the side street, letting more water slosh out of her jar in her haste.
Little urchins among the mob started throwing small stones at the woman as she disappeared from Ruth’s sight further down the street.
Ruth breathed hard, unable to believe she had almost forgotten herself and touched the woman. Such a stupid mistake. Well, she had paid for it with precious water. Perhaps she would have to go again in the heat of the day as penance. Unable to shake off the experience, she felt uneasy for the rest of her journey home.
She pulled the water jug down from her head with practiced motions as she reached the small house. It was quiet here, protected from the cries of the mob and the street. She ducked in through the door.
Setting the water pitcher on the small table, she busied herself with her next set of chores.
“Ruth,” said a quiet voice. She spun, hand going to her mouth.
A dark figure loomed before the doorway to the bedroom, swathed in coverings. “Who’s there?” Ruth asked, her voice shaking.
“Ruth, it’s me. Simon.”
She breathed a sigh, her hand going to her chest. “Don’t scare me like that. Shouldn’t you be at the shop?”
“I don’t think I can go back there,” Simon said, his voice rough.
“What do you mean? They have no more work?” Ruth grew concerned. No work could mean they had to move again.
“No, not that. Something worse.”
Ruth couldn’t quite comprehend what he was saying. She moved forward, preparing to embrace him and tell him it would be all right.
He took a step back, holding out a hand toward her. “Don’t come closer.”
She stopped, mind reeling. “No. No, tell me it isn’t true.” The emotion came upon her with such force that she screamed at him. “Tell me it isn’t true.”
Simon, her husband, stepped forward slowly and pulled back the covering from around his head. Ruth choked on a sob, her body convulsing as she fell to the floor, her knees no longer supporting her weight. She wept there, body racked with sobs. Part of her expected to feel his arms around her as when her blood had covered the bed last year, proclaiming for the final time her barrenness. But his arms did not encircle her, and she knew why.
She looked up, eyes blurred with tears. “Simon,” was all she could force out of her lips.
Her husband sat slumped against the doorway to the bedroom, not looking at her. Instead, he was staring at his hands that were starting to show the same corruption as his face.
“I cut myself at the shop a while back,” he said. “It didn’t hurt. I hid it because I didn’t want it to be true. Little hard to hide now. I will go to the temple today,” he said, his voice firm. “And I will send word to my brother.”
“No,” Ruth said through tears, shaking her head. Simon kept talking, trying to comfort her, but she stopped listening. All she could think about was a leprous woman herded before a mob. Thrust from the city by an uncaring people only to waste away in exile.
Simon stood slowly. “This will not grow easier the longer I wait. I have already waited too long. I must go to the temple. It is the law.” Ruth could imagine it playing out, Simon before the priests being declared unclean and then driven from the city. “Seth will accept you into his home and take care of you.”
Ruth shook her head. She knew what her life would look like living with her brother-in-law, the barren widow of a leper. Her inability to conceive was like a plague unto itself, isolating her with just as much finality. No one would know from looking at her, but she would be an exile just as surely as Simon.
By all rights, Simon should have divorced her as soon as her curse was confirmed. But Simon was a different kind of man, and she loved him for it. No other man would marry her now. She would live out the rest of her days alone in another man’s house accepting charity.
Ruth stood to her feet. Simon was there watching her, the bearded face she loved marred by the onset of the disease. She set her jaw, then surged toward him. Ruth clutched at his surprised face and kissed him with everything she had in her.
He recoiled, pushing her away with a cry. “What have you done!”
Simon seized her arms in his meaty hands, shaking her. “What are you thinking? You wish to be cursed among men?”
Ruth looked away, the words sticking in her throat. “I am already cursed.” Her voice strengthened and she met his gaze. “I would rather be twice-cursed and with you than cursed and without.”
“You will become a leper!” he said, tears running down his face. “You will be exiled and die!”
“Then I shall have my wish to grow old and die with you,” she said. She took his calloused hands in hers, feeling the rough patches where the disease was taking hold. “We shall grow old in suffering, and then we shall pass from this world together.”
A half laugh burst from him. “You stubborn, ridiculous woman,” he said, his tone angry. But there was half a smile on his lips. “I shall love you until my breath leaves me.”
“As shall I,” she said. “Come, let us go to the temple.”
The water jug sat half full on the table, forgotten and alone.