Naomi took Orpah's hand as they walked with Ruth slowly down the road, away from the village she had lived in all her life. Orpah squeezed Naomi's hand back and reached out for Ruth's. The three lived together and suffered together as their husbands passed away. Each took their turn in comforting the other over the years, knowing well how it was in each other's shoes. It was a kinship and a bond that felt closer than she ever had with her own family or even husband. Just a few days ago, Naomi told them that she was going back home and Orpah was too busy getting ready to leave to stop and think what it all meant.
Orpah assumed without question that she and Ruth were going to accompany Naomi on this trip, even though Naomi never directly asked them to come. Naomi was strangely silent for the last month, in fact, saying very little. Under the circumstances, that wasn't unusual for a woman in mourning. Orpah reminded herself that whatever she suffered, Naomi suffered three times more with not just the loss of a husband but also two sons. The grueling task of simply surviving left Orpah very little time to reflect about why this happened to them, but the question came to her at night as she drifted off in dreamless slumber.
The question remained unasked but floated over her mind as she drove herself to exhaustion finding and preparing their meager portions of food as well as scant twigs for firewood. They were on the brink of begging on the corner and Orpah was tired of going to her childhood home to ask her father and mother for a measure of barley and oil to make into small cakes. Her family had enough of their own problems keeping food in their larder, she didn't want to be a burden as well. Where to find their next meal was constantly on her mind.
She was dismayed to see that Ruth packed very little food to take--barely enough to make it on a week long journey by foot. None of them could afford to lose any more weight, what if there was nothing when they got to Bethleham? What if it was just a cruel rumor that the famine in Isreal was over and the people there were just as thin and hungry as she was? How would she know for sure? As much as she loved these two women and as much as they had endured as fellow widows, she wasn't sure that she was willing to die in the middle of the wilderness with them. Now that she had time to think, she wish that her thoughts would stop.
They hadn't walked very far before Naomi came to a complete halt. Orpah looked behind them, the village was still visible just over the rise of a gentle hill. Ahead of them was wind, sun and lots and lots of sandy dirt. Naomi turned to her daughters-in-law and looked them both in the eye. Orpah noticed for the first time how much older Naomi appeared. It took her breath away. Suddenly, she felt older, too. How many lines were etched around her eyes and furrows across her forehead? Who would marry her, now?
Naomi just stood silently in front of them, as the wind whistled around the trio and whipping their cloaks into the air. Naomi dropped Orpah's hand but Orpah tightened her grip around Ruth's. Orpah respected and loved Naomi , but she had disappeared so within herself and her grief that Orpah didn't know her anymore. Now looking her in the eye, she realized that they had become strangers.
Naomi used to talk non-stop, back in the good days. She told stories, she sang and she taught them everything about herself, her God and her people and their ways. They never had much, but they had Naomi who went out of her way to welcome them into the family and make them feel comfortable in their new home with her. Oh, the laughter! The jokes! Working alongside Naomi was never work! Orpah had hoped that the old Naomi would come back, that this move back to Bethleham would bring her to life, but looking at her at that moment, she realized that it was not going to happen. It was going to take much more to revive her old friend.
Orpah knew that it was more than death that made Naomi despair. She didn't know what it was, and if Naomi revealed it, would she understand? She didn't understand the stories that she shared which kept Ruth in a state of rapture so much she would drop whatever was in her hands as she worked beside Naomi who narrated stories to them. Most of what Naomi said went right over Orpah's head.
And now, what was on Naomi's tongue to say to break her long wordlessness? If only her husband and sons could see her now--a silent Naomi used to be incomprehensible. But no one, not even Orpah, minded that she loved to talk because everything was said with joy and kindness.
Finally, Naomi began to speak, and Orpah felt like every word was a blow to her heart. There was kindness but no joy. Instead, a bitterness that pierced her like a sword. She reeled and sobbed. Her dearest mother-in-law was certainly gone and someone else had taken her place. Where was the real Naomi? Did she really even exist? Who was this woman?