1

A Present Rage

A cry is heard in Judah, lamentation and bitter weeping.

The Women of Bethlehem are weeping for their daughter and refusing to be consoled because she is no more.

Four hundred women in black robes stand on rooftops.

They tear their hair. They stretch their arms wide under heaven. They throw back their heads and whirl, robes billowing.

"Milcah!" they howl, wolves keening on the air.

"Milcah!"

Milcah of the white hands, sixteen years old, the young wife whose cheeks they kissed not three days ago and unto whom they waved farewell as she departed with her husband for his home in Ephraim — Milcah is no more.

She will never come home again.

Until the evening meal this had been an unremarkable day. By midafternoon the women were preparing for supper by grinding grain in their handmills — producing the genial sound of a village at work. Children small enough still to be playing in the lanes began to smell barley cakes baking. Time to twaddle home. As the sun descended and shadows grew too long for labor, the farmers came back through the gate. They paused in the public square to discuss the date harvest — difficult because the palms grew far down great escarpments near the shores of the Salt Sea.

Just before they separated, while each farmer turned to his house, a man came sprinting into town. He fell to his knees and gasped for air.

He wore a loincloth only. He had the long, ropy muscles of a distance runner. He carried the leather envelope of a messenger. It went spinning across the ground with the force of his fall. His hair was stuck to his forehead with sweat.

The farmers formed a ring around the man.

One of them shouted toward a near house: "Miriam! Bring water!"

The urgency of his voice and the hubbub in the square drew wives and mothers out of doors. The small children jumped up on bench-backs in order to see. It isn't often that events break the easy routines of Bethlehem.

"A full skin of water!" The farmer squatted beside the messenger. "Take your time," he said. He helped the breathless fellow to a stone bench, then sat down beside him.

Miriam arrived. "Salmon," she said and handed a goat's bladder to her husband. Peering around the woman's skirts was a wide-eyed little girl, winding long hair around a forefinger.

"Papa?"

Salmon tipped the messenger's head back and squirted a stream of water into his mouth. The poor fellow's eyes were red with September dust and salt sweat. Salmon poured water over the messenger's head, moistened the edge of his own tunic and washed the runner's eyes.

"Can you speak?"

The runner nodded, then croaked, "Yes." He paused a moment, then said, "A Levite . . ."

"Take your time."

"A Levite . . ."

At the same time a tall man bent down, picked up the messenger's leather envelope and began to open its flap.

The messenger yelled, "No! Don't do that!"

Salmon looked up. "Boaz," he snapped. "Stop!"

Boaz showed no intention of stopping. He opened the envelope altogether. Everyone was watching him now. He glanced in. He shuddered and tipped the bag over and out fell a human hand.

Immediately Miriam grabbed her child and hurried away.

Men grew solemn; some of the women covered their mouths. Some stepped closer, disbelieving.

Yes. (Oh, Lord God!) It was a human hand chopped clean off above the wrist, its skin as white and as dry as ivory. The hand was loosely fisted. Two bones showed in the chop, the marrows shrunk into pits.

"Put it down," Salmon commanded. "Put it down!"

Boaz had regained his insouciance. "Shouldn't we burn it?" he grinned. "As an offering?"

The messenger raised his voice. "A Levite from Ephraim sent me to Judah and especially — " He stopped and swallowed. "Especially to Bethlehem," he said, and more softly, "to you. One of your daughters has perished."

A perfect silence fell on the village. Even the children who could not understand his words began to suffer their parents' distress.