PART I REBA
“Marah! Come at once!” the voice called sharply.
At the sound of her name she sighed heavily and paused from cleaning the ashes out of the clay oven. She sat back on the ground to relieve her sore knees. Hearing the happy chatter of small children playing in the dust of the street outside the gate, she listened wistfully and sighed. She was nearly thirteen, a woman now, too old for childish games.
Wiping her hands on her dark shawl, she rose slowly and stretched as she looked out over the village. The air seemed less heavy. The village dogs that lay panting in the sparse shade most of the day rose warily, seeking to quench their thirst in the water channels that cooled the street. While the surrounding valley of Shechem retained a verdant green, the town itself shimmered in the summer heat of Elul.
The time of noonday rest must be over. Marah heard voices and activity from the heart of Shechem. Picturing the streets as they came alive with shopkeepers opening their stalls for the afternoon trade, she smiled to herself as she allowed her imagination to take her through the marketplace. At each merchant’s shop brimming with goods, she browsed leisurely, ignoring the persuasive pleas of the vendors. She would take her time, choosing carefully the things she wanted to buy –
She glanced reluctantly towards the house but only for a moment. Did her aunt have still another task in mind? She lifted her chin and strolled towards the gate to watch the children play. It seemed an eternity since she had been free to be a child.
“Marah! Come at once,” the now angry voice called out again.
She had delayed too long. Lifting the heavy braids off her neck in an impatient gesture, Marah turned and walked slowly towards the house. A rivulet of perspiration ran down her back
Like other things around the house, the wooden door to their dwelling was in need of repair. It hung loosely on worn leather hinges. Marah moved it carefully as she slipped inside and stood quietly.
A narrow ray of sunshine spilled into the darkness and fell upon the rounded figure of a woman leaning back upon the cushions of the pallet. The petulant face was deeply creased
around the mouth from constant frowns and made the woman who was in her late twenties, appear much older.
“I am here,” Marah prompted softly.
Immediately the woman began to gasp, as if struggling to catch her breath. At the sign of such apparent distress, Marah moved closer and touched her Aunt Reba’s shoulder.
“Don’t touch me!” Reba roughly brushed the girl’s hand away. “I can’t bear to be touched when I am suffering.”
Marah quickly stepped back.
“Don’t stand there looking foolish. Have you never looked death in the face? Just bring me some cool water.” Reba moaned again.
Her aunt was not dying, Marah was sure, yet it frightened her to think it might be serious. Reba was all she had. Turning quickly to the water jar, Marah averted her eyes lest her aunt see the fear that sprang so quickly to the surface.
As she lifted the dipper, Marah was surprised to see the jar was nearly empty. It had been full this morning.
She handed the dipper to Reba who, with much effort, raised her bulk onto one elbow to drink a swallow or two.
“Aunt,” Marah began hesitantly, as the woman fell back among the cushions moaning pitifully, “the water jar is nearly empty.”
Reba moaned louder. “I feel feverish. You must go and get more water or I shall not last the night in this heat. Go to the Well of Jacob and fill the water jar before it grows later.”
Puzzled, Marah stared at her aunt. “The Well of Jacob? But Aunt, surely the village well is closer. I could go and be back quickly.”
“Did I say the village well? Don’t be a dull-witted girl. If I wanted the water from the
village well I would say so. Now go!”
Marah stiffened at the insult, but still she hesitated. Reba had become unusually strict in the last few days and had forbidden her to leave the house or speak to anyone.
As if reading her thoughts, Reba raised herself up again.
“You have not been out in the last few days. The walk will do you good. Take Hannah with you. You shouldn’t go alone.”
Still Marah lingered.
“Must you stand there wasting precious time? Go!” Reba waved her hands impatiently.
“Yes Aunt”. Marah’s voice was barely audible.
Reba covered her eyes with one hand and the other hand clutched her heart. “Go quickly,” she moaned.
“Will you be all right until I return? Perhaps Dorcas could stay with you?”
“Did I ask for Dorcas? I will just rest until you return. Now go!”
Puzzled and yet relieved to be free of the confinement of the small house for a little while, Marah adjusted her shawl to cover her hair, lifted the water jar to her shoulder and moved gracefully towards the door. Her body, curving into womanhood, filled out the simple garment she wore. Even in her youth she was already tall as were most of the women of Samaria.
Marah looked back for a moment at the woman on the pallet. There was something…but perhaps she only imagined it. She hurried from the house and quickened her step. It would be good to talk to Hannah today.
At twenty-three, Hannah became a surrogate mother when Marah’s mother died three years before. When two years later, Marah’s father also died, leaving her in the care of her aunt, Hannah’s warmth made her life less lonely.
Her father, Jared, grieved for his wife, and feeling his young daughter needed care, had sent for Reba, his only sister, to come to Shechem and care for their household. How could they have foreseen the change her aunt would bring to their lives? Reba’s small darting eyes had never missed an opportunity to point out a fault.
As Marah neared the house of Hannah and her husband, Simon, her friend stepped out of her doorway.
“So, you finally come to see me, and with your water jar? I have missed you these past few days.”
Marah shrugged slightly. “Reba wouldn’t let me leave the house.”
Hannah’s warm brown eyes highlighted a plain square face. A gentle smile made her appear almost pretty.
“Is the time of women upon you again, child?”
“No, I’m fine” She looked at Hannah eagerly, “Reba said you could go with me to get water. It is cooler now. Can you go?” She looked hopefully at her friend and waited.
“Could I refuse you any request?”
Hannah turned back into the house and reached for her own water jar.
Suddenly, Marah hesitated. “Reba is feverish but has told me to go to the well of our Father Jacob for the water. I am not to go alone.”
With her hand paused in mid-air, Hannah turned and looked closely at Marah, then snorted, “If I should live to see a hundred harvests, God willing, I shall never understand your aunt.”
Hannah reached again for her water jar. “Of course I will come. Your aunt is right. You shouldn’t walk so far from the village alone.”
Marah waited impatiently, anxious to be away lest Reba change her mind and fetch her back to the confines of the house.
She thought of the many springs that flowed nearby that fed the village well. Why would Reba ask her to go all the way to Jacob’s well when she felt feverish?
Hannah interrupted as though reading her thoughts. “If Reba feels the water from the well of our Father Jacob will make her feel better, let us go quickly,” she said with resignation.
Hannah cared little for Marah’s aunt.
“You do all the work of the household while Reba spends her time in idle pursuits and walking through the street of the merchants,” Hannah said more than once. “She takes advantage of you. And all those aches and pains are in her head!”
“She gives me a home” Marah replied once.
“A home?” Hannah snorted. “And what home have you got, Reba’s? It belongs to a distant kinsman. It should have been yours. You are the only child.”
Marah sighed. It was difficult to defend her aunt to Hannah.
“The Leverite law requires you to keep your land within the tribe, yet Reba claims there was not a kinsman redeemer to be found who could marry you,” Hannah had stated flatly. “And what will be your dowry when you do marry? How will you live when the money from the sale of the house and land is gone?”
Shaking her head with righteous indignation, Hannah looked out at the street leading to Marah’s home and folded her arms. “She brings more sorrow to the house. Have you not borne enough with the death of your parents and then to be saddled with that woman?”
Marah kept silent.
“A selfish woman, that Reba.” Hannah rolled her eyes at the ceiling. “Who knows what she will do.”
“I will be all right.” Marah affirmed gently, smiling back at Hannah with trust in her eyes. She understood Hannah’s desire to protect her, for despite prayers and hopes, Hannah’s marriage to Simon had not produced any children. Hannah poured all the mother love of her nature into Marah as if she were her own.
They walked quietly for a time, their sandals making a soft slap, slapping sound in the dust of the road.