Whither Thou Goest
by Gerri Leen
In the stories of those who survive, I am a heroine. In the stories of my own people, those of us descended from Lot's daughter, from her incestuous union with her own father, I am also a heroine. If two such noble peoples see me as such, who am I to complain?
They both love me because I endure. Because I survive. Because I cling with holy—or is it unholy—fervor to the woman who bore the man I sucked dry. Once she knew what I was, Naomi would have killed me if she could, but her life is forfeit if I should cease to draw breath. I saw to that when I said the ancient words, binding me to her, twining my very breath with hers.
"Wherever you go, I will go…."
Beautiful, aren't they, these words of power? Of control. Lot's daughters were forced to follow their father into the desert, their mother covering herself with salt for protection against the demon that had overtaken her husband—a demon who burned her in place, leaving only her salted, charred corpse. Lot's daughters, unnamed in the books of the survivors, but known to my people, learned to turn the words of servitude into words of angry potency after their father raped them. The survivors changed the story, turned the girls into the ones who sought their father to ensure their progeny's life, but we remember. Those of us who hold fast, who suck dry. Who never leave once we latch on.
"Wherever you lodge, I will lodge…."
None can rid themselves of us once we take hold. Not while we cling.
"Don't beg me to leave you, or to stop following you…."
Once there were words of rebuke, designed to claw my kind from the lives of the faithful. But they were lost long before I found Naomi, and her husband, and her sons. My sister Orpah and I flipped a coin, the hammered side meaning she would take hold and follow this woman to a new land. But the carved side fell instead, and it was up to me.
It hurt to say goodbye to my sister. Perhaps the only hurt I'd felt for a long time.
Naomi could tell. "Look, your sister is going back to her people, and to her gods; follow her." Orpah did go back to our gods, and I pledged myself to Naomi's one God, the boundless skies crackling with delight at my heresy.
I was consecrated in blood years before. I belonged to the old ones. I would keep my husband's mother in a stranglehold, but not so tight that she ran out of air. For I spoke true when I said, "Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried." I was tied to her as surely as she was to me. And I have a fear of being trapped underground. We were born in caves and we fled them as soon as we could, dancing under the stars, lying naked under the fierce winds of the desert, letting the blowing sand scour any remaining sanctity from us.
Naomi begged me to stay with Orpah. She wept. She bribed. She even tried to stab me in the night. Fortunately, I am a light sleeper—I cause nightmares; I do not have them.
In the end, she gave up. I called her hag, doomed one, lost lamb. It amused me to watch her become silent as we traveled together.
But near Bethlehem, when we stopped for water, I overheard her telling a stout young man who was watering his flock that I was a demon. He laughed at her, but later I caught him following us. I bade him join us, and he basked in the venomous warmth of my smile. I let him into our camp—let him into me—as I sucked him dry, and drained the vitality and goodness out of him. I left him a husk of a man on the road to Bethlehem. His seed died within me. He was not of Naomi's line; my womb rejected his offering.
Naomi wept bitter tears for him. She thought he looked like my husband, her son. I thought so, too. I enjoyed the similarities heartily.
"You are unnatural," she said as I stood in the creek we'd camped by and washed the last of him out of me.
"Oh, I exist in the natural world. I don't disappear in the light of day." Some of my kind do; they hunt only in the dark, drinking their victim's life away much faster, more directly through the blood. They live long, the dark dwellers, not tied to their victims. But my kind live our shorter lives in the open, and that makes us stronger, more alive.
"You are heinous. A cursed thing. Nothing good lives in you."
She was right. Inside, if I let myself feel it, beat the remnants of the broken heart of Lot's girl, robbed of her mother, then of her innocence. Her pain passed through our line, diluted in most of the Moabites. But strong in some of us, those who learned how to turn pain into suffering—into slow, ingenious torture of the soul. We live to break others; it was the only way we could survive, then later, it was the only way we could thrive.
I thought Naomi a broken woman when we arrived in Bethlehem. But she stood before her old neighbors, telling the truth—if those who listened could have understood her words. She said, "Don't call me Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, and the Lord had brought me home again empty. Why call me Naomi, seeing how the Lord has judged me, how the Almighty has afflicted me?"
None understood. None saw that I was the curse she spoke of. They saw only a young woman devoted to her. I hugged her as she finished her speech. "I like it here," I said as I pulled her close and bit down on her neck, not breaking skin, but sucking hard enough to leave a bruise just behind her ear.
"Leave me," she said, and her voice seemed to shatter, as if her last hope had been here, in this place, with these people. Had she thought that her homeland could save her from me?
"I can never leave you. But I can add to our family." And I turned to look at her kinsman Boaz, a handsome, wealthy man who smiled with delight on both of us.
"No." Naomi's voice was little more than breath, warm across my face as she pulled me to face her. "Do what you will with me. But leave him alone."
"What you love, I will love."
She fell away from me with a cry, and I let her go. My eyes met Boaz's, and he was mine. Even if he didn't know it, even if his blood was not yet singing for me, I could feel the spark of attraction that would someday bind him to me.
I lowered my eyes, keeping them downcast as a young maiden should. I hurried after Naomi and did not look back. But if I had, Boaz would have been staring after me.
And now I make plans for him. He knows me only as the Moabite who followed her beloved mother-in-law home. "How do I win him?" I ask Naomi, when I find her in our new house, small and not very tidy. Where are all the riches of my father-in-law?
"I will not help you."
"This Boaz will care for us. He will spoil us and make us the envy of every woman in town." I do not relish sharing this with Naomi, but the binding works both ways. I cannot forsake her, not once the words have been spoken.
She will not answer.
"I will kill him if I cannot win him." I lean in, press my lips against hers and feel her shudder at my touch. "Shall I do that? Shall I kill him?"
She pulls away and I let her. Her lips are chapped where mine rested against them.
"You lack the humility to win him," she says.
"A challenge. I do love those."
To my surprise, she tells me of the old ways, the gleaning and the barley and corn I must lay claim to. Her eyes gleam in a strange way when she speaks of water vessels that can only be touched with Boaz's permission. Of the danger of following strange men in a field.
"You think they will harm me? You think they can harm me?"
"If you dishonor us, they will stone us both." She does not care anymore, the old witch. She may dishonor us herself if given half the chance.
I pull her to me, lips pressed again to hers, sucking in this time, pulling her strength, leaving just enough to let her get around the house but nothing more. She falls when I let her go and I do not help her up.
"They will not stone us, old woman."
I leave her and seek out Boaz's fields, keeping my head down, picking up the hatefully sharp gleaning—pieces of grain that would not have been good enough for my horses back in the house Orpah and I grew up in.
I do not join in with the other girls; I go home to Naomi when it is time rather than sitting and laughing as they do. I do not talk to the young men, and I grow to understand that Boaz, who rides through the fields upon occasion, has told them to stay away from me.
I make sure the townsfolk see me helping Naomi, bringing a chair for her and putting it outside the front door when the sun goes down and the dust settles. She is weak, and she hasn't the energy to glare at me, but her hatred pulses between us.
"I will have him, hag. And then we will live in his fine house. And dine at his rich table. And I will suck the life from him just as I did your husband and sons." I lean in. "But not before he has given me a son."
"A son who is an abomination," she murmurs.
"Not until his lips fasten on my breast. His path is unclear until then." I lean back and stroke my belly as if life already grows in it. When my son nurses from me, I will feed him the pain of Lot's daughter, and he will grow strong in the memories. "Orpah has the sight, mother mine. She had a vision the day we left, told me that from my loins would come kings."
"We have no king here."
"Not yet." I grab her hand as I see Boaz approach. I can feel Naomi trying to muster energy to speak, and I suck hard on her essence until she grows too weak to talk.
"Kinswoman, you prosper?" Boaz crouches at her feet, and I watch him through my hair as I keep my face turned down. "And you, Ruth?"
"We are well fed, thanks to you."
"It is very little that I give you."
"It is more than we had." I lift my head, let him gaze on me. I know I am beautiful.
"I must go." He does not look as if he wishes to go.
I reach out, let my hand fall on his forearm, and read everything I need to know from the way his pulse races in the veins beneath my touch. He wants me. He will do anything for me. Except ask me outright. Except marry me. I am...I am beneath him?
Anger flows through me. Who is he to think himself my better? I pull my hand away before I can convey that anger to him, before I begin to drain him out of rage.
With a last smile, he walks away, calling out to those he passes.
"Ruth," Naomi says, her voice shaking—in anger, I sense, as much as exhaustion.
I grab her hand and give her back some of the energy I've stolen. "What, old woman?"
"He was nothing when I left. My husband towered above him." Naomi's voice is brittle. "He gives us his leavings."
"Yes." I stroke her hand. "And a moment of his time."
I can feel a war inside her. It surprises me, but she's been burdened with me for so long, a second, hateful skin, that perhaps I am rubbing off on her? "You want me to have him?"
She looks torn. Then she touches the faded robe she wears and smiles wistfully. "I would like a glass of wine. Fine wine, like we had in Moab."
"Wouldn't we all." But I give her back a little more energy. This is interesting. "Myself, I'm getting tired of picking up grain."
"It is beneath you." Naomi meets my eyes with a look of hate, but one that seems devoid of its usual self-righteousness. "And it is beneath me, too."
"And we are one, Mother." She normally hates it when I call her that, but she seems not to even notice it this time. As I help her inside, I ask, "Surely, there is a way to get what we deserve?"
"An old ritual. But one that cannot be denied."
She does, her voice faltering as she details what I must do, so I fill her with energy again. "Hide among the grain," she says. "Wait until Boaz drinks with the men and falls asleep on the threshing floor, then lie at his feet and let him wake to find you there."
It reeks of the stories Naomi's people tell of Lot's daughters. Get a man drunk, have your way with him. All to get an heir. A son. A life beyond this one.
But to get a king, I will do it. Naomi looks at me as I bathe; she doesn't avert her eyes as she so often does.
"What?" I ask.
"You do not look evil." She leans in. "But you are. Your evil corrupts like rot on bread."
"I think I'm a bit more subtle." I laugh as I wind the finest cloth we have around me. And then I kiss her, not draining her this time, for once feeling she is indeed my mother, and she lets me hold her, doesn't pull from my lips. "We will live better than this."
Naomi shudders as I pull away, her hands clutching at me, as if she can keep me from Boaz. "He is a good man."
I wait. If it can be done, I want to see her fall. I want to see her give in to our power.
But she mutters to herself, an ancient prayer to her God. I feel a different power grow around her, a power that pushes me out of her a little.
But only a little.
"Wish me luck," I say as I go to find Boaz.
The waiting is boring, the sound of men laughing and drinking tedious. I send my spirit casting through the sky, into the far reaches of this land, seeking out any who are like me. Here and there I find them. The dark ones. The cursed ones. And those just awakening to their power.
I come back to my body when I hear Boaz settling down in the grain. I crawl to his side and sit watching him. Then I put my fingers on his lips, let them trail down his chin, his neck, his chest, stopping when I reach his waist. I can feel his energy, such vitality. He will give me a strong son.
With that thought in my heart, I lie at his feet and wait. He snores. He rolls. He talks in his sleep. The sun is nearly up and he has still not stirred. I grab a sharp blade of grain, poke it into his foot, and then let it fall as he finally wakes.
"Who's there?" His heart is beating; I can feel his fear.
I sit up as if confused from sleep. "I am Ruth, your handmaid." My hand steals to his calf, grips it lightly. "Claim me, for you are my family."
He does not look happy. I drag lightly at his essence, pulling what I need into me. He is familiar, enough like Naomi that I can twine myself into him the same way I do her.
"I am yours," I say. What I mean, of course, is that he is mine.
Sweat beads on his forehead even as he makes plans for our future. I feel his vitality flowing into me, and from far off, I can tell that Naomi is feeling it too.
I leave him, secure in the knowledge that he will do as he must to have me. In time, ritual challenges are given and won. Naomi and I are moved into his fine house, and I take him to bed, knowing Naomi can feel the edge of our passion.
When I check on her in the morning, she looks sick. "Will it be like this always?"
"He is your blood. We are all one."
She holds a knife over a loaf of bread the servants have brought. Moving the blade away from the food, she dangles it over her wrist. "It would be such an easy thing."
But she does not do it.
"It would be such a holy thing."
But she cannot do it.
"I'm damned," she says as she throws the knife down and flees the room. I wonder if she realizes how easily she is moving. If she knows that the lifeforce that feeds me is also feeding her. Since moving into Boaz's house, she looks ten years younger. Our neighbors say it is due to the easier life. I know otherwise.
She knows before I do that I am with child. She finds me throwing up and smoothes back my hair as if I was a child—her child. "It will pass," she says.
"It better." But it does not. The child that I carry, that is my legacy to a world that would hate me if it understood me, drains my energy to such an extent I have to pull more and more from Boaz. He begins to falter, his vitality fading as my belly grows.
Boaz barely survives to see his son born. He takes him from the midwife, his smile triumphant, and then I grab the child away as Boaz falls to the floor. The midwife rushes to him, and I try to look sad as she tells me my husband is dead.
My son stirs, seeking my breast, and I smile at the brush of his spirit waiting to be freed, but then I feel him being pulled from my arms. "What?"
Naomi has her robes open, her once old breasts now glisten with milk. "Drink, child. Drink from me."
I scream as I feel the spirit of my son rush away from me and into Naomi. I try to grab him from her, but she carries him away, the sound of his suckling like the drag of a chair over a stone floor.
"Hush, Ruth, your mother will take care of you now," the midwife says. She leans down, her hand gentle on my face. "We all know how kind you've been to her. How much you love her."
There is something in her eyes, and I reach down and realize I am bleeding.
"Lie still," Naomi says, "or you will surely die."
"As will you." I do not care that the midwife is hearing this. I do not care about anything.
"As will he, your begetter of kings."
I lie still. For I cannot lose him. Not now.
Naomi hands my child to me, and as soon as his mouth fastens on my breast, I can feel the pain inside me cease, and I know I've stopped bleeding.
The midwife looks at us as if we are both mad.
"My daughter-in-law is not from here, all this talk of kings," Naomi says. "But then you know that. Everyone knows about Ruth, my devoted little outsider." Naomi leans down, kisses my son, and whispers, "Wherever you go, I will go."
The curse does not work for her, not the same way it works for me. But my son stops suckling long enough to meet her eyes with his own. His are older than they should be, see more clearly than a newborn's ought to.
Then they fasten on me. And they are filled with something else. It looks a bit like hate.
"His name is Obed," I say. It means servant. He will serve Naomi, not me—it fills me with pain to call him that, but it is a true name, and while I am evil, I am not blind to the truth. I touch his forehead and he starts to cry.
Naomi takes him from me and kisses me on the cheek. "You'll always have a home with us, dear."
She is clearly enjoying this. I have definitely rubbed off on her.
The pain starts up again. I pull at Naomi's lifeforce, feel energy draining out of her, but the child is filling her with what he's draining from me.
I hear her laugh with delight. The baby gurgles. My son.
I reach out with everything in me, feel some part of him respond. Then nothing.
Naomi lets the midwife leave, has the servants remove Boaz for burial. I lie in blood-soaked linens and wish so hard for oblivion that I can hear the dry wings of death approaching. But then I feel my son in my arms again and Naomi leaves him with me.
She is still tied to me. And she does not want to die. It's not much.
But it's enough for now.
Gerri Leen lives in Northern Virginia and originally hails from Seattle. She has a collection of short stories, Life Without Crows, out from Hadley Rille Books, and stories and poems published in such places as: The GlassFire Anthology, Entrances and Exits, She Nailed a Stake Through His Head, Sword and Sorceress XXIII, Dia de los Muertos, Return to Luna, Triangulation: Dark Glass, Sails & Sorcery, and Paper Crow. She also is editing an anthology of speculative fiction and poetry from Hadley Rille Books that will benefit homeless animals. Visit http://www.gerrileen.com to see what else she's been up to.
Back to Issue 17
Back to Issue 17