One by one, the grandmothers filed into the room. Nearby, the new parents had collapsed exhausted on the cold stone ground. The man was propped up on a pile of hay, his arm and part of his robe wrapped protectively around his pale-faced wife; she was still shivering slightly, childbirth being wearing under even the best of circumstances. One of the visiting women paused a moment to draw the man’s robe more tightly around the sleeping mother and to pile hay around her feet. The young woman stopped shivering.
But the women had not come for the couple. No—they were there for the tiny baby, asleep in the feeding trough, wrapped tightly in a rough woolen blanket and cushioned by coarse hay. They spoke in soft murmurs, trying not to awaken any of the sleepers—but if the cattle, which were lowing loud enough to wake the dead, weren’t waking the couple, then the grandmothers needn’t have worried. Only the baby’s own cries would have awoken the poor sleepers just then.
“What a head of hair!” one of them gushed, reaching over and tousling the surprisingly thick dark curls. “My Solomon had hair just like this when he was born, you know. I’m told it’s from my side.”
“Well, it certainly wasn’t from my little Jacob,” another woman said, snorting. “He was smooth as a river-stone when he came out. His twin Esau, though—my, you never saw one so hairy! Red all over, like a little baby goat.”
A third woman spoke up at that. “That was true for generations—the smoothness Rebekah described, I mean, not the hairiness, thank the maker!” Turning to the first woman, she said, “Bathsheba, dear, did I ever tell you I got to hold your husband on my lap once? Just once, the little thing, before I was called home, but what a splendid little boy Davy was! Wouldn’t have been there at all without me going out with the harvesters, that’s for sure.”
The other women smiled and looked at each other. Ruth had told the story countless times of how she met her husband, but they never begrudged her the telling.
“And my little baby Boaz didn’t squash any of the boldness out of our dear ol’ Ruth either, that’s for sure.” The woman who had spoken next was tall and slender with flashing eyes; she was swinging the loose ends of her scarlet-corded belt in her hands. “I can tell you all about raising my boy to appreciate bold women, oh yes. But enough of that. Let’s take a look at the little wee fella, shall we?” Ignoring the cries of “Oh!” and “What are you doing,” she reached down and carefully loosened the blanket. The baby yawned and squirmed a bit before opening his eyes and staring uncomprehendingly into the world. The matriarch with the scarlet belt reached down and tweaked his tiny, sharp nose. “Leah, dear, I think he has your eyes.”
“Oh, Rahab, I hope not,” said another woman, blushing. “Do you know how much trouble my sight always gave me?” Even now the woman was squinting, not out of necessity but out of habit.
“Do relax, Mother dear,” yet another woman said. “Your son Judah’s sight was just fine, and so were our boys’ eyes. I’ll tell you what he does have, though.” She pointed at the child’s ears, jutting out at an odd angle. “Those ears. Judah’s stuck out like that, and so did all of his sons. Never did hear of a family for ears like that.”
“Oh Tamar,” Leah breathed out in a sigh. “Noticing such a little thing! You always were so clever.”
“Clever enough to claim what was owed to her,” Rahab said, smirking.
“What was promised to her. What was promised to all of us, you mean,” another woman said, and the rest fell silent. She was old—almost but not quite the oldest of them all, but still radiantly lovely. Slowly she approached the baby, who was smacking his gums together. “Look at him here. Born of such a woman—well! It’s almost as laughable as—as a 90-year-old woman, isn’t it?”
Bathsheba reached out her hand. “Sarah—” And at the same time, Ruth said, “None of us should be standing here, really—”
“Oh, hush, girls,” she said, waving a gloriously wrinkled hand at them. “Just look at us. Bunch of whores and barren women here, just coming to see our newest grandson.” But there was wonderment in her voice, not bitterness.
Leah asked timidly, “Do you think—do you think he understands just how long—” And Rebekah and Tamar both came up to her and put their arms around her waist and rested their heads on her shoulders.
“If any baby does, I think this one would,” Bathsheba said, thoughtfully. “And that’s the real wonder of it all, isn’t it? The wonder of keeping a… a promise to… to people like us?” She almost collapsed to her knees at that, but Ruth and Rahab ran up and caught her by the arms.
“A glorious thing, isn’t it?” Leah whispered. “A promise kept, and after all this time!”
Sarah sniffled. “Come on, girls. I think I’ve seen enough. Well, as much as I can bear for now, anyway. Let’s go home.”
She led the way out the door and into the starlit city, the rest following slowly, still supporting each other.
But there was still one left.
She hadn’t spoken the entire time; other than piling the hay around the mother’s feet, she had stayed shyly behind the other women, although she was the oldest of them all, and the most beautiful. Her skin was white as ivory, and the streaks of tears gleamed down her cheeks like the stardust trails from the comets of her eyes.
Slowly, hesitantly, she stepped up to the baby.
He had been squirming quietly ever since Rahab had loosened the blanket, but as the last grandmother approached he stopped, almost as if he heard her ghostly footfalls on the stone floor. Solemnly, he kicked one foot free and stuck it straight up into the air.
She bent down and took it in her slender, perfect hand, tenderly caressing it, and wiggling each stubby little toe in turn. Then, trembling, with one finger she traced a serpentine shadow down his foot.
The shadow ended there with a birthmark, an odd wine-colored stain on his heel. It was shaped like the head of a snake.
“Oh!” she gasped in fear and wonder. “Oh!”
She let the baby’s foot drop from her grasp, and, lifting her gaze to the heavens, faded into the night.
Image Credit: Bureau of Land Management