As they walked back toward the inn, Ruth opened her bundle of almonds and offered some to Jacob. With a gentle shake of his head, he declined. She stuffed the parcel into her cloak to save for later and they walked on in silence, listening to the quieting of the street as they left the market. The sun was beginning to set behind the hills that surrounded Bethlehem, the wisps of winter clouds scattered across the sky were lit pink by the setting sun. The air, already frozen, was being stirred by a chilled wind that tossed and tugged at Ruth’s shawl. As they approached the door to the inn, Jacob slowed and walked behind Ruth, head bowed.
Just as Ruth reached for the handle of the door, it swung open and a man walked out, his wife following close behind. Ruth and Jacob stepped to the side to let them pass and Ruth couldn’t help but notice that the woman was very pregnant. Over their heads, Ruth saw her mother standing in the flickering light of the lamps, worry and sadness etched on her face. The man turned and nodded to Ruth’s mother and then the couple made their way across the street to where a donkey stood tethered.
Ruth watched as the man bent to help help his wife onto the beast and heard the woman gasp. She grasped her swollen belly and leaned forward against the donkey’s withers, burying her pain-filled cries in his neck. Before Ruth could move, she felt her mother brush past her, running out into the street toward the couple. Ruth listened to the soothing murmur of her mother’s voice and smiled as she watched the man nod, bowing deeply in gratitude.
“Ruth, fetch several blankets from the house and meet me in the stable. Jacob, leave those jars there and please come with me.”
Ruth stood staring at her mother and then sprang into action, as if woken from a dream. She ran through the open door, gathered an armful of woolen blankets and ran back outside, making her way around the inn to the stables behind. As she swung the old wooden door open, a warm glow flickered from a lamp that had been hung from a beam. The donkey was tethered and contentedly eating hay. The man knelt at the side of his wife who sat on a pile of straw, leaning against the wall. Ruth’s mother beckoned her into the circle of light and together they piled the blankets around the young mother in an attempt to make her comfortable.
Ruth heard the door bang shut again and she turned to see Jacob walk in, carrying fresh hay and a jar of fresh water. They looked at one another, anxiety reflected in each other’s eyes. Another groan from the young woman brought a blush to Jacob’s face and he looked toward the door. He deposited his load and whispered to Ruth’s mother that he would be heading out to the fields with the other shepherds for the night. She thanked him and dismissed him, turning her gaze to Ruth.
“I must tend to our guests in the inn. Please stay with Mary and Joseph and fetch them anything they might need. Fresh water or more blankets. I will bring stew and bread after dinner is served.” Ruth stared at her mother wide-eyed and nodded silently. She bent her head toward her daughter’s hear and whispered, “You were a great help to me when I delivered Benjamin. I know that you will be a comfort ... a blessing to Mary.” And with a soft kiss on Ruth’s forehead, she was gone.