Bel and the Serpent Continued
Post-hunt until Ruth May's Death
Back at home Leah complains over dinner that she was cheated out of the antelope that she herself shot. Her father counters that God has no mercy on those who flout their elders, and declares that he has washed his hands of her moral education. He will no longer even bother to punish her, he says, since she is unworthy even of that. Freed from the threat of punishment, Leah calmly and mildly denounces her father. Nelson then appears. He is terrified because he has found an evil sign in front of the Price's chicken coop, which is where he sleeps. He asks for permission to spend the night in their house, but Nathan forbids it, claiming that to do otherwise would be to participate in idol worship. As the girls lie in bed that night they can hear Nelson whimpering to be let inside. Leah finally announces that she is going to help their friend, and the other sisters follow her outside. Taking a cue from one of their father's sermons, they dust the floor of the chicken coop with ashes. Their intention is to catch the footprints of any person who enters, so that they can see whether it is a human being who is planting snakes in the homes of those connected to the Price family.
The girls wake up before sunrise and rush outside to see whether there are any footprints in the chicken coop. They find that there are footprints in the ash—footprints with six toes on the left foot, which means that they belong to Tata Kuvundu. A mamba snake is curled up in the corner. Nelson pokes the snake with a long pole, and it dashes past them and out the door.
As the snake whips pasts them they hear a gulp and a sob. All of them look up into the trees, before realizing that the sound came from Ruth May. Leah tries to comfort Ruth May, assuring her that the snake is gone now. Nelson, though, grows alarmed and screams at Leah to fetch milk. Leah cannot move: she has noticed two fang marks on Ruth May's shoulder.
All of the children watch paralyzed as Ruth May quickly turns blue and dies.
For a long while they stand over the body, watching it, afraid to tell Orleanna that tragedy has finally struck them. Rachel thinks about the new impossibility of ever returning home and pretending that none of these years in the Congo had ever taken place.
Finally they do tell Orleanna, who does not break down but calmly goes about the business of lovingly washing Ruth May's body, and then laying it outside on a table as they local women do. Nathan's only response is to remark that Ruth May had not yet been baptized. His intention had been to baptize her along with the Congolese. Leah is disgusted that this is his emotional response and looks at him penetratingly, seeing him for the first time as a "simple, ugly man."
Outside, the villagers gather and perform their usual mourning rituals. Leah joins in and the other sisters follow. Orleanna goes indoors and then returns with all of their worldly possessions, which she begins handing out to the other women. Soon the Congolese adults leave and Orleanna retreats back indoors, but the children of Kilanga remain gathered around Ruth May's body. It begins to rain, ending the months-long dry spell, and Nathan emerges from the house spouting words from the Bible. He puts his hands on the head of each of the village children in turn, and baptizes them in the downpour.
Ruth May's death brings the internal drama of the book to a head. All of the lines of the plot play into the event, making it seem almost inevitable in a sense. Nathan's selfish disregard for his family's safety results in the most innocent family member's death; Orleanna's increasing desperation, coupled with her inability to act definitively and bravely, leads to her worst fear coming true; the children's loss of reliance on either parent and their resultant need to take their fates into their own hands, ends in a childish mistake with very adult consequences; and, finally, the Price's intrusive meddling in the Congo stirs up Tata Kuvundu's murderous rage. That it was specifically Ruth May who died, and that she died specifically in this way, was not inevitable, though it was certainly foreshadowed heavily. Ruth May's previous brush with death, and her fearful obsession with mamba snakes planted the seeds of her demise early on in the book.
Nathan's reaction to his daughter's death is so monstrously inappropriate that it actually evokes pity for him for the first time. It is almost inconceivable that Nathan feels no grief at all over the death of his innocent daughter, and in fact it is possible to detect true pain in his stiff and seemingly griefless response. His concern over Ruth May's unbaptized state, which Leah find so repulsive, indicates that he is thinking about her dead soul. His utterance of "it can't be" seems to have packed into it all of the confusion and pain of a man who does not know how to deal with life. His inability to properly express his pain raises a question about his behavior all along. It opens up several possibilities, all of which make Nathan into a far more tragic character than he appeared until now. First, it raises the possibility that Nathan felt tender emotions that he never showed for lack of ability. A more likely possibility is that he had become so deadened to his humanity that he himself hardly had access to his emotions.
It is Orleanna's reaction to the death, though, that is most important, both for its role in the story and for its symbolic significance. She responds to the news of Ruth May's death "as if someone else had already told her" (Bel and the Serpant, Leah). This is because she has vividly feared the death of one of her children for so long. The vivid fear, however, was not enough to animate her into action. It takes the actual death to finally shock her out of her passivity. Orleanna's fatal passivity can be read as something of a wake up call to the reader's moral conscience. Ruth May's tragedy parallels world tragedy, and Orleanna's passivity in the face of the impending inevitability parallels our own. Once it is too late to change anything with her actions, Orleanna suddenly finds herself able to act, just as world sympathy and outrage tends to be aroused only long after the course of events can be changed. The most prominent example of this is the Church Committee's findings decades after the fact. Interestingly, Orleanna's first subversive act—subversive of her husband's aims and will, that is—is to hand out her possessions to the women of Kilanga. Feeling that she no longer needs these, and certain that Nathan would keep them for himself in her absence, since she is about to leave him, she finally takes matters into her own hands and does what she knows is just and right.
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