It is early in the morning when Neemias lumbers into the house. Aster, still kneading the day’s bread, looks up. He must have sensed that today something will happen.

Neemias hangs his head. “This is all my fault,” he says. “I am guilty.”

For a long moment, there is silence. And then, they all look at each other and begin to talk. Clara has appeared. Neemias stands up, begins to lumber around the place, but it is too small, and they are soon all out in the courtyard, trying to suck in the air like there is none, like they have never before breathed.

And for some reason, Regina is there, too, and she is muttering of djinns and curses and how the feathers of a cock’s crown can ward off the evil eyes. Jocef stands, an onlooker, and for a moment, Aster sees him as a stranger, separate from what he means to her. He is a young man who has known suffering and loss. She sees the slope of his shoulders, and how his cheekbones jut out of his face, and his eyes seem to have grown both larger and also more luminous.

Her heart goes out to him, until she remembers their predicament. But for a moment, at least, it matters not so much for her, but for him and what it will do to him.

And here, beside her, is Clara, eyes bright with tears, and though she should feel angry and ashamed at her sister, that she has allowed the stranger a place in her heart, all she can feel is tenderness, for all of them.

It is like the last few moments before sunset, when the room is dim, and then a long orange ray strokes the room and all lights up. Soon it will disappear and night will come, but for now, the rays caress the world with a glow of warmth.

Papa claps his hands, and speaks out sharply. “You are not to blame.”

Aster looks up quickly. It seems that, for Papa, adversity has been more of a stimulant than any of the tinctures or brews she has prepared. His voice is strong, his manner decisive.

Clara steps forward. Aster is about to stop her, but she refrains.

“What is it, Neemias?” Clara asks gently. “What is it?”

Neemias shakes his head, unable to speak. Anguish creases into the folds of his face.

“It is the danger,” Aster states. “Do you fear the accusation of the monk?”

Clara shakes her head, as if she could answer for him. “It is not just that you must leave here. Am I right?”

Neemias does not answer.

Clara continues, her voice high and girlish. “It is as you taught me, each word is made up of letters, and if you read the letters in the correct order, you form a word. But if the order is confused, or you allow your eye to jump to the wrong letter, then the word contains no sense.”

Neemias blinks. It is the faintest acknowledgment of Clara’s speech.

Clarar continues, though. “So now you may read this in different ways, but then the meaning would be wrong.”

Finally, he looks down at her. “What do you mean?”

“You may think that the reason all this is befalling us is because there is something wrong with your soul, and everywhere you go, it causes havoc and evil.” (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 596)