T he next morning, Papa declares that if he is well enough to walk down to the harbor, he is well enough to pray Shacharit in the beit knesset.

Aster turns to Clara. Clara’s head moves back and forth and she gestures to Aster that the situation should be weighed.

Aster nods. Clara is right. Everything, nowadays, is a balance: one side of the copper scales for a daughter’s devotion, the other, a father’s irritation. It swings back and forth, back and forth, until one of them spits words, then apologies; all is bathed in a love truce, and then it starts over again.

Now Aster merely kisses Papa’s hands and bids him to take care.

But as the sun rises in the sky and the clouds sail past on a blustery wind, Papa has not returned.

She turns to Clara, opens her mouth carefully, and mouths: “I should go.”

Clara cannot hear. She cannot hear the uncertainty in Aster’s voice: Should this be a question or a statement. She only reads Aster’s lips, which works most of the time, apart from when it doesn’t. Sometimes she tells herself that this, too, is part of the balance of creation, for Clara is beautiful while Aster has a side tooth that’s twisted and ears with tiny lobes that cannot be adorned with gold earrings. It does not convince her. Not usually, only on days when it is rainy and cold, and she must listen to Papa’s grumbles and Regina screeching about spirits taking refuge in the linen chest and all the while, Clara is sanguine.

Clara hands Aster her cloak. She swings the turquoise wool around herself and lifts her hands in farewell.

The door of the beit knesset is locked.

She looks around. The street is deserted. Well, of course — all the men, doubtless, have been locked inside by the Shamash — though for what misdemeanor, she does not know. She presses her ear to the door, tries to distinguish the voices in the babble.

There is the Shamash — he squeaks like a mouse, or like a girl. There are the low tones of the butcher. His voice will get louder, it is like a drum, the big bass drums that the Christians bang on their Holy Week processions. Now the Shamash again. Is that a cough? Papa’s cough?

In another age, she would have wondered who has acted against the kehillah, and what they have done. For now, all she can think of is Papa.

Papa, inside, no morsel of food having passed his lips, not even a sip of water. Not even half a date that she handed him before he left. And the sun rising in the sky, and Papa tired from the previous day’s escapades, and the beit knesset is built without windows; the air will grow stale and close. (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 545)