Regina blocks the front door. 

Someone is knocking, but Regina — wiry yet tall — is blocking the entranceway. 

“Regina?” Aster asks. If it is the boy from the butcher, asking them to pay their bill, then she may as well count out the money now, rather than having to chase hither and thither searching for him. 

Regina stretches her arms out so that the fabric of her tunic billows to the sides. Who is there? 

“Regina, please step aside.” 

The older woman begins one of her mumbles, and Aster just hopes she is not invoking the Almighty’s wrath against their hapless visitor. Aster glares. Regina steps aside. 

It is Jocef. 

Aster nods her head in greeting, and Jocef returns a slight bow. She steps aside to let him in, motions to Regina to bring some refreshment — a cup of watered wine or half a pomegranate. But Regina gives a little shake of her head and walks away. 

Aster suppresses a sigh. “I shall go and check on Papa.” 

In his study, Papa’s head has drooped down on his desk. Sleep ripples up and down his back, his creased face is peaceful. Aster carefully eases the parchment from under his head, lest the half-finished map get stained with spittle or sweat. 

Before she sets it down, she holds it up to the window. No progress. Nothing has been drawn, not even the mountain range between the Kingdom of France and the Holy Roman Empire, not even the waves of the ocean, or the monsters of the deep. She bites her lip. 

Standing at the edge of the living room, she lowers her eyes modestly as she addresses Jocef. “My father is unable to meet with you.” 

“Is he indisposed?” Concern weaves through his voice. 

She folds her hands together. “What is it that you need from him?” 

“The map of Europe. It was meant to be completed two weeks ago.” 

Aster thinks of the map on the desk. At the rate Papa is working, it will take until mid-winter. She looks up, unsure of what to say. A shaft of sun falls on Jocef’s face and the hollows in his cheeks are thrown into relief. More than what is there, Aster sees what was: the face was once rounded, now thin and haunted by all the things that are no longer. 

“The details… are time consuming.” 

Jocef drums his fingers on the table. “How much more time?” He catches himself and lowers his tone. “This commission is a gift, from the Jewish community of Strasbourg-Alsace to the Holy Roman Emperor.” 

Aster nods. 

He stands up to leave. “My father would want you to know that the community has suffered much hardship since the Black Death spread its cloak over Europe. This map is part of a diplomatic campaign, requesting protection. Delay does not serve our people well.” 

“What would you have me do?” She tries to hide the desperation but it seeps through.

“I know that your father has been feeling unwell of late. But perhaps the reason for the commission will motivate him. This is for his fellow Jew. He must expedite his work.” 

Will this hurry his work? Papa sits all day in his study, and he does not move, and she does not know whether it is fear that has entered his soul or illness or old age. Each time she tries to raise the question with him, he swats her away, like she is a fly. Maybe her suggestion that she help him still stings. 

But how will he complete the commission? And what can she do to preserve their family? Clara spends all her time arranging her hair in the looking glass, or visiting Sara to make-believe that she is mother to baby Abraham. And all the while, they are like a ship heading for the rocks, and yet without room and skill to steer away, so they are in imminent danger of being punctured, wrecked by the land mass. (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 550)