"I know not what to do.” Aster speaks to the closed front door, through which Jocef has just departed. She raises her voice and shouts at the emptiness. “Papa is ailing, you know that, how can I pretend otherwise? And there’s nothing to stop us being sold as wives to sly old men, or as handmaidens. And what of Regina? Without us she will be prey to some conniver who will work her to the bone.

“What should I do?”

She drops her head in her hands. Why did she not see this coming? For years, she paid not much interest to her father’s commissions, as long as there were coins to pay Regina, to pay the butcher, to buy fabric for clothing, to buy chickpeas and olives and oil and leeks. To fix the roof and pay for the upkeep of the well and…

But then she remembers the scene that took place, here, in this very room. She maps it out in her mind: Mose, in front of the hearth, long hands gripped behind his back; Papa sitting at the head of the table as if he were made of stone.

Stop, Aster. She pulls herself back to the present. Stop. “But I know not what to do,” she murmurs.

“Aster?”

She startles. Jocef stands at the front door. It is now ajar, he is half in the house, half on the street. He was here. He must have heard her. Her face burns.

“Your family is in narrow straits.”

She nods, not trusting herself to speak.

“I have a way out.”

She lifts her head and, for the first time, looks deep into his eyes. “You do?”

He nods. “Marry me. Marry me, Aster, and I will take care of your family.”

Her fingers tremble. “I… I would not have thought you would be cruel.”

“I am in earnest.”

She squeezes her hands into two fists, squeezes tighter and tighter. “And if we were to marry, then what would that help? You would be thrown out of your father’s home, Jocef, surely you see that?”

“I do not think that would happen.”

“Your father would banish you from the kingdom.”

“Things have changed, Aster. I am no longer the person I used to be.”

It is true. The last five years have lashed Jocef with suffering.

“I am no longer a youth, to be swayed this way and that.”

So much of Jocef’s life has been shaped by others. As well, it has been conveyed to Aster by others: mostly by Papa, in the stillness of his study. Mose breaking their betrothal. Jocef’s betrothal a few months later to a girl from Toledo. His marriage. His imminent fatherhood. The loss of his wife and baby; she only 15 years old, same age as Clara now.

Each time Papa called her in, Aster had steadied her face, set her features so her cheeks were smooth, her eyes neither shiny nor red. Month after month, change had befallen him, while she took first refuge, then comfort in the sameness of her days. All was the same, her rising up and laying down, as if Mama’s great looking glass was anchored into time, and each day a reflection of the one before and a taste of the one ahead. All was the same, and she told herself this is the best a person can hope for, not the stormy waves of the ocean, but the silent lap of the waves on the shore.

Jocef has suffered, but she doubts if this will hold sway over his father. Mose is not a sentimental man.

Confused, she looks up at him. “Why have you not remarried?”

Even as she asks, she knows she has hurt him, both by her silence and by her question. (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 551)