F or the rest of the day, everything goes wrong. And when they sit down to dinner that evening, they find that Regina has cooked the chicken so long that when they chew, it is like having an ancient piece of saddle leather on their tongues. Papa eats one mouthful and pushes away his plate.

Aster continues chewing, grateful that she does not have to speak. Papa leans over and lifts her plate away from her. “Don’t eat this, it will damage your innards,” he says.

She looks up at him. Regina’s cooking has long been a contentious subject. When their housekeeper’s mind fixes itself on the pot and the fire, the meat is fragrant and tender and melts on the tongue. When her mind is fixed on djinn that may have crept into the spitting tongues of flame, the food is either scorched or oversalted.

Aster’s mind, though, is not on her food. Her mind is on her conversation with Jocef, and she aches for some quiet, some aloneness, that she may turn over his words in her mind. But Papa waits for a response. She sends him a smile.

“Do not mock me, now, daughter. Does not Arab wisdom advise: Let the food that passes through your mouth be as light as the dew on a summer morning?”

Ah, he is challenging her. He is in the mood for banter. She blinks, swallows, pulls something from her mind. “But does Al-Zahrawi not say that food is to be eaten primarily for nourishment, not for the pleasure it gives?”

Papa makes a face. “But still, some taste is required. Let us turn to the wisdom of our own tradition, daughter. Does not the Jerusalem Talmud state, ‘One can live without peppers, but not without salt’?”

While they speak, Clara’s head turns back and forth, back and forth, reading their lips. “Since when did Regina’s food lack salt?” Clara mutters. She sets down her large spoon with a click and turns to Aster. “The way you talk, always talk, quoting scholars to Papa, and Papa quotes back to you. And all I must do is sit here, impoverished of knowledge. As if you want me always to be a little child.”

Aster and Papa stare. Clara has always been like a petal floating dreamily on the wind, contented enough to be happy and pretty. And now this sudden outburst.

They are quiet, but Clara works herself into a fury. “You never even taught me how to read. Aster knows Catalan and Latin and Arabic and Hebrew and I do not know what else…”

A little Greek, Aster fills in silently.

“And what do I know? Why did no one ever teach me anything?” Clara rises from the table, her pretty features scrunched up in pain. “Why do you always want to think of me as a child, a child, a child?”

Aster rises and closes the slatted shutters of the window. She knots her hands together and stares at her sister, torn between love, compassion, and vexation. (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 552)