T hat day, as they sell the fish, Neemias cannot keep his eyes from wandering around the marketplace. Is there an old woman there with swollen eyes, who knows not how she will ever make good her loss? He looks around, sees the women with their caps and scarves, their aprons and twisted baskets, yet he does not know who owned the cow.

But still, as the women drop coins into his palm, he must force himself to pass them on to Captain, deposit them into his leather money bag. In his heart, he wants to press the coins back into the women’s hands, and say, keep it, this time, keep it. Take a fish home to your family and feast on the salty goodness, and trust in the bounty of the land and sea.

He does not, of course.

He simply takes the money and silently apologizes that he was not strong enough, not determined enough. That despite the lessons from Friar Pere, he did not have enough words to prevail over Captain.

That night, a chill wind blows in and they find shelter for the night beside a copse of thorn bushes. The bushes break the teeth of the wind, but the thorns that have already been dropped from the bush find their way into his neck and arms.

“Stop that stirring,” Captain growls. Neemias lies still. Captain closes his eyes. Making not a sound, Neemias pulls himself to sitting, then standing. He treads silently away, and stares at the sea and the moon and the patch of silver that breaks up the black of the water. He wraps his large arms around himself and shivers.

His mother always told him that there was no such thing as phantoms. Let his head not be filled with nonsense, she told him, when there is much else of substance to fill it with. Has Friar Pere not taught him Latin? Let him read the Bible. Let him read Psalms.

Phantoms. But there are, too. His mother, now, peering over his shoulder. She is not here. He hopes that she is safe in their village, tucked up in her bed, her only worry whether the feather-stuffed blanket might be too warm for the night. What of his phantom father, that man he has never met? His grandparents? All these people he has never met and yet who have come together to create him and shape him.

He closes his eyes. His mother has a cow. Many times, he tried to milk it, but only his mother’s fingers, deft and strong, could draw out the full measure of goodness. His mother enjoyed it, too, he realized. He could tell from the way she leaned her head against the warmth of the cow’s side, feeling the cow’s sturdiness, its presence.

That cow, he realizes as he stands there, rocking in the wind, is more than a source of milk. It is an anchor for her life. It is her rising and her lying down. The milk shapes her day: churning the butter. Setting aside a portion of the cream to sour. Pouring the rest of the cream into her large, blue bowl to mix with flour and honey and form into pastries that are sold in the marketplace.

It’s not just that without that cow she has no milk. Without the cow, her days would stretch on, long and weary.

Why had he not fought with Captain and saved that cow? Why? (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 566)