T he ink-maker adds three drops of wine to the vial, inserts the stopper, and shakes. Aster watches, satisfied that the black liquid has been produced according to Papa’s instructions: using the hawthorn branches he ordered cut last spring, dried, then boiled for eight days until the liquid turned black. Wine was the very last ingredient, though now Aster would return home, unplug the vials, and leave them in the sun for three days, to thicken the ink.

She takes the vials, counts out the coins in payment. She slips the ink into a leather satchel and turns. She startles to see Sara there.

“Why the surprise?” Sara asks. “Even us ignorant folk have use for ink.”

Aster clucks her tongue in frustration. “Sara.”

Sara lifts an eyebrow and gives a shrug. “Well?”

Aster sighs. These days, Sara is easily offended. And then her words may be smooth but they sting like a snake. “What is on your heart?”

The ink-maker drums his fingers on the wooden counter. “Is there an order you wish to make?”

Sara nods. She steps forward and hands him a small piece of paper. He nods. “Return next week and I’ll make it up for you.”

They walk out of the store together. Sara pulls her down a side street, dark with shadow, the smells of yesterday’s supper still linger in the air. There is barely room for the two of them to stand opposite each other.

Aster toes the ground. She does not feel ready for this encounter. Papa made some discreet enquiries and found that Jocef has left on a ship to the Canary Islands. Ever since she heard, she’s been filled with a strange agitation. She blames herself. She blames Mose. She blames Papa.

She is too distracted when she sits to work on her map and wishes that she could busy herself with a mindless, physical task. So she sets to work cleaning the lamps and as she rubs, wants to return to the desk where at least her mind can be kept occupied. She lays down at night but is unable to sleep.

Sara always needs a certain level of patience and forbearance. And at this moment, Aster does not know that she can give this to her friend.

Sara leans down to whisper in her ear. “What of the gentile?”

Aster lets out a deep breath and looks up to meet Sara’s gray eyes. “He ails. He sleeps and sleeps, sometimes he wakes and starts twitching. He is cognizant of the world, but does not move from his pallet.”

Sara reaches forward and clutches Aster’s hands. Aster resists the urge to shake them off. “But what are you going to do?” Sara’s eyes are alight with the excitement of looming danger. “You know that if the Parnas hears of this, there will be consequences?”

Aster nods. “I do know this, yes.” For it is against the rule of the land for a gentile to spend the night in the Call. Jews belong in the closed gates of the Call. Gentiles belong to the rest of the city. A gentile woman is never allowed to enter the Call; a man may do so for the purposes of business. But let him not be found there after nightfall. (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 573)