R amon hesitates.

Ahead of him, Jocef has plunged into the water. He pushes through the white, frothing spray, toward an outcrop of rocks.

The sun glares on the water; Ramon squints, hesitates for one more heartbeat and then plunges in after Jocef. The surf whirls and pulls, but Ramon only pushes through harder. Ahead, Jocef climbs onto the rocks.

Ramon follows.

Jocef stands upright on the rocks, then lifts his hands upward. A great groan fills the air; the sound of a wild animal, hunted, captured. He drops to his knees.

Ramon clambers on to the rock. Jocef is shaking now, rocking from side to side. Ramon looks around. Bile fills his throat and he crosses himself. The sea, formerly a pristine aquamarine, is stained red.

Ramon swallows, then places both hands on Jocef’s shoulders. “We are still in danger. We must move from here.”

Jocef lets out another howl.

He could run. Leave Jocef here to his mourning and state of dementedness. But they have a pact of friendship.

Jocef stumbles over a few words. “I need to bury them.”

Ramon shakes his head. “No. We need to leave. Find the rowboat. Get back to the ship. Before we become the next victims.”

They had taken three rowboats to shore. Each held seven men. Two of the boats have disappeared. Probably, they have been taken ashore by the barbarians, who will take them to pieces and use them as fuel, or given as gifts to the leader of the tribe.

Ramon hears a shout. In the distance, one of the oarsman waves his arms.

He has found a rowing boat.

Ramon hoists Jocef to his feet; the man is surprisingly light. He grips his arm, and together, they plunge back into the sea, wading through the water as the oarsman approaches. The second oarsman joins them, and the small group silently row away from the shore.

As the land recedes behind them, Ramon stares. Africa. Home of riches and cruelty. The glitter of gold and flash of blood.

When the large wooden ship looms up before them, there is no more welcome sight.

The rope ladder dangles from the side, and they grip firmly as they haul themselves upward. As they reach the top, strong arms heave them over the side of the ship and onto the deck.

When the four of them are assembled, and the rowing boat, too, has been lifted from the sea and secured at the ship’s side, the captain steps forward.

His arms are folded and his face is black with anger and grief. “What say you?”

None of them speak.

“What say you?”

Quiet.

The captain grabs hold of Jocef’s shoulders.

“What say you?”

Jocef looks up, but his face is blank of expression; it is like his body is standing on the ship but his soul is elsewhere. The look makes Ramon shiver.

“I thought that your G-d would be with you. I put the decision on your shoulders because I thought you were a G-dly man, from a nation of scholarship and faith.” 

(Excerpted from Family First, Issue 583)