“Hester,” he whispered into the darkness. “Are you awake?”

He waited for some sign of life and then put a hand on her hip and nudged her softly.

“Hester!” he urged, louder.

“What? What is it?” his sleeping wife mumbled.

He lay on his back, studying the ceiling. He’d been studying it for some time. “Are you awake?”

She took a long while to answer. “I can’t be. I must be having a nightmare. That you woke me up to ask if I were awake.”

He grinned in the darkness. “Hester,” he asked, resting his hand on her hip again, “do you love me?”

She groaned loudly and slapped at his hand. “Don’t even think about it. I’m sleeping.”

The grin broadened. “No, no. I’m just asking. Do you love me?”

“Of course not,” came the exasperated reply. “It’s why I’ve inflicted all these years on you. Perhaps one day soon, I’ll have punished you enough.”

He chuckled for a moment, but then grew serious. “Do you think I’m old, Hester?”

His wife punched her pillow in frustration and then sat up in bed, knowing there would be no peace until he’d talked out whatever was caught between his teeth. She reached for the cup of honeyed water she kept within reach for just such occasions.

“Old?” she grumbled, the cup at her mouth. “Of course you’re old. I’m old. I’ve got calluses that are old enough to have grandchildren—little callusettes.”

“You’re not old,” he lifted his hand to pat her hip once more, the words and tone an apology of sorts for waking her. “You’re still the young girl I married.”

She brushed his hand away. “What is this, Crispus? Why are we swapping lies in the middle of the night?”

“I couldn’t sleep.”

“I could. I did. I was.”

“I need to talk.”

“So talk. Talk! Just be quick about it.”

“Berekiah thinks my time is passed. He thinks I’m old. He wants the synagogue for himself.”

“Berekiah is the south end of a north-bound mule.”

“Hester!” he chided. She never spoke ill of anyone. Except Berekiah. She had not one good thing to say about him. It was a distinction that marked his younger rival as an especially odious character. Crispus smiled a the ceiling again.

“Forgive me, Husband. I spoke carelessly. He is the east end of a west-bound mule.” She sipped her water, felling pleased with herself.

“He wants m e to step aside.”

“He tells you this? ‘I want you to step aside’? ‘Aside’ has two syllables. He must be working on his vocabulary.”

“He doesn’t come out and say it. But I know. We all do. He’s just waiting for me to have a premature stroke.”

“Well, to be fair, Husband … at your age, a stroke wouldn’t be all that premature.” She sipped again to hide her smile.

“Hester! I’m serious. He thinks I’m losing it … going soft in my old age. He’s all for quick and hard and decisive. Sometimes, listening to him, I wonder if I’ve grown into a dithering old fool.”

Hester sighed and put her cup down. She folded her hands in her lap. “Why do you do this to yourself, Crispus? Do you think it is humility? Do you think you are duty-bound to question yourself every time a toad like Berekiah farts and blames it on you? ‘Quick and hard and decisive’ indeed!” Hester blew through her lips in derision. “He probably thinks his wife likes it like that.”

“Hester!” He was a little shocked.

She lowered her voice and did a surprisingly good imitation. “I’m going to be decisive with you tonight, my dear.”

“HESTER!” But he couldn’t help laughing.

“And, as always, I’ll be quick!”

Now he was laughing in earnest.

Hester gave him a moment to compose himself. “Berekiah is a fat bully who couldn’t find his nose with a sneeze. Now, what’s really bothering you, Husband?”

He studied the ceiling a few moments more. “Yakob is having trouble with his son. He came to me in tears today. Josiah and Dora are fighting again. I had to go to their house. The neighbors were complaining.” He sighed. “And I think Ethuel is about to lose his business. He asked me for another loan.”

Hester thought about that for a while. It was always hard on Crispus when his people hit rough spots. “You can’t save the world, Husband.”

“It’s not the world I’m worried about, Wife. It’s Yakob and Josiah and Ethuel.”

“And tomorrow it will be others. And next week, others still. Life is full of sorrows, Crispus. You won’t change that by staying up all night worrying.” With that bit of wisdom, Hester decided she’d earned the right to sleep again. She eased down under the covers and turned her back, hoping Crispus would take the hint.

“Will you talk with Dora?” he asked her after a few moments. “She badgers Josiah constantly.”

Hester agreed after a pause. Anything to salvage the night. “If you will talk to Josiah and tell him that wives have to badger when husbands don’t listen. Now let me sleep.”

“And widow Moriah has been feeling poorly. Would you go with me to visit tomorrow?”

“Husband, are you listening?” Hester mumbled into her pillow. “I’m trying to sleep. Don’t make me badger you, you dithering old fool.”

“So you do think I’m old? Can you love an old man, Hester, dithering or not?”

“I think that if you don’t let me sleep, you won’t have to worry about getting any older.”

He stared at the ceiling again for a good while. He thought about his people. Prayed for them, worried about them. He looked over at Hester and had just decided she’d drifted off when he heard her whisper, “I do love you, Crispus.”

He smiled at that, immensely pleased, and patted his wife on the bottom. But the smile slowly faded and Cripsus embarked once more on his contemplation of the ceiling—apparently, judging by the intensity of his inspection, the most fascinating combination of beams and plaster ever devised.

[Next Chapter]