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The Girl of the Flame

by Doug Lipman

The cave saved her from the fire.

She had run off after finishing her chores and hid in her usual place. In the woods around her family's little house, there were many tiny caves - but this was her favorite. The rocks were cool; there was a tiny stream of water running inside; and, even though the cave's ceiling was low, it was just long enough that no one could see her from outside. She felt safe there. She might even have dozed off.

Then she heard the roar. By the time she had run back home, the flames had nearly devoured her house. She screamed for her mother and her father, but she could scarcely hear her own tiny voice. The fire was so hot, she couldn't get close to the house. From all around, she heard the fire's din and the falling of trees. At last she turned and ran, as fiery limbs crashed down behind her.

Inside the cave, it was still cool and moist. She put her bare feet in the clear stream of water, to soothe her burns.

The roar got ever louder. After a while, the water in the stream became warmer. The stones inside the cave felt warm - even those she sat on. The air was nearly too hot and smoky to breathe.

When she felt so hot she thought her clothing would catch fire, she dipped her hands into the little stream and poured the water over herself. She soaked her apron in the stream and held it over her mouth, so she could breathe.

She pressed her back to the rocks. The stones were quite warm now, but still cooler than the air. She poured the water over her again and again, even as the water itself got hot enough to hurt her reddened skin.

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She was waking up. It was still hot, but no longer an inferno. Instead of overheated stone and acrid smoke, she smelled ash. She felt a wave of relief that the fire was over, then a wave of despair: it wasn't a bad dream; it had really happened.

She crawled out of the cave and walked toward where her house had been. She peered through the ash-laden air, hoping that she would see some sign that her family were alive. As she picked through the scorched yard around their little house, she saw that nothing remained except piles of black and gray ash. The house itself was burned nearly flat, yet covered with the charred trunks of trees that had fallen on it. No one could have survived.

She spent the day searching in vain, hollering for her family until she was hoarse. When night fell, she returned to her cave to sleep. She lay on the hard ground, with no mother to sleep next to her.

The next morning, she headed off into the world, carrying only a bowl she made by scraping the charred inside from a burl of an oak tree. She walked slowly, trying not to spill the precious water she carried inside.

She kept walking. She told herself she must not stop, even though the still-hot ash burned her feet. Not sure if she was awake or asleep, she walked through the night, into the next gray, smoky day, and again into the night. Always walking, not sure if she was alive or dead. Walking. Walking.

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She opened her eyes. Before she could focus, she felt the pain in her feet. Then she saw the face leaning over her. A woman, kindly. A face she had seen on the High Holy days: the rebbitzin. The rebbitzin dipped a kerchief in a cup of water, then dabbed it gently on the girl's scorched lips.

"You are awake!" The rebbitzin smiled. "You are safe with us. You will be fine. My name is Miriam, but everyone calls me Mimele."

The little girl said nothing. Instead, she tried to turn away. When her burns wouldn't let her turn onto her side, she merely faced her head toward the wall and slipped back into her fitful sleep.

A long time later, Mimele rose and went into the next room. There, Rabbi Pesach Mendel asked his wife, "Is the girl stirring? How is she?"

Mimele answered, "Her body is stirring, but her heart is still charred."

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Three weeks later, the girl was walking. She limped, but Mimele saw that her body seemed to heal more every day.

Mimele noticed that the girl stood away from the other children, watching them play. When they ran to another place, the girl followed them slowly. But she never said a word.

Every Shabbas, Mimele brought her to the synagogue and sat the girl next to her. But the girl always looked down. While the others prayed, or wept, or sang with joy, or entreated the Almighty to take some of their pain, or even danced together overflowing with the spirit of holiness, the girl only sat.

Unmoved by their expressions of joy or distress, the girl grasped the edge of the bench next to her legs. Mimele noticed that her knuckles were white. Every once in a while as the girl sat on the bench, her heels - which did not reach the floor - snapped up, hitting the back of the bench forcefully enough that Mimele felt the jarring. Mimele looked down at her, but saw no further sign that the girl was even listening. She never spoke. She never looked up.

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Then it was Hanukkah. The first night fell on the Sabbath this year. That evening, Rabbi Pesach Mendel spoke to everyone in the synagogue. He told them about the miracle of "coming home" at Hanukkah, the miracle of rekindling the light that had been extinguished.

He told how the Jewish people had been sent away from their own Holy Temple. How the eternal light had been put out. How the Temple had been defiled at the hands of others, and the Jews had mourned as though it were gone forever. How, after years of fighting and wandering and living like beasts in the mountains, hiding in caves, at last they had defeated the armies that had blazed across their land.

The rabbi was passionate. He told how the Jews had returned to the Temple and had found it defiled. How they had worked to restore its interior. How, more than anything, the Jews had wished to re-light the eternal light. And, among them, one had said:

"Can't you see? There's not enough of the sacred oil left to last more than one day. And it will take eight days until more oil can be made and sanctified. I can't bear to see that flame go out again! After all we've been through - to light it for one day, then watch it go out? I can't do it."

As the rabbi spoke, Mimele heard a sound next to her, the slightest muffled sob. The little girl was rocking back and forth. Her hands, which had gripped the bench all this time, were now clasped over her heart.

The rabbi continued, telling how other Jews who regained the Temple had spoken:

"All this time," they said, "we have dreamed of coming back to this place, and of lighting the eternal light. And now that we are here, let us do it! No matter that we don't have enough oil, no matter that the Temple is nowhere near its past grandeur, no matter how much was lost during the intervening years. While we are here where there is a lamp to light, let us light it!"

The Rabbi moved forward with a lit "servant candle," to light the first lamp of Hanukkah and to say the blessing.

Before he could recite the blessing, he heard someone else speaking it. What strange voice was this? It came from next to Mimele. A voice that none of them could remember ever hearing.

The entire congregation scarcely breathed as the girl said the words in Hebrew, "Thank you, Creator of the Universe...thank you for giving us the commandment...to light the lamps of Hanukkah!"

As the rabbi lit the lamp, they all saw the glow. They saw the glow, not of fire, not of destruction. Their eyes were filled with the glow of light. And of hope. Was this not a world of miracles to remember?

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