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Kindling Courage

Chavi knew too much about fiery destruction, probably had nightmares about sparks and embers

 

I didn’t know the Sterns, but I knew their story. Everyone knew their story. The merciless flames that had consumed their home had also consumed their precious five-year-old daughter, Shani.

It was the type of story that pulls on the heartstrings of young and old alike, the type of story that brought with its retelling a somber atmosphere and hushed voices. It was the sort of story beyond human ability to comprehend. Painful, so painful.

We were members of the same community and the same shul, but I didn’t know the family personally. That is, until a couple of years ago, when I was hired as a counselor for the nine-year-olds at a local camp, and the Sterns’ daughter Chavi was to be in my bunk.

She’s fine, I was told at the handover meeting, but she won’t come to any camp bonfires, so you’ll have to keep that in mind. Of course. Chavi knew too much about fiery destruction, probably had nightmares about sparks and embers and the sounds of the fire department coming a few heart-stopping minutes too late.

So she was to be my camper — a camper with a story. I took some cursory notes, the handover meeting finished, and I left equipped with to-do lists and safety certificates. A few days later, camp began. Luckily, we didn’t have bonfires too often in our program — just once, on the last night, as a farewell. After two jam-packed weeks of getting to know my cool, feisty campers, of the never-ending energy, of constant water fights, camp was ending.

Chavi was one of the bunch and I’d barely thought twice about her background over the course of the summer. A small kid with a one-liner for everything, she was distractingly entertaining, and I hardly imagined her in any other mode. Which is why as swimming became lunchtime, and the last day wore on, I battled internally over whether I should discuss the bonfire with Chavi, or if it’d be better to see how things would play out on their own.

Then, somehow, between the day’s activities, bright sunlight became dusk, the bonfire began, and I simply forgot.

A hundred or so campers with colorful hoodies sat around the crackling campfire singing a tuneful rendition of “Vezakeini.” After two weeks of nonstop action, I was only too glad to rest my aching limbs.

It only occurred to me after we’d sung through a few more kumzitz favourites that Chavi wasn’t there. Guiltily, I jumped up to go find her, berating myself for not being more attentive, wondering how it felt to fear the mundane.

Moving toward the bunkhouse, I noticed a petite kid in a turquoise hoodie, standing stock-still, torso hunched — the world on her shoulders. Chavi.

Should I approach her? I hesitated, unsure. But while I stood frozen, something was happening. Chavi took a step forward, then another. One slow step at a time, she drew closer, illuminated by the glow of the fire. Fear and determination flitting across her face, speaking of the war waging inside her. Nearer still, step after step.

Then, about 20 feet away from our circle, she stopped again. Started walking. Stopped again. Her progress was slow and I couldn’t take my eyes off her face, couldn’t look away from the strength I saw unfurl as Chavi chose to fight her inner demons, face her fear. Just ten feet away now.

My breath caught in my throat. Chavi was visibly trembling, her eyes darting back and forth. Watching her, I willed her on with all my might.

Then, the fear took over. She inched backward again. This was agonizing. So close, yet so far. My lips started murmuring Tehillim, my limbs tensed. Please, Hashem, help her! Give her the strength, if this is the right time, please!

But it seemed it wasn’t to be. Her feet were rapidly moving backward, almost on autopilot, and she was retreating into the shadows. My disappointment surged, an acrid taste on my tongue, as I saw Chavi’s past burn her present, all ashes and smoke.

And then suddenly, without any warning, she broke into a run. Forwards. Right into the circle of girls, the warmth of the fire and people and song surrounding her, her face breaking into the most ecstatic smile. I turned to the side, facing the bushes that surrounded us, and cried out of sheer happiness.

And when I turned back, I saw the turquoise sleeves round the pink-clad shoulders of two good friends; blue and pink and curlicues of smoke all intertwined. She did it!

My humanness, my instincts, make me retreat at times too. Backward, away, far, far away. But sometimes, there’s also that spark of inspiration, of courage, compelling me to follow the flame inside and leave my fears in the shadows behind. I, too, will try to run for it.

 

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 654)

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