Read a sample from THE LIGHT OF THE MIDNIGHT STARS by Rena Rossner

Sarah

It’s just after sunset. I can still see the bare oak branches, black against the deepening blue of sky, that make up the forest beyond Trnava’s wall. Eema takes a coin out from her pocket and clears her throat. “Girls, candle lighting,” she says. I look away from the window and my heart skips a beat. It’s time.

Eema kisses the coin and says the word “esh,” and to me, it seems like the word crackles and hisses like flame. She puts the coin in the box that sits on the windowsill. Then she transfers fire from her lips to her fingertips, then to the wick of the candle that sits atop her silver candlesticks. “The soul of man is a lamp in the darkness,” she says as I watch the flames she sets on the windowsill—a sign in our window for all those who are lost and weary, and I hear the echo of my father’s voice in my head, the benediction he says over each of our heads on Friday nights—“Only light can hold back darkness. We are the children of Solomon, children of the light.”

Every week, I stare in awe at how my mother does it. She weaves a prayer of words in the air and turns the strands she weaves into fire in the same way my father manipulates air. Eema lights a candle and suddenly everything is brighter. Abba raises his hands to the sky and the clouds lift and clear. “This is the law of Solomon,” Eema chants. “Man and woman, ish and isha: without the yud and the heh, they are esh—fire.” She places a coin in my hand. “Here,” she says. “Now it’s your turn.” The coin is warm—like her hand, like the fire.

It’s my turn. I’ve waited a long time for this moment. I am twelve now, a bat mitzvah, a daughter of Solomon, blessed by his commandments. I am a part of it now. A part of everything. A wielder of the flame of Solomon—like my father and mother and grandmother and all those before me leading back all the way to the great King Solomon himself. I hold the coin in one hand and twist a dark red curl around one of the fingers of my other hand. Eema opens a small prayer book and hands it to me. She doesn’t need it—she knows the prayers by heart. I’ve been mouthing the words along with my mother and Nagmama and older sister Hannah as they said them together each week. This is the first step. The beginning of my journey into the world of my ancestors. There is so much I have yet to learn.

After today, I’ll be able to start studying with Abba. I know that once the light of the ner tamid burns within me, I’ll start to follow the ways and read all the books and practice all the exercises so that one day I’ll be as powerful as my father. So that one day I’ll be able to lead a community myself—not as a wildflower tamed back, but like a fireweed that lights up everything around her. I want to be someone—or something, that cannot be put out.

Fire-singe tingles at my fingers and mixes with the heady scent of chicken soup and challah bread. Everything feels right about this moment.

Eema points at the words and with a trembling hand I place my finger on the page. “Esh tamid tukad al ha-mizbeyach, lo tichbeh—an eternal fire shall be kept burning upon the altar; it shall not go out.” I close my eyes and feel the heat within me. I imagine the lighting of a spark which will now grow each day. I write the stroke of each letter of the word—esh—in my mind, strokes of white fire in the darkness. I imagine the wilderness of Sinai, like Eema taught me, the place where Abraham and Sarah met Hashem for the first time. I see the fire of the white letters they saw painted across a dark desert sky.

I kiss the coin and whisper the word “esh,” imagining the word composed of letters, the letters composed of strokes, the strokes twining around each other, the flame burning inside me, now shoved out of my chest by my breath, up through my throat and out past my lips into air. My lips are warm. The coin feels hot. Even though my eyes are closed, I see it happen. There is a crackling, like lightning running up and down my arms and legs and to the ends of each strand of my hair. I quickly open my eyes and place the coin in the tzedakah box on the windowsill.

Power demands sacrifice and the holiest form of sacrifice is giving alms to the poor. What we take from the universe, we must give back.” My mother’s lessons buzz in my head like the hiss of flame. Her words twin with my father’s words, “children of the light,” and I touch the candle-wick quickly. The spark transfers from my fingers. Lightning fast, the candle bursts into flame. I feel wild and a little bit dangerous. Pure power and potential. I want to see what else I can light. I know in that moment I could burn our house down in a flash.

But then I hear Eema’s voice.

Baruch,” she prompts.

The prayer. I almost forgot. I close my eyes and concentrate on forming the strokes of the letters in my mind again. This isn’t two letters that form a word—this is a whole blessing. “Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to light the Shabbat flame,” I say, loud and clear and true. This time I weave the letters into words and place the words into a white void—the words reassemble themselves into burning white fire made up of three holy letters—שבת—Shabbat. An emptiness which is full of heavenly light. I usher it in. The fire dissipates and shrinks to the size of a spark. It’s still burning inside me, but now it’s just a spark and nothing more—a smoldering ember. I feel a different kind of energy now—something cool and soothing. Relief. I did it! My chest heaves and I smile, tears prickling in my eyes.

I look up. There are tears in my mother’s eyes too. I’ve waited years for this moment, for her approval. There are so many things I’ve done wrong over the past years, so many mistakes I’ve made. Not listening to my parents, fighting them at every turn. Sziporka, they always call me, little spark. But this time, I did something right. My face glows. Gold and bright, like the light of a thousand flames.

“Amen,” Eema says and leans down to kiss my forehead. Her hands smell like smoke and the nettle tea she prepared for Nagmama’s joints right before we lit candles. I wonder if I will always remember this moment. If I will always associate lighting candles with the scent of nettle tea.

I am a bit like a nettle—stinging others in all the wrong places—but I know: something that can sting can also heal. Something that can burn and destroy can also light up the night and keep the darkness at bay. I am a spark of light now, no longer bursting with flame and words I can’t contain. I close my eyes again to make sure that for once I did everything right.

There is only white space inside me.

I take a deep breath and open my eyes.

“Welcome, Sarahleh,” Eema says. “You are a daughter of Solomon now. I’m so proud of you.” She embraces me and I smell dough and lavender, nettle and flame, and everything is crisp and clean and bright.

Brucha haba’ah!” Hannah says. “Welcome, sister!” She’s waiting next to Eema. When she embraces me, I close my eyes to savor the feeling. Her thick auburn hair smells like grass, like fresh air and rosemary. Maybe now I can be more like her. Maybe Eema and Abba and Nagmama will look at me the way they look at her—with pride and respect, not frustration and anger, doubt and regret.

“Nagmama!” Her arms are waiting to enfold me. But when she touches me I see only darkness, and smell something burnt and rotten, like smoke. My heart skips a beat. I quickly kiss her cheek and turn away. I don’t want to ruin this moment. I have to keep the light shining bright.

I remember how jealous I felt when I watched Hannah enter into the covenant. I remember how I felt like my turn would never come. I look over at Levana to see if she feels the same now, but she is staring out the window, looking at the stars. One year from now seems like an eternity, but I know her turn will come sooner than we expect, and someday I will pass the light on to my daughters.

Levana turns her head and grins at me—her pale copper hair surrounds her head like a halo. I lift her in my arms and twirl her around. “Shabbat shalom!” I say, and she giggles. I put her down and Hannah picks her up. I watch and laugh as they spin themselves dizzy. Then Levana holds a hand out to me and we spin until we fall down, over and over again. It’s easy to feel safe here, with a thick thatch of roof over our heads, a fire burning in the hearth, and holy candles lit on the windowsill for all to see. Easy to forget what I saw when I hugged Nagmama.

For the next spin, Hannah doesn’t join us. I see her stand taller, holding herself differently. Now that I’m a bat mitzvah, she is a woman. We are both wielders of the flame of Solomon, but soon she will marry and join her fire with another’s. It’s a burden I’m happy not to have to bear yet, but Hannah wears it like a crown on her head.

There is a knock at the door. Abba bursts in, home from synagogue. He dusts the snow from his big red beard and stomps his boots on the mat by the door. Eema takes his coat and whispers into his ear and his big green eyes find mine. “Mazal tov, Sarahleh!

I cross the room and leap into his strong arms. I see the pride in his eyes and his face lights up with a glow that comes from the same source as the flame inside me.

Later that night, I lie in bed and even though it’s Shabbat I reach out to the fire that now burns freely within me. I play with it on the inside—not daring to light up the room I share with my sisters, and arguing in my head that I’m not really breaking Shabbat if I’m only playing with a fire I already lit. I stare out the window above Levana’s bed and I wonder what she saw. If she felt the layer of wrongness like I did when I hugged Nagmama—something infected and rotten curling at the edges of everything bright.

I must fall asleep at some point because the next thing I know, I’m dreaming of darkness. There is a black mist winding its way through the trees, creeping along the earth. Everything it touches turns black as tar and then withers, shrinking in upon itself. The mist creeps its way from the edge of the forest, down the stone-strewn muddy streets of town, up the street that runs through the Jewish quarter of Trnava, and through the cracks in the wall of our house. It feels like the darkness is coming for me.

As it starts to drift its way through the window, I sit up in bed and conjure a flame. I’m awake now and fully conscious of the fact that it’s Shabbat and I’ve set fire to my bed. I frantically try to put it out, but before I manage to smother it with a blanket, it rises up and takes the thin shape of a serpent, then slithers up from my bed and out the window. It chases the mist, which shrinks back into itself and goes away. I get up and look out the window—but there’s nothing there. I rub my eyes and keep staring, looking for the light snake and wondering if it was only a dream.