Pal, a Golden Retriever, pulled at his leash, keen to investigate scents scattered across the tiny park. Hope trailed behind him, trying not to spill her drink. Once, this dog’s enthusiasm for the world outside had delighted her. Now Hope’s jaw tightened as Pal dragged her behind him.
All she wanted to do was get home. People would already be there, waiting for her. Her fingers itched to close her bedroom door, open her laptop, and log on. In her mind, she was already inside the neon world of Sirius, an online virtual world designed for tweens and teens set inside a fictional reproduction of our night sky’s brightest star.
“Wake up!” A voice belted towards her, wrenching Hope to the present. Its sound bounced among leaves, rough but strong. A bird lifted off in flight.
She looked around in surprise, seeing neither the bird nor the leaves. Her eyes fell on the only other human in the park, a wiry old man sitting on a bench beside a tree with leaves that always danced in the wind. They were turning red now, those leaves, their delicate frames quivering as she approached.
The old man fixed his eyes upon her. Despite her attempts to hold the dog back, he pulled her forward. As they stopped before the man, Pal’s head lifted. Hope lowered hers.
“Sit down,” he said, nodding at the space beside him. His voice was low, unhurried. Pal sniffed between the man’s brown boots that barely touched the pavement.
“You need to follow the list,” he instructed, as she settled herself on wooden planks. There was no greeting, no introduction. Hope stopped. Who was this man? What did he know of the list in her pocket?
The folded sheet of paper, lines of her mother’s writing, pressed through the fabric of her jeans, rubbing against her hip bone. Hope shifted in her seat, confused and uncomfortable, the items of her mother’s list appearing in the air above her.
It was an inventory of good deeds, created for Hope to perform now that she had turned eleven, designed to be followed in the year leading up to her bat mitzvah. This ‘mitzvah’ list irritated Hope. Filled with tasks like dog walking, taking out the rubbish, and daily acts of kindness, it was a custom for the children in her family in their preparation towards Jewish spiritual adulthood. No other family imposed such a burden on their children. Other girls were required to learn Jewish history, the special roles of women in Judaism, or how to read from the Torah as they prepared to step into spiritual womanhood. Hope was required to do some of these things too, but because her parents were not like those of other children, she also had the list.
As the youngest of five children whose very names were a testament to their parents’ unceasing commitment to right the world – Shalom (peace), Emmet (truth), Emuna (faith), Ahava (love), and Tikva (hope) – Hope had known her path to Jewish maturity would follow a road littered with public kindness, mapped by parental merchants of virtue. But in truth, all Hope wanted to do was disappear into her virtual life on Sirius, like so many other children her age.
“The list is good, and you need to follow it,” he said, turning cloudy green eyes towards her. “But I am going to add something to it.”
He wore a coat, a flat cap, with a blue scarf, the colour of a summer sky, tied in front. She had never seen a face with such deep lines, carved like ravines into bronzed skin. He looked older than the hills and yet there was dynamism in his ageing frame.
Under the scrutiny of his glare, Hope wondered momentarily about her safety. She was alone in this park with this strange small man who smelled faintly of dust and roses. In her gut, though, she felt untroubled.
“Two doors from your home lives a woman named Debra. You will visit her after school tomorrow. Later, when you walk your dog and buy your hot chocolate, I will be here, waiting.”
She thought of the woman who lived on the other side of the Sanders family. Debra had greying hair and moved awkwardly. Hope could not remember ever having spoken to her. She had no interest in starting now. But before she had a chance to object, the old man waved her away, “I will see you tomorrow, Tikva.”
It was a clumsy walk home, with the stop-start of Pal’s odour-driven treasure hunt. She had no idea who that man was, but he knew her name, her neighbour, and he knew about her mitzvah list. Perhaps he was a friend of her grandmother, the only other person who called Hope by her Hebrew name, Tikva.
He was forgotten the moment Hope closed her bedroom door that day and again the following afternoon when dull clouds dropped intermittent showers on her return from school. Declaring it too wet to walk the dog, she threw aside her list.
Turning on her computer, Hope entered her online haven, with its simulated places and avatar people. Mid-way through a building project, an unfamiliar figure appeared beside her. He wore a coat, a flat cap, and a blue scarf. He was called “Elijah the Prophet”.
In the chat bar at the edge of the screen, Elijah asked, “What are you doing? Go now to your neighbour. Then come to me in the park. I am waiting.”
Jumping up, Hope gasped and walked ten times around the living area of her house. It could not be him.
She waited a few minutes before returning online. It was important to know she was not crazy.
“Why are you still here?” Elijah appeared again, his coat floating where no virtual breeze would reach. “You know what to do, so do it.”
With a pounding heart, Hope rushed to her neighbour’s door and knocked. Who was that man? What was he? What did he want from her?
The door opened. A woman stood in its shadow. Hope simply asked if she needed anything. There was a pause and then, “Yes.”
Debra had dropped a key – an important key – behind a heavy bookshelf. It had fallen into a gap the size of a lemon – a space too small for hands swollen with rheumatoid arthritis – but one easily reached by the slight fingers of an eleven-year-old child.
Within seconds, Hope had extracted the key. Her neighbour’s effusive thanks warmed her, soothing her troubled mood. It spurred her to ask if she could do anything else.
And she could. There was a box at the back of a cupboard she fetched; a bottle of sauce she opened, and a knot she untied. It took no more than 15 minutes to complete all of these tasks.
“I have to go to walk my dog,” Hope said, awkward now there was nothing left to do.
“You are a heaven-sent,” Debra told her. “I can’t thank you enough. I was beside myself when the key fell. I didn’t know how I would get it back.”
The old man was waiting. He made no reference to their online encounter but nodded when she told him of her encounter with her neighbour.
“She has no family living now. She is lonely and unwell. You must visit her each week.”
Hope pursed her lips in objection to another mitzvah to add to her obligations, but complied, nonetheless. She followed her mother’s list and visited her neighbour. And every afternoon he was there, waiting for her and Pal. Always, she stopped, and they talked.
He offered no other clue to his identify than his name but hinted at more. Hope understood the impossibility of this man being Elijah the prophet. It would make him thousands of years old. But he knew things. He was like no one else she had met. And he looked like a man who has lived through time.
Elijah spoke in elegant sentences, passing comment, giving instructions and suggestions, teaching her things. There was no small talk, no side-tracked conversations. One week he was uncharacteristically garrulous, telling her more in that day that he had in all the months they had been meeting. It was a cold, still afternoon. The sky was high and pale.
“I am the teacher of redeemers,” he told her.
“I thought you spent all your time visiting Passover seders and circumcisions,” she responded, trying to be funny.
“I do that too. But that’s my side hustle, as they say today. My job is to pull together the strings of the universe – to find the candidates who can carry the world into the coming age. I watch them, guide them.”
“So why are you here with me?” she asked, unthinking. Elijah looked at her, eyebrows raised. “I’m just a kid,” she added, breathless before his gaze.
“I also follow the children who carry a spark that has the potential to become a flame. But this is a challenged generation – a generation in a trance. It has been lured by titans away from the path of righteousness.”
“We are a bad generation?”
“No, you are prisoners. You are abandoned. You are misplaced potential.”
“What does this mean for the world?”
“It carries on imperfectly, waiting for redemption.”
“But why?” she asked, her body tense with uncertainty.
“You know already, Tikva. Every time you open your computer you know the answer.”
But what else was there to do? Hope was the youngest child of a large loving family who cared for each other and for the world. But her parents worked late and when they were at home there were always things to be done – phone calls to be made, events to arrange, good works to be completed. Her siblings were grown, living their lives elsewhere. Only Ava was at home. But her sister, a teenager in fear of the world was becoming an adult who hid from it. Ava was not one to leave the confines of her room to spend time with her baby sister.
At home she was alone, but on Sirius Hope thrived. She made things, devised things, coordinated things. Her friends were there. It was her technicolour haven. And yet, as she ran through different online servers in search of belonging and meaning, she understood that none of it was real.
Months passed, the seasons changed, Hope followed her list and met the prophet. They talked about the world, about her aspirations and dreams. Elijah told her tales from history, from Tanach, from a world that had, until then, only existed as words on the page for her. He recounted memories, stories of people and places, that held Hope captive.
The more they met, the more Hope wanted to hear. “Why do you meet me?” she asked, one afternoon, when the late summer wind flapped her hair about her face. Elijah was still, solid as a mountain.
“You are clever, Hope. When your eyes are open and your mind clear, you see the world with clarity few will ever have. You have the skills and the versatility to lead and inspire. You are blessed with so much and yet it hangs in the balance. You can only live your potential consciously. It requires choice. And courage.” The prophet’s voice was steady. Hope felt her heart tighten in her chest.
“It’s scary,” she said.
He nodded. “That it is. To be great is to be brave.”
“But you will help me?” she asked in a whisper.
He nodded, “Until your bat mitzvah and then I must go, and you must follow the path laid out before you. It is the way of the Divine, it is the way of the Universe.”
Hope felt despair. If he was correct in what he said, how would she know what to do?
“You will know. Or you will ask…or you will guess.” He smiled a little then.
The days before her bat mitzvah grew fewer. In the week before her special day, Hope found herself tearful, stretched, unable to explain the waves of emotion that washed over her. When she lashed out at her parents, they consoled themselves with assumptions about youthful hormones.
It was Hope alone who understood the source of her despair. This strange man who had hijacked her life now filled it with meaning. What would she do without him?
They met again one last time, the day after her bat mitzvah, a light autumn rain dropping around them. “Mazal tov,” Elijah said. “You are a Jewish woman.”
“Whatever that means,” Hope mumbled. She did not want to think that she would not see this gnarled old man again.
“It means the responsibilities are now yours – and the opportunities, the blessings, the mitzvot. And the hope, too. You are named for a reason. You are our Hope.”
“But I can’t do this without you. I have no one else to guide me.”
Elijah shook his head. “Your guides are everywhere. You just need to call on them.”
At the end, when they said goodbye, it was Elijah who rose from the bench. He took short, quick steps away from her without once turning back. Hope thought her heart would break as she watched him depart.
Later, when she rose from the bench, Hope noticed Elijah’s scarf lying on the ground. Lifting it, she wrapped it around her neck and, despite her heavy heart, walked with her head held high into the future.