“All other birds rest on a rock or a tree when they tire; but when the dove tires, she pushes off the ground with one wing and flies with the other.”
(Midrash Rabbah B’reishis 39)
Bayla – 1939 Poland
“Mimi, have you noticed that Mama and Papa are acting strange lately? They’re always whispering, and they stop when we come into the room.”
Mimi raced ahead to the zoo entrance, and I had to run to catch up to her.
Above the zoo gate, canopies of Linden blossoms gleamed gold in the early morning sunlight. Their sweet perfume contrasted with the pungent animal smells of the zoo that wafted towards us.
“Ugh!” I held my nose. “They both seem worried. I wonder what they’re worried about.”
“I’m not going to worry about it,” she said. “Look!” Mimi pointed at five bright pink flamingos standing on the other side of the zoo gate. They were balancing on one leg and staring at us. She tried imitating the way the flamingos stood, and fell down laughing.
I heard bees buzzing and the chatter of birds. Hippos brayed, and peacocks screeched. Gibbons sang a summer harmony, complete with the trill of starlings. I held my ears. Mimi laughed at me. “It’s not that loud.”
“It’s hurting my ears.”
A tall, graceful lady with tawny colored hair pinned up in two thick braids stepped towards us. I couldn’t help staring at the dotted baby lynx she cradled in her arms. She wore a polka-dotted blouse that matched the lynx. “You must be the Karmel girls.”
“How do you do,” I curtseyed, trying not to stare at the strange animal.
“You look just like your mother.” Just then, Mama approached, pushing baby Fraidy in her pram.
“Antonina!” Mama stepped towards the lady, then stopped when she saw the lynx. “The lady lowered the lynx gently and it loped away. “Sarah, it’s so nice to see you again.”
“It’s been a long time. These are my girls, Bayla and Mimi, and the baby is Fraida.”
“They’re lovely. Come in and have some refreshments. Then we’ll give the children a proper tour of the zoo.”
Mama smiled. “Thanks so much.”
“Are you still painting those lovely water colors?”
Mama blushed. “Why, yes. I do try.”
“Your mama is very talented. I remember seeing her talent at the art conservatory where we studied art together.”
We followed her past some animal enclosures. I saw a bear and a gorilla. She led us to a large villa. She stopped and pointed to a tree branch that had two white birds perched on one of the top branches. “Those are my doves. They’re so pretty. I just love them.”
“Doves symbolize peace,” Mama said.
“We need that now,” Mrs. Zabinski sighed. “They’re such gentle birds.”
She ushered us inside the villa. “This is our home.”
Mama whispered to Antonina. “I brought a piernik.”
“You remembered Jan likes honey spice cake.”
“I should be serving you food.”
Mrs. Zabinski said, “I know you can’t eat our food. So happy you came, and thank you for bringing the cake.”
Inside the house, the parquet floors shone, and oriental throw rugs added to the décor. The large glass windows overlooked the vista of the zoo.
I stepped outside onto a terrace. Below, I spotted a monkey hopping about and four peacocks strutting in a line. It was like watching a show here with a front-row seat.
A monkey jabbered and hobbled over to us. I moved away. “He’s not going to hurt you,” Mrs. Zabinski said. Mimi reached out and petted the monkey.
Mama sat politely on the couch. I could tell by the way she tightened her grip on Fraidy’s pram that she was frightened of the monkey.
The movement of the pram and the sun had lulled my active two-year-old sister fast asleep.
“Your baby has such long lovely lashes.”
“She gets them from her father,” Mama laughed.
Just then there was a knock at the door and there was Papa.
“Welcome,” Mrs. Zabinski said. “Jan will be here soon. I know he was anxious to see you.”
Papa towered over the petite zookeeper’s wife. “Yes, I wanted to show him some designs for the cages he was telling me about.”
A little boy peeked into the room. He was carrying a small bird. “Rys, come say hello.”
The little boy’s hair matched his mother’s. “Go show the girls some of your pets,” his mother said.
We followed him. As we left the room, I heard my father whisper to Mrs. Zabinski. “I have a trip next week to Paris to sell more of my metal sculptures. I’m worried about leaving the family home alone. There’s talk of…”
I couldn’t hear the rest because the little bird in Rys’ hand started singing. “It’s a lark,” he said. He led us to the back of the villa where there were some wild horses grazing.
I stared at the tall horses. Their manes lifted in the summer breeze, but my mind wandered back to what Papa said. What was Papa worried about?
Rys led us to a tree house. He started climbing up the crude wooden ladder and Mimi scrambled after him. I watched her and hesitated. “Come on up. It’s a great view,” she said.
I shook my head. The ladder didn’t look that sturdy, and they were up so high in the branches. I shielded my eyes with my hand. Just then a large dog barreled towards me. I screamed. The dog yipped and backed away.
“You scared her,” Rys said to me.
Mimi was laughing. “Bayla, you scared the dog.”
I found myself laughing, too. Papa strode over to me. “Come on. We’re going to have a tour of the zoo. “Mimi, get down from there.”
My father took my hand. He has big, strong hands. I love to be near him and breathe his smell of metals and evergreens. It’s the scent of his art studio in the back of our house. Mother’s scent is more of paints and canvases.
Mimi joined us and took Papa’s other hand. Mama and Antonina and her husband Jan were standing in front of the villa waiting for us. Rys ran ahead of us, still holding the small bird in his hand.
“Papa, what were you talking to Mrs. Zabinski about before?”
“You said you were going to Paris and you were worried about—”
Papa interrupted. “Bayla, Hashem is with us. Don’t forget that and don’t worry.”
We joined the others and I tried not to worry, but I noticed that Papa hadn’t answered my question.
To be continued…
Susie Garber is the author of Denver Dreams, a novel (Jerusalem Publications, 2009), Memorable Characters…Magnificent Stories (Scholastic, 2002), Befriend (Menucha Publishers, 2013), The Road Less Traveled (Feldheim, 2015), fiction serials and features in various magazines including A Bridge in Time, historical fiction serial (Binyan Magazine, 2017). She writes the community column for The Queens Jewish Link and she writes freelance for Hamodia. She works as a writing consultant in many yeshivahs and she teaches creative writing to students of all ages.