No One Can Talk to the Birds
By Mark Ari
Never had a Purim morning seemed more full of light. The smells of wet grass and lilac climbed in through the open windows and played through the house. I was waiting at the window when Uncle Dave and Aunt Sally arrived with my cousins, Yank and Mordy. This was a big event. They lived all the way out in Brooklyn and rarely came to our house on Long Island. Yank and Mordy called it "going to the country."
Tanta Melina had already arrived that morning. She and Uncle Zalman, my Poppa's brother, had a house near ours, so we saw her all the time. That day, Uncle Zalman was not with her. Mostly, he did not like to be anyplace where too many children were about, and any number of children was one too many for Uncle Zalman. Noise and confusion bothered him. Purim, with the way it encourages mischief, must have been his worst nightmare. But he usually gathered the courage to be with us on special occasions, so his absence was surprising. Melina said he promised to phone us.
I think Uncle Zalman stayed away because Hannah would be there. Hannah was my mother's friend, and Zalman did not like her either. Everyone else loved Hannah. Except, maybe, Tanta Melina. I could never be sure about that. They hardly talked, even when they were in the same room. And when they did, they were so polite it made everyone nervous and embarrassed. Manners can be like that. Too many manners in a family can be very upsetting.
All I could figure out from the bits and pieces of conversation grownups let slip when they didn't notice me was that Uncle Zalman had once liked Hannah a lot. Then he didn't, and there were a couple of reasons for that: she could not sit stillwhich was probably why he disliked kids, tooand she had her head up so high in the clouds she had birds for company and didn't need him. I found it all pretty confusing, but it was a long time ago. Since then, Zalman found Tanta Melina to make him happy.
Hannah had the rest of the world. She had me, for sure. I didn't care what clouds her head was in. Besides, I thought the idea a funny one. Hannah was about the shortest grownup I knew.
At first, no one seemed to miss Uncle Zalman that Purim. Momma and my two aunts were busy rushing about after Mordy, Yank and me to get us ready, in bits and pieces, for the costume party at the synagogue. Bright purple and gold garments rippled like flags from Momma's hand, snapped on the air and wrapped round us on the run. Cardboard crowns, strands of plastic gemstones and sticky-backed paper whiskers whirled about Aunt Sally until Melina plucked them, one by one from their orbits, and planted them, each on the scalp or neck or chin proper to it.
"Not fair!" cried Yank. He wanted to be Mordecai, the great hero who saved the Jews from evil Haman. But Mordy was going as Mordecai. Mordy always went as Mordecai. "Mordecai" was Mordy's real name, and everyone felt that gave him special rights on Purim.
"I want to be Mordecai!" Yank persisted, his eyes puffing up.
"Enough!" commanded Uncle Dave. "What do you want; that we should have two Mordecais from one house? There'll be at least a couple dozen at the synagogue as it is! Look at your brother. Do you want to take his name away from him? If Mordecai won't be Mordecai, who will he be? Nobody! You won't have a brother anymore!"
Yank looked hard at his older brother. Then he looked at his father, at me, and at everyone else in turn. "It's not fair," he moaned and stomped to the corner of the room where he sat on the floor and hid his face in his arms.
"Stop confusing the boy," said Aunt Sally. "You'll mix up his head and we'll have to call doctors."
"Okay." Uncle Dave threw up his hands "Then you fix it. Let him go as Mordecai. Who cares? We can all be Mordecai! A regular army!"
"Hush. Go twirl a cigar."
Aunt Sally went to the kitchen table. With a show of delicate care, she reached into a shopping bag and lifted something out of it, something large and light and all covered with newspaper. The whole family watched as she peeled away crackly layers of wrapping to reveal a huge, three-cornered hat made of black, felt board.
"What's that?" asked Uncle Dave. He grinned, an unlit cigar weaving through his fingers, and glanced at Yank, who couldn't help but peak through a space between his folded arms. "It looks like a big hammentashen."
"It's Haman's hat!" I called. "Three corners, see? Hammentashen cakes are shaped like it, and not the other way around."
"Thank you, Mr. Big Shot," said Uncle Dave.
Yank dashed for his mother. "It's my hat!" And Aunt Sally greeted him with a proper curtsy. She gently placed the extravagant hammentashen on the head of her little boy.
Uncle Dave rubbed his eyes and chuckled. "A miracle," he said.
Aunt Sally also had a beard prepared for Yank. It was a tassel from an old drapery cord that had been dipped into a paste of coffee, lemon juice and water and left to dry. She fixed the whiskersstiff and stringy and almost blackto Yank's chin with shoelaces she tied behind his neck.
"I'm Haman!" Yank boasted. Mordy and I blew little yellow horns and cranked our noisy Purim "graggers," just like you're supposed to do whenever anyone says that terrible name.
"No spitting," warned Momma. Her eye was on me.
"Haman!" Poppa shouted to keep us tooting and cranking, and we went crazy making our racket. He glanced at Tanta Melina who was hovering near the telephone stand. "Hey, call that husband of yours and tell him to get his tuchas over here! Tell him a complainer needs something to complain about or he's got no life! Tell him if he's only happy being miserable; heaven awaits!" Then he started chasing Yank. "Haman! Hey, Haman! Pull up your pants; your gotkes are showing!"
""You're worse than the kids, "Momma said and swatted him in passing. She had a toy horn in her mouth, held between her teeth.
Poppa's eyes got sly, and he put up one finger, a clear sign for us kids to get our noisemakers ready and set for his next signal. But Momma took a platter of hammentashen, real ones, from the oven and placed the cookies on a counter to cool. In an instant, Mordy, Yank and I abandoned Poppa and grabbed seats at the kitchen table. His plan ruined, Poppa put his hands on his hips and looked at us through narrowed eyes. We sat sweet as angels, patient and silent, sniffing the aromas of freshly baked dough and cooked apricots, waiting for the pastry to be served.
"Another miracle," Uncle Dave marveled and slipped his still unlit cigar back into his vest pocket.
"Haman!" Poppa tried again to instigate us. He was not one to give in easily. None of his winks and gestures worked anymore. Mama tooted her horn at him.
Mordy and Yank began to squabble over first pick of the hammentashen. I didn't trouble about them. Instead, I studied the platter from a distance, considering which dainty to target for myself.
And so, Mr. Big Shot," asked Uncle Dave from behind me. "Who are you going to be at the Purim party?"
When I didn't answer, he tapped my head with a knuckle and asked again.
"Queen Esther," I said.
"A surprise," I corrected.
I might have told him about the contest for best costume to be held at the synagogue. I might have explained how I figured that since costumes hide what's underneath them, the best one would have to lead to the biggest surprise. I might have told him lots of things, but I didn't. Momma had brought the hammentashen to the table.
"Hannah is here!" Poppa called, and I peeked out from the bathroom where I was changing my clothes. He pulled his ear to draw my attention to the rattling sound of Hannah's old Chevrolet in the driveway. I was all excited again and ran to the door. It was like the holiday was all around me. Hannah made it like that. And when she entered the house and saw me in the in the long, blue, Queen Esther dress I had just pulled on, she put her hand to her mouth.
"He's Queen Esther," Uncle Dave offered and shrugged.
Hannah laughed and hurried to me. She smiled a greeting at Tanta Melina who didn't notice and hadn't budged from nearby the telephone for some time. Then she looked at Momma who, first checking to make sure Melina couldn't see her, shrugged and shook her head.
"I'm Haman!" yelled Yank, cranking his gragger until Uncle Dave grabbed his son's nose.
Hannah touched a finger to one of the points of the crown Mama made for me. It was cardboard, but there were jewels painted on it and yellow yarn, for hair, hung in long cords from just inside its opening. It was pinned to my hair, like a spiky yarmulke, so it would stay in place.
"Such an elegant Queen Esther the world has never imagined," said Hannah, playing with the ruffles at my chest.
In no time at all, my cousins and I pulled her into the living room. I begged her to dance. I loved when she did. She taught us all the right way to do it, with our whole bodies and not just our feet. It was like praying, she said, and one doesn't pray with a piece of one's heart but with every bit of it. And when she danced, it was like that. Her short legs lifted onto the air. Her apron bobbed. The ends of her kerchief wiggled along behind her head as she went.
"Let Hanna rest," said Momma.
"She's not tired!" I insisted.
"I said let her rest." Momma's voice was firmer, and she led Hannah passed Tanta Melina into the kitchen. "You can play with your cousins until it's time to go to the party."
"Will you look at that?" Aunt Sally interrupted. She pointed at the kitchen window where nine sparrows had lit, all in a row on the ledge. Not a peep out of them, they stood wing to wing except for one small space in the line where another bird might fit.
"Isn't that strange?" said Poppa.
"Bread," said Aunt Sally, "We should give them bread, shouldn't we?"
"Hush, don't scare them," Hannah cautioned. She approached the little creatures, so slowly that in my memory it's as though we were all holding our breaths. Then the birds, when she was as near to them as they were to each other, all chirped wildly and at once. After a few seconds, they lifted in a single movement and flew off.
"That's something you don't see everyday," Uncle Dave said, nodding his head. "Am I right?"
Hannah looked at Tanta Melina. "Go home."
Tanta Melina tried to run away with her eyes, but there was nowhere to go. Her glance fluttered and lit nervously on one thing after another until Hannah caught it with her own.
"Now," said Hanna. "Go. Your husband needs you."
Everyone was in a bad mood after Tanta Melina left. Uncle Dave called her a crazy woman while she rushed for the door and several times after she was gone. Then he called Hannah crazy, too.
"Quiet, David!" Aunt Sally told him.
"Me? I'm not the one ruining a nice holiday. Hannah's the crazy one! Meshugga! Birds? Now Melina is going to rush in on Zalman so terrified they'll both have heart attacks! Happy Purim!"
Hannah didn't look well. Poppa took her arm. He led her to a chair near the table while Momma stuffed the hands of us children with hammentashen and pressed us out the door.
As soon as Yank, Mordy, and I were outside, we sat down on the front porch. Remembering to say "I will never be as mean as Haman" before every bite, we gobbled our pastry, licking our fingers and picking at the tiniest crumbs that fell into our laps until there was nothing more to be had.
"Did you see that?" asked Mordy at last. "Hannah can talk to the birds."
"Nobody can talk to the birds," returned Yank, stroking his beard.
"Hannah can," I said. "I saw her."
"No she can't. What can a bird talk about?"
"It doesn't matter, idiot!" I insisted and pulled his beard down.
Yank chased me and I egged him on, chanting "Hannah can talk to the birds
Hannah can talk to the birds."
Mordy joined in, and Yank had to take turns trying to catch the both of us, first one and then the other, as we flew in circles, our costumes flapping as we ran.
What a sight we must have been: Mordy with a round beard penciled on his chin, his billowing purple robe trailing ribbons of many colors, and Yank in his bright yellow shirt and red pants, wearing his rubber raincoat like a cape, holding on to his hammentashen hat with one hand as he charged this way and that. I was probably the funniest. I had to pull my dress up to run, revealing just enough of a pant leg to tease the world with the mystery of what Queen Esther was beneath what she had become.
I thought about Tanta Melina and how Hannah's birds had sent her away. In that instant, Yank almost caught me. I jumped to escape and my feet tangled in the ends of my dress. I spun across the pavement. Just when I knew that I was going to fall and hurt myself, two hands grabbed me under my arms caught me and brought my back to rest against their chest. Tilting my head, I saw Mordy's face looking down at me.
"You're it!" Yank shouted and tagged me on the shoulder.
"It's time to go to synagogue!" called Poppa.
He and Uncle Dave were coming down the walk. My cousins and I ran to meet them.
"Where's Momma?" I asked.
"The Mommas are staying home to take care of that crazy Hannah," said Uncle Dave.
"Hannah isn't feeling well," Poppa added.
"Not fair!" I complained. This was too much to take. What good was my most magical of transformations into Queen Esther if Momma, Aunt Sally, and Hannah weren't there to fully appreciate it among the lesser miracles of the other kids' costumes?
"Not fair!" echoed Mordy and Yank.
"Lets forget the Purim party altogether," Uncle Dave grumbled.
"We've got to go to the synagogue!" I begged. We can't miss the party!"
"Of course we're going," said Poppa.
"You children wouldn't want Hannah to go out when she's not feeling well, would you?"
"No," my cousins and I replied, none of us with very much heart.
"And you wouldn't want her to be left all alone, am I right? So let's go and have a good time, and you can tell your Mommas and Hannah about it when we get back. That will help Hannah to feel better."
Poppa kept us on track, resting one arm on Mordy's shoulder and one arm on mine. Uncle Dave walked and mumbled to himself behind us Yank tagged along, trying to step on the heels of his father's shoes as he marched.
"The best thing about Purim," Uncle Dave said suddenly, "is there's no hocus-pocus. No God jumping in like Zorro to save the day; just good brains and good looks. That's what makes the world go around."
"Hannah says that God doesn't work on us but with us and through us." I said.
"That's what Hannah says, eh, Mr. Big Shot," continued my uncle. "And that kind of superstition is what makes people think they're getting secret messages from wildlife. Oh, that safe that fell off the building missed me by inches; it's a miracle. A comet did not hit the world today; it's a miracle. A million people died in an earthquake, but a hundred and seventeen survived; it's a miracle. There's no end to it."
"Cut it out, Dave," said Poppa, taking my hand. "Your uncle is like a deaf man," Poppa explained, "who picks up the phone and, when he doesn't hear someone on the other end, insists the phone is dead."
Uncle Dave squinted. "What's that supposed to mean? Don't tell me; I don't care. I'm just saying there are people in this world who think every coincidence is a miracle. That's all I have to say."
I'm not sure which part of what my uncle said made Poppa smile, but he did smile and Uncle Dave pulled out a cigar, bit down on the end of it and chewed hard for the rest of the walk.
At the synagogue, there were lots of children in colorful costumes. As Uncle Dave had predicted, there were plenty of Mordecais, all in purple robes like the real Mordecai was supposed to have worn. There were Hamans, too, with blacked out teeth, wearing three-cornered hats of all sizes and ugly toy noses. And there were Esthers: Esthers in red, Esthers in gold, Esthers in blue, each topped with a cardboard crown like mine or with one that was tall and pointy like an upside down ice-cream cone.
Of all the Mordecais, none was more like a hero than Mordy. He was a head taller than any of the other kids and, after all, who can be more like a Mordecai than a Mordecai? And though all the Hamans looked mean, none were nearly as awful as Yank with his face powdered white as milk and wide, dark circles around his eyes that Aunt Sally made with a piece of burnt cork. And I was the only Queen Esther who was a boy.
Along with the other children, my cousins and I marched around in a big circle so the judges could have a good look at our costumes.
"Such a pretty, little Queen Esther," said the Rabbi's wife when she saw me.
"I'm a boy," I smiled, lifting my hairpiece to show her that my real hair was short.
"The prettiest I've ever seen!" she laughed and pulled the other judges over to show me off.
I won a honey cake, the kind with little pieces of gummy fruit inside it. I don't like gummy fruit, but I also won two ribbons. They didn't know whether to give me a blue one for being a boy with the best costume, or a red one for being a pretty Queen Esther, so I got one of each.
It wasn't a bad cake, despite the fruit. My cousins and I finished it off pretty quickly. Then we started on the huge plates of sugar cookies and bowls of punch laid out on a ping pong table for the celebration. The grownups were already loud and giddy from the wine in their paper cups. They were a problem for the rabbi. He needed to settle them down for the reading of the Megillah, the Purim story, and they were not settling.
With his big belly hanging over the belt of his pants, Rabbi Finklestein huffed about, absent-mindedly mopping the sweat from his face with the fringes of his tallis, coaxing and pleading one group after another into silence. Eventually, it was quiet enough. He unrolled a scroll and read from it.
As best I can remember, the rabbi told how Haman, the advisor to the King of Persia, got angry when Mordecai refused to bow to him. Jews are not allowed to bow to a man, but only to God, so Mordecai couldn't help himself. Haman didn't like it. To punish Mordecai, he talked the King into killing all the Jews in Persia. Purim, which are like raffle tickets, were drawn to decide the day when the killings would be done.
Hearing the bad news, Mordecai went to see his cousin, Esther, who happened to be married to the King.
"You've got to talk to your husband," he told her. "Get him to not do these murders.
"I'm not sure if I can. He's stubborn."
"But you're his wife."
"Big deal; he's got lots of wives, at least one for every day of the week. And he gets very upset when any of them tries to mix in his politics."
"You're our only hope. If you don't do it, we're finished. The next time you go to synagogue, you'll be the only person there. All we need is a little miracle. You're so lovely, how could he refuse?"
"I'm not flattered," replied Queen Esther, fixing her hair in a mirror. "A little miracle is a tall order. Besides, what kind of miracle is it if he does it because he likes my looks?"
"If it works, it will do," said Mordecai, and Esther had to admit he had a point.
Dressed in her softest, cuddliest gown, Queen Esther pinched her cheeks to make them rosy, dabbed scented oil behind each of her ears, and went to pay a visit to the King.
After one look into Esther's big, brown eyes, the King said, "You can have whatever you want."
"How do you know I want something?"
"Whenever one of my wives puts on something like that and smells so good, it costs me a fortune."
"Well, I wouldn't mind if you changed your decision about killing all the Jews."
"The Jews? But Haman says they're traitors. He ought to know; that's what I pay him for."
"I'm a Jew."
"You? A Jew?"
"You never told me."
"It didn't come up."
Esther touched her fingertips to the King's lips. "Do you think I'm a traitor?"
The king did not think someone with such fingers could be a traitor.
That, even if it's not exactly the way the rabbi told it, is how the Jews were saved at the last minute.
At first, while the rabbi read, everyone cheered whenever Mordecai was mentioned and booed, blew horns, and cranked graggers for Haman. But with all the noise and fooling around that was going on, things got confused. People forgot for whom they were booing or cheering. All the adults got silly, even Uncle Dave. Holding his fingers to his head like horns, he weaved in and out of the crowd, making sounds like a bull, giving little slaps to the bottoms of every woman he passed, and a few of the men as well.
We were all sleepy after the party. Yank's and Mordy's make-up was smeared over their hands and costumes. All three corners of Yank's hat were bashed in. The shoelaces that had held on the once fabulous beard had broken so that it now hung limply around his shoulders. My own costume was rumpled, its ribbons torn loose and trailing behind me. On the front of my dress was a large, shapeless purple stain from the punch.
I was glad to get home.
Hannah was still sitting in the kitchen. Momma had the phone to her ear, and Aunt Sally's was pressed up to the receiver as well.
"Anything wrong?" asked Poppa.
"You remember before," Aunt Sally began, "when Hannah told Melina to go home, her husband needs her? What do you think? When Melina got home, Zalmen was on the floor. His face was blue."
he made it himself
"Is he all right?"
"Thanks to Hannah he's home in bed, sleeping. Melina's a wreck. She had to reach into his throat. A minute later and who knows? Melina just now found the time to call us."
"How lucky can you get," said Uncle Dave, and no one replied.
My cousins and I went to wash up at the bathroom sink. Yank splashed me, but I wouldn't play. The house was too quiet; the way it gets when something happens that no one expects and no one knows what it is even after it's done. I was afraid to make a noise or a move that might start it going again.
"Mordy! Yank!" called Uncle Dave. "Come on, we're going home! We've a train to catch!"
"We'll drive you," said Poppa.
"We can walk. It's only five minutes to the station."
"I think we could all use a breath of fresh air. Hannah, you too."
"No, I'll wait here for you. Queen Esther can stay with me."
"I'm not Queen Esther anymore," I said, "but I did win the contest."
"No more Esther; just Mr. Big Shot," joked Uncle Dave. Then he took Hannah's hand. "I'm sorry, Hannah," he said. "And I'm glad everything turned out for the best."
Hannah smiled. She did not get up until after Momma, Poppa, Aunt Sally, Uncle Dave and both of my cousins were gone. Then she walked over to the kitchen window and looked out into the dark.
"Hannah," I asked. "Can you really talk to the birds?"
"Such a wonderful Queen Esther," she said before she turned to me. Then, when she did, she took my fingers and, with her hand over mine, placed them on the cool window glass. "Don't you know? No one can talk to the birds."
Mark Ari is the author of The Shoemaker’s Tale, a novel (Zephyr Press), and has published fiction, nonfiction and poetry in both print and online journals, including the Jewish Magazine.
from the March 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine