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The Girl Who Only Liked Birds - Maria Lazebnik

After yesterday’s rain, it felt good to be back on the beach. I squinted, taking in the narrow strip of sand covered in spongy seaweed still attached to the living barnacles. While my husband struggled with the wind to set up our UV-proof tent, I stood with my feet in the water watching my kids, resting my hands on my warm belly clad in a purple bathing suit, wondering if it was obvious that I was expecting. I told myself I should get in the water before the ocean swept my daughter away, as she spun in circles a few feet away in her favorite swim ring.

On the right, my son climbed the massive, slimy rocks of the wave breaker with that absent-minded dreamy expression, his intention probably to look into the bucket of teenage boys who were fishing up there, to see what type of fish they had caught. I noted it was my expression that my son had. He was too cautious to climb all the way. I knew he would come back and wander in the shallow water looking for sea creatures, and we would spend time trying to catch minnows and pick up moray eels, as thin as sea grass with dragon-like heads. I noticed that when you put eels in the bucket, you could see them breathing slowly, and somehow they looked sad.

Suddenly, I heard squawking and fluttering behind me, like that of a seagull—it was Leia. Sometimes you meet people and they fascinate you for no apparent reason, projecting a sense of mystery or poetry. This was the case for me with Leia. It was similar to once in a while remembering peculiar news, like when a pink dolphin had been spotted in Lake Calcasieu in Louisiana and saving it under your browser’s favorites, not because dolphins were important to you or you took an interest in marine life, but precisely because it was poetic or mysterious that such a creature should exist as a pink dolphin.

For a few summers now, I had been visiting the Cape, and we always seemed to vacation at the same time as this little girl. She was all angles, tanned knees and elbows, while her face commanded a prominent forehead with deep-set hazel eyes, and wavy hair flying about in thin wisps in the ocean breeze. She was advanced for her age. She would say something, and then look at you as though you were reading her mind, half expecting you to continue her train of thought for her.

She bore the name of the female matriarch of the Jewish people, the feeble-eyed bride whom Jacob had wed before uniting with his beloved Rachel. Her name possessed a melodic quality, resonating as it should in Hebrew, yet to Americans, it evoked the image of the Star Wars princess. Little Princess Leia skipped around the beach with her blue bathing suit hanging on to her skinny body.

When we first met her, Leia was vacationing with her nanny, a Ukrainian woman who must have been in her late seventies, with a head of gleaming white hair, bright blue eyes, a large cross, and a visible pink scar running across her chest winding its way into her bikini bra. The nanny talked little but told me that Leia’s parents were important people, her mother a doctor, and her grandfather was an even more important person, a professor, as one of the benches on this beach’s boardwalk had been donated in his memory.

What must have been the first reason for my fascination with Leia was that on some level, she reminded me of myself back when I was a serious, skin-and-bones six-year-old, in Odessa, on the Black Sea, vacationing with my grandmother, except my situation was completely different because my grandmother loved me beyond belief. Despite having blood pressure in the highest possible range, she would run after me on the crowded beach, swim with me, take me to Lunapark amusement park, and we’d ride all over the city on the tram, exploring the places she loved when she was a girl, before the war, these places from her stories coming alive.

Leia’s nanny tended to sit on the bench, while letting the girl run around and climb various structures on the sandy playground by the beach. One evening, we decided to take a family picture, us and our two kids. We climbed the lifeguard tower, and there was Leia as well, climbing up with us. She wanted to be in the picture. “We’ll photoshop her out later,” my husband whispered smiling, though we never did. Her T-shirt said “Big Sister.” That’s how we seemed to have an older daughter, at least as far as the photographic evidence was concerned.

The next year, we encountered Leia again. Now she was vacationing with an elderly couple, whom I assumed were her grandparents. One day, Leia found seagull feathers. She asked me to put one of them in her hair, and she stuck others under the elastic band of her bathing suit bottoms. She said she was a seagull, and she and another girl, a five-year-old Nicole, played a pretend game where they were seagulls attacking my son. My son grabbed a foam noodle, trying to fight them off.

“How about he is a pirate and you are his parrot,” I offered trying to restore some peace. Leia right away agreed and put her arm around my son’s neck, as though that represented her perching on his shoulder.

“My grandchild, a boy, he likes fighting,” her grandfather told me as he stood next to me in the water watching them.

“Leia likes playing like she is a bird. Does she like birds?” I asked, trying to continue the conversation.

“Oh, she loves them. She is not like other girls. Don’t give her dolls or princesses. Give her birds!”

I imagined what her room must be like. There were no pictures of Ariel or Snow White. She only loved birds. She had pictures of birds in her room, and all of her toys were birds: fluffy blue birds, plastic swans with straw-like necks, stuffed red cardinals, and ceramic figurines of parakeets.

“Does she like parrots?”

“Yes,” he exhaled from underneath his mustache, “She had one, but her mother developed an allergy, and the parrot had to 'fly away' to South America."

“Once, I called her mother. And I said, ‘Surprise!’ That was before I knew about South America.” He chuckled, splashing water over his plump Santa belly covered in a coat of white curls, “I bought a cage and two parrots. I wanted to surprise Leia and bring them over. Her mother, I swear, is a psychic. I did not even get a chance to explain; she had realized what had happened and said not to bring any birds.”

He told me that he had given the birds to his own grandchildren, two older boys, but they didn’t care, so he had to go by and clean the cage.

“Were they parakeets?” I asked. I told him I used to have parakeets back in Russia and here. My parakeets, each had a name. I once thought of writing a children’s book about them or a romance novel as their lives certainly had a lot of drama. They had babies just before we left for America. At one point, we had seven birds living at my house, but had to give them away. In the US, after our last one passed away, my dad did not want any more birds until my sister got another two as a gift at college and brought them home for him to care for them.

“Well,” he said, “We are dog people but we used to have parakeets for the kids. I just remember burying one after another.”

"This time," he said, "was different for Leia. I bought one parrot, a species slightly more serious than a budgie—a larger bird. And I also bought a small parakeet like the ones you mentioned. The bigger one taught the smaller one about life."

I thought it odd that he bought two parrots of different species. I imagined them, the big one pecking the little one on the head.

I said, “Leia is like a little bird herself.”

“Yes,” he smiled, “she got bigger with us on the Cape; she used to be the smallest when I used to drive her to school. She does not play with dolls, all she has is birds, small birds, petushki (little roosters).” And with that, he dove into the water.

Later, Leia’s friend Nicole’s grandfather approached me. “That man you’ve been talking to, he talks too much.”

“Yes,” I said, “he is a pleasant gentleman, Leia’s grandfather.”

“What?! That uncle…he is no grandfather, he is her nanny’s boyfriend!” Nicole’s grandfather puffed with contempt at the imposter grandpa. It was curious to me how he looked like the other guy too, they both sported these Santa bellies covered in white fur.

This year, Leia came with a younger, middle-aged couple, a mustachioed man and a woman with short auburn hair. They kept Leia on a strict schedule. She was by them, and not

playing with other kids as much.

At one point, Leia’s friend Nicole sat down next to me. “I am hot being in the sun,” she complained. “You don’t mind if I sit with you here in your tent, in the shade.” She studied my cooler for a second. “Can I have a grape?” As she slurped the grapes off the stem, she told me she could sing every song by Lady Gaga. Then, she shared with me a story that her grandparents forbade her from telling. Typical of five-year-olds, she repeated and restarted the narrative. And in my imagination, I glued together the fragments of her tale.

Once, a little girl and her grandmother were on vacation. Every day they went to the beach, and her grandmother was building her a sandcastle. Her grandmother built the castle for seventeen days. Her grandmother built her a sandcastle so big that the girl could fit right inside of it; she could caress the sand walls of the castle, feeling the grainy texture on the palms of her hands. The next day, they came to the beach to find that someone had destroyed their castle. The grandmother got so sad that she died. And the little girl was seven, and her name was Leia.

A twinge of pain for my own grandmother. How much I wished she could have been there with me in that moment, sitting in the beach chair, watching the waves with me. I thought about Leia; she must have been on vacation in June, and this time with her actual grandmother, finally with someone who truly cared for her.

I glanced at Leia skipping around her assumed parents. I heard them discussing the plan for the evening, “You feed her at seven while I’ll take a ride out here and take a dip.” They didn’t sound too interesting or intellectual. I decided they couldn’t be her parents. They made her wear a peculiar pink crinkly swimming cap, though. I didn’t see any other kids in swim caps. I was surprised to see that they made her wear orange floaties on her arms. As advanced as Leia was, I would expect her to know how to swim.

Sometimes in life, we are drawn to a particular person for no apparent reason. Like Nick was drawn to the Great Gatsby, a mystery in a pink suit, I found Leia fascinating in her pink swim cap. These individuals are like our pink dolphins. Ultimately, they may not be anything extraordinary or even a deviation from nature, but rather a creation of our imagination. The most probable truth is that we are initially drawn to them because they remind us of our past selves or some aspect of our subconscious or desired self. It is similar to when you are in a dream and know that you are not the main character, yet there is a deep, indescribable connection or resemblance to you—a shimmering, intangible neural bond.

And then I saw her in her pink cap floating like a pink dolphin in the distance.


Maria Lazebnik is an emerging writer based in Boston, Massachusetts. By day, she serves as an Adjunct Professor at Bentley University. Her story, "The Flute Maker," was published in the Jewish Fiction. net Literary Magazine and she has been honored with a writing scholarship from Grub Street, a prominent writing society in Boston. With a background in Biology, Maria has authored several professional papers. Having emigrated to the US from the former Soviet Union, Maria's experiences and recent events have deepened her exploration of identity and childhood memories.


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