Bear Ella doesn’t mind the journey. If it was up to her they could make the journey every year instead of every two. She doesn’t mind the long days they spend in the home sitting beside Oma’s chair, not talking much, nibbling SunMaid raisins from California. She doesn’t mind Oma’s warm powdery old lady’s smell sifting down to her and the startled look of her eyes behind her thick bifocals don’t bother her either. Oma here in Holland is at home, so Ella sitting beside her feels at home, too. In fact, there’s nothing about Oegstgeest or the old age home Ella minds, not at six years old, not at twelve, but still she’s happy to accept the treats and outings Mam offers as a compensation for having interrupted their other life back in Braemar. When the treat is Artis Zoo she’s more than happy to accept. She begins her reminders about the zoo just as soon as they have set foot on the smooth walkways of Schiphol airport, once her mother has had a chance to comb her hair and calm down after their long flight from Durban. Knotted inside the hugging arms of cousins and second cousins who smell of wet wool, Ella pitches her voice high to make sure everyone hears her request. ‘Mam, Mam, Tante Sus, when are we going to Artis, Tante Sus, Mam? You said soon, very soon.’ No arrival in the drizzly geometry of Zuid-Holland is complete without the promise that tomorrow, or, yes, very soon, she will be taken by Mam or Tante or Cousin Ineke or Lieke, to visit Artis. Ella thinks often of her mother’s story about Artis and its wolves: how their yowling kept Mam awake at night when as a child she went to stay with her oma in Amsterdam, whose house lay a few streets away from the zoo. The awful feeling she had listening, Mam says, was that she herself, there in her safe bed in the big city, was the creature out of place, not the wolves. The city by night belonged to their yowling. Ella thinks that, on the contrary, she would’ve liked hearing the wolves, the yipping barks cutting through the cold night air. Wouldn’t that be
incredible, to lie in bed surrounded by wolf noise, as if you were in a snowcovered hut in Siberia, safe in bed though circled by blazing eyes? As far as she can tell, all the world’s wild animals great and small are collected together in Artis’s long rectangle stretched across three city blocks close to the grey-brown Amstel River. No matter how often they visit, every time she walks through the Artis gateposts each mounted with their large gold-painted eagle; every time she sets first foot on the moist brick walkways, turns left to her first port of call, the reptile house, sees again the slowly shifting hieroglyphs of the snakes in their glass tanks—her breath catches in her throat. Where they live on the African shield there are no zoos. In Africa many marvellous animals are to be found in the game reserves: white rhinos, lions, herds of shaggy wildebeest, all roaming free—or so the ads in the KLM brochures she reads on the plane say. However, game reserves are out of bounds for her family. If ever she mentions the two words game reserve together the father has his answer ready. ‘What do those dumps offer but daylight robbery? A moronic drive through a worn-out old bit of African savannah where most of the animals are asleep, bah, what’s the point of that? When you have an excellent view of the African landscape here from your own verandah—there’s no point at all.’ So there are the caged animals of Artis instead, but Ella isn’t complaining. There is as a matter of fact nothing to complain about on their four or six months-long visits to Zuid-Holland, packed full of treats she never gets back in South Africa. In Zuid-Holland there is Zippo’s circus where the lions Harris and Tieras jump through flaming hoops without getting scorched. Ella loves Harris and Tieras. She draws pictures of them at her new Dutch school, the Steiner Vrijeschool, where the mother has registered her. They take outings to see the old familiar pictures at the Rijksmuseum, though this time set in their fancy gold frames, not postcardsize. They go to afternoon shows at the Oegstgeest puppet theatre, famous for its child-high puppets. For breakfast in Zuid-Holland Mam gives her sugar waffles, and then as much blood sausage with every meal as she can stomach.
Even the ordinary everyday things in Holland are good, like the evenings they spend at Tante Sus’s house with her teEllage cousins Ineke and Lieke, doing nail-painting, making pop-corn and watching television. Television is a special new treat as South Africa does not have television. There are also the times sitting with Oma. Oma is so still a person, so unlike the mother and the father. The space around her is very soft and quiet. But above all the other enjoyable things is Artis. In Artis, once they are past the opening exhibits, the reptile house, the dromedary enclosure, the African rock rabbits, the mother’s strong middle finger inserts itself between her shoulder blades. Ella leans back into it and goes more slowly. She likes to stop everywhere, at each and every animal’s precinct. She won’t be hurried. Where the cages look empty she kneels and peers in amongst the leaves till she finds a sign of life: a moving tail, a stirring horn. She knows there will always be one. No visit to Artis passes without some new sight to see. The elephant with the star-branding on both haunches, who one afternoon breaks into a shuffle dance a circus trainer must once have taught him. The tiger’s sudden leap from one rock to another, his burning stripes creasing and stretching. The moulting wallabies with mood swings that on each visit look different, now curious, now scornful, now enormously amused. The polar bear cage is on the final turn of the circular walk through the zoo, beyond the seals and the penguins. The first time Ella sees him, when she is four, just like every other time she will see him, he is standing swaying on his hind legs, the zoo’s one bear, shifting his weight from one leg to the other. Reared up as he is, he could be scary—but he looks more than anything bewildered, as if something had hit him in the face. Seeing the bear Ella immediately bursts into tears. Her eyes move up across the yellow-white belly, the mighty forepaws dangling like a puppet’s hands, then meet his small dull eyes. But she cannot go on looking. She stands stock still on the brick pathway, buries her face in her hands and sobs. She cannot look again at that huge hopeless swaying bear yet she still feels him moving. Through her wet fingers she sees his shadow shift. The winter sun is setting behind him so his shadow touches her red wellington boot, then moves away again. She stands rooted, her chest aching, her chin
jammed into her chest, till the mother takes her by the hands and drags her away. But no sooner have they left than she is begging to go back. She must see again the bear. She will see again the bear, zij wil, zij wil. They must go to Artis, they must see the bear. So, within the first few days of each visit to the Netherlands, a weekly pattern is set. As Friday approaches Ella clamours to go again to the zoo, tomorrow, this weekend, as soon as possible. Her mother coughs a little, suggests something closer to Oegstgeest, the kermis in the town square? But by Saturday breakfast she has given way. Again they walk through the tall gateposts. Ella can feel her breath coming faster. They seek out her favourite animals, the tiger, the llamas, the curious-and-scornful wallabies. They detour via the antbears; they loop back to the African rock-rabbits. And then, at the very end of the route, they reach the polar bear swaying in his cage, his great paws dangling, and she is inconsolable. The second or third time they see the bear, the mother, prepared, produces tissues, leads her away to buy ice-cream. It is a cold day, the vanilla cones smoke. Perched on an icy concrete bench the mother tells Ella that the zoo prides itself on being a humane zoo, it takes the welfare of all its animals seriously. ‘Look around, kind, at the size of the big cats’ pits and length of the wolf run,’ she says. ‘See how well everyone is looked after. Perhaps your ijsbeer likes to stand up, that’s why his cage isn’t so big? Perhaps he’s taking his exercise by swaying. Wasn’t he a dear beast though, didn’t you think, een lieve dier, like a huge white teddy?’ Ella moves her head slightly but says nothing. She doesn’t think her polar bear looks like a teddy at all. The third or fourth time Ella and her mother see the bear, there is the hurrying away after a short period, there are the tears, but this time no icecream, no reassurance, only, once again, a short talk about the big white teddy, het lieve dier. ‘Why should a big white teddy make you cry, Ella? It makes me think of curling up in an armchair with a soft toy and a hot
chocolate. It doesn’t make me want to cry.’ Ella puts her hands on her knees, raises her shoulders and puffs out air. She doesn’t know why the bear makes her want to cry. The fifth or sixth time, the mother is fed-up. ‘We won’t go again if this tendency persists,’ she tells Oma where Ella is present, raising an eyebrow. Oma remarks that Ella has the nose of her third cousin Jeroen on her father’s side, lucky for her, avoiding the family conk. But by the next time, a week or so later, the mother has forgotten about Ella’s tendency. Most mornings in the Netherlands she forgets to prod her as she does back in Braemar, like a paw-paw, to measure her height and peer at her tonsils. She declares herself willing, yet again, just this once, to indulge Ella’s quite sweet interest in her polar bear. She buys a monthly Artis pass. They get their route through the zoo down pat. The rock rabbits, big cats, et cetera, at double-quick pace, and then, the silent agreement is, the mother lingers at the seals while Ella goes on ahead on her own. She turns the corner in the brick pathway, her eyes to the ground, her nails digging into her palms. Finally, when she is ready, she looks up. She comes face to face with the polar bear standing swaying on his hind-legs. She doesn’t think of the bear as her bear, though the mother calls him that. She sees him as—what? A bored, penned-in beast. Her tears make no difference to him, she knows, but still, whenever she first sees him, she can’t help weeping. There’s no father around to say the usual: ‘Stop that womanish mewling; how I hate to hear a female cry. Women’s hearts are blocks of ice. Their tears mean zip.’ Across the weeks of their Netherlands visits, Ella inches a little closer to the polar bear’s cage, though never onto the gravel semi-circle in front of it. Her crying shouldn’t disturb the bear. He shouldn’t see how sad her thoughts about him are. Once, she tries looking up into his eyes, to see if he’s as bored as he looks from a distance. Though bears can’t tell the time, she doesn’t think, still he sees his shadow move, doesn’t he? He sees it shifting to and fro in front of his bars like a pendulum.
But the thought of the bear marking the minutes of his endless days in the cage is too much. The idea of him swaying there tomorrow and the next day and the day after that, seeing his shadow going to and fro with no change in sight, day after day—it’s worse even than the first time she came face to face with him. She tries to put the thought somewhere else in her head but it’s too late. A hole full of black fluid opens in her chest. The fluid rises and flows up her throat and out of her eyes though she tries as hard as she can to swallow it down.
Published on Jun 2, 2015
Late at night Ella watches her elderly father on the verandah, raging at the African sky. Caught between her mother’s mysterious grief and h...