Still Life with Polar Bears

After the end of third grade, after my birthday, after Grandma Lois died, but before we flew to America, Dad took me to the Warsaw Zoo.

It was the morning and a weekday. Dad wasn’t going to work, and I was out of the American school. Along with our tickets, Dad bought me a rope bracelet of bread rings.

Instead of talking about Grandma’s death, we looked at animals. I held Dad’s hand and bit the bread off my other wrist. Peacocks pecked at the crumbs that I dropped.

A motor sputtered by the birdhouses. A cart with buckets idled outside of an unlocked cage. A young man and woman, both in khakis, stepped out of the cage holding empty buckets. They greeted us in Polish.

“What’s that?” I asked, and pointed to the buckets on the cart.

The two Polish zookeepers spoke to Dad, who translated.

“It’s feeding time,” he said.

Then Dad and the zookeepers spoke back and forth. The woman frowned and clutched her chest. She looked at me and then at Dad. She asked a question. I knew because her voice lifted.

“Do you want to go feed the animals?” Dad asked.

I shrugged but also nodded. The woman smiled and offered her hand. I had eaten all the bread, so the rope slid down on top of our hands.

“I’ll be here,” Dad said to me. He said something to the zookeepers and then sat on a bench and watched me drive off on the woman’s lap.

The zookeepers parked the cart by a cage that seemed to rise above the rest of the zoo. I hopped off. The man driving grabbed a bucket of red meat from the back.

The woman took a key from a loop on her belt and stuck it in the lock of the cage. She turned the key, undid the lock, and opened the door for the man who ducked inside. The woman turned around to me.

“Chodz tutja,” the woman said.

It sounded like, “Hotch, two-tie.”

I knew what the woman meant because at home we yelled the same phrase to Patch when he barked too much in the backyard and he needed to come inside.

The woman said something else. I titled my head like Patch when he didn’t understand us. The woman raised her eyebrows, waited, and then followed the man.

I looked at a sign by the cage. It showed a picture of a big black bird. I opened the door to the cage and peered in. A bird swooped down to an area where the woman and man stood. They must have dumped the bucket out, because a flock of birds had landed and were jabbing their heads into the pile of meat. Their wings stretched wider than my arms.

My vision pulled back as a feather cartwheeled in front of me. I bent over and picked it up. I held it by its tip. I waved the feather through the air, feeling the resistance as I went back outside.

The zookeepers continued to drive from cage to cage. At all the other stops, I stayed with the cart. I twirled the feather between my fingers. I tried to whistle what Grandma used to sing, “What-cheer, what-cheer,” when the cardinals came to her birdfeeder. At the zoo, I didn’t hear any chirping like that.

When we returned to Dad, he broke from staring out in the distance. He noticed the feather, but didn’t tell me to wash my hands. He thanked them saying, “Dziekuje,” which I echoed saying, “Gin-coo-yea.”

We finished our trip by visiting the polar bears. Three sides of their pen were walled off. With a breeze, the surrounding moat of water sloshed on a jutting rock.

Grandma had pillows with polar bears, sweaters with polar bears, and a poster of polar bears and had sent me a polar bear stuffed animal. Polar bears were Grandma’s favorite animals. I would never know why.

I stood next to Dad and watched a motionless polar bear stretched in a shady area on the slab of rock. The water lapped close. I wanted to wait until I saw it move.

— Chris Wiewiora


Chris Wiewiora grew up in Warsaw, Poland, with his parents who served as Evangelical missionaries under the “Iron Curtain.” Currently, he lives in Ames, Iowa, where he earned an MFA in creative writing and environment at Iowa State University. His nonfiction has been anthologized in Best Food Writing 2013 and published in Gastronomica, Redivider, Slice, and many other magazines. Read more at www.chriswiewiora.com

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