It was late fall, and for this place it was the end of the world. Rockets fell daily, bombings happened hourly, and it was only a matter of time before a new pillar of fire and smoke was raised over the land. Military transports patrolled the ancient narrow streets, helping people leave and protecting the homes of those who were gone. It didn’t really matter; the bombs rendered both looted and intact homes into rubble. Still, it was a matter of duty for the soldiers and of civic order for their commanders.

I had not yet left. The skeleton staff of the U.S embassy would remain until the last minute. There was little to do. American citizens were long gone, files and papers had been shipped, and my inbox was empty save for occasional emergency orders. Each midday I wandered the streets of the city. I had grown to love it, walking the cobbled streets in the old quarters and lamenting their emptiness.  I bore witness as, one by one, the cafes and food stands disappeared, their owners and employees fled to more peaceful lands.

Only a month ago, these streets had been a tangle of sensations. Conversation and music, laughter, conflicting odors of shawarma and baking boureka, tangy cracked olives, fragrant halva so bold you could taste it, bright-colored head coverings and the blackbird garments of Orthodox Jews. They were gone now. An air raid siren echoed in the empty street, piercingly loud. I ignored it as I drifted through remembered ghosts.

And then I smelled it – figs and almonds and pastry, blending with bright spices. It was an ancient fragrance, a lively thread drawn from the fabric of a culture that had somehow survived every indignity and abuse visited upon it. I followed the seductive trail to a metal door, left ajar, deeply set in a millennias-old archway. The door was painted blue and marked with traces of rust, but decorated with sharp impressions that had been crafted by a master: a large Star of David, a bird with a long and ornate tail, a stylized comet, a Sumerian lion glancing over its shoulder. A business sign was screwed into the wall nearby, but I could not read the Hebrew script. I pushed the door open gently. Moist air rushed out, flooding me with the aromas of bread and spice and yeast.

“Hello?” I called into the dark interior.

A voice answered from another room. “Shalom, my friend! Please, come inside.”

I shook the dust and heat of the city from my shoes. Inside it was blessedly cooler and dark. Behind aged glass displays, baked goods were arranged in neat rows. Through the open door on the other side, I could see the baker. She glanced up and smiled at me, then continued working a white dough. I smiled back.

The bakery was homey in an exotic way. Its floor was a mosaic of stone tiles that looked as if they’d been scavenged from other houses, different sizes and shapes and colors and styles in a crazy-quilt design – beautiful in its own way. The furnishings were also a mosaic, a red vinyl booth and four mismatched tables paired with chairs made varyingly of wood and wrought iron and plastics, all worn and comfortable looking. On the walls were family pictures, some from well before the Holocaust, others quite recent. In one, a strikingly pretty young woman in an Israeli army uniform stood, her rifle slung to one side as she smiled brilliantly at the camera.

“My daughter. She is stationed near the West Bank, but she comes home every night for dinner.”

“She’s very pretty.”

The baker smiled, her flour-coated hands giving one last firm crimp to the pastry beneath them. “There are many pretty girls in my family. I was one, once. “

I glanced up, for the first time really seeing her face. The right side was pristine, showing only slightly the marks of age. The other side, however, was a mass of corded scarring, the eye and ear and part of the hair gone forever. I looked away from her ruined face, feeling somehow shamed. “What are you making?”

“This is rugelach. I make the best in the city.”

“It smells the way I imagine manna does.”

She laughed, a slightly harsh, creaky sound. It was clear that whatever had left her face scarred had damaged her voice. I could not, however, feel sorry for her. Her laugh was still pure and joyful, a song to God. “It is a dense pastry, my rugelach, rich and filled with cream and nuts, not like manna at all. For that, you must have my cheese bourekas, light and flaky.”

“I think I’d rather have the rugelach.”

She brought the rolled dough to a counter near the display case. She spread a layer of creamy cheese, then raisins and cinnamon and some things I didn’t recognize – orange zest, perhaps? – were sprinkled on too fast to follow. Her skillful plump hands whipped around and dexterously rolled the whole thing into a tight and perfect tube, crimping the ends.

I was so absorbed in watching her that at first I did not see nor hear the movement in a cage behind her. Suddenly a peck! and the rugelach roll was on the floor, gouged and injured, and the head had withdrawn in satisfaction.

“Feyvel! Bad bird.” The bird gulped down his spoils in clear satisfaction and contempt for the baker, then pushed a door open and fluttered out.

“He’s loose!”

She sighed, picking up the pastry and tossing it into the trash. “He can come out whenever he likes. The cage is only to keep him from doing what he just did. Usually it’s enough to keep him out of the food, but he will help himself when he can.” She looked mournfully into the trash. “I did not latch the door properly this time. It was my fault.”

The bird strutted around the counter toward me, then fluttered to the back of the booth. He peered at me with one eye while using one claw to clean bits of crumb away from his beak. His shimmering tail was about half the length of a peacock’s tail, and his body was covered with burnished dull red feathers over charcoal-gray down. “What is he? I’ve never seen anything quite like him before.”

She shrugged, then turned to put the now-incomplete tray of rugelach into the wall oven behind her. “I do not know. My daughter brought him back from Gaza. He took a liking to her and would not go away. When he found me, he became attached.” She tilted her head to look at me with her good eye. “He is not usually friendly, but he seems to like you well enough.”

She was right. The bird – Feyvel – suddenly launched. Like wind rushing through trees, he landed lightly on the chair next to me, then reached out and gingerly nipped at my hand.

“Ouch!” I said, though I was more surprised than hurt.

The baker laughed. “He has a mind of his own. Feyvel, behave or no more pastries.” The bird glanced at her and pulled away. “I have a fresh batch of rugelach here. How many would you like?”

After some halfhearted haggling, I exchanged a handful of shekels for a fragrant paper bag. Feyvel tilted his head to eye it. “Are you leaving soon?” I asked the baker.

She shook her head. “To go where? My extended family died in the Shoah, in Auschwitz. I was the only child of my mother, and my parents both died in the Six Days War. I have no one but my daughter and no place but Israel.”

“Surely you’re not staying.”

She shrugged. “This is home. This is everything, my land.” She stroked the scars on her blind side. “I have bled and burned for my home. My husband died in the bombing that left me this, and I lost our son to another attack. If I leave now, all those things that were suffered are for nothing.”

I shook my head. “If you die, it will be for nothing.”

“There are things worth dying for. You are American. Surely you understand that.”

I nodded, then reached into my pocket and handed her a card. “If you change your mind, call me. Even at the last minute, I can help.”

She took it, but smiled and shook her head. “My daughter is part of the final voluntary force. She will not leave, and neither will I. SheElohim yevarach otha, friend.”

I wanted to say more, but how can you respond to that? Besides, it was time to return to the office. I opened the door, and the baker stopped me. “One moment, American.”

I stopped. She was looking affectionately at the bird.

“Feyvel should not stay. My daughter saved him from a burning crater. He is a survivor. If you would take him with you…”  She looked both sad and hopeful.

I couldn’t say no.

***

While an office is not a good place for a bird, the daily bombings had created a more casual attitude, and we had only a minimal staff left. There was much admiration for my new partner. We managed. Feyvel and I went back to the bakery daily for fresh pastry, as he refused regular birdseed in favor of fresh, steaming bread. Over the next few weeks, he and I grew close, and he became a virtual mascot for the embassy.

In full sunlight, he was a stunningly beautiful bird, dressed in shades of deep reds to purples. His tail was a fiery maroon color shading into to his body feathers, which were a gorgeous blood-dark red. An Israeli cultural attache, a talented artist who was in transit to the United States, described the color as Tyrian purple. “The Phoenicians based much of their trade around that dye. It is a stain that never fades, but only grows brighter as time goes on.”

He was a polite bird as well, provided one was not holding pastry. Unlike most birds, he reserved his bodily functions for the out-of-doors, and he was civilized enough to put himself to bed each night.

Feyvel was our sunlight during those dark days. The Middle East finally fell apart. Nuclear weapons moved into the Levant in easy range of Jerusalem, and the saber-rattling grew louder each week. There were still Israelis and even American Israelis still in the country, but we processed only a handful of departure cases every week. Most of those still in Israel had no plans to leave. As in Germany and Poland in the 1930s, thousands of anxious parents had sent their children out of the country to join relatives and friends in other lands. The parents themselves would stay and fight, or die.

And then the day came when the danger was too great. We were evacuated. A C-130 picked up the remaining staff members along with a number of others who had stayed until the last minute. We bid tearful farewells to our Israeli contractors and liaisons.

They were staying with their country, their homeland, even though the end would be bitter.

In the plane, Feyvel was not pleased to be locked in his cage, but I kept him close to me and after the sharp incline of takeoff he settled down. We had barely entered Cyprian airspace when the word was passed back from the cabin.

It had happened. All of Israel had become a pillar of fire.

It was gone.

***

My Annapolis home seemed empty and dark in the days after. While a cleaning service had kept it fresh, coming in every other week to maintain things, the air inside was dead and hopeless, strange to me after the dust-filled heat of the Levant. I did have a perfect place for Feyvel, however, near my fireplace on the broad hearth. I lit a fire every morning and kept it going every day, even leaving the dense red coals alone at night so the area would remain warm.

Feyvel appreciated his nest near the fire, but he drooped and sickened. His feathers grew dull as did his eyes, and after a few days he picked listlessly at even the best pastries I could find from nearby delis. I ordered rugelach online, and finally even made my own in hopes that the fresh, hot baked goods would tempt him. He appreciated it, I could tell, but nothing helped.

The veterinarian was stumped. She had never seen a bird like Feyvel. “His temperature is very high, even for a bird, but I don’t think that’s the problem. It seems to be normal for him. He’s not eating, but he doesn’t have any parasites. You’re certain he can’t be returned to his normal habitat?”

“He came with me from Israel.”

She paused, looking at me with sympathy. “Did you lose people there?”

I shrugged. “I was with the State Department.”

She tested a few other things, coming up empty. “I’m sorry. There doesn’t appear to be anything wrong with him, poor fellow. Maybe he’s homesick. Just keep him warm and see if it passes.”

I gave her permission to pass information about Feyvel on to an avian specialist, but I knew it would make no difference. What ailed my bird was not a physical illness.

***

One night, I woke to all my fire alarms going off. The air was filled with a peculiar odor, acrid and unpleasant. Throwing on my robe, I ran downstairs.

Flames were blazing from my fireplace. I cursed myself for leaving the coals – what was I thinking? – and snatched my fire extinguisher from the wall. But it didn’t matter. Even as I watched, the flames died down, seemingly drawn into a pile of pale sand that glistened on the raised hearth.

Feyvel was gone. Smart bird,I thought. You took off when the fire blazed up.

The sand was strange, grayish, filled with small pale fragments and ash. Gingerly, I poked it. It was cool to the touch, shifting easily, and in the center was something rounded and golden-red.

“That’s an egg,” I breathed to myself.

I touched it, and jerked my hand back. While the sand was cool, the egg was blazingly hot, and now I could see the shimmering waves of heat warping the air around it. As I watched, the egg wobbled and cracked. Sand shifted and slid down away from it, and it wobbled again.

A hole appeared. A tiny golden beak thrust through that opening. Slowly, a larger crack split the side of the egg, and finally a head thrust aside a piece of egg. It was fiery, bright-eyed and glowing. I realized that the little bird was covered with flaming feathers. I backed away.

Slowly, the shell fell away from the newborn. I scarcely dared to breathe. The bird stood there, shivering. Its feathers spread, developing and shimmering and glowing against the dark ash in the fireplace. And then it launched itself, flying around the room.

Somehow, I knew what to do. I ran to the side door and opened it wide. As the bird passed me, I felt a blast of heat from the trailing flames. And he was gone.

I knew Feyvel was gone as well. He was the heap of sandy ash in my fireplace.

And yet.

I stepped outside and looked up, to the east. As the bright spark disappeared into the night sky, I murmured to myself, “Next year, in Jerusalem.”

****

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