By Avraham Ben-Herut
(Original in Hebrew. Translated into English by Stephen Pohlmann)
(Broadcast by ‘Voice of Israel’ on July 4th, 1960, as part of a programme dedicated to the Israeli postal service).
I am going to tell the story of a deer. No, not about the one you all know from the Israeli post. He’s already so well-known, from Metulla to Eilat. No, not about that one, but a real one; one with flesh and blood, bones and veins wrapped in skin, blessed with a spirit, truly alive.
But why keep you waiting longer? This is the story.
It was a beautiful Spring morning., beautiful and warm, about 30 years ago. Oni Effendi el Husseini and I were working in the telegraph room in the old Post Office building near the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem and next to the Notre Dame building.
It was near the end of the night shift and we were exhausted, tired of all the telegrams from Beirut and Cairo. Just before sunrise, there was a humming sound that started throbbing in our ears. When we came outside, there was a ‘Zeppelin’ in all its glory and splendour, floating just above the postal building. It has come from Europe and was on its way to the Middle East.
Everyone was talking about these airships, which eventually ended up like all its type: reduced to ashes like paper.
We were riveted there, our eyes fixed on this stunning sight which no one, ever, can forget.
Now, dear readers, you must be wondering what connection there is between an airship and a deer; what can they have in common, two that are so different; the first a creation of God, the second an invention of a slightly crazy German, Count Zeppelin. What’s the association? You’re right, none, except that I saw them both on one and the same day. The airship was brought by the wind, drifted over Mount Scopus and then disappeared, when the second, the deer…a little more patience, dear readers. We’ll get there.
I left the telegraph office and parted company from Mr. Husseini.
Still stunned by what I had seen, I made my way home past Yemin Moshe Montefiore, the old quarter situated opposite Mount Sion, from where one can see, on one side, the
walls of the Old City, David’s Tower and Jaffa Gate, and on the other, the blue mountains of Moab in the distance.
When I arrived at the front of the King David hotel, I saw before me a young Bedouin from the other side of the Jordan river, holding in his arms a delicate little fawn, about the size of a squirrel. Without thinking, I stopped in front of the young man and, without hesitation, asked him in Arabic if the foal was for sale. Yes, he replied, his eyes sparkling. How much, I asked him. One pound, he replied. Half, I shot back at him. Ah, you are a clever one, said the young man.
With this, the haggling was over. I gave him the money, and he gave me the merchandise.
Then I continued on my way, holding the treasure under my arm, my heart bursting with joy. My mother was surprised, taken aback and, for a few moments, I was not sure I had done the right thing. When I saw a slight smile brighten her face, I knew everything was alright. Now we had to decide what to do with this little creature, surely no more than a few days old, and toothless.
How were we going to look after the foal, where to put it, what to feed it? All this time it sat there, absolutely still, as if holding its breath. Only its heart was beating regularly, and the warmth of its body assured me of its good health.
It was looking at me with its big black eyes, as if asking: were’s my mother? Are you taking her place? Do you, a human, know how to cuddle me like my mother? I loved her, and she loved me. Her milk was so sweet, and she was so warm to touch. I loved to feel her breath, and her long, warm tongue on my body.
That’s what it’s eyes were saying.
That day, I did not go to bed after dinner as usual. My fawn filled all of my thoughts, and I wondered how I could give it the best attention. I had an idea: I got a bottle and went out to buy a rubber teat and some milk.
I filled the bottle with milk, attached the teat and tried to feed the deer just as one feeds a baby. It wasn’t that simple, because my baby at first refused to open its mouth. It put up a real struggle, but then realised what had to be done and started sucking more and more vigorously, as if it wanted to swallow the whole bottle., pulling on the teat, drinking all of the milk and, finally, was full, really full.
I fed it like this for several weeks until, one day, I noticed it chewing the sleeve of my jacket. I put my fingers into its mouth and, miraculously, pulled them all out again. It had now grown some very pointed little teeth.
I told this story to my neighbours and they advised me now to feed it on corn. On the same day, I went out to buy a bundle of corn (about 3 kilos) for 1 1/2 agorot (ah, those were the days).
I omitted to tell you that we had no patio at our place., but lived on the edge of the quarter, just next to the windmill. The fawn got used to eating the corn only from my hand or from my mother’s hand, and refused to eat in any other way. My jewel was spoilt…It ate a little, stopped, ate again and stopped once more. Sometimes, while eating, it stared right at me; other times, it stared off into the distance, beyond the blue mountains of Moab, as if knowing that was where it was from, longing to see its mother again, the silver forests, the valleys, the Nature…
Spring passed by. Summer arrived. My fawn grew, grew until it reached the size of a kid. I built a little stable out of wood, and it crept in there during the day to get out of the brilliant sunshine, and at night, to be protected from the cold.
I have still forgotten to tell you, dear readers, that since the first day, I called it Zvi (deer). I said to myself that if some humans call themselves Zvi, it’s only logical to call my deer the same. Believe me, it soon got used to its name. I would call rapidly “Zvi, Zvi, Zvi” and, without hesitation, in a couple of leaps, he was next to me, happy and bubbling, sniffing my face, eyes, nose, lips, then he would put out his tongue, long and thin like a sword, and lick my face, expressing his love for me and his gratitude for replacing his mother.
When he was hungry, he would come up to me, sniff my face and lick my hands as if to say: come on, give me my food….I’m hungry! So I would take a big handful of corn which he would eat, devour, much to our mutual joy…I would stroke his delicate and proud neck covered with red-brown fur, his small head and his back. I would look into his big black eyes, and he too would look straight back into mine, and I would try to understand what could be extracted from those large warm eyes: love? Security? Longing for freedom and the mountains? His lost mother? Perhaps he was thinking all these things at once…?
One day, I made a courageous decision: take of his lead and offer him freedom. If he doesn’t run, all the better for me. If he plays a game with me, if I am wrong and he escapes, so much the better for him. Gone is gone! In any case, why keep him against his will if he prefers liberty, and I only wanted what was good for him. When I revealed my intention to my mother and the neighbours, they told me: he’s sure to run. Have you ever known a deer to remain faithful to his master without escaping, without choosing freedom? The news of my intention to free the deer quickly made the tour of the quarter and many curious people, adults and children, gathered on the open ground, as if they were expecting a circus. They all waited impatiently for the signal, allowing a way through for the deer.
Children made bets among themselves. There were those who said: he’ll escape! Others said:he won’t escape!. Others recited the blessing: ‘mi sche barach’ on the deer to help him escape.
As for me, I stroked the deer for a long time, for the last time, a prayer hidden in my heart…ThenI let the lead go. Go on, go! But, surprise, surprise. The deer stayed where he was, standing, as if nothing was happening. He walked without hurrying across the ground, here and there, towards the children, sniffed them, came back towards me and then the following…Seeing what had happened, the children began clapping very strongly, and until this day, I take no notice of applause directed at the deer, his master, or both.
Slowly, the people dispersed, surprised but happy, for they all loved the deer.
Night fell, and Zvi, covered with glory, returned to his stable as usual. As for me, I went to bed, full of joy to have seen my efforts well-compensated, that the deer had not me down. The next morning, I got up as usual to feed the deer. I called him as usual “Zvi, Zvi, Zvi”, but he wasn’t there anymore. My mother tried to console me, saying that it had to happen, that everyone had warned me, that I had done my best, but in vain.
Early in the evening, my mother and I went out for a walk in the field next to the windmill. The darkness fell gently and all became silent. Suddenly we heard something like tapping on the ground, like a light gallop and, before we could realise the meaning, the deer burst out of the darkness next to us and kissed our hands.
I shall never forget that evening: my joy was immense; and, that evening, Zvi ate with a double appetite. He was also happy, for on that day, he had tasted freedom for the first time in his life. It was he who had chosen freedom and also he who had chosen to come back to his master.
Zvi’s escape and his subsequent return caused a lot of noise in the quarter and everyone spoke only of him. Each evening the children came to the plot to play with him. Because of him, the plot was transformed into a children’s playground and became the meeting place for all the children of the quarter. The boys plated with marbles, and the girls with skipping ropes.
Our friend, the deer, didn’t know how to play marbles, so he joined the girls, jumping on his four hooves into the air, forwards and backwards as if made or rubber or springs.
The children’s pleasure was boundless. When the girls stopped skipping, the Zvi stopped his turn, and when they started again, he too began again, just like Bambi. But there’s more! The boys stopped playing with their marbles and watched the deer in wonder, and asked themselves how he learned to jump in a way that was even better than the girls….
Since the day when Zvi had tasted freedom for the first time, he would go with me every morning when I went to work at the Post Office, past the King David Hotel, just like a dog or a goat.
He always stayed close to me, for he was scared of the curious objects racing past in the street on four wheels…The few passers-by who were in the street at the time looked with astonishment at the deer following his master.
Then Zvi went back passed the quarters of Talbieh, Catamon, Malcha, Beit Zfafa, Macor Haim, Talpiot and who knows where else. In the evenings, my mother and I went out in the direction of the windmill to meet Zvi and he always jumped out next to us at the same spot and at the same time, with an uncanny precision, like a cheeky child that runs about all day, playing truant without restraint. We brought with us a box of corn, the type he loved, to settle his hunger.
I must stress that during this period, the places mentioned above were sparsely inhabited, and that the Talbieh quarter was on the border. That’s why the deer had no difficulty discovering Nature without having to cross densely-populated sections. Christian workers I knew from Catamon told me that, as the children from my quarter enjoyed strolling next to the Catamon, they tried many ways to catch him; but happily without success.
Sometimes they were able to close to Zvi, but as soon as they put out a hand or a rope, he’d make a great leap of about 4 meters and escape.
One day, he was ill for a few days. but he suffered in silence. Our joy was great the day we discovered that antlers were forcing their way out of his head, growing longer each day, turning our fawn into a beautiful deer of proud carriage.
Summer turned into Winter. It was a rigorous and stormy Winter; everything was covered with snow, and it was dangerous to leave Zvi in his stable. We decide to install a storage place, but even there we had problems with damp, caused by the snow piling up on the roof for several days.
On top of that, there was very little space in the warehouse, and poor Zvi was squeezed in, not being able to move around. It hurt us to see him suffering like this, but we were not able to relieve his suffering.
I shall not tell you, dear readers, what fate was in store for Zvi, for I would not want to make you sad. I shall only tell you that his memory remained intact in my heart, for I loved him very much and he loved me too.
Each time I see a deer in the zoo or somewhere else, he reminds me of Zvi, who grew up at my place and won my heart, even though many years have since passed.
There we are. I let you into this story so that you would know that the deer, which is the emblem of the Israeli Postal Service and is found on all the red vans driving around on our streets, is not only a symbol of speed and precision, but equally of loyalty and love of God’s creatures.
Israel resembles a deer, and that is why it is called ‘the land of the deer’.