For love of Zelah

It was snowing as if it would never stop. I lay fast asleep in my bed, smiling a smug, ten-year-old smile of the cosy. All of a sudden something hit the window, making a mushy sound. I opened one eye. Incredulous, I suddenly realized someone was throwing snowballs at it!

Jumping out of bed, I squinted out the window. There stood my schoolmate and friend, Gittl, up to the tops of her galoshes in the quiet snow. And beside her, white as the weather, her milk goat, Zelah.

I stared in disbelief and opened the window. She dropped a snowball and wrung her hands. ''I've got to hide Zelah in The Castle, Davie,'' she wailed. ''If I don't, Papa will take her to the butcher's tomorrow. Come help me, please!''

''Take Zelah . . . to the . . . butcher's . . .'' I stammered.

''Maaa,'' said the goat, as if she, too, were entreating me.

''I'm coming!'' I said, shutting the window fast. As I threw on my clothes I racked my brain to think what could have come over Gittl's father, a kind, gentle person, to plan such an unkind, gruesome thing. True, the goat, a gift from a relative in the country many years ago, did vex him sometimes with her playfulness; once she even took a bite out of the hat he wore to work. But her milk helped the budget, and she was like a pet to his daughter. Gittl doted on the milk-white creature with the good-natured eyes, the little beard, and the one sound that meant so many things.

Gittl and goat were huddled together when I came running outside, bringing a blanket. It would be cold in The Castle. My friend's eyes, always so full of life, so bright, were dark with a huge, unspoken hurt. Her father was asleep, she said, but any minute he could wake up and come after them. I took the rope around Zelah's neck, and the three of us hurried away into the snow-blotted night.

''Wh. . . why?'' I stammered.

Gittl looked back over her shoulder to make sure her father wasn't pursuing us. ''I'll tell you when we get to The Castle,'' she said.

For blocks and blocks we slogged through the swirling snow. Finally, we arrived at a park, a world of shivery white trees and shadowy bushes. Here, deep in a cluster of oaks, stood The Castle.

This was none other than an old tree house we'd found one spring day. Nobody knew about it but us. It had a pointy, turretlike roof, an arched doorway, and, instead of a drawbridge, a rope ladder that dangled down. In good weather it was our secret hiding place from homework and other evils, where we could talk, sing , or make believe it was a real castle, and we its lord and lady.

Gittl climbed the ladder first and crawled inside. Using all my strength, I handed Zelah up to her outstretched arms, and then followed.

The poor goat was in a frightful state. Her horns were covered with frost. Icicles hung from her beard. And the eyelashes of one eye had frozen to her face , giving her the forlorn look of a waif whose brave wink at her perils has gone awry. She thanked us many times as we unstuck the eyelashes and brushed away the frost and icicles. Then we all huddled together in a corner, and I wrapped the blanket around us.

Gittl said ''I'll come and look after her every day. I'll never let Papa take her to the butcher's.''

''Tell me why he wants to do it, Gittl.''

She sighed, as if ashamed to tell. ''You know how Papa makes a living?''

I nodded. Gittl's father was a handyman, a fixer of broken steps, fallen-down fences, things old but needed. He drove around in a ramshackle secondhand truck that said, ''GOT TROUBLES? I FIX.'' On his long, tired face, under the bitten hat, was always an expression of apology, as if he feared that people blamed him for not having risen higher in the world.

''I heard Papa telling Mama tonight,'' Gittl explained, ''that hardly anybody's giving him jobs anymore. He said he has to sell Zelah to the butcher's so he can get money to buy food for us.''

''What did your mama say?''

''She said it would break my heart. Papa said he is sorry but the world is hard. And he said Zelah is old now and doesn't give much milk anymore. He said she's done her first duty, and now it's time to do her other one.''

Tears of pity and sorrow welled to her eyes. ''I don't want Papa and Mama and me to starve, but I don't want Zelah to die, either.''

Gusts of wind knifed through the boards. We shuddered, looking away from each other, afraid to see in each other's eyes the same dreadful question: How would Zelah survive the night there, let alone the winter? With evey cold gust of reality, Gittl's plan seemed more of fantasy.

But sometimes life itself outdoes even the bravest child's fantasy, and help can come from where you least expect it. Just at that desolate moment Zelah the goat, the rescued one, showed us, her rescuers, how to outwit the hardness of the world.

Having finished her cabbage, she nosed about on the floor for something else, and found - a child's school notebook. She took a nibble, not fancying the taste , and then dropped the book on Gittl's lap. Opening it, Gittl saw it was her own. On the first page was a crayon drawing she'd done of Zelah. The goat stood smiling in a circle of schoolchildren, being admired and petted. Gittl and I had only to look at the drawing, and then at each other, to grasp Zelah's scheme. Not for nothing did a goat have a beard, that token of wisdom!

Down from The Castle we came, all three of us, and hurried straight to her stable, a shed behind Gittl's house. There, we made a sign out of a page from the book and tied it around the goat's neck with my shoestrings. It said, ''GOT TROUBLES? I FIX. PET ME FOR A NICKEL AND FEEL GOOD.'' All children had days when school got them down, and it would do wonders for their spirits to pet a real live goat. Gittl's father could go on being the fixer of the grown-up troubles, and Zelah could be the fixer of the child ones. Between the two of them, they would save everybody.

When we finished we peered out the door. The snow's grief was easing, and the world was growing lighter. Pretty soon Gittl's father would come to take Zelah to the butcher's, and the goat would greet him with her ''Maaa,'' her glad tidings that she was going to school with us instead, to do her new duty.

And when we told him what that was, and where we'd been that perilous night, and why, and he saw how he wouldn't have to hurt anybody now, because love had gotten the better of the world, his heart would leap with ours.

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