The Birthday Lion

Olive’s grandfather pulled her aside the day before her birthday, looked her seriously in the eyes, and said in a low voice, “I am going to get you a lion for your birthday.” He spoke with a heavy accent, but she understood him perfectly. Brilliant blue eyes danced from behind bushy, snow-capped eyebrows.

“Stop it,” she said. She would not be teased on the eve of her big day.

“Olive, my dear, you must not say anything to your mama, but my Russian brother, Yuri Yurvanovich is bringing me a baby lion for you. Now you can stop carrying around that ragged stuffed one.” He prodded the stuffed animal she was holding. “You’re a beeg girl now.”

“You have a Russian brother?” She wrinkled her brow. She was certain her grandfather was from Greece, not Russia.

“Yuri and I, we’re not actually blood brothers, but we came over on the boat together. He went into the exotic animal trade and I, I went into making pizzas. But still, we will never forget what we went through. Now, I need you to be prepared for your mother’s reaction, she can sometimes get overly excited.”

Olive nodded. Her mind flashed back to her mother’s birthday dinner a month earlier. All had been going well at the white table-clothed restaurant until papou’s dentures fell out when he bit into a cob of corn. While Olive and her father had laughed hysterically, her mother had become hysterical and launched herself under the table to retrieve the dentures and force them back into his confused and full-of-corn mouth. She was inconsolable the rest of the meal.

Olive pulled her grandfather’s elbow to direct him to the corner of the living room and pretended to show him a drawing in her notebook. “Papou. Mother is going to have several friends of hers from the law firm here. I don’t think bringing a lion will go over very well.”

“I know it’s hard to grow up–” he began.

“Papou,” she interrupted. She wanted to tell him that he was wrong: it was easy for her to grow up. In fact, she wanted to skip ten and go right to twenty. But then she considered him. He was old. She didn’t know his exact age, but it could be well over a hundred. His hearing was going, and he said a lot of nonsensical things. It was best not to try and reason with him. So instead of laying out her ideas why he wasn’t right, she simply said, “Go on.”

“No one wants to leave their childhood, especially when they’re small, but when I was ten and the war was going on, I had to step up and provide for my brothers and sisters, even though I was the shortest. I fished for food. I scavenged for berries. You are fortunate to have food, and all these other things. Too many things, if you ask me. But forget about that. A lion will teach you many things your mother can’t. A lion is strong, courageous, powerful. If you take care of your cub you will be the same.”

“What is going on over here?” Olive’s mother, Mary, said as she slid her arm over her father’s shoulder. Olive noticed for the first time that her mother and grandfather had the same dimple in their chin. Why didn’t she have one too? She liked it very much–it was a distinguishing trait. She brought her finger to her chin and pushed down, making a note to do that every night until a dimple formed.

“Nothing Mary mou. Thank you for lunch. I have to go. Lots to do before tomorrow!” he said.

Mary watched him as he walked towards the front door. “Olive,” she said. “What was that about?”

“I gotto go, mom. Lots of homework,” Olive said and bee-lined to her room.


That night, Olive had trouble falling asleep. It was, after all, her last night of being single digits. She might wake up the next day as an entirely different person and she wasn’t sure if she was ready for that. She picked up a book about animals on her nightstand. She wondered if they worried about turning ten. She turned and asked Leo, her stuffed lion; then she asked Ellie, her stuffed elephant. Neither had an answer. Maybe she would never know what they thought, what anyone other than herself thought. With a confused heart she fell asleep, but only after she counted to eight then whispered goodbye to nine.


Olive’s dad was driving their rented jeep down a dirt road. Her mom was in the passenger seat and Olive was in the back with her best friend Scout. Something happened to the car and it stopped. For a whole minute all four of them were silent. The windows of the jeep were open all the way. The air was still. It smelled of dirt and dust. She felt grit on her tongue, and crunched some in between her teeth. They were, after all, on safari.

“Don’t worry I’ll get it working again,” Olive’s dad announced. Olive’s dad, in real life, was the least handy person she knew. But his statement, however shaky his voice was in making it, comforted her.

“Oh hurry up Harry,” her mom said as she held up her cellphone. “I have a conference call out of NYC in half an hour and there is no reception here.”

Just as Harry opened the jeep door to step down, a lioness emerged from the dense cover followed by six bouncing lion cubs, one after the other. Scout dug her fingernails into Olive’s forearm.


“Oh my.”

“Oh dear.”

“Be quiet.”


Her father slowly eased back into the driver’s seat and they all watched, wide-eyed, holding their breaths as the lioness sauntered towards the car with her playful and curious cubs behind her.

“She is going to eat us!” Scout cried.

“I’m definitely going to be fired for missing the call,” Mary pouted.

“Stay calm,” Harry creaked. ‘But get the camera!”

The jeep had a sun roof, which was open. Before she could stop herself, Olive had unbuckled her seatbelt, raised her hands, and placed them on the sun roof window jam. She didn’t know who or what was moving her body because her brain was firing off lots of scary thoughts and her insides were shaking.

“What are you doing?!”

“Sit down, you’ll get us killed!”

“I don’t want to die!”


Olive didn’t pay heed to their pleas. Soon she had hoisted herself through the sunroof and onto the hood of the jeep. She felt herself rise and grow into a giant version of herself. This was impossible, she thought and she tried to stop it, but she couldn’t. So she just let go, kinda the way she imagined Alice did in Alice in Wonderland. When she had stopped growing, she jumped off the hood and landed on the ground with a thump. A trail of dust whirled around her enormous boots. She lifted her big head and stood with her big hands on her large hips and glared down at the awfully small looking lioness, but not in an unkind way, for Olive was a very nice person. Olive started speaking, but had to stop and start several times because it was coming out all wrong. Then she realized she was speaking lionspeak. She cleared her throat and said, “Madame Lionesse, we mean you no harm. Please continue on your way. Your pride is waiting for you over there.”

She pointed to an outcrop of trees in the distance, where sure enough other lions were watching and waiting. As she spoke, a young cub, the straggler of the group, and by far the smallest, approached her and rubbed its head against her shin. She bent down to pick it up. She brought it up to her chest and whispered in its ear, “It is not easy to grow up. It is dangerous out there and you must have courage and fierceness, even if you are tiny. Not everyone is your friend. Remember that.” The cub licked her dimpled chin with a razor like tongue. Olive laughed.

“Come and play,” the cub begged.

“Playing is for cubs, not for giants like me.”

“Come Leo!” the lioness instructed to her youngest when Olive put him down.

“Thank you Giant Olive for your kindness.” Her cubs quickly fell into line behind the lioness. “We will always protect you and your family.” She let out a commanding lion growl that shook the jeep and made her mom and dad and Scout shout with terror.

“Quiet!” Olive said and they became quiet.

The lioness bowed to Olive and said, “A wire is loose in the engine. Fix that and you’ll be on your way.”

Soon, the car was working and her mother dialed into her conference call.

Someone answered. “Happy Birthday!” A group of familiar voices shouted.

Startled, Olive opened her eyes and sat up. Her family and Scout (who lived in the apartment next door) huddled together carrying a tray of chocolate chip pancakes and strawberries–her favorite. Her grandfather stood behind the others in the doorway holding something small and brown.

Olive blinked twice and jumped out of bed, knocking her stuffed lion and animal
book to the ground.

“Papou! You brought me a lion cub?!”

“A what?” Her mom said.

“A lion?” Her dad questioned.

“Olive, are you okay?” Scout asked.

Olive pushed her way to her Papou and suddenly realized what he was holding. It was not a lion cub, but a just as cute, brown, fluffy puppy. It had a crown of hair sprouting around its head and it looked like a lion cub, but it was really just a puppy. Her heart filled with bubbles.

Her mother began to protest. “I did not agree to this!”

“Olive, meet Leo,” her dad said. “You are going to have to take care of him. There will be walks, and meals, and…”

“I won’t allow this!” her mom stated.

Papou leaned in, ignoring his daughter. “Yuri didn’t come through–but my friend
Olga at the pet store did.”

Olive held Leo close in her arms. She thought she could smell safari dust in between his ears. It was a beautiful smell.

And it made her feel like she was a giant.


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