A Gold Star for Henry27th December, 1974Little Henry Mayfair held his breath just as his father had shown him and trained his sight on the sparrow. “Now” his father whispered urgently from behind his ear. His little finger trembled as he squeezed the trigger on his new Daisy air rifle. He felt the slight kick of the rifle’s butt against his small shoulder; it simultaneously let out a loud clack sound. The sparrow fluttered briefly before it fell down from the branch of the olive tree. It fell onto the springy soft cushion of the lawn in his backyard without making a sound. Henry felt his father’s hand on his shoulder. “Well done son!” he gave him a manly slap on the back and made his way to the dead bird, motioning for Henry to follow.Henry didn’t want to see what he’d done. He felt sad even though he guessed he shouldn’t have because his father was proud of him. But he couldn’t help it. He lay the rifle down on the wooden floorboards of the back porch and walked down the stairs. He kept his eyes on the motionless bird.“Hurry up son, get your bum over here. You got a perfect shot!” he laughed.Henry bent down over the bird. Its eyes were closed. Its neck was soaked in blood; its body was limp when his father picked it up. It looked so small in his palm. Henry began to cry.“What’s the matter with you boy?” his father scowled. “Pffft…it’s only a bird you know?” Henry shrunk under his father’s gaze. He didn’t like the tone of disappointment in his voice, “I wanted you to be proud of yourself. You got a bulls-eye and I’m proud of you, but now you’re cryin’ like a sissy. And that doesn’t make me proud.” He strode back to the house. Henry followed and wiped his eyes. He tried to avert his gaze from the dangling small body of the sparrow as it swung against his father’s thigh with each stride. He held its feet between his fingers and it flopped upside down, small wings outstretched. A drop of blood clung to the tip of its beak. It dangled there for a little while before it dropped to the ground and formed a drop the size and shape of a star-crested five cent piece on the cement. It was bright red. Brighter even than his own blood. He knew because he’d had lots of cuts and bruises during the past eight years of his life but his blood never looked as bright as that of the dead sparrow. Maybe that’s what innocent blood looks like; he wondered and felt a new wave of fresh tears surface. He struggled to stop them from spilling as he walked up the stairs.His father stood in the kitchen and raised the dead sparrow up at chest height. He called out to Henry’s mother, “Look at what our boy shot down” he made the announcement with pride Henry had never heard before. Yet the look on his mum’s face was nowhere near as joyous. It was quite the opposite in fact. She stood there as her hands dripped soapy water on the linoleum floor, her mouth hung open. It took her a while to say anything. Henry felt his insides shrivel as her eyes went wide.“Oh my God,” she yelled and slapped her wet hands over her mouth. Henry knew she was angry and upset because she didn’t even bother to wipe them. It wasn’t like her to be so careless he thought as the soapy water trickled down her elbows and onto the floor beside her feet. He worried she might slip on the soapy water but knew this wasn’t a good time to warn her about it.“What have you done?” her voice made Henry’s chest feel tight. He felt the panic rise inside of him as the tears began to stream down his face. She looked at him with an expression he’d never before seen on her. It scared and hurt him all at the same time. He started to bawl.“Oh please…what are you acting like that for?” his father angrily snapped. Henry, lifting his gaze, expected his father to have been staring back down at him but he wasn’t. He was yelling at his mum instead.“How dare you teach our son to kill animals.” She hissed. Henry had never seen her so furious, ever. “Don’t you dare make out like I’m overreacting, look at what you’ve done to him?” She pointed down at Henry. He took his cue and went to her; hugged her around her hips and buried his face in her damp apron and continued to bawl.“It’s not like I’m teaching him to kill things for nothing.” His father sounded less angry, more apologetic. “We’re not going to let this go to waste,” the bird swung in a circular motion between his fathers’ pinched fingertips. “I just want to show the boy how to kill animals so we can go hunting together and then eat them.” Henry’s stomach clenched at the thought of eating the sparrow. He squeezed his arms around his mother tighter. He felt her gentle hand on his head. “We are not living out in the bush John. We do not have to kill our dinner. That is a poor excuse to kill an innocent small defenceless animal.” She paused and continued in a lower voice, “and I know it’s not going to waste because you will sit there and you will eat it. And if you so much as make Henry taste it…so God help you…” her voice trailed off.Henry looked up at his mum with tears still running down his face. He struggled to stop the sobbing. “So…so…sorry” he gasped.“It’s ok honey. You only did what your father wanted you to do. But don’t worry. He won’t make you do anything like that again.” she ruffled his hair and kissed the top of his head. “Now go and do your homework.”Henry shuffled off and didn’t look back at his father but felt certain his father was watching him.He brought his school books out to the lounge coffee table. He spread everything out and leafed through his exercise books. The subject was shapes; triangles in particular. And the different types of triangles that existed. He wanted to make his parents proud by learning about all of them and getting a gold star in his book. The gold star was the best mark any of the kids could get and only the smartest got them. He glanced up at his father who sat a short distance away in the open area dining room with his back to Henry. His hands worked at something on the table. Henry watched as his father reached his hand out every so often and released a clump of feathers from his fist. They floated and twirled into the metal garbage basket beside him. Henry felt sad again but not as sad as earlier. He knew the dead sparrow couldn’t feel anything anymore. He couldn’t concentrate on the triangles and crept over and stood beside his father. He kept his eyes away from the bird, focused on his father’s eyes. His father didn’t seem to notice him so he laid a hand on his lap. His father looked down and smiled although his eyes were sad. “How are you son?” his voice was gentle.“I’m ok dad. I’m sorry I made you mad.” Tears threatened to spill down again but a combination of shame and determination helped keep them away.“No need to be sorry son.” His father said, “I should’ve known better and your mum is right.” he bent down and kissed Henry on the top of the head. “But I better eat this bird or I’ll be in big trouble,” he whispered conspiratorially and smiled the same sad smile again. “Now you better hurry off and do your homework ok?”“Ok dad. I love you.” He hugged his father, but didn’t expect to hear his father repeat the words to him because he never did. He knew it was a ‘man’ thing as his father had explained long ago. Henry couldn’t wait to have kids someday because he wanted to be a man too and do ‘man’ things all the time. But maybe every now and then, like on special occasions; Christmas and birthdays – he would say ‘I love you’ to his kids. Because he guessed it couldn’t be sissy if you only said it a few times in a whole year. But he didn’t want to tell his dad because it would ruin the really nice moment they’d just had. During dinner Henry noticed his father wasn’t eating. When he asked why his mother said he wasn’t hungry and he’d eat later. But Henry thought he knew why. He finished his spaghetti and didn’t want to hang around to find out if his suspicions were right. A short while after he’d gone to bed he needed a glass of water to quench his dry throat. He snuck into the kitchen. He suddenly wished he hadn’t. The kitchen smelt like it did when his mum cooked grilled chicken but the smell was different, almost a burnt smell. His father sat alone at the kitchen table and Henry watched in horror and sadness as his father nibbled on the dark brown – almost black – remains of the sparrow. He silently turned away and crawled under the stifling hot covers of his bed. He no longer felt thirsty as the dryness of his throat was now replaced with the awful taste of vomit that threatened to spill out from the back of his throat. He managed to keep it down though, and cried until the pain was replaced with dreams of a sparrow-less sky.Spring, 2012Guilt had a way of shaping one’s life and altering their future actions to compensate for their past and Henry Mayfield was no different, for he too was a slave to that blackmailer of emotions. Although he didn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on the profound cause and effect of guilt; he was self-aware enough to acknowledge it existed and knew it was the primary motivational force behind choices people made. The only emotions stronger than guilt were fear and love. Henry continued to learn from each of them.He looked at the time displayed on his mobile phone. Another fifteen minutes and his lunch-break would be over. He plucked the five dollar note from the change the waitress had brought back and left the coins on the saucer under the coffee cup. Perhaps twenty feet away he noticed a homeless man sitting with his back against the wall of the local bank. He wore a tattered pinstriped shirt and grey pants with patches of dark blue. As he got closer he realized the pants’ original color was blue, the grey was the result of accumulated filth. He wore battered and scuffed shoes that Henry supposed had once been stylish. He felt sad for the man. His face was dirty; grey and brown, his long dark hair and beard had specks of grey peppered throughout, although he looked only to be in his mid-thirties. He guessed the rash on the side of his neck was psoriasis but couldn’t see it on the man’s hands. Despite his destitute appearance, Henry regarded him as being handsome. He tried to show kindness without pity as he handed over the five dollar note. “God bless,” replied the man. His teeth were urine yellow in color but were surprisingly even and perfect. The sadness in his eyes betrayed the enigmatic and beautiful smile. Henry paused. A sudden compulsion to help the man overcame him; “if you had a hundred bucks what would you do with it?” he asked.The man blinked in confusion. A frown appeared at the center of his dirt streaked forehead, “I’d find myself a room I could hire for a day,” he looked up at Henry and continued, “ have a shower, shave and find some new clothes in a clothing bin so I don’t smell so bad for a while. I can’t smell myself anymore but people pinch their nose when they walk past.” He smiled weakly, “I’d buy myself a steak dinner and a beer so I could sleep content again. I’d be happy for a change like that.” His eyes twinkled with the anticipation of a child on Christmas morning. Henry reached into his wallet and pulled out two one hundred dollar bills, “What’s your name?” he asked as he folded the notes in half.The man straightened his back at the sight of the money, his mouth hung open, and his eyes searched Henry’s. “Paul” he mumbled, “…but I don’t want your money if you’re gonna ask me to do stuff…cause I’m not…” “I don’t want you to do anything Paul,” Henry interjected. “I just think everybody deserves a little happiness now and then.” He handed the money over to Paul who accepted it with both trembling hands.“Oh my God…thank you. You’re an angel aren’t you? Is that what you are?” Genuine tears filled the man’s eyes. Henry bit down on his trembling lip in fear of also crying; didn’t want to appear a sissy. “It’s my pleasure Paul. And please…I’m no angel.” A tear spilled down Henry’s cheek as he laughed. “…and after you’ve enjoyed your night in a bed, give me a call,” he handed his business card, “I’m not far from here. Maybe we can talk about finding you a job. You seem like a nice guy who just needs a break.”“If my wife were still alive she’d say you’re an angel. She believed in them. And I think she sent you.” He put his face in his hands and unashamedly cried. The hundred dollar notes were now crumpled in Paul’s clenched hand. “Th-th-ank you,” he mumbled as the sobs convulsed through his body.Henry got down on his knees in front of Paul and placed a hand on his shoulder. He wanted to ask the man about his dead wife but couldn’t bear to see the man suffer further, “Hey Paul. Today is a happy day for you remember? So there’s no need to cry. Just enjoy it and call me if you’d like ok?” he squeezed the man’s slender shoulder and quietly walked away. He wanted to save him the indignity of obligatory appreciation. Henry didn’t feel comfortable when people showed him gratitude, it embarrassed him. “Thank you so much!” Paul called after him, “I’ll call you tomorrow…I promise,” Henry turned around and smiled at Paul, “I look forward to it Paul. Enjoy.”He walked across the road and into the local park. He sat at the usual bench with his back to the passing traffic. He liked how the noise didn’t completely penetrate the wall of trees that surrounded the park. He lit a cigarette – the same brand his father used to smoke before his death from cancer in ‘94 – and exhaled the blue grey smoke up into the windless sky. It floated in much the same way his thoughts floated from Paul to the sad state of homelessness and unemployment. They soon drifted to his personal good fortune, his career and his beautiful family. He wanted Paul to experience that too. He seemed like a humble guy who’d work hard. No doubt he’d be presentable once he got cleaned. He thought of the red rash on the side of Paul’s neck. It briefly took him back to a childhood marred by sadness; to the dripping blood from the neck of a dead sparrow. He sighed and looked up at the sparrow-less sky and wondered – not for the first time – where all the sparrows had gone to. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen one. He wondered if it had any connection to the fact the grasshoppers had also seemed to vanish around the same time. Or maybe it was the Indian Myna birds that were introduced into Australia that eradicated the humble sparrow and the grasshoppers. There were a lot of theories he’d looked into in the past and knew it was a combination of factors. But the bottom line was they’d virtually disappeared. He sighed at the sadness he still felt for the meek sparrow. The guilty memory still remained in the corridors of his conscience; the same place where guilt was born within the sensitive child he once was and still remained to be. The difference now being that people assumed – thanks to his burly physique and stature – that he was a tough guy with a low tolerance of stupidity; a big angry looking man who wasn’t to be messed with, according to all his friends. And he preferred it that way. The only people he allowed glimpses of the sensitive child inside were his beautiful wife and two children; both teenager’s now. And of course his patients, they also knew he cared, or he hoped they did, because it was a topic he’d never discuss with them openly.He crushed the cigarette out under the soul of his leather shoe and made his way back to his surgery. He popped a mint into his mouth, wiped a hand across his goatee to rid any possible food crumbs and pushed open the door. Becca – his receptionist – greeted him with a genuine smile as always. She was a great girl with the cheerful demeanor perfect for the job. “Who’s next Bec?” he asked and stuck his hand out for the next file.“Jasper Conner, Doctor,” she cheerfully replied and handed him the file. She insisted on calling him Doctor in front of the patients. That was another endearing quality he liked about the girl, her respectful attitude towards her elders. A trait, he was sure was a dying commodity. He credited her parents for that but he also knew it wasn’t just about parenting. The child needed to have a natural born kindness within to be able to maintain and grow on his or her character. And in Bec’s case, Henry knew the girl was just as much deserving of praise as her parents. She stood and motioned for the patient to follow the doctor into one of the rooms. Henry held the door open for his patient and stuck out his hand at the young man, “Mr Conner, nice to meet you,” he said and shook with the firm hand of confidence.“Nice to meet you too Doctor,” the young man said.Henry smiled and looked down. His voice took on a playful tone as he said: “And you must be Jasper,” he smiled down at the cocker spaniel seated at the young man’s side. The cocker spaniel seemed to smile up at him as his tail swept the floor in enthusiastic arcs. Henry got down on one knee and scratched Jasper behind one of his wide, long, curl covered ears. Jasper in turn pushed with all the weight of his head against Henry’s palm and closed his eyes. He let out a sigh-ladled contented snort at Henry’s touch. Henry knew from the dog’s relieved reaction that his ear troubled him. He gingerly cradled and lifted him onto the metal table where he could take a better look at his patient. Ironically, he was so immersed in his continuing need to fulfill his vow of care for all of God’s creatures that he failed to notice the sparrow on the window sill which had perched on the small window ledge above him, nearer to the ceiling. It twitched its small head, this way and that, as it curiously studied the room and all those within it. it took flight shortly afterwards and began its ascent towards skies less threatening and further away from the predators that had swooped in and almost exterminated its kind many seasons ago. The miniscule male sparrow with his brown body and dark brown tipped wings flew away from the thick air that parched his throat with each breath. He thought fleetingly about having rested on the window ledge and wondered why he felt so buoyantly happy at the sight of the large human in the room below. Perhaps it was the overwhelming golden aura hue of the human; he wasn’t sure, but a feeling, usually only reserved for when he was huddled in the tree tops with his family during each morning and evening, overwhelmed him at that moment. It was a feeling so euphoric it made him sing.And in a blink of its smiling eyes, the knowingness and protectiveness it felt for Henry, just as quickly evaporated with the speed in which it had entered. The small sparrow chirped as it continued its journey across the hazy blue sky, towards the east; towards the flock in which it belonged, towards home.The End
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