THE CHRISTMAS SPARROW
by David L Harrison
It was Christmas all over the house. From the dazzling tree to the piles of presents to the turkey roasting in the oven, everything was ready. This was going to be the best Christmas Eve in the history of the world according to Samantha Peterson, who was six years old.
Then her brother Paul walked into the room and ruined everything.
He flopped on the sofa, leaned toward the coffee table, and ran his finger over the lid of the candy dish filled with fudge reserved for company. “Mom wants you,” he said.
Samantha’s eyes narrowed. “Why?” she asked, knowing exactly why he wanted her to leave.
Paul shrugged. “Go ask her.”
“I’m telling if you take fudge.”
“I wouldn’t advise it.”
Samantha made a face and stuck out her tongue.
Paul made a face and pinched her arm.
“That hurt!” she yelled. Doubling up her six-year-old fist, she smacked Paul on his nine-year-old nose.
“Ow!” he howled. “I hate you!”
“I hate you back!”
“I hate you more!”
Mrs. Peterson was tired from cooking and needed a break. She was holed up in the bathroom in a tub of hot water, wearing a headset and shouting along to a tune by Led Zeppelin.
After a very . . . long . . . pause . . . the bathroom door opened the merest crack possible.
“What!” came a voice that sounded like, “This had better be important.”
“Paul pinched me!” Samantha wailed, doing her best to sound mortally wounded.
The yelling and fighting excited the dogs. Boomer One and Boomer Two raced through the house, barking and howling and slipping and sliding and banging into furniture. They were huge dogs. Together they weighed 150 pounds, which was like ten bowling balls rolling around the house crashing into things.
Missing a sharp turn around the end of the sofa, the dogs crashed into the Christmas tree. Packages flew like missiles. The tree smashed against the wall and fell in a shower of ornaments and tangled strings of lights.
Mrs. Peterson ran out of the bathroom clutching her robe and rubbing her right temple.
“Mom,” said Paul, trying to be helpful, “your feet are making puddles on the floor.”
Mr. Peterson, who had just gotten home from work, bustled in through the garage door calling out, “Ho ho ho! Merry Christmas!”
Samantha and Paul were too busy glaring at each other to reply.
Mrs. Peterson asked in a thin voice, “Did you remember marshmallows?”
Mr. Peterson smacked himself on the forehead and laughed. “Forgot! But who needs marshmallows anyway?”
Mrs. Peterson’s voice rose with each word to an astonishing pitch. “Who needs marshmallows?”
Mr. Peterson was suddenly indignant. “What’s the big deal?” he asked. “It’s a bag of marshmallows!”
Mrs. Peterson spoke rapidly and rather loudly about how could he forget marshmallows for the sweet potatoes the one simple thing she had asked him to do when she had done everything else and didn’t he even notice that the tree was destroyed and the packages were scattered like buckshot and everything in them was probably smashed and broken and if he didn’t get rid of those horses he called dogs she was going to scream! But in fact she already was screaming.
And then she cried.
And the dogs howled.
“You started it!” Paul yelled at Samantha.
“This is the worst Christmas Eve in the history of the world!” Samantha sobbed.
In the sudden silence, something thumped at the window.
“What was that?” asked Paul.
Samantha pressed her nose against the glass and left a snotty little smear on it. “I don’t see anything,” she snuffled.
Paul opened the door and looked out.
On the ground lay a small brown bird with one wing spread out like a dainty fan. The bird wasn’t moving.
“Is it dead?” Samantha whispered.
Paul crouched down with his face close to the still form.
“The little guy flew into the window,” Mr. Peterson said.
“Is it dead?” Samantha whispered again.
“It’s looking at us,” Paul said. “See how its eyes are looking at us?”
“Is it going to die?” Samantha asked. “I don’t want it to die!”
“It’s a sparrow,” said Mrs. Peterson. “Bring it inside.”
Paul cupped the hurt bird in his hands and carried it into the living room.
Mr. Peterson lifted the Christmas tree back onto its stand. He rummaged around on the floor until he found one of the bird nest ornaments, which he hung on a branch halfway up the tree.
“Put the bird in that,” he said. “The dogs can’t reach it there.”
“The dogs,” Mrs. Peterson muttered darkly, “are taller than the tree.”
“Maybe it’s thirsty,” Samantha said.
“There is nothing we can do,” her mother said. “I’m afraid it’s dying.”
Tears rolled down Samantha’s face. “I don’t want our Christmas sparrow to die!” she cried.
“I’m hungry,” said Paul.
Leaving the bird resting with its eyes closed, the family sat down at the dining room table. Throughout dinner, which featured sweet potatoes without marshmallows, the only sounds were the clatter of knives and forks and tinkle of ice in glasses. Not one word was spoken.
Mrs. Peterson glared at her sweet potatoes.
Mr. Peterson stared at the wall.
Paul shoveled food into his mouth.
All Samantha could think about was the bird. This was, she told herself, the worst Christmas Eve dinner in the history of the world.
After it was over, Paul and Samantha left the table. Normally they would have hovered in the kitchen, urging and begging their parents to hurry. This year they sat quietly on opposite sides of the living room, trying not to look at the crooked Christmas tree with the silent nest halfway up its branches.
At last their parents entered the room. “Who wants to hand out the presents?” Mr. Peterson asked.
Samantha studied her shoes.
With his arms across his chest Mr. Peterson walked to the tree and peeked into the nest. Shaking his head, he turned away. No one dared to ask what that meant.
Mrs. Peterson was absent mindedly straightening up the mess caused by the dogs. On the floor she found the bible open to St. Luke and started reading softly to herself. As the others began to listen, her voice grew stronger.
“And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy . . .”
Mrs. Peterson continued to read. When she finished the story, she set the book on the table near the tree. Again no one spoke, but this silence was not full of anger like the one at dinner. It was the sort of silence that comes from thinking. After a while the family went to bed. The gifts had not been touched.
Later, when the house lay dark and still, Samantha thought about the hurt bird in the living room. “Please don’t die,” she whispered. She thought about the story that her mother had read. She decided that a piece of fudge and a sack of marshmallows didn’t seem important now. Without expecting to she called out through the dark to Paul’s room across the hall.
“I don’t hate you,” she said.
“I don’t hate you either,” Paul answered back.
In their bed, Mr. Peterson whispered, “I loved your sweet potatoes. I’m sorry I forgot to stop at the store.”
Mrs. Peterson squeezed his hand. “Fewer calories that way,” she whispered.
Moonlight through the living room window fell across Boomer One and Boomer Two. Leaving the dogs in the house at night was strictly forbidden. Now they were lying beside the tree below the nest.
Next morning no one wanted to be the first up. Samantha lay awake with her eyes shut. Paul pulled the cover over his head.
At last Mr. and Mrs. Peterson put on their robes and tiptoed into the living room.
“Oh no!” Mrs. Peterson cried when she saw the dogs snoring near the gifts.
Mr. Peterson groaned. “We left them inside!”
Samantha, who had just entered the room, glanced anxiously from her father to her mother.
“The bird!” Mrs. Peterson said, looking into the nest. “It’s gone!”
“We forgot the dogs!” Paul cried.
Boomer One and Boomer Two leaped up and bounded to the front door. With a heavy sigh Mr. Peterson opened the door and let them out. The rising sun was painting the morning pink and red.
From the top of the Christmas tree behind them came a musical two-note twitter.
“Our Christmas sparrow!” Samantha shouted. “It didn’t die after all!”
In a whir of brown wings the bird darted across the room and out into the brilliant day. In amazement the whole family hurried outside to watch it fly away.
Samantha discovered that she was holding her brother’s hand.
“This is the best Christmas morning in the history of the world!” she said.
“Don’t forget the story Mom read last night,” Paul reminded her.
“Oh. Right,” Samantha said. “It’s the second best, and that’s perfect!”
Hand in hand the Petersons went in to breakfast.
Soon they would get around to opening their presents. But they knew they had already received the best gift of all.
This story originally appeared in News-Leader, Springfield, Missouri