When I opened the door to Heron, what first occurred to me was – could this guy be my father?
What I saw was a balding cherub, a big grin in the middle of his beard, and twinkling blue eyes. He didn’t look at all like photos of my father; I don’t know why I made the connection, except they would have been about the same age.
But there was a connection.
I had rarely spent more than a moment thinking about my father since I was a child. More than once I’d said to my Aunt Belle, “I don’t think about him.” But she’d just give me that sarcastic look of hers – she didn’t believe that I could ignore my parentage.
But really I never used to think about him – or my mother. Before Heron came.
That morning was an exception, a bizarre exception. I was reading in the living room, and something I read brought an image of my father to mind – an image like the photo on the worn mantelpiece – him sprawling on a bench with his legs stretched out, dressed in dirty white pants and a drooping sweater, his laughing, bearded face framed by a floppy hat and an armload of celery stalks.
I looked up to see Aunt Belle staring at me. How does she know what I am thinking? She smiled at me, then glanced above my head to the photograph of my father behind me. Then she looked at me again, and smiled knowingly.
The weird part is — just at that moment we heard Heron’s knock.
“Are you Johnny Bartooth?” he asked. “I’m Heron. Is Belle at home?”
I’d heard the name, but I couldn’t remember who Heron was.
My Aunt Belle, who has looked after me as my mother for my whole life, came to see who had come to the door. She knew who Heron was. Her face was beaming pleasure when she saw him. “Heron!” she shouted, and they flung themselves together in a prolonged hug.
He whirled her around, on the doorstep in the chilly wind, then they studied each other’s faces – with intense interest.
“You haven’t changed,” he said. “Is it possible that you are even more beautiful than when I last set eyes on you 28 years ago?”
“Is it possible that you are even more silver-tongued than when I last heard you speak 28 years ago?” Belle was chirpier than I’d seen her in a long time.
When Heron and Belle finally let go of each other, he stepped into our dark living room, turned to me and said, “I’ve come here, all the way from the great sovereign nation of Australia, for two reasons – to visit your lovely Aunt again, and to present you with this.” He fumbled inside a tattered green backpack, and drew out a cardboard binder. The hand-written title read “OutRAGEous – a Journal -- Bartooth”. The cover was gray. One of its corners had been burned away.
“How long have you had that backpack, Heron?” Belle’s eyes were still shining. For a woman her age, she did look exceptionally youthful. She had long, straight brown hair, with just a few gray strands starting to appear. She was relatively thin. A few wrinkles were beginning to line her face.
“I think I got it before I went to New Zealand. You must have seen it before.”
Heron hadn’t handed the Journal to me yet.
“Your Dad wrote this, Johnny. But before I give this to you, I just want to say a few things about him, and tell a few stories.” Heron seemed to be reciting a speech he had practised. “I don’t know how much your Aunt has divulged to you about Bartooth, but…”
“Not a lot really,” Belle interjected.
“But I want you to know, before you read one word of this extraordinary document, that Bartooth was a special person, one of a kind.”
“Okay. Fine with me. Talk away. I’d like to hear whatever you have to tell about him. Or my mother.” He still hadn’t handed me the Journal. I felt like taking it from him.
“I know very little about her – only what’s written in here. Belle would know more than me.” Heron turned and, to my annoyance, put the Journal back into his knapsack. He said, “But first, could I have a wash and some tucker? It’s been a long trip from my house to your house.” We agreed to postpone his story telling until after Heron had had a shower and we’d finished our lunch.
Heron was the link.
For several years he had been my father’s closest friend and frequent companion, through many days and all sorts of escapades. So he brought with him dozens of stories and memories. But, more than that, Heron brought a priceless gift for me: that gray-covered journal, which my father wrote – sometimes in long detail – between 1966-1979.
I never met my father. I mean, I was too little to remember him. He left me with Belle, his sister, when I was less than one, and he went back to China to find my mother. That’s what he told everyone.
No one ever heard from him again. No one we know, anyway. Not even Heron.
I sometimes wonder why I’ve started to care about him. He’s long gone. He must be. He surely would have tried to make contact with his son during these past 19 years, if he were still above ground. My mother must be long dead too – buried on some mountain in Guangdong province, or her ashes mingled with its soil, and her atoms dispersed into water, air, rice, animals, people.
Why should I care about this person who is just a flicker in history? I owe him nothing. He didn’t influence my upbringing, my character, my values.
I never knew him.
Yet I have come to long to know him, to long to discover everything about him, and everything about my mother.
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