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  • Robert John Andrews

Dangerous Curves - Curvas Peligrosas - ...the serialization

Updated: Jan 4




Chapter Four


Cultivo la rosa blanca

En julio como en enero


I cultivate a white rose

In July as in January


A

t one point during the restless night, Rick was awakened by a soft scuffling. Blearily, he wiped the crust from his sticky eyelids. Five faces stared at him from the middle of the gloomy room, the peculiar creases in their faces made darker and severe from the shadows caused by the few remaining lit candles. Five faces: their eyes round and glassy. Eyes unblinking. Were they children from the village? No, the faces were all wrong for children. Am I dreaming? No, I’m not. Who are you, he wanted to call out, but he hesitated. Let them make a move. But they kept staring at him, unmoving. Again he rubbed his eyes, only to cough lightly, clear his throat, and, after a long yawn, shake his head at his own fears. For he finally recognized the bulbous nose of that damn clown. They were Jane’s puppets suspended from the clothesline. “Oh, crap,” he muttered under his breath as he lay his head back down and yawned a second time.

Again returned the sound of movement. The scuffling came from Carolyn Rose folding down her sleeping bag and standing up in the narrow space between her mattress and Deb’s. The flicker of a squat citronella candle left burning on the windowsill behind her silhouetted her in a warm, hazy light. Rick tried to blink away the fog, for at first he was uncertain if this was a dream. She was wearing a long sleeve white shirt that hung below her shorts, allowing the sweet illusion that all she was wearing was the shirt. He gulped at her naked legs and fantasized caressing them, them wrapped around him, him rubbing his hands up and down her thighs pulling himself deeper into her, her tightening around him until the spasm and release and collapse. Whew, he puffed, surprised by the sudden rush of lust. No wonder the poets used to call it the ‘little death.’ He missed women. He missed their smell. He missed their taste. Most, he missed sleeping besides a woman, comfortable and warm beneath familiar sheets in a familiar bed, the sheets bunched, his face pressed into his familiar pillow, the incense of skin.

Rick squeezed his eyelids tight and puffed through his moustache. Well, this is a surprise. So his mind struggled for command, willing himself to keep his eyes closed and try for an hour or more of sleep. A week ago it seemed he had to will himself simply to breathe. Usually he had to will himself to get up. Now he had to will himself to shut down and try to get some rest. But before settling his head back down onto his black knapsack, he allowed himself once more to admire her silhouette and allowed one more furtive and agreeable picture to form in his mind. How come, he wondered before he finally did fade into unconsciousness, so many pleasant looking women can be so unpleasant?

Between the incessant barking of dogs and the erratic crowing of roosters, few slept beyond dawn. Honduras rarely welcomes you to tender amenities. It wasn’t only the teens who complained about being rousted out of their sleeping bags so early. Given Las Mercedes’ elevation, most slept fitfully anyway, waking every two hours. It was an uncomfortable sleep made even more uncomfortable by the coughs, squeaks, flatulence, and snorings of all these strangers in the same room. Neither their bodies nor their expectations had adjusted. Might as well get up. For Rick, fitful sleep was nothing new.

With the glow of morning diffusing around the hills, several of the mission team members drifted off for private time with the Bible, while a handful of the group gathered with Evelyn on the benches for morning prayers before breakfast. Jane sat alone on a flat stone near the front entrance to the church building where she rocked and prayed audibly. She also fed the skeletal dogs bits of the cheese crackers she had brought from home. Three times already this morning Sam had asked her not to do that, partly, as Sam pleaded, because these damn dogs, sniffing a handout, would never leave the church yard. Give them handouts, give them scraps, and they’ll keep on begging. Plus they’ll leave their poop everywhere, which didn’t make visiting the lawn in the middle of the night terribly pleasant when group members needed to slip on their flip-flops and stagger outside in the dark and take a piss. The occasional shout of a ‘God-dammit’ echoing through the night air would elicit inside the sanctuary evil snickers from the supposed sleepers.

Rick liked God well enough, but he didn’t need their relationship to get too personal. He had been there before and it hadn’t worked out. Rick instead, bearing empty mug in hand, clumped in his untied workbooks up the road to the kitchen to worship the more abundant and far fairer lord of the holy coffee bean. This deity, at least, could be trusted.

A young girl was helping her mother cook breakfast. She wore plastic pink slippers and an orange dress. Her dark, thick hair touched her shoulders. Rick greeted her with a wave and an “hola.” Bashful, she looked away. He presented his cup to her. “¿Café? Tienes café, chica?”

,” she squeaked like a mouse, and, while avoiding looking at him, took his mug. She ladled coffee from the large pot and handed it back to him, again without making eye contact.

Gracias, mi hija,” he thanked before he walked under the awning, where he supported himself against a post and gazed into the misted mountains. He palmed his mug and breathed in the aroma. Men from the village were hiking down the hill heading somewhere. Some men clipped-clopped along on burros or horses. His ears began to detect the rustle of children.

“A bit of chill this morning,” Carolyn Rose said, startling him. “I see there’s another coffee fan in the group.” She sipped from her mug. “Not Starbucks though.”

Rick winced. “Starbucks? I’m sorry, my dear,” he answered patronizingly, gesturing toward the little girl and her mother. “They don’t offer table service either, and I seriously doubt the mocha lattes are ready.”

Carolyn Rose was tempted to walk away from him. She was so tired of being put down. “Listen,” she finally blurted, “I just came for a quiet cup of coffee.” She tightened her jaw and sucked in her cheeks. “Can we please leave it at that?” Some of her coffee spilled while she spoke. “What I meant was that the coffee here is better than Starbucks.” Annoyance rose in her chest. “What is your problem anyway?”

“I’m just joking,” Rick said awkwardly.

“No, you’re not.”

That stung. Rick sat down on the edge of a chair. “Alright, lady. I’m having a hard time figuring you out.”

“Why do you even have to?” she asked flatly. “I don’t know you. You don’t know me -- so why have you done nothing but bait me ever since you arrived? And I really dislike that, by the way. Please don’t call me that. Not ‘lady.’ Not ‘my dear.’ I do have a name.”

“Fine, whatever . . . Shall I call you Carol-leen?” Distaste filled her face. “Okay, fine -- but I haven’t been baiting you. Teasing maybe. Come on now,” he tried to joke, “from what I’ve seen you just don’t seem the missionary type.”

“What exactly does that mean?” she pressed, refusing to think him funny. “And where do you get off saying this? You’ve only arrived. You’ve been here for two days and you think you know everything about me? You say you’re teasing? If that’s the case, I don’t like the way you tease.”

“Hey, don’t get angry at me. I just came for a cup of coffee too. I don’t really need this argument.” Rick added testily: “Don’t take it out on me. It’s not my fault you got stuck with us instead of riding around with your boyfriend.”

At first she glowered at him, but the coals in her eyes soon cooled. Carolyn Rose rubbed the back of her lower teeth with her tongue, studied him through narrowed eyes, then bit her lip and chose that it would be best simply to ignore Rick. He’s like so many who come here. He’s not important. She paused before she spoke. “I really would suggest,” she said sweetly, lacing her words with a deliberate politeness, “that that is none of your own business.” Humming a laugh, she turned on her heels to stroll down toward the church building. It felt good for her to turn the tables on a man. It felt good to make him uncomfortable. It was a refreshing feeling.

Princess 1, Rick 0, he thought, clucking his tongue. I have just been dismissed. Rick trailed her with his eyes. What I really should yell at her now is: ‘You have a habit of turning your back and walking away when things get dicey if you haven’t noticed.’ But he didn’t. The little girl crept up next to him. By way of an apology, she offered another ladle of coffee.

It worked out for the best that they were able to avoid each other throughout the rest of the day, especially since Sam asked Rick, being one of the fitter adults, to help with the teenagers at their work site. The kids had nicknamed it ‘Casa Infierno’ because the home they were to help build required a hellish journey to reach it. To build that house they had to carry the shovels, picks, and mattocks, along with rocks, bags of cement, and five gallon buckets of precious water. They followed Gabriel and Rejino to a path hidden behind the church building, where they stepped over a barbed-wire fence. The path led them through a pineapple field toward a narrow path that led them down into a ravine where a cut of a fast stream flowed between hills. With a shriek, Jimmy, top-heavy from carrying a bag of cement, slipped and slid down the mountain. A small tree snared him before he fell farther. In a pique of panic Rick swallowed his heart, but Jimmy thought it hilarious as Kevin hauled him back up to the path.

Those not carting tools or cement bags crossed the steam like tight-rope walkers, with hands outstretched for balance, carefully crossing a bridge formed from a fallen tree trunk one foot in front of the other. Rick noticed a black PVC tube in the water. Between hand signals and his Spanish dictionary he finally was able to glean from Gabriel that the tube fed water to a dozen homes below. Yes, makes sense. Need water. Inventive. Adaptive. Ingenious. Work with the land. Use gravity. Survive. Survival.

The path then switched-back for over a hundred and fifty yards up through a field of coffee plants that finally led them onto a small plateau. Above the plateau, another forty yards beyond, was where they were going to build the house.

Why here in this ungodly place? asked Rick silently.

Half of the foundation already had been dug. Each home was a precise 20’ by 24’ rectangle, divided into three rooms. All 29 houses would be identical. Each would be worked on in stages so no one in the community would be able to move into their home before the others. That way, described Teresa over supper that evening, everyone in the village helps each other out. You want a home? You work. This was something the Hondurans knew about far better than the gringos. Sweat equity. It is what they do daily. Only three families in the village, she reported, chose not to be part of the project.

The picks were dull. It was like smacking clay with croquet mallets. The shovel blades felt as if they were forged of tin; several bent in the attempt to dig. But once the foundation was dug, large stones could be placed in the trenches to form the footer. More stones meant less cement was needed to be purchased from distant La Esperanza. Larger stones first, followed by smaller, flatter stones. Then it was mix the concrete. Leathermans on the belt got in the way. So too buck knives. Sixty-five shovels of sand for each batch. Stab open the bag of cement mix with the blade of the shovel. It was best to stand upwind lest you inhaled too much blue cement dust. Churn the pile once, twice. Crater it. Pour in the water fetched by buckets. Mix together and crater again. More water. Speed up the shoveler’s dance as you circled around together, digging deep, dumping the mixture back into the middle. Then it was trickle, turn, and churn. If it looked like cow plop, you did it right. If you did it often enough you could attain a certain Zen elegance.

You used an even wetter mixture for pouring the concrete over the foundation stones and smoothing it with a trowel. Rick never did get to do the trowel work. The Hondurans kept that for themselves. Rick was just a digger. The sweat not sopped up by his felt hat flooded down his forehead, the salt stinging his eyes. His red bandana was drenched. He frequently pulled the bandana over his head, mopped his face and neck, and then wrung it out over the concrete mixture. Casa Infierno. Now he knew what it felt like to be a slice of white bread in a toaster. During that day Rick must have drunk a gallon of water in the morning and another in the afternoon but never once had to urinate. The red hot forge of a sun sucked the very juice from his body. As hot as it was, he was glad he wore his long sleeve white shirt. He looked down at his arm below where he had rolled up the cuff, and his wrist and forearm was pink, close to being sun burnt.

At noon Casa Infierno was simply too far away and too difficult a journey for them to waste time going back to the main part of the village for lunch, so lunch was brought to them by the village children who skipped up and clambered down the hills like carefree mountain goats. Casa Infierno. After lunch they also got to suck on chunks of sugar cane one the men cut for them with his machete. Sucking on the juice, spitting out the fibers, Rick noticed all the toothless smiles of the Hondurans and figured out why they were toothless.

It took them that first day to lay the foundation and tamp down the dirt flooring. The teens, both boys and girls, worked hard, relishing the chance to prove themselves. The work proved cathartic. They were finally working. No longer traveling. No longer tourists. Only one boy, Jane’s smelly son, tried to loaf. Even the other kids got fed up with him. He kept wandering off into the woods to explore. Rick, himself close to exhaustion, his hands blistered and bloodied, him earning this stigmata of the soil, yelled at him to get to work. The boy flipped Rick the finger. Rick bit his lip. Rick reached around to his hip. Rick unbuttoned and removed his buck knife from its case. Rick brandished the shiny six inch metal blade in front of the kid. Rick deliberately, calmly, wickedly asked him: “You want to keep that finger?” The boy decided to pick up a shovel.

Teresa and Wendy stayed in the village along with Carolyn Rose. Word filtered into the village and as far as the neighboring village of Frasquita that there was nurse among the gringo group. Wendy had wanted to help with the foundation work but the women arrived bringing their children before she had finished her breakfast. She asked Teresa if Larry was needed but both Teresa and Carolyn Rose mentioned that the women in this region would be far more comfortable talking with Wendy. They could never tell a man such things. Both the women and children depleted what few medical supplies Wendy had brought with her. The school house made of sticks became transformed into an impromptu clinic.

That night, Rick, his soul swirling and stormy from a primeval slurry of emotions, only wanted to hide and escape having to deal with anyone, especially her. Especially her. So immediately after dinner, he retreated to his sleeping bag and hid by writing in his journal, then by pretending to read a chapter from “Darwin and the Beagle,” falling asleep by 8 PM with the book left open on his chest.

The next morning, Carolyn Rose was half finished drinking her coffee by the time Rick arrived. When he saw her there he was tempted to keep walking and pretend that he was going on farther to explore the upper part of the village. But she called for him. She took his mug from his hand, offered it to the young girl to fill it, and handed it back to him.

“Listen, I didn’t mean to snap yesterday.”

Rick hesitated. He tensed. Where’s she going to attack now? But deciding he was too drained to be defensive, he surrendered and let his guard relax. “No, you had the right – I was butting in where I didn’t belong.” Into his mug he blew a stream of air, causing ripples. “Don’t tell anyone,” he said peering over the rim of the mug. “But I’ve been a bit of an ass lately. I’ll explain someday.” Carolyn Rose walked over to an awning pole and leaned against it. The sunlight glowed in her hair. Her blouse became gauzy from the light and he enjoyed the view it gave. “It felt good to work yesterday,” he continued, deciding to look away. “I’m sore, but it felt real good. I almost slept more than three hours at a stretch last night. It feels good to sweat some of this stuff out.” He drained his cup and turned his head to spit out the grounds that stuck on his tongue. “I’m getting to like these ‘all-purpose’ mugs: shaving, brushing your teeth, coffee.”

“Bourbon,” she added.

“And rum. Don’t forget the rum.”

She swished her ponytail and laughed. “You’re a bad group.”

Rick lifted his eyes. He surprised himself when he heard himself saying to her: “You do have a pleasant laugh. You should use it more.” He immediately looked over at her to see if he had given offense. He quickly added: “No joke. I promise. I’m not trying to tease.” Her eyes suggested she didn’t seem offended. He walked around toward the edge of the vegetable patch before turning to face her. “But come on now, a Mercedes-Benz coupe in Honduras? For the ACC? This country is just too weird. Life is weird.” He stopped himself before he rambled on and said something stupid again.

“Been weird for me too. You have no idea.”

“And this Tomás?”

“Weirdest of all,” she confessed, startling herself with an easy honesty.

Unthinking, he blurted out: “You do have to admit he dresses like Zorro.”

She laughed again. She bit her lip. “Okay now,” she said, more as a statement to herself than as a question to him. “So we’re starting fresh?”

“I really could do without the friction,” Rick answered.

“Me too.”

“Truce?”

“Truce.”

Neither knew what to say next so they simply drank their coffee and let the long pause linger.

“So tell me who you are,” Carolyn Rose finally asked. “Are you really a teacher?”

“Oh, I’m real exciting. Yes indeed. I teach High School history.” Rick walked closer and braced himself against a desk near her.

“Why am I not shocked?” She stepped back and studied him. “Yes, I can see it.” She pushed a strand of hair from her face. “Have you been teaching for long?”

“Eight years where I am now, two years before that. Not long enough to be one of those teachers who in the faculty room goes on and on about how many years they have left until they retire. No, I’m still in my prime and, help me, for some ungodly reason I still enjoy the kids. These kids keep me sane.” Rick straightened up and stretched his back. He winced as he felt a new muscle tighten and spasm. “At least, I think I’m still in my prime.” A hummingbird hovered near them then swiftly flew away.

Carolyn Rose pensively sipped the last of her coffee. Pointing toward his left hand with her empty mug she said, “Married, I see. Do you have children?”

The cook spared him by interrupting them with a discreet cough. She said something to Carolyn Rose and gestured toward the oven. A man was standing beside a young boy. Both stood patiently, deferential, waiting their turn. The man held his hat in his hands. The boy’s right arm was heavily bandaged with rags. The boy, no more than seven years old, appeared pallid yet calm. The age was a mere guess however. Their first day in Las Mercedes taught Rick that trying to guess the age of these Hondurans made him look very silly. The woman he thought was seventy was actually in her forties. A boy of twelve in Honduras has the build of a boy of seven in the States.

“Excuse me, Rick,” she said in haste. “But would you get Wendy and Larry.”

Rick complied and jogged toward the church building. Two minutes later the entire group trailed behind Larry and Wendy where they gathered in a circle to watch them examine the little boy. They had him sit in one of the school chairs while his father stood behind him. They laid his arm on the desk and tenderly unwrapped the layers of bandages. “They learn to endure at the earliest of ages,” remarked Larry. The spindle of the boy’s arm was purple with patches of black. Wendy winced at how distorted it was. Larry cupped the arm as tenderly as he dared. The boy looked at Larry with curious eyes which soon swelled into delight when he noticed what Rick was holding in his hand. Before he returned to the kitchen with Larry and Wendy, Rick had rummaged through the bag of teaching supplies and found a little stuffed bear his church members had crafted from yarn for him to take on the trip.

“It’s broken,” Larry reported. “Probably about four days ago.”

“Should we take him to the Doctor?” asked an anxious Kevin.

“I’d like to, but where?”

“Darling,” Wendy said, “you are the Doctor today. Will you do the honors? I’ll rig up some kind of splint.”

“I’ll help you,” offered Deb. They both rushed to the church.

“Please tell them I have to reset the arm. It’ll hurt but it’ll feel a whole lot better in a second.” Carolyn Rose stood next to the father and translated, her arm around his shoulders. The father accepted what she told him. His only reaction was to place his palm on his son’s head. The boy kept his bright eyes trained on the bear. Rick began dancing the bear in the air. Larry reached down. Larry gripped the arm. Larry tugged. Larry pulled. The arm cracked loudly and realigned itself. The boy only muttered a swift, “Oooo...”

Sam approached and stood behind Rick. “Can you imagine how my kid would have reacted? He wouldn’t have stopped screaming.”

Rick reached over and placed the teddy bear on the boy’s lap. The little boy’s mind at first couldn’t comprehend that it was a gift. His eyes remained wide and wondering on the fuzzy little toy, but he let the bear stay exactly where Rick had placed it. It wasn’t until Sam told him he could keep it that he picked it up with his left hand and hugged it.

Sam slapped Rick on the back. “Watch out -- they’ll all be breaking their arms now.”

“Would you please tell the father,” Larry said to Carolyn Rose as he counted out five Tylenols and sealed them in a small plastic bag, “to give him one before bed each day. I’ll give him one now.” Annie, anticipating, already had poured a cup of water and placed it on the desk top.

“Only one tablet?” asked Jane from among the crowd.

Wendy answered as she began wrapping the gauze around the boys arm held secure by a length of cardboard cut from the boxed lid of a game of Twister which Deb had found and confiscated from someone’s belongings. “These people don’t take medications the way we do,” she explained. “They haven’t built up our resistance. One pill should be more than sufficient.”

~~~

Teresa enjoyed being with this group. They were different from most of the groups she was assigned to guide. These folks were really fun. Of course, they had Sam. Yet still, they were far more open, expressive, than most of the groups she has had to escort. Perhaps it was Sam who made the difference. His legs walked in both cultures.

Teresa recalled an article she had written that her boss at ACC had asked her to write, impressions from some of her group experiences with ACC. It was something her boss wished she could share with new groups, but she decided not to. North Americans are more prone to listen to what other North Americans have to say. Teresa still was pleased with what she wrote, though she too feared it might be insulting.

Imagine you are a Honduran farmer walking home at the end of a long day. You have three miles of a dirt road to go till you get home. Your feet, shod in rubber boots, are sore. A bag of beans weighs heavily on your back. On top of the bag of beans you carefully balance several large tree limbs you picked up for fuel for cooking tonight's tortillas. Your machete slaps against your thigh with every tired step.

Suddenly a bus careens by, choking you in the dust. Just as suddenly something bounces off the brim of your hat. "What was that?" you ask. You look at the disappearing bus to notice a flabby white arm sticking out the window waving at you. You bend down to see that you were hit by a colorful and sparkling pencil. You pick the pencil up and see that it is inscribed in gold with the words, 'Jesus Loves You.' But you can't read it anyway because the words are written in English.

Inside the bus the old ladies from the United States are warm and smiling from the good feeling it brings to them because they are so generous. They have boxes of these pencils on their laps.

"Get ready,” one of the ladies announces, "There's a little Honduran boy up ahead. Let's give him two pencils."

Making it up? No I am not. It is just one of the stories about the art of gringo gift-giving heard courtesy of Gringo TV. What is Gringo TV? It's what we Hondurans call it when North Americans show up in Central America. North Americans supply some of the best entertainment around, the best show in town. Everybody's watching it. Some of it is drama, some of it is documentary. A lot of it is situation comedy. And you North Americans always are the stars.

Many of us Hondurans can be too polite to tell this to your faces.

Yes, the pencil bus really happened. Their idea of distributing gifts was to fling pencils out the window at random Hondurans. One of my friends back at ACC has called this: "Feeding bananas to the monkeys." He shook his head when he said this to me. "People have dignity also."

When this same group of missionary North Americans arrived at the village to which they were assigned for their mission experience, they invited the children to gather around the van. Of course, the kids swarmed. It was, after all, Gringo TV. The gringo Santa Claus has arrived.

The ladies dumped the pencils into a big pile and the children dove to clutch as many as they could. The children, by the way, should have been in school. School? Not when the gringos are giving stuff away! Oddly enough, the children who did attend school never got a pencil.

Imagine you are now sitting in a crowded medical clinic. You and your three children arrived on the bus at six in the morning so you can get in line for an examination by the visiting gringo dentist. It costs you a week's wages for bus fare but you are a good mother and want the dentist to look at their teeth. Suddenly in comes a woman with her two children and stands in the doorway. The North American dental hygienist waves at her, reaches around the counter, and, in front of everyone in the clinic, presents her with a bag. Everyone can see the bag is filled with several pairs of shoes. You look down at your own three children, two of whom are barefoot, the eldest wears flip-flops. You wonder to yourself, "How come she got shoes? How did she get this special right?"

What you don't know is that the day before this woman arrived at the clinic and asked if the gringos were giving away shoes. The dental hygienist was so moved by this woman's plight that she measured the children's feet and that very afternoon bought the children new shoes.

Don't you know how this can create big conflicts? It can even cause deaths.

Then there was the mission group that, the day before they left, went around from house to house in the village they worked, and presented a bag of lovely gifts to each family. Of course, they only gave gifts to the houses near the road. Not everybody got something. The gringos left, but in their wake they also left jealousies. Those left out were angry, asking, why don't their neighbors share what they received? They also created an expectation that the next group from North American would arrive eager to give gifts. The children, bless them, will rush up to the next group eager to find out what presents they have for them.

I must say with some sadness how too often you North Americans go for the 'feel good feeling' rather than doing what is really good. North Americans really can drive the Hondurans loco with the things they do, however well intentioned. There really is a better way to give gifts. It is nice of you North Americans to bring a shirt, but vitamins are better, if you know what I mean.

~~~

The next day, during the late afternoon, after the group had assisted the Hondurans in finishing five more foundations, while they were enjoying the chance to lounge around, while they were waiting for supper, while Rejino sat on a pew and strummed his homemade guitar, another child arrived in need of their attention. Word had indeed filtered throughout the countryside that the gringos had medicine. This time it was a baby wrapped up in a dirty piece of fabric torn from a discarded sack of coffee beans. She had been carried in from the hills by her aunt, accompanied by two men. Two other women came as well. They had walked all afternoon. None of the women wore the colorful dresses worn by the women of Las Mercedes. Instead, they wore plain smocks of a light fabric. None wore shoes. Seams on the dresses were torn, gaping. One of the men -- dressed in dark blue trousers threadbare at the knees, a lightweight blue short sleeve shirt, and on his head a dark green baseball cap, the brim tattered and bent -- kicked at a sow that was in their way as they trudged down the path toward the church. The sow was laden with heavy teats, her little ones scrambling after her to stretch up for a suckle.

“This is yours,” Larry told Wendy.

Wendy gently laid the child on the bench and unfolded the coarse blanket. Some of the folks from Las Mercedes arrived but refused to pass beyond the gate into the church yard. Rejino had withdrawn to stand among those at the gate. Wendy and Larry’s hushed tone hinted to the other members of the mission group that they should also stay at a distance. Most of them chose to retreat inside the cloister of the church building. There was something private about this child. A scent of something tragic filtered into the wind. It would have seemed indecent were they to linger and spectate.

Wendy’s shoulders sank as she shook her head and whispered into Larry’s ear, who in turn gathered together Teresa, Sam, and Carolyn Rose. They whispered among themselves. The Hondurans who had brought the child waited. Rick stood at the entrance of the church building. Sam left the conference and walked towards him, ushering him inside by tugging on his arm. Sam closed the sanctuary door behind them. The group looked up at him. His face was clouded, as ominous as a brewing storm.

“This is an ugly one,” he said. “We have a decision to make.” Don came forward and joined Sam and Rick. “Apparently the baby fell out of a hammock and has seriously injured its neck and head. The baby may not live another day. She must be taken to a hospital if she is going to make it.” The younger girls started weeping and comforting each other. “But the nearest hospital is hours away. The clinic in La Esperanza isn’t equipped to do anything about this. That’s not all. Teresa also has told me that the ACC cannot authorize using their vans this way. She had to tell me this.”

“What do you mean they can’t authorize their vans?” demanded Deb from the corner of the room.

“Listen. This isn’t home. There’s a whole lot of problems that can happen. Unless,” Sam repeated, “unless we are willing to assume responsibility.”

“Of course,” cried Deb. Others voiced their agreement.

“Hold on here, folks,” Sam persisted. “This is Honduras, this is not Pennsylvania. There’s a chance the baby won’t live, in which case we end up saddling the family with a whole lot of medical expenses they cannot afford.”

“There’s also the chance the baby will live,” countered Deb, allowing her tears to flow unchecked.

Larry, accompanied by Carolyn Rose, pulled opened the door and stepped inside. They stood aside and listened.

There remained a question unasked and unanswered. Resigned to be the one to ask it, sensing Sam needed him to ask what nobody else wanted to ask, though still feeling like a heel, Rick felt he needed to ask the lousy question that had to be asked. “Larry, what’s the odds? How bad does Wendy think it is? I mean, if the child is likely to die . . .”

“It’s a fair question,” said Sam, supporting Rick

“It is not a fair question,” cried Deb. “It is nowhere near fair.”

“Fifty-fifty,” predicted Larry.

“Odds don’t matter,” protested Deb.

“Odds do matter,” Rick replied tersely. “There’s more to this than our emotions, our feelings, our sensibilities. This cannot be about us.”

“But it is a baby,” Jane said weakly, starting to choke up from her own emotions.

“Fifty-fifty, Larry? Can’t you narrow it down?” pressed Rick, contending against the rising mood of the group. “Can’t you be more medically precise?”

Don broke his silence and spoke up before Larry ventured a truer guess. “Hey, it’s a baby. They came to us. It has to have the chance. This child deserves a chance, Rick. You should know that. This is not a time for calculations or odds or worrying about money. My church will cover whatever happens.”

The others began to volunteer their own funds.

“I’m still not sure we have the right to interfere,” argued Rick uneasily.

“Okay then,” concluded Sam. “I’m sensing consensus. Well, almost. I’ll tell Teresa that this is our decision and we’re backing whatever happens. This is not ACC’s problem. This is us. This is in our hands. Understand this,” he emphasized, after surveying the room with steady eyes, “this now is our responsibility.”

Somebody sniffled. Jane pulled a blanket from her bed, folded it, and gave it to Larry. “Please, use this,” was all she said. Two of the teenage boys started wrestling, earning a frigid glower of reproof from Pastor Evelyn. Larry tugged at Sam’s elbow. “We’ve got to go now.”

Miguel hopped into the driver’s seat, turned over the engine, and began backing the van out from the corner of the church yard, driving over the trash heap. Carolyn Rose signaled for the aunt and one of the men who had come with her to climb inside. Wendy cradled the baby. Larry placed one hand against the small of her back, his other hand on her elbow, and he helped her step up into the van. He then jumped up next to her. Don rushed up with their knapsacks and tossed them to him. Carolyn Rose opened the door to the front passenger’s seat. Rick approached her and touched her on the arm. Not wanting anyone else to see him, he filled the door to the van with his body, discreetly pulled out his wallet, and pushed into her hands a stack of Lempiras along with US dollars. “Just in case,” he whispered in her ear. “Please keep this just between us. I’m guessing you’re going to need some extra cash.”

She stared at the pile of money in her hands. “You are an impossible man to predict,” she said with a tremor in her voice.

“Don’t try,” he said in reply, adding: “Do you want me to go with you?”

That offer made her feel even more nervous. Disquieted even. “No, Rick, that’s kind of you. You stay and help here.”

“You be very careful.”

As the van drove off into the darkness, the headlights disappearing around the turn of the dirt road, Rick and Sam stood side-by-side at the gate to the church yard. The mission group remained inside the church. Don and Evelyn were leading them in prayer and reading from the Psalms. The members of the baby’s family who were left behind drifted off over the hill and into the trees. Rejino and the villagers had disappeared also. A voiceless rage began to brew in Rick’s heart over a familiar contempt for God and bitter distaste for the world. “But it’s nighttime,” demanded Rick of Sam, expressing his rage through worry. “Between the roads and the gangs, you said it wasn’t safe.”

“They’ll be okay,” Sam assured him. “Miguel’s a good driver. Ex-military too. Besides, Rick, haven’t you noticed Miguel is packing?”

“Huh?”

They both listened as the whirr of the van’s engine faded and was swallowed up by the creaks and coos of nighttime. “Friend, that’s a .38 he’s been carrying in his belt since we arrived.” Sam sighed. “Too much poison ivy around here. I think it is time to weed.” Sam patted Rick on the shoulder. “Just in case you’re uncomfortable with the idea that everybody inside there views you now as some mean old son-of-a-bitch, you were right.”

“So was Don.”

“Crappy, ain’t it?”

Rick remembered a painting he once used for a class he taught on mythology. The kids seemed bored by the lesson but he enjoyed it. He couldn’t remember the painter’s name though. Somehow he stumbled across the painting. He also vaguely remembered how a modern English poet used it for a poem. Anyway, there was a ship under light sail entering an inlet. Other ships lay out in harbor, the sun shining bright. Nearest the viewer was a peasant ploughing his field, eyes on the furrow, following a plodding horse. A shepherd stood in the middle of his quiet flock. He was leaning on his staff, his eyes looking upward, perhaps toward the hills. In the bottom right of the painting a fisherman threw out his nets. All was quiet, non-plussed, placid, unremarkable, casual. Except for the two white legs flailing in the water between ship and shore. Legs flailing, yet ignored. The boy Icarus, his wax wings melted by the sun and by his own arrogance, had fallen from the sky to drown in the sea. Did anybody notice? Did anybody care? Did anybody hear the splash?

~~~

They returned an hour after supper the following day. “It was a nightmare,” were Wendy’s first words after exiting the van in front of Larry. “I’m going to bed.” Larry led her by her hand and they cuddled together on his sleeping bag.

Rick opened the van door for Carolyn Rose. As if she had been attending mass, a lace white scarf covered her head. It was tied under her chin. “Would you like some coffee?” he asked her. “Something to eat?”

“You still have some of that rum?”

“Half a bottle. I’ll steal it from Don.”

They sat on one of the benches that the teenagers had dragged on their second night at Las Mercedes farther away from the others, close to the corner of the barbed-wire fence that enclosed the church yard. They watched in silence as Kevin started a bonfire in the middle of the horseshoe of benches near the gate. Jimmy scampered about, tossing sticks into the flames. The group, drawn by some deep allure of primeval rapport, flowed out from the sanctuary and gathered around the fire. Rejino, accompanied by several of the men of the village, arrived and started strumming his guitar, singing soothingly, melodically. He serenaded them with a song he had written for them. Sam echoed the lyrics in English.

“I’m sorry,” Carolyn Rose apologized as she lifted the mug to her lips. “We didn’t bring much of your money back.”

“I’ll live. I’ve got plenty.”

“Oh, sometimes I can’t stand this country.” She scared him by nearly folding into him, but she caught herself, pulled back, and sat up straight. “The aunt had told us that the baby had fallen out of a hammock. The Doctor at the clinic confirmed what Wendy suspected from the very first. The little baby hadn’t fallen. No hammock. She had been shaken. Shaken baby syndrome. She was not the mother’s first one either. The police are investigating now. They detained the aunt, of course. Then they talked to us for hours, which is one of the reasons it took so long to get back here. If it weren’t for Miguel, we’d still be there. Dammit,” Carolyn Rose swore, yanking the scarf from her head. “I don’t even remember the baby’s name.”

“Another ribbon. That’s what Teresa explained to me today,” said Rick softly. “When there is a death in the family, they place a ribbon on the door. Black for an adult, white for a baby. ”

“Yes,” said Carolyn Rose, visualizing all the doors she’s seen these months. “A ritual among the Roman Catholics mostly.” She sniffled. “There are way too many ribbons in this country . . . We don’t realize it. We don’t get it. We’re the exception. It hurts to reflect on all this. This is how most of the world lives.” She took a long slow sip of her white rum and drained it, shivering from the aftertaste. “I feel so unclean,” she said. Tears welled in her reddened eyes and trickled down her flushed cheeks.

From Don’s borrowed bottle Rick poured another finger of rum into her mug. “I’m slowly beginning to understand. There’s enough blame to go around. It isn’t about feeling good, is it?” he confessed to her. Her lack of response persuaded him to stop talking. Together they listened to Rejino’s song until its last chord faded into silence. Her body relaxed as her shoulder drifted against his arm.

“Boy, did I misjudge you,” he finally said.

“I’m sorry, what did you say?”

“Time for an apology. I haven’t been at my best these last days. Yes, I did make fun of you. For that, I apologize. I made a lousy assumption. I thought you were a real ice-princess. Forgive me for being rude. I was so very wrong.”

“Not entirely,” she said, her voice trailing off, her palms wiping her eyes, cheeks, and chin. “Please, let’s not go there now.”

Don stepped outside the church building expecting to find his missing bottle of rum in the possession of one of the kids. But Deb looked guiltiest to him. He went up to her, peered down at her, sniffed her mug. “Sorry,” he apologized. “Alright, who’s the thief?” he growled.

Most ignored him. The Hondurans deferentially looked aside, uncertain who he was yelling at, apprehensive that they might have done something wrong. Deb twisted around and gestured her thumb toward Rick and Carolyn Rose. “Your friend Rick has it.” Deb swept her hair from her face. She whispered: “Who would have thought that those two would be getting chummy with each other? They’re sitting awfully close, don’t you think?” Deb daintily put her hand over her mouth, pretended to be scandalized, and mewed: “I didn’t realize marriage licenses were valid only inside the United States.”

“What?” said Don, baffled by her.

“Oh, forget it. Don’t mind me. I’m just being silly.”

More like a little bit jealous, supposed Don.

“Come on now, don’t look at me like that. Isn’t that part of the adventure down here, far from our real lives? Have passport, have fun. This passport entitles you to . . . well, at least nothing too serious. No real harm after such an ordeal. So absolutely terrible about the baby. No harm then, is there, in wanting a little comfort? So long as Tomás doesn’t mind. And so long as his wife is the understanding kind.”

A great sorrow weighed Don down, as if someone had draped a thick curtain across his shoulders. He was too weary for innuendo. Closing his eyes and rubbing his eyebrows with the heel of his palm, Don exhaled long and low. He sat down on the pew next to Deb. “He’s not married, Deb. At least not any longer.” Don lifted his arm around Deb’s shoulders. “I buried his wife over a year ago.”


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