It had been a long, hot day. The market had offered sounds and smells and tastes that were new to me, and I had paused more than once to take things in. The people I had met while bumming about with Julie had been friendly and tried to make me feel welcome with hand gestures and facial expressions since I couldn’t understand their other language.
Then we bumped home in a taxi. The driver had to take us nearly thirty miles before dropping us a couple of streets from the house. He charged us about nine pesos and shuddered off in a thick fog of exhaust thinking he’d ripped us off. Julie and I stood there a moment and shared a chuckle: Nine pesos for thirty miles. That’s, like, a dollar-ten.
The air was cool and heavy, and the streets were not very well lit. The streetlights were so far apart that the darkness settled thickly between them creating spot-lit vignettes of the city. We passed a group of musicians, (guitars and hand percussion) under one light getting warmed up for an all-night jam session. A young man and woman, oblivious of the other activities on the street but obviously not immune to the music, were enjoying each other under another light. The next several lights presented empty sets until we came near the streetlight nearest Julie’s parents’ house.
In that light stood a little girl about eight years old, tiny for her age. Her shoulders were shaking with sobs kept quiet by one delicate hand against her mouth. She was dressed in grubby shorts and a blue T-shirt, and her small-boned feet were bare on the pavement.
Julie crossed over to her and asked what was wrong in words that conveyed concern, but no meaning, to me. The girl told Julie that she had accidentally left the water running in the chicken house and she was waiting for her father to get home and beat her for it.
Julie tried to reassure her; she tried to make her believe everything would be fine. She bent down, and, not noticing the dirt, pulled the child to her and hugged her close as she patted the little back and smoothed the long, dark hair. Everyone concerned knew there was nothing any of us could do. The girl’s father would come home and beat her, (Didn’t he, always?), but at least – in that moment – a respite could be offered where a sanctuary could not.
So much has happened since that trip down into Vera Cruz; so many things have changed, but that little girl standing in her own pool of light still comes back – just as she was that night – to make me pause and think. I cannot forget the time I suddenly saw life through those eyes. A life not marked by happy birthdays and merry Christmases, but by tears and beatings in a long night shot with bright spots that show the best better and the worst just as it is. I remember. And I pause. For just a moment. Then I move on painfully grateful for each happy child-life I am so blessed to witness in my life.
Originally published in the Bay City Times in 2005, SPM