Compassion International, Peru 2012

Esperanza

She is wiping her brow, and her expression tells me our arrival is a surprise.

The door is wide open and she is welcoming us in, but her other arm motions to the ground, points to the pile of trash, and ends up on the unmade bed on the far side of the room.

I know what she is saying. I’ve done it many, many times myself.

Come in, please…come in.

I wish I could have made it more beautiful for you.

I begin to shake my head before the translator gets a word out, and as he confirms my suspicions I smile and nod at her, assure her that her home is beautiful and we are grateful to be in it.

She wipes her hands on her shirt, explaining that she was just about to leave for the market. I wonder if they forgot to tell her we were coming, or maybe, like me, she’s just lost track of time.

In any case, it doesn’t look messy to me. It’s dotted with stray posters advertising popsicles and bargain prices. Most of them are in English, and she explains that she doesn’t know the words but she wanted to have color on the walls.

She strikes a match and lights a stick of incense, and immediately the room fills with a musty, perfumed scent. She waves her hands, willing it closer to us as a smile finally drifts across her face.

Her son Anibal is 12, and he has the kind of grin that will no doubt make girls weak in the knees one day. I can tell he has a little mischief in him, which I love. He is undeniably charming, gentle in his mannerisms, and shy enough to make you work for sustained eye contact. In other words: a challenge I accept.

His mother begins talking about his animals, and I decide I won’t make the same mistake I did yesterday, when I urged my girls to look at the precious guinea pigs caged in the backyard, only to then have to explain that they aren’t so much “pets” as they are “ the main course.”

I ask him about the animals and he explains that he has a quail, a dog, and a duck. His mother, now straightening the bedsheets, tells us that he made her promise that she wouldn’t kill the duck. She shakes her head as if to say “how ridiculous,” but the corners of her mouth tell me she loves his antics. Little did she know at the time that this was a pretty resilient duck, and is now four years old and fit as a fiddle.

As we leave the house to see the backyard area, I catch a glimpse of the duck running and Anibal smiles at my surprise. He points to a small cage housing the quail, and as I get closer he lifts the fabric higher up so I can see in.

“What’s it’s name?” I ask the translator.

He asks Anibal and then tells me that it doesn’t have a name.

I tip my head like I’m giving an exaggerated lecture and tell him that any animal he takes care of should have a proper name. His dimples crease in agreement. We smile at each other for long enough for me to see a glimpse of what he might be, and I fight tears because it’s not a photograph anymore.

 ***

She pushes the window open, and then the door.

She’s still apologizing with her body language, no matter how many times we reassure her. She tells us about her other son, a younger boy, who is also in the Compassion program. He receives special services for what they believe to be severe learning delays, and she tells us she doesn’t know how she would do it without Compassion.

One of the other team members begins to ask about the boy’s sponsors: Where are they from? Do they write? What are their names? Does he save the letters?

She motions to the bunk bed where the three of them sleep. I don’t know how long it has been since their father was there, but years at least. She walks quickly, tapping Anibal on the back and urging him in the direction of the bed.

There are moments where you watch with your eyes and know that later, in the quiet, you will hear with your heart.

Her fingers move swiftly, raise the top mattress, and reach deep underneath. Clenched in her hands come letters, one on top of another, and she smoothes the pile and hands it to her son.

Her words run together and I wait for the translation. There are cabinets in the room, a tiny desk with drawers, a bookshelf…but the letters were here. Why? I wonder.

He tells us what she is saying and I feel my stomach lurch.

“She is saying that their house was robbed awhile ago. The men came and took their precious things, and many of Anibal’s Compassion letters were taken. So now, they keep them hidden here, where they won’t be found.”

I watch as he spreads them out on the bed, tracing the pages and telling us that he used to have a photo album of his sponsor family but it was taken.

I immediately remember the many faces we met working at the Compassion offices yesterday, men and women bright with life and joy. Eight of them, from one small office, had been sponsored children themselves once, and now work there because they want to see other people’s lives transformed the way theirs have been.

And these letters, pen on paper, every curve and dot…they tell a story of hope that Anibal needs to hear.

When the sun falls down and the house grows dark, his head rests on the prayers and promises of a man he will likely never meet.

His mother tells us he wants to be a chef one day.

Then she giggles and shakes her finger at him playfully. The translator explains that she is telling him he needs to cut onions even though they make him cry. He shakes his head, smile wide, and looks away in mock embarrassment, hands still fumbling with his letters.

 ***

The quail has no idea we are discussing his potentially nameless fate, but he stares curiously through the cage bars, twitching his head from side to side.

“Well, I just think he should have one.” I tease.

Anibal smiles in return, eyes lifted from the floor for an instant, and says a few more words.

The translator laughs and tells me that Anibal wants me to name the bird, and he will call it by that name forever.

Hmmm…” I say, finger exaggerating a tapping motion on my chin while my eyes squint with possibility.

“What about Esperanza?” I ask. “Doesn’t that mean hope?”

They chat for a moment and more laughter comes.

“He says that you just tried to give his boy bird a girl’s name.”

Now we’re all laughing.

I hear a rustling noise behind me and turn to see the death-defying duck, poking it’s way across the dirt.

“Ah! Your duck!” I walk closer to it, turning to the translator. “Would you mind asking him to tell me more about the duck? Like, why he wanted it? I want to know the story.”

As he answers, I pick up four or five words that bring me back to ninth grade Spanish, but not nearly enough to piece it together.

“He tells me that one day he was walking and the duck just followed him. Whichever way he turned, the duck turned too. He wanted to keep it because it seemed to want to be with him.” the translator explains.

“And so he kept it.” I look at Anibal while my thoughts chase a story.

For four years he has fed, cared for, and loved an animal that made him feel like he was worth following.

Ink on paper, photos of faraway dreams, hiding under torn sheets and the reality of his life.

They tell him the same.

He trusts me more now, and gestures toward the duck, who clearly does not share his affection for me.

“He is saying that this one is a girl, and he would like to use the name you chose.” The translator’s eyes are dancing as he speaks, and the story pens itself before I answer.

I see a tall chef’s hat, perched on his head while his hands chop and tears pool in his eyes. He remembers his life, years ago, when he didn’t dare cut onions, and now he welcomes the sting because it reminds him he has a gift. Maybe he has children of his own, and a wife who opens the windows, smoothes the bedcovers and loves him enough to follow him whichever way he turns.

It comes to me in a flash, in a moment, in a prayer. I can taste his dreams, breathe them in as deep as incense. He may not see it yet, but God willing, one day he will.

“Well, then…” I whisper, more to myself than anyone in particular. Holy ground has a way of hushing us, doesn’t it?

I touch his shoulder, study his face, and thank the God who let me name her today.

“Esperanza it is.”

 

“You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts…” {2 Corinthians 3:3}

 

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