BY MICHEL STONE
I won’t sugarcoat this and claim I didn’t judge the naked little boys’ mother, because at first she was nowhere to be seen. On my initial afternoon in their small town, I noticed them, unsupervised and playing among weeds beside their home, their only visible playthings a machete and a grubby lump of tattered fabric that may have once been a toy bunny. By playing, I mean this: the four-year-old whacked away at the magenta blossoms of a bougainvillea vine, scattering petals in the dirt, while his glassy-eyed, three-year-old brother sat limply in their open doorway, a stuffed animal’s remnants dangling from his filthy fist. How could anyone leave such young boys unsupervised for hours, especially with a sharp blade as a toy? I’d visited villages throughout Central America and Mexico, and I’d always felt a universal bond with the mothers I’d met, but empathy with this mother escaped me. The Honduran boys’ nakedness in and of itself in that balmy climate didn’t concern me, but it did contribute to the alarm bells in my head and heart that chimed a warning of neglect when all the other children I’d noticed in the neighborhood were clothed and tended. I’d heard that one of the few trades thriving in some areas of Honduras was that of the casket maker, and that many of the coffins being crafted in those workshops were small. I’d assumed the reason business was booming was gang violence, but perhaps a factor was child neglect.
I’d arrived in Honduras earlier that day with plans to conduct research for a writing project. I’d hoped to learn more about the effects of gangs that plague that country of eight million. A former student of mine, Max, had moved to Honduras a few years earlier to teach at the English-speaking school of an international mining company, and he would be my host. Max had fallen in love with a young Honduran woman named Siryi. They’d married, had a son, and continued to live and work in Honduras. Max invited me for a visit when he’d learned about my research. Upon my arrival, he explained that we’d be spending much of our time at Siryi’s mom’s house in the village of Aqua Azul, a thirty minute car ride from Max and Siryi’s home inside the razor-wire encircled compound of the mine, so I could get a feel for everyday Honduran village life. Siryi’s mom and the naked boys were neighbors, though Siryi’s family knew little about them. The boys’ family had moved into an abandoned shack up the hill just a few months earlier.
Siryi, like her three younger sisters, had been raised by a hard-working mother in a clean home with running water and electricity, surrounded by plenty of relatives. Within an hour of meeting Siryi and her family, I grasped through impassioned conversations their deep love and respect for Jesus, education, and family.
I’d arrived during exam week at the girls’ high school. The youngest sister kept a chart on the kitchen wall of topics she’d need to study, checking off each concept once she’d mastered it. The girls referenced Jesus so frequently that had they used any other, less-familiar name, I’d have sworn they were discussing a schoolmate or neighbor.
They told me of their smart, funny cousin Tito, who’d lived a few towns away, closer to the city. Tito had been approached by MS-13 gang members a year earlier, asking him to join them. He’d refused, but the next morning the gangsters met him outside his school, informing him they’d murder one of his family members if he didn’t commit to them. He joined their gang. Within months, he was killed by the rival gang Mara 18. Siryi’s mother refused to allow her daughters to attend the funeral for fear of drawing gang members’ attention.
From his post beside the straggly bougainvillea, the four-year-old must have spotted me downhill, chatting in his neighbors’ yard, and he crossed the dirt road that separated the two homes. I’m not sure how long he stood just beyond the barbed wire fence that rimmed the small, tidy plot, freshly planted with tender bean sprouts, in which I sat, but when I noticed him there, just a few meters away from me, he was sizing me up with a determined scowl. The fringes of his dark, curly hair had lightened to a straw-like brown and brought to my mind the sun-bleached look of children back home after a summer of playing in chlorinated pools and salty surf.
I suspected his highlights stemmed from neither sea salt not pool water, but rather from malnutrition. I’d read about a correlation between juvenile malnourishment and a decrease in scalp hair’s melanin content. I suspected, too, that his chubby little tummy didn’t indicate the carefree indulgences of a jolly childhood, though I longed to believe that were the case. In my heart I knew that his bulging abdomen signaled that he suffered from malnutrition and probably parasites. Eventually, I’d discover his name: Edgardo.
When I greeted the little boy in Spanish with a cheery hola! he picked up a rock, clearly intended for my head. Max scolded him, and the feral boy dropped the rock, grunting at me. I spoke to him again with my most enthusiastic hola! and he grunted more loudly, swatting the air between us to express his obvious distain and doubts. I’m sure I was a curiosity, at 5’9” with relatively pale skin and blonde hair. I looked markedly different than the folks to whom he was accustomed.
His obvious doubts about me didn’t unsettle me so much as did his hard edge. His callousness probably stemmed from a lack of human contact and love. Did anyone ever hug this child? The thoughts exacerbated my longing for my own three children, particularly my youngest, my only boy, who awaited my return home to South Carolina. He’d been particularly nervous about my trip to Honduras. I noted that even as the little Honduran boy stood straight, his right knee bent inward in an unnatural way, touching his left knee, even though his feet and hips were squared toward me. His right leg bones seemed misshapen, though he didn’t seem pained, and I wondered at his mother’s prenatal care. His malformed leg, like his hair color and his protruding belly, paired with the absence of any adult supervision, indicated to me an appalling home life.
When I changed my tactics and blew him a kiss, shouting “Un beso!” (Spanish for a kiss) he giggled, revealing a mouthful of rotten teeth. I blew him a second kiss, and his giggling melted into a beautiful, uncontrollable belly laugh. Rocking up to his tiptoes he blew me a kiss back, smooching his filthy little hand with a loud “Mwah!” before tossing it at me with gusto across the barbed wire. My kiss-blowing and his laughter were contagious, and for the next few minutes everything else in the world dissolved, leaving the two of us there on opposite sides of a rusted cable laughing and blowing smooches. We tossed air kisses and caught them and blew them back and laughed until tears streaked my face and his nose ran. He had me: I was smitten with my new little friend.
I’d read about the horrors of Central American gangs, but I was more intrigued with who the boys and girls were before they became gang members. So often we get a better understanding of an issue when we break it down into its composite parts. I’d zeroed in on one inquisitive face in one weedy patch in one small village, and I wondered about his past, his present, and his future.
Each day the child came to the fence and we’d blow kisses. He could obviously hear and make sounds, but when my hosts or I asked him his name he would only grin and make unintelligible squeals. I began slipping him bits of pineapple or small pieces of meat, whatever we were having for dinner. He’d shove some into his mouth then walk up the short hill to the tiny, cinder block home where his three-year-old brother, still naked and unsupervised, sat in the open doorway, holding his tattered, grimy bunny. He’d hand his brother a chunk of food then walk back down the hill to stare at me, blow kisses, and accept whatever morsel I offered him.
One afternoon I noticed a diminutive, weathered young woman carrying a baby girl up the hill from the heart of the village. My hosts indicated that she was the boys’ mother. My four-year-old friend saw her, too, and for the first time, motioned with a big looping wave of his dirty arm for me to follow him, to visit his house, his family. I asked my hosts if I could do so, if my approaching the child’s mother, just to say that I adored her beautiful children, would comply with Honduran etiquette. “Si, es okay,” my hostess said with a shrug.
I followed the boy to his home and introduced myself to his mother, who told me her name was Suyapa, as she slipped her younger, lethargic boy a solidly blackened banana she’d pulled from her dress pocket. Their house was a square, single-room shack, with one dingy mattress on the floor and no plumbing. Suyapa spoke no English but pointed at each of her three children, telling me their names: Edgardo, Wilmer, and Iveth. I told her that her children were beautiful, and she smiled and thanked me. I told her that I too had three children back in the United States and that I wrote books, stories. I felt arrogant, embarrassed somehow, admitting to her that I spent my days putting words on a page. I told her that I was glad to finally learn Edgardo’s name and that we blew kisses at the fence each day. She grinned at this, like only a mother who knew her boy well would do, as if to say via her smile, Oh, yes, my Edgardo is such an inquisitive little flirt! She asked how much longer I’d be in her country. Just one more full day, I said. She nodded, and the somber expression returned to her eyes. We parted ways, and I joined Max and Siryi at their car for our thirty-minute ride back to their home at the mine’s compound.
The following night, my last in Honduras, Max and Siryi prepared a deliciously seasoned carne asada to celebrate the end of our wonderful week together. When we arrived at Siryi’s mom’s house for our feast, our normally jovial hostess appeared troubled. She told us that Suyapa had come to her house late the previous evening, asking for me, “the woman from the United States.” She wanted to give Edgardo to me. She’d asked Siryi’s mother if I could gather the proper documents to take the child with me to the United States, to be my son.
I didn’t know what to say or how to react, but my gut wrenched when the sweet child arrived at the fence a few moments later, as expected, ready to conduct our evening ritual. My flight for Atlanta would depart the following morning from San Pedro Sula, dubbed the murder capital of the world with its high homicide rate due to gang violence. Taking Edgardo with me on that flight would have been impossible for a multitude of reasons.
Later that night, as I packed my bags, I collected my non-essentials into a separate sack. The next morning, I asked Max to stop by Suyapa’s house on our way to the airport.
When we arrived at Suyapa’s, my hosts waited in the car as I walked up the hill to deliver my meager offerings. Suyapa was not there but her husband was, for the first time since I’d been in Aqua Azul. I introduced myself, told him I had a gift bag for Suyapa, and he accepted it. Suddenly I wondered if she or her children would ever see the granola bars, T-shirts, toiletries, pens, writing paper, and money in that bag, but then, as I turned to go, I saw her coming up the hill, little Iveth on her hip.
We met on the rocky path between her home and the car ready to take me to San Pedro Sula. “I left you a few gifts,” I said. “With your husband.”
She nodded, smiled weakly, and thanked me, and I embraced her, profoundly moved in the knowledge that she loved her child so much she was willing to give him to me, to entrust him to me to raise him in her stead. I dug my nails into my palms, forcing myself to feel that pain instead of the cold grief mounting in my chest. Max and Siryi waited at the car. We waved goodbye to Siryi’s mother and her sisters. I looked up the hill. Suyapa leaned in the doorway of her shack, watching us. Edgardo stood in the road between us, watching, wondering, wearing a T-shirt and plastic flip-flops. It was the only time I’d ever seen him clothed. Traveling clothes, I thought, as his image blurred behind my tears.
That experience haunts me, and I keep a photo of Edgardo on my writing desk. I’d gone to Honduras to find out about the gangs, specifically the backstory of gang members, not just the factual data I can read in my local paper, which somehow now feels so distant and in ways sanitized. I wanted the human story. I wanted to know who the gang members were prior to becoming gang members and how their involvement impacts family dynamics, their relationships with their mothers. I wanted to hear from Honduran mothers and fathers their thoughts on the gangs. I learned that comprehending those dynamics through my lens is nearly impossible from my comfortable writing desk, and that witnessing families in their village, up close, changes everything for me. I needed to know more about Edgardo’s family.
When I got home, I emailed Siryi, asking if she’d be willing to interview Suyapa for me, for research, and in return, if Suyapa was interested, I’d pay Siryi and Suyapa for their services. The women agreed. In my initial interview with Suyapa via Siryi, this is what I learned: Suyapa has eight children, not just three. The older five have gone to live with relatives who can afford to feed them. Where is Suyapa when she is not at home all day? She spends her days walking about her village with little Iveth on her hip, hand-washing other villagers’ laundry for 15 Lempiras or sixty (U.S.) cents per dozen items. This money is her family’s sole income because her husband has no employment. What are her biggest fears? She worries about her economic situation and the end of the world. She gets sad when she and her husband argue. When her children get sick, she can`t afford to take them to a hospital. She said that Wilmer and Iveth are currently sick and have been coughing for two months now. When she can, she buys medicine at the small grocery store, but otherwise she relies on herbal medicine she makes. I asked if she believes in God. She said she believes that God is almighty and lives within the hearts of each member of her family and will for eternity. What makes her happiest? To have friends she can count on and to be at peace with the people in her life. She said her husband had to quit school after third grade to work.
Soon after I returned home, I learned from Max that the body of a murdered teen girl, a victim of gang violence, had been found not far from the mine. The gang infestation of the big cities had begun to bleed into rural areas. I wondered about little Edgardo and his future. I knew Suyapa loved him with a love so fierce she was willing never to see him again if it would guarantee he could survive and thrive and be loved. I suspected, too, that she knew about the casket maker’s booming trade in small coffins and the gangs that preyed on her country’s poorest youth.
I considered a child growing up with a machete as his constant companion and the various ways he would learn to make that tool work for him, especially in a beautifully lush but often violent Third World country. Perhaps one day his skillful brandishing of the machete would wield employment and sustenance. Conceivably, his mastery would command respect and give him strength. And maybe it would even illicit fear. I contemplated his malformed leg and wondered, admittedly perversely, if one day he’d answer to a gang nickname derived from his withered limb or his proficiency with a machete.
I couldn’t have brought Edgardo on my flight that Saturday morning, but what if I were in a car, or on foot, or hopping trains to get home? What if my getting Edgardo to the U.S. didn’t involve boarding passes, passports, or legal documentation but instead occurred via coyotes, human smugglers for pay? What if I could have assured his mother that he wouldn’t be conscripted into a gang? That he wouldn’t die of disease or starvation that is preventable elsewhere? Because to her, those were very real possibilities. Would you judge Suyapa for giving her son to me? Do you judge me for not taking him? She offered, and I declined. I think about him every day. What would you have done?
Michel Stone is a writer, speaker, educator, and community volunteer. In 2018 she was awarded the Patricia Winn Award for Southern Literature. Her critically acclaimed novels, Border Child (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2017) and The Iguana Tree (Hub City Press, 2012), have been compared to the novels of John Steinbeck, and both books have been optioned for film. Border Child has been favorably reviewed by The New Yorker, The San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Journal of Books, and Kirkus (starred review), among many others. It was the lead title on BBC.com’s list of 10 Recommended Books published in April 2017. The paperback edition of Border Child was published on August 7, 2018.
Stone has published numerous stories and essays, and she is a 2011 recipient of the South Carolina Fiction Award. She is a graduate of Clemson University with a master’s degree from Converse College, and she is an alumna of the Sewanee Writers Conference.