I had just come back from an overseas teaching assignment and crashed on on a couch on the back porch of a good friend’s house for the summer. He had accumulated all my junk mail for the year, and within the box I found a magazine, Westview. Looked literary, had my name on it. Odd, I thought. I opened it up and there it was — my first published short story. The magazine paid in copies, as many did and still do, but I was over the moon. Wow, someone liked my stuff? The story is set in Mexico, thus, this week’s beer pairing for a story is a Mexican-style lager from Great Lakes Brewing.
“Thirst” follows a couple of siblings, orphans who occasionally wander out of the orphanage yard to explore the desert-like landscape in high-plains Mexico. Then one day they witness a violent act. They deal with it in their own ways, while the adults who sense something is wrong have completely different concerns about the them and don’t understand. The kids are certain they are going to have to take care of matters on their own.
Like all stories in this book, this is fiction. But I did visit the state of Chihuahua in Mexico on a couple volunteer trips over 25 years ago. We were guests of the community and learned about their successes with food, agriculture, and funeral co-ops, a community clinic, and an orphanage with more than 60 of the sweetest kids you’d ever find. Everyone had a story, from indigent parents who simply couldn’t take care of them to very tragic tales that shake you to your foundations.
We brought donations to them, learned how the facility operated, and played with the kids with some new (for them) toys. A seven-year-old girl latched on to me and showed me around, and we became buds for a couple days. I sneaked her a tube of hand cream for her terribly chapped hands and she hid it in the back of a drawer. She’d lean to the side and whisper behind her hand to me “La crema” and grin with her little secret. The day we left, she wrote our names in chalk on a big rusted water tank near the playground. The whole trip had been quite an education about community and poverty.
So the next year when I had the opportunity to go again, I did. A bigger trip, more participants, more supplies, and a return to the orphanage so the new travelers could learn about it. I found my little friend, but I don’t think she remembered me. Maybe the hand cream story helped to remind her. (Probably not.) But she stuck by me again, and as we sat on the floor listening to the director talk about the origins of some of the kids, she played next to me, while I half listened to the stories. A particularly gruesome one involved a young widow who was murdered by an abusive boyfriend who then raped her child. Her two other children came home to find the horrific aftermath. They had no family left; they ended up here.
As we sat there listening, my little friend played with a balloon someone had handed her. We bounced it back and forth between us. Until it popped. She erupted in a horrifying wail, tears streaming as she rolled up into a tense ball, red-faced and screaming. Staff quickly gathered her up and took her away to her room. I worried I had done something to trigger her breakdown, but it was the balloon, of course. Though it was not a household term then like it is now, I had basically witnessed a PTSD moment. She was the little girl in the story, a staff person explained.
That ended the visit, and we said our goodbyes, walked out into the night, and got on board the old school bus that had brought us there. I sat in the back and just sobbed in the dark on the ride back to town.
This short story is not her story at all, but I wanted to write something in which a girl nearly alone in the world finds her way forward.