“On Wings and a Prayer” (2005)
By Jim DeBrosse
CHANI PULLED ON THE COW’S tether, but the giant beast just shook her horned head and flipped her tail.
“Come, you stupid cow. Come! Aren’t you hungry?”
Chani yanked with all his 8-year-old might and, when he did, his bare feet slipped on the dewy grass. He fell on his rump in a soft warm pile he now blamed the cow for having left there on purpose.
“You diablo!” he shouted.
The cow was nothing like the cows in his mountain village of Las Falis. There the cows were gentle and mindful and could be led easily to pasture. But this Brahma cow, this humped-back devil!
Just then Fito came into the corral, laughing.
“Hey, who said you could lie down on the job?”
“Ha, ha. Very funny.”
Chani got to his feet and felt his moist backside. Ugh. And Alba had just washed his trousers!
“You go to the river and clean up. I’ll tend to her,” Fito said. “Maria has breakfast waiting.”
Chani was too proud to say thank you, especially since Fito was only a year older than he was. But Fito was much wiser in the ways of the flatlands, where people had books and lanterns without fire and something called electricity, which ran through wires and into objects and gave them life.
The machine that made the electricity sometimes coughed and choked, and when it died, so did the electricity and all the things that glowed and hummed and whirred at the clinic. Chani would have so much to tell his little sisters and his mother when he returned to Las Falis. But when, when would that be?
His mother had said she would come back for him, and now it was just two days until Christmas and he wouldn’t be there to share the Tres Leche cake his mother would make for them.
He refused to cry as he walked across the pasture to the river. His father would never have cried, and now that he was the Man of the Casa, he mustn’t cry, either.
He looked at his right foot as he walked, something he often did since the bandages had been removed. It was God’s miracle, Alba had told him, that he still had his foot.
BETWEEN HIS BIG TOE AND THE next, the long pink scar was still there, where his machete had come down and nearly split his foot in two. He had been cutting down corn in his mother’s field when his littlest sister, Areina, had snuck up behind him and scared him like a ghost. She cried and cried when she saw what he had done, but he told her it wasn’t her fault and to go get their mother.
He fought the pain to stay awake and, when his mother arrived, she tore the hem from her best cotton dress and knelt down and wound the cotton around his foot, tighter and tighter until the bleeding stopped. And then he fell into a deep, deep sleep.
When he woke on his hay mattress, his head and tongue were on fire and he could not feel his foot, only a dull throbbing there like something dead and not his own. His foot was green with the sickness that steals limbs.
His mother argued with Don Miguel, the village leader, who wanted to cut off his foot but his mother said no, no, no. She made a girdle out of bean sacks and tied it so that he could climb onto her back and stay there without falling.
And then she walked, hunched over like a beast, carrying him on her back. For three days his mother had carried him, first through the narrow mountain pass where the poisonous snakes hid in the cracks between the rocks, the little black-and-green “Two Steps” vipers that had killed his father when Chani was 5.
Then down into the valley, through the steaming heat of jungles and across many rivers and creeks. He remembered little of it, only the earthy smell of his mother’s sweat and, at night, a campfire that carved out the darkness where they slept like a cave.
He was asleep, he was told later, the day he arrived at the clinic in El Castillo, where Alba cleaned and stitched his wound. And it was only after many days of sticking the long needle with the medicine into his arm that he came to one day and found himself in a bed with no hay and white sheets and his feet wrapped in so many bandages it looked like a giant white beehive.
Alba’s eyes were wide with wonder when he at last woke.
“You, my child, are a miracle of God.” And she had kissed him softly on the forehead.
THEY SAT DOWN TO BREAKFAST — Alba, big and warm with soft brown eyes; her husband, Arnulfo, thin and quiet yet quick with a smile; Fito, and Chani, the smallest of them all. Maria, the cooking lady, as round as she was tall, brought a big bowl of steaming beans and rice and set it in the middle of the table. There, too, was something Chani had never eaten at home — a bowl of scrambled eggs, yellow and fluffy and so buttery they melted in your mouth.
They took each others’ hands and Alba said, “Who would like to say our morning prayer?”
Fito wagged his hand impatiently, then bowed his head. “Dear God, thank you for our food and our cows and chickens, and for bringing us the baby Jesus on Christmas Day.”
Alba nodded in approval and glanced at Chani. “Do you have something you want to pray for, Chani?”
Chani closed his eyes so that he couldn’t see anything but his mother’s gentle face and said, “God, bless my mother and my sisters and keep them safe.”
Arnulfo squeezed his hand and smiled.
“She will come,” Arnulfo told him. “She has the two girls to care for and the farm. It is a long journey.”
“I know,” Chani said. “She will come.”
“I have something special to pray for today,” Alba announced, and closed her eyes, too. “Dearest Lord, let there be good weather for the Americanos, so that they travel here safely tomorrow. And, please,” she added, “keep our generator running until they arrive. In the name of Jesus.”
Fito could hardly contain himself until after they had said, “Amen.”
“The Americanos are coming?” he fairly shouted.
Alba nodded and smiled.
Fito turned to Chani. “The Americanos are coming for Christmas!”
Chani shrugged. “What are Americanos?”
The others at the table couldn’t help themselves and began to laugh.
“They are missionaries,” Alba said. “They come from a city far in the North called Day-tone. They bring food and medicine for our clinic here, so that we can help little boys like you get better.”
“And,” Fito said, “they bring toys, like the marbles I have — the ones with the cat’s eyes.”
“They gave you those?”
Fito nodded. “And best of all, the Americanos come in an airplane. Right out of the sky.”
Chani’s eyes widened. “They fall from the sky?”
There was more laughter at the table, only this time Chani was hurt. There was so much he didn’t know about life in El Catillo.
“We are sorry if we laugh, Chani,” Alba said. “We forget how it is in the mountain country. No, the Americanos come to us in an airplane — a flying machine. The very first ones were made in Day-tone.”
“A machine that flies?”
“Yes,” Fito said. “With big silver wings, like a giant bird, and a propeller that spins so fast you cannot see it.”
Chani shook his head. He couldn’t imagine such a thing.
“You’ll see for yourself,” Alba said, and then added softly, “if the rains don’t come….”
BUT THE RAINS DID COME, IN sheets that night, drumming on the tin roof of the clinic as Chani lay awake in his bed. He wanted to see this airplane, but he wanted to see his mother even more. And if she came for him on Christmas, how could she make it through the jungles in this rain? He prayed and prayed until, at last, he fell to sleep.
In the morning, the rain was still there — a hissing in the ears that would not go away.
Alba already was in her clinic in the basement, where she tended to the many villagers who came there for help, even in the heavy rains. They were old people, many crippled or blind, and mothers with small children, their bellies huge with worms. Sometimes a field worker would come with a bad machete cut, and Alba would stitch him up with her big, careful hands.
Alba gave everyone who came to the clinic bottles of the yellow pills and told them as they left, “Be sure to boil the water.”
Chani and Fito were kept busy in the living quarters upstairs, sweeping and cleaning in case the Americanos came. But how? Not even the eagles of his mountain village could fly in such a downpour.
When they had finished their chores, Fito brought out his bag of marbles and they went out to the long covered porch and played a game there.
Chani felt shame that he envied Fito’s marbles. No one had ever given him such a thing. His mother made him trousers for Christmas, and she gave his two sisters little dolls made of corn husks and colored kernels. And last Christmas, she had given him his father’s machete and told him he was now the Man of the Casa and must look out for them all. But he had never been given such a thing as marbles — round and perfect in their shininess and not good for anything except to play.
Later that afternoon, Alba had them take the cows to pasture, their warm flanks wet and steaming. The rain had softened to a steady drizzle.
Chani looked out across the fields and often thought about what direction his mother might come from. From the woods over there to the west? Or would she cross the river on the south?
He stared into the distance of mist and rain and tried hard to imagine her appearing there from nowhere, as though the fierceness of his love could transport her.
“Look!” Fito shouted, so loudly Chani thought his mother must be coming.
“There!” he pointed.
It was a brilliant rainbow to the east, a giant half circle of glowing colors stretching across the sky from field to field.
“It’s a sign,” Fito said. “The Americanos will come today.”
He pointed now to the west. “Look, the sun.”
But it was only a pale gray wafer showing through the clouds.
Fito ran back to the clinic, to tell Alba the good news.
Chani stayed in the field and took one last look all around. The woods and the river were mute and empty.
BY DINNER TIME, THE RAIN had stopped but the clouds had not lifted. The sky in the west was tinted with gold among the grays as the sun began its slow descent. And still the Americanos had not come.
Fito looked forlorn all through dinner. Alba, Arnulfo and Maria were silent as they ate.
Finally, Alba spoke up softly, “They will come tomorrow, or the next day, or the next. They know we are in need of many things.”
“But tomorrow is Christmas,” Fito said.
“Yes, I know,” Alba said. “They will not forget us.”
After dinner, Fito helped with cleaning up and Chani was asked to bring the cows back to the corral for the night. Chani hoped the big Brahma would do as she was told.
He brought back the four other cows first and left the Brahma for last. She stood in the middle of the field, munching contentedly on what was left of the winter grass. Chani hooked the rope to the animal’s harness and, careful of its long horns, raised the beast’s head to talk to her.
“I know you are still hungry, but you must come now or Alba will be angry with me.”
The cow only stared blankly with her huge brown eyes, then lowered her head and returned to grazing. Chani stepped ahead and tugged on the rope.
The cow might as well have been a boulder.
“OK, then I will do as Fito does.”
He slapped the cow hard on the rump, but she only tossed her head and lowed a little.
He slapped again, and again and again, until it seemed he heard a buzzing in his ears.
No, the buzzing was coming from above, from the clouds, he thought.
He looked into the sky. The clouds were parting here and there, with dark blue patches in between. Soon, he knew, there would be stars twinkling there. The buzzing sound was gone.
He yanked again on the cow’s tether and, amazingly, she took a step or two. He yanked harder, this time getting three steps.
The buzzing sound returned then, louder and louder, until Chani saw Fito and Arnulfo come running from the house, shouting at him and pointing.
Chani turned just in time to see the giant silver bird fall through the clouds.
“Run!” Fito shouted.
The plane bounced onto the ground, it wings tilting one way, then the other, rushing now straight toward Chani and the cow, its buzzing like a thousand angry hornets.
“Watch out!” Fito shouted.
The plane was so close now Chani heard the buzzing inside his head. Chani smacked the cow on the rump with all this might and it began to run for the corral. So did Chani. He felt the hot rush of wind on his back as the silver bird passed behind him.
The plane sputtered and choked, and finally came to a stop not far from the clinic entrance. It was bigger and shinier than anything Chani had ever seen.
Fito couldn’t stop shouting. “The Americanos are here! The Americanos are here!”
ALBA HAD ARNULFO SLAUGHTER one of the chickens, and the cooking lady prepared a special meal for their guests with yellow rice and tortilla cakes and fresh salsa with corn and lime. The two Americanos — one who was very tall named Wesley and a smaller one, David, with twinkling eyes that seemed always to be laughing — ate their food heartily. They said, “Gracias, gracias,” again and again.
Chani watched from where he was sitting on the floor as Alba leaned close to David and whispered something in his ear. The man looked at Chani for a moment, his eyes no longer laughing, and when Alba had finished, David nodded and smiled.
Later, while Fito and Chani played marbles again on the porch, Alba and David came to him. David got down on his blue-jeaned knee and said to Chani, “May I look at your foot?”
Chani put out his leg. David carefully lifted his injured foot in his hands, which were rough but warm, and looked at the scar. Then he looked at Chani and said, “You are a brave young man.”
Chani smiled, but he knew it wasn’t true. If he were truly brave, he would wander off into the jungle and try to find his village. He would walk for three days the way his mother had.
That night, Chani could hear the laughter of Alba and the Americanos as he lay in his bed, and he missed the soft laughter of his mother and sisters all the more. Tonight, he thought, is when his mother would make the Tres Leche, the special sweet cake of three milks she made always for Christmas. He buried his face in his pillow so Fito would not hear him cry.
ON CHRISTMAS MORNING, THE rain had stopped and the sun was shining so brightly it hurt Chani’s eyes.
They all ate breakfast, this time with salsa for the buttery eggs, and then everyone helped to bring the things from the belly of the plane — giant bags of beans and rice too heavy for Chani and Fito to carry, and smaller boxes of medicine and bandages that he and Fito were proud to bring to Alba, who stacked them carefully in the little room that she called her pharmacia.
Then everyone cheered when Wesley and David brought out the biggest present of them all — a wooden box with one of the machines inside for making the electricity.
Alba cried as the two Americanos carried it into the clinic, and then she hugged each of them, still crying.
The one called David went out to the plane again and came back with a burlap bag and a strange red hat on his head, like a cone, with a white ball at the tip. He shouted, “Ho, ho, ho! Feliz Navidad!”
David pulled out boxes from the bag wrapped in bright, shiny colors and gave one each to Alba, Arnulfo, Fito and Maria. But his bag was empty when he came to Chani.
Chani bit his lip. He would not cry.
David bent over and smiled at Chani and said, “I have a special present for you, young man. Come.”
He led Chani by the hand to the silver bird where Wesley was sitting inside, the door open. David lifted him up into the lap of the big man, who held him there in his arms.
Then Alba came over and reached up and gave Chani a big hug and kissed both his cheeks.
“You are God’s little miracle,” she said. “Don’t you ever forget that.”
Fito came, too, and handed Chani his small leather pouch — the one he kept his marbles in.
“No,” Chani said. “Those are yours.”
“No, they are yours now. A Christmas present, just like the Americanos give.”
Chani held the heavy pouch in his hand and smiled. “Muchas gracias.”
David gathered up the others and pulled them back from the plane.
“Wesley has a present for you, too,” David said. “He’s giving you a ride in his plane.”
Chani’s mouth fell open.
“In this big silver bird?”
“Si, little man.”
Wesley waved to everyone, then closed the door and lifted Chani into the other seat. He pulled the straps around him and made them tight. He started the machine on the silver bird, and it roared like thunder, and the propeller in the front went faster and faster until, as Fito had said, it disappeared.
Chani’s heart fluttered like wings in his chest as they lurched forward. The silver bird began to bounce over the pasture, faster and faster, chattering and impatient to get off the ground. They were hurtling straight toward the woods.
“Watch out!” Chani cried.
But Wesley only smiled and pulled back on the wheel in his hands and, suddenly, Chani was thrown back into his chair and he was staring straight up into the bright blue of the sky. More sky than he had ever seen in his life.
This must be the way to heaven, he thought, as they soared higher and higher toward the sun.
Wesley turned to Chani and smiled and said, “Las Falis, here we come!”
The United Christian Center of Dayton helps maintain a clinic in the Honduran village of El Castillo. Donations may be made to the International Ministers Forum, PO Box 1717, Dayton, OH 45401. For more information about the church and its mission, call 228-1717.
Copyright, 2005, Cox Ohio Publishing. All rights reserved.