It was 8 a.m. and already the street was a live and moving canopy of color meandering so slowly down and back. It was constantly pushing, crawling and pausing as if each muscle drew in energy for the next movement. Yet there was no beginning and no end and though Ren was an active participant in the process, it was a force of it’s own making. Bumped and jostled by others constantly, he was still alone in this field of tightly packed, loosely connected people.
At 16 years old Ren already felt like an old man who had witnessed lifetimes in only a couple of years. Although he had only the clothes he wore and the food he could pirate, he worked long night shifts for a place to sleep and the hope to soon rejoin his mother. While the streets were lined with sellers of produce, fish and fruit; while everything was performed tediously by hand by hundreds of laborers; Ren divided the pittance he earned and the few dollars he begged between food for mama and paying for his education. Many of the children in this street were brought into the world in poverty and hunger, Ren was sold into it.
Like the tongue of a patient snake, while two elderly women bartered with a fruit vender, Ren thrust forth his hand, grabbed a papaya and withdrew stealthily back into the crowd. As his fingers peeled away at the fruit, his eyes watched everywhere for both saints and sinners who cared little for his plight. “Was there peace in life?” he wondered. He had long since given up on justice. The money for which he was sold was also his ransom. Ren found his way through the milling crowd to a fountain near the cathedral where he could sit in the dust to finish his dinner.
“How many nights have I slept on these steps” he thought while watching priests and nuns, pilgrims and poor, prayerful and preyed upon disappear into the cathedral only to reappear later unchanged. How many times had he been kicked and prodded by the same visitors to disappear? “Blessed are the poor ..” he recited quietly. He paused. His mind wandered off and came back. “For you are my rock O Lord” he prayed. He knew, better than any, that trusting in men was worse than a proud but brittle reed.
Ren rose and returned to the many-colored robe that sprawled between himself and his employer’s home. She owned many homes. In many names. In each house was one room with computers and cameras every eight feet apart so that Ren and his child co-workers could feed the shallow appetites of the world’s masses. In another there was dorm space for enough for ten boys to sleep in shifts with a toilet off to the corner. A third room had little more than running water and an electric hot plate for the boys to heat what food they found or the employer would provide. The last room was that of the employer or one of her siblings who assisted in managing the family business.
There was nothing in his step that permitted or even suggested a joyful reunion with fond friends. The trek was not long, but slow. The friends were close, but not so friendly. The work was humiliating and the boss a penny-pinching, uncaring woman of callous expectation and brutal physical demeanor. More frequently than not Ren was rewarded with physical punishment sometimes administered by the boss’s brothers. For poor job performance, Ren was made to be the housekeeper and his bed was placed beside the toilet. Even the boys were encouraged to abuse him. “Blessed are the meek …” he recited like a mantra.
As he walked towards home, Ren thought of Thomas. He smiled. A big, endearing, heart-rending smile. His school friends knew nothing of his life and home. Still they helped him, some even fed him and permitted him to sleep in their home. Deprived of facts, they received everything good that resides in the soul of a man. He talked momentarily aloud, as though Thomas was beside him listening. Many nights after sharing a meal, Ren and Thomas went off to bed laughing at the silliest of things. They chatted together or with classmates through a computer belonging to Thomas’ father until weariness or mama drove them to bed.
“Remember the day ..” he began. He stopped midway through his conversation and unknowingly permitted himself the luxury of tears. They were brief and secret. But they burned on his cheeks as they welled in his eyes. “Why did you leave me, Thomas? Why did you take him from me?” He continued walking. Red eyed. He raised his hands and rubbed his eyes, blinked several times and continued quietly. “I am with you always …” he said. And to himself, he continued secretly “A friend is a friend for life.”
It was now 10 a.m. and Ren was growing weary. In only eight hours he would have to go back online or spend the night cleaning house. He turned away from the crowds onto a side street leading out of town into the unpoliced hillside. “They shall rise up with wings like eagles ..” he thought as he followed the road up and up into the hills. The chatter grew more distant, the colors more singularly verdant. Homes were more sparse, many were merely well-constructed straw roofs. “How lucky I am! My mama sacrificed everything to keep me in a good home and close to my school” he thought as he approached a gathering of cement-walled homes.
Faces were growing more familiar and simultaneously more cold. Ren reflected on Thomas and a small smile attempted to emerge. Two boys, age 16 and 19, turned their heads away as they walked past. Ren knew the older boy to be the thief who searched the house daily for savings or valuable purchases any of the boys were hiding. He felt no embarrassment or dismissal since he had learned to feel nothing in the house. A stoic smile remained on his lips as his mind transported him to classrooms and classmates squeezed into his routine when the boss permitted.
Weary and bored after eight numbing hours of pretended affection and pleasure, satisfied by the only meal he would have today, Ren entered the house that served as his home and work. He acknowledged the three boys working and exchanged passing words reassuring one of them he would not oversleep. He passed on to the dorm room and unrolled the mat that served as his bed. It would not take long for sleep to carry him away. The two boys who worked his shift were already asleep. His eyes closed and his mind took one last journey. “Good night mama. I won’t stop till I have the ransom money and prison fees. I miss you and love you so much.” Gradually sleep overcame him. The accumulated stresses of his young life slowed and faded into dreams. Dreams into realities. Realities into hope. And again, there was peace.