If it weren’t for the tattered cardboard and tarp shacks tucked into every rock crevice, vomiting whatever fermented garbage they could no longer contain, the Colombian mountainside would’ve been the most beautiful place I’d ever seen. It was surrounded on all sides with ridged peaks bathed in black shadow, and it looked like God Himself had poured a bucket of velvety green down over them, letting it pool at their base. But my attention was quickly diverted from this beauty as a barrage of people began running toward me with their mouths open and hands outstretched. Forgetting I was currently dressed like Bozo the Clown while firmly recalling scenes from Proof of Life and headlines proclaiming: “AMERICANS KIDNAPPED IN COLOMBIA!” I almost began running as well--only in the opposite direction.
But my flight or fight mentality soon just fled, for as the encroaching mass drew closer in one undulating, putrid wave I saw it was mainly composed of children and their non combative-looking parents. Thus, I stood my ground in my too big red rubber shoes and hoped I wouldn’t be trampled into a splat of oily paint and a polka-dotted onesie beneath them. Once they did arrive without stampeding me, I was shocked by what the parents were wearing and what the children were not. The adults must’ve sifted through mounds of refuse to seize one strip of material that sparkled or felt soft against their wind-chapped skin. They then stitched these pieces together without a pattern or a plan and what resulted was an eclectic mixture of rhinestone, lace, and fur that would’ve made even Porter Wagoner cringe.
The children, in comparison, were wearing next to nothing. Some of them did not have shoes on their feet or shirts on their backs. Their faces were striped with dirt and their hair straggled with knots. But the clarity of the children’s eyes shone even more due to this contrast of filth, like that patch of velvety green against the backdrop of the blackened mountains. The larger children held the smaller ones up to me like an offering. I smiled my banana-shaped smile and ran a finger over their dusty cheeks. Their reaching hands made me realize they desired to touch my cheeks as well. They patted my painted face (ahhing when the white wiped off on their fingers) and fluffed my yellow wig. A few of the more adventurous even tugged on the kinky tendrils, and the children gasped in unison when the wig came sliding off. They must’ve thought they’d scalped me.
Either to keep me from being further dissected or to monopolize on a bonding opportunity, Jeanene Thicke, the founder of Children’s Vision International Inc., came over with a bag of fun-sized Snickers and handed it to me. I started passing the bars out, and the children -- smelling and seeing the chocolate the others had received -- began clambering over one another like kenneled puppies after their food bowl had been filled. It was a heart-wrenching sight but I barely had time to register it, for I began to fear my initially exaggerated thought of being trampled into a splat was now not too far from reality.
Randy then came to my rescue by taking the bag from the tug-o-war of our hands and holding it against his chest until everyone quieted. Once they did, he motioned for the children to align themselves into rows. He then placed chocolate into every outstretched palm.
Watching the calm proceedings, I folded my arms in frustration. “It’s just ’cause you’re tall,” I said.
Randy smiled but tried to hide it. He passed out another piece. “Oh, yeah?”
“Well, I don’t think it’s because I’m tall. Jolina--” he said, looking at me from beneath his brows “--if you haven’t noticed, you’re dressed like a clow-n. They’re not supposed to be taking you seriously.”
I walked off -- my head held as high as possible while weighed down with that ridiculous, canary-yellow wig -- and went to help the Thickes and Petersheims distribute food and clothing. I was beyond relieved when we finished; for, ironically, I was looking forward to the enclosing walls of The Beulah House if it meant blocking out this sad, ravenous world hovering just above it. But Jeanene Thicke and her husband Richard had other plans. We were instructed to follow as they marched up the trail hemming the mountain edges. Pieces of rock and clods of dirt cascaded as we climbed. Darkness now had not just bathed but drenched the peaks and with it the temperature plummeted.
“Where they taking us?” I asked Joanne, Randy’s sister, over my shoulder. She shrugged. Finally, we arrived, but I couldn’t see our destination due to the caravan of hikers in front of me. Our group surged forward one step at a time, and with each my too big, red rubber shoes sawed into my skin. Randy, in front of me, turned around and said, “Jeanene just told Mom these are parents of some children in the orphanage.” I nodded -- for what else was there to say? -- and filtered into the tattered tent behind him.
Crouched in front of the fire a gaunt women sat, stirring coals in a circular motion as if it were a pot of soup. “Bienvenidos a nuestra casa,” she said. As covertly as I could, although it didn’t matter for there was barely enough firelight to see by, I looked around. I felt it shouldn’t be called a home at all, for in the States a dog would’ve had better accommodations. The floor was packed dirt; dented Coke cans and plastic Mountain Dew bottles were piled in the corners. Where did they get them, and how could they possibly afford to? I wondered. The tarp was held in place with two tree branches. Despite this, the wind whistled as it tore into every hole it found and cracked the tarp like a whip when there weren’t enough holes to alleviate the pressure. Everything smelled of mildew and the tang of sickness.
A man stepped from the shadows. He smiled, and I saw his teeth, what he had of them, were nothing but black pegs. Suddenly, the woman set her stick in the coals and stood, moving next to him. He placed an arm around her. Despite the lines etched into their faces, I saw how young they were--no older than 25. In the corner, near the cans, we heard the sound of mewing. I thought it was a kitten, but then the woman held up her hand in an apologizing gesture and moved two steps to the right corner. She picked up a bundle of blankets and held it tenderly against her chest. The mewing continued. It wasn’t a kitten but a child.
Jeanene walked over to the woman and pulled back the top blanket. She began to talk in low but rapid-fire Spanish. The woman started crying, and the man, who was the father of the child, stepped closer to her. Jeanene put her arm around the woman and stroked the thin black hair trailing down her back. A war seemed to be waging, and I didn’t even know where the battles lines were drawn. But, eventually, it seemed Jeanene was the victor, for the woman placed the child into her arms. “Usted todavia puede venir a verlo,” Jeanene said and kissed the woman’s wet cheek. The whole walk down the mountain and the whole ride back, the child mewed but did not cry. Jeanene, in the passenger side of the Blue Ox, held the bundled body closer to her heart and shed the tears the baby girl was unable to.
In the orphanage, the Petersheim girls and I filed into the Thicke’s two bedroom apartment above The Exodus House and watched as Jeanene laid the child on the kitchen table. The odor of wood smoke permeated the room as Jeanene peeled layer after layer of urine-soaked rags from her emaciated body. The baby’s diaper was a pile of rags looped between her legs and tied around her waist, but her bony bottom was not covered in sores like many of the babies who’d been taken off the mountain. Her parents had been trying. Her hair, never washed, stood in tiny jet spikes all over her head. Her eyes were nut-brown with long curving lashes that intermittingly brushed her hollow cheeks. As Jeanene turned her to unravel the swaddling, her head swiveled on the cord of her neck like it wasn’t part of her. This weakness was not the only sign of her malnutrition; for once she was completely undressed, we could clearly see the button-like protrusions of her ribs and spine. Jeanene bathed her in a tub of warm water, and still she did not cry but only whimpered weakly.
“This whole child’s life,” Jeanene said, “she’s only been given a bottle of sugar water because her mother’s so malnourished she cannot produce milk.” Jeanene paused and poured a handful of water over the baby’s forehead like a blessing. She looked up, and there was a glint of anger in her crystal blue eyes. “The same thing’s happened with her other children. They’re both here. Now she is, too.”
The orphanage’s doctor came in to examine the baby. Her name, Jeanene told him, was Deanna Marcella, and the parents had named her before she was taken off the mountain. The doctor assessed various measurements and calculated Deanna Marcella to be five months old and a weight of six pounds. After listening to her lungs and taking Deanna Marcella to his office for an X-ray, it was determined she suffered from Philomena and chronic malnutrition. “But everything considered,” the doctor said in accented English, “it’s a miracle she’s even alive.”