By: José Castaeda
José Castaeda, a native Colombian who practices law in upstate New York, has waited to tell this story for many years. Due to length, it will appear in three parts. Set in Medelln, it tells about the profound consequences chance meetings may have. Contact Jos at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Splendors of Medelln As I opened my window for a whiff of morning air, the sounds of the city waking up flooded my room. The church bells, the whirs of early traffic, and what I had missed the most, the relentless crowing of the roosters. It was dark, I couldn't see them, but I leaned out the window and trained my ears at the source of the excitement. I first distinguished a twitter and a hoot, then the heavy thump of wings. The deep chants of senior roosters rapidly followed, but they soon were overtaken by younger clucks of lesser status. A string of loud calls crisscrossed one another, some arriving in full strength, others as faint chirrs after traveling long distances. In the midst of the commotion, a clearthroat, baritone rooster tried to flaunt his prowess at the coop, but his chant was drowned out by the deafening replies of his neighbors. An impressive pandemonium quickly ensued, until all the calls from all the roosters floated freely in my ears in nostalgic serenade.
This was Medelln, Colombia's celebrated City of Eternal Spring. At that hour the horizon was no more than a pink rod floating on darkness, and the city a dormant mass of shadows. I distinguished a few people scurrying past the hotel doors five floors below. I had to join them soon if I wanted a good viewing spot for the parade. But it wasn't easy for me to move quickly at that hour. Not after a long flight from New York the day before, and a cheerful celebration of my first night in Colombia in several years. Still, the thought of what the day would bring conquered my lethargy. I donned some loose clothes and running shoes, threw a few water bottles in my knapsack, and off I went the shortest way I knew downtown.
I was not even a full block from my hotel when I saw a group of people sleeping on the sidewalk, their bodies shielded from the night cold by a heap of tattered blankets and old sweaters. From the exposed wrist of a young child hung a loose string that collared the neck of a fast-chewing mountain rabbit still in its fluffy baby coat. Standing next to them was a young woman with a boy of about 12. His heavy eyes confirmed hed been pulled from deep sleep. The two of them were tending to a decrepit wooden crate that held a stack of paper cups, a bag full of wet oranges, and a dull plastic squeezer.
Orange juice? the woman asked. One cup, I said, stopping short. She split several oranges with a knife, pressed them hard against the juicer, and collected the liquid that spurted through her fingers into an empty paper cup. Is that your family? I asked. Yes. We lost our farm and all we had. We come from the north coast. She looked into the darkness for a moment. They came shooting from the far side of our farm and we just had time to run away. My boy wouldn't leave without his baby rabbit, so we had to bring him too.
The juice had the bitter tang of unripe fruit, but I wasn't about to complain. In my own childhood in Colombia, I plucked mangos and guavas from their trees before they had matured to full sweetness. A gift from nature was still a gift, I learned early, even if not yet fully ripe. I placed the empty cup over the crate while I pondered my duty to help this homeless family. A large tip? A gift for clothes and blankets? The first wouldn't do justice, I concluded, no matter how incongruous with the pittance she charged for the juice. The latter wouldn't solve their problem at its root. I paid her with loose change, wished them luck and walked away.
With the sun now falling on the city, I picked a perfect spot alongside La Playa Avenue. Next to me, scores of youngsters, couples, entire families, began to stake a claim on patches of sidewalk that they prepared to defend like their own property. Soon the whole length of the avenue was packed, and the air thickened with the sounds of joyful crowds. Between the chanting and the clapping, and the laughter and the jostling, I craned my neck for signs of the parade.
Suddenly, a giant flock of screeching green-andyellow parakeets filled the sky, and the people around me rushed for cover as if a heavy downpour had broken loose. They shadowed the sun like leaves in a wind storm, making sharp, synchronized turns, plunging, diving, whirling, leaving behind a trail of floating feathers. They continued to swoop and pivot in mid-air until they settled on a giant mango tree. Once there, they added their loud chatter to the clamor of the assembled crowd below.
The birds pirouettes served as a preamble to that days silleteros parade, an event that recalled colonial days when peasants from the hills of Santa Elena descended on the city with chair-like contraptions on their backs, known as silletas, overflowing with fresh flowers. These journeys to the market led to annual celebrations so colorful and fresh that they are said to instill a poetic view of life in those who watch them. Only Santa Elenas native sons and daughters have the right to be in the parade, and they take pride in maintaining the spirit of the region.
A little over a decade ago Medelln was still in the grip of outlaw groups, suffering from a continuous wave of crime and shootings. Today, under more peaceful circumstances, the same city prepared to show the beauty of its flowers and the jovial nature of its people. The hovering smog that stung the eyes during work days now yielded to a contagious mood of carnival: clapping, laughter, vendors shouting out their fares, accordions humming songs with hip-swing rhythms, girls in peek-aboo skirts of dazzling colors, dogs looking for morsels, and everywhere, the pervasive scents of homespun recipes.
As the sun grew hotter on my head, I caught the smell of fresh buuelos, the cheese-filled fritters best known as the treat of festive days. I was about to leave my spot to sample them when a loud roar of voices announced the start of the parade. Marching slowly at the head of the first group was a graceful woman in her early senior years. A wide-brimmed hat gave her shelter from the sun, while a pair of jute sandals allowed her to walk with measured aplomb. Her provincial dress, crisp white with red embroidery made her look like a member of a country doll collection. She came within a few feet from where I stood, wiped her face with a small handkerchief, and with the poise of a gracious hostess turned around for us to enjoy a full view of her creation.
It was a stunning work of art. At the center of the arrangement she had woven a golden cushion of saw grass with arching, fluffy spigots that resembled the chest of an African plains lion. The saw grass was surrounded by a narrow band of pansies that copied in their petals the patterns of exotic butterflies. They, in turn, guided my eyes to a tapestry of violets and daisies matted with the skill of an old master. More silletas followed, some carried by men with trimmed mustaches, others by stern-faced family matriarchs, and still others by young children. In every display the sum appeared greater than the parts: in the brightness of yellow daffodils; in the purity of calla lilies and carnations; in the serenity of mimosas and petunias. I struggled to relish each design before they moved along to be replaced by new ones.
Years earlier, with the murder of Jorge Elicer Gaitn, the most revered caudillo in Colombia's modern history, the country had descended into an abyss of mayhem and injustice. Armed groups appeared on both sides of the political divide, setting off a decade of bloodshed known since then as La Violencia.
The experience was as horrid as it was ultimately senseless: conservatives (the blues) and liberals (the reds) were massacring each other for no apparent reason. Men and women who had lived on good terms for generations were transformed into enemies without cause or provocation. In the mountains and the valleys, in the towns and in the villages, the blues killed the reds and the reds killed the blues without debating goals or ideology. There was also little choice on affiliation: people were born into one party or the other. In time, a persons political alignment became a fighting word that could lead to certain death. When confronted by armed bandits, only those who quickly claimed membership in the party of the group attacking them had some chance of surviving. My own father guessed right several times, but many from his region guessed wrong and ended up as fodder for the vultures.
In the face of armed attacks from various groups, my parents were forced to flee their home in an adjacent mountain region. The abundance of the fields was soon replaced by deprivation in the city. When I turned 15 I had to quit school to work in a gold mine, a trying experience for men of any age. Low flying bats buzzed over my head as I marched into the caves every day. Water from cavernous ceilings constantly dripped on my shoulders. At night, my mother poured wax from burning candles over the open blisters that resulted as I traded pen and pencils for pick and shovels and wheelbarrows. Yet, the silence of the mountain drove me closer to the one refuge still within my reach: my thoughts. While I chiseled the rock day after day my thoughts became my own redemption, for they constantly brought back words my mother had often repeated in my childhood: Only education will some day lead to success.
After a year of work in the gold mine, I returned to my native city of Ibagu hoping to start on my ninth grade. All secondary schools charged tuition at that time, and financial aid was non-existent. With the first day of classes fast approaching, I decided to ask for help from private individuals, but the prospect that strangers would heed the calls of a shy, bony teenager seemed nil. The stream of hope I had with me when I came down from the mountain soon dwindled to a trickle, and I began to resign myself to the idea of going back to the gold mine. That changed when, in a moment of extraordinary fortune, I met a young man from Fremont, Ohio, who had recently traveled to Ibagu to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer.
CHANCE ENCOUNTER, August 2007
The name of the Peace Corps volunteer I had approached in the streets of Ibagué decades earlier was Gary Gonya. He was a lean, athletic man of cropped hair and the power of a smile in conversation. And he had a unique blessing: he approached life as if evil never existed. When I addressed him for the first time he halted his brisk steps and narrowed his eyes as if struggling to assess the gravity of my plight. My words must have traveled directly to his heart, for at that instant, in an act of spontaneous generosity, Gary offered me a room in the house he shared
with another volunteer, Pat Cooney. That was for me Lesson One on altruism. Lesson Two, giving the recipient the dignity of choice, followed next: “But you must come and see if you like our house first,” he said to me. When I took full possession of my room later that evening, I felt I had gone to a new galaxy. “Oh my God, oh my God,” I kept repeating while jumping up and down, grabbing my head, squinting my eyes in disbelief.
The next day I got up early, the anxiety still roaming through my body. Barefoot, avoiding noises, with my eyes adjusting to the darkness, I began a full exploration of the house. I started with the kitchen, where I discovered a medium-size refrigerator full of fruits and soda pops. A great addition to my life, I told myself. As I moved to next room, I was startled by the twisted remnants of a giant, droopy root hanging on the wall. It was a fitting decoration, for its naked wood matched the grain of two long benches that still carried the scent of fresh sawdust.
I then saw a turntable at the corner, and a shelf full of records next to it. Despite the early hour I was tempted to start playing some music. But that’s when I noticed they had seen me. And that’s when I confirmed from their silence that I was fully welcomed at their house. Sunday mornings became legend. We woke up to the sounds of the Tijuana Brass trumpets, while Gary filled the air with the scent of honey-coated French toasts on a hot skillet. I was then at the pinnacle of life. For the next two years Gary paid for my tuition and expenses out of his modest monthly stipend. It was an extraordinary gift that he enriched even further with the mantle of his friendship.
During that time our house was always full of conversation from the scores of volunteers that visited continuously. An exciting meeting of two cultures swirled in my head, leading to an expansion of my world into new values, new approaches, new ways of doing things. Those were also the intense days of “Hair,” “The Graduate,” “Sergeant Pepper,” and Woodstock. And from the mountains of Tolima to the city of Ibagué, by way of the Peace Corps, I grew by extension into an honorary member of the flower generation.
When his two-year tour finally ended, Gary was replaced by a newly arrived volunteer, Mike Kalista, a barrel-chested wrestling coach from Erie, Pennsylvania. With tight biceps protruding from his sleeves and a ton of muscles that shifted as he moved, Mike looked the part of an ancient Roman warrior. But behind that powerful physiognomy was a man of gentle manners and ample generosity, and I continued living in his house as his friend and protégé. One day Mike cracked open his terra cotta piggy bank to pay for dental surgery I needed. From that day on I was convinced: in the realm of human kindness, never was so much owed by one person to so few. Yet those few would leave enormous imprints in their wake, for the Peace Corps brought to Colombia, and to the many regions where they serve, young, talented people bent on sharing their skills and their dreams to save the world. People like Robert Henderson, an economist who taught English to new teachers, and who was the first person to play a bagpipe in Ibagué; or Russell Schroeder, an architect who helped build schools in rural areas.
In the year I finished high school I won a history contest on Colombian television. With the prize money I bought my father a modest produce stand in the local market, and for myself an airline ticket to the U.S. By that time Gary and Diana, his equally kindhearted wife from Ibagué, were teaching at a boarding school north of New York City. Once again, they received me with open arms, and once again they cared about my future. Over the years, that trip culminated with a graduate degree from Columbia University and a law practice in New York.
The parade continued. Behind me, a group of loud youngsters marched single-file like a long, twisting snake, pushing their way through the pack of spectators. When the tail section of the snake finally cleared, I found myself looking at the base of a leafy acacia tree where an elderly couple occupied a long bench. They seemed to have preferred the protection of the acacia to the constant jostling at the sidewalk. I nodded at them briefly and turned my eyes back to the avenue, just in time to see a banquet of azaleas and camellias passing by.
A lull in the parade allowed me to look back at the couple under the acacia tree for a brief moment. The woman’s lined face showed her age, but her slim, pliant figure hinted at youth. Her ears were adorned with a pair of golden pendants, and her small mouth looked smaller when she focused her attention on the flowers. She wore a wide dress that allowed her to flaunt her energy with freedom. She twisted, stretched, danced. She laughed, whistled, jumped up and down. She raised her arms, clapped her hands, yelled at men blocking her view.
Her companion, by contrast, sat still. His gaze seemed unfocused, his movements were slow. And judging from the crevices that furrowed his brow, getting this far in life had not been easy. He held the woman’s hand as she stepped up onto the bench, and then nodded approvingly as she gestured at the flowers she observed from her post.
I turned to watch a new silleta of wild orchids that seemed to have trapped the sun under their petals. Once the flowers passed, I again looked at the bench. I saw the woman reach into the man’s shiny carriel, the distinctive leather satchel he carried across his chest. She took out a hairbrush, puffed briefly into the bristles, and began to smooth his rebel tufts of hair—two, three, four strokes— but despite her efforts the wisps kept swirling in the air. She then wet her fingers on her tongue and rubbed them on his bushy eyebrows in a vain attempt to press them flat. By then his eyes had turned into dim slits, and his lips showed hints of a complaisant smile.
I thought of joining them to revel in their tender interactions. I hesitated. Would I be intruding in their space? Moments later, the man dropped his cane, making no effort to retrieve it. I pushed my way through a group of giggling girls and drew close enough that I could hear his breathing. It was heavy, raspy, deep. His hands, joined in prayer, moved up and down with each expansion of his chest. He had a cherubic face with the round, puffy cheeks of an accomplished trumpet player. A bit closer, and I saw that his head showed the errors of a homemade haircut: uneven snips across its surface and traces of talcum clinging to his neck.
When I leaned the cane against his knee he half-opened one eye and confirmed with a nod that I was welcome. The woman also smiled. “What do you think of the parade?” I asked her. “The flowers are magnificent,” she said. An odor of mothballs wafted my way from the man’s jacket. I twitched my nose and concentrated on her words. Speaking in the rapid cadence of the region, exuberant, intense, she commented on the fuchsias and chrysanthemums, and achilleas and azaleas, and the dozens of arrangements that had passed by that day.
“When I die I want to rest on a cushion of those flowers,” she said. “My ride to heaven will be happier.”
Now that I was closer, I could fully appreciate the gold figures that dangled from her ears.
“Beautiful earrings you have.”
“They came from my grandmother,” she said, placing a hand over her ear. “I got them for my quince.” Her fifteenth birthday. A most special day for Latin girls. I offered them water from my knapsack. As they finished drinking, they mentioned the hardships of the day. The crowds. The buses. The discomforts. And for the old man, the grinding of his joints. They made him pay with pain for every inch he moved.
“But it’s always worth the effort,” she said. “The freshness of the flowers and the faces from the hills rejuvenate our souls.”
I soon learned from them that in the realm of fading memories, it was those gardens passing by that best connected their present with their past.
“Your life is lived twice if you live it through your memories,” the old man said to me.
Once again we heard applause. Swift and agile, like a finch ascending branches, the woman climbed back onto the bench.
“Poofff! Lavender mixed with camellias!” she shouted down to us. “What a mismatched combination!”
I wasn’t sure I understood her. “To me, they look just beautiful,” I said. Before I could say more, the man pulled my arm to whisper in my ear.
“She doesn’t mean the colors!”
“She doesn’t?” I whispered in return.
“No,” he said. “She’s referring to their meaning.”
The woman stepped down from the bench and faced us. With her back to the parade, her eyes fixed on his, conveying the assurance of a venerable headmistress, she explained with firm voice.
“Lavender: distrust. Camellias: for compassion—the flower you give when you want to reconcile. Right, Pachito?” she asked him.
“Right! Just as dandelions are for jealousy,” he said. His complaisant grin had now vanished and his voice revealed some anxiety.
“And almond buds always meant perfidy,” she replied, raising her voice, flaring her nostrils. “And don’t say that you forgot the yellow acacias you once carried,” she added.
“Yellow acacias?” I asked. “What’s their meaning?”
“They stand for secret love,” she explained to me, although I knew the words were meant for him.
“Not so!” he replied, stumping his cane on the ground several times. “From me, you had nothing but mounds of alstroemeria.”
“Which are those?” I asked.
“Andean lilies,” he said. “They stand for pure devotion.” She then flashed a wide smile. “And from me,” she added, curling her body in coy suggestion, “it was always ambrosias that you got—love returned.” Her last words were almost muffled by a smooch she planted on his cheek. After that, they exploded into laughter. I thought this was the moment to flare my scant knowledge of the language of the flowers. “You two deserve a huge bouquet of bright, red roses!” I said.
“Ah! They’re always abundant in our garden,” she replied.
THE GIFT, December 2007
A new wave of applause redirected our attention to the avenue. It was then that the smell of hot buñuelos drifted again into my nose. I sniffed the air like a chase hound and stretched my head forward in an effort to peek through the sea of shifting bodies. I finally located the pushcart that was the source of the aroma. Behind the pushcart stood a robust woman with her sleeves rolled tight above her elbows. Her wide, expressive eyes and the soft brows that joined in the middle gave her a girlish look that triggered affection.
I watched as she scooped the reddish-brown spheres from a sizzling oil pan and piled them in a large basket. She then grabbed new chunks of mushy dough and began to round them in her palms, while her hips, and breasts, and arms moved graciously in rapid boogie swings. She tossed the dough into the oil, stepped back and threw in some more, all while protecting her arms from the hot splashes with a corner of her wide, layered skirt. I excused myself briefly and sprinted to her for a bag of crusty pieces. My two companions smiled as I offered to share the feast with them. When I broke open my first buñuelo, a fragrant plume of cheesy vapor overcame the conversation and I had to take a few quick bites to regain my full composure.
The couple talked as we ate and continued talking when we finished. They mentioned the hardships of the country and the hardships in their lives. They talked of a childhood on farms bursting with life, where cows, and crops, and housework demanded so much toil that school was sacrificed. They recalled stealing kisses that their parents wouldn’t approve, and then their puppyish marriage after gaining their consent.
They remembered the gatherings on special festive days, when she cooked savory dishes and he played his guitar. They mentioned with pride their children growing strong, with cheeks shining as red as the strawberries they gulped and teeth almost as white as the milk they squeezed warm. They spoke in tender voices of the quietness of the mountains as the night fell on their roof, of the dampness of the leaves at the start of a new day, and the sadness of a land of extraordinary beauty where rebels fought each other with extraordinary hatred.
We turned our heads back to the street at a new arrival of silletas. One of them had an array of soft pinks and pale aquamarines that cascaded over a base of crimson dahlias.
Another showed swirls of waxy petals with the colors of a tropical aquarium. They rested on a blanket of wet moss that brought with it the freshness of the mountains.
The couple returned to their story. One day tragedy came. Their sons were killed by sons of peasants just like them. Their grief rendered them helpless. Their animals went loose, their crops stood in ruins, and their livelihood soon vanished. They knew they had to leave.
Then, in a flash of passing years, they finally arrived at the stage they always feared: alone and poor, and aging quickly. “Life in the city calls for the strength of younger years,” Pachito said after a pause. “Couldn’t you get government help?” I asked. “That’s an illusion.” “Steady work?” “Not at my age.”
After selling what was left of their possessions, they continued, they settled in a room with cooking privileges in the outskirts of Medellín. All he kept was his guitar. Unstrung, fatigued, its former luster now gone, it served him well in trying times. On special days he took it to the streets to play and sing nostalgic tunes of betrayal and lost love. An all-time favorite, he pointed with delight, was his rendition of La Vieja Molienda, an enthralling soft samba of unrequited love, the sadness of which, the lyrics went, appeared more vivid in the lethargy of the night, when the days wind down and the shadows cut into the moaning silence of the coffee trees. Time and again he was asked to sing it by men who sought to quell their emptiness of heart with aguardiente, the country’s traditional hard drink. His wife would often sing along with him and help collect the spare change.
At that point the woman let her puffy, silky hand rest over mine. With her other hand she smudged tears.
When I looked at her husband his eyes were also wet, but he stood firm.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn't mean to bring back memories of suffering.”
“Oh no,” he said, rasping between words. “It’s okay to look for solace in the past. The nights are always cold for those who lack warm memories.”
“Perhaps it’s better to talk about the present,” I said. “Poor,” he said, “we just live poor. That’s our present, and that seems to be our future. We live as if every item of survival was rationed to us.”
“When I was a child, my parents also had to flee the countryside with us in tow,” I told them. “When was that?” he asked.
“Back in the mid-fifties, in the mountains of Tolima.
My mother bundled us up in the middle of the night, and with pots and blankets loaded on a mule, we scurried through the darkness for a trek across the hills. On the first day, the mule slipped in a creek and the blankets became wet. On the second day, we had no food and we had to eat wild berries. I could hear my mother crying at my side every night.”
“Why did they have to leave?” she asked. “It was either the blues after the reds or the reds chasing the blues. It didn’t matter.”
“Well, we are now into a new century, and I feel things have really improved. That’s why I like Uribe,” he said, referring to the President. Hearing that, his companion moved closer.
“But even today people leave their farms and houses in fear for their lives. Every day we hear of armed bandits killing peasants. Entire villages are abandoned.” She spoke in a clear, urgent voice. She paused briefly to hold her dress against a sudden gush of wind. She then continued. “Only this morning we saw around the corner a newly arrived family sleeping on the sidewalk.”
Her words arrived as burning rods that pressed on my chest. My breathing became short. My throat felt an obstruction.
At that instant the air was overtaken by the scent of the night jasmine. Its honey aftertaste had such power of persuasion that it shut off my other senses and kept dancing in my mind. It stayed and stayed, like the lingering perfume of an attractive woman.
“Turn around!” I shouted at the man carrying the jasmines, hoping to have a full view of his arrangement.
My words were drowned out by a multitude of voices, but others in the crowd kept repeating my request. It finally caught its own immediacy. The jasmine silletero slowed down, gazed at the faces, bestowed a wide smile, and proceeded to pace the crowd with the air of a triumphant matador circling the arena. I joined the others in cheering and applause. As he went up the parade route, a swarm of wobbling bees trailed behind.
The fading jasmine was quickly replaced by an approaching vendor of honey-coated roasted peanuts. The rich, lively scent of the honey touching the hot skillet carried me back to mornings in Ibagué and Gary Gonya’s honey-coated French toast.
The parade was still going. While the sound of applause and dancing rhythms filled the air, I grabbed pen and paper and asked the couple in front of me about their most immediate needs, things that would improve their lives, if only temporarily. A new silletero passed through, and the loud cheering from the crowd drowned out my words. When I repeated my request, they looked mystified. A long pause followed, until, apparently convinced of the sincerity of my words, the woman responded with delight.
“Pachito needs new shoes!”
His shoes were held together with a few lengths of string, and the holes under the soles, made visible as he lifted up each foot, had been unevenly patched with cardboard and newsprint.
“New shoes for Pachito,” I said, and wrote it on my paper, together with a price they suggested at my request. “What else?”
“A refill of his arthritis medication,” she said.
I wrote that down, too.
“And a shirt, and pants and socks,” she said with growing vigor.
“And for you?” I said, but before she gave an answer, I had another question.
“What’s your name, if I may ask?”
“Lucila,” she said solemnly. “Lucila Burgos…”
“Mine is José Orlando,” I replied.
“Let's make a list for you, Lucila.”
Her hand flew to her mouth and she gave a nervous laugh. “Oh no, thank you, that's all right.”
“A new dress, perhaps?”
“No, that's okay," she said, her fingers now rounding the buttons of her blouse.
I asked her again. She smiled. I paused for an answer.
She frowned. I slowly stepped back. She smiled once again, shifting her body. I then moved a step closer and repeated my request in a low voice.
“A dress would be so nice,” she finally responded. “
A dress,” I repeated, writing it down.
“And shoes?” I continued. “Yes, thank you.”
“And rouge for your lips?”
Her eyes now sparkled. “Thank you, thank you,” she said, still smiling, her hands clasped tight in front of her.
One hairpin was the last item she mentioned, but when I saw the strands of snowy hair fluttering loose over her shoulder I crossed out the line. Half-a-dozen hairpins, I wrote instead.
When I lifted my head, I caught the vendor glancing at us over her customers. I did not acknowledge her. My mind was still fixed on the list I had just written, a list that spoke silently of the basic deprivations that burdened two lives.
While Lucila and Pachito looked on in disbelief, I counted out enough money to purchase the items they had mentioned. I then gave it to Pachito, together with the list. He held it for a moment in his hands, as if putting it away without a pause would be discourteous.
We were engulfed in brief silence. Then, with a sudden burst of energy, Lucila started voicing one nice word after another. Pachito also spoke. “For us, this is nothing but a miracle,” he said. He hugged me so close that the roughness of his beard pricked my cheeks. They thanked me many more times and wished me the best in all endeavors of my life. And through their joy and words of gratitude, they managed to make me the happiest man on earth.
The parade was now finished. Dozens of silletas rested on the sidewalk, their owners standing by for perfect pictures. New dogs roamed about; the flock of parakeets still shrieked above; accordion passion songs still soothed my ears; and the wind still retained its medley of festive scents.
When Lucila stepped forward to bid a last adieu, the satin of her collar left a sweet scent on my shirt. I then watched her slim figure fade slowly into the crowd. Pachito went behind holding her hand, his legs slowly accepting the support of his old cane.
In the distance, they murmured to each other. I couldn’t help but wonder how they would describe their day at the parade. As for me, I felt it was a blessing to have been in their lives if only for an instant, to have witnessed their eyes grow teary at the mention of the past. My giving gesture was also a humbling one. I knew that in the end, the sum was utterly inadequate in proportion to their needs or my relative capacity. I struggled for a moment. But I was finally redeemed by the thought that quantifying such an act was also unfair. It is the intent that counts the most; the desire to build a coffer of goodwill. It is addressing those in need with dignity and respect. It is being ready to listen with the heart and feel their pain. And for that, the ultimate reward is the spiritual connection it engenders with our common, vulnerable humanity.
I now had one mission left: to find the homeless family I had encountered that morning, with their children and their rabbit.
I had begun to walk away when I heard a woman’s voice calling out from behind.
I turned back and saw the vendor rushing from her pushcart.
“This is for you!” she said, and she handed me a steamy bag overflowing with buñuelos.
And with that she also gave me a wide, delightful smile.
José Castañeda is a judge in Port Chester, New York. Contact him at email@example.com.