Author: Antoinette Constable
A three-year-old boy stumbles along the streets, long after bedtime, holding his
mother’s hand. They are skirting barricades, guns, uniforms. The mother longs to lie
down and sleep a long sleep somewhere safe, somewhere dry, yet she keeps trudging, pretending it’s not raining, pretending that soon, she’ll be home for dinner in her house, with her dark-haired child and his father. At dusk two days ago, the boy’s father suggested that she and the boy rest inside a covered cart on the road. Without warning,the cart was driven off with them as he tried to jump in. They saw him run, screaming to wait for him at the next village church, until the currents of the crowd absorbed him.
Three days and nights on church steps. Unwashed, with her unwashed boy sleeping,
nestled against her hip. She wants to go back. She has no map, no friends, nowhere to go.
Chaotically, people flee south, ditching cars that ran out of gas, discarding luggage,
pets, furniture pell-mell along the road, tramping ahead on foot away from advancing
armies rumored to slash women and children’s throats after shooting the men. When
Enemy planes or hail slash the asylum seekers, they take cover under planks, under
Cars, inside cars. In the next nearly deserted town, the woman and the boy who no longer talks. Late afternoon, she finds a church where an old priest says mass alone among candles. She rummages inside her purse and scribbles the boy’s name on a scrap of paper which she pins on his pocket, telling him to sit right there on the parvis and wait for her. He must be very good, she’ll soon be back. Wait, she says. Wait for me. Understand? Kisses both his cold cheeks. No looking back. No goodbye.
He can’t tell his full name or where he comes from. His parents have lost him, yet it is
he who must live in an orphanage. They shave his head against lice. No food is given him until he calls, “Mother,” a woman who never bore a child, “Father,” a celibate in black, “Sister,” hairless women with wings over their ears. At city hall, eventually, someone assigns him a last name, a birth date. At playtime, he draws planes, bombs, and people broken into pieces with blood spurting sideways. He sometimes draws houses, tongue protruding from his mouth. Houses with roofs and chimneys and walls of evenly stacked bricks and stones. Then school, anonymous in a dull uniform. Fights. Foster homes.Prizes. Scholarships. He’s an architect with a patient, consuming urge to build a house in which to live with two familiar strangers.