Wisdom Of The Pueblo
(Based on a true story)
By Margaret Van Every
I break into a sweat whenever I recall that night last December because I can’t think about it without reliving it. When you measure terror, two minutes is forever.
It was several weeks before Navidad. Carlitos and I boarded a bus in our village and headed for Monterrey to do some shopping. I’m a single mom and people would call me poor, but Carlitos, my boy of six, is my treasure. He is all that matters to me. I work every day cleaning houses so it takes a long time to save enough pesos to spend on anything other than food and shelter. Once a year we go to the city to buy a few small things to brighten our holiday. Carlitos asks for nothing, but his smile shows me that one simple new toy opens a window in his heart—a joy that kids who have a lot of toys don’t feel. My sister lives in Monterrey and when we make this trip we also stop by her place, which is within walking distance of the centro comercial.
The neighbors in my village have hinted they don’t think Carlitos is all there. He’s a loco perdido (lost crazy person), they say, and the school won’t accept him. He’s a quiet boy, lives inside his head and almost never speaks. Other kids don’t invite him to kick a ball around the street or play games. I see nothing wrong with my boy. I don’t care if his eyes don’t work together, maybe he sees and understands things other children with their perfect eyes can’t. Nonetheless, I don’t altogether trust his judgment. Whenever we go out I hold fast to his hand. I won’t let him skip ahead on his own.
We stepped off the bus and inhaled the sickening fumes as it rumbled away. All my senses are alert when we make this trip. I smell and hear danger all around me and become extra protective of Carlitos. I grasp his hand tightly and we walk toward my sister’s apartment. I call her on my cell just to let her know we’ll be knocking on her door in a few minutes. Her voice is reassuring. It’s only 5:30 but already it’s night here in December and there’s no light on the sidewalk. I have premonitions, but tell myself to relax, we’re almost there. I look over my shoulder every few minutes to see if anyone is following us. We are alone as we hurry over the uneven pavement in the dark.
It happened so quickly, I can’t explain what preceded it. A crazed man appeared from nowhere and snatched Carlitos out of my grip, bent him backward by the hair and held a knife to his throat. Carlitos didn’t cry or scream, just remained quiet like a big limp doll. Bolsa, the man indicated, gesturing with his head toward my purse.
I remembered the common wisdom of my pueblo. All Mexico knows it. Now was my time, the test. I had to do it even though it went completely against my instincts as a mother to yell for help and try to defend my child. Never look a thief in the face. That is the wisdom of the street. The worst thing you can do is look a thief in the face. He’ll then do you more harm, maybe even kill you to stop you from identifying him. Don’t look at him, I repeated to myself again and again. I stared at my sneakers, their three colors, their worn places, their dirt. I prayed. I did not look up, did not look in his face. I saw him only one split second, Carlitos bent back, the knife… I stared at my sneakers. First let go of my boy, I said as I started to slip the purse strap from my shoulder. He instantly dropped Carlitos to the ground, grabbed the purse and disappeared into the night.
Shaking, I knelt on the sidewalk and hugged Carlitos. What a brave young man you are, my son. I didn’t expect him to reply. We just hugged for a few moments. I remembered my cell phone still safe in my coat pocket and I called my sister, told her to notify the police and ask them to meet me at her address. The police came quickly and I reported the crime. Their first question to me was What did he look like, his clothes, his distinguishing features?
I don’t know. I said. I looked only at my shoes.
It was then that my brilliant Carlitos found his voice. I know just what he looked like, Mamá. He wore a grey hoodie, had messy, long hair, red eyes, a scar on his cheek. Carlitos asked for paper and pencil and then drew a detailed portrait. I had never known he had that ability. No one had ever guessed he could draw like an adult.
We stayed in my sister’s apartment that night, too tired and shaken to take the bus home. Later we got a call from the police saying they had found the suspect with the help of Carlitos’s drawing. Next morning they called again to say they’d found my purse in the bushes near the crime scene . . . empty.
Carlitos and I were physically unharmed and went home more grateful than ever to have each other. For Three King’s Day I bought him crayons and paper. He’s now enrolled in the children’s art program at the church, and our little pueblo has begun to treat him with more respect. They now call him un genio loco—a crazy genius.