This story has a beginning you need to know before what happened can make sense…
Once again I had taken a group of university students to Honduras for two weeks during spring break. We worked in different parts of the community in Santa Rosa de Copán. It was the perfect course to teach, I thought. Students improved their Spanish skills and also learned how the rest of the world lives. The first part was good pedagogy, and the second part taught them (and me) a lesson for life.
I live in Maine, and flights to San Pedro Sula leave out of Boston. I had left my car at Logan Airport for two weeks and now was driving home. It was quite the shock: sunny and humid in Honduras had suddenly turned into near-blizzard conditions in the northeastern US. By the time I reached the Maine border, it was a full-blown blizzard and as I got off of 295 I decided to stop at a gas station by the exit for a couple of things that would not be in my refrigerator after my absence: milk and bread. I had to hurry, because only fools were out on the roads in weather that promised to become one of the legendary Nor’easters. (Yes, they are every bit as bad as their reputation.)
Once inside the station, I hurried to the cooler in the back, knocking snow off my shoes - luckily I’d thought ahead and had switched my dusty sandals for better footwear - and shaking a white layer off my shoulders. It was a really creepy feeling, having left the bright tropics and landing in the chilly, dark north. Six hours and you went from one planet to another. It got a whole lot creepier when I heard a noise that should not have been on the floor near the cooler, in the back of a convenient mart like the one at the gas station. I froze, then started to tremble - because of what was on the floor near the milk, not because of the cold..
What I had caught sight of while reaching for the frosty door of the cooler to get a half-gallon of 2% was a sort of egg-shaped bundle. I thought immediately of the cruelty of some people who abandon animals in the middle of a storm because they can’t be bothered caring for them in bad weather. Who wants to walk a dog in a foot of snow? Or in two feet of snow, right? ‘No excuse,’ I thought, ‘No excuse.’
Except this abandoned bundle did not hold a puppy or a kitten, or even an adult animal. Instead, it was a baby swaddled in the multicolored, very used, very thin blankets. A baby. A human baby. In a blizzard.
I looked around. The guy at the counter when I walked in, covered in snow, had disappeared. That was actually fine as far as I was concerned, because he’d seemed rather sketchy to me, jumping when I’d pushed open the door with its jingly warning. It seemed the guy would be likely to say, “Whatever” if I tried to report a lost baby to him, or worse yet, tried to get him to call the police because I hadn’t switched my phone back yet to my US carrier. He was probably about to close the store and go home, and whether I found him to be sketchy or not, it was the right decision. Nobody was going anywhere in the blizzard, so nobody would be showing up for gas and coffee.
I had to make a decision, and fast. I still had ten miles to drive. Outside was a wall of swirling white, spinning against the windows of the mart, punishing them with bursts of ice crystals. Definitely not Honduras. Definitely no place to leave - or find - a baby.
Maybe it was the wrong thing to do, but all I could think of was saving that life. I grabbed the little bundle, noticing now that the blankets were not just multicolored, they were patched and frayed. I left money on the counter, more than enough to pay for bread and milk, and clutched the still-silent roll of ratty flannel to my chest as I got back into my car.
My old Toyota was already covered with two more inches of what we call ‘the white stuff’ in the ten minutes since I had gotten out of it and gone in to buy my two essential items. This blizzard was going to be a killer - much more than a dustin’ as Mainers like to call snowstorms of less than a foot and a half. It might even rival one of the Buffalo storms I knew so well from my college days. Sketchy guy was still MIA, I noticed on my way out. Not completely sketchy, perhaps, because he was either getting ready to close up or was avoiding me.
The bundle was silent all the way home. I was worried by that, but a squawk emerged from it as we went through the door. What a relief! The only thing worse than snatching a crying baby from a convenience mart is probably snatching a dead baby. I welcomed the squawk, although it reminded me of some sort of wild bird.
Once inside, I unwrapped the little one while trying to decide what to do. It was the creepiest feeling, only now it wasn’t the storm that had walled out the world: it was the baby that was inside my walls. Where had this little life come from? How had it found me?
Fortunately, there was a note. Abandoned babies often come with notes, I was thinking, because the persons dropping them off seem to want the babies to be found. Bad timing, very bad timing, to drop an infant off in a small store, in a white-out. What if I hadn’t shown up? I shuddered when I thought of that.
The note didn’t resolve the issue, but it did give me something to go on. I unfolded it and read:
I am Xiomara’s daughter, the note said in Spanish. Soy la hija de Xiomara. Please take me home with you. Choose any name you like for me, then return to the store in exactly one week. You will get more information then.
The note went on to insist that I was not to contact the police under any circumstances. Xiomara had to be the fifteen year old girl who had befriended me in Santa Rosa and who had taken to calling me ‘madre’. Her own mother was alive, but I was a different sort of maternal figure. Maybe she thought I could help her come to the US, but we had not gotten around to discussing that. She never mentioned she had a baby just a few weeks old, not while I was in her country for two weeks. How had this child, her daughter, even gotten into the country and so fast? How was she left at exactly the exit I use when returning home from Boston? I didn’t expect I’d ever know the answers to those questions.
A week later, I did as the note said, and returned to the convenience store. In more or less the same place where the baby had been, there was an envelope. It was inconspicuously attached to the side of the cooler. I looked at it, looked at sketchy guy, who mouthed ‘Whatever,’ and then I left. Once home, I was able to read the second note without my hands shaking. I doubted the news would be good. The note was in Spanish, in primitive cursive that would never be far from printing:
We will provide you documents saying you have adopted the baby. We just need to know the name you have chosen. Do not ask questions and do not go to the police. The child will be legally yours. La quiero, Madre. Xiomara.
And so I had to name her. I chose the name Elvia Oneida and added my last name, Martin. I wasn’t sure if it was the right thing to do. This was a situation much creepier than the blizzard of a week ago. I was adopting a baby I hadn’t known existed simply because I had developed a friendship with the girl who supposedly was the baby’s mother? How would I manage my demanding work schedule, my students, my research, with a baby?
Suffice it to say that in a few days, Elvia’s papers, her certification as my daughter, adopted by me while on my last trip to Honduras, were deposited in the same place beside the cooler. At that point I began to feel slightly calmer, but I was still very much on edge, unsure of what was going to transpire. I figured that Xiomara would be claiming her daughter soon, whom she had felt the need to give up. I only saw myself as temporary caretaker of the little girl, and surmised that the ‘adoption’ was simply to give her legal status in the meantime.
Temporary was still the case after three years. Then, after five years. Elvia had to start school, so I enrolled her in kindergarten. She spoke both Spanish and English as perfectly as any child of five. She called me mamá, because somebody needed to be her mother, but I was ready to return her at any moment to her real mother because that was the only fair thing to do. In any case, I would be happy with the role of grandmother.
After another two years, I received another letter - emails were to be avoided, they had made that extremely clear - explaining that Elvia would remain with me indefinitely. None of my questions were ever answered - I also left letters by the cooler - and finally there was an angry demand that I stop asking and stop using specific identifiers in what I wrote. We could not communicate frequently and I was warned not to try.
That was about the time when I realized that the adoption might well be permanent and that for some unknown reason I had been charged with providing a safe house for Elvia. I still wanted Xiomara to contact me, to tell me about how she had come to have a baby when she had been so serious about going to college one day. Was Xiomara the one writing the notes and leaving them? That would mean she was in Maine, maybe in a nearby town?
Why had the baby been in danger? My students and I had worked with the Centro de la Mujer Copaneca in Santa Rosa, the Center for Copán Women. We were still in contact with the Directora and it occurred to me to ask her for verification of area data. The stories we’d heard had saddened the students, even horrified them. I took a deep breath and wrote.
I wanted to know about cases of incest, especially fathers with daughters. I also wanted to know about the maras and how the gang members treated the child of a mara. (I had heard about in-country efforts to hide the babies and children especially if they were female.) I also asked if the sanctioned rape of schoolgirls at lunch time was still occurring in one of the Copán schools. I had other questions, but those were the most urgent. I thought about giving Xiomara’s name, but did not out of fear that my inquiry might put her in danger.
The responses were not many hours in coming. No need to repeat all the information they contained, but incest was not uncommon, especially in certain regions of Honduras. That was no surprise. The rapes of town schoolgirls continued because nobody knew how to stop them. The hiding of little girls fathered by mara members was still occurring, and in fact there was a case right now in the San José orphanage. The grandmother had smuggled her in there.
Then the Directora added a question of her own:
“Are you thinking of any particular cases? Do you have any names?”
What was I supposed to do? I gave her Xiomara’s name, thinking maybe I could help. It was risky, yes, but I had to do it.
“I remember her. Very intelligent girl in a very difficult situation. Some say it was her father. After all, he beat so hard once that he broke her collarbone. Bruto! Others say somebody in a neighborhood gang, a marero with lots of followers, forced her or shamed her into a group gathering and she got pregnant. No idea which idiota is the father. Xiomara would not identify the father. All we know is that she had the baby and then both she and the baby disappeared. There are so many like her.”
I knew what had happened, or at least I knew part of it. I would not ask any more questions. If Xiomara were alive and able, I knew she would come. It might not be safe yet, assuming that she was alive, but I knew she would come if she could.
It was now fifteen years since that Nor’easter of spring break in New England. The raging weather that had resulted in my acquiring a daughter quite unexpectedly. A huge snowstorm was supposed to hit around supper time. Elvia had come with me and we were joking about the weather almost fifteen years ago to the day. She knew little about her origins other than Honduras had been her birthplace. That was on her passport. I never had much more information myself and figured that was best. All I could tell her was where I’d found her.
We were talking and getting coffee from one of the big cones that dispense several flors. Suddenly, something made me turn around and look back at the check-out. I half-expected to see Mr. Sketchy still there with his ‘whatever’ expression to pop out to take my money for the coffee, but no. Where he had stood all those years ago, behind the counter, about his height and build, was Xiomara. She would be about twenty-eight or nine now, I quickly calculated.
I heard Xiomara say, in her undulated Honduran Spanish: Muchas, muchas gracias, madre. La quiero tanto. I love you so much. My mouth must have dropped open.
Then she looked me for a long time. I did the same thing, as if one of us were reflecting the other in the mirror. Except, of course, the fact that I lack indigenous blood and she was an attractive, black-haired woman. At least we had Spanish in common. That link had been the decisive one, so it was not a little ironic that we now said not a syllable - now, after so many years.
Neither of us moved and neither of us looked away. Beyond me, where I could not see, I knew Elvia was standing, watching. I knew also that Xiomara was looking past my shoulder, directly at Elvia now. She seemed to be smiling in a way that was without definition, that was undefined in standard lexicons.
I turned around to see Elvia’s own elated smile of recognition, but there was none. She asked me: ‘Who were you talking to, mamá?’ I hadn’t thought I had spoken a word when Xiomara and I had looked at each other for that long moment. As I said before, Xiomara had spoken, but I had said nothing.
“Your guess is as good as mine.” I replied to Elvia.
Lo que usted diga. (Said someone.) Whatever you say. Lo que sea.
Whatever. (Sketchy Guy?)
Now, thinking about all that has happened, I believe that I much prefer trading notes by the cooler in the back of the store cooler to a conversation with an almost-never-there Xiomara, in a blizzard.
Plus, now I need to figure out the way to ask Elvia if she saw Xiomara or if she saw mamá talking to an empty counter.
I want to know if I had seen Xiomara, too.