(published in “Power Station”, Colorado Springs, CO May 2000)
“Heidi!” Her mother’s voice echoed through the canopy of green. “Come here, Dear. I need you!”
But Heidi Westman wasn’t listening as she hunched in a defiant ball between two Spanish cedar trees.
“Life stinks,” she grumbled to herself. Of all people, why did she have to be stuck with missionary parents—yanking her away from her friends just when school offered so many opportunities—soccer, debate team, band? Heidi had waited for these opportunities for years. Why now? Then there was her friend, Michelle. She’d probably never see her again. Why did she have to come to this hole in the middle of nowhere—stuck at a mission post just outside of Tegucigalpa, Honduras? Why? Why? Why?
Heidi’s lip quivered and tears flooded her eyes. She wished she had never been adopted 13 years ago. Her parents should have left her where they found her—wherever that was. Why couldn’t they just be “normal” people—like everybody else with eight-hour jobs, TV, and a dog? A zillion questions tortured her mind as she studied a parade of black ants on the tree trunk in front of her.
Heidi gathered her angry thoughts and pulled herself up from the ground. She would help, but she certainly would not enjoy it—and neither would her parents. Visions of four miserable years of homeschooling and working with river kids who got her into this mess taunted her as she trudged back to the mission station. Prison would have been easier.
Heidi dragged herself across the wooden porch and into a tiny back den that was to be her bedroom.
“Come get your suitcases, Honey,” her mother called from outside. “When the unloading is done, we’ll settle in.”
Heidi did as she was told, then slipped out the door and around the back of the house. Ahead lay the trail through the forest that led to the Choluteca River. She had heard her parents describe the river a thousand times. She wanted to see if for herself.
“River rats” the government called the children. Her stomach churned. All those stories couldn’t be true. Dozens of orphans, cardboard shacks, little food, no bathrooms. Maybe those stories the missionaries had told at her church hand been one big lie. Nobody lived like that in the twenty-first century, not even in Honduras.
Heidi stopped and fingered her long black hair off her olive skin. She scanned the foliage, more beautiful than any she had ever seen. The sparkling sun, filtering through the lush overgrowth, lit the path like a spotlight. The forest hummed with chattering wildlife.
Despite herself, Heidi turned her head and feasted on the magnificent beauty. Straight ahead she was drawn to a clearing where a trickle of excited chatter invited her attention.
“Bienvenida,” said a tall, skinny girl with a twinge of nervousness in her voice. Several children approached the border of trees.
“G-Gracias,” Heidi mumbled, dumbfounded by what unfolded before her eyes.
Filthy children in rags, scrawny bodies with matted hair, children no older than herself carrying babies on their hips and grasping toddlers’ hands, standing like prisoners from a long-forgotten war.
Heidi’s bewildered stare shifted quickly to the dump behind them that they called home. Dilapidated shacks, some no bigger than doghouses, huddled in a disheveled line not far from the stony edge of the half-dried-up river. Litter, mostly tin pans and paper, lay strewn about. There was no evidence of food anywhere.
“Have compassion—show love.” Her mother’s words rang in the young girl’s ears. “Have compassion—show love.”
Heidi’s mouth dropped open in disbelief. They were real, these river children, and no one cared if they lived or died. They were vagabonds from the capital city whom nobody wanted—small human beings thrown away like trash! One box of sandwiches and milk from a church three miles away brought the only food they would taste until another day had passed, the missionary had said. One skimpy meal a day!
Heidi’s heart burst with shame. She had so much. They had nothing!
She turned, racing back over the trail, past her parents, and into the small wooden house. In tears of bitter remorse, Heidi fled to her back room and collapsed with great, heaving sobs onto her small bed.
“Honey,” a tender voice said as a gentle hand rubbed her quivering back. “What happened?”
“Oh, Mom,” Heidi sobbed as she fell into the comforting arms of her mother. “Those poor, poor kids.”
“Sweetheart,” a husky voice said tenderly. A strong hand drew the face of his daughter toward his own, now flooded with tears of devotion. “This is the place where you were born.”