¨They say you can bear anything if you can tell a story about it.¨-Sue Monk Kidd
Heidi had told me about the bookstores. About the bookstores that line the avenues of Old Town Quito, where maybe I could find a book to quench my insatiable literary thirst.So after we climbed to the top of the Basilica- all those thin ladders and nerve wracking heights- we took to the streets in search of lunch and maybe, a good book.
We stopped in one but the only find was a book entitled, ¨Presents for Baby Jesus¨ with old style, Dick and Jane type drawings. We laughed and continued on, and a few blocks down we turned into Libreria Luz, or in English, Bookstore of Light. The walls were lined with books, dusty with age and lack of attention. About twenty people, all Ecuadorians, roamed around, picking book off the shelves and inspecting them. A little girl sat in a tiny desk at the end of a row with a set of water colors and was working diligently on painting a sunflower. Heidi and I went straight to the back of the store where a big stack of coloring books and children´s stories stood. We were looking for presents for our families. The back of the store didn´t have a wall as much as a thick piece of plastic separating the books and whatever lay behind it.
As we poked about, picking up books about magic and pirates, a loud hammering noise started. I felt vaguely annoyed but unsurprised, construction work seems to pop up spontaneously here, at odd hours. But the noise was so jarring that customers started looking at each other.
And then we heard it. It started out small, a whimper. A small plea for forgiveness. A tiny voice, punctuated by the smack of a hard object.
No mami, por favor, no me pegas.
Heidi and I stared at each other. Each frozen. Unwilling to believe what we were hearing. This couldn´t be happening. No, no, it couldn´t.
The voice, that of a young boy, maybe seven, maybe nine, grew in intensity.
Mami, NO: Mami NO. Perdoname, perdoname.
Heidi turned to a man next to us. ¨What do we do?¨ She asked.
¨There´s nothing to do. He´s a mal creado.¨ Mal creado, though it lacks a direct English translation, basically means he’s a bad kid. Born bad. Intrinsically bad.
The screams became louder, desperate. The heavy sound continuing, blow after blow after blow. Other customers were raising their eyebrows, as if they were overhearing an awkward conversation. Panic was rising in my chest. With each consecutive scream, each piercing syllable of the pleas, I grew more desperate. Should I go back there? Could I get back there? How can this be happening? How can this be fucking happening?
The sounds of the beating continued. The little boy’s cries became something unreal, something wild and panicked and brimming with violence. The sound sent a dark chill through me. Everyone else continued shopping, but Heidi and I were paralyzed against the bookshelf. The mother, wielding whatever tool she was against her child, was chillingly silent.
Waves of nausea were running through me. Should I go back there? What should I do? How can I stop this?
I dropped my books and ran outside. My feet hit the sidewalk, a rush of warm air hit my face, and I burst into tears. Heidi was close behind me. I didn’t know what to do, but with a grave, heavy, hot moment, I realized I had just run away from someone hurting a child.
Later, when I would recount this story over the phone, hot tears rolling down my face, I would be told that I did the right thing. That I didn’t know what was behind that wall. That it would have been stupid to put myself in that position, as a foreigner. That I can’t save everyone. That stopping it for that moment wouldn’t have done any good. That I would have tipped them off to the impending child services investigation. But all of those excuses feel pale, flimsy, like the wings of a dead butterfly that when held up to the light, disintegrate into dust on your fingertips.
In AP Psychology we learned about the Kitty Genovese case. A women was brutally murdered in the alley between two large apartment buildings. She was bludgeoned to death, and later, when the police did interviews they discovered that there had been 38 witnesses, all watching from their apartments. When pressed to explain why no one called the cops, why no one tried to help, everyone insisted they thought someone else would have done it.
It is true that when we ran outside, we quickly gathered ourselves and found a policewoman. Her face was neutral and blank as Heidi recounted what had happened. “Was it on the street?” She asked. “Because we can’t do anything about it if it was inside. We have no rights inside someone’s private property” She said, nonchalantly, as if he we had just told her our wallets had been stolen. Heidi looked like she might slap her. “But you can go to DINATEN it’s that way.”
DINATEN is Ecuador’s Child Protective Services. The policewoman gave us completely inadequate information as to where it was, so we spent the next hour talking to other police officers and trolling the internet for information. None of the policeman seemed concerned why two gringas were searching out this particular building. Finally we ended up outside of a dingy looking building with a white sign and childlike font announcing, “DINATEN” with smiling faces around it. I felt like vomiting.
We were ushered upstairs where we told our story, gave what information we had and were told that the policewoman definitely could have helped us. It seems, she just didn’t want to.
It is difficult to know what is the most shocking part of this. The basically public beating of a child, the public’s general acceptance of the practice, the apathy of the police, the lack of a system for crisis like these. The woman at DINATEN told us they were sending a car to Libreria Luz, and if they found a child with evidence of abuse, they would remove them immediately. I could only think, there’s no way that child could hide evidence of abuse like that.
We left DINATRN. Walked out the door and tried to convince ourselves that everything would be okay. We had done what we could. But this is not a situation that anyone can ever feel good about, no matter what was done after the fact. I will never know if that boy is okay. I will never know.
On the way back to the hostel, we did the only thing we could think of: we bought a bottle of vodka. And then we sat on our hostel bed and drank it out of tiny plastic cups while we ran through it again. Trying to understand it. Replaying to each other what we could have done. What we may have missed. We talked about the distinct possibility that the Ecuadorian Child Protective Services will do nothing. I cried into my hands until my palms were black from mascara. In between boughts of psychoanalysis, we would fall silent, each lost in the depth of hopelessness that came with witnessing this. With the vacant expressions of the other customers. Of the blank face of the policewoman. But mostly, the begging, the pleading, the primal screams.
Later on the phone, I would repeat, unknowingly, “I’ve never heard anything like that before. I’ve never heard anything like that before.”
That night, I barely slept. Whenever I closed my eyes I dreamed of the bookstore and of a tiny dark face, peeking around the corner and staring right at me.