Monday, July 27, 2009

Fish Heads.

His hands were more than grubby, they were filthy. He covered his laughing mouth with them as he joked with his friends. His face, smiling, was only a little less filthy than his hands. His friends were no more clean than him. The dirt helped them stick together. An angelic-looking, clean child can be tolerated, even thought of as cute, in the presence of a busy grown-up. A scruffy-looking little boy trying to sell you something, or worse, beg you out of your hard-earned cash, can easily be despised and quickly ignored.

Some of them begged, while others made the rounds finding food and sellable garbage. Girls and smaller boys tended to beg. Older boys, whose faces weren't as innocent looking as they used to be, offset their begging by digging through trash. Yesterday they had gathered together a good haul of garbage to sell. If they didn't gather enough, the ones without parents were better off than the others. If you were alone, you'd merely be hungry. Having a parent meant you'd get a beating for not hussling up enough change.

Today there was a huge crowd. A gathering such as this one was a sure thing. Plenty of people to beg from, and plenty of trash to collect. Today he begged, winding through the crowds, his hand outstretched, his face a perfectly polished look of pathetic sincerity. The ones who didn't yell at him or throw things tried their best to ignore him. Those that didn't ignore him may have tossed him a mite or two. Others might hand him a piece of bread.

Today, after several hours, he had collected a handful of coins, a small stack of bread, and a few cooked fish. He liked fish. Especially the heads. He always saved the head for last, sucking out the juices with a passionate slurp. Back in town, there was a nice lady who would let him and his friends eat at her shop. She made the best fish heads, and she didn't mind his grubby paws.

He would stay away from home tonight, though. His father wouldn't miss him, and he avoided being near his father as much as possible. Too unpredictable. One day he would shower his son with warmth, and the next he would be nursing the bruises his father gave him in a drunken rage. He cried sometimes, but he didn't wish for another father. This was simply what a father was, and all that he expected a man to be.

As he made his rounds, he saw that there were some men playing with the other beggar kids. They didn't seem to mind them being around. As he approached the small crowd, he saw a man laughing as the boys took turns trying to tackle him. The boy smiled. He'd never seen a clean-looking man hang around with kids like him. Some of the man's friends were joining in, too, lifting boys up on their shoulders and flipping them safely down on the ground. He giggled at them, and gazed up at one of these strange men, wondering if there might be some flipping for him, too.

The man noticed him and smiled. The boy smiled back, and in a sudden rush of freedom and inspiration, dropped his sackful of bread and coins, and tackled the man. The man fell playfully on the ground and laughed. The man, his accent thick, put his hand to his chest and said, "Andrew."

"Androo," the boy repeated, trilling it slightly.

"You. You name," said Androo.

The boy sniggered at the man's language skills as he told Androo his name. Androo held his hand out for a shake, and proceeded to jiggle the boys arm vigorously, much to his delight. The playing went on for some time, and when the boy grew hungry, he and Androo sat on the ground and sighed together.

He pulled his bread and fish from his sack and started eating. Bits of bread flew from his mouth as Androo made a face at him. It seemed the man and his friends were also getting hungry, and talking about something important. The boy noticed that his new friend didn't have any lunch with him. He liked this man. The boy motioned to him that he could have some of his bread and fish. Androo said something to one of his friends and laughed again.

"I take...? Uhm... Share? My friends... share?" said Androo. He was really doing his best with the language, but he had a very bad accent. This delighted the boy, and he motioned to Androo to please share his food.

The boy watched Androo as he took the bread to one of his friends, who closed his eyes and lifted the lunch to the sky. His lips moved silently in some kind of prayer. He found that kind of fascinating, and he liked the look of devotion on the man's face. Androo showed his friend who had given him the bread and fish, and the man came and crouched down in front of him, still holding the food in his hands. The man smiled at the boy, and said "Thank-you" with an accent that was less severe than Androo's.

"Here!" the man said. "Take."

The boy reached for a piece of bread. There were five small loaves, and as he took one, the man took a little breath of surprise and pointed back at the loaves.

"Five!" he said.

The boy looked at his hand, which was still holding the other fifth loaf of bread. He looked at the five loaves still in the man's hands. He smiled and looked up at the man, trying to figure out how he did it.

"Take again," said the man.

The boy looked up at him, grinning suspiciously. He took another piece of bread, and was delightfully confounded when the man pointed again at yet another fifth loaf, still laying there. The man feigned astonishment again, and the boy giggled again.

"Try fish." said the man.

There were only two fish. If he could pull this trick off with just these two fish, this man was good indeed. The boy grabbed quickly at one of the fish, hoping to beat the magician at his slight of hand. When he saw that there were still two fish laying there, and that he was holding the third second fish in his hand, his eyes widened even more.

"How'd you do that?" he said.

At this point, the trick had attracted a small crowd of the boy's friends. Peering over one another's shoulders, they all smiled with delight at the man's magic skills. The boy tried again with the bread, again with the fish, but always the number in the man's hands remained. Five loaves, two fish.

The bread and fish were making their way through the kids hands, too, with hungry little mouths tearing off large chunks of bread. Outbursts of cackling kids spread more than a few crumbs on the ground.

Androo sat beside the boy, admiring his friends skills, and laughing with each confounded look the boy gave. The man said something to his other friends, and they started calling out and forming groups of people within the crowd. The man handed the fish and bread over to Andrew, speaking and motioning toward the people. Androo smiled and turned to the boy, offering his free hand. They had a job to do, together.

For a long time, the boy and his new friend went about through the crowd, handing out the magical fish and bread. The little helper drew easy smiles from the poorer people, many of whom shared the boy's language. The wealthier ones, who had apparently come out to see someone of some importance, were more cautious with their warmth. The boy noticed, however, that each grouping of people had some of each variety. Never would these have met ordinarily, and the boy thought it funny to see them together.

He recognized some of the faces, especially the mean ones, which he'd been begging from just a few hours earlier. He now handed them his own fish and bread, and smirked magnanimously. Some smirked back, and he forgave them for their previous contempt with a nod of his head.

When everyone had been served, he sat with his new friend on the ground while some of the other men began gathering up the leftovers. He took a bite of his fish, and sucked the good stuff from its head. Androo made a disgusted face at this, and the boy laughed again. Of all the fish heads he'd had, this one was definitely the best.