“Joy is an antidote to the devil’s poison.”
Mateo stood behind the food table at the church soup kitchen and glanced aside at his brother. He wondered for the umpteenth time if fairies had switched one of them at birth. There was no way they could be brothers, much less twins. He suppressed his irritation and jutted his chin at the hunched, weary-eyed woman sliding her tray forward. “Keep your mind on your job, Tiago. Your jokes, like a cracked bucket, don’t hold water around here.”
Tiago shrugged and placed a bun, a pat of butter, and a healthy dollop of shredded pork on the woman’s plate. He also offered his best smile.
Her downcast gaze never met his.
The line seemed endless amid the shuffling feet, sniffling children, and darting helpers—high school kids who found more purpose in feeding the hungry than solving algebra problems in class.
Across the room a counselor sat on a plastic chair, hunched in close to a small gathering of refugees who had seen too much, lost too much, suffered too much, and wanted someone to help them. They thought that talking—or listening to others talk—might ease their burdens.
Mateo shook his head, his hands automatically serving the last of the day’s food. The food truck wouldn’t be back until tomorrow. Those who came too late would have to wait.
A child screamed, her wail piercing through the gentle murmur of conversations ebbing and flowing through the small brick building. Instinctively, Mateo stepped forward, but Tiago was already halfway across the room. A section had been set aside for a nurse and a visiting doctor who did basic health care. Some of the refugees needed medications, others had infections, some were dealing with serious, unmanaged medical conditions. The support staff could do very little, but they did what they could, and that was better than nothing.
Helpers began to gather the empty trays and plastic plates. Mateo watched his brother hover, trying to calm a little girl. He squinted in the dim evening light. The kid, probably around eight or nine, had been crouched in the southwest corner all day. She had rocked back and forth, her arms wrapped around her stomach as if she felt sick. He was glad that she hadn’t attempted to eat the heavy meal, free though it was. Most certainly, she would’ve thrown up, and he hated dealing with that kind of a mess.
In a surprising, but not uncharacteristic move, Tiago took the child in his arms and carried her back to the corner she had hunched in all day. Lord, what now? The man’s a fool, You and I both know it, but he means well. Just not an ounce of sense.
Mateo searched the room. Where were the girl’s relatives? Friends even? An adult usually came with the kids. If they got separated, often an older woman took charge and informally adopted the lost one into her set.
No one even glanced in the southwest corner. As if there was something there too frightening to face.
His stomach dropping, Mateo bundled the last of the serving containers into a helper’s arms, wiped his hands on a ragged dish towel, and headed across the room. Horrible images crowed his mind, alighting his nerves into a stinging mass. It had only been twice, but it had felt like a thousand, the wretched discovery that a brother or sister, mere children themselves, had been left in charge of a baby sibling, and, in such impossible situations, events had turned tragic quickly. Mateo hurried his steps.
Tiago was a man in body, but his soul remained much like a child. Mama had insisted that God arranged it so for their good. Mateo was smart and well organized, while Tiago knew how to laugh and love well.
He won’t be laughing now, Mama.
Mateo edged to the two figures now hunched over a third, a small bundle wrapped in a blanket. The room swayed as Mateo’s worst nightmare seemed about to come true. His innocent, happy-go-lucky brother who managed to cling to joy even in the worst situations would now be smashed hard against a rock of horror.
The little girl whimpered, but Tiago’s voice hummed in an odd, out-of-place sing-song. His brother ducked into the janitor’s closet, returned with a small shovel, then lifted the bundle carefully. With consummate tenderness, he nudged the child before him toward a side door.
What the—? Mateo glanced into the crowded room at the mass of bewildered, long-suffering humanity, the patient social worker, the overworked nurse, and the visiting doctor. Surely, one of them ought to take charge.
The metal door creaked open, and an evening breeze swirled into the stifling room. His brother and the girl slipped out of sight in an instant.
Uncertain, Mateo hesitated, but images of his brother taking the dead baby to the church filled him with horror. The priest wasn’t even there. Father Seth had gone to assist a new busload of refugees entering the city. Some poor souls more than half-dead needed spiritual solace before advancing to the other side.
Mateo hurried out the door.
Tiago’s figure, his arms embracing the motionless bundle, with the little girl close at his side, hurried across the silent road but didn’t ascend the church steps. They scurried around to the back and quickened their pace.
Mateo dashed after them, charging against the onslaught of a blustery spring wind. The only thing behind the church was the cemetery. Oh, Lord in heaven! They wouldn’t try to bury a baby by themselves? Without family, friends, the blessings of a holy man to beg God’s mercy on the poor innocent?
Arriving at the cemetery gate, Tiago merely stepped aside and let the girl go first. Always a gentleman, though it was merely a habit with him. No thoughts of impressing the girls. His IQ, just above eighty, never actually identified as mentally challenged, but his complete lack of ambition, forethought, or higher intellectual acumen proved that he wasn’t made for worldly success. Though he always had friends. Tiago liked everyone, and everyone liked Tiago.
Flummoxed, Mateo fought the maelstrom growing inside as the wind tried to drag him backward. I ought to just take over. Make them see that they can’t do this. They might think it’s for the best, but it’s not. Records have to be kept. Even in such tumultuous times, decorum must be maintained. Surely, some family member somewhere would want a proper ceremony for the poor tyke.
Mateo squared his shoulders and plowed through the increasingly cold wind. He followed his brother and the scrawny girl to the back edge of the graveyard.
Tiago gently laid the bundle on the ground and began to dig, right against the fence.
Sucking in a bracing breath, Mateo marched forward.
Alarmed, the girl gasped.
Tiago kept digging. The ground was still wet with recent rain but not soggy. The shovel slid deep, and Tiago pressed the edge with his boot and angled it for a lift. The first shovelful fell on the left.
“You can’t do this, Tiago. Burials have to be recorded, and family has to be notified. Father Seth must give his approval.”
Tiago bent and lifted the second shovelful.
The girl, silent, her eyes wide and fearful, wrapped her arms around her middle. She had seemed bigger when she had sat hunched in the corner. Must’ve been the bundle she rocked…made her seem large somehow. And older. Her face, dirty and pinched with the first signs of malnutrition, showed a little girl who had lost all hope of joy.
Bracing himself, Mateo stepped before the child and crouched to eye level. He clasped her thin arm. “What was his name? Or hers?”
A breath of a whisper stirred the air. “Toby.”
Mateo nodded. “A good name. Fine and strong. Now, don’t you think we ought to give Toby a proper burial?”
The child looked over at the gravedigger.
In defiance of any hasty assessment, Tiago was strong and nimble. He stood before a small hole and set the shovel against the fence. Then he leaned down and unwrapped the bundle.
There, still and lifeless, lay a black and white kitten.
Relief flooded over Mateo, and laughter bubbled up from the caverns of hell.
But shockingly, Tiago started to hum again. This time, his hum flowed with words. “Come Holy Ghost, Creator blest and in our hearts take up thy rest. Come with thy grace and heavenly aid, to fill our hearts which thou hast made…”
Tears slipped down Mateo’s face. He kept his place and did not intrude.
After the end of the song and a prayer-filled silence, Tiago, with the girl’s help, filled the hole and placed three stones on the small mound with artistic care.
The girl took Tiago’s hand on the way back to the makeshift homeless shelter.
Mateo followed carrying the shovel.
When Tiago swung the girl’s arm wide and grinned at her, Mateo wasn’t terribly surprised to see a smile hover over her face. Her eyes shone and—for a moment at least—the agony was gone, and she was a little girl again.
Though only a crescent moon shone its light on that blustery March evening, Mateo saw with a brilliance he had never experienced before.
Joy is an antidote. And love is the highest form of intelligence.
A. K. Frailey is the author of 15 books, a teacher for 35 years, and a homeschooling mother of 8.
Make the most of life’s journey.
For books by A. K. Frailey check out her Amazon Author Page
“There are many excellent stories in this collection.” ~McEvoy
“Readers interested in changing perspectives presented as succinct, hard-hitting slices of life will relish the literary and psychological attractions of One Day at a Time And Other Stories.” ~Diane Donovan, Editor, California Bookwatch
“When I found out she had a new collection out, this volume, I grabbed it immediately and started reading it that day.” ~Steven