This Sunday finds us with a guest post from Brian Harrison, my little (and long-winded) brother. [Not that I’m generally brief in my musings.] Brian is hard to introduce, and harder yet to understand. He graduated from Harding University with a degree in English and loves to travel the world. Brian served as an apprentice missionary in Moscow for two years and ran with the bulls not once, but twice, last year. Right now he’s working for the census and (occasionally) blogging here.
Brian is a masterful worker of metaphors, and paints a better picture than most writers I know — especially when it comes to ardor, romance, and infatuation. He fell in love once in Nicaragua…
I was in love and I won’t bother telling anybody much more about it. Our mouths remain mute while our hearts creak and shatter. It was a whimpering adoration, a long haul of an unattainable desire, a steady fire of vigilant longing snuffed out by stupid luck and stupid timing. My heart ached and I thinned considerably from lack of appetite. I was 19…a beautiful age with the most beautiful of feelings piercing my chest, both beauties seeming to be crushed under the weight of reality. Those were the mixed-up days of bright eyes with their painful shadows. But like I said, I will not say much more of her shadow.
A mission trip loomed ahead. It was to be my first trip out of the country. I went from the shards of one broken dream to the invitation of another – the dream of travel. It is a recess, a quick leap away from compressing life to the great wide unknown, that comprises what we feel in the act of traveling. We have carried our sorrows, rolled in the mud, inhaled the dust, and crept through the shadows, and when that time comes for our heavy heels to take to the skies toward a whole new shore…we may perhaps leave behind our pains, and even the broken pieces of ourselves.
Who can remember the first time one has left one’s own country? There is a vivid mysticism laying on the contours of this foreign realm where the airplane is darting. Nicaragua…not much of a notable country, but somewhere other than home. The plane sits in the runway and with a start and a boost it thrusts up into the air. The first take off, tossing one back into the seat, the engine hums and roars, and maybe a jolt and a pounding heartbeat, and all is sky. These experiences diluted my sadness and I, for the first time, saw the clouds below me while the dominant sun cast its light upon the white landscape of marshmallowy clouds. And let this be an allegory worth noting: All was showered in sunlight…all lands, all clouds, all sea, all air, all horizons…but we can only see that when we are off the ground and above the clouds that enshroud our lives in narrow fog. The plane soared about these sun-drenched palaces of hope and light and then dipped into darkness. The night had fallen and we approached Nicaragua. I remember viewing the jungles far below absolved into blackness, absolved into the fabulous unknown of this unknown land.
In the morning the streets were roaring with honking horns, yelling mestizos, and, every now and then, the cawing of an exotic bird. This trip was strictly VBS. Our group was composed of the deliberate few who were going to teach children Bible stories and play and make them laugh as well. If there is any healing in traveling then there is almost its uplifting match in interacting with children. The team I went with was a devoted crew and had whole biblical costumes and puppets brought from the far-away land of Bible Belt America. And there, among the concrete-slabbed buildings and mudsliding streets, the children all on the edge of their pews, we performed our theatrical parables to the wide-eyed splendor of this Central American childhood. We were a smash, a hit. In the hovel-filled neighborhoods of Managua, rumors spread about these pale actors who dazzled the humidity from the air, all dressed in funny robes and beards and such. The little ninos would run from all four corners of their known earth and assemble, crowding up every patch of pavement to see this traveling circus of fat and blue-eyed gringos telling their tales in these slapdash skits. There was a whole cast of bright characters mesmerizing the kids’ eyes into gleeful attention. The deaf old man, the lame man dragged in on bedsheets. I played a pretty convincing blind man running into walls and such until the stage center Jesus gave me sight. We would exaggerate all types of characters to get the kids rollicking in laughter. And laugh they would. We would pack all these children in that one-room, cement chapel and have them howling with laughter. And nothing, nothing clears the brooding mind more than the laughter of children. So when it was my time up on stage, I would make full use of the situation. I hate to boast…but there was not a character who was as popular and as well loved as my own debut as the Good Samaritan’s Donkey. I’d hee and haw and kick my legs up in the air then the entire kindergarten audience would erupt in blessed laughter.
The place was Tierra Prometida, a suburb of Managua. In English, that means “The Promised Land.” Instead of giants, there were children playing in the streets – some clothed in garments, others clothed in dirt, but all fun and playful, as though drunk from the milk and honey of a simple life, or perhaps not drunk from the spoilings that our American kids know too well.
And then my eyes found her. She was standing in the shadows. Part of the light from the sun streamed in through the window, illuminating her delicate features. She was short, not much taller than the children, and she was dark like the jungles at night. Her eyes shone forth like the moonlight breaking through the trees. Her face had the angular edifice of high cheek bones; a purely Native American construction. It was a face from another time and place, when the Indian maids walked down to the river to fetch jugfuls of water from the springs of the earth. But none of these impressions struck the heart so vividly as her interaction with the children. That a girl has stirring eyes…that is all very well. That a girl has sweet lips…again, that is well. But that a girl can play with children…this is the characteristic that will sell my soul, every time. She was their Bible teacher at this church. In one sense, she seemed to be an older sister. In another, she seemed to be a mother. I couldn’t place what age she actually was – somewhere dangling between the gates of Eden and the doors of Paradise. Through subtle inquiries, I found out her name was Arlene Hernandez, and her age was 18. She was unmarried and a good, fine, godly woman.
In Nicaragua, I never got over the way the simplest things entertain the children. I would take out my notebook and draw all types of cartoons for these kids. They’d crowd around me, wondering what creature I’d spin off with my pencil or crayon. Then, I got to the point where I’d sketch out the children’s faces. And they’d fight over who was going to be drawn next, and they’d run off with their paper to their mothers showing them the likenesses.
One night, while entertaining some kids with my drawings, I hit upon an idea. It was Arlene’s face that I wanted to draw. And I knew that it was less from an artistic urge and more from the plain, bare fact that I wanted an excuse to stare intently into those magnetic eyes. So through hand motions – the only real way I know how to speak other languages – I got her to pose, while I sketched out her features. Her eyes burned like lit lamps leading this artist into the dark, solemn mysteries of her soul, of her people, of their life.
She had one of those faces that spoke its spilling auras of light and love and things wholly divine. The shadows interplayed with the savage sun of that Nicaraguan sky and shot shafts of uncontainable radiance onto her Native American features. Her eyes were two marvelous almonds, carving out minimalist appreciation from the bottom of men’s chests. They were sultry, hypnotic eyes…the kind that, upon looking into, you curse your eyelids for taking a short break to blink. In the North, we have sapphire gemstones and we glance into emeralds, but in Central America, unrivaled brown is the sacred hue of their orbs. These eyes of these southern daughters of the Mayans and the Aztecs could shake an empire. The Conquistadors – en route to salvage their bloody gold – should have returned in their galleons, back to Spain, declaring that they’ve grasped the full bounty of those jungles, for they have gazed into these two fiery-brown doubloons for eyes, and in them, they’ve caught glimpses of the Fountain of Youth puddled in two brown pools of penetrating heat.
The drawing was complete, and what a poor drawing it was. (I’m more of a cartoonist than a real artist.) But it inspired me further out of the graphite realm and into the world of ink. Til this day, I don’t know why I wrote it. Maybe I was trying to express something deep within. Maybe it involved breaking free from the horrid crush that I was tormenting through. Or maybe…I just saw something beautiful and I wished to respond. Shall I be hanged for this? It was not a poem, really, just a simple little paragraph. I can’t remember what all it said. It was not a declaration of love, only an acknowledgment of beauty, and there is a vast difference. What I do remember is the allegory I used. I told her that there was something about her features that reminded me of a framed portrait – a work of art that should hang on a wall, and all people should stand and admire with their eyes and hearts, but that beautiful object shall remain on that wall. If the humble viewer wished to be in the picture also, then it would only make the picture ugly. Yes, I know, strange. (And apparently this was not going to be the last time I’ve done such an absurd thing.)
Foolish inspiration, why do I live my life by this impulse? Why not be like everyone else, and live with practical sense? But no, I must court a muse, and who or what this is, I am still trying to figure out. Well, I gave her the paragraph, and for her Spanish eyes, it had to be translated. She couldn’t speak one word in English and I could speak only a few words in Spanish, so this made for one interesting set-up. She got one of the bilingual preachers to translate the entire piece for her. Within minutes there was a huge shockwave that hit our entire group, as well as her whole church, and those other churches, leagues and leagues away. It was joked about by both the Americans and the natives.
Then Wednesday came. Wednesday was the very special day in the middle of our sojourn to this distant land that, sadly, the majority of the Americans were looking forward to, for it was the day that we were all to go eat at McDonald’s. I’m just about ashamed to write that. But it’s the truth. All of us fat Americans were hauled across the city of Managua to the only McDonald’s, perhaps, in the entire country. And there we would charge the poor McDonald’s workers like starving cows, ordering which combo meal we wanted. Before we went, one of the Americans advised me to ask Arlene to go to McDonald’s with me as sort of a date. So I announce to you, now, that one of the most memorable dates that I’ve ever been on was at McDonald’s…with a girl I couldn’t even speak to…accompanied by our very own interpreter…alongside 20 Big Mac-craving Americans.
To be continued — The Ballad of Arlene (part mbili) next Sunday.