We found him on the dirty streets of Phnom Penh, just off of Sisowath Quay. He was dressed in rags and sucking on discarded satay sticks from the gutter. He crouched, like a small animal, mournful brown eyes gazing hungrily as we passed by. He raised his fingers to his mouth, never uttering a word. He stood up and silently fell in line behind us, a small, wraith-like figure in the folds of the dark sky.
As we entered a small convenience store, he pressed his nose up against the glass. His grubby fingers left streaky brown spots on the glass. The shop owners chased him back to the street with brooms. We stood inside the small shop and wondered what to do. Did he have a street boss? If so, we knew he wouldn’t receive a single penny we gave him, so we opted to buy him some apple juice, cheese and crackers. It was a pitiful dinner and we felt horrible as we lumbered outside and solemnly handed our purchases to him. A fleeting look of thanks crossed his face and then fear. His head darted around quickly, as though looking for someone and then he scampered off into the black night. We wondered where this small, innocent child would rest his head this evening.
The next morning, he was waiting for us when we stepped out of our hotel. He is such a smart little boy, to know instinctively that we are bleeding hearts. There are so few of us left. We couldn’t turn our eyes. We started trudging up the street and found a small, shaded restaurant. He sat down in the gutter and watched us closely. His heavy flannel shirt stuck to his skin in the heat of the morning. His tattered shorts hung from his thin frame. We could hardly bare it.
We invited him to join us. He crawled to our table on all fours, like a dog that has been beaten. We quickly stood and helped him stand. He clambered up onto the big chair and sat quietly. Scrambled eggs, bacon, fresh orange juice and bread were placed in front of him and he valiantly tried to use his fork and knife. He dabbed his napkin at his mouth and tried to clean his hands before eating his bread while I helped him cut his food. We struggled to eat our meals, all of us self-conciously aware of our health and robustness. In the end, each of us left food on our plates, which we packed into a bag for him for later. A quick thank-you and he slipped away into the morning crowds.
We saw him again later that evening. He was precariously clinging to the back of a tuk-tuk. His bare feet pounded the hot asphalt as he hitched a ride to God knows where. We thought we had seen the last of him, and each of us silently said a prayer for him. Nevertheless, we saved our food for him, just in case. Just as we were getting ready to enter our hotel, we saw him emerge from a dark alley with a friend. We bought some more apple juice and crackers for them. We hoped that somehow this might fortify him for another twenty-four hours, each of us wondering when he would get his next meal. He accepted it gratefully, and his lips pulled back slightly. It was the sorriest excuse for a smile I have ever seen, yet a smile nonetheless. As he walked off down the street, we waved good-bye as he looked back over his shoulder. A flash of teeth and the night swallowed him whole.
His name is Jack. He’s ten years old.
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
over 5 years ago
Martin Luther King