The bus slows just enough to cough us out, and already my companion is begging me to leave her there, right there on the last curb before the pavement ends and the street turns to red mud. I’ll just sit here, she says. She points to the spot. She promises she won’t move. Her eyes close, and she begins to whisper. It’s possible that she’s praying. The air is thick with exhaust. I step into the mud and she stands on the curb, her hands pressed tight, her eyes still closed. She is mouthing the word please in rapid sequence—and something about her very pale skin, her thousand tiny freckles reminds me that we are far from home. You’re cute, I say, but I can’t leave you here. I mean both things sincerely. She opens her eyes. The prayer ends. We start up the hill.
The morning rain has washed the road out, and we sink in ankle deep. In the red mud my companion is slow, and I wait. I have explained only a little. The boy is sick; his mother, a faithful Catholic and good friend, has asked us to visit, to pray. My companion wants to know how sick, how bad? Bad, I say. Bad. I don’t say that already he is nearly dead and that she will recognize it before she knows anything else, before she even knows his name. She says she’s scared, and the truth is, I’m as scared as she is. Even if the mission rules allowed me to leave my brand new companion, green and fresh from the States, on a muddy hillside curb, I couldn’t do it. I need her beside me, because something like this demands a witness, because forget that we’re a couple of fine missionaries with some kind of faith, what we are about to see will be the end of an innocence neither of us is prepared to lose, and the fear of it runs as fast as the mud through the red streets. The truth is that in a shanty on this hilltop a mother rocks herself beside her son and counts the minutes before our arrival. She has prepared a meal and set his place at the table, though the boy no longer eats. He will eat soon, she has told me, believing fervently, unfailingly in our ability to heal her son. I know only that I am helpless to save him, and this is a secret I cannot keep alone.
As we approach the house, I think of what it is I know, what another might like to know before seeing this thing, and I tell this to my companion. I say these words: imagine, a toenail. The nail buries itself inside the toe. The boy tries to correct it, to coerce it back out, but his foot is dirty and the instrument he uses is not clean. His family is poor, but I don’t need to say this, because we are almost to the doorstep on a street made of dirt, running with the raw and foul smell of sewage, and their poverty is all around us. When the toe becomes infected, his mother pays a man to take it off. The man is not a doctor, but I don’t need to say this either. Later the foot begins to itch and burn wildly, wonderfully, like a fit of frightening laughter, and the boy scratches until the laughter becomes hysterical.
We pause for a moment on the doorstep; there is more I want to say. I want to tell her that I saw a boy, once, steal a chicken bone from a dog’s mouth and then share it with a smaller, scrawnier child. Their legs were thin as cattails. Their bellies, I want to tell her, were swollen, and round as dark balloons. I want to tell her that for a long time I looked for them every time we left the house, that now I have crackers in my backpack, that sometimes I carry sweets. But mostly I want to tell her that when my companion had gone to sleep that night, I stayed awake and cried. I cried for their thin arms and dirty faces, I cried because they ran away still hungry, because somehow the good world had failed them. I want to say that this will be something like that. This will be hard. I say simply that when the foot became infected, Neosporin would have saved his life. We knock at the rusted door and go inside.
I notice the smell before our eyes can adjust to the darkness of the room to see the boy on the couch lying drugged and half-covered by a thin sheet. I know that my companion has noticed it too, because she coughs violently and blows air out hard through her nose. The mother kisses both of our cheeks. She asks us to sit, to pray for her son, and for a moment I hesitate because the boy has lost weight since I last saw him, and I am fascinated by the nearness of his skeleton. The woman is whispering—Santa Maria, Madre de Dios—before my mouth can form the words.
The boy stirs and turns his face toward us. His features are made soft by the darkness, emaciated and feminine. He smiles. He calls us sisters. Sisters, he says, draw the curtains back. My mother wants you to see my leg. My companion is holding my hand. She stands close, despite the heat, and together we approach the boy who is sitting now and cradling a wet bundle, which he begins to unwrap.
Beneath the sheet is a layer of plastic bags—grocery bags soaked and dripping an orange fluid, like dark urine. The smell now is strong, the strong sweet smell of every dead, decaying thing I have ever known. The leg is covered in plastic from the pelvis down, and it’s obvious that whatever living thing began eating his foot has become voracious and unstoppable, a legion we cannot exorcize. He places the wet bags in a pile beside him and reveals the secret.
I am prepared for the living, organic color of the green, because back in the States I once thought maybe I could be a doctor, and in a year when I get back to college, I’ll pick up in the premed track where I left off. But what gets me, what I never could have imagined, is the brilliance of the spectrum in between. Colors I don’t know the names of, hues I’ve never seen. They are terrifying and alive, and there is nothing among them that passes for a leg. The boy pulls the cover over his ruined limb. I don’t want to wrap it, he says. Already, it is seeping through the sheet.
We stand for a moment in the half-light, my companion and I still holding hands. Tears run down the mother’s face. I know, she says. There is nothing left, but will you pray? I say that I will. I offer some few, small words. I beg with all the faith I have, but the mother has begun to sob, and I understand that, even for the faithful, desperation will run comfortless at times—deep and wild.
I turn to look at my companion. Her freckled cheeks are flushed. Tears are welling in her eyes. She asks if she can go outside, says she needs to catch her breath. Yes, I think. I can give her that. I free her hand; she wipes her eyes, then slips alone from the room into the living, breathable air.