From: The Case for Grace
I imagined the bounty of food that’s put before Penelope three times a day – and which, like more preschoolers, she routinely picks at with casual disinterest. “How did you manage to eat?” I asked Stephanie.
“Actually, food was plentiful in the country, except in the winter,” she said. “I could steal whatever I wanted. There were fruit fields, vegetable fields, and rice fields. As long as I didn’t get caught, I could eat.
“I remember following a group of homeless children. At night they would crawl on their bellies into the fields and get some of what we called sweet melons. I thought, I could do that. So there was a season where every night I would wait for the watchman of the field to fall asleep, and I would crawl on my belly and get what I wanted.
“Plus, the rice fields were full of grasshoppers and locusts. I would catch them and poke a rice straw through their head until I had a whole string of them, which I’d tie to my belt. By the end of the day they were pretty much dried and I’d eat them. And I killed field mice. They would come out of the same hole at the same time every day. I learned to be really, really patient. When they stuck out their head, I would grab them quicker than they could go back down the hole. I pretty much ate everything – the skin, the ears, the tail.”
I asked, “What about the winters? They must have been unbearable for you.”
“Yes, they were very cold, and I had nowhere to go and no food. Really, I should have died that first winter. I don’t know how I survived, except I remember I found a foxhole to live in. I gathered whatever straw I could find from the rice fields and brought it in to make a little den. I’d go down to the village when everybody was sleeping and steal what I could from the villagers.
“In Third World countries, street children grow up really fast. I learned to adapt quickly. In my wanderings, everything was a treasure. A tin can thrown by a soldier from a truck became my drinking can and boiling pot. We would find nails and put them on the railroad tracks to be run over and flattened – they became utensils. I would use one to gut the mice I would catch.”
“Did the villagers know you were there?”
“Oh, yes. Every once in a while a kind woman would leave her kitchen door open for me, and I would curl up on the dirt floor by the stove and stay warm. Those were answers to prayers, because in my dens I would be shivering all night.”
“You mentioned earlier that you were taunted.”
“It was constant. The children taunted me because I was biracial, and the farmers would yell at me because I was stealing from them. To everyone, I was a dirty toogee. And when you’re a little child and hear people call you that day after day, you begin to believe it about yourself. I believed anyone could do whatever they wanted to me physically because I wasn’t a person. I was worthless. I was dirty. I was unclean. I had no name. I had no identity. I had no family. I had no future and no hope. Over time, I began to hate myself.
“There were times when I would follow a group of homeless children. Sometimes they would let me mingle with them, and other times they would do bad things to me, you just never knew. So I became hypervigilant. Very cautious. And yet the child in me would always want to be with people. I was always looking for someone to say, ‘Oh, be my friend. You can belong to us.’”
“What was it like for you emotionally?”
“I was in survival mode. I did cry when I was abused, I did beg for mercy, I would get angry, I would kick and scream, I learned cuss words really quickly. The first few days or weeks, I cried for my mommy. I was always trying to find my way back to her. Maybe she would be over the next hill; maybe she would be around the next corner. If I saw a village from the distance I would think, Oh, that’s my village, and I would run into it.
“But it was never my village.”