Earlier that day, I had heard an eerie howling sound coming from the other room. I dashed around the corner and saw Xiao Fu, who the kids call Ayi, collapsed into a heap on the floor of our mud room with her cell phone in hand. That eerie sound was coming from her gaping mouth.
I called Daniel to come home right away, and then I fell to my knees beside her, trying to keep her from hurting herself while she thrashed and wailed. I asked Bright to bring us a pillow, which he did with lightning speed.
“What’s wrong with Ayi, Mama?” Bright asked when he returned with the pillow.
“She just received news that her big brother has died,”I said, which is what I was piecing together. “He has fallen off a mountain.”
Bright and Zion then went straight to work with the markers and construction paper, making sympathy cards. The first one Bright brought out was on a hot pink strip of cardstock and it read, in brown marker, “Cher Up!”, with a heart drawn next to it. He laid it at the feet of his precious Ayi, who was lying in my arms, and then he went right back to the school room to make more.
Xiao Fu’s friend, who works in a foreigner’s home on the 4th floor of our building, came pounding on the door. I let her in, and she fell down beside Xiao Fu, her yellow ruffled maid’s apron still tied around her waist. She herself lost a brother in a tragic accident last year, and her tears were still fresh. I moved to the background then, sensing that I was not a part of this moment. I am not one of them, in my Chaco sandals and my sterling silver earrings, unable to speak but a few stupid sentences in their language. I hung my head and began to pray.
When Daniel arrived, he dropped to the floor and wrapped his arms around her shoulders, like a brother would, while she beat her chest and cried, “Ge Ge Wo ai ni!!” (which means, “Big Brother, I love you”) Even though Daniel could have spoken to her, he did not. His arms were still and strong, and she seemed to relax in them, just a little. I knelt a few feet away, praying and crying quietly, wishing this had not happened. Wishing her brother had been sick this morning and stayed in bed, instead of going up the mountain with the goats, like he had done thousands of times before.
This was only the second tragic emergency of my lifetime. The first time was when I was a teenager, and I watched a maintenance man die of a heart attack, right before my eyes. I watched as the paramedics tried to revive him, watched his skin turn blue, and then gray. I made a plaque in his honor out of plaster in art class the following week. His name was Erk.
It didn’t take long for it to become clear: Daniel would be driving Xiao Fu and her people to their village, 9 hours away. There is no train that goes there, and we are the only folks she knows with both a vehicle and a driver’s license. It was 4 O’clock in the afternoon, and we would have to cancel dinner for friends we were planning to host that evening, but we knew Daniel had to go. When he offered, the people who say no to everything the first two times, said yes right away. Their usual pride was gone. They needed the white guy in his green polar fleece, and they needed him right quick. Daniel had one hour to regroup, eat two tuna fish sandwiches, grab some bottled water and a toothbrush, and head out the door.
The kids overheard me asking friends over the phone to pray, as the roads are not good and the way is not lit. I felt bad for the kids. They were sad and worried.
“You know what, guys?” I said, suddenly realizing something. “We have no need to worry. Not only because G0D is going to protect Daddy and Ayi and the other mourners, but because if there is anybody in the world that I would trust driving a bunch of people in a cheap van over mountain roads at night, it’s your daddy.” And I meant it, too. One of the first times my crush on Daniel really flared up, back in 2001, happened while watching the ease and fluidity with which he backed a truck and trailer into a tight parking spot in downtown Memphis. Being an Arkansas country boy does come in handy from time to time.
At some point, I spilled grape juice all over my kitchen, which won’t get it’s usual attention for weeks now that “the help” is 9 hours away and broken into a million tiny pieces. I got down on my knees with a wet dishrag to wipe sticky purple spots from every inch of cabinetry, thinking about Xiao Fu thrashing around like a fish in the bottom of a boat. My heart was so heavy that I thought it might spill right out onto the juice stains. I just wished so badly that this had not happened.
At 2:48 a.m., I got a call from Daniel. They had made it to Xiao Fu's village, a cluster of mud structures high, high up in the cold mountains, where men wear furs and cows sleep in the living room. I hung up the phone and closed my eyes,“The Help” still by my pillow. I missed my husband, and I missed Xiao Fu, and I missed the illusion, which comes and goes in life, that everything is OK.
“L0RD,” I whispered, on my way to sleep, “help us.”