Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: ONWARD CHRISTIAN SOLDIERS (don't write about the song) (05/14/15)
- TITLE: Alley Warriors
By Jack Taylor
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I found Panina Mpitarasuma crumpled on an abandoned couch near a dumpster in an alley. At first, I mistook her for a discarded black garbage bag covered with a sopping scrap of cardboard.
The perpetual drizzle and early morning fog accompanying the distinctive odor of marijuana filtering out a door, alongside the throbbing beat of a nearby nightclub, set me up for surprise. Her black skin glistened in the light of a dim bulb. It stretched tight over a skull with recessive eye sockets, sunken cheeks, and taut shadows around her throat and collarbones. This moment was like stumbling onto an undernourished alien.
Mondays was my day for this stretch of clubs as I scoured for bottles and cans to help fund the ministry to prostitutes and addicts. The church gave our small brigade of alley warriors a few bucks to work with but it was hardly enough for the need here. The U-Return-It depot was close to these clubs and my bike could handle five or six big bags of cans or bottles. I had to start early to beat out the other dumpster divers who paid for their habit through gleaning like this.
My Yankees cap kept the rain out of my eyes but it also kept me from looking far enough in advance to analyze what I was seeing. The water pooling on my glasses may also have dimmed my vision. I reached for the cardboard and heard the groan. I froze and looked quickly around.
I spun in a slow circle and a deep moan sounded behind me. I jumped back and spun as if I was some karate yellow belt, stumbling and raising my hands in self-protection from an unseen attacker. Then I saw her move. I ripped off my glasses. Her dark eyes opened and a trickle of rain slid down her cheek to join the others dripping off her bony chin.
I’d seen the documentaries. The haunting images of refugees from Rwanda and Burundi, looking exactly like this, living skeletons clinging to the next breath.
The treasure trove of bottles at the next bin beckoned me, but I couldn’t leave her. The refunds from those discards could provide hot meals and warm blankets to a dozen young teenage women of the night yet I was captivated by the one abandoned soul before me. Our theme song “onward Christian soldiers” sounded in my soul and I looked around to see if there could be anyone else to help her. There was only Jake the Snake making his way down the alley toward my bins. She wouldn’t have a hope with the likes of him.
The sigh escaping my chest would probably have disappointed my pastor father. He might never take the time to troll the alleys for recyclables, but he always preached that every soul was priceless. And here was a soul.
I eased my bike to the ground, released the two bags I held and knelt down in the puddle beside the couch. The tip of her tongue pushed between parched lips and soaked in the raindrops.
When Jake the Snake saw me kneeling he rushed on over. I assumed to get in on the treasure trove he thought I’d found. Instead, he set down his own bags, unzipped his jacket and held it like a shield over the young woman. “Listen, you Christian alley warrior, I’ll cover her,” he said. “You go get help. They’ll believe you before they believe me.”
I slipped into an all-night coffee shop filled with shivering homeless men. The owner knew me and lent me his phone to call for help.
For the next two weeks I sat in the General Hospital with the woman. I let the other warriors handle the street needs. She was in emergency on a drip for two days before I heard her whisper. “God bless you,” she said. “I am Panina. Praise the Lord.”
In the next weeks I learned she was a Burundian refugee brought to the country but left without support systems. She’d been raped and beaten several times over the months as she looked fruitlessly for shelter in our city. Slowly her cheeks filled out and she savoured the hospital food as she moved from liquid diet to regular soup and mush.
She listened as I shared what the alley warriors tried to accomplish. And then she surprised me. “I am a life that was saved. I too want to be a Christian alley warrior.”
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