Manav arrives every afternoon at D’Epinay Village Hall without fail. A relieved smile breaks across his face when he sees me, always surprised that I have returned for another day. He paws shyly at the cabinet where I keep crayons and coloring books and waits for me to open it. Class has begun.
* * *
We weren’t initially friends. I first met Manav on the makeshift football field behind the center, hollering at the older boys from the sidelines. He constantly trailed behind me after that, curious about my presence but nervous enough to always keep at arm’s length. He never smiled, just studied me with brown eyes that seemed too large for his face. I felt like I could see the gears and cogs turning in his head as he tried to make sense of me.
I spoke to him with a big smile and easy French but his mouth, tight with concentration, never moved. That little boy was as much of an enigma to me as I was to him.
* * *
Our first breakthrough occurs when Manav accidentally get ahold of the dry erase markers. When I turn around from helping another student, I find a sun squiggled in a corner of the whiteboard and a proud six-year-old with a hesitant grin. “Soleil méchant ou mignon?” I ask. Mean sun or cute sun?
“Mignon,” he replies with an even cuter smile.
And so it goes every day for weeks. Manav draws suns, flowers, cars, and boats, and I ask if they are mean or cute. The answer changes depending on his mood. I am struck by how particular he is when drawing. There is not a line left out of place or a stray mark permitted to exist. Manav demonstrates an idiosyncratic grasp of perfection for a six-year-old. Most remarkable of all, however, is that this emphasis on order and correctness doesn’t hamper his artistic creativity. I grow to envy that he controls, rather than is controlled by, his need for excellence.
I try to teach him the names of simple images, letters, and numbers, but the exercises don’t seem to hold his attention. I do, however, manage to reinforce one memorable English exchange that I am sure most of my friends will yell at me for: when I say “cat,” he “meows” emphatically in response. It has become our personal greeting, an inside joke of sorts.
When Manav has exhausted the possibilities of a whiteboard and a black marker, I bring him drawing books and worksheets. My favorite part of the day becomes watching his imagination explode across the page in swirls of waxy color. In between the outlines of houses and planes, I discover a clever and inquisitive child that has been overlooked by everyone else.
* * *
Little by little, we share pieces of our personal lives. He sketches his friends, and I sketch mine. When I ask him to draw his family, he stares blankly at the board and shrugs. I quickly create two stick figure images: him with big eyes and me with crazy hair, the way he always likes to draws me. I write famille over our heads. Family. He smiles shyly and returns to drawing.
Another day, I show Manav pictures and videos of my two dogs at home. I tell him that I love them like siblings and watch as an idea appears behind his eyes. True to form, he comes to class the next day staggering under the weight of another child in his arms. It all clicks when I catch the same huge eyes like tea saucers. This is Manav’s brother. Except, instead of bringing me a photo, he brought the real thing. I cannot help but laugh at the sincerity of his “show and tell” attempt.
* * *
A tropical downpour covers D’Epinay one afternoon. Manav and I sit on the porch, watching the treetops shake in the rain. The world is quiet until he bolts and points at the driveway, which has suddenly begun to writhe. Dozens of shrews have evacuated their flooded subterranean homes and now squirm, fur like wet velvet, in the middle of the road. He screams over and over again in Creole, but I recognize enough words to understand what he wants me to do. L’Auto. Souris. Écraser. His concern for life at six years old catches me off guard. I hike up my skirt and step into the sheet of water; I am soaked in seconds. As he yells and points with delight, I chase every disoriented shrew to grassy safety. My delicate, shuffling steps are like a dance and I giggle, feeling free for the first time in weeks.
A lone shrew, however, is not so lucky. I find Manav tucked over one that is nearly drowned in a puddle. The boy quietly watches it perish; I watch the boy learn what death looks like. He looks at me soberly when it is over, but I can’t manage anything to say.
* * *
I try not to think that, in two weeks, I will be moving further away by the minute from Manav on a plane headed for Copenhagen. I try not to think that I will probably never return to Mauritius or see him again. I try not to think that I am leaving a six-year-old child to a bitter life on the streets lacking room for education, compassion, and imagination. I try not to think that the need to survive will soon be the only impulse he feels. I try not to think that that the youth and creativity I have been honored to witness for the past two months will be nothing more than a distant memory as he inevitably conforms to the draining pressures of growing up.
I simply try not to think.
Instead, I squeeze every life lesson I can into a matter of days. When a group of rowdy boys gathers outside our classroom, I point and ask Manav my standard question: “Méchant ou mignon?”
“Méchant,” he answers. Mean. I instinctively cringe.
“Listen,” I say in crude French, taking him by the shoulders. “You are really special and kind, and kids like that deserve to be surrounded by similar people.”
I close my eyes, praying that if he learns just one thing from me, it is this: “Life is too short to spend it with mean friends.”