Jerome stepped onto the long wooden walkway leading up from the stables all the way to the new Main House three levels above. Miguel and Juanito had worked all summer to finish it; the last planks had been laid two weeks ago and the weatherproofing had only just finished being applied. His rope-soled sandals hardly made any noise as he padded up toward the Refectory, his stomach growling.
“I’m here, Pablo,” he called. Pablo still couldn’t manage the English pronunciation of his name and it came out ‘hair-OH-may.’ Jerome thought it was cute.
“It came, Jerome! It came!” Pablo zoomed up, half out of breath, his face red and sweaty. “It came!”
“Okay, Pablo, that’s excellent news! Have you eaten lunch?” Jerome tried to distract him.
Pablo caught his arm, clearly under the impression he’d miscommunicated. He tried again in broken English. “It come, in barn. You come, in barn!” He tugged on Jerome’s arm agitatedly.
Jerome sighed to himself. Lunch would, clearly, have to wait. He let the boy drag him down the stairs and across the neat gravel path to the stables. “Easy, Pablo, you’ll trip me,” he murmured.
“It’s in the main barn,” Pablo told him, switching back to Spanish. “Father Salome is with it.”
“It?” Jerome echoed.
He caught a flash of cheerful brown eye as Pablo glanced at him and then looked back to the path. “Him.”
‘Him,’ huh? Jerome smiled. Perfect.
The stable gate stood open, welcoming traffic from the village a half-day’s ride away. Villagers often made the trek during good weather, bringing the monastery food, animals, and gifts. In return, the monastery treated the sick, tutored the children, and ministered.
“Jerome,” Pablo said, coming to stop just inside the gate. “Has La Chiquita spoken yet?”
Jerome sobered. The other thing the monastery did was shelter the helpless. This part of El Salvador had more than its share of troubles in the last decades. ‘Los Desaparecidos,’ in English, ‘the Disappeared,’ were spoken of in hushed tones, if at all. La Chiquita had been found, naked and bloody, in a ditch by the road not five miles from the monastery. An old farmer brought her to the monastery, hoping to find her shelter and medical attention. She was only about ten years old and, so far, refused to speak a word to anyone.
“No, Pablo. Nothing yet.”
Pablo sighed, disappointed. He gazed over at the barn door and then nodded to himself. “Come,” he repeated to Jerome.
Jerome followed Pablo into the dim interior. The dusty scent of hay filled his nose. The nearby paddock’s heavy gate stood ajar. Jerome stepped through.
“Hello, Father Salome,” Jerome greeted the priest crouched in one corner of the paddock.
“Jerome. This is Alejandro,” he introduced the young man next to him.
Alejandro glanced up and Jerome got a quick impression of large black eyes in an Aztec face before he looked down again.
“And this is Paulito,” Alejandro said, his Indian accent coming through the Spanish.
“Good morning, Paulito,” Jerome told the puppy in Alejandro’s hands. It wriggled forward and nibbled Jerome’s fingers with sharp little needles for teeth. “Good strong mouth.”
The others laughed. “Can we bring it up?” Pablo asked Jerome, not daring to look at Father Salome.
Jerome had already talked to the Father about it, just the previous evening in fact. He smiled warmly. “Yes, Pablo. You may bring it up now, if you like.”
Pablo beamed. Father Salome stood and Pablo looked at him a little apprehensively.
“Pablo, you must keep him warm, okay?” Father Salome admonished. “Come, let’s get some towels from the stable.” He led Pablo out of the paddock to rummage in the storage chests in the center of the barn.
“Do you think it will work?” Alejandro asked Jerome softly.
Jerome shrugged. “We’ve tried everything else. Pablo is desperate. I would let him try for that alone. But if it works…”
Alejandro looked at the wall of the barn, and Jerome could tell he wasn’t seeing it. “My father will make an offer for her to the Abbot,” Alejandro said. “She can live with us when she’s well.”
Jerome smiled. “That is very generous of you.”
Alejandro glanced at him and then down at the puppy, who was gnawing contentedly on his toe. He pulled the mouth away and got his fingers attacked. “Thank you.”
Pablo and Father Salome bundled the puppy into an old horse blanket and he settled against Pablo’s chest, contented. Pablo walked carefully out of the barn and up the hill, hardly aware of the others anymore. Jerome thanked Father Salome and followed the boy up the hill toward the Refectory. They passed it and continued to the Main House and in the back door. The girl’s room was just off the back hall, a small and quiet haven painted a bird’s egg blue. She lay on her side on the bed, bruises faded but still visible on her face and neck. She wore a simple white smock and neat little sandals.
“La Chiquita,” Pablo called softly. He stepped into the room and kneeled down next to the bed. “I have someone to meet you.”
Jerome closed the door gently and sat in the straight-backed wooden chair so he wouldn’t be looming. The puppy wriggled free of his blanket and saw the girl on the bed. He paused and then crept forward, whiskers vibrating. He got within a couple inches of her face and then his pink tongue shot out, covering her cheeks.
She gasped and put up a hand, but instead of pushing him away, she started to pet the little head. The puppy wormed its way under her arm and continued furiously washing every inch of skin he could find.
She looked up at Pablo and then, very softly, Jerome heard it. “Gracias.”
Pablo turned and Jerome saw unshed tears making his eyes bright. “It worked, Father Jerome! It worked!”