I felt something heavy strike the back of my head. Eleven-year-old Victor pushed past me, half-running, half-falling out of the doorway of La Terraza, the abandoned building where he and dozens of other street children in the small Salvadoran town of Quezaltepeque gathered to smoke crack and sniff shoe glue out of Gerber bottles.
Trinidad was right behind Victor. At 44, she was a frequent presence in the bus terminal, known for beating those close to her when she deemed it prudent, for stabbing when she found it necessary. That day, she was very drunk. Her hair was uncombed, and her eyes flashed punishment. Her wooden pole cracked against my skull, but it was not me she was after.
I had met Victor four months earlier, in a bare shelter run by a group of recovering addicts. Filled with a sense of divine inspiration and invested in a strategy of "tough love," these men beat Victor frequently and chained him up to keep him from escaping. I had come to the shelter to conduct research on street gangs, innocently believing that in describing violence, I could bring about its solution. Victor had been dragged there against his will.
He won me over with his startling honesty, with an inexplicable tenderness that shone from his wide eyes. He said he thought his 12th birthday was imminent, but malnutrition and drug use gave him the size and grace of a much younger child. I asked him one day what he thought his future held. He said he hoped he would live with his family again but that he also expected he might get shot. Two months after I arrived, he fled the shelter.
I found him in La Terraza. He slept there alongside teenage girls who prostituted themselves for baby formula for their children and crack for their nightmarish addictions. Victor would pull a section of cardboard into one garbage-strewn corner and huddle there, breathing in glue fumes until he fell asleep.
Victor knew La Terraza well. But in his haste to escape from Trinidad that afternoon, he miscalculated. He tripped on a crumbling strip of sidewalk and fell.
Victor attempted to lift himself to his feet. He fell. He tried again to stand up, and this time Trinidad's half-crazed brother, Meme, grabbed the boy's thin shoulders and held him fast. Trinidad's stick lifted and fell, lifted and fell, striking Victor's body with quiet thumps. He screamed for help, his voice flooded with desperation as he raised his hands in front of his face to block the blows.
I had known his life was filled with violence. Victor had taken me to the cardboard shack by the railroad tracks where his overweight mother stuffed several small children with tortillas while his father eked out a living selling ice cream and crack. They must have loved Victor. But his father beat him hard, and his mother chained him up. Victor did not go home often.
I stood in the doorway of La Terraza and tried to persuade Trinidad to stop.
"Leave him alone," I begged her, but there was no authority in my voice. She believed Victor had stolen 60 cents from her. She had a mission.
I dodged the stick in an attempt to reach Victor. Trinidad swung again, missing me but connecting with the little boy's shoulder. When she finally stopped, Victor curled in a ball, sobbing. His battered right shoe dangled from Meme's limp hand.
I gathered the crying child into my arms, grabbed the shoe and marched away with a throbbing desire only to protect him. In the months to come, Victor would beg me many times to adopt him, and I would offer him all the rational, empty reasons why I could not. But that afternoon, I swore to myself that nothing, no one, would harm this child again.
I carried him 30 yards, staring straight ahead, until Victor swallowed his last sob and asked me, in a small voice, to put him down. I looked around. Everyone was watching us.
He took the dirty shoe, sat down on the curb and shoved his foot into it. With the back of a grimy hand, he wiped his tears away. Then he stood, straightened his shoulders and walked back to La Terraza.
My heart broke as I watched him go, and I squinted to keep tears from spilling down my cheeks. I had come to this town with the notion that I could matter. But in that moment, as Victor trudged back to face his tormentor, I had to turn away.
"It makes sense that God gives you more," Victor said to me five months later, on one of the last afternoons we shared together before he disappeared into the capital to run errands for drug dealers. "It is because you are such buena gente (a good person)," he continued.
I asked him if he thought that God didn't love him as well.
"Not as much," he said, "because I am mala gente." I looked into his eyes and told him that no god could delineate the world in such blind terms. Victor shrugged and trudged toward the railroad tracks. As I watched him walk away, I knew he didn't believe me.
I still wish I could have given him a better answer. Now I remember that there is no strength as humbling as that of a little boy who wipes away his tears, stiffens his shoulders and walks back alone into a world steeped in violence that is, nonetheless, the only place that claims him.
Jocelyn Wiener is a Times staff writer.