I REACH DOWN; a small dark hand places a pair of nails in mine. We are building temporary houses a few months after the Haiti earthquake, wooden frames covered with plastic, held taut by flat-head nails with concave washers. Our crew, American volunteers and local Haitians, erects a tin-roofed house in two hours. The boy under my shadow proves useful and reliable; whenever I drop my hand another nail appears.
We hike to the next site; my helper clutches the nail bucket. “Dieunison,” he responds when I ask his name. “Over there,” he answers when I inquire where he lives. Gestures and smiles communicate better than my Creole or his English. Over the next week we build dozens of houses in Grand Goave, about 15 miles from the earthquake epicenter. Dieunison finds me every morning; I never have to bend over for a nail. I give him water and snack bars, fair wages here for an 8-year-old. We hug before I fly home.
The first January after the quake I return to stake an orphanage I designed; five months later to lay out a school. Each time Dieunison stands along the highway near the construction site as if he hasn’t moved. He jumps into my arms and wraps his skinny legs around my waist.
The second January after the quake, I quit my job and volunteer to supervise construction in Haiti for two weeks every month. On my first trip back, Dieunison’s eyes tear as he tells me his mother died, then he throws back his head yowling like a goat; it is a laugh I can’t understand. Every month his life twists. He lives with his Aunt Michelle; she ships him to Port-au-Prince when she can no longer feed him. I search for him frantically until one afternoon his thin figure appears outside our shanty. I shower him with food and questions; Dieunison’s eyes dazzle at the chicken leg on top of his rice. We find him a place to live, but once I return to the States, he flees. We forced too much too fast on a boy used to being on his own. Dieunison becomes a phantom. Sightings are reported, but he never shows his face to me. Locals say, “Forget him, he is a street kid,” but Dieunison chose me; I cannot give up on him.
“Are you the man who loves Dieunison?” A boy I have never seen approaches me. Dieurie is Dieunison’s half brother; they live with a new assortment of relations. Dieurie cajoles Dieunison to reappear. The boys frequent the construction site, enjoy hot lunches, and agree to attend school. My next trip brings cash for the brothers’ tuition, uniforms, books, meals. The boys go AWOL for our first school meeting. “Nothing is free,” I lecture when they show up later, guilty and sheepish. “You want meals and clothes, you must attend school.”
I banish them from two days’ lunch.
The third January after the quake, the orphanage is complete. Dieunison and Dieurie have been in school three months. They are filling out. Sometimes they cannot finish the food on their plates. They contemplate the leftovers with dismay. When I explain that my next visit is far off, Dieunison pleads to stow in my suitcase. But they are Haitian, they belong here. I want to give them opportunities, not steal them away.
Construction is an intense activity that ends abruptly, yet Dieunison has tethered me to Haiti for the long haul. It will take years for these boys to graduate, but if they do their part, I will do mine. Time does not factor when a boy hands you a nail and stakes a claim on your heart.
TELL YOUR STORY. E-mail your 650-word essay on a relationship to email@example.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.