Sometimes, When a Child Smiles 
Charlotte Pence

mouth open wide and greedy, even the molars exposed,
it reminds me of a single afternoon

when I’m passing through an orphanage in Ecuador,
distancing myself with one-armed hugs and toy store gifts.

I tour cafeteria-sized bedrooms guarded
by bougainvillea flowers scratching at windows,

frowning palms standing shoulder to shoulder.
Outside the girls’ windows, under the garden’s uncut hair

rested a secret everyone knew and no one believed.
And I know the rules: I should not repeat it,

should resist telling a story about orphans,
yet how can I ignore it when the sun angles from the west

at five o’clock in May, when light’s neither new nor old,
color of freshly-squeezed lemonade, and it slices

across a child’s face at that silent moment
between a grin and laughter

when the open smile belongs to the girl who led me
through the garden to where she found the baby.

But that’s too common for a story. It is this:
for two months, the six-year-olds hid the newborn.

They snuck cartons of milk under their navy cardigans
and let the baby suckle off their fingertips.

One girl chewed her food and spit it inside the baby’s mouth
like she’d seen stray dogs feed their pups.

They named her Caramela, a candy they wanted,
and made her so content, the nuns never heard her cry.

Sometimes, when a child smiles, I have to look away,
for I know I could not do what those girls did:

accept a secret without fearing it;
spit into a child’s mouth and know this to be love.


Previously published in Spoon River Poetry Review

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