Read The Sunflower: A Novel Online

Authors: Richard Paul Evans

The Sunflower: A Novel

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Also by Richard Paul Evans

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The Spyglass

The Tower

The Light of Christmas

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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2005 by Richard Paul Evans
All rights reserved,
including the right of reproduction
in whole or in part in any form.

& S
and colophon are registered trademarks of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Designed by Davina Mock

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 2005051636
ISBN-13: 978-0-7432-9120-0
ISBN-10: 0-7432-9120-4

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’d like to thank the following for making this book possible:

My brother Van for all three trips to Cuzco, Puerto Maldonado and the jungle. Carolyn Reidy and David Rosenthal for welcoming me back. Sydny Miner (It’s always a joy working with you). Team Sunflower: Kelly Gay, Heather McVey, Karen Christofferson, Fran Platt and Judy Schiffman (Judy, I’ll check your boots for spiders any day). Karen Roylance, for all your assistance and all-nighters (and Mark for putting up with it). Dr. Brent Mabey for technical assistance and New Year’s in the E.R. Dr. Michael Fordham, whose insight led me to this story. Carolyn Anderson and Mary Williams for first-hand dengue information. Jessica Evans. Those in Peru who helped me with my research: Leonidas, Jaime and Terry Figueroa, and Gilberto. Laurie Liss. And always, my best friend and companion, Keri.

To Van

Perfect love casteth out fear.

1 JOHN 4:18


El Girasol (the Sunflower) is sanctuary, as much to me as to the orphan boys we rescue from the Peruvian streets. But I have considered that it might be more. For in a world where evil seems to triumph more often than not, El Girasol is evidence that we might be something better—evidence that we might be good. So while few will ever know or care about the work we do, the worth of this little orphanage is far greater than the number of boys we save. For perhaps it is us, not them, that have need of saving. And to that end the Sunflower is more than a place. It is hope.


Going to the jungle wasn’t my idea. Had the thought actually crossed my mind, I would have immediately relegated it to that crowded portion of my brain where things
I should do someday but thankfully never will
are safely locked away to languish and die.

The idea was my daughter McKenna’s. Three months before she graduated from high school, her sociology teacher, a graying, long-haired Haight-Ashbury throwback who had traded in his tie-dye T-shirts for tweed jackets with leather elbow patches presented to his class the opportunity to go to South America on a humanitarian mission. McKenna became obsessed with the idea and asked if I would accompany her on such an excursion—kind of a daddy-daughter date in the Amazon.

I agreed. Not that I had any real desire or intention of going. I figured that she would soon graduate and her mind would be occupied with other concerns. I never believed it would really come about.

I should have known my daughter better. Four months later I found myself standing with her and a dozen of her former classmates in the Salt Lake City airport boarding a plane for Lima, Peru.

Unbeknownst to our little group, we had entrusted our lives to novices. We were the first group our expeditionary guides had actually led into the Amazon—a fact we discovered twenty-four hours later deep in a jungle teeming with anacondas, jaguars and hand-sized spiders. Several times in the course of our expedition, our guide, an elderly Peruvian man, would suddenly stop, lay his machete at the foot of a tree, then climb above the jungle canopy for a look, each time descending with a somewhat perplexed expression.

After our third complete change of course I asked our guide (as tactfully as one being led through a jungle must) if he knew where he was going. In broken English the old man replied, “Yes, I have been here before…” then added, “when I was six.”

During our hike we came upon the village of an Amazonian tribe, the Los Palmos. Overjoyed to learn that they were neither cannibals nor headhunters, we soon noticed that the population of the village included no young men, only women and the elderly. Our guide asked one of the natives where all the young men had gone.

“They have gone to town to kill the mayor,” she replied.

“Why?” our guide asked.

“The mayor has said we can no longer cut the rainforest trees. We cannot live without the wood from the trees. So our men have gone to kill him.”

“Do you think that’s a good idea?” our guide asked.

The woman shrugged. “Probably not, but it’s how things are done in the jungle.”

There was something refreshing about her logic. I’ve never been overly fond of politics, and the image of painted tribesmen carrying spears and bows into town hall delighted me—certainly something we don’t see enough of in Salt Lake City. I still wonder how that all turned out.

Two days into our journey we ran out of food. For several days we lived on jungle fruit and the piranhas we caught in the river. (Piranha doesn’t taste that bad—kind of like chicken.)

I remember, as a boy, sitting spellbound through a Saturday afternoon matinee about a school of piranhas that terrorized a small jungle village. These Hollywood piranhas swam in conveniently slow-moving schools that cinematically frothed and bubbled on the surface, allowing the hero a chance to swim across the river and rescue a woman just inches ahead of the churning piranha death.

The piranhas we encountered in the jungle were nothing like that. First, Amazon piranhas are nearly as ubiquitous in the jungle as vegetation. Drop a fishing line in any jungle river and within seconds it will be bitten. Usually in half. Second, there are no warning bubbles.

Adding crocodiles, electric eels and leeches to the mix, we decided it best to just keep out of the water.

After several days of traveling we reached our destination, a small village where we established our clinic. The Quechuan natives were waiting for us.

The goal of our humanitarian mission was threefold: teach basic hygiene, fix teeth and correct vision. I was assigned to the latter. The optometrist who hiked in with us would conduct an eye examination, then hand me a written prescription for eyeglasses that I would attempt to fill from the bags of used eyewear we had packed into the jungle.

I remember one patient in particular. He was an elderly man, small featured and sun-baked, his skin as leathery as a baseball glove. And he had just one eye. As he was led from his exam to my station, the doctor handed me a blank prescription.

“What do I do with this?” I asked.

“Find the thickest lens you can find,” he replied. “He’s all but blind.”

I knew the pair. Earlier, as I was organizing the glasses, I had come across a pair of lenses so thick I was certain they were bulletproof. I retrieved them and placed them on the little man’s face. I soon learned that he had not just one eye, but also just one tooth as a broad smile blanketed his face.
“¡Puedo ver!”
he exclaimed.
I can see!

It was my daughter’s job to tend the children as the doctors treated their parents. Indelibly etched in my mind is a sweet mental picture of my daughter as I looked out to see her running and screaming in mock terror from a throng of bare-chested little boys, who were laughing so hard they would occasionally fall to the ground holding their stomachs.

As we left the village, the children gathered around her and she hugged each of them. We sat together in the back of the bus, and she grew very quiet. After a few minutes I asked her what she had learned from this experience. She thought about it a moment, then said, “We love those whom we serve.”

We moved on by boat up the muddy Río Madre de Dios past the camps of the illicit gold miners scarring the forest with their bulldozers and sluices, eventually coming to a small clearing in the jungle. An airfield. Boarding a cargo plane, we flew south to Cuzco, where we took buses up into the Andes Mountains to a rundown hacienda.

The hacienda had been magnificent once, with elaborate tiles and intricate woodwork. It had a stone courtyard, a balcony and a bell tower. But the opulence of centuries ago was gone now, and what remained, rotting and looted, provided barely adequate shelter for the orphan boys it now housed. The place was called El Girasol—the Sunflower—and it was in the business of saving street children.

Among all the people we encountered in this mystical land, it was here that we met the most memorable: an American by the name of Paul Cook.

I was told by one of our guides that Paul Cook had once been a successful emergency room physician. Up until one Christmas Day when everything changed.

One night, after we had completed our day’s tasks, we sat around a fire recounting the day’s events as darkness closed in around us. Gradually our group retired to their sleeping quarters and I found myself alone with this quiet, intriguing man. We talked mostly about America; about the NBA, current movies, the Oscars and whom I thought would win the next presidential election. When I had satisfied his curiosity about current events, I asked him what prompted him to come to Peru. He just stared into the fire. Then he said, without looking at me, “That’s a long story.”

“No clocks in the jungle,” I said.

Still gazing into the fire, he smiled at the use of one of his own favorite phrases. After a moment he said, “I’ll show you.”

He led me through the labyrinth of the hacienda to a small windowless cell with a wooden floor and a high ceiling. The room was as austere as any I had seen in the orphanage and was lit by a single lightbulb hanging from a cord from the exposed rafters. There were a few simple pieces of furniture: a small tin washbasin, a crate for a desk with a wooden chair and a bed that was just a mattress on box springs set on wooden blocks.

And there were books. Lots of books, visibly well-read and stacked in sloppy piles against the wall. I scanned the titles. Classics and bestsellers,
Reader’s Digest
compilations, medical journals and crossword puzzles, biographies and thrillers. Books in Spanish as well as English. There were a few love stories.

On the wall above the books were two framed photographs: one of an elderly couple I guessed to be his parents, the other of a beautiful young woman whom I was to learn was named Christine. The most peculiar adornment to the room was a movie poster: a moody, black and indigo poster of a man kissing a woman beneath a title written in Italian:
Cinema Paradiso.

Paul let me take in the surroundings for a moment before motioning for me to sit on the bed. I noticed that he had something in his hand—a hand-sewn leather pouch. He untied its drawstrings and took from it a small toy soldier and handed it to me. Then he sat down next to me and commenced his tale. An hour or so later, when he was done, he looked weary and spent and I could sense the walls rising again in his demeanor, as if maybe he feared that he had shared too much. He restored the soldier to its pouch, hanging it by its drawstrings to a nail on the wall.

I asked if I could share his story. He showed little interest in my request but said he would sleep on it, a reply I also understood as my dismissal. Three days later, just a few hours before we were to fly back to Lima, he agreed.

It’s been said,
Seek not your destiny for it is seeking you.
Paul Cook’s story reveals, as well as any I suppose, that this is true. It was equally true for a young woman named Christine, who went to the jungle looking for anything but love.

This is their story.

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