At the beginning of the year, Mihiretu wasn't all that popular at preschool. In fact, kids would run the other way when they saw Mihiretu coming through the gate. On more than one occasion, one small ringleted girl or another would approach me and say shyly, "Mihiretu hit me yesterday." Or "Mihiretu growls at me." I'd kneel down, finger a glossy curl and apologize.
Around this time, Mihiretu met Luke, another high-energy, irascible, adorable pre-schooler. For months, they circled each other warily, two alpha dogs sensing a rival. Mihiretu would tell me, apropos of nothing, "Luke no my fen."
Then sometime around January, things shifted in the dust of that schoolyard. As Mihiretu softened at home (he is forever softening, like a pound of butter taken from deep-freeze and left at room temperature), he must have eased up at school, too. His peers began to sense his movie-star allure.
Now when he comes through the gate, it's like Norm walking into that bar in Boston.
"Mihiretu's here!" one tow-headed boy will crow, running to tell his friends. A tide of children will cascade past me, headed for my boy.
As we walk to and from school, kids, often kids I don't know, will lean out of car windows, waving madly and yelling "Mihiretu! Hey, Mihiretu!"
Things also changed with Luke, that elusive tough guy. Maybe they bonded over glitter or more likely, kicking a soccer ball, but Mihiretu and Luke suddenly and magically became inseparable. They wind their arms around each other as a welcome. They roll on the floor, reveling in each other's company.
Recently, we've been experimenting with play-dates. Luke's mom, Kelsey, will pick up both boys at school and take them home to trash her house, or vice versa. I have to say, when it's Kelsey's turn, it's exhilarating to have a few Mihiretu-free hours. I love the kid, but man, does he take a truckload of energy and patience. Working a puzzle quietly in the living-room with the girls without a shrieking brown blur upending our project is a little bit of heaven.
Last week, it was our turn to have Luke. The boys were in the back of the van, chatting away, as we drove home. I heard Mihiretu-talk, this time sounding like, "Batta-batta-booty! Fi-ah-poop!"
Mihiretu isn't the most verbal of kids. His vocabulary is limited, his pronunciation blurry. At first we attributed this to the obvious factors of being orphaned, adopted and ferried thousands of miles away from the only home he knew. Now, with the assistance of a speech pathologist, we're realizing that even if he were still in Ethiopia, still wrapped in his birth-mother's arms, he probably wouldn't be talking much. Eventually, with some therapy, he'll be speaking the King's English with the best of them, but for now, in place of recognized speech, often he chats in a language all his own. It's playful, it's funny, this tongue: it's Mihiretu. It doesn't mean anything, per say, more just that he's feeling happy and playful. It's often accompanied by a goofy grin and a great shaking of tail-feather.
The weird thing was, this time, the voice coming from the back of the van wasn't Mihiretu's. It was Luke.
"Luke-y," I said, adjusting the rear-view mirror so I could meet his eye. "That sounded just like how Mihiretu talks."
"I know," he said, puffing his chest a bit. "He taught me."
As the afternoon progressed, I eavesdropped on the boys as they dumped baskets of toys on the playroom floor, sailed down Ben's homemade zip-line, and chased chickens into the weeds.
"Whah-ka-tooty-booty!" Mihiretu would say, wrestling Luke to the ground.
"Ka-wa-tay!" Luke would respond, arms and legs akimbo in his approximation of karate.
At one point, as they climbed to the very top of the play structure, Luke caught me listening.
"I like Mihiretu's language," he said, the warmest, softest smile on his cherub face. "I think it's cool."
"Yaka-too!" Mihiretu trilled, jumping to the ground.
"Zaka-soo!" Luke answered, jumping and grabbing Mihiretu's hand in one move, the two of them launching themselves up the hill to the rope swing.
Seeing him enveloped and embraced by his own small people, seeing him cherished by others like he is by us Caprons, is a little like watching the sun coming out one misty June day after months of rain.