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Rosana – Chapter Sixteen

Chapter 16

The noise in the tiny casita was suddenly overwhelming. Unable to process the input,
Rosana’s brain assured her body that it was safe at home. She closed her eyes and rested
her head against Norma’s knee.
“Rosana! Rosana!” screamed Norma in a panic, “she’s dying! Help her! Rosanita, no te
mueras! Don’t die!”
A strong arm was around her shoulders, and a cup on her lips. Rosana drank by reflex the
few drops which found their way past her swollen tongue.
“…dehydrated. Sunburned, too, and exhausted. Sister, help me to lift her onto the bed.” The
masculine voice sounded familiar. That man, Rosana thought, the one who helped us.
“I’m fine,” she protested weakly, “and there is no bed. Please – just put me on the floor. I’ll be
fine.”
“You’d have been fine if you had not gone alone.” The voice wasn’t harsh, but the reprimand
stung, and even if she had had the strength, Rosana wouldn’t have wanted to open her eyes
and look at the speaker. “I told you not to be alone. Not here, and especially not in the fields.
Do you want your mother-in-law to lose the only one she has left?”
“Don’t be angry with her, Senor Barto.” It was the Sister, Rosana realized. “She was trying to
find food for her mother-in-law, and I’m the one who told her to go to the onion-field. It is one I
used to glean when I first came to this country.”
“It was bad advice. You have lived in this climate all your life, and you know to bring water
with you. How could this – this – child be expected to know what to do here? She has never
worked a day in her life, as you can see by her ha-”
Rosana felt her fingers being lifted from the floor, and heard Sister take in her breath sharply.
From Senor Barto there was no sound. Then –
“Jose – go to my truck and get the first-aid kit from under the front seat.”
After that, there was no talk, only the sensation of being lifted and then settled on something
firm, but comfortable.
“What is it? What’s wrong?” Rosana heard Norma cry.
“She’s fine, Senora Delacruz. Her hands just need a little attention,” called Sister.
“Gracias, Jose. Sister, take one of the buckets and get some water.” Rosana heard, her eyes
still closed, torn between the comfort of the thing on which she lay and the painful sensations
which began to sound alarms from every part of her body.
“You remembered the buckets,” she smiled, in spite of the pain he caused her by trying to
push the tight sleeve up her arm.
“Yes,” he said, shortly, “and I wish I had delivered them first thing in the morning before this
craziness started. I am going to cut your sleeve. I can’t push it up.”
“No, don’t!” She cried, lifting her head and opening her eyes in time to see the flash of a knife
and hear the fabric tear. “It’s my sunshirt!”
“Part of it will still be fine,” he grunted, tugging at the fabric, “just this sleeve.” With a jerk, he
ripped open the sleeve and pulled the two pieces to the side, exposing her arm all the way up
to her shoulder. She winced at his touch.
“What’s wrong? Why did that hurt when I touched your shoulder?”
Rosana didn’t answer, but closed her eyes and tried to relax the muscles around the
throbbing bruise. Until that moment, she hadn’t felt any pain from the rocky clods.
“Here, Senor Barto.” There was a muted metallic bang, consistent with a metal bucket of
water hitting the floor.
“Thank you, Sister. Now help me. You see I’ve torn her sleeve to get better access to the
cuts on her hands and wrists, but that shoulder is injured. Can you help me turn her?”
In answer, Rosana felt herself turned on her left side and held there by kind hands. She
hissed involuntarily.
“Are you okay, mija?” called Norma from the front room, her voice high-pitched and panicky.
“She’ll be just fine, Cousin,” came Senor Barto’s voice, near Rosana’s ear. Then quietly, so
only Sister Estelle could hear, “but she has a hell-of-a-bruise on her shoulder, and I suspect -”
This time, Rosana only heard the sound of ripping fabric and a cool rush as the evening air
against her quivering skin.
This time, it was Sister Estelle who hissed, her hands tightening their hold on her.
“Querida,” she whispered.
“Whatever you’re hissing about,” Rosana spat in an irritated whisper, “don’t tell Norma. She’ll
think it’s her fault.”
“No,” replied Senor Barto, from further away where Rosana could only guess he had stepped
to get a wider view of her injuries. “No. This is definitely your fault, and your fault only. You
crazy, crazy idiota! If I tell you not to go out alone, I mean don’t go out alone. Not ever! Do
you understand, you red-haired, hard-headed – person?”
The house was strangely silent again, and Rosana could hear by several grunts of surprise
that the other men had come to see what had upset the normally unflappable Barto’s
equilibrium.
“Don’t let Norma see!” Rosana begged, still whispering. Sister Estelle smoothed back the red
curls and murmured soothingly.
“What happened to you?” Demanded Barto, his voice near her ear again. “You left this
morning, my cousin tells me, to glean in the onion field this – Sister – recommended. Then
what? Sister, come wash these bruises. Her whole back! I will support her.” The hands
changed, and Rosana was supported on her side by wide hands and a firm, almost painful
grip. Then, came the shocking, but cooling sensation of water across her neck, back and
arm.
“I walked through the brush to the river, crossed over, and found the onion field. Then I found
some onions and brought them back. At the river on the way home, I stopped to rest and fell
asleep. When I woke up, it was late, so I came back by the road.”
“That doesn’t explain why you appeared in the doorway looking like a ghost here to haunt us
or why your hands are shredded, and your back -” the grip became tighter, “looks like you’ve
been stoned. What. Else. Happened?”
“It doesn’t matter, Mr. Whoever-you-are! It’s none of your business anymore than it’s my
business why you took so long to get here with the buckets! We are trying to live our little
lives here, and we can get along fine without you coming in to yell at me for trying to take care
of my family! No one asked you -”
Rosana’s outburst started Norma’s wail afresh, and Rosana dropped her head, tears
gathering at the corners of her eyes as she gathered herself, with effort.
“It’s okay, Mama. I’m fine,” she called. “I’m so sorry to upset you today. Now help me by
starting the Rosary. You can pray for me – you and Sister Estelle, and Mr. Whats-his-name, if
he knows any words fit to address the Mother of God.” She opened her eyes to glare at him,
and then shut them again as Sister Estelle scrubbed none-too-gently at some embedded grit.
From the living room, Rosana heard the rattle of her mother-in-law’s Rosary beads, and she
relaxed a little. She smelled Senor Barto, and although she kept her eyes closed, she knew
he had knelt down beside her. He smelled like open air, and hard work, and aftershave.
“Rosana. I learned your name, today, Rosana Delacruz.” His voice was suddenly gentle, and
it broke her defenses like a wave overwhelming a sandcastle. “Is that your real name or just
what Norma calls you?”
“It’s mine.”
“Rosana. Maybe you remember my name is Bartolomeo, and I am Dulcita – Norma’s –
cousin. She has only one relative left who is closer than me, and that is Jaime – you
remember Jaime, I am sure.”
She nodded.
“My cousin tells me you have given up everything – home, family, country – to come with her
to her home. Is this true?”
Rosana started to shrug, but thought better of it. The sting of Sister Estelle’s ministrations
reminded her to keep still. “Yes,” she said simply.
“In this country, it is the job of the closest relative to help when there is no one else to help. I
am almost Norma’s closest relative, so even if you do not ask for my help, I am bound by duty
to family and to God to help. Do you understand?” He smoothed a tear from her cheek
where it hung at the end of a trail of white amid the dirt. His touch made her shiver. Again.
“You’re wrong, Mr. Whats-your-name,” she said after a moment, opening her eyes to be
startled by the proximity of his face to hers. Her green eyes flashed. “You’re not Norma’s
next of kin. I am. And it’s important you remember that fact. It may take me a little while to
learn how to get around in this country, but you’re not going to keep me from my duty to
family. You go do your – what ever it is you do, just like you’ve always done. I’m sure you
have some family closer than Norma who needs your attention, and who might not like to
hear that you are ripping the shirt off of the new American in town!”
Barto smoothed his mustache and sat back on his haunches, mouth twitching, but Sister
Estelle broke into peals of laughter. She laughed and laughed until she had to put down the
remains of Rosana’s shirt she had been using as a sponge.
“Oh, Rosana,” she giggled helplessly, “I have never heard anyone speak to Senor Barto like
that before. Oh my. Oh my. No, you two are Senor Barto’s only relatives. He has no wife,
nor is like to, now that you see the way he talks to an injured woman! Now, Senor Barto, you
come with your first aid kit and do what you can for these bruises. Then she must turn over
so we can clean the other hand. I will go get more water.” The Sister hooted her way to the
well, stopping to assure Norma that Rosana was going to be just fine.
“Rosana,” he whispered, “I’m sorry for calling you an idiota. It’s just that the extent of your
injuries surprised me, and not in a good way. I will not keep you from your duty, but it is very
important to -” he almost said, ‘me,’ but stopped himself in time “- the safety of our town, that
you tell me if anyone hurt you. If there is more damage than what we can see…?” His eyes
held appeal, and concern, and was it fear? Whatever it was, it softened Rosana’s heart, and
she smiled pertly.
“No, Senor Barto. A couple of idiotas, as you’d call them, decided they didn’t want any onion
competition and were trying to get me to leave.”
Barto grimaced knowingly.
“It was just some dirt clods, and they mostly got me on the back, but they stopped when I
beaned them with a couple of onions!” She grinned, and he laughed. A full laugh, and the
sound filled the little house and overflowed through the new windows and the door out to the
well, where Sister Estelle paused when she heard it.
“I never heard Senor Barto laugh, either. Hmm. I wonder what La Madre will say,” and she
grinned slyly to herself.
Barto was suddenly serious. “If there was no more trouble after that, you were lucky. Very
lucky.”
“I didn’t stay long. They had a big tarp to fill, and I only had the basket, so I was done soon. I
stopped at the river to drink -”
“You must never drink from that river. The water carries many diseases. Drink only from the
well.”
“Well, I didn’t drink. I was washing my hands when I noticed I was missing -” Rosana
clamped her jaw tight and squeezed her eyelids together. I will not say it, I will not think it.
“You lost something? In the field or in the river?”
“In the field,” she gasped, inhaling deeply to clamp the emotion which threatened to spill.
Barto knew not to ask. Instead he gently lifted her hand and stroked it, careful not to disturb
the cuts and bruises.
Which is when he noticed the stark white line of a missing ring on the fourth finger.
*
Until that moment, Barto thought burying his mother had been the hardest thing he had ever
done. But as he watched the priest bless her casket, he had known his mother was already
gone. This time, choosing to drive away from family – and duty, of course – when every
particle of his will wanted to stay, was far more difficult.
But the men who had come with him earlier that evening after the work of the day, had
families of their own, and had already waited an extra two hours after they finished installing
the electricity, the stove, two windows, and metal bars across them.
Barto drove in silence as usual, amid the chatter of the men discussing the American widow
who had suffered such injuries to feed her mother-in-law. He dropped each one at their
house and continued to his own. Pulling into his drive after the automatic gates clanged shut
behind him, he turned into the carport and killed the engine.
“Rosana! Rosana!” Had been all the hysterical Norma had been able to say. They had slept
on a pile of their clothes last night, he observed and had no food or water in the house except
the plate Sister Estelle told him she brought to them for dinner the night before. Apparently,
there was no money.
His first job had been to feed and medicate his cousin, then send for Sister to keep her
company and help her stay calm. There was little they could do but wait, as they could see
from the house that the onion field was empty. Barto had called a friend with a dog to go
looking for the girl on the road, worried someone like Jaime had found her first and forced her
into his sickening trade. No wonder he hadn’t found her, if she had been asleep on the river
bank.
Somehow this story didn’t all add up.
The bruises made sense. Gleaners had a reputation of being territorial and would often fight
to establish pecking rights. He smiled. She had thrown onions back! But she would be in
bed for several days.
He had spoken with La Madre and elicited permission for a Sister to stay with the two widows
until Rosana could function again. Her hands, bloody and scraped as he cleaned,
disinfected, and bandaged them, were a far cry from the soft, manicured digits of the day
before.
The day before? It had taken this country only a day to scar and batter her. But she was a
fighter. Barto stroked his mustache. Before he left, he made sure Sister Estelle had bathed
her as completely as she would allow. Scrapes and bruises everywhere, she said. And
Rosana hadn’t complained. Only insisted that Norma not know the extent of her injuries.
“I think La Madre might agree she has the strength to lose her beauty. Not that her beauty
faded. If anything – ” He said it aloud. The response was a whine and scratch from behind
the front door where Nena, his mutt-dog had been waiting since Marta went home.
Marta was a wonderful housekeeper and cook, but her relationship with Nena was strictly
business. Which meant Nena was hungry.
“I cannot feed this animal while children are starving, right down there!” She would point down
the hill to the Haitian side of Palmar de Ocoa, and she was right. But Nena was an important
part of Barto’s home, and he intended to keep it that way, housekeeper or no housekeeper.
He never told Marta about the food he often delivered to several of his pickers’ families, right
there in the Haitian side of Palmar.
Barto opened the door and climbed out of the truck, feeling drained. So many emotions. His
panicky cousin, his own surprise and anger at the yellow and black contusions on Rosana’s
pale skin. Shock, fear, maybe, and relief – I guess that’s what it was – that all her injuries had
been external. He took off his baseball cap and ran his hand through the wavy graying hair.
Had he ever seen devotion or dedication like that? Sacrificing to the point of bodily
exhaustion and injury to provide for another? It made him think of his mother. All mothers,
maybe, giving birth to people, enduring excruciating pain for the benefit of another.
“It’s just that you don’t see that kind of commitment in most women. Especially young
women.” Beautiful young women. American women, he added to himself. He fitted a key
into the lock of his front door and greeted Nena, who danced with joy at his arrival.
“You’re happy to see me because I’m going to feed you, Nena,” he reproved her, stroking the
ears and back of the dog’s white and brown coat. “But what is she getting? Not money. Not
fame. Certainly not a vacation in a tropical climate.”
So what motivates her? He considered the question as he poured Nena a bowl of dry dog
food and opened a can of wet food to pour on top. He paused, can-opener in hand and
considered the meal Nena was getting, and the food his cousin would eat tonight. The
Sisters had brought more of their leftovers – Rosana insisted on trading for the onions – but
after that, what would they eat?
“She’ll try to go out again tomorrow, Nena,” he told his frolicking dog, suddenly certain of her
plans. “She will say she’s well enough to get up and go back for more onions.” He slammed
the can down on the counter, set the dry food on the dog mat, and stomped upstairs. “Crazy,
crazy woman! She’ll kill herself for that silly Dulcita, and why? Why?”
As he washed the day’s grime from his face and hands, the answer poked at him. It was an
uncomfortable answer. An answer that made him question his own methods, his own
motives. It called into account his sterling reputation and the value of his own life. I do a lot
of good here, he thought, his pride teetering precariously. Good for the community, good for
my business, good for cousins who needs my charity.
But ultimately, his conscience insisted, you do it all because it benefits YOU. And Rosana
does it for love.
Snapping off the bathroom light he resolved not to think of her again.

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Rosana – Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Fifteen

Rosana made several mistakes the next day.

The first of which was leaving the casita to pick in the harvested onion fields in a pair of light cotton pants and her sneakers. She wore her long-sleeved sunshirt, and securely tied a t-shirt around her hair, on top of which she jammed her sun hat, pulling the string tight so it would not fly off when she walked. Sunglasses completed the outfit.

After waking Norma, helping her to the outhouse, feeding her the remainder of the food Sister Estelle had given them, Rosana rolled her mother-in-law to the doorway where she would be able to look out at the Convent.

“From here, I cannot see the road or the water, mija. Please move the chair out on the porch.”

“No, Mama. If you fell, you would roll off the porch. This way, you will be safer. Here is your book, and here is the blanket in case you want to rest. Your water bottle is on the floor next to the wheel, and hopefully Senor Barto will come with the buckets today! I will come home at Noon and check on you.” She glanced at the sun, already gaining altitude. “When I come home with fresh onions maybe the Sisters will trade with us for some of their food.” Or we’re going to be eating a lot of onions, Rosana finished to herself. She kissed Norma on the top of her head, conscious of the tears in the older woman’s eyes.

“Don’t worry, Mama. Everything’s good.” As I used to tell Jamsey, she thought. There was nothing else to do at the moment, though, so sliding the sunglasses onto her face, she took refuge in the deep shadow of her hat and made her second mistake by starting off overland toward the field Sister Estelle had pointed out instead of going by the road.

She soon realized the error of her ways. It was slow going. Past the small clearing in which the two casitas stood, the ground became rocky, every path blocked by thorny, stunted bushes that left angry marks on her skin where they tore through her lightweight pants. Bristles from stiff grasses worked their way through her socks and shoes to lodge in her feet. By the time she pushed and grunted her way to the river, her pants were shredded, her hair was coming loose, and she limped on thorn infested feet.

The bridge was half a mile away down the river. She could see it in the distance, a flow of pedestrian and vehicular traffic crossing back and forth in clusters. She sat down on the pebbly bank to take off her shoes. Peeling back the socks revealed bleeding heels, and several pointed grass-heads which she picked out of the socks before they could work their way further in.

“In a fifteen-minute walk, I’m already torn up and bleeding. What a day this will be!” She gingerly pulled the socks and shoes into place and stepped into the shallow river, unwilling to subject her bare feet to the unknown riverbed, even if it meant wet shoes for the rest of the day.

She reached the other side and the first of the cultivated fields, unable to identify what grew there, she discovered a path around the perimeter of each field and followed it. Occasionally, she looked back across the river and up the hill to where the convent windows reflected the sun. She couldn’t see Norma, but the back of their casita was clearly visible.

“Well, this is obviously the right field,” announced Rosana to the backs of several other gleaners who were more than half-way across the two-acre field. They had been there for a hours already, she saw from their tarp, which held a good-sized pile of dirty onions. She kicked the dirt with her soggy shoe. “They’ve licked this platter clean! But I’ve got to have something to show or we’re not going to eat until I can get a job.”

Gathering her courage and the empty basket from Sister Estelle, Rosana walked resolutely past the gleaners, bent double, hands exploring the dirt for anything left behind by the harvesters. When she came to a part of the field they had not yet gleaned, she dropped her basket, adjusted her hat, and glancing furtively out of the corner of her eye, copied their motions.

Her hands were barely in the dirt when the first clod hit her back. Rosana reared up and whirled to face her attacker, but everyone behind her was working diligently, studiously ignoring her, their dark faces swathed in cloth. She turned back to her row, and again, as soon as her hands were in the dirt, another clod crashed into her leg. A third smacked squarely on her up-ended rear moments before a shower of rocks and dirt hit her with the strength of a truck.

She might have broken and run from the clod-warfare, except that at that moment, Rosana’s fingers scraped against a new texture, and triumphantly, she pulled an onion out of the ground and sat back on her heels to admire it.

Another fistful of dirt spun toward her, slamming sun-crisped soil into her cheek.

Still, no one spoke or even looked up from their work, but Rosana eyed them warily, the smart from her cheek causing her right eye to water.

She glanced from the row to her empty basket and then to the group of three men and one woman who worked behind her. “Let’s see just how much you want to play this game,” she muttered. She put her fingers back into the dirt, but this time, she turned her face rather than her back toward them. Rosana adjusted her hat so she could watch without detection while pretending to concentrate on the row. “Bring it on,” she muttered through gritted teeth.

A second onion, then a third. Rosana closed her fingers around a fourth when she spotted a quick motion from a man four rows away. Immediately, a clod struck her head, followed by a second from the woman. Rocking back on her heels, Rosana reached into the basket and took an onion in each hand. Then, quick as a hungry man on a loaf of bread, she heaved them, one at each assailant.

The first onion struck with an audible thonk, knocking the surprised gleaner onto his tail. He yelled and scrambled to right himself even as the others howled with laughter. But only for a moment, until the second onion found it’s mark on the woman’s arm. She let out a loud string of agitated words and stood to pelt Rosana with every clump of dirt in her reach.

Quickly leaping several rows away, Rosana faced them and bent over again to run her fingers through the dirt. Still, no one acknowledged her, but neither were there any more clods whizzing toward her. It had been worth half her onions.

Toward the edges of the field, the onions were still attached to the greenery which stuck up through the ground. Rosana discovered the precise method to tug them out of the ground after several broke under her eager fingers.

The sun was nearly straight overhead when her basket and pockets could hold no more.

“How come Laura Ingalls Wilder could braid onion tops together,” she wondered petulantly aloud, “and when I try, they just fall apart? I could carry another ten at least if the braids would just stay together.” Braids. Together. Of course! There were rubber bands in her hair.

Quickly, she pulled of her hat and unwound the t-shirt, revealing a thick, matted, sweaty braid. The sun felt heavy and hot on her bare head, and she wished fervently she had only given Norma half of what was left in her water bottle. She ran her thick tongue over her lips.

Using all three rubber bands, Rosana tied the onions by their tops into three long strands which greatly improved the carrying capacity of her basket. She piled some loose onions into the t-shirt and tied it shut. Then, replacing her hat, she stood with an effort, knees and ankles popping, and lifted the basket.

It was only then she noticed the other gleaners staring at her.

She greeted them in French, and staggered away under the weight of her load.

*

At the river, she paused. The sun was high and glinted off the rivulets so brightly Rosana had to blink hard. The world spun strangely around her, She sat down abruptly on the rocky bank of the river in the shade of a spiny bush, dropping the basket beside her.

“I feel sick,” she moaned in a whisper. It was her own fault, she knew. She had chosen not to eat the remaining fruit, instead tossing down half a protein bar that was left in her backpack from the flight – how long ago had it been? Only two days? Rosana laughed thinly. They had no other water, either, until that man – what was his name? Whatever. They had no water until he brought a bucket for the well.

She wrapped her arms around her knees, closing her eyes and tucking chin to chest until the hot glare of the sun and the water faded.

“I’ve got to go into the little town and find someplace to buy food. Norma is hungry, too. We have enough money to buy some. Some food. Something to drink.” She left the basket of gleaned onions in the shade of the bush and crawled down the bank to the water. Thirst beckoned, pointing at the water in an imperative gesture. Drink, drink, it ordered. She dipped both hands into the rivulet and cupped a handful of the precious liquid, raising it toward her face. As it neared her mouth, it became brown and dull. Somewhere inside her thirst-crazed brain, she realized how dirty her hands were. Reflexively, she dropped her hands to the river and began to scrub diligently.

As the layers of onion-field dirt flowed away with the water, Rosana noticed a pale strip of skin on the fourth finger of her left hand. It was only after staring at it for several moments that she realized her wedding ring was gone.

She stood slowly to her feet, left hand held out in front of her. Gone. Marcelo’s ring was gone. Even in her state, she knew what had happened. Turning in the direction of the onion field, she bowed her head.

“It’s in the dirt,” she stated flatly. “It came off while I dug in the dirt, and now I will never find it.” Rosana began to yell. She yelled at the field. She yelled at the water. She took the Dominican Republic, Carlos, Olinda, Marcelo, and God to task, each in turn, with a thorough tongue-lashing in English, French, and Spanish. When it was over, she reeled, staggered, and then collapsed in the shade of the bush beside the onion basket and wept until she fell asleep.

*

Chattering. High-pitched. Rosana opened her eyes slowly, trying to place her surroundings. Suddenly, her brain began processing myriad pain messages from her body, and she groaned. The chattering stopped. Rosana struggled to a sitting position, gingerly touching her ankles and sides where stones had pressed while she slept.

A sudden, dark movement near the onion basket, and a furry head disappeared into the yellow bracken on the river bank with a whole onion in its jaws.

“Shoo! Get out of here!” Rosana croaked, picking up a stone to hurl at the the grass where the creature had disappeared. “Oh no, the onions!” She picked up the three braids, and counted five onions left on one, three on the second, and four on the third. All the loose onions were gone. “You, stupid, stupid animals!” she groaned, standing slowly to her feet while the world whirled around her.

Taking up the basket and what was left of the onions braids, she crossed the shallow river and stared up at the hill in front of her. Some internal sense of reality snapped into action in her brain.

“There is no way I am making it up that hill through all that brush,” she muttered, even as her body turned and began stumbling along the rocky bank toward the bridge, half-a-mile away. The sun was low in the west, maybe an hour before it dipped into the ocean, she realized.

“Norma!” she cried, breaking into a limping jog. Norma would be frantic! Rosana had promised to be home and Noon, and now it must be six or seven at night.

After two scraping slips in the bracken, Rosana managed to climb up off the river bank and pick her way through mountains of trash to reach the road on top of the bridge just as the sky began to darken.

“I’m just stayin’ on the road,” she muttered, trudging through the dust and cracked asphalt that made up the road. When she reached the turn for Planchado, it was nearly dark, and she redoubled her efforts, stumbling on the washboard-like dips of the dirt track in her effort to get to Norma quickly. At the top of the rise, their casita came into view, but unlike the night before, the house was illuminated with soft light, and the sound of a generator chugged from the bed of a pick-up truck, parked in the front yard. Rosana followed a yellow extension cord from the truck, up the steps, and into the doorway.

She swayed a moment, stopping short after so much concentrated effort to propel herself forward. Inside, a white-habited Sister held Norma’s hand, patting it gently and speaking to her in words Rosana could not translate. In the kitchen crouched two men who appeared to be installing a stove. In the tiny bedroom, other men appeared to be constructing something, but at the moment Rosana appeared all sound stopped, and Norma shrieked.

In an instant, a man was barring her way, trying to push her outside. Rosana’s exhausted brain translated the man’s intervention as an attack, and swinging the basket of onions around, she clubbed him on the ear. In the process, her hat fell off, and the t-shirt, long since dangling from her head like a headdress gone awry, fell to the floor, revealing her tumble of matted, dirty red hair.

The man stumbled back as she shouldered her way through the door and sank to the floor beside her mother-in-law’s wheelchair.

“Mama,” she managed, “are you alright? I was so worried about you.”

Rosana – Chapter Fourteen

Chapter 14

Barto swung up into the driver’s seat and closed the door in one smooth motion. All the years of meticulously developing his self-control came to his aid as he managed to back out of the house’s front yard, still littered with construction debris, and drive away without looking back.

A few yards down the hill, he made a sharp right-hand turn and bumped up the dirt driveway of the Sacred Heart cloister. He threw the truck into ‘park’, turned off the pulsing diesel engine, and went to knock smartly on the front door.

A small woman in a white habit greeted him a moment later.

“Senor Barto! How good to see you! We are so happy about the new refrigerator! Thank you!”

“You’re welcome, Hermana Elena. Is La Madre available?”

“She’s in her office. Will you wait in the parlor?”

Barto nodded, took off his hat, brushed it clean against his jeans and stepped over the threshold into the cool, clean interior of the cloister. He accepted the glass of water Hermana Elena offered and sat on a hard, wooden chair stroking his mustache while she went to find the Abbess, La Madre Maria-Ileana.

“Senor Barto!” La Madre’s loud voice always surprised Barto, and he stood to his feet with a wide grin to receive the Superior of the Convent.

She was a round woman, with an easy grin and eyes of iron. She knew what her Sisters needed, and knew how to storm heaven -and earth- chuckled Barto, until she got it.

“You are here to check in on the new appliance, I am sure,” she boomed, coming to stand in front of him. “Sit down, sit down. No need to stand, I know you are busy the whole day, but here you must rest. It is lovely. Just beautiful. Stainless steel is so much easier to clean than the plastic, of course, and so far, we have just had to adjust the little legs to make it level. Poor Hermana Carmela put a pan of milk in it before we fixed it, and it poured into the fruit drawers!” Here, she threw her hands in the air and bellowed with laughter. Several other white-coiffed heads were gathered behind her wide skirts now, laughing with her. “But we love it, don’t we sisters? Of course, we do!”

“Madre,” interjected Barto, anxious to get her attention before she started on another subject, “I need to speak with you about your new neighbors.”

“But the new houses are not finished yet! Surely, the new tenants are not there already? I know there is quite a waiting-list for your little casitas but they must wait until the construction is finished! What is the family name?”

“Delacruz. They are – one of them is – a cousin of mine who has been -”

“Delacruz. Delacruz. The Delacruzes of Azua, you mean? They are mechanicos, no? I have met their mother. What are they doing over here?”

“No, no, Madre. Not the Delacruzes from Azua, although they are distantly related. No, these ladies are my father’s brother’s son’s wife. And daughter-in-law.”

“Father’s brother’s son’s? My head is spinning Senor Barto. Sit down.” She sank heavily in a chair across a small carpet from where he was already seated. “Tell me the whole story, and don’t leave out any important details.” She turned to the group of white-clad ladies grinning into the room. “Hermanas, please return to your work.” Obediently, they filed away. “Now,” She adjusted her skirt and folded her hands across her ample girth. “Tell me everything.”

“Last night, I came from a dinner at the Mayor’s house in Palm-”

“About the pier, I’m sure. That man had the nerve to come to me about his silly pier, asking if I would please ask our donors to help fund it, ‘for the good of the community!’” She coughed incredulously. “Go on.”

“And I saw an American woman pushing a Dominican lady in a wheelchair down the streets of Palmar.”

“Friday night, hmm. Were they part of that drunken revel?”

“No, as I later found out. I watched them go to the Inn as I walked home.”

“And so you took them in? Without knowing anything about them? Senor Barto -” It was his turn to interrupt.

“No, Madre. But before I reached my home, my cousin, Valencia, from Bani called with the news that my cousin Eduardo – the one who died in the United States a few years ago – his widow, had come home. She and Vicente drove them to Palmar from Bani last night.”

“You said there was an American woman. Who is she?”

“Eduardo had two sons. She is the wife of the oldest boy, Marcelo.”

“Where is Marcelo? And why did he let his mother and wife travel all this way alone?” La Madre pursed her lips sternly.

“He is dead. He and his brother were killed last month in some sort of boating accident.”

“Both dead at once?”

“Yes.”

“Was the other son married as well?”

“Yes, but his wife stayed with her family in the States.”

“And why didn’t this other one stay in her own country, too?”

He shrugged. “They are close, the mother- and daughter-in-law.”

“Close.” La Madre ‘hmph-ed.’ “We will see. So you brought them out here to an unfinished house that is supposed to be the home of one of the Haitian families who have come to help you with the mango harvest, is that it?”

“Last night, I could not sleep, thinking over how this has all come to be, and why Dulcita would come back? Why not stay in the States?”

“Where she lost her husband, both sons, and a daughter-in-law? Of course she came home!”

“It occurred to me that she would try to live in her old house, so I planned to go speak to her about the earthquake damage, but early this morning, Jaime calls. You know Jaime?”

La Madre only frowned.

“He said his brother’s wife was back with a- well, a- an American woman.” He finished lamely.

La Madre held up her hand. “You don’t need to tell me what happened. Jaime found them and started causing trouble for la Americana. And you brought them here. It was good thinking.”

“Almost, Madre. The girl had already pushed the wheelchair all the way to Dulcita’s old house and was trying to figure out how to live in the two rooms upstairs which are not damaged.”

“Why would she do that? She’s American. She can probably buy any house in the village!”

“Maybe not. Anyway, I got there after Jaime, and you’re right, there was some trouble.”

“But you sent that louse packing, God forgive me.” Madre Maria-Ileana crossed herself.

“I confess I did remind him of some debts he owes me. But you know Jaime. And as he reminded me, he is the next of kin, being Dulcita’s brother-in-law. It will only be a matter of time. That’s why they can’t stay in the village. Dulcita – Norma – is sick, and the American woman doesn’t know anything about living here.”

“So you brought them to me, and we will look after them. It was smart. And well done, Senor Barto. Jaime doesn’t come within a mile of this place if he can help it! Our Lord reminds him of his duties if he gets too close!” She laughed until the cross necklace danced on her ample bosom. “But Senor Barto,” she continued, suddenly serious, “if they did not come with money, how are they going to live?”

“I don’t know.”

“Can she cook? Can she sew? Can she clean?”

Barto shrugged and ran a finger across his mustache. “Her hands are very soft. And the fingernails are painted. Not hard working hands, and yet, I see the way she cares for her mother-in-law. Like taking care of an old woman is the reason she is alive. How does devotion like that – love like that – happen? I don’t know.” He remembered her long fingers in his work-roughened hand. And the red hair hanging like a tapestry in front of her face. The fiercely protective but gentle embrace with which she cradled Dulcita.

La Madre was looking at him through squinting eyes, her head cocked to one side appraisingly. “Her hands were soft, were they? And how would you know that, Senor Barto? A man of forty-five?”

“I helped her into the truck.”

“Does she know the casitas have no running water? What will happen to those soft hands and pretty nails? Does she have the strength to lose her beauty in order to serve her mother-in-law?”

Barto smoothed his mustache.

“Well, Senor Barto,” said Madre Maria-Ileana, heaving herself to her feet and leading him to the door, “I will give them two days to settle in, and then my sisters and I will go visit. What is her name, la Americana?”

Barto looked at her like she spoke another language.

“What is the name of the younger widow, Senor Barto?” La Madre repeated, firmly.

“Her name? I don’t know! All she told me was ‘Mrs. Delacruz.’”

“There seem to be a lot of ‘I don’t knows’ in your life suddenly, Senor Barto,” Mother Maria-Ileana chuckled softly at the clouds of dust which clustered behind the receding truck.

*

Rosana squared her shoulders and resolved not to look at him as he drove away. He had solved their immediately housing need, and that was as much as family obligation required.

“C’mon, Mama, let’s look inside.”

They surveyed the tiny cottage with four cement steps leading up to the brown front door for a full minute before Rosana shrugged sheepishly, “Okay. I admit it. The accessibility rules for buildings in the US are a good idea. How are we going to get you in and out?”

“You leave me outside.”

“Not on your life. We’ll go up backward now, and build a ramp later. Let me put these bags inside, and then I’ll come help you up.” She shouldered their duffle bags and her backpack and stomped up the steps. On the top step, she fitted the key into the lock and mouthed a silent ‘thank you,’ to Senor Barto who had pressed it into her hand after putting her rent payment in a worn wallet.

She shoved the door with her toe and stepped inside. “Oh!” she gasped, dropping the bags with a thud.

“What is it, Mija?” called Norma from the front yard. “You are okay?”

“Fine, Mama. It’s just…” Rosana surveyed the stud walls, bare of any plaster or sheet rock, the single electrical outlet, the floor covered with sawdust and construction trash, and the rest of the house, all of which was visible from where she stood at the front door. “…beautiful,” she finished lamely.

“Help me see, mi amor!”

“Just a minute, Mama.” She rotated slowly, looking for something she could make into a broom. There was nothing inside. Turning to look outside, she met the eager gaze of her mother-in-law. “I wish I could clean it a little before you come in.”

“No te preocupes, querida, don’t worry. I will love it no matter how it looks!”

It’s true, Rosana thought, her spirits suddenly light. It was their home, and they would make it beautiful, even if it took a long, long time. She laughed, the happy sound mingling with the bright sunshine and echoing off the side of the Convent only half a football field away. Jumping down the steps, she turned the chair backward and pulled Norma, one step at a time up into their new house.

*

La Madre Maria-Ileana watched from the southern window of the workroom. The Sisters around her sewed industriously, making habits, altar cloths, clothing for newborn babies, and whatever else God brought them to do.

“La Americana is very thin.” Mother commented to no one in particular. “And they have no furniture. On what is the old lady going to sleep? And what will they eat?”

At noon, the Sisters left their work and went to the chapel to pray the Mid-day Office. Then they dined in the refectory on fruit, bread, and fried plantain.

“Hermana,” whispered La Madre to Hermana Estelle, a woman of middle age whose white habit contrasted brilliantly with her smooth, dark skin. “Put some food on a plate and bring it to the ladies in the new casita. And see what else they need.” The Sister grinned, bowed, and disappeared into the kitchen.

“At least they won’t go hungry tonight,” murmured La Madre.

*

Norma enjoyed the view from the top step of their little windowless home. If Rosana parked her wheelchair sideways so she looked out toward the sea, she was also able to take in all the activity along the road, and see some of the older casitas, built at the bottom of the hill, closer to Palmar.

“I wonder who will come to live here?” Norma pointed to the other house near the well, less complete than their own.

“I wonder why they aren’t finished. And why is no one working on them?” Rosana called from within the house. She carefully gathered all scraps of wood the workers had left inside and made a small pile to the left of the front steps. She did the same on the grounds around the house and well, and was soon rewarded with a good-sized pile of odds and ends, including many nails, scraps of metal roofing, and three 2X4s of various lengths.

“What are you doing, mija?” asked Norma.

“Watch and see, Mama.” Rosana found a stone and drove a nail into the exterior wall of the house above and to each side of the door. Then, she dug a hole at the base of the steps, one on either side, and set a 2X4 upright in each one. Inside her painting backpack was a carefully folded tarp made of thin, paint speckled canvas she used as a floor covering around her easel. This, she hung from the nails above the door and tied around the upright 2X4s until the entire front porch was shadowed under its shady spread. She spent several minutes adjusting the height so as not to obscure the view.

“There, Mama,” said Rosana, wiping her hands on her pants and surveying her work. “Shade.”

Norma sighed. “Oh, querida! That God would give me this joy in my life! I sit on my shaded front porch in my own country, near to him in the Church.” She pointed to the Convent. “I am content, my dear one. But a little hungry. Do we have anything to eat?”

Food. Rosana had forgotten. They had finished the bread and cheese at lunch. She sat down on the steps and looked out toward the village of Palmar and the bay of the sea beyond. Where would she go to get food?

“Where do people buy groceries here? Are there grocery stores?”

“Of course. Small stores in Palmar, big supermarkets in Bani and the Capital. Most people go once a week to the big stores in the city and grow or make whatever else they need. Where are you going?”

Rosana stood and went into the house. In three steps she had crossed the living room and was in the kitchen. The dark room had no stove, no refrigerator, no running water. Just two cupboards a counter, topped with tile, and a sink with a drain. Rosana went back to the porch.

“How do you cook here?”

“On a stove or a microwave, like in the States, silly. What do you think, we cook over a fire, still?” Norma chuckled and drank from her water bottle. Suddenly, her expression changed. “Oh, Rosana. There is no stove?”

Rosana shook her head.

“What do we do?” wailed Norma. “How will we cook over a fire? Why is God asking this of us?” She began to rock and cry.

“Stop, Mama. Stop right now.” Rosana’s voice was fierce as she squatted down by the wheelchair to look in her mother-in-law’s face. “We have come this far, and look, see? We have a house, we have shade and a beautiful view, and we have each other, right? Now, we will trust God to provide the rest.”

Norma stared at her. “You believe God will help us? You don’t even believe in God! How can you say such a thing?”

Rosana took her hands and spoke gently. “Remember? I said your country would be mine and your religion would be mine, so I will believe. Because I said I would. And truly, Mama, I do believe, a little. When my brother died, I put God away, but he keeps calling me. First through you, and now, look where we live!” She turned to gesture incredulously toward the Convent, and there, on the slope between them and the glinting windows was a figure in white, coming toward them.

*

Hermana Estelle put the plate and basket on the tiled counter in the dark kitchen and glanced around, smoothing her skirt. When she returned to the front porch, she sat down on the step at the foot of the wheelchair next to the young woman.

Rosana listened closely to her greeting. “Parlez vous Francais?” she asked their visitor.

“Mai oui!” Answered the sister, leaning sideways in surprise and continuing the conversation in a mixture of French, Spanish, and broken English.

“You are from Haiti?” asked Norma.

Hermana Estelle smiled a toothy grin and nodded. “I come over the mountains to the DR twenty years ago to pick mangoes with my family. La Madre found me, and brought me to the Convent. And I have been here since. But tell me who you are and why you have come?”

Rosana gazed out over the hill, Palmar, the sea. She watched the cars going to and fro on the main road while Norma explained their situation to the Sister. Presently, she went to the tiny sleeping room and took from her backpack their last bottle of water. She brought it to the front porch and offered it to Hermana Estelle when there was a lull in conversation.

“Thank you, Miss -”

“Mrs., actually. Mrs. Delacruz.”

“What will you do to support yourselves here, Mrs. Delacruz? Do you have a skill?”

Do twelve years of ballet count? Rosana wondered. Certainly, her overused joints had taken a beating today, between climbing up to the old Delacruz house and now the work at the house.

“I paint. I speak French and English. I could teach ballet. But I’ll do almost anything. What do you recommend? Do you know of any business that needs an employee?”

“You paint? What do you paint?”

“Landscapes, murals, portraits.” She thought about the unfinished portrait of Marcelo still wrapped inside her painting backpack.

“La Madre will be interested to know you paint. She would like to have pictures painted for the walls. Scenes from the Bible, saints. That kind of painting. You can do this?”

Rosana nodded.

“Good.” The Sister looked pleased. “But soon it will be harvest-time, and the best way to get fresh food is to go into the fields that have already been harvested and pick up what was left behind. This is called gleaning. There is a kind of understanding that the poor must be given their pick of what is left. Right now, it is onion harvest. Soon, in one week or two, it will be mango harvest. You must go to the orchard and wait until the harvesters clear the good fruit. Then, you go with a basket and pick up the best of what is left. This you may take home for free. I will show you the fields where you must go.”

She stood, wiping the dust from the back of her skirt and beckoned for Rosana to follow her around to the other side of the casita. On this side, the Sister pointed inland to cultivated fields and a wide, shallow river. “These here belong to Senor Barto. He is a good man and allows the poor who come.” Sister Estelle turned to face the hills behind the Convent. “Beyond the hills toward the town of Hatillo, the fields belong to Senor Jaime. Do not go there. He grows many kinds of beans and potatoes, but the men who work for him are not safe. You understand?” The Sister held her arm, looking piercingly into Rosana’s eyes until she assented. “Good. You start tomorrow in the onion field. That one there. You see?”

“I see it.”

“Tres bien. Onions are good to eat when roasted in a fire. Come, I will teach you to make a fire.”

The kind Sister did not know she had set out on a task that would take all afternoon. It was late by the time she had instructed Rosana in the art of proper placement of the fire so the prevailing winds would not blow smoke into the house. She explained where to find the kind of rocks needed for a good fire-ring, and made Rosana arrange and rearrange the stones until Sister Estelle grunted her satisfaction. Then came a walk through the bracken and small trees for fuel and warnings about which animals lived where in the brush. A further delay occurred while Sister Estelle walked back to the Convent to ask La Madre for a box of matches for the viudas, the widows in the casita.

Unbeknownst to Rosana and Norma, all of the Convent-dwellers were gathered at the workroom windows to witness Rosana’s first fire.

“Now, throw dirt on it,” Sister Estelle instructed when the blaze was finally roaring.

“I just got it going!” yelled Rosana, hungry, tired and dirty, the crown of her head and shoulders burned by the sun.

“You have no water. It is too dangerous. When you have a bucket of water nearby, then you keep your fire burning. Not now. Only now you know how to make your own fire.” She scooped two handfuls of dirt and dumped them on the fire. Rosana bit her tongue and bitterly did as she was told.

“Now, I go once more to the Convent and bring for you a blanket for la anciana, the old lady. She must not sleep on the bare floor.”

Sleep! Rosana glanced over her shoulder at the setting sun, conscious that they would be in the dark when the sun set. She grunted her thanks to the Sister and finished extinguishing the fire. Four joints in her back popped as she gingerly stood erect for the first time in what must have been hours. Norma was dozing in her chair on the front porch, and Rosana knew she would have to go to the tiny outhouse by the trees before going to bed. Exhaustion tugged at her mood and her muscles. There was no longer any clean place on her pants to wipe her hands, and Rosana wondered how Sister Estelle’s habit had managed to stay so white.

“Probably because I did all the dirty work,” she muttered, and then stopped short. The sun was beginning its final descent into the water, and bright rays of clean light shot across the bay, up the hill and into her eyes with soft, muted colors. Rosana froze at the sheer beauty of the moment.

“Mama! Mama!” Norma awoke with a jerk. “Look, Mama!” The older woman followed her finger to the sinking sun, and for a moment, they both felt the heart-wrenching tug of overwhelming beauty.

By the time Sister Estelle returned with a two thin cotton blankets, Rosana and Norma had been to the outhouse and were waiting on the step in the waning light.

“Tomorrow,” the Sister stated with finality, pointing at Rosana. “You go to the onion field and pick what is left. Bring it back. I will come and check on la anciana while you are gone. La Madre say so.”

There was nothing more to do than say ‘thanks’ and ‘goodnight,’ roll the wheelchair into the house, and lock the door behind them. Norma neatly arranged a pile of all her and Rosana’s clothes into a mattress, and with the cotton blanket to cover them and sweatshirts as pillows, the women fell fast asleep.

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