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
“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
“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
“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
“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?”
“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.”
“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
“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, 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
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
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.