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.”