Eight, Rosana counted. Eight men that she could see were laying in various positions against the stacks of wheat bags. She avoided most of them by walking around the back of the reduced pile of loose wheat to the stack on which Barto lay.
“Senor Barto?” she whispered, willing her voice to carry to the top of the stack.
There was no answer.
“Barto?” she called again, a little louder. Someone stirred, knocking a shovel to the ground with a clang. Rosana hid her face in the blanket and froze against the stack. Several minutes of silence passed before she breathed with any regularity again.
Now what? Sweat beginning to prickle her back. She loosened the blanket and used it to fan herself gently. I guess I have to climb up there, she thought, looking down ruefully at her chic sandals and then up at the pile. For a moment, she considered dashing out of the warehouse to collect her work shoes from the tree where she had left them and running all the way home. But what good would that do us? She knew the answer, and untying the sandals, she gripped them by the ribbons with her teeth and hanging the blanket over her shoulders like a scarf, began to climb the stack of wheat bags.
Barto woke with a start. He lay still for a moment until his brain reminded him where he was. Of course. In the warehouse. On a stack of bagged wheat, because the harvest was over and the tiny pile that was left unbagged would be used during the party on Saturday. He sighed contentedly and rolled to his side, pulling the blanket around his shoulders and over his cold feet.
There was a change in the air. The blanket smelled distinctly feminine. Come to think of it, how did he get a blanket at all? He had no blanket when he climbed up here earlier. Around him, the warehouse was silent. Squinting, he could read the big clock by the door. Midnight.
Slowly, he rolled back, the sweet scent growing stronger. At that moment, his foot touched something that did not feel like a bag of wheat.
He jerked up to stare into the gloom at his feet. Something silver flashed at him, and leaning closer, he made an astonishing discovery. It was a woman! Curled into a ball, she lay asleep at his feet. And around her exquisite face, like a spill of exotic paint, hung ringlet curls in a heart-stopping red.
“Rosana?” he rasped.
She woke slowly, her eyelids fluttering, and then flying wide with the sudden realization of where she was. She sat up with a start.
“Senor Barto?” she asked, in a voice husky with sleep.
“Rosana! What – where did – you’re beautiful,” he finished, lamely, staring.
Her hands flew to her hair, unconsciously smoothing imaginary imperfections. “Please,” she whispered, “please, I wasn’t trying to trespass, and I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable, it’s just that -” she stumbled for words.
He leaned forward and caught her hand, peering into her eyes. “Just what?” he asked gently. “Just what?”
She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. When she opened them again, she tightened her grip on his hand. “I needed to see you. We need more of your help,” she said simply.
Barto nodded, waiting. “Anything.”
A little smile played around the corners of her mouth and she looked away.
“You may not say that when I’m done, but here is what I need. I – I need – someone. I – need – a husband -” Her voice faltered, but she coughed and tried again, gathering her courage to look straight into his eyes. “I need someone who will be able to help me and Norma, who can help us get Norma’s land back from Jaime, and I – we – hoped that since you are our closest relative – you might – you might be willing. To marry me.” She looked at him pleadingly, willing him to understand what she was asking.
Barto was silent a long time, his thumb caressing the back of her hand.
Rosana took a deep breath. “There’s something more – and it’s just because you should know, I mean – if you were making an informed decision you’d want to know – that besides being a foreigner, I can’t, you know, have kids.”
Still, Barto was silent, looking at her. He watched tears collect at the corners of her eyes, and the proud, trembling blink that held them back. Turning her hand over in his, he traced the lines of callouses and dirt that never fully wash out of a harvester’s hands. Somehow, the hands were still soft. Tough, but soft. Like her. Could he ever earn the love of this woman, dressed in silver with hair like a sunset falling around her in living waves?
“I will speak to Jaime, if you like, but I can do that without marrying you. The whole town knows what you are doing for Dulcita – Norma – and everyone will understand why I want to help. No need to promise yourself to an old man who is likely to leave you a widow again.”
“Senor Barto,” she whispered after a moment, forcing herself to look into his eyes, “is it that you don’t want – to marry me? I completely understand, of course – you’ve already done so much for us, and this is so huge – taking on a widow and a sick woman -” Color flooded her cheeks and she snatched her hand away. “I’m so embarrassed. And I’m sorry.” She scooted to the edge of the stack and jumped lightly down.
“Rosana.” In a moment, he was beside her, one hand gripping her upper arm the other hand under her chin, forcing her to look up at him. “Did you come on your own? Are you asking me this of your own free will?” His peered at her intently, pulling her closer, waiting tensely for her answer.
“Yes,” she replied simply.
He knit his brows together. “Are you sure? Are you certain?” He released her, hands hovering over the brilliant hair like a treasure he didn’t dare touch. He searched her eyes, incredulous at the beauty of face and figure standing before him. His hands settled on her shoulders and he waited for her reply.
“For awhile,” she whispered, conscious of his openly admiring stare, “I wasn’t sure. We need to survive, and this was a way to get Norma’s land back, right?” She saw a look of disappointment cloud his eyes. “I want you to know the truth,” she said as he tucked his hands behind his back, leaning against the wheat. “And the truth is, I’ve never met anyone as kind, as caring as you are. I’ve never known anyone who loves people like you do, but I just – I just don’t want to have someone marry me out of pity, you know? I know you would help us this way just because you are so kind to everyone. But lately – ” Rosana stepped forward and pulled his arm until it came from behind him and picking up his hand, pressed it to her cheek. It came alive under the caress, sliding behind her neck and pulling her forward.
“But lately, what?” he growled, arms encircling her.
“Lately, when I look in your eyes, I don’t see pity there,” she smirked, laughing quietly.
“No,” he paused to clear his throat several times, “you’re right. It’s not pity. It’s – it’s -” He passed a hand over his eyes as if in great weariness. “I told Norma I would look for someone to marry you, but inside,” he thumped his chest, “I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t let someone else have your love. Oh, Rosana! For love of another you left your home, your family, your religion, your country, your easy life, and you don’t complain! Love is – is deeper than pity, or words, or attraction -” Barto sucked in his breath. “You love by giving yourself, and I can only hope – I can only pray – that you can love me the same way.”
“I already do,” she whispered to his chest, which began to ache in a way he had never before experienced.
Her hair smells like coconut, he thought, inhaling deeply, savoring the sensation of her frail form leaning against him. Frail, but strong, judging by the work she did on one meal a day.
“Stay here,” he whispered into her hair. He disappeared for a several minutes and returned with a two pieces of pizza and a bottle of soda.
She gulped them down ravenously, then looked up to smile her thanks.
“Rosana, I -” he looked down at her uncertainly. “I want to make sure this is really what you want. Do you know that I am twenty years older than you? For me, this is nothing, but you could have any young man you wanted.”
She shook her head. “What young man do you know who would take a foreigner who cannot give him a family and who comes with a mother?”
“I am not ‘taking’ you, Rosana,” he insisted, reaching to grasp her forearms. “I want you. I love you.” He let out his breath, surprised the words had come out of his mouth. “And I want you just the way you are, stranger, without children, with Norma. I just can’t understand why you would want an old man? This is even kinder than everything else you’ve done.”
Rosana smiled. It was a genuine smile that reached her eyes, and she stepped forward into his embrace, reveling the the forgotten sensation of resting safely in the arms of a man who loved her. Who would protect her.
“How did you get to the warehouse?” he murmured into her hair, feeling her shoulders tense at the question.
“You don’t want to know,” she countered, pulling away far enough to look into his eyes.
“I thought so.” He shook his head. “And I can’t drive you back home – I promised to be here to guard the wheat tonight. Can you get back home again?”
She raised an eyebrow, scoffing. “Of course!”
“Then get a couple of hours of sleep before you go. Here. Thank you for covering me.” He wrapped the blanket around her and motioned for her to wait while he took several bags from the stack and arranged them into a bed on the warehouse floor.
She smiled gratefully and lay down, her makeshift bed hidden from the view of anyone except Barto, who was climbing up to his stack-top resting place. He arranged himself so he could look down at her in the dim light, and was not surprised to see her eyes were already closed above the blanket, tucked under her chin.
For a long while, Bartolomeo Santos lay awake, staring down from his stack-top bed in awe at the bride God had sent him. It made him want to be a better man.
She awoke at 4:17. Or that was the time when she peeked around the end of the stack and peered through the early-morning gloom at the clock.
Glancing upward, she saw Barto’s hair on top of the stack. I won’t wake him, she thought, silently folding her blanket. But as she reached to neaten the bags which had served as her mattress, she heard a quiet whoosh. She glanced up in time to see him sliding down the stack to land lightly beside her.
“Come,” he beckoned.
She followed him to the small pile of unbagged wheat in the center of the room, and when he pantomimed what she should do, Rosana opened the blanket and laid it on the floor.
Barto grasped a shovel standing upright in the grain and with a few quick motions, filled the center of the blanket with wheat.
Rosana tied the corners together and then gasped as she tried to lift it. There must be sixty pounds of wheat in it! God help me carry this, she prayed, especially in these shoes! Again, Barto beckoned, leading her to the door and out into the parking lot.
“Can you carry it?”
She nodded, heaving the bundle on to her back with an effort.
“I don’t want you to go back to Norma empty-handed,” he whispered, stroking his mustache. “And don’t worry about the property. I’ll speak with Jaime.”
“Thank you,” she said simply, meaning it.
“I will take care of you,” he replied, touching her cheek gently. It was a promise.
“I will love you,” she replied, and they were both happy.
The predawn darkness was beginning to lose it’s grip over the land, and Rosana, her back already complaining, smiled and set off for the tree where her work shoes waited. She would have to walk quickly if she was to get home before the stream of morning workers saw her in this silver gown.
“Heavens!” exclaimed Norma, backing her chair away from the door where she had been waiting for Rosana, peering down the hill into the brightening morning. “What is in that blanket?”
Rosana leaned against the porch and dropped the bundle onto the concrete. After a momentary pause during which she shook her arms to restore circulation, she took the work shoes from around her neck where they dangled by their tied-together laces and dropped them beside the bag.
“Did you see him, mi amor? What did he say?”
“Oh, Mama.” Rosana let her chin sag toward her chest. “I am so tired.” She rested for a moment and then dragged herself up the stairs and kissed her mother-in-law on the top of the head. “He said ‘yes.’ And he sent me home with all that wheat,” here she jabbed a vicious finger at the blanket, “for you.”
Rosana didn’t hear the rest of Norma’s response as she staggered into the bedroom and dropped onto the neatly-made mattress. In a matter of seconds, she was asleep.