Norma squeezed a handful of lotion from the bottle and lifting Rosana’s hand from the bucket in which her daughter-in-law had just soaped and washed her arms, hands, and face, she dried it on the towel in her lap and began working the lotion in to her hands and forearms with long strokes.
Rosana sat, eyes closed, hovering on the edge of sleep while her mother-in-law ministered to her aching arms and hands. Tomorrow was coming fast. Scarcely time to eat the fruit and handfuls of grain Norma had prepared while Rosana changed from her work clothes into the shorts and t-shirt that were her pajamas.
Norma had enjoyed the food she brought home in the bowl, carefully tucked into the corner of the horribly heavy box. Tomorrow, she would use a bag. Even if she had to bring one of the duffle bags.
“I need to go get some water, Mama. Then I’m going to bed.” She groaned, rolling her neck from side to side in a painful arc. “Do you know how to separate that wheat?” She opened her eyes to look at Norma, who was squeezing out another handful of lotion for Rosana’s other arm.
“Of course. You bring a lot home! I didn’t think Senor Barto would let his workers leave so much on the ground.” She clucked at the thought.
“Oh, please, Mama. They’re leaving clumps of it on the ground for me. The foreman had me go up to the front after lunch, and follow the lead harvesters. They kept ‘accidentally’ dropping it for me to find.”
“Senor Barto did this.”
Rosana nodded, her eyes still closed. She didn’t see her mother-in-law squinting at her with a raised eyebrow.
“You talk to him today?”
Rosana nodded again, leaning forward in the plastic chair as Norma flipped the limp red braid aside and began scrubbing the back of the younger woman’s neck with a washcloth. “Yup. He was there at lunchtime – he’s the one who sent you the bowl of food. And,” she turned, opening her eyes to look at Norma, “he lent me his bandana.”
Norma dipped the washcloth in the bucket and swished it around. Pulling it up, she wrung the water onto the front porch, the drops falling like rain on the concrete beneath them. Then, folding the cloth into fours, she set to work scrubbing again. Rosana’s body flopped without resistance beneath her efforts.
“What do you think of him?” Norma asked, trying to sound nonchalant.
“He’s a nice man. I told him so. He has always helped us, since the first day we got here. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who seems to really care about other people like he does. And foreigners, too.”
“He is a nice man,” Norma echoed. “He was a nice boy, and he is a nice man. We thought he might be a priest, when he was young.”
“Is that why he never married?” Rosana yawned.
“No. If a man knows he’s not called to be a priest, usually he gets married. But not Barto. Maybe he was too busy running the business, helping his family. I don’t know. Now his parents are gone, I wish he would get married. He needs someone.”
“I don’t know, Mama. To me, it looks like he’s doing fine.”
Norma shook her head and wetting and wringing the washcloth again, she draped it over the back of the plastic chair. Filling her hand with lotion, she began to rub it into Rosana’s neck and shoulders.
“Why are we here on earth?” the older woman asked, but continued on before Rosana could rouse herself enough to answer. “To love. Love other people and be loved in return. To know other human beings, to know God our Creator, and to be known. A man is part of a community.”
“Ungh,” grunted Rosana, the knots in her shoulders loosening under the fingers of her mother-in-law, which seemed to be growing stronger in the last few months.
“And so,” Norma continued, “he, too, must love and be loved. He must know and be known. No?”
“Then you see why Barto needs to be married.” She reached for the tangled braid and began to methodically untwist it, picking plant particles and dirt from it as she went. Then she gently poked Rosana’s shoulder until the younger woman heaved herself from the chair and picked up both buckets.
Mechanically, Rosana dumped the dirty water in their tiny garden and stumbled around the house to the well.
When both buckets were full, she paused and stared up into the nighttime sky, stars glowing brilliantly what could only be a few feet above her head.
“Beautiful,” she breathed, and hoisting a bucket in each hand, returned to the house.
“It’s beautiful here, Mama,” she whispered, setting the buckets down on the porch with a thunk.
The older woman smiled. “It is my home, so of course I love it. But I am glad you love it, too.”
Rosana dropped gracelessly into the chair and flipped her hair forward while her mother-in-law wetted, shampoo-ed, rinsed, and oiled her hair.
“I smell like coconut,” she chuckled as the older woman brushed the long tresses and re-braided them.
“The oil keeps your hair healthy.”
“I should just cut it off,” grunted Rosana. “It really gets in the way in the field.”
“No!” snapped Norma, her voice bringing Rosana wide awake. She softened her tone. “Don’t cut it, mi amor. It is beautiful, and you will need it if you are to marry again.”
Rosana straightened. “Marry again?” She paused, considering. “No, Mama. I think I’m done with that. My husband is dead.” Her eyes filled with tears as the grief came roaring up from her soul again. She stood and breathed in deeply, filling her lungs with the fragrant air, part sea-salt and part sun-baked earth.
“You are young, and beautiful.” She clapped her hands sharply. “Rosana. Think! Neither you nor I can continue to live this way for long.” She gestured around them. “The harvests are almost over, and then what will we eat?”
Rosana rested her head against the door frame, but did not answer.
“You have provided so well for us, but what if you are injured? What if my sickness gets worse? What will we do? Will the Sisters always have to give us food? Will you always have to work yourself to exhaustion on not enough to eat? Look at you, skin and bone!”
Rosana pondered, wishing she were already asleep on their mattress, lost in the blackness of exhaustion rather than facing this conversation. It was true, unfortunately. They had no backup plan. If anything happened to her, who would help Norma? With her eyes closed, she looked carefully at herself, inside.
Was she happy? Yes, ostensibly. Serving Norma, giving everything she had for another human being was very satisfying.
Was she hungry? Curse this body, yes, and thirsty. All the time. Her body was in such need of nutrients her gums would often bleed when she brushed her teeth with a sparing dot of toothpaste.
Norma had spoken of loving and knowing. Yes, I love others, Rosana thought, and I am loved by my mother-in-law, but who do I really know? And who knows me?
She stared at the inside of her eyelids, reaching back into the days of her marriage. I have been a widow longer than I was married, she realized. Was it possible? And had she known Marcelo? Not really, she answered honestly. I was too busy with myself. And did he know me? How could he? I never let him see who I was. She was guarded by thorn bushes of sarcasm and rock walls of arrogance. It had been an effective defense.
But there was another issue.
“Who would marry me, Mama?” She turned to face her mother-in-law, outlined by the light of the lamp’s single bulb, looking with concern at Rosana. “When they find out that I can’t have children, who will want me? In this culture? Where family is the most important thing to have? No one will marry me.”
“Barto would marry you.”
“What, out of pity?” The sarcasm came rolling out like an easy wave. It leaped to her lips as if it had never left. “Barto does another act of charity and takes on a barren widow and her mother-in-law. Really? Uh, no. I don’t think so. More likely I would fit Jaime’s idea of a wife. I know kids aren’t in his plans!” She laughed bitterly, imagining herself parading in high-heels and short skirts at Jaime’s side, riding in his plush and neon truck. Some things are the same in every culture, she thought ruefully.
Her tone left Norma speechless.
Rosana began moving everything on the porch into the house. “Come on, Mama,” she said, modulating her voice with difficulty. “It’s time for bed.”
She helped Norma through her bedtime routine, trying not to notice the shrinking quantities of medication in the bottles, observing how very difficult it was for her to use the outhouse and the work required to get her there and back. The bucket of water which would be needed for their scant breakfast, now only a few short hours away.
It was true, she knew. They couldn’t go on like this.
But am I willing to marry to change it?
She lay down on a sliver of the mattress after tucking Norma in, locking the front door, and turning out the light. The gibbous moon in a cobalt-blue sky shone through the window, casting shadows of the iron bars across her face. Suddenly, she remembered Barto’s eyes that afternoon. And the day he had lectured her about accepting help. There had been a look she had not recognized. A probing look. A measuring look. A look to determine what she was made of. Not the wolfish, lust-filled look she was used to attracting from men. And strangely, he had not seemed disappointed with what he found.
It would make a difference if he actually wanted me, she thought. A big difference. In fact, it would change everything.