The next day, and the next, Rosana went to the fields to glean wheat. The harvesters were happy to see her, and she smiled and joked with them in French and Spanish. Some were too friendly, and the foreman used a sharp tone to remind them of their work. Each day, the duffle bag she used to carry the wheat seemed strangely full, and Rosana suspected it was augmented at lunch or when she would step away into an unoccupied portion of the orchard to go to the bathroom.
On the third morning, she woke up late. Although the sun was not yet above the eastern mountains, she was sweating.
“I’m awake, mija – can you take me to the outhouse?”
“Sure,” she mumbled, rolling to her feet. The ground swayed unsteadily beneath her, and her eyes hurt.
“Oh, Mama. I don’t feel good. Let’s go. Then I’m going back to bed.”
Rosana managed to draw two pails of water after helping Norma through the morning routine. These she left on the front room next to the wheelchair. She didn’t have the strength to help Norma out onto the front porch to pick through yesterday’s wheat. Instead, she collapsed back on the mattress, groaning.
“Are you okay, mija?” Norma hovered anxiously, her wheelchair as far into the bedroom as it would fit.
“I just need…to rest.” Rosana closed her eyes, and not even the prospect of Norma’s hunger roused her.
In the early afternoon, a truck roared up the hill, raising clouds of dust behind it. Instead of turning to the Convent, it slowed and moved forward into the yard, stopping just past the clothes line near the front steps.
Norma watched from inside the front door, unable to go onto the porch to meet the driver.
Barto sat for a moment inside the truck’s cab, looking in wonder at the transformation the little house had undergone since the last time he had visited before the mango harvest.
A neat vegetable garden, outlined with a fence made of sticks and vines woven together. Painted signs of welcome. A little chicken coop. The clothes line, covered with washing hung out to dry in the breeze that wafted up the hill from the bay. A path to the well, worn with frequent use. Wheat chaff in piles around the front porch.
“Dulce?” He called, climbing out of the truck and walking toward the house. “Norma?”
“I’m here,” he heard the muffled voice reply from the dark interior. He hesitated on the top step, peering inside.
The wheelchair was wedged in the bedroom doorway, and Norma was sitting on the end of the bed.
“Are you alright?” he asked, taking off his hat and stepping over the threshold.
“Senor Barto? Is that you? Nevermind, I can see it is. Come in, but come quietly.” She waved a beckoning hand at him.
“Are you alright?” He repeated, this time in a whisper. “Rosana was not in the field today, and I thought maybe you weren’t well.” Light came in the bedroom through the window, and he could see Rosana, asleep, on the other side of her mother-in-law. He frowned with a sense of deja vu.
“She’s tired, Barto. Worn out. I’ve been trying to make her drink every time she wakes up, but she still feels feverish.”
Barto moved the chair and sidestepped between the mattress and the wall where fewer than six inches separated the two. He looked down at the sleeping figure. She was flushed and sweaty, her long, thin body splayed on the mattress as if she had collapsed there and never moved. He touched her cheek with the back of his hand. It was warm, but not burning. He moved his hand to her forehead and then picked up her fingers. The steady breathing didn’t change.
“She’s warm, but not feverish,” he said, eyes not straying from the sleeping face. Just tired, like you say.” Barto turned to Norma. “Have you eaten today?”
Norma glanced away. Barto followed her look to the duffle bag of yesterday’s wheat. She had probably spent the time she wasn’t with Rosana cleaning the wheat. Surely, a handful or two of the grains were the only things which had passed her lips.
“You know, sometimes there’s extra food leftover from the Noon meal the harvesters eat. I wonder if you would help me by taking some of it. Otherwise, it’s going to go bad in the heat.
That’s what I thought, he said to himself, watching the sudden spark of interest which lit his cousin’s face. The food Rosana brings home in that bowl is about the only thing you eat.
“That is very good of you, Cousin Barto,” Norma smiled, eagerly. “Only, just a bowlful, and maybe a little more in case Rosana is hungry when she wakes up.”
Barto realized the girl probably had not eaten that day, either. And probably little more than the Noon meal yesterday. “I have enough for several bowls in the back of the truck,” he said, settling the wide stetson on his head and turning toward the truck, “I’ll bring it.”
“Just a little, please, Cousin,” she replied. “It’s not that we don’t want it, it’s just that…well…it won’t keep.” She flushed a little, and after a moment of trying to understand, Barto realized what she meant.
“Oh! Because you don’t have a refrigerator! Well, can’t the Sisters put it in theirs for you? They’re keeping your medication, right?”
“Oh, Cousin, the Sisters are so good. And so helpful! But they cannot help us right now.”
“They’re too busy to help their neighbors?” he asked darkly, wondering what La Madre was thinking, and what she would have to say when he stopped there on his way back to the warehouse.
“No, no! Not at all! No, it’s just that they are going to the Capital for a big meeting. Big. They will be gone for two weeks.”
“So what will you do with your medications?”
Norma smiled proudly. “Rosana found a way to hang them down the inside of the well, near the water. It’s cool there.”
Barto snorted, looking with admiration at the sleeping form. “She is the one who made the garden fence?
Norma smiled again. “She is a good girl, Barto. A very good girl, and she will make someone a very good wife.”
“I don’t doubt it,” he said seriously. “And she should marry soon, if you both are going to -” He almost said, ‘survive,’ but stopped himself in time.
Norma hitched herself to the end of the mattress, and reaching both arms out for the arms of the wheelchair, transferred herself neatly into it. Then she backed out of the bedroom doorway and spun the chair to face him.
“Cousin Barto, she is killing herself! Everyday, she works and works, and you see how it is for her.” Norma threw her thumb in the direction of the bedroom. “She must marry. For both of our sakes, but especially for her. A good, generous, hardworking girl. She will make any man a good wife. Not just any man, of course, a man who will love her as my Marcelo did. Don’t you agree?” The older lady looked at him expectantly.
“Of course I agree,” he nodded firmly. “How old is she? Twenty-five? Twenty-six?”
“She is twenty-four,” Norma answered, wringing her hands, “but you know, age doesn’t really matter.”
“It would matter to her,” he insisted. “A young woman does not like the idea of marrying a middle-aged man. Who do I know who is in his mid-to-late twenties?” Mentally, he reviewed his business contacts. Maybe someone who would take her back to the US? No, Norma wouldn’t go, and if Norma wouldn’t, Rosana certainly wouldn’t. Maybe someone from the Capital – who did he know who had enough money to support them and enough sense to keep her out of trouble?
No one came to mind.
“I will think about it, Norma.”
“Oh, Barto!” The older woman broke into ecstatic grin, reaching for his hands. “That is just what I hoped you would say! Who would be better for her than -”
“And I’ll look through my contacts to see if anyone I know has a son of about her age.” He smoothed his mustache. “I don’t think there is anyone local, do you? In Palmar?”
“In fact, I do!” Norma declared hotly, dropping her hands.
“Well, let’s make a list, then,” he interrupted, oblivious to the emotion in her eyes. “Then I can start talking to them and see who is really suitable.” He strode from the house and returned a moment later with a disposable aluminum dish half full of rice, meat, and mango. He watched Norma swallow reflexively as he placed it on the tile-counter.
“Don’t you worry, Cousin,” he said, determinedly, reaching out to rest a hand on Norma’s shoulder. “I’ll find someone who can marry Rosana.”
He missed the significance of the way her upturned eyes searched his face, and was halfway down the steps before he processed her feeble thanks.
“No thanks needed, Norma. That’s what family is for.”
He touched the rim of his Stetson in a miniature salute as he climbed into the truck and backed through their clothes line, his antenna snagging a shirt which he did not discover until Angelo pointed it out in the Warehouse parking lot an hour later.