Barto swung up into the driver’s seat and closed the door in one smooth motion. All the years of meticulously developing his self-control came to his aid as he managed to back out of the house’s front yard, still littered with construction debris, and drive away without looking back.
A few yards down the hill, he made a sharp right-hand turn and bumped up the dirt driveway of the Sacred Heart cloister. He threw the truck into ‘park’, turned off the pulsing diesel engine, and went to knock smartly on the front door.
A small woman in a white habit greeted him a moment later.
“Senor Barto! How good to see you! We are so happy about the new refrigerator! Thank you!”
“You’re welcome, Hermana Elena. Is La Madre available?”
“She’s in her office. Will you wait in the parlor?”
Barto nodded, took off his hat, brushed it clean against his jeans and stepped over the threshold into the cool, clean interior of the cloister. He accepted the glass of water Hermana Elena offered and sat on a hard, wooden chair stroking his mustache while she went to find the Abbess, La Madre Maria-Ileana.
“Senor Barto!” La Madre’s loud voice always surprised Barto, and he stood to his feet with a wide grin to receive the Superior of the Convent.
She was a round woman, with an easy grin and eyes of iron. She knew what her Sisters needed, and knew how to storm heaven -and earth- chuckled Barto, until she got it.
“You are here to check in on the new appliance, I am sure,” she boomed, coming to stand in front of him. “Sit down, sit down. No need to stand, I know you are busy the whole day, but here you must rest. It is lovely. Just beautiful. Stainless steel is so much easier to clean than the plastic, of course, and so far, we have just had to adjust the little legs to make it level. Poor Hermana Carmela put a pan of milk in it before we fixed it, and it poured into the fruit drawers!” Here, she threw her hands in the air and bellowed with laughter. Several other white-coiffed heads were gathered behind her wide skirts now, laughing with her. “But we love it, don’t we sisters? Of course, we do!”
“Madre,” interjected Barto, anxious to get her attention before she started on another subject, “I need to speak with you about your new neighbors.”
“But the new houses are not finished yet! Surely, the new tenants are not there already? I know there is quite a waiting-list for your little casitas but they must wait until the construction is finished! What is the family name?”
“Delacruz. They are – one of them is – a cousin of mine who has been -”
“Delacruz. Delacruz. The Delacruzes of Azua, you mean? They are mechanicos, no? I have met their mother. What are they doing over here?”
“No, no, Madre. Not the Delacruzes from Azua, although they are distantly related. No, these ladies are my father’s brother’s son’s wife. And daughter-in-law.”
“Father’s brother’s son’s? My head is spinning Senor Barto. Sit down.” She sank heavily in a chair across a small carpet from where he was already seated. “Tell me the whole story, and don’t leave out any important details.” She turned to the group of white-clad ladies grinning into the room. “Hermanas, please return to your work.” Obediently, they filed away. “Now,” She adjusted her skirt and folded her hands across her ample girth. “Tell me everything.”
“Last night, I came from a dinner at the Mayor’s house in Palm-”
“About the pier, I’m sure. That man had the nerve to come to me about his silly pier, asking if I would please ask our donors to help fund it, ‘for the good of the community!’” She coughed incredulously. “Go on.”
“And I saw an American woman pushing a Dominican lady in a wheelchair down the streets of Palmar.”
“Friday night, hmm. Were they part of that drunken revel?”
“No, as I later found out. I watched them go to the Inn as I walked home.”
“And so you took them in? Without knowing anything about them? Senor Barto -” It was his turn to interrupt.
“No, Madre. But before I reached my home, my cousin, Valencia, from Bani called with the news that my cousin Eduardo – the one who died in the United States a few years ago – his widow, had come home. She and Vicente drove them to Palmar from Bani last night.”
“You said there was an American woman. Who is she?”
“Eduardo had two sons. She is the wife of the oldest boy, Marcelo.”
“Where is Marcelo? And why did he let his mother and wife travel all this way alone?” La Madre pursed her lips sternly.
“He is dead. He and his brother were killed last month in some sort of boating accident.”
“Both dead at once?”
“Was the other son married as well?”
“Yes, but his wife stayed with her family in the States.”
“And why didn’t this other one stay in her own country, too?”
He shrugged. “They are close, the mother- and daughter-in-law.”
“Close.” La Madre ‘hmph-ed.’ “We will see. So you brought them out here to an unfinished house that is supposed to be the home of one of the Haitian families who have come to help you with the mango harvest, is that it?”
“Last night, I could not sleep, thinking over how this has all come to be, and why Dulcita would come back? Why not stay in the States?”
“Where she lost her husband, both sons, and a daughter-in-law? Of course she came home!”
“It occurred to me that she would try to live in her old house, so I planned to go speak to her about the earthquake damage, but early this morning, Jaime calls. You know Jaime?”
La Madre only frowned.
“He said his brother’s wife was back with a- well, a- an American woman.” He finished lamely.
La Madre held up her hand. “You don’t need to tell me what happened. Jaime found them and started causing trouble for la Americana. And you brought them here. It was good thinking.”
“Almost, Madre. The girl had already pushed the wheelchair all the way to Dulcita’s old house and was trying to figure out how to live in the two rooms upstairs which are not damaged.”
“Why would she do that? She’s American. She can probably buy any house in the village!”
“Maybe not. Anyway, I got there after Jaime, and you’re right, there was some trouble.”
“But you sent that louse packing, God forgive me.” Madre Maria-Ileana crossed herself.
“I confess I did remind him of some debts he owes me. But you know Jaime. And as he reminded me, he is the next of kin, being Dulcita’s brother-in-law. It will only be a matter of time. That’s why they can’t stay in the village. Dulcita – Norma – is sick, and the American woman doesn’t know anything about living here.”
“So you brought them to me, and we will look after them. It was smart. And well done, Senor Barto. Jaime doesn’t come within a mile of this place if he can help it! Our Lord reminds him of his duties if he gets too close!” She laughed until the cross necklace danced on her ample bosom. “But Senor Barto,” she continued, suddenly serious, “if they did not come with money, how are they going to live?”
“I don’t know.”
“Can she cook? Can she sew? Can she clean?”
Barto shrugged and ran a finger across his mustache. “Her hands are very soft. And the fingernails are painted. Not hard working hands, and yet, I see the way she cares for her mother-in-law. Like taking care of an old woman is the reason she is alive. How does devotion like that – love like that – happen? I don’t know.” He remembered her long fingers in his work-roughened hand. And the red hair hanging like a tapestry in front of her face. The fiercely protective but gentle embrace with which she cradled Dulcita.
La Madre was looking at him through squinting eyes, her head cocked to one side appraisingly. “Her hands were soft, were they? And how would you know that, Senor Barto? A man of forty-five?”
“I helped her into the truck.”
“Does she know the casitas have no running water? What will happen to those soft hands and pretty nails? Does she have the strength to lose her beauty in order to serve her mother-in-law?”
Barto smoothed his mustache.
“Well, Senor Barto,” said Madre Maria-Ileana, heaving herself to her feet and leading him to the door, “I will give them two days to settle in, and then my sisters and I will go visit. What is her name, la Americana?”
Barto looked at her like she spoke another language.
“What is the name of the younger widow, Senor Barto?” La Madre repeated, firmly.
“Her name? I don’t know! All she told me was ‘Mrs. Delacruz.’”
“There seem to be a lot of ‘I don’t knows’ in your life suddenly, Senor Barto,” Mother Maria-Ileana chuckled softly at the clouds of dust which clustered behind the receding truck.
Rosana squared her shoulders and resolved not to look at him as he drove away. He had solved their immediately housing need, and that was as much as family obligation required.
“C’mon, Mama, let’s look inside.”
They surveyed the tiny cottage with four cement steps leading up to the brown front door for a full minute before Rosana shrugged sheepishly, “Okay. I admit it. The accessibility rules for buildings in the US are a good idea. How are we going to get you in and out?”
“You leave me outside.”
“Not on your life. We’ll go up backward now, and build a ramp later. Let me put these bags inside, and then I’ll come help you up.” She shouldered their duffle bags and her backpack and stomped up the steps. On the top step, she fitted the key into the lock and mouthed a silent ‘thank you,’ to Senor Barto who had pressed it into her hand after putting her rent payment in a worn wallet.
She shoved the door with her toe and stepped inside. “Oh!” she gasped, dropping the bags with a thud.
“What is it, Mija?” called Norma from the front yard. “You are okay?”
“Fine, Mama. It’s just…” Rosana surveyed the stud walls, bare of any plaster or sheet rock, the single electrical outlet, the floor covered with sawdust and construction trash, and the rest of the house, all of which was visible from where she stood at the front door. “…beautiful,” she finished lamely.
“Help me see, mi amor!”
“Just a minute, Mama.” She rotated slowly, looking for something she could make into a broom. There was nothing inside. Turning to look outside, she met the eager gaze of her mother-in-law. “I wish I could clean it a little before you come in.”
“No te preocupes, querida, don’t worry. I will love it no matter how it looks!”
It’s true, Rosana thought, her spirits suddenly light. It was their home, and they would make it beautiful, even if it took a long, long time. She laughed, the happy sound mingling with the bright sunshine and echoing off the side of the Convent only half a football field away. Jumping down the steps, she turned the chair backward and pulled Norma, one step at a time up into their new house.
La Madre Maria-Ileana watched from the southern window of the workroom. The Sisters around her sewed industriously, making habits, altar cloths, clothing for newborn babies, and whatever else God brought them to do.
“La Americana is very thin.” Mother commented to no one in particular. “And they have no furniture. On what is the old lady going to sleep? And what will they eat?”
At noon, the Sisters left their work and went to the chapel to pray the Mid-day Office. Then they dined in the refectory on fruit, bread, and fried plantain.
“Hermana,” whispered La Madre to Hermana Estelle, a woman of middle age whose white habit contrasted brilliantly with her smooth, dark skin. “Put some food on a plate and bring it to the ladies in the new casita. And see what else they need.” The Sister grinned, bowed, and disappeared into the kitchen.
“At least they won’t go hungry tonight,” murmured La Madre.
Norma enjoyed the view from the top step of their little windowless home. If Rosana parked her wheelchair sideways so she looked out toward the sea, she was also able to take in all the activity along the road, and see some of the older casitas, built at the bottom of the hill, closer to Palmar.
“I wonder who will come to live here?” Norma pointed to the other house near the well, less complete than their own.
“I wonder why they aren’t finished. And why is no one working on them?” Rosana called from within the house. She carefully gathered all scraps of wood the workers had left inside and made a small pile to the left of the front steps. She did the same on the grounds around the house and well, and was soon rewarded with a good-sized pile of odds and ends, including many nails, scraps of metal roofing, and three 2X4s of various lengths.
“What are you doing, mija?” asked Norma.
“Watch and see, Mama.” Rosana found a stone and drove a nail into the exterior wall of the house above and to each side of the door. Then, she dug a hole at the base of the steps, one on either side, and set a 2X4 upright in each one. Inside her painting backpack was a carefully folded tarp made of thin, paint speckled canvas she used as a floor covering around her easel. This, she hung from the nails above the door and tied around the upright 2X4s until the entire front porch was shadowed under its shady spread. She spent several minutes adjusting the height so as not to obscure the view.
“There, Mama,” said Rosana, wiping her hands on her pants and surveying her work. “Shade.”
Norma sighed. “Oh, querida! That God would give me this joy in my life! I sit on my shaded front porch in my own country, near to him in the Church.” She pointed to the Convent. “I am content, my dear one. But a little hungry. Do we have anything to eat?”
Food. Rosana had forgotten. They had finished the bread and cheese at lunch. She sat down on the steps and looked out toward the village of Palmar and the bay of the sea beyond. Where would she go to get food?
“Where do people buy groceries here? Are there grocery stores?”
“Of course. Small stores in Palmar, big supermarkets in Bani and the Capital. Most people go once a week to the big stores in the city and grow or make whatever else they need. Where are you going?”
Rosana stood and went into the house. In three steps she had crossed the living room and was in the kitchen. The dark room had no stove, no refrigerator, no running water. Just two cupboards a counter, topped with tile, and a sink with a drain. Rosana went back to the porch.
“How do you cook here?”
“On a stove or a microwave, like in the States, silly. What do you think, we cook over a fire, still?” Norma chuckled and drank from her water bottle. Suddenly, her expression changed. “Oh, Rosana. There is no stove?”
Rosana shook her head.
“What do we do?” wailed Norma. “How will we cook over a fire? Why is God asking this of us?” She began to rock and cry.
“Stop, Mama. Stop right now.” Rosana’s voice was fierce as she squatted down by the wheelchair to look in her mother-in-law’s face. “We have come this far, and look, see? We have a house, we have shade and a beautiful view, and we have each other, right? Now, we will trust God to provide the rest.”
Norma stared at her. “You believe God will help us? You don’t even believe in God! How can you say such a thing?”
Rosana took her hands and spoke gently. “Remember? I said your country would be mine and your religion would be mine, so I will believe. Because I said I would. And truly, Mama, I do believe, a little. When my brother died, I put God away, but he keeps calling me. First through you, and now, look where we live!” She turned to gesture incredulously toward the Convent, and there, on the slope between them and the glinting windows was a figure in white, coming toward them.
Hermana Estelle put the plate and basket on the tiled counter in the dark kitchen and glanced around, smoothing her skirt. When she returned to the front porch, she sat down on the step at the foot of the wheelchair next to the young woman.
Rosana listened closely to her greeting. “Parlez vous Francais?” she asked their visitor.
“Mai oui!” Answered the sister, leaning sideways in surprise and continuing the conversation in a mixture of French, Spanish, and broken English.
“You are from Haiti?” asked Norma.
Hermana Estelle smiled a toothy grin and nodded. “I come over the mountains to the DR twenty years ago to pick mangoes with my family. La Madre found me, and brought me to the Convent. And I have been here since. But tell me who you are and why you have come?”
Rosana gazed out over the hill, Palmar, the sea. She watched the cars going to and fro on the main road while Norma explained their situation to the Sister. Presently, she went to the tiny sleeping room and took from her backpack their last bottle of water. She brought it to the front porch and offered it to Hermana Estelle when there was a lull in conversation.
“Thank you, Miss -”
“Mrs., actually. Mrs. Delacruz.”
“What will you do to support yourselves here, Mrs. Delacruz? Do you have a skill?”
Do twelve years of ballet count? Rosana wondered. Certainly, her overused joints had taken a beating today, between climbing up to the old Delacruz house and now the work at the house.
“I paint. I speak French and English. I could teach ballet. But I’ll do almost anything. What do you recommend? Do you know of any business that needs an employee?”
“You paint? What do you paint?”
“Landscapes, murals, portraits.” She thought about the unfinished portrait of Marcelo still wrapped inside her painting backpack.
“La Madre will be interested to know you paint. She would like to have pictures painted for the walls. Scenes from the Bible, saints. That kind of painting. You can do this?”
“Good.” The Sister looked pleased. “But soon it will be harvest-time, and the best way to get fresh food is to go into the fields that have already been harvested and pick up what was left behind. This is called gleaning. There is a kind of understanding that the poor must be given their pick of what is left. Right now, it is onion harvest. Soon, in one week or two, it will be mango harvest. You must go to the orchard and wait until the harvesters clear the good fruit. Then, you go with a basket and pick up the best of what is left. This you may take home for free. I will show you the fields where you must go.”
She stood, wiping the dust from the back of her skirt and beckoned for Rosana to follow her around to the other side of the casita. On this side, the Sister pointed inland to cultivated fields and a wide, shallow river. “These here belong to Senor Barto. He is a good man and allows the poor who come.” Sister Estelle turned to face the hills behind the Convent. “Beyond the hills toward the town of Hatillo, the fields belong to Senor Jaime. Do not go there. He grows many kinds of beans and potatoes, but the men who work for him are not safe. You understand?” The Sister held her arm, looking piercingly into Rosana’s eyes until she assented. “Good. You start tomorrow in the onion field. That one there. You see?”
“I see it.”
“Tres bien. Onions are good to eat when roasted in a fire. Come, I will teach you to make a fire.”
The kind Sister did not know she had set out on a task that would take all afternoon. It was late by the time she had instructed Rosana in the art of proper placement of the fire so the prevailing winds would not blow smoke into the house. She explained where to find the kind of rocks needed for a good fire-ring, and made Rosana arrange and rearrange the stones until Sister Estelle grunted her satisfaction. Then came a walk through the bracken and small trees for fuel and warnings about which animals lived where in the brush. A further delay occurred while Sister Estelle walked back to the Convent to ask La Madre for a box of matches for the viudas, the widows in the casita.
Unbeknownst to Rosana and Norma, all of the Convent-dwellers were gathered at the workroom windows to witness Rosana’s first fire.
“Now, throw dirt on it,” Sister Estelle instructed when the blaze was finally roaring.
“I just got it going!” yelled Rosana, hungry, tired and dirty, the crown of her head and shoulders burned by the sun.
“You have no water. It is too dangerous. When you have a bucket of water nearby, then you keep your fire burning. Not now. Only now you know how to make your own fire.” She scooped two handfuls of dirt and dumped them on the fire. Rosana bit her tongue and bitterly did as she was told.
“Now, I go once more to the Convent and bring for you a blanket for la anciana, the old lady. She must not sleep on the bare floor.”
Sleep! Rosana glanced over her shoulder at the setting sun, conscious that they would be in the dark when the sun set. She grunted her thanks to the Sister and finished extinguishing the fire. Four joints in her back popped as she gingerly stood erect for the first time in what must have been hours. Norma was dozing in her chair on the front porch, and Rosana knew she would have to go to the tiny outhouse by the trees before going to bed. Exhaustion tugged at her mood and her muscles. There was no longer any clean place on her pants to wipe her hands, and Rosana wondered how Sister Estelle’s habit had managed to stay so white.
“Probably because I did all the dirty work,” she muttered, and then stopped short. The sun was beginning its final descent into the water, and bright rays of clean light shot across the bay, up the hill and into her eyes with soft, muted colors. Rosana froze at the sheer beauty of the moment.
“Mama! Mama!” Norma awoke with a jerk. “Look, Mama!” The older woman followed her finger to the sinking sun, and for a moment, they both felt the heart-wrenching tug of overwhelming beauty.
By the time Sister Estelle returned with a two thin cotton blankets, Rosana and Norma had been to the outhouse and were waiting on the step in the waning light.
“Tomorrow,” the Sister stated with finality, pointing at Rosana. “You go to the onion field and pick what is left. Bring it back. I will come and check on la anciana while you are gone. La Madre say so.”
There was nothing more to do than say ‘thanks’ and ‘goodnight,’ roll the wheelchair into the house, and lock the door behind them. Norma neatly arranged a pile of all her and Rosana’s clothes into a mattress, and with the cotton blanket to cover them and sweatshirts as pillows, the women fell fast asleep.