Thanks, Kathy, for reminding me!
Early in the morning, Rosana helped her mother-in-law to the outhouse, and back home to a small breakfast, after which she settled her in inside with the door open.
“You must close the door and lock it if you take a nap, Mama,” she chided. “Otherwise, you will wake up and find they’ve stolen your chair right out from under you!” They both laughed.
“Where will you go, mija?”
“First, down to the houses at the bottom of the hill. When the Zoli comes out, I will ask her to let me come and glean wherever she is picking today.”
“Isn’t she a harvester? She works for Barto. She is paid to pick and cannot take the produce home.”
“True, but if I hang back, and only pick from what they leave behind, I am not harvesting! Anyway, I don’t have any other ideas for our dinner.”
“Surely the Sisters will not let us starve!”
“True, Mama, but we can’t just sit here and wait for their charity to feed us, either.” Rosana hoisted an empty wooden box she had fitted with ropes. She slid her arms through the ropes and settled the box on her back like a wooden pack. “There. How do you like my basket?” She grinned and turned this way and that in the pre-dawn gloom to model it for Norma.
“You will be very tired when you come home, mi amor, carrying that!” Her eyes began to fill with tears, and before she could begin to cry, Rosana kissed her cheek and strode off into the darkness, sunhat and glasses in the box with a bottle of water and a knife lent to her from the Convent supply room by La Madre.
At the bottom of the hill, Rosana stationed herself in the shadow of a Yucca tree to wait for her escort. She didn’t wait long. Five minutes after she arrived, Zoli opened the door, allowing and the light from an electric bulb to pour out over the steps into the brightening day. The woman’s head was wrapped in a red scarf, and her legs, like Rosana’s, were bound up in strips of rags designed to protect them from the sharp foliage in the fields.
“Zoli!” called Rosana, stepping out from the shadow. The woman looked up sharply until she recognized Rosana, then called out in easy French.
“Rosana! Why are you not painting today? I would come up to see you at the Convent after picking this afternoon!”
“I won’t be painting for awhile.” She didn’t tell Zoli, a frequent visitor to the convent to see Rosana paint, why the painting had come to an end. “Can I come glean in the field where you’re working?”
Zoli shrugged. “We will ask Yeremy, the foreman.” She hoisted a two-foot long machete blade to her shoulder and set off at a quick pace down the dirt track. Rosana followed, trotting to keep up until her long legs found Zoli’s rhythm. The two women turned left onto the main road and joined the rag-tag line of harvesters already on their way to work.
In a mile, Zoli grunted to Rosana, and the two of them left the main road and stepped out into a mango orchard. They found the path which she skirted on its edge, and returned to the rolling pace. Rosana had to lope to keep up, her box banging against her back with each jogging step. After twenty minutes, the women slowed down and came to a halt next to a truck where fifteen-or-so other people were gathered. A few recognized Rosana and grinned.
Rosana dropped the box and sat down to catch her breath, streching aching knees while Zoli smiled at her. “You will need to get used to working, not sitting all day!” Rosana smiled at the ribbing, and adjusted the strips of cloth around her palms, determined that this time, her hands would not be shredded.
The mango trees in the orchard were empty, except for a few fruits still hanging in the highest branches, and the smell of rotted mango rolled up from the ground to meet her as the sun began to grow hot.
Shoving her weight against the slender trunk of a young tree several times, Rosana was rewarded with the soft thump of a mango hitting the ground near her. She used her knife to skin part of it. Too ripe, she thought, but bit into it anyway, the fibers sticking in her teeth as she sucked the sweet juice and bit deeply into the slightly slimy flesh. Anything tastes good when your hungry, she mused, and after this morning’s exercise, she was already hungry.
The sound of a truck door slamming startled her from her meal, and she flung it aside, standing to see what would happen. A man with a wide mustache and worn jeans stepped down from the driver’s seat and with a practiced move, leaped up into the bed of the truck. He began tossing canvas bags to each of the harvesters, calling their names as he threw.
Zoli waited until everyone else had received their bag and then stepped up to the man.
“Yeremy, you know la Americana?” She said in slow Spanish, jerking her head toward Rosana.
“Claro,” replied Yeremy, standing upright, the last bag dangling from his hand as he looked with confusion from Zoli to Rosana.
“Is it alright if I pick up what’s left when the harvesters are done?” Rosana asked in her best Spanish.
Yeremy, looked around as if a similar situation might be occurring in a field nearby from which he could draw inspiration. “Si…si, claro.” He nodded slowly. Gleaners were always allowed in Barto’s fields, as the foremen were often reminded by the owner himself. “Just stay in back of the harvesters. Let them go first.”
He looked away at Rosana’s smile of thanks.
Zoli was already hard at work. She shook open her bag and slid her head and one shoulder through a loop so the bag hung down her side. Then, stooping down, she gathered a large handful of the yellow, waist-high grass and chopped it with the machete. First, she shook the tops of the grass into the bag and then dropped the bunch onto the ground and repeated the process. When the bunches of grass at her feet equaled an armful, she took a fistful of grass, twisted it into a strand, and wrapped it around the armful, tying it with some sort of knot. She laid the bundle at the base of a mango tree and began the process again. In a few minutes, a man with a wheelbarrow came to collect the bundles from the ground and transfer them to the back of a new truck that had just arrived. Everyone moved like an assembly line over the bumpy ground.
“No wonder this has to be done by hand,” Rosana muttered. “Can you imagine trying to get a machine harvester in between these trees?”
Her back ached just watching. What was this crop, growing like grass between the already harvested mango trees? As the harvesters moved ahead, Rosana crept forward to the place where they had started and picked up some stray strands, examining them closely. It was wheat. She recognized the heads on the top of each stalk from a book about bread she had read as a child. She put her box on the ground and shook the head into it. A few small wheat berries fell in, and Rosana almost laughed aloud.
Using her knife to cut down small clumps, particularly around the tree trunks which had been overlooked by the harvesters, Rosana shook the heads, and then tried to remove the wheat berries by hand. It was tedious, and the sharp spines stabbed her fingers.
“Forget it,” she muttered, and using her knife, cut the whole head off the wheat stalk and threw it into her box. “Sorting out the wheat grains will give Norma something to do during the day.” Bent double, Rosana gathered the wheat stalks, cut the heads into her box, and threw the straw to the ground. In an hour, the bottom of the box was no longer visible. She stood, carefully stretching the muscles of her back, and removing her hat, took a swig from her water bottle.
The sea breeze didn’t reach this far inland, so, capping her bottle and replacing her hat, Rosana resolved to stay as much in the shade of the mango trees as possible.
Hour after hour, she cut, collected, shook, and decapitated wheat. At one sweaty point she realized it would be easier for her back if she worked on her knees, and she made good progress sliding her box over the recently harvested ground.
When the sun was high in the sky, and Rosana’s head swam with sunlight, sweat seeping into her eyes and stinging harshly, another truck rolled into sight. The harvesters stood upright in unison and hoisting their bags, walked toward it.
“God be with you,” a voice hailed the harvesters. They raised their hands to wave and call back, “God bless you!” like the Sisters call-and-response at prayer.
Rosana sat back on her haunches, watching, wheat in one hand, knife in the other, poised over her box.
Into the truck bed the harvesters dropped their bags. A bright orange container on the open truck gate could only be a water cooler, and Rosana watched greedily as they slaked their thirst with the help of paper cups from a dispenser attached to the side. Her eyes swam from a fresh onslaught of sweat, and she closed them tightly against the sting.
When she opened them again, the harvesters were mostly seated, back to tree trunks with what looked like bowls of food being served from the back of the truck. Rosana slunk into the shade of a tree and pretended not to see it. She took a few loose wheat berries from her box and rolled them between her fingers until their cases came off and blew away under her light breath. Popping the wheat into her mouth, Rosana savored the nutty, chewy texture.
“I will never think about wheat the same way again,” she vowed aloud. She took off her hat, and with a quick glance around, removed the t-shirt which had bunched up underneath it. In moments, she had re-braided and re-wrapped her hair, wiped the sweat from her face and forehead with the bandana, and settled in, eyes closed, head leaning back against the trunk of the tree, fanning herself with the wide brim of the hat. Heavenly, she thought.
Rosana leaped to her feet and stumbled backward, smacking into the tree and bringing down an aging mango in the process.
There was a roar of laughter from near the truck.
Zoli stood in front of her with a paper bowl and spoon in her hand. “This is for you,” she said, with a wink. Rosana looked around furtively, feeling the weight of the eyes of all the harvesters on her. They watched, waiting to see if she would take the bowl. Steam rose from it, and inside was a mixture of rice, chicken and some sort of bean. She reached for it gratefully, and began shoveling the food into her mouth.
“Merci,” she smiled around a hot mouthful.
“The boss wants to see you,” said Zoli, jerking her head toward the truck.
Her stomach sank. “Oh.” The last bites of food in the bowl were suddenly uninviting. Would the Boss tell her to get lost?
Rosana dropped her hat and sunglasses into her half-filled box and hoisted it into her arms, gingerly laying the nearly empty bowl of food on top of the bed of wheat. Then she followed Zoli toward the truck.
“He wants to know who was picking up the wheat, and we,” here she gestured to the loose circle of harvesters, including Yeremy the foreman, “told him it was la Americana.”
Zoli led her to the shady side of the truck where a man in a big Stetson hat sat in a faded folding chair, consuming a bowl of the same food the harvesters were eating. He turned to look at her and she gasped.
It was Senor Barto.
His skin was deeply tanned everywhere the hat did not shade, and it seemed to Rosana he was thinner than he had been three months ago when he had helped them home.
He appraised her for a moment, probably thinking the same things I am, Rosana mused, and then stood to his feet and offered her the chair. She sat, placing the box on the ground by her feet and staring from him to the faces around them, to the tantalizing bowl in her box.
“Eat!” He commanded, resting his bowl on the back of the truck and continuing to consume its contents with a plastic spoon. She didn’t move.
“You are here alone?” he asked, still concentrating on his food.
“Oh.” He looked up and glanced around the orchard. “Who did you come with?”
Rosana pointed to the circle of harvesters. “One of the women,” she answered.
“I see,” he said, not looking in her eyes. “And why are you back to the fields? I thought the Sisters had you employed painting their convent.” His tone carried a hint of annoyance.
Rosana picked up the bowl and after a silent moment, took a bite and chewed slowly. He would have to wait for his information if he was going to grill her in front of everyone like this.
“They did.” She took the next-to-last bite, rolling the flavor of the chicken around her mouth with pleasure. Then she stopped, mid-chew. Norma would need some food this evening, and the wheat and a mango or two would not be as nourishing as this meal. She quickly wrapped the bowl and utensils in her bandana and casually laid them in the box. Then, crossing one knee over the other, she faced him fully. “But they had to terminate my employment.”
He stopped, spoon mid-way to his mouth. “Why?”
She smiled. “I was causing too much trouble, as I’m sure you can imagine.” The harvesters, not following the conversation in English began to toss their empty bowls into the truck, drink more water, and prepare to return to work.
Rosana stood, twisting side-to-side until the bones of her spine rearranged themselves with loud popping sounds. Senor Barto winced and put down his spoon.
“This may be the best plan you’ve had yet, Rosana,” he said, wiping his mustache with a bandana he produced from the back pocket of his jeans. “Stay with Zoli. She lives near you, as you already know. She only works in my fields, and you have my permission to work near her.” He turned and whistled sharply. Everyone turned toward him.
He addressed them in perfect Haitian French. “Madame Delacruz will be working in my fields as a gleaner from now on. Make sure she gets a share of the food and water, and that” here he turned a sharp eye at the foreman, “no one harasses her.” He leaned closer to speak into Yeremy’s ear. “Tell the men collecting the sheaves to pull out some stalks and leave them behind for her to pick up. Let her glean up front where they are harvesting, not all the way in back.”
The foreman murmured his assent, throwing a quick sideways glance at Rosana, and then turning away to empty the canvas bags into a big hopper on the back of the wheat truck before handing them out for the second time.
“Thanks for lunch,” she smiled when he turned back to her. Her eyes look tired, he noted, feelings of guilt and concern warring in his heart. Guilt, concern, and something else. Some unasked for emotion. Regret? Hunger? The pain of beholding beauty and a love too intense for man to see and still live? His heart ached as he looked at this woman who had gleaned on her knees all morning out of love. And what had he done? Driven around in an air conditioned truck. Sat on his chair to eat while others sat on the ground. He felt unworthy to look at her.
If I were younger, he began, looking at the mountains for inspiration, but quickly dampened the thought. If he were younger, yes, perhaps he would be rash enough to suppose that her miraculous life-giving kind of love could have more than one subject, but Bartolomeo Santos was a grown man. Don’t be a fool, he chided himself. If she marries, she must choose a younger man who will not leave her a widow again. But the Delacruz boy had been young, and had left her a widow in spite of his youth, an inner voice chided him.
“Bring me the bowl,” he demanded, palm upward. She hesitated, and he beckoned impatiently. Taking the bowl from the box, she slowly unwrapped her bandana and handed it to him. He took it and filled it heaping full from the pan in the back of the truck. Then he re-wrapped it carefully and nestled it into the box of wheat. “For Dulcita.”
“Thank you,” she whispered.
“Tomorrow, bring a bag, not a box. You’re not going to be able to carry that thing when it’s full.”
She nodded, looking up at him. “The mango harvest went well? You look like you lost a few pounds.”
“Like you, I forget to eat when I’m busy.” Except that you, Bartolomeo, his conscience jeered, have cupboards full of food to forget.
“Will there be a break in all the harvesting sometime soon?”
“Yes.” He smiled, gathering his courage to look into her eyes. “After the wheat, we are done for a few months before the next planting begins. We are looking forward to some time to relax.” His mind strayed to the harvest party, the joyful celebration of everyone who had helped in any way to bring the harvest in. But for the widows, he realized, the end of the harvest meant no more food, and the momentary joy shrank away.
“Norma and I will look forward to a visit from you once you’ve had a chance to rest.” She put on her hat and looked for her bandana to pull up over her face. It wasn’t there.
He realized where it was at the same moment she did, and shaking his bandana from his back pocket, he folded it into a triangle and handed it to her without a word.
It was a simple kindness, but it made Rosana feel like she had a personal ally in this foreign land. She took the bandana and tied it around her neck. Then, stepping to the side of the truck where his forgotten bowl was still balanced, Rosana laid her rag-wrapped hand on his forearm and looked up into his eyes. “Ever since we came to the Dominican Republic, you have been there to help us. I don’t know why you take your family duty so seriously when other people” – here she paused, thinking of Jaime – “are less helpful, but I am so grateful to you. Thank you.” She meant it, and she could see by his eyes that he understood. But there was disquiet in the eyes as well, and she tilted her head at him, unsure if she had done something to offend him. Rosana dropped her hand and turned to hoist her box, the harvesters already well ahead of her.
She turned back, and he reached for her hand, encasing the strips of rags around her palm in his own warm, work-hardened hand. “You deserve it. You deserve help. You deserve so much better than this. God reward you for everything you have done!” He gestured toward the ocean. “The whole coast is talking about you – how you gave up a rich life to come and serve your mother-in-law. How you live in poverty, and never complain. How you paint like a master and are content to blister your hands harvesting onions and wheat. No one has ever met a woman like that before. It’s inspiring to see love in action like this. It makes us want to be – better.”
Rosana snorted, shrugging off the compliment. “You clearly don’t know me very well.” She pulled her hand free, and tied his bandana around her face. “Maybe I’ll see you here tomorrow?”
He nodded. “’Bye, Rosana.”
She smiled, “’Bye, Senor Barto. And thanks for lunch!” Grasping her box to her chest, she strode off to find Zoli.