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Rosana – Epilogue

Epilogue – a year later

Nena tugged at his pant leg, begging for a crumb of attention, but Barto didn’t even notice. He was crooning to a little blanket-covered bundle he held carefully in his arms.

Bring him to me, Love,” said Rosana, holding out her arms. “Hear him fussing? He needs to eat.”

He’s fine,” said Barto, bouncing Owen slightly, “we’re having some male bonding time.” He toured the patio, pointing out the sights. “Down there is Palmar, your hometown, and over there is the beach where Papi gave Mami her ring – see her ring?”

Rosana held up her left hand, making the bright stones flash in the morning sunlight.

And down there is the Church where Papi and Mami were married, and here is Nena, who is jealous of the attention you get.”

And here is abuelita,” said Norma, wheeling out onto the patio. She sniffed the air sharply. “Abuela can smell that it is time for a diaper change! Give me that baby.” She held out her arms imperiously and waited while the child’s father laid him gently in her lap.

See you in a minute, young man,” he whispered to the baby.

Rosana waited until the baby was secure in his grandmother’s arms and then pushed the chair into the living room, converted to Norma’s bedroom.

Just call when you’re ready, abuela” she said, kissing the top of Norma’s head.

Norma looked up, her eyes beginning to overflow. “Mija, how was this possible? How could this little one have come to be?”

Barto says it’s because he’s so strong,” grinned Rosana, twirling a lock of the baby’s curly hair. “But you already know, Mama. It’s part of God’s plan. Maybe Owen is going to do something important.”

Or maybe God just intends our line to keep on going.”

Either way, he’s here, our love come to life, and you have a grandson.”

Norma held the baby to her heart. “God be praised,” she wept.

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Rosana – Chapter 33

Chapter 33

Three days later, she began to feel alive again.

Stepping out into the early-morning sunshine, she stretched and nearly tripped over a new five-gallon drinking water dispenser on the front porch. She spent the morning draining it, scrubbing it, moving it to their kitchen, and refilling it with water from the well.

She hoped Jaime hadn’t poisoned the well. But Jaime was in jail now, La Madre had told her when she had collected Norma and gone home, thanking the Mother Superior for her hospitality. La Madre had simply smiled, making no reference to the conversation she knew must have occurred in her office.

Norma slept a lot over the next few days. When the bread and roast pig were eaten, boxes of fresh fruit, bread, and meat began to appear on their front porch every other day. There was no card, no signature, but Rosana knew where it came from. She just left simple thank you notes and wondered why she didn’t care.

One Saturday, two weeks after the party, she and Norma walked to the beach in Palmar, paper from the Sisters on one of La Madre’s clipboards. She sat in the shade of a tree and sketched portraits for three hours, earning enough money for a week of groceries. On the way home, she bought them dinner at one of the little restaurants, and was greeted kindly by the people who gathered around to see the woman who had broken Jaime’s arms.

They went to the beach every Friday and Saturday, drawing portraits for the tourists. Rosana made enough money to cover their food and rent costs and one day took the bus alone into Bani to buy more medications for Norma. The bus driver made the whole bus wait for her to find her way back to the station before starting the return journey.

On the beach, they heard rumors about the bodegas that Jaime had constructed on their property. They were just as happy to hear Senor Barto had had them burned to the ground. Summer faded away, and the planting season began. Sometimes, Rosana stood at the well and looked out over the fields, wondering if he was one of the little figures she could see bending over the rows of tilled earth, planting seeds.

In late August, La Madre gave her two commissions, and she painted a Christmas card for the Convent, and a picture of gleaners in the field, which La Madre said was for the Mayor. Rosana suspected the finished product was collecting dust in the Convent’s back pantry. But the money allowed her to order new canvases and paint from the Capital.

In September, Rosana called Olinda, who was remarried with a baby and lived in an apartment in LA near her mother. Olinda couldn’t remember Norma’s name, but wished her well and wondered if there was any more life insurance money left.

At Thanksgiving, she called her mother, who seemed vaguely interested to hear she was alive, but didn’t know where the Dominican Republic was. She had to take another call and hung up. Rosana molded a turkey out of mashed plantain and served it with ketchup to Norma. They laughed together so loudly that Sister Clara came from the Convent garden with her trowel to check on them.

Near Christmas, she received a package.

It was more like a large, padded envelope, but Rosana squealed and ran to set down her drawing box on the kitchen counter before coming back out into the light to open it.

Inside was a ring. It was dirty and scratched, but she recognized it immediately. Her wedding ring, lost in the onion field. She spent the next two days picking out the dirt with a toothpick. Both she and Norma cried, but Rosana did not put it on. Instead, she walked to the well and looked down over the onion fields, a strange longing in her tight throat.

On Christmas Eve, she wrapped a canvas in tissue paper and put it in the ragged duffle bag. Maybe I’ll buy a new bag after New Years, she thought, lifting the bag to her shoulder.

That bag brings back memories, Mija,” said Norma, nodding at the bag from the kitchen where she sat cleaning the last of the wheat. “Will you glean again this year?”

I think it would be wise, when we’re not at the beach. Don’t you?”

Norma dropped her hands into her lap and looked at Rosana. “Oh, ‘Sana. I just wish there were some way for you to be happy.”

I am happy,” laughed Rosana, kissing her mother on the forehead. “I have you.”

Norma shook her head. “No. Something’s missing. And I pray everyday that you’ll find it.”

Rosana smiled back her tears and pointed to the bag. “I’m going to deliver this painting, but I’ll be back before dark.” She set off down the hill waving to the Sisters in the Convent yard and Zoli’s family near the road. This time, when the bus passed, Rosana flagged it down and rode the rest of the way, paying the fare in coins earned with her pencil at the beach. She climbed out the door and waved to the conductor, pleased with herself.

Then she walked down the road to the warehouse.

There was only one truck in the yard, Barto’s truck, and she clucked. “Working on Christmas Eve!” she said to herself, stopping before she had to consider why. What else did a single man have to do on holidays?

She pushed open the door. “Hello?” Her voice echoed around the empty warehouse, bouncing back to her with memories, especially one in which bags of wheat were stacked in rows and a small pile of loose wheat was left on the floor, ready to be ground into flour for the harvesters’ gift loaves. She smiled. Baking money into the bread had been a great idea. People at the beach were still talking about it.

Can I help you?” The inquiry came from the room upstairs. She climbed the gray, iron staircase and peered into the room at the top. An office, by the look of it, with stacks of papers in precarious piles on the desk top. A small cot stood in one corner. She waited until he looked up.

Merry Christmas!” she said lightly, smiling.

For a moment a rush of joy filled his eyes, but she watched as he quelled it, looking down at his papers for a moment before standing and holding out his hand.

Rosana. Merry Christmas to you, too.” He waved his hand. “Can I get you something to drink? I have water or – he stared around the room as if seeing it for the first time – water.”

She laughed, and like a gust of wind, it freshened the room. Barto stood taller.

I’d like some water,” she smiled.

He leaned back in his chair and indicated a metal stool. She sat, while he looked at her.

You look healthy. Is Norma doing well?”

She’s fine, thanks. We’ve been busy down at the beach every weekend.”

I heard you are drawing portraits for the tourists.”

Someone has to make sure the Mayor’s pier is built properly! If I weren’t there, I’m sure the workmen would forget something!”

Barto wondered if that was more likely to happen if she was there. He smiled at her joke. “Your water!” He jumped up and found a cup, which he filled under the spout of a five-gallon container that looked remarkable similar to the one in their kitchen.

Thank you,” she said, meaning it.

He looked up, handing her the cup. “You’re welcome.”

No, I mean thank you for everything. For the water container, and the food, and for my rin-” she choked, tears threatening to spill, but she concentrated on the cup and succeeded in pushing them back.

He was at her side in an instant.

It occurred to me sometime after we almost lost you,” he said, kneeling beside her. “It occurred to me that I had really done nothing to help you.”

Nothing to help us? Rescuing me from Jaime, renting us a house, letting me glean in your fields – these things are nothing?”

Those things were designed to make you prove yourself. I wanted to see what you were made of. You showed me every day, but I was never sure it was enough.”

Enough for what? What could I possibly prove to you when we had nothing? Nothing!”

He sighed and closed his eyes. When he opened them again, he looked tired, but a flash of determination shone there.

Rosana, I have loved you since the moment I caught sight of you, pushing Norma into Palmar. I loved you when you thought I had carried off Norma in front of her broken house. I loved you every day you gleaned in my fields, and when you spoke to me -” He shook his head. “It was almost more than I could bear. Then, the night you came to me on the pile of wheat, and I held you in my arms -” Barto stood to his feet and began pacing the length of the office. “What is a man to do with that feeling? With that knowledge that he has seen true Beauty, and Goodness, and has, by his own pride, let it slip from his grasp?”

Come,” she invited, pulling the chair next to her stool. “I have a present for you. They don’t seem to sell ‘present-wrap’ here, as my brother, Jamesey, used to call it, so it’s only covered in tissue and you’ll have to imagine the wrapping paper.”

He imagined flashing silver and flaming red with patterns of hope and joy.

Thank you,” he said, sitting down to accept the gift she pulled from the duffle bag.

It’s our little house,” she explained, as he unwound the tissue and stared at the picture. “When I started to paint it, I realized that everything we really need to live there, you provided for us. See the buckets on the front porch, and the mattress through the front door? Even the windows were a gift from you. I wanted to say thank you. A true thank you.”

He studied the picture for a moment and then looked up at her. “All I want to do is provide for you. For you and Norma. I want to give everything to you.” He looked with clear, steady eyes.

That night,” began Rosana, tears springing to her eyes, “that night you promised to take care of me, you promised, and you didn’t keep your promise. The next day, you didn’t want me anymore, and I felt – I still feel – dirty. Like I’ve been thrown out.”

He knelt at her feet. “Rosana, I am sorry. I was jealous – in my eyes Jaime had been to you in the night, and I thought I had been tricked! I gave my word to get your land back, and I did, but I thought -at first- that that was all you wanted. Please forgive me!”

Two things -” replied Rosana. “No, three.”

Anything, Rosana. Anything I can.”

Okay – first, how did you find my ring?”

It was embarrassingly simple. I borrowed a metal detector and went to the onion fields that border the river. It was in the first one. I found it after about fifteen minutes of searching. I’m just sorry I didn’t do it when I first heard you lost it. You’re not wearing it,” he said, picking up her left hand. She shook her head, looking away.

What is number two?” he asked, changing the subject quickly.

Rosana pointed to the painting. “You see the clothes line?”

He nodded.

See how there is an empty space there between the socks?”

He nodded again, and then smiled. He stood and walked to the cot, pulling a small bundle from under the pillow. “Here,” he said simply.

Number three?”

She tucked the shirt into the duffle and looked up at him. “Number three is a little harder, at least for me.”

If it is in my power -”

It is. It’s that,” her face took on the color of her hair, “it’s that when you held me down there,” she pointed out into the warehouse, “I felt safe, like nothing could harm me, like I didn’t have any responsibility to carry, and that everything was going to work out.” She paused, and he stood before her, helping her to her feet. In a moment, she was wrapped in the same embrace, inhaling the same aftershave mixed with the fresh smell of the good earth. “For number three,” she said to his shirt, “I wanted to tell you that I love you.”

Rosana – Chapter 32

Chapter 32

The final time Rosana jerked awake, she found the early-morning chill settling over the silence. The adreneline and fear of last’s night’s adventure had drained away with the river into the sea, leaving her wishing she could sit here to recover in silence for a day or two. But it was chilly, and dawn was coming. She shook Norma gently and uncurled her aching legs.

What a blessing, ‘Sana!” whispered Norma, holding up the bag of bread with the water bottle. “I still have it!”

Rosana choked back a cry of delight. “See? See? I told you God would provide, and he did!” They broke off chunks of bread and ate, washing it down with sips of water.

It’s good you brought those last buckets of water,” laughed Norma. “Imagine if we hadn’t filled the bottles before we left! We’d be drinking from the river!”

Unn – unh,” garbled Rosana, her mouth full of bread, “Barto says the river’s full of bacteria and never to drink it.” His name cast a pall over the meal. “What is that?” She pointed to a black place in the loaf. “Please don’t tell me there are bugs in it!”

Norma dug her fingernail into the bread and pulled what appeared to be a large piece of paper from the loaf. She held it up in the pale light. Money.

Both women stared in disbelief, but neither said a word. Norma folded the bill and tucked it inside her shirt. They both calculated the bags of groceries it was worth.

Let’s see if we can get out of here – oh, ick!” Rosana leaped from the protection of the bush, wiping beetles from her legs where the bare skin had been pressed to the soil. The gash on her knee began to bleed again. She ignored it.

Norma held up her hands to be helped from the bush and stood stretching slowing in the growing light. Now, they could see their hands and each other’s faces. Rosana took in their location, and the Convent on the hill a little to the right of them and straight up.

We’ll go to La Madre first,” she explained to Norma, crouching for the older woman to lean onto her back. “Hup!” The first faltering steps were difficult, but Rosana found her balance, and leaning into the incline, started up the long hill, one step at a time.

*

The Lauds bell had already rung when Rosana staggered to the Convent’s kitchen gate. She had skirted the property and come around to the back to avoid any unexpected visitors the Sisters might be hosting today. She lowered Norma to the ground and rang the bell, an action which set off a strange banging in the garden shed. Rosana was too tired to pay attention.

For some reason, it looked as if La Madre was expecting her. In fact, Rosana could not understand why La Madre would have Sisters waiting for them at the back gate, but the fact that they were welcome guests was all that was important. Rosana indicated Norma sitting on the ground by the gate, and was stunned beyond comprehension when a Sister arrived, pushing Norma’s wheelchair.

This way, queridas,” purred Sister Elena, leading the widows to the Convent guest room where baths and breakfast waited. “La Madre says not to nap yet. Just clean up, eat, and then come to her office. We’re so glad you made it safely!” She smiled and closed the door on their questions. The women were glad to obey.

*

A filthy t-shirt over a torn and stained silver dress was not her idea of after-bath clothing, so Rosana was pleasantly surprised to find a worn-but-clean skirt and shirt for herself and dress for Norma waiting near the brilliant-white towels.

They ate the eggs and rice with such pleasure that they were laughing before the meal had ended, and clean and full, it was all they could do to ignore the room’s neat beds and make their way to La Madre’s office, stopping in the chapel to say a quick ‘thank you.’

Sister Elena met them at the office door. “Go in and sit,” she said, “La Madre will be with you shortly. Norma, would you come with me please?” Without waiting for consent, Sister Elena indicated the chair for Rosana and turned and pushed Norma down the hallway toward the work room.

Rosana sat gingerly in the chair. In a moment, she stood again.

I hope she comes quickly, or I am going to fall asleep,” she muttered, crossing the room to look down at their own casita only two stone-throws away. “I’m going to go home, crawl onto that mattress and -”

She jumped guiltily at the sound of steps in the hallway and hurried to sit in the chair Sister Elena had indicated. She looked up expectantly, but it was not La Madre who came into the room.

Barto had closed the door and walked past the desk toward another chair before he saw her. His eyes grew wide and he cried out, “Rosana?” He was across the room in a flash, lifting her to her feet and holding her out to examine her. She flinched when he touched the cut on her knee, but was annoyed by the time he smoothed her wet hair and pulled her close in a tight embrace.

Never,” he choked, tears streaming from bagged eyes down drawn cheeks, “you must never, ever walk away from me like that again. Do you hear me, Rosana? Not ever.” He sobbed into her hair, kissing the top of her head.

She wrapped her arms around him and stood silently while he cried, rocking slowly with the rhythm of his sobs. “You’ve had a long night,” she said when the tears abated.

He nodded. “You, too. That cut looks deep. And it’s my fault! I’m the one who -”

Enough,” she said, sick of emotions. “No more self-pity. We both made it, and so did Norma. Did they catch the guy on the bridge?” He nodded, wiping his eyes with thumb and forefinger and transferring the wet to his dirty jeans. “It was Jaime,of course.”

You mean Jaime, my nighttime visitor?” she asked, arching one eyebrow.

He told me what happened.”

He must have been drunk.”

He was. And then he told me he was going to-”

Nevermind. My guardian angel must have warned me. Something didn’t feel right. And then all these people started to chase us – I didn’t think we were going to make it.” She paused, reliving the panic of being hunted.

That was us. Me and Angelo, and a few other guys who came to save you. We hunted up that river all night until we knew you couldn’t have gone that far with your mother on your back, so we doubled back and came up the hill to the Convent. La Madre said you would come in the morning. And here -” His eyes threatened to overflow again.

Thanks for looking for me. And for getting everyone else to help, too. If I’d known it was you-” she stopped, not sure what she would come out of her mouth at the end of that thought. Would she have welcomed his help? Not after his broken promise. Not after rejecting her. Here he was crying like a tired, overwrought schoolboy – it was anticlimactic. She sighed.

What’s wrong?”

I’m tired, and I want to go home.”

Home? You mean home-home? Back to the US?”

No, Senor Barto, I want to go to the mattress in our casita and sleep for a couple of days.” She moved toward the door. “Do you know if La Madre is coming? She told me to wait for her here. Or, Sister Elena did, anyway.”

She told me the same thing.”

Well, I think I’ll try to go and find Norma and go to the casita. Hopefully, there’s no one inside it!”

There’s not – anymore. We searched it, and there’s been someone on watch ever since. Rosana -”

She turned to him, tired, sad eyes looking out of an exhausted face. “What is it, Senor Barto?”

I’m sorry.”

She grunted and flashing a half-smile, went down the hall to find Norma.

Rosana – Chapter 31

Chapter 31

Barto paused outside the door. While his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he scanned the parking lot. People and cars filled the gravel-covered yard, talking, smoking, laughing, and everywhere hailing Barto as he went.

Did Rosana Delacruz come this way?” he asked a group of guests, most of whom looked at him blankly until he said, ‘la Americana.’ Their faces lit up with smug grins and knowing glances as they pointed to the road.

Barto!”

He paused mid-stride and glanced back. If he waited, they would get further away, and the darkness would overtake them before he did. It was Angelo.

Look who we have!” Barto glanced at the road and then back at Angelo who stepped aside to reveal a weaving Jaime, supported by two of Angelo’s sons. “He’s drunk.”

I can see that,” snapped Barto, glancing again at the road. “What’d he say?”

About whaa, brother dear? I shaid nothing. Nothing.”

Barto took a step forward. “What happened to your arms, Jaime?”

Whaa arms?” giggled Jaime, rolling back on his heels and forcing Angelo’s sons to catch him and hold him upright. “Oh! Theesh arms!” he waved them in small circles. “I fell.” He looked confused and sad for a moment before his face curled into a snarl. “And she burned me, the witch! My boots! Gone!” The man actually began to cry.

Who burned you?” breathed Barto, stepping up to the drunken man’s face.

She did! That little tart who came here with the old lady. O-l-l-d la-a-a-d-y!” Jaime sang the title through his tears.

Poor Jaime,” said Angelo. “Burned up and boots gone. How did you fall, poor guy?”

Poor Jaime,” agreed Jaime, beckoning to Angelo. “She hit me. Umm hmm. Poor Jaime, hit with a bucket through the window. Broke ma – ma arms, the witch! And burned my boots! And my truck!” He leaned forward and stared blearily into Angelo’s eyes. “I’m gonna kill her.”

Barto shouldered his way between them. “How could she hit you with a bucket through the window? Those windows have bars. A bucket couldn’t fit between them.”

Jaime contemplated Barto for a long moment. “You wan’ her and I wan’ her, but when poor Jaime reaches in to take her – bang! Crash! A bucket on poor Jaime’s arms. He falls, he falls! And she burns boots.” He looked thoughtfully at the ground for a moment before glancing at Angelo’s sons. “Tha’ is why I’m gonna hurt her ba-a-ad.” He grinned angelically.

How you gonna do that, Jaime?” asked one of the brothers.

Catch!” said Jaime, grabbing the air between his two clumsy arms. “Squee-ze! Play! And release.” He sat down hard on the ground.

Angelo grabbed Barto by the collar, forcibly inserting himself between the kinsmen. “When you gonna do this, Jaime? When you gonna catch her?”

Jaime picked up a handful of gravel and let drop to the ground. “Up at the bodegas with the other chocolates. Where will they go? Where will we go on Monday when he comes? To Hatillo. We will go to Hatillo. You like Hatillo?” he looked innocently into Angelo’s eyes.

Who. Will. Help. You. Catch. Rosana? And when?” gargled Barto, his voice caught between his body’s urge to run after Rosana and the need for information.

Drink! Drink! Party! Poor Jaime is at the party! Not Jaime’s fault. Unn – Unh. Boys will do it. Boys on the road. Boys at the house. They know where to go. They see her. Tonight!”

It took nearly ten heart-stopping minutes for Angelo to lock the spluttering Jaime in the bathroom at the warehouse, much to the chagrin of the ladies who occupied it and preferred not to be rousted mid-gossip. Holding Barto by the arms, he commissioned twenty men who gathered around the uproar to clear the parking lot and organize a rescue.

In another ten minutes, they were tearing out of the parking lot, Barto grim and silent as he gunned the engine through a trackless corner of the orchard to reach the road first. He calculated mentally. A full-half hour had elapsed since he saw them leave. They would be more than halfway home. ‘Poor Jaime’ had blurted something about the bridge, and Barto cringed at the thought of what they widows would meet there.

I’m sorry, Rosana. I’m so sorry,” he muttered. Angelo, gripping the handle above the door, pretended not to hear.

The arrived at the bridge five minutes later, Barto’s high beams illuminating a man in the act of throwing his cigarette over the side.

That’s Pinky,” said Angelo, pointing with his lips. “Jaime’s driver.”

Instead of stopping, Barto gunned the engine and sped down the road until, just beyond the road to Planchado, he spotted a van off the side of the road. With a quick twist of his hands, his own truck blocked the road. In less than a minute, two more trucks came speeding from the direction of the warehouse and did the same. On the far side of the bridge, several more vehicles already stood blocking the way, shining their lights on Pinky, who stood with his hands raised timidly in the air.

Barto grabbed the heavy-duty flashlight he carried in the door pocket and leaped from the truck. Angelo followed as soon as he could find the door latch in the dark.

Where are they?” he growled, striding up to Pinky, the bright light trained on the thug’s face.

Who – where are who?” he shrugged innocently, lowering his hands slowly.

Four men surrounded Pinky and rifling through his pockets, produced a knife and a coil of cord.

Take him to the Mayor’s house and tell him to lock him up. We’ll get the police out here tomorrow.” Barto turned away, knowing what would be in Pinky’s truck, if he looked.

Bags, duct tape, and blanket. Plus this -” Angelo held up a plastic baggie with two filled syringes in it.

He didn’t catch them.”

Angelo shook his head. “Doesn’t look like it. Better send some one up to the house, though. If they went home another way, they may get a nasty surprise.” Barto nodded, and in a moment four trucks-full of ‘someones’ squealed off the main road and roared up the hill toward the casita.

They didn’t make it this far,” said Barto. “They’re somewhere along the way still.”

No one passed them coming here, and this tells me they didn’t get here yet.” He shook the baggie for Barto to see.

A shout interrupted them, and they ran to the embankment on the southern side of the road. Even before his flashlight reflected off the metal, Barto knew what the men had found. Near the road, something caught his eye.

Angelo.” He pointed. “Fresh blood. Look. It’s still wet.” She was hurt. He knew it, and it was his fault. Barto berated himself in English, French, and Spanish, with some Creole thrown in for diversity.

Not very much, though. It looks like someone’s got a bad cut, but there’s not enough to -” he stopped before finishing the thought.

They side-stepped down the embankment to the chair. In it was the bag the women gave Norma before they left. It smelled like roast pork.

Four flashlights and ten men moved cautiously down to the river, scattering trash and slipping on the piles of brush.

Well, they went up, down, or across. Take your pick,” shrugged a young man in his mid-twenties who had danced twice with Rosana that evening.

Barto glared at him and then down into the water. She had to be carrying Norma. Her first concern would be to get Norma someplace safe. If I wanted to get Norma to safety, where would I go? Down toward the ocean? Across back toward the warehouse? Upriver toward the onion fields?

That’s it. They went up river,” he announced, stepping into the current and wading under the bridge.

Prove it,” called the young man from the bank.

I will,” he muttered. She doesn’t know the land toward the ocean. The way back to the warehouse would have gained her nothing, since she thinks – he forced himself to finish the thought – she thinks I wouldn’t help her. She’s headed for the Sisters. She knows La Madre will help, even if I won’t. He cursed himself silently and thoroughly, ignoring the hails of the men trying to keep up with him.

*

I’ve got to put you down, Mama.” Rosana slid across the algae covered rocks to the western bank of the river where she lowered Norma to the sandy bank. Already the flashlights were in the river, no more than a few minutes behind, but her strength was waning, and they needed a hiding place.

How many people are trying to get us?” moaned Norma, “and why?”

Rosana’s voice came from the bushes above the bank, “who knows. But I’m – well, I’m not going to let them. Give me your hands.”

Norma reached up and found her wrists gripped and hauled upward in a failing effort to lift her up into the bushes. Scrambling back down to the edge of the river, Rosana pushed Norma from behind and managed to maneuver her scratched, traumatized mother-in-law into the bushes.

Anyone who looks at our tracks on that bank is going to know where we are, but maybe they’ll just walk by. Pray, Mama!” Rosana squeezed into the interior of a bush, hoping she would not disturb any slithering creatures who might already be occupying this place of refuge. Lifting aside the thorns, she pulled Norma in with her.

There was no extra room at all, and just before the flashlights came near enough to shine on the banks below them, Norma untied her scarf and spread it over their head so their eyes would not reflect any light.

They waited in silent terror as the first light strode by, it’s owner never pausing to examine the footprints in the sand or inspect the drag marks that pointed to the fugitives like a neon arrow. For a moment, Rosana wrestled with an overwhelming desire to call out and give herself up, but Norma’s trembling form strengthened her resolve, and they lay still while the lights of one group and then another moved by.

If it weren’t so cramped, I would fall asleep here, thought Rosana after what seemed like hours had passed. Would they come back? “Mama? You okay?” she whispered. Norma nodded. “We need to wait here until the morning. They aren’t going to try anything in broad daylight, and we can scoot up to the Sisters at first light, okay? Mama?”

Incredibly, Norma was asleep. Rosana stretched as much as she dared, and freeing only her nose from the protective scarf, dozed fitfully.

*

Tears of frustration threatened as Barto stood, staring at La Madre in disbelief.

They’re not here?”

No. Like I said, Barto, the only person at the house is that brute who is locked in our garden shed. And a good thing Sister Clara had to put away that trowel and happened to see his cigarette from the garden. Imagine if the widows had walked in on him! As it was, he barely made a sound when we dragged him up here.”

How did you catch him?” Barto asked slowly, not comprehending.

Poor Senor Barto is having trouble understanding,” she nodded to the Sisters at the door who nodded back in unison. “Sister Clara had the trowel. She came and got me, and a few of us went down and ‘pop!’” The Sisters broke into wide grins, particularly Clara, who beamed at him. “He’s cooling down in the shed, as I told you, and we’ll give him to the Mayor or the police, whoever gets here first.”

But you haven’t seen -”

La Madre sighed. “No, dear. She and her mother have not arrived yet, but it will be dawn soon, and she will bring Norma home when she sees it is safe. Look at you. You’re soaking wet and covered with briers like you walked up the river and then climbed the hill in the dark! Go get your truck and park it at the Convent. She won’t come home if she sees a strange vehicle in her yard. We will give you a blanket to use and you will sleep in your truck until she comes home. Then, when you see she’s safe, you will marry her, right?”

Yes, Madre.” Barto nodded like a schoolboy.

Good. Now, no more trouble. If that Jaime had listened to me when he was teenager and had thrown out all those disgusting magazines, we would not be here talking at this ridiculous hour, but some people have to learn the hard way. Well, at least no one got hurt. Are you still awake? Barto? Good. Go get your truck now. Good morning.”

The Sisters ushered Barto from the Convent where he staggered down the hill and found Angelo already asleep in the cab. He shoved him over and moved the truck in obedience to La Madre.

Rosana – Chapter 30

Chapter 30

Some people stared or called a greeting as they crossed the parking lot, but Norma and Rosana passed generally unnoticed through the parking lot and onto the road. Rosana blessed the long t-shirt she brought for just this purpose. A few yards down the road she stopped to slip the shirt over the shimmering dress and change the sandals for work shoes. She accomplished the change quickly, pulling her hair into a quick bun and wiping back a tear. Kissing her mother-in-law on the head, she pushed quickly for home.

Would you like some bread, Mija?”

No, Mama, I’m fine.”

You didn’t eat anything all evening, I watched you.”

You always look out for me, sweet Mama. But you didn’t eat much either.”

But Maricia gave me a bag of leftovers to take home,” she shook it enticingly, “so we can eat when we get there.”

Rosana grunted and pushed on. Her joints hurt. Too much dancing. Oh well. She would sleep it off and in the morning try to figure out what to do. Maybe she could buy some paper and draw portraits of tourists at the beach. Maybe she could do some beach combing and make them into collectable things tourists would buy.

I think we should go to the beach tomorrow, Mama.”

If you would like, mi amor. But what for?”

I have some ideas about how to make some money I’d like to try. We can go to Mass at the Convent in the morning and the beach in the afternoon.” The more she planned, the easier it was to banish Barto from her thoughts.

Why doesn’t Barto want to marry you anymore?”

Rosana sighed, hanging her head and willing herself to be patient as they rolled along the road. “Maybe he’s heard things. Or maybe he just realized what I am. He’s a careful man.” She replayed the previous night, the way he had wrapped his arms around her, promising to protect her. It had been a promise. With an effort, she replaced the mental image with thoughts of their casita. “Halfway home, Mama.”

What is there to hear about you?”

I don’t know, Mama, but whatever it is, I can’t change it. So we will keep on going, and God will provide. He always does.” Rosana could tell by the shaking of her mother-in-law’s shoulders that the older woman was crying. She lifted her chin and pushed on, doing her best to think of other things.

Overloaded cars and trucks began to pass, waving and honking at the two widows making their way home by the light of the stars.

The party must be over,” Rosana muttered, suddenly aware that Norma was nodding in the chair. They were walking over the bridge now, passing the place Rosana had climbed out of the river bed to the road after her first day of gleaning. Between cars, the dark was nearly complete, although in the distance she could see the lights of the Convent on the hill, urging her home like a lighthouse on the shore.

Without warning, a cold chill stole up from the dark and settled heavily on Rosana. It was a feeling of evil, of malevolence lying in wait. She slowed her stride and glanced warily around. The road to Planchado was just ahead on the right, but instinctively, she turned and crossed the road to the left, pushing the chair down the embankment and behind a convenient clump of bushes where the metal of the wheelchair and the bottom of her dress, hanging below the t-shirt could not reflect the light. She crouched down beside Norma and waited.

What are we doing, ‘Sana?” cried Norma, suddenly coming awake. “Where -”

Shhh, Mama,” she hissed, a finger to her lips. She laid her hand on Norma’s wrist and counted five hundred heart beats under her fingertips before she carefully moved to the end of the bush and crawled on her belly up the embankment. A few yards ahead on the other side of the road, just beyond the turn to their house, Rosana spotted a red glow. She watched it carefully for several minutes. The glow moved up and down, brighter when it was up. She sniffed carefully. A cigarette.

Light splashed across the way as a car bounced by, leaving them in darkness again, but not before Rosana saw the man smoking the cigarette. He was leaning against a van looking annoyed as he surveyed the road in the direction from which they had come. Rosana crawled back to Norma, cutting her knee on a glass bottle in the process.

There’s a man over there,” she mouthed. “He’s waiting for someone.”

He’s waiting for you, Mija,” whispered Norma without emotion. “I knew this would happen, after what happened to Jaime. They will be waiting at the house, too.”

Rosana nodded. It made sense. She calculated quickly. They couldn’t stay here. Anyone with a flashlight could find them, and how long before the man started to search? They had to move. But the chair wouldn’t work off the road, not efficiently, anyway.

Mama, you’ve got to let me carry you. We’re going to go to the Convent. We’ll go the way I went to the onion field that first time. Get ready, and we’ll move when the next car comes.”

Without a word, Norma opened the bag of bread and dropped her water bottle into it, closing it with a knot. Then, tying the scarf around her head to shield her face, she held out her arms to Rosana, who crouched in front of the chair ready to hoist the older lady onto her back.

Several breaths later, a rumbling announced a car, and a sweep of lights illuminated for an instant the terrain between them and the river. In one motion she hoisted Norma and moved stealthily further down the embankment toward the river.

Twice, she stumbled over rocks and brush. A third time she froze when her toe connected with a can which clanged and banged as it bounced toward the water.

Cross! Cross!” Norma whispered in her ear when they reached the river. Rosana obeyed, trying to keep her balance on the wet stones at the bottom of the knee-deep torrent. On the other side, she sloshed to the bridge’s concrete support and leaned against it breathing heavily. At Norma’s tap on her shoulder, she looked up and saw the red glow on the bridge above them. The women sank back into the darkness.

In a moment, the red glow fell from the bridge and disappeared into the water.

A sudden roar followed by the squealing of hot brakes filled the air on the bridge above them. It was followed instantly by a flash of light that illuminated the road. The man on the bridge, standing in a spotlight, stood staring stupidly. Yelling and the sounds of running ensued, but Rosana had already hitched Norma higher on her back and darted away under the bridge, up the river into the darkness.

Rosana – Chapter 29

Chapter 29

Rosana heaved the fifth and sixth bucket of water onto the porch.

I am not going to miss hauling water from the well,” she grinned up Norma. “Hopefully, this is all for today!”

When the Noon bell rang at the Convent, Norma had begun fussing about getting ready, and now, as the sun extended fingers of late afternoon heat through the makeshift shower curtain Rosana had rigged in the trees, both women were clean and scrubbed from top to toe.

Those buckets will fill the water bottles, mi corazon. How long will it take us to get there?”

Maybe an hour? I don’t know, but I do know we’re going to be all dirty again by the time we get there.”

Norma waved of her hand in dismissal. “At least we start clean,” she said.

The women dressed in the only nice clothes they had, Rosana in the silver dress and Norma in a purple muu-muu. Norma wore her sandals, but Rosana wrapped hers in the same plastic grocery bag and tied on her work shoes. So much for fashion, she thought ruefully. But even as the thoughts crossed her mind, a contentment stole over her. The dress had already served its purpose, how could this evening’s event have greater significance than the midnight meeting of the night before?

This time, though, she made no effort to hide.

The widows waved to the Sisters in the Convent garden who were cleaning and putting away their tools. At the bottom of the hill, a sharp whistle filled the evening air. Zoli appeared at the door of her house and waved.

My brothers like your dress,” she laughed. “See you there!”

Three times, cars, trucks, and vans filled to overflowing stopped to insist they could make room for two more. Norma always declined.

If they think we could fit in there, they must be locos!” she insisted. “Crazy!”

The fourth vehicle to stop pulled off the road in front of them. Rosana hesitated, noting with relief the other pedestrians on the road. If Jaime wanted to cause a problem, at least there would be witnesses. She moved forward, making a wide arc around the truck when the door swung wide, and a man in a crisply pressed jeans and a white shirt jumped down.

Cousin Barto!” exclaimed Norma.

He nodded curtly, eyes lingering on Rosana’s face as if he might read there an answer to a question.

Searching again, she thought. A chill of uneasiness swept over her.

They settled Norma into the cab.

Why are you angry?” she whispered, their heads together as they worked to close the chair.

I’m not angry.”

She stood to face him, eyebrow raised. “If you’re not angry, then what are you?”

He hoisted the wheelchair into the truck bed. “I’m trying to get some answers.”

To what questions?” she asked, blocking his way to the driver’s-side.

To questions about what some people are doing after dark.”

And who would those people be?” she asked tartly, irritation boiling just below her skin.

You, for one.” He moved to walk around her but she stepped back into his path.

Oh. I see. And who else?”

Get in the truck.”

No, I don’t think so! Who else’s after-dark business concerns you so closely? Although I wonder if it’s any of your business.”

Of course it’s my business what is happening at my tenants’ houses in the middle of the night, and you of all people should know that!”

Really? I know more about your nighttime policies than all of your tenants?”

I told you never to go out at night. Never to be alone. But you have ignored that requests since the first day you arrived. And now I find all sorts of things have been happening at your house at night.”

Like what?”

Like visitors. Male visitors. And I wonder what they were there for.”

Rosana tilted her head, squinting at him through calculating eyes. What male visitors had come to her house? And at night? Slowly it dawned on her what he meant. “Ohhh,” she said, trying to hold back the belly-laugh that threatened to spill into the growing dusk. “You mean Jaime, right?”

Barto didn’t answer, but his lips disappeared into a thin line, and he turned away, hands on his belt.

Rosana laughed long and hard. She rested her head on the side of the truck and laughed until Norma called out to see what was wrong.

I’m fine, Mama! Everything is fine!” She turned to Barto whose look of disapproval had settled into a chilly silence. “At least, it’s fine for me,” she whispered toward Barto, “I’m not jealous!” She giggled all the way to the passenger seat, and swung up, slamming the door before Barto, frowning, could close it for her.

*

Music poured from the open cargo door as the rays of the setting sun joined dancing couples, warm and spinning around the warehouse. Barto drove the truck over a small embankment and around to the back of the building where he found enough space to park the truck under a tree.

Thank you, Senor Santos,” said Rosana formally, her lips still twitching when he opened the door and offered his hand to help her down.

Why is he ‘Senor Santos’ now, Mija? Why don’t you call him ‘Barto?’”

Because right now, he thinks very poorly of me, Mama, and probably wants nothing to do with us.”

Is this true, Cousin?” asked Norma, turning to Barto, her eyes wide with concern.

You’ll be happy to know Jaime signed over the deed of the land to me this afternoon, and I will help you sell it as soon as possible,” replied Barto, lifting her out of the cab.

The women looked at each other and back at Barto.

Thank you, Senor Barto,” said Rosana, suddenly unsmiling, “you have been very kind to my mother and me. And thank you for the ride. Here, Mama. Stand here while I get your chair.”

What does this mean, Rosana?” Norma stood, holding onto the side of the truck looking like a lost child.

It means that Senor Barto, helped you get the land back and will help you sell it. That means we will have enough money to make it through the winter.”

And he will marry you? You said he wanted to marry you, Mija. Is this not true?” She looked from Barto to Rosana like a spectator at a tennis match.

Rosana lowered the tailgate and hauled the chair from the truck bed, ignoring Barto’s attempt to help. When Norma was settled, she released the brake and turned the chair toward the warehouse. She stopped to look up into Barto’s cold eyes. “No, Mama, I think it’s not true anymore.” She stooped and whispered in Norma’s ear. “We’ll talk soon. Not now.” And pushing hard, she guided the wheelchair over the uneven ground to the door where smiling faces and eager hands waited to help them inside.

Barto stood and watched them go.

*

From the office door, he watched her spin around the room in the arms of one man and then another. No sooner would one dance finish than she would be asked again, and so the evening progressed until he knew she must be tired.

The older ladies gathered around Norma, chatting together like the old friends they were. Norma ate little, Barto saw. Rosana ate nothing. He turned away.

I can’t help it!” he burst out to the empty office. “I have good reason to wonder what has been going on up there!” The worn but neat desk ignored him, and he began to open the drawers, one at a time, perusing their contents as if they would have meaning for him. The bottom drawer was empty, except for a plastic grocery bag, tied shut.

Curiously, he drew it out and untied it.

Inside was a shirt.

Rosana’s shirt. The shirt which had caught on his antenna as he pulled out of their yard so precipitously. The shirt he had never returned and which she probably needed badly.

There hasn’t been time to return it,” he told his pricking conscience. “It’s not like I could hand it to her in the field and have everyone wonder why I had her clothing in my truck.”

And she never asked for it, his conscience reminded him. She trusted you to bring it back as soon as you could.

And I will, he promised himself. Then he realized. The shirt in his office made it look like he had been at her house for the wrong reasons. Yet she had never pressed him for it, most importantly, she had never asked for it in front of other people. Jaime had been at her house and he had assumed the worst. But he had never asked her why he had been there, and she had never defended herself. She had just laughed like it was the most ridiculous thing she had ever heard.

Maybe it was. He struck his fist on the desk and shoving back the chair, strode from the room, shirt in his hand.

*

His entrance was greeted with a cheer. He was a hero to these people, he knew, but right now, when he needed to find Angelo, the last thing he wanted was to stop and talk to people.

One of the foremen had a microphone and was waving for him to come to the food table at the front of the room, announcing his name. Barto sighed, tried to smile and went forward.

Thank you, everyone, for coming tonight, and for your work which made this harvest possible!” There were cheers from the crowd. Unconsciously, he scanned the room for the radiant hair and silver dress. There she was, by Norma, her face flushed but expressionless.

On your way home tonight, please take home two loaves of bread from the table by the door.” He pointed to the place where Angelo’s wife and three other women were glaring at the guests, ready to smack the hands of anyone who tried to get away with more. “It was made from the wheat we harvested this year, and is my gift to you.”

Polite applause followed.

I know it doesn’t seem like much, compared to years past, but I think you’ll appreciate it when you eat it.” He smiled to think of their faces when they found the money baked inside. Across the room, he saw Rosana kneeling by Norma’s chair, their heads together.

The foreman appeared to take the microphone from Barto, looking at him expectantly.

The dance?” the foreman whispered.

Barto looked at Rosana, who was releasing the brake on the wheelchair and wrapping a small shawl around Norma’s shoulders.

The band is ready, and it’s time for the final dance of the evening, so put down your food, get up your courage, and ask the person you’ve been wanting to dance with all night!”

They were headed for the door, accepting two loaves of bread from the women at the table. One lady was handing them a bag and whispering something in Norma’s ear. Barto looked down at the bag in his hand. They were leaving. Walking home in the dark by themselves. And he still had her shirt.

Rosana!” yelled Barto, pushing through the crowd. “Rosana!”

The crowd roared with appreciation. “Senor Barto has chosen his partner,” laughed the foreman at the microphone, “but will she have him?” The guests turned as one to look for her, but she was gone. “Better go bring her back, Senor Barto,” teased the foreman as the band began to play. “She’s getting away!”

He hardly saw the grinning faces or felt the good-natured slaps on the back. They were already gone, out in the darkness alone, and even among his employees, guests, and neighbors, he felt an emptiness he had never noticed before. Right near the place on his chest where she had rested her head.

Rosana – Chapter 28

Chapter 28

Barto went home.

There was no sense going to the warehouse when the women were busy getting it ready for the party. He would be in the way, and Angelo’s wife would purse her lips and shoo him away with wide arms. Even behind the locked office door would be too close, since her ideas of decoration clashed mightily with his love of simplicity.

Instead, he stood on his patio looking east down the hill to Palmar, the sea sparkling to the south. Nena tugged at his pant leg, growling with mock-fury at his ankle.

Are you ready for some changes, Nena?” he asked, bending to scratch the top of the dog’s head affectionately. “Do you think they’ll like you? Huh? Huh?” They wrestled for a moment, man and dog, Nena vying for dominance with the fingers that seemed to be everywhere at once. Finally, she jumped up and scampered across the patio in search of a cockroach to harass.

She will like it here, Barto thought, mentally rearranging the patio furniture to accommodate her easel.He smoothed his mustache and watched a trail of dust springing up behind a car driving too fast along the coastal road. Probably Jaime. Jaime with the broken arms. Just how did you fall off that porch, anyway, Jaime?

For several moments he considered how it was possible to fall off the porch. Maybe the dark. Maybe Jaime had had too much to drink. But how did he know his way up there? He hadn’t been up since the casita’s had been built by his own admission. How did he know when visiting hours were over at the Convent? Exactly why was Jaime so familiar with everything in Planchado? Unless he went there more often than Barto knew. Unless he was a frequent visitor.

An ugly suspicion began to form in his imagination. All kinds of details raced to fill in the empty places in Jaime’s story. He thought of Rosana, and wondered if he knew all there was to know about her. If she had told him the truth.

What were you doing at their house after dark, Jaime? A surge of hot anger raced through him and fumbling for his phone, Barto flipped it open and dialed.

Diga,” replied the voice on the other end.

Angelo,” barked Barto, “where are you?”

Home – is everything okay?” Angelo sat up, swinging his legs down from the table.

It will be,” his boss growled. “Listen, are you going tonight?”

Angelo laughed a full-throated bellow. “Can you imagine what she’d say if I didn’t show up? I dropped her off this morning and came back here to wait while they do their thing. Can’t be in there with all those wom-”

Is Jaime coming?” Barto interrupted.

To the party? I dunno. He showed up last year in time for the pig roast. You want me to go get him?”

No. But if he comes, I want you to get some information from him.”

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