by Rudolph Keith Dunn (Dominican Republic 1990–92)
The muscles in Maria’s small body screamed in pain. Beads of sweat covered her forehead. With each step, she felt the weight of the pails of water weighing down heavily on her slight frame, as she struggled to carry them up the steep hill.
This was her third trip to the river today. She knew it would be the hardest with the afternoon sun blasting down. The two pails held in her small hands pulled her arms, hard, towards the ground. It took every ounce of effort and focus to keep the third pail, balanced upon her head, from toppling.
The sun seared the back of her neck, legs, and arms. Maria planted her bare, dusty, feet in the well-worn indentions in the ground, giving her the firm grip needed to launch another step up the hill. Finally, she breathed a sigh of relief after reaching the top. Maria had less than fifty yards to go before arriving home to be with her mom, Angelina, and her little sister, Teresa.
She smiled, ignoring the stinging heat on the soles of her feet, rising up from the hot baking dirt road beneath her. Maria turned twelve today, and she knew her mom promised to give her a very special birthday present.
But Maria had another reason to smile. Rebecca, a young American woman, had arrived in her village yesterday. She’d been sent by the Americanos from some people called Peace Corps to teach the children to read and write in Spanish, as well as to speak English. While picking crops in the field, or down beside the river drawing water to carry home, Maria often fantasized about attending school, sitting in a classroom of happy children and learning all sorts of new and exciting things. But the nearest school was in San Christobal, a town far over the mountains and many kilometers away. And working hard from early morning, until afternoon, kept her school dreams only a fantasy. But with Rebecca in the village, things would be different, thought Maria.
Now, in the late afternoons, when the air cooled, and the hard, calloused, hands of the men who’d cut sugar cane played dominos, or carefully rolled leaves of tobacco into cigars for a relaxing smoke, the village children could gather under the shade of a palm tree and attend school. They’d learn to read, write, and maybe even do math. Maria felt a whole new world had opened up to her, a world she’d only previously dared to dream about.
Maria quickened her steps, without spilling any water. She couldn’t wait to arrive home to receive her birthday present and then go see Rebecca to attend school for the very first time.
“Ah, you’re here!” said Angelina.
Tall, thin, with raven black hair, Maria’s mother had been the beauty of her village, but now her facial lines made her look far older than her thirty years. She removed the pail off Maria’s head and carefully placed it beside the front door of their one-room home. Angelina had a bright, pleasing, smile, as she looked at her oldest daughter.
Maria put the other two pails on the ground and hugged her mother and then Teresa, who’d run into her arms. “I can’t wait for my present. Is it here yet?”
Angelina took out a small piece of blue cloth from her left dress pocket and wiped the sweat from Maria’s face. “Si, it’s here. Let’s go in.”
Maria stepped inside her home of mud-caked walls, dirt floor, and a palm-leafed roof. But she didn’t see the doll she hoped for and expected. Instead, Celia, her mother’s youngest sister, sat at the small, square, table in the center of the room.
Maria’s huge smile disappeared.
“Happy Birthday Maria, it’s a special day for you, my girl,” said Celia.
Angelina noticed the surprised and disappointed look on her daughter’s face. “Maria, sit down, you’re about to get your present, a gift that’s going to change your life forever.”
Maria didn’t understand. She wondered how a present could change her life forever, especially one she couldn’t yet see.
Teresa was oblivious to her older sister’s puzzled expression, as she played quietly with a straw doll in a dusty corner of the room.
The two women glanced at each other. “You know your Aunt Celia lives and works in San Rafael for a very rich family,” said Angelina. “Well, you’re going to have the chance to live there too.
Not at the home where Celia works, but nearby, in the large house of one of the family’s relatives.”
Maria’s facial muscles tensed, and she looked down upon the surface of the old, scared, table. The hope of going to visit Rebecca each afternoon, learning to read and write with the other children, all the things she’d so happily envisioned on her way home had vanished upon hearing the words spoken by her mother.
“You’ll be working for the sister of the senora I work for,” said Celia. “She needs someone to care for her two little girls. They’re only four and five. You’ll also do the laundry.
No more washing clothes in the river! A washing machine will do all the work. You’ll even have your own cot in the girl’s room.”
Maria’s mother smiled. “This is your present. You’ll have the chance for a far better life than you could ever have in this poor, forgotten, village.” Angelina bent down beside Maria, cupping her daughter’s face within her worn, calloused, hands. “My beautiful daughter, this is the greatest birthday present I could ever hope to give you, letting you go away from here to live in the capital city and have a chance in life, something I never had.”
A powerful storm of emotions erupted within Maria: fear, sadness, anger, and frustration, all washing over her at once, threatening to drown her in a sea of confusion. She knew her mother loved her and only wanted the best for her future. Life in the capital would be a lot easier than in the village. Very few people from her village had ever visited San Rafael, a busy city with cars, buses, stores, and crowded noisy streets. Maria often heard her Aunt Celia talk of how fascinating was the capital city, compared to their sleepy village. There were even movie theaters. Maria always wanted to see a movie or go to a zoo to see exotic animals from all over the world. It could be incredible, she thought, to live in such a different place, unlike anything she’d ever known in her life.
But going to San Rafael, Maria realized, would mean not going to school, or learning to read and write from Rebecca. She would be far away, working to care for two girls who were only a few years younger than herself. Maria also knew she’d miss her sister and mother very much. They were the only close family she’d ever known.
Maria then thought of the money she could send back to her mother. After so much struggle, there’d finally be enough food to eat and ample oil to light the small lamp in their home, so Teresa wouldn’t have to fear the darkness when the rats routinely came for their nightly visit. She could even buy material for new dresses for Angelina and her sister.
Maria knew she held the future of her family in her hands. She’d been given a chance for a better life and to leave a village that rarely, if ever, gave chances to anyone.
Maria’s legs trembled. Her chest pounded, as she thought of the decision she must make in the next few moments. The advantages of going to San Rafael were obvious, but still, her heart pulled in another direction. Something way down, deep inside, screamed to turn down this present and stay in her village and attend Rebecca’s classes, despite what a job in the capital could do for her family. What about her own life? Maria thought. What about her desires, needs, and wants? Didn’t they matter?
Angelina noticed the troubled look on her daughter’s face. “Are you okay, my love?”
Maria closed her eyes for a moment, opened them, swallowed hard, and then smiled. She looked at Celia and then her mother. “Of course, I’m all right, momma. How could I not be?
“You’ve given me a far better present than any I could ever have dreamed of.” Maria then embraced Angelina. “I can’t wait to go to San Rafael!”
Celia laughed, “You’ll love the capital, you’ll see.”
Then Maria’s smile disappeared. “Promise me that while I’m away, you’ll make sure Teresa goes to the classes of the Americana every day, each and every day, momma, without fail. It’s really important to me that she learns everything that Rebecca can teach her. Please promise me that, okay?”
Angelina brushed back a strand of hair from Maria’s worried face. “Of course. I promise she’ll be right there, every day.”
Maria smiled. “Thank you, momma. Thank you, so much.” She felt good knowing that Teresa would learn to read, write, and even speak English. Maria knew that now her little sister had a chance for a far better future than the one she’d have for herself in San Rafael.
“So, Aunt Celia, how soon do we leave for the city?” The tone of Maria’s voice, which startled the women, was different: strong, matured, and calm. Maria had never been more than ten kilometers away from her small mountain village and began to imagine about all of the things that existed beyond it.
“We’ll go tomorrow at dawn, on the first bus passing through the village for San Rafael,” said Celia.
“I’ve baked two rice cakes just for you, one you can eat today and another to take on your trip,” Angelina said.
Maria held her mother’s hand. “You’re the best momma in the whole world.” She then stood, walked over to her sister playing in the corner and reached out her hand. “Come, Teresa, I’m taking you to your first class with Rebecca. You can even bring your doll.”
Rudolph Keith Dunn is a Spanish teacher at Starling International Learning and Childcare Center in Richmond, Virginia. He also tutors children in creative writing. A former freelance journalist for various newspapers, as well as an ESL instructor with Catholic Charities and a reading and writing tutor with the Richmond Public School system.