Marta worked the pump handle one final time. Then she carried the grapefruit soda bottle full of water into the two-room house, located on the outskirts of a small coastal town in Uruguay. “The water’s awfully bitter today, Alicia,” Marta said, handing the bottle to her younger sister. “You’d better squeeze a lemon into it to freshen it.”
Alicia selected one of the wrinkled lemons from a bowl on the shelf, cut it in half, and the tingly aroma filled the room as she trickled the juice into the bottle of water. “We didn’t get any fresh bread today,” Alicia complained. “Can’t we buy some for dinner?”
“No, Alicia,” said Mama, turning slightly on her bed to face the girls. “The bread from yesterday will do fine if Marta toasts it, won’t it, Marta?”
“Yes, Mama.” Marta moved the kerosene burner they used for a stove into the middle of the room. “It’s getting dark, Mama, should I turn on the light?”
“Not yet, querida (dear). Wait until your father gets home.”
Marta cleared off the plank table that stood in the middle of the small room and began preparing supper. She mixed eggs and flour and shredded chard together. Alicia huddled close to the burner, warming her hands and watching Marta’s skillful hands pat the chard cakes into shape and place them into the frying pan to be warmed and browned. “Don’t fret so, Alicia, tomorrow we’ll go to the panadería (bakery) and buy the fresh crusty loaves you love.”
Alicia smiled at the thought of the large golden brown rolls the panadería baked fresh every morning. She glanced dreamily out the window just as her father entered the front gate. “Papa’s home!” she shouted gleefully.
Papa came into the house and gathered the girls into his arms and gave them each a kiss on the cheek. “And how have you been today? Have you taken good care of your mother?”
“They have been angels, as always,” Mama said as she took Papa’s hand.
Papa reached up and pulled the dangling string that turned on their only light. “And how is dinner coming?” he asked. “I’m very hungry!”
“It will be just a minute, Papa,” Marta said as she set out the plates and cups. Papa and the girls sat on the narrow bench and ate, facing the bed where Mama lay.
“When do you go to the doctor again?” Papa asked as he handed Mama her dinner plate.
“On Friday,” she replied. “It won’t be long now until the baby is ready to come.”
“This baby is having such problems in getting here that it will be all the stronger for having made it. But you must stay in bed as the doctor said,” Papa warned.
Just then someone clapped outside. Marta rose to go and welcome the visitor. “Wait, Marta,” her father said, “I’ll go. It’s starting to rain and I don’t want you to get wet.” He grabbed his jacket and held it over his head as he ran out to the front gate. “Hello, Omar!” he called. “Come in out of the storm.”
“No thank you, Daniel. I just came to tell you that the station manager called our house and left a message for you. He wants you to go back to work as soon as you can. Someone drove a car right through a railroad crossing barrier, and they need you to direct the traffic.”
Papa grimaced a little. “One day, Omar, we will get our own telephone and then you won’t have to be the one to always bring me the news.” Omar grinned, then hurried off down the muddy road toward his own home.
“Who was it?” Mama asked when Papa reentered the house.
“Omar. I have to go back to work.” He put on his jacket that was already shedding streams of rainwater and then topped it with a light plastic cape. “I’ll probably be all night. Keep the windows shut tight, Marta, and make certain that you stuff rags in the window jamb over Mama’s bed if the rain starts coming in.”
“Yes, Papa,” Marta answered. Papa kissed each one goodbye, grabbed an ancient umbrella from the corner of the room, and was gone.
Marta began heating water to wash the dishes, and Alicia sat on the bed next to her mother. “Can I do anything for you, Mama?”
“I’m fine, Alicia, but you could get me my medicine.”
Startled, Marta dropped a fork. “Oh, Mama!” she cried. “I meant to pick up your medicine, but I forgot.”
Mama looked out the window at the billowing black clouds. “It will have to wait until tomorrow then.”
“No, Mama. I’ll go and get the medicine now,” she insisted.
“It is dark and raining much too hard, Marta. Besides, it’s Tuesday, so only the pharmacy on the Avenida de Los Treinty y Tres (Avenue of the Thirty-three) will be open late. That is much too far for you to go on such a stormy night.”
How could I have forgotten something so important as Mama’s medicine? Marta agonized.
“Come here, querida,” Mama motioned to Marta and then enfolded her in her arms. “Don’t worry. You have had much to do while I’ve been in bed. It has been a lot to ask of a daughter who is only eleven years old.”
Marta left her mother’s embrace and quietly finished the dishes. Afterward she checked the window above her mother’s bed and found some rainwater seeping in. She got some rags and stuffed them into the cracks. Just as she finished her task, the light went out.
“It’s just as well,” said Mama. “It’s time for my two children to go to bed anyway.”
The girls kissed Mama goodnight, then went into the second room of the house where they slept. “Don’t worry, Marta,” said Alicia. “We’ll get the medicine first thing in the morning. Mama will be all right.”
Marta only nodded and then crept into bed. What if Mama gets sick because I forgot the medicine? she worried. And maybe even dies. After sleeping fitfully for several hours, Marta suddenly awoke. Someone was calling her name. It was Mama! Marta struggled out of the entangling blankets and ran into the next room. “What is it?” she asked, staring at the drawn white face of her mother.
“The baby. I need help, Marta,” Mama gasped.
Without taking time to think, Marta headed for the front door. At the same moment Alicia shuffled into the room and collided with her.
“Where are you going, Marta?”
“To Omar’s. He can telephone and get an ambulance for Mama. You stay here with her.” And Marta rushed out the door. She did not take time to put on her sandals and the road was a muddy mire. Every few steps Marta slipped and often fell, covering herself with a fresh coat of mud. Stray dogs whined at the wind from behind the bushes at the side of the road, but only once did one brave the rain and come far enough into the street for Marta to see his bared teeth as he gave a long throaty growl. But even this did not slow Marta’s pace.
It seemed as though it took much longer to get to Omar’s house than it usually did. When Marta finally reached the gate she clapped her hands loudly but no one came. She pushed through the gate and began pounding furiously on the door. Awakened by the racket, Omar opened the door and stared sleepily at the small mud elf before him.
“Call an ambulance for Mama. Quick!” Marta cried, tugging at his sleeve.
Omar reached down and wiped some of the mud from Marta’s face. “Marta! Come in.” The worried girl waited inside until Omar had called the hospital, and then she quickly slipped back out into the night.
Marta arrived home a few minutes before the ambulance came and sat on the bed holding her mother’s hand. “I’m sorry about the medicine, Mama. Please be all right.”
“Everything will be fine, Marta, you’ll see.” But then Mama started to moan again and could say no more.
Omar arrived at the same time as the ambulance. “I will go with your mother to the hospital,” he said. “When I know that she is being taken care of, I will go tell your father. Can you both be very brave and stay here alone?” Marta nodded and grasped Alicia’s cold hand more firmly.
After the ambulance left, the two girls huddled together on top of Mama’s bed and waited. It didn’t take long for Alicia to fall asleep. After Marta had tucked a quilt around her sister, she gently cried as she wondered about Mama. Finally her quiet tears and the sound of the wind lulled her to sleep.
It was late in the morning when Alicia woke at the sound of the door opening. “Oh, Papa! I’m so glad you’re home. How’s Mama?”
Marta stirred and smiled at the comforting sight of her father. But then lowered her eyes to the floor. “Oh, Papa, I have been so terrible. I didn’t get Mama’s medicine and that is why she got so sick.”
Papa sat down on the bed between the two girls and held them tightly. “Your Mama’s fine. Her suffering had nothing to do with your forgetting the medicine. The baby just decided to come a little sooner than we had expected. I’m proud of my two daughters and the way they helped out. I know it wasn’t an easy time for you. And now I have one more thing I would like you to do.”
“What’s that, Papa?” asked Marta.
“I would like you to help teach your new brother to be just as good and helpful as both of you are.”