Cristina looked longingly at the red dress in the window. Four hundred cruzeiros! It might as well have been all the money in Brazil. Her father had to work a week to earn that much. Her mother earned even less, sewing in a shop in downtown Rio de Janeiro.
Her friend Angela was going to dance in the Carnaval (festival like Mardi Gras) parade this year, and Cristina wanted to be with her.
“Can’t you save up the money?” Angela asked hopefully as the two girls walked toward the beach. “Carnaval is still two months away.”
“Save what? I don’t get any pocket money. Anyway, Papa is far away, working in Curitiba, so I can’t ask him.”
“Maybe something will happen.”
“Maybe,” murmured Cristina. But she couldn’t imagine what could happen.
“Oh, look! There’s an old vulture.” Angela ran laughing down the beach to chase the big black bird. Soon she came running back. “Let’s go borrow Juca’s vulture kite.”
“I can’t, Angela. I’m sorry. I have to do my chores.”
At home, Cristina swept the one room, cleaned the ashes out of the stove, fetched water from the faucet in the street, then set rice and beans to cook over a new fire.
When Mama came home, she looked so tired that Cristina could not bring herself to speak of the costume. She thought about Carnaval a lot, though. It always began on a Saturday and ended on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. How she loved the costumes in the giant parade! And how she liked to dance to the fast samba drum music. There were always women in satin ball gowns of scarlet and glossy blue and dancers wearing splendid gold pantaloons or glittering silver skirts. Some wore wonderful hats topped with ostrich plumes. The thick, creamy plumes dipped and swayed with the dancers.
An idea popped into Cristina’s head: There might be a way I could get a costume!
After school the next day she rushed to the shop where her mother worked, and found Senhor Luis, the owner.
“Senhor Luis,” Cristina said, “could I work for you after school? I would work very hard.”
Senhor Luis thought a bit. “Well,” he said, “you could run errands and help keep the shop tidy. But I can only afford to pay you forty cruzeiros a week.”
In her head Cristina multiplied: forty cruzeiros times eight weeks are three hundred twenty cruzeiros. Perhaps Mama can lend me the rest.
“Thank you, Senhor Luis. I will do it.”
Week after week Cristina ran errands, swept the shop, folded shirts. She carefully put away her money. There was no time anymore to play with Angela, who would say, “Let’s watch television in the store window” or “Let’s pick green coconuts in Carlo’s backyard.”
One day Cristina stopped again to look at the red dress in the window. It was gone! Cristina rushed inside the store. Quickly she pushed aside the dresses on the racks; then she saw it. Will the shopkeeper sell it before I have all the money? she wondered. She had two hundred cruzeiros already. There were just three weeks left, and she still had to ask Mama to lend her eighty cruzeiros.
As Cristina helped at the shop, she noticed how her mother’s feet constantly rocked back and forth on the sewing machine treadle. All of Senhor Luis’s machines were operated that way, because he couldn’t afford to have electricity.
One day Clara, who worked beside Cristina’s mother, cried out, “My legs! Oh, my legs!” and she began to frantically rub them.
Cristina’s mother dropped her work and bent quickly to massage Clara’s legs. “Cristina,” she called, “help me.”
Cristina ran over and rubbed Clara’s legs, too, as hard as she could.
“Thank you,” Clara said a few minutes later. “I am better now.”
But Cristina was upset. She remembered the many times her mother rubbed her own legs when she got home from work. “Mama,” she whispered, “let’s invite Dona Clara to supper tonight.”
“What a good idea!” Her mother smiled, then suddenly looked worried. “But what will we have to eat?”
“I will think of something, Mama.”
At the butcher shop Cristina stood clutching her money in her pocket. “One pound of sausage, please,” she said, counting out sixty cruzeiros. Passing mounds of ripe yellow papayas and heaps of fragrant, purple mangoes at the grocer’s, she selected three beautiful, large oranges. Another ten cruzeiros gone! She bought some bananas and manioc meal too. All together she spent one hundred cruzeiros of her savings.
When her mother came home with Clara, there were marvelous smells coming from the stove. “What are you cooking, Cristina?”
“Sausage with beans, Mama. I bought it with some of my money. I got some fruit, too—see the lovely bananas and oranges?”
Mama smiled and hugged her. “Your father would be proud of you.”
“Come and sit, Mama and Dona Clara.” Cristina dished out the tasty beans, divided up the sausage, then added rice to each plate. The manioc meal went on top of the gravy. They had the fruit for dessert. Cristina saw how much her mother and Clara were enjoying their special supper, but she herself could hardly eat.
“It was delicious!” Clara said with a sigh when she had finished eating. “I feel much better now. Thank you, Cristina. You are a good girl.”
Clara lingered to chat with Mama, and Cristina heard their soft voices in front of the house as she washed the dishes. Soon afterward she went to bed and, despite her sadness, fell asleep quickly.
“Now you’ll never get your costume!” Angela cried the next day when she learned what Cristina had done.
“I felt sorry for Dona Clara, Angela. And my mother works so hard too.”
Her mother was waiting for her when Cristina went to work that afternoon. “Look!” she told Cristina excitedly.
Cristina saw a glowing, shimmering dress hanging on a rack. “A costume!” she whispered, not daring to speak louder for fear it would vanish.
Clara and Senhor Luis laughed. Clara said, “This morning I asked Senhor Luis for some remnants, and he gave me this beautiful material instead. Your mother and I made it into this costume for you.”
Senhor Luis beamed. “You have worked hard, child,” he said. “You deserve it.”
Cristina held the dress against herself. Its silky green material glinted and moved with her body, the rich skirt of many layers swirling about her knees. Soon, Cristina knew, it would be flashing among the other dancers’ costumes.