Chapter 2

Thomas spent the day working with the other men, unmooring the stuck vehicles whenever the rain slackened. Every time, the jacks sank into the sand, or the sand sifted into holes painstakingly dug, until at the end his hands were chipped like an old cup, bits of flesh missing here and there where he'd banged them while working. The atlas said this desert received less than an inch of rainfall a month. They'd had three months' worth of rain, then, the two days they'd been stuck here.

When the rain ended the men pitched the tents, removing prickly pear, sandpaper bush, and crucifixion thorn, but they missed the spikes that remained in the sand. Later, abed, Thomas heard cries whenever anyone rolled over and was speared.

Nora's labor worsened around midnight. Her screams woke Thomas, though not their children. They were both sound sleepers, especially Ada. Regardless, he pulled on his boots outside the tent, not to wake them.

Nedra had just stepped down from the bus. She motioned him over.

A lamp hung from the ceiling in the middle of the bus. His wife lay in the aisle. The floor looked liquid under her.

"Hold her up," a voice said. "It will come more easily if she's standing."

The soles of his boots made a tearing sound with each step in the liquid. He raised his wife, holding her up with his wrists locked around her chest. She hung from his arms. She said, "Thomas? I never thought. I can't." Her voice sounded like a different woman's. She hung in his arms.

Nedra was pulling off Nora's skirt and underthings.

"Nedra!" Thomas said.

"I can't work with these in the way."

Thomas looked at his wife's legs. He'd never seen them. He and Nora had always made love in darkness. She didn't expose her arms, even, if she could help it.

She screamed, and his ears rang. The scream seemed to buzz in the metal interior of the vehicle.

"Push!" Nedra commanded.

Thomas thought she was talking to Nora, but then he saw that Rose was pushing on his wife's belly, and that Nedra had an entire hand inside his wife. Thomas almost dropped Nora. Nedra seemed to be pulling at something, or perhaps twisting.

"There," she said. "It's coming."

The head appeared a moment later, then the body. The child looked gray.

Nedra was on the floor, doing something, her head and body obscuring the child. "Breathe!" she shouted. Thomas couldn't see what she was doing. "Breathe!" she shouted again, her body moving with urgent little gestures of the hands that were invisible under her. This seemed to go on for hours, until some understanding passed between Nedra and Rose, and Rose took the child and hurried away.

"This is beyond my skill," Nedra said. "She needs a doctor, and she needs blood."

"How?" Thomas asked. "We're mired -- "

"It has to be done, if she's to live. We have to get her to Torreon."

He roused the men. The only car would be best, because it was lightest. They set out for the road, probing with a tent pole, walking abreast to find the firmest sand. They marked the route with men standing in place.

It took an hour to get the car to the road, digging it out each time it stuck. Thomas drove alone, about thirty miles an hour, as fast as he thought he could without damaging the car or getting a flat, and without jolting Nora too much.

There was a small building at the edge of town with the words "Clinica" painted on the wall, in letters so inconspicuous that Thomas almost didn't notice them. The doctor, summoned by pounding on the door, appeared. He wore a nightshirt. A woman in a robe stood behind him. They helped Thomas carry Nora in. She was unconscious, and whiter than the old-ivory color of the sheets on which she lay.

The doctor muttered something in Spanish.

Thomas recognized "sangre", one of the few Spanish words he knew. "She's AB positive," he said.

The doctor looked blank for a moment. "Si. Yes. Good." He turned to Thomas and made a gesture of rolling up his sleeve. While the doctor collected equipment he spoke to the woman, who hurried away.

When the bag was full of Thomas's blood the doctor hung it from a hook in the ceiling above the bed and began to transfuse Nora. The nurse, or doctor's wife, or perhaps she was both, returned with three men. Two were short and dark and might have been identical twins, but one's face had been burned, and it was difficult to be sure. The third man was a giant. The doctor took one bag of blood from each of the small men, and two from the large man.

After the transfusions the doctor stayed until he began to nod. He pointed at the ceiling and made a motion of sleeping, his head tilted to the side, hands under his ear suggesting a pillow. "I come -- " he gestured at Nora again.

"Yes. I understand. I'll call you."

He timed her every breath for the next four hours. At dawn the doctor came in sipping coffee, and Thomas lay back on the second bed and passed out.

The arrival of the caravan at mid-day woke him. Nedra, her skirts caked with dried blood, was speaking Spanish, talking to the doctor at interminable length. Occasionally the man interrupted with a question, but otherwise he listened, nodding regularly. He took no notes. When Nedra stopped he made several comments. Then he spoke in a different tone, glancing at Thomas as he talked.

Nedra said, "She's stable for now, but she can't be moved. It's too dangerous. He doesn't know how long she'll have to stay. She may need more transfusions."

Ada came running in, followed by one of the elders, who was shouting at her to stop. Thomas went to the girl and put a hand on her shoulder. She ignored him.

"Child, you can't stay here."

Ada continued to look at her mother.

"You have to leave now," her father said. "She needs rest." He picked her up.

She screamed and thrashed in his arms.

They had to put her in the car and post a guard, to stop her from coming back. The next morning, when their mother was awake, Ada and Henry were permitted to visit.

Nora said nothing. She simply inclined her head in the direction of her children. Ada stood on tiptoe, trying to climb up on the bed. Thomas's hand stopped her.

"Don't. You could hurt her," he said. She struggled. "No. I'll have to send you back to the car."

He lifted her up. Ada looked. Tears ran on her mother's face. She kissed the nearer cheek, and the liquid tasted salty. She saw her mother blink and heard her make a short, rough sound like a frog, or a bird.

Ada listened to her father explain that her mother needed to rest, and that Ada could only visit if she was very still and quiet.

"Like a mouse hiding," he said. "Don't make a sound."

"Like at Meeting?"

"Yes," her father agreed. "Like that. No talking."

At the campsite she gathered her books, and her father brought her back to the clinic, and left her in the room with her mother, after watching her for a while. Ada was careful to be very good. She got up only to go to the bathroom or to get a drink of water from the woman who lived there with the doctor. For hours Ada watched her mother sleep.

She was four, but she could read, and she turned the pages of her books. She looked at the print, and watched her mother, alternately. Even when Nora was awake she had little energy for talk. She would ask the girl to tell her where the caravan was, and what the Friends were doing, and how everyone was. She asked the questions, and dozed in the middle of listening to what Ada was saying. Even when her mother seemed to hear, she sometimes repeated her questions later. The girl thought her mother was being quite rude, not to listen to the answers after asking the questions.

Ada listened to the ticking of the clock on the bedstand. It was old, and battered, of a tarnished, pitted yellow. There were two metal bells on top, and legs on the bottom. The second hand traced leisurely circles, over and over, one a minute, and each time it reached the top the minute hand advanced with an audible click. At least she could watch the second hand. The minute hand seemed to take forever. When she had read all her books her mother had been asleep for a long time, day had turned to evening, and Ada left. Carrying her books, she stepped gently down from the wooden doorstep, trying to keep her shoes undirtied, but at once they sank in the mud. She crossed the street, to where the Friends had camped in back of the buildings opposite. A boy spoke to her from a window. She didn't understand his words. She knew he must be speaking in Spanish. She ducked her head, clutched her books, and scurried.

She sat on the lowest step in the door of one of the busses and scraped her shoe with a stick. She got some of the mud off, but she poked a hole in her middle finger because the stick had a thorn. When she was done, she stayed on the step and listened to the men inside the bus.

"Have you noticed the dust? It's on everything. They say it's from the lead smelter."

"That's what the dark cloud is. This can't be a healthy place."

"We're already behind schedule. I don't want to arrive in the rainy season."

"We'd have to leave Nora behind. We can't do that."

The Friends held a meeting the next day, the adults crowded into the little room where Ada's mother lay. Ada and her brother waited in the hall. She stood next to the door, out of sight, and listened, though much of the time the adults didn't speak: like a First Day Meeting, there was more silence than speech. In the end Nora said she was tired and wanted to be with Thomas. After the others left, Ada slipped into the room and stood next to a cabinet, where her parents couldn't see her. She couldn't hear her father; he was facing away from her.

"Tell everyone to go on," her mother said.

Her father replied, objecting.

"No. I won't have them all stranded here because of me."

He asked a question.

"You and the children go, too."

"No," he said.

"I'm too tired to discuss this. You must go, Thomas. You couldn't live here alone. The children come first. Go on. I'll follow later."

Ada peeked around the cabinet. Her father had knelt by the bed. His face was against his wife's side. Nora was looking at the ceiling, one hand resting on Thomas's head.

They left Torreon two days later, at dawn. Ada didn't understand that her mother wasn't with them until they reached Durango and she couldn't find her in the group. She knew she couldn't make her way back to her mother alone; she was too small, and she would have had to walk, and she did not know where to go, and would get lost. She would have to stay with the others.