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At the Panaderia by Mary E. Bamford

 

The door of the "panaderia" opened. Americans would have called the place a bakery, but the sign said "Panaderia," which might be interpreted "breadery" or bake-house. All California does not read English, and it behooves shop-keepers sometimes to word their signs for the customers desired. In like manner the "Restaurante Mexicana," across the street, on a sign advertised "comidas," or meals, at twenty-five and fifty cents.

Through the panaderia doorway came a girl and a boy. They walked along by the "zanja," or irrigation ditch, that here bordered the road. The fern-leaved pepper trees beside the zanja were dotted with clusters of small, bright red berries.

"Rosa," said the boy, when the two had walked a little way, "I saw in that big yard many purple and green grapes, spread out drying for raisins."

Rosa did not answer. She trudged on, carrying her basket of bread. The brother carried a loaf in brown paper. He and she lived at the panaderia, and had set forth to carry the bread to the two regular customers.

"Rosa," stated the boy again, after a pause, "all the little oranges on the trees over there are green."

Rosa did not even look toward the oranges.

"Rosa," affirmed the boy emphatically, when a few minutes had gone by, "the Chinese doctor is measuring a window in his house! See! He has some little teacups and a teapot in his front room! I saw them just now."

Rosa looked absently toward the old building, inside a window of which was visible the head of the Chinese doctor, who wore black goggles, and who was indeed measuring his window for some reason. Rosa had small hope of the Chinese doctor as a future customer. She had seen him eating his rice with chop-sticks, and he never came to buy a scrap of bread or anything else. Rosa sighed to think what would become of the panaderia, if all the world had the same opinion as the Chinese doctor, in regard to eating. In these days Rosa was in danger of looking upon the world from a strictly calculating standpoint, and of regarding only those people as worthy of her interest who either were or might become customers of the panaderia. Still indeed customers were needed, for the receipts had been slight, lately, and Rosa's grandmother's parrot, Papagayo, a bird of such understanding that he had learned to screech, "Pan por dinero," (bread for money) had recently seen more of the former than of the latter in the shop.

Rosa and her brother still kept by the zanja, even when it turned away from the road. They went on till they reached the orange orchard of the Zanjero of the town. The Zanjero is the man who has the oversight of the irrigation system, and he has deputies under him. Rosa and her brother Joseph thought the Zanjero a great man, and stood much in awe of the irrigation laws concerning stealing water, or raising a gate to waste water, or giving water to persons outside the district.

The two bread-carriers went through the orange orchard, which was not being irrigated at this hour, for the Zanjero was particular himself to keep the hour that he paid for, as other men should be. Up to the Zanjero's house Rosa now carried the bread, and his wife herself paid for it. Rosa tied the coins carefully in one corner of the black shawl that she wore over her head.

"Rosa," anticipated Joseph aloud, as they went away through the orange orchard again, "when I am grown up, I shall be a Zanjero, and we will not have to keep the panaderia!"

But Rosa looked unbelieving. "It is not granted every man to be the Zanjero," returned she gravely, "and I love the panaderia."

It was true. She did love it, even to the castor-oil plants that grew like weeds in neglected places in the yard, and down to the south wall that was hung with a thick veil of red peppers that her grandmother was drying in the sun. It was only because the panaderia had not enough customers that Rosa looked so grave to-day. Besides, the grandmother's birthday was near, and where was money for a present?

At the other house where the children regularly delivered bread, irrigation had been going on all the morning. The half-day of irrigation, for which the owner of this orange orchard had paid, was just over, and the water-gate connecting the man's ditch with the main zanja was being shut when Rosa and Joseph arrived. The little water-gate was like a wooden shovel. It slid down some grooves, and the running water stopped. It squirmed in the zanja an instant. Then the little wooden gate was fastened with a padlock, as every gate must be when the payer for water had received from the Zanjero's deputy the amount of water paid for, whether by the fifty-cent-hour, or the two-dollar-day, or the dollar-and-a-quarter night rate, and whoever unauthorized should unfasten the padlock and open the gate would be a thief of water.

After witnessing the shutting off of the water, Joseph carried his paper-enfolded loaf to the house of this second regular customer, and then the children turned homeward toward the panaderia.

"Pan por dinero!" cried the parrot, Papagayo, when Rosa and Joseph reentered the panaderia; but alas! no customers were there. Only the grandmother sat sewing behind the counter, her blurred old eyes close to the cloth she held.

"I will take care of the panaderia now, grandmother," Rosa offered; and the grandmother answered, "I will rest a little, then."

The poor, dear grandmother! She was so tired and thin, nowadays, and her hands trembled so much! It was hard for her to try to sew. If the panaderia paid better, if there were more regular customers to whom Rosa and Joseph could carry eatables, then the grandmother would not attempt sewing at all, for it strained her eyes very much. But now she did not know what else to do. There must be a living for herself and the children someway.

Rosa found the afternoon long, sitting behind the counter, waiting for customers and trying to sew. A little boy came in and bought a loaf. Two girls bought another. Then the panaderia door ceased to swing, and the quiet afternoon went on. Across the street, women stood here and there and gossiped.

Nobody came. It grew four, then five, then six o'clock. Finally the panaderia door opened, and a woman entered. Rosa sprang up. Here was a customer, at last!

But the woman only came to the counter, and stood still. She was young, very thin and ill, evidently, and her eyes had tears in their depths. Under the black shawl that was over the newcomer's head Rosa spied a dark mark, as of a bruise, on the forehead. The young woman tried to speak.

"I have three little children," she said. "I am sick. I cannot work, and their father drinks mescal--always mescal. I have no money. Will you give me a little bread? I am no beggar, but my babies are so hungry!"

Rosa knew how much harm mescal (a kind of intoxicating drink made from the maguey or Mexican aloe) did among the neighbors. She did not doubt the woman's tale; only it was disappointing, when one thought a real customer had at last come to the panaderia, to find that it was not so. But the girl nodded sympathetically at the conclusion of the young woman's appeal.

"I will speak to grandmother," she promised.

She found her grandmother lying down still, but half awake, and explained to her the situation.

"Yes, yes," returned the grandmother, her wrinkled face full of sympathy. "Give her the bread. Has not the Lord told us to care for the poor? He would not be pleased if we sent her away without bread. Tell the poor woman to come again. The little children, must be fed."

Rosa hurried back to the counter, and gave the woman two fresh loaves and the grandmother's message.

"Gracias!" (thanks) sobbed the young woman and hurried away.

"I hope she will not tell that we gave her bread," murmured Rosa to herself as the usual quiet settled over the panaderia. "We can't afford to give bread to many people."

The weeks went by, and the panaderia did not prosper very well. It grew to be a customary thing for the thin, sick woman to come daily for bread, and she was never refused. She said with a sensitive eagerness that when she was well again she would work and pay all back, and Rosa's grandmother answered "Yes," cheerily, to this promise, though any one who looked at the poor young mother's face could see that there was small prospect of her ever being well again in this world. Her husband still drank.

Times grew harder and harder at the panaderia. In the midst of the winter a heavy blow fell, for the Zanjero's wife took a fancy to making her own bread, and as she was the regular customer who bought more loaves and paid more promptly than the other, the panaderia felt the loss keenly. Customers were very scarce, and the grandmother's eyes became so weak that she could no longer sew. Rosa sewed the little that she could, but some days there was scarcely enough to eat at the panaderia, except the very few loaves in the case--the loaves that the three hardly knew whether to dare eat or not, for fear some one should come in and want to buy. There were many other people who were poor and without work, and the little family kept their troubles to themselves. The poor sick neighbor always came every day and was given bread. Winter passed and spring arrived without much change in the panaderia's prospects.

"We could have eaten that ourselves," thought Rosa one night when the neighbor went out with the bread.

The grandmother had said that the poor were God's care, and he would bless those who for his sake fed them.

"But we keep on being poorer and poorer," thought Rosa with a sigh.

Then she reproached herself. Had not her grandmother said that the Lord cared about the panaderia? One day when spring was turning into summer, the poor neighbor came in earlier than usual. Her face was very white. Rosa and her grandmother were both by the counter. The grandmother smiled and was about to draw out the bread and give it to the woman. But the poor neighbor dropped her head on the counter, and stretched out her hand toward the old grandmother. The grandmother took the hand, and lo! in her own lay a little key.

"Take it to the Zanjero!" sobbed the sick neighbor," and tell him to forgive! It was the mescal made my husband do it!"

Little by little Rosa and her grandmother pieced together the story of the small key. Some unscrupulous persons wished to obtain water for irrigation without paying for it. A key was made that fitted the padlocks of the little wooden gates leading from the zanja. By night some one must open these gates and close them again before morning. It was thieving, of course, and the Zanjero or his deputies might catch the person who did it. But the sick neighbor's husband, wanting money to buy more mescal, had been induced to undertake the task of stealthily opening the gates. His wife, suspicious of his errand, had followed him on the first night of his attempt. She had seen him stop by a Mexican cactus, and raise something, she knew not what, in the zanja. After he had gone, she went to the spot and putting her hand into the water felt the current that ran through a gate he had opened.

"Then I know!" tearfully declared the woman to Rosa's grandmother. "I follow my husband. I tell him the Zanjero is the friend of the good panaderia that gives the bread! I tell him he shall not open the other gates! I snatch the key! I tell him `No! No! The panaderia is my friend! The Zanjero is the panaderia's friend!' He shall not cheat the Zanjero! My husband say if he open other gates he get money for mescal. I say 'No!' I run away with key. My husband say, 'Don't tell anybody! I will not open the gates again! Let other men do it.' But I say, 'I must tell, because the Zanjero is the best friend of the panaderia. No one shall cheat the best friend of the panaderia, that feeds our babies so long--all winter and now."

Evidently the woman supposed that the Zanjero was still the principal regular customer of the panaderia. Rosa and her grandmother had never told about his ceasing to buy bread, and the neighbor thought that he was still considered their very chief customer.

That evening Rosa and Joseph took the long-unused path to the Zanjero's house. His wife came to the door.

"Oh," she said, "it's the two little bread-bringers! No, I don't want any bread. Are you trying to get orders?"

"May I see the Zanjero?" asked Rosa gravely.

The Zanjero's wife, whose name in plain English was Mrs. Craig, led the two children into her husband's presence. Rosa, very pale with the thought of being in the presence of so great a man, told her story in trembling tones, and held out the key.

The Zanjero took it, and looked at it curiously.

"Will you forgive?" asked Rosa timorously. "The poor, sick woman asks you to forgive. She says it was the mescal that made her husband do it."

"I presume so," returned the man grimly. "They're all thieves."

But the Zanjero's wife was wiser than her husband. She dropped into a chair and put an arm around Rosa.

"You have not told all the story yet, or else I do not understand," she said gently. "What makes this woman so much your friend that she comes and tells your grandmother about the key?"

So the whole story came out at last--about the long, sad winter at the panaderia; the grandmother's attempts at sewing; her failing eyes; the lack of customers, yet the daily giving of bread to the poor neighbor and her three children; the trust that the Lord knew about the panaderia and its occupants.

The Zanjero's wife understood it all now. She looked up at her husband. There were tears in her eyes as she said:

"While you are forgiving that man, you'd better think how much forgiveness I need for having stopped taking bread of the panaderia in the heart of winter, when they needed the money so badly! To think of their struggling along, and yet giving bread every day to a woman and three babies! If the panadeiia folks had not done this, you'd never have found out about this plan to rob the zanja! That woman would simply have kept the story and the key to herself, and those dishonest men would have found somebody else to open the gates at night for them. It was only because she thought that you were a noted customer of the panaderia that she sent you word of this plan to steal the water."

The great Zanjero turned and looked at Rosa.

"Tell that sick woman," he said gravely, "that I forgive her husband for opening the gate, though I don't know how much water he helped steal that night. Tell her, though, that he must never do such a thing again. I am coming to see him myself, and I shall tell him he is forgiven. But he must stop drinking mescal."

"And tell your grandmother," broke in the Zanjero's wife, "that I want three loaves of bread to-morrow morning, and I want bread every day. Here's the money for the three loaves. And I'm going to get you a lot of regular customers! I have friends enough. They'll take bread of you, if I ask them. You poor children! Why didn't you come and tell me about things, long ago?"

So it was that the mercy which the old grandmother showed to the sick neighbor and her children returned in blessing on the panaderia. For the Zanjero's wife rested not till she had fulfilled her promise. Customers became many and well-paying, and the old grandmother, happy in the prosperity, said to Rosa and to Joseph:

"See you, my children? Did I not tell you that the Lord knew about the panaderia? It is he who sends all this good to us who deserve it not."