Saturday, February 23, 2013

CHAPTER FORTY-SIX :Renata Stubbornly Refuses to Hand over the Missing Journal Pages


An hour passed. Señora Ramos fell into a deep sleep -- snoring soundly -- after finishing her cup of tea. I played the three or four songs I know by heart and then started working on scales.

Soon enough, though, it occurred to me that Renata had still not returned with the journal pages. I set the guitar against the wall and went out into the hallway. In my imagination, Renata's room was on the first floor, a room that faced the tiled courtyard. As I recall, it was three doors further down the hall from Teresa's room.  I closed Señora's door and descended the staircase, keeping perfectly quiet in my white socks. I made my way through the dining room and the small parlor and into the wing where the nuns' rooms sat, one after another.  By this time, evening prayers were over, and most of the nuns had retired for the night.

I stood in the narrow hallway, where a single candle burned inside a glass dish. The low adobe ceiling was only a few inches above my head. If I was right, the door on my right was Renata's. But what if I had remembered it wrong? I'd disturb one of the other nuns.

I decided I had to take the chance.  I set two knuckles to the wooden door and tapped three times.

No answer.

I knocked again, a little louder this time. Then I positioned my lips into the crack where the door met the frame and I whispered.

"Renata? Please, are you in there?"

Nothing. I was beginning to think I did indeed have the wrong room. I turned around and leaned back on the door and looked up to the ceiling. I was beginning to feel like a very unwelcome visitor. It occurred to me that I could simply stop all of this, and return to my laptop, where I belonged.

At just that moment, the door swung open and I felt myself falling backwards into the room. Renata was stronger than she looked, because the next thing I knew, I was looking into dark eyes. She had caught me!

"I'm so sorry," I stammered. She helped me back to my feet. "I really am not trying to harrass you, Renata, I just want to do what Señora wishes."

"Come in," she said. I entered the tiny convent room, which was even smaller than I had pictured it when I described it in the book. The crucifix loomed large over the narrow bed of straw.

"I would invite you to sit down, but this bed is ..."

"No, no need for that," I said. "I simply need those journal pages. I'll be off as soon as I have them."

"Yes, well, that's exactly the problem.  You see, I am very reluctant to part with those pages. I've heard all that Señora explained, about the supposed miracle and the Virgin rewriting history. I hope you will excuse my skepticism, but I am still not convinced."

My stomach tightened and my face flushed hot. I felt a flood of anxiety rush up and down my arms. Had I really created this character who was so impossibly stubborn? I cleared my throat.

"I understand your skepticism," I began, speakly slowly. "I respect you for that, Renata. I do. But the trouble is, you are really stuck. It's just a matter of time before the authorities find out that you're back here at the convent and they will, as Señora says, lose no time taking you to the gallows. So please, I will get down on my knees and beg you if I have to, just give those pages to me so that the true story can be told and you will go free."

Renata sighed and sat down on the bed. "Maybe I go free. From what I've seen in the courtroom so far, it's going be very difficult to use a few handwritten pages from my journal to convince anyone that my case should be reopened.  God knows how hard it would be to overturn my conviction."

"What you say is true of course Renata, but my God, we've got to try, haven't we?" My voice got louder, prompting Renata to set one finger over her lips, cautioning me to speak more quietly.

At that moment, an idea struck me. I had a lawyer friend back in Spencertown who worked as a public defender. He would be able to fill me in on how new evidence could be introduced after a conviction.  But the one sticking point remained: I couldn't do anything without that new evidence in hand.

"I want to sleep on it," Renata announced, rising from the bed. She was wearing a simple white gown, tied at the neck with a blue satin bow. "It's been a long and tiring day, and I just don't want to make this decision tonight." She paused. "So if you don't mind, I would like to go to back to bed now."

I stood there, amazed. Here Renata was being offered a gift -- a painless way out of her desperate situation -- and yet, she was so nonchalant, as if it didn't matter that the death penalty awaited her. Could she possibly be so indifferent to the danger she faced?

She held the door open for me. I said a soft good night and returned to Señora's room. The old woman was sleeping quietly, so I pulled up her extra blanket and I left. It wasn't until later that I realized I had left Renata's guitar leaning against Señora's wall.

And now that I'm back behind the laptop, I'm altogether amazed by this puzzling situation. What could possibly be holding Renata back from handing over the journal pages? What did she have to lose?

When Señora first approached me so many years ago about writing Renata's story, she brought with her the nun's chiseled leather journal. She also carried a box filled with a stack of thin blue pages, all neatly  written in Antonie's looping hand.

I had only to copy out the entries and set them in the proper order, which I had done, faithfully. I set them up in a blog called "Castenata."

Now, as I sat in my pale yellow study, staring over my laptop at the abstract painting of a sunset that sits over my desk, it occurred to me that I could simply make up the two pages. I have had plenty of experience exercising my fiction writer's mind. And judging by things Renata had written, and a few things Señora insinuated, I had a pretty good inkling of what the pages said.

But wouldn't this violate the whole arrangement I had with Señora? I had after all promised to write the true story, exactly as she delivered it to me.

It was late, I was tired, and so I went to bed. I pasted a post-it on my laptop, reminding myself to phone my friend David, the public defender, to talk to him about the case.

I yawned and closed the laptop. Happy to be back in my own century, where mattresses aren't made of straw.

Little did I know what would greet me in the morning.









Monday, January 28, 2013

CHAPTER FORTY-FIVE: After 18 years, I've finally gotten the chance to meet Renata!!


Assisted by two of the other nuns, Bernice and Laura Lee, Teresa pulls Renata into the rocking chair. There she sits, slumped against one arm. Teresa runs for smelling salts, and Bernice boils water for chamomile tea. Laura Lee -- a delicate girl with dimples and great splotches of reddish-brown freckles -- holds Renata in a sitting position.

Kneeling in front of the chair, Teresa passes the salts under Renata's nose, until the smell of the ammonia starts Renata's head moving side to side. "Enough," she whispers. "Please no more."

Teresa pulls the salts away. "We have tea for you Renata, tea with gobs of honey. You must be so thirsty." She holds the cup up and takes a spoonful of the yellow tea. Blowing on it a few times, she lifts the spoon to Renata's open mouth. For the next few minutes, Teresa feeds Renata the warm tea. But soon Renata pushes Teresa's hand away.

"I must see Señora now," she whispers, wriggling out of Laura Lee's grip. "Please Teresa, please take me up to her."

"At least finish the tea, and put something solid in your stomach." Teresa bends closer and steadies a gaze at Renata head on. "I promise if you have a little of the rabbit stew we ate for dinner, and finish the tea, I will bring you to her."

Renata's face wrinkles up in disgust. "You know how I feel about rabbit stew. Just spoon me a few carrots and onions and some parsley and that will do."

Teresa rises, hands the mug to Renata. "You drink this up. And if you're still thirsty, Bernice will fix you a second cup."

After she has eaten half the vegetables that Teresa scooped into a bowl, and after she finishes most of a second cup of tea, Renata rises from the rocking chair. Teresa takes her arm and they pass through the convent's dining room and to the staircase. Soon they are in the second floor bedroom where Señora lies, her face small and almond-colored.  Renata sits on one side of the bed, Teresa on the other.

Leaning forward, Renata whispers. "I'm here, my dear Señora. I am here beside you and I won't leave  you."

Señora is lying in such perfect stillness that it isn't clear she is breathing.  Teresa holds a finger below Señora's nose.  After a few moments she takes her hand away.

"I have an idea," Renata says, getting up. "I'll be right back." She hurries to her old room, the straw mattress stiff and minus any sheets. Kneeling, Renata drags from beneath the bed the guitar she keeps wrapped in an old Indian blanket.  She sinks to the floor and hums a low E, and quickly tunes the strings.

Soon she is hurrying back to the bedroom to Señora and Teresa, who smiles when she sees the guitar.

"It's worth a try, don't you agree?"

Guitar cradled in her lap, Renata plays the carcelero that Señora loves.

"In three days I've eaten
Only bread and tears:
That is the food
That my jailers give.
How do they expect me to live?"

She follows the carcelero with a soleares and a farrucca and finally, a rousing bulerías.

Señora is motionless, the music passing over her like a soft breeze.  Renata puts the guitar down and takes Señora's hand and kisses it.  "I know you can hear me," she says. "I just know you feel me here."

She takes out her beads and together with Teresa, they pray the rosary.

"It's late, Renata," Teresa says at the end of the prayers. "Tomorrow is another day.  Please, I'll make your bed up for you. And I'll find a place for Arthur to rest downstairs. Come now. Let her be."

Renata wraps her rosary beads around Señora's hand, and places a kiss on the old woman's forehead.  Teresa is out the door and Renata is just about to blow out the candle on the nighttable when she hears a soft groan.

Whipping around, she sees the rosary beads shaking in Señora's hand. "Teresa, Teresa, look!"

By now, Renata has Señora's hand in hers.  "You're awake, you're awake!" It takes a few minutes before Señora's eyes open.  She blinks. Her lips tremble, and Renata is sure she sees a smile on them.

"Oh my dear Señora you're back," Renata says in a hush.  Señora opens her mouth but nothing comes out. "Don't try to speak. Don't."

Teresa and Renata stand there staring at Señora.  The old woman opens her mouth. "Sietaté," she whispers in a hoarse tone. The nuns sit down.  Renata takes both of Señora's hands in hers.

"Mi'ja," Señora begins. And then she whispers in Spanish. "It's my time. It's my time. I'm not long on God's good earth now."

"How do you know that Señora, you can't possibly know God's will."

Señora continues to speak to Renata in Spanish, in a hushed whisper. "There is no time for discussing this now. You must do for me what you have steadfastly refused to do all these months. You must find those missing pages of your journal and present them to the authorities. Please. Please, for me do this."

"No," Renata says, pulling back. "I won't do that. You know you can ask and you can beg, but I am not turning in those pages. Justice will be served and I remain in God's hands, with Mary to protect me too."

Teresa pipes up. "Señora is right. You've come back here now, Renata, and clearly there is no way we can protect you. Not for long can we hide you. The gallows is ready and waiting. The authorities will hang you as soon as word gets out.  Please, abide by Señora's dying wish."

Renata rises, and turns toward the darkened window, her arms crossed. "I vowed I would never turn Señora in. I made myself a solemn promise. I can't turn back on that now."

Señora struggles to one elbow. And out of her comes a voice that I know so well. The voice in which she has spoken to me for the past 18 years. The voice that has pulled me back to Renata's world, time and again.

"Por favor Claudia," Señora cries out.  "Ahora es muy importante que tu vienes aquí. Por favor!"

And as I sit here, typing, my laptop disappears and I let go of this world and move to the sound of Señora's voice. Suddenly I am in the room with the three characters whose lives I have entwined so tightly with my own.

Teresa and Renata stare at me. I'm wearing my blue bathrobe and white sox, and my hair must look like an awful fright. I haven't showered and I've got the sour breath one has after a night's sleep and a cup of coffee.

"Hola, Señora," I say and she reaches a hand out to me. Slowly I approach the bed. Renata's eyes are wide and forbidding and Teresa looks like she's seen a lizard crawl across the bed covers.  I clear my throat and don't come any closer.  "You don't know me of course," I say, my voice shaking.  "But I am Claudia Ricci, a writer, and I love Señora as much as both of you."

"How could you possibly?" Renata asks, her voice shaking. "I've never seen you, nor has Teresa. Where did you come from?" Renata scans me head to toe and Teresa shakes her head vigorously.

"I understand completely," I say. "I've been working with Señora from afar. You would not believe me if I told you how far," I say. "It's much too hard to explain."

Señora sits up.  She asks for her shawl and Teresa brings it to her and wraps it around her shoulders. Teresa and Renata stand beside her like protective soldiers. And then she begins to speak. Thankfully, she speaks in a slow Spanish that I can understand.

"This woman is writing your story, Renata. She's been writing it for 18 years."

I pipe up. "Actually it's exactly 18 years. Yesterday. January 25, 1995 is the day I started this book."

"What? What are you saying?" Renata takes a step toward me. Funny that I never thought her to be the least bit threatening before.  "What book are you referring to? And what is this about 1995? And how could you possibly know me or my story?"

Señora smiles.  "I'll ask you to be patient Renata. What you are witnessing here my dear is the work of the Virgin Mary. Her miracles, as you know, we can never explain. Miracles of Mary's making. This is one of those miracles."

"What do you mean?"

"The virgin appeared in a vision one night, right after you were hung."

"HUNG?"

Señora shakes her head. Her face is solemn. "You see Renata, time has come unhinged. After you died, I so regretted letting you sacrifice yourself on my behalf that I prayed continually to Mary for forgiveness. She came to me one night and said that together, we were going to rewrite history."

"Excuse me, Señora, but this makes absolutely no sense to me. Are you telling me you erased events that already took place."

Señora shakes her head slowly.

I decide to take a step forward. Renata tenses and steps back. "I am not here to hurt you," I say. "Please understand that's the last thing you have to fear."

Señora continues. "So why is Claudia here? Because I called for her. With Mary's help, I found Claudia, a woman who was willing to write the true story of Antonie's death.  This woman you see here lives far into the future on the other side of the continent."

Renata collapses into the chair. "Surely you don't expect me to believe this," she says. She turns to Teresa who is just as dumbfounded.

"What Señora says is absolutely true," I say. "I come from a moment in history when we have such things as cars with engines and computers and mobile telephones and electricity and airplanes that fly."

"I don't believe it," Renata says. "I don't buy any of this silliness."

"You must listen," Señora commands. "You must listen Renata. If you fail to listen, you will most certainly hang, as you did the first time. The gallows is waiting and they will string you up in the hot sun in the courtyard without the slightest hesitation."

"I don't understand," Renata says. "How can this woman from the future help me escape? Does she takes me with her?"

The thought of transporting the nun back to Albany, New York, or to the little hamlet of Spencertown, where I live, makes me smile.

"No, Renata," I say. "I just write the story. It's up to me to make you see the wisdom of releasing those two pages from your journal. Those pages that cannot hurt Señora anymore. You were right when you first decided to hold them back, because the authorities would have hung Señora, a Mexican woman, without even a trial.  A Mexican woman killing a white American man.  But now Señora's time is up."

"How do you know that? How could you possibly know anyth..."

"Silencio!" Señora shouts.  She lifts her pillow and takes out a piece of yellowed newspaper. She unfolds it. The headline reads in big block letters, "NUN FINALLY HUNG FOR THE MURDER OF HER COUSIN." Two columns of writing appear and in the center of the page is a very clear drawing of the nun swinging from a rope.

Renata gasps. Teresa cries out.  "My God!"

"I hope you see now that the gallows is real," Señora says. "I hope you understand why the Virgin has interceded here.  This is what happened the first time around. You did hang for Antonie's murder. You refused to produce those pages of the journal that tell the true story."

"Let me see that newspaper," Renata says snatching it away from Señora with a shaking hand.  Sweat sprouts on her brow. "I don't know how this is possible. This is not ....this is...out of this world. This is impossible. This is ..."

"Un milagro," Señora says, finishing her sentence. "Yes, Renata, this is a miracle. That we are here, today, the three of us, with this woman writer from the future. This woman who in fact can save you. Give you the freedom you have so long deserved. Let her do her work. Give her those journal pages. Let her write them down. Let the authorities see the truth. Nothing can hurt me now. They won't touch me now. Not when I am this close to my hour of death."

Teresa speaks. "I am not sure I believe what I am hearing and seeing, Renata, but by God, this is indeed a miracle of some kind. I think this is your lifeboat Renata. You've got to cooperate. You've always told me that I would be the one to tell the true story after your death. It would be me who would reveal at the proper time -- after Señora's death -- what actually happened to Antonie. But now I see there is no reason to wait. No reason at all for you to die. And every reason for you to go free. You must do as she says Renata. You must trust this woman in the blue robe, because it is exactly the same blue color as the Virgin's veil."

Renata turns slowly to face me. I see her finely chiseled features, made sharper by the fact that she is so thin. Her hair is standing in a wispy black brush. She is as pale as cotton and even has some premature grey hairs. There has been so much happening to her since that chapter I wrote so long ago, when she supposedly turned into a flamenco dancer and danced on the table.

She reaches out one hand and I don't hesitate to take it. Renata's fingers are cool and slim and delicate. "It is a pleasure to meet you ma'am," she begins, "and even though I am still not inclined to believe that you are from the future, I have to say, Señora is rather persuasive with this newspaper she somehow managed to find."

I smile. "You know, it would have been up to me to produce that newspaper account," I say, "seeing as though I am writing the story.  But more than anything in the world Renata, I wanted you to live. I never wanted to write the story of your hanging. Suffice to say it's quite nice that the Virgin Mary somehow made it possible for Señora to get that clipping -- without me having to do a thing -- to help convince you of my good intentions in writing your story."

Teresa is sitting down now. And shaking her head. "Amazing. Somehow the Virgin is helping to change history," she whispers. She opens her hands one to each side.  "This is too much to take in all at once."

Señora turns. "Renata, find the missing journal pages please. Let Claudia have them for her story."

"No, Señora," I interrupt. "It's not my story. It's your story. And most especially it's Renata's."

"In any case, bring the journal pages to me," Señora says, slipping down under the covers.  "And then, if you wouldn't mind, I would love a cup of tea."

And so Renata leaves the room to retrieve the missing journal pages. And Teresa goes downstairs to make tea.

And me? I pick up Renata's guitar and play for Señora one of my favorite flamenco tunes, a bulerías that my teacher Maria Z. taught me many years ago.

Friday, January 11, 2013

CHAPTER FORTY-FOUR: Renata Risks Everything and Returns

Renata prays the rosary the whole way. The prayers relax her as she keeps Teresa front and center in her mind. What will she find when they arrive at the convent? Will Teresa still be alive?

Arthur pushes the horse as fast as the old road will allow. But the going is slow, the surface of the road rutted and pocked by holes and sharp rock.

They stop once to water the horse, and a second time, to eat some of the lunch that Renata packed. But soon they are back to the road, and the endless red dust, rising up in clouds. It's a long and jolting ride.

As the sun starts to approach the horizon, the road starts to descend into the golden valley. Arthur stops and massages the back of his neck with one hand. "I'm feeling a might weary ma'am, so I propose we stop here, take a little rest before we push down into the valley."

"Oh must we?" Renata cries. "We're so close now. And I have such a terrible premonition, I keep fearing that I am going to walk into the convent just after Teresa has...has ...." she shakes her head, sets her forehead against the rosary beads wrapped around her fingers.

"I won't linger, ma'am, I just feel like I need a little nap. It won't be a long sleep I promise."

Renata's eyes brighten. "I know. I can drive the wagon while you rest in back, I've handled a rig this big before."  As Renata glances forward to the horse, she tells herself that this is more or less true, she once drove a smallish cart pulled by a donkey.

"I wish you wouldn't," Arthur replies. "I'd be worrying about you the whole time. The road gets even more narrow from here on descending into this valley."

"Yes, yes, I know very well this road, and this valley, I've walked it so many times. We aren't more than five or six miles from the convent now, I will be fine, I promise  you."  Her voice is calm and strong as she slips the rosary beads into her side pocket and reaches for the reins.

"I won't sleep for long," Arthur says, climbing over the seat into the back and pulling the blanket over him.

Renata squares herself on the wagon seat and pulls up the reins. Then she snaps them sharply, just as she had seen Arthur do so many times.  The horse doesn't move. She snaps the reins again, and a third time.

"He can sense the new driver," Arthur says from the back. "And he can tell we're starting to descend."

Renata gets out of the wagon and approaches the horse. She strokes his ears and whispers lovingly. "We will take good care of you, and feed you carrots and apples when we get to the convent." She rubs his nose and spends a few moments with her arms around his neck. "We've got to get there," she whispers. "It's ever so important."

She climbs back to the wagon seat and this time when she snaps the reins the horse stalls for a moment but then moves forward, picking his way through ruts and rock. The light is still good, so Renata relaxes.  Her mood rises the further they descend toward the convent. At one bend, she realizes that in the far distance is the line of live oaks where she and Teresa would bring their lemonade and blankets after chores were finished.  Her heart begins to race and her face tightens as she wonders what she will find when they get there.

Arthur is snoring from the back of the wagon.  Renata pulls herself up on the seat as the road begins a particularly steep decline. The horse slows.  She snaps the reins but with little effect. The horse is going his pace and that is as fast as they will go.

The sky is now a steely grey blue, the sun melting into the blue hills across the valley. There are pink and orange remnants of sunset in the clouds overhead. Renata has always loved the convent setting, and now she gets a rush of nostalgia for this place that she has missed so deeply these last months while confined to jail.  Her heart beats faster, and she is filled almost to tears thinking of the love she has for all of the sisters, and even for Mother Yolla, despite her often ornery temper.

Arthur is sound asleep as the wagon passes through the final steep portion of the road. By now, Renata is so excited to get there, and so close, that she is tempted to stop the wagon and run the rest of the way, as no matter how much she snaps the reins the horse goes his own slow pace.

The sky overhead is redder than before, the sunset throwing a wondrous show as she sees the adobe steeple of the chapel. She cannot make out the bell, but she can see the dark cross at the top of the steeple.  She can't keep herself contained.

She pulls the reins to a halt and jumps down from the wagon before the horse comes to a full halt. She shakes Arthur awake. "We're here, we're here, I'm going in," she cries, but doesn't wait for a reply. She is racing toward the convent picking her way around the gardens, and the apple trees, and soon she is standing on the back tiled patio where the fountain, absent of water, stands.

And in a moment, she is inside the convent, breathing hard. What she hears first is the clatter of forks and knives against plates. It hadn't occurred to her that she was arriving just in time for dinner.

Trembling, sweaty, out of breath, and still wearing the hat that Arthur loaned her for the trip, she walks slowly into the dining room. Her legs wobble as she raises one hand in greeting.

Eighteen faces, including Teresa's, stare back at her, in varying states of shock.

Teresa rises from her place, her hands on either side of her face. She paces unsteadily around the table to greet Renata. The two embrace and simultaneously descend to their knees, their hands clasped in prayer. The rest of the nuns gather around the two, questions shooting from all directions.

"Where have you been? How did you get back? Why are you here? Don't you fear they'll find you..."

Mother Yolla set her hand on Renata's hat and lifts it off her head. Her hair is a short bristly cut, matted and dirty. But that doesn't stop Mother Yolla from planting a kiss on Renata's crown. "God Bless you my child, God will protect you now that you are here."

Renata, with Teresa's help, stands and lets herself be hugged and kissed by the excited nuns.  Soon she's seated at the table, in her old spot, and a plate and utensils are before her. She holds up her hands.

"I'm in no condition to eat," she says, "not yet." And then she pauses and turns to Mother Yolla. "And I have a friend to get from outside. The man, Arthur, who found me half dead in the high chaparral and let me stay at his cabin. A perfect gentleman who rode me on his wagon to get here."

At that moment, Arthur appears at the door, hat held in two hands. "Good evening, sisters," he says, a tentative smile on his face.  Mother Yolla approaches him and extends a hand.

"God bless you sir, God bless you."

"We'll set another place," Teresa says, disappearing into the kitchen. Renata rises from her seat and follows her. "My dear dear Teresa you are well, you are alive, you are well." Teresa looks confused.

"Yes, of course, why wouldn't I be?" Teresa is puzzled but lets Renata embrace her again.

"I had a dream, a terrible terrible dream, but it seems like it wasn't the sign I thought it was. I was convinced that you were so ill, so ill, that the doctors feared you were dying, I saw all the nuns gathered around you kneeling, and you in the bed, thrashing. I was convinced I would never see you again."

Teresa releases Renata. "My poor sister, I'm so so sorry for your dream. But I am so glad you are here." Teresa's face looks ashen. She looks down to the floor and then engages Renata's gaze once more.

She squeezes Renata's hand and pulls Renata closer. "It's Señora I'm afraid."

"What?"

"Your dream had me being ill. But it is Señora who suffers. I will take you to her first thing in the morning."

"She is sick, Señora is ill?"

Teresa nodded her head gravely. "I have been with her for the past seven days. She suffered a terrible fever the week before and she was thrashing about and in seizure. Then she fell unconscious. The doctor says it's a coma and she..."Teresa pauses. Inhales. "I'm afraid he's convinced that she may never emerge."

Renata's insides drop. Suddenly she is so tired, so overwhelmed by fatigue that she feels she might collapse right there in the kitchen. She swings around and aims unsteadily for the rocking chair in the corner. But she only makes it half-way before she dissolves into the floor.




Thursday, December 6, 2012

CHAPTER FORTY-THREE: Is It Time For Renata to Face the Music?


The sky has a showy golden glow when Renata creeps out of the porch and into the cabin to sit beside Arthur's door. She's brought a blanket with her and the morning air is so cold that she arranges it over her head like a veil.

How ironic. For days now, Arthur has been waking at least an hour earlier than Renata. He's come to the porch, settled in the rocking chair, and sat there, just watching her sleep. Each time she awoke to see him in the chair, staring, creepy feelings circled up from her gut. She would pull the blanket up over her nose and ask him very politely to leave the porch.

Now, though, it's her turn to sit guard outside his bedroom door, waiting for him to wake up. She is anxious to speak to him as soon as he wakes because she will need his help -- and his wagon -- with her plan.

It occurs to her to say the rosary while she's waiting, but no sooner has she said the first four Hail Mary's than there is a scratching noise behind Arthur's door. It sounds like the dog clawing wood.

"OK, OK, I hear ya," Arthur says. And now she hears his feet planted heavily on the floor.

Renata bolts to stand and knocks.

"Mr. Arthur, good morning," she calls brightly.

He's at the door before he even answers. But he only opens it a crack. Renata glances down and instantly realizes why. Inwardly she  groans. She sees a naked hairy leg and swivels 180 degrees to turn her gaze the other way.

"Excuse me Mr. Arthur, I'm so sorry to disturb you before you're...er...ready to greet the world."

"That's not a problem at all, ma'am, I will be dressed and out before you finish your next prayer."

And so he is, he's emerged from the bedroom before she can even resituate herself on the floor.

"You are the early one today," he says, running his suspenders over each of his shoulders. He ruffles one hand through the mop of curls on his head, and then takes the same hand across the beard growing on his cheeks. For the first time she notices that his beard is reddish in color. His hair, as always, is a swarm of golden curls.

"Yes, well you see, I'm in a hurry, and I need your help, at least I'm hoping you can help me. Shall we go into the porch?" She doesn't wait for his reply but turns and he and the dog follow.

"Excuse me ma'am but you must allow Pete and...er...me to attend to our morning business." Arthur opens the cabin door and the dog lopes outside. Arthur follows. A short time later he and the dog return.

Inside the porch, Renata takes a seat on one of the benches at the edge of the porch and Arthur has the rocking chair. Pete settles at Arthur's ankles.

"I should say first of all that I put a mighty store into my dreams," she begins. "That's the first thing you should know. It may not make sense to you, but I had a dream last night which was like no ordinary dream. I was at the convent and my dear friend, Sister Teresa, I've told you about her, well, she was very seriously ill. I could see her thrashing in her bed, and the doctor was there, and the other nuns were all gathered around the bed saying prayers."

Arthur nods. "And so?"

"I must go back. I know it's crazy, I know I may pay dearly, but I cannot stand by thinking Teresa is ill and that I will not be there to help."

"But ma'am, she has people there to help her, no?"

"Well of course she does, but we...you must understand Arthur we are as close as real blood sisters. We came to the convent within a month of each other and we've been together ever since. And because of that, I have no choice. What if something were to happen to her? Dear God, I don't want to consider the possibility. If she were to die, I wouldn't see much point in carrying on my own battle. No, no matter that the risk is grave for me, I must go to her. Immediately. And so I will need your wagon. And ... and perhaps you driving if you're willing."  Renata's eyes were two dark flames in wide white pools. Her face was as pink and flushed as a fresh salmon.

Arthur shakes his head and lifts both hands outward. "I hardly know what to say. You're the one who told me all the reasons you wouldn't dare set out from here because the authorities are everywhere looking for you. Are you honestly going to go right back to the convent, right into the mouth of the lion? They'll be waiting for you, and I don't need to tell you, the gallows will finally claim you."

"I know I know." She lifts one hand as if to silence him. "But somehow I think God's hand is at work here. Maybe it's just time I just faced what I haven't been willing to face. I know as God is my witness that I didn't kill Antonie, but perhaps it's my destiny to pay for his death anyway.  I tell you Arthur, I'm ready for whatever happens. I won't be kept away from Teresa another day."

Arthur reaches down to scratch Pete's ears. He looks up.  "I hear you ma'am. And even though I cringe thinking what will happen, I cannot deny you what you're asking."

"So we can get going right away then?"

"Give me a few minutes to pack some vittles, and I'll git the wagon hitched." He eyes her. "You want to ride underneath a blanket, in case we meet anybody in the law along the way?"

Renata shakes her head. "I'll tuck my head beneath your widest-brimmed hat, and we can bring the blanket just in case. But I have had my fill playing the frightened criminal on the run. I won't return to the convent hiding under a blanket." She has a kind of passion in her voice that she hasn't felt for months.

Arthur stares hard at her, his eyes wide and bright. "Ma'am, if I might just say one thing, I am rooting for you, and if there is such a thing as God, and if there is such a thing as a miracle on earth, you would be the way I would see both of them happening in the world. What I'm trying to say is, I am on your side no matter what."

Renata blushes deep. "Oh Arthur, you shouldn't put too much store in me. God has plenty better clay to work with I promise you." She rises from the bench. "Now why you let me take care of packing food and water, I ought to be able to handle that while you take care of the wagon."

And so in less than half an hour, Renata and Arthur are side by side and already riding, with the dog and Arthur's rifle and some provisions covered by a blanket in back.

"I figure if we ride without stopping, we be right about at the valley leading to the convent by nightfall, or shortly after."  That's all Renata has to hear.

"Bless you Arthur. Bless you." She rides with her rosary beads wrapped tightly around both hands.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

CHAPTER FORTY-TWO: Renata's Dream -- Teresa's in Trouble


It seems much too real to be a dream. She is lying there in her bed at the convent, right where she's supposed to be, under a heap of quilts. She knows for certain that she fell asleep there, after an especially quiet dinner with Sister Teresa and the other nuns. Mother Yolla complimented Renata on the beet and apple and onion salad she had fixed. Teresa, looking a little pale, joked after dishes were cleared that "the salad was too too red," and it had given her a stomach ache and could she be excused from chores.

Later Renata brought Teresa a cup of tea, chamomile with honey, just the way she liked it. But Teresa was fast asleep when she pushed open the nun's door.

So why is Renata awake now, tossing and turning in her convent bed, feeling the familiar pinch of the straw on her back and across her shoulders. She is holding her rosary beads, which some nights she will do in order to fall asleep.

She keeps thinking of Señora. The old woman is pouring water into an old ceramic vase, the colorful dark blue vase that once sat on Antonie's kitchen table. It had come with Señora from Mexico so many years before.  It was hand painted in white calla lilies and Señora would fill it every morning with roses or whatever flower was growing in abundance. Antonie ignored the flowers and the vase; what Senora did in the kitchen was Señora's business. "The kitchen is hers," he would often say.

Now for some reason Señora's got the vase in both hands and she has filled the vase with white lilies. Fragrant lilies -- Renata has got the scent of them in her nose as she sleeps.

And then she sees Señora carrying the vase with a towel wrapped beneath it. Somehow, Señora is there in the convent, and she is setting the vase on a night table, right next to Sister Teresa's bed. Señora is speaking soothing words to Teresa. Señora sets a cool cloth over the nun's brow and takes Teresa's hand in both of hers. At just that moment, Teresa arches her back and pulls her hand out of Señora's. She thrashes side to side, and collapses into a fetal position. Her mouth falls open and she cries out. Her face is as white as goat's milk.

Mother Yolla is beside the bed and two or three other nuns have gathered too. They are kneeling around the bed and praying. No one is saying what's wrong with Teresa because apparently no one knows. The doctor is on the other side of the bed, and he has a stethoscope dangling from his neck. Mother Yolla and Señora each take one of Teresa's shoulders, preparing to hold her down while the doctor listens to the nun's chest.

"What? What? Teresa, my dear Teresa, what is wrong?" Renata is trying to wake herself up from the dream, and for a moment she seems to succeed. All she needs to do is wake up and walk down the narrow convent hall and she will be there with Teresa. So simple, so simple.

"She needs me, she needs me," Renata says, but for some reason she is having trouble waking up. She keeps trying to make herself sit up but the quilts are heavy and even when she pushes then aside, she can't get out of the convent bed, she is stuck there in the dark shivering, her head swimming.

But when she is finally sitting up, and she is finally awake, she is not at the convent at all; she sees the thick trees outside Arthur's porch, lit by the sliver of a moon. The night is perfectly still.

Renata pulls the blanket tightly around her shoulders. She is cold but sweating at the same time. Her heart is hammering and a ring of pain is circling her head just above her eyes.

She has only one thought: she will find her back to the convent. She must. This dream has to be a sign that Teresa is in trouble.

She hasn't any idea what time it is, but she gets off the mattress and walks into the cabin still wrapped in the blanket. She stands outside Arthur's door for a moment trying to decide if she should knock. Wake him up. Ask his help. She's going to need a wagon to make the trip.

Biting into her lip, she decides to wait. She goes back to the porch and lays awake until the sky takes its first color from the rising sun.


CHAPTER FORTY-ONE: There He Is, In the Rocking Chair


Every morning, he made his way onto the porch while she was still asleep and while it was still dark and the moon was but a silver curl of a sliver within the dark pines. He would creep quietly into the porch and remain there until she woke up. He had shown her every kindness, every form of polite and respectful behavior, and he gave her every reason to believe that he was polite and considerate. Still, she had her doubts. She still had not really begun to trust him.

She slept each night, buried deep in the blankets on the porch, her arms squeezing what would have been a pillow if it had been more than a second small blanket stuffed with straw and tied, just like the mattress was, with twine.

She never saw him come in. She would fall asleep watching the starlight, and wake up to the creaking of the rocking chair across the porch, the chair he had chiseled and shaped out of fir and aspen and blood red manzanita. He said nothing at all, but the chair began squeaking and it mixed with the sounds of the throaty birds coming to life in the marshy area behind the woodland.

The early morning air was cool and fresh and misty and when it moved across her face it tempted her awake. But then she heard his rocking and squeaking and immediately she resented the fact that he was there in the porch rocking in the chair. Why did he insist on intruding this way on her morning routine? It had been a week that she’d been there, and she had not worked up the courage to tell him that it had to stop.

It wouldn’t be easy to tell him. He did everything imaginable to please her, including placing a glass of red poppies at her breakfast table each morning. He refused to let her cook a thing. He made her pancakes or scrambled eggs for breakfast. He fixed hot soups for lunch, and he skewered a rabbit or a chicken for dinner.

He had offered to hide her indefinitely in his woodland cabin. How he would possibly manage to keep her there, when the authorities were looking for her everywhere, she wasn’t sure, but he had ideas. “We could shave off the rest of your hair and dress you up as a farmhand,” he said at one point. She frowned at the thought, and said in a quiet voice that it suited her to remain a woman.

“Well then, maybe we could move you out of here.” He offered that he would risk taking her by wagon to San Francisco, “where you could catch a train east all the way to New York.”

Renata’s stomach tightened at the thought of leaving her beloved golden hills, her blue California skies. And running from the authorities? That squeezed her stomach even worse.

“How would I elude them? You yourself said they have my photo pasted in every building that stands.”

“And so, maybe you would have to become part of my baggage, maybe I could cover you up with a blanket and claim you as a chair.” There were other silly ideas, but all of them were evidence that he seriously cared to try to help her.

Meanwhile, her own thoughts focused on how she could move on from the woodland cabin on her own power. With each hour she remained at the cabin, she knew she put herself in danger of being found.

CHAPTER FORTY: Waking up WHERE?


She is dreaming she's back in the convent, feeling the pinch of straw in the mattress clawing at her skin; the old convent mattress used to pinch the same way in the old days. In the dream, she smells corn posole cooking, her mouth waters at the fragrance, but just then, Teresa comes running to her room, she pushes open the door without knocking and stands there panting, holding up a spoon.

"You can't stay here," she says, frantically waving her head back and forth. The spoon dances. "Please, take the back door, hurry, don't wait even one minute more, the posse's half way to the far gate, riding with a fury." Teresa's face is flushed, her cheeks as pink and moist as a ham. "My dear Renata, if they find you, God in heaven, you're done for. They'll have you swinging from the gallows in days."

 Renata keeps trying to get up from the bed, but she just keeps sinking further into the mattress with each move. The straw claws her. She doesn't understand why Teresa won't put the spoon down and help  her up. But then she realizes, Teresa has disappeared. Renata is all alone. Terrified, she bolts upright, and now she is awake, sitting in the makeshift bed that he made for her after carrying her, half dead, to his tiny cabin in what he keeps referring to as The Woodland. At the end of the bed is an aging floppy eared dog, staring at her open-jawed. His coat is smooth and shiny and as chocolate in color as Teresa's favorite German cake. The dog's mouth hangs open, and he is drooling strings of loopy drool over his fierce-looking teeth and eying her curiously.

"Nice fella," Renata whispers, reaching her hand out tentatively toward the dog's head.

"Better just to ignore Pete, then he'll be your best friend." Renata pulls her hand back and turns, and the man with the head of curls -- the person who saved her and brought her here -- is leaning into the doorframe. From this perspective, he didn't look tall. Not at all. In fact, Renata is pretty certain that she is a head taller than the man who carried her to safety.

When he first brought her to The Woodland, she was limp to the world, unconscious in the back of the cart. He carried her in and put her to sleep in his own bed for at least three days, while he occupied the small barn where the horses were stalled. Soon enough, though, she awoke. Her arms and legs ached and her backside felt bruised and stiff as stone. Her chest was heavy but thankfully, she had no fever. But scratches? Yes. And lots more: bruises, cuts and welts and gigantic bug bites. And several ticks she needed his help to remove, one or two from the back of her neck and one from the tender skin directly below her armpit,  a precious few inches from her round left breast.

"It makes me fiercely embarrassed you doing this," she whispered as she lifts her arm, holding a towel to cover her breasts. He lit a match and went to work to remove the tick.

"I done seen a woman's body before," he said matter of factly. "And there ain't no use in you getting ill because of a tick whose time has come."

For the first two days (or was it three), she had slept straight through.  When she finally woke, the sun was at a morning slant. Or was it?

"It is morning, yes?" she asked. He stood above her. He smiled and nodded and asked if she was hungry enough to eat a grizzly.

"No, but I am mighty thirsty," she said holding both hands against her throat. He left and Pete followed and soon, the man returned with a tray. Pete dropped into a position lying near the head of the bed. On the tray was a larger pitcher of water and a glass jar. He also brought her a plate with dark bread and a hunk of yellow cheese, and a cup of steaming broth. He had placed an apple on a plate, too, and she was impressed because he had cut it into paper thin slices.

Mostly, though, she was thirsty. She was more than thirsty; she was a desert. Before she touched a bite of food, she finished the pitcher and held it out to him for a refill. Once again he returned with it, and once again she finished the pitcher and once again she asked for more. After the third pitcher, she blushed and asked where she could relieve herself.

Without the slightest hint of embarassment, he helped her out of the bed and supported her walking through the back door into the sunlight. A small outhouse stood a few feet away. He stayed within earshot while she peed, and helped her back to the cabin and into bed again.

It was only then, when she went to thank him, that she realized she didn't even know his name.

As she finished the broth -- it tasted of something meaty, maybe the rabbit he had shot -- she decided she was not going to disclose anything about herself. But that meant she needed a story that was plausible. And she had to decide how long she would rest there before taking off again...and then of course, she would be going where exactly...?

"I don't feel right taking your bed, Mr.?????" She set a slice of apple on her tongue.

"Arthur."

"Mr. Arthur."

"No, not Mr. Just Arthur. Or just plain Art if you prefer."

"Well, like I said...Arthur, I will get myself up and out of this bed of yours just as soon as I'm a little more steady on my feet, don't feel right displacing you in  this way."

He smiled. "It's a privilege to have you here, ma'am." He looked down, but said it without an ounce of embarrassment.

Her eyes narrowed. "A...privilege?"

He reached into his rear pocket and took out a wrinkled piece of paper. He unfolded it and smoothed it with the side of one hand. Renata gasped. There -- square in the middle of the paper-- was her likeness -- her face wan and pale, her hair stubbly and spare, and a scared look in her eyes. Her photo sat under the headline: WANTED: CONVICTED MURDERER ON THE RUN!!

She looked away, covered her eyes with one hand. "My dear Lord. And here I thought you wouldn't have any idea who I was."

He sat looking at her sadly. "Ma'am, I did not have the privilege of attending the courtroom proceedings. But I followed your friend Kittie's campaign to get you freed. With all those letters she begged and pleaded for. I for one composed a simple letter on your behalf. I dare say ma'am that your case has interested me from the start. I saw your image in the newspaper and said to myself, "that woman don't have the heart to razor a man's throat in half, not except if it were in self-defense."

Renata turned to face him. She had tears in her eyes. She bit hard into her lower lip, as she didn't want to start crying.

"Let me just say if there is any way I can help you, by having you stay here, or helping you escape clear out of the county, or the country, I'm ready and volunteering to help."

Now the tears came, and she wiped them on a towel he'd brought with the kitchen tray.  Her voice was unsteady and broke as she spoke. "You are very very kind, Mr., I mean, Arthur." The full name sounded better to her. More dignified. "I have had every man aligned against me in this matter, starting with my cousin and every other sheriff, jailer, juror, and judge. So to find a person, a man, like you who simply wants to help see me go free, it sure does a lot for me."

He nodded. "I'll do whatever you want me to."

A moment went by. She spoke slowly. "But only God knows how you can help."

That night, he fashioned a bed for her that was nothing more than a thick layer of hay packed snugly between two blankets and then tied. What she loved about this bed is its position in the furthest corner of the cabin's so-called front porch. The porch, held up with four rough-hewn aspen posts, is open to the elements, leaving Renata able to catch a vision of the night sky as she falls asleep each night; the stars twinkle clear and bright between the dark pine trees and that pleases her to no end and gives her some kind of crazy hope. No matter that she battles mosquitoes and an uproar of crickets, or that some nights the temp drops and her feet are ice cold. All in all, she is comfortable and warm in this bed, she has a full belly each night before she goes to sleep, and she feels sure that no one is going to find her before morning, tucked away as she is here. Moreover, no one is telling her where to go or what to think or how to figure out what she should do next with her embattled life.

As she falls asleep that first night in her new bed, soaking up the starlight, she says to herself, if only I can stay here a few days, and gather my strength, I'll be sturdy again. I'll have enough stamina to keep going."