Sunday, October 9, 2016

Chapter One: My Past Life as a Nun

Sister Mysteries

By Claudia Ricci


Dear Señora Ramos,

And now, this morning, I find you lying there in your bed, not speaking, staring wide-eyed into the ceiling.

The sun has not yet cracked over the horizon. As soon as I awoke, I crept into the convent kitchen and boiled water for your tea. Walking very softly, I carried the cup up the stairs to your room. Your door is ajar and I knock softly and walk in. Your eyes are open and riveted on the ceiling, and so I know immediately that something is wrong. Your expression is fixed, your face a coffee-colored mask. I set the tea down on the night table and place one hand on your forehead. Warm. I pick up your hand, which lies limp on the sheet. It too is warm, and the skin of the back of your hand is soft but the palm has that dry papery feeling I know so well.

"Señora," I whisper, leaning over to put my lips close to your ear. "Can you hear me?"

Your lips are parted but frozen. You don't move a muscle. Only an occasional blink of your eyes and a faint breath when I put my finger beneath your nose tell me that you are still alive.  I set my ear on your chest and there is a slow and steady beat.  But what has happened to you? Is it a stroke? And if it is, what can I possibly do for you here? What can be done for a stroke victim in 1884?

I drop into the chair beside your bed.
The other nuns will be up for morning prayers before long. What will they do? Bring the doctor I suppose. But for what purpose?

I sit here with tears gathering. I sit here thinking that you are nearing your end. We've had such a long history together. I don't want to let you go. And yet, I know better. I know that you came to me for one reason only, and that soon your mission will be accomplished. I just wish you could live forever.

But then I realize, you do live forever. Or at least, your spirit does. You exist beyond the confines of time and place. When you first came to me 18 years ago, I was living through hell.  I had dropped so low that I saw no reason to get out of bed. I thought I would never emerge from that dark grey tunnel of despair. It was such a hellish time. I saw a series of doctors who didn't have much of a clue what to do. One or two of them wanted me to have electroshock treatment, or ECT. And I was petrified. I didn't want to have some machine sending shock waves through my brain, frying it from the inside out.

I remember two things about the morning you came: the snow outside the window was heaped in great mounds. We'd been having wicked winter weather that year, and it most certainly hadn't helped my mood. I remember too, me lying in bed staring into the ceiling, much like you are now. And of all things, I was listening to the flies. Flies in the middle of winter, crazed and buzzing around the light fixtures and against the window glass. Maybe their last desperate gasping to escape.

I remember getting up to pee. And seeing a rather large fly in the window of the bathroom. Quite unexpectedly, I reached over and very gently wedged it against the glass. I set my finger and thumb on one of its wings. There I was, I was actually holding a fly.

I carried it that way to the door that leads out to the balcony of my third floor bedroom. I opened the door and was greeted by a blast of cold air. And then I set the fly free. I watched as he (she?) zoomed off in a giant graceful arc and something shifted in me. How very strange, but somehow that gesture -- freeing the fly -- gave me hope. Put a small smile on my face.

Soon that became my purpose. I would get out of bed at least four or five times a day -- whenever I got up to pee or to eat something -- and I would set free three or four flies. One thing that mystified me, where were these flies coming from at this frigid moment in winter?

But no matter where they came from, they were there. And I got very good at catching them in my hands. Between my fingers. I was delicate but determined. I looked forward to catching them. I looked forward to liberating every fly that I heard buzzing in my bedroom.

When my husband happened to be in the room one morning, he asked me why I insisted on opening the door to release flies. Why, he wondered aloud, did I not just use the fly swatter? He was no lover of flies.

"Because I refuse to kill them," I said simply. But what I didn't say was, this act of freeing flies seemed to give my life some immediate purpose. It was after all, a kind of existential grip that had taken hold of me, that is, life had lost its meaning. I no longer felt that I was steering my life course in a direction that mattered. But here was something that if nothing else, was a satisfying distraction.

If I could do nothing else, I could release a few flies into the universe. Perhaps I couldn't relieve my own misery, but at least I could save these little black-winged creatures from their own misery.

My husband watched cautiously as I released another fly. Then he came up to me and gently folded his arms around me. "Just hold me," he said, his voice low and trembling. I felt so bad. I had become such a burden to my poor husband.  He was so desperately worried about me. He had grown so frightened. But of course he had. For all intents and purposes, he had lost his wife.

I hadn't been out of a nightgown in weeks. I was surviving on a diet of soup and saltines, coffee and oatmeal and an occasional salad or an apple, sliced and smeared with peanut butter.

Worst of all, I had begun to say to my husband with some regularity, "I don't want to live another day." 

I had also taken to praying to the Virgin Mary, asking for help from the divine feminine forces of the universe. Mary had never let me down before. When I had suffered cancer years before, and I was in the thick of misery with the chemo, I would pray to Mary, and something would always happen to relieve my pain. At the worst moments, I would envision myself protected -- tucked beneath her sky blue veil. That image comforted me so much. Now I needed comforting of a different kind. I needed her to help heal my troubled mind.

It wasn't long after I started catching and releasing the flies that you appeared Señora. I remember that morning so clearly. It was a Sunday and the sky was the crisp blue color you only get in the winter. My husband had to fly to DC for a meeting that afternoon and so he had left just after eight a.m. He was nervous at the thought of leaving me alone. "You must promise me you won't do..." and then he'd shake his head. He wouldn't finish the sentence.

"I'll be OK," I said, and then we kissed and he left, his forehead wrinkled in worry.

I had finished my morning coffee. I was waiting for my morning meds -- the ativan, the amphetamines, the noritryptiline -- to kick in.  My neck and back felt really sore, and so I decided to pull myself out of bed to stretch my body a little. I lay on the braided rug on the floor, pulling one knee at a time up to my chest.

The rest of it is like a dream. An amazing and incredible dream. A dream that felt more real than real life.  I lifted my leg a few inches and straightened it out and pointed my toe and suddenly there it was -- a low but persistent sound. Music. It started to grow louder and clearer.  I could hear someone strumming a guitar. I looked over to the radio on my husband's side of the bed. Had I left it on? I know I hadn't. I hated the morning Round Table program on WAMC, so I would have kept the radio turned off.

But there it was -- guitar music, and it was growing so loud I could feel it right in the room with me. I didn't know it at the time, because I knew virtually nothing about flamenco, but that was a soleares I was hearing. Soleares a form considered the mother of all flamenco. The word solear derived from the Spanish word, "soledad" or sorrow.

I stopped exercising and sat up on the floor, cross-legged. I closed my eyes and just listened to the music for a minute or two. It was quite beautiful.

That's the moment you chose to speak. "Por favor, tu es Señora Ricci, sí?" My eyes flew open and my heart started banging in my chest like some kind of drum.  Behind me, in the rocking chair across the room in the corner, I heard the chair squeak as it rocked forward. Slowly, I swiveled around. You were sitting there, you with the peaceful face. You filling up the chair with your portly form. You were dressed in black, and strumming a guitar. My arms and legs started shaking and it's a good thing I wasn't standing because I'm sure I would have lost my urine.

I didn't say a word. I just stared at you, with a million things flying through my head.  The first thing I thought: you were the same color as the flies.  You were completely in black, even your stockings, as if you were in mourning. The only color was the embroidery on your magnificent shawl.

I thought back to the question that the last doctor, the super expensive one in Manhattan had asked recently asked me. "Do you ever see things?"

"See things?" I asked.

"Yes, do you have visions?"

I remember thinking at the time that at least I was that sane. At least I wasn't psychotic, having visions. But now, what was this?

I covered my eyes with my hands, and shook my head back and forth, hoping to make you go away. But you continued strumming. I looked up. You were waiting for me to answer. You smiled and introduced yourself. "Yo soy Señora Maria Curocora Corazon de Ramos." You nodded your head once as if to give emphasis to the name.

I knew the word corazón meant heart in English. I wouldn't know until much later that ramos meant tree or branch.

"Wha...what do you want?" I croaked. In English of course. It never occurred to me to try Spanish.

You switched into broken English. "I am here to have your help if you please." It's embarrassing to admit this, Señora, but at first I thought you were offering me help, as in house help. I was just about to answer that I already had a house cleaner, when I realized my mistake. You wanted my help.  SHE WANTED MY HELP? What?

"I ...I don't understand."

You nodded and stopped strumming. The guitar was a beauty by the way. Blonde wood. Just lovely. "Es importante," you began, but then you switched to English again. "Important, very important. You are a writer of stories, yes?"

I shrugged. By this point I was sitting up against the brass bed, my arms hugging my knees, as I was desperately trying to get my arms and legs to stop shaking. But I was still trembling and my mouth felt like it was full of cotton balls. The truthful answer to your question was, "No, I am not writing stories anymore." I had stopped writing just about the time I had started getting depressed. The reason I stopped writing had something to do with the fact that my last novel -- published in 2011 -- had sold so few copies.

My husband had tried time and again to convince me that the key to turning my depression around lay in finding the courage to start writing again. I hadn't found that courage.

"No stories anymore," I whispered. "I don't write anything more." I felt my throat grow thick. I felt tears gathering at the rims of my eyes. All these months, all these doctors, all these meds, and yet I still refused to label myself as, "MENTALLY ILL." But now, here, with this portly Latina woman sitting in front of me, in my fucking bedroom in my fucking rocking chair, how could I possibly resist that label? I was fucking crazy.

"Es important story that I need for you to write."  She reached under her shawl and took out an old journal with a chiseled leather cover.
She opened the journal and in it were a stack of blue pages folded in half and tucked into the front cover.

By now I was feeling like I might need to throw up. I was so desperate for you to disappear. I wanted no part of your story or anything else. "PLEASE," I said, breathlessly. "Please go away," I pleaded. I started to sob. "I have been very very ill," I said, choking on my tears. "I have wanted to take my life. I cannot be cured. No one can help me. No one knows what to do for me and so...I really need you must go."

But of course you didn't budge. You sat there and had such a calm look on your face. I found myself wanting to stare at your face, at its coffee color, at its sculptured flesh, at its slight sheen.

You stood up from the chair and walked over to me. You reached down and took my hand. And slowly you helped me up. I was shaking so badly that I had to let you put your arm around me. Your arm was strong and fleshy. I felt your bosom against my own skinny chest as we walked around the bed. I thought for a moment that you were going to put me back to bed. But instead, you helped me into the rocking chair. And then you made yourself comfortable taking a seat on my unmade bed, facing me.

"Señora Ricci, you need something to help you, yes?"

I snorted, and suddenly my nose was flooding, and I was desperate for tissues. She reached over to the night table for my Kleenex and handed some to me. After I had finished blowing my nose, I sniffled an answer. "I need help, yes I most certainly do." I was about to say, but not from you. Only you continued talking.

"This story" -- and here you held up the leather journal -- "is for me, so so important. Life and death important."

I inhaled. I had absolutely no interest in your story. I had only one thought, that you should disappear, taking your guitar, your flowered shawl, your journal and all those blue pages too.

"I'm sorry, really should go," I whispered. How I wished my husband hadn't had to go out of town. I couldn't even reach him by phone.

"I will go I will. But may I tell you just why I am here? It will only be a moment of your time." I was about to say no but you plowed forward. "I am a poor old woman who made big big mistake." You said the words "beeg" and "meestake." You stopped talking.  You reached over to the tissue box and took one for yourself and dabbed at your dark eyes. "I let a poor innocent woman die," you said, and now you were starting to cry. "You see, I it could be that I stopped it. The hanging" -- here your face crumpled up -- "would never be happening."

Hanging? What hanging? In spite of my impatience, my desire to see you go, you now had snagged my attention. And something else: seeing a poor old woman sobbing into tissues on my bed had struck up a chord of compassion in me. I was distracted at least for the moment from my own worries.

I waited.

"After Renata got hanged," you continued, "I could not live. I could not sleep Not eat. Inside me was worry and I regret.  I prayed. I only prayed. I prayed in day, I prayed at night when I am sleeping. I ask the Virgin for help. All the time. I told her I'm happy to die myself if she bring Renata back."

I blinked. Suddenly I was thinking not about how crazy all of this was, but how real you seemed to be.  I couldn't explain it, but I just knew that you were not an illusion. You were a flesh and blood person. You were a poor old soul who needed help.

"Who...who is Renata?" I whispered in a raspy voice.

Señora, at that moment, your face collapsed onto your chest. You raised a hand to either side of your head. And then you just cried and sobbed and said nothing. You looked so pitiful that I found myself getting up out of the rocking chair. I came and sat there right beside you on the bed. I put my arm around your shoulders and squeezed you and tried to comfort you. It helped. At least you stopped convulsing and crying.

"I need you please so so much your help is what the Virgin said I would get."

"What?" I couldn't understand a word you were saying, Señora, as you have never had a knack for English.

You sniffled and wiped your nose. "The Blessed Virgin. In the nighttime she came to me one time. I was awake all night, not sleeping. And then she was there, glowing in golden light. She was so beautiful." Here you smiled and I saw your missing teeth. Your face was glowing and I found myself drawn to it once again. 

"I need you, to write the true story of Renata, and if you do, then the Virgin promised it would all be mended and Renata would be free and not die like she did hanging from that tree. Will you will you please Señora Ricci, will you take this journal of Renata's and just write the story, so the whole world knows that she never killed Antonie?"

"Antonie? But who is he?" I was struggling now. I wanted her to go, but I also wanted to know more, at least enough to satisfy my curiosity.

"Antonie is cousin to Renata," you said simply. "And he also jefe, hmmm..." here you were searching for the word. "The boss. I am keeper of his house."

I reached over to the night table for a drink of water. My head was dizzy. And I wanted something to eat. But curiously, this was the first morning in months that I actually felt like getting out of bed.

"Would you like some coffee?" I said.

You shook your head. "Tea."

And so I put on my blue bathrobe, and you followed me down two flights of stairs to the kitchen, where I made you a cup of tea and kept listening while you pieced together your story.

Such a long, long time ago all of this seems. How quickly the years we've known each other have gone by. And now you lie there Señora and your time is up. Except, you would remind me of something that you said so long ago, that very morning when we first sat together at the oak table in the kitchen, you drinking chamomile tea and me drinking a second cup of coffee. You said "time is always there the same way and at the same time moments on top of each other." I was completely puzzled.  I thought I didn't understand you because of your broken English. And then you said something else that intrigued me. "No one dies for good and doesn't come back another day."

Of course I couldn't possibly understand what you meant.  It has taken me 139 years to understand what you were trying to say. That not only would I write Renata's story. I would discover that I had lived before. That I had a past life, living as the nun! I AM RENATA! By saving her I am saving me!

Sunday, December 7, 2014


Picture it: a bright hot day.

The three of them -- Renata and Teresa and Art -- are sitting in the wagon pulling up to the convent in a cloud of red dust.

Dust and grime coat the face of each nun.

Teresa dismounts first and turns to help Renata down.  Renata wears a simple sky blue dress that hangs just below her ankles

Sister Gabriella, the nun thinning carrots in the convent's front garden, cries out,

"Renata -- Teresa -- they're here! They're here!" She jumps to her feet and soon all the nuns are outside. They crowd around Renata and Teresa like a flock of black crows. Everyone is asking, everyone wants to know what happened what happened.

Teresa raises one arm into the air. She wolf whistles as only Teresa can.  "If you all will quiet down," she says and the nuns fall silent.

She clears her throat. "Renata has been freed," Teresa announces. Cheers rise up. Goosebumps rise up Renata's arms and legs.

"Tell us," says Mother Yolla, "how did this miracle come to pass?"

Teresa turns to Renata: "You explain." So Renata recalls the miracle in the courtroom. Señora materializing to confound the judge and the Sheriff. Renata finally showing the judge the four pages so long missing from her journal. The pages that made it very clear that she was not the one who ended Antonie's life.

So now, both Teresa and Renata ask at precisely the same time: "Where is Señora?"

All of the nuns fall silent.

Mother Yolla speaks up. "She passed from this earth three days ago."

Teresa and Renata turn to each other. Then Renata calls out loud. "So this is truly a great miracle, because three days ago, she appeared in the courtroom. Señora is the reason I was allowed to go free."

No one speaks. Renata asks in a whisper. "Please, take us to her grave."

Mother Yolla leads the way. Behind the convent is the small cemetery, surrounded by a picket fence.

She points to the corner beneath a live oak tree.  "She is over there, at least that is where we buried her remains. But her spirit lives on, who knows where else she will appear?"

Renata crosses the cemetery, and kneels before Señora's grave. Her hands come up to her chest in prayer. "I have so much to thank you for." She drops her head to her fingertips and tears flood her eyes.  "May you rest in peace. And please know that you will be sorely sorely missed." She remains there, praying in silence. The other nuns remain outside the fence.

No one makes a sound.

And in time, Renata rises from the ground. She sighs and turns to join the other nuns.

"Mother Yolla, may I return to wearing the habit?"

"Of course my child. We have a set of clothing waiting just for you."

Renata inhales slowly. "Just so you know," she says, "it is so so good to be back here, where I clearly belong."

That night Mother Yolla gives permission for the nuns to stay up late into the night. Renata plays the guitar and the nuns are delighted to sing song after song. Renata hopes that Señora will make an appearance but no, the revered old woman is nowhere to be seen.

And so Renata is free and clear and she remains here at the convent for four decades. After Mother Yolla passes, Renata takes her role. Mother Renata. And she never forgets Señora -- indeed she visits the grave for a few minutes every day for the rest of her life.

And now we say amen amen, this book about the nun, is FINALLY done.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

CHAPTER FIFTY-THREE: A Miracle in the Court Room

The sky is a milky blue color when Renata and the others wake up.  Kitty has already been up an hour, feeding chickens, gathering eggs and then, baking muffins for the breakfast meal she will serve downstairs in the cafe, promptly at eight.

Renata is first into the kitchen. Kitty is spooning corn meal dough into a cast iron muffin tin. She puts the spoon down and wipes her hands on her apron. Then she takes hold of both of Renata's hands. "I can't believe you're back," Kitty says.

"Nor can I.  Sometimes I think that we may very well be making a giant mistake." Kitty turns back to her stove. Renata yawns, covering her mouth with the back of her hand. "But I can't live on the run. And I shouldn't have to, because I didn't kill my cousin."

Teresa appears in the kitchen. "Katy you still have that old coffee pot? I need a lift this morning."

"Of course." Kitty reaches into the pantry for the pot. "Coffee is in the decanter beside the sink."

She finishes filling the muffin tins and takes her bowl and spoon to the sink. "So what's the schedule this morning?

Renata settles into the rocking chair that Kitty keeps in the corner beside the stove. "I'm supposed to be there by nine, and the judge says he'll give me an hour to present the new evidence."

"And that evidence consists of the missing pages of your journal, right? The pages that lay out exactly how Antonie died."

"Yes." Renata rubs her forehead. "I know it's a longshot, but I've got to do it. I have to try."

Katy slides the muffins into the oven. "I don't  know much about the law, but I have my doubts that..."

"I know, Katy. I know." Renata pauses and then she whispers. "We can't be too hopeful but I have no choice. I cannot live my life on the run."

At exactly ten minutes to nine, Renata opens the door to the small courtroom. Teresa and Art follow her into the stuffy room. No judge. No sheriff.

"So where shall we sit?" Teresa asks.

Renata shrugs. "It makes no difference, does it?" Her face is pale and pinched. Teresa wraps an arm around Renata's shoulders.

"My dear sister, this is not the face we need today. You must stand up to them, find your voice, convince them that you deserve your freedom." Renata bites her lower lip. And nods.

Teresa whispers. "All you have to do is believe in your heart and soul what you know to be true. You didn't kill Antonie and you have proof now. Trust in yourself and in God. He will take care of the rest."

At that moment the judge and sheriff stride into the courtroom. The judge in his black robe takes a seat at a table that stands higher than the rest of the tables in the room.

"So I said we'd give you an hour," the judge says, folding his hands on the table. "So what magic tricks do you have up your sleeve to show me today?"

"To tell you the truth, Sir, I have the evidence hidden beneath my skirt. So if you don't mind turning away for a moment...." The judge, smirking, turns around to face the wall. The sheriff does the same.

Renata unties a piece of twine at her waist. A thin package, wrapped in brown paper, makes a soft thud as it lands at her feet. She reaches down for the package. "Alright, you can turn back," she says.

"'And what would that be inside the package?" The judge leans over the table, leering one hand covering the other.

Renata steps closer to the judge.  "Before I let you see what's in here, I think it's only fair that we reconstruct the evidence used against me in the trial."

The judge clears his throat. "We are not going to retry this case, if that's what you had in mind."

"No, of course not," Renata says, her voice strong and commanding. "I'm not looking to do that. I simply want to remind you that virtually every piece of evidence presented at the trial was in the form of writing: my journal entries, and my cousin's wild stories casting me as a dancer and worse, a seductress."

The judge folds his hands together.  "Yes, well, if you recall, no one ever established that those stories were the work of your cousin's pen. There was every reason to believe that those stories were ones that you composed."

"But that's foolish. Why in heavens name would I implicate myself in a murder I didn't commit?"

The judge slaps his hands on the table. "I said it before and I will say it again, we are not going to retry this case. So get to the point."

"My point is that you never produced a single witness to the so-called murder."

"And again, you are trying to reopen the case. I am quickly losing my patience!"

"All I am trying to do is establish that there was a witness."

He stands and slams the table again. "If you knew there was a witness why the hell didn't you bring him forward?" His face suddenly looks like it's sunburned.

"I wrote about her in my journal, but..."

"Oh for God's sake, are you trying to make a fool of me?"

Renata lowers her gaze and hands the judge pages from her journal. "No, not at all, your honor, I would encourage you to read my journal pages, pages that I ripped out of the journal, pages that I vowed I would never make public.  Then I think you will understand. That writing carefully lays out my cousin's last hour."

"So who is this witness?"

"Please just read."

"I am not going to read any damn new pages. Tell me what is contained here."

Renata sets the three journal pages on the table. "These pages directly implicate...." Here, Renata's head drops forward. Teresa, standing to her right, puts an arm around Renata's waist and squeezes her arm.

"Go on."

"They reveal the truth about how Antonie died and they make clear that the person who..." She is trembling now and Teresa squeezes her tighter. "...the person who completed the act, finished the suicide that Antonie set in motion with his own razor...was..."

The sheriff stands. "Your honor, we've already established that her cousin was murdered. Where does she get the right to call  it a suicide. It's just her overactive imagination...."

"Give me those damn pages," the judge says, scooping them off the table.

The judge, ignoring the sheriff, takes his eyeglasses out of his breast pocket and picks up the journal pages and begins to read. Renata interrupts right away. "I guess I don't have to point out to you that the yellowed paper, the ink, the slant of the handwriting, perfectly match that of my journal."

Leaning back in his chair, the judge pauses. "No, ma'am, you don't need to point this out to me." He continues reading. When he comes to the third page, he reads and rereads it and then sits back in his chair. He places his hands together and rests them on his sizable stomach.

"And pray tell, how is it that we never saw these curious pages during the trial?"

Renata closes her eyes, inhales and then slowly releases her breath. When she speaks, it's in a whisper. "I refused to implicate Señora. I wanted to... protect her."

"Well, well, what we have here is a most interesting turn of events." The judge takes the journal pages and hands them over to the sheriff. The pages are lost on him because he doesn't know how to read.

"Please give me the full name of this woman you call Señora."

"Must I? Isn't it clear from what you read here that my cousin was hellbent on killing himself?"

"The name please..."

"Señora Maria Cuorocora de los Ramos."

"And where can this woman be found?"

Renata closes her eyes. "She is in her final moments of life, weak as a kitten, residing at the convent where she can get the care she...."

Suddenly Teresa gasps and lets go of Renata's shoulders.

Renata looks up and there at the back of the courtroom stands Señora, wrapped in a black shawl and leaning on a cane.

The two nuns are aghast. "Judge, this is...this is...this is Señora, but just hours ago I saw her so close to dying that she could not possibly appear here."

Sister Teresa flew to the back of the room and helped support the hold woman. Soon she is standing beside Renata. They embrace. Señora's face looks so thin and pale it has a purple cast. She reaches into a pocket and brings out a sheet of paper. "Una oracion," She whispers. She hands it to Renata and raises her hand to tell Renata to read it aloud.

Renata looks at the judge. "Part of it is a prayer she has written. Shall I go ahead?

"Don't ask my permission, this is your dog and pony show."

She begins, translating as she proceeds: Dio mio, madre mio, my God my holy mother Mary holy father and son and holy spirit to whom do I ask forgiveness? To whom do I confess? The priest, Father Ruby?  The last time I slid the little door in the confessional I saw the black screen between me and the priest and I lost heart. I wanted so desperately to unload myself, I wanted to scream 'I have sinned in the worst possible way, I have sinned by taking the last bit of life from a man I knew and raised from childhood.' But I lost heart. I left the confessional and I visited Renata at the jail; I begged her to tell the world the truth, but once again she refused."

Renata raised her head.

"Please continue," the judge said. "Dear God help me. Help me help my dear Renata to go free. No one but me can help her. I kneel here and beg you to hear me, from my humble position on this cold floor in the kitchen. I ask not for me not on my behalf but for her, she who faces hanging. I am determined to find a way to tell the world the truth, that I was the one responsible, I pressed the blade and severed his throat. I only continued with what Antonie started but of course I could have tried to get help for him rather than hasten his death. What I did was unforgivable. I dared to take the place of God, deciding whether a man was going to live or die. Please God please forgive me for what I did!"

There was perfect silence in the courtroom. The judge stood and gazed long and hard at Señora -- she seemed to shrink in his gaze. "I am afraid that you leave me no alternative but to take the old woman to the jail."

Renata protested. "She is close to 85 years old. She rose from her death bed to speak her truth. She only finished what Antonie set out to do. He wanted to die. She raised him from the time his mother -- my aunt Eliza -- died from small pox -- he wasn't even walking. Can't you see that arresting this woman makes no sense?"

Before the judge could answer, the sheriff stepped forward and put Señora into handcuffs. She offered no resistance. "Are we through here Judge? Can I take her away?"

"I would like to ask the nun one more question." He turned to Renata. "Why for God's sake didn't you make it clear what happened? Why this long drawn out affair when you knew there was a killer and that killer wasn't you?"

"I wanted to protect the woman who raised me. She is my mother, my grandmother, my savior. I couldn't forgive myself if I lived and she was put to death."

The judge shook his head. "Let's go, Frank, there is no point in sitting here any longer."

All of a sudden the sheriff screamed. He lifted the handcuffs into the air. Señora was no longer in the cuffs. Nor was she anywhere to be seen.

The judge roared. "What the blazing hell is going on here?"

Renata looked at Teresa. Art stood back and shook his head.

"I expect an explanation," the judge said, slamming the table, but even as he said it, the command sounded foolish.

"We have seen the hand of God at work here," Renata said in a whisper. "The work of God and the work of the Virgin Mary, to whom we pray every day."

"Well I don't give a damn about any of your foolish religion," the Sheriff said. "Stupid magic."

Renata smiled at the Sheriff. "Well then I invite you to find the old woman using whatever magic you happen to muster." She smiled at the judge. "May we leave now?"

"Don't leave town until we have gotten to the bottom of this foolishness," the judge said.

Art and Teresa and Renata were soon on the wagon heading back to Kitty's. Renata and Teresa held hands and prayed the whole way.

CHAPTER FIFTY-TWO: She's Back, Facing the Cell and the Gallows

The wagon pulls up in front of the small wooden building that houses the jail and the tiny courtroom. Arthur helps Renata down from the wagon.

She pulls herself up straighter. Taking in one long breath, she climbs the three wooden steps. Teresa follows.

Renata pauses at the door and turns to Teresa. "No matter what happens, I am ready now to accept my fate. I surrender to God's will.  I will be sheltered beneath Mary's veil."

A strong gust of wind blows up against the two women, lifting their skirts and sending dust and grit into their eyes. Renata cups her eyes and turns to open the door.

"Renata, wait!" It's Arthur. "Can I please go in with you?"

She studies him. She shrugs. "I guess there will be no harm in that."

He's up the stairs before before she opens the door.  He guides her gently by the elbow.

As they step inside, Renata's stomach squeezes and a shiver goes up her back. The pitiful cell where she spent so many many weeks is now occupied by a man with dark skin and long black straight hair. He has a single braid hanging beside his face.

Renata stares at the jailer, who is asleep, his feet propped on the wooden table.

"Hello," she says. He doesn't respond. She approaches the table and sets her hand on his leg and shakes him awake. He's disoriented, rubbing his eyes. His first instinct is to reach for his keys dangling from his belt. The sound of the keys jangling sparks another horrible memory in Renata's mind.

In a moment he is on his feet and leaning forward over the desk. "What....what the hell,  it's you, YOU! You came back!"

His breath is sour with liquor. She turns away, then faces him in silence. Her eyes are wide open. Art is at one side, Teresa on the other.

"I hope you know that we're gonna you right back in the cell," he says. "And then you're cooked." He cackles. He jangles his keys. "Hurray up now, I gotta go tell the judge and the sheriff."

Renata stood her ground. "You don't have to put me in the cell," she says. "After all, I came here of my own free will. I am not going anywhere. I am here to prove to all of you once and for all that I am innocent."

The jailer cackles again and shakes his head. "You're dreaming lady," he says, "But whatever. Take a seat on the bench there, and I'll be right back."

Renata remains standing, as do Art and Teresa.  All of them are staring at the man in the cell. He sits with his face down, staring between his knees.

The jailer returns in a few minutes, followed by the sheriff. He stands face to face with Renata.

"You do realize that we have every intention of carrying out the hanging," he says. He has his thumbs hooked on his suspenders. Renata sees what looks to be a gleam in the man's eye, and a smile on his bearded face.

"I am fully aware of that," Renata says. "I am prepared to hang."
"But I would ask one thing beforehand: the chance to present new evidence, evidence that is certain to exonerate me."

The sheriff is shaking his head no. "I'm afraid we can't go back into trial," he said, "there is no precedent for..."

Suddenly the judge, wearing a black suit, appears at the door. He places one hand on the sheriff's arm, and the sheriff repeats Renata's request.

"Jed," says the judge, "let me handle this."

The judge studies Renata, and glances at Teresa and Art. "I am willing to allow you one more hour in the courtroom," he says. The sheriff begins to protest, but the judge raises his hand, signaling silence, and then continues, "Be at the courthouse at 9 a.m. sharp tomorrow and we will let you have one more chance to speak." He turns to the sheriff, whose face is pinched with anger. "Jed, really, what difference does one hour make after all this time?"

He faces Renata. "I am assuming," he says, "that you have another witness?"

Renata nods. "No, but we have a sworn affidavit -- a very important document that wasn't available in the trial."

The judge shakes his head. "It's unlikely to help. But whatever you've got, bring it with you tomorrow, I will give you an hour, tops. Do you understand?"

"Yes sir," she says. "Thank you for doing this."

The judge turns and he and the sheriff walk out the door.

"You sure you don't want even one more night here in this nice cell?" The jailer leers. He takes a step closer toward Renata, who smells even stronger of whiskey.

"Let's get going ladies," Art says, taking Renata and Teresa by the hand. The three of them head out the door into the late afternoon sunshine.

"We've got to find couple of rooms," Art says.

"No, that won't be necessary," Teresa replies. "We have a dear friend here, a woman named Kitty, who has put us up before. She runs a terrific little cafe and has a couple of extra rooms. I know she will be glad to open her door to us again."

And with that they climb into the wagon and head for the sky blue house where Kitty lives.

CHAPTER FIFTY-ONE: Renata, You Have to Go Back to Jail to Before You Can Go Free !

It is mid-day, beastly hot, the sky a warm resilient blue. Arthur has not been able to push the horse faster than a walk. The wagon's slow pace is making Renata impatient. Her face is flushed and warm and the thermos of lemonade that Teresa made for her is almost empty. There are three canteens of water which ought to last the trip.

At one point Renata reaches over and takes Teresa's hand. That's when Renata finds the black rosary beads clutched in Teresa's hand. "May I pray with you?" Renata whispers and Teresa nods her head and smiles. She takes Renata's fingers and closes them around the beads. The two nuns pray silently for the next hour.

Teresa is praying that the lawyer, DeLuria, will have some idea how to introduce the missing journal pages to the court so that Renata's new evidence will convince the judge that the case should be reopened and the verdict overturned. Unfortunately, Renata is right about DeLuria, he's never had a bit of imagination or inspiration before, so it's hard to imagine that given one more chance to prove himself, he's likely to rise to the occasion.  

Arthur pulls up the reins, stopping the horse. "We are almost at the crest of the hill where it dips down into town," he says. "Are we headed straight to the courthouse and jail or..."

"Before we go there we want to visit with Renata's lawyer, a fellow named DeLuria," Teresa explains. Renata clucks her tongue. "His office is half-way down the hill, before the store and the church." 

He snaps up the reins and pushes the horse forward, at the same slow pace that he's followed all morning. "I see a creek running down the hill there," Arthur says gesturing with his chin. "I ought to stop as soon as we can get closer in, give the horse some water, and a good rest."

Which they do in the next few minutes. He unhitches the horse from the wagon while Renata and Teresa descend to the stream next to a grassy knoll.  Renata drops to her knees by the creek, bends over and splashes cold water on her flushed face. Then she cups her two hands together to drink.  When she stands she has muddied her calico dress with two large wet spots at the knees.

"Please tell me you brought something else to wear in court," Teresa says, eyeing the mud. "You could lose your appeal if they feel you are disrespecting the judge or the legal system."

"I'm not trying to win a fashion contest," Renata says. "I have only this one dress."

"If only I could have loaned you a habit," Teresa said, her face sad.

"Don't trouble yourself about things you cannot fix, my dear girl. We will have to make do with a muddy dress."

Soon the three of them are back in the wagon and the horse is leading them slowly into town. Teresa points to the General store and tells Arthur to pull up there. Teresa drops down first. "Assuming he's even there," she says, "I will explain the situation to him, and see what he has to offer." She inhales and drops the rosary beads into her pocket.  "We won't get our hopes up yet."

Renata smirks. "We won't get our hopes up that's for sure."

Teresa ignores the comment and enters the wooden building, where DeLuria occupies an office on the second floor.  The office building was once a small two-story house, so she climbs a winding staircase to reach his door. She knocks.

"Come in."

Teresa's heart bumps inside her chest. She opens the door. "Hello, I am sorry to barge in on you without any warning, but something extraordinary has happened with Sister Renata's case."

DeLuria's face is lacking the least bit of emotion, while Teresa's face and voice are flooded with urgency and passion.  Tenting his long bony fingers together over his white frocked shirt, De Luria looks bored.  "To what do we own this extraordinary development?"

Teresa moves into the office and without asking, takes a seat beside DeLuria's mahogany desk. It is absent of any papers, or file folders, or books, which Teresa finds surprising.

"Do you remember Señora Ramos, Antonie's Mexican housekeeper?"

Still holding his fingers tented and resting against his closed lips, De Luria nods.  "Yes, I guess I remember seeing her a few times in court and making regular trips to the jail to bring Renata a guitar and foods in baskets and other such things."

"Yes, well, if you recall we have always made a big point of saying that Renata's journal was missing some crucial pages, pages that described the way in which Antonie died.  Until now, Renata has refused to produce those pages and wouldn't even explain why."

"Of course I remember the missing pages." DeLuria now looks impatient, and even a little disgusted. "I told Renata time and again that she had to produce those pages if she wanted a prayer of a chance to go free. I told her that she had to have an alibi and she consistently and completely ignored me.  Now what's she up to? It's a little late for whatever it is she's got up her nun's sleeve." DeLuria has a know-it-all sneer on his face.  Suddenly Teresa wants to be done with him and this place. It gives her the creeps.

"Well, Mr. DeLuria, it seems as though Señora Ramos has fallen into a coma, or some kind of deep sleep, but before she did, she begged Sister Renata to produce those missing pages and to turn them in to prove her innocence. And voila, Renata was finally convinced to do what she's got to do. We have them with us in the wagon."

DeLuria drops his hands to his desk. "We? What do you mean 'we'? She's back? She actually had the audacity to come strutting back to town, to the court that ordered her hanged? Is she crazy? She must be to walk back into the jail and straight to the gallows."

He stands, and so does Teresa. "I know you are surprised. Just as we were in the convent when she turned up. But she is so certain that she can prove her innocence that she insisted on coming back today." Before Teresa can say anymore, DeLuria is out of the office and heading downstairs and outside.

His face breaks into a shrewd grin. "Well if it isn't the nun on the run," he says, his eyes glued to Renata. "You've got gumption my girl, that's for sure. That someone in your situation, facing the gallows, would walk right back into jail, where the rope is swinging, that is downright astonishing."

Renata dismisses his tone. "I wish you would keep all of your comments to yourself," she says dryly. "It wasn't my idea to stop here. But Teresa insisted that if I was turning myself in, I would do better to have you at my side."

"Glad you decided to heed Teresa's advice," DeLuria says, slipping his thumbs under each of his suspenders. His hair has grown longer, and curlier and it rests on the back of his collar now.

"Well then are you ready to help?" Renata crosses her arms in defiance.

"I will indeed accompany you to the court. But if you think for a moment that we can just waltz in, you are a fool. That's not how things are done. No one is sitting there waiting. I will send word to the Judge immediately that you are prepared to turn yourself in. Knowing Judge Perkins, and the urgency of this case, he will see you this afternoon. I would recommend you come in and freshen up before you go to court."

Renata finds her heart beating beneath her crossed arms. She uncrosses her arms and takes a drink of water from one of the canteens. Teresa is standing by the wagon to help Renata step down.  Which she does, not because she wants to talk to DeLuria, but because she really has no other practical way of turning herself in.

"Will she be able to ask for leniency?" Teresa asks.

"Of course not," De Luria practically spits out the words. "She's been on the lamb for months. She'll be lucky if they don't hang her on the spot."

"Look," Renata says, stopping in her tracks, "I'm only going back because Antonie's housekeeper, Señora Ramos told me that I must, she insisted that I..."

"How nice of her, Renata. Now a question: since when have you been taking legal advice from a housekeeper?" DeLuria's words always come out sounding like a snarl.

Renata bites down hard into her lower lip, to keep from responding. She locks eyes with Teresa. "I am going it alone," she announces. "I don't need his help. Come on Teresa, Arthur, we have a job to do and we aren't going to get it done hanging around here."

Teresa turns to Renata and takes hold of her by both shoulders. "Don't do this Renata. You've got to let DeLuria help, he can introduce the new evidence, he can do it the right way and maybe make them see that you are..."

"NO!" Renata is trembling from head to foot and her mouth is dry like cotton. She pushes Teresa's arms away. "I don't care if I die in the gallows, I'm not putting myself at the mercy of this man ever again. I can present the evidence myself and when I do I will have the spirit of the Virgin Mary there to support me. That's what Señora told me would happen and that's exactly what I am going to do."

DeLuria gestures a hand in disgust and returns to his office. "Good luck," he says as he climbs the stairs to the second floor. "You'll need all you can get that's for sure!"

Nothing Teresa says persuades Renata to come down from the wagon to talk to DeLuria. A half hour passes before Teresa reluctantly climbs back to her seat beside Renata on the wagon. Arthur quietly takes up the reins and pushes the horse into a walk down the long hill to the courtroom and jail.  As they grow near they can see the gallows still in place, the rope shaped like a single teardrop falling from the crosspole, waiting to hang Renata.