At this moment, Sister Renata isn’t doing what she should be. Instead of attending to the steaming and starching of altar cloths in the convent laundry, instead of standing at the kitchen sink washing spinach or shaving carrots for Father Crucifer’s soup, she is instead standing before the familiar oak chest of drawers undressing, catching an eyeful of herself in the small wooden mirror propped on top. The nun's childlike fingers move in the normal manner, even if they aren’t attending to prayer, even if they aren’t locked around the black onyx rosary beads, even if they aren’t fingering the carved silver surface of the crucifix. Instead, her damp fingers are trembling slightly as they unfasten the three black buttons at the side of her wool skirt and the row of buttons at each of her wrists.
For the long line of buttons at the back of her shirt, she reaches awkwardly behind, elbows askew. If she were at the convent, as well she should be, husky Sister Theresa would be standing behind, whispering warm air into her neck, laughing, assisting her, all the while persisting with one of her ribald jokes about the older, crippled priest, Father Ruby.
But Sister Renata isn’t there, she is here unfastening the long string of rosary beads from the hook at her waist, and then collecting them into a rattling handful that spills over her fist, onto the oak dresser next to the mirror. She lets the skirt and shirt drop limp to the floor, and momentarily she stares at the heap of black wool lying in disarray at her feet, noting with some horror that the habit looks like the discarded garb of a storybook witch. The thought shudders her, but not for long. She steps out of the habit. Bending low, she unties the knotted laces of her blocky black oxfords and she pulls them off one at a time. There she is, she the youthful nun in her soft white underclothes and short black veil, standing in the flow of desert sun streaming through the window, staring at one pale coin of herself reflected in the small round mirror.
Slowly she peels off her heavy black stockings and the white cotton underclothes and finally, she unpins the short black veil and lifts off the starched white headpiece that binds her forehead.
Soon the dress pools on the cool tile floor by her ankles. A pert smile flirts across her lips.
The handle of the door rattles behind her.
“Ready?” The voice hovers low at the crack of the door.
Renata inhales, her flat bosom rising. The top ruffles of the snug dress resist, move only slightly.
“Soon,” she calls back. “Yes…” she glances at herself in the mirror.
Yes, she thinks, Renata is ready for the dance, only -- only she is never quite ready for the dance partner and with this thought of Antonie waiting outside the door, one muscular arm leaning into the frame of the door, the palm of the hand flat against the narrow band of wood, Renata’s eyes close and she smiles slightly and suddenly her hand drops to her right hip. The other arm rises into the air, and she throws her flood of hair back.
Her head twisted to the right, her neck high, her eyes the cocked slits of a cat, her bottom lip curled, she turns from the mirror and bends her knees. Soon comes the clatter of her heels on the worn pine floor. Slowly she turns, dropping her arms to one side, then gathers up ruffles in either hand.
Elbows bent, arms taut, her hands begin pumping in rhythm with her feet, her circles gather, her heels rattle faster and faster, she dips left with one shoulder, she twists right with the other, her head drops back, her torso arcs to a perfect C, and soon she is spinning, swaying, feet drumming, now one hand raised, the wrist twisted, the fingers splayed, as if she were grasping a wide fan, her fingers branched out toward the sky. Her body moves effortlessly through the routine, her arms and legs assuming their positions automatically, much the way her mouth moves mindlessly through her prayers the rest of the week.
“RENATA!” The voice cuts sharply through the door. A fist pounding now joins the metallic sound of the door handle. “NOW!”
She stops, her eyes open slowly, giving her a sudden glimpse of her slightly parted red lips in the tiny mirror. She is breathing hard. Instantly, she begins giggling, covering her mouth with both hands. And then, striking the pose again, head up, chest thrust out, she walks majestically toward the door, unlocks it and opens it slowly.
“Your games...” Antonie says, head shaking side to side beneath the wide-brimmed hat, dark eyes dropping, then bouncing back up, as if eyesight were a rubber ball, rebounding from the floor. “Your games…I am…honestly, I am tired of them.”
Renata smiles, lifts her chin, passes beneath Antonie’s raised arm planted on the door frame. Antonie wears the wide-brimmed felt hat, the black velvet jacket, the tight-fitting black pants that accentuate his narrow hips, pants threaded on the outside edge in a line of clear red and emerald beads and a purple and turquoise braid.
“My games,” Renata says, quietly, setting one hand on her swaying hip as she stares out beneath the velvet arm that forms an arch, not unlike the small arch to one side of the main chapel, “my games are exactly what I am here for. No?” She gazes over her bare shoulder. “Tell me, Antonie, without the games, what precisely would there be?” She pivots and gives him the look, and he moves swiftly from the door after her, as if riveted to the sharp metallic rattle of her shoes on the cool adobe tiles of the hall.
As they reach the halfway point in the long hallway, Renata stops, turns again, and grazing Antonie’s smooth face with her fingertips, she brings the outside of each delicate hand to rest on the black velvet shoulders. For a moment, Renata seems poised, the couple looks ready to dance. But instead they embrace, Renata reaching up, Antonie down, the two pressing their open mouths together. Renata pulls away.
“That,” she says, pivoting on the point of her toe, proceeding down the white stucco hallway of the elegant Spanish hacienda, “that is to show you I do sometimes need you in the way you think you need me.” Antonie lurches out, tries to grab her, to catch her slight waist but Renata slips away and laughs.
She picks up her ruffles and her pace, so that she is practically running through the hall, so that her cleats make a ragged clatter of metal against the floor as she hurries toward the dining room. There, the light is brighter. Hanging from the ceiling is an antique wagon wheel, into which are set thick candles. Today the candles are all lit. The ceiling is braced in dark beams, and the white walls are hung in turquoise and grey wool rugs and the thick trestle table runs almost the length of the immense room. The table is set for two, as it always is, with a wooden plate at each side, and heavy silverware resting on white cloth napkins. In the center of the table are two thick white candles, also lit, and a large shallow wooden bowl full of milky white gardenias. A painted clay plate to one side holds a variety of castanets, each set different, some pairs carved out of ivory, some of carved and painted wood.
Without waiting for a cue, Renata takes up the white ivory castanets, imbedded with abalone, and slips them on her fingers. As she does, she steps effortlessly from the floor to the leather saddle seat of a chair directly to the top of the trestle table, so that as Antonie arrives in the room, she is standing above, adorning the trestle, her muscular calves at work, both arms raised above her head, her feet pounding, already immersed in the rhythms of the dance. The sharp crackle of the castanets alternates with the pounding of her shoes on wood.
Antonie picks up the Spanish guitar
Antonie eyes the naked leg, then looks down at the guitar, slipping the right fingers in a nimble rasgueado across the strings. Slowly, Renata makes her way the length of the table, working her heels, her hips, all the while her red lips are set firmly in a line. As she approaches the wooden bowl in the center it begins to rattle, to twist, the drumming of her feet setting the bowl, the fragrant gardenias, in a slow tipsy spin.
The flames of the candles thin and flicker as she steps delicately between them, and the bottom-most ruffle of her dress just grazes the lip of hot wax pouring over the top edge of the thick candle. The heavy silver candlesticks, engraved like the door knob and crucifix, canter slightly out toward the edge of the table. Still Renata moves on, slowly, methodically, approaching the end of the long thick table as Antonie brings louder and louder rounds of sound from the guitar.
Antonie too moves forward, approaching the table. As Renata reaches the end, Antonie lays the guitar aside and extends both arms and Renata steps down, knees bent, both legs tucked into the ruffles. Delicately, she collapses into the waiting velvet arms, pushing Antonie’s hat to the floor. From beneath the hat cascades a flood of blue black hair, hair that takes the shape of a thick cloud, a mass of regular waves that form a cloak over the black velvet shoulders.
You could say this about the pair: they share a remarkable resemblance: the same color hair, the same exaggerated mouths, strongly curved lower lips, the same hue in their caramel skin. In a word, they are cousins, and they are sinking into more than one kind of sin there on the floor.
TO READ THE TRUE STORY, GO TO RENATA'S DIARY!!
Castenata is the inner "layer" of a story called Sister Mysteries, part of the Albany Times Union's Writing In Motion project, which features seven writers who are committed to completing their books by the end of the year. Castenata -- a book that author Claudia Ricci began composing back in 1995 -- is a time-travel murder mystery featuring a nun, Sister Renata. In 1883 the nun was falsely accused of murdering her cousin Antonie. It is this story, and others that Antonie wrote that "framed" the poor nun for murder! Renata's version of the story is contained within her diaries, the first of which can be found on this site.
This chapter was originally posted on June 3, 2006, in another blog. There was one comment:
Alcuin Bramerton said...
In a previous life you probably treated someone else like Antonie treated you this time round.