To this day, and to the end of all my days, I will carry the madrone tree deep inside me. But never did I expect to share my shame in words, at least not here on this page. So many years ago, I confessed the sins committed beneath the madrone to Father Crucifer. In the months before I became a novitiate, the nightmares grew so terrifying that I woke up feeling like I was choking. I would lie there, a sweaty heap in my bed, and I would dread falling asleep again because they, the night terrors, would return. Finally I was so sleep deprived that I knew I had no choice but to bring the dreams to the confessional; I poured my heart out there in that cedar closet, with only the dark screen between me and Father Crucifer. After the confession, I knew for certain that I had been forgiven of any responsibility. Father Crucifer himself told me that I was not to blame myself for what happened. My cousin the brute, had abused me.
Alas then, why now must I relive the madrone again here? Why is it that as I rot away in this cell, I am plagued once again by what happened so long ago beneath that red-skinned tree? Why am I cursed to have to re-experience the nightmares? Why have I been waking up with Antonie’s wild young face and strong sweaty hands still strangling my sleep?
Teresa insists that the dreams have started again for a very simple reason: I am enraged at Antonie for landing me here behind these rusty bars. My fury, she says, is beyond containing. There is so much hatred, so much anger, bottled up inside me that it is resurrecting the old pain. All of it is beginning to eat away at my heart. Worse, it’s starting to drown my soul.
“You must write it all down,” Teresa said in her last visit. “If you don’t, I’m afraid, his victory will indeed be complete.”
So I will confess it again, even though it seems so unfair, that he made me the victim once, and now again, I’m the one who’s suffering.
I see the tree so clearly. I see its rich burgundy bark, as smooth to the touch as Uncle Rio’s famous oak door, the one that opens onto the front porch of the hacienda. That door was more than 250 years old when it was imported by boat and train and wagon from Ronda in southern Spain to Carmel in California.
The handsome red madrone was even sleeker to the touch than that door. And its skin was deep red, as bronze as the skin of an Indian. The tree grew at the far end of Uncle Rio’s vast fruit orchard. Peaches and pears, plums, and a few apples filled the orchard. Antonie and I spent many happy days in the orchard the first summer I arrived. We would take the guitars, and a lunch basket prepared by Señora with lots more food than the two of us could possibly consume. And we would play guitars for hours. He was a good teacher, mostly because he didn’t say much, nor did he correct me very often. He played and I copied, and he played, and I copied better the second time. The days melted away.
He took me to the madrone for the first time at the end of July. The madrone snaked into the sky about 30 feet high, towering over a thicket of live oak that lined a small ravine. We sat by the Muddy Bear Creek on the bank of that ravine and Antonie explained to me that the creek ran high until about April every year. By this time of the season, though, the creek was bone dry.
“Which is sad,” he said, “because we have no place to cool off in the summer.”
He turned and looked at me and when I turned to look back at him, I saw a strange glint in his eye. I had started to see that glint more and more but I was young, and unfettered, and I chose to ignore it.
A moment later, he asked me if I wanted to see him climb the madrone.
I wrinkled my nose. “I’m not sure,” I said. “I suppose if I were certain you knew how to, then, sure, I would say yes. But how do I know if you can do it?”
He shrugged. His eyes shone. “I guess you will just have to trust me.” He unbuttoned his shirt and threw it aside. His chest was bare of any hair at all. But he was far more muscular than I expected he would be. I realized that his body was that not of a boy at all, but a sturdy young man.
He hoisted himself to the first branch, which was just above my head. Turning, he stood above me with his legs apart and he called down to me.
“You would love it up here, and I could help you climb up.”
“Not a chance,” I said. I was wearing a long skirt, and even the thought of my feet leaving the ground frightened me.
He took hold of a higher branch. He pulled himself up to the next height and threw himself forward, bending over the branch and hanging with his head below the bough. The branch swayed.
“Oh be careful,” I gasped from below.
“I know exactly what I am doing Renata,” he called back. The last I saw of his face was his smile, which I didn’t often see. He was so very quiet most of the time. So solemn. Now all I remember is that awful smile. Not a smile of joy, but one of conquest.
I watched him pull himself to standing on that bough. And then he was so high into the green blue greenery of the tree that he disappeared from view.
“Now it’s time to come down,” I cried nervously. “I cannot see you anymore.”
“But I can see you,” he said triumphantly. “And I can see everything else from here too. I can see clear to the house, and up to the ridge.”
“Good, but it’s dangerous. Please Antonie, please come down.” Frowning nervously, I found a rock on which to sit. I caught my skirt under my knees and tucked it close around my ankles. I sat there rocking back and forth, waiting.
I heard the leaves swiping against each other. I heard a branch crack. And a gasp. “Uh oh.”
I stood. “What? What? What is happening up there?”
He grew silent.
“Antonie? Please, can’t you at least answer me? Tell me what is happening?”
I could feel my pulse running. I could imagine having to race back through the orchard to the house to have to tell Uncle Rio that Antonie was stuck in the tree. Or worse, that he had fallen. I don’t know how Uncle Rio could take another blow. Another loss would surely kill him.
“Oh drat,” Antonie called. Another branch cracked.
“What are you doing?” I screamed.
“Oh, oh, it’s OK I think… I think I’ve found a way down,” he called. I raced outward from the trunk to try to see where he was, and how he was making progress, but to no avail. I couldn’t see a thing.
“I guess…I guess I will try coming down this way, by sitting down,” he said. I could almost imagine him up there. I could almost see him sitting on a branch and thinking.
“Please please please Antonie can’t you come down right now?” I cried. I was practically sobbing.
“I’m trying Renata. I’m trying.”
I kept picturing myself having to tell Uncle Rio that Antonie had fallen. All I could think was, Antonie will die, just like his mother did, and then Uncle Rio will be destroyed. And all that will be left will be me. And Senora.
I came back to the trunk. I gazed upward, and just as I did, he slid right by me, yelling, dropping from the branch above me. He landed at my feet in a heap and fell to the side.
“DEAR GOD!” I cried, watching his collapse.
For a moment I stood, frozen in place. I saw his face. So so still. His eyes were closed. His mouth hung open.
Slowly, I dropped to my knees beside him. I was sobbing. “Oh my dear dear cousin, please please please wake up,” I cried. “Oh why did you have to go up the tree? Why why why?” He lay there, as still as stone. I began crying harder.
“I don’t know what I will do without you. Please please please, Antonie, can’t you please wake up?” I knew I had to go for help, but first I bent forward and reached one hand toward his nose, to see if he was still breathing.
My fingers were just grazing his upper lip when his eyes flew open and he grabbed me. I gasped and pulled back but not in time. He had my hand vised in his and he pulled me forward making me fall right on top of him.
He cupped his other hand around my neck and he rolled over me as if I were a log beneath him. All the while I screamed and thrashed. “Oh let me go, let me go, oh you are so horrible, why are you doing this, let me go!!!”
By then, though, he was straddled on top of me, pressing his fleshy lips into mine. He caressed me over and over again, he covered my face with his wet lips, despite my yelling, despite my telling him to “get off me, let me go, get away, just get away from me, let me goooooooooooooo!!!!!”
He wouldn’t let up. He took both elbows and planted one on either side of my neck, to make it harder for me to move. Then he planted his face deep in my neck.
“Oh my dear dear cousin,” he said. I could feel his lower body, dear God, I could feel him growing rock hard, as if he had grown one of the madrone’s own branches there inside his trousers. He pulled up my skirt and he lay full on top of me. I tried to scream but he held a dirty sweaty hand over my mouth. He never removed his clothing, because he didn’t have time. But he pressed himself against me, and he rubbed himself in a fury, while I lay there, helpless, yelling into the palm of his hand, over and over again he thrust against me, and finally, he shuddered, and fell heavily against me.
A moment after he had finished his dirty business, he rolled over to the side, and I rolled the other way, and bawling, I curled up into a little ball. And when I could find my strength, I picked myself up and ran all the way back to the house.
The world as I knew it, it just collapsed that day. I never said a word to anyone about it, until three years later, when I was about to become a novitiate. But no matter what Antonie said, or how many times he tried to apologize for his monstrous behavior, I never gave him even a moment to speak of it again. Quite simply, my relationship with him –and life itself—was never the same after that.