Saturday, November 27, 2010

CHAPTER EIGHT: Renata's Diary, Dr. Astorga Swears By Mercury to Cure Antonie


Renata’s Diary
July 25, 1883

Dr. Astorga swears by mercury. The silvery liquid has helped more of his patients in the late stages of syphilis than any other cure. Or so he claims. For medical reference he relies, oddly enough, almost exclusively on the writings of two 15th century Spanish physicians. “Is there nothing more…modern?”

I posed that question to Dr. Astorga in the first moments after Señora and I arrived at his elegant Nob Hill office, struggling to hold Antonie upright. All three of us wore the same yellow crust, road dust fixed into our skin, our clothes, and even, our teeth.
I asked my question politely. Or at least, I thought I did. But considering the physician’s reaction, clearly he heard my query as a direct assault on all of his knowledge and competency.

“So you seem to know a thing or two about syphilis, then?” Immediately, I reddened. His lips thinned and then froze in a sneer.

“Oh no, sir, I do not,” I mumbled, dropping my eyes to the polished surface of his desk. “I know nothing at all of this illness.”

Astorga sat behind his grandiose oak desk. He held two fingers together beneath his chin. In everything about him there is an affected air; even his softly drooping eyelids strike me as…dare I say…haughty, and even worse, deceitful. Forgive me Lord, but I did not like this man, not from the very start. But as I sat there, wanting to disappear from the room, I thought to myself, what choice have we got but to stay, no matter what? This doctor was certainly Antonie’s only hope.

I glanced to my cousin, who rested against Señora’s shoulder, the two of them sharing a bench off in one corner. Antonie was tightly bound in Señora’s flowered shawl, but it seemed to make no difference at all. He shook so badly that I could hear his teeth chatter.

Incredibly, Astorga took no notice of that. Instead, he proceeded to give us a long-winded story explaining how one Ruy Diaz de Isla happened to treat the syphilitic sailors of Christopher Columbus’ famed crew in 1493.

“It all began you see, with a rather grimy mistake. Columbus’ sailors, it is believed, chose very unwisely to wash their vermin-infested drawers in a pond of water at Palos, the port from which Columbus sailed, and that water later irrigated the vegetables. The cabbages, it is said, erupted in syphilitic lesions that were frightening to behold.”

Astorga paused, his lips curled in what his authoritative smile, a grin I already considered hateful to behold. I nodded, and it took all my internal force to ignore Antonie’s groaning. The doctor’s face at that moment was abhorrent to me: I still see his large square jaw, the neatly clipped mustache, and all those giant yellow teeth, one of which was capped in gold. The doctor’s black hair was perfectly coifed, but so bizarre: he wore a fairly top heavy pompadour, and on the sides, each oiled wave was pressed close to his skull.

At that moment, Antonie fell into coughing, and I jumped to his side. I thought for sure that Astorga would begin his physical examination of my cousin. But the doctor was ignoring Antonie, choosing instead to continue with his lecture on syphilis. I caught Senora’s eyes, which flared. There was that question: will you say something to him? But I knew I didn’t dare challenge the physician with a question once again.

Leaning back in his grand arm chair, fashioned of rich burgundy leather, and hammered with silver studs, Astorga pointed to his wall. “That tract hanging there is the actual frontispiece taken from Ruy Diaz de Isla’s famous book, Tractado Contra el Mal Serpentino.”

I stared at the yellowing page, framed ornately, the paper decorated in slithering black serpentine figures. The lettering was impossible to read. But Astorga proceeded coolly to explain and all I could do was stare at Antonie and Señora and wring my hands together as the doctor spoke.

“The tract was written in 1539, and still has not been translated into English. Of course I was able to read it in its original Castilian,” Astorga boasted, punctuating his statement with a hatefully patrician gleam. “Without question, Diaz de Isla’s scholarly work provides us proof that the scourge originated in the American equatorial island of Hispaniola.”

I shifted in my chair and thought, Dear God, keep me from tearing at this man’s hair. Antonie had stopped shaking, but he was further collapsed into Senora, his head now resting in her lap, his legs extended well off the chair.

At that moment, Astorga rose, and so did my hopes, thinking yes, yes, he will attend to Antonie now. But instead, Astorga crossed to the other side of the office and reached for a large book on the top shelf of his bookcase. “There is of course a second and quite notable 15th century scholar, poet, philosopher and physician in this field. Francisco Lopez de Villalobos, and he was among the very first to recognize and treat the disease.”

He carried the book around to the front of his desk and sat on one corner, where his leg was only inches from me. “As a young medical student, I traveled in 1862 from Barcelona to London, to the British Museum, where I sat in the stacks and read from cover to cover one of the four remaining copies of Villalobos’ book, this very book you are looking at right now. Remarkably, Villalobos’ work is still in use three centuries later. He was the first, we believe, to introduce the use of mercury and that treatment remains our best defense in the battle against this pernicious disease.
Villalobos wrote his book shortly after the arrival of Columbus, and it contained a lovely poem that I have framed in ebony in the other room…”

While Astorga mused over poetry, Antonie’s breathing was becoming more labored. I shifted uneasily in my chair. Was there nothing I could do to hasten this doctor to perform the business of curing? Did he know nothing but what was between the pages of his dusty old books? In one corner of my eye, I could see Senora struggling desperately to hold onto Antonie as he thrashed to the left and the right. But to Astorga, Antonie might have been invisible.

Astorga flipped through the flimsy pages of the book.

“You know, dear Sister, that both of these fine Spanish doctors of the fifteenth century were of strong religious faith?” He paused and I shook my head slightly.

“I had no idea,” I replied.

“Yes, both doctors were most decidedly religious men,” he continued, examining his well-manicured nails. I watched his lips, and thought for a moment, is that indeed a look of lechery forming there?

“Like all good religious men,” he went on, “both of these fine doctors believed that las bubas, the Spanish name for syphilis, was a scourge delivered on men specifically because of their…” and here he paused, and his voice dropped, and his face came forward toward mine, so that I could see the very pores of his skin, “…because of their carnality, the vile nature of their sins.”
My face colored again, and I was about to reprimand him, for how dare he speak so freely with me about the connection between Antonie’s illness and sexual excess and sin?

My mouth opened, and I heard a scream, and for a fraction of a moment, I thought perhaps it might be my own.

But no. It was Señora. Antonie had rolled from her lap onto the floor. He landed with a loud thump. My cousin’s hat had fallen aside and his long hair was splayed like a dark wedding train. I jumped from my chair and was there at his side in an instant. Without any hesitation, I eyed the doctor, who was still sitting astride the desk.

“My God, will you please come here immediately, my cousin needs you, desperately,” I screamed. And then, perhaps because it had been so many days since I had slept, I seemed to lose all touch with reality. I screamed louder.

“Can’t you see that he has fallen because he is near death? Are you a doctor at all or are you some kind of a librarian? Have we come all this way for nothing, just to listen to you lecture there from that book?”

Thankfully, Señora took hold of my arm, and held me back. I sank, wilted, to the floor.

The doctor rose and his eyes widened and froze as he crossed the room in two large strides. He reached toward me and I thought for sure he would strike me, but I didn’t care. I’d already decided, I was ready for whatever transpired.

Instead, though, Astorga grabbed his black leather bag and kneeled on the floor beside Antonie, who was on his back, his face more grey and sweaty than I’d ever seen before.

“Move aside,” Astorga commanded me. So I settled beside Señora, who was kneeling there, murmuring prayers in Spanish.

The doctor laid the stethoscope on Antonie’s chest, and took my cousin’s pulse. “He is indeed quite ill,” Astorga muttered, and I had all I could do not to strike the doctor with a fist.

At his direction, the three of us -- Astorga, Señora and me -- proceeded to lift my cousin and drag him to an adjacent room, where we hoisted him onto a clean bed. “I will be ready to begin shortly,” Astorga said, and then he left the room for a moment, evidently to prepare the mercury.

And so Señora and I sat with Antonie between us, each of us cushiong his shoulders and head. Almost immediately, I noticed over my cousin’s head, a large ebony frame. And in it, a poem, evidently the one that Astorga described.

As Señora prayed, I read the poem. Curiously, it brought me tender thoughts of the convent. And my heart was squeezed as I realized anew how far I was from home:

“Hatred, strife and combat make man forget his God.
Passion clothed in filth lifts up its noisome head.
Thus is man and mother church trodden in the sod,
And honest men forget their nuptial word
And seek in darkest night the harlot’s golden bed.”

Thursday, November 25, 2010

THE NEWSPAPER THAT HELPS CONDEMN SISTER RENATA!!

September 13, 1883
NUN MAY HANG FOR COUSIN'S MURDER!!
By John P. Tolder
Correspondent

VALLEJO, CALIF. –A man murdered and a nun – his own cousin – charged with the bloody crime! A convent stunned and a prominent California family shattered! This only partially tells the tale of one of the most dreadful crimes of modern times. This quiet law-abiding town has been rocked by a grizzly killing, the kind of sensational crime that is not likely to disappear quickly from the headlines or the imaginations of the stunned local populace.

“This is not your everyday murder,” observed District Attorney G.W. Wordsworck. “The grim and sordid details would satisfy even the most blood-thirsty criminal minds.”

Wordsworck promised to seek the death penalty. “If the nun is convicted, I promise you, she will hang.”

A mighty retinue of state and local law enforcement authorities have descended on this pleasant locale, known for its groves of huge live oak trees, to investigate the death of one Antonie Quiero de Lopez, a prominent (and the ladies agree, a handsome) landowner, discovered lying face up on September 3rd in a pool of blood in the bedroom of his magnificent hacienda-style home. According to authorities, his jugular vein had been severed with a straight razor. And in a gory detail, his Adam's apple was cored out of his neck!

Arrested and held without bail in the murder is a young novitiate of the Sisters of Saint Dominic. On September 4, exactly a day after the horrific crime, Sister Maria Rosa Renata (a first cousin of Senor Quiero de Lopez) was arrested and escorted from the convent, her head unveiled and hanging in shame.

The very same day she was arrested, a sheriff's deputy found the nun's discarded black habit, coated in blood. "It had been buried hastily behind the vegetable garden," Wordsworck said.

The devoted nuns who remained in the convent were said to be in a frightful state, mortified by the idea that one of their own was capable of such brutality. One nun, Sister Teresa, said it was "hard to believe" that Renata was capable of this vicious crime. "I'm certain she will be cleared."

The accused remains behind bars in Gallejo in the county jail while authorities prepare their murder case.

The nun would say only that she had been the "victim of a complicated conspiracy orchestrated" by her cousin to frame her for his murder.

Central to the case, according to authorities, is the discovery of a set of highly incriminating (and blood-stained) hand-written pages found in the victim’s rolltop desk. Sheriff’s authorities say the documents provide a titillating account that lays out, scene by scene, the shocking details of the Sister Renata’s lurid relationship with her cousin. The documents also describe the way the murder occurred.

“These documents not only place Sister Renata at the crime scene but show us in perfect detail how and why she killed her cousin,” D.A. Wordsworck said. “It is fair to say that these documents guided us right to the culprit’s door. They laid our case right at her feet. From the writing we see that Sister Renata is not only a murderess but a lying seductress too. She managed to live a double life, and she kept her fellow nuns in the dark about her behavior. That double life has ended now.”

Wordsworck called the letters “a godsend to find. But it is frightful for this evidence to come to light, since the letters reveal a cold-blooded, cold-hearted, premeditated crime.”

Considering the circumstances and the public outcry, Wordswork said the death penalty is in order. “It is the only suitable punishment for this ‘truly wicked’ crime. I'm going to see the nun hang!”

CHAPTER SEVEN: How Antonie Is Seduced by the Nun at CAMP!!

Only with great reluctance did Renata return to the campfire to lie in the bedroll that Señora had prepared for her.

Antonie was in a deep sleep when Renata woke him sometime during the night. The first thing to catch his eye as he came to consciousness was the moon, a glowing curl, visible just over Renata's shoulder, as if it were somehow entwined with her image as it moved toward him.

He knew that was an illusion, because her hair, naturally, was tied back and completely curtained by her dark veil. Her eyes shone, too, or at least the whites stood out, circling the irises that dropped with the rest of her looming form into night. All but the stark white swath of linen binding her forehead was black.

For a moment, he imagined the linen to be some insurmountable white barrier, the stone fence he once faced, years before, back when he was a child struggling to master the forbidding Arabian steed that his father had called “Paolo.” In an instant, Renata’s face had displaced the frustrating memory of the horse. Her breath was shallow and insistent, and before he was altogether sure what was happening, she was drawing him in over the white wall. Her lips were moist and warm, and her mouth lingered tenderly on his for a long time. In the morning, he knew for certain that she would deny that she had ever left her bed. In the morning, she would deny she had ever approached his cot, or knelt beside him, or that she had kissed him repeatedly, cradling his head, or that she had laid her own head briefly on his chest berfore she got into his bed and proceeded with her seduction.

Nonetheless, he let her proceed. He kept his eyes closed and tried to breathe in calmly as she unbuttoned his shirt and slipped the belt out of the hammered silver buckle of his pants. Silently, she set to work with her fingers, letting them pass lightly across his raised nipples, dipping them gradually toward the ribs, lettting them dance down his chest until he was heaving with impatient desire. Soon she traded lines for circles, the circles following the slight swell of flesh around his stomach. She enlarged the circles so slowly that he hardly noticed them widening, expanding, until, her hand just grazing the uppermost edge of his pubic hair, she proceeded to leave it there.

Her circling abruptly stopped, and her hand remained, poised, lightly running back and forth along the line at the top of the triangle of hair. He lay there, head flopping side to side, teeth digging into his bottom lip, not daring to moan because it might wake Señora, or the driver of the wagon, but praying all the while that Renata would keep on, dip further with her fingers, let them encompass the rest of him. His legs turned liquid, and limp. Tired of waiting, he groped impatiently for her hand. He allowed himself to groan, and to call out once, “please, Renata, now.” And then, his own hand shaking, he pulled at her fingers, desperately pushing them downward, at which point she froze, and grabbed her hand away from his groin.

“No,” she said abruptly, her voice stern. She rose and he lay there, his eyes wet, his chest heaving. For the first time he realized that he was almost completely exposed to the damp night air. He shuddered, but made no attempt to cover himself, there, where his desire welled.

“You…you are so unfair to me,” he began, tears pooling. “You are…” but he couldn’t finish, because his voice had risen to a high pitch, and he felt choked off and breathless. After a moment he was able to continue, but only in fits and starts. “I…I lie here…I …I am…half crazy with desire…I am in sheer agony when I’m near you…I am helpless around you, and you, you know that, you know that so well. Helpless. I am helpless to do anything about my…myself, the way I am…you know that too, you know me so well, so long. You know, and yet you…you just…you just keep taking advantage of me.”

The last words were barely audible. She stood over him, and he was horrified to see that she was smiling, she was delighting in his humiliation once again. Whenever this happened, whenever she led him to his breaking point, and left him there, abandoned him, unwilling to follow through, to show him she cared, he felt as though he had to start over, invent himself anew.

“It’s too bad that you’ve developed such an…attachment to me,” she murmured after a moment had passed. “You know,” and here she sighed deeply, and he wondered if it was just for effect, “you know Antonie, or you should, that this is…this has been so…so hard for me, too, your illness especially, trying to coax you through, this has been more difficult than you can imagine.”

He raised himself to both elbows and poised there, trembling. If she could have seen his face then, she would have observed an unusual fury in his eyes, a brutal anger creasing his forehead and pulling back his lips and chin.

“Hard? For you? Hard for you?” His voice was coarse and throaty. “For you, no, this isn’t hard. This isn’t hard at all. And this isn’t new either. This is, this is what you do best, best in all the world. You tease and mock me, yes, you mock me, you scorn me, you always have, forever, ever since you were the horrifying child I grew up with.” Exhausted, he dropped back off his elbows onto the makeshift bed, which wobbled with his every move.

She was silent again, and again, he couldn’t imagine her face. Nor did he want to. He vowed not to think of her again, not to let her come near him, to tempt him, tease him, and then, let him down. But it was fruitless, and he knew that too. Within a few days, another episode, another encounter, another seduction by Renata would follow, because that is how it went, always.
Gazing at her, he could barely make out the white linen fence.

“I suppose I could lie with you, lie next to you, that is, for a short time, if that would calm you.” Her voice blended into the night wind.

He stared at the stars, pinpoints of light in the blue black night sky. He watched one of the points flicker and blink. “Am I awake or asleep?” he asked himself then.

It occurred to him that if he would just keep asking that same question over and over throughout the night, then it might not matter what Renata said, or did, because she would simply assume a place beside him, a place in one of his grand illusions. She might seem real, or she might not. But she would be fixed for certain in her uncertainty and she could not hurt him anymore. She would become, simply, a matter for discussion, observation, an unstable image or object evading direct perception, one of a myriad fluid aspects of nature. Her reality, simply, would reside apart from him behind a curtain. He could live with that. At least he thought so, in that moment, lying there, staring at the winking stars.

But almost immediately, and maybe because of the way the stars flickered, he wasn’t sure. After all, he knew so little about the boundaries of trickery and sorcery and witchcraft. And Renata, after all was said and done, was of that nether world.

“Yes, I would lie with you,” she said in an enchanting whisper. And before he could answer, or refuse, she stretched herself alongside him on the cot. As he felt the rough black fabric of her habit against his bare skin, he thought of her soft white underclothes beneath, and beneath those clothes, her flesh, as soft as the underbelly of a new pup. As she cupped her clothed body submissively around his, his mind circled around one fact: that black is black and white is white, and the world, understandably, wasn’t ready to accept someone like himself, or Renata, either, people who so casually blurred the distinctions of propriety and good taste.

“So why,” he asked himself, “should we be any different than we are? Why should we be shy about our desire?” That thought squared him, gave him assurance and peace, eased his mind, allowed him to let go of his anger and frustration. He folded her in his arms and stared into the dark sky and held her black and white layers to his yearning flesh, and he felt terror about what was to come, the grotesque treatments the doctor would soon prescribe. He feared dying, but even more, he dreaded living through what was in store.

But now he lay quietly beside Renata, happy to absorb himself in the stars, and in her, and in the curl of the moon approaching the horizon. In his feverish state, her words echoed and reverberated in his mind. He heard her saying: “I would lie with you, I would lie with you.” But soon enough, like the winds cooling his forehead, the words shifted. “I would lie with you” became “I would lie in you.” The vacillation continued until finally her words achieved their final form: “I would lie to you, I would lie to you.” He felt her warm breath, heard her singing whisper, and knew that “I would lie to you” was the only truthful statement he would hear from her all night.

Castenata is the inner "layer" of an on-line book 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 wrote 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. Renata's version of the story is contained within her diaries, the first of which can be found on this site.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

CHAPTER SIX: "Boiling Over," Antonie Writes About Renata at Camp


It was their first night at camp en route to San Francisco. They had been traveling for the better part of one day, all the way from the convent, and shortly before dusk, when the sun's rays had fallen behind the horizon, and the sky was a milky blue, Señora Ramos pulled the wagon up to a stream, where they proceeded to water the horses.

After a simple dinner of corn meal and beans, Renata withdrew from the fire.  She hugged the blue shawl closer around her shoulders, tucking her slender white fingertips protectively into the folds of her elbows on either side. The shawl was satin, and hardly offered protection against the chilly night. A brisk wind lifted the lip of her veil and scooped at the hem of her dress. A tall line of trees made a ragged black silhouette against the dark sky, and tiny stars dotted the sky like diamonds.

Renata's chin dropped to her chest, and she rocked, slightly, with some impatience. The toe of her black shoe was barely visible, but it kept time in the loose gravel where she stood, tapping out the rhythm of some vital internal clock. She avoided Antonie, even managed to ignore the odd collection of noises –wheezing, coughs, congestion, and steady chattering – that rose from him as he lay on blankets on the ground. She had taken her share of the dinner basket – a cold thigh of chicken, a hunk of sourdough bread, a sweet potato baked in the stones of the campfire – and she had eaten the meal on a warm rock, apart from the others.

She faced the steep ridge of the Santa Cruz mountains that they would climb through the following morning, and she watched the last of the sun slip down the western sky, and she wondered how the traveling would go, with Antonie so ill.

Once the sun dropped into a dark pool behind the mountains, though, she put aside her concerns and walked back to the fire. There were more night noises now, and there was no telling what creatures – bobcats, jaguar, bear — roamed the gathering shadows beyond the campfire.

Señora hummed a low wordless melody, huddled over her open-toed leather sandals, her white cotton skirt spread in the powdery dust. Renata listened closely to the tune, but could not identify it nor could she say even whether she had heard it before. She wished then that when Antonie had come to take her from the convent kitchen in the morning, that she had been able to bring her guitar, although under the harried circumstances of her departure, there was no time even to pack a simple change of clothes. She stared at him, and hateful thoughts flooded her.

As if he were reading her mind at that moment, Antonie looked up from his makeshift bed, which Señora had prepared as soon as they had made camp. Antonie had instructed Señora to place his head close toward the fire, so if he woke during the night he might have sufficient light to write "his pages." Señora defied him, however, saying in Spanish that she dare not place his blanket right next to the flames, lest stray sparks set fire to the bedroll or to "el pelo," the long black hair that rippled in waves over Antonie's shoulders.

“I would like it so much if you would sing to me,” he said now to Renata. He lifted one hand in her direction, and spoke slowly but with deliberation. Renata saw that he was shivering, and that his face was wet beneath the brim of his hat. The jumping flames of the fire
licked golden stripes in both his eyes.

“You know I came on this trip only because you forced me to come. I have no intention of singing to you,” Renata responded, lowering her eyes so that the flames could find no reflection there. She was going to add the word ‘ever’ but just then, the coffeepot toppled over and sent boiling liquid into the fire.

Señora rose abruptly, yelling out “Dios mío!” Grabbing at the fiery pot with the bottom of her cotton skirt, Señora managed to lift her dress high enough to show off her brown wiggling thighs. She missed the pot, which hit the ground, discharging sizzling liquid all around. Hot black coffee shot out at Renata’s feet and Antonie’s head. Simultaneously, Antonie turned and the nun jumped away, so that the coffee all but missed her dark skirt and her blue shawl
and his black hair. Señora crossed the distance to where Renata stood gazing at the coffee pot as it roasted in the flames.

Señora began a furious babble of Spanish.

“No, no, Señora, please, don’t worry, I am fine,” Renata said, calmly touching the woman’s thick graying hair. Señora looked up, and shook her head, her eyes large and round. There was contained in those eyes a pleading look that Renata had never seen before.

“You...we...God, I believe, He is telling us that we must be more kind to him,” Señora whispered, at which Renata recoiled, mouth open. She tossed one loose end of the blue shawl across her chest and hurried out of the light of the campfire. For the rest of the evening, until the sky went pitch dark, and the fire settled into glowing red and white coals, and the stars were dull sparks glittering above her head, Renata sat on the same large rock where she had eaten her dinner.

She listened to the coyotes call, and she prayed that she would see no wolves or bobcats. And then she whispered a second prayer asking God that whatever He had in mind for her as they traveled to San Francisco the next day to see the doctor, that all would be well.

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 wrote 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. Renata's version of the story is contained within her diaries, the first of which can be found on this site.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

CHAPTER FIVE: Antonie Kidnaps Me From the Convent Kitchen


Renata’s Diary


July 21, 1883

Dear Mary, so many times over these last days, I have closed my eyes and just prayed. I see you everywhere. I see you in the sunrise, and in the amazing evening sky. Sometimes I even see you in my dreams and it seems like you are speaking to me, saying that you will watch over me.  I say the Hail Marys, over and over again. I pray the rosary in my sleep. I keep praying, and I pray that you will hear my prayers. Antonie appeared at the convent almost ten days ago and still in my apron, he took me against my will to San Francisco. Señora Ramos drove the wagon and we camped, and no, we are not home yet! I place myself in your hands, Mary, I stare into the sunset and I let my eyes rest on the powder blue sky, and I hide there, pretending that I am protected by the gauzy folds of your sky blue veil. Please, Mary, please protect me.


Mother Yolla had chosen me for a whole week of lunch duty, because she said cooking “suited” me, so there I stood on Friday morning in the kitchen, patiently chopping a large onion, dropping the pure white slices into the hot sputtering oil.

I hummed to myself, and my thoughts turned to the falseta I had been strumming the night before on the guitar, and I had a flash out of nowhere of the altar, and the large silver cross that keeps watch over the chapel. And then once again I was back in the kitchen, mindlessly pushing the wooden spoon through the sizzling onions, mixing them together with the tiny slivers of garlic that had already turned golden and crisp at the bottom of the cast iron pan.

A cloud of onion fumes rose into my eyes (I write this here and can still feel the sting of the tears). I set three red peppers
on the wooden cutting board, and prepared to slice them along their length, Teresa appeared, carrying a pile of plump green chiles in her garden basket. She added a couple green chiles to my pepper pile, turned and disappeared into the garden again.

A second cloud of onion
rose up, and this one got my tears flooding, and at first I tried mopping them on the sleeve of my habit, but finally, as the tears wouldn’t stop, I pulled my long white apron up to cover my face. Holding the cotton apron in two hands, I began laughing, thinking, here I am crying over one large onion in a frying pan.

But when I dropped the apron, my laughter vanished, because there filling the small window in the pantry behind the kitchen was Antonie’s wilted face. As he was pressed up close against the wavy glass, his features were distorted. He looked more ghastly than I had ever seen him look before.

Where had this sad specter of a man come from? Certainly he wasn’t supposed to be here, he was never ever supposed to appear at the convent, that much he knew as well as I did. Antonie himself had told me repeatedly that Father Ruby had clearly forbidden him entry. When I asked why, Antonie replied that at some time, he would explain “every last detail” of the arrangement that he had with Father Ruby regarding me; but indeed, I had been told this much: he was forbidden at the convent, which explained why I always went to visit him.

But here now was his face flushed and streaked and red, pasted against the crosspole of the window.

He looked all the more odd, divided as he was into four window panes. At first it looked to me as though he had been running, because his skin was shiny with sweat, and his long black hair was slicked to his head and his black hat dangled on his back by the leather strings tied at his chin. He was open-mouthed and breathing hard, and in his eyes was a tired, sallow look. He met me at the door.

“Why have you come?” My voice quivered. I had opened the door no more than a crack, and I was whispering and trembling. I was angry and afraid, and something else too, something I couldn’t identify clearly, but it too was crawling all over me and made me feel soiled. Antonie took one step forward, and wobbled there, barely able to place the square toe of his boot against the door, and his face swerved forward to the opening, and I could see the remote look in his eyes.

Suddenly he lifted his hand and he bit hard, desperately, into his own knuckles. His eyes shone large and empty and glossy. He raised one hand up, and he braced his open palm against the doorframe, and he gasped for breath. Looming there, his arm arched over me, he scared me. He trembled, and those eyes of his bored into me.

“I want to ask…I must ask that you accompany me,” he wheezed, and I was already shaking my head before he finished, in complete and utter amazement and disbelief, that he was here, that he was asking something that I clearly could never do. All the time I stared at him I was aware of those liquid black eyes on me, eyes that looked like they had been ladled out of death. His moist red face was inches from my own, and the smell of his breath was rotten.

“You…must be crazy, that’s impossible,” I said, and thought then in a great rush that he would indeed prove to be the death of me, or certainly the dishonor. “You know that I cannot think of such a thing, and that you could even imagine it, or propose it.”

“Listen,” he demanded, and despite his exhaustion, he maintained his imperious stare. His eyes opened wider still. “I will explain. I have Senora with me. I have also hired a coach and a driver, for your…for all of our comfort. I need you to come with me to see the specialist in San Francisco. We leave immediately.”

He had spoken before of this doctor. We had discussed his worsening condition, the syphilis, how he would need to see someone with skills beyond those of the local physician.

“But I am in no position to go, not now, not ever, you must know that,” I said, letting the door swing open a little wider, and with that, he stumbled forward and he grabbed onto me.

And the two of us back stepped inside. The frying pan sent up its woeful steam of onions, now turning black. The noonhour was quickly approaching and the nuns would be clamoring for lunch, or as Mother Yolla called it, “our midday repast.” Meanwhile, here was Antonie straddling over me, barely able to stand up.

His heavy boots clattered on the kitchen floor. And he filled the room with his height, and with his foul smell. I caught another glance of those pained, brooding eyes. He was, to my way of seeing, a swarm of dark clouds hovering, threatening a downpour – or more—over my calm morning sky.

“Please, Antonie, please, you must leave, you must go, now, you know that, please, before anyone discovers you, because if you are here, I don’t who knows what could happen to me, I’m not sure what Mother Yolla will do, but the two of them, please..." I managed to push him away.

He swayed, and took hold of the wall. I raised my apron in both hands and twisted it. I thought of trying to hammer him with my fists, because I was so angry, but I was much more afraid to touch him, as he listed so weakly.

His mouth opened twice before he got the next words out. “My dear Renata, pl…ease pl…ease cousin.” He whispered and leaned forward as he did, so that I could smell that fetid warm breath. Then he bent his head slightly to one side. “”Father Ruby…likes me,” he said, a queer smile spreading across his lips. A glaze of sweat lay there too. “

And he is most urgently concerned about my…health. The good father… needs me, my…” Here he started coughing. His head came forward and when he raised his face again, I was horrified to see a paste of blood on his chin. He leaned forward again and forced his words out, between gasps.

“You see, he ...Father Ruby is most concerned that I continue making my donations.” Here Antonie paused and his face was a leering grin. He lifted the back of his hand to the side of my face. I shuddered. And then he uttered five words that I wish I had never heard.

“He insists...that you go.” And five more. "I've got to take you."

With this, Antonie swiveled and sank to the floor.  Here was the man who had once commanded whatever he willed, who thrilled in his own power, who delighted in satisfying his every desire, who dictated even to the likes of our own priest and master.

I cried out to see him look so pathetic.

At that moment, Señora’s face appeared at the pantry window, and seeing Antonie, she rushed in.  Her face.  Lined.  And worn.

And behind her.  Father Ruby.  Giving me a look that I will never forget: something I can only call primitive, he motioned to the two of us to help him lift Antonie up. And as the onions turned to blackened wisps on the stove, and then to char, the three of us dragged Antonie to the grey wagon.  And lifted him to a pile of blankets on the back.

As we set off, I turned to see Father Ruby pivot and retreat into the rectory.  Rage flooded me and so too, did utter hatred, and then I reined in both emotions: this was no way to feel toward the priest.  God was almost certain to punish me for my despicable thoughts.   But in my heart, I could see.  He was simply a despicable old man.

My eyes filled and I closed my hands around my face.  Señora murmured something to try to comfort me.  But I would not be comforted.  For there I was, still in my apron, and with the odor of the kitchen onions still clinging to my hair.  I had not a stitch of extra clothing with me, not even a cape or my shawl, and I was off for who knew how long to God knew where.

But no sooner did I feel a chill than Señora patted my hand and I saw that she carried for me the blue satin shawl, all covered in red flowers, and dripping in long fringe.

“Un rebozo,” she murmured wrapping my shoulders and that just made me cry harder.

She began to hum something.  Ah.  But it was the same lament that Antonie liked to strum on his guitar.  That music just played more cruelly on my mind and I cried harder.

“No más,” I said.  And so she stopped.  But the tune kept up for hours in my head as we drove over the bumpy roads.  The music coiled and coiled there, reminding me of my poor mother, and her untimely death, and the childhood that I never had.

"Castenata" is a murder mystery featuring a nun, Sister Renata. In 1883 the nun was falsely accused of murdering her cousin Antonie. Renata keeps her diaries to present her side of the story. The tales Antonie wrote "framed" the poor nun for murder! 

Sunday, November 21, 2010

CHAPTER FOUR: "ROSEBLADE" is all a lie!


Renata’s Diary

April 13, 1883 This time when I arrive at Antonie's, he is sitting up. His face has that ghastly purple hue, but it is one I am getting used to. He reaches out a bony hand. "I beg you, sweet cousin, to shave me."

I recoil. I have never in all my life shaved a man and certainly not Antonie!

"I see no reason why I should do that," I say, moving out of the way of his grasp.

"Oh but my dear cousin, you know that Father Ruby would approve." He leers at me. "And so would my physician. If you shave my face, I am told by the good doctor, it will hurry my cure." He closes his eyes but manages a sleepy smile.

"Surely you don't expect me to believe that," I say. "Your doctor is an intelligent man, and to my knowledge, he is well grounded in science. And I am an equally intelligent woman. Shaving your face will have no influence whatsoever on your syphilis..." I feel my cousin's forehead. Damp, and feverish again.

This much I know: when Antonie's temperature rises, his mind begins to spin the most perverse fantasies about me.

Still, I agree to shave him. Together with señora, I heat the shaving cream in the metal bowl and we scrape his face clean. And because it is so late when we finish, señora prepares the guest room for me, and I sleep at the hacienda. The next morning, before breakfast, I go to his room to check his temperature. His eyes open when I place my hand on his forehead. He asks me to change his sheet, so I do.

This is when I find it. I lift the mattress and I discover the pile of pale white pages, all in Antonie's slanted handwriting. There, at the top of the pile is another story he wrote about me, the one called "Roseblade."

Once again he's made me into the seductress he wants me to be. When I threaten to burn the white pages, he musters all his strength and rises out of the bed and into a rage. His eyes are demonic as he demands that I hand over the pages.

Dear Mary in heaven, help me to know what to do!


Later in the afternoon, when I got back to the convent after shaving Antonie's face, Teresa and I escaped to the shade of the grape arbor where I let her read Antonie’s tale, "Roseblade." It made me tremble to see those dark words on the thin white pages. What he had written was evil, but what was I to do about it?

When Teresa finished, those normally cheerful blue eyes of hers were muddied and solemn.

“Oh my poor Renata.” She took my hand. “He…your cousin will destroy you for sure.”

“Yes, I fear that he will. But what am I to do?”

She gazed out to the golden hillside, still holding onto my hand. And slowly she shook her head.

“I don’t know that there is anything that can possibly help. But one thing you must absolutely do.” The sky color sailed back into her eyes. “Record everything that happens. Write it all down. Leave out nothing, not a single detail.”

I nodded. “God knows, I am writing in the diary every blessed day.”

“Yes, yes. You must continue.” She stood. “And one other thing you could do. Remember I told you to write the story of how things were when the two of you were growing up?”

“Yes. I remember. And I have considered it. But how is writing such a history going to help?”

“You will see for yourself, and show others too, how the past, your past with Antonie, has shaped things. You will see how things have come to be the way they are.”

I considered her. Usually such a jolly soul, Teresa was wholly serious today.

“Yes, I suppose it can’t hurt,” I said.

“And now Renata, I’ve got to head back. Mother Yolla instructed me at lunch to attend to the henhouse today and I dare not show p to supper without having done it, or I will pay dearly.”

“Oh yes, of course, and I’ll come, I’ll help,” I said, standing. But she stopped me.

“NO.” She held up one hand in commandment. “You my dear sister, you are going to sit down and write.”

“But it might wait, I could…”

“NO.” Another hand up. “Go fetch the diary now. Go straight to a clean page. And begin. Write about your cousin and you. In the old days, when you first came. Maybe buried in your words you will see, if there were clues, already, back then.”

So I do. I take my diary and a blanket up the golden hillside and decide which live oak I will sit under. And then I close my eyes and try to remember everything. Soon I am writing down all my early memories of my cousin.

"Castenata" is a murder mystery featuring a nun, Sister Renata. In 1883 the nun was falsely accused of murdering her cousin Antonie. Renata's version of the story is contained within her diaries. To read her next diary entry, go to Chapter Five.

CHAPTER THREE: Antonie Writes His SECOND Tale, "Roseblade"




"ROSEBLADE"


Renata rose early to go to him, and when she arrived, Antonie was waiting in the bedroom, as he always was, sitting before the silver mirror at the dressing table, idly gazing at a book. Always in the morning, she looked so fresh, she wore a full-length white apron over her trailing habit. It was the apron she wore for convent chores, an apron with blousy sleeves and long ties that she brought into a tight bow at the back of her waist. So that she arrived covered in many layers, white on top of black on top of white again, and she was veiled thoroughly head to foot, and the bottom edge of the apron was coated in fine red road dust, and her heavy black shoes were scuffed and coated too. Her forehead was bound tightly in its white linen wrap.

That she was covered so well, that he could see so little of her, just the shy half moon of her clear face, was thrilling to him, maybe because she looked so clean, so crisp and efficient and orderly at this early hour of the day, so much the sweet-smelling, hard-working novititiate, a sister, a mother to all men, a woman in white who would be ever present to attend to daily care – his and that of others. But perhaps too he was thrilled because of the promise of what was to come, the promise of how she would be transformed before the sun descended into its afternoon arc. He wanted what she would become as he wanted nothing else, but he w anted to wait for it, to hold it off as long as possible, to extend the inevitable as one might try to preserve the life of a flower. She was for him, in the peachy morning light, a rose anticipating full bloom. Indeed, each morning that he greeted her there in the bedroom, he held out to her a single rose, of an exceptional color. It was lined in yellow, but dipped deeply in red, so that the inside of the rose petals looked to be soaked in human blood.

What thrilled him about the rose, and about Renata herself, was the notion that he would watch them both unfold, that he would witness the opening of their soft petals, that he would be present at the moment when each of the flowers became full and whole. Antonie’s greatest intoxication lay in inhaling the fragrance of the rose, and in thinking about what would happen to Renata under his influence, in comparing what she was when she arrived with what she would become through his coaxing, through the driving, unrelenting force of his emotions and his passion for her. Indeed, if the truth be known, he believed it was the very act of his gazing on her, his breathing on her, his being near and touching her, that opened her to the possibility of her transformation. For as long as possible, he put off her change, and was thoroughly aroused by its contemplation. Certainly he put it off for as long as it took her to shave his face with the straight blade, and for the time it took to apply cologne with her cool palms, which she pressed with gentle certainty against his face and neck.

Antonie smiled shyly when he heard Renata knocking softly at the ornate oak door. Like most everything at the hacienda, the door had its own elaborate story. Built and carved by her grandfather and his, Gabrielo Lopez Ruiz, the door had been chiseled from a prized stand of live oak. But before the old man could build the door, he had to hack down the monstrous oak tree himself. He did, but when he tied the felled oak to the back of his mule, the animal refused to budge, the tree being much too heavy. Gabrielo’s strength was legendary and according to the story, he ended up dragging the oak to the hacienda with tree balanced over his his own shoulders. He built and carved the door in a fine manner with the same determination that had produced the magnificent Spanish house between 1838 and 1844.


“Please, come in,” Antonie said, and Renata appeared in the open door, where she paused and gazed briefly at her cousin. For just that instant, she was double-framed, once by the heavy door, and a second time by the mirror into which Antonie caught her reflection. Almost instantly, she dropped her eyes demurely to the floor. Demurely, though, only from his point of view. Had she the freedom of description, surely she would have used another word, one that captured the modesty, the sincere reserve she felt as she averted her eyes. But then she wasn’t free to choose the word, because she was, as we have said, framed entirely by his gaze. Thus, he would do with the language, and with her appearance in it, much as he pleased, and he would attempt the best interpretation he knew. But in the end, it was his word, imperfectly matched against her feeling, that held sway. Had she heard the word spoken aloud, she would have at the very least colored an embarrassed red. But she would have forgiven him just the same, of that he was sure. Because she would know that he was doing the best a man could do to describe the subtle interior hue of a woman.

“So you came. Sometimes I worry that…and especially after the other night, too, I wanted to…I must tell you, Renata, I must apologize for…for…” But she was shaking her head and holding her finger first to his lips and then to her own and then closing the door.

“No, no, don’t, I don’t want you to apologize. I won’t in fact hear of it. I won’t have you speak of…any of that. And if you insist, then I too will have to insist, that is, on leaving.” And so they eyed each other across the space of the room, each gazing at the other in the silver mirror they now shared, the mirror with the hammered silver frame. The mirror in which they were reflected belonged to the grandmother they also shared, Gabrielo’s wife, one Magdalena Sanchez y Quiero, a woman of blue eyes and black hair, a Castilian, who, despite her fair skin, was said to be part gypsy.

And so they began always in the same way, speaking to one another in hushed tones, in something of a ritual manner, dancing in words before they actually proceeded to dance with their feet. In the next few minutes, Renata prepared to lather Antonie from the small silver bowl, a bowl she heated slightly with the light of a candle set underneath. All the while the candle glowed, Renata sought to distract Antonie, to call his attention away from herself. She spoke of Father Ruby or Mother Yolla or Sister Theresa, laughing when she mentioned the latter’s name, because in the same breath she spoke of Theresa she had also to tell one of Theresa’s jokes, because Theresa would do that too, making up some harmless but ribald tale about Father Ruby or even Mother Yolla. Theresa was known for the way she could spin a farfetched tale about any one of the nuns at the convent.

And all the while Renata spoke, she continued with the elaborate preparations, readying Antonie for a shave he didn’t need. Indeed, the truth be told, his face was as smooth and hairless as that of a young woman, save for the downy shadow of hair that grew above his fully-defined lips in the form of a vague mustache.

“Wash me,” Antonie whispered, his eyes closed, and Renata laid a large towel on his chest and tucked it around his neck, and proceeded to dip a smaller hand towel – una toalleta—embroidered at both edges, into a bowl of warm water. Wringing the towel dry, she laid it on his face. She then ran the fingers of both her hands through his hair, gently lifting back into place a strand or two that had come loose from the leather tie at the nape of his neck. Then her fingers moved deftly across his forehead and temples and neck, massaging him lightly, left to right, her fingers fluttering like the legs of one of the colorful birds that Antonie kept in a large cage swinging from the center beam in the dining room. Had they been in that room now, the birds would be heard in a raucous outpouring, starting up as they always did when Renata visited, almost as if they were connected to Antonie’s pulse, his very heart.

“Close your eyes,” she whispered, and that Antonie slumped slightly in the large chair, leaned his head back, closed his eyes, and inhaled her. Without a sound, she began to apply the lathered soap to his chin, dipping the brush repeatedly into the bowl. Soon the foaming soap covered all but his upper lip, masking cheekbones and jaw, grazing his earlobes and the Adam’s apple protruding sharply from the front of his throat. She set the bowl down, and laid in the brush, and with one of her little fingers, she caught a long curl of hair at his temple and laid it behind his ear. In that moment, he reached out, caught her free hand, and kissed it, coating it with shaving soap. Swiftly she pulled back her hand.

“And how many times have I scolded you before, and how many times, my dear cousin, must I scold you again? I have told you time and time and time again that you must never distract a hand that holds a blade.” She whispered thus into his ear, and the sound of the words, and the warm breath that brought the words forth sent chills clear through the center of his back. And when he opened his eyes, she had taken up the razor, and her eyes had the slightly dazed look they always got. That was the first signal, the clue that Antonie knew so well. He knew it wouldn’t be long now, that she was beginning to undergo the metamorphosis inevitably imposed by the task.

So he relaxed, and let her drag the blade slowly and purposely across the front of his chin, and into his dimple that lay there, and onto his cheeks and the sharply curved edges of his jaw. The skin of his face tingled in the razor’s wake, and he kept his eyes closed, imagining how her face looked above his, serious at her work, her dark eyebrows poised in a slightly knit brow. He imagined too the swift movement her hand would make as she snapped the excess soap from the blade into the ceramic bowl.

At one time, he had believed that magic lay in the way she moved the razor, the way she swept it over the contour of his face. But gradually he knew the magic was simply in the way she focused her concentration on a completely unessential task. Yes, the magic lay in the fact that she was caring so intently for him, for his face, erasing a mustache he barely showed, and a totally non-existent beard. The thought of it never failed to thrill him, never failed to make him feel new and whole and reawakened to himself. It sent chills down his arms to know that at least for the moments Renata shaved him, there was someone who gave herself over to him, truly cared for him, someone who was present to a task that was completely a necessary whim.

By then she had finished skimming off the soap, and now she had indeed been transformed by her work. Moving silently, Renata unwrapped the towel from Antonie’s neck, and loosened his collar, pulling the two sides of it apart so that a triangular area of his hairless chest was exposed, down to the center of his breastbone. A small circular depression, the size of a gold coin, lay at the center of his chest. Around that point his rib cage swelled, filled with air, fell, swelled again, over and over, with the regular insistence of an ocean wave, or the boat rocking on that wave.

Renata leaned across his heaving chest and reached for a crystal bottle from the dressing table. She shook a liquid balm, sweet with the fragrance of jasmine, into one cupped palm, and slowly she applied the tingling liquid against his face and neck, refreshing his heated body with her two open hands. The liquid evaporated as soon as it touched his skin. She moved progressively lower and lower, going in circles. Finally, she unbuttoned his shirt completely and pulled it apart, so that his shoulders lay exposed, and his head hung back, his eyes closed and his mouth limp and slightly open.

A third person watching in the mirror would see Renata’s hands fluttering across Antonie’s slightly protruding breasts, his hardened nipples, while Antonie’s own hands were lifeless, his arms draped across the elaborately carved wooden arms of the chair. The third person might decide then to look away, or say a prayer, particularly if that person were a God-fearing Christian, because Renata at that point lifted Antonie’s limp hand close to her lips, and folding his hand into a fist, she laid the fist to her mouth and kissed it, and then she unfolded the fist and kissed each finger in turn along its length, leaving no skin untouched.

By the time she finished with the hand, Antonie looked to be barely breathing. Moving swiftly, Renata tore the gold cuff link from Antonie’s sleeve, and threw it aside. Pushing the sleeve of his shirt away, she kneeled on the floor, as if she too were going to pray. But instead, she set her delicate lips, and the tip of her tongue, gently, gently, gently, to the soft white skin that lay along the inside of his wrist.

Renata prepared to lather Antonie from a small silver bowl, a bowl she heated slightly with the light of a candle set underneath. All the while the candle glowed, Renata sought to distract Antonie, to call his attention away from herself. She spoke of Father Ruby or Mother Yolla or Sister Theresa, laughing when she mentioned the latter’s name, because in the same breath she spoke of Theresa she had also to tell one of Theresa’s jokes, because Theresa would do that too, make up some harmless but ribald tale about Father Ruby or even Mother Yolla. Theresa's gift was spinning a farfetched tale about any one of the nuns at the convent.

All the while Renata spoke, she continued with the elaborate preparations, readying Antonie for a shave he needed, specifically, from her.

“Wash me,” Antonie whispered, his eyes closed. Renata proceeded to lay a large towel on his chest. She tucked it gingerly around his neck, and dipped a smaller hand towel into the bowl of warm water. Wringing the towel dry, she laid it on his face and ran her hands lightly through his hair, gently lifting back into place a strand or two that had come loose from the leather tie at the nape of his neck.

Her fingers continued deftly across his forehead and temples and neck, left to right, her fingers fluttering like the legs of one of the colorful birds that Antonie kept in a large cage swinging from the center beam in the dining room.

“Close your eyes,” she whispered, and at that command, Antonie slumped slightly in the large chair, leaned his head back and inhaled her. She applied the lathered soap to his chin, dipping the brush repeatedly into the bowl. Soon the foam covered all but his upper lip, masking cheekbones and jaw, grazing his earlobes and the Adam’s apple protruding sharply from the front of his throat.

She set the bowl down, and laid in the brush, and with one of her little fingers, she caught a long curl of hair at his temple and laid it behind his ear. In that moment, he reached out, caught her free hand, and kissed it, coating it with shaving soap. Swiftly she pulled back her hand.

“And how many times have I scolded you before, and how many times, my dear cousin, must I scold you again? You must never distract a hand that holds a blade.” She whispered thus into his ear, and the sound of the words, and her warm breath sent chills through the center of his back.

When he opened his eyes, she had taken up the razor, and her eyes had the slightly dazed look they always got. That was the first signal, the clue that Antonie knew so well. He knew it wouldn’t be long now, that she was beginning to undergo the metamorphosis inevitably imposed by the task.

So he relaxed, and let her drag the blade


slowly and purposely across the front of his chin, and into his dimple that lay there, and onto his cheeks and the sharply curved edges of his jaw. And all the while she saw the Adam's apple at the center of his throat.

The skin of his face tingled in the razor’s wake, and he kept his eyes closed, imagining how her face looked above his, serious at her work, her dark eyebrows poised in a slightly knit brow. He imagined too the swift movement her hand would make as she snapped the excess soap from the blade into the ceramic bowl.

At one time, he had believed that magic lay in the way she moved the razor, the way she swept it over the contour of his face. But gradually he knew the magic was simply in the way she focused her concentration on a completely unessential task. Yes, the magic lay in the fact that she was caring so intently for him, for his face, erasing a mustache he barely showed, a practically non-existent beard.
The thought of it never failed to thrill him, never failed to make him feel new and whole and reawakened to himself. It sent chills down his arms to know that at least for the moments Renata shaved him, there was someone who gave herself over to him, truly cared for him, someone who was present to a task that was completely a necessary whim.

By then she had finished skimming off the soap, and now she had indeed been transformed by her work. Moving silently, Renata unwrapped the towel from Antonie’s neck, and loosened his collar, pulling the two sides of it apart so that a triangular area of his hairless chest was exposed, down to the center of his breastbone.

A small circular depression, the size of a gold coin, lay at the center of his chest. Around that point his rib cage swelled, filled with air, fell, swelled again, over and over, with the regular insistence of an ocean wave, or the boat rocking on that wave.

Renata leaned across his heaving chest and reached for an ornate crystal bottle from the dressing table. She shook a liquid balm, sweet with the fragrance of jasmine, into one cupped palm, and slowly she applied the tingling liquid against his face and neck, refreshing his heated body with her two open hands. The liquid evaporated as soon as it touched his skin. She moved progressively lower and lower, going in circles. Finally, she unbuttoned his shirt completely and pulled it apart, so that his shoulders lay exposed, and his head hung back, his eyes closed and his mouth limp and slightly open.

A third person watching in the mirror would see Renata’s hands fluttering across Antonie’s slightly protruding breasts, his hardened nipples, while Antonie’s own hands were lifeless, his arms draped across the elaborately carved wooden arms of the chair. The third person might decide then to look away, or say a prayer, particularly if that person were a God-fearing Christian, because Renata at that point lifted Antonie’s limp hand close to her lips, and folding his hand into a fist, she laid the fist to her mouth and kissed it, and then she unfolded the fist and kissed each finger in turn along its length, leaving no skin untouched.

By the time she finished with the hand, Antonie looked to be barely breathing. Moving swiftly, Renata tore the gold cuff links from Antonie’s sleeves, and threw them aside. Pushing one shirt sleeve off his arm, she kneeled on the floor, as if she too were going to pray. But instead, she set her delicate lips, and the tip of her tongue, gently, gently, gently, to the soft white skin that lay along the inside of his wrist.

"Castenata" is a murder mystery featuring a nun, Sister Renata. In 1883 the nun was falsely accused of murdering her cousin Antonie. Renata's version of the story is contained within her diaries. To read the next diary entry, go to  Chapter Four.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

CHAPTER TWO: The Nun Turns into A Flamenco Dancer!

ANTONIE WRITES HIS FIRST TALE, "Renata Dancing!"



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 Teresa 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.

The skin beneath the white headpiece is moist. She rubs the creased line above her eyebrows and shakes her hair loose, gathering it through her fingers. The thick waves fall away from her forehead reflecting almost blue in the light. The hair grazes her naked back and clings in bold shiny curves to her shoulders. She is fully disrobed now, completely herself, absent of all habit, and she is sliding open the oak drawer, meeting with some resistance, and the perfume of dry sage rises up, and she is taking from the drawer the satin bag that Antonie sent, and she is unzipping the bag, removing the red dancer's dress, shaking out the beloved ruffles, each ruffle edged in black lace and ribbon.

Soon the dress pools on the cool tile floor by her ankles. A pert smile flirts across her lips.

When the shoes are in place, and the red satin bows are tied, she attends quickly to her face in the mirror, adding two ovals of rouge to her cheeks, and two dark horizons to each eyelid. Finally, with some purpose, and with evidence of some practice, she smears the tube of red lipstick from the top drawer full across her lips accentuating the natural deep pout. Just below the corner of her mouth is a mole, too large to ignore.

The handle of the door rattles behind her.

Glancing into the mirror, Renata sees reflected the doorknob, its silver surface engraved in the same style as the crucifix of her rosary. The handle moves frantically against its lock.

“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
leaning against the far wall, and raising one leg to the leather chair, rests the instrument there. Setting one hand to the strings, and the slender fingers of the other hand to the narrow neck of the guitar, he strums, softly at first, but gradually gaining momentum to fit Renata’s pace. She sweeps a tight circle, her brow knotted, her mouth wide. One wrist raised and twisted, she crushes the red satin-edged ruffles of her dress in the other hand, exposing first one and then the other thigh.

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 a murder mystery featuring a nun, Sister Renata. In 1883 the nun was falsely accused of murdering her cousin Antonie. It is this story, and other tales that Antonie wrote that "framed" the poor nun for murder! Here is Chapter Three, "Antonie Writes His Second Tale, 'Roseblade.'"


This chapter was originally posted on June 3, 2006, in another blog. There was one comment:

1 comments:

Alcuin Bramerton said...
In a previous life you probably treated someone else like Antonie treated you this time round.

1:56 PM