Thursday, December 30, 2010

CHAPTER FIFTEEN: This is How Antonie Died, and No, I Didn't Kill Him!

By Claudia Ricci









The time has come. That last chapter, and the one before, they unlocked the floodgates. There is blood on the floor, more blood than I have ever seen before. And there is more to come because, words,
words are like blood now, that dream, that last chapter, seems to have turned on a faucet, the truth comes pouring out of me. I see the words I have written, I read them here, and like magic, like magic the words make it all come back. IT CANNOT BE STOPPED, THE WARM FLOOD, THE BLOOD, I am a flood and THE BLOOD is all around me.
Here we are, Señora and me, kneeling, screaming, crying, our knees sliding in gore, our aprons soaked scarlet red. And poor Antonie, he lies here limp on the floor. Flooded in his own blood. His face is drained almost as white as this piece of paper. His head drapes back at the horrific gash, Dear Mother of God, my cousin's throat is ripped one side to the other! His lips are bloody, his eyes wide and black and bugged out. He is gone. Gone. What have we done here? What have we done?
I wrote this chapter so many years ago I honestly can’t remember when. It’s been years -- 128 years since Antonie died, and a dozen or more years since I wrote this chapter. I know how it all happened. I know AS GOD IS MY WITNESS THAT I'M not to blame. I know THERE WAS NO CRIME. NO CRIME. None at all. I know how desperately we, Señora and me, tried to save him. I know too that I’m trapped here, inside this prison, chained at the ankle. Drained of energy. Staring out of that tiny barred window into the courtyard at the gallows where they plan to hang me in exactly 33 days.
Teresa visited me again last night, begged me once again to hand over to her this diary entry I hold in a pouch at my waist, right beside my rosary. It is the only diary entry that has never come to light. The only one I refused to give up.
“Please, Renata,” she begged. “It’s your only hope. Just give it to me. She wants you to. Señora sent me here directly, she told me, just the way she told you, it’s time, it’s time. She cannot stand by, and let you hang for a crime that you didn’t commit.”
I sat here staring at Teresa. I felt the hard cold stone of this bench. I bit into my cracked lip. I tipped my head – no veil, no veil, no more nun's veil, I have just a brush of hair -- hacked short, cut away by that whiskey-drenched, toothless old jailer the other day – I tipped my head back to the clammy wall.
“All you need to do is give it to me, my dear dear heart,” Teresa whispered. She was standing now, now reaching her fingers through the bars, just the way my mother used to when I was a child, so many years ago, when I had pneumonia, and I was feverish and dreaming MACHINE DREAMS in the crib. “I will go immediately to see your lawyer, Deluria, I will bring him the diary. I KNOW that he will help you Renata. I know he will bring it to the court, he will file a last-minute appeal. I will stay until he does. But first you must give it to me. You must! Because if you don't Renata, you will..." Shaking her head slowly, she whispers. "Just give it to me, please.
I stared at Teresa through the bars.
“If I do what you ask," I whispered, "what then will happen, what then will be my dear Señora's fate?"
“She is prepared,” Teresa said, stamping her foot. “She has her faith in God and in Mary. She is not going to stand by to see you hang.”
I stared at Teresa through the bars. I shook my head.
I could not yield up the diary entry that might save me. If I did, I would have my freedom, but I would spend the rest of my days regretting my decision.


Wednesday, December 29, 2010

CHAPTER FOURTEEN: How Antonie Abused Me


Renata’s Diary

March 13, 1884

Written In the Vallejo Prison

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.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

CHAPTER THIRTEEN: Slaughter Happens


Renata’s Diary
August 25, 1883


I have the smell of blood and slaughter so thickly steeped in my lungs that I feel myself a beast. And when I close my eyes, my mind is reeling, dancing in blood.

Perhaps by writing I will expunge it. At least I must try.

Mother Yolla forced my hand to the ax today. She insisted I perform the dreaded task early this morning, because dear Teresa, the convent’s chief poultry assassin, has been stricken with the same virus that has beset at least eight others this week.

Each nun who falls ill gets so feverish and dizzy and has such intense head and stomach pain that she is forced to lie on her back, flat as a pancake. I make a point of saying a special prayer daily for all of the ill, and one too, to keep myself healthy.

The summer air hung thick and still over the golden hills when I awoke this morning. I stepped outside the back door and uncovered the tin washbasin. The sun even at 7 a.m. was braising, and the air was quivering. Despite the heat, I found the morning something a blessing, and began humming a bit of the alegria I had been trying to teach Theresa, before she took ill.

I was just scrubbing the rings out of one of Father Ruby’s collars and enjoying the cool splash of water on my arms, when I saw Mother Yolla leave the rectory and cross to the convent courtyard. The intense heat had her breathing with difficulty.

“I must ask you to kill three chickens for me today,” she announced. I squeezed the collar I was scrubbing.

“Oh Holy Mother,” I wailed. “I’m not…oh please reconsider. There must be someone else at the convent who can do this chore. It’s not that I don’t want to help, but I have never killed a chicken before and more than that I…well, I hoped I would never have to, as I do so firmly believe that there is a universal life spirit inhabiting each and every being, all of God’s creatures, even those so humble as the chickens and…”

“Oh Renata please! Stop this babbling at once!” Mother Yolla interrupted, swatting the air with impatience. Beneath her eyes were deep circles, the color of smudged ashes. “I am so weary with nursing the others. Half the convent can’t stand up straight and the rest of us are on the verge of falling over. It will be a miracle if the entire lot of us doesn’t end up ill. I know full well that you hate the idea of killing chickens, but there are, I assure you, much worse things. All of us, ill and healthy, need a good meal and I have no one else to ask. So I beg you not to challenge me or to question my motives in assigning you this task.”

“But…”

“No BUTS.” Her words sliced the air like a sharp blade. “I need the chickens prepared for a special meal tomorrow. We are expecting a gueset of Father Ruby’s, an itinerant priest passing through on his way back to New Mexico. Father is so anxious that we make a good impression. And so we will not disappoint him. Now leave the collars to soak in the sun, and attend to the chickens immediately.”

With that, Mother Yolla retreated into the convent. I followed her with my eyes, eyes that were filling quickly. “I can’t,” I cried, speaking softly. “Oh Mother Yolla, please don’t make me because I just can’t.”

Try as I might, I could not hold back my tears. Nor could I block a vision arising in my mind: that of Teresa, chasing fowl. Slowed as she is by excess weight, Theresa sometimes pursues a chicken from one end of the yard to the other before she pounces on her victim. I marvel then, to see her wrestle the awkward squawking bird to the ground, wings writhing and askew.

Moments later, with the chicken’s neck stretched and pinned to the chopping block, the head flies, courtesy of Teresa’s swift ax. When the chicken’s head is free of its body, the bird goes into what Teresa calls its death dance, a spirited strut around the yard spurting blood from its open neck like a small fountain.

Teresa tells me that she does the job of killing so quickly that the birds “never know the blade.” Ah, but I am not convinced. It is my opinion that as soon as they eye the chopping block, the wood thoroughly caked in the liver-colored evidence of earlier murders, those chickens have some primitive understanding of the fate that awaits them. I said as much to Theresa, but she told me to save my worry. “I applaud your delicate concern for God’s feathered creatures, but we all have to eat.”

Once I appeared just as she was completing a particularly messy kill. She had slaughtered half a dozen fowl, enough to feed several extra guests. The blood dripped down the lower half of her skirt, and her shoes were feathered. “Oh how dreadful,” I said, staring into the slick red pools.

“How will you ever clean all this up?” Teresa’s large hands were bloody and red swaths zigzagged her face. She answered in a thick spray of brogue.

“Ah just be glad Renata that we are blessed enough to have chickens to kill. Had we not the chickens, you see, you and I both might be out chasing wild turkeys from morning to night.”
I abandoned the tin basin and made my way to the chicken house at the slowest pace two feet might go. I had never held a pair of rubbery chicken legs in my hand, but somehow I knew the feeling now, I knew exactly how tough and wiry the fowl’s limbs would be. I stood at the picket fence, staring at the pointed yellow beaks and the wild black eyes of the birds as they took their jolted steps around the yard. A chill shuddered me.

“Ever faithful I am to you Lord, but now, here, I say I cannot do what Mother Yolla commands. I need Your help to complete this awful task. I ask you to guide me through.” I remained there praying in silence.”

My hands wobbling, I stepped through the gate. The chickens scattered to four corners of the yard, pecking the dry ground, frantically poking and thrusting their heads in that jagged motion that seems to lead them scurrying forward. Holding my breath, I hurried after one particularly fat white fowl, its wattle wobbling furiously beneath its beak.

Then, when that one danced off, I turned to chase a thinner but larger bird, brown as a walnut. That bird too evade me. “Oh God please help me to do this,” I whispered, bowing my head.

“Please, I didn’t ask to do this and it is a complete mystery how and why it should be done.”

If God was listening to me, His answer was only another loud chorus of raucous birds. “Bock, bock, bock,” rang out through the busy yard. I was close to tears now, and the sweat poured from my brow and my ears and my armpits. I covered my ears in despair and sank slowly to sit in the bare dirt.

I stayed that way long enough that the birds began to gather around me, and soon I was circled by a cackling thicket of brown and white feathers. I cringed, and opened my palms and before I knew exactly what was happening, a large white chicken with two eyelets of yellow on its wings approached and set its red spiky claws within inches of my hand. My eyes widened and my fingers followed and soon I held the chicken by one leg.

“Ayeeeya!” I cried, jumping to my knees, and dangling the bird in one outstretched arm. The bird was splayed in five directions, wings stretched, legs askew, beating and pulling, wildly determined to get free. I too felt pulled apart, half of me wanted desperately to set the animal down. But now that I had made my catch, something else, something new arose in me too. I tightened my grip around the rubbery twig that was the leg.

A fierce dance ensued, with the chicken leading me. Twisting and whipping this way and that, the flailing fowl shed its down feathers in a desperate effort to break my grasp. “Oh I am so so sorry,” I cried, half to the bird, and half to me. But nothing could be heard about the ear squall pouring from the chicken’s beak, and from all the rest of the birds.

It was time, I knew, to twist the bird’s neck, the way Teresa would, either that, or set the creature free. Toward the chopping block I stuttered, eyeing the ax that would do its duty. An odd pain shot up the back of my neck, and quivered across my hips, as I contemplated the job ahead. It would take a good aim to catch the swinging bird by the neck. I couldn’t see how I would manage to grab the chicken and at the same time, avoid being impaled by the nail-like points of the open beak.

As my mind scrabbled in confusion, I recalled telling Teresa that I believed an animal’s fear in the face of death had to translate into the condition of the meat that graced the platters on the dinner table. I suggested that it might be a good idea to place a burlap bag over the chicken’s head before approaching with the ax. Teresa was chasing a pair of Rhode Island reds as I said this. She didn’t honor me with an answer.

“My dear Renata,” she called out, “I am almost on these two, and so I hope you know to stay clear when the heads fly off. Because these chickens will keep dancing about the yard, headless, and the blood flooding out of the open neck is no pretty sight, certainly not for one with a weak stomach.”

At that, Teresa grabbed one of the prancing reds, and with the swiftest and surest moves I’ve ever seen, she twisted the neck in her two capable hands, as if instead of a flesh and blood chicken she held a soft towel for drying dishes. Instantly, the bird limped into her bosom, and within moments, Theresa had it straddling the wooden block.

“Thwunk,” went the ax under the nun’s powerful arm, and with that, the fowl’s head spun off, and so too did my eyes and stomach. I proceeded quickly into the convent, where I spent most of the day, praying. At dinner, facing the bird on the platter, I complained of stomach pain and had nothing to eat at all.

But now the situation here called me to duty. I cinched the neck, and twisted, but the fowl didn’t go limp. This proved my undoing. I swung the bird to the block, and then struck wildly with the ax but as I did, the bird flipflopped across the stump. I had a firm lock on one of the chicken’s legs, but that was all, and the situation unnerved me totally.

Every feather, every muscle, every ounce of bird was determined to escape my falling blade. Between the frenzy of feathers and the squalling jumping chicken flesh, I had all I could do to get the ax to land close to the bird.

After several tries, and with my right arm tiring, I finally caught the bird with the blade, but it wasn’t the neck that I made contact with. The blade cut across the breast of the chicken, splitting the cavity partially open. Blood spit out and hit my face. A sickening sound came out of the fowl, awful to my ears. It seemed only to turn my horror worse.

The sight of the blood and the horrible noises coming from the bird set off some perverse chain of events. Sickened by what I’d done, by what I was about to do, I became that much more determined to finish the job, to end it as fast as I could. But the harder I tired to put the chicken out of its misery, the more misery I inflicted and the sicker I became. Each thwack, each slice into the chicken’s body, turned my horror and the carnage worse.


There I stood, pummeling and slashing at the bird with the ax, hitting and missing, hitting and missing, something wholly evil come over me. I struck until the bird was a bloody mutilated pulp, one however that was miraculously still making noise and still jumping and hopping around the chopping block.

Through most of this torture, I was numb, surely, to what I was doing. But suddenly, maybe because I was out of breath from wielding the ax, I paused momentarily, and something reached inside me. I saw the sorry state of the fowl, saw what desperate violence I was visiting on such an innocent creature, and I proceed to vomit.

When I was finished, I began howling for Mother Yolla. My screeching arose from a place far deeper than any I knew. It was hardly a human sound at all, and certainly not one the nuns knew. I continued, though, screaming to the heavens, begging her to come. Soon enough, she came as did one or two of the other nuns.

All of them I think feared the worst, that a bobcat or grizzly had made his way into the yard, and was hard in pursuit of me or the chickens.

When they reached me, and saw the condition of the chicken, they simply stared, so stunned were they at what greeted their eyes. I had stopped axing, and now I was bawling and all covered in vomit and blood. The poor axed fowl, meanwhile, had been savagely chewed up by the ax, but was still alive, still twitching and squawking a sickly, dying squawk. I had such a thick taste of blood and feathers in my mouth I started to vomit again, but nothing was coming up.

“Hand me that ax!” Mother Yolla commanded, rushing to relieve me of the weapon. In my state of confusion, I suddenly feared for my life. Stricken by guilt, and utterly unhinged, I honestly thought that the older nun intended to strike me instead of the chicken. I started to back away.

“Give me that ax now!” she yelled, forcing the handle from my grasp. The next moments seemed to go in slow motion: Mother Yolla raising the ax, the blade catching the sly glint of in the midday sun, the ax falling and slicing clean through the chicken’s neck and then stopping dead, coming to rest in the wood of the block.

The mutilated chicken didn’t do the strutting death dance that a headless fowl ordinarily would. True, a small fountain of blood bubbled up from the open neck. But the poor creature couldn’t move because I had hacked away the leg that I hadn’t been holding tight. Minus one limb, and its head, the bird was nothing more than a heap of bloody feathers on the stump.

The wings flapped and the bird pumped its final flood of life onto the ground. And then a hush fell, and all around me got dreamy. My eyes rolled, and started to fall, and all I remember is slumping into Sister Peters, and reaching out to take Mother Yolla’s free hand.

CHAPTER TWELVE: Showering Renata's Sins Away


Renata’s Diary
August 7, 1883


I hold my face in this fine mist of water falling from the holes in the bottom of the pail, and let the water run over my lips and onto my tongue. The water and the sunlight cleanse me and silently I mouth a prayer of thanks to Sister Teresa for this purifying gift and silently too I thank the Lord for sending this good woman to us, but particularly, to me. Holding the washrag in my clasped hands, I bow my head, allow the water to thoroughly soak my short ruff of hair while I stand there giving thanks and prayer, thinking He knew, yes, He knew, how does He do that? How does the Good Lord always know exactly what we need?

Lifting my face, I gently pass the washrag across my brow. How good this feels. No, how heavenly. That’s the word Teresa used. How good it is to be back from San Francisco, too, every cell in my body is grateful. How hateful that was, how long and miserable the stay, and maybe because of that, I feel like I could stand here, water raining down, drowning out a host of thoughts that I would rather go away. Again I pray, I say a Hail Mary, two, most of all I ask Him how He knew to send Teresa here? How He knew that she would come and that she would be my only ally, she would give me some bit of advice to begin and end each day, and our friendship would grow and grow, and more than that, she would give me now the clearest water to cleanse the heat and dust and dirt and sins away.

She brings this gift to me at the very moment I am most in need of cleansing – my body and no less my spirit. I arrived back here in such a dreadful condition, I hate to think what I looked like, my clothes crusted, my soul in the worst state it’s ever been. I hid in my room that first morning after Señora pulled up to the convent with the wagon, Antonie lying in the back beneath a heap of blankets. She kissed me once on the forehead and climbed off the wagon without even a word of goodbye.

Weary is not the word for what I was. Too tired to eat. To sleep.

And that very next day, dearest Teresa completed the project that has now come to my rescue.

For days and days, Teresa had toiled away in the workshed, foregoing lunch (which for Teresa is a major sacrifice) in order to bring to fruition her blueprint for the shower. Often in the past, when we weeded and watered the garden together, she would, as she always does, wonder her ideas aloud to me. One day not so long ago, as she thinned a new planting of carrots, and harvested early radishes, Teresa shared with me her hunch: that she could erect a showering device that would not only refresh us quickly and efficiently but also would save us many gallons of precious water.

I recall her chuckling and running the back of her hand over her sweaty face, as she said the plan had occurred to her that very morning in something of a vision, the washtub sitting in the crotch of a live oak tree. It was a Saturday, and the idea had come to her fully formed, more or less, during silent prayers.

“It came to you during prayers?” I whispered in horror over my hoe. I was preparing the earth for a row of perpetual spinach. “You were contemplating the construction of a shower in morning chapel?”

Sister Teresa smiled her slyest smile, and the flesh that always presses at the edges of the white fabric binding her face pressed further, and the delicate skin that is always a baby pink turned a bolder shade of rose.

Yes, she said happily, she had already prayed her apologies to Him as soon as the vision had come. And she was prepared to confess as well, to tell Father Ruby in the confessional, that it was the construction of a shower that had occupied her thoughts that morning during services.

Sometimes, she argued, God has His reasons for sending His visions the way He does, quite out of the blue. And He had his own timing, too.

“Perhaps,” she went on, staring at the tender carrot seedlings poking up from the sandy soil, “He did it today because summer is so broiling hot, and He knows full well what it’s like during our worst season for water. In His wisdom, He knows our well almost always goes dry, and He knows water is always in short supply and He knows, or I think He does, that I might have come up with an idea to address the problem.” She looked at me, and nodded, and smiled shyly.

Apparently, while I was away, Teresa had made considerable progress on her invention. The second day after I arrived home, we were sweeping and tidying Father Ruby’s quarters. Teresa had taken the sheets from his bed, and we were together laying a clean set in its place.

“Would you tell Mother Yolla my plans to work again through lunch?” We had just billowed a white sheet above our heads and now it was floating into place on top of the priest’s mattress.

“Again, you are foregoing mid-day meal again?” Lunch was our major meal, and it was now getting to be Teresa’s habit not to eat it. And as a result, the waistline of her habit was beginning to swing more loosely across her belly. “But what am I to tell her?”

Teresa’s eyes twinkled. “That I am not hungry and quite busy with one of God’s directives,” she said flatly. Her smile revealed that familiar gap between her two top teeth.

At lunch, I informed Mother Yolla of Teresa’s decision to go without food. Mother Yolla’s eyesbrows rose noticeably higher, and she set her soup spoon down beside her bowl.

“And what is it that occupies the good Teresa’s time?” she asked.

“I believe, Mother, that she has some special work of the Lord’s to complete,” I said, bowing my head. I averted my eyes and lifted a spoonful of broth to my lips. Mother Yolla said no more. For the next few moments, I said a small prayer of gratitude that the Lord had smoothed the way for Teresa to complete her plan.

Not more than five minutes later, however, we heard a thunderous racket, a smash and clatter of metal coming from the shed. My first thought was that Teresa must be hurt. Several of us, including Mother Yolla, flew from the table to the shed out back. There in the dense heat of the shed, with sweat dripping from her overheated face, stood a smiling Sister Teresa, hammer in hand. She was bending protectively over a pail and getting ready to hit it again. She had already attacked the pail in earnest, apparently, because there were already a score of tiny holes in the bottom surface. Smiling broadly, Teresa bowed her head, and said to Mother that by the time lunch was over, her project would be complete.

“And what exactly would your project be here, my good Sister?” Mother Yolla wore her sternest countenance, and her arms were crossed in a kind of protective armor over her ample bodice. Her wrinkled hands disappeared into the sleeves of her habit.

“My project, good Mother Yolla, is a shower,” Teresa replied triumphantly. By then a small crowd of nuns had gathered in the shed. I eyed Teresa’s face intently, looking for signs that she would falter. Had it been me, and had I seen the fierce look on Mother Yolla’s face, I would be on my knees, begging forgiveness for missing lunch and for insisting on doing something that had come so suspiciously from my imagination.

But not Teresa, she stood in silence, and then gestured to the holes in the pail. “The water will trickle down through these holes,” she said, gesturing to the pail. And above it there will be a washtub with a hole, so all I need now is the washtub…”

“My good Sister,” Mother Yolla interrupted, her thin lips thinner than ever. “Who told you that you were free to destroy a pail? Have you any idea how difficult each of these is to obtain? Or what the expense is for the convent to replace them? Have you? I ask you again, who told you that…”

“With all due respect, my good Mother,” said Teresa, genuflecting as if she faced an altar. “But it was the Lord Himself who instructed me to find the pail, and now, the washtub.”

Mother Yolla’s mouth dropped into that settled O of hers, and her eyes shot saucer wide, and for a moment I thought perhaps her face had frozen that way. But as soon as Sister Teresa rose from her knees, her head bowed and her hands clasped in prayer, I saw the Reverend Mother’s expression ease.

“Yes, Mother, I swear to you,” Teresa whispered rapidly now, “this is exactly what the Lord instructed me to do. Who knows His ways better than you. Perhaps you would be so kind as to guide me further in this endeav…”

“Silence!” Mother Yolla spoke the word like a dagger. Her lips folded in on themselves, and in a moment, Mother Yolla began to look so much older, more wrinkled, than she was. Her wrath sent a shudder through both my arms, my legs, and my knees felt shaky. I wondered what effect the Reverend Mother’s look must be having on dear Teresa.


Glancing at my friend, however, I had no way of knowing, as her face was directed toward the earth. I stood there, praying for my bold companion.

A long period of silence followed. Without being instructed, the rest of us began to disperse.

One by one, heads bowed, we filed out of the shed until only Teresa and Mother Yolla were left.

It wasn’t clear how Mother Yolla would resolve this impasse. Her exasperation with Teresa was as clear as the blue sky. And it was nothing new to any of the rest of us, as Teresa was too brave, too inspired, to be sufficiently deferential and polite. Still, we also knew how fearful Mother Yolla was of displeasing the Lord, of interfering, as she put it, with “His most mysterious wishes and inexplicable ways.”

What exactly transpired next will always remain a mystery. Suffice it to say that in the end, Sister Teresa was provided her washtub, and the two heavy chiseled beams she needed to suspend the tub and pail from the live oak. Looking back, it seems a miracle to me, but then, when one knows my dear Sister, one knows that Teresa indeed does surpass reality.

The very next day, there was suspended from the oak a makeshift shower. At first, not one of us modest nuns was willing to wash our faces or even our hands from the water dripping from the pail. That was before Teresa hung a sheet around the outside of the space, to afford some privacy. Once she had nailed it to the beams, I volunteered to wash behind the shed.

Teresa, her habit pulled tight around her ample hips, mounted the ladder over and over, lifting pails, slowly spilling into the washtub water she took from a nearby spring. I watched her carrying for at least an hour, making some twenty trips up and down the ladder to fill our shower. Even after all that toil and climbing, she remained gleeful. She went back and forth across the scrubby yard until she was out of breath, trampling sagebrush as she toted the water from the well to the shower. Several of the nuns gathered around her, teasing her soundly.

“Don’t slip,” they cried. And, “All those water trips are bound to make you thin.” I for one offered repeatedly to help her in the task of toting water, but she was determined to complete the gift of water by herself, at least, as she put it, in this early "testing" phase.

And so this is how I came just yesterday to be the first and principal beneficiary of Teresa’s invention. When she was satisfied that there was enough water for a “proper spray,” she instructed me to “hop to.” That was my signal to disrobe. I hesitated, and a cry went up from the rest of the nuns gathered, but Teresa hushed us with her curt statement: “Oh blessed me, we see each other in the flesh every single day, but if you must, then just turn your foolish eyes away.”

And so I put aside my clothes, letting the black habit slip into the dust. And she recovered it just as quickly and hung it on the nail that she had hammered into the side of the tree. The rest of my clothes disappeared and then, there, was me, bare of any cover.

I wrapped a towel tightly around my middle and stepped inside the circle of the sheet. Before I knew it, Teresa removed the plug in the washtub and I heard a little trickle of water pouring into the metal pail overhead, and then, before I was fully ready, I felt the cool water as it came sprinkling onto my forehead, then splashing down my neck and chest. I screeched and jumped back, and then began enjoying the spray.

All around me, from the nuns ringing the shower, there rose up a cheer. All I knew was there was cool water rinsing my sweaty face and chest and there was a ragged clapping and my ears swelled to all the yelling. And when I looked up, I saw Teresa at the top of the ladder, peering down at me, her face flushed and plump and pinkly triumphant. I smiled up at her and gave a small wave and in that instant it came to me out of the clear blue, like an ethereal appearing suddenly in a sunny sky, what plan the Lord had had me.

It was my duty to be available to my poor cousin Antonie until the end. I was destined to be his nurse and caretaker, to offer solace and all the comfort he needed during his impossibly difficult illness.

At the same time, I was also destined to come here behind the shed to the live oak tree, to Teresa’s shower, where I would wash myself in cool water and free myself of all the ugliness and soiled thoughts that Antonie had released on and in me.

Realizing God’s plan, I closed my eyes, and drank in that moment when I stood in the shower.

And now, every time I am standing there, I do the same. I let God’s plans rain down on me. I accept them. I whisper, “Thy will be done.” And as I write this now, I realize: Teresa’s shower is some kind of glorious confessional for the body, one of Mother Nature’s doing through Teresa.

It is a waterfall of sorts, one that freshens not only the mind and the soul, but the whole body and spirit. I stand in this shower every morning, and dare I say, sometimes twice a day, once in early morning and once at sunset, so that the water letting out from the tub is caught in slanted sunlight and might from time to time produce a rainbow.

These rainbows arching over this confessional are simply a reminder that God delivers His promises. The water drops keep coming, keep dancing in the sun, and the steady shower reminds me of His steady caring. Each drop of water catches the light and turns colors, and the colors wash away our sadness and renew us once again. And if on some occasion the water falling gets slightly colder, I shudder. But even then I grin, and just let the water enfold me. And when I step from this cold shower, a special kind of peace and comfort takes hold. And when I am dressed and warm again, an even deeper tranquility sets in.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

THE BOOKS CONVERGE: Chapter 11 "CASTENATA" & CHAPTER 17 "SISTER MYSTERIES": VILLAINOUS DOCTORS, and VILE MEDICAL TREATMENTS



It was only when I went to post the following chapter this morning here on the "Castenata" blog (where I am telling the story of a nun, Sister Renata, falsely accused of murdering her cousin,) that I realized that THE TWO BOOKS THAT I AM WRITING -- the fictional "Castenata" and the non-fiction work, "Sister Mysteries" -- have now converged here in a number of rather remarkable ways.

In this chapter of "Castenata," Sister Renata (writing in her diary on July 30, 1883) is enraged at the physician, Astorga, for the cruel mercury treatments he inflicts on Antonie in an attempt to cure Antonie's syphilis.

Readers of "Sister Mysteries" will surely be reminded of Chapter 16, and my own outrage at the doctor at Sloan Kettering, who in July, 2003, INSISTED THAT I NEEDED A STEM CELL TRANSPLANT when I didn't. A specialist at Dana Farber in Boston confirmed a few weeks later that the doctor at Sloan had screwed up, and that this outrageous physician was motivated to put me through the hellish and life-threatening stem cell perhaps because he was DOING A RESEARCH PROJECT AND I FIT THE BILL. The rage that Sister Renata feels toward Astorga is precisely the rage I felt, and still feel, toward the oncologist at Sloan, who was at best, inept, and at worst, unethical.

It is remarkable to me that I wrote the following fictional material -- all in Sister Renata's voice -- seven or eight years BEFORE my cancer, and before my deeply disturning encounter with the oncologist at Sloan and all of the issues attendant on brutal medical treatments.

There are a few other remarkable coincidences that have emerged here, too:

1) I saw the doctor at Dana Farber on July 30, 2003. Meanwhile, I had dated this Sister Renata chapter, which I wrote in 1995, JULY 30, 1883. It is only this morning, again, as I went to post Renata's diary chapter here, in its logical order, that I realized this astonishing convergence of dates.

2) The conversation that Sister Renata has with Dr. Astorga addresses the issue of mercury treatment for syphilis. By at least one historical account, mercury treatment is part of a long tradition of "unethical" medical treatment/research. According to the medical journal Dermanities, "mercury is the earliest known chemotherapy for syphilis."

3) Readers of "Sister Mysteries" will recall, in Chapter 16, that my cousin Carol is now suffering desperately from the after effects of TWO stem cell treatments that she got for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. I REALIZED JUST THIS MORNING AS I WAS POSTING RENATA'S DIARY, that Renata's cousin, Antonie, and my cousin Carol, are BOTH in San Francisco suffering from the horrific medical treatments that were supposed to help them.

I wish I understood these "coincidences," but at some point, it doesn't really matter. It is just remarkable that they keep happening!


Renata’s Diary
July 30, 1883

It is well past two in the morning as I sit down here to write in the diary, but I am still trembling and quaking after my encounter with Astorga. It shames me to think that he could make me so enraged, that at one point I thought I would kill him with my bare hands. And so now, before I sleep I must write my thoughts. I must tell what hell I have been through and how it all came to spill over.

I am so terribly weary of San Francisco. It may serve Antonie’s purpose, although that too now looks doubtful. But clearly this is no city for a lady, let alone a nun. I have never spent so much time away from the convent, and the simple routines of country life.

I miss the hazy blue views toward the coast, the golden hills to the east, the smell of fresh air everywhere around me. San Francisoo is crowded, dirty, and life is rowdy, to say the least, and our hotel, while the most comfortable the city has to offer, still attracts a rough and uncultivated lot, particularly to its first floor bar. Most of the time, I walk the city streets with my head bowed, staring into the wooden slats of the sidewalk.

We have been here now past one week, but still there is no predicting how much longer we will stay. There is no saying either how the quicksilver treatments will go. We are living one grueling day, one hour, to the next. We are unsure whether anything in Doctor Astorga’s bag of tricks – bichloride of mercury injections, the mercury rubs and plasters, the ungodly concoctions by mouth that mix potassium iodide into syrup of sarsaparilla or zingiberis—will work. Indeed, all these bizarre treatments and odd brews may fix nothing, and only make my cousin worse. Dr. Astorga won’t admit it, being the proud man he is, but I believe that the mercury and iodide treatments may in fact kill Antonie faster than the syphilis itself will.

So far, the doctor claims, it seems that the injections – or perhaps it is the ointment – have helped. The lesions do seem better. But in exchange, Antonie is coated in gleaming circles of silver ointment, making him into a quilted patchwork of thin mirrored coins. Worse, he has now begun to salivate, and even occasionally, to vomit blood. When that happens, I only wish I could run away. But I continue to do my duty and stay, and mop my cousin’s face and remove his soiled gown and take away all evidence of his wicked illness.

Lately, he has begun complaining of constant burning pain. A dark and putrid diarrhea rains from his bowels, and he describes a taste of slippery metal taking over his tongue. His gums have the characteristic blue line that Dr. Astorga described, and the tissues of his mouth are far more red and sore than before we came. Antonie moans constantly in his sleep, and when he’s awake he says it is his whole body, aching.

This morning, though, he had one of his clear periods. A miracle happens, and for a time, he seems almost himself. His appetite returns in force, and he begs me for something hearty to eat, “a thick steak, a breast of chicken.” Ah, but just as soon as I go to the hotel kitchen, and return with such a meal, he is feeling ill again. His appetite slackens, and he claims that he can feel a rapid loosening of his teeth, and indeed, one of his molars freed itself up in the grits I mashed into his soft-boiled egg this morning.

I shiver to think what will become of him. I keep praying, asking the Lord to show mercy toward my cousin. Despite all that he has done to me, all that has gone wrong between us, Antonie is still family, and he is, right now, so desperately sick and in need of some relief. “Thy will be done,” I say, over and over again. “Oh please, dear Lord, come to the aid of my cousin, relieve him of all pain and suffering, free him from this earthly burden. He has paid for all the sins committed against me. I release him from all past responsibility.”

Sometimes I pray that way. But sometimes I ask the Lord simply to take Antonie. Put him out of his constant misery. One thing is a certainty, I have prayed more in the last week than I ever have before. But are my prayers helping? Will they work? I dare to wonder. I know that having doubts in my Almighty God’s power is in itself sinful. But there are times, lately, when I have begun to ask, where is my Lord?

This brings me to what happened earlier today. It was about four o’clock when the distinguished physician knocked at the door, announcing one of his two daily visits. Senora and I were kneeling, as we so often are, on either side of Antonie’s bed. Before we could respond, the doctor opened the door and strode inside, indifferent to the fact that we were deep in the rosary. We hurried to complete our final Hail Mary even as the arrogant doctor leaned between us and laid his stethoscope to Antonie’s slick chest.

“Can you tell me please, Dr. Astorga, when my cousin’s fever might break?” I whispered. Astorga remained silent as he continued with the stethoscope. When the doctor finished, he answered abruptly, and in a callous and discourteous tone. “I have no way of knowing that,” he announced. “We are waiting to see if the mercury treatments will help.”

Folding the stethoscope, he dropped the instrument into his leather bag. Lifting Antonie’s thin white wrist, he began counting my cousin’s pulse against the gold timepiece he had removed from his vest pocket.

“Does he sleep much?” Astorga inquired, letting go of Antonie’s wrist as if it was a fish he was casting back to the sea.

“Well, yes, I believe so, but he seems more tired each day,” I said, trying to find words to characterize my cousin’s almost constant stupor.

“What do you mean, you believe so?” Astorga asked, accusing me with his eyes. He lifted the bed sheet and rolled it back, exposing the full length of Antonie’s pathetic emaciated body. The simple white gown my cousin wears cannot hide his arms, which are as thin as wooden canes. His legs resemble slightly thicker poles. His sickly white feet lay one on top of another, the same way Christ’s feet did when He was nailed to the cross.

“Antonie does sleep much of the time, but he keeps waking now and then, too,” I replied, angry that Astorga would question how carefully I was observing my cousin. “And when he does wake, he keeps saying strange, almost nonsensical things. This morning, for example, he pointed to the window and called out, ‘The blue wolf, the blue wolf, I will follow the blue wolf as it races through the forest into the pale moonlit sky.’”

Astorga snorted. “Ah, so the hallucinations are worse,” he mused, pulling the bedclothes back up to Antonie’s chin so rapidly that the sheet snapped as if was a sail in the wind. “I am not at all surprised by that. But pay no heed to what he says.”

“Doctor, in those moments when he speaks, and particularly when he speaks of me, it is quite difficult not to pay attention,” I murmured.

Astorga glanced at me, annoyed, I suppose, that I would once again challenge his medical wisdom. “May I suggest that when he yells out, that you simply pretend that he is a dog barking, or a bird chirping. Or perhaps even a baby crying. Yes, think of him as an infant who has been fed, bathed, burped and freshly diapered. At some point, my dear, you must ignore the baby, and his crying, because there is nothing more to be done.”

My teeth set together and my face reddened. My head swirled. What was he saying? How could he possibly suggest that we simply ignore Antonie? And what business did he have comparing my cousin to a dog, a bird, a baby? I studed Astorga’s crisp white ruffled shirt beneath his jet black waistcoat. I noticed, too, the doctor’s string tie, how it ran vertically, and how his dark pencil mustache ran just as thin but in the horizontal direction above his upper lip.

“I would also suggest that it is probably fruitless to try to fight this fever,” Astorga said. He spoke in a short, peremptory tone. He was snapping shut the clasp on his black bag, his fingers long, brown and tapered. “I would in fact suggest that in cases like this one, that the heat, the intense fever, may actually be of some help, in conjunction of course with the mercury injections. Assuming of course that the mercury works at all.”

“I see,” I said, nodding, as if agreeing with Astorga’s point of view. But in fact, I wasn't seeing at all. OR, I was seeing in still one more way how terribly blasé this physician was toward his patient’s suffering. How could he be so absolutely indifferent to Antonie’s desperately-intense fevers? And how could he visit the horrors of mercury on this poor man without any qualms whatsoever?

Once again it struck me: my cousin should not be here. He should not have to continue to endure this villainous doctor, and the horrors of the mercury. The liquid white metal is hardly a cure. Antonie has deteriorated considerably since we arrived. The cousin I have known all my life has, in the last few days, all but disappeared. He is transformed into a haunting shadow, one that once had a body attached, but has none anymore. His flesh has burned away, his arms are but living stems of pain and agony, and he complains of headaches that make him cry out, bellowing over and over again, ‘please tell the doctor to kill me please, so it will be over, please.”

Just after the doctor departed, Antonie woke with a jolt. His skin was clammy and hot and he was trembling with such force that I was not sure I could keep him on the bed. Señora brought a fresh bowl of crushed ice, and filled a washcloth and set it to his head. He fought her, though, and didn’t know where he was. He clung to me, but didn’t remember my name. He called me Adelaide, which made me cringe, for Adelaide was the prostitute that my cousin consorted with for years, the woman who made him ill.

Apparently, Antonie had been dreaming a particularly nasty nightmare, something about Adelaide coming to him at night, all he would say was, ‘she was smoking one of her thin cigars, and I asked her, ‘why are you here?’ and she smiled in that way she does and said, ‘I am here, to end your misery,’ and then she threw the cigar to the bed and began to choke me and the cigar lit the sheets on fire and I was burning up, and she was choking me and there was smoke, dark dark smoke everywhere.”

There was nothing I could do to ease his delirium. He was sweating so profusely that Señora and I rolled him, as we so often do, in the sheets and stood each of us at an end and heaved him up and lowered him to the floor. As she kneeled and sponged his rubbery limbs, I laid a new towel on the feather mattress and tucked a new sheet into the corners. All the while he kept yelling, “No Adelaide, no, please, let me go, let me go…”

When we finally had him back in bed and we had his head propped on an extra pillow, I fed him sips of weak tea, heavily sugared. After a while, he seemed to calm down, and spoke of the dream. “I was desperate to get out of her bed, but she laughed, so this is how you repay me for the way I have given you pleasure? And afterward, was when she smoked and the fire, the fire, the smoke it was choking me, and I couldn’t get out…” And now he was sobbing, and I held a cup of cold water to his lips.

“It was only a dream,” I said.

He nodded, and I set him into the pillow. And then I sang to him. I held his hand and I hummed one of the soleares we both knew. Every time his eyes opened, I would reach over to gently close his lids again. Finally, he drifted into sleep, and Señora took my place at the bed. She told me to leave, and I decided I would pay a visit to Dr. Astorga, to say the things that I hadn’t said. I decided to tell Astorga that we would discontinue Antonie’s mercury treatments immediately. We all need to return home.

It was close to five when I reached Astorga’s office. I knocked, and he admitted me, but then he kept me waiting for almost an hour. I spent the time in prayer, but there were moments when my anger surfaced nonetheless. Finally, he brought me into his office, only to inform me that he would have no more than a few minutes to spend in conversation.

“So please, my good Sister, get right to the point.”

I blushed, and my anger and humiliation crested together at my lips. I tipped my head forward and would have lost my voice, except then I had a vision of Antonie’s ravaged body. Instantly I found my focus, and my voice.

“When we came here a week or so ago, we had no idea what the mercury would do, or what to expect, or whether it would help,” I began, trembling.

“True, one can never know those things,” he replied.

“Well, so, now that I have seen how…how, well, how absolutely brutal the mercury can be, I want to discontinue Antonie’s treatments. I want to bring him home to die in peace.”

Astorga’s eyes widened to two black coins and he lifted his chin in that arrogant and defiant way that he often does. “Are you saying, my good Sister, that you are prepared to take your cousin’s life?”

“I said nothing of the sort,” I said, struggling to maintain a steady tone. “I said only that he isn’t getting any better with the mercury. And in fact, he is suffering desperately, more than he ever has before. In light of that, I believe that it may be the most humane thing to do, to let him be. And to let God’s will be done.”

“Ah yes, so now I see that you are the one to decide God’s will in this matter, is that it? You are choosing for your cousin? You are willing to discontinue the only treatment that may prolong your cousin’s life? Let me ask you this, what does your cousin say? How does he feel about this matter? Because of course, it is his life that is at stake. Make no mistake.”

“We have discussed it briefly. He has at times begged for someone to put him out of his misery. I believe that I can say with confidence that Antonie has now begun to realize that the mercury is hopeless. He has screamed on numerous occasions that he would prefer to die rather than to continue to suffer. So I would suggest that he has accepted the possibility that death may follow his return home.”

“Oh yes,” Astorga said, clasping his fingertips together beneath his chin. “So in other words, you have convinced him to give up?”

I stood, flooded suddenly with anger that I could not control. “How dare you say that to me. I have spent weeks caring for my cousin. I have remained closeted in a room with him, attending to his every need, mopping his brow, swabbing him when he bleeds, feeding him whenever he can take the food. You have no right to accuse me this way.”

My voice rang through the office, and my hands trembled so much that I could barely hold them in my lap. “I have simply told Antonie that the misery won’t end until he decides to end it. And I have prayed for him, and prayed that the suffering will be over, and now, it is clearly time that we return home so that he can live out his final days in the tranquility of the home where he grew up. And if you knew anything about human dignity, Doctor, you would agree.”

Astorga ignored my insult, and smiled his thin wicked smile. One thing I know, I have come to hate that smile.

“How very kind of you, Sister, to take such a benevolent attitude toward your cousin,” he said. “Are you always so convinced that you know the appropriate time for someone to die? Or did someone at the convent, or in the church, perhaps, endow you with a special privilege in this matter, that you should know when it is right and proper for your cousin to give up on life, to die in what you call tranquility…”

I will be truthful. What occurred next should not have happened. I am not proud of my behavior. I deeply regret letting my temper get the better of me. All I can say by way of explanation is that I have endured more from Astorga –and Antonie-- than anyone should have to endure. And that I have been living under enormous strain especially this past week.

Simply put, I was transformed, in that moment in Astorga’s office, into a raging bobcat or maybe a vicious mountain lion. I grew claws and I flew at his face. I began screeching and scratching, and I raked his cheeks bloody and pounded my fists into his white ruffled shirt. I screamed until my throat felt bloody. I pulled his pomaded black hair.

The rest, well, the rest I don’t remember. I hadn’t eaten, or even had anything to drink, all day. And that may explain it: I fainted, you see, at that very moment. The rage in me, thankfully, closed me down. I say thankfully because if I had remained conscious, and on the attack, there is no telling what black havoc I might have wrought that night. I end this now, pulled heavily toward sleep. But still frightened at the rage that lies within me. I lose all sense of civility, every ounce of devotion to the Lord’s cause. Something inside me snaps and I turn grizzly, and my victim is at my mercy, and I am not responsible for what happens, deep within my skin.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

CHAPTER TEN: Sister Renata Dancing on the Hotel Bar?


“Bar Dancer”

Antonie awakens with the cotton sheet of the bed making a tent over his head. His first sensation is that he is slippery, his back and buttocks pasted to the bed in his own sweat.

Each time he breathes, the sheet comes in and out with him, and with it comes that same metal taste in his mouth. In his feverish state, he imagines that he is tasting the muzzle of one of his guns.

There is another taste too, the sour twinge of blood, and something else he cannot identify. He fears the taste and the accompanying odor, because there is death lurking in both, the scent is clear evidence, he believes, of his own rapid decay. Gathering his energy into one limp hand, he pulls the sheet from his mouth. He fills his lungs with fresh air, and he gags, and coughs, and there is immense pain in his chest when he tries to sit up. Just then, it occurs to him that no one is sitting beside the bed, offering him a cup of water, a teaspoon of soup. There is no one praying or mopping his brow or smoothing his hair or saying soothing things to him in Spanish, as Señora does. No he is lying in this sickbed very much alone.

Where have Señora and Renata and even Tango gone? He asks himself, how could all of them have abandoned me when I am so very weak, so terribly hot, when I can barely reach for a glass?

He pushes himself up to both elbows. He knows what he must do. But who will help him? Who will walk the four steps across the room, bend down to the floor, reach for the chamber pot that he's got to use so desperately right now?

His lower lip shudders. Utterly exhausted, he falls back onto the bed.

In that moment, a flurry of Spanish music fills his head. There is the sound of a guitar, someone playing a fluid arpeggio coming up from downstairs. There is hearty laughter and loud catcalls, too, a raucous of men’s sounds mixed with glasses slamming on wood, and occasionally, he would swear, a female voice ringing high above the rest.

Eyes closed, he has a scene before him, and it has a clarity that he hasn’t had for weeks. It is the music that calls him, reminds him of a long ago place and time when he and Renata danced as children. There now is Renata dipping forward, careful even as she swivels and bends, stepping left, then right, making a series of tight turns with one arm curved so gracefully overhead. The whole while she is dancing she also smiling into his third eye, laughing too at his awkward attempts at dancing. Only too painfully, he is reminded that he wasn’t the perfect partner. Anything but.

“Please, go slower, slower,” he would plead. Or, “show me again, Renata, just once more show me how to complete the turn.” At that, her laughter would ring out. She could be cold and heartless in her ridicule.

“Oh Antonie you are hopeless I’m afraid. Will you never manage to learn these steps?” She would resist, but he made her show him again. The ruffles of her dress would twist this way and that, and she would lift her arms and flat torso and flare her fingers and skirt and proceed. And at the end, she would say one sentence that went straight to the core of her motion: “Just make it look like poetry,” she declared.

Now, from downstairs, a loud peel of female laughter erupts. After all these years, Antonie surely knows that laugh. The sound of it creeps like cold water down his spine, and simultaneously, as if stiffening him, it pulls him up into a semi-upright position in his bed. He fumbles for the table, and is hardly able to take the cup of water in two trembling hands. He drinks, water dribbling down his chin. In the next moment, the cup drops, spilling its contents into his lap.

Recoiling, Antonie rolls to one side, and lies there, panting, his mouth wide open, the front of his nightshirt now soaked as wet as the cloth of the back. Again the laughter rises from downstairs, and with it, the guitar gets louder. His eyes fall shut, and now, it is not clear but doesn’t he hear the clatter of her metal cleats on wood?

“Dear God, could she…would she…has she actually agreed to dance down there…in the bar?”

His heart gallops as he forces himself to the edge of the bed. Driven now by a vision of her in the black and red dress, he pushes himself to a sitting position again. He moves his legs off the side of the mattress, and rising unsteadily, he gropes for the mahogany headboard. But wait, this is not his bedroom at home. His hand meets only the wall. Ah but that wall is all he needs, it gives him a place to lean as he stands. Eyes shut, sweat glazing his face, he rises and moves inch by inch toward the door.

“I will…I will get…down there,” he groans, lunging for the door. Taking hold of the handle in two hands, he pulls the door open and rivets himself against the doorframe. A cheap gilded mirror greets him in the hall, and in the first horrible moment, he wonders who that pathetic creature he faces is, and where he himself went?

His pallor is deepening to a deathly pale purple. His lips are a mixture of grey and blue. But he pulls his attention away from the mirror. Now is not the time to worry for his appearance. The staircase looms ahead.

Suddenly, a wind catches the door behind him and slams it shut.

The sound is enough to push him forward to his knees. He falls to two hands and crawls unsteadily toward the first step. When he reaches it, oddly enough, the step begins to blur; then it turns wavy, and actually disappears. He rubs his eyes and the step returns. Collapsing to a seated position, he brings his legs around. His bare feet slap the wooden step. That sound reaffirms him, yes, he is still of this world, and that realization serves to propel his body forward. He sinks to the second step, the third, the fourth.

And there he collapses into the grimy yellow wallpaper of the staircase, a wallpaper all of ivy and rosy flowers, a faded pattern that is greased in stains and handprints. He adds his own hands to the wall. His head collapses too.

By all rights, that should have been the last step for Antonie, because he is far too dizzy now to go any further. But no. So motivated is he that he fights the lightheaded swinging feeling behind his eyes, and uses every bit of might to reach up to grab the hand rail. Holding tight with both hands, he extends one skeletal foot further down the staircase. The whole leg trembles. But his foot is sure in purpose, and now it meets a step exactly half-way down the staircase. The sound of that foot landing squarely, that slap of skin against wood. That helps him once again. Pulling up on the railing, he actually achieves an upright position. He stands, wavering, staring into the hotel lobby, his eyes fiery bright.

“You…you…” he cackles, and if he could, he would shout out the word he is trying to form: “whore.” But nothing emerges. There is not an ounce of air to carry any sound. Instead, he simply glares, his eyes frozen wide. And points one bony finger.

There on a long table in the center of the bar stands Renata, poised, her arms raised, her head thrown back, her throat naked and alluring. Thankfully, he cannot see her face clearly, but he doesn’t need to. What he sees in his mind’s eye is sufficient to confirm his worst fears: that she is wearing the dress, And worse, she is wearing her most seductive smile. Below her shapely legs, the table is surrounded by leering men, all of them shouting, leaning their glasses and beer mugs inward, raising their fists, grabbing below her ruffles to fondle her thighs.

The words he wants to utter – “I will kill…kill…you…her…and all of you,” never come out; he sputters, and only bloody yellow foam rises to his lips. Gracefully, as if he is a diver, he tips forward and thens his legs give way, and his hand comes loose from the railing and he spills forward like a feather drifting into the wind. In the next moment he knows only one thing, that he is collapsing, tumbling down the staircase, and that the pounding and slapping of his body falling on the wooden steps is no affirmation of anything but his complete weakness.

At least, though, it brings the sound of the guitar to a sudden halt.

Renata, taking in the fact that her cousin is sprawled across the bottom of the stairs, drops to her knees and hauls her ruffled dress to the edge of the table. Hands grope her, but with a few swift kicks of her steel-heeled shoes, she fights off her admirers.

“Please!” she yells, swinging her legs to the floor. Shouting rings out: “Hey, we want more,” and “I paid for a full show, where are you going, sweetheart?” and “What happened, señorita, the fun’s just started.”

Renata ignores them all and elbows her way to her cousin. Crouching beside Antonie, she wipes a string of blood from the corner of his lip. Cradling his bruised head, she strokes his tumble of wavy black hair.

“Antonie, oh Antonie, I told you to stay up there in your room,” she murmurs.

His mouth is slack, and his coal black eyes fall shut. He wants to spit in her eye, because that’s what his gut urges, but he is far too embarrassed. Because in all of the commotion of falling, he has soiled himself, his urine has soaked his cotton gown, and it is still leaking down his legs and the ruffles of Renata’s beautiful red satin ruffled dress.

All he can do is lie there, in intense humiliation, glued to the stairs. All he wants to say to her is, “you are no better than a whore, a whore,” but he has no breath to speak the words, and not an ounce more energy to move his lips or even, to open his eyes and cry.