Monday, December 19, 2011
stopping now out of breath...
I walked out the door.
I walked out that door.
left ankle so sore...where the chain cut in before never healed...
sun lowering...a couple of hours to go before it sets...
what happens after dark...
look up, madrone, deep red... trying to take in what happened? What happened?
I will be sleeping under some tree, stars tonight. Air warm sweet, dry grass, golden hillsides. Sky bright bright blue
frightened... thrilled excited. Trembling now, feeling tears...because I am finally finally...
Nothing it was nothing. Escape? All I had to do was lift up off of Kitty's sofa and take the cloth satchel I packed -- canteen journal biscuits cheese apples.
Heart slamming, walked up to the door turned lock and then, opened... the door. Morning air cool misty so fragrant and there I was top of the stairs with the world waiting.
Tears now. Tears...
so careful down stairs one by one see inside Kitty's cafe. Nobody. No sound. Bean a liquored heap at the bottom. Just lying there snoring. Arm with the bottle and then...I saw his jacket thrown to the side. I took it. I stole Bean's jacket. And kept walking. Fast.
With my heart practically dancing in my throat, sweat sprouting, I just kept walking forward. Thinking for sure, someone bound to come running behind me. Someone sure to come running up guns blazing yelling STOP!!!! STOP!!!!
I was free.
I am free.
Who knows for how long. But for now, I am free.
A nun, running. My face will be plastered on posters everywhere before the day is out. Must disguise. Bean's jacket falls below my knees.
Must keep walking now, heading through golden hills, trees. Redwood and madrone. Oak.
Thinking of Teresa now, I never said a word never spoke once to her of the plan, now she can be honest saying she had no idea what I was thinking. What I am doing.
What I am doing?
No idea. Where I am going?
Beyond here. Beyond the old life.
To whatever awaits me. Must not think now. Must go forward, now. Now.
Move now. Go!
Monday, November 7, 2011
Now the sun comes to the lip of the window. Now I see a straight way out. An hour ago I kneeled down in prayer, in total darkness. I asked Mary for a miracle -- a way out. I said the rosary with my eyes closed. I felt those smooth beads between my fingertips, and whispered to Her, PLEASE PLEASE HELP ME!!
Some time passed -- who knows how long. I'm not altogether sure that I didn't fall asleep. The next thing I knew I was rocking there on my knees. I was saying PLEASE PLEASE. I felt a slight puff of air, as if someone was there, right next to me, breathing against my face. I felt a wind -- ever so slight -- brushing right past my cheek like a feather.
I opened my eyes, clutching the rosary. At first I wasn't sure whether I was awake. To my wonder and surprise there She was, beside me in her powder blue veil! Her face was porcelain and her cheeks, blushed pink. She glowed with a kind of light I've never seen. The light was alive. It vibrated and made me tremble.
She smiled and nodded and pointed out the window.
"Go my child. While there is still time, go."
My eyes widened. Her voice was so very kind and so deep and intimate. It was as if she was speaking right inside my head.
And her smile. It filled me, and now the window, with that bright, bright light. A light splashing every which way. A light alive. I've got to find more words for how light can be so full of energy that it feels alive.
She was pointing still, gesturing to the sky gathering the same powder blue color as her veil. My eyes sailed into the distance, toward the navy blue rim of the low Santa Cruz mountains.
I blinked. For a moment it occurred to me, I must be losing my mind.
But no. No. Mary herself was there, I swear it. Glowing, nodding, pointing, offering me my freedom -- it was that clear and simple.
The road -- dusted pink in salmon light -- calls now. No one need know. No one at all is awake. The jailer, old Bean, drank a small tub of tequila at dinner. He's slumped under the staircase there in front of Kitty's cafe. The others -- Kitty, Teresa, Señora -- I hear one of them snoring.
I turn to the door. Do I dare? There is the way out. There now is a way to spare my neck from the loop of rope swinging at the gallows in the town square. If I don't go now, I will be heading tomorrow for the gallow stairs.
Do I go? My heart is slamming but I am moving -- quietly, silently -- toward the door.
Saturday, October 29, 2011
The dark sky is navy blue, and split by the thin golden crescent that is the moon. I stare at the crisp curve, shining eye to eye with me.
Soon it will be sunrise, and I will have been sitting here, awake, staring out the window, all night. I am dressed head to toe in white, as Sister Teresa brought me a brand new habit, pristine.
It occurred to me that maybe she was thinking, I need to be clean when I go to my death next week.
There is no more hope now. The reply from Stoneman has come. In one sentence, the Governor of the State of California dropped me, sent me tumbling into oblivion. This man, known to have pardoned so many, gave not a word of explanation in rejecting my plea. In just one stiff and official sentence, he has done me in, turned me into Stonewoman and sent me rolling. I have no possible escape from the gallows now.
If I were in a normal state, I suppose I would have cried yesterday when Kitty carried the thin white envelope into the house. It was shortly after noon. The mail always arrives by stage by 1 p.m.
As soon as I laid eyes on Kitty, I knew instantly that the news contained inside the envelope she held was not good. Her pasty white face. Her wide eyes, locked onto my own.
She blinked, and without untying her black bonnet, or taking off her cotton gloves, she dropped onto the straight back chair. She sat there, all in black, holding the envelope, and the letter. She kept blinking, and I was thinking the worst. After all, she looked as though she might just dissolve in tears. Finally she got one short breathless sentence out.
"My dear Renata," she said in a hush, "Governor's decision has come and I..."
She stopped again. I was sitting there on the sofa, the guitar in my lap. I had been, oddly enough, strumming an alegría, a happy melody to which Señora had once sung some wonderfully silly lyrics about a goat who kept appearing, day after day, in a young woman's garden. The goat turned out to be a suitor.
But watching Kitty's face, it was impossible to continue strumming.
She raised one gloved hand to her face. "I have some very bad news," she whispered.
I felt a kind of numb veil descend over me. I could say that I wasn't surprised, but I wasn't. But I also couldn't quite believe that what was happening was real. Everyone else -- or should I say Kitty and Teresa -- were feeling so hopeful when they sent the petition, and the supporting letters to Stoneman's office last week.
I had, in spite of myself, allowed my hopes to rest in the arms and faith of my two friends.
Now, that hope was gone. My life was as much as ended.
"Read it to me Kitty," I said. My voice was steady and strong, but it had a shredded quality, as if it had been scraped with a knife.
She sat there, staring.
"Please," I said. "You must read it to me."
She read: "The petition for clemency in the sentence against Sister Maria Rosa Renata, convicted for the murder of Señor Quiero de Lopez, has hereby been..."
Her voice trembled. It took a full minute before she finally spoke the word. "... denied." Her chin dropped to her jacket, and I could see the tears falling.
I turned away. I saw a large yellow cloud passing by the window. I allowed my mind to be carried up there, to rest in the cloud.
I had not been allowed outdoors for weeks. I thought to myself, at least, I will be hanged in the sun. At least when I take my last breaths, I will be inhaling fresh air. There is, at least, that. I tried to think something beyond that thought.
Kitty was crying and trying to take a seat next to me on the sofa. She was trying to take me into her arms. I ought to have let her, but I wanted my space. I pushed her away.
"Please, leave me be," I whispered. "I wish to be alone, so that I might pray."
Finally, she rose. Sniffling, wiping her nose with her hanky, she asked me if I wanted tea. I shook my head slowly. no. "I only ask that you to leave me in peace. Please. You owe me that."
And so she did.
After when she was gone, I didn't pray. I just lay on the sofa and stared at the clouds passing by the window. I could have done that all day.
Wednesday, August 17, 2011
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR: Kitty Pole Cooks Up a Pardon for the Nun, But will GOVERNOR STONEMAN SWALLOW IT?
Dear Kitty, with all due respect, what goes on here? Maybe the cafe business is too slow?
According to the Examiner story, published right after the murder last fall, Señor Quiero de Lopez' jugular vein was sliced with a straight razor. And in a particularly gory detail, the poor man's Adam's apple was cored out of his neck!
The very same day that Sister Renata was arrested, a sheriff's deputy found the nun's discarded black habit, coated in blood, buried in the vegetable garden behind the convent!
During the trial, a dozen of Sister Renata's fellow nuns traveled to Gallejo to testify on her behalf. Each of the Dominican nuns went into great detail about Renata's character. Not a blemish, they claimed.
I wish I could believe them!
After all was said and done, Renata was convicted last month of first-degree murder. She is scheduled to die by hanging on January 6th, a mere three weeks from now.
What qualifies Kitty -- a splendid cook to be sure -- to think she can stir up sympathy for a convicted killer? And how does she expect to gather enough letters here in our small village? So far she's collected a total of only 17 letters, so it looks like she has her work cut out for her!
When she came by my office recently to chat, this is what she said: "We will be making a bad mistake if we send that poor nun to the gallows. I've read the nun's journal, and if you would do the same thing Mr. Dimson then you'd see she can't possibly be guilty of her cousin's murder!"
One week exactly after visiting the newspaper, we woke up to old Bean the jailer knocking on Kitty's door. He can't read, the poor man, but he'd learned that the Gazette had printed our story and he'd been promised a quarter by Kitty if he bought the newspaper and brought it to the house for us to see.
Local Woman Needs Anyone With a Pen and A Bleeding Heart!!
I winced and sank deeper into the sofa.
I shook my head back and forth, very slowly, feeling the tears gathering. A tight panic began squeezing at my insides. "No, you two can read it first, and if it's as bad as I think it will be, I'm...I'll just pass. I am not sure I have the stomach for it."
And so Teresa and Kitty read John Dimson's article in silence. I put my hands over my face and only once glanced up when I thought I heard Kitty sucking on her teeth. At that moment I noticed Teresa shake her head ever so slightly. They finished. They sat there.
My heart hammered. I wasn't able to speak. I wanted desperately to know. I wanted desperately not to know. I wanted most of all to go to sleep and forget the whole matter. But how could I possibly forget the fact that I was going to the gallows in a matter of days?
"Well that young man deserves a good sharp boot right smack in his back side."
"I'd agree completely," Teresa said. She sounded rather weary, even though it was still early in the morning.
"But then," Kitty went on," I could tell right away. The moment I laid eyes on him last week. His whole demeanor. That reporter is well-named. Dimson. DIM-witted Son of a..."
"Oh KITTY!" Teresa covered her ears and shook her head vigorously as if to rid herself of the vulgar outburst.
"Well, sorry for that, Sister, I do apologize, but that man wrote the least sympathetic piece of dirty laundry I've ever read, and hung it out for all to see. And not only does it hurt our cause, but the story isn't even accurate. I am sure that I told him we'd collected 27 letters, not 17. I know for a fact because I had the stack in my hand for Pete's sake."
Teresa inhaled. "It makes no difference really. If he'd written 27, or 207, in that awful story, it would matter not one bit!"
"Heavens, don't take it so hard," Kitty said, sitting beside me and squeezing me in a tight embrace. "It doesn't matter what the silly paper writes. I will go door to door, starting this afternoon!"
"And I will go with you," Teresa said, placing a hand on my arm.
I sat there sniffling. I wanted to say, "I'd just as soon you don't. I would just as soon you accepted the inevitable and gave up. I would just as soon you had never tried." But none of that came out of my mouth. I had so little energy to speak. What did it matter, what I said? What did anything matter now?
When I have those moments of despair, when all else fails to cheer me, well, then there are the flies and I tend to them religiously. I laugh thinking about myself doing that. Tending to flies. I laugh. I realize someone might think that I enjoy killing flies.
Absurd. That is never my intention. Well. Perhaps occasionally it is…
The cafe downstairs -- Kitty's place, is a breeding ground. Kitty and Señora are always frying. Endlessly. Bread dough. Donuts. Chicken. Home fries. Or if they’re not frying, they are baking rolls or stirring tortilla soup or grilling steaks in flat pans, and the odors bring the godawful flies up to the windows and I know I shouldn't kill them but I do, I am determined to keep the windows clean, I mean I see that as part of my job.
So I try to catch them in the dishtowels. I try not to squash them, as it bothers Sister Teresa so, she values all life, every morsel, so I try not to let Teresa see me do it, if she happens to enter the room and I am about to swat the fly, I just scoop it into the towel or…
Sometimes if I’ve just killed a fly, I will sit on the towel.
But that's not what I want to tell you. What I want to tell you about is the visit to the newspaper office two days ago with Kitty and toothless Bean, the old jailer who put me in cuffs behind my back. I was allowed to go only because of Kitty's letter campaign, she is determined to convince Governor Stoneman to free me, she is a saint that woman.
What can I say about Kitty is she is becoming a dear friend to me. It doesn’t matter, but I do care deeply about what motivates her. I believe that she lost a daughter. I know now the name of the child in the portrait, the child with the mass of strawberry ringlets, her name was Lynda with a why. I do not mean why, I mean Y.
Why and how she died, I do not know. I have tried to ask Kitty but she will say nothing. I have begged Teresa to tell me the story but she simply shakes her head.
Oh. There now. There is another one, excuse me, I am determined to keep the damn windows clean and fly-free, I mean, I am sorry for swearing, there is more of that these days, Teresa heard me take the Lord's name in vain, she complained to me, but that's what has happened, I am changing, I am...something is coming loose inside me, my tongue feels unhinged, my mind, pressed, I think perhaps it is the flies buzzing, and me waiting for the worst possible end, the buzzing, the waiting, they will drive a person crazy.
I've got the dishtowel but now the fly is gone.
That being said, what I am meaning to tell you about is our visit to the newspaper, the reporter sitting there when we arrived, tapping on an elegant old machine, I've never seen one th…
It’s back. Excuse me. I will get the fly and that will be the end of it.
Frankly, when Kitty told me that we would "drop by" the newspaper, I was horrified. The idea that they were going to do a story, I was at first so very concerned. Not surprising, considering what the San Francisco newspaper wrote about me, hanging me before I had even been tried!
I told Kitty that I was quite upset. I told her that I wouldn't go to the paper I call it The Gaze-Ette -- because they were sure to write a piece that, my God, there, there is another fly.
I got that fly. I …
And another, landing here beside my journal.
And another. UGH. A bloody mass here, a cloud of a dozen or more swirling around me.
I apologize for the interruption but I had to get them all. I must get them. They buzz and circle, surround my head and they land in the windows and bounce against the glass. Rather disturbing to me.
I know all this about the flies might not seem important but I dreamed about flies last night. I am not certain why. Perhaps because they are trapped. Perhaps because they are trying so desperately to flee. Because the flies remind me a bit of myself.
Trapped as I am. Both of us. Black and going in circles. The flies and I stand at Kitty’s window and we desperately want to be free, and so I let them go if I can but when there are a cloud of them I fumble with the dishtowel.
Too much. Too many. So many that I must kill them, I kill them and the truth be told there is some kind of unhealthy satisfaction in that.
Back to the visit. This is a newspaper that prints lies. Or at least, opinions.
We arrived at the newspaper office – a single room with a kind of closet attached where they keep and operate a telegraph – we got there just after noon. The room was intensely warm.
A gaunt young man sat at the typewriter. I was introduced but as my hands were cuffed behind me, I could only drop my head.
He gazed at me over his spectacles. Which by the way were dirty. Streaked!
His name: John Dimson. Dark and wavy blonde hair, rather oily. And a wiry blonde mustache. Black topcoat. So formal. So funereal. And in that heat. What possesses him? In my case, I have no choice but to dress in black. Sister Teresa brought me a brand new habit, after my last disintegrated in the prison.
After we sat down, he removed the topcoat. White shirt, yellowed collar and beneath his armpits, great wet stains. He pressed the nose of his round spectacles to his face. He has a most unpleasant laugh. And he refused to look at me. He has a way of swaying slightly right and left as he speaks.
He banged on the typewriter, snapping the keys into submission while Kitty explained to him her letter-writing campaign. He stopped when she removed from her purse and presented to him the letter from Governor Stoneman. He sat back and read it and then pulled at his mustache. He laid the letter down on the oak desk.
“I don’t see the Governor here making anything that begins to sound like a promise, Ms. Kitty,” he announced rather somberly.
“Well of course not,” Kitty snapped back. She took the letter and folded it carefully and tucked it back into its onion skin envelope.
“The point, Mr. Dimson, sir, is that we have to convince him, the whole town must be on her side writing letters, all on her behalf, all sympathetic, and then we send them to him, and then perhaps he can be convinced.”
Another. Another fly. Three. Easily caught however in one dishtowel swipe. Oh, sorry, just two. One injured. Not sure. Ah. Here, now, a fleck of a wing right here. IN my hand.
Then I wipe the window clean.
“So, Ms. Kitty, this letter-campaign. How many have you collected? And how is it that you are approaching individuals, to ask folks to write them?”
Kitty pulled herself upright. Nodded and smiled. Explained her pitch. Told Dimson how she gives one free café meal to each letter writer.
Announced our up to date total: 27 letters.
Dimson took a handkerchief from his hip pocket. Wiped his forehead. I sat, thinking about my own face. I had to be, pink flushed damp. But with my hands at my back, there was nothing to be done.
It was at that moment, I saw the fly.
Land on Dimson’s typewriter. There.
It sat. Dimson was asking Kitty how many letters she thought she would be able to collect.
I watched the fly. I stared as it dropped into the pit where the keys pound the paper.
I didn’t see it.
Kitty was saying there was – obviously -- a “time constraint.” I am scheduled to walk those five steps to the gallows on the 6th.
“I am hoping for 200 letters,” she said. She lifted her chin in defiance.
“Miss Kitty, for heaven’s sake, that would be remarkable. We have only 642 citizens. You are saying that approximately one in three people will be willing to wr...”
“It is entirely possible,” she interrupted. “And there is no loss in trying, now is there Mr. Dimson?”
He gazed at her with a narrow-eyed look, and gave a quick shove to his spectacles, pressing them to the bridge of his nose. Wrinkling his mouth, and looking a little bored, he turned to the typewriter. He placed his fingers on the keys. I thought about the fly there in the pit. I gasped.
Dimson and Kitty looked over at me. My eyes widened. I kept staring. I felt like
“I…” I nodded. “A fly. There. Just now landed in your typewriter.” I nodded again. Kept pointing. Dimson frowned. Looked rather annoyed by this whole business. Our visit.
Just then the fly lifted out of the typewriter and circled once, then headed for the window.
Dimson continued typing.
We left. No sign of fly as we left.
The article, Dimson says, will be in the newspaper by week’s end.
Kitty is busy writing letters and what's more, she is getting friends and neighbors, and fellow nuns back at the convent to write letters too. What began as Kitty's pet project -- convincing Governor Stoneman to spare my life -- has now taken on a life of its own.
I cannot say that I understand how this has happened. Why exactly she is so determined to save my life, I'm not sure, but Teresa insists that Kitty's motives are pure and simple.
"We have had a number of long talks about Antonie, and his illness and his bizarre storytelling, and how those stories compromised you, and she was enraged. She wants to rectify the tragedy of what he did to you." Teresa explained this to me a few days ago while standing at Kitty's sink, rinsing the evening dishes. Kitty was downstairs in the cafe, serving dinner with Señora. "I tell you, Renata, that woman is an inspiration to me. Kitty has a great heart, and a magical spirit that carries her. She is full of life."
But when I pressed Teresa to explain what precisely motivates Kitty to be such a tireless advocate for me, Teresa clammed up. "I am not really at liberty to say," she mumbled.
"Oh Teresa, come now. If you know something, for heaven's sake, you ought to tell me."
Teresa looked up toward the ceiling and said nothing at first. Then she turned to me. "Kitty has had a very hard and challenging life, but she has transformed her challenges into opportunities."
"Yes, well, you've said that. But I wondered about the basics. Like, was she ever married? Was she a mother? Is that portrait in the bedroom her child?"
Teresa wiped the last cup and set it on the shelf. She shook her head briskly. "No reason to get into all of that," she said. "After all, what difference does it make to your situation? If you feel it is necessary and you want to ask Kitty, well then go ahead and ask her yourself." She shrugged and untied her apron and at that moment I thought to myself, Teresa has been putting on weight. She looks wider than I remember her at the convent.
"Now I have to run downstairs to the cafe to help out."
I believe that Kitty's a good soul, I don't doubt that. But this intensely-focused letter-writing campaign of hers must stem from something. As I've said before, I suspect that Kitty lost a child -- all I know is that she touches that portrait of the girl with the strawberry curls, the one hanging in her bedroom, at least two or three times a day. Only some deep emotional pain -- a deep, deep well of it -- could fuel her efforts and keep her so focused, working so fervently on my behalf.
I suppose it doesn't matter a bit. And I should be grateful. All I know is that she has a sign up in the cafe offering a free meal to anyone who will write a letter! And the newspaper is set to run a story on the letter campaign.
As soon as I heard the word "newspaper" I cringed, thinking back to that first horrifying story after I was arrested -- I felt crucified in words. And all subsequent reports about my trial were in the same vein. But Kitty assures me that this is going to be a different story, one that explains why an ordinary citizen has come forward to advocate for a woman in need.
Apparently, there are others she has convinced. All I know is that I woke from a nap four afternoons ago, lying there in the parlor on her sofa, with sunlight bathing the quilt that covered me. As soon as I woke up, I realized that Kitty had visitors.
I had been dreaming that I was, of all things, a centaur, half horse, half woman, and that I was galluping off to war! I woke up with tears in my eyes, because I realized that I was almost certainly going to be killed in battle!
That thought had me sniffling and teary when I came to, but there across the parlor, sitting at Kitty's oak table, were three strangers, two rather portly ladies, and one very tall thin woman. All of them are neighbors of Kitty's. Two were sipping lemonade Teresa had fixed, and the third had a glass of port. A plate of cookies sat on the table, and from what I was able to see, the two heavyset ladies were doing justice to the sweets.
It occurred to me that perhaps Kitty was soliciting letter writers by promising the writers free food and drink.
In any case, I lay there, wrapped in the quilt, remaining quiet, just observing, listening to Kitty explain her mission. "Sister Renata is no more guilty of a crime than you or me!" Kitty began. "I can tell you that she has a journal and I've read parts of it, and the way she cared for her cousin, Antonie, she is worthy of a medal. And this is the same man she is accused of killing."
The ladies remained quiet. The two cookie eaters continued to nibble.
"Her cousin, I'm afraid, was very ill, and..." Kitty paused. "Lord help me, but he wasn't right in the head. He wrote some bizarre tales about her. Plain and simply, he lied, but because of his position around here, everyone believe him, and Renata paid the price." Kitty sat forward. "And so I see it as our moral duty to help set her free!"
She brought her fist down hard on the oak table, hard enough so that the plate with the cookies rattled. The three neighbors shifted in their seats. The two heavy women stopped eating.
"Sister Renata's lawyer believes that there is a good chance that the Governor would spare the nun's life if a significant portion of the community is sympathetic to her situation," Kitty continued, now folding her hands and looking from one woman to the next. "And so I'm asking you, can you write a little letter asking Governor Stoneman for mercy?"
This particular meeting with the neighbors was just one of many that Kitty has held, either here in the parlor, or downstairs in the cafe. She has called a public meeting for next week to lay out her case. She asked Deluria if I would be permitted to attend but as I am technically in jail, and this is not a courtroom proceeding, he said I would not be allowed to go.
Just as well, as I know it would be painful to confront a crowd.
After Kitty delivered her pitch the other afternoon, the tall woman asked a question. "I guess I am wondering this, Miss Kitty. Why didn't you try to keep her from gettin' convicted in the first place?"
"Well that would have been ideal, I agree, Alice. But you know the court works the way the court works. And her lawyer, the truth be told, was barely able to hold his own." Kitty took a sip of lemonade herself. "What else you should know is that it took me some time to grow firm in my conviction that Renata is innocent. I went to every day of the trial, and as you know, I've had her in my house here." She gestured in my direction and the next thing I knew I had all four of them staring at me, still snuggled quietly under the quilt on the sofa.
"Oh, Renata, you are awake, I would make you a cup of tea and I will as soon as I am finished here."
"Thank you Kitty, I think you're doing plenty as it is. Not to worry about my tea!"
The three neighbors gazed at me as though I was a panther or a mountain lion in captivity. I suspect that never had any of them seen a convicted murderer up close, I pulled the quilt up over my chin.
And in a matter of minutes, the three of them were on their way, with the tall woman saying she would "give some thought" to a letter. The other two cookie-eaters refused to commit to doing anything on my behalf.
After they had left, Kitty reassured me that she had met with several other neighbors in the cafe earlier in the day and "had at least seven promised letters." Of course promises are cheap, I keep reminding myself of that fact.
But now, today, Kitty has shown me a small stack of actual letters -- eight to be exact. Some are just a few paragraphs long, scrawled in the sloppiest penmanship I've ever seen. But there is one letter that I must admit, I've already read it a dozen times, it too is short, but it presents my case in such a highly favorable light. And what's more, the handwriting is some of the prettiest I've ever seen!
Saturday, May 28, 2011
I am dreaming about my cousin Antonie -- blood spurts from the ragged gash in his throat, and both my hands are coated, warm and slick, the way they were that abominable day he died.
Antonie is grabbing at my neck and his eyes are two fierce black coals burning into me. I'm gagging because he's choking me and my arms are thrashing back and forth as I desperately try to free myself, when suddenly, a glass explodes and shatters. I scream and shoot straight upright.
When I open my eyes I realize that it is Kitty sitting beside me, her fingers circling my throat! It is barely sunrise, the windows glow pink in early light. With all my thrashing, I've accidentally sent the glass of water sitting by my bed flying and it's shattered on the floor.
"Why...whatever are you doing?" I say to her, my heart slamming. Tears spring to my eyes as I feel the dream and the image of Antonie's eyes, and my bloody hands, pressing in on me.
"I am so sorry," she says. "But...your breathing was so...so shallow Renata...I wanted to make sure that you were still...here."
"Of course I'm still here," I say, irritated, feeling a single warm tear leaking out of each eye. I pull the covers, drenched in water, up to my neck while she collects the broken pieces of glass off the floor, piling them into her white apron.
There are moments lately when I wish the three of them -- Kitty, Teresa, even Señora -- would just go away. I'd just as soon they let me be, let them lead me to the gallows and be done with it.
But they refuse. The three of them have teamed up, making me their project, the central object of their daily activity.
My lungs degenerated terribly while living all those weeks in the moldy jail, and after I was sentenced, my wheezing became continual and I developed a deep raspy cough. One morning Teresa found me unconscious on the floor of the cell. Full of rage, she lit into DeLuria, and convinced him to petition the judge.
Somehow, Teresa prevailed. So now, now that I am scheduled to die by hanging in a matter of weeks -- just by chance, the date is set for January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany -- now that I have only days to live, the court has seen the wisdom of transferring me to an "external facility, that is, Kitty's place. The blue house,
which has as its first floor, the tiny café, and upstairs, Kitty's residence.
The jailer, Jimmy Bean, ostensibly stands guard outside the front door. But more often than not, he's got that bottle of whisky in his hands. And he falls asleep. And we hear him collapse off his chair onto the porch. Once he tumbled down Kitty's staircase.
What irony, that the court would want to make certain that I stay healthy long enough so that they can hang me.
Teresa insists that Kitty has a plan, a promise of "new hope." Teresa delivered this bit of news to me a few days ago, after bringing me a cup of dandelion tea. I refused to drink it, but she lifted a teaspoon of the steaming brown liquid right up to my lips.
"My dear, I intend to remain here in this position until you give in and drink this damn tea, so please be quick about it."
I blinked. In all the years I'd known her, Teresa had never once let profanity slip from her lips. "Ah so now you swear, do you?"
"Oh yes indeed, I do when I need to make my point. Now just drink the tea would you please?" So I did, I took the rose petal tea cup -- part of Kitty's best set of dishes -- from Teresa's hands, at which point she settled back into her chair. "Kitty says it helps cleanse the liver."
"And why exactly does my liver need cleansing?" At which moment Kitty emerged from the kitchen.
"The liver stores anger, and in your case, there is plenty of reason for it." Kitty has a ready store of healing herbs, and tinctures she brews in her café kitchen.
Perhaps that is why there is something about this house. A certain nurturing way it feels. I'm not sure, but Teresa calls it a "blessed spirit that circulates between the walls," and she claims that even the convent "never felt this way." She may be right. All I know is that by treating me with gingko and feverfew, Kitty has managed to make my cough virtually disappear, and my wheezing is improved.
It helps too that I now sleep like a lamb (despite this morning's episode) and that I eat like a queen, thanks to the fact that Señora has taken over cooking all the evening meals at Kitty's café. (In this way, Señora is earning her board here, while Teresa does laundry and keeps house for her share.)
So there are four of us living here in the tiny three-bedroom blue house. Why exactly Kitty has decided to open her home and heart to us, why she is so attentive to me, I cannot say. Teresa has alluded to the fact that Kitty has a long sad story, one she will not share. "There is enough you have to carry in your heart right now, no need for more sorrow."
I suspect that Kitty lost a child. At least I know this much: there is a portrait, a sketch in pastels, of a young girl, fawn-colored eyes, and soft strawberry curls gracing her delicate shoulders. The portrait sits in Kitty's room above her bed, and once, I happened to pass by Kitty's open door and there she was, touching the portrait as if she meant to graze the child's face.
There is no evidence of a man having lived in this place, and again, I questioned Teresa, and again, Teresa set her lips together and wouldn't say.
Whatever it is that motivates her, Kitty regards me as her pet project. Her own cause celebre. As she put it to me one evening, when she'd set a fire going in the fireplace, wrapped me in a red and yellow quilt, and fixed me still another cup of strong dandelion tea. "You have suffered more than anyone ever should, Renata, and I'm not going to rest until we set you free."
So now, today, it seems as though there is news. After collecting the shards of glass from the floor, I fell back to sleep, and when I awoke, the sun was pouring into the front windows. Teresa had fixed me what has come to be my favorite morning meal: buttery biscuits and raspberry jam. She left three of them, and a cup of tea, now cool, on a tray.
Soon I heard murmuring, and then, a squeal of excitement.
Kitty came flying up the outside stairs and opened the front door. Teresa followed.
"No, it's not a promise, but it's reason for hope," Kitty said, waving the official-looking letter.
Over the next few minutes I was able to get the full story. Working single-handedly, Kitty has written a letter on my behalf to the Governor of California. George Stoneman. And so now I can understand why a few weeks ago, I woke up to Teresa and Kitty murmuring to each other. I had heard the words. Stone. Man. And then, "Maybe he can help." But I had no idea what they were discussing.
It turns out that this Governor of ours, a war hero, believes strongly in prison reform. He has granted dozens and dozens of pardons -- 247 to be exact -- and commuted almost as many sentences.
Kitty went to the trouble of writing a long and passionate letter to the Governor, explaining my situation, and asking for help.
The letter in her hands was not a pardon by any means, but a request for more official information. "In other words," said Teresa, "It is up to DeLuria to present the request."
"Yes, indeed, we will need his help," Kitty said, "but isn't it wonderful, he answered!"
She handed me the letter and I must say it was a thrill to see the Governor's scrawl across the page. To think that he would consider looking into my case.
I felt my face get warm, and tears spring to my eyes. "Thank you Kitty," I said, and it was difficult to speak.
She kneeled in front of me. I realized in that moment that she had the same fawn-colored eyes as the little girl in the bedroom portrait. And while her hair was graying, there were strands of the strawberry color. "I promise you Renata," she said, taking my hand, "that we won't stand by and watch you die. You have my word, we will have your case heard by the Governor himself!"
Teresa squeezed my shoulders. And I must say, for the first time in months, I felt a surge of hope. At the same time, I recalled all those horrible hours in what amounted to a cage.
Perhaps that's why I started to cry.
Teresa and Kitty wouldn't tolerate my tears for long, however. They made me get up and take a bath, and we spent the day planning a celebration. Señora made my favorite evening meal, tortilla soup, and Teresa baked me a spice cake.
Sunday, April 17, 2011
To all of you who came on my behalf -- to Sister Baptiste, Sister Philomena, Sister Hermione, Sister Marietta, Sister Felicity, Sister Annabelle, Sister Celina, Sister Genevieve, Sister Pauline, Sister Rafaela, Sister Margot and Sister Lucia -- I am forever indebted to you. I am forever grateful. I salute your courage, and your endurance. Traveling by carriage all those 87 miles from the convent on those red dusty roads. And then sitting on backless benches in that stifling courtroom all those many long hours. Enduring all the questions, the snide remarks, the stern looks from the jurors, all of it.
No matter. At the end of the day, the jury took exactly one hour and 34 minutes to return to the courtroom. I was in the cell only a few minutes when the jailer returned to "fetch me" for the verdict.
I sat at the defense table, hands folded, holding the well-worn family Bible that Teresa had brought me. I watched the 12 men shuffle back into the room, carefully avoiding my eyes.
The judge spoke. "Gentlemen of the jury, have you reached a verdict?"
The foreman, a portly man with a bright red nose and wearing a leather vest stood. "Yes, your honor, we have."
The judge nodded. Turned to glare at me. "Please stand and face the jury."
I stood, and DeLuria stood beside me. And behind me, I heard all of the nuns who had come to support my case. I felt them all rise with me!
Suddenly there wasn't nearly enough air in the courtroom to breathe. So I held my breath. My hands trembled so I held them to my chest as if in prayer.
"How do you find the defendant?" I heard the judge's question, but it sounded so far away to me, as if I had been wholly delivered up to another world.
"We find the defendant guilty, your honor."
Without knowing why, I smiled. I will never understand that beatific smile. Perhaps it was a release. Finally, I was hearing the words that I had dreaded to hear for so many many weeks.
A tender hush rose up behind me. I felt a hand at my back, one on my elbow, I know not whether it was DeLuria or Teresa or one of the many other nuns. My legs turned so soft that I felt they would no longer support me.
I collapsed into the chair. There were words being said, I suppose the judge was pronouncing the date that I would be sentenced, but now I felt again that I was not present in the room. Or I was immersed deep under water. Or he was speaking Russian or French. DeLuria tried to pull me by the arm, hoping I would stand again, but it was too late. I had turned into dead weight.
I sat there hands folded staring into the oak table. I studied the grain of the wood, and I felt that I could continue sitting there staring at that beautiful grain -- the whorls so intricate -- for as long as they would permit me.
But it wasn't to be permitted. It wasn't long before I was lifted at both elbows and my wrists were shackled again. DeLuria was telling me he would file an appeal and I was about to say,
"Mr. DeLuria I feel that is a mistake, and not necessary, you see you have done enough already."
But my lips were forming words I couldn't say. I was already being shepherded out of the room. And as I headed out, I glanced once at the bank of eyes and tears and black veils. Sister Pauline was making the sign of the cross and Teresa was holding Señora in her arms and rocking her.
I was all too soon back here, locked in, where I sat in silence until Teresa and Señora came and the three of us held hands through the bars and cried together and said nothing.
Finally, the jailer came and told them visiting hours were over. Teresa protested, but I begged her to go. And so they did, but not before Señora left a basket covered in a gingham cloth -- jars of canned vegetables and one of apricots. Ah, but nothing appealed to me, not even the cup of chamomile tea that Kitty later brought me (I took it, however, because as long as I was sipping the tea, Mr. Bean allowed her to sit with me.)
The sun dropped behind the courtyard and that moon I am still staring at rose in the clear dark sky. I must have fallen asleep. When I awoke, I saw that Mr. Bean had left me a bowl of soup which had grown cold, and a crust of bread. I dumped both into the foul pail.
I have a stone dead feeling in my stomach, as if someone had come in and stolen the core of me away and left a gaping cold trench. An open grave.
I have no idea when it happened.
I am convicted of premeditated murder. I have been found guilty of killing my cousin Antonie in cold blood.
And I would have written that there is no more to say.
Just imagine. What I. Did. Just imagine. Where I fled to.
Only the stars can tell you. Only the sky can guess.
So now sit down and I will try to tell you.
You will see it all come clear.
When the water goes still as a mirror,
And we peer inside.
Do you see now, why I appeared here?
Do you see now, why you must
Tell the world my story? Yes, tell the world
Just sing it, shout it out,
how we turned the past.
We will move her story, Renata's
and his false history,
Had I known that Teresa was going to deprive me of my black habit after the bath -- burning it in Kitty's barrel behind the blue house -- I would have refused the bath. No matter that I hadn't bathed in weeks.
And no matter that it was a delicious and refreshing bath. Yes -- the warm water was perfect and the suds so gentle and soothing. Kitty brought one after another fresh teakettle of steaming water, until Mr. Bean knocked on the steamed up glass window of the outside door where he was standing guard.
He was getting impatient, as my bath was taking a rather long time, and it was up to him to make sure that I got back to the jail.
The curtain kept him from peering inside where I lay in the tub.
"You ladies had better be gettin' done in there pretty quick."
"Ten minutes more," Teresa yelled.
"Five not a second extra!" he shouted back.
"Mercy, Mr. Bean, I've got to wash her hair!"
"Make it fast!"
She chuckled. And under her breath, "OK, then. rub a dub dub, Renata." She kneeled, groaning as she rearranged her plump self beside the tub. With Kitty pouring lukewarm water over her hands and my head, Teresa shampooed my shorn scalp. I smelled the lavender soap. I felt the brisk work of her strong fingertips massaging my scalp. Oddly, the clean odor of the shampoo filled me with some kind of hopefulness.
My head rinsed, I was helped by the two of them out of the bathtub and into a set of towels. A wonderful sensation. I smiled and pulled the towel tight around my shoulders.
I looked around the room. "What happened to Señora? And what did you do with my habit?"
"Ah not a chance you will ever be seeing that item of clothing again my dear," Teresa said, scowling. She stepped behind me and used the second towel to shuffle dry my hair.
"But...what...I must have it back, you know I must," I said. "Otherwise, I go back to the courtroom in two days and...and what...what exactly do I wear?"
Teresa stopped toweling, and turned me around. She took my face in her two thick hands and stared hard into my eyes. Her cheeks were pink in steam from the bath.
"Renata, my dear, there is not a thing we can do, not today anyway. I gave it to Señora while you were soaking and she tried to wash it out back there where Kitty does laundry. My dear, the both of your sleeves were so rotten in dirt that they came apart in her hands -- and there was a giant tear at the bodice. I'm going to bring you another habit on my next trip." Her voice, lilted in Irish brogue, was usually music to me. But not now.
"Where is Señora, please?" I asked.
"She's taken over the cafe for Kitty, she is fixing us a good evening meal, a tortilla soup, with one of Kitty's chickens, even, and we will be bringing a bowl to you as soon as it's cooked!"
Meanwhile, Kitty emerged from the bedroom at that moment with a neat stack of clean white underclothing. "Here you go," she said, lifting it toward me like an offering. "And I have a powder blue muslin dress in the closet, I think it will fit you. It's a bit snug on me."
I felt warm tears rising out of my eyes, covering my face like the bathwater had a few minutes before. I began to shake my head. The smell of lavender now was overpowering, and it almost made me dizzy. It occurred to me now that I was still weak with the illness that had practically killed me only days before.
"If...I had known, I would have refused the bath," I whispered.
"Renata this is just silly, you will be perfectly presentable in court wearing the blue muslin. And in a week or so I will have another habit here for you." Teresa tried to lift my chin but I wasn't having any of it.
Bean was banging on the door. "I give you two more minutes or I'm coming in," he announced.
My teeth came together. "Let him in then," I seethed, feeling a deep exhaustion set in. I needed sleep. Desperately. It had been a long few days. "Let him see me naked for all I care. What does it matter, as I have nothing proper to wear!"
I was sobbing now, into the towel that Teresa had used on my hair. Kitty put her arm around my shoulders, and squeezed, Teresa had my hands. I cried harder.
"Oh Renata, I am so terribly sorry. I know this isn't easy for you," Teresa said. "And you are still so weak. Come sit down, we don't want you to get chilled."
I let her lead me to a chair. Kitty brought an afghan and covered my head as it is was a veil.
"Can you for a moment imagine how it feels?" I shuddered. "I've been caged there in that ... animal pen they call a jail for so many many weeks. And yet the whole while, I had my...I kept myself going knowing who I was. Feeling that I am, that I was, the same nun who had been dragged from the convent September 13th."
"But now my habit is gone. Gone! My veil, long since lost to me. Without them, I am... what am I Teresa? Who am I?"
She hesitated a moment. Her eyes widened, her face grew a darker pink. "It is not your habit or your veil that made you a nun," she said, her tone solemn. "It was never those who made you what you are! You are the same Renata you were before you left the convent."
I shook my head sadly. "No, no I am not," I said, quietly. "I have no idea who I am but I am definitely not the novitiate I was eight weeks ago. I have fallen too low for that."
Mr. Bean was trying the doorhandle. It was locked. He shook the handle and it rattled loudly. "I tell ya I'm going to bust down this door if you're not out here forthwith," he yelled, "and I don't care if I see her nekked."
Something in the way he said that word "nekked" -- the foolish old man -- ignited me. I stood up from the chair, letting the afghan slip off my hair, and I marched to the door, wearing just the towel. I pushed the curtain aside. I stuck my tongue out at him. "Go away," I frowned.
He must have seen that I was just in the towel because he took a quick step back. "Git yourself dressed immediately," he demanded.
I closed the curtain. I scooped up the stack of underclothes Kitty had given me. "Please if you would, show me the dress," I said, marching into Kitty's bedroom.
Teresa wanted to help but I refused. I closed the door to the bedroom and dressed myself. And when I emerged, with the pale blue belted muslin in place of my scratchy wool habit, Teresa smiled and nodded.
"God made you a beautiful woman, my dear," Teresa said. "And it is no matter what you wear. You look lovely." She handed me my old shoes, newly polished. "You are standing in nun's shoes."
I ignored her and walked toward the door. As I reached for the lock, I turned. "Kitty, I want to thank you for everything," I said.
"Of course," she smiled. "I am happy to be able to help you. I believe in you Renata and I believe in my heart that somehow, it is in God's plan that you will be set free. I have been saying extra prayers for weeks now, every time I attend mass."
I smiled. "Thank you."
I let Bean handcuff me and lead me back to the cell. The smell of the foul pail as I stepped inside the cell was so much worse than I had remembered it.
"Get this out of here," I demanded, and perhaps because of my tone, he did it right away.
I thought I heard Teresa's voice. I thought I heard her telling the jailer, Jimmy Bean, "just stand aside, Mister Bean, just stand aside. We have a mighty sick woman to attend to here, my dear sir." Her familiar brogue was a sweet boost to my spirits. I lay there in such a sweat and a fever that I wasn't sure. I was deliriously happy to hear Teresa's voice, but was Teresa really here?
"I suggest that you just stand aside Mr. Bean," she said again. "We must let Señora Ramos prepare the poultices. Because this is a sick woman here."
In the end, Bean was assigned a job: he was to keep the fire boiling under Señora's copper kettle outside the jail, while Kitty, from the cafe nearby, volunteered to stir hot towels into Señora's mixture of herbs: eucalyptus and mint, thyme and hyssop and cardamon.
Teresa, meanwhile, forked one towel after another up and out of the boiling kettle and let them hang briefly over the jail's porch railing until they could be wrung out and carried inside. Then she would slip the hot towel between the bars and take away the one that Señora had removed from my chest.
Hour after hour Señora sat with me, humming, humming, that familiar something, the old flower song, placing one after another warm towel on my chest. And finally when it grew dark, she lifted my head to her generous lap, and circled us both with a blanket, and I slept that way, parked on her soft lap, into a second day, while Kitty took Teresa home and gave her a place to sleep.
On the second day, Señora applied the mustard poultice, which is not such a pleasant affair, not like the other herbs. Teresa gave Kitty the bag of black mustard seeds, and had her grind them in a coffee grinder, then she mixed the mustard powder with enough flour and hot water to form a yellow paste.
Kitty carried the paste in a bowl back to the jail. Señora spread the paste with a wooden spoon on a large square of soft muslin soaked in hot water. She lay that on my chest -- the skin between my breasts was by now pink and raw from all the wet plasters. She covered me with the mustard paste on the muslin and then covered that with a second piece of dry cloth.
At some point, I began coughing. The congestion was loosening a little, and Señora helped me sit upright and rubbed and patted my back and made circles and now I coughed and wheezed but I was awake. Teresa made me a parade of different teas and forced me to drink. Mint tea, then thyme tea, and even, Señora produced a lemon from her basket. Kitty supplied a teapot and Teresa filled the pot with hot water and lemon slices. Soon Señora was supervising me drinking cup after cup, each rich and fragrant in lemon and each with a dollop of honey and a sprinkle of cayenne pepper.
The second night, Señora went home with Kitty to sleep, and Teresa sat with me, holding my head in her lap. I sank deep and was dreaming of wagon wheels all night. Wheels turning and turning, wheels larger and larger. I was wheezing when I woke.
But I knew right away the fever had eased. My mind had cleared. I yawned. And coughed. And couldn't stop coughing and kept spitting up phlegm into the foul pail. When I sank back to the bench in exhaustion, Teresa mopped my brow.
"My dear Renata, how you have suffered. But my dear, I believe that you've got a wee bit of color in your cheeks this morning."
Soon Kitty appeared with Señora. They had fresh rolls and hard boiled eggs and a pot of steaming chamomile tea. After we ate and drank, Teresa said she had something "quite urgent" she needed to attend to. Little did I know she was about to work a small miracle.
She disappeared from the jail, and was gone for not more than half an hour.
And yes, I am accustomed to miracles with Teresa, like the shower she hammered together at the convent, but this miracle was truly a wonder considering that I am here, a prisoner in this godforsaken cell.
Teresa returned with Jimmy Bean and he unlocked the cell, and cuffed my wrists. Teresa helped me to my feet and held me by the shoulders. "Come along now, Renata," she said, as if it was perfectly normal that I would leave the cell in her company.
"But where...what...where are we going?"
Teresa said nothing to me. Without a word, Bean led us out of the jail into the sunlight. I was weak and tired, but Teresa and Señora were on either side, supporting me.
And if I tell you what happened, I wonder if you will believe it! We crossed the dusty courtyard to the tiny blue house, which has on the first floor, Kitty's cafe. But our destination was not the cafe, but the back staircase. We climbed the creaking wooden stairs, and at the top, was Kitty's place.
We entered, the three of us, and there was Kitty, and behind her, I faced, for the first time in almost exactly two months, a clawfoot tub filled with warm bathwater. Kitty smiled, and stood in an apron, holding up a large towel. Bean stood outside the door, as Teresa promised she would be "guard" inside.
Teresa helped me remove my habit. I had worn it for so long, that it had taken on a stiff and crusted look. I was so dirty and yet, I had stopped smelling my own odor.
But now, I was sinking into the most delicious bathwater. I was shoulder deep. I was up to my chin. I was in heaven. I smiled. Teresa smiled back and Señora clapped her fat hands together.
My body has never felt such complete and utter warmth. I kept thinking, I cannot ever leave this bathtub.
Kitty had some fresh lavender she dropped into the bath, and I lay there, and I said a prayer of thanks, and let the water and the smell of it restore my spirit.