Saturday, January 8, 2011
CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE: The Jail Makes Me See Myself: "A Nun Swingin' by a Rope!"
September 29, 1883
Old Vallejo Jail
My Dearest Teresa,
I sit in this cell -- an animal in a cage. One thing saves me: my mind making these pictures. I see you and me walking through the fields near the convent. Do you see the sky? Such a glorious purple and blue.
Remember that sunset, that night we walked together so many miles?
Your letters are my only comfort. In the moments when I am so frightened I cannot even whisper a prayer, I clutch my rosary beads and reread your words. Sometimes I repeat them over and over like a soothing chant. Tears pour out when I hear your voice echo. My greatest terror is that there may come a day when I cannot hear you!
Oh Teresa. I could always count on you to make me laugh. Each morning before prayers there you would be, solemn, straight-faced, imitating our pie-eyed Mother Yolla. Her scowl. Her waddle, how like a cow she walks. And then I would dissolve into tears, all the while praying, “God, please forgive me for laughing.”
Believe me, I am laughing no more. For I am certain now that I will die, as that hopeless lawyer Deluria appeared with me in court a week ago and he was abominably bad. You could barely hear what he said. The judge asked him three or four times to speak up!
And when he did say something, he made a few dreadfully weak statements and that was that. I sat with my wrists handcuffed and my head bowed, ashamed that I even agreed to let the foolish lawyer -- his impeccable ruffled shirt -- speak for me!
After they led me back to the cell, I sat for hours staring through the bars out the window into the courtyard. As the afternoon wore on, the sun got hotter and hotter and brighter and I grew more and more weak and dizzy. Fearing that I might faint, I finally did the unthinkable, Teresa, I tore off my wimple and veil. My hair lies now like dry matted straw.
Is this then the end of me, then, Renata the nun? I have begun to think so! Even as I am playing my guitar, my heart is as heavy as a lead stove lid! Forgive me, Teresa, but I have more and more moments lately when I've begun to doubt that there is any Divine order at all, or any loving presence above.
Occasionally as I sat staring out the window, a wagon would come into view, the wheels throwing up thick clouds of yellow dust. Finally, the jailer brought dinner – a cold, grey mass of greasy potatoes he called stew – and I couldn’t think to eat it. In a perverse mood, both he and I were, and maybe because it was so hot, he wasn't cackling for a change and I was desperate to talk, so I asked him if he thought the hanging would be good theater.
"Er, watcha say there sister?" he asked, as I suppose he didn't know the meaning of the word "theater."
"What I mean, Mr. Pie, is when I hang outside there in the courtyard, will it attract a large crowd?"
His eyes lit up. "Oh course it will, Lordy, to see a nun swingin' by a rope, hell, it'll be a real good un," he said, nodding his head. “Criminy sakes how often do ya hang a sister?"
His eyes widened and took on a gleam. He stood there jangling his ring of keys, smoothing his hand over that impossible stubble on his chin. Then, when I said nothing, he silently pushed back his soiled hat. I saw that stitched flap of skin where his eye is missing. This is the first time I ever really looked at it.
I ought not to have asked the next question. "Have you seen...a lot of hangings?" I whispered, my throat knotting up over my words.
"Oh in my day I'd say I seen a dozen or so," he said, smiling. He has only three crooked teeth where there should be a top row. "But ma'am, not to say I'm gonna look or nothin' but hell, this one beats all the rest. I mean, I never seen anybody hang who was wearin' a dress." He slapped his thigh and shook his head. And then he clanged the keys against the bars and turned and left.
What a beast. What a dreadful dreadful man. How could he possibly be so cold-hearted, telling me this? Making me see myself spinning by the neck at the end of a rope, my gown open at the bottom for all to see?
I sat staring at the cold stew. In the last few days, my stomach has taken on new waves of nausea -- I dry heave even at the sight of food and would rather he just didn't leave it at all.
I called out to the jailer and told him to take the bowl away.
The day seemed to last forever. The sun sank lower and lower, and with it went my spirits. In the perverse spirit that I was, I kept riveted on that spot
out in the courtyard where my body will dangle from a rope. I tried to pray, Teresa, but honestly, I have begun to wonder, why bother? Is there anyone listening? Would a merciful Being permit all this to happen?
Oh I shouldn't even write this down here, I shouldn't think this. But I do.
At some point during the night, I must have fallen asleep. I dreamed I was swinging from a rope that hung from a crucifix. I had been hanged, but somehow because I was on the cross, I didn’t die. I woke up with a start, collapsed into the slimy wall of my cell. Oh Teresa, this is hell on earth.
And did I tell you, they now have wrapped a chain around my ankle, as if it were needed? As if there would be any way I could move from this pen!
My skin at the ankle grows raw, and it has begun bleeding and the blood mixes with the rust of the chain.
In your last letter you said the newspaper intends to publish all those stories that Antonie wrote, starting with his first one, "Renata Dancing." Dear God is there no justice? All that rubbish, the filth and lies Antonie wrote about me.
If they do, if they do, dear Teresa, is there a way to bring my diary forward? Will my words carry any weight at all?
I am desperate to show the world that I am innocent. I committed no crime.
At least I can die knowing you will try to clear my name.
The jailer comes now with a cup of tea. He leaves it. But dear God Teresa, it is lukewarm and has an oily film and there is, a hair from that mangy dog floating on top.
I cannot bring myself to eat a bite, or drink either. The jailer says I might die of starvation. And I say, that might be the best way.
Whatever God wills.
Your loving sister,