Sunday, April 17, 2011

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE: See Me, Now, Convicted of Murder!

How quiet the jail tonight.

How bright the moon is outside the window. A perfect white button glowing in the dark cloak that is the sky.

Will she come back again?

Will she bring the other?

I stare between the bars into the courtyard and close my eyes and I realize that I must have been dreaming.

Of course I was dreaming.

Or was I? THAT WAS SEÑORA! She was here. She was here in her flowered shawl. I see her wide face the color of coffee with milk. I see her...and all the bright flowers on the satin shawl.

And I see the other too! She brought the Mother. She brought Her to me.

Or did she? Do I see what I think I see? Am I thinking clearly? I have eaten nothing. I have slept fitfully. I blink and my eyes play endless tricks on me.

What takes the place of Señora's face is horrifying:

The rope. Those five wooden steps.

And if it weren't for her coming, appearing here in the cell. If it weren't for that, for the Mother Herself saying, "Bless you my child, keep steady, have faith!"

If it weren't for that, for the explosion of light that surrounded me, that flooded me, I would say there is no hope.

With my eyes open, with my pen writing words precise and clear here in black ink on this white paper, there is only this to say:

Yesterday is the day that the trial finally ended. Yesterday is the day that the last days of my life were numbered. All that remains for me is the five steps up to the gallows.

No matter that Teresa brought a dozen of the nuns from the convent to testify on my behalf at the trial. No matter that they sat behind me, a phalanx of faith and devotion. No matter that DeLuria (prodded by Teresa) brought each nun in turn to the witness stand to testify on behalf of my "outstanding moral character."

No matter that it took most of the afternoon in that stifling courtroom to hear from each of the 13 nuns (Teresa included.)

No matter that one after the other they sat for the ordeal, listening to the insults of the prosecutor.

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.

What could we possibly say when all is lost?

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.

When she came.

I know only that at some point she came.

Or did she?

During the night, when the moon was close to the roof of Kitty's cafe, I stood looking out the barred window. I stared into the courtyard where the gallows will stand and I finally said it out loud:

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.

That all is lost. That there is no more hope for me. That nothing more remains but the sentence and the sentence we know already is me hanging by a rope.

But then she came. She has come before to me, Señora. She came clear as a ringing bell, she came shortly after I was arrested, she arrived here in this very cell, singing in the key of eternity. She came another time, after I collapsed in the courtroom, and then she brought me the rainbow rosary.

And perhaps because I was saying that very rosary tonight, praying with all my might for a miracle again, she came again, Señora, she came just as the moon settled like a bright bubble on the horizon, just before the bubble burst, and flooded the sky with white light,

She sat here with me, my dear old Señora, playing her guitar, and singing her lovely carcelero.

I am quite convinced of it now but how to explain this PRESENCE?

And how to explain the other, the glimpse I had of the Mother?

She is real. She too was here tonight, as clear as I see these bars she stood above me, as bright as the moon glowed, she showed herself to me in a fabulous light.

She the Mother filled me with love, I glowed too I glowed too. And I am afraid to write it down here, perhaps I fear that the miracle will disappear.

And I've grown nervous that the jailer when I sleep takes the journal, for what purpose I am not sure, he doesn't read a word. But just in case, I will slip the journal inside the powder blue shirtwaist dress.

And I sit here, and with me is the guitar that Señora played and now I sing and play and I sing and I pray.

And she is back, and

Now she sees my tears and changes gear. Now she is singing a gay and witty sort of palo which has a never ending number of poetic verses.

She sings:

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 Antonie's,

and his false history,

and hers,


CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT: Deprived of My Habit, I am Nun No More!

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.

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN: Teresa and Señora to My Rescue!

What finally woke me: the smell of eucalyptus. And peppermint. And Señora humming something deeply familiar as she pressed a warm wet compress against my bare chest.

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.