Saturday, May 28, 2011

CHAPTER THIRTY: Governor Stoneman, Can You Save Me?

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.

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