Saturday, October 27, 2012
It seems much too real to be a dream. She is lying there in her bed at the convent, right where she's supposed to be, under a heap of quilts. She knows for certain that she fell asleep there, after an especially quiet dinner with Sister Teresa and the other nuns. Mother Yolla complimented Renata on the beet and apple and onion salad she had fixed. Teresa, looking a little pale, joked after dishes were cleared that "the salad was too too red," and it had given her a stomach ache and could she be excused from chores.
Later Renata brought Teresa a cup of tea, chamomile with honey, just the way she liked it. But Teresa was fast asleep when she pushed open the nun's door.
So why is Renata awake now, tossing and turning in her convent bed, feeling the familiar pinch of the straw on her back and across her shoulders. She is holding her rosary beads, which some nights she will do in order to fall asleep.
She keeps thinking of Señora. The old woman is pouring water into an old ceramic vase, the colorful dark blue vase that once sat on Antonie's kitchen table. It had come with Señora from Mexico so many years before. It was hand painted in white calla lilies and Señora would fill it every morning with roses or whatever flower was growing in abundance. Antonie ignored the flowers and the vase; what Senora did in the kitchen was Señora's business. "The kitchen is hers," he would often say.
Now for some reason Señora's got the vase in both hands and she has filled the vase with white lilies. Fragrant lilies -- Renata has got the scent of them in her nose as she sleeps.
And then she sees Señora carrying the vase with a towel wrapped beneath it. Somehow, Señora is there in the convent, and she is setting the vase on a night table, right next to Sister Teresa's bed. Señora is speaking soothing words to Teresa. Señora sets a cool cloth over the nun's brow and takes Teresa's hand in both of hers. At just that moment, Teresa arches her back and pulls her hand out of Señora's. She thrashes side to side, and collapses into a fetal position. Her mouth falls open and she cries out. Her face is as white as goat's milk.
Mother Yolla is beside the bed and two or three other nuns have gathered too. They are kneeling around the bed and praying. No one is saying what's wrong with Teresa because apparently no one knows. The doctor is on the other side of the bed, and he has a stethoscope dangling from his neck. Mother Yolla and Señora each take one of Teresa's shoulders, preparing to hold her down while the doctor listens to the nun's chest.
"What? What? Teresa, my dear Teresa, what is wrong?" Renata is trying to wake herself up from the dream, and for a moment she seems to succeed. All she needs to do is wake up and walk down the narrow convent hall and she will be there with Teresa. So simple, so simple.
"She needs me, she needs me," Renata says, but for some reason she is having trouble waking up. She keeps trying to make herself sit up but the quilts are heavy and even when she pushes then aside, she can't get out of the convent bed, she is stuck there in the dark shivering, her head swimming.
But when she is finally sitting up, and she is finally awake, she is not at the convent at all; she sees the thick trees outside Arthur's porch, lit by the sliver of a moon. The night is perfectly still.
Renata pulls the blanket tightly around her shoulders. She is cold but sweating at the same time. Her heart is hammering and a ring of pain is circling her head just above her eyes.
She has only one thought: she will find her back to the convent. She must. This dream has to be a sign that Teresa is in trouble.
She hasn't any idea what time it is, but she gets off the mattress and walks into the cabin still wrapped in the blanket. She stands outside Arthur's door for a moment trying to decide if she should knock. Wake him up. Ask his help. She's going to need a wagon to make the trip.
Biting into her lip, she decides to wait. She goes back to the porch and lays awake until the sky takes its first color from the rising sun.
Every morning, he made his way onto the porch while she was still asleep and while it was still dark and the moon was but a silver curl of a sliver within the dark pines. He would creep quietly into the porch and remain there until she woke up. He had shown her every kindness, every form of polite and respectful behavior, and he gave her every reason to believe that he was polite and considerate. Still, she had her doubts. She still had not really begun to trust him.
She slept each night, buried deep in the blankets on the porch, her arms squeezing what would have been a pillow if it had been more than a second small blanket stuffed with straw and tied, just like the mattress was, with twine.
She never saw him come in. She would fall asleep watching the starlight, and wake up to the creaking of the rocking chair across the porch, the chair he had chiseled and shaped out of fir and aspen and blood red manzanita. He said nothing at all, but the chair began squeaking and it mixed with the sounds of the throaty birds coming to life in the marshy area behind the woodland.
The early morning air was cool and fresh and misty and when it moved across her face it tempted her awake. But then she heard his rocking and squeaking and immediately she resented the fact that he was there in the porch rocking in the chair. Why did he insist on intruding this way on her morning routine? It had been a week that she’d been there, and she had not worked up the courage to tell him that it had to stop.
It wouldn’t be easy to tell him. He did everything imaginable to please her, including placing a glass of red poppies at her breakfast table each morning. He refused to let her cook a thing. He made her pancakes or scrambled eggs for breakfast. He fixed hot soups for lunch, and he skewered a rabbit or a chicken for dinner.
He had offered to hide her indefinitely in his woodland cabin. How he would possibly manage to keep her there, when the authorities were looking for her everywhere, she wasn’t sure, but he had ideas. “We could shave off the rest of your hair and dress you up as a farmhand,” he said at one point. She frowned at the thought, and said in a quiet voice that it suited her to remain a woman.
“Well then, maybe we could move you out of here.” He offered that he would risk taking her by wagon to San Francisco, “where you could catch a train east all the way to New York.”
Renata’s stomach tightened at the thought of leaving her beloved golden hills, her blue California skies. And running from the authorities? That squeezed her stomach even worse.
“How would I elude them? You yourself said they have my photo pasted in every building that stands.”
“And so, maybe you would have to become part of my baggage, maybe I could cover you up with a blanket and claim you as a chair.” There were other silly ideas, but all of them were evidence that he seriously cared to try to help her.
Meanwhile, her own thoughts focused on how she could move on from the woodland cabin on her own power. With each hour she remained at the cabin, she knew she put herself in danger of being found.
She is dreaming she's back in the convent, feeling the pinch of straw in the mattress clawing at her skin; the old convent mattress used to pinch the same way in the old days. In the dream, she smells corn posole cooking, her mouth waters at the fragrance, but just then, Teresa comes running to her room, she pushes open the door without knocking and stands there panting, holding up a spoon.
"You can't stay here," she says, frantically waving her head back and forth. The spoon dances. "Please, take the back door, hurry, don't wait even one minute more, the posse's half way to the far gate, riding with a fury." Teresa's face is flushed, her cheeks as pink and moist as a ham. "My dear Renata, if they find you, God in heaven, you're done for. They'll have you swinging from the gallows in days."
Renata keeps trying to get up from the bed, but she just keeps sinking further into the mattress with each move. The straw claws her. She doesn't understand why Teresa won't put the spoon down and help her up. But then she realizes, Teresa has disappeared. Renata is all alone. Terrified, she bolts upright, and now she is awake, sitting in the makeshift bed that he made for her after carrying her, half dead, to his tiny cabin in what he keeps referring to as The Woodland. At the end of the bed is an aging floppy eared dog, staring at her open-jawed. His coat is smooth and shiny and as chocolate in color as Teresa's favorite German cake. The dog's mouth hangs open, and he is drooling strings of loopy drool over his fierce-looking teeth and eying her curiously.
"Nice fella," Renata whispers, reaching her hand out tentatively toward the dog's head.
"Better just to ignore Pete, then he'll be your best friend." Renata pulls her hand back and turns, and the man with the head of curls -- the person who saved her and brought her here -- is leaning into the doorframe. From this perspective, he didn't look tall. Not at all. In fact, Renata is pretty certain that she is a head taller than the man who carried her to safety.
When he first brought her to The Woodland, she was limp to the world, unconscious in the back of the cart. He carried her in and put her to sleep in his own bed for at least three days, while he occupied the small barn where the horses were stalled. Soon enough, though, she awoke. Her arms and legs ached and her backside felt bruised and stiff as stone. Her chest was heavy but thankfully, she had no fever. But scratches? Yes. And lots more: bruises, cuts and welts and gigantic bug bites. And several ticks she needed his help to remove, one or two from the back of her neck and one from the tender skin directly below her armpit, a precious few inches from her round left breast.
"It makes me fiercely embarrassed you doing this," she whispered as she lifts her arm, holding a towel to cover her breasts. He lit a match and went to work to remove the tick.
"I done seen a woman's body before," he said matter of factly. "And there ain't no use in you getting ill because of a tick whose time has come."
For the first two days (or was it three), she had slept straight through. When she finally woke, the sun was at a morning slant. Or was it?
"It is morning, yes?" she asked. He stood above her. He smiled and nodded and asked if she was hungry enough to eat a grizzly.
"No, but I am mighty thirsty," she said holding both hands against her throat. He left and Pete followed and soon, the man returned with a tray. Pete dropped into a position lying near the head of the bed. On the tray was a larger pitcher of water and a glass jar. He also brought her a plate with dark bread and a hunk of yellow cheese, and a cup of steaming broth. He had placed an apple on a plate, too, and she was impressed because he had cut it into paper thin slices.
Mostly, though, she was thirsty. She was more than thirsty; she was a desert. Before she touched a bite of food, she finished the pitcher and held it out to him for a refill. Once again he returned with it, and once again she finished the pitcher and once again she asked for more. After the third pitcher, she blushed and asked where she could relieve herself.
Without the slightest hint of embarassment, he helped her out of the bed and supported her walking through the back door into the sunlight. A small outhouse stood a few feet away. He stayed within earshot while she peed, and helped her back to the cabin and into bed again.
It was only then, when she went to thank him, that she realized she didn't even know his name.
As she finished the broth -- it tasted of something meaty, maybe the rabbit he had shot -- she decided she was not going to disclose anything about herself. But that meant she needed a story that was plausible. And she had to decide how long she would rest there before taking off again...and then of course, she would be going where exactly...?
"I don't feel right taking your bed, Mr.?????" She set a slice of apple on her tongue.
"No, not Mr. Just Arthur. Or just plain Art if you prefer."
"Well, like I said...Arthur, I will get myself up and out of this bed of yours just as soon as I'm a little more steady on my feet, don't feel right displacing you in this way."
He smiled. "It's a privilege to have you here, ma'am." He looked down, but said it without an ounce of embarrassment.
Her eyes narrowed. "A...privilege?"
He reached into his rear pocket and took out a wrinkled piece of paper. He unfolded it and smoothed it with the side of one hand. Renata gasped. There -- square in the middle of the paper-- was her likeness -- her face wan and pale, her hair stubbly and spare, and a scared look in her eyes. Her photo sat under the headline: WANTED: CONVICTED MURDERER ON THE RUN!!
She looked away, covered her eyes with one hand. "My dear Lord. And here I thought you wouldn't have any idea who I was."
He sat looking at her sadly. "Ma'am, I did not have the privilege of attending the courtroom proceedings. But I followed your friend Kittie's campaign to get you freed. With all those letters she begged and pleaded for. I for one composed a simple letter on your behalf. I dare say ma'am that your case has interested me from the start. I saw your image in the newspaper and said to myself, "that woman don't have the heart to razor a man's throat in half, not except if it were in self-defense."
Renata turned to face him. She had tears in her eyes. She bit hard into her lower lip, as she didn't want to start crying.
"Let me just say if there is any way I can help you, by having you stay here, or helping you escape clear out of the county, or the country, I'm ready and volunteering to help."
Now the tears came, and she wiped them on a towel he'd brought with the kitchen tray. Her voice was unsteady and broke as she spoke. "You are very very kind, Mr., I mean, Arthur." The full name sounded better to her. More dignified. "I have had every man aligned against me in this matter, starting with my cousin and every other sheriff, jailer, juror, and judge. So to find a person, a man, like you who simply wants to help see me go free, it sure does a lot for me."
He nodded. "I'll do whatever you want me to."
A moment went by. She spoke slowly. "But only God knows how you can help."
That night, he fashioned a bed for her that was nothing more than a thick layer of hay packed snugly between two blankets and then tied. What she loved about this bed is its position in the furthest corner of the cabin's so-called front porch. The porch, held up with four rough-hewn aspen posts, is open to the elements, leaving Renata able to catch a vision of the night sky as she falls asleep each night; the stars twinkle clear and bright between the dark pine trees and that pleases her to no end and gives her some kind of crazy hope. No matter that she battles mosquitoes and an uproar of crickets, or that some nights the temp drops and her feet are ice cold. All in all, she is comfortable and warm in this bed, she has a full belly each night before she goes to sleep, and she feels sure that no one is going to find her before morning, tucked away as she is here. Moreover, no one is telling her where to go or what to think or how to figure out what she should do next with her embattled life.
As she falls asleep that first night in her new bed, soaking up the starlight, she says to herself, if only I can stay here a few days, and gather my strength, I'll be sturdy again. I'll have enough stamina to keep going."
The nun steps slowly, swaying as she approaches a thicket of low-lying grass. She holds the back of one hand up against her eyes to ward off the bright California sunlight. Her gaze drops into the golden grass and her eyes pop open and she jumps back, screaming and pointing at the thick coiled snake.Her face is bright pink and she is breathing hard, clutching both hands over her racing heart.
Soon though, her face registers a different expression. She blinks and rubs her eyes. It takes her a moment to realize that the snake is nothing but a branch, one long bough of the giant live oak nearby.
She sinks onto her knees and drops into the grass. She has begun to see all kinds of creatures that aren't there. This morning, she saw a bear coming towards her. Except the bear never moved. It proved to be a shadow playing on a dark rock.
She reaches out gingerly and runs her fingers along the snaking bough. Feels the rough surface of the wood.
Her stomach caves and growls. She pulls a handful of thin blades of grass and chews the tiny white bulbs at the base. She has eaten so much grass it's given her stomach cramps. She dares not eat any other plants as she isn't sure what might poison her. It was always Teresa who used to delight in pointing out edible native plants. Too bad Renata never paid a bit of attention to Teresa's little botany lessons. Renata recalls only the handfuls of strawberries they would find after hours of walking.
It's been at least three days since she's eaten. Or is it four? Every crumb of the biscuits she squirreled away is gone. There are no more nuts or seeds. The very last morsel of food she set on her tongue was a shred of damp apple; she left it there to dissolve, as if it were a communion host placed in her mouth by Father Ruby.
She has rationed herself the water. She has a few more warm mouthfuls before the canteen is empty.
"I cannot go on." She says this powerful statement out loud, and it hurdles through time. I hear it so many years later, as I'm sitting here, at Dottie's coffee shop, writing this. I am frightened for her. I hear the edge of hysteria in her voice. I know that edge. I've been to the ledge a few times myself.
Renata, you've got to go on. Please, please, don't give up. You've got to fight. To live.
I could say the same thing so often writing this book: "I cannot go on." With the book. But I do. I must see her, this work, this story through to the end.
I hear the music she hears now, something comes circulating in her head. A tune that Señora used to sing.
She's lying in the golden grass now, near the live oak. Arms and legs askew. As she lies there, she thinks she sees smoke rising from the ground. She keeps blinking. Rubbing her eyes.
My own eyes settle into hers. I see out of her head. How much worse can things get for her? She's running from the law with no place to go. She's got no food or water and a slight chill has her delerious. She closes her eyes, feels fever in her eyes.
What she is hearing now rising somehow up the hillside is the Ave Maria, impossibly. A clear voice ringing through the blue sky. She looks up. Her eyes ache and she isn't sure what is happening but she doesn't care.
There isn't a cloud in the azure and the music is the most beautiful she's ever heard. Whoever is making this music is an angel.
If this is now her time to die, well, then, she is prepared.
She looks left and right, and the sound of the music just grows louder and louder. She settles back into the grass. She loves this music. This voice.
She smiles and says a Hail Mary, a second. If she is to die right now, so be it. With the music filling her head.
Her eyes close and then open. She is fully awake, warm and burning up with fever, drenched in sweat, realizing that all this time, she has been asleep. All the music. All of that. A dream.
The beetle skitters away. She wipes her faces and drops back into the grass. As she does, she hears crackling in the brush. Footsteps. A branch snaps. More crackling, now just a few feet away. Fear floods her washes over her stomach.
Grizzly? Moose? Mountain lion? Some other beast? Whatever it is it's coming closer and she is far to weak to move.
Mouth dry, she closes her eyes and clasps her hands together and prays. Tears spring to her eyes as she murmurs in silence: If I am to die today, may it please Mary be quick and painless. Please I pray that you grant me just this one th...
She stops praying.
She would love to think that someone has just spoken a human word to her. But how could that be?
"Ma'am, excuse me, but are you alright?"
Slowly she drops her head to the right. She is gazing directly into the bright sun. What she sees is a man with a large cloud of curls circling his head coming up the hillside. The sun shines through the curls and turns them a burnished gold.
He is holding something in each hand. She lies there, mouth hanging open. Unable to speak. Tears start to leak out of both eyes. She licks her cracked lips. "I...Oh...I..." She cannot speak further.
"Hold on there ma'am." He turns, sets a rifle against the live oak. In his other hand, he is holding a jackrabbit by both ears. He sets the animal into the golden grass.
He returns to her side. Kneels. Takes a canteen from a leather satchel. "Here, you're burning up." He holds the back of her neck while she drinks, then slurps, the cool water. "Slow, now, not too much too quick." His hand is rough but his voice is gentle.
Her head falls back.
"Are you up to moving?" he asks. "You ought not be lying here in the sun."
She shakes her head. She feels like dead weight. He scoops her up into a sitting position. Her head dances. Her eyes burn. She turns her head to the side and throws up the water she's just downed.
"Ma'am, I want you to swing one arm around my neck, and I'll lift you up."
Soon he is holding her like an oversized child, and they are moving toward the live oak. There settles her in the shade beside the rifle and the rabbit.
"How long you've been here?"
She shrugs, shakes her head. "Not sure," she says. She feels as limp as the dead rabbit.
"So, if you will let me, I'd like to give you a lift. you home, I've got a wagon up a piece."
He helps her up, and they take one step with him supporting her arms. Then her head reels and her legs feel like they are made of cotton. Or clouds. She wobbles. Spins. She sees the grass begin to spiral toward her. She wants to scream out, but she slumps to the ground before the words leave her mouth.