Monday, January 28, 2013

CHAPTER FORTY-FIVE: After 18 years, I've finally gotten the chance to meet Renata!!

Assisted by two of the other nuns, Bernice and Laura Lee, Teresa pulls Renata into the rocking chair. There she sits, slumped against one arm. Teresa runs for smelling salts, and Bernice boils water for chamomile tea. Laura Lee -- a delicate girl with dimples and great splotches of reddish-brown freckles -- holds Renata in a sitting position.

Kneeling in front of the chair, Teresa passes the salts under Renata's nose, until the smell of the ammonia starts Renata's head moving side to side. "Enough," she whispers. "Please no more."

Teresa pulls the salts away. "We have tea for you Renata, tea with gobs of honey. You must be so thirsty." She holds the cup up and takes a spoonful of the yellow tea. Blowing on it a few times, she lifts the spoon to Renata's open mouth. For the next few minutes, Teresa feeds Renata the warm tea. But soon Renata pushes Teresa's hand away.

"I must see Señora now," she whispers, wriggling out of Laura Lee's grip. "Please Teresa, please take me up to her."

"At least finish the tea, and put something solid in your stomach." Teresa bends closer and steadies a gaze at Renata head on. "I promise if you have a little of the rabbit stew we ate for dinner, and finish the tea, I will bring you to her."

Renata's face wrinkles up in disgust. "You know how I feel about rabbit stew. Just spoon me a few carrots and onions and some parsley and that will do."

Teresa rises, hands the mug to Renata. "You drink this up. And if you're still thirsty, Bernice will fix you a second cup."

After she has eaten half the vegetables that Teresa scooped into a bowl, and after she finishes most of a second cup of tea, Renata rises from the rocking chair. Teresa takes her arm and they pass through the convent's dining room and to the staircase. Soon they are in the second floor bedroom where Señora lies, her face small and almond-colored.  Renata sits on one side of the bed, Teresa on the other.

Leaning forward, Renata whispers. "I'm here, my dear Señora. I am here beside you and I won't leave  you."

Señora is lying in such perfect stillness that it isn't clear she is breathing.  Teresa holds a finger below Señora's nose.  After a few moments she takes her hand away.

"I have an idea," Renata says, getting up. "I'll be right back." She hurries to her old room, the straw mattress stiff and minus any sheets. Kneeling, Renata drags from beneath the bed the guitar she keeps wrapped in an old Indian blanket.  She sinks to the floor and hums a low E, and quickly tunes the strings.

Soon she is hurrying back to the bedroom to Señora and Teresa, who smiles when she sees the guitar.

"It's worth a try, don't you agree?"

Guitar cradled in her lap, Renata plays the carcelero that Señora loves.

"In three days I've eaten
Only bread and tears:
That is the food
That my jailers give.
How do they expect me to live?"

She follows the carcelero with a soleares and a farrucca and finally, a rousing bulerías.

Señora is motionless, the music passing over her like a soft breeze.  Renata puts the guitar down and takes Señora's hand and kisses it.  "I know you can hear me," she says. "I just know you feel me here."

She takes out her beads and together with Teresa, they pray the rosary.

"It's late, Renata," Teresa says at the end of the prayers. "Tomorrow is another day.  Please, I'll make your bed up for you. And I'll find a place for Arthur to rest downstairs. Come now. Let her be."

Renata wraps her rosary beads around Señora's hand, and places a kiss on the old woman's forehead.  Teresa is out the door and Renata is just about to blow out the candle on the nighttable when she hears a soft groan.

Whipping around, she sees the rosary beads shaking in Señora's hand. "Teresa, Teresa, look!"

By now, Renata has Señora's hand in hers.  "You're awake, you're awake!" It takes a few minutes before Señora's eyes open.  She blinks. Her lips tremble, and Renata is sure she sees a smile on them.

"Oh my dear Señora you're back," Renata says in a hush.  Señora opens her mouth but nothing comes out. "Don't try to speak. Don't."

Teresa and Renata stand there staring at Señora.  The old woman opens her mouth. "Sietaté," she whispers in a hoarse tone. The nuns sit down.  Renata takes both of Señora's hands in hers.

"Mi'ja," Señora begins. And then she whispers in Spanish. "It's my time. It's my time. I'm not long on God's good earth now."

"How do you know that Señora, you can't possibly know God's will."

Señora continues to speak to Renata in Spanish, in a hushed whisper. "There is no time for discussing this now. You must do for me what you have steadfastly refused to do all these months. You must find those missing pages of your journal and present them to the authorities. Please. Please, for me do this."

"No," Renata says, pulling back. "I won't do that. You know you can ask and you can beg, but I am not turning in those pages. Justice will be served and I remain in God's hands, with Mary to protect me too."

Teresa pipes up. "Señora is right. You've come back here now, Renata, and clearly there is no way we can protect you. Not for long can we hide you. The gallows is ready and waiting. The authorities will hang you as soon as word gets out.  Please, abide by Señora's dying wish."

Renata rises, and turns toward the darkened window, her arms crossed. "I vowed I would never turn Señora in. I made myself a solemn promise. I can't turn back on that now."

Señora struggles to one elbow. And out of her comes a voice that I know so well. The voice in which she has spoken to me for the past 18 years. The voice that has pulled me back to Renata's world, time and again.

"Por favor Claudia," Señora cries out.  "Ahora es muy importante que tu vienes aquí. Por favor!"

And as I sit here, typing, my laptop disappears and I let go of this world and move to the sound of Señora's voice. Suddenly I am in the room with the three characters whose lives I have entwined so tightly with my own.

Teresa and Renata stare at me. I'm wearing my blue bathrobe and white sox, and my hair must look like an awful fright. I haven't showered and I've got the sour breath one has after a night's sleep and a cup of coffee.

"Hola, Señora," I say and she reaches a hand out to me. Slowly I approach the bed. Renata's eyes are wide and forbidding and Teresa looks like she's seen a lizard crawl across the bed covers.  I clear my throat and don't come any closer.  "You don't know me of course," I say, my voice shaking.  "But I am Claudia Ricci, a writer, and I love Señora as much as both of you."

"How could you possibly?" Renata asks, her voice shaking. "I've never seen you, nor has Teresa. Where did you come from?" Renata scans me head to toe and Teresa shakes her head vigorously.

"I understand completely," I say. "I've been working with Señora from afar. You would not believe me if I told you how far," I say. "It's much too hard to explain."

Señora sits up.  She asks for her shawl and Teresa brings it to her and wraps it around her shoulders. Teresa and Renata stand beside her like protective soldiers. And then she begins to speak. Thankfully, she speaks in a slow Spanish that I can understand.

"This woman is writing your story, Renata. She's been writing it for 18 years."

I pipe up. "Actually it's exactly 18 years. Yesterday. January 25, 1995 is the day I started this book."

"What? What are you saying?" Renata takes a step toward me. Funny that I never thought her to be the least bit threatening before.  "What book are you referring to? And what is this about 1995? And how could you possibly know me or my story?"

Señora smiles.  "I'll ask you to be patient Renata. What you are witnessing here my dear is the work of the Virgin Mary. Her miracles, as you know, we can never explain. Miracles of Mary's making. This is one of those miracles."

"What do you mean?"

"The virgin appeared in a vision one night, right after you were hung."


Señora shakes her head. Her face is solemn. "You see Renata, time has come unhinged. After you died, I so regretted letting you sacrifice yourself on my behalf that I prayed continually to Mary for forgiveness. She came to me one night and said that together, we were going to rewrite history."

"Excuse me, Señora, but this makes absolutely no sense to me. Are you telling me you erased events that already took place."

Señora shakes her head slowly.

I decide to take a step forward. Renata tenses and steps back. "I am not here to hurt you," I say. "Please understand that's the last thing you have to fear."

Señora continues. "So why is Claudia here? Because I called for her. With Mary's help, I found Claudia, a woman who was willing to write the true story of Antonie's death.  This woman you see here lives far into the future on the other side of the continent."

Renata collapses into the chair. "Surely you don't expect me to believe this," she says. She turns to Teresa who is just as dumbfounded.

"What Señora says is absolutely true," I say. "I come from a moment in history when we have such things as cars with engines and computers and mobile telephones and electricity and airplanes that fly."

"I don't believe it," Renata says. "I don't buy any of this silliness."

"You must listen," Señora commands. "You must listen Renata. If you fail to listen, you will most certainly hang, as you did the first time. The gallows is waiting and they will string you up in the hot sun in the courtyard without the slightest hesitation."

"I don't understand," Renata says. "How can this woman from the future help me escape? Does she takes me with her?"

The thought of transporting the nun back to Albany, New York, or to the little hamlet of Spencertown, where I live, makes me smile.

"No, Renata," I say. "I just write the story. It's up to me to make you see the wisdom of releasing those two pages from your journal. Those pages that cannot hurt Señora anymore. You were right when you first decided to hold them back, because the authorities would have hung Señora, a Mexican woman, without even a trial.  A Mexican woman killing a white American man.  But now Señora's time is up."

"How do you know that? How could you possibly know anyth..."

"Silencio!" Señora shouts.  She lifts her pillow and takes out a piece of yellowed newspaper. She unfolds it. The headline reads in big block letters, "NUN FINALLY HUNG FOR THE MURDER OF HER COUSIN." Two columns of writing appear and in the center of the page is a very clear drawing of the nun swinging from a rope.

Renata gasps. Teresa cries out.  "My God!"

"I hope you see now that the gallows is real," Señora says. "I hope you understand why the Virgin has interceded here.  This is what happened the first time around. You did hang for Antonie's murder. You refused to produce those pages of the journal that tell the true story."

"Let me see that newspaper," Renata says snatching it away from Señora with a shaking hand.  Sweat sprouts on her brow. "I don't know how this is possible. This is not ....this is...out of this world. This is impossible. This is ..."

"Un milagro," Señora says, finishing her sentence. "Yes, Renata, this is a miracle. That we are here, today, the three of us, with this woman writer from the future. This woman who in fact can save you. Give you the freedom you have so long deserved. Let her do her work. Give her those journal pages. Let her write them down. Let the authorities see the truth. Nothing can hurt me now. They won't touch me now. Not when I am this close to my hour of death."

Teresa speaks. "I am not sure I believe what I am hearing and seeing, Renata, but by God, this is indeed a miracle of some kind. I think this is your lifeboat Renata. You've got to cooperate. You've always told me that I would be the one to tell the true story after your death. It would be me who would reveal at the proper time -- after Señora's death -- what actually happened to Antonie. But now I see there is no reason to wait. No reason at all for you to die. And every reason for you to go free. You must do as she says Renata. You must trust this woman in the blue robe, because it is exactly the same blue color as the Virgin's veil."

Renata turns slowly to face me. I see her finely chiseled features, made sharper by the fact that she is so thin. Her hair is standing in a wispy black brush. She is as pale as cotton and even has some premature grey hairs. There has been so much happening to her since that chapter I wrote so long ago, when she supposedly turned into a flamenco dancer and danced on the table.

She reaches out one hand and I don't hesitate to take it. Renata's fingers are cool and slim and delicate. "It is a pleasure to meet you ma'am," she begins, "and even though I am still not inclined to believe that you are from the future, I have to say, Señora is rather persuasive with this newspaper she somehow managed to find."

I smile. "You know, it would have been up to me to produce that newspaper account," I say, "seeing as though I am writing the story.  But more than anything in the world Renata, I wanted you to live. I never wanted to write the story of your hanging. Suffice to say it's quite nice that the Virgin Mary somehow made it possible for Señora to get that clipping -- without me having to do a thing -- to help convince you of my good intentions in writing your story."

Teresa is sitting down now. And shaking her head. "Amazing. Somehow the Virgin is helping to change history," she whispers. She opens her hands one to each side.  "This is too much to take in all at once."

Señora turns. "Renata, find the missing journal pages please. Let Claudia have them for her story."

"No, Señora," I interrupt. "It's not my story. It's your story. And most especially it's Renata's."

"In any case, bring the journal pages to me," Señora says, slipping down under the covers.  "And then, if you wouldn't mind, I would love a cup of tea."

And so Renata leaves the room to retrieve the missing journal pages. And Teresa goes downstairs to make tea.

And me? I pick up Renata's guitar and play for Señora one of my favorite flamenco tunes, a bulerías that my teacher Maria Z. taught me many years ago.

Friday, January 11, 2013

CHAPTER FORTY-FOUR: Renata Risks Everything and Returns

Renata prays the rosary the whole way. The prayers relax her as she keeps Teresa front and center in her mind. What will she find when they arrive at the convent? Will Teresa still be alive?

Arthur pushes the horse as fast as the old road will allow. But the going is slow, the surface of the road rutted and pocked by holes and sharp rock.

They stop once to water the horse, and a second time, to eat some of the lunch that Renata packed. But soon they are back to the road, and the endless red dust, rising up in clouds. It's a long and jolting ride.

As the sun starts to approach the horizon, the road starts to descend into the golden valley. Arthur stops and massages the back of his neck with one hand. "I'm feeling a might weary ma'am, so I propose we stop here, take a little rest before we push down into the valley."

"Oh must we?" Renata cries. "We're so close now. And I have such a terrible premonition, I keep fearing that I am going to walk into the convent just after Teresa has...has ...." she shakes her head, sets her forehead against the rosary beads wrapped around her fingers.

"I won't linger, ma'am, I just feel like I need a little nap. It won't be a long sleep I promise."

Renata's eyes brighten. "I know. I can drive the wagon while you rest in back, I've handled a rig this big before."  As Renata glances forward to the horse, she tells herself that this is more or less true, she once drove a smallish cart pulled by a donkey.

"I wish you wouldn't," Arthur replies. "I'd be worrying about you the whole time. The road gets even more narrow from here on descending into this valley."

"Yes, yes, I know very well this road, and this valley, I've walked it so many times. We aren't more than five or six miles from the convent now, I will be fine, I promise  you."  Her voice is calm and strong as she slips the rosary beads into her side pocket and reaches for the reins.

"I won't sleep for long," Arthur says, climbing over the seat into the back and pulling the blanket over him.

Renata squares herself on the wagon seat and pulls up the reins. Then she snaps them sharply, just as she had seen Arthur do so many times.  The horse doesn't move. She snaps the reins again, and a third time.

"He can sense the new driver," Arthur says from the back. "And he can tell we're starting to descend."

Renata gets out of the wagon and approaches the horse. She strokes his ears and whispers lovingly. "We will take good care of you, and feed you carrots and apples when we get to the convent." She rubs his nose and spends a few moments with her arms around his neck. "We've got to get there," she whispers. "It's ever so important."

She climbs back to the wagon seat and this time when she snaps the reins the horse stalls for a moment but then moves forward, picking his way through ruts and rock. The light is still good, so Renata relaxes.  Her mood rises the further they descend toward the convent. At one bend, she realizes that in the far distance is the line of live oaks where she and Teresa would bring their lemonade and blankets after chores were finished.  Her heart begins to race and her face tightens as she wonders what she will find when they get there.

Arthur is snoring from the back of the wagon.  Renata pulls herself up on the seat as the road begins a particularly steep decline. The horse slows.  She snaps the reins but with little effect. The horse is going his pace and that is as fast as they will go.

The sky is now a steely grey blue, the sun melting into the blue hills across the valley. There are pink and orange remnants of sunset in the clouds overhead. Renata has always loved the convent setting, and now she gets a rush of nostalgia for this place that she has missed so deeply these last months while confined to jail.  Her heart beats faster, and she is filled almost to tears thinking of the love she has for all of the sisters, and even for Mother Yolla, despite her often ornery temper.

Arthur is sound asleep as the wagon passes through the final steep portion of the road. By now, Renata is so excited to get there, and so close, that she is tempted to stop the wagon and run the rest of the way, as no matter how much she snaps the reins the horse goes his own slow pace.

The sky overhead is redder than before, the sunset throwing a wondrous show as she sees the adobe steeple of the chapel. She cannot make out the bell, but she can see the dark cross at the top of the steeple.  She can't keep herself contained.

She pulls the reins to a halt and jumps down from the wagon before the horse comes to a full halt. She shakes Arthur awake. "We're here, we're here, I'm going in," she cries, but doesn't wait for a reply. She is racing toward the convent picking her way around the gardens, and the apple trees, and soon she is standing on the back tiled patio where the fountain, absent of water, stands.

And in a moment, she is inside the convent, breathing hard. What she hears first is the clatter of forks and knives against plates. It hadn't occurred to her that she was arriving just in time for dinner.

Trembling, sweaty, out of breath, and still wearing the hat that Arthur loaned her for the trip, she walks slowly into the dining room. Her legs wobble as she raises one hand in greeting.

Eighteen faces, including Teresa's, stare back at her, in varying states of shock.

Teresa rises from her place, her hands on either side of her face. She paces unsteadily around the table to greet Renata. The two embrace and simultaneously descend to their knees, their hands clasped in prayer. The rest of the nuns gather around the two, questions shooting from all directions.

"Where have you been? How did you get back? Why are you here? Don't you fear they'll find you..."

Mother Yolla set her hand on Renata's hat and lifts it off her head. Her hair is a short bristly cut, matted and dirty. But that doesn't stop Mother Yolla from planting a kiss on Renata's crown. "God Bless you my child, God will protect you now that you are here."

Renata, with Teresa's help, stands and lets herself be hugged and kissed by the excited nuns.  Soon she's seated at the table, in her old spot, and a plate and utensils are before her. She holds up her hands.

"I'm in no condition to eat," she says, "not yet." And then she pauses and turns to Mother Yolla. "And I have a friend to get from outside. The man, Arthur, who found me half dead in the high chaparral and let me stay at his cabin. A perfect gentleman who rode me on his wagon to get here."

At that moment, Arthur appears at the door, hat held in two hands. "Good evening, sisters," he says, a tentative smile on his face.  Mother Yolla approaches him and extends a hand.

"God bless you sir, God bless you."

"We'll set another place," Teresa says, disappearing into the kitchen. Renata rises from her seat and follows her. "My dear dear Teresa you are well, you are alive, you are well." Teresa looks confused.

"Yes, of course, why wouldn't I be?" Teresa is puzzled but lets Renata embrace her again.

"I had a dream, a terrible terrible dream, but it seems like it wasn't the sign I thought it was. I was convinced that you were so ill, so ill, that the doctors feared you were dying, I saw all the nuns gathered around you kneeling, and you in the bed, thrashing. I was convinced I would never see you again."

Teresa releases Renata. "My poor sister, I'm so so sorry for your dream. But I am so glad you are here." Teresa's face looks ashen. She looks down to the floor and then engages Renata's gaze once more.

She squeezes Renata's hand and pulls Renata closer. "It's Señora I'm afraid."


"Your dream had me being ill. But it is Señora who suffers. I will take you to her first thing in the morning."

"She is sick, Señora is ill?"

Teresa nodded her head gravely. "I have been with her for the past seven days. She suffered a terrible fever the week before and she was thrashing about and in seizure. Then she fell unconscious. The doctor says it's a coma and she..."Teresa pauses. Inhales. "I'm afraid he's convinced that she may never emerge."

Renata's insides drop. Suddenly she is so tired, so overwhelmed by fatigue that she feels she might collapse right there in the kitchen. She swings around and aims unsteadily for the rocking chair in the corner. But she only makes it half-way before she dissolves into the floor.