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."

"What?"

"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.




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