Saturday, February 23, 2013
An hour passed. Señora Ramos fell into a deep sleep -- snoring soundly -- after finishing her cup of tea. I played the three or four songs I know by heart and then started working on scales.
Soon enough, though, it occurred to me that Renata had still not returned with the journal pages. I set the guitar against the wall and went out into the hallway. In my imagination, Renata's room was on the first floor, a room that faced the tiled courtyard. As I recall, it was three doors further down the hall from Teresa's room. I closed Señora's door and descended the staircase, keeping perfectly quiet in my white socks. I made my way through the dining room and the small parlor and into the wing where the nuns' rooms sat, one after another. By this time, evening prayers were over, and most of the nuns had retired for the night.
I stood in the narrow hallway, where a single candle burned inside a glass dish. The low adobe ceiling was only a few inches above my head. If I was right, the door on my right was Renata's. But what if I had remembered it wrong? I'd disturb one of the other nuns.
I decided I had to take the chance. I set two knuckles to the wooden door and tapped three times.
I knocked again, a little louder this time. Then I positioned my lips into the crack where the door met the frame and I whispered.
"Renata? Please, are you in there?"
Nothing. I was beginning to think I did indeed have the wrong room. I turned around and leaned back on the door and looked up to the ceiling. I was beginning to feel like a very unwelcome visitor. It occurred to me that I could simply stop all of this, and return to my laptop, where I belonged.
At just that moment, the door swung open and I felt myself falling backwards into the room. Renata was stronger than she looked, because the next thing I knew, I was looking into dark eyes. She had caught me!
"I'm so sorry," I stammered. She helped me back to my feet. "I really am not trying to harrass you, Renata, I just want to do what Señora wishes."
"Come in," she said. I entered the tiny convent room, which was even smaller than I had pictured it when I described it in the book. The crucifix loomed large over the narrow bed of straw.
"I would invite you to sit down, but this bed is ..."
"No, no need for that," I said. "I simply need those journal pages. I'll be off as soon as I have them."
"Yes, well, that's exactly the problem. You see, I am very reluctant to part with those pages. I've heard all that Señora explained, about the supposed miracle and the Virgin rewriting history. I hope you will excuse my skepticism, but I am still not convinced."
My stomach tightened and my face flushed hot. I felt a flood of anxiety rush up and down my arms. Had I really created this character who was so impossibly stubborn? I cleared my throat.
"I understand your skepticism," I began, speakly slowly. "I respect you for that, Renata. I do. But the trouble is, you are really stuck. It's just a matter of time before the authorities find out that you're back here at the convent and they will, as Señora says, lose no time taking you to the gallows. So please, I will get down on my knees and beg you if I have to, just give those pages to me so that the true story can be told and you will go free."
Renata sighed and sat down on the bed. "Maybe I go free. From what I've seen in the courtroom so far, it's going be very difficult to use a few handwritten pages from my journal to convince anyone that my case should be reopened. God knows how hard it would be to overturn my conviction."
"What you say is true of course Renata, but my God, we've got to try, haven't we?" My voice got louder, prompting Renata to set one finger over her lips, cautioning me to speak more quietly.
At that moment, an idea struck me. I had a lawyer friend back in Spencertown who worked as a public defender. He would be able to fill me in on how new evidence could be introduced after a conviction. But the one sticking point remained: I couldn't do anything without that new evidence in hand.
"I want to sleep on it," Renata announced, rising from the bed. She was wearing a simple white gown, tied at the neck with a blue satin bow. "It's been a long and tiring day, and I just don't want to make this decision tonight." She paused. "So if you don't mind, I would like to go to back to bed now."
I stood there, amazed. Here Renata was being offered a gift -- a painless way out of her desperate situation -- and yet, she was so nonchalant, as if it didn't matter that the death penalty awaited her. Could she possibly be so indifferent to the danger she faced?
She held the door open for me. I said a soft good night and returned to Señora's room. The old woman was sleeping quietly, so I pulled up her extra blanket and I left. It wasn't until later that I realized I had left Renata's guitar leaning against Señora's wall.
And now that I'm back behind the laptop, I'm altogether amazed by this puzzling situation. What could possibly be holding Renata back from handing over the journal pages? What did she have to lose?
When Señora first approached me so many years ago about writing Renata's story, she brought with her the nun's chiseled leather journal. She also carried a box filled with a stack of thin blue pages, all neatly written in Antonie's looping hand.
I had only to copy out the entries and set them in the proper order, which I had done, faithfully. I set them up in a blog called "Castenata."
Now, as I sat in my pale yellow study, staring over my laptop at the abstract painting of a sunset that sits over my desk, it occurred to me that I could simply make up the two pages. I have had plenty of experience exercising my fiction writer's mind. And judging by things Renata had written, and a few things Señora insinuated, I had a pretty good inkling of what the pages said.
But wouldn't this violate the whole arrangement I had with Señora? I had after all promised to write the true story, exactly as she delivered it to me.
It was late, I was tired, and so I went to bed. I pasted a post-it on my laptop, reminding myself to phone my friend David, the public defender, to talk to him about the case.
I yawned and closed the laptop. Happy to be back in my own century, where mattresses aren't made of straw.
Little did I know what would greet me in the morning.