Suppose I told you that the old prison still stands. And what happened in the novel turned out to be real.
And suppose I told the whole story right here, right on the blog. You know, in a kind of whodunnit crime-thriller sort of thing.
And what if I gave away the surprise up front: that I am the nun named Sister Renata, the one convicted of slashing her cousin Antonie's throat back in 1883.
Yes, I am a writer living in 2007. But I am also living back then. How could this be?
Don't ask me how. Or why. Don't ask me why Senora Ramos, the hefty old Mexican housekeeper, came forward in time to rope me into writing this damn book. I am not sure exactly. But I have an idea. I think it has something to do with the fact that I had cancer five years ago. I’m fine now. But there was a long time when I thought that somehow writing this nun story had brought on my illness.
I don’t think that anymore. In fact, I think just the opposite is true. As my writer friend Peg has suggested, time and again, writing this nun story is actually a way to keep me healthy.
My healer thinks so too. Just write it, she says. Just write the true story.
Oddly enough, when Senora comes to visit the nun --I mean me, in prison – that’s exactly what she says too. Escribala, m’ja. Write it my daughter. Write the true story, Senora says, and the nun will go free. And you will be healthy. Free of cancer. Free of worry. Free to tell others how faith, and our stories, heal.
Oh sure, I might just be some sort of on-line crackpot.
But right now that's not the issue.
Right now you're just going to have to read the story to find out.
So here, now, is the newspaper article from the San Francisco Examiner that started the whole thing.
October 13, 1883
NUN MAY HANG FOR MURDER!!
By John P. Tolder
VALLEJO, CALIF. –A man murdered and a nun – his own cousin – charged with the bloody crime! A convent stunned and a prominent California family shattered! This only partially tells the tale of one of the most dreadful crimes of modern times. This quiet law-abiding town has been rocked by a month-long investigation into a grizzly killing, the kind of sensational crime that is not likely to disappear quickly from the headlines or the imaginations of the stunned local populace.
"This is not your everyday murder,” observed District Attorney G.W. Wordsworck. “The grim and sordid details would satisfy even the most blood-thirsty criminal minds.” Wordsworck promised to seek the death penalty. “If the nun is convicted, I promise you, she will hang.”
A mighty retinue of state and local law enforcement authorities have descended on this pleasant locale, known for its groves of huge live oak trees, to investigate the death of one Antonie Quiero de Lopez, a prominent (and the ladies agree, a handsome) landowner, discovered lying face up in a pool of blood in the bedroom of his magnificent hacienda-style home.
His jugular vein had been severed with a straight razor. Arrested and held without bail in the murder is a young novitiate of the Sisters of Saint Dominic.
Central to the case, according to authorities, is the discovery of a set of highly incriminating (and blood-stained) hand-written pages found in the victim’s rolltop desk. Sheriff’s authorities say the documents –called the blue letters because they are all on pale blue stationary –provide a titillating account that lays out, scene by scene, the shocking details of the Sister Renata’s lurid relationship with her cousin. The documents also describe the way the murder occurred.
“These documents not only place Sister Renata at the crime scene but show us in perfect detail how and why she killed her cousin,” D.A. Wordsworck said. “It is fair to say that these documents guided us right to the culprit’s door. They laid our case right at her feet. From the writing we see that Sister Renata is not only a murderess but a lying seductress too. She managed to live a double life, and she kept her fellow nuns in the dark about her behavior. That double life has ended now.”
Wordsworck called the blue letters “a godsend to find. But it is frightful for this evidence to come to light, since the letters reveal a cold-blooded, cold-hearted, premeditated crime.” Considering the circumstances and the public outcry, Wordswork said the death penalty is in order. “It is the only suitable punishment for this ‘truly wicked’ crime.”
In addition to the blue letters, officials found Sister Renata’s blood-stained habit tied in a bundle and hidden beneath a rock on a hillside behind the convent. Authorities say this is the clothing the nun wore at the time of the killing. Wordsworck noted that the young nun’s left hand was bandaged when she was taken from the convent.
“There was no doubt a struggle,” he said. Wordsworck noted that the razor blade used to slice Don Antonie Quiero de Lopez’ throat was found at the murder site too. A tearful housekeeper, one Senora Elizabeth Ramos de Curacuora, conceded that the razor belonged to the victim. The nun regularly made trips from the convent to the hacienda, where she used the blade to shave her cousin, who had been ill for several months.
Also discovered in a closet near the body was a highly theatrical black and red satin dress, one that might be worn on stage by a Spanish dancer. It too was smeared with blood. Authorities say they believe Sister Renata wore the dress at some point during the murderous encounter with her cousin. “We will have more to say on this peculiar matter as details unfold in the courtroom,” Wordsworck noted.
Sister Renata denies the wanton killing. “As God is my witness, I am not guilty. I had nothing to do with it,” she said. “I have done nothing wrong.” The tearful nun, bareheaded, her hair chopped like a ragged brush, was led from the Dominican convent in handcuffs. She carried her black veil in her hands.
Meanwhile, Sister Renata’s closest friend at the convent, Sister Theresa O’Toole, claims she has never know a kinder person. “You only have to meet Renata to know that she is one of God’s gentlest and holiest servants,” O’Toole said outside the courtroom today. “Renata is too timid even to slaughter a chicken when she is ordered to do so for our convent dinner. Surely she is not guilty of this horrible crime.”
A trial date is set for November 9th. Wordsworck predicted a “speedy” resolution to the trial.
Writer Gina Ricci lives in upstate New York. Excerpts from her novel, SaveTheNun.org, will appear here from time to time.