Sunday, March 23, 2008

Switch!! Chapter Three, Renata Dancing


At this moment, Sister Renata isn’t doing what she should be. Instead of attending to the steaming and starching of altar cloths in the convent laundry, instead of standing at the kitchen sink washing spinach or shaving carrots for Father Crucifer’s soup she is instead standing before the familiar oak chest of drawers undressing, catching an eyeful of herself in the small wooden mirror propped on top. The nun's childlike fingers move in the normal manner, even if they aren’t attending to prayer, even if they aren’t locked around the black onyx rosary beads, even if they aren’t fingering the carved silver surface of the crucifix. Instead, her damp fingers are trembling slightly as they unfasten the three black buttons at the side of her wool skirt and the row of buttons at each of her wrists.

For the long line of buttons at the back of her shirt, she reaches awkwardly behind, elbows askew. If she were at the convent, as well she should be, husky Sister Theresa would be standing behind, whispering warm air into her neck, laughing, assisting her, all the while persisting with one of her ribald jokes about the older, crippled priest, Father Ruby.

But Sister Renata isn’t there, she is here unfastening the long string of rosary beads from the hook at her waist, and then collecting them into a rattling handful that spills over her fist, onto the oak dresser next to the mirror. She lets the skirt and shirt drop limp to the floor, and momentarily she stares at the heap of black wool lying in disarray at her feet, noting with some horror that the habit looks like the discarded garb of a storybook witch. The thought shudders her, but not for long. She steps out of the habit. Bending low, she unties the knotted laces of her blocky black oxfords and she pulls them off one at a time. There she is, she the youthful nun in her soft white underclothes and short black veil, standing in the flow of desert sun streaming through the window, staring at one pale coin of herself reflected in the small round mirror.

Slowly she peels off her heavy black stockings and the white cotton underclothes and finally, she unpins the short black veil and lifts off the starched white headpiece that binds her forehead. The skin beneath the white headpiece is moist. She rubs the creased line above her eyebrows and shakes her hair loose, gathering it through her fingers. The thick waves fall away from her forehead reflecting almost blue in the light. The hair grazes her naked back and clings in bold shiny curves to her shoulders. She is fully disrobed now, completely herself, absent of all habit, and she is sliding open the oak drawer, meeting with some resistance, and the perfume of dry sage rises up, and she is taking from the drawer the satin bag that Antonie sent, and she is unzipping the bag, removing the red dress, shaking out the beloved ruffles, each ruffle edged in black lace and ribbon.

Soon the dress pools on the cool tile floor by her ankles. A pert smile flirts across her lips. She steps through the crinoline that lines the ruffles, the crinoline that scratches at her naked calves and pricks at the tender skin indenting her waist. Snaking the zipper in place up along her hip, she runs her open palm smooth along the satin that clings tightly to the hipbone before it breaks open into unruly ruffle. She reaches beneath the dresser for the patent leather pumps. The underside of the heels are surfaced in well-worn cleats. When the shoes are in place, and the red satin bows are tied, she attends quickly to her face in the mirror, adding two ovals of rouge to her cheeks, and two dark horizons to each eyelid. Finally, with some purpose, and with evidence of some practice, she smears the tube of red lipstick from the top drawer full across her lips accentuating the natural deep pout. Just below the corner of her mouth is a mole, too large to ignore.

The handle of the door rattles behind her. Glancing into the mirror, Renata sees reflected the doorknob, its silver surface engraved in the same style as the crucifix of her rosary. The handle moves frantically against its lock.

“Ready?” The voice hovers low at the crack of the door.

Renata inhales, her flat bosom rising. The top ruffles of the snug dress resist, move only slightly.

“Soon,” she calls back. “Yes…” she glances at herself in the mirror.

Yes, she thinks, Renata is ready for the dance, only -- only she is never quite ready for the dance partner and with this thought of Antonie waiting outside the door, one muscular arm leaning into the frame of the door, the palm of the hand flat against the narrow band of wood, Renata’s eyes close and she smiles slightly and suddenly her hand drops to her right hip. The other arm rises into the air, and she throws her flood of hair back.

Her head twisted to the right, her neck high, her eyes the cocked slits of a cat, her bottom lip curled, she turns from the mirror and bends her knees. Soon comes the clatter of her heels on the worn pine floor. Slowly she turns, dropping her arms to one side, then gathers up ruffles in either hand.
Elbows bent, arms taut, her hands begin pumping in rhythm with her feet, her circles gather, her heels rattle faster and faster, she dips left with one shoulder, she twists right with the other, her head drops back, her torso arcs to a perfect C, and soon she is spinning, swaying, feet drumming, now one hand raised, the wrist twisted, the fingers splayed, as if she were grasping a wide fan, her fingers branched out toward the sky. Her body moves effortlessly through the routine, her arms and legs assuming their positions automatically, much the way her mouth moves mindlessly through her prayers the rest of the week.

“RENATA!” The voice cuts sharply through the door. A fist pounding now joins the metallic sound of the door handle. “NOW!”

She stops, her eyes open slowly, giving her a sudden glimpse of her slightly parted red lips in the tiny mirror. She is breathing hard. Instantly, she begins giggling, covering her mouth with both hands. And then, striking the pose again, head up, chest thrust out, she walks majestically toward the door, unlocks it and opens it slowly.

“Your games...” Antonie says, head shaking side to side beneath the wide-brimmed hat, dark eyes dropping, then bouncing back up, as if eyesight were a rubber ball, rebounding from the floor. “Your games…I am…honestly, I am tired of them.”

Renata smiles, lifts her chin, passes beneath Antonie’s raised arm planted on the doorframe. Antonie wears the wide-brimmed felt hat, the black velvet jacket, the tight-fitting black pants that accentuate his narrow hips, pants threaded on the outside edge in a line of clear red and emerald beads and a purple and turquoise braid.

“My games,” Renata says, quietly, setting one hand on her swaying hip as she stares out beneath the velvet arm that forms an arch, not unlike the small arch to one side of the main chapel, “my games are exactly what I am here for. No?” She gazes over her bare shoulder. “Tell me, Antonie, without the games, what precisely would there be?” She pivots and gives him the look, and he moves swiftly from the door after her, as if riveted to the sharp metallic rattle of her shoes on the cool adobe tiles of the hall.


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