By Claudia Ricci
She is dreaming she's back in the convent, feeling the pinch of straw in the mattress clawing at her skin; the old convent mattress used to stitch her the same way in the old days. In the dream, she smells corn posole cooking, her mouth waters at the fragrance, but just then, Teresa comes running to her room, she pushes open the door without knocking and stands there panting, holding up a spoon.
"You can't stay here," she says, frantically waving her head back and forth. The spoon dances. "Please, take the back door, Renata, hurry, don't wait even one minute more, the posse's half way to the far gate, riding with a fury." Teresa's face is flushed, her cheeks as pink and moist as a ham. "My dear Renata, if they find you, God in heaven, you're done for. They'll have you swinging from the gallows within hours."
Renata keeps trying to get up from the bed, but she just keeps sinking further into the mattress with each move. The straw claws her. She doesn't understand why Teresa won't put the spoon down and help her up. But then she realizes, Teresa has disappeared. Renata is all alone. Terrified, she bolts upright, and now she is awake, sitting in the makeshift bed that he made for her after carrying her, half dead, to his tiny cabin in what he keeps referring to as The Woodland. At the end of the bed is an aging floppy eared dog, staring at her open-jawed. His coat is smooth and shiny and as chocolate in color as Teresa's favorite German cake. The dog's mouth hangs open, and he is drooling strings of loopy drool over his fierce-looking teeth and eying her curiously.
"Nice fella," Renata whispers, reaching her hand out tentatively toward the dog's head.
"Better just to ignore Pete, then he'll be your best friend." Renata pulls her hand back and turns, and the man with the head of curls -- the person who saved her and brought her here -- as leaning into the doorframe. From this perspective, he didn't look tall. Not at all. In fact, Renata is pretty certain that she is a head taller than the man who carried her to safety.
When he first brought her to The Woodland, she was limp to the world, unconscious in the back of the cart. He carried her in and put her to sleep in his own bed for at least three days, while he occupied the small barn where the horses were stalled. Soon enough, though, she awoke. Her arms and legs ached and her backside felt bruised and stiff as stone. Her chest was heavy but thankfully, she had no fever. But scratches? Yes. And lots more: bruises, cuts and welts and gigantic bug bites. And several ticks she needed his help to remove, one or two from the back of her neck and one from the tender skin directly below her armpit, a precious few inches from her round left breast.
"It makes me fiercely embarrassed you doing this," she whispered as she lifts her arm, holding a towel to cover her breasts. He lit a match and went to work to remove the tick.
"I done seen a woman's body before," he said matter of factly. "And there ain't no use in you getting ill because of a tick whose time has come."
For the first two days (or was it three), she had slept straight through. When she finally woke, the sun was at a morning slant. Or was it?
"It is morning, yes?" she asked. He stood above her. He smiled and nodded and asked if she was hungry enough to eat a grizzly.
"No, but I am mighty thirsty," she said holding both hands against her throat. He left and Pete followed and soon, the man returned with a tray. Pete dropped into a position lying near the head of the bed. On the tray was a larger pitcher of water and a glass jar. He also brought her a plate with dark bread and a hunk of yellow cheese, and a cup of steaming broth. He had placed an apple on a plate, too, and she was impressed because he had cut it into paper thin slices.
Mostly, though, she was thirsty. She was more than thirsty; she was a desert. Before she touched a bite of food, she finished the pitcher and held it out to him for a refill. Once again he returned with it, and once again she finished the pitcher and once again she asked for more. After the third pitcher, she blushed and asked where she could relieve herself.
Without the slightest hint of embarassment, he helped her out of the bed and supported her walking through the back door into the sunlight. A small outhouse stood a few feet away. He stayed within earshot while she peed, and helped her back to the cabin and into bed again.
It was only then, when she went to thank him, that she realized she didn't even know his name.
As she finished the broth -- it tasted of something meaty, maybe the rabbit he had shot -- she decided she was not going to disclose anything about herself. But that meant she needed a story that was plausible. And she had to decide how long she would rest there before taking off again...and then of course, she would be going where exactly...?
"I don't feel right taking your bed, Mr.?????" She set a slice of apple on her tongue.
"No, not Mr. Just Arthur. Or just plain Art if you prefer."
"Well, like I said...Arthur, I will get myself up and out of this bed of yours just as soon as I'm a little more steady on my feet, don't feel right displacing you in this way."
He smiled. "It's a privilege to have you here, ma'am." He looked down, but said it without an ounce of embarrassment.
Her eyes narrowed. "A...privilege?"
He reached into his rear pocket and took out a wrinkled piece of paper. He unfolded it and smoothed it with the side of one hand. Renata gasped. There -- square in the middle of the paper-- was her likeness -- her face wan and pale, her hair stubbly and spare, and a scared look in her eyes. Her photo sat under the headline: WANTED: CONVICTED MURDERER ON THE RUN!!
She looked away, covered her eyes with one hand. "My dear Lord. And here I thought you wouldn't have any idea who I was."
He sat looking at her sadly. "Ma'am, I did not have the privilege of attending the courtroom proceedings. But I followed your friend Kittie's campaign to get you freed. With all those letters she begged and pleaded for. I for one composed a simple letter on your behalf. I dare say ma'am that your case has interested me from the start. I saw your image in the newspaper and said to myself, "that woman don't have the heart to razor a man's throat in half, not except if it were in self-defense."
Renata turned to face him. She had tears in her eyes. She bit hard into her lower lip, as she didn't want to start crying.
"Let me just say if there is any way I can help you, by having you stay here, or helping you escape clear out of the county, or the country, I'm ready and volunteering to help."
Now the tears came, and she wiped them on a towel he'd brought with the kitchen tray. Her voice was unsteady and broke as she spoke. "You are very very kind, Mr., I mean, Arthur." The full name sounded better to her. More dignified. "I have had every man aligned against me in this matter, starting with my cousin and every other sheriff, jailer, juror, and judge. So to find a person, a man, like you who simply wants to help see me go free, it sure does a lot for me."
He nodded. "I'll do whatever you want me to."
A moment went by. She spoke slowly. "But only God knows how you can help."
That night, he fashioned a bed for her that was nothing more than a thick layer of hay packed snugly between two blankets and then tied. What she loved about this bed is its position in the furthest corner of the cabin's so-called front porch. The porch, held up with four rough-hewn aspen posts, is open to the elements, leaving Renata able to catch a vision of the night sky as she falls asleep each night; the stars twinkle clear and bright between the dark pine trees and that pleases her to no end and gives her some kind of crazy hope. No matter that she battles mosquitoes and an uproar of crickets, or that some nights the temp drops and her feet are ice cold. All in all, she is comfortable and warm in this bed, she has a fully belly each night before she goes to sleep, and she feels sure that no one is going to find her before morning, tucked away as she is here. Moreover, no one is telling her where to go or what to think or how to figure out what she should do next with her embattled life.
As she falls asleep that first night in her new bed, soaking up the starlight, she says to herself, if only I can stay here a few days, and gather my strength, I'll be sturdy again. I'll have enough stamina to keep going."