Thursday, December 30, 2010

Chapter 21, "Sister Mysteries," THIS IS HOW ANTONIE DIED, and no I didn't kill him!

By Claudia Ricci

The time has come. That last chapter, and the one before, they unlocked the floodgates. There is blood on the floor, more blood than I have ever seen before. And there is more to come because, words,

words are like blood now, that dream, that last chapter, seems to have turned on a faucet, the truth comes pouring out of me. I see the words I have written, I read them here, they bleed onto the white page and work their magic, the words make it all come back. IT CANNOT BE STOPPED, THE WARM FLOOD, THE BLOOD, I am a flood and THE BLOOD is all around me.

Here we are, Señora and me, kneeling, screaming, crying, our knees sliding in gore, our aprons soaked scarlet red. And poor Antonie, he lies here limp on the floor. Flooded in his own blood. His face is drained almost as white as this piece of paper. His head drapes back at the horrific gash, Dear Mother of God, my cousin's throat is ripped one side to the other! His lips are bloody, his eyes wide and black and bugged out. He is gone. Gone. What have we done here? What have we done?

I wrote this chapter so many years ago I honestly can’t remember when. It’s been years -- 128 years since Antonie died, and a dozen or more years since I wrote this chapter. I know how it all happened. I know AS GOD IS MY WITNESS THAT I'M not to blame. I know THERE WAS NO CRIME. NO CRIME. None at all. I know how desperately we, Señora and me, tried to save him. I know too that I’m trapped here, inside this prison, chained at the ankle. Drained of energy. Staring out of that tiny barred window into the courtyard at the gallows where they plan to hang me in exactly 33 days.

Teresa visited me again last night, begged me once again to hand over to her this diary entry I hold in a pouch at my waist, right beside my rosary. It is the only diary entry that has never come to light. The only one I refused to give up.

“Please, Renata,” she begged. “It’s your only hope. Just give it to me. She wants you to. Señora sent me here directly, she told me, just the way she told you, it’s time, it’s time. She cannot stand by, and let you hang for a crime that you didn’t commit.”

I sat here staring at Teresa. I felt the hard cold stone of this bench. I bit into my cracked lip. I tipped my head – no veil, no veil, no more nun's veil, I have just a brush of hair -- hacked short, cut away by that whiskey-drenched, toothless old jailer the other day – I tipped my head back to the clammy wall.

“All you need to do is give it to me, my dear dear heart,” Teresa whispered. She was standing now, now reaching her fingers through the bars, just the way my mother used to when I was a child, so many years ago, when I had pneumonia, and I was feverish and dreaming MACHINE DREAMS in the crib. “I will go immediately to see your lawyer, Deluria, I will bring him the diary. I KNOW that he will help you Renata. I know he will bring it to the court, he will file a last-minute appeal. I will stay until he does. But first you must give it to me. You must! Because if you don't Renata, you will..." Shaking her head slowly, she whispers. "Just give it to me, please.

I stared at Teresa through the bars.

“If I do what you ask," I whispered, "what then what then will happen, what will be dear Señora's fate?"

“She is prepared,” Teresa said, stamping her foot. “She has her faith in God and in Mary. She is not going to stand by to see you hang.” I stared at Teresa through the bars. I shook my head.

I could not yield up the diary entry that might save me. Not last night. Not yet.

But I am ready to let you read how Antonie died. Right now.

Renata’s Diary

September 17, 1883

If I write it all down, will it feel more real? Will I begin to accept the fact that it happened? I sit here staring into the darkness, my fingers trembling as I push the pen. If I keep my eyes on the page, I can almost pretend that I am back in my room at the convent. I can almost ignore the dank walls of the cell, and the chill, and the atrocious smell. And the swill of that dreadfully foul pail. When the sun rises, I will have to look up and see. Daylight reveals the walls, and all I can think is that they are going to close in and crush me.

Thanks be to God for Señora’s visit yesterday. Thanks be to God that she brought the sky blue shawl. All those roses, all those beautiful red flowers. It isn’t altogether warm, but it is some comfort during these sleepless nights. And thanks too that she brought this white candle, and the pewter holder, for otherwise, I would have no light by which to write. And God knows, I must write. As frightened as I am, as desperate as I feel, I must write. I must fight the temptation to give up.

I will go back four days. Will I ever forget the date? It was September 13th. It will always be, because time stopped that day. Life will never be the way it was before that day.

We had been back from San Francisco for exactly one month. It had taken me weeks to recuperate. I slept for the first two weeks, and showered in Teresa’s shower as often as I could. But still I felt my soul sinking. I would open my eyes each the mornings and before I was fully awake I would think about my cousin wasting away, and poor Señora caring for him. I would cringe at the thought that I had abandoned her. But I could not begin to think about helping. I could barely raise my head from the pillow.

September 13th came. It was a Sunday, and I was up early. I finally had enough strength back to attend Mass at sunrise. When I emerged from the chapel, there was Senora waiting for me in the wagon, her brow knit in torment and worry. I hurried to her side. Her eyes begged me. She patted the seat beside her. No words passed between us. I knew what was happening. I knew what I had to do. As I hoisted myself onto the wagon, Mother Yolla emerged from chapel.

“Where are you off to now, Sister Renata?” she screamed.

“I’m sorry, Mother Superior,” I said, bowing my head. “My cousin is dying. I have no choice but to go.”

Señora whipped the horse smartly, and we were on our way. The roads were a rough surface at her speed. But we needed to get there. When we turned, finally, down the long dusty drive leading to the hacienda, I heard Señora whisper, “Gracias a Dios.” And I too said a prayer, that whatever awaited me would not be more than I could endure. I wasn’t sure if Antonie would still be alive.

It was just before noon. A brilliantly beautiful day. I will never forget the sky: it looked as though it had been washed clean. I lowered myself down from the wagon and turned to give Senora a hand. I recalled the day we had arrived back from San Francisco. It had taken the three of us, Señora and Tango and me, to carry Antonie inside the house. I remember we removed the quilts piled over him, and knotted the sheet on which he lay at all four corners.

Tango took two corners, Señora and I each had a corner, and in that way we carried him –a remarkably light load in the sagging sheet—through the monstrous front door and up the polished staircase and into the bedroom. We laid him out on the bed in a long orange shaft of light and I opened the window and the breeze swept inside and immediately his eyes went wide and he stared into nothingness as if he were entranced. He lifted his arms as if he might take flight, and then he cried out.

“I am home, dear God, I must be, I must be home, there is only one place in the world with this exceptional fragrance.”

About that he was right. Everywhere at Antonie’s, there is a remarkable scent of eucalyptus, owing to two giant trees that tower over the hacienda, planted ever so long ago as tiny saplings, a gift to Antonie’s father presented by the first Australian family to set foot on Californian soil.

I recall that Señora left the room to fill a washbasin. When she returned, I stood beside Antonie’s bed and swabbed his face. I could only imagine the condition and appearance of my own face, streaked and coated in mud. I remember that Antonie appeared to fall asleep, and so Señora and I prayed for a short while in silence.

And then Señora made her mistake. She told me, within Antonie’s earshot, that I was welcome to stay the night. Or that I was free to go, that she would be happy to take me herself, or if I preferred, she would have Tango bring me back to the convent in the wagon.

All of a sudden, Antonie’s eyes popped open again. He had heard those words of Señora’s, and they sent him into a tailspin. He sat up straight in bed. His eyes bulged, glazed black and bulbous, in those gaping grey bowls. Without the benefit of flesh in his cheeks, his nose stood out in an oddly prominent hook. And the whole of his face was locked in by his gaunt cheekbones, giving him a distinctly skeletal look.

“No, no, you cannot leave me,” he cried, grabbing my veil in two hands and twisting it between his fingers. Thus followed a pathetic scene in which I tried to disengage my veil from his grasp.

“But my dear cousin, I must go. I cannot linger a moment longer. As it is, I’ve been away from the convent for almost three weeks. Who knows what punishment is in store for me? Who knows what is to become of me if Mother Yolla decides to dismiss me from the order?”

I forcefully yanked the veil away, and Antonie sank to the bed, but still he kept reaching for me. He took hold of my little finger and tenderly he brought it to his chin and his lips and it was almost as though he was an infant again the way he suckled at my hand. “You know full well that Father Ruby will tell Mother Yolla what to do, he will explain that you have been on a journey to help me get well.” At that moment, his breathing became more labored, and he launched into a cough that sounded as though it came from the bottom of a deep and very congested chasm.

When the awful sound finally stopped, he spoke, but ever so slowly, and with a heavy wheeze separating each word. “There…is…no…no…reason to leave. No…reason at …all.”

I studied his horrifying face, his pale purple pallor, and I thought, oh but there is every reason to go, I must leave this house right away because if I spend one more day here, attached to you, a dying man, it will be my end as well as yours.

He began whimpering then, and again he grabbed my veil. Senora helped me wrench it from his grasp. I told him that I would wait until he fell asleep for the night before I left, hoping that he would drop off well before the sunlight disappeared.

Señora proceeded downstairs to help Tango unpack the wagon, and I remained in the chair beside Antonie’s bed. His eyes remained opened, and he stared at me with a curious mix of sadness, as well as resentment and anger. His eyes bore into me, as if they were drills. Finally I had to look away.

“Renata, bring me that journal,” he commanded, gesturing to his desk. “Bring the journal and the pen as well.”

I did, I brought the journal, and as I passed the book and pen to him, and helped to prop his bony back against two pillows, it never occurred to me that I was enabling him to make his last grand written attack. It never occurred to me either to ask him what he intended to write. Why would I think to ask? Here, after all, was a man hovering over the very edge of the canyon of death. What did it matter what he wrote? What did it matter whether he wrote at all?

He scrawled slowly and in a lopsided hand, his head hanging low over his journal, stopping frequently because his fingers shook so that he could barely grasp the pen. At times, too, he would stop just to glare at me, and that look, while it scared me, still did not alert me to his intentions. How could I possibly know that he was weaving the last bit of his elaborate web, setting me up to appear to be his murderer?

After nearly an hour of scribbling, he sank into the pillows, spent.

“Enough of this,” he said. But when I went to take the journal away, he clutched the book tighter to his chest. “I am not finished,” he moaned, his lids closing. “I’ve got more to say and it is not something you may read.”

“Well, yes, of course, then, just keep writing,” I said.

“But I have to know something,” he murmured. “You say you will stay until I fall asleep for the night. But then, when will you return?”

I blinked and didn't answer him. I left the hacienda that day and now, here it was almost a month later. This was my first visit to see Antonie since we had traveled to San Francisco for his disastrous mercury treatment.

I followed Señora into the hacienda. She led me straight to his room. The gloom and the smell surrounding his bed is hard to describe. He looked less shriveled than I expected, however. In fact, when I approached his bed, he raised his face to me. He looked ghastly, a purple glaze clung to his skin, and when he spoke, his breath was as foul as the chicken coop back at the convent.

“Dear Renata, finally, you’ve come.” His gravelly tone made me shudder. “Do you know…how happy I am to see you?” He raised his hand and I gasped. His skin had begun to rot right before my eyes.

I bowed my head, and felt dizziness overwhelm me. I realized that I had to get out of this sickroom, now, because otherwise, I would be sick.

“I…I will be helping Señora in the kitchen,” I said, and I turned and was about to hurry out the door, when I stopped once more and said to him in an even tone, “God bless you, Antonie,” I whispered. And to myself, I continued, “God bless you and rest your soul and keep you for all eternity.”

“Oh don’t go away,” he muttered. By then I had hurried out the door and down the hall. God forgive me, I whispered, but I cannot witness this last bit.

Señora was in the kitchen warming some broth at the woodstove. She turned to me, and I sank to the chair, and began to sob. Señora placed a hand on my shoulder. It was at that moment we heard the ghastly sound.

It reached into my chest and squeezed my heart and roped it tight. And then an agonizing howl followed, a howl and a kind of unearthly gurgle.

It seemed to drown even as it found its mark piercing straight toward my stomach.

Señora and I were in the bedroom in seconds, and there he lay on the floor. He had the razor in his hand, and he was still jabbing and clawing at his throat. Already there was so much more blood than I ever thought possible. How could one man bleed so much? I murdered the air with my own screams, over and over again I yelled, pleading alternately between Spanish and English, between God and Señora, in my desperation and panic. The next few minutes. Seemed to go on for all eternity.

I raced to his side, and fighting all instincts, I dropped to the floor, into the gore where he lay. “I’ve got to, I’ve got to,” that’s what I kept thinking, and telling myself, but all my body wanted to do was run away, run so far away that I could never possibly come back. Instead, though, I forced myself to go forward. I had both my hands covering my mouth, my stomach threatening to disgorge with every step. Soon, I was at the edge of the puddle, the blood so red, so thick, such a flooding of it from the ragged gash at his neck that I grew dizzy.

There was blood everywhere, blood flooding me, warm and sticky, blood puddling and pooling on the floor, blood seeping under my knees, blood rivering around my ankles, “oh please Dear God help him please,” I screamed but it just kept coming and coming, soaking the floor, “we’ve got to do something,” I screamed at Señora, I held my apron to the gash in his throat, but still the blood coated my hands, and Señora’s too, and the two of us sat there, helpless, slick and sliding in Antonie’s gore until… I had the choice then, I could be cowardly and run away, or I could stay. Feeling myself grow woozy, I chose to kneel, to stay and the gore met with my knees, and in short order I could feel the warm blood squeeze through my habit. I was awash in the ooze.

“Please God,” I screamed, “Please God,” and by then, Señora was screaming in Spanish. She laid one hand on my shoulder and I looked up and grabbed her fingers in mine. Then she kneeled too, and the two of us were a statue together, weeping and whimpering, staring into the worst nightmare there ever was, a man with a razor still in his hand, still trying to kill himself and now, barely alive. His lips were bubbling words that could not be heard, his throat gurgled and rapidly disgorged the last drops of his dwindling pool of life.

I bent forward, and holding my breath, I touched his forehead, which was by now about the only part of his face that wasn’t smeared in blood. Feeling his cold skin I began bawling anew and howling, too, wailing for help, wailing at Señora, or who knows who, “Oh do something oh God please do something do something please do something.”

For a moment I was overcome by a fresh wave of certainty that I would black out or retch or worse yet, actually get up and flee the room. But then Antonie turned his agonized gaze on me, and in a fit of caring, and desperate to do something, I used my two trembling hands to lift his head, and in that moment, dreading that it might just roll off, I took the greatest care to prop the back of his head against my thigh. A fresh spurt of blood started out of his wound, pulsing like a bib at his neck, and quickly oozing another thickness of blood onto my leg.

Soon the slide of blood creamed both my hands and pooled in my apron, and I turned to Señora and cried out, “What can we do?” With his last bit of energy, Antonie answered the question. He opened his mouth and guzzling his own blood, cried out, “Finish, Renata, oh please, finish me now.”

I glanced at the razor still locked within his curled hand. But how could I do what he asked?

“No, no, I cannot,” I screamed, and shaking my head, I lifted my hands in the air, and there, there was blood now everywhere, up and down my arms, all over my face and veil. I froze there, staring, shrieking, unable to speak, to think.

As I crumbled to one side, I saw that Señora had found some kind of power to act. I was hardly aware of what she was doing until she was there, doing it. She came forward on her knees, sliding in the bloody sleeze. Without a word, and with an other worldly look on her face, she took the razor from Antonie’s hand and lifted and pressed and she put her entire body into the action. She set the razor between her body and his wound and she went full forward, grunting as she did. And I heard a sound like bone breaking, or cartilage cracking.

And then. I looked up. And standing in the doorway was Tango, his eyes as wide as pails. “Sangre de Cristo,” he whispered, falling to his knees and making the sign of the cross.

I grew more dizzy and must have blacked out.

When I came to, Antonie was a few feet away from me. He lay with his eyes gaping upward, his head wrenched to one side, his face practically white. There was blood so far and wide that it was indeed a new Red Sea around me. I was drenched through and through. I could do nothing but sob, my head just bobbing side to side. I just lay there. I wondered where Señora was. But then I knew.

Because I heard her in the hallway, bawling, and speaking in low tones to Tango, and he too was crying, and trying to comfort her.

“Ven aquí, ven aquí,” I cried, and when the two of them came into the room, I howled, “Señor Antonie es muerto, es muerto,” and she and Tango joined in my cry and the three of us clung to each other on the bloody floor. Finally, I told them that I had to pray over his body.

“Si, si, señorita,” Tango said, and he helped me up to a sitting position, but in that position I thought for sure I would black out once more. Drawing on my last shred of inner strength, I slithered forward on my belly. A few inches from Antonie’s prostrate form, I lifted my hand to his face and trembling, I reached up to his eyes, and closed his lids. And I said some kind of a prayer, all I know is that there were words, and I spoke them from my heart, and I started and ended with God and what happened in between I cannot say. At least I did something, said something, because I knew if there had been a priest present, he would do the last rites, and so this might not be the rites, but it was something come from God just the same.

That’s when Señora came to my side, and she whispered to me that it was important that I return to the convent immediately. She was most concerned, she said, that I needed to protect my reputation. And I agreed to go, I didn’t know what I was saying or doing, but the minute I tried to sit up, I realized that it was all too much for me, this vision I faced was so profoundly disturbing that I didn’t know if I could move. There before me lay Antonie, now a grotesquely flayed slab of flesh, a cousin to me no more.

I set to crying anew, my head swimming: Oh Señora, I cried, how could he do something this horrible to himself? And how could he impose this horror on you and me, when we gave him every last shred, every single thing of ourselves we devoted, when we have worked so almighty hard the last weeks and months to see to his every need, to ensure his health?

Señora sobbed along with me, but soon she pulled herself to standing and took hold of my hands and said that Tango must take me home immediately. She promised that she would tend to Antonie’s body, with the utmost care, and that she would alert the authorities.

“But there may be questions,” I said. Señora waved my concerns away, certain that she would convince the Sheriff that Antonie had taken his own life. I was reluctant to leave, but finally I did, because Señora insisted, and promised that she would call on me if she needed anything at all. She covered me with a long black shawl, and walked me to the wagon.

Tango helped me up, and we set off just, the sky still looking like it had been washed. At the horizon though, where I set my eyes, the sky looked glittery, it had the most ethereal silvery blue color. A full moon was rising as we drove, and I kept my eyes glued to the giant golden plate as it made its way above the dark rim of trees.

When we reached the convent, I went inside the chicken coop and cried. And cried. And finally, I shed my bloody habit there, and wearing the long shawl to cover me, I hurried into the convent and found Teresa. When darkness finally came, Teresa helped me up the hillside to the shower, and I stayed in there, praying and praying, until the moonlight was full upon me. When I finally stepped outside the sheet, I was bathed in full in the bluish light. I said a silent prayer, and wrapped myself in the long black shawl, I made my way barefoot down the hill, with Teresa at my side, picking my way between the sage and thorns. Holding my breath, I crept through the hallway, until I reached my room. Teresa tucked me into bed, and I fell into a listless sleep, bouncing awake every few minutes, my mind endlessly remaking the horrifying images of him, there on the floor.

The next morning, I spent a few quiet moments in the courtyard, watching the early birds. Not long after, I was kneading a batch of bread in the kitchen, and about to weed the garden with Teresa, two tall men in pale blue shirts and black jackets and tall hats arrived at the convent door with a warrant. One had an oversized German Shepard on a leash, and in the arms of the other man there lay my bloody habit, the one I had worn home, the one I had so carefully hidden the night before under a large rock near the shower. I had covered it with brush and two boughs of live oak, but no matter. That dog had sniffed it out.

Without giving details, they informed Mother Yolla that I was under arrest for the murder of my cousin. And no, they said in answer to her question, I would not be returning to the convent anymore.

NOTE: Chapter 21 of Sister Mysteries is identical to Chapter 15 of Castenata. Both are on-line books, and occasionally, like today, they converge.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

OOPS, Renata was 13 or 14 when Antonie Abused Her, NOT THREE OR FOUR!!

Note to readers: So, this is what happens when you spend almost 16 years writing a book. You start to forget important details. I wrote the previous chapter (Chapter 19 of Sister Mysteries, a long and rather wild dream sequence involving my mother, and Antonie and Renata and God knows what else) without first looking back at the chapter of Castenata (which follows here) where Antonie abuses Renata beneath a giant madrone tree. Had I looked back at that latter chapter, which I wrote years ago, I would have realized that Renata wasn't a little girl of three or four when Antonie abused her beneath the madrone. No, poor Renata was 13 or 14. Like I said, this is what happens when you spend so many, many years writing a book. You just plain forget. You can't keep track of the gazillion details in your own story. You start forgetting what you wrote and thus, you end up making mistakes. Apologies, and of course, adjustments will now be made to the previous chapter, which appears as Chapter 19, in Sister Mysteries. I hope you aren't totally and utterly and completely overwhelmed and confused. I hope you won't give up on reading these books. If you are really totally and utterly and completely overwhelmed and confused, please just email me ( and I will be happy to straighten you out. How many times do authors offer that? How often does an author say, hey just email me and I will be happy to tell you anything you want to know about the story that you are reading? Personally, I think more authors need to do just that. -- CR

Renata’s Diary

March 13, 1884
Written In the Vallejo Prison

To this day, and to the end of all my days, I will carry the madrone tree deep inside me. But never did I expect to share my shame in words, at least not here on this page. So many years ago, I confessed the sins committed beneath the madrone to Father Crucifer. In the months before I became a novitiate, the nightmares grew so terrifying that I woke up feeling like I was choking. I would lie there, a sweaty heap in my bed, and I would dread falling asleep again because they, the night terrors, would return. Finally I was so sleep deprived that I knew I had no choice but to bring the dreams to the confessional; I poured my heart out there in that cedar closet, with only the dark screen between me and Father Crucifer. After the confession, I knew for certain that I had been forgiven of any responsibility. Father Crucifer himself told me that I was not to blame myself for what happened. My cousin the brute, had abused me.

Alas then, why now must I relive the madrone again here? Why is it that as I rot away in this cell, I am plagued once again by what happened so long ago beneath that red-skinned tree? Why am I cursed to have to re-experience the nightmares? Why have I been waking up with Antonie’s wild young face and strong sweaty hands still strangling my sleep?

Teresa insists that the dreams have started again for a very simple reason: I am enraged at Antonie for landing me here behind these rusty bars. My fury, she says, is beyond containing. There is so much hatred, so much anger, bottled up inside me that it is resurrecting the old pain. All of it is beginning to eat away at my heart. Worse, it’s starting to drown my soul.

“You must write it all down,” Teresa said in her last visit. “If you don’t, I’m afraid, his victory will indeed be complete.”

So I will confess it again, even though it seems so unfair, that he made me the victim once, and now again, I’m the one who’s suffering.

I see the tree so clearly. I see its rich burgundy bark, as smooth to the touch as Uncle Rio’s famous oak door, the one that opens onto the front porch of the hacienda. That door was more than 250 years old when it was imported by boat and train and wagon from Ronda in southern Spain to Carmel in California.

The handsome red madrone was even sleeker to the touch than that door. And its skin was deep red, as bronze as the skin of an Indian. The tree grew at the far end of Uncle Rio’s vast fruit orchard. Peaches and pears, plums, and a few apples filled the orchard. Antonie and I spent many happy days in the orchard the first summer I arrived. We would take the guitars, and a lunch basket prepared by Señora with lots more food than the two of us could possibly consume. And we would play guitars for hours. He was a good teacher, mostly because he didn’t say much, nor did he correct me very often. He played and I copied, and he played, and I copied better the second time. The days melted away.

He took me to the madrone for the first time at the end of July. The madrone snaked into the sky about 30 feet high, towering over a thicket of live oak that lined a small ravine. We sat by the Muddy Bear Creek on the bank of that ravine and Antonie explained to me that the creek ran high until about April every year. By this time of the season, though, the creek was bone dry.

“Which is sad,” he said, “because we have no place to cool off in the summer.”

He turned and looked at me and when I turned to look back at him, I saw a strange glint in his eye. I had started to see that glint more and more but I was young, and unfettered, and I chose to ignore it.

A moment later, he asked me if I wanted to see him climb the madrone.

I wrinkled my nose. “I’m not sure,” I said. “I suppose if I were certain you knew how to, then, sure, I would say yes. But how do I know if you can do it?”

He shrugged. His eyes shone. “I guess you will just have to trust me.” He unbuttoned his shirt and threw it aside. His chest was bare of any hair at all. But he was far more muscular than I expected he would be. I realized that his body was that not of a boy at all, but a sturdy young man.

He hoisted himself to the first branch, which was just above my head. Turning, he stood above me with his legs apart and he called down to me.

“You would love it up here, and I could help you climb up.”

“Not a chance,” I said. I was wearing a long skirt, and even the thought of my feet leaving the ground frightened me.

He took hold of a higher branch. He pulled himself up to the next height and threw himself forward, bending over the branch and hanging with his head below the bough. The branch swayed.

“Oh be careful,” I gasped from below.

“I know exactly what I am doing Renata,” he called back. The last I saw of his face was his smile, which I didn’t often see. He was so very quiet most of the time. So solemn. Now all I remember is that awful smile. Not a smile of joy, but one of conquest.

I watched him pull himself to standing on that bough. And then he was so high into the green blue greenery of the tree that he disappeared from view.

“Now it’s time to come down,” I cried nervously. “I cannot see you anymore.”

“But I can see you,” he said triumphantly. “And I can see everything else from here too. I can see clear to the house, and up to the ridge.”

“Good, but it’s dangerous. Please Antonie, please come down.” Frowning nervously, I found a rock on which to sit. I caught my skirt under my knees and tucked it close around my ankles. I sat there rocking back and forth, waiting.

I heard the leaves swiping against each other. I heard a branch crack. And a gasp. “Uh oh.”

I stood. “What? What? What is happening up there?”

He grew silent.

“Antonie? Please, can’t you at least answer me? Tell me what is happening?”

I could feel my pulse running. I could imagine having to race back through the orchard to the house to have to tell Uncle Rio that Antonie was stuck in the tree. Or worse, that he had fallen. I don’t know how Uncle Rio could take another blow. Another loss would surely kill him.

“Oh drat,” Antonie called. Another branch cracked.

“What are you doing?” I screamed.

“Oh, oh, it’s OK I think… I think I’ve found a way down,” he called. I raced outward from the trunk to try to see where he was, and how he was making progress, but to no avail. I couldn’t see a thing.

“I guess…I guess I will try coming down this way, by sitting down,” he said. I could almost imagine him up there. I could almost see him sitting on a branch and thinking.

“Please please please Antonie can’t you come down right now?” I cried. I was practically sobbing.

“I’m trying Renata. I’m trying.”

I kept picturing myself having to tell Uncle Rio that Antonie had fallen. All I could think was, Antonie will die, just like his mother did, and then Uncle Rio will be destroyed. And all that will be left will be me. And Senora.

I came back to the trunk. I gazed upward, and just as I did, he slid right by me, yelling, dropping from the branch above me. He landed at my feet in a heap and fell to the side.

“DEAR GOD!” I cried, watching his collapse.

For a moment I stood, frozen in place. I saw his face. So so still. His eyes were closed. His mouth hung open.

Slowly, I dropped to my knees beside him. I was sobbing. “Oh my dear dear cousin, please please please wake up,” I cried. “Oh why did you have to go up the tree? Why why why?” He lay there, as still as stone. I began crying harder.

“I don’t know what I will do without you. Please please please, Antonie, can’t you please wake up?” I knew I had to go for help, but first I bent forward and reached one hand toward his nose, to see if he was still breathing.

My fingers were just grazing his upper lip when his eyes flew open and he grabbed me. I gasped and pulled back but not in time. He had my hand vised in his and he pulled me forward making me fall right on top of him.

He cupped his other hand around my neck and he rolled over me as if I were a log beneath him. All the while I screamed and thrashed. “Oh let me go, let me go, oh you are so horrible, why are you doing this, let me go!!!”

By then, though, he was straddled on top of me, pressing his fleshy lips into mine. He caressed me over and over again, he covered my face with his wet lips, despite my yelling, despite my telling him to “get off me, let me go, get away, just get away from me, let me goooooooooooooo!!!!!”

He wouldn’t let up. He took both elbows and planted one on either side of my neck, to make it harder for me to move. Then he planted his face deep in my neck.

“Oh my dear dear cousin,” he said. I could feel his lower body, dear God, I could feel him growing rock hard, as if he had grown one of the madrone’s own branches there inside his trousers. He pulled up my skirt and he lay full on top of me. I tried to scream but he held a dirty sweaty hand over my mouth. He never removed his clothing, because he didn’t have time. But he pressed himself against me, and he rubbed himself in a fury, while I lay there, helpless, yelling into the palm of his hand, over and over again he thrust against me, and finally, he shuddered, and fell heavily against me.

A moment after he had finished his dirty business, he rolled over to the side, and I rolled the other way, and bawling, I curled up into a little ball. And when I could find my strength, I picked myself up and ran all the way back to the house.

The world as I knew it, it just collapsed that day. I never said a word to anyone about it, until three years later, when I was about to become a novitiate. But no matter what Antonie said, or how many times he tried to apologize for his monstrous behavior, I never gave him even a moment to speak of it again. Quite simply, my relationship with him –and life itself—was never the same after that.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Chapter 19, "Sister Mysteries:" I've Been Here Before and It's All A Dream!

By Claudia Ricci

Here it is, my big blank computer screen. I’ve written maybe 50,000 words of my new book, Sister Mysteries, this past month -- and now, here I am with nada.

Nada word.

I am facing an empty plate. A zero mind.

But I've been here before. This is the kind of thing that happens with Sister Mysteries. I'll be writing along, riding a torrential river of words. The ideas and images and inspiration seem endless, overflowing like Niagara itself. It feels as though there isn't enough time in one day or four lifetimes to get everything down on paper.

And then, poof. With no warning, the river goes Sahara. There is nothing in the bank. There are no crumbs in the bread drawer.

The book feels like it is going belly up. The only consolation is that this has happened so many times before that I’ve lost track.

This time, I’m ready. This time, I am heading into the desert with a backpack. I’ve got provisions enough to wait out the dry spell.

All I need to do is hang on until the next flood hits.

Which could be tomorrow. Or maybe even tonight. I could wake up in the middle of the night writing in my sleep. That happened to me once, I woke up with a story, fully formed, pouring out of me. All I had to do was write it down.

So while I am waiting for inspiration, I have decided to write a chapter as if I were asleep.

It's a bit crazy I know. But no crazier than that ridiculous movie “Inception,” which I tried to watch last night.

In said movie, there are dreams inside dreams inside dreams and none of it makes any sense. (For a great spoof of "Inception" check out this South Park video clip. It's hysterical.)

Still, millions of people watched that dumb movie anyway. Movie critic Roger Eberts (who I used to work with at the Chicago Sun-Times years back) saw fit to give the flick a perfect score, a four out of four. Ayayayay.

Anyway I offer you this chapter of Sister Mysteries which follows, a chapter which kind of poured out of me. Sort of like it was composed in my sleep. Click here to keep reading.

Monday, December 27, 2010


NOTE TO READERS: Don't miss a piece in The New York Times suggesting that it may have been comedian Jon Stewart's December 16th show, devoted to promoting federal legislation providing health benefits to firefighters and other first responders at the 9/11 tragedy, that led to the bill's successful passage last week! The Times' piece compares Stewart's role in advocating for the bill to the work of Edgar R. Murrow, famous for his pioneering TV commentary on a range of social issues. Fascinating piece! CR

By Robert Willner

They must believe,
if need be,
they could put out the fires of Hell.
On duty or not, they all raced to the scene.
Their mission --- to save.
Where could such courage come from?

Hurled into the maelstrom of the
Twin Towers,
unprepared, unable to communicate,
lost in smoke, flames and collapse.

I can't see. Where's John, Tony, Alex?
I can't see.
Find the staircase. Radio's full of static.
Oh shit!
This is bad. Any survivors?
Worst I've seen.
Do Doris and the kids know I'm here?
God, I want to see them again.
Heat, smoke, flames
What is that howling

Oh My God!


Speeches claiming to honor their sacrifice,
if only politicians had had the foresight to
have a pin in their lapels of – say
a fireman's hat
opposite their American flag pin.
What speeches ….

We are here to honor these brave men and
ensure they have not died in vain.
They are committed to God's care.
I stand with them and their families
in their bereavement.

Not only will their sacrifice be remembered,
we will kill or capture the godless ones who
planned this atrocity.

And so politicians seek to honor themselves.


No matter,
the dead firemen not here.
They are at their firehouses watching Americans,
America leaving
flowers and gifts and tears.
Loving and loved.

Writer Robert G. Willner lives in Chatham, New York. He has been an attorney and president of a Columbia County drama company called StageWorks. He is the author of "If not now -- when? A MEMOIR IN POEM," published in 2008.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Friday, December 24, 2010


May the holiday
miracles that
are here
stay with
the coming
New Year!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Death Row Gift: The Brown Paper Bag

(The following post is courtesy of David Seth Michael's blog, called The Dream Antilles. Originally posted a year ago, in December, 2009, this story is by Luis Ramirez, who was executed in Texas on October 20, 2005. David Seth Michaels, an attorney in Columbia County, New York who has long worked to end the death penalty, got the story from a fellow death penalty opponent named Abe Bonowitz. As David wrote, "The story doesn't require any commentary, and I'm not going to give any. It's a gift to all of you for the holidays: Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, New Year's, Solstice, whatever holiday, if any, you may celebrate.")

By Luis Ramirez #999309

I'm about the share with you a story whose telling is long past due. It's a familiar story to most of you reading this from death row. And now it's one that all of you in "free world " may benefit from. This is the story of my first day on the row.

I came here in May of 1999. The exact date is something that I can't recall. I do remember arriving in the afternoon. I was placed in a cell on H-20 wing over at the Ellis Unit in Huntsville, TX. A tsunami of emotions and thoughts were going through my mind at the time. I remember the only things in the cell were a mattress, pillow, a couple of sheets, a pillow case, a roll of toilet paper, and a blanket. I remember sitting there, utterly lost.

The first person I met there was Napolean Beasley. Back then, death row prisoners still worked. His job at the time was to clean up the wing and help serve during meal times. He was walking around sweeping the pod in these ridiculous looking rubber boots. He came up to the bars on my cell and asked me if I was new. I told him that I had just arrived on death row. He asked what my name is. I told him, not seeing any harm in it. He then stepped back where he could see all three tiers. He hollered at everyone, "There's a new man here. He just drove up. His name is Luis Ramirez." When he did that, I didn't know what to make of it at first. I thought I had made some kind of mistake. You see, like most of you, I was of the impression that everyone on death row was evil. I thought I would find hundreds of "Hannibal Lecters" in here. And now, they all knew my name. I thought "Oh well," that's strike one. I was sure that they would soon begin harassing me. This is what happens in the movies after all.

Well, that's not what happened. After supper was served, Napolean was once again sweeping the floors. As he passed my cell, he swept a brown paper bag into it. I asked him "What's this?" He said for me to look inside and continued on his way. Man, I didn't know what to expect. I was certain it was something bad. Curiosity did get the best of me though. I carefully opened the bag. What I found was the last thing I ever expected to find on death row, and everything I needed. The bag contained some stamps, envelopes, notepad, pen, soap, shampoo, toothpaste, tooth brush, a pastry, a soda, and a couple of Ramen noodles. I remember asking Napolean where this came from.

He told me that everyone had pitched in. That they knew that I didn't have anything and that it may be a while before I could get them. I asked him to find out who had contributed. I wanted to pay them back. He said, "It's not like that. Just remember the next time you see someone come here like you. You pitch in something."

I sat there on my bunk with my brown paper bag of goodies, and thought about what had just happened to me. The last things I expected to find on death row was kindness and generosity. They knew what I needed and they took it upon themselves to meet those needs. They did this without any expectation of reimbursement or compensation. They did this for a stranger, not a known friend. I don't know what they felt when they committed this act of incredible kindness. I only know that like them, twelve "good people" had deemed me beyond redemption. The only remedy that these "good people" could offer us is death. Somehow what these "good people" saw and what I was seeing didn't add up. How could these men, who just showed me so much humanity, be considered the "worst of the worst?"

Ever since Napolean was executed, for a crime he committed as a teen, I've wanted to share this story with his family. I would like for them to know that their son was a good man. One who I will never forget. I want for them to know how sorry I am that we as a society failed them and him. I still find it ridiculous that we as a people feel that we cannot teach or love our young properly. I'm appalled at the idea that a teen is beyond redemption, that the only solution that we can offer is death. It's tragic that this is being pointed out to the "good people" by one of the "worst of the worst". God help us all.

What's in the brown paper bag? I found caring, kindness, love, humanity, and compassion of a scale that I've never seen the "good people" in the free world show towards one another.