Wednesday, December 01, 2010

CHAPTER NINE of "Castenata": Antonie Thinks the Nun is Dancing on the Hotel Bar In San Francisco

Renata's Diary
July 27, 1883

This evening, while our new wagon driver Tango watched over Antonie, Señora and I took our evening meal in one dark corner of the hotel bar. At first, Señora resisted the idea of leaving Antonie, but I convinced her this way: “If we are to travel back home in the next day or so, then we will need our strength. We must feed ourselves a decent meal.”

The two of us sat at a table separated from the boisterous drinking patrons, but the separation was nothing more than a maroon velvet rope. There was nothing to keep us apart from the cigar smoke or the raucously loud laughter that floated up everywhere around me. kept my head down throughout the meal, staring at my plate and cupping my hand over my nose when I felt smoking blowing right at me. Time and again, I thought to myself, oh how desperate I am to be back home.

Upstairs was poor Antonie, languishing in sweaty sheets. For the last three nights we have had to tie him to the mattress so he wouldn’t thrash himself right off his mattress and onto the floor. He has slept for only moments at a time, and otherwise, he twists and turns in his bed, and occasionally he calls out, pleaded with us to untie him from the bed.

One moment he can seem almost normal. His temperature is steady, his face is cool, and he speaks more or less in a normal way. I the next moment, however, he is coated in sweat, and sometimes, a ghastly rash, and when he speaks, his voice is hoarse, and often, he calls out nonsense and obscenities to people who aren’t even there. The last thing he said to me, before Senora and I fled his room, and came down to the bar for dinner, was that he wasn’t certain I was ready to dance the farruca on the bar, because the footwork was so grueling, so intricate and demanding.

“Of course I know the music because I play it over and over at home,” he said, his head flopping side to side. “But you, Renata, you must rehearse more. You have been sitting in the room here and you are not going to remember that intricacy of steps.”

Señora gave me a desperate look, and grabbed her hand and squeezed it. “My dear cousin, have no fears about me,” I whispered, as Tango pulled a chair up to the bed.

I admonished Tango to watch him closely, and to make sure he kept rinsing washrags in cool water, and bathing Antonie’s forehead. And then Señora and I headed downstairs to dinner

We dinely slowly and sumptuously on two thick, pan-fried steaks, mashed potatoes, cornbread and carrots. And we shared a pot of baked beans. The hotel waiter, a thin young fellow with a sallow face, and practically no hair, offered us seconds on potatoes and beans and cornbread and Señora and I, suddenly realizing how ravenous we were, decided to have whatever was offered.

Finally, the thin fellow cleared our plates, making a large stack of the white dishes on our table. He stood there with the unsteady pile in the crook of his arm and described the house dessert, a bitter sweet chocolate bread pudding.

“Could I interest you ladies in a bowl?” he asked, focusing a languid gaze first at Señora, and then me. I shook my head no, but Señora enthusiastically raised her hand to accept the waiter’s offer.

“Yes, then, one order coming up,” the waiter said. He promised to be right out with the pudding, and said he would bring Señora and me some coffee “on the house,” a special brew flavored with vanilla.

As we waited, the bar grew steadily more crowded and noisy, and darker and denser with the grey smoke of the cigars and cigarettes. So dim was the air that at one point when I looked up I could barely make out Señora’s brown features across the table from me. The smoke puffed and swirled around the sconces on the wall, and curled in lazy spirals toward the ornate tin ceiling overhead. All around me was the unpleasant din that accompanies rowdy men, drinking.

A more sordid place than this hotel I have never been. If it weren’t for the fact that Antonie may find a treatment here that could save his life, then I would push Señora to leave tomorrow morning. For how long are we committed to this place, that is not clear. I am yearning to be back among those golden hills, and I’m sure Antonie would prefer to be there too. Oh how I miss that sweet air at night. How I miss staring into the ink of the night sky, seeing every star in the heavens. Here in the hotel, what we hear is that frightfully loud player piano running incessantly, hour after hour, night after night.

The waiter brought the coffee and dessert, and almost simultaneously, Señora leaned over to me and whispered something that I couldn’t hear. She was gesturing too, but I had trouble understanding her over the noise. For a moment, I thought she was pointing to the garish red wallpaper behind my head, or to the delicate glass lamp on the table above me, its pink flowered shade decorated in long strands of shimmering silver floss-like fringe, not all that dissimilar from my shawl.

But no, as I turned, and followed her gaze, she was pointing well beyond the table, and the lamp, to a far corner of the room. There I could barely make out a tall, elegantly dressed man holding a guitar. He had one leg lifted to a stool in front of the player piano, and for once, thankfully, that monstrous instrument wasn’t bombarding us with its frenzied tunes.
Señora was smiling, and pointing to the guitar, and I knew from that dreamy far away look in her eye that she was anxious to hear the music. I was thinking about Antonie all by himself, upstairs in his room. I was just about to volunteer to return to my cousin when the handsome gentleman unleashed a furious rasqueado from the guitar.

Señora took my hand and squeezed it and the two of us sat watching the man make the guitar sing. His long fingers clamored nimbly across the strings, working so fast that it was impossible to keep track of what he played. I lost myself in the music; I closed my eyes and let it invade every corner of my mind, and the deepest layers of my chest. Oh how I missed my guitar, how I wished desperately just to hold it now. The thought of its curved wooden body, its gentle pressure in my lap and against my chest, resting there, set a chill going up my arms.

The guitarist, who had one pointy black boot raised to the player piano stool, must have picked up something then, because at the very same moment that I opened my eyes, he nodded and winked at me. I blushed, and dropping my eyes, I turned to Señora, who was as enraptured by the music as I was. Closing my eyes, I had the instrument in my lap. I had the reassuring feeling of those six taut strings between my fingers. How delightful it would be to hold my own guitar now, to clasp its sleek rosewood within my palms.

How comforting to bring the music with me into Antonie’s sick room. Playing always absorbs my dark moods, always turns a bad day good. And now, music would help so very much to put my restless mind at ease.

At that moment the guitarist – silver-haired, and of slight build, but meticulously groomed in grey velvet pants and a dark purple vest with a red satin cravat—told us his name, that being Victor, and then he began singing.

His voice was so unexpectedly huge and full and low and altogether so beautiful that it made me catch my breath. Señora grabbed my arm. “Magnífico,” she whispered, and I nodded, and I thanked God for this wonderful encounter. The first song was a slow melody that squeezed at my heart, and it was followed by a lively rhythm in which Paolo kept teasing us all by stopping, and waiting for a few moments before he resumed his strum.

I sipped my coffee and drank up the flamboyant sound of the melody that he had chosen: a rumba, one I vaguely recalled. Out of the well of my memory, I remembered my uncle, or maybe one of his friends, opening a juerga, our flamenco party, with a similar passionate tune. I could see myself circling the fire, holding hands and dancing with the others.

As I sat there clapping, Antonie’s face came to mind. Two days ago, as I sat mopping his brow, his delirium took over again, and he began speaking his crazy thoughts about me dancing. “All that spinning you do, Renata, doesn’t it make you dizzy?” he whispered, and instantly I tried to silence him.

“Sh, sh,” I said. “Antonie you have wild ideas in your head. Dr. Astorga says it all because of the illness, but still, you must stop. It would be completely sinful for me to dance now. And when you are in your right mind, you know that full well that I haven’t danced since I took my first step into the convent now almost ten years ago.”

The rumba ended and we clapped and some of the bar patrons whistled and stamped their feet. They pounded impossibly loud, so hard that it sounded like their shoes would come through the wooden floor. Bowing, the guitarist announced his name: “Yo soy Victor Cavella,” he said. He told us that he had once played and sung with a flamenco troupe not far from Cádiz in Andalucía, and the song he was about to perform was his own tribute to his hometown so many miles away.

Without another word, he began a rhapsody that alternately thundered lapsed into sweet refrain. The music caught me up so completely that I found myself singing along. When I hear laughter ring out, I had no idea that I was the object of the humor, until Señor Cavella strolled toward our table and smiled and tipped his head toward me. I blushed and felt ashamed and instantly regretted my behavior. But at the end of the performance, Señor Cavella gave me a rose, and the crowd clapped, and I glanced at Señora and her face - for the first time in weeks – looked light and giddy and carefree.

Who could blame us for remaining downstairs in the bar far longer than we had planned? Señora and I had been tending to my cousin night and day for weeks. When we weren’t mopping his brow, or feeding him broth or tea, we were cleaning his putrid wastes, and praying as much as two people possibly could. Here, now, inside the bar, the guitarist was infusing our sore hearts with a much-needed dose of festive rhythm and lovely songs.

It wasn’t long before we noticed Tango’s dark curls, and his curious eyes at the bottom of the staircase. I stood, immediately concerned, but he reassured us. “Antonie is asleep and he will stay that way,” Tango said, and so, there was no reason to return so soon to the sick room.

As the smoke thickened in the bar, so too did our enthusiasm for the music. Tango extended a hand to Senora and swept her onto the dance floor. She resisted at first, shaking her head and shyly trying to push him away. But he persisted, and with a little coaxing from me and little more from Tango, Señora was soon moving her feet to the beat of the allegria. The guitarist had chosen a lighthearted gypsy dance, and Tango moved with the romantic music, guiding a laughing Señora in a small circle around the floor.

As I watched her giggling, she reminded me suddenly of my dear Sister Theresa, if only in the way they both have ample faces and chins that jiggle when they are happy.

Patrons gathered around and clapped Tango and Señora on. The heels of countless heavy boots came pounding down against the wooden floor. Listening to that familiar sound of heels on wood, I could imagine the zapateado, the dancer’s footwork, in my youth. I drank the music in, and as I did, I sank deeper and deeper into the memories of my childhood, a past so completely cut off from the present that it might have happened two centuries, rather than two decades ago.

When I closed my eyes, there I was, a girl again, hugging my knees in the dark, my hair billowing, me staring fearlessly into the moonless night. To think, there was a time in my life when nothing frightened me. Sitting by those campfires, I did indeed feel safe. I was huddled securely within the circle of singers and twirling dancers, protected by the guitar music flooding my back.

I felt a protection from the world, that I haven’t felt since. If only those enchanting nights by the campfire, dancing, singing, clapping, could have continued forever. If only my family and I had never ventured forth to America, where I would lose not only my parents, but the entire world, the whole way of life I had grown up in.

My thoughts were interrupted by Señora, breathless, jolly, collapsing back into her chair. She was flushed, nervous with excitement. Tango kissed the back of her hand and the patrons cheered and Señora’s face disappeared into her lap. Right then, the guitarist switched moods. He launched into a traditional melancholy tune, and his swooning voice filled our ears. This piece was good and slow, a soulful number that allowed me to drift back into my reverie again.

My eyes closed once more, and I pictured my mother, Razia, her gorgeous hair the same jet black as my own. I saw her clapping and raising her arms overhead, snapping her fingers or playing the castanets. I pictured her lifting the lavish ruffles of her skirt, swirling in the tongues of light thrown off by the campfire. With my father watching, and playing guitar, and smiling and laughing at her from afar, I saw my mother’s dazzling eyes, her teasing smile, her black dress rising higher and higher up her thighs.

Her skin glistened, and her face was blistered by a brooding look that centered most intensely in her eyes.

Sometimes my father would lay aside his guitar and pay my mother the highest compliment he could by joining with her in dancing. The two of them were a ravishingly beautiful couple. My father dropped his arms, and my mother raised hers, and they circled each other in tight unison, their feet hammering the floor. Their heads faced opposite directions, and yet, mysteriously, their smiles, their gazes, were attached, riveted to one another.

Now and then their fingertips brushed, and in that touch, they passed back and forth to each other the soul of the music, even as they shared the rhthym one to another.

In my mind, in my mother’s hair, there is a beautiful peiñeta, the oyster shell comb that her mother, (my grandmother, Anabelle, who was Antonie’s grandmother too) had given her as a child. In my mother’s hand, she is carrying her handsome Andalucían fan. I can see the pretty orange and yellow flowers that seem to be growing out of the lacy black of the fluttering fan. I can see too the delicate black lace shawl around her shoulders, too, and the fringe on its edge pulsating in time to the wild rhythm that infuses her hands and feet.

The same rhythm comes out of my father’s dense patter of footwork. It seems to crawl up through his hips, tipping his shoulders back, pulling his torso straighter, taller, and then, swinging into my mother's hips, staying there, swaying there, and ending finally in the dancing curve of her lips.

“Eso es duende,” Señora whispered to me then, cutting my memories of my parents in two once again. I cringed. Duende was the world to me, the word for the mysterious spirit that forged my parents’ people, infused their way of life. Duende is the impulse that defined their lives, their music, their food and wine, their very passion for living. When my parents died so suddenly, I lost their world in an instant; their music, their dancing, all the singing disappeared and I faced a life devoid, completely purged of animating force.

Sitting there in the bar, my eyes closed, I was dancing with my mother, or my father, or both, my father who lifted and twirled me as high as her shoulders, my father who exalted me even higher. And faster, too. Finally, I was dancing with Antonie.

Although completely clumsy (I used to tell him that he had not two but three left feet), and impossible to teach, he was nonetheless an enthusiastic partner in all my childhood dances. He was my one and only student, always devoted, always game to try another step. He would trip and stumble and once or twice he even fell. But just the same, he permitted me a luxury, to be endlessly rehearsing for a performance that never came.

Ah, how Antonie encouraged my lingering in my fantasy. For more times than I care to count, he replaced my mother or father when they had disappeared. When I danced with him, I was really holding onto one or the other of them, or both.

Occasionally as we danced, I would whisper to him, “Oh Antonie, I miss my mother and father so desperately.” My poor cousin would nod and absorb my sad expression, but he would not reply. At other times I would say to him, “Oh my cousin how I miss my ‘real’ family, and he would get an odd hurt look shadowing his eyes, and say, “You know, Renata, if you would just let me, I could be the best family you ever had.” I realize now how much I must have hurt him when I simply turned away, saying only, “No, Antonie, that can never be.” Certainly, I hurt him terribly.

In the bar there, I saw, suddenly, the key to my troubled past with Antonie. Clearly, during childhood, I had used him. Time and again, I had willed him to be something that in the end, I refused to let him be. Yes, I had needed a family, and willed him to be just that, but then, as soon he made the offer, I withdrew permission. Through him, and the music we shared, I connected to a time when I had been completely innocent, enjoying happiness with my dear family all around me.

At that moment, an odd sound roped me back to the bar. Señora was grabbing my arm and screaming for me to open my eyes. I did and what confronted me at first I didn’t quite believe.

There, ever so slowly descending the staircase into the bar, was a skeleton, better known to me as Antonie. He was scowling, and collapsing forward, and hanging on for dear life onto the railing. He was also howling something I could not hear. His steps wavered, keeping an awkward time with the slow and languorous tune progressing from the guitar. Wrapped partially in his disheveled satin bathrobe, and walking barefoot, Antonie’s face was pale green and haggard to the core. His body could not possibly have looked more frail, or limp. He was in every way, sagging, a cloth bag with all the contents removed.

Señora and I bolted from our chairs, and quickly met Antonie half-way up the staircase. Antonie leaned into Señora’s arm. My attempt to touch him met with a stiff rebuke.

“Don’t come near me, you…you whore,” he screamed. “I heard you, I heard it all. You’ve been dancing again, dancing, while I’m up there barely alive.” My mouth dropped open, but no sound poured forth at all.

Pushing me away, he crossed the bar on Senora’s arm. She looked back at me, shaking her head, a crushing pity in her eyes.

“Antonie, please, let me help you,” I cried. But as I went to his side again, he pushed me away with even more force than before.

“How dare you leave me up there to rot!” he yelled, his words slow and slurred, his lips blurred purple. His eyes were ringed crimson. “I’m dying and you…you are not the least bit concerned. You sneak downstairs to dance on the bar. I must be crazy to love you as I do.” He stumbled and the next thing I knew he was lying in a crumpled heap beside the bar. Señora and I bent to help him, and Tango joined us. Antonie’s head was bloodied, and he had smashed his nose and broken several teeth.

“Tango, please, please get Dr. Astorga,” I cried, cupping Antonie’s bashed head in my lap. Someone handed me a bar towel and I mopped his brow. He was hot and his breath was so rotten and sour I had to turn away. His eyes by now were rolling backward into his sockets.

Señora, crying, fell to her knees beside me. She prayed aloud and I prayed too, in silence. I said over and over again, “Please, Mary, please God, please help us. Please we are desperate here, please help my cousin!"

Castenata is the inner "layer" of a story called Sister Mysteries, part of the Albany Times Union's Writing In Motion project, which features seven writers who are committed to completing their books by the end of the year. Castenata -- a book that author Claudia Ricci began composing back in 1995 -- is a time-travel murder mystery featuring a nun, Sister Renata. In 1883 the nun was falsely accused of murdering her cousin Antonie. It is this story, and others that Antonie wrote that "framed" the poor nun for murder! Renata's version of the story is contained within her diaries, the first of which can be found on the Castenata site.

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