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.

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