Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Chapter 49, Sister Mysteries: Is All This (Letter) Writing a Waste of Time?

Note to readers: "Sister Mysteries" is a serialized on-line murder mystery that takes place in 1884 in California. A Dominican nun, Sister Renata, faces hanging for the murder of her cousin, Antonie. She is innocent of the crime, and part of the reason I'm writing the book -- as I explained in Chapter One -- is to clear her name and free her from prison. When I began the novel, way back in 1995, I didn't know one very important fact, which I later discovered: that the REAL governor of California in 1884 was General George Stoneman, who is remembered for pardoning hundreds of prisoners during his one term in office. In this chapter, a friend of Renata's named Kitty Pole has just completed a letter-writing campaign, assembling letters pleading for Renata's release. Now the question is, will Governor Stoneman issue a pardon to the nun? The truth of the matter is, I'm writing this book, and even I don't know the answer to that question, at least not yet!

By Claudia Ricci

We sit side by side on the sofa, Kitty and me, and she has the bundle of letters piled neatly in her lap. Kitty's face is a study in happiness and her eyes shine with excitement.

Tomorrow morning she is scheduled to package up the letters and deliver them to my lawyer's office. DeLuria will carry the letters directly to Governor Stoneman's office in Sacramento and in a few short days we will know whether he will pardon me.

Kitty is patiently waiting for me to answer her question.

She has just asked if she can read a few of the letters to me before she places them in a box and ties the box with twine. Teresa is sitting across from us in the rocking chair. The two of them are just sitting there, trying not to stare.

Meanwhile, I am gazing into the cup of chamomile tea that Kitty has fixed me.

I inhale.

"So," I say. "I do know how much this means to you. I know how excited you both are, but..." I take a sip of tea and then shake my head slowly. "No, I would prefer not to know what they say."

Kitty shoots a quick glance at Teresa and back at me. She sets one hand very gently on top of the letters. Her hand stays there. After a moment, she leans forward a bit on the sofa and speaks very quietly. "I completely understand that you're very nervous about all of this," she says. "There is so much at stake. But if you knew how much passion is contained here, Renata, if you knew how much concern, even love, if you would just let me share a bit of it wi..."

"Please Kitty, no!" I set my teacup down in the saucer with a rattle. I am frightened suddenly that she is pressuring me. I feel blood rushing into my face. I shudder just glancing at the stack of pages sitting there on Kitty's knees.

It is indeed a rather sizable batch of letters she has assembled. After an extraordinary effort on Kitty's part, she managed to convince 145 people to put pen to page on my behalf! It is a particularly impressive outpouring of support, especially as the local newspaper had tried so hard to deride my case with their damnable article.

And now here I am, not wanting to read a single one of them. Indeed, I want to forget that they even exist. I want to forget that it is these thin pieces of paper -- some covered with impeccable handwriting -- that might help to decide whether I live or die.

"I know that I should be pleased about the letter campaign. I should be feeling encouraged, and hopeful." I nod and turn to face Kitty. "I am terribly grateful to you Kitty, I really am, but...I cannot bear it." The last few words are hard to hear.

I clasp my hands together and hold them tight.

Kitty stares into her lap.

The last few weeks have been such a blizzard of activity for her and for Teresa. The two of them have been tireless, knocking on doors day and night, gathering letters, convincing patrons of the cafe to sit down and write to the Governor demanding my freedom. In some cases, they fixed free meals for letter writers. In some cases, they had Señora baking bread or pie or cookies, which were passed them out freely to those who picked up pens to write.

After all of that exhausting effort, it is hard now for them to hear me say I don't want to know what the letters say.

"I do understand that all this makes you nervous, Renata," Kitty says. "But I don't think you can possibly understand how many people have stepped forward." She pats the bundle of letters. "You cannot imagine how many fine, fine letters have been written on your behalf."

I sniffle. "I am sure you're right Kitty. And perhaps if...if we are successful, then, perhaps afterward, after it's all over, but now, now I feel that I cannot possibly listen." I am starting to feel lightheaded, and a sense of dread. Lately that feeling of dread has started to come over me more and more, often in clouds that billow around me like a grey fog.

Teresa bends forward. Her voice is reassuring. "I wonder Renata." She pauses. Bites into her lip. "I've got to ask you this one thing my dear. Is this decision not to hear the letters, it is perhaps...because you feel superstitious? Are you thinking that if you read the letters out loud, then perhaps it might jinx your chances of succeeding with the Governor?"

I study Teresa's sky blue eyes. What she is saying had not occurred to me. But maybe I amfeeling superstitious. I shrug. Clasp my hands together more tightly. I remain silent. Teresa clears her throat and continues.

"I have been told that the Governor is deeply compassionate toward prisoners, Renata, as the General himself was a Union soldier taken prisoner during the war. It is said that every time he signs a death warrant he is sick for a day or two!" (page 167 of Stoneman's biography.)

I glanced at Teresa and her blue eyes felt like they were boring into me.

"Perhaps I am superstitious," I say, shaking my head. "But most of all, I am just so so exhausted everything. Much too tired to listen. This whole business, the trial, the letter writing,the newspaper story, while I certainly do appreciate everything you've done, Kitty, I...I'm sorry, but I am just too tired."

I sit there staring into the letters. I have other thoughts I could share: In the end I am afraid that all of this letter writing is a waste of time and paper and ink. I think it's hopeless to send letters to Governor Stoneman. My case is closed. Over and done with. I am going to die and I might as well let them get on with it.

My heart is pounding. I am holding my sweaty hands together so tightly that the joints of my fingers ache.

I don't dare say any of it. I look up. My hand trembles as I reach for the teacup again and take a small sip. I haven't had any appetite, and no matter what Señora makes for me, I don't eat. That might be one reason I feel so weak. So light-headed. So full of dread and despair.

I hear the wind whistle outside Kitty's house. There at the door is old Bean the jailer, probably slumped against the wall, asleep on his watch.

The three of us sit there a little longer and finally, I announce to them how tired I am. I ask if they mind if I go to bed. Neither of them say a word.

Kitty gets up from the sofa and sets the letters neatly on the table. And then she and Teresa wrap themselves in their wool shawls and leave the house.

I am left all alone, lying here on the sofa.

I watch a single candle burning. The white wax melts and dribbles in bits and globs as it slides down the side of the candle toward the table.

The stack of letters sits on the opposite side of the table. As I sink into dreams, it occurs to me how easy it would be for all of those letters to go up in flames.

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