Monday, July 26, 2010

Chapter Seven: How Antonie Stole Me From the Convent Kitchen

Renata’s Diary

July 21, 1883 Oh dear God help me for all that I am living through! This is how it happened that Antonie came here to the convent and kidnapped me and took me and Señora to San Francisco. And no, we are not home yet!

Mother Yolla had chosen me for a whole week of lunch duty, because she said cooking “suited” me, so there I stood on Friday morning in the kitchen, patiently chopping a large onion, dropping the pure white slices into the hot sputtering oil. I hummed to myself, and my thoughts turned to the falseta I had been strumming the night before on the guitar, and I had a flash out of nowhere of the altar, and the large silver cross that keeps watch over the chapel. And then once again I was back in the kitchen, mindlessly pushing the wooden spoon through the sizzling onions, mixing them together with the tiny slivers of garlic that had already turned golden and crisp at the bottom of the cast iron pan.

A cloud of onion fumes rose into my eyes (I write this here and can still feel the sting of the tears). I set three red peppers on the wooden cutting board, and prepared to slice them along their length, Teresa appeared, carrying a pile of plump green chiles in her garden basket. She added a couple green chiles to my pepper pile, turned and disappeared into the garden again.

A second cloud of onion rose up, and this one got my tears flooding, and at first I tried mopping them on the sleeve of my habit, but finally, as the tears wouldn’t stop, I pulled my long white apron up to cover my face. Holding the cotton apron in two hands, I began laughing, thinking, here I am crying over one large onion in a frying pan. But when I dropped the apron, my laughter vanished, because there filling the small window in the pantry behind the kitchen was Antonie’s wilted face. As he was pressed up close against the wavy glass, his features were distorted. He looked more ghastly than I had ever seen him look before.

Where had this sad specter of a man come from? Certainly he wasn’t supposed to be here, he was never ever supposed to appear at the convent, that much he knew as well as I did. Antonie himself had told me repeatedly that Father Ruby had clearly forbidden him entry. When I asked why, Antonie replied that at some time, he would explain “every last detail” of the arrangement that he had with Father Ruby regarding me; but indeed, I had been told this much: he was forbidden at the convent, which explained why I always went to visit him.

But here now was his face flushed and streaked and red, pasted against the crosspole of the window. He looked all the more odd, divided as he was into four window panes. At first it looked to me as though he had been running, because his skin was shiny with sweat, and his long black hair was slicked to his head and his black hat dangled on his back by the leather strings tied at his chin. He was open-mouthed and breathing hard, and in his eyes was a tired, sallow look. He met me at the door.

“Why have you come?” My voice quivered. I had opened the door no more than a crack, and I was whispering and trembling. I was a mixture of amazement and anger and fear and something else too, something I couldn’t identify clearly, but it too was crawling all over me. Antonie took one step forward, and wobbled there, barely able to place the square toe of his boot against the door, and his face swerved forward to the opening, and I could see the remote look in his eyes.

Suddenly he lifted his hand and he bit hard, desperately, into his own knuckles. His eyes shone large and empty and glossy. He raised one hand up, and he braced his open palm against the doorframe, and he gasped for breath. Looming there, his arm arched over me, he scared me. He trembled, and those eyes of his bored into me.

“I want to ask…I must ask that you accompany me,” he wheezed, and I was already shaking my head before he finished, in complete and utter amazement and disbelief, that he was here, that he was asking something that I clearly could never do. All the time I stared at him I was aware of those liquid black eyes on me, eyes that looked like they had been ladled out of death. His moist red face was inches from my own, and the smell of his breath was rotten.

“You…must be crazy, that’s impossible,” I said, and thought then in a great rush that he would indeed prove to be the death of me, or certainly the dishonor. “You know that I cannot think of such a thing, and that you could even imagine it, or propose it.”

“Listen,” he demanded, and despite his exhaustion, he maintained his imperious stare. His eyes opened wider still. “I will explain. I have Senora with me. I have also hired a coach and a driver, for your…for all of our comfort. I need you to come with me to see the specialist in San Francisco. We leave immediately.”

He had spoken before of this doctor. We had discussed his worsening condition, the syphilis, how he would need to see someone with skills beyond those of the local physician.

“But I am in no position to go, not now, not ever, you must know that,” I said, letting the door swing open a little wider, and with that, he stumbled forward and he grabbed onto me. And the two of us back stepped inside. The frying pan sent up its woeful steam of onions, now turning black. The noonhour was quickly approaching and the nuns would be clamoring for lunch, or as Mother Yolla called it, “our midday repast.” Meanwhile, here was Antonie straddling over me, barely able to stand up.

His heavy boots clattered on the kitchen floor. And he filled the room with his height, and with his foul smell. I caught another glance of those pained, brooding eyes. He was, to my way of seeing, a swarm of dark clouds hovering, threatening a downpour – or more—over my calm morning sky.

“Please, Antonie, please, you must leave, you must go, now, you know that, please, before anyone discovers you, because if you are here, I don’t who knows what could happen to me, I’m not sure what Mother Yolla will do, but the two of them, please…” I managed to push him away.

He swayed, and took hold of the wall. I raised my apron in both hands and twisted it. I thought of trying to hammer him with my fists, because I was so angry, but I was much more afraid to touch him, as he listed so weakly.

His mouth opened twice before he got the next words out. “My dear Renata, pl…ease pl…ease cousin.” He whispered and leaned forward as he did, so that I could smell that fetid warm breath. Then he bent his head slightly to one side. “”Father Ruby…likes me,” he said, a queer smile spreading across his lips. A glaze of sweat lay there too. “

And he is most urgently concerned about my…health. The good father… needs me, my…” Here he started coughing. His head came forward and when he raised his face again, I was horrified to see a paste of blood on his chin. He leaned forward again and forced his words out, between gasps.

“You see, he…Father… Ruby is most concerned that I continue my…my donations.” Here Antonie paused and then lifted the back of his hand to the side of my face. I shuddered. And then he uttered four words that I wish I had never heard.

“He insists…you go.”

With this, Antonie swiveled and sank to the floor. Here was the man who once commanded whatever he willed, who thrilled in his own power, who delighted in satisfying his every desire, who dictated even to the likes of our own priest and master .
I cried out to see him so pathetic.

At that moment, Senora’s face appeared at the pantry window, and seeing Antonie, she rushed in. Her face. Lined. And worn.
And behind her. Father Ruby. Giving me a look that I will never forget: something I can only call primitive, he motioned to the two of us to help him lift Antonie up. And as the onions turned to blackened wisps on the stove, and then to char, the three of us dragged Antonie to the grey wagon. And lifted him to a pile of blankets on the back.

As we set off, I turned to see Father Ruby pivot and retreat into the rectory. Rage flooded me and so too, did utter hatred, and then I reigned in both emotions: this was no way to feel toward the priest. God was almost certain to punish me for my despicable thoughts. But in my heart, I could see. He was simply a despicable old man.

My eyes filled and I closed my hands around my face. Senora murmured something to try to comfort me. But I would not be comforted. For there I was, still in my apron, and with the odor of the kitchen onions still clinging to my hair. I had not a stitch of extra clothing with me, not even a cape or my shawl, and I was off for who knew how long to God knew where.

But no sooner did I feel a chill than Senora patted my hand and I saw that she carried for me the blue silk shawl, all covered in flowers, and dripping in long fringe. “Un rebozo,” she murmured wrapping my shoulders and that just made me cry harder.

She began to hum something. Ah. But it was the same lament that Antonie liked to strum on his guitar. That music just played more cruelly on my mind and I cried harder.

“No más,” I said. And so she stopped. But the tune kept up for hours in my head as we drove over the bumpy roads. The music coiled and coiled there, reminding me of my poor mother, and her untimely death, and the childhood that I never had.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Chapter Six: How Badly Do I Want to Write This Book?

By Gina Morrison

Call me Renata. Call me Gina. Call me,

"XANDRA CALL ME, please?"

I was driving to work and I shouldn't have been on the cell phone but I was because I had to talk to Xandra.

My hand trembled as I thumbed in Xandra's number. I got voicemail.

"Xand I have to talk to you I am so losing it. David told me the other night that I have to stop writing my book. I tried to explain that I have to get this stuff out of me, that it's the only way I know to deal with the PTSD, but he doesn't get it. I want to come out to see you, we've been fighting all week and last night was horrendous. He walked out last night and I cannot stay here a day longer."

I flashed on the way he stood there by the sofa pointing a finger at me last night. We stood on either end of the couch, where he'd been sleeping for a few days. "Do you want to see this marriage work? Do you? Sometimes I don't think you do."

I nodded my head slowly. I do I do, don't I? DON'T I? Oh God, what do I want?

"I do," I said in a soft voice.

"So then STOP WRITING about the affair," he shot back. There was a bright fire in his eyes. "What's the point Geen? You write about it, you are just keeping it alive. Just stop. STOP WRITING."

My head started swinging back and forth very slowly. No. No. "I'm sorry," I said. "I really want the marriage to work, David. I do. I really love you. But I am in awful pain right now, I am living in a kind of prison inside me, trapped in pain and insecurity. I have to work through it. I have to free myself. And to do that I have to write. I have to. And I have this other story, too, this story about this nun, who actually is in prison, and she keeps calling to me, to tell her story, to tell the truth about what put her in prison. It's all so unfair. But she's inside me, she is begging me to be there, to be her voice, and so, it's got to be told, I have to free her and me, I've..."

"Oh for chrissake," David said. He was holding a pillow in his hands and he threw it down on the couch. "For chrissake Gina why do you always have to be so goddamn melodramatic and complicate things way more than they already are. Huh? Why do you have to go trumpeting our lives this way for all the world to see? Write your stup.... write your... write your story. Write whatever story about the nun you want to write, but don't mix it all up with us, with the stuff we've been through, because if you do..."

I picked up the pillow and stepped onto the bed and I stood there and I smacked it against the white wall. I hit the wall hard.

I screeched. "You're the one who had the fucking affair," I screeched louder, so loud that the back of my throat felt like someone was mowing the lawn across it. "Or DID YOU FORGET? HUH?"

I looked down at him and he looked up at me and suddenly, my blood boiled over and I just whipped the pillow down across his face. I wish now I could erase that, take it back, but I can't. I hit him in the face and the worst thing, he just took it. He crossed his arms over his head.

"If I do write it then what? WHAT? Huh? WHAT THEN?" I started to shake. But I had stopped screaming. "If I stop writing now, it seems to me that once again, you will be in charge of hurting me. And you know what? That's bullshit!"

I stepped off the couch and let the pillow drop quietly to the floor.

"And while we're at it, what was it you were going to say just now about my writing? You were about to say, 'Write your stupid what?" huh?"

At that point he did something I wasn't expecting. He sat down on the couch and bent over. He rested his face in both hands. I stood there, staring at him, regretting now that I'd hit him, because now he was actually crying.

"I want this all to be over," he whispered between sobs. He looked up at me. "All this pain. All this anger. Can't you see? I am trying so desperately to put it behind me. Behind us. And now you are writing this....this novel. That's the problem Gina. It's not that I care what other people think. It's that I know this writing just keeps it alive."

I stared. I didn't want to think about what he was saying. I couldn't allow myself to think that there might be a shred of truth to what he was saying. If there were, then what would I do? How could I ever stop writing?

"I've always supported your writing Gina. You know I have. I've been a huge fan. But you have to let this go. Can you? Can you let it go?"

That's when the shaking started in. Both hands. Both arms. My shoulders. And a pool of hot tears began to bubble up. And the choking feeling, my throat tightening, threatening to close down. "I...I want to let it go David. But the only way I know how to do that is to write it out. And if I have to write it out, then I will. I just have to. And you have to let me. And I don't see why I can't write it AND have the marriage work."

He sniffled. He got up from the couch and went into the bathroom down the hall. I could hear him blow his nose. He came back to the living room. He faced me. "That's where we part ways," he said, his face wet with tears. "You decide. You want to write your book, well, then, feel free. Go right ahead."

He went to the bedroom and came back with a suitcase, into which he'd thrown a few clothes. And then he walked out.

I was sobbing into the cell phone now.

"XANDRA CALL ME, please?" I was having trouble breathing. I was having trouble driving. "I don't know what to do," I said, my eyes so blurred that I could hardly see the interstate ahead of me. I pulled into the next rest stop. I didn't have to be at the University to see students in office hours until 11.

So I sat there. And I took out a notebook and I just wrote.

Renata's Diary

April 3, 1883

In the afternoon, after I returned to the convent from Antonie’s, Teresa and I came out to the courtyard to snap beans for dinner. We finished, but never went back inside. For a long while, we stared in silence up to the golden hillside and felt the warm wind coming down off the slope and filling us with the peaceful smell of sage and dry crisp grasses. The sprawling oak at the hilltop called to us.

Teresa disappeared briefly inside the convent and when she emerged, she held something hidden in the folds of her habit. “Come,” she commanded. She grabbed my hand and pulled me to my feet and pointed to this diary.

We found the blanket in its hiding place inside the henhouse and as the afternoon sun starting dropping, we lifted our habits to our knees and headed up the steep slope. All the way up, the blonde grasses -- thick and sharp as razors -- caught at my black stockings, and pricked at the skin of my calves and ankles. We panted and sweat poured and I murmured over and over, “I can’t do this Teresa,” and she laughed at me and never turned around, but said, simply, “just be quiet and keep up.”

Finally we reached the hilltop and spread our blanket beneath the beloved live oak, where all manner of speech becomes possible.

The breeze grew warmer and kept up blowing. The climb had turned our faces deep pink. I was so warm and slippery in sweat that I felt desperate to remove my veil. I didn’t. We sat in the shade, and I fingered a single dusty oak leaf, its edge prickered.

Teresa surprised me with a canteen of freshly squeezed lemonade that she’d hidden in the folds of her habit.

We took turns drinking the luscious sweet liquid. As I drained the last cool drop, she told me to read.

I dropped back onto the blanket. “I’m not feeling the need,” I said. “Not today, when, honestly, this wind wipes away all of Antonie’s madness and my energy with it.”
Her plump face grew perfectly still and her eyes bore holes into me. “My dear Renata,” she said finally, “you’ve got me worried.”

I sat up and faced her. “But, Teresa, you really have no reason to worry,” I replied. “I’m saying only that on this glorious day, I can handle all of it, just that.”

She crossed her arms over her rounded bosom. “So, then, if that be true, and you have everything under control, and nothing to hide, well then let God – and me-- be witness. Read, please. I want to hear from those light blue pages tucked there.” She pointed to the place where I had so carefully folded and tucked the sky-colored stationary.

I inhaled. There was no denying Theresa. I kneeled and sat back on my knees. I read “Roseblade.” It did, in parts, bring a deeper blush of pink to my cheeks.

When I finished, I did not speak. And I tried to avoid her eyes.

“Oh Renata.” She took my hand. She inhaled a gale of air and sat there squeezing my hand so hard it felt as though she might crush the bones. “He...he is...your cousin Oh I fear he is going to destroy you with these lies for sure.”

I dropped my gaze. My heart throbbed, and my eyes sank right through the blanket into the golden grass and deeper, much deeper. I felt as low as I have felt in ever so long a time. Looking up, I lifted my chin. In defiance? I bit into my lip and said nothing.

“Yes,” I whispered. “I fear he will. But what am I to do?”

She gazed down the golden hillside, still holding onto my hand. The sun was resting on the horizon, a bright gold and orange button. Slowly Teresa shook her head.
“I don’t know that there is anything you can do, with Father Ruby aligned with Antonie as he is. I can’t see any way out. But one thing you must absolutely do.”

The deep blue sky color sailed back into her eyes. “When you go to your cousin’s side, record absolutely everything that happens. Write it all down there. Leave out nothing, not a single detail.”

I opened my mouth to speak. I wanted to say more. But then, just as quickly, I decided to say…nothing.

The two of us remained a few minutes more, until the sun sank into the lavender row of mountains rising above the Pacific. The wind coming off the sea now cooled us. Theresa pulled the blanket up to wrap around our shoulders, and the two of us sat cocooned there together, and I felt happy and peaceful, despite everything.

“Mother Yolla will be screaming soon,” Theresa said finally.

“Oh yes,” I said. “She will indeed.”

I leaned my head briefly against Theresa’s soft shoulder. The sky overhead was turning steely, so we rose and folded the blanket and quickly retreated down the hill.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010


By Gina Morrison

I am back at Dottie’s cafe on the sofa that I consider my own. I should start paying Dottie rent.

I am frying pan mad. I am trying to get my head around what Dave said to me a few minutes ago and I just cannot. I am trying to figure out what to do.

He gave me an ultimatum. We had just finished a rather pleasant dinner. He had roasted a chicken, and he even made my favorite mashed potatoes and Grandma Mish’s carrots, coated in flour and fried.

He lit candles and there we sat, chatting away about nothing in particular. It was rather delightful. But as soon as we’d finished, and he was putting water up for tea, he started in on me.

“So, Gina,” he began, “I want to talk to you about something important.”

I eyed him, suspiciously. What was he going to spring on me now? For a horrifying moment, I thought maybe he was going to tell me that he was seeing her again. There was my heart, jammering away in my chest. I did my best to quiet my nerves.

“What is it now?” I whispered, feeling that draining sensation go snaking down both my arms turning my limbs into warm puddles.

“I was wondering if I could ask you to consider something."


"I was going to ask you to stop writing that book of yours. You know, take a breather for a while.”

I looked at him, relieved, in one respect, and horrified, in another. It was if he had just asked me to climb up to the roof and jump off the peak into the driveway.

“But why?” I said, thinking to myself, I'm already having a hell of a time writing it, all I need is for him to interfere.

I picked up the dirty plates off the table and carried them to the sink.

He followed me in silence. He filled the kettle with water and took two mugs from the cabinet. He put a mint tea bag into each mug. Turning his back to the counter, he leaned up against the kitchen sink and crossed his arms. “I don't want to be a jerk about this,” he said, “and I really do understand that you’re into writing it, as a kind of healing thing, but I’ve been reading what you’ve been writing, up on the blog, and honey, I…” He stood up straighter. “It’s making me really uncomfortable.”

I didn’t answer. Not right away. I was tempted to say, “Well isn’t that a shame,” but I bit my tongue.

Finally I spoke. “Well so don’t read it then.”'

“Yeah, well, it’s me and my life you’re writing about, in part anyway.”

I shrugged. “Yeah, in part. But mostly it's about me, and the PTSD. Elizabeth says that writing this book is going to help me.” Of course, as I said those last words, part of me wondered, is that true? I would love to think that writing the book is helping, but part of me thinks, I'm feeling even more crazy writing than before I started.

My heart was really jamming up against my chest.

“Well, so if you’re writing about me," he said, "or about us, then it seems to me that I should have some say about what you are telling the world. It seems to me that I have a right to say that you can’t post something in a blog for all the world to read.”

“I'm afraid I don’t know that I agree with you about that.” I busied myself rinsing the plates.

“You I think I’ve got a right to my privacy, Gina, don't you?"

I inhaled. I wanted to say, "no, dammit, you gave up that right," but I couldn't really see that was true.

Honestly, I really couldn't think straight. But I hated the feeling that he was telling me what to do.

“Look, Dave, my shrink thinks it’s helping me to get it all out. To write it all down. There is research that shows that…

“Gina, you’ve explained the research to me at least three dozen times already. I’m all for you writing your story. Yes, by all means, get it all out. But why not write it all down on paper. In a journal? At some point down the line, maybe you can put it together in a different way, calling it fiction. Change some of the dicy details. But don’t go posting all our lives and dirty laundry on a damn blog for God’s sake. I don’t wanna see my business splashed all over the web four or five days a week. I happen to value my privacy even if you don’t.”

He had a point about his privacy. Perhaps. But I wasn’t about to admit it. I thought back to my last post. Sure, I'd had just a little twinge of doubt about what I was doing, even as I had posted it. But hey, I needed to write the story that mattered to me, didn't I?

"The point is, Dave, I feel like I have to this book. Period. And I'm hoping it helps me. One other thing, too: I feel like I’m on something of a cutting edge, artistically."

That last point was true. Ever since the Ipad came out, it has become more and more clear to me that printed books are going the way of rotary telephones and vinyl records. I want to write a book on-line, with illustrations.
“Look, Gina, I don't want to cramp your style. But I told you, I won't stand by while you air our dirty laundry in public. You've gotta try to be more sensitive to me honey."

My head started reeling. I started to feel the PTSD kick in. I started to see him in bed with her, I didn't want to, oh God, I didn't want to. I stood there and stared at him. And answered finally in a kind of robotic voice.

"Dave, I am desperate to cure the PTSD. And so that’s what I’m doing. I'm writing my story. And I'm writing about a nun too and I'm going to set her free with my story. And I'm going to..."

Suddenly the kitchen started to swirl around me. I heard myself talking but I couldn't actually say I believed what I was saying. I dropped into a chair and kept going.

"All I know is that I’ll be damned if I am going to be censored by the man who caused the problem to begin with. That man being you.” I paused, and the kitchen kept twirling. And then I went on. “I think I have a right to tell my story. Period.”

Dave took the chair across from me. He reached out to take my hand.

“Yeah, except it’s our story honey. Think about that, will you?”

I must say, he spoke the last few words in a very gentle and loving voice. But that just made me more nervous. He was asking me to give up a project I was really enjoying, and one I really think is starting to help me deal with the PTSD.

I stared at him. I felt numb. I felt like words were coming out of my mouth that I couldn't control. The whole kitchen was falling into my lap.

“Look, Dave, when you decided to have an affair you didn’t consult me first. So it seems to me that if the only way I can heal is to write this, then you might try to…”

His eyes flared. He stood up. “Gina this isn't fair. This blog stuff you're doing is just you being the wreckless artist. It's about you mixing truth and lies in a way that hardly disguises what is going on. Really what it is, it's about you doing whatever the hell you feel like doing on-line for everybody to see. I'll say it again because obviously you didn't get it the first time: you don’t have the right to expose us like this to the world. You know that too. We both agreed in therapy that we value peace and harmony in our day-to-day lives. So now I’ve got to ask you, how does writing this book and posting this shit on line help create peace and harmony? Huh, tell me that?”

The word shit me like a stone in the forehead. Maybe if he hadn’t used that word, maybe I wouldn’t have lost my temper. I stood up. I had all I could do not to throw the teacup I was holding into his face.

“You don’t get it. You never did, you still don’t. So this discussion is over. I’m going to write whatever I feel like writing, and I will tell the world whatever “shit” I please. So my advice to you, is, deal with it.”

I went to the sink and dropped the cup. It smashed. I left the kitchen via the back door, which I slammed as hard as I could.

So I am at Dottie’s frying pan mad. I have to decide what to do. I am half-tempted to take off. I think I’ll phone Xandra, maybe she can help me make sense of what I’m feeling. Maybe, just maybe, I will take this opportunity to head out to California to see her.

Chapter Four: I Sit Here Caged

By Gina Morrison

I am back here on the striped couch at Dottie's and I am trembling because of what happened with David last night, we had another fight I called Elizabeth my therapist and she says I have to write about it, I am trying to, right now, but when I do, start writing, I start crying, I see all the awful images again, I see him and her, him and her, I hear him saying what he said, what he said was "Yes, I fell in love with her," he actually said that to me, why would I want to write this? I am getting hysterical just sitting here, just trying to write shit I don't want to write I don't want to write

I would rather slit my throat than write about this, I would rather do anything in the world than write and see it all in my head, I would in fact rather

sit and rot write here right in this cell I tell you this bench is stone cold, rock hard, and I'm sitting, an animal caged, my ankle bleeding and crusted at the rusty chain. The skin is boiling red, and pain shoots closer and closer to my knee.

Only one thing saves me: my mind making lovely pictures. I see Teresa and me walking through the fields. Or the two of us hoisting our dark skirts and trudging up to the live oak tree on the golden hillside.

I see the sky, and hold the color close to me. What a glorious pink and blue the sunset can be.

Teresa’s letters are my only comfort. In the moments when I am most frightened, when I cannot even bring myself to whisper a prayer, I clutch my rosary and open her letters and reread what she has written.

Sometimes I say her words out loud, speaking them over and over again like a soothing chant. Tears pour out as I hear her cheerful voice echo. I can’t accept the idea I may never see her again.

Oh Teresa. You came to the convent a scrawny Irish orphan and so quickly you started to grow so plump. Ah but you were always the one I could count on to make me laugh. Each morning before prayers there you were, solemn, straight-faced, imitating pie-eyed Mother Yolla and her scowl. No one can imitate Yolla's waddle the way you do, how like a cow our Mother Superior walks. You have me laughing in tears. And then just as suddenly I am saying a prayer, “God, forgive me for laughing.”

I am laughing no more. I am certain now that I will die, as the lawyer says the most recent appeal has failed. I can’t see any hope. Mr. Deluria came briefly to the jail yesterday morning and said he isn’t sure what else he can do on my behalf.

After he left, I sat for who knows how many hours, staring through the barred window, looking out into the courtyard at the gallows. As the afternoon wore on, the sun got hotter and brighter. I grew more and more weak and dizzy. Fearing that I might faint, I finally tore off my wimple and veil. My hair stands like dry straw.

Occasionally a wagon came into view, the wheels sending up thick clouds of yellow dust. Finally, just after five, the guard brought dinner – a cold, grey mass of greasy potatoes he called stew – and I couldn’t begin to eat. As he retreated, I asked him where the hanging would be and at first, he glared at me and wouldn’t say.

“Ma’am, I ask you, what good would it possibly do to know?” He stood there jangling his circle of keys, and smoothed his hand over the impossible stubble on his chin. Then, when I said nothing, he silently pushed back his soiled hat. I saw his dark eyes, as flinty as the iron bars, and the wrinkles of the brown weathered skin of his forehead.

“Please,” I said. “Please just tell me where the hanging will be.” He eyed me carefully and replied, “If you must know, ma’am, it will be right outside there, in the far corner of the lot where the horses water.”

I ought not to have asked. For the rest of the evening and well into the ink of night, I clung tightly to the bars of the cell, so tightly that my hands and face smelled of rust. I kept wishing I had my guitar because if I had,

I would have played and sung and that would have calmed me. As it was, the sun sank lower and lower into the blue crust of the horizon and with it sank my spirits. Slowly the sun became a blazing orange egg yolk in the creamy azure of the evening sky. Still I kept riveted on that dreaded spot out there in the courtyard where my body will dangle from a rope until I am dead.

At some point during the night, I must have fallen asleep. I dreamed I was swinging from a rope that hung from a crucifix. I had been hanged, but somehow because I was on the cross, I didn’t die. I woke up with a start, slick in sweat, my heart beating as frantically as a hummingbird’s wings. I was collapsed against the grimy wall of the cell and I heard a drunken song coming from the jailer.

Oh this hell on earth must end. The only thing I can hope for is that my death comes fast and that some day, in some way, my living, my suffering, will not have been in vain. I pray that Theresa will take this diary, as she has said she would, and she will use it to clear my name, to show how Antonie lied.

Maybe it is a blessing that I am destined to die. Because I cannot imagine the shame I will feel once the newspaper publishes all of that rubbish from the trial. I can’t see how any purpose will be served by printing the filth, the lies, all that Antonie wrote and attributed to me. But if they are going to make the transcripts public, then yes, I fully agree with Teresa, the newspaper should also print my side of the story, side by side with his lies.

And so, Teresa, I am continuing to write this journal just as you suggest. You came to me that first week I was imprisoned. You squirreled the leather book at the bottom of a basket of Irish soda bread, covered in a red gingham tablecloth. We sat in the cell singing together that afternoon, and then you turned and stopped singing and leaned your lips to my ear. While I continued singing you whispered: “Look in the basket for the journal and the ink bottle and the quill.”

When you had gone, I lifted the gingham and pushed my fingers under the crumbling soda bread. There was my journal. Tucked inside the first page, this pale blue note: “My dear Renata, this --and my prayers, day and night – are all I can offer. As I’ve said so many times before, your writing will save you. Just remember, put everything here. Make it clear to the world exactly how Antonie lied. How he tried to portray you as the seductive dancer. How he framed you, made you look guilty of his murder. Write all of it. Expose his lies for what they are. Someday, I promise you as God is my witness, the truth will be revealed.”

Ah, Teresa, would that you were right. But how can I possibly undo the vicious lies that Antonie has woven so tightly around me? How can I make people see that he created me in his own mind? In his own words, he framed me, made me into the kind of woman that he wanted. A Spanish dancer of all things.

Still, sitting here, I know, I have no choice but to follow Teresa’s advice. I have only my diary to show the world that I am innocent. Dear Teresa, you will be the guardian of all that I write. Once I am hanged, you will be the only one who can ensure that these words are published. Only you can rescue and restore my sorry and trampled reputation.

At least I will die knowing that you will try to clear my name.

The jailer comes now with another plate. I tuck the diary inside my billowing sleeve.

I turn the plate away. I cannot bring myself to eat even a bite. He says I will die of starvation. Maybe that would be a blessing.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Chapter Three: In Which Antonie Has Me Shave His Ghastly Face

April 13, 1883 This time when I arrive at Antonie's, he is sitting up. His face has that ghastly purple hue, but it is one I am getting used to. He reaches out a bony hand. "I beg you, sweet cousin, to shave me."

I recoil. I have never in all my life shaved a man and certainly not Antonie!

"I see no reason why I should do that," I say, moving out of the way of his grasp.

"Oh but my dear cousin, you know that Father Ruby would approve." He leers at me. "And so would my physician. If you shave my face, I am told by the good doctor, it will hurry my cure." He closes his eyes but manages a sleepy smile.

"Surely you don't expect me to believe that," I say. "Your doctor is an intelligent man, and to my knowledge, he is well grounded in science. And I am an equally intelligent woman. Shaving your face will have no influence whatsoever on your syphilis..." I feel my cousin's forehead. Damp, and feverish again.

This much I know: when Antonie's temperature rises, his mind begins to spin the most perverse fantasies about me.

Still, I agree to shave him. Together with señora, I heat the shaving cream in the metal bowl and we scrape his face clean. And because it is so late when we finish, señora prepares the guest room for me, and I sleep at the hacienda. The next morning, before breakfast, I go to his room to check his temperature. His eyes open when I place my hand on his forehead. He asks me to change his sheet, so I do.

This is when I find it. I lift the mattress and I discover the pile of pale white pages, all in Antonie's slanted handwriting. There, at the top of the pile is another story he wrote about me, the one called "Roseblade."

Once again he's made me into the seductress he wants me to be. When I threaten to burn the pages, he musters all his strength and rises out of the bed and into a rage. His eyes are demonic as he demands that I hand over the pages.

Dear God, help me to know what to do!

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Chapter Two: Writing is How I Free Myself -- or make myself CRAZY!

By Gina Morrison

I sit here on an old gold and white striped sofa in a coffee shop called Dottie’s, writing down the slop that my shrink thinks I’ve got to write down in order to heal. In order to kick the PTSD.

“Try it, Gina. Just get it all out there, and put it down on paper,” she advised. She being the woman I will call Elizabeth. “The research shows that if you write three or four times a week, and if you write about both the events that are troubling you, and the emotions connected to those traumatic events, well, then your health is very likely to improve.”

My eyes narrow. “But will I feel better? Less depressed? Less…crazy? And will I be able to write the nun story?”

She lifts her shoulders slightly, and then lets them drop. “I can’t promise anything, Gina,” she says, “but I suspect you will find that releasing your feelings on paper will end up making you more calm.”

That’s what I like about Elizabeth. She doesn’t lie or even try to skirt the truth.

That’s why I am sitting here on this gold and white striped couch, following her advice. I am hoping Elizabeth is right, I am hoping the writing will help me with the PTSD.

I liked Elizabeth that first day I met her. The day I came to her some months ago I was contemplating swallowing the whole bottle of Ativan that I was carrying in my purse. Elizabeth listened very patiently, while taking a few notes on a legal pad. Finally, she looked up. Her face was as peaceful as the sea on a quiet day. Her eyes were the same bright blue as the sky.

“Well, Gina,” she began, and here she gently tapped her pencil eraser against the legal pad. “You can do that, swallow all of those pills. But you can also realize that you have other choices. And that’s my job, to make you see that you have options.”

That was a good thing to say. That was an important thing to hear.

That was the day I stopped thinking about swallowing the Ativan, or at least, swallowing all of it.

And somehow, I felt a kind of switch go on. I’m still not sure exactly how or why. Just like, I’m not exactly sure how or why

I'm suddenly in the courtyard with dear Teresa, the blue and white tiles snaked with black cracks, the green luminescent hummingbirds soaring back and forth overhead, and me sitting there, dreading her questions about what happened last night with Antonie. She knows something is wrong, she is gazing at me with those giant crystal blue eyes of hers, and she is gazing too at the leather diary lying in my lap, the diary with the R chiselled on the cover, the diary I have come to love writing in so much.

Finally the silence is overwhelming and I get up and say to Teresa that I have to feed the chickens. I cross the courtyard and disappear into the convent and

I sit down here on the orange, gold and white striped couch at Dottie's and it is 4:30 on a Tuesday afternoon in March 2010 and I have come here to do exactly what Elizabeth suggested.

I take out my pad and pen and I begin to write. I write and I write and I write and I write and I write about what’s bothering me. I write about things in the past too, like my mother's asthma and how much it scared me. And then I write about David, and him having the affair and that makes me so damn anxious I am starting to tremble so I stop.

And when I look up and glance out the window I notice, of all things, my dentist crossing the street right in front of me. How odd, to see my dentist. He actually smiles and waves.

I wave back to him and then I return to the writing and this thought occurs to me: I might never stop writing. OR worse, the writing might not cure me. And that makes me feel like I might start crying. And that makes me scared that perhaps if I do start crying, I might never stop.

Then I begin to wonder this: maybe I am just not right in the head. Maybe no amount of writing or anything else will help me deal with the troubling events of the last year or so.

And maybe writing is making everything worse: maybe I am doing exactly what Antonie is doing,

just telling all kinds of lies, seeing things that don't exist, turning me, Renata,

into the Spanish dancer,, a devout nun,

slowly peeling off my heavy black stockings and my white cotton underclothes and finally, unpinning my short black veil and lifting off the starched white headpiece that binds my forehead. The skin beneath the white headpiece is moist. I rub the creased line above my eyebrows and shake my hair loose, gathering it through my fingertips and then

I lift my latte to my lips and fingering my pen, I think,

clearly I'm crazy, I mean, why in God's name do I think I'm a nun named Renata, living in 1883? Why do I keep flipping back in time with no warning

I look up and see the rusty bars, I look down and see

my ankle crusted in blood, Oh God, I feel my leg actually getting hotter and hotter from the infection that is snaking up toward my knee!

Dear GOD, what is WRONG with me, why would I write this? Why would I be me, Gina, and me Renata, a nun in 1883 in prison?

Maybe I'm just as crazy as Antonie. He's writing stories about Renata, and I am writing about her too.

Suddenly, coming over the sound system in the coffee shop I hear an old Beatles’ tune: “Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be, whisper words of wisdom, let it be.”

I start writing again, “Oh Dear God, that’s what I need to do, LET IT BE. LET IT Be. Let it be GONE. Let it GO. All of it.”

And then I feel like yelling out in the coffee shop. “But I can’t!!!! I can’t let it go. All of it is driving me crazy. All I want to know is why did David have to hurt me so badly? Why did he have to betray me? And why did it – the suffering, the sadness—have to go on for such a long time? Why is it still going on?”

That’s when the song switches, I SWEAR THIS IS PART IS TRUE, and the next song to come over the speakers is “Only love can break your heart….”

At that moment I begin to shake. My arms and legs go bananas, and I sit there on the gold and white striped couch just…shaking.

I pick up my cell phone and dial my friend Xandra out in California on her direct line at Ibex, the company she runs in San Jose. By the grace of God, she is there. I start to cry, and she listens. She tries to talk me down. She asks me to read some of what I’ve written out loud to her over the phone. And I do that, and it feels good, I need to say the words out loud. And then, I reach into my purse and yes, I pop an Ativan beneath my tongue. But I pop just one.

As the pill starts to give me a bit of relief, I think to myself, if I could, I would make all of this go away. I would do that by going back in time, by rewriting history. I would rewrite Renata's story, to set her free from prison, by telling the world that she isn't guilty of Antonie's murder.

And I would also rewrite this story about me and my husband. I would revise it drastically, so that nothing awful ever came to pass between us.

While I was at it, I would rewrite a whole bunch of my personal history; I would erase the cancer I had in 2002 and maybe I'd take away those three horrible cases of pneumonia that almost killed me as a child.

Oh, and I would take away my mom's asthma too, because it was so damn scary when I was four or five years old and she would be sitting up in bed wheezing, hunched over her pillows. I was petrified standing there watching her because I didn't know whether or not she would take her next breath.

In this new and revised story, my mom would be healthy, and she would never be depressed, and neither would I, and I would never end up sitting in this coffee shop writing all the slop that I have been writing for the past hour or so. And I wouldn’t sit in this goddamn prison chained by the leg, staring out at the gallows where I'm going to hang for a murder I didn't commit. I wouldn’t be accused of killing my cousin Antonie, and I wouldn’t have this festering sore crawling up my leg, the skin more red and puffy every day, the pain slowly rising, threatening now to overtake my kneecap.

No. Instead, I would switch SWITCH

back to that courtyard I love behind the convent. The courtyard with all the hummingbirds, the courtyardtiled blue and white, the tiles cracked in so many places. The cracks are black and they snake all around the fountain, which at this time of year, is dry.

This is long before the day when I sat with the diary in my lap, trembling, and I told Teresa the ghastly thing that had happened a few hours before, how I'd had to bury my blood-stained habit after...

No, on this day at the convent, the sun beats down on me and Sister Teresa and we are enjoying a pleasant day. We are out here surrounded by roses. We are here to snap beans for dinner and when we finish the beans, we don't go back inside. Instead, se sit here scattering some stale bread crumbs for the birds. We sit in silence, with Teresa occasionally humming or whistling. We just let ourselves feel the sun on our faces, bound as they are in our tight white wimples. We feel a gentle dry wind on our cheeks. We stare up to the hillside behind the convent. The hillside is the color of a golden lion, and on top sits the sprawling live oak where Teresa and I often take a blanket and some fruit for late afternoon “picnics.”

Later, we have hiked the hillside and we are resting on the blanket and I talk to her about Antonie and how, now and then, he acts strangely. But this is way before the illness turned his mind inside out. Teresa tries to give me advice. She raises herself up on one elbow.

"Be nice to him, Renata, but be careful that you are not... too nice." She pats my hand and we lie side by side and I wonder if maybe I have already been too nice to my cousin.

I close my eyes and try to put the disturbing images of him out of my head, and then we get up and fold the blanket and I inhale and smell the sage as we descend the hillside. The California sun is warm and so reassuring. When we enter the courtyard again, there are bees swarming the hummingbird feeder.

A couple of grey and white cats (one is Jonah, and the other, honest to God, is called Catechism) are asleep by the door.

Teresa lets loose with a sharp whistle to attract the hens, and soon they are bobbling over to her side, cackling their hearts out. She reaches into the pocket of her habit and pulls out some hard corn and scatters it for the pecking chickens.

Despite the heat, Teresa and I are dressed in black, our wool habits going head to toe.

And yes, if I could, I would go back

There. Right now. And then, I stop writing.

I leave Dottie's, and

I go.

Thursday, July 01, 2010


By Gina Morrison

This time I’m on the phone with my best friend from college. This time I’m trying to explain this crazy nun story to Xandra and finally I think it's all beginning to make sense.

But then I hear myself. “So I’m sitting there, talking to somebody, or I'm playing guitar, or just standing at the counter, cutting a grapefruit or peeling a carrot,” I begin, “and then suddenly something comes over me and I switch, boom, I am just...her Sister Renata, there in the prison shaking the bars. Or I'm sitting in the courtyard with Sister Teresa just staring up at the lion-colored hills.”

Xandra listens without saying a word.

"Are you still there?"

"Oh I heard you."

This is a woman who lives 3,000 miles away in California, but she's still closer to me than my own sister.

Xandra was my roommate at Brown an eternity ago. She was a chemistry major, but not one of those neurotics who filled the study carrells in the high-rise science library. Sure, she spent long afternoons measuring clear liquids into glass beakers. But then she'd spend two or three evenings a week dancing barefoot with her face painted in red and white streaks -- she was part of a campus African dance troupe.

Xandra grew up in Nigeria, the daughter of a village healer. Her mother used to make her swallow bitter potions in order to stay healthy. After she graduated from Brown --summa cum laude-- she went on to med school, but dropped out after a year and a half, disgusted with the way western medicine is practiced. She switched to a Ph.D. program in chemistry at MIT and finished in three years. Today she runs a lab for this company in San Jose that's developing a machine that will sequence DNA.

Meanwhile, she still does the African dancing, and she does yoga too, and lately she's gotten into something she calls "divine healing."

The most important thing I can say about Xandra, though, is that she is a bundle of love, and she really understands me. I can tell her absolutely anything and I always have, and just now on the phone I have told her the terrifying truth, that I think I am a nun living in 1883. I tell her too that I'm writing down the nun's story, whenever it comes to me. Doing that, I tell her, I believe that I can free the nun -- who is falsely accused of murdering her cousin Antonie.

A moment goes by. Finally Xandra speaks. “Well, so, it sounds to me like you're writing a great story. Exactly the story you need to write. And I have an idea how I might help you."

"You do?"

She laughs. "Yeah, but it's way too complicated to explain over the phone. I will however be delighted to read everything you write."

That comes as no surprise.

At Brown, I was the English major who used to stay up nights writing by candlelight. Xandra would wander into the dorm after dancing for hours in her grass skirt and there I'd be, asleep with my head on the desk, next to an empty wine glass and a couple of lumps of melted wax.

She read every single version of every short story I wrote. Every poem too. All of it. Often she would write comments like, "I'm not sure I get the point of this one, honey, but honestly I love the writing. I really do. Keep going."

I am pacing the kitchen now. Ten steps to the door, ten more back to the jade plant in the corner. Around and around the granite counter three times, my fingers trailing the cool stone surface. “The problem, Xand, is that I can’t stop thinking that I’m her. Sister Renata. The problem is that I’m in her life as a nun more than I am in my own. The visions are coming more and more often and they are so.....”

I close my eyes.

I feel my backside damp and cold against the stone bench. I feel my fingers gripping the bars. I see my ankle crusted in blood and the infection in my leg spreading up toward my knee. I smell the rust on my hands and the cabbage slop in my metal dish and the sweat in my pits and worst of all, I smell the shit in the foul pail. The putrid odor is a swamp rising out of the corner of the tiny cell. Only when I yell and yell and bang my spoon incessantly on the dish does the jailer finally come down the hall jangling his keys and complaining about having to retrieve it.

“Gina, are you still there?”

"Yeah, yeah, sorry Xand.” I snap back to the phone.

"As long as you’re getting to work, and teaching your classes, and functioning in the house," Xandra says, "I don’t think you should worry. It sounds to me like you've got to write this."

I run my finger, the one that’s sore from playing flamenco rasqueados on my guitar, along the granite counter. Clear quartz crystals the color of a cantaloupe glisten under the kitchen light. “But I do … worry,” I say, very softly. “Lately I worry a lot.”

Xandra sighs.

“I know you do,” she says. “You worry way too much.” She doesn’t ask what I worry about. She doesn’t have to. She flew back East numerous times eight years ago, just to be with me through the chemotherapy and radiation, the horrifying treatment that almost killed me, for the cantaloupe-sized tumor that filled my chest. She has also accompanied me on occasion to see a few other doctors too, namely, my shrink. Once she helped me make a list of all the meds I’ve been on -- Ativan to Prozac to Zoloft. She assembled careful notes when side effects forced me off.

And she’s been with me through the last couple of years, too, through more phone conversations than I can count, when I wept over my son Adam leaving for college. She was there for me for all the rest of it too. The rest of it being the stuff that I'd like to forget but can't.

The rest of it being the shitty PTSD that still plagues me.

Let's just say there have been buckets of tears filling Xandra's and my transcontinental conversations of late.

I thank her again for sending me the beautiful African wall hanging she bought for me on her last trip to Nigeria. It's wild yellow, with a red sunset and black silhouettes of giraffes and elephants and tigers and lions roaming on the horizon. My eyes practically dropped out when I opened the box.

“You are more than welcome. I felt bad that we didn’t get to see each other over Christmas or New Year's. So are you thinking of coming out here for a visit any time soon?”

“Maybe.” And then I start to say something that I had no idea whatsoever I was going to say until the moment I say it. “I might need to come out to do..."

I stop.

“To do what?”


“Research? On what?” I can hear that Xandra is genuinely curious.

“Well, so, you know. I would be researching this...this story about Sister Renata because I feel maybe it could actually be..." I don't continue.

“You should definitely come visit. Stay with us. Maybe this is what you need. Maybe you'll finally let me teach you a little yoga. And talk to you about divine healing. I've told you this time and again, Gina, you need tools to handle your stuff. You need to find a way to manage all the heartache and trauma you’ve been through.” She sighs. Her words feel like cold little hammers tapping on my heart.

I can't count the times she's lectured me about yoga and meditation and spiritual stuff. My reply is the always the same:

"Xand, I don't have a head for meditation. And I don't have a body for yoga."

Xandra is silent for a moment.

“What I wanted to say before, Xand, is that I honestly believe the nun story could actually be...true. I mean, I keep seeing myself..."

Xandra turns to face me, a worried expression wrinkling her brow. "Yes? You see yourself as...."

I sniffle. Look into my lap where my hands are in a prayer position.

“Honestly, Xand, I see all it so clearly that....” I let my sentence go off a cliff of silence. I mean I think I'm Renata, the 19th century nun who is accused of killing her cousin."

Utter silence. But then Xand pulls onto the breakdown lane.

My dear Xandra, always there for me, catches it. “Well," she says, inhaling. "I'm glad you told me and not somebody else."  She reached over and gave me a hug. "You are always welcome here,” she says simply. “I am happy to help with whatever you need. And Sam and I would love the company."

I close my eyes and I see Xandra. Dark shining eyes, a strong muscular body (she plays tennis, what a backhand), a flawless brown complexion and a head full of long fluffy dreds. Oh and a ferociously beautiful smile.

“So Xand, then you don’t think I’m...totally insane?” I hold my breath.

Xandra laughs. “Of course I think you’re totally insane. You’ve always been insane. You're just a little more insane now than before. But that’s OK, that's what I love about you. Or one thing at least.”

Xandra can say this to me and not make me feel the least bit bad. Maybe because we've had so much history together. What's amazing is that we are as different as we can possibly be. She spends her days hunkered down in a lab at Pacific Genomics, a company out in California developing this brand new DNA technology. The way she explains it, we'll soon be able to walk into the doctor's office and ask for a reading of our DNA, and then, a "personalized" therapy to treat it.

I've never had the guts to tell her that I'd be afraid to find out the gory details of my DNA.

Anyway, I say goodbye to Xandra and go out to the backyard. I walk in my house slippers across the grass and stand looking toward the pond. The moonlight turns it into a shimmering silver coin.

David is inside. I call to him. He joins me in the middle of the backyard. He holds me by the shoulders. We gaze in silence up at the dark sky. Then he kisses my cheek and goes back in the house.

I remain, staring at the pinpricks of light. Glittering stars. Blinking on and on and off and off. The stars start it going. The switching.

I close my eyes and there I am, under a pale green night sky, and I'm riding on the wagon with Señora Ramos once more. Or what's even more likely, I'm writing about in my diary!