By Claudia Ricci
Here it is, my big blank computer screen. I’ve written maybe 50,000 words this past month -- and now, here I am with nada.
I am facing an empty plate. A zero mind.
But I've been here before. This is the kind of thing that happens with Sister Mysteries. I'll be writing along, riding a torrential river of words. The ideas and images and inspiration seem endless, overflowing like Niagara itself. It feels as though there isn't enough time in one day or four lifetimes to get everything down on paper.
And then, poof. With no warning, the river goes Sahara. There is nothing in the bank. There are no crumbs in the bread drawer.
The book feels like it is going belly up. The only consolation is that this has happened so many times before that I’ve lost track.
This time, I’m ready. This time, I am heading into the desert with a backpack. I’ve got provisions enough to wait out the dry spell.
All I need to do is hang on until the next flood hits.
Which could be tomorrow. Or maybe even tonight. I could wake up in the middle of the night writing in my sleep. That happened to me once, I woke up with a story, fully formed, pouring out of me. All I had to do was write it down.
So while I am waiting for inspiration, I have decided to write a chapter as if I were asleep.
It's a bit crazy I know. But no crazier than that ridiculous movie “Inception,” which I tried to watch last night.
In said movie, there are dreams inside dreams inside dreams and none of it makes any sense. (For a great spoof of "Inception" check out this South Park video clip. It's hysterical.)
Still, millions of people watched that dumb movie anyway. Movie critic Roger Eberts (who I used to work with at the Chicago Sun-Times years back) saw fit to give the flick a perfect score, a four out of four. Ayayayay.
Anyway I offer you this chapter of Sister Mysteries, a chapter which kind of poured out of me. Sort of like it was composed in my sleep.
A white sheet is binding my bed. A white light is blinding me. I keep my eyes closed because the light is so bright. They keep the lights on all night here. I try to sleep but I can’t stop crying.
I am screeching for my mother. But she went home a long, long time ago. She left me here behind bars.
As soon as I write this down, the words dissolve. Or I say them out loud and I can't hear myself.
She whispers to me, honey, just be quiet and go to sleep.
But I keep talking. I keep writing. I am determined this time, to write it. Determined to get through this chapter about my mother. About her asthma and my pneumonia and how the two are linked to my cancer.
Remember what the medical intuitive told you: you must stop resenting your mother and her illness. Will you ever get that right? Will you ever write that? I guess I am I am I guess I am writing it right now, but somehow,
As soon as I write it down, the ink disappears. Or I think, where did I lay it down? Someplace safe, yes, and then I think, but where is it? Where did I lay it down, and when? I can’t find it anyplace.
I am sitting with her now in the same dream that we've had for so many years.
It seems like both of us now, are finally, absolutely real. I can feel her breath on my shoulder. I can see the white wimple binding her forehead so tightly that it makes a pink crease in her delicate skin. I stare at her eyebrows beneath the wimple. I think of his eyebrows now,
eery how similar Renata's eyebrows are to Antonie’s. But then I think, hey, they are cousins.
I am sinking now. I am sinking directly into her dream. Her dream of a tree. That damn madrone tree, its reddish bronze bark the color of a Native Anerican's skin. And me, I must be three or four or five. And we are behind the hacienda, and he, Antonie, he took me by the hand and he told me to lie down. And I did, because he was saying we would pray together, the way the nuns did, but when he started touching me, then I tried to get up but he kept holding me there.
It is cold sitting here in the dank cold prison cell. All by myself, I am sitting beside Renata. The two of us, prisoners.
I turn my face away when she squats over that dreadfully foul pail.
I sit here shaking the bars. Let me out, I shout.
I should say, us.
Let us out, I shout.
Squared. Metal. Rust. I smell rust on the bars. I see rust on her fingers.
I feel my mother's fingers holding my own. My mother is reaching between the bars of the crib.
Myself, I am three or four, and I have a serious case of pneumonia.
We sit here and I am strumming the guitar and Renata is singing something.
I look up and see my mother there in the dark, trying to sneak away. I screech every time she tries to move.
She cannot come during the day.
She can only visit me at night. She sits there and I stare at her through the bars of the crib and the nurse slips her a little note: "Please can you stay? We have no way of getting her to stop crying."
My mother's hair is black and thick and wavy. She is beautiful, and has not a single gray hair. Her hands are dry and rough from washing so many clothes in chlorox and Tide. I hold tight to her fingers.
My mother reaches in between the bars and once again holds my hand. When I begin to fall asleep she gently lets go of my hand and that’s when I start screeching again.
I’m sleeping now. I keep dreaming about that tree. That goddamn monstrosity, that reddish bronze tree, the madrone, its skin peeling. Its branches that spread endlessly. That madrone, where that brute of my cousin yanked me down, had me on the ground. He held me. He forced me to.
That madrone where I dreamed that he touched her in places she couldn’t stand. He held her hand.
When I wake up this time, I'm tied down. I cannot move a muscle.
I am. Lying. I am bound by the white sheet. I am wrapped tight as a mummy. I am on a gurney, being wheeled. I feel drowzy. I feel soft. I hear the soft drone of the machine. I feel the tape on my forehead. I feel somebody pricking the skin of my arm.
I am in that horrible green lounge chair and somebody is asking me to spell my name. To state my birthday. Over and over again before they pour in the chemo, they ask you: "Please spell your name, please tell me when is your birthday?"
Somebody is hooking me up to my IV. Somebody has that fat bulging IV bag swinging above my head.
Somebody is trying desperately to find a vein. I dread this part I dread dread
Somebody is filling me with
Five chemicals. The chemotherapy is called the STANFORD FIVE. I am sitting here feeling like a swill.
I will never forget the swamp that I was, during those months of chemotherapy. I was a black rubber bag filled to the brim
I was a toxic waste site, I was a swill that I want to forget,
as a dog? you can taste water. you can taste ice. I could not walk the streets of New York after my chemo because the odors wafting up from the restaurants made me completely and utterly ill
fish, breaded, fish, breaded, the way it is was coated, breaded,
dreadful how sick sick
I will never see the world quite the same way.
I will never say that chemo felt like punishment for a crime that I never committed.
But I did say that.
Chemo felt like punishment for a crime that I didn’t commit.
Renata would agree, she would say the very same thing. We could say it out loud together,
We are punished sometimes for crimes we do not commit.
Now the white light starts turning. Now the white light is burning red and dazzling and if I think about it, it blinks. I do not want to stare into a blinking crimson light that might ruin my eyes. Do I? I don’t want to fall asleep like this, do I? My head is spinning red.
Now my pockets are unlocked. Now my pockets are hanging out like silver fish. Now my dress is open and I am hoping I will survive the chemo. Now my dress is torn the way Renata’s was that horrifying day that Antonie led her by the hand and told her to lie down underneath the madrone tree.
Now it is morning. Now my lips are awake and filled with pins. Now I am coming unzipped. Now my lips are coming unstitched. Now my profile is everywhere in shadow. Now my mother is sitting outside the crib and she is not leaving. Now Sister Renata and I are sitting here stitched together by words inside the prison.
WE ARE ONE, THE NUN AND ME. And now I can see you laughing. I can see your lips are filled with pins just like mine. Now I know that I am coming unzipped.
My profile is nowhere. Now I see that there are no more anchors on Columbus’ ship. Now I see why he had to go. Now I have to go too. To sea, to see for myself how colonies are made in the New World. How Native American skins are abused. How we use people and keep saying we don't.
Now my fingers are sailing the ocean with him. Now my fingers are sailing alone. Now my thumbs are not my own. Now the words come singing out. Now I remember them. Now I am my own memory. Now I forget it completely. Now my skin is heated and I lie in bed as a child dreaming wild wild dreams, me with 103 fever, me with three serious bouts of pneumonia (three?) Now I see the cogs of the giant machine, I have seen them and seen them, the MACHINE DREAMS of my childhood.
Now my skin is chilled by cold prison cement. Now my nose is filled that vicious chemo, now my nose is filled with
Even the smell of rubbing alcohol they used to swab my skin made me incredibly nauseated and sick.
Now my armpits are lit in orange candlelight. Now my hands are tied in the belt of a blue bathrobe. Now I feel that my feet meet hers, the nuns, in rusty chains. We bleed together and our blood sticks. Crusts and gets glued to the rust.
Now my arms shiver like a bicycle. Now I am naked and I am taking the chemo like a good girl, without saying a goddamn word. Now I am throwing up the way I did for months and months and months. Now I make the sign of the cross with my eyes. Now I look up at the scummy green walls at Sloan Kettering and I sing for joy because I will never ever step into that damn prison again.
Now I think, I am asleep, thank GOD because otherwise everyone whoever reads this will think, she needs a hospital of a select kind, the kind they select for you when you have lost your fucking mind.
Now I think I must get out of here. Now I know I must escape and take the nun with me, as we are joined at the ankle by a rusty chain.
Now I must explain how this story unfolds because it is held together just with pins, just the pins of my lips.
Now I am a fish out of water. Now I am swimming free. Now I realize how he tricked me to lie down with him beneath the madrone tree. Now I realize that I am caught. Now I realize that I am totally and utterly mad.
Now I realize that I am simply lying in a basket covered by a cool blue towel and electrical wires. Now I see that I am in my own casket of words and that I have buried myself in what I say. Now I see that sparks are flying backward out of my head and taking me way way back to that crib in the hospital where my feverish brain keeps catching fire.
Now I realize that I lie there as a child with wild MACHINE DREAMS, always the machines, always turning with giant and endless cogs.
Now I hear my uncle teasing me, singing a song he made up: "Claudia Jean Made a Machine."
Now I see how he was right. Little did he know, I had made a MACHINE, the GIANT DREAM MACHINE, the one in my fevered dreams, over and over the cogs turned.
Now I realize that I will die if I don’t stop escape this prison. Now I see that I have always had the power to step out of the prison. IS IS TIME? IS IT TIME?
Now I see that the shadows in this cell have long long teeth. Now I see that the teeth are turning into
Bars. I had to. I had to, I HAVE TO. Now I have to use that foul pail the way Renata does? Dear God, help me here, help me because I just have to do it. I have to pee into Renata’s pail in that foul cell.
Now I see the pee pooling yellow and cool, a puddle in the white bed. Now I see that I am not in my bed anymore. Now I see that I am not my sister. Now I see that I am not Renata or myself either. Now I see that I am not I. Now I see that eye am my own eye. Now I see that eye am trying to become Gertrude Stein. Sick. Sick.
Now I see that I am just crazy and that words can trick you into feeling sane.
Now I know that my mind has hands. Now I see that these hands have come alive. Now I now that words are hear hear to unlock me. Now I see that I am knocking on my own door. Now I see that I am begging to come in. Now I see myself asking, no, you are begging for your guitar. Now I see that I am locked out. Now I see that I have no interest in playing my guitar at all.
Now I see the truth: that I caused my mother’s asthma, because she had to visit me so often in that hospital, every night, it was cold, cold, she caught, cold, and she told me this once, she said:
I got sick visiting you.
This is at the top of my list of sins to confess, a list as long as my leg, chained at the ankle in blood and rust and gore.
She got sick because I wouldn't let her go home.
I had pneumonia.
She had asthma.
And in 2002, I had a tumor the size of a cantaloupe inside my chest. I never want to be sick, any more.
Now I see exactly what the medical intuitive told me to do. Forgive everything my mother did and didn't do.
The IV. The delicate chemistry of the STANFORD FIVE in that fucking green lounge chair. In order to stay alive, my dear, you must drink up these five chemicals each week for 13 weeks.
Chemicals like vinchristine -- ah what a name vinchristine.
Now I have begun to shine. Now I see that my brain glows. Now I see that I am the sun itself. Now I am myself shining inside out. Now I am the dutiful daughter. Now I am the dutiful nun. Now I am the patient who can't wait to murder the doctor.
Now I am the sister who can’t resist slicing Antonie's throat. Now I am resisting. Now I am realizing, I didn't kill him, as much as I should have. Now I see, I could be the killer, but so could he.
Now I am standing up for myself and saying. No, I won't have the fucking stem cell transplant, Dr. M. You MONSTER YOU MONSTER. Dr. Monster.
NOW I see that I would be much much better served if I just knelt down and prayed.
Now I say a Hail Mary. Now I say, AND AT THE HOUR OF OUR DEATH AMEN. AMEN IS HERE. Amen is hear. A man is here and he is the doctor MONSTER who tried to screw up. He is the doctor MONSTER who tried to screw me.
A man in white is here to move me. A man, or is it a woman is here wheeling me. Hear. Hear. I am hearing something and I am feeling myself wheeled.
I am awake and I am playing Maria’s music. And now. Standing over me. Is Señora herself. She is right there in the chair beside the bed. She has that beautiful coffee skin. She has a name and it is in keeping with the madrone:
SEÑORA ELIZABETH RAMOS.
Ramos in Spanish means branch, as in tree. You see now you see now the tree?
You may not yet see the reason for Señora Ramos, the housekeeper, because I am keeping her secret. She won't let me tell. Not yet. Not yet.
But I will get to the secret she won't let me tell. Let me just say that
Señora saves the day. Señora sings and brings me the guitar. Señora is the guitar. She is the music. She is the CD.
She's got the guitar and she plays the very same music that Maria does. “Tinto Verano.” The tint of summer. The clang of metal. The music that gets my blood flying. The music that I played to keep me sane the summer of the IV pump. See see see SEEING RED, see who I acknowledge, just read the acknowledgements if nothing else, read that. It is Maria Zemantauski, she is the one who told me,
Just hold onto the guitar.
Señora smiles at me now, back here in the prison. She whispers. “You tried so hard to protect me, mi’ja. You tried too hard. You carried far too heavy a load.” It is time now, she says, it is time now to explain who killed Antonie.
But didn’t he kill himself I say, still playing the game, still playing the guitar?
I shake my head no. Señora rises from the chair and standing beside my bed, she squeezes my shoulders, then covers me like a baby with her poweder blue shawl. Now I realize, she is the Virgen in disguise. She comforts me. She protects me. Oh, that summer of the IV, I hid beneath the Virgin's airy blue shawl.
Oh how she showered me with protection. Oh how she showered me in flowers.
Dazzling blossoms. Dozens of roses. Bosoms of blossoms. I am covered in flowers. I am showered in light. I am covered now, not by the white sheet, but by Señora’s blue flowered shawl.
She hands me a single yellow rose. A yellow rose with red tips.
She whispers again, in Spanish. “I am taking the diary entry. The one that reveals what happened the day that Antonie died. You can’t hide it anymore. You can’t keep the truth inside. I am bringing it to the lawyer. I am bringing it to the court. It will set you free you mi’ja. It will free you at last.”
I open my mouth to protest.
She shakes her head and raises one hand “Silencio!” she commands. “Ahora, niña, es necessario decir la verdad. Es muy importante.” It is necessary to tell the truth. It is very important.
My heart beats faster. I stare at her. “But what will happen to you?” I wail. “What will happen to you?”
She smiles. And in perfect equanimity, and in perfect Spanish, she says, “I have prayed to Him. I have placed my trust in Him. And in Her." She gestures to the Virgin beside her. She smiles. "I am not afraid,” Señora says.
She makes the sign of the cross, and then she places a single kiss on my forehead, and another rose on my chest, and before I can say another word, she is on her way.
And the rest, the rest is all a dream of course.