Wednesday, April 11, 2012

CHAPTER 53: Who Could He BE?

The nun steps slowly, swaying as she approaches a thicket of low-lying grass. She holds the back of one hand up against her eyes to ward off the bright California sunlight. Her gaze drops into the golden grass and her eyes pop open and she jumps back, screaming and pointing at the thick coiled snake.
Her face is bright pink and she is breathing hard, clutching both hands over her racing heart.

Soon though, her face registers a different expression. She blinks and rubs her eyes. It takes her a moment to realize that the snake is nothing but a branch, one long bough of the giant live oak nearby.

She sinks onto her knees and drops into the grass. She has begun to see all kinds of creatures that aren't there. This morning, she saw a bear coming towards her. Except the bear never moved. It proved to be a shadow playing on a dark rock.

She reaches out gingerly and runs her fingers along the snaking bough. Feels the rough surface of the wood.

Her stomach caves and growls. She pulls a handful of thin blades of grass and chews the tiny white bulbs at the base. She has eaten so much grass it's given her stomach cramps. She dares not eat any other plants as she isn't sure what might poison her. It was always Teresa who used to delight in pointing out edible native plants. Too bad Renata never paid a bit of attention to Teresa's little botany lessons. Renata recalls only the handfuls of strawberries they would find after hours of walking.

Now, she is hallucinating green olive trees. Twin green olives hanging from a branch, ripe for the plucking, make her dry mouth water.

It's been at least three days since she's eaten. Or is it four? Every crumb of the biscuits she squirreled away is gone. There are no more nuts or seeds. The very last morsel of food she set on her tongue was a shred of damp apple; she left it there to dissolve, as if it were a communion host placed in her mouth by Father Ruby.

She has rationed herself the water. She has a few more warm mouthfuls before the canteen is empty.

"I cannot go on." She says this powerful statement out loud, and it hurdles through time. I hear it so many years later, as I'm sitting here, at Dottie's coffee shop, writing this. I am frightened for her. I hear the edge of hysteria in her voice. I know that edge. I've been to the ledge a few times myself.

Renata, you've got to go on. Please, please, don't give up. You've got to fight. To live.

I could say the same thing so often writing this book: "I cannot go on." With the book. But I do. I must see her, this work, this story through to the end.

I hear the music she hears now, something comes circulating in her head. A tune that Señora used to sing.

She's lying in the golden grass now, near the live oak. Arms and legs askew. As she lies there, she thinks she sees smoke rising from the ground. She keeps blinking. Rubbing her eyes.

My own eyes settle into hers. I see out of her head. How much worse can things get for her? She's running from the law with no place to go. She's got no food or water and a slight chill has her delerious. She closes her eyes, feels fever in her eyes.

What she is hearing now rising somehow up the hillside is the Ave Maria, impossibly. A clear voice ringing through the blue sky. She looks up. Her eyes ache and she isn't sure what is happening but she doesn't care.

There isn't a cloud in the azure and the music is the most beautiful she's ever heard. Whoever is making this music is an angel.

If this is now her time to die, well, then, she is prepared.

She looks left and right, and the sound of the music just grows louder and louder. She settles back into the grass. She loves this music. This voice.

She smiles and says a Hail Mary, a second. If she is to die right now, so be it. With the music filling her head.

Her eyes close and then open. She is fully awake, warm and burning up with fever, drenched in sweat, realizing that all this time, she has been asleep. All the music. All of that. A dream.
Trembling, she reaches for the canteen. She takes the last gulp of the warm water and then sits up coughing and gagging and spits it out. A beetle had crawled into the canteen and into the last mouthful of water.

The beetle skitters away. She wipes her faces and drops back into the grass. As she does, she hears crackling in the brush. Footsteps. A branch snaps. More crackling, now just a few feet away. Fear floods her washes over her stomach.

Grizzly? Moose? Mountain lion? Some other beast? Whatever it is it's coming closer and she is far to weak to move.

Mouth dry, she closes her eyes and clasps her hands together and prays. Tears spring to her eyes as she murmurs in silence: If I am to die today, may it please Mary be quick and painless. Please I pray that you grant me just this one th...


She stops praying.

She would love to think that someone has just spoken a human word to her. But how could that be?

"Ma'am, excuse me, but are you alright?"

Slowly she drops her head to the right. She is gazing directly into the bright sun. What she sees is a man with a large cloud of curls circling his head coming up the hillside. The sun shines through the curls and turns them a burnished gold.

He is holding something in each hand. She lies there, mouth hanging open. Unable to speak. Tears start to leak out of both eyes. She licks her cracked lips. "I...Oh...I..." She cannot speak further.

"Hold on there ma'am." He turns, sets a rifle against the live oak. In his other hand, he is holding a jackrabbit by both ears. He sets the animal into the golden grass.

He returns to her side. Kneels. Takes a canteen from a leather satchel. "Here, you're burning up." He holds the back of her neck while she drinks, then slurps, the cool water. "Slow, now, not too much too quick." His hand is rough but his voice is gentle.

Her head falls back.

"Are you up to moving?" he asks. "You ought not be lying here in the sun."

She shakes her head. She feels like dead weight. He scoops her up into a sitting position. Her head dances. Her eyes burn. She turns her head to the side and throws up the water she's just downed.

"Ma'am, I want you to swing one arm around my neck, and I'll lift you up."

Soon he is holding her like an oversized child, and they are moving toward the live oak. There settles her in the shade beside the rifle and the rabbit.

"How long you've been here?"

She shrugs, shakes her head. "Not sure," she says. She feels as limp as the dead rabbit.

"So, if you will let me, I'd like to give you a lift. you home, I've got a wagon up a piece."

He helps her up, and they take one step with him supporting her arms. Then her head reels and her legs feel like they are made of cotton. Or clouds. She wobbles. Spins. She sees the grass begin to spiral toward her. She wants to scream out, but she slumps to the ground before the words leave her mouth.

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