Sunday, February 17, 2013

Chapter One: My Past Life as a Nun

Dear Señora Ramos:

And now, this morning, I find you lying there in your bed, not speaking, staring wide-eyed into the ceiling.

The sun has not yet cracked over the horizon. As soon as I awoke, I crept into the convent kitchen and boiled water for your tea. Walking very softly, I carried the cup up the stairs to your room. Your door is ajar and I knock softly and walk in. Your eyes are open and riveted on the ceiling, and so I know immediately that something is wrong. Your expression is fixed, your face a coffee-colored mask. I set the tea down on the night table and place one hand on your forehead. Warm. I pick up your hand, which lies limp on the sheet. It too is warm, and the skin of the back of your hand is soft but the palm has that dry papery feeling I know so well.

"Señora," I whisper, leaning over to put my lips close to your ear. "Can you hear me?"

Your lips are parted but frozen. You don't move a muscle. Only an occasional blink of your eyes and a faint breath when I put my finger beneath your nose tell me that you are still alive.  I set my ear on your chest and there is a slow and steady beat.  But what has happened to you? Is it a stroke? And if it is, what can I possibly do for you here? What can be done for a stroke victim in 1884?

I drop into the chair beside your bed.
The other nuns will be up for morning prayers before long. What will they do? Bring the doctor I suppose. But for what purpose?

I sit here with tears gathering. I sit here thinking that you are nearing your end. We've had such a long history together. I don't want to let you go. And yet, I know better. I know that you came to me for one reason only, and that soon your mission will be accomplished. I just wish you could live forever.

But then I realize, you do live forever. Or at least, your spirit does. You exist beyond the confines of time and place. When you first came to me 18 years ago, I was living through hell.  I had dropped so low that I saw no reason to get out of bed. I thought I would never emerge from that dark grey tunnel of despair. It was such a hellish time. I saw a series of doctors who didn't have much of a clue what to do. One or two of them wanted me to have electroshock treatment, or ECT. And I was petrified. I didn't want to have some machine sending shock waves through my brain, frying it from the inside out.

I remember two things about the morning you came: the snow outside the window was heaped in great mounds. We'd been having wicked winter weather that year, and it most certainly hadn't helped my mood. I remember too, me lying in bed staring into the ceiling, much like you are now. And of all things, I was listening to the flies. Flies in the middle of winter, crazed and buzzing around the light fixtures and against the window glass. Maybe their last desperate gasping to escape.

I remember getting up to pee. And seeing a rather large fly in the window of the bathroom. Quite unexpectedly, I reached over and very gently wedged it against the glass. I set my finger and thumb on one of its wings. There I was, I was actually holding a fly.

I carried it that way to the door that leads out to the balcony of my third floor bedroom. I opened the door and was greeted by a blast of cold air. And then I set the fly free. I watched as he (she?) zoomed off in a giant graceful arc and something shifted in me. How very strange, but somehow that gesture -- freeing the fly -- gave me hope. Put a small smile on my face.

Soon that became my purpose. I would get out of bed at least four or five times a day -- whenever I got up to pee or to eat something -- and I would set free three or four flies. One thing that mystified me, where were these flies coming from at this frigid moment in winter?

But no matter where they came from, they were there. And I got very good at catching them in my hands. Between my fingers. I was delicate but determined. I looked forward to catching them. I looked forward to liberating every fly that I heard buzzing in my bedroom.

When my husband happened to be in the room one morning, he asked me why I insisted on opening the door to release flies. Why, he wondered aloud, did I not just use the fly swatter? He was no lover of flies.

"Because I refuse to kill them," I said simply. But what I didn't say was, this act of freeing flies seemed to give my life some immediate purpose. It was after all, a kind of existential grip that had taken hold of me, that is, life had lost its meaning. I no longer felt that I was steering my life course in a direction that mattered. But here was something that if nothing else, was a satisfying distraction.

If I could do nothing else, I could release a few flies into the universe. Perhaps I couldn't relieve my own misery, but at least I could save these little black-winged creatures from their own misery.

My husband watched cautiously as I released another fly. Then he came up to me and gently folded his arms around me. "Just hold me," he said, his voice low and trembling. I felt so bad. I had become such a burden to my poor husband.  He was so desperately worried about me. He had grown so frightened. But of course he had. For all intents and purposes, he had lost his wife.

I hadn't been out of a nightgown in weeks. I was surviving on a diet of soup and saltines, coffee and oatmeal and an occasional salad or an apple, sliced and smeared with peanut butter.

Worst of all, I had begun to say to my husband with some regularity, "I don't want to live another day." 

I had also taken to praying to the Virgin Mary, asking for help from the divine feminine forces of the universe. Mary had never let me down before. When I had suffered cancer years before, and I was in the thick of misery with the chemo, I would pray to Mary, and something would always happen to relieve my pain. At the worst moments, I would envision myself protected -- tucked beneath her sky blue veil. That image comforted me so much. Now I needed comforting of a different kind. I needed her to help heal my troubled mind.

It wasn't long after I started catching and releasing the flies that you appeared Señora. I remember that morning so clearly. It was a Sunday and the sky was the crisp blue color you only get in the winter. My husband had to fly to DC for a meeting that afternoon and so he had left just after eight a.m. He was nervous at the thought of leaving me alone. "You must promise me you won't do..." and then he'd shake his head. He wouldn't finish the sentence.

"I'll be OK," I said, and then we kissed and he left, his forehead wrinkled in worry.

I had finished my morning coffee. I was waiting for my morning meds -- the ativan, the amphetamines, the noritryptiline -- to kick in.  My neck and back felt really sore, and so I decided to pull myself out of bed to stretch my body a little. I lay on the braided rug on the floor, pulling one knee at a time up to my chest.

The rest of it is like a dream. An amazing and incredible dream. A dream that felt more real than real life.  I lifted my leg a few inches and straightened it out and pointed my toe and suddenly there it was -- a low but persistent sound. Music. It started to grow louder and clearer.  I could hear someone strumming a guitar. I looked over to the radio on my husband's side of the bed. Had I left it on? I know I hadn't. I hated the morning Round Table program on WAMC, so I would have kept the radio turned off.

But there it was -- guitar music, and it was growing so loud I could feel it right in the room with me. I didn't know it at the time, because I knew virtually nothing about flamenco, but that was a soleares I was hearing. Soleares a form considered the mother of all flamenco. The word solear derived from the Spanish word, "soledad" or sorrow.

I stopped exercising and sat up on the floor, cross-legged. I closed my eyes and just listened to the music for a minute or two. It was quite beautiful.

That's the moment you chose to speak. "Por favor, tu es Señora Ricci, sí?" My eyes flew open and my heart started banging in my chest like some kind of drum.  Behind me, in the rocking chair across the room in the corner, I heard the chair squeak as it rocked forward. Slowly, I swiveled around. You were sitting there, you with the peaceful face. You filling up the chair with your portly form. You were dressed in black, and strumming a guitar. My arms and legs started shaking and it's a good thing I wasn't standing because I'm sure I would have lost my urine.

I didn't say a word. I just stared at you, with a million things flying through my head.  The first thing I thought: you were the same color as the flies.  You were completely in black, even your stockings, as if you were in mourning. The only color was the embroidery on your magnificent shawl.

I thought back to the question that the last doctor, the super expensive one in Manhattan had asked recently asked me. "Do you ever see things?"

"See things?" I asked.

"Yes, do you have visions?"

I remember thinking at the time that at least I was that sane. At least I wasn't psychotic, having visions. But now, what was this?

I covered my eyes with my hands, and shook my head back and forth, hoping to make you go away. But you continued strumming. I looked up. You were waiting for me to answer. You smiled and introduced yourself. "Yo soy Señora Maria Curocora Corazon de Ramos." You nodded your head once as if to give emphasis to the name.

I knew the word corazón meant heart in English. I wouldn't know until much later that ramos meant tree or branch.

"Wha...what do you want?" I croaked. In English of course. It never occurred to me to try Spanish.

You switched into broken English. "I am here to have your help if you please." It's embarrassing to admit this, Señora, but at first I thought you were offering me help, as in house help. I was just about to answer that I already had a house cleaner, when I realized my mistake. You wanted my help.  SHE WANTED MY HELP? What?

"I ...I don't understand."

You nodded and stopped strumming. The guitar was a beauty by the way. Blonde wood. Just lovely. "Es importante," you began, but then you switched to English again. "Important, very important. You are a writer of stories, yes?"

I shrugged. By this point I was sitting up against the brass bed, my arms hugging my knees, as I was desperately trying to get my arms and legs to stop shaking. But I was still trembling and my mouth felt like it was full of cotton balls. The truthful answer to your question was, "No, I am not writing stories anymore." I had stopped writing just about the time I had started getting depressed. The reason I stopped writing had something to do with the fact that my last novel -- published in 2011 -- had sold so few copies.

My husband had tried time and again to convince me that the key to turning my depression around lay in finding the courage to start writing again. I hadn't found that courage.

"No stories anymore," I whispered. "I don't write anything more." I felt my throat grow thick. I felt tears gathering at the rims of my eyes. All these months, all these doctors, all these meds, and yet I still refused to label myself as, "MENTALLY ILL." But now, here, with this portly Latina woman sitting in front of me, in my fucking bedroom in my fucking rocking chair, how could I possibly resist that label? I was fucking crazy.

"Es important story that I need for you to write."  She reached under her shawl and took out an old journal with a chiseled leather cover.
She opened the journal and in it were a stack of blue pages folded in half and tucked into the front cover.

By now I was feeling like I might need to throw up. I was so desperate for you to disappear. I wanted no part of your story or anything else. "PLEASE," I said, breathlessly. "Please go away," I pleaded. I started to sob. "I have been very very ill," I said, choking on my tears. "I have wanted to take my life. I cannot be cured. No one can help me. No one knows what to do for me and so...I really need you must go."

But of course you didn't budge. You sat there and had such a calm look on your face. I found myself wanting to stare at your face, at its coffee color, at its sculptured flesh, at its slight sheen.

You stood up from the chair and walked over to me. You reached down and took my hand. And slowly you helped me up. I was shaking so badly that I had to let you put your arm around me. Your arm was strong and fleshy. I felt your bosom against my own skinny chest as we walked around the bed. I thought for a moment that you were going to put me back to bed. But instead, you helped me into the rocking chair. And then you made yourself comfortable taking a seat on my unmade bed, facing me.

"Señora Ricci, you need something to help you, yes?"

I snorted, and suddenly my nose was flooding, and I was desperate for tissues. She reached over to the night table for my Kleenex and handed some to me. After I had finished blowing my nose, I sniffled an answer. "I need help, yes I most certainly do." I was about to say, but not from you. Only you continued talking.

"This story" -- and here you held up the leather journal -- "is for me, so so important. Life and death important."

I inhaled. I had absolutely no interest in your story. I had only one thought, that you should disappear, taking your guitar, your flowered shawl, your journal and all those blue pages too.

"I'm sorry, really should go," I whispered. How I wished my husband hadn't had to go out of town. I couldn't even reach him by phone.

"I will go I will. But may I tell you just why I am here? It will only be a moment of your time." I was about to say no but you plowed forward. "I am a poor old woman who made big big mistake." You said the words "beeg" and "meestake." You stopped talking.  You reached over to the tissue box and took one for yourself and dabbed at your dark eyes. "I let a poor innocent woman die," you said, and now you were starting to cry. "You see, I it could be that I stopped it. The hanging" -- here your face crumpled up -- "would never be happening."

Hanging? What hanging? In spite of my impatience, my desire to see you go, you now had snagged my attention. And something else: seeing a poor old woman sobbing into tissues on my bed had struck up a chord of compassion in me. I was distracted at least for the moment from my own worries.

I waited.

"After Renata got hanged," you continued, "I could not live. I could not sleep Not eat. Inside me was worry and I regret.  I prayed. I only prayed. I prayed in day, I prayed at night when I am sleeping. I ask the Virgin for help. All the time. I told her I'm happy to die myself if she bring Renata back."

I blinked. Suddenly I was thinking not about how crazy all of this was, but how real you seemed to be.  I couldn't explain it, but I just knew that you were not an illusion. You were a flesh and blood person. You were a poor old soul who needed help.

"Who...who is Renata?" I whispered in a raspy voice.

Señora, at that moment, your face collapsed onto your chest. You raised a hand to either side of your head. And then you just cried and sobbed and said nothing. You looked so pitiful that I found myself getting up out of the rocking chair. I came and sat there right beside you on the bed. I put my arm around your shoulders and squeezed you and tried to comfort you. It helped. At least you stopped convulsing and crying.

"I need you please so so much your help is what the Virgin said I would get."

"What?" I couldn't understand a word you were saying, Señora, as you have never had a knack for English.

You sniffled and wiped your nose. "The Blessed Virgin. In the nighttime she came to me one time. I was awake all night, not sleeping. And then she was there, glowing in golden light. She was so beautiful." Here you smiled and I saw your missing teeth. Your face was glowing and I found myself drawn to it once again. 

"I need you, to write the true story of Renata, and if you do, then the Virgin promised it would all be mended and Renata would be free and not die like she did hanging from that tree. Will you will you please Señora Ricci, will you take this journal of Renata's and just write the story, so the whole world knows that she never killed Antonie?"

"Antonie? But who is he?" I was struggling now. I wanted her to go, but I also wanted to know more, at least enough to satisfy my curiosity.

"Antonie is cousin to Renata," you said simply. "And he also jefe, hmmm..." here you were searching for the word. "The boss. I am keeper of his house."

I reached over to the night table for a drink of water. My head was dizzy. And I wanted something to eat. But curiously, this was the first morning in months that I actually felt like getting out of bed.

"Would you like some coffee?" I said.

You shook your head. "Tea."

And so I put on my blue bathrobe, and you followed me down two flights of stairs to the kitchen, where I made you a cup of tea and kept listening while you pieced together your story.

Such a long, long time ago all of this seems. How quickly the years we've known each other have gone by. And now you lie there Señora and your time is up. Except, you would remind me of something that you said so long ago, that very morning when we first sat together at the oak table in the kitchen, you drinking chamomile tea and me drinking a second cup of coffee. You said "time is always there the same way and at the same time moments on top of each other." I was completely puzzled.  I thought I didn't understand you because of your broken English. And then you said something else that intrigued me. "No one dies for good and doesn't come back another day."

Of course I couldn't possibly understand what you meant.  It has taken me 139 years to understand what you were trying to say. That not only would I write Renata's story. I would discover that I had lived before. That I had a past life, living as the nun! I AM RENATA! By saving her I am saving me!

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