The Beginning...

New Beginnings

  Celeste awoke to gem-colored beams of light and a stiff neck. As she sat up, stretching out the kinks from her sleep on the church pew, her eyes followed the beams of glory up to the windows that were their source. In the early morning light she could see the brilliant pictures made by the mosaic of cut glass and sunshine. She didn't realize she was staring in rapt awe until a hand touched her shoulder. Startled, she jumped and twisted in her seat to stare up at the intruder on her thoughts.

  A middle-aged white man stood staring back at her from under white bangs that needed a trim. His smile was gentle, though the deep lines of his face showed that he had learned to also be firm. He quickly withdrew his hand, having gotten the visitor's attention. "Well look what the cat dragged in..." His voice was deep and echoed a little in the high-ceilinged sanctuary. His eyes twinkled playfully as Celeste gathered her wits.

  "I..I'm sorry...I didn't have nowhere else to go last night. Just needed someplace to sleep." The girl frowned and picked up her basket. The man glanced at it then back to her, but he remained silent. "I'll get goin' now..." A sudden thought seemed to stop her as she was rising and she held the basket out toward the stranger. "I didn't steal nothin'" she stated, standing up straight and meeting the man's eyes.

  The stranger took the basket from Celeste and set it back down on the hard wooden bench. " I never said you did." He stepped back a pace, giving the girl room to move past him into the wide aisle that ran down the center of the building. He faced her, standing between Celeste and the large double doors that led back onto the street. "But before I can let you go, I must ask you something."

  The runaway gripped her basket in a deathlock, but said nothing. Even as she awaited the question she feared he would ask, her mind thought out the distance to the door and how best she could reach it if he tried to keep her from it. She could barely hear him over the pounding of her heart. When the words finally made it past her terror, they were so unexpected she feared she had lost her mind.

  "Have you got somewhere to go, chere?"

 'What?' she thought. 'Is he serious?' She clamped her mouth shut and stared at him, her disbelief slow to leave her. When the concerned look on his face did not leave, and neither did her captor budge, she decided on an answer. "Yes, sir. I gotta go find me a job today." Gambling on the chance that his concern might be real and not some trap to keep her there, Celeste asked a question of her own. "You know sombody could use a maid or a cook? Maybe a hotel or somethin'?" Anything to make him move, she prayed silently, shifting her stance enough that she could more easily dodge past him to the sweet freedom bound by heavy iron hinges just a few yards away.

  Without changing his position, the man reached into an inside pocket of his dark grey suit. "Maybe," he said, withdrawing a few scraps of paper and a pencil stub. "Can you read, miss?"

  Celeste answered with a wide proud smile. "Yes, sir."

  "Well all right then," he scribbled hastily as he spoke."Go see this woman at Sacred Heart Catholic Church." He handed her the paper, pointing out the names. "Her name is Marie Doucette.."

  Celeste listened carefully to the directions then tucked the paper away in a pocket of her dress. Sidling around ever closer to the door, she was still unsure of the kindness of the stranger. Grateful for whatever chance she could get however, she would not pass up any opportunity that came her way. When her benefactor finally stepped aside, she took one last, longing look toward the stained glass windows, mumbled a hasty 'Thank you' then fled for the door. She kept moving in a brisk walk for several blocks, not slowing till the safety of distance eased the tension at her back.

  By midmorning, Celeste's steps brought her in sight of an old but freshly whitewashed steeple-topped building. The girl glanced at the paper in her hand and smiled that at least in this, the old man had proved truthful. A red and white sign near the street announced that this was indeed Sacred Heart Catholic Church. Celeste's eyes wandered over the building, looking for more glass-light pictures like the ones that had lured her to her haven of the previous night. She was disappointed, however, to see only plain leaded glass decking the walls of this church. As she stood staring, a figure appeared from around the side of the building. An old black man with a slight limp was carrying a rake and hoe. He didn't notice the small dark teen until he'd stopped near the door of the church and turned to rest against the wall. Wiping sweat from his brow, he cocked a grizzled eyebrow at her and grinned. "Whatsa matter, ain't you never seen a church before?"

  Celeste moved forward a few paces, withdrawing the paper from her pocket. "I'm lookin' for a lady named Marie Doucette. Is she here?"

  "Not yet," said the man, gathering up the tools,"but she'll be here in a little while. You can come in an' wait for her if you want. Follow me." He went to the door and disappeared inside but left the portal open behind him. With a shrug, Celeste followed.

  A little over an hour and a meal of bread, cheese and milk later, Mme. Doucette arrived. Henry, the gardener, took his leave and left Celeste to explain her circumstances to the woman. Somewhere between 30 and 50, Marie was stout of frame and sharp of eye. She had a heavy accent and a hearty laugh that put Celeste quickly at ease. Marie was careful not to pry, only asking the teen about what she was looking for, not where she had been. Celeste felt, however, that had the woman asked, she'd have told her anything. After listening carefully, Marie pursed her lips, thinking in silence for several minutes. While she waited for the verdict, Celeste doodled on the scrap of paper she had shown her hostess. By the time Marie was ready to give her decision, the tiny scrap was covered with pictures blocked out in tiny mosaics, a colorless echo of the light picures still glowing and shifting in Celeste's mind. The older woman followed the pencil strokes with her eyes as she offered the child both home and work.

  There was a man, she said, who was of poor health and needed some help taking care of his house. If Celeste could cook and clean for him, he would see to her food and clothes and the rest of her time would be hers. She could go to school or work. The church had a small school, of sorts, Marie told her, made up of a small group of educated black men and women who wanted to share their knowledge with the children of the church who wished it. One of those women, Marie Laveau, had a very busy schedule with religious matters and needed an assistant. If Celeste was interested, a meeting could be arranged.

  So it was that Celeste came to keep house for an aging artist, but it was the voudou mambo Marie Laveau who taught her the most. Until the night he came...

-Sonja Torres 1999

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