The Beginning...


  The teenaged girl shivered a little in the darkness and pulled her sweater tighter around herself. She walked faster against the chill down the worn road that would lead her into the city. Even this late at night, she could see lights as the road widened, inviting her into the welcoming arms of New Orleans. Celeste had been down this road many times with her mother but never alone. She shivered again, but not from the damp chill air. Excitement, freedom, and fear all fought for supremacy of her emotions as she approached her future.

  The city had been growing at an amazing rate since the Americans had taken control of it. Until then the city had been built and rebuilt to the patterns of both French and Spanish beaurocrats who had failed miserably in both populating the city and at guiding it to its potential. The Americans seemed to have made no such mistake and had also left the legacies of the former owners relatively undisturbed. While slaves like her mother were still considered property, this city had the largest population in the country of freemen, those slaves and immigrants who had been freed or given land by the desperate Spanish to people their property against the French and English surrounding them. Here, amid the growing population and tolerance of free blacks, Celeste hoped to maintain what she had left her mother's side to gain.

  One young dark-skinned girl would be hard to find in such a city where many like her roamed free of slavery's bonds. The growing population required service of many forms. She was sure work would not be hard to find. Still, how long could a young girl remain safe alone in such a city? She had no identity and no protection against any who might choose to entrap, molest, or harm her. Casting a glance over her shoulder at the discouraging thought, she considered by what means she could avoid such trouble. Once she found a job, she would have some protection, she realized. If someone needed her, they would protect her. But where should she go until then? She had no family but her mother, who she would probably never see again. Any acquaintance of the master might return her to him, so she had to be careful of who she revealed herself to. Letting her feet follow the larger streets as she considered, she paid little attention to where she was going. "Mon Dieux, ou peut je t'aller?" Indeed, where could she go for shelter until she had found her own?

  Tripping over a stone in the road, her attention was forced back to her surroundings. She stifled a yawn and searched the array of lanterns and shadows surrounding her. Storefronts interspersed with a few fences behind which stood private homes ignored her plight in their sullen darkness. Peering further up the street, she could make out signs denoting inns for the travelers who could afford them. Their lights beckoned invitingly into the night, but Celeste knew they would not help her. Even if she offered to work in one, waking the proprietor at this hour would more likely reduce her chances of getting in the door than helping. No, maybe after dawn she could seek sanctuary there, but not now. She walked wearily past the lights, her search continuing. Gazing up at the bright silver stars, she forced down a moment of despair. As her eyes threatened to flood, a gleam of brilliance like a ruby tear seemed to flash up ahead. A rush of breeze fanned her face and brought lantern flames to a sudden flair. Again, the ruby light, and a glimpse of green and blue as well, forced her eyes up to their source.

  Celeste stopped suddenly and stared into the magical play of light and color gleaming from a tall narrow window.  Surrounded by whitewashed timber, the collage of color sorted itself into an image. A beautiful woman holding a laughing babe seemed to smile down at the Creole runaway. Celeste's eyes traveled down the spire of wood and color to a larger building-front flanked by a pair of columns beyond which stood a wide door. A lantern hung lit above it in a welcoming glow. Heaving a weary sigh, Celeste plodded past the gate and up the steps to the door. Her hand trembled as she reached for the latch. When it clicked open, she released the breath she forgot she had been holding.

  As she closed the door behind her, she let her eyes and body adjust to the flickering light and gentle warmth of the large room. Inhaling deeply, she took in the musky scent of incense and wax. Away from the breeze and dampness of the world outside, she shivered in reaction and crept up the aisle between the two long rows of benches. In the shifting candlelight, she could just make out the shape of a cross on the wall at the end of the aisle. It hung above a large altar that seemed to writhe as the candles gave the carving life. Along the side walls, more rich colors like the ones that had called her invited her mind to fill itself with their beauty. Unable to walk any further, Celeste stopped midway down the aisle and stepped into one of the pews. Settling herself on the worn wood bench, she rested her head on her small basket and fell into a deep sleep.


-Sonja Torres 1999

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