...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...
"Now see here," said George, his thick negro accent
changing the last word to 'heah', "if you hold de brush dis way,
you can turn dis wide line to a narrow one. Go ahead, you try."
took the offered fan brush from her mentor and, after only a pair of
attempts, copied the stroke exactly. As she became more comfortable
with the new tool, she deftly painted the skeleton of a mighty oak,
from its heavy, strong trunk to the fine tips of its youngest
branches. That done, she experimented with the tips of the
fan-spaced bristles and gave it a colorful fall coat of leaves, each
leaf a kiss of the fine sable hairs. George Rafael Brown looked on
intently, silent with his thoughts.
girl had been taking care of him now for nearly a year. She had been
gentle yet bold, losing her shyness quickly as she learned what was
expected of her and what was not. She took great pains to take
excellent care of him and indeed he had come to love her as a
daughter, though she herself had kept a wall of distance from
emotional involvement with the man. He accepted that as a part of
her and cared for her no less. He was pleased that she had chosen
lessons at the church over more work besides that with Mdm. Leveau.
He himself had only basic reading skills and knew little of the
world outside New Orleans besides what his own eyes and ears had
shown him. He was, however, a gifted artist, able to express his
knowledge deftly with ink or paint. Arthritis had taken its toll in
the last 10 years, stealing his gift if not his knowledge. This he
was pleased to pass on to Celeste, but he knew already she would
surpass him quickly in skill. A pang of sorrow gripped his heart as
he realized she would leave him sooner than he wished.
watched his pupil paint, a knock at the door disturbed his thoughts.
Before he could scoot back his chair to rise, Celeste had laid the
brush down and was already on her way to the door. He shook his head
and listened for who the evening visitor might be.
evening sir..." Celeste's clear deep voice drifted back to him.
"What can I do for you?"
wish to speak with Mr. Brown. Is he in?" followed a rich
baritone voice with an unusual accent.
frowned slightly and got to his feet as quickly as he was able. He
faced the room's doorway tensely as Celeste led the man before her
charge. The aged black man stepped forward with a wry smile and
extended his hand to his guest. "Sang, you look well. Please,
watched the stranger glide to a clean but tattered couch, taking in
every detail of his aspect. He looked like some of the Chinese
rail-workers she had seen on occasion near the docks, but different
somehow. She could not be sure of his age as his smooth skin
disagreed with the slight graying at his temples. His eyes were
black like hers, and seemed to swallow everything they saw. She felt
as if she should hide when those eyes flicked over her. He was
dressed in a fine gray suit, impeccably neat right down to the
delicate ruby-studded cufflinks and highly polished black leather
I get you something,sir?" Celeste offered, wondering at the
amused look which passed between George and the newcomer at her
thank you child," the stranger replied, turning his hungry
black eyes back to George. Unsure what to think, and both curious
and cautious for her friend, she purposefully crossed the room to
take back her seat at the small table beside George. Her defiant
glance told her mentor of her distrust. Still, she found as she
watched this man, Sang, that he fascinated her, and her painting
took on a different subject as she continued her practice while the
sorry to say, Mister Brown, that you do not look as well as when I
saw you last." The black eyes seemed to accuse the old artist
as the words crossed the room.
shifted uncomfortably in his seat as old conflicts shifted across
his thoughts. "Course I don't look as good. I ain't seen you in
almost 10 year..." He raised moist brown eyes to the Asian,
accusation of his own peering out from under shaggy white brows.
was what you wanted, was it not, Mr, Brown? You could have let me
help you." The black eyes did not relent as they swallowed the
accusation of George Brown. The gaze flicked across Celeste before
he continued. "I see you have at least some help for yourself
now that you require it."
not flinch from the sting of the words, though he laid a gentle hand
on Celeste's shoulder. She looked up at him with a quiet smile. Her
heart registered the verbal stab of the stranger, but she let it
pass since she was an outsider in this until George should ask her
otherwise. A fierce surge of affection kindled the loyalty in her
heart. If, however, George should ask anything of her, she
would do her best to give it.
is Celeste, my student and helper. She is a good girl." George
patted her hand as he spoke, though his words came out harshly,
protectively, it seemed to the girl. She looked again to the strange
man and wondered what George was afraid of.
eh?" Sang asked, then rose gracefully to stride over to the
table. He looked intently at the small accumulation of drawings and
paintings between the old man and girl, then focused on Celeste.
"You did these, child?"
Celeste wished more than anything for this man's praise. She met his
eyes squarely and forced a shy smile to her face. "Yes
sir...George been teachin' me..." She clasped her hands tightly
together in her lap, trying not to fidget as the Asian scrutinized
do fine work for one so young. George has taught you well. What will
you do when you can no longer care for him?"
looked away, not wishing to face that inevitability. She missed the
feral grin Sang shot at her mentor. George frowned, knowing what
seed had been planted. With a gentle squeeze to Celeste's hand,
George aimed his words toward her. "Well hopefully dat won't be
for a long while yet." He smiled reassuringly at Celeste. She
returned a grin, but their thoughts were interrupted with the next
words from their guest.
"But it will come. Perhaps
you should consider your future, child. The world is changing. You
may have many opportunities, if only you accept them. Perhaps George
will explain to you what I mean?" Sang gestured toward the aged
artist, leaving him little choice but to speak.
meet Sang Po. He is a very talented artist from China. We met a long
time ago when I used to work fo' de white folk up on de hill. He was
a guest dere, where de lady of de house had a likin' fo' his
drawings. I guess he had a likin' f'me too, since he bought me from
her..." Celeste tried to hide her surprise and bit her tongue
as George continued. "He was lookin' fo' a student, see, kinda
like I was lookin' f'you. De thing about it was, he didn't care if I
was black or white or green. He taught me a lot of what I been
teachin' you, chere."
looked again to Po, respect kindling for the stranger. He smiled
down at her like a fox in a henhouse as George told his tale. The
gruff old voice went on, ignoring Po, focusing on the past.
"Until den, I always been owned by somebody, cookin', cleanin',
pickin' or choppin', only drawin' when I had a little time. Ol' Sang
here, he gave me plenty o' time for drawin', and finally let me go,
when it look like a slave could go safely free in de streets, at
least in New Orleans if no place else."
took in the information, filing it away to analyze later. "Den
grimaced, his gnarled hands clenching into fists. "De fightin',
chere. De French and Spanish be fightin' all de time, and nobody had
no money fo' art. De rich folks started leavin', till finally de
Americans took over. Even wit de Spanish sayin' most of deir black
folk was free an' givin' some of us land, de Americans still had a
lot of folk who weren't ready to accept free niggers. I couldn't get
no work unless I left New Orleans, mebbe even America. Po asked me
to go back to China wit him."
didn't you go den?" Celeste asked, innocent and curious. She
couldn't understand such a missed opportunity if Po was truly as
talented as George said.
fell silent, looking balefully up at Sang. His throat worked, but no
sound came out. Celeste cast a frightened look to Po. The Asian's
mouth was twisted with an eerie smile, hungry eyes like flint.
all this time, I see you still do as I ask." Po remarked,
clasping his hands behind his back. "Fear, I think, child, and
stubborness kept your friend here. He had
certain...responsibilities...as my apprentice. Perhaps he did not
think them fitting for a free man. And it is hard for a stubborn old
man to leave his home. He is, perhaps, older then you might think,
Celeste." Abruptly turning, Sang Po returned to his seat across
the room from the artist and his helper. "In any case, I did
not wish to cause him discomfort in my service and left him behind
as he wished." Leveling his eyes at the old man, Sang fired his
final shot. "I have thought of him often over the years, and
looked for him as soon as I returned to this country. I wished to
ask him if he regretted his choice."
girl turned her eyes once more to her friend, she was dismayed to
see tears in his eyes. He took Celeste's hands between his own, and
spoke softly to her, almost a whisper. "Celeste, dere's worse
things in dis world den bein' slaves to de white folk. You ask Mdm.
Leveau 'bout dat." Then turning his tear streaked face toward
Po, he spoke gruffly but clearly. "Sang, I missed you every day
of de last 10 years, but no, I don't regret my choice."
Suddenly, he wrapped his arms around Celeste, who endured the
embrace with tension and confusion. In her ear, his whisper rasped
with pain and love she had never realized. "No matter what
happens, chere, you remember you always got a choice. Don't let
nobody steal it from you."
stood as George relaxed his embrace. "I'm happy to know that
your life was as you wished. I shall leave you now, but I will be
back. May I look in on the child's progress?"
she wants it, Po," George replied, turning his eyes away from
a smile at Celeste that started her heart pounding. "You really
a great artist, sir?" she asked.
have said so, child," he replied. "Perhaps you can judge
for yourself. If I show you some of my work, would you show me
yours? Then you may make your own opinion." His smile seemed
warm and sincere, and Celeste knew only one desire at that moment.
think I'd like that sir." Celeste beamed with hope for the
future, secure that she was old enough to make her own choices.
be it then." grinned Po, a glance at George shouting victory at
stone-faced as the Asian artist left, Celeste staring after him. He
forced a smile to his face, however, when Celeste turned back to
him, eyes and heart full of questions it would break his heart to
answer, even if it had been allowed him.
tucked the blanket closer around George's shoulders and wiped his
face with a damp towel. She frowned at the sooty look that had
replaced his normal chocolate color.
on, take a little of dis tea, George..." The girl steadied the
old man's head as she lifted the cup to his lips. "Maybe I
should call de doctor. You've been sick for a week and ain't gettin'
eyes raised to hers, taking a moment to focus. "Celeste? Dat
you little girl?" A weak smile curved cracked lips.
forced a smile to her face. "Yes, George, I'm here. Let me call
a good girl, but I don't need no doctor. Jus' need..." Wheezing
choked the words for a minute before he could finish. "need
right den. You rest." The girl stood and turned quickly away
before the old man could see the tears fall from her eyes. She
closed the bedroom door behind her with a soft thud.
let her out onto a small but cozy sitting room that she and her
mentor used as a study. A small table held pencils and charcoals and
an easel stood in the corner, a tray of paints and brushes beside
it. She stood in front of the easel for a moment, then dropped
heavily to a small stool in front of it. Her shoulders shook with
silent sobs for long minutes while the shadows stretched across the
room. She didn't know how old George was. Even he didn't know for
sure, but she knew he was running out of time. She also knew that
she loved him. A creak of the moisture swollen old floorboards
brought her head up sharply. No further sound betrayed the footsteps
of the man striding out of the shadows into the moonlit room.
is the matter, Celeste?" A familiar voice asked.
stood quickly, shaking hands attempting to light an oil lamp. As the
match flared to life, the visitor blinked and stepped back a pace,
but Celeste recognized the face that went with the lilting voice.
"Oh, Mr. Po...you scared me," she said, replacing the
chimney on the oil lamp. "Please, sit down. You here to see Mr.
you, child. I came to see how you both were doing, and to show you
these, as I promised." The Asian extended his hand, a thick
folder clasped in it. Hungry black eyes flicked quickly from
Celeste's tear stained cheeks to the stairway behind her, then back
to her. He placed the folder on the pencil-strewn table then crossed
to stand before the girl. With a gentle hand on one shoulder, and a
finger from the other under her chin, he raised her eyes up to his.
Tears welled once more in the girl's black eyes. In a soft voice,
Sang Po repeated, "What is the matter. Don't you want to tell
Celeste wanted to tell him everything. In a quiet, broken voice, she
told Po of George's illness and growing weakness, and her fears for
him and herself if he didn't get better. "He got sick not long
after you was here, sir. An' it jus' got worse. Now he don't hardly
eat, and he ain't breathin' too good. He won't let me call no
doctor." Frightened eyes rose to meet the Asian's. "An'
I'm so scared. I don't know what we gonna do."
put his arms lightly around the girl. She stiffened in the cool
embrace, then relaxed, too weary and frightened to resist. Light
danced in his eyes, though she could not see it, as he spoke firmly
in her ear. "Hush, child. You need not worry. Sang Po will help
you." He released her and smiled confidently into her tired
face. "Take me to see our friend, hmm?"
led Po up to George's room. "Celeste, please go prepare some
water for tea. We will try an old Chinese medicine." Celeste
nodded and went quickly back downstairs, eager to help with anything
that might aid George. Po went into the room and closed the door
Shadows hid the face that bent over the frail black man as he
lay struggling for breath. A cool hand stroked the damp forehead
almost lovingly before rising to the grim mouth. A second later, the
hand was poised over cracked swollen lips, an errant gleam of
lamplight catching a hint of ruby as it disappeared into the
sleeper's mouth. Sang Po let the powerful essence of his being flow
for only brief minutes before withdrawing his wrist and healing its
tiny wound. By the time Celeste's soft tread announced her presence
with a creak at the top of the landing, no trace of injury
could be seen.
"Here's dat water you asked for, sir." The
girl said to the visitor. Steam rose from the spout of a battered
enamel teapot as she set it down on the small bedside table along
with a chipped china teacup. Kneeling down on the dusty wooden
floor, she took a gray-brown hand in her small ones and began
chafing it slightly, as if willing life into the gnarled digits.
Behind her, Po took a small folded paper packet from within
his impeccable vest and emptied it into the steamimg pot. He looked
on absently while he swirled the pot gently and hummed a lilting
little tune. He smiled when the girl sighed, shoulders sagging a
little. "You have been working very hard taking care of your
"It weren't no trouble." Celeste murmrured, eyes
not leaving George's face. "I just wish he'd get
better..." A sudden yawn kept her from saying more, and then
Po's hand on her shoulder was drawing her away.
Teacup in hand, his voice ordered her softly aside.
"Allow me then, child. Let us see if wishes can come
true." Slipping a lean arm under the aged artist's head, Po
raised lips to cup, administering tiny sips of tea which the patient
swallowed reflexively. As the arm withdrew to let George's head slip
back against the sweat-stained pillow, bleary eyes opened to meet
hungry black ones. The sudden struggle from the old man to rise was
deftly halted by the Asian with a palm flat on his chest.
"Po! Celeste...where's Celeste?" Even weak and
gruff, panic was clear in George's voice as he struggled against Po.
The girl was on her feet and throwing her arms around her
mentor's neck before their guest could answer. Po's hands withdrew
in her wake, a pleased smile hiding in the shadows of his face as he
watched her joy. "George! I'm right here, George. It's all
right now. You just take it easy. We gon' be all right."
A dark hand rested weakly on her back as George returned the
hug. "Course we are, chere," he chuckled in her ear.
"Help me sit up better now."
Immediately, Celeste did as she was asked, flashing a
grateful smile to Sang Po who had retreated to stand near the window
across the room. "You feel any better?" she asked George
suspiciously as she fussed over pillows and blankets. "Mr. Po
came by to show me his paintings like he said, but when he saw you
were sick he wanted to help. He made some tea...here," she
said, handing George the cup.
He accepted it suspiciously, sniffing it as if it were
poisoned, then set the cup undrunken onto the table with a shaking
hand. "Maybe later, chere." He said, casting a dark glance
at Po while he moistened dry lips. "I think I'll be all right,
Po stepped back into the warm yellow light of the bedside oil
lamp, its flickering flame making his yellow skin seem to glow like
gold. He extended a perfectly shaped hand to Celeste, along with a
perfectly shaped smile. "Perhaps we should let Mr. Brown rest
now, so that the tea we gave him might have more time to work. We
still have time to talk about art, if you wish?"
Celeste's eyes glowed and her smile was the moon in the night
sky as she stepped forward. Suddenly, she halted, her smile
faltering. She turned back to the bed. "You all right George?
I'd rather stay, if you need me..."
George shook his head with a weary smile. Something in his
eyes bothered Celeste, but she didn't know what it was. 'It look
like sadness', she thought as she followed Sang Po out of the
room with light steps.
-Sonja Torres 1999