Beneath the Willows – Chapter 2

Beneath the bright sun of a blue sky morning, Simone Plachette danced with two Creole girls in Jackson Square – laughing and twirling like a flock of gulls spinning toward tossed bread. Sunlight sparkled in her raven-black hair, as its shining ribbons splaying in time to the spin of her billowing, lavender skirt.

“Simone,” one of the girls said between giggles, grasping the woman’s hands as they spun in opposite directions. “You’re so much fun!”

“Oui!” another girl said. She took hold of Simone’s other hand and twirled, using Simone as the fulcrum. “I love when we dance!”

“Me, too,” Simone said, laughing. “I wish I were twelve, like you!”

The sisters’ parents watched from the steps of New Orleans famed, Lower Pontalba building. It was one of two newly constructed row houses bordering the formal gardens of the Square. Laughing along with the trio, the parents clapped when the imaginary music stopped. They smiled when the sisters hugged their twenty-six-year old playmate.

“Who wants to be in my next painting?” Simone said. Her eyes darted between each as she leaned down. She placed both hands on her knees, grinning at the girls face to face.

“ME!” one of the sisters said, throwing her hand up before the other could say a word. “I want to be! I want to be!”

“You win, Lucette,” Simone said, smiling at the sister who was first. She glanced at the girl who had not raised her hand as quickly. “Alise? I’ll paint you next time, oui?”

The girl nodded. “Oui, Simone!” she said. “Tomorrow?” Simone shrugged.

“Perhaps,” she said. “If I finish Lucette by tonight.”

“Do I get to keep the painting?” Lucette said, her wide, brown eyes eager with hope. Simone’s eyes drifted toward the parents and they nodded.

“You do indeed, Mademoiselle,” Simone said, motioning toward an easel placed beside the iron fence surrounding the Square. “Now, shall we begin?”

“Yes!” the girls said as one, jumping up and down like rabbits hopping in place. Simone brought her hands together in one, cracking clap.

“Good,” she said. “Let’s get started.”

Saturday morning brought hundreds of people into Jackson Square, especially on a mild, late spring day. Once an ignored military parade ground, it now thrived as a block-sized park. Black iron fencing enclosed stone-paved walkways, lush landscaping and even a small menagerie filled with exotic birds.

Opposite the river and across the gardens stood St. Louis Cathedral, with its trinity of tall, pointed gray spires forming the centerpiece of Catholicism in New Orleans. It, along with flanking buildings called the Cabildo and matching Presbytere, created a civic and religious backdrop to the formal gardens of Jackson Square.

Most people visited to enjoy the day, choosing to picnic, promenade or people watch. Some came after morning prayers, while others arrived early to take advantage of the vibrant markets filling the lands between Levee Street and the river.

Packed with fresh produce, exotic goods and vendors from around the world, the markets bustled with activity from sunrise to sunset. With available choices in a state of constant flux, they offered unique experiences found only within the French Quarter.

Ships covered the river behind the markets – either tied to the docks, anchored in the strong current or steaming up and down the thick, tan waters of the Mississippi River. Tall-mast sloops, steamships, paddle-driven riverboats – all plied the river delivering goods or people. At times, they were stacked so deep, that one might cross the river by walking deck to deck – never wetting a foot.

Even on Saturday, shipments continued. Slaves stacked bales of cotton into thick towers of white puffy cubes. Others unloaded hogsheads from mule-drawn wagons, each filled with anything from sugar to rum to sorghum syrup. Men sang, others yelled and foremen hollered instructions, filling the air with the human music of work. Neighing horses, stamping hooves and the jingle of tack; all contributed to the symphony of the docks.

Overhead, seagulls wheeled and cried, searching for food scraps either tossed or fallen onto the streets. Women with flowery, silk parasols strolled beside cane-toting lovers. They discussed news of the day, what might be best for breakfast, or anything in between. Street vendors unpacked carts, musicians prepared their instruments for mid-morning performances and artists put brush to canvas.

Simone’s easel sat on the lower corner of the Square, just outside the fence and across Rue St. Ann from the lower Pontalba Building. Across Levee Street from the market, her spot basked in shade given by low-hanging limbs of the live oaks, draping haphazardly over spear-tipped, wrought iron fencing.

“Simone,” Alise and Lucette’s mother said, having walked over after the girls joined her at her easel. Simone looked up with a smile, one that brightened moods with its dimple-forming radiance.

“Would you mind watching the girls while we go to Market?”

“Of course!” Simone said. She cast her gaze upon the sisters. “You don’t mind helping me, do you?”

“YAY!” Alise said. “Can I paint, too?” Simone nodded, lifting a small, stretched canvas from her nest of supplies leaning against the fence. She handed over a pair of brushes, as well as a palate for paints.

“Oui,” she said. “You shall learn to mix colors.” Alise clapped her hands and grinned at her mother.

“I’m going to be an artist, Ma-Ma!” The woman nodded at Simone.

“Tres bien, Alise,” her mother said, sharing a knowing look with her husband. Dressed for a Saturday stroll, the man tipped his tall, lavender top hat to Simone as the mother finalized instructions.

“Behave yourselves, mes cheris,” she said. “We shall return later this afternoon.”

“Oui, Ma-ma!” the girls said at once. “Bonsoir, Pa-pa!” Both parents nodded, then strolled arm in arm toward the market, leaving Simone with their daughters.

“Now, Lucette,” Simone said once the couple departed. “Sit still and we shall get started.”

“Oui, Simone,” she said, sitting on her stool.

“I want you to watch the seagulls as if you were one of them,” Simone said. Lifting her brush, she considered the little girl, then daubed the brush into a blue-green mixture of paint.

“What do I paint, Simone?” Alise said, inspecting a small, wooden palette, a knife and a tin of paints. Seated cross-legged against the fence, Alise had the supplies laid on the ground before her.

“Use the knife to daub paints onto the palette,” Simone said. “Choose red, the yellow and the cyan.”

Alise nodded, dipping the knife into the yellow. With a gleeful grin, she smeared the paint onto the palette.

Simone lost herself in the art, creating blocks of color that resembled nothing discernable. A couple stopped, spending moments inspecting Simone’s work. The woman, dressed in orange as if ready for a ball, grinned at the two girls.  Alise returned the smile, yet Lucette remained focused and perfectly still.

The beaux, however, didn’t appear interested in the painting at all. Instead, he stared down Simone’s open-topped smock, which revealed ample cleavage as Simone leaned forward.

Before she could say bonsoir, the woman noticed her beaux’s eyes and snatched him away by the arm – muttering about harlots as they walked away. By the look on the man’s face, Simone realized he was getting an ear full for his eye full.

“Ya no be temptin em like dat, Sea-moan-eh,” a husky-voiced woman said from behind.

“Dey may tink ya da devil, an cast ya out da city.”

Simone laughed, shaking her head while streaking a blue-green swath across her canvas. Alise giggled, yet continued mixing paints into colorful blobs. Lucette pretended to be a seagull.

“That’s the plan, Maria,” Simone said seductively. She narrowed her eyes. “Tempt them with my art, then steal their souls for eternity.”

An elderly woman passing by gasped, then scurried away – her fingers fiercely working a set of black rosary beads clutched in her gnarled, wrinkled hands.

Sister Maria, all three hundred plus pounds of her, leaped into the air and cackled, pointing a thick, bejeweled finger at the retreating lady. Multiple strands of gold and silver beads hanging around Maria’s neck clinked together, as if they, too, were laughing at the frightened woman.

“Ya put da fear in ‘er, Simon-eh!” Maria said, still chuckling. “Just as I be tellin ya.”

Simone brushed a streak of yellowish paint onto her canvas, pulling it down in a thick, feathery motion. Two other children, a girl and a boy, dashed across the street toward Simone and Maria, calling out, “Sister Maria!” “Sister Maria!”

“Just as you be telling me,” Simone said, replacing her brush with a thin, charcoal pencil. This she used to outline the area through which a river would flow.

“You’d think they’d have gotten used to me by now.”

“Dey don’t like seein what dey don’t undah-stand,” Maria said. “People be blind like dat.”

“What do you see?” Simone said, glancing over her shoulder at Maria. “What do you understand?” Maria cackled again, causing the children to cheer.

She plucked pieces of picayune candy from within the pocket of her ankle length, burgundy dress. A wide, black silken sash wound around her waist. Clasped tight with a golden buckle, it hid the candy’s location from the children.

“I know many tings,” Maria said, offering the candy to the children. “I see many tings.”

“I undah-stand many tings.”

She ruffled the hair of the boy and girl as they thanked her for the candy.

“It be takin more dan dis con-vah-sation for ya ta know what Maria know.”

Simone found it fascinating the way her friend talked. R’s became ah’s, and h’s didn’t seem to exist. They painted a lyrical language that tickled Simone’s heart with musical pleasure. Turning her name into three syllables was a delight, as if each was a separate word – with moan being her favorite.

She chose a color for the river, or rather a mixture of colors unique to Lucette. Something the children wouldn’t expect – a color matching the little girl’s spirit and essence.

Sparkling sea-foam green came to mind.

“But ya do see many tings, Simone-eh,” Maria continued. “Ya paint like da mojo be flowin true ya and on to da canvas.” She nodded, leaning closer to inspect.

“Ya see da girl as if she be da water and da gull at dee same time.”

Simone stopped, her brush lingering over the canvas without making a stroke. She turned. “You can see that in my painting?”

The woman nodded, her multi-colored tignon shaking its beads and bones in agreement. Covering her hair, the linen wrap spun around her head, spiraling upwards in swirls of burgundy and black.

Simone pursed her lips and smiled, completing her mark on the canvas.

“Lucette?” she said, turning the easel so the girl could view the work in progress. “What do YOU see so far?” The girl cocked her head in thought, placing a finger to her mouth.

“I see myself flying away to a new, magical land,” she said, her voice soft and quiet. So much so, that the chattering gulls flying overhead almost drowned her out.

“Some place beautiful, just beyond the water!” The children nodded.

“Really?” Simone asked.

Maria’s face went still as she stared at the little Creole girl. Lucette bobbed her head, almost laughing.

“Flying tickles!”

“I bet it does,” Simone said, twisting the easel back. She daubing paint onto her brush from the palette.

“I wish I knew how to fly.”

Morning turned toward noon, with warm, cooling breezes flowing in from the river. By the time the parents returned, Alise had mixed a colorful mess on her palate and Lucette was squirming like a trapped squirrel.

“LUCETTE?” their mother called out, standing inside the garden and beneath the oaks. She held a basket, while in the distance her husband was spreading a blanket atop the green lawn.

“ALISE! Time to go. Tell the lovely artist good day and come along!”

“Bonne journée, Simone,” Lucette said, gathering her skirts and standing. “Will you be here tomorrow painting my picture?”

“Oui,” Simone said, smiling. “I might even be finished!”

“Oh goody!” Lucette said. “Then I shall see you tomorrow! Au Revoir!”

“Au Revoir,” Simone replied. Maria said nothing, simply staring at the two girls who dashed toward the gate with pigtails bouncing.

Maria mumbled, opened a small, cloth bag and took a pinch of powder from within. Bringing it to her lips, she kissed it then tossed the powder into the air.

Simone watched, fascinated by the ritual. “A blessing?” she said, cocking her head. Maria smiled, though only in response.

“Soom-ting like dat,” she said quietly. “Ya coom by latah, Simon-eh. We be avin tea.” Simone smiled, her face lighting up like Lucette’s colorful form on the canvas.

“I would like that!”

“Den I see ya soon.”

“Au Revoir, Sister Maria!” the other children said, almost as one.

“Come, lit-luns,” she said, opening her arms wide. “Let Sister Maria be givin yas da hug.” The two children jumped into her arms, allowing themselves to be absorbed into her bosom.

“Dere ya be,” she said, rocking them back and forth. “I be keepin ya safe. Ya be okay dis night.”

Once she let them go, Maria waggled an amethyst-ringed finger at Simone. “No be late,” she said. “Da tea’ll go cold if ya be.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Simone said, smiling after the departing priestess. She returned to her painting.

Lucette the Gull.

That would be the title. A beautiful one, about soaring and flying free.


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