Beneath the Willows – Chapter 6

The sun had set on New Orleans by the time Simone arrived at Sister Maria’s ‘chapel’ as she called it. A shop off Rue Toulouse, it was an aged, brick building with flaking, green shuddered windows. To most, it looked more like a rubbish barn than a church.

Once inside, scented candles greeted Simone, filling her nose with the smells of exotic spice. Colorful parakeets twittered in cages lining the walls.

Passing from the foyer into the main room, four wooden chairs with animal hide seats surrounded a hand-tooled, rectangular table. Centered in the space, nine thick candles melted into its surface – lighting the room with flickering, yellow light and staining the top with thick, oily wax.

A heaviness hung in the space, heightened by blacked out windows and flickering shadows. Hollow masks, grinning animal skulls and stone carved idols peered from barely seen thick, wooden shelves.

“Simon-eh!” Maria called out as she entered the church. “I got da tea brewin in da back. Seet tight, I be dere in de mo-ment.”

“Okay,” Simone said, pulling a chair from the thick table and claiming a seat. She’d been here often enough to know where to take tea. Maria’s special readings required patrons arrange themselves in particular ways. Therefore, Simone knew exactly where to sit and why.

“Do ya be wantin’ a readin?” Maria asked, emerging from the back. She carried two cups on saucers, and a brown pottery teapot on a wooden tray.

“May-be we find dat man for ya.”

Simone took the tea cup and smiled, sniffing the aromatic flavor before drinking. Jasmine with a hint of spice; perhaps cinnamon. The scent tickled like a feathery touch across her tongue. Always something different, Sister Maria’s tea never failed to delight.

“Of course,” Simone said, taking a sip. “You know I never turn down the opportunity to learn whose heart I’ll wreck.”

“Doan chu be talkin’ dat way,” the priestess said, her chair creaking from the weight. “Ju bring da hoodoo upon ya wits talk like dat.” She sipped her tea.

“Ya best tink bout whatcha be wantin and who it be wits at all time.” Simone nodded.

Maria pulled a deck of cards from seemingly nowhere, stacking them next to a thick, mostly melted red candle whose wax had spread around its base like moss from an ancient tree.

She drew three cards and arranged them on the table directly across from Simone. Then, whispering soft unknown words, sprinkled dust across the tops – candlelight casting glittering glows on the cards themselves.

She flipped one, then another and then a third – each one coming with an “ahhh” from the large priestess.

“Dis be good, Simon-eh,” Maria said. “Very good indeed!” Simone peered over the cards, inspecting each of the figures and shapes. After a year of watching, she’d never quite figured out what all of the little creatures on the cards meant to the Caribbean priestess.

Simone looked up. “How do you mean?”

“Da fates be smilin’ on yas,” Maria said. “Da man a ya dreams be coomin to ya life very soon. Very soon. By da next moon.” She smiled up at Simone.

“Whatcha tink bout dat?”

“Sounds good to me,” Simone said. “But who says I want the man of my dreams coming into my life? Maybe I’m happy with the way I am?”

“Dat be up to ju, Simon-eh,” Maria said. “I just be readin what da cards be sayin’.”

“Well,” Simone said, sipping her tea. “If I see him, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, why not see what the cards have to say about opening my art school.”

“Doan cha want ta meet ya soulmate?” Maria said. “We all ‘ave one out dere, Simon-eh. Dey only coom by once. When ya miss it, dey gone for-evah.”

“Why would I want that?” Simone said. “Men just tell women how to live their lives. If I want a man, I know where to find one. They only want sex, anyway.”

Maria laughed, her cackle slow and drawn out. “So ya be tinkin,” she said. “Maybe dis one want soom-tin more for yas?”

“I doubt it,” Simone said. “I feel what every one of them thinks when they walk by my easel.” She shrugged, smirking to match.

“There’s no doubt, Maria. It’s all about them and what they can take.” She took a sip of tea, staring at the table top as if seeing through it.

“I’m happy with where I am.”

Maria stared at Simone, watching her carefully. Finally, a smile crept over her face and she laughed. “I doan believe a word dat ju be sayin,” Maria said.

Simone waved her hand in the air and sighed, rolling her eyes. “What makes you the expert on what I’m thinking?”

Maria leaned close. “Cause I see, Simon-eh,” she said slowly. “I can feels da loove ya be wantin deep wits-in ya ‘eart.”

“Ya see it, yet deny da troots.”

Maria pointed to the spot on the table where Simone had been staring. “What dat ya be seein in dere?” Maria asked. “Ya look an see. What it be?”

Simone followed Maria’s finger and looked at the spot again. What had she seen? She inspected the table as if it were a mirror.

Memories, really. Past times in Paris where she’d given her heart and had it smashed. Men she’d loved, truly felt close to – ones she wanted to share her life with; an eternity with. Joy flooded her, fueling an energetic burn in her abdomen for finding that which was missing.

Dancing on the bridges over the Seine, hand in hand with one she loved – each sharing the other’s flow of life. Harmonious movement of being, neither dominating – both leading, sharing. That was love, the dance was passion and the creativity of it was life itself.

Moments in fields, in galleries, in forests; all filling her heart with warmth. Uplifting, the feelings carried her over heights and into misty spaces where only her and her lover lived. Pure connection, complete love – passion through partnership.

Maria’s softly spoken, “yes,” brought her back, Paris became the table and she sucked in her breath, breathing deeply as if she’d held it the entire time.

“It’s not real,” Simone whispered, pushing away the feelings as she returned to the moment. “It’s just a fairytale. Imaginary, like tales told to children.”

She lifted her tea and drank, staring straight into the opposite wall – listening to her inner voice saying the dream was a sham; all fake.

“No, Simon-eh,” Maria said. “Dat no what ya tink.” She nodded, her smile becoming more entrancing. Simone turned and met her eyes.

“What be makin ya paint?”

“Why?” she said, cocking her head to the side.

“Because I love doing it, and I’m good at it and people like what I paint.” Maria shook her head slowly, tinkling the beads attached to her tignon.

“You share da ‘eart of yaself, Simon-eh,” Maria said. “Ya spills it across da canvas wits ya paint, mixin ya emotions and feelins into da pick-cha for all ta see.”

Maria pointed at the table, the exact spot that took Simone to Paris. “What ya saw dere, is where ya art lives.” Maria lifted her hand to her chest. “Where da ‘eart is.” She nodded, and Simone matched.

Simone clasped the deep purple pendant she wore around her neck, allowing Maria’s words to sink in as she considered what they meant. Was she hiding her heart inside of her art? Funny how Maria made them sound the same. Perhaps they WERE the same?

When she painted, she stepped into the space, allowing whatever feelings she felt at the time to guide her brush. Was she connecting into her heart? She’d never considered that. She thought it divine intervention, some sort of muse moving her hand. What if it was her soul instead?

She blinked, seeing Maria studying her. Simone giggled, like Lucette posing to be a seagull. Flying.

“Now ya see, Simon-eh,” Maria said, nodding. “Now ya open to da possibility.”

Simone shook herself. The way her chest tingled, it certainly felt possible. “I don’t know,” she said. “If my art is my heart, then why do men only see my body; take what they want without returning the gift?”

“Dey ain’t da ones ya be lookin for,” Maria said. “Da day one-a dem look atcha art, den ya know he be seein ya ‘eart as well.”

Simone shrugged. “Maybe,” she said. “But they turned out to be the same. They pretended to like it, yet in the end only wanted what they could own.” She sighed.

“My art was only a means to an end.”

“Den ask em what dey see when dey look,” Maria said. “Do dey see the rivah, or do dey see Loo-set-eh?”

Simone lifted her eyebrows and nodded. That made sense. If they only saw the color and brush strokes, they weren’t looking deep – only the surface. Maybe that was the key. If her heart was in the artwork, then a TRUE lover would see and reflect it back.

“Interesting,” Simone said, leaning back in her chair. She threw one arm over the back and twisted into a sideways, cross-legged casual manner.

“Speaking of Lucette,” Simone said. “I finished her painting. Would you like to see it?” Maria sighed, then shook her head, eyes lowered and sad.

“No, Simon-eh,” she said. “I be seen it already.”

“But I didn’t finish it before you left,” Simone said.

She looked toward the door, where she’d left her easel, paints and canvas. Lucette the Gull was wrapped in brown paper, protecting its surface from the elements. She used a certain type of pigment allowing for quick drying oils, making it easier to sell completed works on the street.

Maria’s expression didn’t change, the sadness remained and she stared straight at Simone.

“What is it?” Simone said. “You look as if you’ve seen a ghost.”

“I see dem all da time,” she stated quietly. “Maybe it time yas be goin. Make sure ya be givin dat paintin to da lit-lun.”

Simone nodded, slowly standing. “I will,” she said. “I’ll see you tomorrow then?” Maria nodded but said nothing more.

“Very well, Maria,” she said. “Bonsoir.”

“Bonsoir, Simon-eh,” Maria whispered. “Sleeps wits ya angels.”

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