Beneath the Willows – Chapter 12

Sunday morning in New Orleans was all about worship, especially in Jackson Square. Cathedral bells sang their song of glory, calling all to hear God’s word from the Archbishop himself. Church-goers, dressed in tails and gowns, gathered in the park to socialize before Mass – planning their afternoon luncheons once church was over.

Simone sang her own songs, ones of love, fun and frolic as she set up her easel for painting. She whistled tunes as if trying to outdo the Grackles perched in the overhanging oak trees. Often, her voice was lost, barely audible against the ratchet-like crackling of the black, iridescent birds. This morning however, the birds were silent, giving space for Simone’s voice to shine.

Most mass-goers ignored her, as if she were a statue in the park for pigeons to perch. Everyone knew Sunday was not for working, and even slaves had Sunday free on the plantations. Servants still had duties to perform, such as driving their masters into New Orleans or the local parish church. But for the most part, Sunday was a day for worship and rest.

So when couples passed her by, they refused her smiles and calls of, “Bonjour.” Instead, they commented about heathenism, moving on without so much a glance at the magic revealed on her easel.

Simone didn’t care. She was an artist, and for her, the window to God was through her soul. There wasn’t a higher form of ‘worship’ than creating something beautiful with brush, paint and canvas. That was true religion.

As she took her stool, daubing a long, wooden brush into a blob of greenish-blue paint, a couple approached from from the market across Levee. Dressed in their Sunday best, and holding the hands of two girls dressed in pink, their faces smiled with joyous kindness.

“Bonjour, Simone!” one of the girls cried, breaking free to run and give the artist a hug – pigtails flinging out behind her head. The roosting grackles in the branches above took flight, cackling their cracking calls as they burst from the limbs and flew into the sky.

“Bonjour, Lucette!” Simone said, hugging the girl while keeping the brush well away from her Sunday dress.

“Careful!” her mother said, still clinging to Alise’s hand. “She’s working, dear.” The girls’ father laughed, brushing his furry, black moustache with two fingers.

“It’s okay, Madame,” Simone said, letting the girl free after a few seconds of embrace. “Bonjour, Alise,” she said, smiling at Lucette’s near twin.

“Bonjour, Simone,” Alise replied. “Did you finish Lucette’s painting?”

Simone nodded. “I certainly did,” she said, leaning forward to smile at the family. Along Levee Street, a mule-drawn carriage pulled to the side of the avenue, just around the corner from Simone’s easel. They normally staged there in preparation for the after-Mass rush.

“Would you care to see it?”

“OUI!” Lucette said, clapping her hands together and bouncing in place. Her eyes sought those of her mother. “Ma-Ma, can we see it?”

“Of course, dear,” she said, smiling up at her husband. Simone didn’t know their names, simply recognized them as Lucette and Alise’s parents. French Creole, Simone figured. And the way they carried themselves reminded her of royalty. Certainly from France, maybe even Versailles.

The man nodded and leaned on his black, wooden cane. “By all means, Mademoiselle” he said in a deep voice, thick with accent. He tipped his lavender top hat and smiled. “I’m curious myself.”

Simone nodded, then turned – lifting the paper-wrapped painting from its place against the fence.

“Now,” she said. “Close your eyes, all of you, and I’ll unveil Lucette’s masterpiece.”

“YAY!” both girls said, squeezing their eyes closed. The parents did as well, giving Simone a nod and smile as they followed her instructions.

Carefully removing the paper, Simone replaced her just begun canvas with the painting titled, ‘Lucette the Gull.’

“C’est prêt,” Simone said, turning the easel around so the family could see. As she did, two passing couples paused to watch, observing quietly from behind Lucette’s family. The carriage mule just around the corner snorted, as if waiting to see the work for itself.

“Voila!” Simone said, throwing her hands out to welcome the painting into their family.

Silence.

Not even the gulls in the sky made noise as the family opened their eyes. Even the river breezes held their breath for the reveal; same with the observing visitors.

All remained still.

“Beautiful,” Lucette’s mother whispered, covering her mouth with her silk-gloved hand. The father nodded slowly, his eyes following the free-flowing form of girl into gull.

Lucette’s eyes filled with tears, as did Alise’s, who clasped her sister’s hand.

“That’s me,” Lucette said with reverence, stepping forward – her fingers outstretched toward the scene. “I’m a seagull!”

“Don’t touch it,” Lucette’s mother said, holding out her hand as if to stop the girl.

“It’s fine, Madame,” Simone said. “She can’t hurt it.”

“Besides, it’s for her.”

“What is the title, Mademoiselle?” her father asked, cocking his head while leaning on the cane. Around the corner, the mule snorted again, louder and with urgency.

“Lucette the Gull,” Simone replied. He nodded, returning his eyes to the painting.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” her mother said. “The way she seems to be gull and girl at the same time.” She met Simone’s eyes.

“Is this how you see our little girl, Mademoiselle?” she whispered.

“I paint from my heart,” Simone said, nodding as Lucette traced her fingers over the figure. “It just comes, and I capture the image I have in my mind.”

“Magnifique,” her mother said. “You are a master, Simone. Nothing I’ve seen in Paris compares to this.” Simone bowed, clasping her hands together as if in prayer.

“Merci, Madame,” she said. “You honor me, though I’m afraid not many would agree with you.”

“They do not know art, mademoiselle,” the father said. “The old ways are stuffy and dark.” He walked forward, placing a hand on Lucette’s shoulder, who was still tracing the painting with her finger.

“You capture light and form in such a mystical manner, mademoiselle,” he said, pointing and twirling his finger. “The way color merges with form to create a wispy image.” He shook his head.

“Magnifique, Simone. Magnifique!”

“How much do we owe you?” the mother said, standing beside her husband. She placed her hand along his back.

Simone considered how much she would charge, knowing they agreed to purchase the painting. Now it was time to sell, she knew the painting was priceless.

“It’s a gift for Lucette,” she said. “I cannot ask a price for this.”

“No, no, no,” the father said, shaking his head. “I cannot accept a gift from a master such as yourself.”

He reached into his jacket pocket, removing his wallet. “Would one hundred suffice?” Simone gasped. She’d never sold a painting for that price before. Ever.

“Monsieur!” she exclaimed. “That’s too much. I cannot accept such a lofty sum.”

“Non-sens,” he said, pushing the note toward her. “I am ashamed to say I cannot offer more at this time.”

She took the note without a word, fearing to do otherwise would insult the man who had now become her best paying customer.

“Merci beaucoup, monsieur,” she said, bowing her head. “I am humbled.”

“It is I that is humbled,” he said. “You have captured the spirit of our daughter in paint.” His wife smiled, nodding.

“No other artist has ever come close to what you have done on this street corner.”

“Simone,” the mother said, glancing up at her husband. “Would you consider painting Alise, as well as each of us?”

Simone stared at the woman a moment, then nodded. “I will,” she said, her words feeling thick and slow in her throat. The woman grinned an elegant smile. Royal blood for certain.

“Merci,” the woman said. “We would want to commission you for four: Alise, Alistar, myself and one with the entire family.”

Simone nodded, internally shaking her head at what was happening. No one had ever commissioned her before. And now, after doing a painting for free, she had gained a patron.

“Of course,” Alistar said. “We would pay you more.” Simone’s eyes widened. One hundred was a king’s sum. How could he want to pay more?

“Would two hundred per piece be fair to retain you on commission?”

Simone nodded. “It would, monsieur,” she said softly. She wanted to say more than enough, but with this amount, she wouldn’t have to sell another painting for at least a year. Metallic clops on stone accompanied another mule snort, briefly drawing her attention away from the family.

“Bien,” he said. “Then you may begin Alise after Mass today.”

“Really?” Alise said. “It’s my turn?”

Simone nodded, her attention returning to the family. “Oui, Mademoiselle. It is your turn.”

Lucette seemed to awaken from her trance, as she turned toward Simone and enveloped her slender waist in a tear-drenched hug.

“I love you,” she whispered, pressing tight into Simone’s stomach. Her eyes closed into the embrace. Warmth flooded Simone’s body and she sighed, pulling the tiny girl close.

“I love you, too,” she whispered. You awoke my soul, little one.

Bells rang, clanging together in the loud, inspiring music of the cathedral. A call to Mass, ringing through Jackson Square and echoing across the river beyond. The mule responded, as did the gulls over head – snorting and crying in cadence to the bell-song.

“I’m a GULL!” Lucette cried, yelling the words while jumping into the air – spinning past her parents. “Look at me! I’m a gull!”

Like a whirlwind, the little girl spun on her toes – hands held high, pigtails twirling. Like the painting, the color of the light seemed to merge with Lucette, mixing into a blur of child-like movement. Simone laughed, thinking she might actually take flight into the sky.

“WATCH OUT!” a deep bass of a voice called from around the corner, as snorts of the mule combined with cries of the gulls, clanging cathedral bells and a twirling, giggling Lucette.

Simone’s smile slowly fell into frown, as she watched the mule and carriage surge forward across St. Ann – right into the path of the laughing little Creole girl.

Slow motion; everyone slowed – Lucette oblivious to the danger. Details popped to life. The carriage driver. Sam was his name, dropping his café au lait as the reigns yanked from his hand.

Alistar and Lucette’s mother, stepping toward their daughter with outstretched hands – reaching for that which they could not grasp. Alise crying out her sister’s name, one syllable at a time.

Seagulls swirling overhead, their eager eyes focused on Lucette as if she were a morsel. The mule, wide-eyed behind leather blinders, crashing into the spinning, pink-dressed girl.

Sails from the masts of docked ships snapping in the river breeze. A grackle calling, and a baby crying. Details.

Time caught up, exploding into speed. Lucette never said a word, not even a painful cry as the mule trampled her to the brick paving, while the iron-shod carriage wheels finished the work.

Sam slid to a stop beside the still, bloodied form of Lucette, while the mule and carriage raced down Levee and out of sight. Screams from church goers witnessing the scene filled the Square, while the sounds of booted feet running toward the little creole girl grew closer.

Simone froze, pulling the wailing Alise tight to her chest, rocking her back and forth – whispering soothing words. Her parents were with Lucette and Sam, crying with one another as the Caribbean carriage driver sobbed his apology.

“I doan know what happen,” Sam said. “He just run off. He never run like dat. Oh, Christ, I be so sorry. He never run like dat!”

“LUCETTE!” her mother wailed. “LUCETTE!”

“Oh my darling girl,” Alistar said, cradling the lifeless form in his arms. Crimson stained his lavender coat, dripping blood onto his white pantaloons. His cane and top hat lay on the ground where he once leaned, a reminder of happier times just a moment ago.

Simone nuzzled Alice’s hair, squeezing the girl and crying. Her warmth of love now replaced with the ice cold horror of death. A crowd gathered as the local police arrived, holding others back as they gathered around Lucette’s broken, lifeless body.

Simone closed her eyes, looking toward the warm sunshine of the morning and searching for an unanswered why.

Lucette the Gull was gone, and the bells of St. Louis Cathedral rang just for her.

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