Celeste

 

 

 

 

 

 

 The Beginning of the End
 
 

Tug-Of-War

  ...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."

  Celeste 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.

  The young 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.

  As George 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.

  "Good evening sir..." Celeste's clear deep voice drifted back to him. "What can I do for you?"

  "I wish to speak with Mr. Brown. Is he in?" followed a rich baritone voice with an unusual accent.

  George 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, sit down."

  Celeste 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 shoes.

  "Can I get you something,sir?" Celeste offered, wondering at the amused look which passed between George and the newcomer at her words.

  "No 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 two talked.

  "I'm 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.

  George 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.

  "It 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."

  George did 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.

  "Dis 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.

  "Student, 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?"

  Suddenly, 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 her work.

  "You do fine work for one so young. George has taught you well. What will you do when you can no longer care for him?"

  Celeste 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.

  "Celeste, 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."

 Celeste 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."

  Celeste took in the information, filing it away to analyze later. "Den what happened?"

  George 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."

  "Why 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.

  George 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.

  "After 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."

  When the 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."

  Sang Po 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?"

  "If she wants it, Po," George replied, turning his eyes away from them both.

  Po beamed a smile at Celeste that started her heart pounding. "You really a great artist, sir?" she asked.

  "Some 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.

  "I think I'd like that sir." Celeste beamed with hope for the future, secure that she was old enough to make her own choices.

  "So be it then." grinned Po, a glance at George shouting victory at his opponent.

  George sat 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.

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  Celeste 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.

  "Come 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' better."

  Bleary eyes raised to hers, taking a moment to focus. "Celeste? Dat you little girl?" A weak smile curved cracked lips.

  Celeste forced a smile to her face. "Yes, George, I'm here. Let me call a doctor."

  "You a good girl, but I don't need no doctor. Jus' need..." Wheezing choked the words for a minute before he could finish. "need some rest."

  "All 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.

  The stairs 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.

  "What is the matter, Celeste?" A familiar voice asked.

  The teen 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. Brown?"

  "Thank 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 me?"

  Suddenly, 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."

  The artist 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?"

  Celeste 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 behind him.

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  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 friend, yes?"

  "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, for now."

  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

 
 
           
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