Celestine: The Hour on rue du Maine
Genre: Historical Fiction, Historical Romance
Publisher: Chances Press, LLC
Number of pages: 272
Word Count: 80,000
Cover Artist: Geronimo Quitoriano
In 1795 New Orleans, the Spanish controlled city struggles to rebuild after two devastating fires, and a young teenage girl is just as determined to leave her past behind and start anew. Celestine, the daughter of a Mississippi River prostitute spends most of her time hating herself, her life and the dirty men who rut with her mama.
When she turns thirteen and her mama informs her she’ll be servicing the very men she hates and fears, she has no other option but to run to the good nuns of the Ursulines Convent where for the first time she encounters kindness and a different kind of life.
After meeting the dashing ship captain Maurice Dubois, a man with his own past demons to reckon with, Celestine allows herself to be truly loved for the first time.
But when a shocking turn of events leaves her once again with nothing more than her own wits to survive, Celestine begins to realize the power her intoxicating beauty gives her over men including the debonair and infamous pirate Jean Lafitte.
It’s this very power that Celestine learns to capitalize on to begin a new career…not as the common riverfront lady of the night her mother had been…but as the most sought after courtesan in all of New Orleans.
‘Tine waited outside for the stinking customer to get off her mama and button his breeches. When he was done she could go inside and get warm; clean her mama and make sure she wasn’t sick on the bed. If the man was generous, there’d be enough money for supper. If not, she’d go hungry again and count the noises in her stomach ’til she fell asleep.
She sat on the carriage block crying into her papa’s old neckcloth. She carried it everywhere hoping he’d come to rescue them. He’d bring nice things to eat and maybe a new dress for her and her mama; she prayed on it, wished on it and tried to count on it. He’d been gone the thirteen years of her young life, but he could still come back; he could.
‘Tine hated men. She hated how they smelled of rum and sour living. She hated their dirty smelly clothes and their big boots full of mud and horse crap on her mama’s worn out rugs. She hated when they grabbed her mama, demanded, grunted and hit her for not being the woman they thought they deserved. But mostly, she hated her mama for allowing the horrible men to destroy and age her far beyond her thirty years.
The man was coming down the little steps buttoning his last button and spitting a mouthful of slimy brown tobacco juice into the street. He stopped to look at her.
“What? You want some too? Your mama said you might be ready. I’m spent; next time, baby tits.” He was looking her all over making her sick.
He grabbed the neckcloth from her hand and wiped the tobacco juice off his mouth and stuffed it down the front of her dress. Feeling around inside her bodice, he chuckled as he took his hand out and turned to walk away.
“I promise.” He said and let out a breath from a nasty place under his breeches. His horrible laugh and foul breath filled her nose and ears as he swaggered down the street.
She knew this was coming. Her mama yelled at her for a week; she was thirteen and time for her to take customers and help pay her keep. ‘Tine grabbed the dirty neckcloth out of her dress and threw it in the gutter. No one was coming to save her; she’d have to do it herself. God didn’t answer prayers from the daughters of sinful women who lay with lust crazed men. She’d be damned if she was going to wait for the man to come back. She’d kill him first.
She walked back into the dirty little room and packed her few belongings while her mama slept off the effects of the man and the rum. She went to the side of the bed and looked at the single picayune the man left. She thought of taking it; but decided she wanted nothing from the man, especially the tiny bit of money paid for rutting with her mama.
She walked back out and looked down at the neckcloth soaking up rainwater and horse pee. She picked it up, wrung it out and stuffed it way down in her ragged apron pocket and walked toward the Ursulines Convent.
The city of New Orleans was once filled with joie de vivre but since the big fires and hurricanes, it held only stink and sadness. The smell of sour ashes and the defeat of burned out hopes filled the air with misery and fatigue. The city was a good wife to some and a dock whore to others, and ‘Tine was certainly its daughter and the streets were her schoolroom.
She watched it burn to the ground from her hiding perch on the roof of the Ursulines Convent. The screams of burning men and women running out of houses toward the river still haunted her dreams. Mostly, they fell like pieces of charred wood from a neglected fire place; falling and rolling out of the burning buildings; their clothes smoking after their voices were finally silenced.
She watched from the roof of the French Market as the winds and waters of two hurricanes swept the city into chaos and death. The water took people and livestock, alike; some, still alive tried to swim through the big water. Others, their dead faces peaceful floated in the filth that’d been their world. She’d saved herself by quick wits and cunning.
She fought as well as any boy her age and cut many men with the knife she kept in her stocking as they tried to grab her, but she’d never cheated and she’d never lied. She was proud of that.
‘Tine knew everything about everything and everyone and what she didn’t know, she found out. She knew which white Creole gentleman kept a Quadroon mistress; how often he visited and how many children he had by both his wife and mistress. She visited the Vou-dou ceremonies to make gris-gris bags of black magic to use on her enemies, but rarely used it as it could backfire on a little girl who used it unwisely. She danced with the slaves on Congo Square and knew their patois and how to interpret their chants and messages to each other. She followed the food vendor’s home and picked up cake and fruit that fell from a basket worn on a tired head. But it wasn’t enough, her world was too small and she wanted more.
Kaintucks, the big rough American men coming down the river from Kentucky, taught her how to ride horses and jump the vendors to scare them to death. This was a favorite of the dock workers, but not the vendors. All the knowledge; where’d it gotten her? A few misplaced spells with ill-advised gris gris, knowledge of a language she’d never use, the names of the big policemen that patrolled the levee and small rice cakes called ‘calas’ or piece of rotten fruit fished out of the mud and muck of the street. She wanted more.
Going to the Ursulines nuns and their orphanage was a fear her mama instilled and used to scare her when she didn’t behave. For as long as she could remember, she ran to the other side of the street when passing the big convent for fear they’d come out and snatch her.
The nasty man’s horrible promise changed her whole future. One sentence, one thought, of his coming back with his diseased pecker and sour breath and she was done with her mama and that life. Now she just wanted a hot bowl of something to eat and a safe place to sleep. She’d decide what to do once her stomach wasn’t so loud and she could think without crying.
The good nuns were on her mind lately. Watching them go about their daily lives had taken away much of her fear and hearing their prayers to Notre Dame de Bon Secours, from the morning of the big fire, until the morning after had given her much to think about. They prayed without stopping and the convent had been spared. ‘Tine saw this as some powerful gris-gris and she needed that kind of power in her life.
Friends in the big market told her they had their hands full with the orphanage, the school and the King’s Hospital. They could use help and she needed help. It could benefit both parties.
‘Tine couldn’t help with the hospital or teaching, but she knew she could keep children from running in the streets and make sure they ate their food.
Anybody could raise children. How hard could it be? Young women in her mama’s profession were always having babies; some even lived and they knew how to keep them from dying… sometimes.
She intended to pledge her services and see if she could receive decent schooling from the sisters in return. She wanted to read and write the French she spoke and also learn Spanish and English. She’d heard the little sisters were from good homes and well educated. They read and understood Latin, whatever that was and could chant and recite the prayers and help with the Mass. All ‘Tine knew was she wanted to be very-well-educated like the little sisters and get out of the sewage filled gutters that was her life.
She wanted to learn good manners; how to drink coffee from a saucer; how to tell a fork from a spoon and eat from a plate instead of a bowl. She wanted a real privy instead of the river side of the levee and a pair of shoes; she’d never owned a pair of shoes. She wanted to learn how to cook with the herbs and vegetables the little sisters grew in their famous gardens. Oh, to know what it was like to be clean, a wish of a lifetime. She wanted to learn how to sew and make herself a dress that fit; but mostly, unknowingly she wanted to feel safe and needed.
One thing for sure, she’d never lie under a filthy man and have him poke, grunt and knock her teeth out. She’d become a nun first. Neither option was to her liking, but being a nun won hands down over being a whore on the half burned docks of the Mississippi River.
She walked over to rue Sainte-Ursule and looked in the gate. It was clean, peaceful and beautiful; certainly a step up from the whore’s crib she called home. She rang the bell and waited for one of the little sisters to come and open it. She could hear her own heart beating and wondered if that was supposed to be.
Ste. Mary Theresa heard the bell and looked out to see her prayer’s realized. She’d prayed for years this little hungry girl running the streets outside the big convent in her filthy clothes would seek their refuge and get away from her horrid life. She ran to find Mother Superior and tell her the miracle at their front gate.
“Reverend Mother, look out at the gate, quickly.” She ran to the window.
“Quick my child, let her in before she changes her mind. God in his mercy and wisdom has answered our prayers.” She made the sign of the cross.
“Shouldn’t you go with me?”
“No, my child it’d frighten her. Go gently and welcome her. Quickly, before she changes her mind.”
The good sisters had no idea that once ‘Tine made up her mind nothing could stop her or change her mind. Celestine Haussey was stepping into her future and she wouldn’t turn back.
‘Tine had never seen such a clean world, from the shining floors to the beautiful curving cypress staircase; she was amazed at how these women lived. She’d been told they lived in poverty and said penance each day. If this was poverty, she wondered what she’d been living all of her life. She was ushered in to Mother Superior’s office and took a chair.
“What may we do for you my child?” The Reverend Mother was treading lightly; this miracle was too delicate. She must watch what she said to this little waif.
“I’m here to help with the children.” She set her jaw and didn’t care if she was coming across fresh and brazen. Just being behind these walls was robbing her bravery and treading on the determination felt only minutes before.
About the Author:
F. J. Wilson was raised on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi in the fishing village and artist community of Ocean Springs, ninety miles east New Orleans; the city far from her reach but close to her heart. Much of her time growing up was spent reading under her grandmother’s big camellia bushes hiding from housework and the inevitable call to come inside and help start ‘supper’. In a time when young girls dreamed of big weddings and picket fences, she dreamed of the dangerous but darkly handsome Heathcliff and the English moors of days long gone. With Hemingway’s Paris, Scott Fitzgerald’s language and Margaret Mitchell’s South keeping her company, why would she ever want to clean her room?
Raised with small town values but dreams of a bigger life, she was more than ready to leave home in 1965 and began her education in the Theatre Department of the University of Southern Mississippi. From there she finally reached New Orleans and began a film career that sent her to New York, where she co-wrote an episode of the Emmy award winning Kate & Allie. Eventually her work in TV and film would take her to Los Angeles and all over the United States, Canada and New Zealand.
Her passion for the South and New Orleans brought her back to Mississippi in 2000. In 2007, her love for writing and her love of films collided, and she wrote humorous articles for the Arts and Entertainment Section of the Hattiesburg American newspaper. She’s been writing short stories and novels about Southerners since her retirement in 2008.
F. J. Wilson has one son, Jason, who lives in Monroe, CT and she now lives in Hattiesburg with her two Springer Hound Spaniels and is at the time married to her computer and her love of writing.
You may email her at firstname.lastname@example.org