Of Nuns and the Demimonde
S. Ramos O’Briant

Geraldo and I arrived in New Orleans June 14, 1845, and went to the Angélique convent in search of Monique. There we met with the Mother Superior, an ancient nun who delivered the astonishing news of Monique’s disappearance with all the aplomb of someone announcing the cancellation of an afternoon tea.

“Such a pity you had to travel all this way,” she said. The Mother Superior’s craggy face was riven with deep lines, like a dried and cracked arroyo, and was just as hard to read. Short, with a noticeable hunch in one of her shoulders, she peered up at us. Tiny black eyes, sharp and gleaming like a crow’s, examined us beneath crepey folds of eyelid.

“She had a friend, a novice named Mary Catherine?” I asked.

Something shifted in her eyes, so momentary as to have almost been imagined. “Mary Catherine has died,” she said. She remained standing, revealing nothing except her desire for us to leave.

“Sit down, Mother.” Geraldo's voice had a deep edge which brooked no compromise.

She cocked her head, appraising him from this new angle.

“Please...” He stood and bowed, waving his left hand toward her chair. “S’il vous plaît, we have many more questions, and we intend to remain until they are answered. Mademoiselle Jacquard is a childhood friend of my wife’s. Naturally, we want to do everything we can to find her.” He laid a protective hand on my shoulder, and smiled coldly at the Mother Superior. I looked from him to her and back again-they were clearly facing off.

“I assure you, Mother, my acquaintance with New Orleans extends to the governor, and my family has ties with the Church, traversing Spain and France, leading straight to Rome. I will not let this rest. Please...” He nodded his head toward her chair once more.

She sat, steepling her hands. “Well?” she said, inclining one eyebrow upward, deepening the crevasse above it.

“How did Mary Catherine die?” Geraldo asked.

“She fell...broke her neck. We grieve for her.” The Mother Superior crossed herself.

“Did you bury her, or did her family? I understand she was from here.”

Again the shift of the eyes, impossible to tell if it were a tightening of the muscles holding her wrinkled lids in abeyance, or a tightening of the pupil itself, receding, drawing in on itself so that only shiny rapier-points of black shot out at us. “We offered to bury her amongst our nuns. Although a novice, she showed great promise and it would have been an honor, but her family buried her in their own crypt.ּ

“And Sister Isabelle? May we speak with her?” I asked.

Before I could answer, a quiet knocking on the door was followed by the entrance of a nun who contrasted with the Mother Superior in every conceivable way. Smooth-faced and portly, she smiled at us as she passed a note to the Mother. It was a relief to look at her, like turning your back on a parched, unyielding plain to let your eyes rest on a moist and prodigious green meadow. When I focused once again on the Mother, she’d regained her composure.

She took up pen and paper and made a short note which she handed to Geraldo. “This is the address of the Malone family. Mary Catherine’s family. Sister Luke will show you out.” She stood once again. Sister Luke's smile never wavered as she headed for the door.

Geraldo remained seated. "We would like to speak to Sister Isabelle."

"I'm afraid that is impossible. She was quite ill...and...and she has returned to France to our motherhouse there. She left before Mary Catherine's death and Monique's disappearance."

"One last question, Mother." Geraldo finally stood. "How soon after Mary Catherine's death did Monique depart?"

"She and a few of the Sisters attended the funeral. Monique did not return with them."

Sister Luke waited at the open door for us, but her smile had been replaced by a worried crease between her brows. She made a brief bow, crossing herself before following us out the door. She remained solemn as we walked down the long, dark hall, lit only from several four-paned windows set high in the stone wall above us. The glass was held by thick wood, so that as the sun started its long afternoon descent, it cast oblique crosses high on the opposite wall, lending an Inquisitorial air to the bleak decor of the convent.

I stared up at the crosses, and imagined the vertical lengthening of the shadow-crosses as the sun made its downward journey, the crossbeams foreshortened, until finally they would look more like daggers. I thought of Monique in this place and shivered.

We reached a small, round foyer with similar dark hallways leading off from it. The cloistered hush of the convent reached us, not completely silent, but compressed, like sound reined in. A sibilant and feminine monotone swirled and eddied around us, but revealed...nothing.

I took one last look around. A large, heavily carved table sat before one wall, bare of any decoration. Above it hung a portrait in oil of the heralded abbess who'd founded this order. L'ange de Deauville, Angélique Gravier, read the plaque attached to the ornate, gilded frame. She smiled down at us, her eyes lowered demurely. Huge rays of gold sprang outward from her head, like a living crown charged with a palpable essence. My eyes traveled down to the golden tray she held-almost presenting it to us. Upon it lay two round objects and an oblong pink one. I stepped closer to look, squinting in the semi-darkness.

"Her eyes and her tongue," said Sister Luke.

I jumped at the sound of her voice. She stood beside me, smiling at the portrait, her former good humor restored. "Do you know the story of our patron saint?"

When I shook my head no, Sister Luke smiled patiently. "She was pursued by a wealthy married man who admired her beautiful eyes and heavenly voice. To maintain her chastity, Angélique gouged out her eyes and severed her tongue. She placed the bloody orbs and fleshy muscle on a platter and presented them to her pursuer. He renewed his faith on the spot and begged her forgiveness!" Sister Luke gazed with fierce pride at her saint, and then turned to us with a determined lift of her dimpled chin.

"So you see, we have a proud tradition of sacrifice in our order. In New Orleans, we work not only with children, many of whom are of mixed race, but also with the sailors, prostitutes and others who inhabit this diseased swamp. We bring faith and education." Her voice rose, challenging us. "We do much good here-one rotten apple will not be allowed to spoil the whole barrel!"

"A rotten apple will not spoil all the others if it is removed soon enough," Geraldo said, quietly...gently. "Some harm may come to those nearest it, however. That is nature's way-God's way. The good Mother is forever vigilant. She must protect the unblemished."

"The unblemished," Sister Luke repeated.

"Are you both saying that Monique did something bad?" I asked the two of them, anger causing heat to rise up my collar.

"Not Monique," she said, unsmiling once again. She pulled the heavy oaken door open. The muggy New Orleans afternoon, with its smell of chicory and spice and decay, washed over us.

"Thank you, Sister." I remembered my training, and bowed to kiss her ring. "Is there nothing you can tell us of Monique?"

With the door open only wide enough for her round face to appear, she whispered quickly, "See Priscilla on Dauphine Street." She shut the door in my face.

* * *

I leaned against Geraldo, who led me along the banquette, the wooden sidewalk leading away from the convent. "How are we going to find Monique now?" I asked.

"Let us stroll in the direction of Dauphine Street. It is near here and this Priscilla must be well-known."

He held my hand in the crook of his arm and we headed into an area of the city populated with women and men of many hues going about their usual business. I heard a patois that was certainly French, but sprinkled with words that might have been English. Spanish grandees conducted their business along the way, their pronunciation different from that of New Mexico. An occasional Missouri twang reminded me of the traders back home. Intermingled with them were the Africans and the gens de couleur libre, the French-speaking free blacks from Saint-Domingue. They never ceased to fascinate me since we have so few blacks in Santa Fe. The port city of New Orleans was alive with the hubbub from its global sojourners.

We stopped abruptly as a handsome woman, colorfully dressed in a close-fitting skirt, came out of a shop carrying a bundle on her head. The bundle sat atop a red turban which covered her hair. She stopped to adjust her load with a slender but well-muscled arm. Her skin was pale, but not white, and tinged with yellow, which added yet one more tint to her exotic look. She lowered her arm to cup my chin. "Très jolie," she said, smiling at me.

"Pardon, mademoiselle?" Geraldo knew some French, but he was not fluent. She turned, still smiling, but with her eyebrows raised. "We are looking for someone...Priscilla. Do you know Priscilla? Où est Priscilla?"

She stiffened, intensifying her queenly demeanor. She looked down her nose at us and asked coldly: "What business you have with Prey-see-lah?" That's how she said it, her accent a singsong calypso of the Caribbean. She frowned, not waiting for an answer, but jerked her head for us to follow her.

Her bare feet did not affect her stride, which was long and lithe with a roll of the hips, a feminine swagger much appreciated by the men who nodded at her as she passed them. We followed her for several long blocks and then she stopped, not looking back, but waiting for us to catch up. When we came abreast of her she signaled with her chin to a line of identical houses straight ahead of us.

"Her house the third one and Prey-see-lah waits within." She turned a glum face to us. "Caution, monsieur, she a tricky one!" Geraldo started to speak, but at that moment we heard a husky laugh and turned to see a mature woman standing in the front door of the third house.

"Adrienne, how you charmin' husband?" Her laughter erupted again, this time louder. Our helpful companion hurried away, one hand on the bundle atop her head, her once languorous hips now stilled with the fury of her retreat.

"Come, come in, my lovely ones!" She waved us over, her deep-throated chuckles enticing us forward. Standing with her hands on wide hips, her green eyes swept over us. Her fair skin was wrinkled, and, except for thick patches of white streaming away from both temples, her hair was jet black and wavy, worn piled high on her head. It was as if lightening bolts framed her face.

"Smell that?" She signaled with her head toward the open door of her home. A spicy odor wafted out to us, a smell that overlay the entire neighborhood, and made my mouth water. "I been cooking the gumbo all morning. Priscilla know 'bout cooking the gumbo." She laughed again. "Come in, come in."

We followed her into a room that was a combination living and cooking area. It was clean and neat and furnished simply, with crocheted and knitted dolls everywhere. Priscilla motioned for us to take two empty chairs across from a rocking chair. She took up a basket with the materials she used to make the dolls.

We watched her as she rocked in her chair and wound a ball of yarn. She glanced at Geraldo, then turned her attention to me. "Well, I see you two not need Priscilla's love magic. What you seek?"

"We just came from the Angélique Convent. Sister Luke thought you might be able to help us find Monique Jacquard." I said, almost begging. "She's my friend."

"I see. I see," she murmured, quiet again, concentrating on the yarn.

"Do you know where Monique is? Is she in any danger?" I asked again.

She stopped rocking and set her basket down. "If Monique want to be found, she will be found. Danger? I say to you-all women live with danger. That girl no different, she face it head-on."

Priscilla leaned forward and took my right hand in hers, turning it palm upward. She drew her finger along several lines there, then rolled the fingers closed and held my fist between her hands. She closed her eyes, her breath audible.

"You are lucky, my girl," she said, finally opening her eyes. "You have much love in life, and waste no thought for sin." She smiled suggestively at Geraldo. "And with that virtue in a wife, you are most lucky man!" She lapsed into her throaty laugh. "You like your palm read, monsieur?"

"No, madame. I am already an old man-I know what the future holds for me. How do you know Monique?"

Priscilla leaned back in her chair, rocking slowly. "She tried to save my daughter, my beautiful daughter." She stared off into space. "I, too, am not young, monsieur. Eight children in the ground-all look white. Celeste, she the whitest, go to Angélique school. The man see her. He want her. He take her to the Quadroon Ball to show her off, but he marry a rich, white Creole like himself. He keep my girl till he tire of her, then cast her out." She flicked her wrist as if she were tossing something away. "Celeste walk the streets-give herself to all. Monique try to save her, but Celeste save Monique. She go work a house." Priscilla held her palm up and spread her fingers for us to see. "Her line is short. She be in the ground soon-my beautiful, almost white Celeste."

"A house? You mean as a servant? Why would Monique need to be saved?" I asked, but Geraldo touched my arm, signaling for me to be quiet.

"Where is the house?" he asked.

"On Carondelet. La Maison Carondelet. Only the most beautiful mulatto work there. Tell her I make gumbo-her favorite. She come eat with her old mama." She began winding the yarn again.

Geraldo stood and extended his hand to me, but I remained seated. "Why was that lady who brought us to you so upset?" I asked.

She smiled down at her work. "Adrienne? That high-yella gal she got a young husband, strong like an ox-'bout as smart. He got no staying power. He on her and off her like a flash. Adrienne want a charm to fix him. I tell her send him on over." She looked slyly up at us. "Priscilla ain't no voodoo queen. The charms is harmless. People believe strong enough, they make they own changes."

Her throaty laugh began once again. "I see him. He look good to me, just need some teaching. I teach him good. He go home, practice on Adrienne what he learned. She real happy, wear a big smile on her pretty face. He keep coming back for more lessons. Adrienne find out what my charm is! That the story of Miss Ungrateful!" This time we laughed with her.

We returned to our hotel to rest before supper. Once in my room, I laid out the dolls we had bought from Priscilla. Each doll had a different color of yarn-hair-red, yellow, black, brown-and wore a beautiful crocheted dress.

"All the dolls are white," I said.

"What is that you said, Pilar?" Geraldo was in his dressing room, which separated his bedroom from mine. He felt that married people should have privacy. Our caresses had grown more intimate, but we still hadn't fully consummated the marriage.

I tried to imagine what it would be like when he finally entered me. The only picture that came to mind was of the stallion's mighty cock thrusting into the mare's dripping slit. Not a fair comparison, but one I'd studied a great deal. Of course, I'd pored over the anatomy books in the library. My sisters, Oratoria and Alma, had shown me some diaries of ancient Sandoval women waxing either poetic or suicidal over their own various deflowerings. I couldn't help imagining Alma and her new husband together. Geraldo seemed content, but I was growing restless.

"Pilar?" my husband stood in the doorway drying his face with a towel.

"I said, there are so many colors of people here in New Orleans, but all of these dolls are white." He wore a black silk smoking jacket, which revealed a thick mat of curling gray hairs on his chest. The same hairs I found sticking to my breasts when I arose in the morning. Looking at them caused a quickening in my groin. Geraldo produced a daily delight in me, and my body yearned for his in ways I hadn't quite explained to myself yet.

"All in good time," was his constant refrain.

He smiled as if he could read my thoughts. "Would you like a bath before supper? I could arrange for our meal to be taken here in your room?" Geraldo liked to watch me bathe. On our way back to the hotel we'd stopped at a parfumerie for bath salts with the scent of gardenia.

"What about La Maison Carondelet? Aren't we going there tonight?"

He shook his head, laughing as if I were a child. "I will go late this evening to make some inquiries. I'm afraid it's not the kind of a place proper young ladies should be seen in." He continued to laugh at his own private joke as he rolled a cigarillo.

"I am Señora Quintana, and I go where I please! And what do you mean? Monique may be there."

"It is a house for whores, querida. Prostitutes."