The Beautiful – Renee Ahdieh

New Orleans is a city ruled by the dead. I remember the moment I first heard someone say this. The old man meant to frighten me. He said there was a time when coffins sprang from the ground following a heavy rain, the dead flooding the city streets. He claimed to know of a Créole woman on Rue Dauphine who could commune with spirits from the afterlife. I believe in magic. In a city rife with illusionists, it’s impossible to doubt its existence. But I didn’t believe this man. Be faithful, he warned. For the faithless are alone in death, blind and terrified. I feigned shock at his words. In truth, I found him amusing. He was the sort to scare errant young souls with stories of a shadowy creature lurking in darkened alcoves. But I was also intrigued, for I possess an errant young soul of my own. From childhood, I hid it beneath pressed garments and polished words, but it persisted in plaguing me.

It called to me like a Siren, driving me to dash all pretense against the rocks and surrender to my true nature. It drove me to where I am now. But I am not ungrateful. For it brought to bear two of my deepest truths: I will always possess an errant young soul, no matter my age. And I will always be the shadowy creature in darkened alcoves, waiting . For you, my love. For you. JANVIER 1872 ABOARD THE CGT ARAMIS NOT WHAT IT SEEMED The Aramis was supposed to arrive at first light, like it did in Celine’s dreams. She would wake beneath a sunlit sky, the brine of the ocean winding through her nose, the city looming bright on the horizon. Filled with promise.

And absolution. Instead the brass bell on the bow of the Aramis tolled in the twilight hour, the time of day her friend Pippa called “the gloaming.” It was—in Celine’s mind—a very British thing to say. She’d begun collecting these phrases not long after she’d met Pippa four weeks ago, when the Aramis had docked for two days in Liverpool. Her favorite so far was “not bloody likely.” Celine didn’t know why they mattered to her at the time. Perhaps it was because she thought Very British Things would serve her better in America than the Very French Things she was apt to say. The moment Celine heard the bell clang, she made her way portside, Pippa’s light footsteps trailing in her wake. Inky tendrils of darkness fanned out across the sky, a ghostly mist shrouding the Crescent City. The air thickened as the two girls listened to the Aramis sluice through the waters of the Mississippi, drawing closer to New Orleans.

Farther from the lives they’d left behind. Pippa sniffed and rubbed her nose. In that instant, she looked younger than her sixteen years. “For all the stories, it’s not as pretty as I thought it would be.” “It’s exactly what I thought it would be,” Celine said in a reassuring tone. “Don’t lie.” Pippa glanced at her sidelong. “It won’t make me feel better.” A smile curled up Celine’s face. “Maybe I’m lying for me as much as I’m lying for you.

” “In any case, lying is a sin.” “So is being obnoxious.” “That’s not in the Bible.” “But it should be.” Pippa coughed, trying to mask her amusement. “You’re terrible. The sisters at the Ursuline convent won’t know what to do with you.” “They’ll do the same thing they do with every unmarried girl who disembarks in New Orleans, carrying with her all her worldly possessions: they’ll find me a husband.” Celine refrained from frowning. This had been her choice.

The best of the worst. “If you strike them as ungodly, they’ll match you with the ugliest fool in Christendom. Definitely someone with a bulbous nose and a paunch.” “Better an ugly man than a boring one. And a paunch means he eats well, so . ” Celine canted her head to one side. “Really, Celine.” Pippa laughed, her Yorkshire accent weaving through the words like fine Chantilly lace. “You’re the most incorrigible French girl I’ve ever met.” Celine smiled at her friend.

“I’d wager you haven’t met many French girls.” “At least not ones who speak English as well as you do. As if you were born to it.” “My father thought it was important for me to learn.” Celine lifted one shoulder, as though this were the whole of it, instead of barely half. At the mention of her father—a staid Frenchman who’d studied linguistics at Oxford—a shadow threatened to descend. A sadness with a weight Celine could not yet bear. She fixed a wry grin on her face. Pippa crossed her arms as though she were hugging herself. Worry gathered beneath the fringe of blond on her forehead as the two girls continued studying the city in the distance.

Every young woman on board had heard the whispered accounts. At sea, the myths they’d shared over cups of gritty, bitter coffee had taken on lives of their own. They’d blended with the stories of the Old World to form richer, darker tales. New Orleans was haunted. Cursed by pirates. Prowled by scalawags. A last refuge for those who believed in magic and mysticism. Why, there was even talk of women possessing as much power and influence as that of any man. Celine had laughed at this. As she’d dared to hope.

Perhaps New Orleans was not what it seemed at first glance. Fittingly, neither was she. And if anything could be said about the young travelers aboard the Aramis, it was that the possibility of magic like this—a world like this—had become a vital thing. Especially for those who wished to shed the specter of their pasts. To become something better and brighter. And especially for those who wanted to escape. Pippa and Celine watched as they drew closer to the unknown. To their futures. “I’m frightened,” Pippa said softly. Celine did not respond.

Night had seeped through the water, like a dark stain across organza. A scraggly sailor balanced along a wooden beam with all the grace of an aerialist while lighting a lamp on the ship’s prow. As if in response, tongues of fire leapt to life across the water, rendering the city in even more ghoulishly green tones. The bell of the Aramis pealed once more, telling those along the port how far the ship had left to travel. Other passengers made their way from below deck, coming to stand alongside Celine and Pippa, muttering in Portuguese and Spanish, En-glish and French, German and Dutch. Young women who’d taken leaps of faith and left their homelands for new opportunities. Their words melted into a soft cacophony of sound that would—under normal circumstances—soothe Celine. Not anymore. Ever since that fateful night amid the silks in the atelier, Celine had longed for comfortable silence. It had been weeks since she’d felt safe in the presence of others.

Safe with the riot of her own thoughts. The closest she’d ever come to wading through calmer waters had been in the presence of Pippa. When the ship drew near enough to dock, Pippa took sudden hold of Celine’s wrist, as though to steel herself. Celine gasped. Flinched at the unexpected touch. Like a spray of blood had shot across her face, the salt of it staining her lips. “Celine?” Pippa asked, her blue eyes wide. “What’s wrong?” Breathing through her nose to steady her pulse, Celine wrapped both hands around Pippa’s cold fingers. “I’m frightened, too.” A STUDY IN CONTRASTS Twenty-three passengers disembarked from the Aramis, each bearing a simple trunk filled with their worldly possessions.

After consulting the ship’s manifest, the officer stationed in the customhouse allowed them onto American soil. An hour later, seven girls boarded a humble equipage and proceeded through the darkened city streets toward the Ursuline convent. The rest had their futures awaiting them at the docks. The open-air wagon trundled along the cobblestones. All around them, boughs hung heavy with brightly colored blossoms. Cicadas and click beetles droned in the shadows, whispering of a haunted history. A tropical breeze stirred through the branches of a live oak abutting a small square. The warmth of its embrace felt strange against Celine’s skin, especially when contrasted with the slight chill of a late-January evening. But she knew better than to complain. Outside her home in Paris, snow likely dotted the pavers, and it would be weeks before she could don the comfortable muslin dress she now wore.

Celine recalled when she’d fashioned it last June, from the remnants of an elegant tea gown she’d designed for a wealthy woman known for hosting infamous salons. At the time, Celine imagined attending one of these gatherings and mingling with the chicest members of Parisian society. She would dazzle them with her love of Shakespeare and Voltaire. She would wear this exact dress, its rich aubergine hue a lovely contrast against her fair skin, the overskirt replete with elaborate frills and flounces. And she would style her black curls in a mass atop her crown, the latest coiffure to grace the city’s fashion plates. Celine laughed to herself, amused by the memory of the seventeen-year-old girl she used to be. The things this girl had dreamed of experiencing. The things she’d wished to have and hold: entrée into the society of elegant young women she fitted for gowns they would discard days later. A chance to fall in love with a handsome young man who would steal her heart with poetry and promises. Now she sneered at the very idea.

After weeks at sea—buried deep in a timber trunk—the rumpled gown Celine wore tonight reflected the sharp turn her life had taken. It wasn’t fit for Sunday Mass, much less a salon. At the thought, Celine adjusted her position on the wooden seat, her corset digging into her ribs. The whalebone pinched her breasts as she took a deep breath. And was met with a scent so delicious, it left her distracted. She scanned the square for its source. On the corner opposite the live oak stood an open-air bakery that reminded Celine of her favorite boulangerie on the Boulevard du Montparnasse. The smell of fried dough and slowly melting sugar wafted through the waxy magnolia leaves. Nearby, a set of balcony shutters slammed shut, and a trellis laden with bright pink bougainvillea shook, the blossoms trembling as if in fear. Or perhaps in anticipation.

It should have been beautiful to behold. But the lovely tableau felt tinged with something sinister. As though a pale finger had slipped through a drawn curtain, beckoning her into a dark abyss. Wisdom told her to heed the warning. Nevertheless, Celine found herself enchanted. When she glanced at the six other girls in the wagon—seated four on one side, three on the other—Celine caught an expanse of wide-eyed gazes, their expressions a study in trepidation. Or perhaps excitement? Like the bougainvillea, it was impossible to be certain. The wagon paused on a bustling street corner, the large draft horse at its lead tossing its mane. People in all manner of dress—from the wealthy with their golden watch chains to the humble with their threadbare linen—crossed Decatur Street, their steps focused and harried, as though they were on a mission. It felt unusual for a time of day marked by endings rather than beginnings.

Since Pippa was situated closest to the driver, she leaned forward to address him. “Is there something of note occurring tonight? Something to explain the gathering crowd?” “The parade,” the gruff man replied, without turning around. “Pardon?” He cleared his throat. “There’s a parade gettin’ started near Canal Street. On account of the carnival season.” “A carnival parade!” Pippa exclaimed, turning toward Celine. Antonia—the young woman seated at Celine’s left—looked about excitedly, her dark eyes round and bright, like those of an owl. “Um carnaval?” she asked in Portuguese as she pointed toward the sounds of distant revelry. Celine nodded with a smile. “It’s a shame we’ll miss seeing it,” Pippa said.

“I wouldn’t worry, lass,” the driver replied, his tongue rolling over the words with a hint of Irish burr. “There’ll be plenty o’ parades and celebrations all month long during the carnival season. You’ll see one, to be sure. And just you wait for the masquerade ball on Mardi Gras. ’Twill be the finest of them all.” “I heard talk about the carnival season from a friend in Edinburgh,” Anabel—a lissome redhead with an attractive smattering of freckles across her nose—exclaimed. “The entire city of New Orleans rings in the time before Lent with soirées and balls and costume parties for weeks on end.” “Parties!” the twins from Germany repeated as soon as they recognized the word, one of them clapping her hands with delight. Their glowing faces struck Celine. Moved something behind her heart.

An emotion she’d banned herself from feeling ever since the events of that dreadful night: Hope. She’d arrived in a city amid celebration. One with weeks of fêtes to come. The crowd was filled with that same spirit of anticipation she saw in the girls who now shared her fate. Maybe their expressions did not have to be about trepidation. Maybe the bougainvillea was simply jostled awake instead of trembling with worry. Maybe Celine did not have to live her life in fear of what might happen tomorrow. As they waited for the streets to clear of passing pedestrians, Celine leaned forward, her spirits on the cusp of taking flight. She tried to catch a bit of ivy dangling from an intricate wrought-iron railing. The clattering of footsteps to her left stole her attention as the crowd parted to allow their wagon through.

No. It was not to allow them passage. It was for something else entirely. There—beneath the amber haze of a gas lamp—stood a lone figure poised to cross Decatur Street, a Panama hat pulled low on his brow, shrouding his features. Without hesitation, their driver granted the man immediate deference, dipping his head in the figure’s direction as though he were bowing . or perhaps keeping his eyes averted.


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