First few pages of my novel set in a fictional town outside Baton Rouge.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Past the brown pelican roosting on the bald cypress in Punaise Bayou, and past the house of Kitchy Walker, Alacoque’s two-hundred-and-fifty pound voodoo priestess who dances naked under full moons, past Boucher’s Red & White at the end of Lake Pontchartrain Avenue, sat Maura Kelly, alone in Father Fournier’s office with the swinging-gold-pendulum grandfather clock and cluttered bookcases that smelled faintly of lemon furniture polish. Her elfin frame was swallowed by the oversized fauteuil chair that had sat in front of the same bay window since the first Cajuns cascaded down from Acadia, the flotsam and jetsam of religious persecution, and pooled in Vermillion Parish. The view from the church office had changed little since that time, its shops and families mostly the same, all happy in their ville encircled by water, salt and sweet.
Maura was the absinthe-eyed outsider with pixie hair and an affinity for reptiles. She looked down at her hand and ran a finger around the edge of the inflamed, quarter-sized lesion on the top of her wrist. The mark itched, but it hurt to scratch it in a sensationless way, like a healing surgical scar. Only these wounds didn’t heal, and on holy days they bled.
A blond priest with pockmarked skin came through the doorway, and spoke to her with a mild accent. “Fräulein Kelly. I am Father Sebastian Gottlieb.” Gabriel Fournier, the olive-skinned parish priest, peeked in from the hall, but Father Sebastian closed the door in the man’s hawkish face before he had a chance to join them. The German was tall, around fifty, with deep blue eyes and a face that wasn’t attractive, but arrested attention with its uniqueness. “The Church has sent me to investigate your claims.”
Maura tugged at the sleeves already covering her wrists. “I haven’t made any.”
The priest smiled, the creases in his face deepening. “Of course not.” He sat at the desk, making no attempt to shake her hand, and Maura wondered if he knew how self-conscious she’d become about them. “It seems you left Savannah just before I arrived,” he said in a friendly tone. “It was no easy feat to find you. Fortunately, one of your former co-workers knew about the research grant LSU offered to you. Thank you for agreeing to meet with me.” Father Sebastian flipped open a green folder and ran a stubby finger over pages, skimming, until he found the bit of information he needed. “Father Vincent from Holy Trinity in Savannah wrote the Diocese. His report said that your wounds first appeared on Good Friday of last year. Was this day significant to you for any reason?”
Outside the window, a dragonfly, called zirondelles by the locals, rested its iridescent wings on a tree branch. The cold would kill it soon, Maura thought. “No, it was just another day,” she said, her pulse quickening. It was a sin to lie to priests.
“I see.” He gave her a practiced vague stare to encourage the disclosure of innermost secrets. “Are you well? No trouble sleeping?”
“No. I’m fine.” Maura folded her hands in her lap and smiled, her round face giving her a look of cherubic honesty.
“Good.” It sounded like “gut” when he said it. “And your medicine…” The priest sneaked a glance at the page. “Clozaril. You take it now?”
Maura picked at a broken thread on her sleeve. “Where did you go to become a psychiatrist?”
Father Sebastian looked surprised and then relaxed into a smile. “Humboldt University in Berlin, but this does not mean anything about your case.”
“Sure it does.” She sat up straight. “Look, Father, I don't want to waste your time or mine. I'm not schizophrenic or attention-seeking. I don’t know what this is or why it’s happening, but I do know I’m not saint material.”
“Father Vincent strongly believes that this is a miracle, and I believe that you need my help. Perhaps together we can find why this is happening to you, ja?” He intertwined his fingers on the desk before him and smiled again. “May I see them?”
She nodded. He walked lightly around the desk, as if a loud noise might spook her, and moved a chair in front of hers. Maura held out her right hand, and Father Sebastian pushed up the sleeve of her sweater and examined her wrist. When she rolled her hand over and showed him that the wound was through-and-through, his breath caught deep in his throat. “Most extraordinary,” he murmured, and yanked his reading glasses from his pocket and shook them open. The priest leaned close and turned her right wrist over several times and then looked at the left.
“Extraordinary isn’t a word I’d use,” Maura replied.
He looked up, ashamed. “Of course not. Forgive me. I get carried away with the science. As a fellow scientist, I am sure you understand.” Father Sebastian patted her hand and then leaned back and took off his glasses. “Any other wounds? Feet or side?”
“Nope. Just my hands.” Maura twisted a strand of cinnamon-colored hair around her finger. “Have you ever seen anything like this before?” She looked up from the Persian rug into his eyes. “Wounds like mine?”
“I have seen many people who claim to have the Sacred Wounds of Christ.” Father Sebastian rose from his chair, went to the window, and surveyed the town’s main street. A heavyset woman in a floppy hat hurried out of the pharmacy and made a beeline for the Red & White, flapping her arms and trailing a strand of decorative lights shaped like chili peppers behind her. “But in most cases it turns out not to be the work of God.” He watched the woman disappear into the grocery store and then turned away from the window to face Maura. “If you are not busy with your research, I would like to do some tests tomorrow and then observe you Holy Week. Nothing painful, only blood tests, measurements, and pictures.” Father Sebastian held up his hand and said, “Pro-mise.” The word lilted off his tongue in two assuring syllables.
“Why not? Don’t get your hopes up, though. My doctor in Savannah couldn’t find anything. That’s why he wrote me a prescription and sent me on my way. I was done with doctors, but when Father Fournier called about you I thought you might catch something the others missed and be able to cure my…ulcerations,” she said, unwilling to give her wounds a religious name. Maura stood and picked up her blue plaid mackinaw and scarf from the back of the chair and layered them on, then squeezed her head into a green knitted stocking cap with pompons dangling from each earflap. The outfit made her look like the garden gnomes outside the shanty houses on Grub Street, but there were snow-clouds this morning and it was the only hat she owned. “Are you going to be in town until Holy Week, or will you go back to Rome?”
“I will be here. Perhaps I can see some good sights, ja?” He walked to the door and opened it. “Danke schön, Fräulein Kelly. I am glad to meet you.”
Maura stepped into the hall and glanced both ways. Seeing that Father Fournier was gone, she turned back to the man who had traveled thousands of miles to see her. “Call me Maura. You’ve seen me naked, in a manner of speaking, so there’s no point in being formal.”
“Maura it is.” He rested his hand on the doorknob. “Does anyone in Alacoque other than Father Fournier know of your condition?”
“Then let us keep it to ourselves, just for small time,” he replied. “Some people are desperate for signs from God. If this is not a miracle, we do not want anyone to be…What is the word? Disappointed?”
“If it were up to me, no one would know about this,” Maura said as she drew a pair of gloves from her coat pocket and wiggled her fingers into them. “In a town of two hundred people, it isn’t wise to be the strangest one. The secret’s safe with me.”
“Good. Father Fournier has agreed to tell parishioners that I am here on sabbatical, so it will not cause suspicion if we are seen talking. We will do the tests tomorrow after the Ash Wednesday service. Which you will attend,” he said with a reprimanding arch of his brow.
She shook her head, making the pompons on her hat twitch. “No…I don’t do Ash Wednesday anymore…Actually, I don’t do any services. If I hadn’t slipped and told Father Vincent where I was moving, Father Fournier wouldn’t even know my name. I’ll meet you somewhere when you’re done.”
Father Sebastian let Maura stammer out the protest and then said, “Father Fournier mentioned that you have not been to Mass, but if you desire my help you will come tomorrow. The Congregation will not allow me to investigate someone who refuses to attend.”
After a moment of silence, Maura sighed, and flung her scarf over her shoulder. “Fine. I’ll go.”
He watched her walk to the side door of the church, and called out just as she opened it. “Wait!” The priest hurried down the hall as he took a card out of his pocket. When he reached Maura, he placed it in her gloved hand. “This is my number at the motel. Call if you need guidance, or if anything should go wrong.”
Her eyes narrowed as she stuffed the card into her coat pocket. “What would go wrong?”
“Nothing. It is just a phrase.” He smiled and his crow’s feet wrinkled in a way she found comforting. “My bad English.”
“Thanks,” she said, hoping she didn’t read uncertainty in his eyes.
In the parking lot, a gust of cold, salty bay air stung her nose. She needed to buy groceries and pick up her mail before going home to work. As Maura crossed the street to the Red & White, Sabine Boucher stepped out of the store and waved to her.
“Well, hey there. I ain’t seen you around in days,” Sabine said as she sashayed over. She was in her early thirties like Maura, but looked older, with harsh, lascivious features. Even in the dead of winter, she found ways to dress provocatively in tight sweaters and ski pants. Her lips, lacquered with raspberry lip gloss, parted into a smile. “You coming to buy groceries for tonight?”
Maura glanced down and made sure her wrists were covered. “Tonight?”
“It’s Shrove Tuesday. Tonight’s the running of the Mardi Gras. We have a big, ol’ Cajun party in the center of town. All the men ride around the countryside on horses, dressed up to collect food for the community dinner. It’s the last night to party and eat meat before Lent. Matthew, my brother, left earlier, but he should stop by your place on the way back into town. The man who gets the most chickens sort’a wins.” She touched Maura’s hand, and Maura flinched, but Sabine didn’t seem to notice. “My brother’s a little shy, so be extra nice to him. Matty spends most of his time on a shrimp boat or in the fields, so he don’t socialize much,” she said, then rifled through her purse full of cosmetics looking for car keys. “It’s considered polite to invite the rider in and give ‘em a hot toddy or something. Matthew likes a good bourbon.”
“I didn’t know about it. I guess I’ll get something,” Maura said and kept her face even, not wanting to encourage neighborly visits.
“Go on inside. Mère will help you pick something out,” Sabine said and hurried to her black Jeep parked half on the curb. “I’m fixing to go home and get ready. See you at the party.”
The idea of strange masked men coming to her house or of an outdoor party on such a cold night wasn’t appealing, but she’d have to socialize with the townsfolk eventually. Otherwise they’d send out the Welcome Wagon, and the last thing she needed was people dropping by when there were so many holy days on the calendar. Maura pushed open the glass door to the town’s only grocery and was met with a wave of dry heat from an ancient gas radiator in the corner. The cowbell above the door clanged out a dissonant note and the eyes of three girls standing at the counter fell upon her. Becoming aware of how foolish her hat must look, she reached up, snatched it off, and stuffed it in her pocket. The girls lost interest in her and resumed their animated conversation as Maura picked up a red plastic basket and made her way around the concrete aisles. The center girl of the trio was plump with brassy blonde hair and dark roots. She laughed too loud to make sure all attention was focused on her, and repeated the phrase “you know” with annoying frequency. Maura dropped one of the three choices of soup into her basket, and felt a surge of hatred against her. She knew it was wrong, but she didn’t care. The obnoxious girl’s happiness felt like a personal affront, and Maura wished she would keep it to herself. After locating the surgical tape and gauze, Maura ran her gloved hand over her hair to smooth out the static, took a deep breath, and approached the front cash register.
“Mrs. Boucher?” she said in a subdued voice to the woman behind the counter. “Sabine thought you could help me find something for the cook-out tonight.” The cluster of local girls looked at her and smiled, but it was the jeering smile that homecoming queens bestowed upon girls who played oboe in the marching band. She hugged the basket to her chest and tried to ignore their stares. It was her face that caused them to giggle and whisper. By now, she knew there was nothing she could do about it. The turn of the corners of her mouth, the wrinkle just above the bridge of her nose, and her nose itself, the snobbish upsweep at the end and the slight flair of her nostrils, all gave the impression that she perpetually smelled something distasteful. It had put people off all her life. Her mother had sent her to her room for being sassy, and teachers had swatted her hands with rulers and made her stand in the corner. Everyone had their lot in life and this had been her particular cross to bear…until recently.
“Certainly,” Brigitte Boucher said. She rubbed her hands against her apron, and came around the counter. Sabine’s mother placed her manicured hands on her hips and considered an appropriate offering for the community pot. “How ‘bout some andouille sausage? That always make for a nice gumbo,” she said and led Maura to the meat cooler, her crinoline rustling underneath a white skirt dotted with pale pink flowers. Most women would’ve looked foolish wearing such fancy clothes while working in a grocery store, but Brigitte’s baroque features called for springy, feminine fabrics even in February. “Here, this should be plenty, dear,” Mrs. Boucher said. She dropped the parcel of white butcher paper and twine into the basket, a few bloody fingerprints marring the corner of the crisp paper.
Brown paper packages tied up with string. Ten pounds of sausage is my favorite thing, Maura hummed in her head as she followed Mrs. Boucher to the register. She hadn’t slept much in the last few days and the heat blasting from the radiator lulled her into a codeine-like trance. Suddenly, she wanted to be in rented house with uneven floors and leaky faucets. “I need some bourbon too,” Maura said. Thinking she might look a little drunk now that fatigue had taken hold of her, she added quickly, “To serve to the riders.”
“Well that’s gonna make you a hit,” Mrs. Boucher said with a grand smile and turned to the shelves of liquor behind her. “What kind?”
Maura planted her palms on the countertop and leaned over, squinting to read the labels. “That one,” she said and pointed to the Wild Turkey, thinking it would go nicely with the god-awful velour pheasant couch in the living room.
“My boy Matthew likes this one. Have you met him yet?”
Maura shook her head. The girls covered their mouths with their hands and snickered.
“Well, you’ll meet him soon enough, since we’re almost neighbors.” Mrs. Boucher wrapped the bottle in a brown paper bag and placed it with the other groceries, pretending not to notice or just not caring that the girls whispered and scrutinized Maura with kindling eyes. “You’re coming to the fais do-do tonight, aren’t you?”
Her cheeks flushed, and she seized her groceries and change. “For a little while.” The girls broke into a fit of laughter, and Maura hurried out the door, hearing Mrs. Boucher shush them with a soft chuckle over the rattle of the bell.
Baker’s Pharmacy was just across the street, but she decided to wait until tomorrow to collect her mail. Her morning had been trying enough without Soodie Baker’s endless stream of personal questions. Gauze was seventy cents more a box at the Red & White, but she would’ve gladly paid five dollars more to avoid being interrogated about her purchases.
“Honey, just what are you doing in that house on Gede Street to need four rolls of this stuff?” Soodie had asked, refusing to ring up the bandages until Maura answered.
Unable to concoct a good lie on the spot, Maura had mumbled something about plugging holes in the window screens, and Soodie foisted a bag of cotton balls on her, saying they worked better. It never occurred to Soodie that it was odd to have open windows or mosquito trouble in February.