Monday, April 9, 2007

The Perfect Time

Her garden was missing one last elegant touch. No ugly birdbath, no clunky cement frog, the treasure Celeste had in mind was beautifully aged by more than a hundred and fifty years of time with a slight patina of pale green lichen shadowed deep between marble folds.

The stone cherub had stood ever vigilant over little Sophia Friederika Prager since April of 1853, when the fifteen month-old toddler succumbed to a yellow fever epidemic that swept New Orleans. Celeste knew exactly where Sophia's family tomb was located in the cemetery - square 1, lot 115. Over the years, she had visited the Prager mausoleum at least once a week, drawn not only by the sadness of the child's death but more so to the exquisitely carved angel that sat atop the arched edifice of the tomb, clutching a stone nosegay that never wilted.

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For weeks now the statue had whispered to Celeste, the words too low at first, but soon becoming quite audible: "Stay with me". And stay she would, until the falling gloom of evening drove Celeste back home, leaving the cherub alone once again. After the last yellow and white mums were carefully planted just so in her back courtyard garden, Celeste knew the time was perfect.

When Mr. Prioleau, the caretaker, was finally able to return to his home and job after Katrina's wrath, he was saddened by the condition of several of the graves, though Lafayette No. 1 had escaped most of the severest flooding. The hurricane winds preceding the levee breaks had toppled many old urns and statuary, strewn huge tree limbs into the narrow walkways and crashed them into tomb doorways. Square 1 of the cemetery seemed to have caught the worst of the storm, and the caretaker was appalled to find more than one body had floated from its mouldy slumbering place.

That afternoon he came upon a badly damaged tomb. Numbed by the desolation and the slapping of ever-feeding mosquitoes, Prioleau shook his head and said a quick mumbled prayer under the bandanna tied around his nose and mouth which did little to abate the stench. Fortunately, the obviously recently entombed body was prevented from washing away by heavy pieces of stone that had fallen from a pedestal on the tomb's curved cement roof. Odd, the caretaker did not recall a new burial in this section of the cemetery, but they had been on vacation the week before Katrina; perfect timing he had said to his wife, Tildie, many times over in the preceding month. He hastily pushed the remains back into the vault with gloved hands, then pulled a small spiral writing tablet from his back overall pocket and added "Lot #115" for door re-cementing on his list. Perhaps a stone mason could be found to reconstruct the beautiful little cherub statue and return her to her proper place, so Prioleau neatly stacked the pieces next to the mausoleum, being careful to keep the broken stone petals of a little nosegay together.

With hundreds of monetary donations pouring into New Orleans, it was the perfect time to update the old cemetery with repairs that were much needed even before the hurricane...

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