six               

            The water is cool and clear as it foreshortens dark brown ankles, raggedy pant legs buoyed by a lilting current, flags of motley casting tongue-shaped shadows across the toes submerged. A cup is formed by a pair of weathered hands, dipping into the brook, lifting. Lips slurp. The hands dry off on a patch­work that covers stunted knees... air humming... alive with darting insects... hovering bees... and cobalt dragonflies mingling with mosquitoes covetous of the shade. Birds chirp. A garter snake slithers along the bank. Frogs blink lazily from half sunken positions. Water spiders dent the stagnant surface of a side-pool. There is a snapping turtle basking. There is a squirrel. Ragweed and wildflower pollen mix with the cloying odours bred of evaporation. No breeze. Tree limbs draggle wilting languorous leaves at the tepid water's edge—therein reflected... as is the fleeting figure, vanished in a mud-cloud as horse and rider near—though their progress is unhurried and ponderously burdensome—obliging nonetheless precipitous retreat, bank-side bushes rustling, the creek-bed abandoned.

            Zachary and Jewel approach, dismount, and pick their way to the brook. Jewel awaits horse and Master to drink their respective fill.

            "Can I goes ovah dere, suh, wash my foot?"

            She indicates a secluded spot downstream.

            Zachary nods.

            Jewel walks along the bank to a shallow crook. She stoops to soak the makeshift bandage, abruptly on alert! Someone is watching... someone not her Master. She stiffens, whirls around; there is no one to be seen. Hastily she returns with the bloodstained hanky.

            "Can us go, suh?"

            "What's your rush?"

            "Dey's a spirit in dis place. I feels it hauntin'."

            "You and Beulah will make a splendid pair."

            "Who Beulah?"

            "Beulah is in charge around the house. She's forever mixing potions and casting spells."

            "Is her a Conjure?"

            He grunts a laugh.

            "She wants to be. She'd love to have the other slaves quake in fear. But frankly Beulah's powers rest more in this world than the next. I don't suggest you cross her, though; whatever she says goes—unless, of course, it is I who tells you otherwise."

            "Yes, suh."

            They scale the bank. Jewel is still uneasy. Zachary swings into the saddle. Jewel is about to join him as before.

            "No."

            He tosses down the rope.

            "Yes, Massah."

            In part, she is relieved; the horse's broad back made her terribly uncomfortable. She remains, however, confused by Zachary's moon-phase moods: one moment friendly, the next almost hostile. As they leave the creek behind she turns and intently peers... but the stolid trees betray not whom they hide.

 

 

            "Him comin'! Beulah, Massah Zach'ry comin'!"

            "Okay, Marisee. I ain' deaf."

            "You gwon tell 'bout Miss Felicia?"

            "All in good time. Him be wantin' dinner fust. What de nigger look like?"

            "I couldn' see."

            "You sho him gots one?"

            "Haulin' somethin'. Look kine teeny fo' a buck, dough."

            "Long's him young an' prime."

            Tessie enters the kitchen.

            "An' good lookin', eh Marisee?"

            "I hopes you get de pox."

            "Awready had 'em."

            "Dat why yo' so lopsy-sided?"

            "Not so lopsy-sided 's Marisee's tits."

            Beulah interrupts.

            "TESSIE, did you tell Donner dat Massah's comin'?"

            "Yes, ma'am."

            "An' has you got de table set, an' de candles lit, an'..."

            "I done ever'thin' you tol' me."

            "Did I tell you stop yo' spattin' wit Marisee?"

            "Yes, ma'am."

            "Den you not done ever'thin', has you?"

            "No, ma'am."

            "Go light de lantern on de poach."

            "But it ain't gone dark yet." Beulah pauses from her preparations to cast a threatening look. "I goin'."

            Marisee pulls a face at Tessie's back.

            "An' you, Miss. Is de Massah's room all tidy, an' has de basin gots fresh water, an' is dere clean towels all laid out, an' Massah's slippers by de bed, an' be dey flowers on Massah's dressin' table?"

            "I fo'gets de flowers!"

            "You bes' go fetch 'em."

            "Massah Zachariah nevah wan' no stupit flowers."

            "Massah Zachariah, res' his soul, not here. An' 'coun' yo'se'f mos' fort'nate Massah Zach'ry is. Fetch dem posies."

            "Yes, ma'am."

            Marisee leaves. Beulah, garnishing a game hen she has cooked for the occasion, weighs the pros and cons of her Master's pending nuptial:

            Mayhap marriage roun' off de edges, put to res' dat mean streak; Massah Zach'ry lonesome, what can make a body mean. Did to Zachariah—meanes' man I knowed.

            On the other hand:

            Miss Felicia seem kine o' bossy. Trouble, iffen her try boss me aroun'. Sweet on Massah's muscles; I seen dat much. Time her come avisitin', her eyes nigh et him whole. Bes' be careful; Massah not so fon', mayhap, o' white meat.

 

 

            The mansion
come majestically into view, its broad viridian lawn fanned out like a skirt hemmed with chrysanthemums, foreground sprinkled with mimosa, background lined with poplar, gates of elaborate ironwork bordered by mainstay stone, driveway gravel-paved and raked into tidy patterns, looping, forming a crescent, broad and subtly graded, leading to the columned portico that rises like a throne, immaculate, white as clouds in which the structure might reside were gravity not in force and Heaven to claim its architecture, gabled, looming large
extends its hospitality.

            Jewel looks up in awe at the grandiose facade... as Zachary halts, looks back along the rope to appraise his wide-eyed property.

            Puny, filthy, sweaty, nonetheless mine... to be used—what was that phrase(?)—"in whatever way he shall see fit".

            Dere dat look again.

            Jewel grasps the noose around her neck, forearms pressed to her breasts, heart throbbing within her ribcage, trembling as if chilled by the Antebellum twilight.

 

 

            "Him boughts a woman! Tessie! TESSIE, Massah Zach'ry boughts hisse'f a female!"

            "Naw!"

            "Fo' true!"

            "I don' b'lieves it. GOD A'MIGHTY, Marisee, whoa; him did!"

            The two servants peek through a slit in the dining room drapes, as Beulah steps onto the porch her intended greeting mum.

            Donner, come from the stable to steady his Master's mare, gawks with eyes like a basset hound's, red-rimmed and rheumy. His irises are cloudy, his thin cheeks grey and grizzled, his aged shoulders stooped from decades of toil; eldest slave in residence, the groom performs his task.

            "Lemme he'ps you, Massah Squire. Oh, yo' down awready. Now wouldn' it be nice to be so spry. I spry once, yas indeedy. Yas, suh. Yas, suh. Spry as a coon, was I." Jewel hangs back at a distance; Zachary waves her forward. "Use' to run aw de errands on dis place, an' I means run. A rabbit wit his tail afire couldn' move no fas'er. Yas, suh. Yas, suh. Fas'?" Zachary is aware that Jewel is unexpected. "Shoulda see' dat time when Mist'ess, res' 'er soul, laid in her confinemen'. 'Fetch de doctor,' Massah Zachariah always hollerin'. Done dat trip nigh half a dozen times on false alarms, 'til fine'ly dat chile 'nounce it comin' fo'th fo' real."

            Beulah finds her tongue at last and chokes out a welcome—pointedly ignoring Zachary's "acquisition".

            "Yo' dinner be 'bout ready. Hope yo' feelin' hungry 'cause I fix yo' fav'rite meal."

            "This is Jewel." Zachary's introduction is affectedly offhand, then bolstered by specifics he recites from the bill of sale. "She's fifteen." Beulah casts a disbelieving glance. Sho 'nuff fully growed fo' a gal what claimin' pube'ty. "Soft-spoken." Not much call fo' talkin' got a body shape' like dat. "Obedient." Better be, or I de reason why. "She can cook, card, sew, and spin." I do all de cookin'; Tess an' Marisee card, sew, an' spin; what fo' Massah Zach'ry bought dis lump o' coal? Pocketing the paper, Zachary turns toward Jewel. "This is Beulah. It is she who will see to it that you get settled in."

            Donner (nearly blind and hard-of-hearing, also) finally notes the girl.

            "Why, Massah Squire, what has we here? Boughts yo'se'f a female? Mercy me, dat jus' what Massah done; dis slave a girl." He lifts the bristly noose from around Jewel's neck. "What yo' name, chile?"

            Jewel, eyes fixed on her toenails, dares not make a sound. Beulah scolds.

            "Her name Jewel, ol' man. Has you gone jus' as deaf as you is blind?"

            "Jewel a right fine name; a purty name. Yo' a very purty chile. Look at dese eyelashes, Beulah. Ain't her got de purtiest eyelashes?" Donner touches Jewel on her down-turned cheek. He lowers his voice. "Don' be 'fraid, chile. Dere no one here'bouts do you any harm."

            Night is falling. A cloudless sky trades blue for sombre grey. The landscape sighs as if relieved of sunshine's scorching exodus. Bugs are out and biting.

            Formalities dispensed, Zachary leaves his horse to Donner, Jewel to Beulah's auspices, and climbs the front porch steps whereupon he pauses, turns, surveys—self-satisfied with dominion over all his eyes behold.