eight               

            CLANG, CLANG, CLANG, CLANG, CLANG!

            "ARE YOU UP?"

            Mr. Tune, in leather, straddles his chestnut mare. His legs grip tightly. His mouthwhich every morning barks the same three-word haranguereconstitutes its line, thin-lipped and humourless. He exercises his neck. His jowls elongate. The rawhide that he wears is like a callous second skin, as cracked and weather-beaten as the hide it guards. He seldom sheds it; almost never washes. ("Real men stick.") Tune judges others—men and women—by their raw un-doctored odour. He waits. His hound waits, also, tongue out, panting. Day has yet to break yet already it is dank. Muggy. The Quarters stir. Doors are swinging open onto a corridor of rustic rough-hewn shacks. Bodies, mostly shirtless, are emerging. The tail of Tune's attack dog , metronome-like, wags.

            Two rows form, coming to a lacklustre attention: men in their thirties, forties, some past fifty—strong men, hard, like bludgeons, grimly inured to a daily dose of pain... two rows at predawn standing, waiting for a signal from him they call "The Man."

            Tune casts his whip and watches as its tapered length uncoils, revelling in the power a simple wrist-flick creates, the wince it provokes, the WHOOSH and CRACK as the air is split like an overripe persimmon.

            Jewel, awakened by the bell, looks on from the window of her rooftop loft, from which she can see the Quarters , albeit dimly, in the early morning gloom.

            Sleepy, hungry, won'erin' which one worse, dey headin' fo' de fiel's. Man on hawseback mus' be Mistah Tune; I hears dat whip from here.

            Jewel sniffs.

            Bread bakin'. Beulah mus' be up. Won'ers how come no one sen' to fetch me?

            The attic is close, but not as stifling as it was throughout the night. Jewel slept at first, then tossed and turned, then woke and dozed in fits. The sheet is soggy with sweat, the pillow crumpled, creased, and imprinted like a palimpsest of dreams unremembered. She is naked without alternative; the only dress she owns surrendered upon admittance. Turning from the tiny window she scans her spartan room: one bed, one chair, one table on which a water basin sits, one chamber pot on the dust-powdered hardwood floor, one candlestick with candle, one half-full box of matches, one freshly laundered towel. Walls are bare, ceiling irregular, door and threshold downscaled suitable for a dwarf.

            Never did have no room befo'e, what I didn' have to share. Mammy an' me, in de bunkhouse us las' live in, slep' wiff seventeen—not countin' de suckers. Befo'e dat dey was five—aw girlsin a space no bigger dan a shed. Befo'e dat I too little to remember 'cep' dey's males an' females mix'. Hope dey not jus' foolin' when dey vouchsafe dis room mine. White fo'ks do like dat. Mammy say de onliest thin' a nigger ev' gwon own be lifelong grief. An' quiet-sassin', o' course. An' love 'mongst our own—what takeable. Took away my mammy. Doubt dey give 'er back.

            Jewel clasps her hands and kneels as if to pray, elevates her chineyes taking on an aspect other-worldly as her mother's image forms:

            Mammy, dis yo' daughter, Jewel. I fixin' hard on you. I fixin' real hard, de way you learnt me. I fixin' on yo' face, so kine an' calm an'... Mammy, what dey doin'! Mammy, what dey done; yo' face aw bloat!

            Jewel diverts her gaze, focusing on the door that opens of itself, or rather from the doorknob being turned—by  her on whom Jewel projects her mother's mortal fate.

            Dey twis' yo' neck? What dat, a bullwhip roun' yo' t'roat what grab a holt an' won' let go dat make yo' cheeks swoll up unnat'ral... rob deir colour... leave 'em... dead?

            "I brung yo' dress. Is you alright?"

            Dey killt my mammy.

            Jewel is certain. She can feel it more than see it as her mind's eye loses sight and is replaced by normal vision... recognizing who(?)...

            "I'll put dese here."

...the girl named Marisee, looking frightened...

            "I be goin' now."

...disconcerted by the eyes that stare straight at her but pretend they do not to see, or rather see what is not there. She starts to leave; Jewel's voice detains her.

            "Yo' name Marisee?"

            On her guard, the house slave points at the laundered dress.

            "Us wash an' iron it. 'Pose' to say, 'come down'. Come down. I gots to go."

            "Wait."

            Jewel rises, reaches for the dress; the handkerchief drops out.

            "Us wash dat, too. Sho look famil'ar. Dey be blood spots on it; don' come out; us trie'. You need some drawers?"

            "You got some?"

            "Do. 'Cep' dey not fancy; not like dat." She indicates the hanky. "Reckon dey still fit, seein' 's how you an' me 'bout equal size. 'Cep'... you know... yo' mo'e shapelier."

            Marisee cannot hide her envious admiration. Heretofore her only competition came from Tessie. And Beulah, but Beulah is fat. And Tessie limps. Next to the likes of Jewel, however, Marisee feels frumpy.

            "Yo' shape jus' fine. Yo' pretty, too. Gots yo'se'f a husban'?"

            "Naw, dey don' 'low husban's here. 'Sides, de men on dis place too ol' fo' jumpin' brooms. Ancient, mos' o' dem. You'll see. Iffen you should gets a hankerin' fo' a man mo'e nigh yo' age, gots to slip off quiet-like, visit one de neighbours. An' dat dang'rous. De patterrollers ketch you, bettah off dead."

            Jewel dons her laundered dress, grateful for the gesture, but more for the conversation. She stows the folded handkerchief under her pillow.

            "You say you got some draw's fo' me?"

            "Downstairs. Whew; hot up here. Maybe Beulah let you bunk wit Tess an' me. Us down de cellah. It real nice an' cool down dere; you steam yo' brains, you have stay cooped up here. Dis summah awful, not a breath o' wind fo' days, an' flies so thick, an' sweat—I mus' o' wash de sheets a thousan' times since June. Awful!... Worser here. Le's go. Dese clothes o' mine be stuck my skin like pine tar; smell ripe already."

            She ducks through the pint-sized doorway; Jewel stoops and follows.