The wooded trail is sinuous and speckled with wildflowers. Trees provide a welcome invitation to enter their shade—wisps of moss, like goats' beards, clinging to lower branches—cooler, by comparison, yet not so cool that clothes feel comfortable; Jewel's adhere.
"Good mornin', Jewel," him greets me. Make me smile. Not plannin' to
crack dat smile; it
happen 'spite myse'f. Den him claimin' to know hows come my mammy name me Jewel.
"Gem in de rough" him calls me, "wit a smile like sun on jasmine." Den him smile, an' I go flush,
ears burnin', clumsy aw o' sudden. In limp Tessie 'bout den, so I gat'er up de breakfas' dishes. Massah
Zach'ry don' say nuffin' mo'e. Him dress' real nice an' fine, like fo' a fune'al o' somethin',
drink de res' his coffee—Donner fetch 'is hawse—den
Jewel stops. Hairs at the nape of her neck erect as if tickled by a breeze. The grass, however, is straight, tree leaves un-rustled, the air undisturbed.
A raven swoops onto the limb of a nearby tree, giving Jewel a start.
"COAL-EYE DEVIL—scare me ha'f to deaf'."
The sound of Jewel's raised voice breaks an eerie silence.
Crows be souls what God don' wan'—nor Satan neit'er—fo' bein' so contrary wiff deir cawin', raidin', scarin' fo'ks, an' aw time playin' pranks. Don' b'longs in Heaven, Hell, o' an'wheres else—what makes 'em troub'some.
The raven swoops into another tree, shadowing Jewel's progress.
"What you wan', bird? Don' be pest'rin' me."
Jewel searches for a pebble. The bird again flies off, landing onto a perch that parallels the footpath.
"See dis rock? Gwon bean you wiff it, bird, don' let me be. Now clear on off. Gwon, git!"
She hurls the checker-size pebble. It click-clacks through the branches and drops ineffectually. She finds another. She looks up, ready to take aim; the raven is gone.
The woods return to normal. At a clearing bleached with sun, Jewel finds the sought-after berry patch. She starts to pick and nibble, nibble and pick, watching out for thorns. The fruit is peak-season ripe, its ruby-red juice staining her eager fingers, making them sticky. The heat grows more intense. Harvesting is slow, her basket bottom scarcely covered. She suspends further nibbling.
At dis rate, I be here de live-long day. Beulah say a hour. Sho' hot out. Dis berry patch like a oven; be cook' 'fo'e 'nuff o' dese pick'.
Honey bees are buzzing. Their drone contributes to the heat. Jewel snags her thumb on a thorn and leaves off plucking to suck it. She hears a different sound, beyond that of the bees. A gurgle. Water. Running water. She works her way in its direction, weaving through the brambles to their less dense outskirts. The sound is near. She sets her basket on a tree stump then extricates herself from the fruit-laden shrubbery.
Jus' a trickle but it wet.
Jewel splashes into a brook, cottonwood branches overhead forming a canopy protective and sequestering. She pulls off dress and under-drawers to wallow unobserved.
I won'er how it feel, what men got danglin' 'twix dey legs when fust it fo'ce to fit into somethin' not so size'ble. Mammy say it hurt, 'nitially, den feel awright, sometimes good—'cep' it sew suckahs. Suckahs trouble 'cause deir mammies aw time worryin' 'bout how dey gwon get fed; den how long it take 'fo'e dey put in Massah's pocket. Mammy of'en say how dat de wors'. "A niggah don' know slav'ry 'til dey flesh an' blood be sole," what mammy of'en say. Make me promise won' get swoll wiffout no husban' right an' propah, what scarce so don' get swoll. "Preten' yo' still a youngun an' keep well shut o' men," her say. I's tryin'... Won'erin' 's aw I's doin'; ain't no harm in dat.
Jewel covers her breasts instinctively.
"CRAZY BIRD; YOU BACK? Where you at?"
Her eyes survey the tree limbs as she clambers to her feet.
"Where you at, Crow, you Peepin' Tom? I knows yo' trainin' dem beady-black eyes on..."
She spots the raven, its head cocked in a dumb show of impertinence.
"Stop oglin'; you hear me?"
She steps back out of the water and into her clothes. Once fully dressed, she looks again for the raven.
Mus' be a demon; way him comes an' goes.
She whirls around.
Still lookin'; I can feels 'im.
She casts a quick glance upward, then draws her focus down; the eyes that spy are on a level, or so she intuits, with hers—which scan the surroundings.
Someun... Someun 's watchin'.
Warily Jewel retreats... walks... then runs, crashing through heavy sedge, returning to the clearing... wherein she breathes more easily.... turns and tests the air... reassures herself that nothing or no one is in pursuit. Her basket sits on the tree stump exactly where she had left it, but, upon retrieving it, she is shocked to find it full.