twenty-two          

            Zachary's skin shows white along his belt line. He works bare-chested. His legs are flexed in a powerful wide-set stance. As his left arm hooks a stand of cattails, his right assaults their stalks with a keen-edged sickle. Every strike provokes a grunt—stomach muscles tensing, ribcage heaving, pores exuding streams of sultry perspiration... hacking, hooking, hacking with abandon regardless the midday swelter.

            "Gwon pass out, him don' slow down."

            "Let 'im. Give us all de chance catch a li'ly-bitty snooze."

            "Been flailin' 'way like dat mo'e dan a hour—ack like him possess'."

            The slaves work leisurely, one eye on their task, the other on their Master. Whenever he looks their way, pace accelerates; otherwise, it lags

            "I s'pose him is possess'. Josephus say dat Tess say 'Massah sweet on Jewel'—you know, de new gal?"

            "Think I bline? Ain't a niggah on de place don' get a cockstan' ' bout dat Jewel. Seen 'er ass?"

            "I seen it."

            "Seen 'er perky li'ly titties?"

            "I seen, I seen. Fo'get it, niggah; iffen what Tess say be true dat gal already spoke fo'. Soon be wearin' Massah Zach'ry's mon'gram."

            "Ain't dat de way? Him fuckin' wit us de live-long dayin dis swamp, dis scorchin' heatden fuckin' wit herdat blue-black beauty—all de live-long night."

            "Cool down."

            "Cool down! It a hund'ed in de shade? 'Cool down'. White fo'ks make deir life's wo'k fuckin' wit us niggahs."

            "Quick, him lookin'!"

            Zachary stops to wipe the sweat from his eyes. He checks his progress—comparing it, then, to progress made by the slaves. His swath—cut single-handedly—is twice the length and breadth of theirs combined.

            Goddamn niggers, work! Work is what a man is all about. Why can't they understand that? Work builds character, instils pride in accomplishment. Work defines the times, articulates ideals. If emancipation comesand I pray that it does notslaves will learn to work, else shiftlessness forever be their lot.

            Zachary resumes hacking.

            "I must implore you, Mister Squire, that you refrain from spoilin' the slaves by rewardin' 'em with liquor; they just can't handle it. Makes a decent-day's work even harder to extract. Your daddy..."

            "I am not, let me remind you Mister Tune, emulating my father.

            But Mister Tune was right; incentives other than the lash, perhaps, were doomed to fail.

            "YOU BOYS ARE SLACKING. LUKE, LOOK LIVELY! YOU, TOO, EUGENE."

            Luke jumps to it. Eugene mutters under his breath but picks up the pace.

            Zachary recommences his strenuous example.

            Turned her back, she did, and walked right out. Defied me, in effect, made a sham of my authority. (The sickle flashes...) "To be used in whatever way 'I' shall see fit". (...slashes through the reeds with energetic zeal...) I'm her Lord and Master, not to be opposed... (He hacks...) criticized... (The cattails fall...) or in any way refused. (...topple left and right in amputated sheaves...) Worshipped maybe not, but certainly shown respect (...their sap as thick as blood escaping severed shoots...) irrespective any purported lapse in gentlemanly behaviour—not for her to judge; get more compliance due from Charleston's whores... (His strokes redouble...) Lulu in particular... (...boots awash with sludge...) who never bars her door or spurns a man's advances... (...pants and socks irriguous with liquid mud and slime...) Plop my money down; she obliges; no fuss; no bother; satisfies the urge, anxiety put to rest (...inundates his toes, already waterlogged) Whereas marriage to Felicia... ugh; Felicia: vain, flirtatious, shallow as a pockmark, and chosen by my father for reasons of avarice, joining her estates—for better or for worsewith ours, with mine, fulfilling aspirations his and his alone.

            The sun breathes fire, incinerating gumption, evaporating strength, tolerance turned to steam that rises with the marsh fumes' noxious exhalation... infiltrating brain... debilitating brawn... ("A cunt is a cunt," I quote; Lulu's suits me fine. What need I of a wife? I will not sire an heir! Not by Felicia Abernathy. Not for Zachariah's benefit—deathbed wish be damned. Marriage I will grant, but not a concession more!)... harrying hide and head as fiercely as the slashes from Zachary's thrashing arm, relentless, furious, implacable... (What did she expect; some "mother-may-I" enter; some "pretty-please-with sugar" spread your legs; some "beg-your-pardon-ma'am" apology because I merely threatened to deflower her? The bitch is still intact!)... feverishly attacking the hapless reed mace flowers, hack, hack, hack, hack, hackingfatigue and sunstroke primed to overwhelm.