twenty-three         

            "MARISEE! TESSIE! JEWEL!"

            The door thuds open with a kick, its baseboard rattling.

            "Dis way. Lawd o' mercy. Easy wit' him, Eugene! Luke, be careful! WATCH MASSAH'S HEAD! Dat not a sack o' tatters you two totin'."

            Beulah supervises Zachary's transport through the Big House.

            "His face all ovah blis'ers! How long yo'all leave him lay out dere, you scoun'rels? Boun' fo' Hell, you is, let Massah cook like dis. Fo' shame!"

            She cuffs Luke's ear. Eugene comes to his defence.

            "Leave off caterwaulin', woman; I'll kick yo' flabby ass."

            She makes a sign at him. He scoffs.

            "An' quit dat nonsense, too. None o' us b'lieves yo' a gen-u-wine Conjure'."

            Beulah disregards his false bravado.

            "TESSIE! MARISEE! Where dem no 'coun' girls? Not dat way; dis a-way! Up de stairs. You fiel'han's mos' got cabbages fo' brains."

            "Us knows enuff wears a hat in de noonday sun. Right, Luke?"

            Beulah reprimands.

            "You bes' commence to prayin' dat Massah be alright."

            "Oh, us prayin'. Wasn' us prayin', Luke? Prayin' fo' dem sunbeams singe dis loony white boy black."

            The two men laugh but their mirth rings false; both are apprehensive.

            "Drops a word ta Mistah Tune, yo'all be laughin' tru yo' skin. Split yo' sides fo' real, I drops a word ta Tune."

            "But ussens save' de Massah. Wasn' fo' us, him still be fryin'."

            Luke is worried, as is Eugene, that the blame will fall on them.

            "Luke right. When de Massah leave off hollerin' 'wo'k, wo'k, wo'k', us takes a li'ly breathah, you know, figgerin' it be safe ta stop an' res'. 'Cep' me an' Luke here nods off in de shade. Don' wakes up 'til de sun pas' peakMassah Zach'ry nigh char-broil' by den."

            "I don' b'lieves you."

            "Dat de Gospel, Beulah, hones'. Ain' it, Luke?"

            Luke nods.

            "You niggahs git."

            As they turn to go they stumble into Jewel.

            "Beg pardon, Miss. Has us two met? Name's Eugene. Bet yo'all Jewel. Boys say Jewel de purties' sight a po' man ev' lay eyes on. How's 'bout steppin' out some night fo' a li'ly-bitty stro'?"

            Jewel passes without a glance. Her eyes have not strayed once from Zachary's brick-red countenance.

            "Fetch some towels an' draw fresh water, Jewel."

            "Purties' sight, no lie, 'cep' downright uppity. Ain' her uppity, Luke? Ack like..."

            "I thought I tol' you niggahs, git. Now GIT!"

            Beulah turns and herds both field hands from the master bedroom. Jewel inches closer.

            0ooo, him red an' swoll like a ovah-ripe tomatah. She spreads her hands above his chest to feel its radiating heat.  Burnt alive, him look; a mir'cle him still breavin'.

            "Towels an' water, Miss, iffen you don' mine."

            Beulah nudges Jewel out of the way.

            "Sho' did scorch yo'se'f proper, big mule-headed, gots-ta-do-ev-thin-fo'-yo'se'f..." She breaks off her tirade. "Mammy here; don' worry, now; gwon douse dem flames right quick." She lays her palm across Zachary's parboiled brow, then casts Jewel a grimace. "Gwon stan' dere gawkin', girl, o' fetch what I done tol' you?"

            Jewel aborts her trance and hastily complies, passing Tessie in the doorway.

            "Bless my soul; what happen? Massah Zach'ry look like Satan hisse'f."

            "Mind yo' mouth, girl. He'p me shuck off de Massah's boots."

            Tess, now joined by Marisee, pitches in.

            When Jewel returns, she finds her Master laid out supine across the sheet, flesh so raw against the pressed immaculate linen she winces with sympathy.

            Beulah soaks a towel in the basin Jewel has brought, wrings it out and drapes it over Zachary's fiery torso, soaking a second towel by which the first will be replaced.

            "Gets de vin'gar, Tess."

            "Yes, ma' am."

            "An' brings de linimen'."

            Tessie leaves. Marisee stares, as riveted as is Jewel by Zachary's livid colour. Beulah does her best to contain her maternal rage.

            "Dem shif'less bas'ards; leave my babe lay face-up bakin' in de midday sun! Gots ha'f a mine ta snitch, tell Mistah Tune... Easy, chile. Res' easy, now. Mammy make it cool—cooly-cool—yo' Mammy put out dis fire."

            Beulah swabs and dabs, blowing breathy draughts through her puckered lips.

            "Dis water wa'm. Come blows on yo' Massah."

            Jewel and Marisee station themselves on either side of the bed. They purse their mouths and blow while Beulah gently ministers.

            "Dey jealous, dat all; jealous 'coun' yo' younger, stronger, handsomer, an' 'coun' o' yo' de boss. But what dey hates de mos' is dat you got char'cter. Char'cter 's what you got, true char'cter blessed wit princ'ples."

            She soothes and tends methodically. Tessie re-enters.

            "Couldn' fine no vin'gar."

            She hands over the liniment.

            "Marisee, you go. It in de pantry."

            Tessie contradicts her.

            "It ain't; dat where I look."

            Beulah's facial scars furrow.

            "Go looks again."

            Jewel's eyes pan along the outstretched half-nude body.

            Sho be roas' wais' up. Her anger briefly flares. Too bad him not roas' where it serve him right! Nonetheless, she cooperates... blows... blows... blows until light-headed, mad and glad by turns he needs her requisitioned help.

            Zachary finally stirs, eyes forming narrow slits as they prise momentarily open, fixing (with remorse?) on Jewel's suspended face, straining to convey (a belated apology?) sentiments confused by his enervated state, shutting (with embarrassment?) as his blush of colour darkens, lids like paper lanterns scorched from without and from within.