thirty-four           

            The sleeves of Jewel's grey coat shield her fingers from the chill. Her holey socks are wet, unprotected from the hoarfrost by hand-me-down sandals. Her sack dress draggles as she walks, bits of twigs and moss and mud clinging to its hem. She can see her breath. She feels mucous creeping from her nose despite intermittent sniffling. She breaks into a run, crossing her arms to keep the coat flaps closed... slows... then walks. An overcast sky shows through the trees in solemn-seeming patches. The ground is slick with multi­coloured leavesas many fallen as cleaving to the autumn branches. She runs again. She slips and nearly falls. She recommences walking, not really heading in a definite direction or caring that she is lost.

            Her "do declare" won' stay in no house no way where a nigger sleeps "above". "Sen' dat gal to de basemen'—o' bettah yet to de Quartersan' sen' her now!" Dat what de Mist'ess say to Massah Zach'ry fust off. Her say it wiff me stan'in' not two feets dis'ant s'if I' deef an' dumb; 's'if I's not bein' spoke to I cain't hear nor speak. An' him jus' do itwiffout a blinktake away my room! I know it foolishness b'lieve dat room be mine... Dey's nuffin' mine. Dis coat not mine, dis dress, dese soggy ole socks an' useless sandals, aw b'longs de Massah. Ev'thin'—even Jewelb'longs ta him.

            She stops. Mist cloaks the forest thickly. It fills in all the spaces making everywhere look the samethat is to say closed in. The sound of her panting turns back on itself. She sniffles, smells the damp. She wipes her nose, leaving a slender, silver snail-trail on the grey coat's sleeve.

            I run off. Iffen de patterrollers ketch me, my goose cookt. Dey prob'bly string me up, whup me fo' a while, den drags me on back. Not goin' back, doughbes' dey kill menot to de Mist'ess. Ev' since Mist'ess come, her aw time whuppin' me. But her got a thousan' ways o' whuppin' wiffout no whip.

            Jewel rests her back against a tree trunk.

            Like her make me do some darnin'. It not right. I done it 'xac'ly like her tol' me. It not right. I done it ovah. It still not right. "Bes' let Tessie do it; Tessie know how do a thin' proper." Whup.

            She pulls her chin inside the coat collar.

            O' de time her give de house niggahs new clo'es. Ev'body else fit perfec'. Beulah big an hers fit perfec'. Mine too tight in de hips an' ches' but I  say thank you an'way, jus' needs a little lettin' out. Mist'ess say it not de dress needs lettin' out, it me gettin' fat on de easy life I livin'. Her tell Beulah keeps me away from de pantry an' doles out mo'e wo'k. Den her gimme dis gunnysack I 'pose' to wear 'til I skinny down. Whup.

            Jewel tilts her nose skyward... detecting something. Smoke. She looks around warily, but the mist is more and more like cream of mushroom soup. She heads in what she hopes is the opposite direction, spotting an orangey glow off to her leftfrom which she sharply veers and hastens to hide. Peeking from behind a tree, she dimly discerns a campfireunattended—as a small brown hand reaches up to touch her shoulder from the rear; Jewel shrieks and spins! Her terror-filled eyes look up, then redirect their focus downwardterror transformed to bewilderment. The face she beholds is Black, its features framed by a tumbleweed of beard—bristles intermingling with a hair-do no less wild; there are nappy parts and straight parts, parts in braids tied up with thongs, the whole adorned with feathers, bits of brass, glass beads, and a smattering of bones. From shoulders down, the figure is dressed in an incredible suit of rags, a collage of countless multi-coloured scraps sewn, re-sewn, and overlapping, layer upon layer, like a cloth mosaic stitched to a patchwork quilt. Satchels of curious shape and size hang from straps crisscrossing the fabrics. Talismans dangle from necklaces woven out of hemp, while charms are attached to a snake-skin belt with various lengths of twine. But most bizarre of all is the man's overall dimension. Were he to stand on tip-toe he would barely reach Jewel's bust. He is full-grown—that is to say an adult, proportioned normally—yet on a diminutive scale that Jewel, staring in awe, finds enchanting.

            "Who you?... What you wan'?"

            The little man does not answer. He simply studies her with his senses: turns his left ear toward her, then his right; his nostrils dilate; his lips massage themselves; his pale tongue slips in and out as if to taste some palpable flavour. Then suddenly he is highly animated. He shifts his weight from foot to foot, vigorously rubbing together his palms while hopping with excitement. His fingers reach for Jewel's; she lets him take her by the hand and lead her unresisting to his campsite.

 

            There is a tripod with cast-iron pot suspended over an open fire. Beside it, on the ground, lies a square of carpet. The man points at it, indicating that Jewel should sit. She does. Damp wood sizzles and cracks, wet leaves smoulder. Jewel's fists, like cautious turtle heads, emerge from sleeves to meet the warmth. Smoke winds toward her, gets into her eyes, making them smart and water. Through tears she sees the man caress the smoke as if it were a tail, diverting it from her face with a graceful gesture. He grins. He holds an iron ladle over a cup. She nods. He scoops a steamy serving from the pot. It smells of cinnamon and camomile and peppermint and rose hips. It clears her sinuses as she breathes in its aroma. She takes a sip. It tastes as exotic as it smells. Jewel nods her thanks—speech seeming somehow inappropriate. The little man disappears into what looks like an oversized rabbit hutch, then crawls out with a second square of carpet. He sits beside her, cross-legged, his fingers fondling the bowl of a corncob pipe, which he lights with a faggot from the fire. The pipe smells good, as well—like roasted chestnuts. He puffs; she sips; for the moment, nothing further is required.

            Nev' did see de like. Dis man no bigger dan a chile, 'cep' him ole. Not ole, 'xac'ly—I think him prob'bly youngish un'er aw dem whiskahs—but growed. Look like a muskrat. Don' seem him talk. Mayhap mute. Dress strange! Look like a walkin' swatch boar', him so col'ful. Gots him trinkets, too... aw ovah. I won'ers iffen him own' o' jus' run wilelike dem Maroons? One thin' be fo' certain; dis man a Conju'e. Nev' did see no Conju'e but I guess I know him it. Him grab aholt  my han', an', aw de while, it make mine buzz.

            Jewel sips more of the aromatic brew. Maroons, she knows, are runaways sometimes freed slaves, sometimes slaves of deceased or estate-less Masters—who live as best they can, for the most part in hiding. Pursuit by the Patrollers generally makes such bands nomadic, but some communities in remoter areas have been able to stake out sanctuaries. Jewel's own father allegedly escaped to one such place...

            "Him comin' fo' us one day, chile; yo' Daddy done promise'. Him brave an' strong an' oh so fine to look at. Puff me up wit you fust time us spoon. Den don' see 'im fo' mos' dat summah, thinkin' I be fo'sake'... when one dark night him show, all blue an' gleamin' in de moonlight, an' us slip off an' love an' love an' love 'til yo' mammy heart unwine an' wrap itse'f so tight 'roun' dat man it las' fo'evah. Him know you already sprout', Jewel. Tries right den an' dere to makes us run. 'Run' him whisper like de devil in my ear. 'Run so's dat sweet chile be born in freedom.' Him full o' such nonsense 'bout freedom's'if niggahs livin' like coons run up a tree ev' gwon 'scape de houn's. I tells 'im 'No.' I tells 'im 'Leave us be.' But him try one las' time."

            Jewel's gaze drifts from the smoke to the odd little man it obeys, his face become a mirror that reflects her wistful reverie.

            "One las' time him try, chile. It turns out bad. (Jewel hears the dreadful bay of bloodhounds) De Patterrollers set dey dogs on yo' Daddy fo'e him reach de Quartahs. (Jewel sees the flash of fangs) Him fight. Dem dogs chew 'im up somethin' awful fo'e he kill 'em, but kill 'em he do—strangle two dem mongrels, cripple t'othah oneden drag hisse'f all tore an' bleedin' to beg yo' mammy run. ('Run' the word reverberates like an incantation) But I too big. You mos' ready to drop; an' yo' daddy cain't hardly walk, an' I know dey gwon ketch us—won' get pas' a mileso I tells 'im "No" again. Him jus' look at me. I nev' fo'get dat look, chile, long 's I live. Dat look what mark de soul o' all fo'ks ev' knowed slav'ry... Den him go. (Jewel sees a limping silhouette vanish in the night) Him swear him come on back, but us sole in de meanwhile. Nev' did lay my eyes on yo' Daddy evah since."

            The little man passes one palm, then the other before Jewel's expressionless countenance. Her vision blurs, she feels lethargic, she seems to be asleep, while allowing him, once again, to lead her by the hand.