thirty-seven           

            Jewel's eyelids ripple as her subconscious toys with waking from its trance (odd little man so hairy 'mos' like fur); had she let him touch her? (wiff dem paws 'cep' him not rough on'y pecul'ar) leading her into his birch-bark hutch replete with pine-needle-strewn floor (wa'm an' cosy iffen dark) too dark to be going inside alone with an odd little furry creature strung with charms, fox claws, and eagle talons (wavin' dat crys'al gem in fron' my face) arrows of light piercing the strange surroundings, illumining leather masks, their plant-dyed features haunted by virtue of pitch-black sockets ('s'if dem seed wiffout no eyeballs) vacant mouths telling tales in raspy whispers from clay-reinforced walls of dried leaves, Spanish moss, and a network of clinging vines (seem dey breavin') auguring (what dem sayin') entoning chants that warn of a time (trouble comin') when blood on blue-grey uniforms, crows on withered branches, Black backs stretched so taut the whip-cuts spread in jack-o-lantern grins (mean, wifout no mercy) forecast scenes of shadow-puppet horsemen (gots on hoods) carrying crosses (afire) glaring through their eye slits at mortally wounded folk (hate be brewin') war and woe, woe and war (kin 'gainst kin) afflicting the horizon with a blood-red setting sun.

            Jewel is perspiring. Her forehead glistens with sweat beads honeyed by the light. A candle flickers, as her face—released from visionsfalls into shadow; a hand passing... slowly... like an eclipse... like an ocean wave sweeping clear the shore...  smoothing furrowed sand... restoring calm to features coaxed awake, eyelids opening (dis odd little man still here) to distinguish attributes gilded by the candle's eerie glow (iffen on'y I could move my mouf I tell what I seed).

            Jewel blinks; the candle's flame is snuffed; its smoke meanders toward the ceiling, drawn by a tiny chink, an air vent through which—poof, like a Jinn dispersingthe prophesy escapes.

            Jewel blinks again. The Conjurer once more sits cross-legged directly in front of her. For an instant everything telescopes (him look so puny) wrapped as in a halo (brightness aw 'aoun' 'im) brilliant beams of sunlight infiltrating the gloomoutside fog having lifted, as has the fog within.

            Jewel of a sudden feels as if exposed. She checks her well-worn clothes; they are dishevelled but otherwise undisturbed. The Conjurer makes a sign.

            "My name? Dat what yo' axin'?"

            He nods.

            "Jewel."

            A ruby seems to materialize in the Conjurer's paw-like handa pendant set in ornate silver, attached to a fragile, thread-like chain. Leaning forward, he lifts and fastens the pendant around Jewel's slender neck.

            "It beautiful."

            She fondles it, eyes slightly crossed, chin doubled against her bosom.

            "Dis mine? I can keeps it? But ev'body think it stole'."

            He motions her to tuck it inside her dress.

            She does so. It feels warm between her breasts—like an elfin heart whose beat she imagines pulsating.

            "What yo' name?"

            The Conjurer smiles and indicates his outfit, but Jewel is reluctant to name him for his rags. He makes another sign.

            "Oh, I run off. Dat what you mean?"

            He nods. Jewel is pleased she understands him. He turns his hands palms-upward as if to ask her why.

            "'Coun' Mist'ess mean. Her make me wear dis baggy ole dress, take away my room, say I fat an' lumpy an' lazy an' no 'count, an' firs' chance dat her get gwon for'ce Massah Zach'ry puts me in 'er pocket. 'Buy me a el'gant gown, her aw time threat'nin', 'wiff money from sellin' you. Buy me some lawn-jer-ray'—dat fancy un'erwear. An' her not foolin'. I try doin' thin's perfec' so's Mist'ess cain't fine fau't, but she do an'way. Den dis mo'nin' whilst I  soakin' her 'eye-talian lace chemise' in wa'm water an' rose petals jus' like her tol' me, I makes a sho 'nuff mistake. Somehow, some way a piece o' cal'co falls in de tub an' bleeds it colour ev'where."

            She retrieves the ruined garment from her left-side coat pocket.

            "It her fav'rite, course. An' iffen her fine out, I on dat auction block so fas' my head spin."

            The little man's eyes peer into Jewel's, renewing that tingly feeling up and down her spine... intimately pleasant... so welcome a change from the tension her predicament has inflicted she indulges it readily... then, grown too  self-conscious, shakes it off.

            "How you doin' dat?... Yo' a Conju'e, huh?... I knowed you was. My mammy tol' me 'bout Conju'es. Her say Conju'es don' gots listen to God nor de Devil neit'er, 'coun' dey independen'. Dat true?... Her say Conju'es able ta control thin'srain an' wind an' such, what you done awready. And dey can talk wiff trees an' critters an' even rocks'cep' so fa' nary a soun' be comin' out o' you."

            She is loath to ask directly if the little man is dumb.

            Seem him sens'tive. Seem him gots real power but mayhap not de evil kine. Mo'e like knowin' how ta fly, o' somethin' strange like dat.

            As if intercepting Jewel's thought, the little man lifts his arms and flaps them wing-likeJewel almost surprised he does not leave the ground.

            "I mus' be thinkin' out loud o' somethin'... Hows come you be livin' out here aw by yo' lonesome? You run off, too?... No? Yo' not a slave?... Yo' free?... Mammy say dat freedom fo' a niggah nigh on imposs'ble—lessen you lives in Africa. Niggah lives in America, gots ta be a slave. Eve' dem niggahs what 'scapes up Norf', her say, be slaves wiffout deir chains. Mammy say slav'ry like poison White fo'ks pours into black fo'ks' ears; once it dere, it perm'nent; might 's well learn accep' it."

            The little man takes Jewel's head in his hands and gently, but firmly, covers her mouth, pinching closed her nostrils. She is wary, albeit passive... unafraid, until she feels the need for air... until she struggles... until she finds his grip resists her attempts to disengage it... until her desperation grows... until she lurches, finally wrenching free of his possession, and scrambles from the hutch... running... running... running... free at last, free at last, free at last to breathe!