forty-three           

            Jewel turns from her right side to her left, for the few free breaths her sinuses will afford as sluggishly they drain. She sniffs to get the mucous started... waits... there... feels the blockage shift... clear... clear... clear... obstructed again; now her left nostril is clogged. She has been playing at this game since she went to bed. She cannot sleep. She slips the ruby from under her flannel nightshirt and fondles it covertly. In the overflow of lantern light (by which Marisee and Tessie are spinning thread), the ruby, like a sultry ember, glows.

            Dis a tal'sman what him gimme. On'y has to look at it, o' feel it nex' my skin, gets a queerness 'roun' de back my neck like hummin'; sen' dis tickly quiver straight down my spine. Feels it now—dough it easin' up some, now I thinkin' 'bout it, playin' peek-a-boo.

            The sheet, hung between bunk beds, functions as a scrim through which the spinners' silhouettes are wanly visible; Jewel watches. In the basement quarters' filtered luminosity, shadows seem surreal.

            Funny; Tess an' Marisee looks so pale when I sees 'em tru dis linen... Wouldn' dat be gran'; us colourt fo'k wash' out white? Couldn' tell de massahs from de slaves, wash out our colour.

            She feels the ruby like a heartbeat in her hand.

            Dis tals'man sho given Jewel some gran' idees. Mayhap dat what causin' dis queer sensation. Not healt'y, niggah get gran' idees... 'cep' dey feels good. Like dat gran' idee I gets de ot'er day when I seen Mist'ess Felicia stan'in in fron' her mere. Cryin', she was. Dese big ol' tears jus' rollin' down 'er cheeks what her don' 'temp' ta stop; Priscilla do. Priscilla rush an' hug de Mist'ess like dey kin. I slips back out—respec' dey priv'cy—but aw day long got me a pi'ture o' dem two younguns huggin'like sisters—no matter would de Mist'ess hug Priscilla, if Priscilla cryin'. Make me think how sweet life be iffen fo'ks could do mo'e huggin'. Sho 'nuff make dis worl' a sight mo'e peaceful.

            There are whispers. Jewel conceals the ruby as Marisee tiptoes toward the makeshift curtainits panels stir; a nose pokes in (Jewel's lids are closed); the nose withdraws.

            "Out cold."

            "You sho?"

            "Her kine snorin'."

            "Could be preten'in'."

            "Den limp on ovah an' look-see fo' yo'se'f!"

            "Shhh. Keeps yo' voice down, Marisee."

            Tessie takes a peek, then backtracks to her footstool.

            "Her went out into de woods an', it my personal opin'on, done some pleasurin'."

            "Naw!"

            "Shhh!"

            "Wit who, Tess? Jewel don' give no glad-eye wink to nobody."

            "Well, her comes back wit all kine bits o' forest in 'er hair; mus' be givin' someun a glad-eye wink."

            "I don' b'lieves it. Jewel don' ack like dat; her pure."

            "Says who?"

            "Says me. On'y gots to look, know Jewel nevah breach'."

            "Okay, smarty-pan's. How do Marisee 'splain Jewel's clothes all ovah twigs.?"

            "Mayhap her jus' lay down takes a li'ly nap."

            "Oh, her lay down, sho 'nuff. But her done it sheltered; coat not wet nor muddy neit'er. Pine needles I pick offen dat gal bone dry. How you 'splain dat?"

            "How should I know!"

            "Shhh!"

            "Pine needles dry o' oth'wise don' mean spoonin'."

            "Why you defen'in' Jewel all o' sudden?"

            "Someun gots to. Mist'ess all time peckin' like a firs'-born chick; wan's de nes' fo' herse'f so forcin' Jewel skedaddle. Ast me, dats why Jewel run off; fo'ks treatin' her so meanus included."

            "When I mean to Jewel?"

            "Ev' time you pass off yo' shit-wo'k onto her."

            "You do it, too, Tess."

            "Not no mo'e. Her kine an' nev' complain an' took de blame las' week fo' de crock-pot what I broke."

            "You broke?"

            "Uh huh. Jewel washin', I dryin', an' when I pass dat pot it slip. Beulah 'mos' hit de roof when Jewel pipe up say, 'Sorry'. Thought Beulah box 'er ears, but her on'y 'humph.'"'

            "Jewel done dat?"

            "Fo' true. So don' go scandalizin' jus' 'coun' Jewel good-lookin'."

            "Who say I gives a hoot dat Jewel good-lookin'?"

            "Me. Think I stupit, Tessie? Think I bline? Think I miss dem looks yo' cas'in' back an' fo'th 'twix Jewel an' yo'se'f in dat lookin'-glass. Jealous, jus' like de Mist'ess."

            "Not."

            "Den stop yo' scandalizin'."

            The silhouettes grow hazygrey against white become white against greyas Jewel falls asleep...

...eyes wide-shut and gazing through their lids at a day-for-night reflection... powdering a nose less broad... plucking brows more sculpted... applying foreign scent... sugar-frosted curls piled high attended by Felicia, whose shapeless sack­cloth smock compares unflatteringly to Jewel's Chantilly lace with bodice scooped to reveal twin upper halves of kissing-cousin breaststinted ivory in this Caucasoid illusion, blushing at their cleft wherein the ruby necklace glimmers like some iridescent cat's-eye.

            Miss Jewel, I do declare, you are absolutely gorgeous!

            Think dat Zach'ry like my hair dis way?

            Oh, I am certain of it. Why, the instant Master Zachary sets foot inside that door he'll be positively dumbstruck with desire; you mark my words.

Jewel rises, swivel-turns to test the buoyancy of her petticoattwirling flounces following her motion while retaining bounce and shape—milk-white gloves cleaving to graceful hands, wrists, and forearms, sheer as the chalk-white stockings encasing shapely legs, as Jewel preensprimped by Felicia, who hovers like a hummingbird attending a gardenia...

...whereupon Zachary, dressed from tip to toe in shades of blue and grey, pauses at the threshold, his pose a striking tableau...

...that ushers in a change...

...Jewel's rush to greet him framed by the arch of a gazebo, its fragile trelliswork burgeoning with narcissus, its base ensconced in lilies, while overhead a cheery blossom tree drops its shimmering petals in a springtime snow squall...

...the eager couple's kiss eschewing short-term gasps for air in lieu of sharing one long breathhis exchanged for hers then hers for his then his for hers until their reeling senses bond...

...mouths that yearn to chew perchance to gratify, to satisfy an all-consuming hunger, him for her and her for him, her bulbous lips devoured by those with boundaries...

... stubbly?...

...pricking Jewel with whiskers that occasion her to SHRIEK upon beholding him who smirks, widens his feral gaze along with his nostrils as he sniffs her horror-struck features, sampling her the way a muzzle nuzzles hind parts to determine sex and state, wrestling to retain his hug as Jewel attempts to reject his amorous animality...

...the trelliswork turning to bars, the gazebo into a cage that sways with Jewel's futile evasion; captives, she and the Conjure man shrink like specimens under glassas a crowd beyond them forms, points at the geeks, berates their frantic antics, derides his motley clothes / her kinky-coif of curls, and mocks the mismatched pair put on display like organ-grinder monkeys...

            The blanket shifts as Jewelpantingawakens with a start, her face in the pillow, arms outstretched, fingers crooked like claws assailing the tousled sheets. She lifts her head, confronting... nothing but the ghost-pale curtain... lantern light extinguished... silhouettes gone to bed. Exhaustedly she slumps, turns torso toward the wall, draws knees to chest, and shudders when the ruby's tiny heartbeat throbs...

 

...mouth agape, pink against the black of a bicep's elongation, cheek so finely pored it mimes the densest ebony, hair a wild corona, brows a lighter shade, lengthy lashes fluttering—though not yet pried apart, since Jewel remains asleep, tongue protruding for a moment to anoint distended lips, purplish in their hue, generous in proportion, swell defining an S-shape above her sturdy chin, breath grown suddenly shallow, somewhat laboured, lungs/breasts agitated, causing the ruby necklace to trickle into view—riveting Beulah's attention where she hovers unawares.

            Jewel makes a sound, at once a whimper and a sigh, then jerks awake—flinching at the unexpected presence.

            "Res' easy, chile. Gots to ast you somethin'; somethin' real impo'tant. Wan's you fust to promise you'll tell me true."

            Jewel cannot imagine what could prompt so odd an overture. Beulah reaches for the necklace. Jewel goes numb.

            "Where you get dis, chile? Beulah needs to know. You fine it? Tell me true. You fine it someplace? Where?"

            Jewel is terrified; slaves do not own finery—not on the scale of a sterling silver setting replete with precious gem.

            "Not stole. I not no thief."

            "I know, chile. Calm yo'se'f. I not accusin'; on'y astin'. Where you get it from? You tell; I'll leave it go."

            The look on Beulah's face is expectant, though vaguely threatening. Jewel cannot decide if it is safe to tell.

            "From de woods. "

            "You foun' it?"

            "It was give me."

            "Give! By who? By who, chile?"

            "Cain't say."

            This is not the answer Beulah hoped to hear. Her aspect darkens.

            "Don' b'longs to you, dis ruby necklace."

            The hand that cradles the gem becomes a fist; Jewel grabs and bites it. Beulah winces, but will not yield. Jewel's reflex now requires her conscious will to act. She bears down with her teeth, drawing bloodand still the stubborn fingers sustain their grip. Eyes meet. Each contestant acknowledges force will not prevail; both relax their muscles; a truce struck between them.

            Impassively Beulah watches as Jewel restores the necklacetucking it into her nightshirt, secure between her breasts—allowing the matter rest, for the moment, unresolved.