forty-six              

            It is late. The house has settled into sleep. Small sounds predominate: guttural ticks of the foyer clock; last-gasp pops from embers in several fireplaces; knocks and thumps that seem to have no origin alongside breeze-blown branches rat-a-tat-tatting on leaded window panes. Jewel's footsteps are inaudible, muffled by her threadbare socks. She does not walk on tiptoe, but does walk surreptitiously, trusting in her memory to navigate the way, afraid to light a candle lest her trespass be discovered. The stairs must be negotiated carefully, avoiding those that creak. She pauses at the landing... climbs... pauses at the top... waits. She is startled by a noise; it is only her stomach grumbling.

            The second storey's hallway seems to have no end; now Jewel tiptoes, passing darkened thresholds, silent as a spook. Finally she is there, at the attic's narrow entryway leading up... up...  up to the close, irregular room she briefly inhabited. Gropingly she ascends, outstretched fingers reaching, finding, grasping the brass doorknob. As she enters, the low-wrought lintel brushes her woolly head... the room's air dusty, stale, uncharacteristically cold, a subtle fragrance lingering... familiar... sweetly reminiscent... doubtlessly her own.

            I happy den... Happier dan I is now. Leas'ways Jewel, back den, has herse'f a room, don' share.

            She sets the candle upon the stand abutting her former bed but does not light it. The dark is better suited for quiet contemplation.

            Massah awmos' do me the time I dwellin' here.

            She bends, extends her hand to trace the mattress's lumpy contourpuckers formed by buttons, comfy nonetheless.

            What he done dat secon' time be preyin' on Jewel's remembrance, agitatin' notions wiff dem slipp'ry slidey licks. Make me feel distressful till pleasure settle in. Don' admit it den, but since den, have to say it pleasur'ble. Have to say it agitatin' notions could git a niggah kilt—'specially iffen de Mist'ess learn 'bout what us done.

            Jewel sits on the bed's periphery, then inches toward its centre. Bending both her knees, she grabs and hugs them close. She rocks a while, then, reaching toward the nightstand, finds and strikes a match. With it, she ignites the solitary candle.

            Him nev' repeat dat foolishness. Married Mist'ess Felicia, who take 'way my room, leave me aw time hopin' some day get it back, leave me aw time hopin' Massah Zach'ry do menot jus' whet dat app'tite, but do me like man an' wife; lie wiff me, not her, an' finish de job him started; take what I likely give 'im, iffen on'y Massah axe—pronounce dat "ask"—been practicin' like Priscilla, what de Mist'ess tryin' to learn. Mayhap I speak proper, it boost se'f-respec'.

            Jewel lies down sideways, rests her cheek against the pillow, draws her knees chest-ward againthis time under her flannel nightshirt—and feels the ruby necklace spill from between her breasts... settle onto her shoulder... whence she unclasps it.

            Patterrollers ketch dat little man. Gots fine out what dey done wiff 'im... he'p 'im if I can... mus'  be

            Jewel bolts upright in a panic, slips the necklace into her sock, snuffs out the candle, and tries to calm her pounding heart. The door swings open; she is trapped; a manly shadow looms.

            "Jewel?"

            "Massah Zach'ry?!"

            He steps forward. She does not budge, as if the lamp he holds has fixed her in its beam like a torch-blinded deer. Zachary lowers the lantern, dims its wick, sets it on the floor; his features, lit from below, are alarmingly Mephistophelian.

            "I prayed it would be you, Jewel."

            He reaches toward her cheek... cradles it uncertainly... detects a tremble... feels a flush of heat.

            Trouble; dis be trouble!

            His breath with hers collides, as do their mouths, lips affixed and suctioning, yearning as for nourishment, seeking to imbibe, devour what each exudes in an excess of longing, his for her replenished as hers for him ensues, siphoned from a mutual source that each fears tragic, fraught with private misgivings and alleged moral turpitude, impractical, as well, no matter its twofold strength. Breaking, gasping for air, Jewel appeals one last time.

            "Please, Massah, please, I begs you; dis not right!"

            Opium could not exercise more sway over Zachary's fevered senses. Reason, prudence, fidelity to Felicia are counsellors paid no heed. Customs, mores, societal expectations inhibit not one jot. Qualms could only intercede were Jewel to shrink from him in undisputed horror.

            "Jewel, I beg of you, in all sincerity, please... give to me your flower."

            Words he utters unrehearsed she grasps with gratitude, eager to acquiesce. Virtue at the mercy of an all-consuming ardour she invites her hymen's breach, wincing more from shock than from the modest pain his penetration spurs, cleaving like a poultice to the infiltrating organ as if she, not he, could cure, heal the wound inflicted by restoring him who inflicts it to an aftermath of health, sweet release, and tenuous fulfilment of  an otherworldly prophesy.