forty-nine             

            Each flick of Mister Tune's wrist sends the knife blade deeper. Its bone handle vibrates—"thwackbrrrrr"—above the plank between Tune's wide-spread feet. He retrieves it. The wood is damp, its fibres swelling to close each meted gash. "Thwackbrrrrr"; the point inflicts another angry wound; Mister Tune is thinking. (This nigger-loving business will never serve.) "Thwackbrrrrr." (Already there are signs of a rebellion: uppity attitudes; niggers using words like "his," "hers," "mine"; next step will be "ours"; and once the niggers take that step, once they begin to put their heads together, well)—"thwackbrrrrr"—(the lash needs traded for the noose, till order be restored).

            Tune hawks and spits. A keg embedded in the ground provides an incidental chair, the rough-hewn plank a footrest; an open grave lies opposite, marked by a slab of stone on which the name BOLT is gougedalong with dates of birth and death; the dog was nearly twelve.

            (Robust still. Sound as a dollar. Loyal. Could have, should have lived a score more years.) "Thwackbrrrrr." The knife gets stuck. Tune wiggles it, works it back and forth to tug it free. (Accounts need settling. First with Larchmont. Makes a single slip, the slave will be unlucky to survive what he has coming. Must be merciless. Brutal. Uncompromising. Must crush insubordination. Must beat the niggers back into their lowly rightful place.) "Thwackbrrrrr." (Then deal with Zachary Squire. Ensure he understands the error of his ways. Power, short of absolute, fosters insurrection—which the South can ill-afford. Masters must be Sovereigns. The status quo)—"thwachbrrrrr"—(with all due haste, must be reinstated).

            The sky appears to brood in a tone of bluish-grey. Leafless, skeletal branches click as if their joints bear the frigid wind in pain, winter-brittle, vulnerably inflexible. A stench pervadesfirst Tune's potent body odour, then an acrid muskiness wafting from the slaves, whose quarters buttress the overseer'sa proximity no one relishes. Tune snorts, clearing his nostrils of the all-pervasive reek, though theirs is no less pungent, no less familiar, than his noxious own. All his life has been spent in supervision of the indolent Negro: (working him, driving him, driving him to distraction, for un-distracted the slave might flout fatigue and lift his mangy head, question his predicament, doubt his superiors, and fool himself into thinking he counts as a human being).

            Tune, sheathing the knife, cups his hands and tries to warm them with a huff of putrid breath, tucks them into his armpits, hunches his shoulders, braced against the chill, jowls distended, face like a salt-and-flour map of deep-set downcast grooves, expression dour, eyes fixed on the solitary headstone commemorating "BOLT"; the rain that starts to fall in sheets opaquely freezes into hail.