fifty-one              

            CAW!

            The cry is sharp...

            CAW!

...and insistent. Mucous-hinges on Jewel's lengthy lashes give way grudgingly. She strips them with her fingernails—gone stiff from cold

            CAW!

then blinks... vision defogging. A raven perches precariously on an overhanging branch, its oily feathers gleaming in beams of risen sun. The sun! Jewel gropes the surrounding ground as if affirming its reality. She has slept without intending to, allowed exhaustion to interrupt her flight—a momentary rest that may have lasted hours... though the sun is low, the grass still soaked with dew.

            CAW!

            "Awright, I up! Dang blasted varmint."

            Jewel stands. Her legs feel wooden, reluctant to cooperate. She aches all over. She glowers at the bird.

            "You again, huh? Think I don' rec'nize yo' ugly, mangy, evil-eye, loud-mouf se'f."

            CAW!

            "'Pipe down!"

            She swats off forest litter from her saturated clothing, the soggy fabric as heavy as her woebegone mood.

            "I 's cold, hungry, an' homeless."

            CAW!

            "Hush up, you."

            The tree branch gyrates as the raven opens and folds its lustrous wings... within arm's reach... yet pluckily unafraid.

            "I not followin', iffen dat what yo' suggestin'."

            Jewel remembers the food she had the foresight to pilfer. She tears off a hunk of bread from the loaf stashed in her pocket and eats it greedily.

            CAW!

            "Caw yo' head off, make no nev' mine to me."

            Jewel hoards the bread. The raven shifts back and forth, hackles lifted, looking generally displeased. Jewel relents.

            "Hungry, huh?."

            The crust she throws falls short; the bird pursues instantaneouslyJewel startled by the size of its unfurled wingspan.

            "Yo' one big fella. What you wan's wiff me, 'sides poachin' on my food?"

            The raven hops closer.

            "Keep yo' dis'ance, demon! Here. Dis de las' piece yo' gwon get."

            She drops another morsel which the bird, in a gulp, consumes, before retreating, with a hop, to the end of a fallen tree trunk. Jewel tries to gain her bearings but nothing looks familiar.

 

 

Enfolding Jewel in his arms, the sleeper savours sleep, prolongs the unreality of her presence... redolence... essence... absorbed, as through osmosis, so tightly does he squeeze, cuddle, press his burly chest to her palpitating bosom, heartbeats slowed by slumber with hers in perfect sync, limbs entwined like tendrils of a hybrid, stunning yet taboo, fondness superseding force, care ousting dominion,  Master merged with slave, tighter, tighter, their bodies coalescing, Zachary's sloughing off possessiveness, Jewel's imbued with light, lighter, lightest, dissolving as awareness of his dream, with daybreak, disenchants;

 hugging only himself, Zachary blinks awake, sensing something amiss in the vacuum juxtaposed, leaps from bed, dons his clothes, and hastens in search of Jewel already gone.

 

 

            The raven takes flight. Jewel starts at its sudden movement, then watches as the bird alights, not far off, head cocked at an angle, inviting her to follow.

            CAW!

            Not dis again. Stupit crow prob'b1y think I's los'; tryin' to leads me home like las' time—not dat birds got brains. Las' time a coinc'dence. Still... don' know which way. Sunrise in de Eas'. De ocean Eas'. But so 's dis cheeky demon. Might 's well tag 'long briefly, till a bettah idee dawn.

 

 

            "Well?"

            "Beulah, I look ev'where. Her dis'pear."

            "Where Marisee?"

            "Checkin' de stables. Won't do no good; I already checkt; Jewel not dere. Her coat not on de hook an' her bed not slep' in."

            "I knowed her bed not slep' in; I up ha'f de night. You see Priscilla yet dis mornin'?"

            "No, ma'am. Think her slep' upstairs again wit de Mist'ess."

            "What 'bout de coop?"

            "Checkt."

            "De smokehouse?"

            "Checkt dere twice. I tellin' you, her gone."

            "You check de Quarters like I tol' you?"

            "What Jewel doin' down de Quarters?"

            "Did you check!"

            "I checkt, I checkt. Was no one dere. Her run, I tellin' ya."

            "Hush! You wan' 'em sic de houn's on? Gots us fine Jewel fust or dere be hell to pay. Lawd, I knowed somethin' worser 'bout to happen'; dis mus' be it. Ain' had us no runaway since back in nine'y-eight."

            "What happen den?"

            Beulah gives Tess a look as if to say she is better off not knowing.

         Zachary marches inhair mussed, chin unshaven, shirttails hanging out; his stare interrogates the women before he gruffly speaks.

            "Tell Jewel I want to see her."

            "Yassuh."

            "Now."

            "Yassuh. I fetch 'er back direc'ly."

            Beulah intercedes.

            "Jewel out gath'rin' herbs, Massah Zach'ry. Mayhap you bes' wait."

            "Herbs?"

            “Yassuh. Sen' her off dis mo'nin' to de woods. Due back by noontime. Tessie free. Tess, go do whatev' de Massah wan's."

            "Yes, ma'am. "

            "I told you, I want Jewel. "

            Zachary takes a deep, aggressive breath... restrains himself, pivots on his heels, and marches back out.

            Beulah turns to Tessie.

            "Him know."

            "You think?"

            "I seen it in 'is eyes. Dey 's trouble brewin', sho."