fifty-two              

            A wood-shaving curls, blond in the afternoon sun's illusive brilliance; it is brisk outdoors. Bates sits whittling, cheek distended by a tobacco chaw. His hands manipulate the pocket knife with hard-earned skill... carving a figurine, replete with flukes, scales, buxom breasts, and seaweed-wavy hair... then holding it aloft to be appraised.

            "Not bad, eh, Short-Stuff? Just keep watchin'; maybe you'll learn somethin'."

            Mojo peers through the bars of his garish cage—gaze steady—seated cross-legged, scraps of motley coattails fanned behind. Between his elfin fingers he holdsand idly twirlsa tiny leather satchel, its drawstring winding... unwinding... winding, marking time. Bates would like to know the satchel's contents, but, despite his fervent efforts, search-and-seizure stratagems all have failed. Irrespective captivity, the Conjure seems inviolablea matter of fact which Bates finds irksome to explain.

            "Know what this is? A mermaid, that's what. Half fish, half woman. Mermaids live in the sea where they keep a lookout for shipwrecked sailors that they can mate with. That's right. Lure the poor devils to their death by makin' hay on the ocean floor. If the man lets go 'fore he's finished, he might make it back to the surface. But he don't; don't want to, that is. So he stays down there and drowns... a right fine way to go."

            Bates laughs, then spritz—Mojo looking on with dead­pan impassivity.

            "I'll say one thing for you, Short-Stuff, you're a dang good listener."

            Bates shaves a bit of wood from the mermaid's curvy waist.

            "Rare talent, listenin'. Most folks, once their jaws commence to flappin', disengage their ears. Not you. And it ain't because you're mute, neither."

            Bates glances from the corner of his eye.

            "Fact, I wouldn't be surprised if you could talk as good as me. I heard you singin' to yourself, you know. That's right. Not words, exactly. But all them sounds was just as talkative."

            Bates turns and looks his prisoner full in the face.

            "You understand everything I say, don't you? Course you do. I'm the one can't figure. Know what I can't figure? How's come you got caught. How's come? I'm askin' because when I brung your breakfast this mornin', you wasn't there. That's right. I looked inside that cage and you wasn't in it. Empty. No busted lock. No bent bars. Just that straw you're settin' on without you settin' atop it. I run 'round a while, lookin' for your tracks. Then, when I come back, I'll be damned if you're not there; right on that very spot. Nearly shit myself. 'What gives?' I says; but kept it to myself. Didn't want to let on I'd been fooled."

            Bates resumes whittling.

            "Course, it was just a trick. But a dang convincin' one. Had I been dumb enough to open that there lock, I guess it woulda worked."

            He shapes the mermaid's abdomen.

            "Shoulda done like that the day we had you treed."

            He flicks off shavings.

            "But you didn't; your bad luck made my good fortune. Them 's the breaks."

            Mojo, still expressionless, twirls the leather satchel.

            "Don't s'pose you'd sing a little next time there's a show? Give you extra vittles. No?... Hell, boy, I could flay you if I wanted to. That's right. You don't seem to appreciate how things are. It's I own you. I say jump, you jump; get the picture? I say sing, Goddamn it, boy, you sing. Now sing!"

            Bates tries his best to look intimidating. Mojo's equanimity goes unaltered.

            "Gimme that!"

            Reaching through the bars, Bates snatches at the satchel, but it eludes himrecalled with a subtle yank to the pith of Mojo's palm, where it disappears. The cage door rattles from a blowBates having kicked it; he spritz, resumes his seat, and rues, in silence, the custody of a slave who will not behave like one.

            Wooommmmmba ba ba

            Wooommmmm

            Wooommmmmba ba ba

            Wooommmmm

            The song is more like a drone, soft and resonant, with percussive accents "ba ba ba" then once more resonant, then verging on tuneful...

            Manamanamana manamanamana may bwopbwop maaaaay

...muted still, produced at the back of Mojo's throat, but gaining volume...

            Wooommmmmba ba ba

            Wooommmmm

            Wooommmmmba ba ba

            Wooommmmm

...much like the approach of some arcane processional.

            Mana bway mana umphbway

            Manamana umph

            Mana yrrrrrrrrrr

            Wooommmmmba ba ba

            Wooommmmm

            Though wary, guardedly suspicious, Bates responds—intriguednodding to the rhythm of uncannily primal sounds: birdcalls, insect buzzes, grunts, growls, barks, and purrs uttered intermittently, each distinct though merging with the cadence of the mesmerizing drone:

            Wooommmmmba ba ba

            Wooommmmm

            Bates detects his vision, aimed at the tree line, glazing out of focus... all but his sense of hearing, likewise in a daze...

An ill-clad female emerges from the woods as if responding to a summons. Her step is halting. She seems uncertain. It is unsafe; she turns and flees .

...a state of overwhelming lassitude...

She comes again, ventures closer this time, anxious, fearful, chary, like an animal on alert, mistrustful of a trap.

The Conjurer waves.

...an acute inertia...

The Conjurer beckons.


She moves parallel, side to side, then advances in a zigzag, gradually drawing near; reassured by the Conjurer, Jewel at last arrives.

Not a single word is spoken; captive hands gesticulate; helping hands oblige. Fingers fish for a key in the passive jailor's pocket, find it, fit it to the lock. A "click" is heard, an emancipating "creak" as cage and caged part company; two kindred souls take flight.