sixty-two            

            Part hiss, part shoutlike a clearly audible stage whisperthe irate summons sounds.

            "Éclair!"

            Eyelids flutter open... blink sedately at someone standing in the doorway, forearms folded under a cumulonimbus bosom (contained this morning modestly in a costume known as "Mutter's Sund'y Bes'")... recognition slow to dawn... as Éclair feels the gentle rise and fall of a hairy chest beside her, of the last man serviced, of him who fell asleep, who stayed (against house rules) for the nightshift's remainder ("This a brothel, not a inn!"), who must be smuggled in broad daylight (to his and the Moss Establishment's embarrassment) out, and quickly, since it is late, and worse yet, the Sabbath! Éclair leaps like a kernel of popping-corn; the client obliquely stirs.

            "I sorry, Mutter! Hones'! I mus' a fall... I get him gone...I do it... I... "

            "You has precisely seven minutes to get—who that, Mister Coolidge?—get Mister Coolidge into his clothes, you into yo' clothes, him gone, you downstairs with the new gal ready fo' church, and Lawd fo'give me what I do if either o' you gals late. My meanin' clear?"

            "Done. It done. I doin' it."

            Mother leaves.

            "Mistah Coolidge, darlin', honey, Mistah Coolidge, rous' yo'se'f. Mistah Coolidge, FIRE! FIRE! Quick! De place afire, Mistah Coolidge. RUN!"

            Jewel pokes her nose from behind the screen in time to witness a White man—a gentleman, judging by the cut of clothes into which he hastily scrambles—beat an unceremonious exit from Éclair's half of the room, the latter no less frantic than him who she has rousted.

            "You; DRESS!"

            Jewel, at a loss, glances around; the only clothes she owned have been incinerated.

            "In what?"

            Éclair seems at a momentary loss herself. She rifles through a chest of dresser drawers, extracts a gingham dress—pink with layers of somewhat showy ruffles, pretty, but only marginally appropriate for churchand tosses it at Jewel.

             "Wear dis!" Jewel dons it, while Éclair, well ahead of her, already is pinning on a hat. "You'll need a scarf." Rifling through a second dresser drawer, Éclair unearths two. "Try dis. O' dis." Two scarves float in Jewel's general direction. She catches one mid-air and covers her woolly head. "Le's go!"

            Chasing after Éclair, Jewel cries out.

            "My feets bare!"

            Éclair halts, spins around, regards Jewel's toes with befuddlement, then rushes to the closet where she commences an excavation. Shoes tumble out in a landslide; Jewel seizes a likely pair, crams them onto her feet; the girls are finally ready. With a rustle and a clatter, hand in hand, they hustle downstairs.

            In the foyer, assuming a loose but tangible formation, wait Mother Moss's Girls. Jewel and Éclair tiptoe toward the end of a double-breasted lineÉclair un-self-consciously; Jewel as though walking a  gauntlet; her shoes of a sudden feeling too small, her scarf too garish, her tight-fitting dress too pink—the other girls, all eight of them including Éclair, are decked out in white... each face beautiful... features a delicate mixture of Negroid and Caucasian... of Indian and Latino... of Eskimo and Creole... exotic-looking to Jewel, who, despite her timidity, returns enquiring stares with wide-eyed admiration... only to see attention, en masse, shift; Mother Moss appears, subjecting one and all to a brass-tacks inspection.

            "Latrice, wipe off them cheeks. I will not have my girls on the Sabbath rouged-up like hussies."

            "Non juste un peu. Je vois pas pourquoi qu'on irait se fagoter juste parce que... "

            "T'occupe pas et fais ce qu'on te dit." Latrice obeys. "This the Lord's House we is goin' to, and the Lord don't want His flock arrivin' in disguise." Mother Moss adjusts her Sunday wig—a plain brunette one—then overhears a chortle. "Who snickerin'? Éclair?"

            "No, Mutter."

            "I hope to Heaven not. Yo' on my list already, young lady. Mister Coolidge left by the front door like a bat let out o' Hell. Two dollars fine."

            "Two dollars!"

            "Three."

            Éclair shuts up; complaints are much too costly.

            "How's come the new girl dressed in pink, Éclair?"

            " I... "

            "Never mind. Will have to do this once; we already late. Girls, this is Jewel. Jewel, this is Sooky, Blossom, Ginger, Luna, Cheri, Pearl, Latrice; Éclair I guess you know. Girls, Jewel be joinin' us, though Mother have not decided in what capac'ty. Yo'all be nice to her. Remember yo' first day and I am sho' you will conduc' yo'selves accordingly. Sooky?"

            "Yes, Mutter?"

            "The door."

            By twos, the girls file out behind Mother's bob and weave, her parasol aloft, her lace resembling plumage, the girls in tow like ducklings in their matriarch's waddling wake, Jewel and Éclair lattermost, Éclair softly giggling.

            "Did you see de way dat man skedaddle like a bee-stung bull? Coulda die' laughin'. Couldn' you jis' die laughin', Jewel? Serve 'im right fo' takin' advan'age. Men's all time takin' advan'age; dat be deir way. Ain't dat so, Jewel? Ain't dat been yo' experience?"

            If what Jewel heard throughout the night is typical for her roommate—multiple partners come and multiple partners (save one) gone—hers and Éclair's experience have little in common... unless Jewel considers the rustlers and crudities they inflicted... unless she reflects upon Master-servant relations and coercion versus choice... unless she determines even Master Zachary's conduct was essentially overbearing; tenderness notwithstanding did his actions not exploit? Mutual pleasure irrespective did he not subject her to unabashed adultery? Longing for him set aside, did he not induce her bouts of carnal abandon, throes that churned her loins with such ecstatic fits and spasms she evokes them still... yearningly... agitated further by the antics overheard from twilight until cockcrow?
            Palms compressing her belly's bulge, Jewel reflects on the upshot of advantages having been taken.

            "I mean it a good thing us gots de honey men all crave, else we be totally wit'out no bargainin' power. Look at Mutter; her know 'bout bargainin' power. Ha'f dis city wrapped 'roun' Mutter"s pinkie—de ha'f equip' wit balls." Éclair laughs a high-pitched titter. It proves infectious; Jewel laughs, too. "You know her start dis life as a scull'ry maid? Sho' 'nuff did. Den one fine day catch her Massah's wand'rin' eye—seems Mutter's figger back den downright shapely, an' course her pale. Befo'e dat white man knows it, him posessed. 'Fine out what bring pleasure to a man,' Mutter's always couns'lin', 'learn to do 'im right, an' 'spec' to keep his commerce fo' 's long 's you may wish.' Her fine out plen'y 'bout pleasurin' dat Massah. Soon him writes out a paper what set Mutter free. Gots dat paper to dis day, her do, frame' 'bove her desk, to remine whoms'ever sees it dat Mutter's freedom certified legal." Jewel can hardly fathom it. "Bet yo' wond'rin' hows come Mutter Moss's Massah let 'er go, if him so possessed. Well, seems shoatly after Mutter coax dat paper, de Massah fall ill. When Mutter relate dat part her voice turn downright scary. Loved 'im to de end, her avow, an' 'spite his own s'spicions, was his las' request she do 'im; Mutter swear him croaked de while her suckin' him off."

            Those in procession lift their skirts to avoid a lengthy mud puddle. Streets are wider, less congested, less inundated with pungent smells. There are open lots, overgrown with swamp grass and knee-high weeds. Dandelions populate the edges of a sidewalk... cobblestones giving way to gravel... gravel turned to dirt. The sun is warm; the air pollinated. Ginger, then Cheriboth plagued by allergies—commence fits of sneezing. With a homesick pang, Jewel takes in her surroundings... definitely not South Carolina. She feels uprooted by the long, forced march, the days of languishing in holding pens with strangers, the attrition of her fellow captives, one sold here, two there, no explanations (simply fewer mouths to feed and fewer kindred spirits) the hostile buyers, the endless poking, prodding, and fingering, the sexual abuses, while landscapes kept changing, changing, changing, everything changing: people, dialects, climates, crops, the whole world different, topsy-turvy, arriving then at a place where coloured women sold themselves for profitand were free to spend the money, free to move about without passes, free to worship in a real church, with steps, and steeple, and cross, and pews inside, pews where folks could sit, not like meetings in the breaks that Jewel sometimes had attended as a child, long ago, with her mother, but a real church with a real altar and a real preacher dressed in black, his collar starched and crisp—pure white under coffee-coloured skinhis features strong, voice melodic, gestures grandiose, chapter and verse convincing:

            "Sisters, Brothers, let me tell you. Will you listen?"

            "Tell us."

            "Jesus."

            "Tell us."

            "Jesus is de name you gots remember. Jesus."

            "Lawd."

            "Him yo' Saviour, an' you won' find Jesus checkin' out colour o' any sinner's skin. No, suh."

            "No, suh."

            "Cause Jesus is God Hisse'f, an' God Hisse'f is what?"

            "You tell us."

            "God is what?"

            "You tell us, Rev'ren'."

            "God is colour-blind. Dat right. Believe it, when I tells you, on de day o' yo' redem'tion God gwon gaze into yo' heart. Him absolutely gaze."

            "Gaze; yes, Lawd."

            "Look deep. An' it won' matter den how much you done, o' if you rears ten chillun, o' is you rich o' po' o' fit o' sickly, free man o' slave, de Lawd gwon gaze. An' if Him find dat you reserve' a place fo' Him inside yo' heart..."

            "Us do."

            "Den sho'ly Him reserve a place fo' you in turn. 'Him dat believes in me,' God vouchsafe, 'Heaven-bound.' De Lawd done promise."

            "Look inside my heart, Lawd."

            "'Eternal life,' is what Him promise. Not in dis world."

            "Thanks fo' dat."

            "But sho'ly in de nex'."

            "Hallelujah."

            "Let me hear yo'all say dat louder."

            "HALLALUJAH!"

            "Now lets sing it. Lift yo' voices up and sing de Good Lawd's praise."

            All rise. There are no hymnals. Those who do not know the words keep time. Feet tap. Hands clap. Elbows flap like a flock of unfledged wingsJewel, astounded by the volume, moved beyond description... the congregation solidifying... my-me-mine giving way to one collective we... Jewel embraced by the harmony, enveloped feels her lungs expand, her heartbeats synchronize, her lips form simple shapes in imitation, then words, then entire phrases. Her throat constricts, erupts; the pent-up sound intones:

            Was bline

            But now

            I see

            Jewel sees. Above the altar hangs a crucifix, unadorned but for a single piece of cut-glass at the centre... red... glimmering... pulsing vibrantly. She feels her body slowly overtaken by an elemental hum... deep in her spine... all-pervasive, all-knowing, soulful, enigmatic, almost indiscreetly rapturous...

 

 

            "You seen de light, Jewel?"

            "Huh?"

            "Look funny. What you starin' at? Service over. Us leavin'. Look; Mutter Moss 'most ha'f out de doe'."

            Jewel glances round. It is true; the pews are empty. Folks are filing out, shaking hands, exchanging pleasantries with the preacher.

            "Come an' meet de Rev'ren' Lysle."

            Jewel follows (somewhat absently) until she feels her hand being pressed inside a larger one.

            "Mighty pleased to meet you, Miss; Miss Jewel, is it? Yo' one o' de Moss' gals?"

            "De Rev'ren talkin' at you, Jewel. Her kine quiet, Rev'ren' Lysle, bein' new an' all."

            "I see dat. I see many things. Somethin' speak to you, chile? P'raps you heared a call? Gots a look about you, Jewel. De Lawd, I believe, done touched you. Tell me, dis de first time you come visitin' de House o' God?"

            "Yes, suh."

            "Dey got no churches where yo' from?"

            "Not fo' colourt."

            "But yo' famil'ar wit de name o' Jesus Christ?"

            "Yes, suh."

            "Can you tell me how you come to know dat name?"

            "Why, Rev'rend Lysle, is you the reason my girls tarryin'? Girls, now don't be pesterin' the Rev'rend; him a busy man. Come along."

            "No need whatever fo' chastisement, Mothah Moss. 'Twas I mos' grateful to welcome dis young lady to de fold. An' I mus' say, you is to be commended fo' yo' eye. All yo' gals God-Iovin' Christians, course, but dis one be mos' special. Mus' o' notice yo'se'f, else I sho' Miss Jewel's complexion keep her outside yo' employ?"

            "I will confess, Rev'rend Lysle, that do make Jewel's position problematic. But... "

            "Let me be so bold as to info'm you why her here."

            The Reverend Lysle proceeds to lay on hands, palms open, over Jewel's shoulders, perusing the space around her as if interpreting an aura—Mother Moss looking on indulgently, though somewhat discomfited.

            "De chillun."

            "What about the chilllun, Rev'ren' Lysle?"

            "Jesus sen' dis gal be de mothah fo' all dem chillun. Needs love an' care, Mothah Moss. I do believe us talked 'bout dis befo'e?"

            "Indeed us has; ev'ry Sund'y, Rev'rend Lysle, most ev'ry Sund'y."

            "Well, dere be no need fo' us to mention it futhuh; de Lawd done spoke. It wit conviction I pronounce Jewel's purpose be takin' charge dem chillun. I pronounce dis on de mos' Supreme author'ty."

            "But Rev'rend..."

            "On'y gots to see de light surroundin' dis gal know dat de Lawd would frown, frown severely, should someone try cas' dey shadow. You been blessed, Mothah Moss. Believe me when I tell you, you been blessed. Dis de perfec' oppo'tun'ty to insure God's Will be done. I trus' you to it."

            "Thank you, Rev'rend Lyle. Girls. Thank you, Rev'rend."

            "Den I can 'spec' to see Miss Jewel nex' Sund'y mo'nin'?"

            "Mother make no promises. Girls? Éclair!"

            "Yes, Mutter?"

            "Now!"

            With arms outstretched Mother Moss corrals her broodReverend Lysle left savouring his ad hoc inspiration.