sixty-five             

            I ask Éclair 'bout Jesus but her don' know much. I say, what you do in church ev' Sunday? Her say, look at hats; aw kine purty hats, her say, on Sunday... Dere a book what tell 'bout Jesus but I cain't read—no nigger 'pose' to. Éclair claim Mutter Moss know how. I ask Mutter would she learn me iffen Rev'ren' Lysle len' me de Good Book—what him promise. Her say, maybe. I cain't hardly wait. I 'spec' dey's somethin' special 'bout fo'ks b'lieves in Jesus, but de places where I been don' 'low no chu'ch-goin'. Mammy use to say de White fo'ks' God b'longs to dem, an' dat us colourt on'y gets to know de White God's Shadow—what not worf a chigger, Mammy say, so her learn me diff'ent. But Rev'ren' Lysle say God be de Fat'er an' de Son and de Holy Ghos' combine' an' aw God's chillen what b'lieve can tell when Jesus be insi'e. 'Spec' dat feelin' I get sometimes—de hum—be de Holy Ghos' hisse'f. Mojo make me has it; thinkin' 'bout Mammy do it too; an' one time Massah Zach'ry—mos' likely when us gets dis comin' chile. Dis Massah's baby. I know fo' sho', 'coun' de day I run I awready late wiff my mont'lynev' did come. Dem traders done me nas'y but de chile not deir's; by de time dey snatch me up dis womb awready sealed.
            An' now I like a nanny fo' aw dese sleepin' chillen. Dis one Sooky's; her Cheri's. Boaf speak French. So do Luna's an' Latrice's. I in charge dem aw. Rev'ren' Lysle wan's de chillen brung to chu'ch, 'tend Sunday School. I plea' wiff Mutter, but her claim Rev'ren' Lysle don' "tow de line", dat him teach readin'what illegalan' iffen him don' "mend his ways" dere gwon be trouble; "heed Mutter's warnin'". Seem Mutter Moss infl'ential, wiffout her make no fuss. But soon 's Whites 'spec' blacks be gettin' ed'cated, dey turn an' strike like DAT; like a tail-stomped snake. "Gots be careful", Mutter say; "gots to tow de line". Make White fo'ks b'lieve dey 's de drivers; us de asseseven dough it de asses what 'complish mos' de wo'k. One day, Mutter say, dems what DO de labour gwon reap de ben'fit. Happ'nin' even now.
            Éclair, ev'ry night, tell 'er gent'men de 'xac' same thing: each one in a rush an' each one be de bes'. Her do like dat, her say, so dey comes quick an' dey comes back. Éclair laugh at dat. Seems her disconten' wiff de comp'ny o' men. Got 'em aw fool', dough; gent'men love Éclair; her one de fav'rites. 'Cep' de twins mos' pop'lar now. Since dem two on offah deir cust'mers thick 's flies. An' de twins cost double—sep'rate o' toget'er; makes no nev'-mine. Fo'ks here'bouts a puzzlemen';
here'bouts White fo'ks  buy what no'm'ly dey jus' steal.

            Jewel strokes the silky halo of JuJu's flaxen curls. The child is blond: blond hair, blond skin, as though her entire body had been dipped in a vat of butterscotch.

            Dese chillen aw so beautiful; make me pray my chile come pale. Don' no one wan' you iffen yo' skin blue-black like mine. Freakish in dese parts is blue-black skin. People say I comely, but I know dey thinkin' ot'erwise, 's if de sight o' me remine 'em dey's colourt, too.

            Jewel wends her way among mats that lie in clusters on the attic nursery floor. Twilight pours grey haze through tiny windows skirting the rafters. Spic and spanthanks to Jewel—the close space smells of freshly laundered sheets... pine tar... cedar chips... and the unmistakeable odour of less-than-cleanly urchins... one of whom awakens, rubs her eyes and blinks them vaguely into focus. Chubby arms reach up in search of consolation.

            "Who dat? Charmayne? You has a nightmare, sweets?"

             Jewel lifts and cradles the anxious toddler in her arms, welcoming the sleepy-eyed head that nuzzles her compact breasts, breasts that only recently have grown hypersensitive, though Jewel has noticed no appreciable change in size. Nor is her belly too much biggerbeyond a subtle roundness. How did Mother know? Not from the traders; Mother informed them. Mother's eye for detail, evidently, earns its reputation.

            The child's small fingers knead like claws of a timid kitten—instigating, pleasantly, the hum throughout Jewel's spine.

            "Raconte moi une histoire."

            The voice is wee.

            "What dat, Charmayne? Gots talk English to Jewel."

            Charmayne obliges.

            "Tell me a story, Mammy."

            The hum intensifies... responding to this altered appellation"Mammy"; heretofore she had always been addressed as "Jewel".

            "Once 'pon time dere born a itty-bitty babe 'bout ha'f yo' size wiff twice de hair. Dat right. Dis sucker's curls so long an' snarly-snarl an' strange it like a tumb'weed wild an' full o' mischief. Soon comes de Boogyman; hears dis chile 'abnormal'—what mean diff'ent—so him have a look, an' covet dat puny babe an', when no one lookin', snatch it up an' carry it to de deepes', darkes' fores' in de Ian'. Boogyman trie' ta feed dat sucker worms an' such—like it a chick—but cou'se de sucker need mutter's milk. So de Boogyman fine dis outlaw ban' o' run'ways call maroons an' selec' a likely female fo' to wet-nurse de chile—make dat wet-nurse promise give 'im back soon 's he wean'keepin' ev'one  safe, in b'tween time, from de beastly Patterrollers.
            Know 'bout Patterrollers, sweets?"

            "No, Ma'am."

            "Oh, dem terr'ble critters; part hawse, part man, dem gallops af'er dark fo'ks in de night an' if dey ketcht you dey string you up by yo' two big toes, hangs you over a grinder, an' befo'e you can say Ha-choo dey grinds you into fotter! Nas'y critters indee', dem Patterrollers. But de Boogyman fool 'em; make dat maroon's camp' invis'ble. So, soon 's de chile be wean'—dough it stay puny—de Boogyman return. But seems dat wet-nurse, her don' wan's give de boy chile back. Boogyman rile at dat. Him lif' de spell. When de Patterrollers nex' time come, him steal back de chile in aw de confusion."

            "Did de peoples all get ground up into fodder?"

            "Yes, sweets, dey did. But Mojo 'scape—dat de young chile's name—an' Mojo become de Boogyman's slave: cook de food, wash de clo'es, mend de roof o' deir hutch so 's it don' leak, an' do like dat fo' years an' years an' years whilst de Boogyman prance an' dance, practicin' his bag o' hairy-scary tricks. Him full o' tricks, Charmayne: like makin' de moon block out de sun, o' turnin' raindrops into crys'als, o' spinnin' cobwebs into fog, o' makin' de Norf' win' chase its tail—call dat a twis'er, a wind so strong could lif' dis whole house up wiff aw us in it, an' sen us flyin' miles an' miles an' miles to Sout' Car'lina."

            "Where dat?"

            "Dat where I from. So Mojo stay a slave. But whilst him slavin', him learnin' dem tricks, an' 'fo'e too long him do 'em better dan do de Boogyman hisse'f. 'Coun' Mojo un'erstan' de truef behine dem tricksan' knowin' de truef make him a hun'ert times mo'e pow'ful. So one day him jus' up an' tol' dat Boogyman skedaddle—Mojo still no bigger dan a tree stump but him jus' do. Boogyman, him star's blus'er, puff hisse'f up in a rage, an' commence to conjurin'. Mojo smile. Dat right. Jus' smile. Make dat Boogyman shrivel like a pinprick do a pig bladder. Den Mojo wink. A  whir'win' stir up outten nowhere, raisin' dus'. Den, wiff anot'er wink, 'WHOOSH,' dat Boogyman whisk right off 'is feet an' away him blow."

            "Was de Boogyman killt?"

            "No, sweets, de Boogyman cain't nevah die; him indestruc'able. 'Sides which, people needs 'im. Wiffout de Boogyman, Mojo say, life too ser'ous. Wiffout shenan'gans an' such fo' to make us scairt, how can us be brave?"

            "Den what happen?"

            "Den what happen! You 'pose' be asleep."

            Jewel gently disengages the doll-like arms, lays the child down, draws up the patchwork quilt and tucks her in.

            "Dere now, close dem pi'ture-purty eyes... Dat's right... Dat's right... "

            Floating her palm across the child's fair brow... caressing flaxen curls... spreading them over the pillow like wisps of amber seaweed... then stretching lengthwise beside...

            "Sleep, chile, sleep. Sleep sweetly."

...Jewel soon sinks herself into slumber's snug embrace.