sixty-eight            

            "I so confuse', Éclair."

            "What happen, Jewel?"

            "I... I cain't say."

            Jewel throws herself face-down on the bed and weeps. Éclair runs to her, kneels and tenderly lays her cheek in the small of Jewel's taut back, hugging convulsive shoulders perchance to soothe, to ease.

            "Dere now, Jewel. Éclair know how you feel; life fool her, too. Life like a man what all ways doin' it to you. Do you right, once in a while, make yo' belly full o' giggles, but mos' times yo'all done wrong, an' dat bring on blue devils. Whenev' I get dem blues, on'y one thing make me better. Wo'k ev'ry time. Here, I show you."

            Éclair ambles to her feet and glides to the bureau. From a drawer, beneath a layer of underclothes, she retrieves a heart-shaped box—satin-covered, trimmed with lace, contents aromatic. With it, she returns, settling on the bed, then lifts the box's lid—an intimate sound attracting Jewel's attention, as does the toothsome smell.

            "Keep dem eyes closed, Jewel, an' open yo' mouth."

            Jewel obeys, her taste buds amply rewarded—inundated with...

            "Yum!"

...her maiden taste of chocolate.

            "Dat come via Savannah. Sent me special by a one-eye gent'man name o' Smooch."

            "Smooch? What kine name be dat?"

            "It de private name I calls 'im 'coun' him send me candy-kisses. Wherev' him go away I gets me a box—sometimes gummies, sometimes pep'mints; all kinds. Wan' anuther?"

            Jewel, still busy savouring the first, nonetheless accepts, extracting the proffered bonbon from its tissue-paper wrapper.

            "Dat one gots a fillin'. See, dese wit de swirls on top all gots gooey centres. Dey de bes'. Git you tipsy as a hooch-houn', eats enuff o' dese."

            "Tipsy?"

            "You know, drunk? Makes 'em wit liqueurs—course on'y de fines'—an' Smooch say dey impo'ted; come all de way from France. Him rich. Almos' rich 's Chief"

            "Who Chief?"

            "Him anuther one my gent'men—gimme dis."

            Éclair draws a hanky from her cleavage and passes it to Jewel.

            "Oh, oh; I gots choc'late on it, Éclair!"

            "Don' mind dat." Éclair prances to the bureau once again and opens a second drawer. "Gots plen'y."

            One after another, assorted handkerchiefs flutter to the floor like a flock of pastel pigeons

            "Does aw yo' gent'men give you gif's like dis?"

            "Not all; jis' de ones I call by made-up names."

            Rejoining Jewel on the bed, Éclair bites a chocolate—liquid from its centre darkening her chin; brown on beige, the contrast reinstating Jewel's despair; she lapses into tears.

            "You wan's tell me 'bout it, Jewel? I know yo' mos'ly quiet, but tellin' sometimes spread around de hurt; thin it out a mite." Jewel chokes back her brandy-flavoured sobs. Éclair encourages. "Seem like Rev'ren' Lysle been keepin' you kind o' late. Him messin' wit you; is dat it?" Jewel diverts her eyes, concentrates on the stain besmirching Éclair's hanky. "'Cause iffen him is o' has, an' I was to drop de word to Mutter... "

            "Please, no! Please don' tell Mutter!"

            "Why dat lech'rous ol' hyp'crite! Here him always preachin' 'bout evils o' de flesh, givin' us praise-God glances—specia'ly Mutter—when all dat's on 'is mind is poontang-sin. What he do, Jewel?... Come on, tell me. "

            "Nuffin'."

            "Nuthin?"

            "Nuffin' much. Ain't so much what 'im do as what 'im say."

            "What him say, den?"

            "Dat Jesus Chris' de on'y paff to truef, an' fo'ks what don' b'lieve cain't fine sa'vation."

            "So?... Jewel, you got stop lissenin' to dat preacher, start noticin' hats."

            Despite herself, Jewel smiles. Éclair consoles.

            "Ain't dat better? Trouble wit religion is God never laugh."

            "Éclair, don'!"

            "Oh, sakes; I's goin' to Hell no matter what my foul mouth say."

            "No you ain't; yo' kine an' treats fo'k decen'."

            "Decent? Decent! Honey, I's a whore. Know what de Bible say 'bout whores? 'Cep' fo' Mary Mag'len, beeline straight to Hades."

            "You can repen'."

            "I could. I do—mos' ev'ry time some man mount up I say, 'Lawd, I heart'ly sorry fo' what I 'bout to do."

            "Dat blasph'mous."

            "S'pose it is, but it de Gospel truth. Sides, if Éclair have to make a choice 'twix freedom an' sa'vation, her pick freedom; gots me a far better chance arrive. Fac', I a'ready ha'f way dere; Mutter Moss done show me de ledger."

            "What a ledger?"

            "It a book. An' all us in it. An' af'er ev'one's name dere's writ a number, den some cipherin'. An' what it means is Mutter Moss keepin' track. So ev' time I goes 'oo, ah, oo' an' sackerfice soul for nooky, I's two bits closer my goal o' bona fide freedom. Dat day come, I get three things: a hun'red dollars, a riv' boat ticket No'th, an' a birth certif'cate test'fy I's born White—translation: free."

            Jewel's focus now returns to the chocolate-stained hanky, her mind transfixed by the thought of Reverend Lysle—not for what he said, as she reported, but rather for what he did and her reaction do it; his kissing her on the neck having filled her with disgust...

            "Éclair, I 'shamed."

...not because of his age or his vocation...

            "Ashamed? Ashamed o' what?"

...disgusted because of his race and all the indignity being black imposed...

            "'Shamed I's colourt."

...disgusted with herself for believing black meant base.

            "Sakes, Jewel, no nigger breathin' proud dey's coloured. Have anuther choc'late."