seventy             

            A child has asked "where" not "what"; "Where freedom?", as if freedom were a place like Kingdom-Come.

"De furt'er you goes in search o' freedom

De furt'er from freedom be"

Mojo's adage lingers like the sea's voice inside a shell, memory of it causing a throb between Jewel's tender breastswherein once hung the ruby.

            A'ways do like dat, talk in riddles, make a body confuse' 'bout what Mojo mean.

            The water sloshes as one naked pair of legs steps out, another steps in. Jewel wraps the bathed child cosily in a towel and pats her dry, the line having advanced, faces eager, indifferent, disobliging, one embarrassed; an older boy resents evidently this ritual cleansing.

            "Josh, you don' stop scowlin', yo' face gwon grow like dat."

            The others giggle. There are seven, almost one per whorethough Pearl has given birth to three. When old enough to work (sometimes before) each bastard will be sold—their mothers, in due course, getting a percentage of the proceeds, an arrangement meant to compensate the fertile and to offset certain costs: children eat, take up space, interfere with business—expenses recorded to the cent in Mother Moss's ledger. Unless a girl is willing to forego maternal contact and seal her heart, debt will deepen and the realization of freedom will be postponed. Attachments, therefore, are discouraged—a fact to which the prostitutes seem resigned.

            "Us wants a story."

            "Soon's I scrub de taters out yo' ears. Cain't 'spec' lissen 'where freedom' wiff filt'y ears like dese."

            Jewel twists the washcloth...

            "Ow!"

...then plants a ticklish kiss in the urchin's upraised armpit. JuJu squeals.

            "Josh, whyn't you come an' he'p me lif' de li'l uns from de tub? Might's well use dem manly muscles I see you sportin'."

            The young boy grins, flattered by Jewel's attention. He steps up to help.

            "Okay Bridget, yo' turn nex'."

            Bridget's vanilla knee cannot quite clear the washtub's rim. Josh hoists her over. Jewel instructs.

            "Hol' yo' nose an' dunk."

            "Yes, Mammy."

            When Bridget surfaces Jewel takes the soap and lathers her front, back, top, and bottom.

            Sometimes the girls stay on—Sooky, for example. Sooky is the daughter of Ruanda now in Boston. When Sooky was eleven she started in the trade. Mother and daughter pooled their earnings and in four years freedom came—to Ruanda. Sooky stayed behind, starting again from scratch, her debt reset to a modest one thousand dollars, modest by the House's standards, yet considerable enough to mean a lengthy separation—despite promises from "up North" to send back money regularly. In two years time, Sooky has yet to receive more than a postcard, on which someone had transcribed "Life hard everywhere, Sooky. Love, your Momma."

            The scrub-a-dub line is now reduced to one.

            "Wan's do yo'se'f, Josh?"

            Josh steps into the sudsy water.

            "No; you."

            Jewel smiles. The boy is deep in the throws of puppy-love. She soaps him fondly. Not much time for Josh. He is one of Pearl's, as are the other males—Bo and Lance—each dissimilar, though Josh, unlike his brothers, could never pass. His father is a pine-tar-coloured man (Pearl also arrived at Mother's pregnant) dark—not as dark as Jewel—but manifestly African.

            Jewel feels the young heart pound as she enfolds Josh in the towel. He squirms a little, blushes hotly when she nuzzles him, yet welcomes the affection.

            What gwon happen dis chile, dese chillen? What gwon happen de chile what Massah Zach'ry' sire? Was you a man, Josh, mayhap I could 'splain dis awful achy feelin'. Jewel get pow'ful achy, hurt so bad de touch o' yo' green manhood on'y make it worse. Use ta hol' me jus' dis way, 'cep' I be you an' him be me; Massah Zach'ry strong, make a woman love her frailty; make a woman safe and glad her gots a boss; in bed, dat is, where de pleasure come on fiery, burn so deep it boil a body's blood, den turn it to molasses; sweet an' syrupy was what he done to me, what I done to him, neit'er one o' us able, lookin' back, keeps at bay dat urge, dat do 'o die desire what bline common sense.

            She turns the boy loose.

            "See dat de ot'ers tuck in bed, Josh."

            "Yes, Jewel."

            "How's come you leave off callin' Jewel yo' Mammy?"

            Josh drops his eyes; awkward, being naked, he stands at a disadvantage.

            "Gots a mammy. Man don' call his woman nothin' but 'er name. '"

            "Oh, so I's yo' woman, Josh, an' yo' my man?"

            "Yes, Jewel."

            "Meanin' you'll stick by me, an' love me, protec' me, provide fo' me, 'til de day I die?"

            "Yes, Jewel."

            "An' it make no nevah mine I colourt, black as a moonless night?"

            "Yo' black beaut'ful."

            "Got love in you like dat, Jewel proud to be yo' woman. 'Cep' I full, Josh. See dis swellin'?... Here, come touch it wiff yo' han'. Feel dat? A man name Mass... A man name Zach'ry Squire put dat swellin' here. Love done it, Josh. I hope de kine yo' talkin' 'bout, de kine what las'."