"What all this ruckus?"
Mother Moss, in a floor-length ostrich-feather boa, chartreuse wig, and pancake-white makeup, waddles down the stairs in time to witness Ginger—seconded by a stalwart band of clients—obstructing Zachary Squire.
"Dis man crazy, Mutter, hollerin' 'Where my Jewel!' Claim Jewel his prop'ty; claim her stole'; claim him got de papers can prove it!"
Mother lifts her hand in a stern command for silence. Ignoring Zachary (whose hair is mussed, arms wrenched forcibly behind him), she addresses Ginger.
"Jewel? Did yo'all say Jewel? Weren't Jewel the name o' that gal Mother up an' sold some few weeks back; the blue-black?" Ginger nods obligingly. Zachary squirms. "Course it unlikely that gal 'stole' 'count o' her had papers." At last she acknowledges Zachary. "Yo' Jewel dark?" He again tries to wrench free from his captors. "Leave go the gent'man, gent'men." Zachary is released. "Yo' Jewel with chile, p'r'haps?" Stunned by this revelation, Zachary stays in place. "Yo'all look su'prised by that point o' fact. P'r'aps the Jewel yo' lookin' fo' not the Jewel I recollec', 'cause sho' 's bolls got weevils that Jewel knocked."
The clients snicker at Zachary's overt befuddlement. Recovering equilibrium, he muzzles them with a glare—Mother discerning a social class unused to ridicule.
"Yo'all have papers, sir?"
From his pocket, Zachary produces Jewel's original bill of sale, which he starts to read:
"This is to certify..."
"If you please, that won't be nec'sary. Mother Moss most cap'ble o' readin' fo' herse'f." She steps forward and plucks the document from a disbelieving Zachary. '"Moon-shape indentation under left eye.' Don't recall that. 'Soft-spoken.' That sho 'nuff fit; Jewel 'bout talk'tive 's a oyster keen to keep its pearl. Hm; look like the rest o' this been doctored... 'Mister Zachary Squire.' That you?" He nods. Mother notes (not unexpectedly) Jake's signature at the bottom. "Don't know the law in South Car'lina, but in N' O'leans this invalid; don't 'low crossin's-out an' such on legal doc'ments here. Mother not disputin', mind. This Negress likely yo's. But 'possession' as they say is 'nine tenths o' the law.'"
The clients brave another snicker at Zachary's expense. Beyond his flash of temper, there is little he can do.
"You claim that Jewel was sold. May I ask, to whom?"
"I not at liberty to say."
"YOU'RE NOT AT LIBERTY...? YOU OUGHT NOT TO BE AT LIBERTY! I REPEAT, WOMAN, TO WHOM?"
Mother's eyes glaze over, reptilian in their stare. Making this man suffer might prove gratifying... but how prove profitable; with Jewel already sold? Jewel—but not her child; Mother forms a plan.
"P'r'aps yo'all could persuade me, Mister Squire, to help—but not by fo'ce; Mother don't like threats. Have to act polite if you want yo' Jewel returned."
"I will not argue or negotiate with... I demand..."
Éclair rushes up to Mother and whispers in her ear.
("Dere a man name Ebersole out back wants you come.")
Mother grunts noncommittally, eyes still fixed on Zachary.
"Precisely, Mister Squire; 'demand' is the issue, supply an' demand. You demand info'mation; Mother can supply it—fo' a price. One thousan' dollars buy Jewel back, with deliv'ry."
Mother chuckles to herself at her double-entendre. Zachary bristles. The clients—most of them amused—maintain mute neutrality.
"What is my assurance I will not be cheated?"
"Why Mister Squire, you have Mother's word."
Savouring Zachary's apoplectic state—partial retribution for the White man's vain assumptions—Mother plots a course to exact the remainder.
"I refuse to pay."
"Thought you would."
"In advance, I mean."
"Ah... Well... if that the case, Mother retain this..." She holds up the bill of sale. "...till I's paid in full. An' lest yo'all think I sell my own into slav'ry, bes' think again. Befo'e I turn Jewel over, yo' gonna set 'er free."
"You must be joking. I... What are you doing! "
Zachary's arms are once more held as Mother crosses to the foyer table, puts pen to ink then ink to paper, and, in open view of all, alters the bill of sale. She recites:
"This is outrageous! This is criminal! I vouchsafe I will see you flogged then straight away hanged! This is the South; this is America." Zachary glances around him. "Do you gentlemen have no shame? RELEASE ME, I SAY. THINK OF WHAT YOU DO BY BROOKING THIS OFFENCE!"
The clients trade hurried, somewhat apprehensive glances then turn loose their captive. Zachary takes a menacing step forward then halts—the hall grown hushed, onlookers on alert for some dour calamity.
Quill upraised, Mother points it like a dagger.
Éclair slips stealthily past the crowd and tiptoes upstairs, pausing at the landing. She peers down. She watches Zachary lift his arm, reach out, and accept the proffered pen. She watches Mother gloat triumphantly as the man before her stoops. She sees the paper with its indecipherable marks in neat rows of black lines, hears a scratching sound as the quill moves left to right, then other scratching sounds as witnesses co-sign.
Mother Moss looks up. The stairs are empty. She looks back as the front door SLAMS; Mister Squire is gone. She applies a blotter to the signatures, rolls the document tightly and stows it in the cleavage of her monumental breasts... smiles... nods to the clients... adjusts her feather boa... and with the hauteur of an Empress takes her measured leave (contemplating Ebersole and deal that needs be finalized).
"Jewel? Jewel? JEWEL, WHERE YOU AT? JEWEL?"
"Hush! Ov' here."
Blindly, Éclair moves toward the voice, stubbing her toe in the process.
"Goddamn, ow; I think I cripple'. Damn!"
"Hush up. Gwon wake dese chillen up an' dey jus' faw asleep."
"Jewel—gosh, dat hurt—Jewel, him come!"
"Him, yo' formah Massah; 'Mistah Zach'ry Squire'."
Éclair gropes nearer, bumps a body. It is Jewel's, gone numb, inert. Éclair, using Jewel's shoulders for support, settles down beside her.
"Him downstairs dis very minute—leas'ways him was; s'pose him gone by now. Be back tomorrow; gwon fetch you, on accoun' o' Mutter say so. An' Jewel, you know what else? You know what happen right 'fo'e Éclair's eyes? I see yo' Massah sign dis paper what say, 'From dis date fo'w'd,' Jewel set free!... Yo'all hear me? Yo'all hear what I jis' tol' you, Jewel? Yo' free!"
"Why, Mister Ebersole, what the dickens have you been up to?"
"Squire was here?"
"No question Mister Squire called—well nigh blowed my house down. What possess' you sic that hurr'cane onto me? Most unprofess'nal, Mister Ebersole, most disappointin'. Did yo'all know that man have clear an' legal title to yo' gal Jewel? Has to tell him, course, that Mother not the rightful owner—not presently—but that Jewel arrive with papers, 'fo'e her sold, all right an' proper."
"He knows she's mine?"
"Mother told him sold; don't say who to."
Jake's mind is racing. There are options, scores of options still available, each depending on what has just transpired.
"I am relieved to learn my investment has been well-protected. Thank you, Mother."
"Not at all. Standard business practice. Mother 'spect yo'all ready to do de same?"
Their keen eyes meet; advantage Mother. Jake is sorely out-of-pocket; he must recoup. He steps behind the bar of Mother's private drawing room.
"If you'd be so kind."
A loveseat wheezes under Mother's nesting weight. Jake prepares their drinks.
"Was Mister Squire rude?"
"Rude; he was savage as a gator!"
Mother fluffs and rearranges her boa.
"So you informed him Jewel was sold." Jake moves to join her, drinks in hand. "He doesn't know that the girl's still here? She is still here?"
"Her here, alright." Mother takes the extended snifter. "An' here her stayin'—that is, 'til after her gives birth."
"I beg your pardon?"
"I's referrin' to the chile Jewel carryin'. You all bought the momma; momma's pup b'longs to me."
"What's this? Since when does an unborn child—if the girl indeed is pregnant—get separate legal status? Surely..."
"Surely nuthin'. I agreed to board the bitch in exchange for the bitch's sucker. Two for the price of one be otherwise unfair."
"What if I had taken full possession when our deal was struck?"
"Mother woulda called the gal's condition to yo' blind-eye attention—an' charged yo'all double."
"A sum you seek to exact, I presume, ex post facto?"
"Another thousan' dollars."
"For an unborn infant!"
"For his unborn infant."
Jake curbs his aggravation... regroups... rethinks... With progeny in the balance, fresh options loom.
The loft's darkness appears less dense; Éclair can see:
"Éclair, I scairt. Dere somethin' terr'ble 'bout to happen. Don' matter what possess my Massah come aw dis way to fetch me, him still White, I black, him marry', I unspoke fo', him still Lawd o' de Big House, I a knock-up slave."
"No mo'e, Jewel. Yo' not hearin' what I sayin'. Yo' free."
"'Coun' Massah signs a papah? Jewel not dat simple-mine'd. Dere no way Massah goin' home wiffout him take 'is prop'ty. Lessen Mistah Eberso'e..."
"Ebersole? Ebersole, damn, I knew I knowed dat name. Dere somethin' slipp'ry goin' on here; Mistah Ebersole downstairs, too. 'Cep' him don' come in wit yo' Massah; him sneak 'roun' de back. I lets him in an' straight him went to Mutter's private pallor, like him own de place." Éclair ponders... "Yo'all stay put; Éclair gwon have to do herse'f some ea'sdroppin'." She stands to go.
"What him say—my Massah?"
Jewel indicates her tummy.
Éclair shrugs as if nothing comes to mind, then hurriedly exits.
A fist BANGS onto the bar, upsetting drinks. Startled faces turn. The barkeep snorts a complaint that Zachary disregards, shoving his way through a crowd, out the door in haste.
He walks. The streets are bustling with carousers, vendors, sailors, gents with "ladies," the throng clad variously in uniforms, frock coats, cloaks and gaudy gowns. There are hawkers in saloon thresholds. There are sundry entertainers. There is music, ribald merriment, public dancing, drinking, gambling, and carryings-on in the shadows of squalid alleyways.
Zachary searches aimlessly for landmarks, for the route to his hotel—though harbours no intention of retreating to its solitude. He walks on, muttering to himself, questioning how he has sunk to so crude a circumstance:
Had Jewel ever consented to his amorous advances? What would he have done had Jewel refused to yield? How gauge her affection in the absence of complicity? Did she share his sentiments—and what exactly were they?
Turning in at a cul-de-sac, Zachary finds a bench... under a lone streetlamp... its greenish-yellow aura resembling a beacon, albeit dismal, flickering, dim. Exhaustedly he alights like a wing-clipped Lepidopteran.
What did the little man say before he vanished?
White niggers? What could he have meant by such an appellation... unless it was to forecast my disgraceful state... spellbound by a blue-black... both of us enslaved.
Praying that the parlour's inner drapes are safely drawn, Éclair parts sturdy doors and stealthily enters. Indeed the drapes are closed, disguising her intrusion. Voices—two—are audible through the heavy satin panels. From her cavity of concealment, Éclair overhears.
"I tell you what let's do, Mister Ebersole. Yo'all pay me fo' the sucker. Then tomorrow, 'bout ten in the mornin', yo'all come by, I give you Jewel. When Mister Squire show up I tell 'im where yo'all at. How that be?"
"What makes you sure Mister Squire will be back tomorrow?"
"'Count him not dumb, an' it won't take long 'fo'e him discover Mother fibbed."
There is a pause. Éclair grows anxious... holds her breath... would likewise hold her heartbeat if stopping its pound were possible.
"Agreed... with one proviso."
"You an' yo' provisos; what is it this time?"
"I remove the girl tonight."
There is another pause... throughout which Éclair sweats.
"Fine by me; long as Mother gets her thousan' dollars."
"First I must be paid by Mister Squire."
Éclair, privy to enough, beats a fleet retreat. The parlour doors abut.
Mother swivels in the loveseat and gestures Jake to investigate. Grasping fistfuls of fabric he yanks apart the drapes. Double doors closed snugly, he lets the panels fall.
"Most unfo'tunate; you bein' short, Jake. Mother sure yo' good fo' it. Happ'ly take yo' marker—under ordin'ry circumstances. But these extra-ordin'ry."
"Five hundred now; the balance later?"
Mother deems it politic to cash in her chips. No sense spoiling (any further) Mister Ebersole's complex scheme. True, it might prove trickier (without the goods) to hoodwink Mister Squire—but not impossible. And were the law to get involved: no Jewel, no evidence. Besides which the Madam has a soft spot for girls in her employ. Mindful of the document tucked between her breasts, Mother reconnoitres it is time to flex benevolence.
"Mutter sell yo' sucker, Jewel, 'fo'e it even born!"
"Get yo' things."
Arms crisscrossing her belly, Jewel stands incredulous.
"Get yo' things! Got no time to lose. Dat Eberso'e comin' fo' to take you 'way tonight. Now! Any minute!"
Éclair ushers a horror-struck Jewel to the stairs, awakening in their wake, one of the many urchins, whose plaintive cry causes Jewel to double back. Éclair cuffs her.
"Save yo' own."
Tugging at Jewel's elbow, Éclair redirects... as voices from the foyer prompt both girls to freeze... communicate in whispers.
"No time fo' packin'. Come on, us have to slip out dis-a-way."
Éclair opens a window (with a minimum of noise) and leads Jewel onto the fire escape, which they hurriedly descend.
"Where us goin'?"
Shoeless, shawl-less, and nauseous of a sudden, Jewel abruptly halts. Éclair chides.
"Don' matter where, long 's us get gone! Wait right here."
Éclair runs ahead to scout, poking her head from between dilapidated buildings... then signals the coast is clear. Jewel rejoins her.
"Which way now?"
"De church. I'll take you to Rev'rend Lysle's chapel."
"'Den what!' How's I 'spose to know? Figger dat out later." Éclair looks down. "Where yo' shoes at?" Jewel shrugs. "Country gals, I swear." Taking Jewel by the hand, Éclair brusquely guides.
There are fleur-de-lis repeated over and over and over... blue... royal blue on a field of gold dulled by age, blistering here and there, peeling in the corners where an underlying pattern peeks through (roses, pink and similarly faded)... window curtains stirring... Gulf and Mississippi delta steeping the breeze as in a witch's brew of scents: smoke from kerosene lanterns, barrels of fish and their overflow of offal... late night sounds: heels on boardwalk, wheels over cobblestone, laughter, crickets and cicadas heralding urban restlessness... a dog barks... sleeplessness... symptoms hauntingly familiar to the hotel's top-floor occupant clutching an empty flask... contents having failed to render Zachary drunk... bourbon less then useless as a remedy for woes unabated... pangs the like of which both mind and body suffer with a grudging discontent... images of Jewel in various venues, amorous postures, setting fire to loins and id, memories of secretions like an overdose of catnip to a temperamental tom, taking her repeatedly despite his being spent an indication of obsession, more not nearly enough to satisfy an urge their separation spurs non-stop... alongside doubt... in cahoots with guilt about dishonouring his race, allowing a temptation to eclipse his better judgment, not to mention bargaining with a bawd... a subhuman... an archetype as loathsome as the tribesmen who conspire to sell their kind in Africa... niggers trading niggers for the equivalent of trinkets to an avaricious throng... his people... or permutations thereof... power over others a prescription for depravity be it white, black, blue, or grey... blue or grey... what had he been told by the soothsayer runt about blue and grey... about Jewel and the ruby necklace... about episodes still in store?
"Sanctuary" is a concept of which Jewel is unaware, yet as she sits, alone now, huddled in the corner of a pew, she feels a presence, an omniscience, watching over her.
God?... You dere? Dis Jewel. Please, God, he'p me. Sho do need yo' he'p. Seem no place in dis worl' where Jewel b'long. An' I so lonely... Éclair lef' me here so's her could go fine an' warn Massah Zach'ry, tell him ain't no sense bein' swindle', 'coun' "Jewel won' come". Her 'pose' to say like dat, an' iffen him insis', her 'pose' to say, "Jewel wiff chile but de chile not yo's;" what oughta make 'im leave wiffout I brung. I know dat lyin', but I 's desp'rate, God. Don' wan' 'im go wiffout me, but Mist'ess, soon 's I back, gwon see me dead—my sucker, too—what Éclair claim Mutter Moss done sole wiffout a blink. So no way Jewel goin' back to Mutter Moss's neit'er.
Jewel lifts her feet from the draughty floor and tucks them underneath her.
Éclair try convince me dey's nuthin' worry 'bout 'cause I "free". Free? What good free? Might 's well lif' a chicken out de hen house, plops it down wiff de wolves, an' calls it free. Mayhap dat de on'y kine freedom a niggah ev' gwon know—'cep' I notice White fo'ks not so free deyse'ves. Iffen you make a body do de way you wan', you gots aw time keeps a eye out. But iffen you ask, dey might say no, sho' 'nuff; ask someun else. Dat way fo'ks what do things do 'em 'cause dey wan' to. Ain't dat freedom? Freedom not much happ'nin', God, far 's I can see. White fo'ks mos' at fault, but dey learnin' us no bettah. Time gwon come, say Mojo, when slav'ry bleed to deaf.
Jewel redirects her focus toward the chapel's slanted ceiling, its dark struts steeply pitched, extending downward like a mantling bird of prey. Stretching lengthwise on the pew, still gazing upward, she falls into a state of semi-consciousness.
"Gots a ver' importan' message fo' Massah Zachary Squire."
"Gots a ver' importan' message fo' Massah Zachary Squire."
"Gots a ver' importan' message fo' Massah Zachary Squire."
At the third hotel Éclair visits, her dispatch earns an answer.
"Well, Miss, ain't it rather late for a pretty young lady like yourself to be delivering... You coloured?"
"Yes, suh. Gots a ver..."
"Room nine. Second floor. Mind you don't disturb the other guests."
"Yes, suh. Thank you, suh."
Zachary hears a knock indistinguishable from his nightmare...
"YES?... COME IN."
The door cracks open. Éclair warily pokes her head inside.
"I gots a message, suh."
Zachary leaps from his chair and hastens to the doorway.
"No need, suh. Dis be all dat Éclair come to say: 'Mutter an' a man name Eberso'e plottin' to cheat you. Jewel say don' pay up; her won' come home no how, no way.'
Éclair makes to leave. Zachary grabs her arm.
“WHERE IS SHE!"
"Tell me, where she is!"
His look is so intense, she shrinks all the more. He drags her into the room and slams the door behind them.
"I said, SIT DOWN!"
She sits in the only chair.
Zachary paces wildly for a moment... eventually simmering down; he must think clearly; act rationally. Jewel has sent a warning. How should he respond?
"You from there; the whorehouse; 'Mother's' it's called?
"Is that where Jewel's being kept?"
"Yes, suh. No, suh. Jewel run."
Contrite for exceeding her sanction, Éclair bites her lip.
"I won't hurt you. Jewel's with child?" Éclair nods, eyes averted. "How far gone?"
"Don' know, suh. Come to us dat way."
Zachary's aspect alters, his ferocity somewhat mollified. Éclair braves a look, then a disbelieving stare, shocked to see the introspective face awash with tears. Zachary, clearing his throat, implores her once again.
"Please... I have to know... I beg of you; where is she?"
"Jewel... Jewel, honey, wakes up."
Éclair jostles gently. Jewel's eyes spring open. There is light. It is not morning, but daybreak must be near. As Jewel sits up, her dismal plight bears down with the weight of her predicament.
"What him say?"
"Say aln't no way in de world him goin' back home witout you... No power on earth, him say, gwon keeps him from his chile... Might 's well die, him tol' me, dan lose de one him love."
Jewel attends to the words but fails to grasp their meaning. Too fantastic, they sound, for warranting belief... or too obliging; in an instant, Jewel perceives: Éclair has betrayed her.
"You tol' him where I at?"
"Him right outside." Jewel is on her feet in a wide-eyed panic. Capture means return; return means death or worse; worse means death to her child; she will not jeopardize her offspring. "Him promise won' come in; waitin' on you to go on out. Up to Jewel, him vouchsafe. And, iffen you say no, I 'spose' to give you dis."
In Éclair's outstretched palm, aglimmer through the dimness, nestles Jewel's ruby necklace. Staring at it, trembling, anticipating its throb, Jewel extends her own palm; the chain and gemstone spill, fill her hand with sensations she had given up for lost, psyche reassured, maternal instincts calmed. She steps to the centre aisle, proceeds to the altar, kneels, and humbly prays.
Don' know 'bout yo' plans fo' Jewel an' her infan', God, but dis much certain; somethin' 'bout de man outsi'e us needs... an' wan's so bad I 'shame' 'coun' I know him gots a wife. Sinful it may be, Lawd, but iffen him do love me, Jewel gwon love him back wiff aw her might. Mojo say dat love de onliest light. Love make kineness shine an' kineness light de worl'. Mayhap love bring freedom—iffen Éclair right, it brung me mine; Mutter Moss got a paper what Massah Zach'ry sign'. So if Zach'ry not my Massah, an' Jewel b'long to Jewel, iffen Zach'ry wan' me back him sho nuff ask.
A shadow slowly stretches up the aisle, halting at the altar's crucifix. Turning, Jewel beholds a familiar silhouette... poised at the chapel's threshold... sworn not to enter... framed by an incandescent dawn like a halo set afire.