Read The Water Dancer: A Novel Online

Authors: Ta-Nehisi Coates;

The Water Dancer: A Novel (3 page)

I did. Lockless was massive, thousands of acres carved out of the mountains. I loved to steal away time from the fields to explore these acres, and what I’d found were orchards flush with golden peaches, wheat fields waving in the summer wind, cornstalks crowned with yellow silken hope, a dairy, an iron-works, a carpentry house, an ice-house, gardens filled with lilacs and lilies of the valley, all of it engineered in exact geometry, in resplendent symmetry, the math of which I was too young to comprehend.

“Nice, ain’t it?” Thena said. “But all of it start with what’s right down here in the fields, and with what’s right here in this pipe. Master of it all was my man Big John. Weren’t nobody who knew more about the ways and knacks of the golden leaf than my man. He could tell you the best way to dig out the horn-worms, which leaves you s’pose to sucker and which you might like to leave be. So that gave him a kind of a favor with the whites. Was how I got this big house here.

“And we was good about it. Gave our extra helping of victuals to those who did not have. It was John who insisted on it.”

She stopped to puff again on her pipe. I watched as lightning bugs drifted in, glowing yellow against the shadows.

“I loved that man, but he died, and after that, it all went bad. First terrible harvest I remember came after John was gone. Then there was another. Then another. Folks’ll tell you even John couldn’t have saved us. It was the land, cursing these whites for what they done to it, for how they done stripped it down. Still some red Virginia left, but soon it all gon be Virginia sand. And they know it. So it’s been hell since John been gone. Hell on me. Hell on you.

“I think of your aunt Emma. I think of your momma. I am remembered to them both—Rose and Emma. Why, they were a pair. Loved each other. Loved to dance. I am remembered to them, I say. And though it hurt sometime, you cannot forget, Hi. You cannot forget.”

I looked on dumbly as she spoke, as the full weight of having already forgotten now came upon me.

“I know I will not forget my babies,” Thena said. “They took all five of ’em down to the racetrack, and put ’em in a lot with the rest, and sold ’em, sure as they sell these hogsheads of tobacco.”

Now Thena bowed her head, and brought her hands to her brow. When she looked back up at me, I saw the tears streaking down her cheek.

“When it happened, I spent most of my time cursing John, for it was my figuring that if John had lived, my babies would still be here with me. It was not just his particular knowledge, it was my sense that John would have done what I could not find the courage to do—he would have stopped them.

“You know how I am. You done heard how they talk about me but you also know something is broken in old Thena, and when I seen you up in that loft, I had a feeling that same something was broken in you. And you had chosen me, for whatever your young reasoning, you had picked me out.”

She stood now and began her nightly routine of putting her home in order. I climbed up into the loft.

“Hi,” she called out. I looked back to see her watching me.

“Yes, ma’am,” I said.

“I can’t be your mother. I can’t be Rose. She was a beautiful woman, with the kindest heart. I liked her and I do not like many anymore. She did not gossip and she kept to herself. I can’t be what she was to you. But you have chosen me, I understand that. I want you to know that I understand.”

I stayed up late that night peering up at the rafters, thinking on Thena’s words.
A beautiful woman, the kindest heart, did not gossip, kept to herself.
I added this to the memories of her I’d collected from the people on the Street. Thena could not know how much I needed those small jigsaws of my mother, which together, over the years, I forged into a portrait of the woman who lived in dreams, like Big John, but only as smoke.


And what of my father? What of the master of Lockless? I knew very early who he was, for my mother had made no secret of the fact, nor did he. From time to time, I would see him on horseback making his tour of the property, and when his eyes met mine he would pause and tip his hat to me. I knew he had sold my mother, for Thena never ceased to remind me of the fact. But I was a boy, seeing in him what boys can’t help but see in their fathers—a mold in which their own manhood might be cast. And more, I was just then beginning to understand the great valley separating the Quality and the Tasked—that the Tasked, hunched low in the fields, carrying the tobacco from hillock to hogshead, led backbreaking lives and that the Quality who lived in the house high above, the seat of Lockless, did not. And knowing this, it was natural that I look to my father, for in him, I saw an emblem of another life—one of splendor and regale. And I knew I had a brother up there, a boy who luxuriated while I labored, and I wondered what right he had to his life of idle pursuit, and what law deeded me to the Task. I needed only some method to elevate my standing, to place me at some post where I might show my own quality. This was my feeling that Sunday when my father made his fateful appearance on the Street.

Thena was in a better mood than normal, sitting out on the stoop, not scowling or running off any of the younger children when they scampered past. I was in back of the quarter, between the fields and the Street, calling out a song:

Oh Lord, trouble so hard

Oh Lord, trouble so hard

Nobody know my troubles but my God

Nobody know nothing but my God

I went on for verse after verse, taking the song from trouble to labor to trouble to hope to trouble to freedom. When I sang the call, I changed my voice to the sound of the lead man in the field, bold and exaggerated. When I sang the response, I took on the voices of the people around me, mimicking them one by one. They were delighted, these elders, and their delight grew as the song extended, verse after verse, till I’d had a chance to mimic them all. But that day, I was not watching the elders. I was watching the white man seated atop the Tennessee Pacer, his hat pulled low, who rode up smiling his approval at my performance. It was my father. He removed his hat, and took a handkerchief from his pocket and mopped his brow. Then he put the hat back on, and reached into his pocket, pulled out something, and flicked it toward me, and I, never taking my eye off of him, caught it with one hand. I stood there for a long moment, locking eyes with him. I could feel a tension behind me: the elders, now afraid that my impudence might bring Harlan’s wrath. But my father just kept smiling, then nodded at me and rode off.

The tension eased and I went back to Thena’s cabin, climbed up to my loft space. I pulled from my pocket the coin my father flipped to me just before he’d ridden off, and I saw that it was copper, with rough uneven edges and a picture of a white man on the front, and on the back there was a goat. Up in that loft, I fingered the rough edges, feeling that I had found my method, my token, my ticket out of the fields and off the Street.


And it happened that next day, after our supper. I peered down from the loft to see Desi and Boss Harlan talking to Thena in low tones. I was afraid for her. I had never seen Desi or Harlan wrathy, but the stories I’d heard were enough. It was said that Boss Harlan once shot a man for using the wrong hoe and Desi once beat a girl in the dairy with a carriage whip. I looked down and saw Thena looking at the floor, nodding occasionally. When Desi and Harlan left, Thena called me down.

In silence she walked me out onto the fields, where no one would eavesdrop. It was now late in the evening. I felt the stiff air of summer releasing into the night. I was all anticipation, feeling I knew what was coming, and when I heard the night sounds of nature all around us like a chorus, I believed they were singing to a grand future.

“Hiram, I know how much you see. And I know that even though we all have to handle the brutal ways of this world, you have handled them better than some of your elders. But it’s bout to get more brutal,” she said.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“White folks come down to say your days in the fields is over, that you going up top. But they ain’t your family, Hiram, I want you to see that. You cannot forget yourself up there, and we cannot forget each other. They calling us up, now, you hear?
Us
. That trick of yours, and I seen it, we all seen it, it got me too. I am to come up and tend to you, and you might think you have saved me from something, but what you have really done is put me right under their eye.

“We have our own world down here—our own ways of being and talking and laughing, even if you don’t see me doing much of neither. But I got a choice down here. And it ain’t great, but it is ours. Up there, with them right over you…well, it’s different.

“You gon have to watch yourself, son. Be careful. Remember like I told you. They ain’t your family, boy. I am more your mother standing right here now than that white man on that horse is your father.”

She was trying to tell me, trying to warn me of what was coming. But my gift was memory, not wisdom. And the next day when Roscoe, my father’s jowly, affable butler, came for us, I had to work hard to hide away all my excitement. We walked up from the tobacco fields, past the field-hands, their songs ringing out:

When you get to heaven, say you remember me

Remember me and my fallen soul

Remember my poor and fallen soul

And then we were past the wheat fields and crossing the green lawn, and through the flower garden, until I saw, elevated on a small hill, the big house of Lockless shining like the sun itself. When we were closer, I took in the stone columns, the portico, and the fanlight over the entrance. It was all so magnificent. This house, I felt with a sudden shiver, belonged to me. It was mine by blood. I was correct, but not in the sense I thought.

Roscoe glanced back at me, grimacing I think, seeing that shine in my eyes. “We go this way,” he said. He led us away from the door, to the base of the small hill on which the house stood, and at that base, I saw the entryway to a tunnel. As we walked through, other tasking folk emerged from side rooms to greet Thena and Roscoe as they streamed past into smaller adjoining tunnels. We were in a warren, an underworld beneath the great house.

We stopped in front of one of the side rooms and it was clear that here was my place. There was a bed, a table, a washbasin, a vase, and a cloth. There was no loft. There was no under-space. There was no window. Roscoe lingered at the door with me by his side as Thena put down her bag of things. She didn’t take her eyes off of me and I could feel her words repeating in that stare—
They ain’t your family.
But after a moment her stare broke and all she said was, “Might as well take him up.” Roscoe put his hand on my shoulder and led me back into the Warrens and up a set of stairs, until we faced a wall. Roscoe touched something I did not see and the wall slid away and we walked out from the darkness into a wide room flooded with light and filled with books.

I stood in the doorway, my senses overwhelmed: the flooding light in the room, the smell of turpentine, the gold and blue Persian rugs, the shine of the wood floors beneath them, but the books were what held my eyes. I had seen books before—there were always one or two of us down on the Street who could read and who kept old journals or songbooks in their cabins—but never so many, shelves from floor to ceiling on every wall. I did my best not to stare. I knew what happened to coloreds who were too curious about the world beyond Virginia.

Diverting my eyes from the books, I saw my father, dressed down to his waistcoat and shirtsleeves, seated in one corner of the room, watching me and watching Roscoe. Turning my head, I saw in the other corner a boy, older than me, and white. By some trick of the blood, I knew at once that this was my brother. My father waved his hand lightly, effortlessly, and I saw that Roscoe recognized in this motion that he must take his leave. And so he turned, as though executing a military maneuver, and disappeared back behind the sliding wall. And I was there alone with my father, Howell Walker, and with my brother, and they both regarded me in curious silence. I reached into my pocket and found the copper coin and fingered its rough and uneven edges.

3

M
Y ASSIGNMENT CAME DOWN
from my father to Desi to Thena to me—make myself useful. So each day I would rise before the sun, as did all the Tasked, and walk about the house, fitting in where I could—raising the kitchen fires for Ella, the head cook, fetching the milk from the dairy, retrieving the trays after breakfast—or labor outside with Roscoe, washing and grooming the horses, or in the apple orchard with Pete, grafting saplings. There was always work to be done, for while the needs of the house had not diminished, the numbers of the Tasked had, and that was my first inkling that even here in the house the Tasked could be sent Natchez-way. I worked energetically, more still when, from time to time, I would catch my father glancing my way with a thin sidelong smile. He’d found a use for me.

It was autumn of my thirteenth year, four months after I took up residence in the main house. My father had called for a social to celebrate the season. All day a kind of private fatigue blanketed those who tasked in the house. Early that morning I brought the eggs up to Ella, whose large and welcoming smile I’d come to regard as a natural portion of the morning. But nature was beside itself this day, so that when I came upon Ella with my wicker basket of eggs, she only shook her head and motioned for me to put the eggs on the table where Pete stood picking through a bushel of apples.

Ella sidled next to Pete, cracked and separated six eggs, and then beat the whites. She spoke just above a whisper and would not give full vent to her feelings. “They don’t think about nothing and nobody,” Ella said. “It’s wrong, Pete. And you know it’s wrong.”

“It’s all right, Ella,” he said. “It’s worse things to be wrathy about.”

“Ain’t wrathy. Just want some consideration. Is that too much? Was supposed to be small supper tonight. How it spread out to the whole county?”

“You know what it is,” Pete said. “You know what is going on with them.”

“No, I don’t,” Ella said. “Hi, get me that rolling pin. And get that fire going, will you?”

“You got eyes, you know. It ain’t like it was. The gold leaf ain’t what it was. All the old families gone west. Tennessee. Baton Rouge. Natchez. Them kinda places. Ain’t too many left. And those that’s still here feel a tightness between them. They holding on. Small supper bigger to them now. Don’t none of ’em know who moving out next. This goodbye might be they last.”

Now Ella laughed quietly to herself but it felt boisterous and mocking, wide enough that I wanted to join her though there was nothing funny going on. “Hi, that thing there, baby,” she said, motioning to the shelves. When she called me baby, I got warm inside. I left the fire and took the dough cutter off the shelf and brought it over. Ella was still laughing to herself. She looked up and gave that large and welcoming smile.

Then the smile shrank and she looked dead at me, looked through me almost, and then turned to Pete, “I don’t care nothing for they feelings. This boy here know more about goodbye than all of them put together. And he ain’t nothing but a boy.”

All that day there was the same tension among the Tasked as I’d seen in Ella. But neither my father nor Desi knew or cared, and that evening when the carriages and chaises began arriving, all of us were smiles and pleasantries. I was assigned to the waitstaff. By then I had learned how to wash and groom myself until I shined, how to hold the silver tray in my left hand and serve with my right, how to disappear into the corners, emerging to scrape away bread and then fading again back into the shadows. When dinner adjourned, we cleared away the dishes and stood in the cherry-red drawing room and waited at attention while the guests all settled into the room’s deep chairs and divans.

I looked across the room, meeting eyes with the three others charged with attending to whatever need struck our guests. Then I watched the guests themselves, trying to anticipate whatever need might strike them. I took note of Maynard’s tutor, Mr. Fields, a young man, overly serious with deep-set eyes, drawn back in his chair. It was hard to stay in the moment. I found myself admiring the women’s fashion—their white bonnets, their pink fans, their side-curls, the baby’s breath and daisies in their hair. There was less to see in the men, who wore all black. But still I thought them beautiful, for there was distinction in how they walked, grace in their smallest movements, as when they opened the bay doors and repaired out back, leaned into one of the Tasked to light their cigars, and spoke of gentlemanly things. I imagined myself among them, settled into a chair or whispering into a lady’s ear.

They played seventeen hands of cards. They drank eight demijohns of cider. They ate lady-cake until they could barely stand. Then, just past midnight, a woman with her bonnet on backward began cackling hysterically. One of the men in black began berating his wife. Another nodded off in the corner. The Tasked on the waitstaff grew tense, a subtle tension I was sure the guests could not detect. My father sat staring at the fire and Mr. Fields sat back in his chair, looking bored. The woman stopped cackling and pulled down her bonnet, revealing a broken mask of streaked face-paint.

The woman was one of the Caulleys—Alice Caulley—a family, many years ago, split in two. Half had gone off to Kentucky while half remained. I remember her because the Caulleys who left took along those who tasked for them and among that number was Pete’s sister, Maddie. I never met her. But he spoke of her often, and whenever news of her filtered up from Kentucky through the grapevine of tasking folks who moved between the Caulley branches—news that she was alive and whole, united with the remnants of family that traveled with her—his face would light up and remain as such for the rest of the week.

“Give us a song!” Alice snapped, and when no one answered, she walked over to Cassius, one of the men in waiting, and slapped him. Now she yelled again, “Sing, damn you!”

It always happened like this—that is what I had been told. Bored whites were barbarian whites. While they played at aristocrats, we were their well-appointed and stoic attendants. But when they tired of dignity, the bottom fell out. New games were anointed and we were but pieces on the board. It was terrifying. There was no limit to what they might do at this end of the tether, nor what my father would allow them to do.

The slap roused him. My father stood up and looked around nervously.

“Come now, Alice. We have something better than any Negro song,” he said, and turned to me, and though he did not say another word I knew what he wanted.

I scanned the room and caught sight of a deck of oversized cards stacked on one of the small coffee tables. I recognized the cards as the kind Maynard used in his reading lessons. On one side the cards were all the same—a map of the known world. On the other side they each featured an acrobat contorted into the shape of a different letter, with a short rhyme underneath. I had overheard Maynard reading from these cards with his tutor. I had with sideways glances, and a few minutes of study here and there, memorized them, for no other reason than the fact of enjoying the silly rhymes on each side. Now I retrieved the cards from the table and turned toward Alice Caulley.

“Mrs. Caulley, would you shuffle, ma’am?”

She leaned over unsteadily, took the cards from me, and shuffled them in her hands. And then I asked if she would be so kind as to let me inspect them. Having done this, I handed them back to her and asked that she place them each on the table, face-down in any order. I watched her hands until the small coffee table was covered with maps in miniature.

“And what now, boy?” she asked warily.

I asked that she pick up a card and show it to anyone she pleased, except me. When she’d done this, she turned back to me with raised eyebrows. I said, “With the rest he’ll agree, and assist them with a letter ‘E.’ ”

Now her eyebrows retreated some toward their natural position as skepticism turned to pique. “Again,” she said, and then picked another card, showed it to more people now. I said, “Here he is, twisted and twined, to make an ‘S’ if you do not mind.”

And then the pique turned to a slight smile. I felt the tension in the room slack a bit. She picked another, showed it, and I said, “He’s forced to train hard, less the letter ‘C’ be marred.”

Now Alice Caulley laughed, and when I looked over, I saw my father smiling thin and small, and though the others who tasked like me that evening were still standing at attention, I felt the fear flowing out of their stoic faces. Alice Caulley kept reaching for the cards, flipping faster now. But I matched her speed. “Here’s a letter ‘V’ to view. You’ll find its shape just like new.”…“With his hands in the air, a letter ‘H’ he does declare.”

By the time the deck was done, they were all laughing and now applauding. The man in the corner was no longer snoring but looked up, trying to understand the sudden commotion. When the applause died down, Alice Caulley, her smile carrying the edge of menace, looked to me and said, “And what else, boy?”

I stared at her for a moment, longer than any tasking man should, and nodded. I was only twelve, but I was fully confident of what came next, a trick I had long practiced down in the Street. Having the guests in my confidence, I requested that they line up against the drawing room wall. I went first to Edward Mackley, who wore his blond curls pinned back like a woman, asking him to tell me the first moment he knew he loved his wife. And then I asked Armatine Caulley, Alice’s cousin, her favorite place in all the world, and then I went to Morris Beacham, and asked him to tell me about the first time he’d hunted pheasant. I went down the line like this until I held a clutch of stories in my head, so many that no one else could remember who had said what and what the particular details were. Only Mr. Fields, Maynard’s gruff tutor, declined. But when I went back down the line, repeating back to each of the speakers their own stories, in every detail, but with drama and embellishment, I saw the tutor pull up to the edge of his seat, and his eyes were aglow like all the others’, aglow like those of my tasking elders, down on the distant Street, used to be.

Now even the waitstaff had to break their solemn gaze and smile. Indeed, among the whole party, only Mr. Fields was able to preserve his customary gruff aspect, save the glow in his narrowed eyes. It was late now. My father bid each of his guests to quarters throughout the old house and we were dispatched to make sure each of them was comfortable. When all the guests were settled, we retreated into the Warrens exhausted, knowing that our duties would begin again in mere hours, for all the guests would expect their breakfast prepared and waiting when they arose.

The Monday morning following that party, I was helping Thena prepare the wash when I was called away by Roscoe and sent to see my father off in the side parlor. I first went to my room, washed, put on a set of house clothes, then wound my way up the back stairs until I emerged in the central corridor, and then, walking down that corridor, found my father standing, as if he’d been waiting on me. Behind him, I saw Maynard seated at a desk writing and a gentleman standing over him. The gentleman was Mr. Fields, who tutored Maynard three times a week. He wore a look of pained frustration, and Maynard’s own face was stricken.

My father smiled at me, but this does not convey the look he gave, because my father had a variety of smiles—smiles of displeasure, or disinterest, or shock and amazement—indeed he smiled so much it made him hard to read, but I knew the smile I saw that morning because it was the same smile I’d seen, mere months ago, down near the Street, down in the fields where he’d flicked me the copper coin.

“Good morning, Hiram,” he said. “How are you?”

“Fine, sir,” I said.

“Good. Good,” he said. “Hiram, I want you to spend some moments with Mr. Fields. Would you do that for me?”

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“Thank you, Hiram,” he said.

And with that, my father looked at Maynard, still smiling, and said, “Come on, son.”

I saw an immediate look of relief extend over Maynard’s face as he left his work. He didn’t look my way as he and my father left the room. We were, Maynard and I, at a distance at that time in our lives. We spoke only in banalities, with no acknowledgment of what we were to each other.

Mr. Fields spoke with an accent, one I had never heard before, and I immediately imagined it might hail from the Natchez my elders spoke so much of.

“The other day,” he said, “that was some trick.” I nodded silently, still not sure of his intentions. There were penalties for the Tasked who’d learned to read, and it now occurred to me that my “trick” might bring some sort of wrath. But my trick didn’t hinge on reading, because I could not read. I had simply filed away what I had heard of Maynard’s own fumblings and matched them with the cards left scattered on the table. But Mr. Fields knew nothing of that technique, and I was not quite sure how, or whether, I should explain.

He regarded me for a moment and then pulled out a set of regular playing cards and handed them to me.

“Examine them.”

I pulled cards from the deck one after the other, taking time to examine each one, and furrowing my brow more for effect than out of any sense of labor. When I was done, Mr. Fields said, “Now place each of them face-down on the table.”

This I did in four neat rows of thirteen. Then Mr. Fields took one card at a time from the table so that only he could see the face, and asked that I confirm its suit. This I did with each one. Mr. Fields’s face did not alight.

Now he reached into his bag and produced a box. When he opened it, I saw that it was a collection of rounds, small ivory discs, with a carved face or animal or symbol on each. He laid these rounds on the table face-up, asked me to look at them for a minute, and then he turned the rounds over so their blank bottoms showed. And when he asked me to find the round with a portrait of the old man with a long nose or the pretty girl with long locks or the one with the bird perched on the branch, it was as though he’d never turned them over, and they were right there facing me.

Finally, Mr. Fields pulled a sheet of paper from his satchel, and then he pulled out a book filled with drawings. He turned to a drawing of a bridge and he told me to look at it, to concentrate on it, and after a minute, he closed the book, handed me a pen, and told me to draw the bridge myself. I had never done anything quite like this, and unsure of Mr. Fields’s intentions, and knowing, even then, that the Quality resented the pride of the Tasked, unless that pride could be fitted to their profit, I gave him a puzzled look, and pretended that I did not quite understand. He repeated himself, and then watched as I took the pen, gingerly at first, and began my sketch. For effect, I would glance up, as though straining to recall the picture in my mind. But there really was no need to recall, for it felt to me that the bridge was right there, on the blank paper, and all I need do was trace the lines to reveal it. So I traced the stony arch, the small opening at the right end, the arch over-top, the rocky outcropping in the back, and the tree-filled ravine over which the bridge spanned. And now, seeing this, Mr. Fields’s eyes grew wide. He stood and adjusted his jacket. Then he took the sheet, told me to wait, and walked out.

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