Authors: Ta-Nehisi Coates;
Mr. Fields returned with my father, who’d pulled from his assortment of smiles one which spoke of his own self-satisfaction.
“Hiram,” my father said. “Would you like to work with Mr. Fields on some regular basis?” I looked to the ground, and pretended to turn the question over in my head. I had to, because what I then felt was the avenue opening before me, light streaming through. I did not wish to be found too eager. Lockless was still Virginia—the epitome even. I could not yet acknowledge all that this moment portended.
“Should I, sir?” I asked.
“Yes, Hiram,” my father said. “I think you should.”
“Then yes, sir,” I said. “I will.”
So the lessons began—reading, arithmetic, some oratory—and my world bloomed with them, my ravenous memory filling with images and, now, words, which were so much more than I had before believed, words with their own shape, rhythm, and color, words that were pictures themselves. We would meet three times a week for an hour, my time always following Maynard’s, and though I know that he tried his best not to show it, I could always see the relief in Mr. Fields’s eyes when Maynard departed and I entered. This moment became a source not just of pride but of quiet derision—I was better than Maynard, given so much less yet made of so much more.
He was clumsy. He squinted constantly, as if always searching for the next foothold. He was negligent and rude. My father would have guests over for tea and Maynard would think nothing of bursting in and speaking whatever thought then possessed him. He loved to jest, and that was the best part of him—but even that quality betrayed him into telling crass jokes to the young daughters of Quality. At supper he reached across the table for rolls, and spoke with a mouth full of food.
I was certain my father saw things as I did, and I wondered how wrong it must have felt to see the best of you emerge in this way, in the place you didn’t expect, indeed in the place your whole world depends on it never appearing.
I tried to remember the Street and Thena’s admonition,
They ain’t your family
. But seeing the estate as I now did—rolling green hills in summer, woods blooming in red and gold in fall, and then in winter a snow dappling everything, and seeing, though living below, the main house of Lockless, the great columns of the portico, the setting sun casting itself through the fanlight, seeing the winding corridors, and seeing the grand portraits of my grandfather and grandmother, my eyes in theirs, I began, in my quiet moments, to imagine myself in their ranks. And there was my father, who would pull me aside and tell me of our lineage stretching back through his father, John Walker, back through the progenitor, Archibald Walker, who walked here with a mule, two horses, his wife, Judith, two young boys, and ten tasking men. Would tell me these stories as if granting in these asides a teasing share of my inheritance. And I never forgot.
There were evenings, the Task complete, when I would wander to the far eastern edge of the property, past the sprawl of timothy grass and clover, and stand reverent before the stone monument that marked the spot where the first plots that became Lockless were cleared. And when my father told me the stories, passed from his grandfather, of chasing off catamounts, of hunting bear with a Bowie knife, of felling great trees, hauling up stones, and diverting creeks, and by his own hand bringing forth the estate I then beheld, how could I not want to claim this, the courage and wit and all the glory it built with its strong arms, as my inheritance?
But too, with all of that imagining, the facts of Lockless began to make themselves manifest. There were of course the tales of Pete and Ella, their invocations of Natchez and Baton Rouge. There was the tragedy of Big John, of my mother. And to all of this, I now began to add my own stray readings, when left in my father’s office, of
De Bow’s Review,
which harped constantly on the falling price of tobacco, and then finally the conversation of the Quality themselves. It was tobacco that made for the largess of Lockless, indeed the largess of Elm County. And every year the tobacco yields shrank, the entail of those high families of Virginia shrank with them. The days of tobacco leaves large as elephant ears were no more, not in Elm County at least, where crop after crop had exhausted the land. But out west, past the valley and mountains, on the Mississippi banks, down Natchez-way, there was land in need of improvement, in need of masters to superintend, and men to harvest and hoe, men such as those in the diminishing fields of Lockless.
“Used to be they was shamed to sell a man,” I’d heard Pete once say, while I was working in the kitchen.
“Easy to have shame when you got the harvest,” Ella answered. “Try shame when you a dirt farmer.”
These were the last words I ever heard from Ella. A week later she was gone.
My young way of understanding all of this was singular, a sense that what really had doomed Lockless was not the land but the men who managed it. I began to see Maynard as an outrageous example of his entire class. I envied them. I was horrified by them.
As I learned the house, and began to read, and began to see more of the Quality, I saw that just as the fields and its workers were the engine of everything, the house itself would have been lost without those who tasked within it. My father, like all the masters, built an entire apparatus to disguise this weakness, to hide how prostrate they truly were. The tunnel, where I first entered the house, was the only entrance that the Tasked were allowed to use, and this was not only for the masters’ exaltation but to hide us, for the tunnel was but one of the many engineering marvels built into Lockless so as to make it appear powered by some imperceptible energy. There were dumbwaiters that made the sumptuous supper appear from nothing, levers that seemed to magically retrieve the right bottle of wine hidden deep in the manor’s bowels, cots in the sleeping quarters, drawn under the canopy bed, because those charged with emptying the chamber-pot must be hidden even more than the chamber-pot itself. The magic wall that slid away from me that first day and opened the gleaming world of the house hid back stairways that led down into the Warrens, the engine-room of Lockless, where no guest would ever visit. And when we did appear in the polite areas of the house, as we did during the soirées, we were made to appear in such appealing dress and grooming so that one could imagine that we were not slaves at all but mystical ornaments, a portion of the manor’s charm. But I now knew the truth—that Maynard’s folly, though more profane, was unoriginal. The masters could not bring water to boil, harness a horse, nor strap their own drawers without us. We were better than them—we had to be. Sloth was literal death for us, while for them it was the whole ambition of their lives.
It occurred to me then that even my own intelligence was unexceptional, for you could not set eyes anywhere on Lockless and not see the genius in its makers—genius in the hands that carved out the columns of the portico, genius in the songs that evoked, even in the whites, the deepest of joys and sorrows, genius in the men who made the fiddle strings whine and trill at their dances, genius in the bouquet of flavors served up from the kitchen, genius in all our lost, genius in Big John. Genius in my mother.
I imagined that my own quality might someday be recognized and then, perhaps, I, one who understood the workings of the house, the workings of the field, and the span of the larger world, might be deemed the true heir,
the rightful heir,
of Lockless. With this broad knowledge I would make the fields bloom again, and in that way save us all from the auctions and separation, from a descent into the darkness of Natchez, which was the coffin, which was all that awaited, I knew, under the rule of Maynard.
One day I came up the back stairs to the study for my instruction with Mr. Fields, and I was excited because we had just then begun our study of astronomy, and star maps, starting with Ursa Minor, with more to come in our next session. But when I came into the study, I found not Mr. Fields but my father there, seated alone.
“Hiram,” he said. “It’s time.” A deathly fear overcame me at these words. I had been studying for a year now with Mr. Fields. It occurred to me that perhaps this was merely the fattening, perhaps I would go the way of Ella. Maybe they had heard my thoughts somehow or seen the hazy dream of usurpation in my eyes. Maybe they’d done the math themselves and realized my learning could only end in a coup.
“Yes, sir,” I answered without even knowing what it was now time for. I clenched my teeth behind my lips, trying to hide the fear now pulsing out from my gut.
“When I saw you down in that field, and I saw your parlor tricks, I knew there was something to you, boy, something that the others down there couldn’t see. You had a particular talent, one that I thought could be useful, for these are not prosperous times, and we need all the talent we can get up here in the house.”
I looked at him blank-faced, concealing my confusion. I simply nodded, waiting for the thing to clarify before me.
“It’s time for you to take on Maynard. My days will not be forever, and he will need a good manservant—one such as you, who knows something of the fields, and something of the house, and even something of the larger world. I have watched you, boy, and what I know is you never forget a thing. Tell my Hiram something once, and it is as good as done. There ain’t too many like you, ain’t too many of such quality.”
And now he looked at me and his eyes gleamed a bit.
“Most of the folks up here would take a boy like you and put him on the block. Fetch a fortune, you know. Nothing more valuable than a colored with some brains in him. But that is not me. I believe in Lockless. I believe in Elm County. I believe in Virginia. We have a duty to save our country: the country your great-grandfather carved out of wilderness will not return to the wild. You understand?”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“It’s our duty. All of us, Hiram. And it begins right here. I need you, boy. Maynard needs you at his side and it is your great honor to be there.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“All right,” he said. “We’ll start tomorrow.”
And in that way my lessons came to an end just as their purpose was revealed. I was tasked with Maynard, his personal servant for the next seven years of my life. It may seem strange now, but the insult of it all did not immediately dawn on me. It accumulated slowly and inexorably over the years as I watched Maynard at work. And so much hung in the balance—the lives of all those whom I’d left down in the Street, and even those of us now in this gleaming, collapsing palace, all of it depended on Maynard maturing into a competent steward of it all, however unjust the entire edifice. But Maynard was not that man.
It all finally came cascading down upon me the evening before that fateful race-day. I was nineteen. I was standing in my father’s second-floor study, having filed away his correspondence into the cubbies of the mahogany secretary, and under the silver arms of the Argand lamp I found myself carried away by the latest volume of
De Bow’s Review
. I marveled at the volume’s presentation of Oregon country, a region I knew from the maps strung aimlessly across the house, but now brought alive for me in these pages as a kind of paradise, a land rich enough to hold all of Virginia many times over, a land of hills, valleys, forests, teeming with game and black soil so fertile it nearly burst out of the earth.
I still remember the words that brought me up: “Here, if anywhere, must be the seat of liberty, prosperity, and wealth.” I stood. I closed the volume. I paced back and forth. I looked out the window, far across the river Goose, and saw the Three Hills to the south, looming like black giants in the distance. I turned and spent a few minutes looking at an engraving on the wall. A chained Cupid and a laughing Aphrodite.
And then I thought of Maynard, my brother. His blond hair had grown long and unruly. His beard was an array of mossy patches. Social instinct and grace had not found him in manhood. He gambled and drank to excess, because he could. He fought in the street, because no matter how throttled, he could never be throttled from his throne. He lost fortunes in the arms of fancies, because the labor of the Tasked—and sometimes their sale—would cover all his losses. Visits from family still in Elm often turned to the fate of Lockless, and when Maynard was out of earshot, I would hear them cursing his name and considering all manner of schemes to find another heir to run the family stead. In fact no heirs were present, for when these cousins searched the Walker lineage what they found was everyone of Maynard’s generation had gone to where the land was rich and blooming. Virginia was old. Virginia was the past. Virginia was where the earth was dying and the tobacco diminishing. And so with no suitable heir, the Walker masters looked to Lockless with worry.
My father had plans of his own—find Maynard a talented and suitable partner, and thus engage another family in the struggle to save Lockless. And incredibly, he found one in Corrine Quinn, who was then perhaps the wealthiest woman in all of Elm County, having inherited a fortune from her deceased parents. There were rumors among the Tasked as to the nature of this inheritance, rumors about the way in which Corrine Quinn’s parents had met their end. But among the Quality, she was regarded as superior to Maynard in every way. But she needed a husband because Virginia still operated on the code of gentlemen, meaning there were still things beyond her, places she could not go, deals she could not be party to. And so these two needed each other—Maynard an intelligent partner to save his land and estate, Corrine a gentleman to represent her interests.
That night I walked out of the study, disturbed and shaken, and wandered the house until I found myself at the threshold of the parlor, from where I could see the glow of the fireplace and hear Maynard and my father in conversation. They were speaking of Edwin Cox, patriarch of one of the oldest and most storied families of the region. Last winter, he’d wandered out of his home and was caught in a great blizzard, which had just that morning come up over the mountains and blanketed the county. He had somehow lost his way and was found the next day, frozen solid, only a few yards from the mansion of his forefathers. I stood in the shadows outside of the parlor for a moment and listened.