Authors: Ta-Nehisi Coates;
“But no one did.” Georgie laughed loudly and asked, “You ever water dance, Hi?”
“Naw,” I said. “Wasn’t my thing.”
“Shame, shame,” Georgie said. “Shame to have all that beauty and not pass it on. And it was so much beauty back there. Beautiful girls. Beautiful boys.”
Georgie was finished eating by now. He set down his plate and blew out a long stream of air.
“And I think of all that beauty sometimes, how it withered in them chains….Man, I tell you, when I took up with Amber, I vowed I would get her out. Whatever it took, I did not care. I think I might well have killed a man to get her out, Hiram. Anything to not watch her…”
And Georgie pulled up there because I think he then realized the import of what he was saying, what it meant for me, and what it meant for my momma.
“And you are out now,” I said. “You have done it. You out.”
Georgie laughed quietly and then he said, “Ain’t nobody out, son, you hear? Ain’t no out. All gotta serve. I like serving here more than at some other man’s Lockless, I will grant you that, but I am serving, of that I can assure you.”
We sat there quiet for a few minutes. The voices out front subsided and I heard the front door close and then the back one open. Amber came out and took Georgie’s plate and then my own.
She looked at me, raised an eyebrow, and said, “Georgie filling you with lies again?”
“Tough to tell,” I said.
“Mmmm-hmm,” she said, walking back into the house. “Watch him, I say. Watch Georgie. He is slippery.”
From Georgie’s back garden, I could see the far edge of the Goose River. The sun was now dropping low in the sky and clouds were calling up and the day grew cooler. It would soon be time. Maynard would be ready. So I decided to say something to Georgie Parks that would alter my life.
“Georgie, I feel that I must go.”
I think he caught the meaning, and then decided he did not, and said, “I guess so. Got to get back across the river, huh?”
“No,” I said. “I am telling you that I am getting up in age, and I am watching people disappear, carried off Natchez-way, and I can see the whole place going down. The land is dead, Georgie. The soil done turned to sand and they know it, all of them. I was just walking here and I seen a man knifed and a girl beat in the street. Ain’t no law. I like to think there was law once, the older folks speak of such a time, and though I have not known it, I can feel all the changes. A man is blooming inside me, Georgie, and I cannot shackle him. He know too much. He seen too much. He has got to get out, this man, or he cannot live. I swear I fear what is coming. I fear my own hands.”
Georgie started to say something, but I cut him off.
“It is said that you are a man of knowledge, that you know more than this little free quarter, that you are connected with people who operate in such things. I want the railway, Georgie. I want the railway out, and I have been told you know of such things.”
And now Georgie stood and wiped his mouth, and then wiped his hands on his overalls. Then, never looking at me, he sat down again.
“Hiram, go home now,” he said. “Ain’t no man blooming in you. It done bloomed already. This is who you are. This is your condition and if you is planning to change it, you must do it as I did.”
“Don’t work no more,” I said. “Ain’t no tasking man capable of out-earning Natchez.”
“Then your life is your life. And may I say it is a good one. Your only charge is that dumb brother of yours. Go home, Hiram. Get yourself a wife. And make like you happy.”
I did not answer. He said it again, “Go home.”
And so that was Georgie’s command and I followed it. But what I believed, right then, was that Georgie had lied to me, that he was as they had claimed him to be—an officer of freedom, of some other life, of an Oregon for a colored man. He had not even denied it, and so the matter to me then became simple—I had to prove to him who and what I was, that I could not, at that late hour, be talked out of it, and I was certain I could do this, and so as I walked back to Maynard and the chaise, back past the square, I knew that Georgie would help me, I knew that he would get me out, because there was no future here and I saw this even in my short walk back through the refuse of the day. There was trash all out in the streets. A man of Quality, whom I recognized by his garment, lay passed out face-down in manure while his compatriots, stripped down to the shame of their shirtsleeves, laughed at him. I saw torn hats and the flowers that once adorned them. I saw azure scarves in the street. I saw men tossing dice along the side of the pub, and then out front two cocks being fitted for the fight. This was their civilization—a mask so thin that for the first time in my life, I wondered what I myself had ever aspired to in those days back down in the Street, with my trick of memory, designing to catch the eye of the Pharaoh of Lockless, and not for the first time I saw that I had set my sights much too low. Because we in the Warrens lived among them, we knew first-hand that they took the privy as all others, that they were young and stupid, and old and frail, and that their powers were all a fiction. They were no better than us, and in so many ways worse.
Maynard was outside the fancy house with his fancy girl, waiting, and next to them I saw Corrine’s man again. Hawkins. Maynard was laughing at some joke, while Hawkins regarded him with a muted loathing Maynard was too drunk to detect. When Maynard spotted me, he laughed even harder, started toward me, and stumbled to the ground, taking the girl along with him. I helped the girl up, while Hawkins quickly moved to help Maynard, whose breeches and waistcoat were now soiled with mud.
“Goddamn it, Hiram!” he cried. “You suppose to catch me!” Indeed. I had always caught him.
“The girl is my own tonight,” he yelled. “She’s mine, goddamn it! Like I told them, Hiram! Like I told them all! Like I told all the girls!”
Then he looked over to the loathing Hawkins. “Not a word of this to your mistress, boy. Not one word. You understand?”
“A word about what, sir?” Hawkins said.
After a moment of squinting, Maynard laughed again. “Yessir, we gonna get along well, me and you.”
“Like family should,” said Hawkins.
“Like family should!” Maynard yelled, climbing into the chaise. I helped the girl in and then we were off, headed out the way we’d come in. But then, and who knows why, a moment of clarity struck him, a shame that had defied him all his life, and he ordered me back, away from the town square, out toward Dumb Silk Road. And so we left Starfall in this fashion, left the world as we had known it, for as I rode out of town and the buildings gave way to trees, bursting in gold and orange, as I heard the crows in the distance, the horse clopping in front, and felt the wind in my face, I knew that I had seen every inch of the only world I’d know. I knew how my span of days would end. Someday my father would pass on from this earth and what remained would fall to Maynard, and when that day came, I knew that all paths led to Natchez.
I rode out in thrall to those feelings of the past hours, the dream, the terror, the rage, the unending night, the sun of Sophia fading over the mountains, my lost mother and my aunt Emma. And too there was a want, a desire for an escape from Maynard and the doom of his mastery. And then it came.
I caught sight of the river Goose, and saw a strange mist coming up off the water—a thin fog and now rain that echoed the day’s dark turn. And there it was, a blue mist coming up, obscuring the far end of the bridge. And then, and I remember this most directly, because we had been moving at a good clip, the steady and quick clopping of the horse’s shoes faded. I could see the horse right there before me pulling us along but without a sound, and I thought perhaps it was me, some temporary deafness, but I did not think much because I wanted to get home, I wanted to be free of Maynard, if only for what remained of that evening, and we were on the bridge, and the thin fog had suddenly parted, and that was the moment when I saw her, saw the woman, saw my mother water dancing on the bridge, water dancing out of the blackness of my mind, and I tried to slow the horse, I remember this, pulling at the reins, but the horse barreled on, though I wonder now if I was even pulling the reins, if I was even there in that space, on that bridge, because even now, having done the thing, I cannot say I truly understand the entirety of Conduction, save this essential thing—you have to remember.
WAS IN THE WATER,
and then falling into the light, guided by my dancing mother, until the light overwhelmed, and when it dimmed, and faded away, my mother was gone, and I felt the land under my feet. It was night. I saw the fog drawing back like a curtain, until the sky was clear and the stars blinked in and out above. When I turned back, looking for the mist-covered river out of which I had just emerged, all I saw was high grass waving black in the wind. I was leaning on a large stone and in the distance, past the field, I could see the forest, looming. I knew this place. I knew the distance from this stone to the trees, I knew this grass, that it was a field of fallow, my Lockless. And I knew that the stone was no random place-mark, but was the monument to the progenitor, Archibald Walker. My great-grandfather. The wind gusted through, shivering me, so that my waterlogged brogans were like ice against my feet. I took a step forward, wheeled, fell, and down there in that grass I became aware of a powerful desire to sleep. Perhaps I had entered a kind of purgatory, modeled after a world I knew, that must be endured before my reward was revealed to me. And so I lay there shivering, making no effort to move. I reached into my pocket for the coin I carried everywhere, feeling its rough edges, as darkness closed in around me.
But there was no reward. At least none of the sort the old ones spoke of down in the Street. I am here, telling this story, and not from the grave, not yet, but from the here and now, peering back into another time, when we were Tasked, and close to the earth, and close to a power that baffled the scholars and flummoxed the Quality, a power, like our music, like our dance, that they cannot grasp, because they cannot remember.
It was our music that I followed out from the darkness, out from three days, as I was later told, of straddling the line between life and death, of senseless murmuring and frightful fevers. My first note of consciousness was someone humming softly in what seemed to be the distance, and then the hummed melody repeating itself, trailing away for a minute or two, and then returning, and then came the dim realization that I knew the melody, and I began matching the words in my mind:
All the heavenly band a-churning
Aubrey spying and good girls turning.
There was the smell of vinegar and washing soda, so sharp I could taste it, the warmth of a blanket, the softness of a pillow under my head, and then, blinking open my eyes, I saw that I was in a room awash in sun. I could not move. My head was propped against a pillow and cocked to the side. I looked out from an alcove bed, the curtains drawn away. There was a bureau across the room, and on the bureau I saw the bust of the progenitor, and next to that a mahogany footstool, and seated there, her back straight, her neck long, I saw Sophia, working two needles between a spool of yarn, her arms winding back and forth. I tried to move, but my joints were locked. I panicked, for at that moment I feared I had suffered some injury and thus become a prisoner in my own body. I watched desperately, hoping for Sophia to look over at me; instead she stood, still humming the old melody, still knitting, and walked out the door.
How long did I lie there in that great terror, wondering if I was now entombed in my own body? I can’t say, but darkness came again, and this time when I awoke the paralysis had lifted some. I could move my toes. I could open my mouth and roll my tongue. I was able to turn my head and now my arms returned to me, so that pushing, with great effort, I was able to sit straight up in the bed. I looked around and, again seeing the sun, the bust, the light, I knew that I was in Maynard’s room. I looked past the footstool and saw his wardrobe, his bureau, the mirror where, only that last morning, I had him stand while dressing him. And then I remembered the water.
I sat there trying to speak, trying to call for someone, but the words were lodged inside me. Sophia walked back into the room, head down, still knitting, and hearing my heaving attempt to speak, looked up, dropped her yarn, ran over and caught me in her long spider arms. Then she pulled back and looked at me.
“Welcome back to us, Hi,” she said.
I remember trying to smile but my face must have twisted into some pitiful mask, because all the joy dropped from her. Sophia brought her hand to her face and covered her mouth. She put one hand on my shoulder and the other on my back and guided me back down into the bed.
“Don’t dare talk,” she said. “You may think yourself out of the Goose, but the Goose ain’t yet out of you.”
I lay back and the world faded in the same order it came to me—the light of the room disappearing, then the washing-soda smell, and finally Sophia, whose hand I could feel on my brow, whose gentle humming I could still hear. And then I fell asleep and into a dream of my plunge in the Goose. The whole scene now played out at a distance. I saw my head bursting out through the water, scanning the terrain, and deciding that I had found my doom. And Maynard was there, struggling against the water, struggling to save himself. And I saw the blue light part the sky and reach down for me, and this time I reached for Maynard, my only brother, tried to save him, but he yanked his arm away, cursed me, and then faded into the darkness of the depths.
When I next awoke, my arms still ached, but I felt my hands, limber and loose. The smell of vinegar lingered in the room, but fainter now. I sat up with little effort and saw the white curtains of the alcove drawn closed around me, and through them I could see the rough silhouette of someone seated on the footstool, in lonely vigil. I remembered that Sophia had last been there and felt my blood quicken at the possibility. I heard the song of morning birds and was suddenly filled with a great joy at the fact of having been alive. But then I pulled back the curtains and saw that the silhouette was my father, seated on the footstool with his elbows on his legs and hands cuffing his face, and when he looked up at me I saw that his small eyes were bloodshot and heavy.
“We have lost him,” he said, shaking his head. “My Little May is gone and the whole of this great house, the whole of Elm County, is grieving.” Then he stood, walked over, and sat on the edge of the bed. He reached out and gripped my shoulder tight. My eyes wandered down to my own body and I saw someone had dressed me in a long nightgown, which I recognized as Maynard’s. I looked back up to my father and saw a kind of realization crawling over his face, and we were, in that moment, in a kind of secret communication that can only exist between a parent and child, no matter how monstrous the relation. I saw his small eyes, red with grief, squinting, as though straining to comprehend a message, straining to understand how it came to be that all that remained of him was here before him, was a slave. And when this realization was complete, he pulled back, buried his head in his hands, stood, weeping loudly, and walked out.
I stood and walked to the window. The day was clear and I could see, from the back side of Lockless, clear to the hills, hazy in the distance. I turned away from the window and saw my father coming back to the room. Behind him was Roscoe, who’d brought me up all those years ago from the Street. And across his aged, creased face there was a look of gravity and concern, and I remembered that there had been people who knew me and loved me, elders, who delighted in my song and games. Roscoe laid a set of clothes on Maynard’s dresser—my clothes. Then he stripped the bedding, wrapped it into a bundle under his arm, and walked out. My father sat again on the footstool.
“We have sought his body in the river, but the water…” he said, his voice trailing off. He was trembling now.
“When I think of my boy at the bottom of that river…” he said. “And I cannot but think of anything else, do you hear me, Hiram? When I think of him engaged to that bottom…Forgive me. I can but imagine what you saw out there. But I must confess, for none other is fit to hear it: Maynard was all I had of his mother. When his eyes went gleeful, I saw hers. When he was forgetful, I saw her habit. When he was compassionate, as he was always, I saw her.”
He was crying now. “And now he is gone, and I am twice departed.”
Roscoe returned, this time with a washcloth, a small basin of water, and a larger empty one, and set it all on the dresser.
“Well, so it is, son,” my father said. “Some arrangement shall be made. The memory of him does not die, wherever his body might make its rest. What you must know, what you surely know, is that Maynard loved you, and I do not doubt he gave his very life so that you might get out of that river.”
When my father left, I took the washcloth and water and cleaned myself, but my hands shook while I juggled the madness of his last words.
Maynard loved you.
This notion—that Maynard loved anyone, that Maynard would give his life for anyone, much less me—was astounding me. But then as I dressed, and turned it over, I came to an understanding—my father believed this insanity. He had to. Maynard was him, was his wife, and this glorified portrait somehow lived right along with the admonition my father had always communicated to me—that Maynard must be watched, that he was not to be trusted with his own life. Walking down the back stairs, I knew that my father’s statement could only be reconciled through the peculiar religion of Virginia—Virginia, where it was held that a whole race would submit to chains; Virginia, where this same race held the math that molded iron and carved marble to exact proportion and were still called beasts; Virginia, where a man would profess his love for you one moment and sell you off the next. Oh, the curses my mind constructed for my fool of a father, for this country where men dress sin in pageantry and pomp, in cotillions and crinolines, where they hide its exercise, in the down there, in a basement of the mind, in these slave-stairs, which I now I descended, into the Warrens, into this secret city, which powered an empire so great that none dare speak its true name.
When I got back to the Warrens, I found Thena standing just outside her door, in the dim light, talking to Sophia. Thena looked at me hard. I smiled at her. She walked over to me, shaking her head. Then she put her hand on my cheek and locked eyes. She didn’t smile, only regarded me from my head to feet, and I had the feeling that she was making sure every part of me was in its place.
“Well,” she said. “Don’t look like you fell in no river.”
She was not a warm woman, Thena, this other mother of mine. There was a general belief that if she wasn’t cursing you or shooing you off, she might, at least, have a good feeling for you. I generally returned this good feeling with my own muted affection. And there was no offense in that. We had our own language to affirm what we were to each other.
But that day, without thought, I spoke a different language. I wrapped my arms around Thena and pulled her close, and held her tight as though venting all my joy at being alive, and held her tight like she were flotsam and I were back in the Goose.
After a few seconds, she pulled back, looked me up and down again. Then she turned and walked off.
Sophia watched her go, then when Thena had turned a corner, she looked at me and laughed.
“That ol’ gal know she love you,” she said.
“I mean it. She don’t much talk to me. But after you went under, she kept asking questions, side-like, trying to get what word on you she could.”
“She come see me?”
“Not once—and that’s how I know she love you. I’d ask her and she’d get all flustered and I knew what it was—she couldn’t see you like that. It’s hard, Hiram. It was hard even on me, and I don’t like you, much less love you.”
At that she slapped my shoulder and we laughed quietly together, but my heart tumbled in my chest.
“So how are you?” Sophia asked.
“Been better,” I said. “But glad to be getting back to where I belong.”
“Which is to say not looking up from the Goose,” said Sophia.
“That is about the fact of it,” I said.
There was a silence between us for a few moments that began to feel uncertain and then rude. So I invited Sophia into my quarters. She accepted. I pulled out a chair for her, and when seated, she reached into her apron and produced a ball of yarn and needles and started knitting one of her inscrutable things. I sat on my bed, our knees now almost touching.
“Glad to see you shaping up,” she said.
“Yes, I am coming together,” I said. “Ain’t waste no time getting me out Maynard’s room, did they?”
“It’s better that way, ain’t it?” she said. “Can’t say I’d want to be in some dead man’s bed.”
“It is better that way,” I said.
By instinct, I reached into my pocket for my coin, but the coin was not there. Likely it was now lost, and the fact of this saddened me. It had been my charm, my token of the Street, even if my great plans had come to nothing.
“How’d they find me?” I asked.
“Corrine’s man,” Sophia said, still knitting. “You know him? Hawkins?”
“Hawkins?” I said. “Where?”
“On the shore,” Sophia said. “This side of the Goose. Face-down in the muck. No idea how you made it out of there, cold as that water be. Got somebody watching over you.”
“Maybe,” I said. But I was not thinking of how I got out. I was thinking of Hawkins—how I’d seen him twice on race-day and then how he’d been the one to find me.
“Hawkins, huh?” I repeated.
“Yep,” she said. “Corrine and him and her girl, Amy, been here most days since. Sure would be nice to thank him.”
“Sure would,” I said. “Guessing I will.”
She rose to leave and I felt now the soft pain that came to me whenever she did.
After Sophia left, I sat on the edge of my bed contemplating the shape of events. Something did not fit. Sophia had said that Hawkins found me on the riverbank. But I had the most distinct memory of falling down in the fallows. I remembered seeing the monument there, the stone left to mark the first works of the progenitor, Archibald Walker. But the fallows were two miles from the river, and I had no memory of walking the distance between the two. Perhaps I had imagined it all, in the throes of near-death, conjured up this last vision of my ancestry—my dancing mother, the monument of the progenitor—as some farewell to this world.