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Authors: Ta-Nehisi Coates;

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BOOK: The Water Dancer: A Novel
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I looked up into the starry cloudless night, and judging by the half-moon’s journey across the sky, I knew that it was somewhere close to midnight. The fire roared high, beating back the December chill, and before I knew it, everyone was in the Street dancing. I slowly backed away until I had a view of everything. There were dozens of us down there. It was an entire nation in movement. Some of us paired off, others in small semicircles, others alone. I looked over toward the quarters and saw Thena seated on the steps of one of the cabins, nodding to the beat.

I watched Sophia, a flurry of limbs, but all under control, and the jar seemingly fused to her head, never moving, and when one of the men got too close, I watched her pull him in and whisper something, which must have been rude, for the man stopped there and simply walked away. And then she looked and saw me watching her, and at that she smiled and walked toward me, and as she did, she angled her head so that the jar slid, and reaching up with her right hand, she caught the jar by the neck. Now standing in front of me, she sipped from the jar and then passed it to me. I drew it to my lips and recoiled at its taste, for I had assumed it to be water. She laughed and said, “Too much for you, huh?”

Still holding the ale, I looked at her and drew it to my lips again, keeping eye contact, and drank, and drank, and drank, and then handed the empty jar back to her. I did not know what made me do such a thing, at least not then I did not, but I knew well what it meant, even if I tried to deny it to myself. She knew too. And cutting her eyes, she put the jar down, jogged over to the far end of the table, disappearing among the shadows, then came back with a full demijohn, and handed it to me.

“Let’s walk,” she said.

“All right,” I said. “Where we going?”

“You tell me,” she said.

And so we did walk, and let the sound of the music die behind us as we moved up from the Street, until we were back near the lawn, and the main house of Lockless. There was a small gazebo off to the side, below which was the ice-house. We sat with the demijohn of ale, passing it back and forth silently, until our heads were swimming in it.

“So, yeah,” she said, breaking the silence. “Thena.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Wasn’t no lie, though, was it?”


“You know what happened to her?”

“You mean to make her this way? I do. But I feel like it’s her story to tell.”

“But she told you, huh?” she said. “She always been soft with you.”

“Thena ain’t soft with nobody, Sophia. Even before whatever happened happened, I suspect she was never soft on any of her folk.”

“Huh,” she said. “And what about you?”


“You hard on your folks too?”

“Most generally am,” I said. “But of course, depend on the folk.”

Then I took another drink from the demijohn, and passed it to her, and she was looking at me now, not smiling, just studying me. It was clear to me that I had gone into the Goose one way and come out the other. I wondered how I had endured all those rides to Nathaniel’s seated next to her, wondered if I had somehow been blinded. She was such a lovely girl, and I wanted to be with her in a way that I would never want anyone again, in a way that age and experience rob you of, which is to say I wanted all of her, from her coffee skin to her brown eyes, from her soft mouth to her long arms, from her low voice to her wicked laugh. I wanted it all. And I was not thinking of all the terror that came with that, the terror that had swallowed her life. All I was thinking about was the light dancing in me, dancing to some music I hoped only she would hear.

“Huh,” she said. Then looked away. She took another drink and set the ale at her feet, and looked up to the starry sky, and when her eyes moved away, I felt jealous of the heavens themselves. And with that feeling, a range of thoughts came to me. I thought of Corrine and Hawkins, and how these well could be my last days at Lockless—gone not to Natchez, but gone all the same. I thought of Georgie and all that he might know. I felt Sophia’s hand slipping its way through my arm, until our arms were locked. She sighed, her head on my shoulder, and we sat there watching the stars over Virginia.


said our final goodbyes, more final than any on this earth, and then the New Year, and with it, our diminished numbers. Corrine was still in the habit of her daily visits and murmured intimations of my fate, and I knew then, given the sway she held with my father, that it would not be long before these intimations became real. My days at Lockless were numbered.

My father had taken note of the restored highboy. And so it came down from Roscoe that my task would now be the resurrection of furniture pieces from ages past. I read documents from my father’s study that detailed the precise date each piece was fashioned or purchased, some stretching all the way back to the progenitor, so that these pieces came to represent a story of my ancestry. An ancestry that would end with me, a slave, sold away from this land, unable to save it or the people who’d built it and burnished it and made it thrive, who would be broken apart and scattered to the wind, but still in chains. The old thoughts of Oregon thickened as I read. I could not save Lockless, but another scheme was growing hotter in me. Should I be divided from Lockless, perhaps I might be divided on my own terms. And that led me back to thoughts of Georgie Parks and precisely what he might know.

It was just a notion in my mind, when I walked out that early Friday to complete my ritual drive of Sophia to Nathaniel’s place. I walked over to the stables, and hitched two horses to the pleasure-wagon. It was still dark, but I had done this so often before, and was so used to working before dawn, that I was able to perform the necessary exercise blind. I had just finished the hitching when I looked up and saw her.

“Morning,” Sophia said.

“Morning,” I said.

She was fully dressed in her outfit—bonnet, crinoline skirt, long coat. I wondered at what hour she had risen to make it all work. And watching her delicately move, with the aid of my hand, into the chaise, it occurred to me that Sophia’s ability to take on the trappings of a lady wasn’t an accident. It had been her life’s work to dress Helen Walker, Nathaniel’s late wife, to move through the difficult ritual of creams and nail polishings, of corsets and bodices. She knew this ritual better than Helen knew it herself.

Halfway through our ride, I looked over and saw Sophia looking out at the frozen trees, lost in her own thoughts, as was her tendency.

“What you think?” she asked. I had been in her company long enough to be familiar with this habit of beginning conversations in her head and then continuing them out loud.

“I think so,” I said. Now she faced me and a look of incredulity came over her face.

“You got no idea what I’m talking about, do you?” she said.

“I do not,” I said.

She laughed to herself and said, “So you was just gonna let me talk as though you knew?”

“Why not?” I said. “Figure I’d catch on soon enough.”

“And what if it was something you ain’t wanna hear?”

“Well, seeing as how I won’t know till I hear it, guess that’s a risk I’m taking. Besides, you already in it. Can’t back out now.”

“Mmm-hmm,” she said, nodding. “I guess so. But it’s personal, Hi, you see? Goes back to the times before I come to Lockless.”

“Back to them Carolinas,” I said.

“Yep. Good ol’ Carolina.” Sophia said this softly, blowing out each word.

“You was a maid to Nathaniel’s wife back then, right?” I asked.

“Wasn’t just any old maid,” she said. “Me and Helen, we were friends. At least we was friends, once. I loved her, you know. I think I can say that—I loved her, and when I think of Helen, I think only of the best times.”

She was wistful as she said this, and I felt I understood how it happened for girls like her, how it began for them as children, when they played together with their one-day mistresses, caring nothing for color, and were told to love them, as they would love any other playmate. They grow together, and as the play hours decline, the ritual changes. They are both weaned on the religion of society, of slavery, which holds that for no particularly good reason one of them will live in the palace, while the other will be condemned to the dungeon. It is a cruel thing to do to children, to raise them as though they are siblings, and then set them against each other so that one shall be a queen and the other shall be a footstool.

“Our games used to carry us off,” Sophia said. “We used to make ourselves up as the grand ladies would in their big dresses. We would play together in the fields back in Carolina. Once I fell and rolled right into some briars. I must have yelled to the devil and back. But she was right there for me. She gathered me up and got me back to the home-place. I am powerfully remembered to her, Hi, and when I see the briars now, I don’t think of the pain, for I am thinking only of her.”

She said this looking straight at the road.

“I am telling you that we were us before we were him,” she said. “We were something to each other, and that is now smoke. The man she loved wanted me. It was not for any love of me, Hiram. I was jewelry to him. I knew it. And then my Helen died, died bearing his child, and I cannot tell you the pain and guiltiness that came over me.”

She stopped there and we rode along and all that was heard was horse and wheels crunching against the frozen road. I had the feeling that this was coming to some terrible revelation.

“Do you know, I still see her in dreams,” she said.

“I ain’t surprised,” I said. “I still see Maynard, though I confess my recollections don’t have half the magic of your own.”

“Ain’t no magic, though,” she said. “Sometimes, Hi, sometimes…it is my feeling that she got away and left me with…”

Now she turned to me, breaking her gaze into the woods.

“He’ll never let me loose till I’m used up, you see? Then he’ll send me out of Elm somewhere, and take up another colored girl for his fancy. We really ain’t nothing but jewelry to them. I always known this, I think. But I am getting older, Hi, and knowing something is a far measure from truly seeing it.”

“Takes some time,” I said.

She was quiet again and for a few moments there was nothing but the gentle clopping of the horse along the road.

“You ever wonder about the rest of your life?” she said. “You ever wonder about young’uns? About any life that might be out there waiting for you?”

“Lately,” I said, “I wonder about everything.”

“I think of young’uns all the time,” she said. “I think of what it must mean to bring someone, a little girl perhaps, into all of this. And I know it’s coming, someday. That it ain’t even up to me. It’s coming, Hiram, and I will watch as my daughter is taken in, as I was taken in, and…I am trying to tell you that this all has me wondering about something else, about another life, past the Goose, maybe past them mountains, past…”

And her voice trailed off and she was looking off to the side of the road again, and I think now that this is how the running so often begins, that it is settled upon in that moment you understand the great depth of your peril. For it is not simply by slavery that you are captured, but by a kind of fraud, which paints its executors as guardians at the gate, staving off African savagery, when it is they themselves who are savages, who are Mordred, who are the Dragon, in Camelot’s clothes. And at that moment of revelation, of understanding, running is not a thought, not even as a dream, but a need, no different than the need to flee a burning house.

“Hiram,” she said, “I don’t know why I come to you with this. All I know is you have always been one who saw more, who knew more. And then you met the Goose. We thought you was dead. You were there at the gates, and I watched you turn away and I wondered how a man could come back looking upon the world the same.”

“I know what you are speaking of,” I said.

“I am speaking of facts,” she said.

“You are speaking of goodbye,” I said. “And to where? How could we live, in any way, out there?”

She placed a hand on my arm. “How can you come up out the Goose alive and, in any way, still live here? I am speaking of facts.”

“You can’t even name it,” I said.

“But I can name this and every kind of life that will come after,” she said. “We could go together, Hi. You are read and know of things far past Lockless and the Goose. You must have some need of it. You must have found yourself dreaming of it, waking up now and again gripped in it. You must have some wanting to know all that you, all that we, might become out from under here.”

I did not answer. We could now see the great opening in the road that marked Nathaniel Walker’s place. I drove past this opening, and turned down a side path, which was our customary approach. I stopped the horse at the end of the path. Through the trees I could see Nathaniel Walker’s brick main house. I watched as a well-dressed tasking man came down the way. He nodded when he saw us, then motioned wordlessly for Sophia. She stepped out of the chaise and looked back at me. I noted, right then, that she had never done this before, instead she usually walked right on with her escort. But now she paused and looked back and what she said in that silence was something resolute, certain. And I knew then, looking at her, that we must run.

As I pulled away from Nathaniel Walker’s place, my mind now focused again on Georgie Parks. I must find him. I had known Georgie all my life and I understood that he might fear for me as a father fears for the son about to go off to war. I understood. Georgie had seen so many hauled down to the block and sent Natchez-way. I even sympathized. But still I had to run. Everything seemed to point me to it—the library volume, scheming Corrine and bizarre Hawkins, the fate of Lockless itself, always chancy, but now heirless, dire. And Sophia, who seemed to share in my desperation, in my need to see whatever lay beyond those three hills, past Starfall, past the Goose and its many bridges, past Virginia itself.
You must have some need of it
. I did. But the only route I then knew must be walked by the light of Georgie Parks.

The following Saturday afternoon, I worked on the drawers of a cherry secretary, and satisfied that they were again running easy, I washed, put on a change of clothes, and made my way to the home of Georgie Parks. I was not far into Starfall when I spotted Hawkins and Amy just outside the inn, both still in mourning black. They were distracted by their own conversation and did not see me, and so I kept my distance and watched Hawkins and Amy for a moment, before continuing on my way. I wanted no conversation, for their habit of picking at all the details of my life and my intentions had become intolerable to me. All of their questions gave way to other questions.

I found Georgie standing in front of his home, a short walk from Ryland’s Jail. I smiled. Georgie did not. He motioned for me to walk with him. We kept to the road for a bit, then turned off onto a smaller path where the town began to give way to the wilderness, and then took a dirt path, which brought us through some tangled green that opened to a small pond. Georgie said nothing during our short walk and now gazed at the pond for a moment before speaking.

“I like you, Hiram,” Georgie said. “I really do. If I was so lucky as to have a daughter about your season, you would be my only choice. You are smart. You keep your mouth where it should be, and you were more better to Maynard than such a man ever deserved.”

He rubbed his red-brown beard, turned and looked up into the trees. His back was now to me. I heard him say, “Which is why I can’t for the fact of things understand how a man such as you would come to my door looking for trouble.”

When he turned back to me, his deep brown eyes were simmering. “What would a respectable man like you want with this?” he asked. “And by what reasoning have you got it figured that I am the one who shall award it?”

“Georgie, I know,” I said. “We all know. Perhaps you have hid it away from the Quality, but we have always been smarter than them.”

“You don’t see the half of it, son. And I am telling as I have told you before—Go home. Get a wife. And get happy. Ain’t nothing over here.”

“Georgie, I am going,” I told him. “And I ain’t going alone.”


“Sophia going with me.”

“Nathaniel Walker’s girl? Have you lost it? You take that girl and you might as well spit on that man. It is a high offense against any white man’s honor.”

“We are going. And, Georgie,” I said with only a hint of the anger I now felt in me, “she ain’t his.”

It was not only anger in me. I was nineteen, and a guarded nineteen who’d worked to feel nothing in this direction, so that when I did feel it, right there in that moment, when I did feel that I loved her, it was not with reason or ritual, nor the way that makes families and homes, but the way that wrecks them, I was undone.

“Now, let’s get one thing straight here,” Georgie said. “She is his girl. They all his girl, you get it? Amber his girl. Thena his girl. Your mother was his girl—”

“Careful, Georgie,” I said. “Real careful.”

“Oh, it’s careful now, huh? That’s what it is? You telling me about careful, son. They
you, Hiram. You a slave, boy. I don’t care who your daddy is. You a slave, and don’t think that just because I’m out this way, out here in this Freetown, that I ain’t some kind of slave too. And as long as they own you, they own her. You got to see. We are captured. Been captured. And that’s the whole of it. What you are talking here done got men a whole week in Ryland’s and beat within a prayer of they life. You have got a feeling in your heart and I respect it. I done felt it myself, what young man ain’t? But you almost died, Hi. You do this, and you will wish you had.”

“Georgie, I am telling you that this is not a choice. I cannot stay. And you have got to help.”

“Even if I was what you have me figured to be, I would not.”

“You ain’t understanding,” I said. “I am going. That is a fact. I am asking you to aid me, because I believe you an honorable man devoted to the honorable path. I am asking you, Georgie. But I am going.”

Georgie paced for a moment, executing his own internal calculations, for he knew now that with his help or without, I was going and I was going with Sophia. What I could not know as he regarded me there, his eyes widening with realization, was that he must have been figuring on the consequence of such an action, and his conclusion made clear, and whatever his hatreds, whatever his loves, especially his loves, he now saw but one path forward.

BOOK: The Water Dancer: A Novel
11.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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