Authors: Ta-Nehisi Coates;
“One week,” he said. “You got one week. You meet me here, on this spot where we now stand, with your girl. You should know that I would not do any such thing if not for what you have told me here and determined yourself to do.”
My power was always memory, not judgment. I walked away from Georgie’s home fixed only on my own suspicions, never suspecting how much beyond those the fact of things truly ranged. And even when I, again, came upon Amy and Hawkins, this time seen straight by them right outside the general store, I could not see how the pieces fit.
There had been no way to avoid them this time, for I had been so lost in thoughts of Georgie, of Sophia, that they had seen me before I saw them.
“How you carrying it, small stepper?” Hawkins said.
“Well and fine enough,” I said. It was now early evening and dusk had begun to fall over the town. The locals of Elm County who’d come into town for business now drifted out on their pleasure-wagons and chaises. I regarded Hawkins warily, trying to find the quickest road out of conversation.
“What you got bringing you into town?” he asked, and to this he married his characteristic thin-lipped smile. I didn’t answer and I saw by the shift in his face that he now knew that he’d assumed a familiarity that was not there. But this did nothing to stop him.
“Aw, I’m sorry,” he said. “Don’t mean to cause no injury or offense. Lady say we should be as family, though, right?”
“Calling on a friend,” I said.
“Friend like Georgie Parks?”
There were all kinds of ways to task in Virginia, ways beyond the fields, the kitchens, or the shed. Some tasking was not so material. Offering entertainment, sharing wisdom. And then there were even darker tasks. To be their eyes and ears, their intelligence among the other tasking men, so that they, the masters, knew who smiled in their faces and scoffed behind their backs, who stole from them, who burned down the barn, who poisoned and who plotted. The effect of all this was a kind of watchfulness among the tasking folks, in particular toward those you did not know. This worked the other way too, so that if you were new to Lockless or any of these other houses of bondage, you took things slow, you did not question or inquire on people’s affairs, for if you did you might then be thought to be among those who were eyes and ears, who tasked beyond the Task, and this was a dangerous place because then you yourself might be poisoned or plotted against. But Hawkins took no care, which gave his question a sinister import.
“Ain’t nothing,” he went on. “My sister, Amy, got people tasking this way. Say she see you over at Georgie’s from time to time.”
Amy stood eyeing us both. And I saw now that she seemed nervous about something that was soon to happen or an event she would like to not miss.
“Yeah,” I said, still uneasy. “Georgie is known to me.”
“Uh-huh,” he said. “Georgie’s quite a fella.”
I looked back to Amy, who was no longer shifting her eyes nervously, but casting them a block away. Following her gaze, I saw my old tutor, Mr. Fields, coming toward her. This was now twice in three months, twice after having not seen him in seven years. What was more, Mr. Fields was clearly walking toward Amy, as though he had some appointed rendezvous with her and Hawkins. He saw me before he reached her, and froze for a moment. I had the sense that some plan of his had gone awry and he would very much like to change direction. But instead he once again doffed his hat as he had those months ago at race-day. Hawkins followed my eyes to Mr. Fields, who by now was standing at Amy’s side. They were watching us and in some state of confusion. And Hawkins was no longer smiling, indeed he looked quite nervous himself, watching them watch us. But then he turned back to me and the smile was recalled.
“Well,” he said. “I guess that’s my folks calling on me.”
“Guessing it is,” I said. And then it was my turn to smile, and I am not sure why, except to say that it was my feeling that Hawkins had been lying to me, lying about where he’d found me, lying about the motive of his questions. And I felt I had at last caught him unawares, and managed to drag some portion of his secret machinations into the light. And his discomfort at this made me smile. I stood there and watched him walk over to Amy and Mr. Fields, and then tipped my hat, once again, to the whole party as they walked off.
I should have thought more on those events. I should have wondered at the familiarity between two tasking folks and a learned man of the North. I should have seen the connections with Georgie Parks. But my mind was swimming in the ocean of possibilities opened up by Georgie’s assent. And more my great concern was not with uncovering the plotting of others, but with how I might best conceal my own.
The next day I rode back to Nathaniel’s estate to retrieve Sophia. Fifteen minutes into my ride, not far from home, I was stopped by the patrol of low whites—Ryland’s Hounds—who haunted the woods in search of runaways. I produced my papers for them, and seeing Howell’s name upon them, they quickly allowed me on my way. But the event shook me, for I had by then completed a shift inside of myself. I’d already gone from Tasked to fugitive. I so greatly feared that they would see it in me, in some misbegotten smile or unlikely ease. But Ryland’s Hounds were white—low whites, but white all the same—so that their power blinded them.
Sophia and I rode back in silence, saying nothing. But just before reaching Lockless, I stopped the chaise. It was late morning and cold. No one was on the road and the only sound was the wind whipping through the bare branches, that and my pounding heart. I wondered if Sophia had been taken in on some design. Phantoms flittered before me like moths and for a moment I saw them all in concert together—Howell, Nathaniel, Corrine, Sophia, even Maynard, who did not die, who presided over my dreams where he rose up out of the icy teeth of the Goose detailing the roster of my sins. But when I looked over and saw her, brown eyes looking out into the forest, as she often did, not even noting our pause, when I saw her there, seeming so cool and far above the cares of the world, the feelings in me welled up and overwhelmed.
And then she spoke.
“I got to get out, Hi,” she said. “I will not be an old woman down in the coffin. I will bring no child to this. Ain’t no society here. No rules. No prohibitions. They took it all with them to Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee. Ain’t nothing left. It’s all gone Natchez-way.”
She paused for a moment and then said again, slower this time, “I got to get out.”
“Right,” I said. “Then let’s get out.”
AM SO MUCH OLDER
now, old enough to understand how a tangle of events can be unraveled to reveal a singular thread. So as to my freedom, the events stood thus: I knew that I would never advance beyond my blood-bound place at Lockless. And I knew that even if I did, Lockless, whatever its past glories, was falling, as all the great houses of slavery were falling, and when they fell I would not be freed, but would instead be sold or passed off. And I knew by then that my genius would not save me, indeed my genius would only make me a more valuable commodity. I was convinced that this was what had attracted Corrine, that she, aided by the mendacity of her people, was making an early if still mysterious claim. And my own view of this claim, of everything really, was altered from the moment I walked out of the Goose. And all of that—my knowledge, my destiny, my escape from death—taken together was like a bomb in my chest, and Sophia, and her intentions, were the fuse. That was how I saw her back then, as the necessary end-point of my calculations. It all made sense to me, but would have made more had I considered that Sophia was a woman of her own mind, with intentions, calculations, and considerations all her own.
She came upon me later that week, while I was outside working a set of corner chairs, and when I saw her, the fuse burning in me, I felt a kind of daring.
She stopped and smiled, looked at the corner chair, and then began walking into the shed.
“Don’t think you wanna do that,” I said. “Ain’t really no place for a lady.”
“Ain’t no lady,” she said, walking inside.
I followed her in and watched as she wiped away the cobwebs and ran her fingers against the furniture to judge how much she could accumulate in one swipe. She walked among the pieces, passing the maple drunkard’s chair, then the Hepplewhite table and the Queen Anne clock, the light from the small window cutting against the dark.
“Huh,” she said, turning to face me. “This all yours to work?”
“Yep. By way of Roscoe. But really I just got sick of laying up there waiting for them to tell me something. ’Sides, this is how it was when I was a boy. Used to get in where I could. Work where I was needed.”
“Could still go out to the fields,” she said. “They always looking for hands.”
“Did my share of that, thank you kindly,” I said. “How bout you? Ever been in them fields?”
“Can’t say that I have,” Sophia said.
She was now closer and I noted this because I noted everything about her now, in particular the precise distance she maintained from me. There was a part of me that knew this to be all wrong, but it was the discredited part, the part that had believed a coin could reverse Virginia against itself.
“Not the worst,” I said. “Don’t have these folks watching every little thing you do.”
She was closer still.
“What kind of things you might like to hide?” she said, moving closer so that I now felt my balance slipping away. I put my hand down on a piece of furniture, I can’t remember which.
She just looked at me and laughed, then walked back out of the shed.
“Can we talk some more?” she said, almost whispering. “About all that.”
“Yeah, we can,” I said.
“In an hour,” she said. “Down by the gulch?”
“Sound good to me,” I said.
I don’t know what work happened in the time before that meeting. I spent the whole of it thinking only of Sophia. Slavery is everyday longing, is being born into a world of forbidden victuals and tantalizing untouchables—the land around you, the clothes you hem, the biscuits you bake. You bury the longing, because you know where it must lead. But now this new longing held out a different future, one where my children, whatever their travails, would never know the auction block. And once I glimpsed that other future, my God, the world was born anew to me. I was freedom-bound, and freedom was as much in my heart as it was in the swamps, so that the hour I spent waiting on our meeting was the most careless I had ever spent. I was gone from Lockless before I had even run.
“So how’s this suppose to go?” she asked. We were down by the gulch, looking past the wild grass to the other side of the woods.
“I don’t quite know,” I said.
Sophia turned to me with a doubtful look.
“Don’t know?” she asked.
“I put my faith in Georgie,” I said. “That’s all I got.”
“Yeah, Georgie. I ain’t ask a whole lot of questions—you must understand why. This thing Georgie got himself into, well, I imagine part of the deal is you don’t talk too much. So my notion is simple. We bring ourselves, and nothing more, at the appointed time and place and then we go.”
“Go into what?” she asked.
I looked at her hard for a moment, then looked back over the gulch.
“The swamps,” I said. “They got a world down there, a whole Underground, where a man can live as a man should.”
“And what about a woman?”
“I know. I thought on it some. Perhaps not the ideal place for a lady—”
She cut me off and said, “Told you once today, Hi, I ain’t no lady.”
“I get along just fine,” she said. “Just get me out of here and I’ll get the rest figured myself.”
That last word—
—hung in the air.
“All by yourself, huh?” I asked.
She looked back at me unsmiling.
“Look, Hiram, I need you to understand something. I like you, I really do.” Her eyes were hard on me, drilling their way in, and I felt that what she was saying now was from the deepest of possible places. “I like you and I do not like many men, and when I look at you I see something old and familiar, something like what I had with my Mercury. But I will like you a heap less if your plan is for us to get to this Underground and for you to make yourself up as another Nathaniel. That ain’t freedom to me, do you understand? Ain’t no freedom for a woman in trading a white man for a colored.”
I noticed then that her hand was on my arm. And that she was squeezing it firmly.
“If that is what you want, if that is what you are thinking, then you must tell me now. If it is your plan to shackle me there, to have me bring yearlings to you, then tell me now and allow me the decency of making my own choice here. You are not like them. You must do me the service of giving me that choice. So tell me. Tell me now your intending.”
I remember her ferocity in that moment. It was such a peaceful day. Late in the afternoon now and the sun was setting in this season of long nights, the perfect season, I would soon learn, to run. I heard no birds, no insects, no branches in the wind, so that all my senses were focused on Sophia’s words, words that for the first time in my life I experienced without pictures, for reasons I could not fully then understand. What I did understand was that she was terribly afraid of something—something in me, and the thought that I would, in any way, exist to her in the way of Nathaniel, that she would fear me as she feared him, scared and shamed me all at once.
“No,” I said. “Never, Sophia. I want you to be free and I want any relating between us, should there ever be relating, to always be one of your choosing.”
She loosened her hand now, so that her grip became just a touch.
“I cannot lie,” I said. “I hope that you will some day, at some time, choose me out there. I confess it. I have dreams. Wild dreams.”
“And what do you dream of?” she asked. Her grip was again tight on my arm.
“I dream of men and women who are fit to wash, feed, and dress themselves. I dream of rose gardens that reward the hands that tend to them,” I said. “And I dream of being able to turn to a woman for whom I got a feeling, and speak that feeling, holler that feeling, with no thought beyond me and her as to what that might mean.”
We stood there a little longer and then walked up from the gulch together and then out of the woods. By then the sun was setting over Lockless. We paused at the edge of the woods. Sophia said, “I had best go ahead alone.” I nodded and watched her walk out and disappear. And then I came out, up from the forest toward the house, until I could see the tunnel beneath into the Warrens. And standing there in that tunnel, with her arms crossed, was Thena.
Thena was also transformed by my new vantage. I was running off, a young man with a young girl, toward a new life, the first true life we’d ever have, one that these old coloreds were afraid to pursue. I had tried to save them, save the whole of Lockless, but that was over now. They were lambs waiting for the slaughter. The elders all knew what was coming. They knew what the land whispered, because none lived closer to the land than those who worked it. They lay awake at night, listening to the groaning ghosts of tasking folk past, those who’d been carried off. They knew what was coming and still they waited for it. And all of this sudden shame and anger, rage and resenting for they who let this happen, who stoically watched their children carried off, all of this I now heaped upon Thena, so that when she saw me there coming up from the woods, and I saw her, with her arms crossed, waiting for me as I approached, and I saw the disapproving look on her face, I felt an incredible anger.
“Evening,” I said. She rolled her eyes in response. I walked into the tunnel and toward my quarters. She followed me. When we were inside, she turned up the lamp on the mantel and then shut the door. She sat in a chair in the corner and I saw the flame of the lamp casting shadows on her face.
“What is with you, son?” she asked.
“Don’t know what you mean.”
“You still fevered or something?”
“Been mighty strange these past few weeks, mighty strange. So what is it? What’s got you?”
“Don’t know what you mean.”
“Alrighty, lemme ask it like this. What in all of creation done possessed you to run round Lockless with Nathaniel Walker’s girl?”
“I ain’t running round with nobody. Girl choose her company, sure as I chose mine.”
“That’s what you think, huh?”
“Yep, that’s what I think.”
“Then you as dumb as you seem.”
What I now did was cut my eyes at Thena, in a gesture I had learned from children rebellious against their parents. And I was a child, I know that now, a boy overrun with emotion, undone by a great and momentous loss. And I felt it, just then, though I could not name it, I felt all that I had lost when my mother fell into that black hole of memory, because standing before me was someone whom I stood to lose again. And I could not bear to lose her, to look her in the eye and confess my plan, to leave the only mother I had ever known. So when I spoke, it was not with sadness or honesty but with anger and righteousness.
“What I done to you?” I asked.
“Whatever, in all of creation, have I done to you to speak to me so?”
“Speak to you so?” she said, and the look became almost bemused. “Hell you care bout how I speak to you? You fell to me out of nothing, I never asked for any of it, but what I do every evening, after breaking my back for these folks? Who fry up your bacon and corn-cakes? That girl ever done that for you? Who guard you against what these folks try to make of you with all their schemings? And what have I asked from you, Hiram? Whatever have I asked?”
“And why start now?” I said. Then I fixed Thena with a long hard stare. It was not a look fit for anyone, nor any woman who had loved me, and certainly not the woman who had so cared for me.
Thena looked back at me as though I had shot her. But the pain quickly passed. It was as if her last hope that this wicked world would admit some justice, some light, had vanished before her and what was left was the crooked end she had expected all along.
“You gonna regret all this one day,” she said. “You gonna regret it more than any evil that come along with that girl, and evil will come to you, I assure you. But this moment here when you speak as such to those who loved you when you was most frail, you gonna regret.” Then she opened the door, looking back only to say, “Boy like you should be more careful with his words. Never know when they the last ones he might put upon a person.”
I didn’t have to wait long for the promised regret to bloom inside me, but in that moment it was overwhelmed by another portion of me, the one that thought only of my impending flight from this old world, with its dying land, its fearful slaves, and its low and vulgar whites. I would leave it all behind for the freedom of the Underground, and made no exception for Thena.
The remaining days passed until finally it came, the morning of Georgie’s fateful promise, came like life itself, long and quick. I woke to that day filled with unease. I lay awake in my bed, hoping that the day might remain there with me, but then I heard the shuffling of the Warrens and the hum of the house above, and this awful music announced that the day was a fact, and my promise was a fact, and it could not be backed away from. So I rose to the darkness and walked with my earthen jar toward the well and saw Pete on my way there, already dressed and on his way to the garden, and I remember this because it was the last time I ever saw him. Outside in the distance, I saw Thena at the well, all alone, drawing water for laundry. It was such hard work—hauling up the water, firing up the wood, beating the garments, preparing the soap—and she did all of it. I remember standing there, knowing how I had wronged her, scorned her, heaped on disrespect, feeling the sharp shame of it, and beating it back with my anger, with my “Who does she think she is?” I waited for her to finish and watched from the tunnel as this old colored woman hauled the water all alone, knowing even then that I would regret this, that for the rest of my life, those last words to Thena, when I stood apart from her, would haunt me.
When all was clear, I walked to the well and filled my own gourd, then walked back and cleaned myself and dressed. I came to the mouth of the tunnel and watched the sun come up over Lockless, and for one final, weighty moment pondered the step now standing before me. I thought of oceans and all the explorers of whom I had read during those long summer Sundays in the library, and I wondered what they had felt stepping up off the land and onto the deck, looking out over the sea, the waves, which they must cross into some unknown realm. I wondered if fear took them, if they ever were compelled to run back into the arms of their women, to kiss their young daughters, and remain there among them in the world they knew. Or were they like me, aware that the world they loved was uncertain, that it too must fade before time, that change was the rule of everything, that if they did not cross the water, the water must soon cross over them? So I must go, for my world was disappearing, had always been disappearing—Maynard called out from the Goose, Corrine from the mountains, and above all, Natchez.