Authors: Ta-Nehisi Coates;
I jogged myself out of the reverie. I walked up the stairs and spoke with my father, who had now found a task for me—work in the kitchen with the remains of the wait staff, beginning tomorrow. “One last day of freedom,” he said. But I was, by then, past any care for such things. I simply nodded and then assessed him for any sign that he had caught on. But he was cheerful, more cheerful than I’d seen him in weeks. He spoke of Corrine Quinn, and her promise to visit later that week, and I felt an incredible relief at the fact that I would by then be gone.
I walked to the library. I thumbed through the old volumes of Ramsay and Morton. Then I walked back down toward my quarters. For the rest of the day I kept out of sight. I could not bear to eat. I could not bear to see anyone else. I was by then done with all the reminiscences and fantasy. What I most wanted was for the appointed moment to come. And it did, I tell you, it did. The sun set, bringing on the long winter night, and then the house quieted and the hum of the day faded until all that was left was the occasional creaking. I brought nothing with me save ambition, not clothes, not victuals, not books, not even my coin, which I now pulled from the pocket of my overalls, rubbed one last time, and deposited on the mantel. I met Sophia at the edge of the peach grove. We used the road to mark our path, but stayed in the woods, out of sight, in case we were spotted by any of the patrols. We talked and laughed in our normal easy way but with lowered voices, until the road bent and then in the distance we saw the bridge across the Goose. And feeling that this was the moment, the place from which none would dare turn back, we were quiet, struck dumb by fear and awe. We stood there looking out at the bridge, which was but a long dark span against the greater dark of the night. I heard the creeping things of the earth calling out to each other. The night was starless and overcast.
“So it’s freedom then,” I said.
“Freedom,” she said. “Mend it or rip it. No more treating. No more in-between. Die young, or not all.”
And so we walked out from the woods and onto the path, and in open view of the night, I took her hand and I was aware that her hand was steady and mine trembled. We had put our lives on the honor of Georgie Parks. We believed in the rumor, in the Underground. We crossed and did not look back, and made for the woods, steering clear of Starfall. I had, in the days prior, taken time to wander among the back-paths, and had found a way to bring us to Georgie’s meeting place with both speed and discretion. When we reached the small pond where Georgie and I had stood one week earlier, we relaxed a bit.
“What will you do when you get there?” I asked.
“Don’t know,” she said. “Don’t know what a gal do in a swamp. Would like to work—work for my own. That is my highest ambition. How bout you?”
“Get as far as I might from you, I figure.”
We both laughed.
“You know you crazy,” I said. “Got me out here, running. I say if we make it through—when we make it through—I will have had all I need of Sophia’s schemings.”
“Uh-huh. Might be nice to lighten my own load,” Sophia said. “Men ain’t brought me and mine nothing but a heap of trouble.”
We laughed a little more. I looked up at the starless sky, then looked over to Sophia, who was backing away, backing toward the pond. And then I heard footsteps, and conversation, and I could tell that whoever was approaching was not alone. I thought to hide then, but I distinctly heard Georgie’s voice among the men, and this stayed me. Then the voices went quiet and all we heard were the footsteps crunching against the ground. I took Sophia’s hand and looked through the opening in the wood. I saw the darkness framing the figure of Georgie Parks.
I smiled, I remember that. And I tell you, as I have always, that I remember everything, but here perhaps, I am playing tricks upon myself because it was a starless night, and I could not see Sophia as little more than a silhouette before me, but I swear that I remember seeing the face of Georgie Parks, and his face was pained and was sad and I did not know why. And then I heard the footsteps again and I saw five white men emerge, one by one from the darkness, and I saw that one of them carried a rope between his hands. And when they were out, they stood before us for what seemed like forever and I heard Sophia moan, “No, no, no…”
And then I watched one of the men touch Georgie’s shoulder and say, “All right, Georgie, you done good.” And at that Georgie turned his back on us and walked back into the forest, and these men, with their rope, turned to us.
“No, no, no,” moaned Sophia.
I swear they were like phantoms, glowing against the night like specters, and I knew by their outline and bearing exactly what they were.
OUNDS BROUGHT US
up by pistol-point, brought us through that moonless and starless night, through a darkness thick enough to touch, thick as the ropes knotted around our hands. And I was suddenly aware of the cold, of the wind swinging like a sword, so that I then began to shiver and this became a fact of great amusement for our captors, and though I could not see them, I could hear them laughing at me, mocking me—“Time for shivering past, boy”—for they took me to be in fear of what they might do. It was true that Ryland’s Hounds were fearsome and the fact that I was not in total terror can only be attributed to the flight of emotions—shame, anger, shock—that now raced ahead of fear. They could have done anything to us out there, done anything to her, for this was the normal path of things. It was the necessary right of the Low, who held no property in man, to hold momentary property in those who ran, and to vent all their awful passions upon them. And from the moment I saw Georgie disappear, and Ryland float out of the woods like wraiths, I felt that this venting must come. But it did not. They just led us out of the woods, into Starfall, until we were at the jail, and there they replaced rope with chains, and left us in the yard, like the animals they took us to be, dressed in cold irons, for what must be our last moments together, our last moments upon this earth as we knew it.
I remember the heaving weight of the chains, a center-line extending from the collar around my neck, down to a smaller chain and cuffs around my wrists, through another chain and cuffs clapped around my ankles. And this lattice of cold iron was looped around the bottom rail of the fence that bracketed the jail, so that I could neither straighten my back nor take a seat for relief, and was thus permanently stooped. All my life I had been a captive. But whereas the particulars of my birth had allowed me to feel this bondage as a mark or symbol, there was nothing symbolic in this hulking web. I could angle my neck in one direction, and there I found pain of a different sort, for I caught sight of Sophia, fastened just as I was, perhaps a few yards away. I wanted so bad to say something as radical as I felt the moment then demanded. I wanted to tell her of my great sorrow at having led her into this deeper, truer slavery. I wanted to hold myself to her account for this great betrayal. But when I spoke, I had nothing but the most impoverished of words.
“I…I am sorry,” I said. I had turned my head back down to the ground. “I am so very sorry.”
Sophia did not answer.
What I badly wanted, right then, was a blade, and with it, I would slit my own throat. I could not live knowing what I had done, what I had brought to Sophia. And it was so very cold out there. I could feel my hands turning to rock, and my ears disappearing into the night, and I knew I was crying, because I felt those quiet tears freezing on my cheeks.
At that moment, lost in my own shame, I heard a low rhythmic grunting, and I saw that with each grunt the bottom rail of the fence shook a little. And now looking over I saw that it was Sophia who was grunting. She was pulling the weight of the chains and, one foot at a time, sliding closer and closer, for what I could not be sure. Perhaps she wanted to be closer so that she might whisper some ancient curse, or rend one of my ears between her teeth. She moved with great force, and with her every upward heave, the rail heaved with her. I had no idea she was this strong. She began slowly, breaking between each slide, but as she approached, the heaves became faster and greater, so that I thought her plan might be to the snap the railing itself and free us. But when she reached me, she stopped, exhausted, panting from her great effort, and she was close enough that I could see all of her features and she looked upon me, tender at first, so tender that, at least for that moment, my shame slid away. Then, straining against the chains, she angled her head forward a bit, past the fence, past the jail, and though I could not see it, I knew that her indication was aimed toward Freetown. And she looked back at me and what I saw was a look so hard that I knew that she too wished for a knife, though the throat she wanted it for would not be her own. Now I saw her face tighten and her teeth bear down. Sophia gave one last heave until she was right next to me, so close that I could feel her breath on my cheek and her arm close against mine, so close that she could lean in against me, as she did now, so close that I could feel her warmth, so close that icy darkness retreated, and I shivered no more.
Were I to tell you the evils of slavery…I should wish to take you one at a time and whisper them to you.
AIL WAS MY
home now. Sophia was parted from me that next day, for where I did not know—sold to the fancy trade? Sent back to Nathaniel? Natchez?—and what I was left with was that portrait of her, which I see even now, fighting against the chains for that moment of contact, focusing her hateful gaze, not inward, not on me, not on herself, but on the base treachery of Georgie Parks. Even then I did not know how deep the treachery went. But I knew enough to husband a hate thick as winter stew. Later, years and years later, I would understand the impossibility of Georgie’s standing, the way the Quality had narrowed his choices until he lived on a thin chancy reed called Freetown. But just then I hated him and succored myself on the miraculous notion that Georgie would someday be subject to my wrath.
I was thrown into a dank cell, with a filthy cover and straw pallet for bedding, and a bucket for relief. Each day I was brought out early, made to exercise, and then washed. Blacking was applied to my hair, oil to my body. And then I was made to stand, with all the others, stripped down to my skin, in the front parlor of the jail. The flesh-traders, vultures of Natchez, entered and had their way with me. They were a ghastly sight, the lowest of low whites, because unlike their brethren, these men, while originating in that bottom file, had grown wealthy from the flesh trade, but seemed to revel in their debased roots, their slovenly dress, their missing teeth, their foul odors, their habit of spitting tobacco wherever they wished, as a kind of absurd show. The Quality shunned them, for slave-trading was still held as disreputable business. They did not host the traders in their homes nor invite them into their Sunday pews. Time would come when gold would outweigh blood. But this was still Virginia of old, where a dubious God held that those who would offer a man for sale were somehow more honorable than those who effected that sale.
This shunning caused a great resentment in the traders, a resentment they vented on us. They took glee in their work, so that in that parlor, they seemed to dance as they approached, and when they gripped at my buttocks to check their firmness, they did it with vim and vigor; and when they twisted my jaw in the light, checking my skull against their theories of phrenology, they never failed to smile a little; and when they stuck their fingers in my mouth, probing for rotten teeth, or struck my limbs searching for old injuries, they hummed a melody to themselves.
I would fall into myself during these “examinations,” because I quickly learned that the only way to survive such invasion was to dream, to let my soul fly from my body, fly back to Lockless and another time, when I called out the work songs—“Be back, Gina, with my heart and my song”—or stood before Alice Caulley, watching her gleam as I recited her history, or sat under the gazebo, passing a jug of ale and nursing all my wants and desires. But it was only a dream. And the fact was I was there in the awful now, being handled by men who gloried in their power to reduce a man to meat.
So I was now under it, down in the coffin of slavery, because whatever I had endured back at Lockless, it must be said, was not this and was nothing like what surely was to come. And I was not alone. There were two others in my cell. The first was a boy with light brown hair, barely twelve I guessed, a boy who did not smile and never spoke and maintained the hardened aspect of a man long tasked. But he was a boy, a fact revealed at night by the fearful whimper in his sleep, by his small yawn in the morning. Each night, after our supper of scraps, his mother called on him. And I guessed from her garments, which were above the heavy osnaburg of the Tasked, that she was free but had somehow lost possession of her child. She would sit on the floor outside the cell holding his hand through the iron bars and they would pass the moments silently, hand-in-hand, until Ryland dismissed her. There was something achingly familiar in this ritual, something that an old forgotten part of me recognized, like a scene from some other unrecalled life.
My other cellmate was an old man. His face was lined by the ages, and upon the ocean of his back I saw the many voyages of Ryland’s whip. Whatever my miseries during that time in Ryland’s Jail, nothing I endured approached what was put on this old man. The math of profit shielded me and the boy. But this old man, his days of use over, with only pennies to be wrung for him, was meat for the dogs. At any moment in the day, whenever the mood struck, these men would pull the old man out and compel him to sing, dance, crawl, bark, cluck, or perform some other indignity. And should his performance dissatisfy any of them, they would wail on him with fists and boots, beat him with horse reins or carriage whip, hurl paperweights and chairs at him, or reach for whatever else was at hand. And I felt the rawest shame beholding this, though I did not recognize it as such, shame in myself in having no ability whatsoever to help.
These were dark times of the soul. My sympathy for these two was quickly swallowed by the sense that it was these same dumb sympathies that had brought me to this moment. My mind was frantic with suspicion. Perhaps it was all conspiracy. Maybe Sophia was in on it. Perhaps Thena had warned them. Maybe they were all sitting up somewhere, laughing with Corrine Quinn, laughing with my father even, at my foolish dreams of freedom. And so shame and sympathy quickly gave way to a hardness that has never left me.
It was night. I was lying on the damp stone floor. The little boy’s mother was gone. I could hear Ryland up front in a drunken game of poker.
Tonight the old man, for some reason, felt the need to speak. His voice came to me in the darkness. He first told me in a croaked whisper that I reminded him of his son. I ignored him and tried to snuggle between my pallet of straw and a moth-eaten blanket, looking for any warmth I could find. And so he said it again, in a tone that communicated the privileges of his age.
“Doubtful,” I responded.
“Doubtful that you are him, certainly,” he said. “But I have marked you and know that you are about his age and bear that taint that he must surely wear. We are parted from each other, but at night when I dream of him, I dream of a man betrayed. And that man wears a look much like you.”
I said nothing.
“How do you come here?” he asked.
“By way of flight,” I said. “I ran from the Task and took with me another man’s fancy.”
“But they ain’t kill you,” he said, wholly unmoved. “Must be some task still to be gotten from you. Though likely in another country where none know your name and your boastful sins shall strike them as the lies of a man shackled and diminished.”
“Why they lay it on you so?” I asked.
“Amusement, I suppose,” he said.
He chuckled in the dark at this.
“I’m bout ready for the ox,” he said. “Can’t you tell?”
“No different than the rest of us,” I said.
“Not you. Not yet. And not that one over there,” he said, waving at the boy. “Yes, indeed, a homecoming is calling me back to my peoples. I know I am fated to die here, in torment, for I am wholly dressed in the worst of sin.”
He was now into it and though it was night I could see the old man sitting up and staring out toward the parlor, where we could see lantern-light licking back shadows from the other room, and could still hear Ryland exploding into occasional laughter. Now and then the little boy’s soft breath curled into a light snore.
“I lived as I should,” he said. “I did not live alone. And when I found myself out there, the last man, with no society to enforce true law, I knew that my time had come.
“The world is moving, moving on without this here country. Time was that Elm County was like the only son, best loved by the Lord. Time was this country was the height of society, and the white people was all regale and splendor, grand balls and gossip. I was there. I was out, very often, on the riverboat with my master. I saw how they made revelry. You are born into these fallen years, but I remember when they lived feast to feast, their tables heaving under fine breads, quail and currant cakes, claret, cider, and all other manner of delights.
“None of it for us, I grant you, but we had our gifts. Our gift was the steady land under our feet. That was a time when a good man could make himself a family, and could witness his children, and children’s children, the same. My grand-daddy saw it all, yes he did. Brought here from Africa. He found the Lord. He found a wife and generations came under his survey. It was not our season, but the season was so certain, such that even a tasking man could count out the steps of his life. I could tell you stories, boy. I could tell you about the races, and the day Planet flew out his shoes. But never mind it. You have asked why they put it upon me so, and I will tell you.”
I had heard the stories before. It had become common to package the feeling of those days, the relative solace taken in knowing one’s mother, in having cousins on the nearby estate, of Holidays that still stand tall in memory. But that solace is not freedom, and one can be certain but never be secure. It was the certain system that gave Sophia to Nathaniel, that made me. There was no peace in slavery, for every day under the rule of another is a day of war.
“What is your name?” I asked the old man.
“What do it matter?” he said. “What matters is that I loved a woman, and in that love I forgot my name. That was my sin, the cause by which I am found here, with you, and with this boy, and left to the mercies of these low-down whites.”
He was trying to stand now—using the iron bars to pull himself up. I stood to help but he waved me off. He managed to lean against the bars, with his left arm looped through for support.
“I was wedded as a young man and lived for a great many years in all the happiness that a man and a woman might ever hope to know. We lived among the Task, you see, but the Task never lived in us. We had a son. He grew upright and Christian. He was taken in high regard by all around—Quality, Tasking, and Low. He worked the land like it was his own, and thought our masters might be so struck to grant him freedom, perhaps upon their dying.
“He was a boy of big thinking. All knew it. Girls fought over that boy’s legacy. He would not marry. He held for one of high honor and would accept none who measured less than his mother. But she died, my wife, my whole heart, yes she did. Fever took her from me. Her last injunction upon me was simple—‘Keep that boy safe. Let him not sell his legacy for wood.’
“I kept to that. I kept him right under true law. And when he took a wife, a girl from up in the cook-house, it was like the spirit of his mother returned, for the girl was honorable, and worked her task in the same spirit as my son.
“Years passed us by. We was re-formed into something new, another family. I was blessed with three grandchildren, but only one, a boy, made it past yearling. When they died, we grieved hard together, for the love flowed between us all was strong, something like that river James, and all of that love was given to that one who survived.
“But the land was not what it had been, and the Quality took up a new trade, and the trade was us, and each week when we counted we saw hands fading away.
“Then one evening, after the count, the headman come and address me alone. He say, ‘All of us round these parts done long felt you a good man. You and your folk are as children to us, near to our heart. But you have heard the soil that is now bearing a song of death. It breaks me all to pieces to say this, but we must part with your boy. I am sorry. It is for the good of us all. I come to you to tell you first, so that I am honorable. We have done all we can to assure him some comfort. Best I can do is send his wife and boy along with him. It’s all I got.’ ”
I was now standing myself. I was watching the old man, for fear that he might tumble. The light from the parlor was still glimmering. The laughter had grown a little lower and there were fewer voices to be heard now.
“When they told me that, I went to nothing,” he said. “I walked back to my quarters. I was trembling. My sight was going black. I walked out into the woods to address the Lord. But I tell you, I could not speak. I slept out there and did not come to the fields in the morning. They must have known I was grieving, for the headman never came for me.
“That day I wandered the near-country with only my thoughts. I walked, but never ran. A notion gnawed in me. These people were so low that they would divide a father from his only son. I knew what I was. My whole life was purchased on time. I was born in the varmint trap. There was no way out. It was my life. But no matter how much I said it, a powerful part of me had never believed. Then they took my boy.
“I come in that night and face him. I told him what they said. His face was a rock, yes it was. He ain’t show no fear, he was too strong, and his strength broke me down and I wept. ‘Don’t cry, Pap,’ he said. ‘Some way or the other, we shall have our Grand Meeting.’
“Two days later, the headman send me on an errand to town. But before I go, I see a familiar buggy and horse up at the house. And out from that buggy come Ryland—and I knew the time of our parting was upon us. I walked off trying to comfort myself in the knowing that my boy would have a good wife and they should blossom as natural.
“But when I get back, his wife was still there and my boy was gone. At night I come to her, a rage growing in me, and she say they took my son and her baby, that Ryland would not carry them all. And that girl broke down right there in front of me—crazed, wailing. When she regained herself, when she stood, I did not see her face, I saw a haunt of my wife. And I then recalled her injunction upon me—‘Keep that boy safe.’ That’s how I knew my time was all about done. For a man that can’t honor his wife’s dying wish ain’t even a man, ain’t even a life.
“The girl said she could not live. She had other family, and seen many of them go that way, down Natchez. None could know who would be next. By what cause should we live out of connection? The tree of our family was parted—branches here, roots there—parted for their lumber.
“We were crazed in our grieving. I tell you, the girl took my hand and when she turned I again saw the face of my wife. She led me out into the night. She walked to the cook-house and I knew just what she planned. They would have skinned us alive. I dragged her back and put her to bed. When morning came she was back to herself, and she put on that very same costume that all us tasking folk must wear to live.”