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Authors: Ta-Nehisi Coates;

The Water Dancer: A Novel (13 page)

BOOK: The Water Dancer: A Novel

I knew the ideas of the old man’s son, and saw myself in his ambitions, in his notion that he might prove himself noble and thus achieve his feeling. It was not so hard to understand. But the Task does not bargain, does not compromise, it devours.

“Time came she was grateful for my wisdom, if you might name it such. We were joined by our grief. Our families gone from us. And living each alone, in Virginia, was a life we could not do.”

And here the old man paused and I had that awful feeling of knowing precisely what he would say before he said it.

“It was natural that I love her. It is natural for man and woman to make family,” he said. “Upon that great stead, with all our people shipped out from us, it is natural that we would be together. And we were together for some years. I will not disavow it. I will not denounce her. I will say I have sinned in a world of terrible sinners, that this world is constructed to divide father from son, son from wife, and we must bite back with whatever a blade we have at hand.

“One day a white man who’d long moved his property to Mississippi returned. Said he’d sold his plot for he could not reconcile himself to such a savage people. He returned with men. And among these men, I learned, was my beloved son.

“Right then, right there, I knew I could not live. A man returns from the grave to find his father has taken his wife. It could no way be me. That night, I went to the cook-house, as my daughter, as my new wife, had once thought, and set it to flame. I knew what they would do to me. It must be done. But before they did, I would atone for my portion. And I would bite back.”

“And so they beat you on instruction of your master?” I asked.

“They beat me because they can,” he said. “Because I am old, and will fetch no price. Someday the ghost shall give me up. I know it. But who will greet me in that After?”

And now he began to slide down against the bars of the cell. I heard weeping and I went to him, he fell into my arms and looked up at me and asked, “What will the mother of my only son say to me? Will she know that I have done it as best it came to me? Or will she who charged me so, who charged me with a task no colored can bring, turn from me forever?”

I did not answer. I had no answer. I helped him stand and felt his skin like cracked leather that only barely held in his bones. I walked him over to his pallet and laid him back down. And I listened as he wept softly, repeating over and over, “Oh, who will greet me in that After?” And I listened until he fell asleep, and when I fell asleep after him, I dreamed again of that same field I’d seen months ago, a field of my people with Maynard, who was my brother, holding the chain.

The boy went first. I saw him taken in a coffle of coloreds headed west. I saw him from the back courtyard where they had brought us, as they did from time to time, to endure, yet again, our own appraisal and inspection. His mother walked slowly next to the coffle, in step with her son. She was not chained. She was silent and in all white, and when she could, she touched the boy’s shoulder, clasped an arm or held his hand. The train disappeared down the road. It was morning. The day was clear. I was still out in the yard—being handled, being molested, violated, robbed. I was trying so hard to fall back into my mind, to not be there. But the sight of that boy, disappearing in the train down the road, and the sight of his mother—so familiar from some other life—pulled me back.

A half hour after the train had disappeared, I was still in the yard when I heard wailing, shrieking, and looking over I saw that the boy’s mother had returned. “Damn you child-killers!” she cried. “Damn you who have murdered my boys! Hell upon you, say I! May a just God scatter all of your animal bones!”

Her wailing cut the air and the courtyard turned to her. She was walking toward us, shrieking, cursing Ryland and all who should enter the savage trade. So many of us who went, went with dignity and respect. And it occurred to me how absurd it was to cling to morality when surrounded by people who had none. And so seeing this woman, crying out, inconsolable, summoning the wrath of God, gave me heart. She seemed to grow as she came toward us, her every step shaking the ground, I thought, so that even these jackals of the South halted their business to look. A young mother had gone down the road. But something else had come back. Her hands were talons. Her hair was alive and enflamed. Ryland met her at the fence. She clawed at his eyes. She caught his ear in her teeth. He yelled with pain. Soon others came, overtook her, threw her to the ground, kicked her, spat upon her. I did nothing. Understand that I saw all of this and I did nothing. I watched these men sell children and beat a mother to the ground, and I did nothing.

They dragged her away, one hound pulling each arm. Her white garments now ripped and dirty. And as they dragged her off, I heard her holler, almost in rhythm and melody, like the old work songs, “Murderer, say I! Auctioneer of all my lost boys! Ryland’s Hounds, Ryland’s Hounds! May a righteous God rend you to worms’ meat! May black fire scorch you down to your vile and crooked bones.”

The old man went next. They took him out for their amusements one night, and never returned him. He had made confession before me, and having done as such, he might now go to his reward.

Nothing so simple for me. My task had only just begun. I was there for three weeks. I was starved and thirsted. They kept us just hearty enough to make us work, and just hungry enough to make us miserable. I was rented out across the county for various tasks. I cleared frozen ground. I emptied outhouses and drove night-soil. I hauled corpses and dug graves. In those weeks I watched a great number of coloreds—man, woman, and child—brought through and sold off. I was surprised to have remained so long. I began to suspect that I had been singled out for some especial point of torment. I was young and strong and should have fetched a price within days. But the days went on, and people went on, and I remained.

Finally, just as the first hints of spring made themselves known, a buyer appeared. Ryland brought me out in chains. I was blindfolded and gagged. I heard one of my jailers say, “Well now, fella, you have paid quite the price, I know, but I reckon that you have got the upside of this entire bargain. This boy is young, healthy. Should be worth ten hands out in the field.”

There was a silence for a moment, then another of my jailers spoke: “We held him far longer than any man should. We had most of Louisiana looking after this boy. Hell, Carolina too.” I felt rough hands on me. Someone was inspecting me, I had adjusted to it by then, and that alone is the worst of it—that a man could feel his violation as natural. But it was different now because I was blindfolded and could neither see the prospective buyer nor anticipate where he might place his hands.

“And you have been well paid for your time, and any troubles,” the buyer said. “But not for your manners nor conversation. Leave me with what is justly mine and I shall leave you to your work.”

“Just making talk,” he said. “Just making it all cordial.”

“But no one asked you,” said the man.

All conversation ended there. I was hoisted, like the thing I was, into the back of the carriage. I saw nothing through my blinds. But I felt the carriage moving at a rapid clip, and for hours there were no words or whispers from the driver, just the random sounds of the woods and the road rumbling beneath us, until we reached a portion of the path where the carriage slowed. And I could feel us going up and over several hills. And then we came to a stop. I was hoisted out. Hands worked at my bindings. My arms were freed. My eyes unmasked.

I was on the ground. I looked up and saw it was night. And then I saw my capturer. I had imagined him a giant. But now I saw him to be average-sized and unremarkable—an ordinary man. The dark was too thick to make out any features, and at all events, there was no time to make a survey. I tried to stand but my legs went wobbly and I fell. Then I stood again, but this time my capturer gave a gentle shove and I fell back, but instead of hitting the ground where I might have expected my feet to have been, I fell farther. And looking up again, I saw that I was in a pit. Then I heard the door to the pit into which I had fallen close over me.

Again I rose, my feet unsure, the ground wobbling under me, barely upright before my head touched against a hard earthen roof. I reached out and found walls of roots and wood, which kept the earth around me at bay. I took the measure of my dungeon. It was about my height, perhaps double in length and width. The darkness was total, beyond blindfolds, night, and perhaps blindness itself. A kind of death. I thought of
Marvell’s Book of Wonders,
the entry for oceans, how their mass could swallow whole continents, which themselves could swallow some innumerable quantity of me. I saw myself as a child, on the library floor, marshaling all my powers to count the breadth of the ocean, until my head throbbed at the limits of perception. And I felt, at that moment, down in that darkness, in that seeming death, that I was lost in an ocean, a body sinking in the great surf.

I had heard stories of white men who bought coloreds simply to enact their wildest pleasures—white men who kept them locked away for the sheer thrill of being able to; white men who bought coloreds for the ecstasy of murder; white men who bought coloreds to cut on them for experiments and demon science. And I felt then that I had now fallen to such a white man, that I was now subject to the perfect vengeance of Virginia, Elm County, my father, and Little May.


Minutes could not be discerned from hours, and with neither sun nor moon, day and night became fictions. At first I took note of the odor of the earth, the occasional sounds above, but soon enough—it is impossible to say when—they became useless noise to me. The wall between sleep and the waking world dissipated, so that dreams were indistinguishable from the figments and illusions that now began to bedevil my mind. I saw so many things down there, so many people. And among those visions, one in particular assumed a special importance, because among all the visions that came over me, this one would soon reveal itself to be no device, but true memory.

We were young, and I was in my first year of service to my brother. It was a long summer Saturday and the masters of Lockless had become bored, which brought to their normal oppressions an element of novelty and whimsy. And so Maynard, who was then a child, had the perverse notion to gather all the Tasked up from out of the Warrens and have them assemble on the bowling green. He ordered me to spread the word. So I did this and within half an hour or so I had them all out on the green, where it was announced by Maynard that the gathered Tasked—old and young, some freshly exhausted from the field, others in the overcoats and polished shoes of the house—would race each other for his amusement. On the possible scales of humiliation and measured against all the troubles put upon us back then, this would not be the worst. But it
humiliation and what doubled it for me was that I had not yet understood my place among things, for as I watched Maynard organize them into packs to run against each other, he called to me, “What are you doing, Hi? Get down here.”

I looked for a moment, not comprehending.

“Get down here,” he said again. And it occurred to me what he meant. I was to run too. I had just that year been brought out of my lessons with Mr. Fields. I remember the eyes of everyone assembled directed toward me, and what I saw in them was both sympathy for me, perhaps unearned, and disgust for Maynard. So I was lined with three of the others and off we went in the August heat to the edge of the field. By the time we’d turned to run back, I was past them all, for while I cannot speak for them, I really was running, running so hard that when my foot caught itself in something hard protruding up from the ground, a rock, an old tree root, I flew off the ground and straight into the field. I hobbled my way back to the starting line, where I found Maynard laughing in a great mood, organizing the next group. For the next three weeks, I moved through the house discharging my duties limping, and every step I took, the sharp pain in my ankle was a constant reminder of my state.

This vision replayed itself for me as though on some sort of carousel, interspersed with others of Thena, Old Pete, Lem, and the woman dancing on the bridge, my mother. But mostly there was darkness, total darkness, until at some point, hours, days, weeks after I had been deposited there, I saw a slice of light cut its way through the ceiling of my dungeon. I scurried back almost ratlike into the farthest corner of my box. And then there was a sound: something dropping to the ground and a voice bellowing out to me.

“Come out,” said the voice above me. “Come out.”

I walked over and touched the rungs of the ladder. Looking up, I saw the light of dusk and against it the outline of that ordinary man who’d brought me there, my warden.

“Come out,” he said.

I climbed up. When I reached the top, I did not so much stand before this ordinary man as I hunched. We were in a small clearing in the woods. In the distance I saw the last orange breath of the dying sun pushing out over the dark fingers of the woods. In this clearing, my captor had arranged an absurd reception—two wooden chairs, a table between them. He motioned to one of the chairs, but I would not sit. The ordinary man turned, walked toward the other chair, turned back to me and tossed a package my way. I reached to catch it, felt it slip from my fingers, then scoured the ground to retrieve it. A piece of bread wrapped in paper. I gobbled it down and in that instant knew I had never truly experienced hunger until my time down in that pit. However long I had gone without food, it had been long enough that the pangs of famish had faded from me, like a visitor who ceases to knock upon realizing no one is home. But the morsel of bread revived my hunger. I seized up and convulsed and then, looking at the table, I saw more packages and something more essential—a jar of water.

I did not even ask. I scampered over and drank and let the water wash down my throat and around the side of my mouth, down my neck and onto my long shirt and overcoat, which I now caught the pungent odor of. The world of feeling began to come back to me. I was hungry and terribly cold. I unwrapped another piece of bread, quickly devoured it, and then another and was going for another when this ordinary man quietly said, “That will be enough.”

I turned and saw that he was seated not too far from me, and though it was dusk, it was already too dark for me to get the full features of his face. The ordinary man sat there in his chair, saying nothing. I waited there, shivering against the cold. Then I saw a light in the distance growing larger and approaching us. I heard wagon wheels crunching against the road until a large covered car and horse stood before us. A man next to the driver held a lantern. The driver stepped off and nodded to the ordinary man, who then beckoned me to board the wagon. I climbed up and saw now that there were several other colored men in the car. And then we were off, rumbling down the road, the wagon shifting and creaking under us. I examined the other men gathered there, and wondered what depredations might now greet us. And there were no chains, who would need them? For had you seen the bowed heads around me, you would have known that these men were more than bound, they were broken. And I was one of them, so tumbled into the pit of despair that all my disparate motives had been reduced to survival. I had been reduced to an animal. Now came the hunt.

We rode for an hour or so, and then were ushered back out of the wagon, placed into file. And we stood there in ungainly ranks, the ordinary man surveying us as a general might review a fresh round of recruits. And though it was darker now, I found that the darkness suited my eyes, as though the time below had somehow changed me so that the moonlight proved enough for me to now take the measure of this ordinary man—his hair hanging long and ungainly beneath his wide-brimmed hat, and a long gray beard, raw and untamed, sprouting out from his face. There were more of us than him at that moment, however beaten down and demoralized we were, but we knew he wasn’t alone. Because white men in Virginia are never really alone.

And then the others arrived, announcing themselves by lantern-light in the distance and the approaching clomp and clack of horse hooves and wheels creaking up the road. And now I saw three carriages pulling to a stop before us and from them white men disembarked, holding the lanterns in their hands. The light cast a yellow pall upon them and they seemed otherworldly creatures of another age—demons, gorgons, specters—summoned back to wreak the vengeance of Quality upon our persons. But then I heard them talk, and I heard a particular cadence that told me that I was still in Virginia, and these “creatures” were no conjuration, but a pack of low whites. Their talk was rough. Their coats were worn. Now my heart dropped, and a new wave of fear overtook me. The monsters of myth would have been preferable to these men I knew too well. The low whites enjoyed only a toehold in the craggy face of society, an insecure position, which only augmented the brutal spirit they so often visited upon the coloreds of Virginia. This brutality was the offering Quality made to the low whites, the payment that united them. And it struck me now that this was the point of our evening—a ritual of brutality, in which we, the captured, were to be the sacrifice.

The ordinary man extended brief pleasantries to the low whites and once again walked down the line and made an appraisal of us. There was something theatrical about him now, and whereas before he had seemed solemn and reserved, now he was boastful and preening. He reached into his coat and pulled on his suspenders. He would stop, assess a man, shake his head mockingly, and suck his teeth.

And then, having assessed us again, he spoke.

“Villains of Virginia,” he bellowed. “Judgment has now set its blind gaze upon you. Thieves! Robbers! Murderers! Villains who have compounded your crimes by connivance to escape our laws and pass into another land under false and assumed names.”

Again he walked the line, but this time he stopped before one of the men farther down the line to my left. “You, Jackson, talked of murder of your master—but talked too much, boy! You were given up and now must stand before Virginia justice.”

The ordinary man moved down. “And you, Andrew, thought you could make off with some portion of your master’s cotton crop, did you? And when found out, decided you might run.”

Andrew stood solemn and silent. The ordinary man moved on.

“Davis and Billy,” he said, now walking to the other end of the line. “Why, boys, I am told you were well liked. What would send you to murder a good man in the alley and pilfer his property?”

“Property was ours,” yelled out one of these two. “Was the last gift of my uncle, ’fore he was put on the square!”

One of the men in the yellow light cut him off. “Ain’t no yours, boy!”

“Goddamn you,” said the man on the line. “Was my uncle’s! You best not color his name!”

At that the man standing next to him said, “Shut up, Billy. We got enough of it already.”

Another man yelled from the yellow light, “Don’t you worry yourself, boy, we will feed him his manners well enough.”

The ordinary man now walked toward the center of the line.

“You all wished to run,” he said. “Well, by God, I was not constructed to stand against the will of any man, or any niggers.”

The ordinary man walked back toward the wagon, climbed atop its seat, and stood. “Here is what we’re gonna do. You are now in the care of these Virginia gentlemen. They have agreed to give you an allotment of time to go. Outdistance them for the whole of this evening, and freedom is yours. But if they catch you, your whole life is at their mercy. Maybe you’ll make it out and your sins will be wiped. More likely, you won’t make it an hour before justice finds you. Makes no difference to me. I did my service. Time come for you to do yours.”

Then he sat down, took the reins, and the wagon rumbled off.

We stood there, looking around and into the night, looking at each other, for some clue, perhaps waiting, hoping, even amidst our gripping fear, that some jest would be revealed. We were too stunned to move. I looked over at the white men, the apparitions in their wide-brimmed hats, who now stood waiting for us to apprehend the fact of our situation. And then, his patience exhausted, one of these whites broke from the group and walked over to the rough line of us. He was holding a cudgel. He took this cudgel and smashed it over the head of one of the tasking men, now branded renegade. The tasking man seemed in disbelief as it happened, for he made no effort to block the blow. But he screamed out as it took effect, and then crumpled on the ground. The man with the cudgel now turned to the rest of the line and said, “Best to get to getting, boys.”

Everyone scattered at once. I ran too, with one look back toward the fallen man, a dark heap against the greater enveloping darkness that now gathered behind me. I ran alone. I suspect we all did. There was no effort among the Tasked assembled there to cooperate—perhaps among those two brothers, Davis and Billy—but if the terror that struck me when that man was cudgeled struck them, if they had been held under as I had, then likely there was no time for thinking, no time for loyalty.

And so I ran—but neither fast nor, as it turned out, far. Hunger stole my will. The cramps turned my limbs to wood. The night wind cut against me, and now more loping than running, I noticed that the ground beneath me was uncertain and wet and even the soft tug of the mud added to my weight.

And where was I now running to? What is North but a word? The Underground, the swamps, but a myth spread by the villain Georgie Parks? And what hope had I to elude this pack of predators? But even in this terror and despair, I didn’t think to fall down in the road or to surrender myself. The light of freedom had been reduced to embers, but it was still shining in me, and borne up by the winds of fear, I kept running, bent, loping, locked, but running all the same, with my whole chest aflame.

The night was lit up by the power of my adapting eyes, so that wet and wintery forest was all laid out before me. And I heard my brogans sinking into the ground with every step, the twigs snapping under me. And I heard a shot in the distance and I wondered if they’d caught one of us, killed one of us. The drum in my chest boomed louder. In my path I saw the skinny trunk of a fallen tree, which I told myself to leap over as I ran. But my body gave me up. I fell and there was now mud in my nose, mud in my mouth. And I remember the feeling of relief coming over me, relief from all my muscles finally at rest. But even then, even down there, I could still see the light of freedom, dim and blue. I heard voices now—a muddle of cries and yells—and I knew that soon they would be upon me.
I told myself.
. Slowly now, my fingers grasped at the mud, my palms pushed in deep, and I was then on my hands and knees.
And one knee was up and then another, and then I was standing again.

But no sooner was I up than I felt the cudgel crack across my back. I fell. And they were all over me again, kicking, punching, spitting, cursing, violating. I did not fight them off. I left my body, flew, soared even, back to Lockless, back down on the Street with Thena, back to the garden with Old Pete, back beneath the gazebo with Sophia, so that when they roped my arms and dragged me off, when I felt the wagon wheels rumbling beneath me, I was barely aware of it. I remember everything, I tell you. I remember it all—all except those moments when I gave up memory, when I left my body and flew away.

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