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Authors: Ta-Nehisi Coates;

The Water Dancer: A Novel (14 page)

BOOK: The Water Dancer: A Novel

They brought me back before the ordinary man, all roped and trussed. I did not even look at him. They blindfolded me and tossed me into the back of another wagon, and, after a short ride, tossed me into the same pit from which my ordeal began.

This hunt became my routine. I would be pulled up from the pit, given a pittance of bread and water, put into file with a group of renegades, who were addressed with all their crimes, and then sent to run. I remember the names, how the ordinary man would read them in his low gravelly voice—Ross, Healy, Dan, Edgar. And each night we were made to run. And each night I was defeated. And each night returned to my pit. Had I died? Was this the hell of which my father spoke? Some nights I would be out running for hours and I could swear I saw the soft glimmer of dawn, its borders at my finger-tips. Then I would be taken, beaten, and tossed right back into the box, where the carousel of dreams and visions awaited—I am watching Sophia water dance by the fire, I am watching Jack and Arabella flick marbles in the ring, I am gathering the Tasked for Maynard to run.

But I grew stronger. I grew faster. And this began not with the body but the mind, for I found that when in the right mind, I ran faster and farther, and if I were ever to win this twisted game, I would need all the assets I could manage. And so, in my mind I began to call out the very anthems that Lem and I exchanged that last Holiday:

Going away to the great house farm

Going on up to where the house is warm

When you look for me, Gina, I’ll be far gone.

The song powered me, for it reminded me of Lem and the Holiday, Thena and Sophia, and all of us gathered together. Even in the darkness some part of me smiled.

And I felt freedom, brief as it was, in those nights of flight. Even as I was hunted, I felt it in the cold wind cutting against my face, the branch scratching my cheek, the mud under my brogans, the heaving heat of my breath. No Maynard yanking at me. No trying to discern the motives of my father. No creeping fear of Corrine. Out here, it was all so clear. In running, I felt myself to be in a kind of defiance.

And I was growing crafty. I remember being out one night for what must have been hours. And I knew it had been hours because by the time they’d finished with me and hauled me back, pummeled and beaten, to the ordinary man, I saw something incredible—the sun rising over what I could now see as green hills. And remembering the promise made to me of freedom, I knew that I was close. I learned to cover my tracks, to double back over them, so as to confuse them, and learned, too, that I could track them as sure as they tracked me. And I realized that I had a gift that I could bring to bear—my memory. It was always the same crew, and they were unoriginal in their workings. Memorizing the terrain and their habits gave me a sudden advantage. I would find my way to their flank. One night they split up. I felled one, and then pummeled another. They gave me an extra hard licking for that one, and I was forced to confess the limits of my operation. I was running, when what I needed was to fly. Not just in my mind, but in this world. I needed to lift up away from these low whites, as I lifted away from Maynard and the river.

But how? What was that power that could pull a man out of the depths? That could pull a boy out of the stables and into the loft? I began to reconstruct events. Both of those uncanny moments featured blue light and both brought me, in different ways, close to my mother, or to the dark hole in my memory where I’d lost her. The power must have some relation to my mother. And I needed the power because I needed to fly, or I would die trying to outrun these wolves.

Maybe the power was in some way related to the block in my memory, and to unlock one was, perhaps, to unlock the other. And so in those dark and timeless hours in the pit, it became my ritual to reconstruct everything I had heard of her and all that I had seen of her in those moments down in the Goose. Rose of the kindest heart. Rose, sister of Emma. Rose the beautiful. Rose the silent. Rose the Water Dancer.

It was a cloudless night and I was running. I could feel that it was now spring, for the nights were no longer so fierce upon me. My heart no longer pounded against my chest as I ran. My legs were fluid. And the men must have known this, for I had noticed that they had increased their numbers. And whereas before they would split up to pursue the whole line of fugitives, I now began to feel that the entire team was focused on me above all the others. So it was that night that I heard them, closing in. And then the forest opened up and I saw a pond glistening, wide and dark. I had to make an effort around the water. I could hear the cries and whoops of the men behind me. I pushed around the pond as hard as I could, the voices of the men steadily closing, and I dared not look back. And then my foot caught on something, a branch, or a root, I cannot be sure, and a sharp pain, an old pain, shot up through my ankle. I felt myself falling and then I was down in the fens, and I felt the cold muddy water on my face. I crawled for a moment. But delirious with pain, and knowing the hunt was over, I called out, but this time not in my mind but out loud for all to hear:

Going away to the great house farm

Going up, but won’t be long

Be back, Gina, with my heart and my song.

What did the men pursuing me see in that moment? Did they even hear me calling out? They were right on me, ready to lay on hands, perhaps reaching at that moment. Did they see the air open in front of them, the blue light of all our stories knifing through the world, illuminating the night? What I saw was the woods folding back against themselves, a rolling mist, and beneath it a bowling green that I immediately recognized as belonging to Lockless. That was my first thought. But then as the scene came upon me—and that was how it felt, like the world was drawing to me more than I was drawing to it—I saw that this was not the Lockless of my time, for there were tasking folk who I knew to no longer be with us. And directing them I saw, as I remembered him all those years, laughing and thoughtless, Little May. He was pointing back at the house, yelling something, and drawn to that direction, I saw that he was yelling at me, not me floating above but me on the ground, in time, in that first year of service, stripped from the instruction of Mr. Fields, still apprehending my place in things.

The moment struck me not as another turn on the carousel, but wholly new. It was like being asleep and never recognizing, no matter the absurdity of things, that you are in a dream. The very nature of logic and expectation was bent, and the absurd struck me as normal, so I simply observed myself, observed Maynard, as we had been, in that other time. Even as I watched this younger me cornered off with another group of tasking folks and lined up to run, even as I saw myself racing off, even as I felt myself to be racing with them, though my legs were not moving, I did not understand. I watched as I separated myself from the line, faster than all of them, and touching the tip of the field, I saw myself turn back, and then trip, scream, and fall, grabbing at my ankle. I remember wanting to comfort this child, this me from another life. But when I moved to him, the world again peeled away and I was back in my own time.

But not in my own place. Pain again shot through my ankle. I was on the ground howling. I tried to crawl. And then I stood. I took one step. It was agony. I fell. And again I felt myself slipping under. I looked up one last time and saw one of the men standing over me.

No. A different one now.

“Quiet down, boy,” Hawkins said. “The way you hollering liable to wake the dead.”


the pain in my ankle. It was no longer the sharp stab from before, but a dull throbbing. I opened my eyes and saw the daylight, the beautiful daylight that I hadn’t seen in weeks, blaring through a window like a horn, so loud that the rest of the world blurred before me. Slowly my eyes shifted so that the blur began to take shape—a table by the bedside with a pipe hooked onto a vase shaped like a ship, a large clock on a ledge across from me, and above my head a canopy, and scarlet-red curtains pulled back. I looked down and saw that I had been fully washed, and fitted in cotton drawers and a silk night shirt. It occurred to me that I might still be down under, and this just another turn on the carousel. Or perhaps I had ascended out of the hell of my dungeon and gone, at last, to my reward. But the dull throbbing of my ankle signaled that the world around me was real. And I saw that I was not alone, for there were figures, too, forming out of the blur. One was Hawkins, the man who had, now twice, found me on the other end of miraculous flight. He was seated in a chair, and next to him, no longer in her mourning clothes, I saw the forsaken bride of Maynard Walker, Corrine Quinn.

“Welcome,” she said.

She was smiling, smiling joyously even, and I was aware that I had never seen her smile in such a way before. It was as if she had discovered something lost ages ago, a key perhaps, or the final piece of a puzzle that had so long vexed and discomfited her. But there was something more, something in her manner, for she was smiling
at me,
not smiling
upon me
. Her manner had always been bizarre and unlike anything I had ever seen among the Quality. But this was different still, for there was nothing masterful nor certain, no dominance in her manner, only a deep pleasure, a satisfaction at some unseen goal having been attained.

“Do you know what has happened to you?” she asked. “Do you know where you are?”

There was the smell of spring potpourri—a sharp sweet mix of mint, thyme, and something else—a scent that could never be of Lockless, where a boyish spirit prevailed and didn’t allow for such things.

“Do you know how long you’ve been gone?” she asked.

I said nothing.

“Hiram,” she said. “Do you know who I am?”

“Miss Corrine,” I answered.

“No ‘Miss,’ ” she said, her joyous smile now relaxing into a look of confirmation. “Corrine. Only ever Corrine.”

The unnaturalness of the moment now expanded. I saw, looking over, that Hawkins was not standing in wait, as a tasking man should, but was seated right next to her with his posture upright and erect.

Again she asked, “Do you know where you are?”

“No,” I replied. “I don’t know how long I have been gone. I don’t know where I been gone to. I don’t even know why.”

“Hiram,” she said, “we are going to have an agreement, an understanding. I will be truthful with you. And in turn, you will do the same for me.”

Now she stared hard at me.

“You well know why you were sent away,” she said. “You ran, taking another with you. Surely by now you have guessed that we have intelligence greater than your own. I will tell you anything, but you must do me the same.”

I moved to sit up in the bed and felt a sharp pain in my back and legs. My feet were cracked and sore. I felt my face and found a knot above my left eye. And I remembered the nightly ordeal I had suffered, the hours spent in the pit.

“Yeah, we’re sorry about that. Had to be sure.” Hawkins now gave a look of acknowledgment and said, “Had some notions, but to be sure, had to carry you off.”

We’re sorry,
he’d said, implying that Hawkins, a tasking man, had some power here, not just in this room but in all the hell that I had journeyed through for what had been, what, a month? Months?

“Hiram,” said Corrine. “You went into the Goose River with Maynard. No, you took Maynard into the Goose River. He had no choice in the thing. Perhaps you wanted this, but want or not, you killed a man, and in so doing, sent long-drawn plans to dust. For your impulse and desire, for your crime, great men must now reapportion their lives and whole armies of American justice are now in flight. You do not understand. But I think you shall, for it is my belief that in your wild thrashings there was a design, greater still than even our own.”

As she spoke, Corrine unhooked the pipe from the vase with her left hand, and with her right took the top off. The smell of tobacco now wafted out. She lit the pipe, pulled, and puffed out a plume of smoke. Then she handed the pipe to Hawkins, who relit, puffed, and handed the pipe back to her. White smoke fluttered up from them and hung like dust on the sunlight cutting through the window. I thought back to the last conference, in that low-lit parlor of Lockless, where her voice quavered and trembled, and I remembered how odd she was even then, how odd she’d always been, how she seemed to eschew the fashion of the moment for a Virginia of old, and how conspicuous and wrong it all really was. But now I saw the truth so suddenly I wondered how I had never seen it before. It was a lie, the whole thing was a lie, the tradition, the mourning, perhaps even the marriage itself.

I must have lost all my covert powers while away, for Corrine looked at me and laughed and said, “You are wondering how I did it, aren’t you?”

“I am,” I said.

“Yes, yes, I understand, I truly do,” she said. “It is a rare thing for any lord or lady of the estate to truly fool the servant. It is a luxury to be so grandly deceived, to live among perjury and invention. Whatever your aspirations, Hiram, I know that you have never enjoyed such splendor. You are a scientist. You have to be.

“But these fools, these Jeffersons, these Madisons, these Walkers, all dazzled by theory, well, I am convinced that the most degraded field-hand, on the most miserable plot in Mississippi, knew more of the world than any overstuffed, forth-holding American philosophe.

“And the lords and ladies of our country know this. This is why they are so in thrall of the dance and song of your people. It is an unwritten library stuffed with a knowledge of this tragic world, such that it defies language itself. Power makes slaves of masters, for it cuts them away from the world they claim to comprehend. But I have given up my power, you see, given it up, so that now I might begin to see.”

She held the pipe in her hand, and shook her head. “Yes, you do see, you do understand, but you are not yet wise. Your pursuit of this design, your embrace of a man who is, in fact, a villain…well, this thing with you, this Conduction that pulled you out of the river, you are not the first, you know? You know the story—Santi Bess and the forty-eight coloreds—”

“That never happened?” I interrupted.

“Indeed it did,” Corrine said. “And its implications are the very reason you find yourself here before us. Did you know that before her departure, there was no Freetown in Starfall? Did you know that Georgie’s entire treachery—a slavery in liberator’s clothes—is really the treachery of the lords of this country?”

At the mention of Georgie’s name, memories flowed back, old memories of a man who had been as family. Thoughts of Amber and their baby. Had Amber known? I thought of our last conversation, how she tried to dissuade me. And I wondered at what precise moment Georgie decided to hand me off. And I wondered how many he had handed off before me.

“It’s a good trick,” Hawkins said. “Gotta give him that—they give shelter to Georgie and his pals, and he gives them intelligence and eyes. So the next time a Santi Bess come, he laying in wait.”

“But that can’t happen, can it, Hiram,” said Corrine. “Because Santi worked by a different power—the same power that pulled you out of the river Goose, the same power that freed you from our patrol.”

Now I looked around the room. Things began to assemble together, and a set of questions slowly formed but all I managed to ask was one.

“What is this?”

Corrine reached for a handbag. She produced a paper and held it up.

“You were given to me, body and soul, by your father,” she explained. “He signed you over because your flight disgraced him. It was another blow to his heart, already weakened by the loss of Maynard, and he answered the blow with rage. He wanted nothing to do with you. But I convinced him that you were too valuable to lose, and so he signed you over to me. For a healthy price, of course.”

Now she rose and walked over to the door.

“But you are not mine,” she said, and at that she opened the door. I could see stairs and the upper portion of a banister. “You are not a slave. Not to your father. Not to me. Not to anyone. You asked what this was. It is freedom.”

These words did not fill me with delight. The questions now overran me. Where had I been? Why was I left in a hole? How long had I been under? What happened to the ordinary man? And more than anything, what had become of Sophia?

Corrine returned to her seat. “But freedom, true freedom, is a master too, you see—one more dogged, more constant, than any ragged slave-driver,” she said. “What you must now accept is that all of us are bound to something. Some will bind themselves to property in man and all that comes forthwith. And others shall bind themselves to justice. All must name a master to serve. All must choose.

“We have chosen this, Hawkins and I. We have accepted the gospel that says our freedom is a call to war against unfreedom. Because that is who we are, Hiram. The Underground. We are who you were searching for. But you found Georgie Parks first. I am sorry about that. At great expense, and risking exposure, we retrieved you. This was not done for your benefit, but because we have long seen in you something of incredible value, some artifact of a lost world, a weapon that might turn the tide in this longest war. You know of what I speak, do you not?”

I did not reply. Instead I asked, “Where is Sophia? What happened to her?”

“There are limits to our powers, Hiram,” Corrine said.

“But you say you are the Underground,” I said. “If you are who you say you are, why didn’t you free her? Why did you leave me in that jail? Why did you leave me in that hole? Do you know what has happened to me?”

“Know?” asked Hawkins. “We caused it to happen to you. We authored it. And as for your freedom, there is a reason we are the Underground. And a reason we’ve lived to fight so long. There are rules. There is a reason you found Georgie before you found us.”

“Every night, those men hunted me,” I said, the anger growing in me. “And you let them do it. No, worse. You sent them to do this?”

“Hiram,” said Corrine, “I am sorry but that hunt was but a preview of your life now. And that dungeon was but a glimpse of the price of your failure. Your life was over the minute you engaged with Georgie Parks. Would you prefer we left you to that? Hawkins speaks the truth. We had to be sure.”

“What did you have to be sure of?” I asked.

“That you really did carry the power of Santi Bess, of Conduction,” Corrine said. “And you do. Twice now we have seen it made manifest. Surely it was the work of our Lord for Hawkins to find you the first time. And inquiring, we discovered from others that you’d once talked wildly about something much the same happening to you as a child. We needed to wait for it to happen again. We calculated where the power might send you, and we waited for you to arrive.”

“Arrive where?” I asked.

“At Lockless,” she said. “We thought you might be trying to get back to the only home you’ve ever known. We had agents watching for you every night.”

“And here you are,” said Hawkins.

“And where am I?” I asked.

“Somewhere safe,” said Corrine. “Where we bring all those newly married to our cause.”

She paused for a second here. I saw a hint of sympathy in her face and I knew she was not relishing any of this, that she had some sense of my pain and confusion.

“There is so much that you must understand, I know. We will explain, I promise you this. But you must trust us. And you must trust us because there is no going back. Right now, there is nothing else true in this world. And soon you shall see that there is nothing else truer than our cause.”

At that Corrine and Hawkins rose. “Soon,” she said as they left. “Soon you will understand it all. Soon you shall singularly comprehend, and then your comprehension will be a new binding, and in this binding—in this high duty—you will find your true nature.”

Now she paused at the door and uttered words that felt like prophecy.

“You are not a slave, Hiram Walker,” said Corrine. “But by Gabriel’s Ghost, you shall serve.”

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