Authors: Ta-Nehisi Coates;
HAT EVENING, STILL LYING
in bed, I heard voices downstairs and the smell of what I hoped to be supper—I had not enjoyed a proper meal since my flight from Lockless. This all combined to rouse me from my stupor. I saw now that upon the bureau there were two washing pans filled with water, a toothbrush, dentifrice, and a set of clothes. I cleaned and changed and then limped downstairs, across a foyer, and into an open dining room, where I saw Corrine, Hawkins, Amy, three other coloreds, and none other than Mr. Fields.
I stood in the doorway for a moment until he saw me. He was laughing at some story Hawkins was relating, but when he saw me his smile turned grave and he looked to Corrine, who now looked to me, and then the whole table turned to me in the most solemn way imaginable. They were seated before a veritable feast, but all of them, black and white, man and woman, were dressed in work clothes.
“Please, Hiram,” Corrine said. “Join us.”
I walked in gingerly and took an empty seat near the end, next to Amy and across from Mr. Fields. We had stewed okra and sweet potatoes. We had greens and baked shad. There was salt pork and apples. Some type of bird stuffed with rice and mushrooms. Bread. Pudding. Dumplings. Black cake. Ale. It was the most indulgent meal I’d ever had, but more incredible than the meal was what happened after.
Corrine rose first and then the others, and all together they began to clean the dishes and reset the dining room. It was an incredible sight. There was no division. Everyone moved together, everyone except me. I tried to help but was refused. When the clean-up was done, they all retired to the parlor and I watched as they played blind man’s bluff late into the night. It occurred to me both by their jolly nature and their stray comments that this was not the usual evening, that something had changed warranting this celebration, and that the something was me.
I stayed that night in the house, in what was the guest chambers, sleeping long and late into the afternoon. I had never engaged in such luxury, not even during Holiday. I washed and dressed and then walked downstairs. The house was quiet. On the kitchen table there was a pan of rye muffins with a note next to it directing me to indulge. After devouring two muffins, I cleaned my dish, walked out the front door, and took a seat on the porch. From the outside, the house was modest and quaint, covered in white clapboard. There was a garden out front, filled with blooming snowdrops and bluebells. Past the garden there was a bank of woods, and then in the distance I saw the majestic peaks of what I knew to be the western mountains. I surmised that I was likely at the border of Virginia, most probably in Bryceton, Corrine’s family stead, the same manse where she’d told me, months ago, she would have me delivered.
In the distance, I saw two figures emerging from the woods. They walked toward the house and I could soon discern that they were two white men—one older, one younger, a father and son perhaps. When they saw me they stopped. The younger one nodded in greeting, but the older man grabbed him by the arm and pulled him back to the woods. I sat there for an hour looking out and at some point fell into a daydream and then, obviously more fatigued than I thought, into an actual dream. And I was back in my cell again, but this time with Pete and Thena, and when the men pulled me out to the front parlor Pete and Thena laughed, and I could hear their laughter through the entire ordeal as men inspected me, violated me. I could not at that time yet see this as such—as violation. It took time to learn how to speak of what was done to me directly, to tell the story of my time in Ryland’s Jail as it was, and not feel my manhood fleeting from me. It took time for me to see that the story really was my greatest power. But back then, when I awoke from the dream all I felt was a burning anger. I had never been a violent boy. I did not have much of a temper. But for years after this, I found myself randomly filled up with the most destructive thoughts and feelings, and unable to truly admit to why.
I was awakened by a door closing behind me. I looked back and saw that it was Amy. She walked out and stood on the porch for a moment, looking out as the now setting sun fell over the mountains. She wore neither a mourning gown nor black veil, but a gray hoop dress with a white apron across the front. Her hair was pulled back behind a bonnet.
“I am supposing you have questions,” she said.
Yes. I had many. But I offered none of them. It was my feeling that I had asked enough already, by which I mean I had told them enough already, because I’d learned in my first life that interrogation is never one way. Until Amy said, “All right. I understand. I must suppose that were I you, right now, I would not be much for talking myself. Nevertheless, I’m talking. Because there are things about this place, about this new life, that you should know.”
Out of the side of my eye, I now saw her looking at me. But I held my eyes on the mountains and the sun drawing to a close over them.
“You have probably guessed where you are—Bryceton. Corrine’s place. But you have not guessed, and cannot know, what her place really is. I might as well tell you. You will see it soon enough.
“Bryceton used to belong to Corrine’s folks. Seeing as how she was the onliest, when they died, the estate fell to her. I guess you know by now Corrine ain’t what she seem. Oh, she is Virginia, through and through. But by cause of what she seen right here, and some knowledge acquired up North, she takes, shall we say, a different view of the slavery question. And her view, which is my view, and my brother’s view, is quarrelsome and wrathy.”
Here Amy laughed lightly and paused for a moment and said, “I should not laugh. It is not funny, except when it is. Which I must say is all the time to me. It is a blessing to be here, to be at war with them. We are an outpost in that army that you now know as the Underground. Everyone living here is part of that army, though we can give no tell of such things. If you walked with me now, you would see what anyone would expect—orchards blooming, fields all lush. And if we were entertaining, you’d see us all at work, singing and happy. But understand that every single one of those you would see singing and working here are with us, and have dedicated themselves to extending the light of freedom into Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, and even into Tennessee.
“They’re all agents, though they work in different ways. Some of them work from the house. They are read, as you are, and have put that skill to use. Paper is important in this—freedom papers, wills and testaments. It’s the house, I know, but believe me they are a wild bunch. The house agents always got an ear to the ground. They study. They know the gossip. They know the journals. They know everyone of influence in their region, but no one in the region really knows them. And then there are others.”
Amy paused here, and when I looked over, I saw a half smile had crawled up the corner of her mouth. She was now looking out to the mountains herself, watching as they consumed the last morsel of sun.
“You see that there?” she asked. I did not answer. “That there is what it is. Sitting here watching the sun set on your own time, with nothing over you and no one to command you or threaten a seven and nine. It was not always this way, for me. I was, with my brother, tied to the meanest man in the world and that man married Corrine and, well, that man is not with us anymore and I am here with you able to enjoy small natural things such as this.
“But there are others who cannot be remanded to a house, for they feel the walls pushing in. They are the ones who remember the first time they ran, and it was so glorious to them, to be in defiance against everything they had ever been told. It is the most free they ever felt, and they are left in chase of that freedom. That is the field agent. The field agents are different. They go into plantations and lead the Tasked up off of them. The field agents are daring. The hounds make them feel alive. The swamp, the river, the bramble, the abandoned stead, the loft, the old barn, the moss, the North Star—that’s the field agent.
“And we need each other. We work together. Same army, Hiram. Same army.”
She went quiet again at that. And we sat there looking at the evening sky and the stars peeking out.
“And what are you?” I asked.
“House or field?” I said. “What are you?”
She looked at me, snorted, laughed, and said, “I’m a field agent, of course.”
Then she looked back toward the mountains, which were now just dark blue hulks in the distance. “Hiram, I could run right now, even free as I am, run from nothing, run right past them mountains, past all the rivers, through every prairie, sleeping in swamps, feeding off roots, and then after all that, I could run some more.”
So I was trained to be an agent, trained in the mountains at Bryceton, Corrine’s family stead, along with other new agents recruited for the Underground. You will forgive me for not saying much about my fellow agents. Those who are mentioned in this volume are either alive and have tendered their permission, or have gone off to that final journey to meet with the Grand Discerner of Souls. We are not yet past a time when scores are settled and vengeances sought, so many of us must, even in this time, remain underground.
My life now doubled. I resumed my regular interest in woodworking and the crafting of furniture. And I acted as I had, helping among the folk who worked at Bryceton, though they worked in a manner then most strange to me. There was no division in labor along any front. The kitchen, the dairy, the mechanic’s workshop, were worked by all, regardless of sex and color, so that should Corrine Quinn be without business abroad it was nothing to see her out among the crops, or serving supper with Hawkins in the shotgun dining hall where we together assembled nightly.
After supper, we would return to our barracks and change from our dinner garb to the uniform of the night—flannel shirt, elastic-bound trousers, and light canvas shoes. Then we would report for that first phase of training. We ran for an hour every night, covering, by my estimation, six to seven miles. Mixed in with these miles were breaks for all manner of calisthenics—arm raises, leaning rest, hops, etc. And then after our run there was more—sideways lunges, leg lifts, knee bends, etc. The regimen was derived from the German ’48ers, men who’d fought for liberty in their old country, and found common cause here in the Underground. Whatever their origins, they made me stronger. The burning in my chest diminished to the slightest discomfort and I found that I could cover wide spans of country without rest.
There were no tasking men among these instructors, only the Quality and the Low. Some of them, I suspected, were among the men who had once regularly hunted me. I don’t know if I ever got over this. I felt myself disposable to them, at least to this portion in Virginia who were, to my mind, zealots. And though I know they had to be, that there was no other way for them to be, it meant a certain distance between us, for their war was against the Task, and mine would be a war for those who were Tasked.
As it happened, there was one exception, though I wonder now if this was because he was not Virginian, but a native of the North. That was Mr. Fields, whom I met with for an hour, thrice weekly, after my calisthenics, beneath the house in a sprawling sub-basement, accessible only by a trapdoor, which one accessed by stepping through a large mahogany marriage chest whose bottom had been cut out. Down two sets of stairs, there was another door, behind which lay a musky, lantern-lit study, with two rows of bookshelves on each side, stuffed end to end. In the middle of the room there was a long table with equidistant seats, and at each seat there was pen and paper.
In the farthest corner there were two large secretaries, the pigeonholes of which were filled with various papers pertaining to the Underground, tools of the house agents who, some nights, I saw down there, at the long table, quietly executing their stealthy craft. I would sit at the table with Mr. Fields, who took up our studies as though nothing had ever occurred between us, as though the span of years had not even happened.
My curriculum now expanded, and I was happy for this: geometry, arithmetic, some Greek and Latin. And then for one remaining hour, I was given the free run of the offices and left to choose among the volumes. I think now that my own volume, the one that you now hold here, began there in those moments—in that library. For eventually I began not simply to read but to write. At first it was merely a record of my studies. But soon this record expanded to my thoughts, and then from my thoughts to my impressions, so that I now possessed, not merely a record of my head, but of my heart. From where did such an idea originate? I guess I must thank Maynard. Among the effects he pilfered from my father’s own pigeonholed secretary was an old journal kept by our grandfather, John Walker, who, in keeping with his generation, believed himself to be in the midst of a grand struggle that would alter the face of the world. I didn’t have such pretensions, but I did sense, however dimly, that I had, however incidentally, caught on to something significant beyond my small life.
I continued this routine for a month, with little alteration, until one evening, when I went down underneath the house and there was Corrine in place of Mr. Fields.
“And how are you finding things here?” she said.
“Most strange,” I said. “It is another life.”
Corrine yawned quietly and sat down. She put her elbow on the desk, and her chin in her palm, regarding me with tired eyes. Her hair was pulled back in black curls. The lantern-light tumbled shadows onto her face. Her aspect was of an ancestress though she barely outranked me in years. I recalled her time with Maynard and felt myself becoming enthralled by the breadth of her deception. How little I had known of her then, her intelligence, her savvy, her cunning. Then I felt a shock of fear roil through me. Corrine Quinn, who wore the mask of Quality, was mysterious and powerful. And I had no real notion of her capacities.
“Even you,” I said. “It is a lot to consider. I just…I would never have imagined. Not in a thousand years.”