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Authors: Ta-Nehisi Coates;

The Water Dancer: A Novel (24 page)

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And Kessiah was now laughing to herself at the thought of it. “You should have seen it. Me and Elias had said our farewells. It had been so hard. And then the day of, he shows up in the auction and starts bidding. And my heart is leaping because it’s him and some other man all the way from Texas. And they go back and forth until my Elias look at me with the saddest eyes. And I know he done lost, and Texas done won. And Texas pays his money and shuts me up in a cell. You should have heard him and all his intentions. He was so high and mighty. Sunrise we’ll be off, he tells me. Hah! Sunrise. He don’t know. Sun came sure enough. But Moses got there first.”

Moses, I thought. Conduction.

Now Kessiah looked at me. “It was a plan, you see. They bid me up as high as they could. Made the man pay and then got me out. My Lord, after I seen that, after I seen what Moses had done to them, I could not go back to that life. I thought of all the hell they had given to me. And I thought of how good it felt to give some back in good measure. And I thought of all my pains and how many more there were like me, and all I wanted thereafter was to be on this Underground.

“I been with Moses ever since. Was how I heard about you, Hi. Some boy, they tell me, come up from Virginia—Elm County,
my county
. And I start to checking and I hear your name, and I could not believe it, but my God, it was you. Soon as I seen you here wandering and watching, I knew it was you.”

At that she threw herself on me and embraced me, and when she did, much to my surprise, I was warmed. I had been away from home so long. And now, there I was with some memory of it, with someone else who had made the same journey. It was getting late and we each had to find our people. We stood and embraced again and she said, “We’ll have more time, you and I. We will have more days here.”

Then she looked at me and said, “Oh my, I don’t know how I forgot to ask, been talking so much myself. How is Momma Rose? How is your mother?”


Soon I was walking again among the tents and saw that exhortation had given way to amusements. There were teams of jugglers who tossed fruit and bottles amongst each other. There were daredevils who extended a thin cable between the heights of two trees and walked across once, and then danced their way back again while singing a tune. There were acrobats who tumbled and twisted and leaped in mid-air.

And how was my mother? How fared Momma Rose? I still had no recollection of her, only the stories assembled from those like Kessiah who’d known her, so that when I thought of her, it was like a scene sketched of some ancient myth, not like I remembered Sophia, not like I remembered Thena—Thena who had never been more alive to me than she was in that moment with Kessiah, with the recollections of the daughter mixing with my own. And I felt that I now understood so much, that I knew why she had been so hard with me. Her injunction:
I am more your mother standing right here now than that white man on that horse is your father
.

We all joined for supper—Otha, Raymond, Kessiah, Moses, and I—and afterward, with the sun now low in the sky, a group of colored folk assembled around a bonfire. They began, in the slowest, most haunting voices, to sing the songs that could only be made down in the coffin. I had not heard these songs since I had left, and hearing them now, I felt them tugging at me, I felt myself swaying in the August heat. It was all too much. I left and went to roam, with my thoughts, among the muddy byways between the rows of tents.

I sat down on a patch of dry grass just beyond the tents, where I could still hear my people singing in the distance. I was reeling from the day—Kessiah, the memories of Thena and Big John, the arguments and ideas about women, children, labor, land, family, and wealth. It occurred to me that an examination of the Task revealed not just those evils particular to Virginia, to my old world, but the great need for a new one entirely. Slavery was the root of all struggle. For it was said that the factories enslaved the hands of children, and that child-bearing enslaved the bodies of women, and that rum enslaved the souls of men. In that moment I understood, from that whirlwind of ideas, that this secret war was waged against something more than the Taskmasters of Virginia, that we sought not merely to improve the world, but to remake it.

I was pulled out of my thoughts by a man milling around nearby. I was greeted by a messenger who handed me a parcel, with a seal, which I immediately recognized as the mark of Micajah Bland. My heart leapt. My greatest urging then was to open this letter. But it was Otha’s family, and it should be he who first understood their fate. I found him with Raymond, still near the bonfire, still enraptured by the slave songs that were ringing out. I handed the letter to Raymond, who was the better reader. On Otha’s face, alight with the bonfire’s glow, was all the trepidation we could expect. But then Raymond smiled and said, “Micajah Bland has Lydia and the children. They have passed out of Alabama. At the time of this letter, they were traversing Indiana.”

“My God,” said Otha. “My God.”

He turned to me and said, “It’s gonna happen. After all of these years, my Lydia, my boys—all of them—my God, I wish Lambert had made it to see this.”

Otha then turned back to Raymond and burst into tears. Raymond broke his usual solemn mask, and held Otha close as they wept. I turned away, thinking they needed their time, overrun by a day filled with more wonders than I could fathom.

21

O
NCE
I
’D DREAMED OF
ruling, as my father had done, back at Lockless, and it is tough to say it as such, that it was my dream, even if I had not thought it all through. But I had found the Underground, or the Underground had found me, and for this fact I was at last happy. On the Underground, I found meaning. In Raymond White, in Otha, in Micajah, I found family. And now in Kessiah, I felt that I had even found some lost part of myself.

The next evening, after another day of exhortations and amusements, I decided to walk through the woods, high into the hills above the field, and that’s where I saw her, Moses, seated on a large rock, her legs folded. She was still and at peace and I thought perhaps to leave her to her thoughts, but when I began to walk away I heard her voice cut through the quiet night air.

“Evening.”

I turned and saw her already walking toward me, her eyes fixed on my head. When close enough, she reached out to feel the spot where I had taken Ryland’s blow. Then she stepped back, smiled, and said, “I knew we would have our time to speak, and it is good to do so out here, far removed from them. Heard a lot about you,” she said. “And then Kessiah said you spoke more just yesterday.”

“Yes,” I said. “We’re from the same home-place, as it happens.”

“Uh-huh, she told me as much. Good to see someone from home, ain’t it? Give you some sense of roots. It must be hard on you to be so far from your roots.”

“Aren’t we all?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “Me, I’m home fairly often, even if the masters would like it different. I work in one place, and it is the place I know best—the far shore of Maryland, my home. Someday I shall return there for good, but not like this, not as no agent, but in the bright and open sun. But in the by-time, I am there fairly often and it is good to get back, good to remember.”

“I remember plenty,” I said.

“I know you do. Way I hear it, your talent is such that you are as good working in the house of Philadelphia as you were in the fields of Virginia. And I have heard it whispered that you, particularly, might be able to work even more.”

“I’ve heard that too,” I said. “But it’s all horse and no saddle.”

“Huh,” she said. “Give it time.”

“I think it ain’t really up to me. I want my people out. But I see it. There are so many people. And I can see them all now.”

“Oh, I am so glad to hear you say that,” she said. She was smiling at me mischievously. And I felt, in fact knew, that I had just then enrolled myself into something. “Here is the thing, friend, I work small and I work alone. I move by my own time and my particular vigilance. But for this one job I need a man who runs least well as he writes, and I am told that you are one of the few, this side of the Underground, who qualifies.”

“Can’t see why you need any help from me. I know they call you Moses. And that name comes out of a majestic power, don’t it?”

“Majestic,” she said. “That’s a big word for something so simple.”

“But the stories,” I said. “I know what they say. Moses tamed oxen as a girl and harrowed the fields like a man. Moses talk to the wolves. Moses brought the clouds to earth. Knives melt upon the garments of Moses. Bullwhips turn to ash in the slave-master’s hand.”

She laughed. “That what they say, huh?”

“That and a lot more.”

“Well, here is what I will tell you,” she said. “My methods are not for the offering. It’s the Underground, not the Overground. This ain’t no show. I don’t advertise like Box Brown. Put before something they can’t understand, people got a tendency to talk—and also to make something bigger than what they actually saw. However it play, understand that talk don’t come from me. I speak no more than required, and leave the passenger to their colors and wide tales. And as for names, I answer to one—Harriet.”

“So no Conduction, then?” I asked.

“Big words. Big words,” she said. “All I want to know is you ready to work. I’m headed back home. And you have been recommended to me as one who could well do a turn. So do you wish to work, or do you want to while away the hours quizzing me?”

“Of course I want to work. When do we leave and who are we after?”

It was only then that I heard the eagerness in my own voice, the powerful desire to work with this woman of whom I had heard so many stories.

“I am sorry,” I said. “I stand ready whenever you would have it.”

“Go on back to the camp,” she said. “Enjoy the show.”

She then walked back to her boulder and, turning away from me, said, “We be moving soon enough. Might even get you that saddle.”


The next morning, I woke up to a grand commotion outside the tent. I heard Otha’s voice, lost in a kind of hysteria. And then I heard Raymond and some others, whom I did not recognize. They were trying to calm him and I think right then I must have known, because no matter our troubles, Otha almost never was one for such commotion. Something truly terrible must have come. I stepped outside the tent. It was barely first light, but I could clearly see Otha’s head buried in the shoulder of his brother, and he was swaying almost, barely able to stand.

Raymond saw me first. His eyes widened and he shook his head. Otha, perhaps sensing me there, broke away from his brother and turned to me. I saw an entire funeral on his face.

“Have you heard?” Otha asked me. “Have you heard what they done did?”

I did not answer.

“Hiram,” Raymond said. “We can explain it all later. We have to…” And at that Raymond just shook his head in disbelief, and tried to guide Otha away. “Come on, Otha,” he said. “Come on…”

“Come on where?” Otha said. “Where can we go, Raymond? For the doing of what? It’s over. Can’t you see that it’s over? They got Lydia in the coffin. Where we gon go? Micajah Bland is dead. Where can any of us go?”

And then Otha turned to me. “Did you hear that, Hiram?” he asked. And I saw that his face had gone from pain to rage. “Did you hear what they did? They killed him. Chained his body, bashed in his head, and threw him in the river.”

And Otha burst into tears as he said this, and Raymond and several of the men pulled him away from the tent. He nearly came to blows with them at first. He yelled and screamed and kicked, until Raymond took hold of him. Now they led him, almost carried him, away and I could hear Otha yelling the whole time, “Did you hear what they done did? Micajah Bland is in the water! And what we gon do now?”

I stood there rooted, until I could no longer see them. And then I stood there longer, struck wholly dumb. When I came out of it, I saw that there was a commotion all around me. The news was spreading across the camp. I could see people talking amongst each other in groups and those groups shifting among others to share whatever rumor or intelligence they’d garnered of Micajah Bland’s fate. And then I looked down and saw a satchel not far from where Otha and Raymond had stood. On instinct I reached for the satchel and carried it back into my tent, and when I opened it, I found a collection of newspapers, detailing the saga of Micajah Bland and Lydia White. The first item told the tale—“Runaway Negroes Taken.” The second confirmed that it was, indeed, the family of Otha White. My hands trembled as I thumbed through the third—“Thief of Negroes Returned to Alabama.” And then finally a dispatch from an Indiana agent, who wrote with great sorrow, communicating the news—the body of Micajah Bland had that morning washed up on the shore. Head stove in. Hands bound behind him in chains.

By then, I had been trained to package away misery. And so what I thought of in that moment was not Micajah Bland, but the simple task of getting those papers back to Raymond and Otha. I moved among the crowd. A few people, knowing my affiliation with the Philadelphia station, tried to stop me and ask what I might know. I ignored them, and scanned among the tents for a clue as to where they might have taken Otha. I saw some of the agents of the western Underground before a tent. One of them waved to me—“Here,” he said. Then another parted the entrance for me, and walking in I saw Otha seated there with Raymond. Otha was calmer now, though still smoldering. There were a few others whom I recognized as clearly senior within the loose leadership of the Underground. Harriet was there, and most shockingly, seated calmly—Corrine Quinn.

There was not much time to weigh her presence. The conversation halted when I entered.

“I am sorry,” I said, walking over to Raymond, “but I thought you might need these.”

Raymond thanked me, and I took my leave, allowing the meeting to continue. I walked away from the camp, back toward the woods where I’d met Harriet a day before. I sat there, on that same boulder where Harriet had sat. Would that I could open a door right here in the woods, I thought, and pull the cotton fields of Alabama to the forests of New York. But I had nothing. A power was within me, but with no thought of how to access it or control it, I was lost.

I returned and found the camp still in mourning. It was afternoon by then. I went to my tent and lay down. When I awoke, Otha was there seated in a chair next to me. Otha was a man of true feeling, but never wild in his passions, or flagrant in his rages. I had never seen him as he was two days before in joy, nor as he was that morning in agony.

“Otha,” I said. “I’m sorry. I…I don’t even know what to say. I have never met Lydia or your children, but I have heard so much of them now that I feel them as family.”

“He was my brother, Hiram,” Otha said. “Micajah Bland was not my blood, but he was so much my brother that he would die for me and mine. I am not young to any of this. I lived divided from my blood, and made brothers wherever I lived, and grieved every time we were divided—and we were
always
divided. But I have never, for an instant, shied away from connection, from love.

“I am sorry about my anger this morning. Raymond did not deserve it, and I am sorry you saw me as such.”

“There’s no need, Otha.”

He was silent for a few minutes. I said nothing, thinking that this was Otha’s time.

“I want to tell you a story about dreaming. I want to tell you, specifically, because I know you have struggled to see your place, struggled to touch that power they all say is in you. And if in this pain I can give something to you, that would well soothe me too.”

I sat up in my pallet and listened.

“I met my wife, Lydia, shortly after Lambert died. Lambert was older, stronger, and braver. He was my heart, and my faith, and whenever I fell to despair, it was his unflagging belief that set me straight. And then to see him go under as he did, feeling that we would never get home, that God had truly indeed blighted us. A torrent of ugly came over me. I spent many nights in the very state that you saw me this morning. Perhaps you know about this, a pain that reaches out and falls over your heart like night.

“I found my only balm was in the work, Tasked though I was. My mind disappeared into my hands and I was soothed by the fields. The whites thought it was my great morality. They thought me gracious under the lash. But I hated them all, Hiram, for as sure as they had ripped me from the cradle, they had right well murdered my brother.

“In this state I met Lydia. Perhaps, having been born into Alabama, she knew more about the weight, and was better fitted to carry the great burden of a bonded life. I would rage and she would laugh, and soon enough I found myself laughing along. And then I would be angry that she had diminished me to laughter. And I would laugh at the whole heap of the thing again. We were to be married, and I felt myself come back to the world. I was tied to something, you see.

“A few days before we were married, I came to see Lydia and found her back-sore. She was well-liked and highly valued by all the Quality, and had never been condemned to a seven and nine. She told me it was the boss’s headman. He had been hot after her. She would not submit. And so he whipped her, claiming it done on account of her sassing him.

“When I heard that, my blood got up. I stood to leave without saying a word. She asked what I planned to do. I said, ‘Kill him.’

“ ‘Don’t you dare,’ Lydia said.

“ ‘Why not?’ I asked.

“ ‘Because they will shoot you and you knows it,’ she said.

“ ‘I’ll see that as it comes,’ I said. ‘But on my manhood, I gotta make this right.’

“ ‘Damn your manhood and every inch of you to hell if you touch one hair on that white man’s head.’

“ ‘But you are mine, Lydia,’ I said. ‘And it’s my duty to make you protected.’

“ ‘And you gonna protect me from under the ox, too?’ she asked. ‘I picked you for a reason. You done told me your story, and I know that you have some notion of a place beyond this. Otha, it’s got to be about more than this. It’s got to be about more than anger, more than manhood. We got plans, me and you. And this is not our end. This is not how you and me die.’

“Those words have never left me, you understand that, Hiram. I dream about ’em—
This is not our end,
she say.
This is not how you and me die
. She had taken the whip. But I was the one who was claiming to be wounded. I was supposed to love her. But all I was truly loving was my own regard.

“I know you can picture what horror we saw through our union, what horror, at this very moment, my Lydia, my children, must still see. But what I want you to see is what I am trying to now save, what sent Bland down under, and that is all that my Lydia and me built together—the jests that belong to only us, our children who are an honor upon us, a feeling so deep that it calls across this whole continent. Lydia saved my life, Hiram, and I will give anything to save hers.

“Micajah Bland knew all of this. And they killed him for it. I grieve more than you know.”

Now he rose and held open the slit of the tent.

“My Lydia will be free,” he said. “This is not how we die. My Lydia will be free.”

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