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Authors: Ta-Nehisi Coates;

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BOOK: The Water Dancer: A Novel
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came the hour to decamp, and having gathered my affairs in my carpet-bag, I wandered through the field and watched as this wondrous city of new ideas, of visions and liberated futures, of men and women, which sprung up in the fields, fell back into nothing. I took a walk in the woods, so as to enjoy the country air one last time before my descent into the smoke and filth of the city. When I returned, Raymond, Otha, and Harriet were all finishing their preparations. I saw Kessiah nearby tightening the strap on a traveling piece. When she saw me, she put her hand to her mouth, walked over, pulled me close into a hug, and said, “I am so sorry, Hi. I am so deeply sorry.”

“I appreciate it,” I said. “But no concern should be put upon me. Not with Otha’s family still lost.”

“I know. But I also know Micajah Bland was something to you,” she said. And she gripped my arm tight, almost as a mother would a child.

“Before you,” I said, “he was my closest connection back to the old place. Not that I would ever wish it, but it is truly something for him to leave me just as you came.”

“It is,” she said. “Maybe someone is watching for you.”

She smiled and I felt a warmth between us. I had met Kessiah only three days before, but already I had been drawn into her. She was the elder sister I had never thought to need, the plug in the hole that I had not even known was there.

“Thank you, Kessiah,” I said. “I hope I shall see you soon. In fact, should you have some time, please put down a few lines for me.”

“I’d surely like to,” she said. “I am of the field, though, so I cannot say I can match eloquence with one such as you. Anyway, I shall be traveling to Philadelphia with you—me and Harriet. Micajah Bland’s going as he did has changed some things. Likely we will have to change too.”

We embraced again. I reached down for her bag and carried it over to the coach and stowed it away. When I looked back, I saw that Raymond and Otha and Harriet had been joined by Corrine and, to my surprise, Hawkins and Amy. They were all in deep conversation and exchanging embraces and affectionate words for Otha. I had never seen them so soft with each other, but too I had never seen the Underground in mourning for one of its own. Corrine looked different. She had traded in the mask of Virginia—her hair flowed down to her shoulders. Her ivory dress was plain. She wore neither powder nor rouge. When Hawkins spotted me, he nodded and gave, as much as was possible for him, a look of concern.

We rode in a caravan of three coaches. Otha, Raymond, and I in the first coach, Corrine, Hawkins, and Amy in the second, and finally Harriet, Kessiah, and their driver, a young man conducted recently by Harriet, who swore himself to her. We bedded down that night at a small inn about an hour’s ride north of Manhattan island. But sleep brought me not one measure of peace, for no sooner had I closed my eyes than I found myself lost in baneful nightmares, so that I was out in the water, out in the river Goose, bursting through the waves, and when I came up I saw, all again, May drowning before me. And I thought myself back there, and seeing, already, the blue light gathering around, and knowing that the power was in me, I decided that this one would be different. But when I reached out, Little May turned and I saw it was not him but Micajah Bland.

I awoke with a dreadful thought. I had created the passes, I had forged the letters of introduction. The fault for all this must lie with me. I thought of Simpson. I thought of McKiernan. I thought of Chalmers. I ran through all the events of that night. I thought of the days following and all the practiced forgeries. And I remembered that it was sometimes perfection that gave up the house agent, that sometimes the passes were too good, too practiced, and aroused suspicion. It had been me, I was certain of it.

I had killed Micajah Bland. I had nearly killed Sophia. Perhaps I had doomed my mother, somehow, and maybe that is why I could not remember. I felt my chest tighten. I could not breathe. I rose from my bed, dressed, and then stumbled outside. I sat on the back porch and bent over and breathed and breathed and breathed. Sitting up, I saw a garden in the back. It was still late evening. I walked through the garden, and as I approached I heard familiar voices. Hawkins, Corrine, and Amy were there all seated on a circle of benches, each of them smoking a cigar. We exchanged brief greetings and I took my seat. By the moonlight, I saw Corrine inhale and then breathe out a long stream of smoke. And for a few long minutes there was only the night music of insects. Then Corrine took it upon herself to speak what was in all of our minds.

“He was an uncommon man,” she said. “I knew him well—and liked him very much more. He was so uncommon. He found me all those years ago. He saved me. He showed me a world that I had not even glimpsed. I am not here without him.”

There was now more silence and I watched as the faces around me alighted in the glow of the cigars. Guilt took hold of me, and I said, “He saved me too. Saved me from Ryland. Saved me from all those dumb notions of the swamps. Was he that first introduced me to books. I owe him more than could ever be known.”

Amy nodded and then reached into her pouch. She offered a cigar. I took it and nodded a thank-you, then played with it between my fingers. Then I leaned into Hawkins, who struck up a light. I inhaled deep and said, “But I have learned. I tell you I have learned some things.”

“We all know, Hiram,” said Hawkins. “Somebody say you headed down Maryland-way, goin down with Moses, as they say.”

“If she still would have me.”

“Oh, she will,” Hawkins said. “Moses would not stop for Bland, no more than Bland would have stopped for her. Might wait a few, but she is going. It is truly a terrible thing. But it also just as he would want—an uncommon man, as you say—but he went just as every one of us would want.”

I felt sick at that moment. I remembered my dream. I said, “And how was that?”

“Sure you want to know?” Amy asked. She said this softly and somehow this caused the whole blow to land with even greater effect. But I did want to know. As much as possible, I did, and my guilt stripped me of all my guile, so that as I inhaled this time, I began to cough and choke, and this gave Hawkins a great laugh, and then the whole party of them laughed together. And I watched them laughing until they all settled back into their silence. And when they had, I calmly said, “The papers. I did the papers. I believe it was me who got that man killed.”

This was the cause for more laughter, but this time only from Hawkins and Amy.

“I did the papers,” I said again. “No other way a man like Bland would have gotten caught, except by my hand.”

“What you mean ain’t no other way?” asked Hawkins. “All kinds of ways.”

“Especially in Alabama,” said Amy.

“The papers,” I said. “That got him caught.”

“No. That is not what happened at all,” Corrine said. “It had nothing to do with his papers.”

“What then?” I asked.

“He was so close,” Corrine said. “So close. He spent all those weeks scouting the shore along the Ohio River, until he found the perfect landing. We don’t precisely know how he did it, but he found Lydia with her boys and rowed down the Tennessee posing as their owner until he was in the free country of Indiana. But then, as I understand it, one of the children got sick, and it became hard on them to continue their travels by night.”

“That’s how they got picked up,” said Hawkins. “White man stopped ’em for questioning. Thought Bland’s story was funny and took ’em to a local jail, waiting to see if it was any word on runaways.”

“There was,” said Amy.

“Bland could have left right there,” Hawkins said. “They had nothing on him. But as we’ve got it from the papers and dispatches of agents in the area, he kept trying to get to Lydia and the kids, until they jailed him too.”

“We do not know how he was ultimately killed,” Corrine said. “But knowing Bland, he would have continued looking for an escape. And I suspect that his captors realized that the delivery of their Negroes, and the claiming of a likely reward, would be easier without an agent fixed on getting those Negroes away.”

“My Lord, my Lord,” I moaned.

“And damn y’all for sending him,” Hawkins said. “Alabama? All kinds of ways to get caught. Into the coffin for some babies?”

I could have told Hawkins all that I had learned. I could have told him about Otha White. I could have told him about gingerbread. I could have told him about Thena and Kessiah. I could have told him how much more there was to the Underground, more than math and any angle, more than movement.

But Hawkins was grieving in his own way, I knew. I was feeling it more even now, for the levels of grief and loss now began to unspool. Sophia, Micajah Bland, Georgie, my mother. I was not even angry about it. By then I knew that this was part of the work, to accept the losses. But I would not accept them all.


returned to my routine, alternating between my woodworking and the Underground. There was not much time for mourning. It was now September and the high season of conduction would soon be upon us. There was some concern that Bland had somehow been betrayed. We reviewed our entire system. Codes were changed. Methods of movement revised. Certain agents came under scrutiny. Relations with the western Underground were never the same again, for it was thought that they might have, witting or not, played some role in Bland’s destruction.

I saw Kessiah quite a bit that month. This was the only good thing to come out of the moment, for it truly was like the discovery of some relative long lost. At the start of October, Harriet called on me. She suggested a walk through the city. So we headed toward the Schuylkill docks, then across the South Street bridge toward the western boundaries of the city.

It was a cool, crisp afternoon. The leaves had begun to change and the people to bind themselves up in their long black coats and woolen scarves. Harriet wore a long brown dress, a cotton wrapper around her waist, and a bag across her body. For the first twenty minutes or so, we spoke only of bland things. Then as we moved farther out and the people began to fall away, our conversation veered toward its true destination.

“How you holding up, friend?” Harriet asked.

“Not so good,” I said. “I don’t know how anyone holds up against this. Bland was not the first, was he? Not the first agent you lost, I mean. Not for you.”

“No, friend, he was not,” said Harriet. “And he won’t be the last. You had better get that.”

“I do,” I said.

“No, you don’t,” she said. “This is war. Soldiers fight in war for all kinds of reasons, but they die because they cannot bear to live in the world as it is. And that right there was the Micajah Bland I knew. He could not live. Not here, not like this. He put it all on the line—his life, his connections, his sister’s heart—because he knew that that is exactly the line on which all the rest of us must live.”

We stopped walking here for a moment.

“I know that you don’t understand,” Harriet said. “But you will adjust yourself to these facts. You will have to. There will be more. Could be you. Could be me.”

“No, never you,” I said, now smiling.

“Someday it will be me,” she said. “Just hoping that the only hounds I answer to are held by my Lord.”

The talk quickly turned to the business at hand.

“So you’re with me, friend,” said Harriet. “It ain’t the coffin, this is true, but Maryland is still Pharaoh’s land. I know what they say about me, but understand that this is never what I say about myself. We all the same when the hound got the scent. That axe swing and any man might be lumber. And with that, all that I have learned shall be nothing, shall be dust upon the long road. You will not find me believing in my own miracles, but in the strictest principles of the Underground.”

And then she smiled softly and said, “But there are so many miracles. As when I was told of a man who did not merely conduct but self-resurrected, who hoisted himself out of the ice, a man who, pursued by the hounds, felt a longing for home so fierce that he blinked and he was there.”

“That what they say, huh?” I asked.

“That’s what they say,” she said. “I never told you what happened with me, did I?”

“You don’t tell much of nothing about yourself at all. Ain’t much for giving out stories, as you said.”

“Yeah. I did say that. So we’ll wait on that one. Don’t matter much, either way. What I am asking is that you put more trust in me than your own failings.”

We turned around and headed back toward Bainbridge Street, again walking mostly in silence. When we got back home, we sat in the front parlor.

“So, Maryland,” I said.

“Maryland,” she said. Then she reached into her bag and produced a file of letters.

“I need two things: First a pass, drawn from the shadow of this hand. I need the pass to be for two.”

I started scribbling notes.

“Then I need a letter in slave-hand. Remit it to Jake Jackson of Poplar Neck—Dorchester, Maryland. From his brother Henry Jackson. Beacon Hill, Boston. Give him all the loving tidings a brother would, and do it whatever way should come to you. But note this portion particularly:
Tell my brothers to be watchful unto prayer and when the good old ship of Zion come along, be ready to step onboard.

I nodded, still scribbling.

“Have that letter off by tomorrow’s post. We got to give the thing time to land and make its effect. Then we are on our way. We leave in two weeks. One night’s journey.”

I stopped and gave a puzzled look.

“Wait,” I said. “One night? Ain’t enough time to get to Maryland.”

She just looked back and smiled.

“Nowhere near enough time,” I said.

But two weeks later, in the dead of night, I walked out of the Ninth Street station, down Market Street, where all was asleep, and met Harriet at the docks of the Delaware River. We headed south past the coal depot, past the South Street pier where the Red Bank ferry bobbed in its moorings, until we stood before an array of older, battered piers that were little more than rotted wood groaning and creaking as they swayed in the night-black river. I looked farther down the docks and saw that these shadowy ruins diminished into mere stakes jutting out of the water.

The October wind blew up off the river. I looked up and saw that clouds obscured the stars and moon, which so often guided us. Fog rolled up. Harriet stood at the pier, looking out into the night, out through the fog, toward the invisible banks of Camden, but in fact far past them. She was leaning on her trusty walking stick, the one I’d seen her with on our way to New York. She said, “For Micajah Bland.” And then she began to walk on the shattered pier before us directly out into the river.

That I followed, and did not question, tells you exactly how much faith I had placed in Harriet by then. She was our Moses and I believed even in my fear that she would somehow split the sea that now stood before us. And so I walked.

I heard Harriet say, “For all those who have sailed off to the port from which there can be no return.”

I heard the wet wood of the pier groan under my weight, but the planks felt sturdy beneath my feet. I looked back, but a fog had encircled us on all sides, and thickened so that I could no longer see the city behind me. I looked forward and saw Harriet still walking out.

“We forgot nothing, you and I,” Harriet said. “To forget is to truly slave. To forget is to die.”

And at that Harriet stopped in her tracks. There was a light growing now, out of the darkness. At first I thought Harriet had lit a lantern, for the light was low and faint. And then I saw that the light was not yellow but a pale spectral green, and I saw that this light was not in Harriet’s hand, but was in Harriet herself.

She turned to me, with eyes of the same green fire that had grown up out of the night.

“To remember, friend,” she said. “For memory is the chariot, and memory is the way, and memory is bridge from the curse of slavery to the boon of freedom.”

That was when I saw that we were in the water. No, not in it, over it. We should have been under it, for I knew that the pier was gone and there was no longer anything of this world beneath our feet. The Delaware River is deep enough for a steamer to come into harbor. But the water barely lapped against my boots.

“Stay with me, friend,” Harriet said. “No exertions needed. It’s just like dancing. Stay with the sound, stay with the story and you will be fine. And the story is as I have said, offered up for all those given over to the maw of the Demon. We seen it all our lives, yes we have. Starts when you young, with but the barest sense of the world, but mayhaps even then, you got some sense that it is wrong. I know I did.”

What happened then was a kind of communion, a chain of memory extending between the two of us that carried more than any words I can now offer you here, because the chain was ground into some deep and locked-away place, where my aunt Emma lived, where my mother lived, where a great power lived, and the chain extended into that selfsame place in Harriet, where all those lost ones had taken up their vigil. And then I looked out and saw them, phantoms flittering, flittering like that baleful day out on the river Goose, and I knew exactly what the phantoms were and what they meant to Harriet.

So when I saw the boy off to the side of us, out in the mist, wrapped in spectral green, no older than twelve, I knew that his name was Abe, and I knew that he was among those gone Natchez-way, sent across “the river with no name.” And now I could hear Harriet’s voice again, in that deep place where the chain was anchored and rooted.

“You were not acquainted with this Abe,” she said. “But by the light of this Conduction, you shall know him right well. I regret that he will not be joining us on the way back. It is regrets of Abe that sent me to the Underground.”

Now the light of Harriet opened with some brightness, and I saw a path before us, across the water that was not water. There was no dock in the distance, but in and out of the darkness I saw the phantoms of Harriet’s memory—dancing about, as they would have been in that time when they were known to her. And as we approached and passed each one, the phantoms fell away.

“You know me well, friend,” she said. “I was made under the lash. I was only seven when Master Broadus sent me trapping varmints in the swamps. I might like to lose a limb out there. But I come back whole—out the cage, not the jungle. When I was nine, they call me up to the Big House and I was given the entirety of the parlor’s care. My errors were many. My mistress beat me, every day, with a rope. I began to think that this was God’s plan. That I really was the wretch they made me out to be, and deserved no more than the abuses I received.

“Now, for all my humiliations, the fact of it is that there was some corners of hell to which I, thankfully, received no invitation. I speak now of the crossing of the nameless, of the long walk to Natchez, the mournful march to Baton Rouge. I saw it all, friend. Why, my uncle Hark lost half an arm just thinking of the nameless, just watching them white men watch him a little too closely. So one morning he got up, and thinking how hard it’d be to sell a cripple, raised his axe with one hand, and gave the other hand over to the Lord. ‘I might be lame,’ Hark say. ‘But I shall not be parted.’

“Hark was uncommon. Most just took the walk, leaving in their wake wailing wives, broken husbands, and orphans. And then there was our boy Abe—whose wide wondrous face I see before me right now, easy as I did in that other life—a well-mannered boy who done only as he was told. His momma died in the birthing, and his daddy was long sold away. Whatever pains he felt over these partings, he never shared. He spoke only as a child should—when induced by elder folk—and these elders, knowing his pain, however hidden, were soft upon him.

“But for those who were hard, for those who worshipped the seven and nine, Abe was a caution. I tell you, friend, that boy could not be held. Would have made a hell of an agent, for he ran like he had the lungs of a lion. The moment Master Broadus even thought of correction, the boy would fly.

“Sometimes the headman would call us up to help hold him. We might make some motion as such, but in our hearts we were with Abe. You know what it is—the Tasked must take they victories as they come. And if you saw Abe, as we did, blazing through the wheat field, hurtling through the high corn, you would have seen our deepest unspeaking—freedom, friend, freedom. In those moments running, he was free, unweighted by the partings, unbroken by the seven and nine. And watching him is how I got my first taste of Conduction, of the great power in even the smallest of escapes.”

Harriet paused here for some moments and we moved again in silence. I was gripped by her telling and could see the events of her narrative open up before me. And so full was the brilliance beaming out from her that all features of our path stood in green relief.

“I stood outside the town emporium, minding my own. And like lightning, I seen young Abe streak by. He bounded a bench, shot under a wagon, got himself proper, and flew on. And then right behind him, I seen old Galloway, stumbling over himself, panting with every trot.

“Galloway called out to a tasking man, ‘You there, boy! Come bind this fellow.’ They cornered Abe, but might as well have cornered the air. He dashed out and slid right under Galloway’s legs, easy as the boat under the bridge, and Galloway cried out, cursing his very hands. I should have been going on then, but I was fixed on the story now playing out before me. And the longer it went, the more men came, until I seen the Tasked, the Low, and Galloway all bent over, panting, heads bent over in their humiliation.

“Now, Galloway would like to give the thing up, but there was a crowd now and so his pride kept him going. Can’t no slaver have his niggers in defiance. So Galloway gathered himself and bounded on. I watched them dance a little more, and then Abe turned toward me. My particular feelings upon slavery were not yet whole. Surely I would like to be a gal working on her own time. But I was young. I had no religion but felt Abe in flight to be my own jubilee.

“So Abe darted my way. And then I heard Galloway call to me, as he called to all the others, ‘Bind that boy!’ I could not. I would not. I was nobody’s headman. And if I was, I should know better than to make my marbles upon the taking of a boy like Abe. He cut away, ran, and then cut back toward me again. And out of his own unthinking frustration, Galloway grabbed a weight and hurled it at Abe. Don’t know what he was thinking, for Abe had eyes in the back of his head.

“No such luck upon young Harriet.”

By now Harriet burned with the brilliance of twenty lanterns, and the pale green extended out into a full white. There was no water. I could not feel my legs. I could not truly feel any part of me. I was now merely a presence, an essence following a voice.

“The weight sailed right past Abe and caught me in the head. Crashed through my skull. And then the Lord’s long night came all over me.

BOOK: The Water Dancer: A Novel
12.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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