Authors: Ta-Nehisi Coates;
“A man being sold ain’t never for the best.”
“Yeah, I know,” Robert said. “Harriet and the family got to me, pulled me out of my despair. Told me that some other life might yet await me in the North. They ask about Mary and the baby of course, and I tell Harriet no way I’m going with some other man child. She ain’t like that, ain’t like that much at all, but I tell her either it’s gonna be new life in everything, or I’ll just take my chance with Broadus.
“But when time come to leave, when I really had to face up to what it mean to leave my Mary, I…I don’t know. Best I can say it is I got weak and started thinking maybe some of the old ain’t so bad. And then you come in and make your promise—”
“I’m sorry about that, I thought—”
“Nothing to be sorry about whatever. Fact is, you was saying what I was feeling. I can’t live without Mary. I don’t want no freedom that ain’t about some place with her….It’s just that child, raising some other man’s baby, it grind on a man in a kinda way….”
“Yeah, it do,” I said. And I felt it. I understood. But I also had begun to understand more, for I was thinking not just of myself and my Sophia and not just of Robert and Mary, but that day, upstate, the day I met Kessiah. And I was thinking back to that great university of slaveries and tasks, and of the women in overalls, and the vast conspiracy to pillage half the world. And I was thinking of my part in that pillage, of my dreams, of the Lockless I had built in my mind, built mostly out of
“We can’t ever have nothing pure,” Robert said. “It’s always out of sorts. Them stories with their knights and maidens, none of that for us. We don’t get it pure. We don’t get nothing clean.”
“Yeah,” I said. “But neither do they. It is quite a thing, a messy dirty thing, to put your own son, your own daughter, to the Task. Way I see it, ain’t no pure and it is we who are blessed, for we know this.”
“Blessed, for we do not bear the weight of pretending pure. I will say that it has taken some time for me to get that. Had to lose some folk and truly understand what that loss mean. But having been down, and having seen my share of those who are up, I tell you, Robert Ross, I would live down here among my losses, among the muck and mess of it, before I would ever live among those who are in their own kind of muck, but are so blinded by it they fancy it pure. Ain’t no pure, Robert. Ain’t no clean.”
Y NIGHT WE’D ARRIVED
at a small path, which led into a clearing and then to the Ross place. I saw a house and then a stable behind it. I remembered then that Harriet’s parents were free, and their children were not.
“Can’t see my momma,” Robert said.
“Why not?” I asked.
“She wear her feelings out front, and if she was to see me, if she was to know, she’d holler like a baby, and when the white folks come to ask what happened, no way my momma could lie. Harriet left here ten years ago. I seen her since then, but she ain’t spoke to momma. Ain’t ’cause she don’t want to. But how could she?”
At that Robert gave a whistle. After a few minutes, an older man, who I took as his father—Pop Ross, he called him—walked out and, looking in no particular direction, waved toward the back of the home. We circled around, picking our way through the surrounding woods. Partway around we caught a vision, through the window, of Ma Rit sweeping the floor. Robert paused, suddenly aware that he might never see her again, then he kept weaving his way back. Around the back we found the stable, and opening it there, I found the entire party seated and silent inside. We did not speak. Harriet emerged from the corner. Her eyes were glued on Robert. She took his lapels, shook them, and then pulled him close into the strength of her embrace. And there we sat in the stables, waiting upon the safety of the deepest part of night. Some took to the loft and slept. Pop Ross brought us food. But opening the door, he turned his head away without looking in and extended his right arm, waiting for whoever to take the tray.
Twice I saw the old woman venture out to the entrance of the road, look off into the distance, only to return. I wondered if she had some notion of Robert coming.
Now the rains started up. Ben and Robert peered through a crack in the stables, which framed the back window of the main house, and through that window they could see Ma Rit lit up by the fire, puffing on a pipe, with the forlorn weight of her missing children all over her face. Harriet, who had not seen her mother in years, did not want to see her now. She did not look through the crack. She would risk no farewell, even a distant one.
Finally, Ma Rit extinguished the fire and went to bed. I looked out and saw that a heavy fog had rolled in. Now Harriet inspected each of us. It was time. We walked out. I saw Pop Ross at the door, blindfolded.
“When they ask have I seen any of you,” he said, “I shall answer, with my word upon God, that I have not.”
We walked out into the fog. Jane took one of the old man’s arms. Henry took the other and we fell into the muddy woods. And as we walked, Harriet’s father hummed quietly to himself, then took up the familiar tune of departure and one by one they too picked up the song and it was delivered in a low quiet murmur through our party.
Going up to the great house farm
Going on up, for they done me wrong
Day so short, Gina. Night so long.
Then the woods broke and we came upon a wide pond, the length of which we could not see past through the fog and the dark. The voices lowered until the only sound was the rain against the leaves above, and the falling water rippling against the still water.
“Well, old man,” Harriet said, turning to her father, “time for me to take over.”
I think they must have all gotten some understanding of what was to happen, because as soon as Harriet said that, Jane and Henry broke their embrace and everyone stepped into the water. Henry, Robert, and Ben formed a line at the front facing out onto the pond. Jane took my hand and pulled me right behind them. I looked back and saw Pop Ross standing there, blindfolded. Harriet walked over to him, circled once as if to take up every inch of him for her memory, then kissed him gently on the forehead. Then she touched his cheek and I saw the green light of Conduction pushing out from her hand, and by that light I saw the tears streaking down Pop Ross’s cheek.
They stood like this for a few seconds. Then Harriet turned and took her place in front of her brothers and started walking out into the depths. Her brothers followed silently, and Jane and I followed them. Only I looked back and when I did I saw Pop Ross there, still blindfolded. And as we moved deeper into the pond, I watched him slowly slip away from us, slip away as memories sometimes do, into the darkness, into the fog.
When we walked into the water, just as before, it was not water at all. By then Harriet was shimmering. She looked back past her brothers to me and said, “Don’t you fear a spell. I got a chorus this time. And the chorus got me.”
She walked forward, burning brighter with every step, breaking the fog before us like the bow of a ship breaking the sea. Then she stopped, and the small procession behind her stopped too. Harriet said, “This here journey is done all on account of John Tubman.”
“John Tubman,” hollered Ben.
“Who, to my eternal heartbreak, could not join us. This is for Pop Ross and Ma Rit, who I well know shall be with us in the by-and-by.”
“By and by!” Ben hollered. “By and by!”
“We have found ourselves upon a railroad.”
“By and by!”
“Our lives be the track, our stories the rail, and I be the engineer, who shall guide this Conduction.”
“Conduction,” he shouted.
“But this ain’t no bitter tale.”
“Go head, Harriet, go head.”
“For I done my grieving in a time far past.”
Now Harriet’s other brothers took up the response.
“Go head. Go head,” they yelled.
“John Tubman, my first love, onliest man I found fit to follow.”
“That’s the word.”
“I have put my name on it for fact—Tubman.”
“That’s the word! That’s the word!”
“It began when I was a small pepper, for slavery make my child hands into grinding stones.”
“Hard, Harriet! Hard!”
“A touch of measles nearly put me down.”
“The weight stove me in. And vigilance came.”
“I walked out into the woods. Testified. Beheld the path.”
“But could not walk it till I was fully grown.”
“By and by! By and by!”
“I worked the labors of men.”
“Well, go head, Harriet, go head!”
“Got me an ox team.”
“Harriet got a ox!”
“Hired myself out. Broke the fields.”
“Harriet got a ox! Harriet break the land!”
“The Lord put travails before me. Made me hard as Moses before Pharaoh.”
“Go head, Moses, go head!”
“But I sing of John Tubman.”
“Man don’t like to be outshone by woman.”
“Moses break the land!”
“John Tubman was not that kind.”
“There it is!”
“My strength honored him. My labors made him soft before me.”
“Go head, Moses! Go ahead!”
“And I love him because I know, a girl got to love who love you.”
“Moses got a big bad ox!”
“John Tubman love my strength. Loved my labor.”
“Strong, Moses! Strong!”
“So I know he love me.”
“We planned for freedom on the slow steady grind of work.”
“Hard, Moses! Hard!”
“We had plans. Our land. Our kids. By my ox.”
“Moses got a ox!”
“But there was one who loved me more than John Tubman.”
“That’s the word! That’s the word!”
“The Lord give me vigilance. The Lord light the path.”
“The Lord called me to Philadelphia.”
“But my John would not come.”
“I made my moves from the North. I saw new things.”
“Moses got a ox!”
“And when I come back I was not the same girl.”
“Moses break the land!”
“But I was fast to my word.”
“And I came back for my John.”
“Yes, you did!”
“And found him taken up with some other gal.”
“Hard, Moses! Hard!”
“I stewed on that. I thought to find them both and make a mess of the thing.”
“Moses got a ox!”
“Didn’t care how loud I was. Didn’t care if Broadus heard me in full fury.”
“Didn’t care if I was put back under slavery’s chain.”
“But one man stop me.”
“My daddy, Big Ben Ross. He grab me up and say Harriet got to love who love Harriet.”
“Go head, Pop Ross! Go head!”
“And brothers, I shall tell you, like Pop Ross told me—got to love who love you.”
“And it was my Lord who always loved me most.”
“My John left me, brothers. But I knows it was I who left that man first.”
“My soul was captive of the Lord, for it was Him who, over all again, loved me most.”
“Moses got a ox.”
“Wherever you are.”
“Strong, Moses, strong.”
“I know your heart and you now know mine.”
“May no vice come upon you. May your nights be easy.”
“May you find your peace, even down in the coffin.”
“By and by.”
“May you find a love that love you, even in these shackled times.”
“That’s the word.”
ND THERE WE WERE
early that next morning, before sunrise, down at the Delaware Avenue docks, on the other end of Conduction. Fog rolled off the water, obscuring the city. I looked back at the party and found a weakened Harriet with an arm slung around the shoulders of Henry and Robert. I took command and guided the group to our appointed meeting, a storehouse but a two-minute walk from where we had appeared. There we found Otha and Kessiah waiting for us. Henry and Robert laid Harriet down on a row of crates. She said, “Now, don’t you start fussing over me, you hear? I told you I was fine long as I had my folk. Served me well, don’t you think?”
“That was beautiful, Harriet,” I said. “I ain’t never seen nothing like it.”
“You’ll see it again, friend,” she said, fixing her eyes to mine. “You’ll see it again.”
Kessiah rubbed Harriet’s brow softly for a moment and then she turned to me. She smiled silently and nodded her head, and in that moment, I felt the import of all that I had just seen wash over me in a great wave of grieving and joy. Something I had long been searching for, a need that I felt but could not name, now clarified before me. It was Harriet, her brothers, her father, an entire family warring to exist as such. And I felt then that there could be no holier, no more righteous war than this. And now looking upon Kessiah, who was my bridge back to Virginia, my bridge to my mother, my bridge to Thena, I felt her to be family, so that it was natural to do as I did in that moment, to take her by the shoulders and pull her close and hold her tight, and inhale the floral smell of her hair and feel the softness of her cheek against mine. It was all so new. And I was so very new. A weight was falling away, and the weight wasn’t merely the fact of the Task, its labors and conditions, but the myths beneath—my father as my savior, my plot to leave behind the Street, my notion that Lockless could be redeemed by my special hand. My forgetting. I forgot my mother. And then went off into the house of Lockless like I had no mother. And then I was conducted, brought up out of the coffin, brought up out of slavery. And now I felt myself shedding the lie, like old skin, so that a truer, more lustrous Hiram emerged.
Kessiah said, “It’s all right, Hi. It’s all gonna be all right.” And I felt her patting and rubbing my back, in the way that one soothes a child. I tasted salt on my lips, and became aware that I was crying, and now I was sobbing in her arms, and realizing this, I was ashamed. But then I looked up and saw that everyone else around me, the entire party Harriet had brought, Otha and Kessiah, everyone, was hugging and sobbing too.
We went in shifts, by horse and buggy, to the Ninth Street office, so as not to arouse undue attention. We were all there assembled by sunrise. Everything was timed perfectly. Raymond poured coffee and served rye muffins, brown bread, and apple tarts from Mars’s bakery. We were, all of us, famished, and while doing our best to maintain manners, we fed ourselves to our hearts’ content.
“So this is what it is, huh?” Robert said. He was standing off in the corner of the parlor, by the window, watching the others as they ate.
“This and more,” I said. “Some good. Some bad.”
“But on the whole, better than being held, huh?”
“On the whole, yeah,” I said. “Still. There are parts of life that can’t be gotten out of, and I have had to learn, here, that we are all, at the end, held somehow. Just that up here you get to choose by who and by what.”
“Thinking I could work that,” Robert said. “And I must say that I am even thinking that I must be held again by my Mary.”
“Gotta love who love you,” I said.
“So it seems.”
“You talk to Harriet?”
“I have not. Don’t know how to ask…”
“I’ll ask. Was I who made the promise.”
Raymond took in each of the passengers for interview. I took notes. It lasted the whole day. At night everyone was dispatched to a different home in the city or out in Camden. They were advised to stick to indoors, for by now their escape would be known, and Harriet would be the prime suspect. By the end of the week, Philadelphia would be prowling with Ryland, but too, by then, they would themselves be headed farther north. That evening I sat down in the parlor. Harriet was upstairs in my room, fast asleep, as she had been since our arrival at the Ninth Street office.
Raymond was about to walk out with Jane and Henry to secure them in their lodging. But just before he left, he said, “I thought this might wait until your return.” Then he handed me a letter and said, “Hiram, I want you to understand that you don’t owe anyone anything anymore. Not me. Not Corrine.”
I sat in the parlor holding the letter. I saw that it bore the mark of the Virginia station and thus knew what it said before even opening it. I was being recalled to the muck. I appreciated Raymond’s words, but there was no way I was not going back. By then, I felt myself to truly be on the Underground. It was who I was and I had no idea what I would make of my life without it. And there was a promise I had made only a year ago, though it felt like ten years, a promise to bring Sophia out. And even with Bland gone, I was starting to see a way to do it.
An hour or so after Raymond left, Harriet ambled down the stairs holding her walking stick. She sat on the sofa and inhaled deeply.
“So that’s about the whole of it?” I asked.
“Yep,” she said. “That’s about it.”
“Well, not all of it.”
“What you mean?”
“I ain’t tell you, but to get your brother Robert out, I had to make a promise. It’s Mary. She wasn’t letting him go. I told her everything.”
“I know. It was not smart.”
“Nope. Not really,” Harriet said. Then she cut her eyes away from me and let out a deep breath. We sat there in silence for a moment.
“But, I will say that I was not there. I told you what was to be done. How you got it done was how you got it done. And I thank you for it. This what Robert want?”
“That boy is a caution.”
“And there’s something else too.”
“What you want now? Whole state conducted?”
I laughed. And then I said, “No. I want you to know that I am leaving. Harriet, I’m going home.”
“Huh. Yes, I figured as much. Especially now that you done seen the power.”
“It ain’t that. And I still don’t have it all.”
“You have enough. Enough for me to tell you this. I want you to remember that I revealed this to you and only you. And I did this because you are the bearer, no one else. Don’t forget that. Once you get that train on the track, and you will, there will be folks with all sorts of notions of how it should run. You know what I am saying. I love the Virginia station, for their hearts are truly pointed toward the Lord. But do not let them pull you into their schemings, Hiram. They will try and pull you into all type of capers, but remember there is a price, always a price. You seen it on me when we went down. You seen it even today. There is a reason we forget. And those of us who remember, well, it is hard on us. It exhausts us. Even today, I could only do this with the aid of my brothers.
“If you need to speak on it, if you ever not sure, write Kessiah a few lines. I am never far from her. If you need anything, if you find yourself under it, you talk to me before you try to handle it all on your lonesome. A man might be lost out there and no telling where the story might take you. Call on me, Hiram, understand?”
I nodded and sat back. We had some more small talk until she tired. Then Harriet went back upstairs. I fell asleep on the couch. The next day I awoke to a gleeful exchange. Rising, I walked into the dining room and found Otha, Raymond, and Kessiah at the table.
“Just brought these up,” Otha said with glee. It was the most hopeful I’d seen him since Lydia’s capture and Bland’s death.
“What is it?” I asked
“It’s Lydia and the kids, Hiram,” Otha explained. “We think we got a way.”
“How?” I asked.
“McKiernan,” Raymond said. “He wants to sell. We have been in touch with him through an intermediary.”
Kessiah then reached into a suitcase and pulled out a small book.
“It is not our way,” she said. “But we must tell our stories.”
She handed me the book and I read on the cover,
The Kidnapped and the Ransomed
. I flipped through the book and discovered it was the story of Otha White’s escape to freedom.
“Ain’t this something,” I said, handing the book back to her. “So then, what’s the plan?”
“Otha and a few others will make a tour of the North,” Raymond said. “They will sell the book to abolitionist audiences and use the profits to purchase Lydia and the family.”
“And McKiernan, he gon wait?” I asked. “After what we tried to pull on him?”
“You mean after what he pulled on us,” Otha said. “Bland is dead. Truly in the coffin. We ain’t giving up on Lydia and that man know it. Why, I hate paying a ransom for my own people, but this ain’t the time for high standing, I guess.”
“No,” Kessiah said. “It’s not. If you got a way to get them out, Otha, do it. Keep your end of the yard clean and leave the justice to the Lord.”
“Indeed,” I said. “On that count I have something that must be said…”
“Time to get back, huh?” Otha said.
“It is,” I said. “I…I am not who I was.”
I don’t even know if they understood. Perhaps Kessiah did. But even if they did not understand, I wanted it said, I wanted them to know that I had been changed by Philadelphia, by Mars, by Otha, by Mary Bronson, by all of them. I wanted them to know that I understood. But all those years of holding my words, of listening and not talking, still bore on me so that all I could muster from this feeling was, “I am not him. I am not him.”
“We know,” Otha said, rising to embrace me.