Authors: Ta-Nehisi Coates;
the coffin, I had promises to keep. On a crisp November Sunday, I found myself walking with Kessiah toward the promenade along the Schuylkill. The wind rustled its way up Bainbridge, this lovely thoroughfare—lovely, yes, I had come to believe this, for where I once perceived chaos, I now saw a symphony in the city, in the low things in the alleys, in the abominable odor, in the great variance among the peoples, spilling out of their brick hovels, piling into the omnibus, heaving in the pewter shops, bickering in haberdasheries, haggling over groceries.
On we walked, counting the numbered streets until we were at the river, which we followed to the promenade, barely peopled that morning. Kessiah pulled her shawl tight around her shoulders and said, “We are not built for this, you know. We are a tropical people, that is what they say.”
“My favorite season,” I said. “World is so beautiful this time of year. There’s a kinda peace that just falls on everything, even up here. It’s like summer wear the world out, and by October everyone is just ready for a nap.”
“I don’t know,” Kessiah said, shaking her head. She laughed lightly and pulled the shawl tighter. “This wind coming up off the river as it does? Give me spring. Give me green fields. Give me blossoms.”
“Season of life, huh?” I said. “Naw, I prefer this season of loss, this season of dying, for I think it is the world at its most true.”
We sat there quiet for a moment. Kessiah took my hand and held it, slid over until she was close, and then kissed me on the cheek.
“How are you, Hi?” she said.
“Lotta feelings,” I said.
“Yes, indeed,” she said. “Those comings and goings, my Lord, I feel it every time I leave my Elias back at the home-place, feel my heart ripped right out of me.”
“And how bout him?”
“Elias? Well, I like to think my leaving don’t please him too much. But I do not ask. And you must remember I was always a kind of woman who would be hard to tie. Very few men could cope with this. But my Elias was different. And I think it was mostly ’cause of Harriet. We are of the same understanding, so that when Elias fell to me, my manner was not so strange to him. Might well be the whole reason he fell to me as he did. I was what he knew. I was as a woman should be.
“We do need help on the home-place, though. Lot of work. And I am not really a part of it. He keep talking about getting a girl. I tell him he can do that if he wants, but he will lose one too.”
We laughed at this for a moment, and then I said, “Maybe not, though.”
“I assure you he will,” she said. “Do not let that ‘free love’ Convention talk get to you.”
“I am not speaking of free love. I am speaking of your mother.”
Kessiah looked out to the river and said nothing.
“Ain’t right,” I said. “Ain’t right what been done here.”
“Ain’t right for no one, Hi,” Kessiah said. “You also aiming to go to war with Virginia?” she said.
“There were promises made,” I said. “Promises before Bland died.”
“Not for Thena.”
“No. Not for Thena. I don’t have it all figured. But I do believe I am owed something here. I am happy to be Underground, happy that it all happened. But I was not asked into this. I was drafted. I do not believe it too much to ask that Virginia let loose the woman who made it possible for me to survive all those years before.”
“No, it is not. And up here, with just Raymond and Otha, or even with Harriet and Maryland, it’d be done. But Virginia…they are different.”
“I know,” I said. “I have been tangling with them in some manner for almost half my life. But I am telling you, I am determined to get Thena out. I can’t tell you how. I can’t tell you when. But I will get her out.”
Kessiah sat back and looked out toward the river. A knot of sparrows then flew up from the trees. I watched as a harrier dipped and dived among them.
“Well, I can’t say I would not love to have her,” Kessiah said. “But you will forgive me if I do not get my blood up over such a thing. I said goodbye a long time ago, Hi, and it is a hard thing to say goodbye to your mother, do you know?”
“I do,” I said.
“If you find your way to her and see her back up here, well…We have a place for her. Lovely farm west of here. Lancaster-way. It is truly a sight, I will say that. And it is waiting for her.”
The very next morning I dressed myself in the style of tasking men I had observed up here, those who dressed well above their station—fine trousers, damask waistcoat, and a high stove-pipe hat. It was still early, just about sunrise, but when I came down, Raymond, Otha, and Kessiah were there. We sat together in pleasing conversation for a few minutes. Raymond had hired a private hack to take us all to Gray’s Ferry Station, as this entire party insisted on seeing me off. The carriage arrived presently and we boarded and prepared for the trip down Bainbridge, but just as we did, I saw Mars running toward us, hollering, holding a bag in one hand and waving wildly with the other.
“Hey now!” he said as he approached us, and I greeted him with a smile and a doff of my hat.
“Heard you would be leaving us for a while,” he said. “Wanted to give you a touch of something.”
And at that he handed me the bag. I opened it and saw a bottle of rum and gingerbread wrapped in paper.
“Remember,” he said. “Family.”
“I remember,” I said. “Goodbye, Mars.”
When we arrived at the station, the train was there idling and the passengers were making last preparations to board. Scanning among the crowd, I saw my contact, a white agent who would second me should anything prove amiss. I turned to them all and said, “Well, this appears to be my train,” and then embraced each of them. I walked down to join the milling crowds below and presented my ticket, boarded, and found my place in the car, one distant enough that I could no longer see this new family of mine, for I feared what might happen should I be forced to watch them fade from me. And I thought of Sophia then, and I thought of how much I would like to bring her here, to meet these people and hear their wild adventures, to eat gingerbread by the promenade, and watch white men wave from unicycles. And then I heard the conductor shout and the big cat roar, and my descent into the Southern maw began.
Long before we crossed the border, before Baltimore, before the sight of the conductor walking the aisle, inspecting every colored, before the mountains of western Maryland broke into Virginia, I felt the change. To task is to wear a mask, and what I now saw clearly was that I would miss Philadelphia because in that city of noxious fumes, I had been the truest version of myself, unbent by the desires and rituals of others, so that now the change I felt overtaking me—my chest tightening, my eyes lowering, my hands open and loose, my whole body slouching in its seat—was a kind of total self-denial, a complete lie. And when I stepped off the train, at that Clarksburg station, I could feel the shackles clamping down on my wrist, the vise tightening around my neck. Having lived as I had, having tasted my own freedom, having seen whole societies of colored but free, I felt it as a weight beyond anything I had ever known.
By the following evening, a Tuesday, I was back at Bryceton, installed in my old cabin. Corrine offered me a day to myself. I spent most of it walking in the woods, imagining myself walking in Philadelphia, as I’d so often done. I thought again of how much I wanted to take Sophia there, and thinking further, how much I wanted to take Thena there, and it occurred to me on that day that I was happy to have returned, for I never wanted to again breathe free air with those two in chains.
Bland had promised me he would convince Corrine to rescue Sophia. But Bland was dead. And so I must, on my own, somehow convince Corrine to liberate them both. There were obstacles to this beyond the death of Bland. Sophia was the property of Nathaniel Walker, personal property, so that any such rescue would raise his ire, and raise suspicions. Thena was of such an age that the Virginia Underground would likely oppose her rescue, for it was felt that a life of freedom should first be given to those able to make the most use of it. But I had told Kessiah we would have it, and I was determined to make it so.
I met Corrine and Hawkins early the next morning in the parlor of the main house, and walking through that doorway, memories of times past, and my first visit to Bryceton, and the unveiling of its incredible secrets, struck me. And I saw my old tutor, my Mr. Fields, my Micajah Bland, laughing as Hawkins related some story, and I saw him turn to me with the gravest look imaginable, and in his eyes I saw all the terrible knowledge that would soon be put upon me.
“Hiram,” Corrine said, as we settled down in our chairs. “When you tumbled into the river with Maynard, you achieved two effects. The first of these was relief—you saved me from a union with such a man and all the horror you might imagine that entails. And for that I thank you.”
“I took no pleasure in it,” I said. “But at least it improved your lot.”
“Two, boy,” said Hawkins. “She said two.”
“Unfortunately,” said Corrine, “you also deprived this station of an entrée into the highest portions of Elm County society.”
“There wasn’t anything high about Maynard,” I said.
“Yes, but you understand my meaning,” she said. “Now I am condemned to spinsterhood and out of connection with the ladies of that country. Had the union with Maynard been achieved, that connection would have proven fruitful for the strength and intelligence of the Underground. I believe you can see how.”
“And so by Maynard’s death we lost an investment. Months of planning were gone and we were forced to make do with what remained.”
“She means you,” said Hawkins ruefully. “Had to carry you off.”
“And while you have not given to us in the way in which we believed Maynard would, you have given your share. We know what you did in Philadelphia and in Maryland. Have you made an acquaintance of the powers which, a year ago, you only dimly perceived?”
I said nothing. I did indeed have an acquaintance, but there was still something missing, something that would unlock the deep memory at will, and allow me to conduct the train, as I wished, along the track. And even if I had understood it all, I still remembered Harriet’s warning, and I believed her when she said that the power was for me, not for them.
“We are not without gratitude or admiration, Hiram. And yet this hardly brings you to a settling of the account.”
“I am here,” I said. “As much as possible, of my own will. Tell me what you need. Ask me. I shall do.”
“Good. Good,” said Corrine. “You recall your father’s servant, Roscoe?”
“Of course,” I said. “Brought me up top.”
“Well, Roscoe has passed. It was his time.”
“I’m sorry to hear it,” I said.
“As soon as Roscoe started going down,” said Hawkins, “your old man Howell sent a letter to Corrine, here. He wants you back—in Roscoe’s place.”
“Recall now the intelligence we were to garner from the union between myself and Maynard,” said Corrine. “Perhaps you would like to be the source of this intelligence. We desire a knowledge of your father’s situation and the future of Lockless. Would you help us?”
“I would,” I said. My suddenness shocked them, for I was pledging myself to return to the man who was my master, even if he was also my father. “But I need something from you.”
“I would say you’ve gotten plenty,” said Corrine.
“No more than I deserved,” I said.
Corrine now smiled at me and nodded. “Indeed,” she said. “What do you wish?”
“There are two still there—a woman and a girl,” I said. “I want them out.”
“The girl is, I assume, the one you ran with. Sophia,” said Corrine. “And the woman would be your caretaker from your earliest days at the house, Thena.”
“Yes, them,” I said. “I want them conducted to Philadelphia through the Ninth Street station and Raymond White.”
“Forget it,” said Hawkins. “All you’ll do is bring down Ryland, likely right on us. The girl who ran with you, gone again as soon as you get back? And then the woman who is like a mother to you? No, that don’t work.”
“And this Thena woman,” said Corrine. “She is past the age when we can justify such a journey.”
“I know the dangers and I know the problems,” I said. “And it don’t have to be now. But I want it on the books. I want you to promise me that when the time is right, that we will get them out. Listen, I am not the same man. I know what this war means, and I am with you in it. But I cannot rescue on a symbol. They are my family, all the family I have ever had. And I want them out. I cannot sleep until they are out.”
Corrine appraised me for moment. She said, “I understand. We will do it. At the right time. But we will do it. For now, prepare yourself. You leave tomorrow. I’ve already informed your father to expect you.”
And so early the next day, I awoke, washed, and donned my old clothes, clothes of the tasking man, and when their coarse threading chafed my skin I saw a black gate clanging shut before my eyes. So this was it. I truly was now back under. I felt an odd relief in this, for the chafing of my clothes put me in connection with all those who chafed under the Task. I knew that Corrine had set the slave deed, the deed to my soul, afire, but this had no meaning in a place where the whole society thought me a slave. And I recalled then Georgie Parks, whose specious freedom was pinned to the arrest of any other colored who should aspire to rise as he did. I was not Georgie. I could not truly torch the deed that held me until the Task itself was torched.
I met Hawkins at the stables and we brought the horses around to the main house. We waited there in silence for Corrine, and when she walked out with Amy, I truly understood the majesty of the Virginia station’s endeavor. I had now seen two different versions of Corrine, so far from each other as to not even seem to be the same person. There was Corrine of the Virginia Underground and the New York Convention, with her hair tumbling down to her shoulders, with a wild and free laughter. And then there was this Corrine, prim, walking before us as though royalty, her face impeccably painted, with that rose-like glow about her that all women of Quality sought. But she was still in her mourning clothes and now the ensemble had grown more elaborate, a black bustle trailing behind her, a black veil so long that when it was lifted and thrown back, it fell down to her waist. She must have caught my surprise, and Corrine could not help but giggle. Then, with an assist from Amy, she pulled the mourning veil over her head and the game was afoot.