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Authors: Ta-Nehisi Coates;

The Water Dancer: A Novel (30 page)

BOOK: The Water Dancer: A Novel

It was a funny thing, seeing the country again from this angle. To see the woods I had sometimes raced through, and all the geography I had navigated during the rigors of training. I could see all the birches, ironwoods, and red oaks alive in their beautiful fans of russet and gold. The mountains just beyond us, with their overhangs and clearings where the world opened up and you could see the bounty of this deathly season clear for miles. But in my heart I felt the fear of having returned to slave country and that this world now had eyes on me.

By late afternoon, we had arrived at Starfall, and I knew, almost instantly, that the decline that had been in motion when I left had now accelerated. Everything was too quiet. It was a Thursday, a day of business, but as we rode into town, our only greeting was the wind whipping leaves up Main Street. We passed the town square, which had been in another time a place of bountiful activity, and I saw that the wooden platform, where the highest men of Quality would address the town, had splintered and rotted and been left in disrepair. Buildings that once advertised fur-traders, wheelwrights, and emporiums now stood empty. We drove past the racetrack, and I saw that the pine fencing from where I once watched the races had collapsed and the green field had begun to invade the turf.

I looked over to Hawkins, who was driving and seated beside me, and said, “Race-day?”

“Not this year,” he said. “Maybe not ever again.”

We stowed the horses at the stable, and then walked across the street to the inn. When we walked inside, this is what I saw: a large room filled with ten whites, Low by their appearance, seated throughout. None of them were in conversation with each other, preferring instead to be off to themselves nursing their lagers or their private thoughts. To the far right, cosseted in a small anteroom, there was a clerk, attending to his ledger. No one took note of our arrival. There was something odd at work, though I could not place what. I stayed behind Corrine and followed her over to the clerk, who never lifted his head.

Then she said, “How goes the Kentucky comet?”

Now the clerk looked up, paused a moment, and said, “Derailed this morning.”

At that Corrine looked over at Hawkins and nodded. He moved quickly to the door and locked it. Two of the men sitting at the tables now looked up from their lagers, stood, and went to the windows, where they drew the Venetian blinds. And that was the second time, in one day, that I understood the genius of Corrine Quinn. I tell you, I was at a point in my life, and had seen so much, that I was prepared to believe that she herself had laid waste to the tobacco fields of Virginia, for what I now saw, looking around, was that the faces of these men, these low whites, were not unfamiliar at all, were in fact men I’d seen in training back at Bryceton, and in this manner I comprehended exactly what had happened—right there in the heart of once-storied Elm County, Corrine Quinn had opened a Starfall station.

Within the hour everyone was in meetings. I was excused from these, having my assignment, which would begin on the morrow. I walked out of the back of the inn and then circled around until I was on the street where we had entered. I turned up the collar of my coat to my cheeks, then pulled my hat low. A manic curiosity had taken hold of me only minutes earlier—What of Freetown? What of Edgar and Patience? What of Pap and Grease? Of Amber and the baby? I could have very easily asked Hawkins or Amy, but I think I knew what they would say, because deep in my heart, I was neither mystified nor confused as to what had come, for I well knew the price for what we put upon Georgie Parks.

What I found then was what I expected, there in the shadow of Ryland’s Jail—which itself seemed to contain half the life left in Starfall. Freetown was in ruins, but not the kind that now afflicted the rest of Starfall. The shanties were nearly destroyed, and what remained were wooden planks black from burning, ashes, and among those structures still standing, doors torn off hinges, as though crashed in by some tremendous force. Such was the home of Georgie Parks. I walked in and saw that everything was smashed—the bed broken in two, a chest of drawers axed down the middle, the shards of pottery, a pair of spectacles. I stood there for a few moments taking in the fruit of my ways, the harvest of the Underground’s terrible revenge, which had not merely vented itself on Georgie Parks but on the entirety of Freetown. And I felt a deep and pervading shame. That was when I saw it—in the corner, a small toy horse, which I had given to Georgie on the birth of his child. I bent down to pick up the horse, and then walked back outside. It was now early evening. Ryland’s Jail stood a block away in a stony silence. The sun was falling over the trees in the distance. I felt a gray menace blowing up the abandoned street. I put the toy horse in my coat pocket and walked on.


The negroes, in the meantime, who had gotten off, continued dancing among the waves, yelling with all their might, what seemed to me a song of triumph….



took the horse and chaise from the stables and out of Starfall, steering away from the stone bridge, Dumb Silk Road, and the Falling Creek turnpike, for the proper way back to Lockless. I was drowning in a bleed of feelings, and what bled most was not the proposed meeting with my father, was not shame at my last words for Thena, was not even the sight of Sophia. All of that was there, but reigning high above it all was a deep-seated and boyish hope that the decay that I could now see had overrun Elm County had somehow spared my Lockless.

Who knows why we love what we do? Why we are what we are? I tell you I was, by then, mortgaged to the Underground. All that I knew of true humanity, of allegiance and honor, I had learned in that last year. I believed in the world of Kessiah and Harriet and Raymond and Otha and Mars. Still, the boy in me had not died. I was what I was and could no more choose my family, even a family denied me, than I could choose a country that denies us all the same.

But when I turned off the West Road, into Lockless, I understood, almost immediately, that my wish would not be granted. Like the race-way, the main road had begun to submit to the growth of the forest. And then I rode farther, past the fields, and saw that the regular team had shrunk in number, and looking out at them, I recognized no one.

A hint of hope came from the apple orchards, closer to the main house, which seemed perfectly maintained, and did not smell of fruit left to rot on the ground. And better than even the apple orchards was the garden of late asters just before the main house. I pulled the chaise up at the stables, tied the horse, and noticed that there was now but one horse, save the one I’d just driven, in the stable. My horse was thirsty and panting. I carried the trough over to the spring, filled it with water, and set it down in the stable, and when I looked into the water it shimmered a bit, shimmered for me. Soon come, I thought. Then I began my walk to the white palace of Lockless.

I saw him before he saw me. I was standing at the end of the road, just before the main house. He was seated on the porch, behind the bug-blind, in his hunting clothes, with his rifle at one side, and his afternoon cordial in the other. I had in my hand a crate of gifts sent along by Corrine. It was almost evening. The autumn sun was just beginning to fall. I stood there and watched for a moment and then I called out, “Good afternoon, sir.” I saw him awake, blink, and when he understood, his eyes were as wide as full moons. He did not so much run as he swam out into the road with bizarre abandon, his arms flailing the air like water. He pulled me close, right into an embrace, right there in the full open, and the old savage smell of him was all over me.

“My boy,” he said. And then he stepped back to get a look at me, holding both shoulders, soft tears streaming down his face. “My boy,” he said again, shaking his head.

I do not know what manner of reception I imagined on returning to my father’s house. Memory was my power, not imagination. But then there was my father himself, and when he guided me up to the front porch, and we were seated, I was able to take the measure of him. He seemed to have become the town of Starfall in miniature. I had been gone but a year, and in that time he seemed to have aged ten. He was weaker. His severe features had softened and his whole body seemed to sag into his chair. There were coin-sacks under his eyes and his face was discolored and pocked. I felt his heart working for every beat.

But there was something else—a kind of joy in him at my return, a joy that I had glimpsed in him all those years ago when I’d caught the rotating coin in my hand while never breaking my gaze.

“By God,” he said, looking me over. “We can dress you a sight better than that. Dignity, son. Remember Old Roscoe? Polished as a piano, God rest his sorrowful soul.”

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“Glad to see you, son. Been too much time, much too much time.”

“Yes, sir.”

“How you find Miss Corrine’s place, boy?”

“Fine, sir.”

“Not too fine, I’m hoping?”


“Hasn’t she told you, son? You are back here at Lockless. How’s that strike you?”

“Strikes me very well.”

“Good, good. Let’s see what you’ve got there.”

I helped him rummage through the gifts Corrine had sent—a collection of treats and candy, other odds and ends including a volume from Sir Walter Scott. The supper hour was now upon us and so I helped my father upstairs and then into his evening dining clothes.

“Very good. Very good,” he said. “You are a natural at it. But get yourself changed. I think Old Roscoe was smaller than you. I am thinking you could outfit yourself in some of Maynard’s old garments. That boy had more finery than he could put to use. Miss him though, I do. Damn, that boy was trouble.”

“A good man, sir.”

“Yes, he was. But no use in garments gone to seed. Make something distinguished of yourself up there, boy. You may take your brother’s old quarters, in the house, not down in those tunnels below.”

“Yes, sir.”

“One thing, boy. So much has changed round here since you have gone. The old place cannot be what it was. We lost so many. But I have done as I could, and what I did otherwise could not have been helped. Son, I am old. But all I can think of now, in this time, is ensuring some kindly heir for the place and for our people. I want you to know that is a particular concern to me, do you understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

“It was not right of me to let you go, boy. I was in grief and that girl Corrine, well, she talked me right out of your name. But since you been gone, I have been at her to bring you back to where I know you want to be. And by God, I have done it. You are here, boy. I know you will fill quite well for Old Roscoe, as you did for my Little May. But I need you to be more. Once you was hands, son. I got plenty of those. What I now need is your eyes. All got to stay in order. Can I count on you for that, boy?”

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“Good. Good. I am a conflicted man, I cannot help it. Two mistakes I made in my life. First was letting go of your momma. Second was letting go of you. And it was all done in a horrible fit. No more. I am an old man, but I am, too, a new one.”

So that evening, I found myself installed in my dead brother’s room, and in my dead brother’s clothes. And when it was time for supper, I went out to the kitchen, and did not recognize a one of them. There was a staff of two working there, down from five. And they were both elderly, which itself said something of the straits Lockless now navigated. Because they produced no children, nor many working years, elderly slaves were the cheapest to acquire. They had, by their own intelligence, heard of “that Ryland business,” but they seemed oddly pleased that my father seemed so pleased with me, and spoke at length of my father’s pride and regret, despite my having run. I think now they thought, perhaps prayed, that I would prove some manner of stabilizing force on the house.

I served supper—terrapin soup and chops—and cleaned up with the staff, then took my father to his study with an evening cordial. With that completed, it was now upon me to come face to face with my shame. I left my father sitting there, stripped down to his shirtsleeves and tartan vest, lost in dreams of Lockless yore, and slid behind the wall of the study, until I was in the secret staircase that descended into the Warrens below. So many were now gone, and where there once had been life, I found an emptiness, a haunt, in all the abandoned quarters, with their doors left open, and various odds and ends—washbasins, marbles, spectacles—left behind. Walking in the Warrens, peering by the lantern-light, running my hand across the cobwebbed doorframes of the people I’d known, of Cassius, of Ella, of Pete, I felt a great rage, not simply because I knew that they had been taken but because I knew how they had been taken, how they had been parted from each other, how I was born and made by this great parting. Better than before, I understood the whole dimensions of this crime, the entirety of the theft, the small moments, the tenderness, the quarrels and corrections, all stolen, so that men such as my father might live as gods.

My old room was just as I left it, washbasin, jars, and bed. But I was not much in the mood to inspect any of that. For I could hear, just next door, a woman humming, and knowing the voice, I slowly walked out of my room, and then to the adjacent room, and pushing the door, which was slightly ajar, I saw Thena there humming to herself, with two pins between her teeth, and a garment in her lap that she was presently darning. I stood waiting there for some moments for her to acknowledge me, and when she did not, I walked over, pulled out a chair, and sat across from where she was seated on the bed.

“Thena,” I said.

She kept humming but never looked up. I had by then learned the price of my silence, the cost of holding my words as a shield to my heart. I knew what it was to feel that someone you deeply loved was gone from you, and that you would never be able to tell them all that they had meant. But sitting with Thena, who I thought I’d lost, whose volume and character had only been amplified through my knowledge of Kessiah, I felt that I now had a second chance and I resolved not to waste it.

“I was wrong,” I blurted out. I had no pretense. I did not know how else to be. The feelings of the past year were all so new, and I was still, in so many ways, a boy with no understanding of how such feelings should be borne. But I knew that too much had gone unsaid. And our time together could no longer be presumed.

“I came here to confess how badly I had spoken to you when I last saw you, how poorly I have treated you, who are all the family I have, more family than anyone who has ever lived in this house.”

At this Thena looked up for a moment, then looked back down, still humming. And though there was no compassion in her eyes, indeed she was cold as ice, I took even her skeptical regard as a measure of progress.

“It is not easy for me to say. You have known me all my life. You know it is not easy. But I am sorry. And for so long I have feared that those words would be the last ones I had given to you. And to see you here, again…to see you…Listen to me. I was wrong. I am sorry.”

She had stopped humming. And she looked up again and placed the garment, which I now saw was a pair of trousers, down on the bed. Then she took my right hand in both of hers and she squeezed it tight, all the time looking away from me, and I heard her breathe in deep and then breathe out. Then she released my hand, picked up the garment, and said, “Hand me that patch of corduroy.”

I walked over to the chest of drawers, picked up the patch, and passed it to her. As I did this, I felt something set right in me. My mother was lost to me. This was true. But before me now was one who had lost as I had, who had been joined to me out of that loss, out of that need, and had become my only unerring family at Lockless, just as she had told me. And where I feared she would hold my words against me, what I saw even in her most contrary gestures was a joy at my safe return. I did not need her to smile. I did not need her to laugh. I did not even need her to tell me how much she had loved me. I only needed her, as it happened, to take my hand.

“Well, I am upstairs now,” I said. “Maynard’s old room. Don’t love it but it is what Master Howell say it be. Holler if you need me.”

And her only answer to this new information was to pick up her humming again. But then as I walked out the doorway, I heard her say, “Missed supper.”

I turned back and said, “Missed more than that.”

I now returned to my old room and gathered a few of my effects—my water-jar, my books, my old clothes, and even my old trusty coin was there, undisturbed on the mantel. I stuffed these into my washbasin and walked up the secret backstairs into the study, where I saw my father quietly dozing. I carried my effects up to Maynard’s old room and returned to the study. Then I escorted my father up to his room, my arm under his, helped him out of his clothes and under the covers, and bid him good night.

The next morning, I dressed, tended to my father again, and then drove the chaise into Starfall to retrieve Corrine, Amy, and Hawkins. Corrine and my father lunched and walked the property alone. An hour later, they returned and we served tea. In the evening, after the visiting party had set off, I served my father supper, and then went down into the Warrens to see Thena.

In another time, the Warrens teemed with humanity, tasking hands moving amongst each other, singing their songs, trading their stories, and venting their complaints, so that they were almost a world unto themselves, and you could, if you tried, forget that you were held there. But now all the human warmth of the early years had drained from the place, and the Warrens were revealed for what they had always been—a dungeon beneath a castle, dank and gray, an effect augmented by the array of lanterns that had fallen into disrepair and now left long stretches of the Warrens in darkness.

When I arrived, Thena was not there. I decided to sit and wait. She arrived a few minutes later, looked at me, and said, “Evening.”

“Evening,” I said.

“You ate?”


We had greens, fatback, and ash-cake. We ate silently, as we had always done when I was a child. Then, after cleaning up, I bid Thena good night and returned to my room. We continued this routine for a week. And then one unseasonably warm evening, at my suggestion, we took our plates out to the end of the Warrens tunnel, where I had, all those years ago, entered with her. We sat there eating, watching the sun set over the country.

Thena said, “So you done seen Sophia?”

“Not yet,” I said. “Figured she spent most of her time over at Nathaniel’s now.”

“Naw,” said Thena. “She right down there on the Street. Nathaniel almost always in Tennessee now. So ain’t too much reason for her to be over there. But he and Howell and Corrine got some sort of arrangement on her. Can’t say I understand it, except that she is left there to her business.”

“To her business?” I asked.

“Till they figure out what to do with her, I’m guessing. They don’t make a habit of sharing such things with me, as you know.”

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