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Authors: Ta-Nehisi Coates;

The Water Dancer: A Novel (31 page)

BOOK: The Water Dancer: A Novel

“I should see her,” I said.

“Only if you ready,” Thena said. “Best not to rush such things. Lot done changed down this way.”

The next day was a Sunday, my day. I held myself back until the afternoon. Then, realizing I must see her sometime anyway, and feeling I would never be ready, I took my walk down to the Street, down to the place of my birth. And much as I had expected, the Street too had fallen into disrepair. There were no chickens roaming about, and all the old gardens were overgrown. These were the last days of the section of the vast Southern Empire that held Virginia as its ancestral seat. And it has been said, the fact of this falling is the fault of its masters, that had the Quality adhered to the hollow virtues of old, perhaps this empire would have stretched forth for a thousand years. But the fall was always ordained, because slavery made men wasteful and profligate in sloth. Maynard was crude and this was his greatest crime. In fact, he mirrored so much of the Quality. He simply lacked the guile to hide it.

The first bite of winter air had blanketed over Elm County, so that I grew wistful of summer Sundays and that other time when all of my young friends would have been out playing our little games of marbles and tag. Thena told me that Sophia had taken up in that same far cabin at the end of the Street where Thena and I had lived in the days following my mother’s departure. Looking down the bank of houses, I saw a woman emerge with a small child on her hip. The woman bounced the baby a few times, and then looked up and saw me. She gave me a look of puzzled interrogation, nodded an acknowledgment, and walked back inside. I stood there a second waiting, and then the woman stepped out of the cabin again, without the baby, and it was only then that it dawned on me that the woman was Sophia.

When Sophia stepped back out, she was different. She stood there, a few yards away, at the far end of the street, Sophia, my Sophia, unsmiling. I did not know what any of it meant. Was she angry with me for leading her to Ryland? Had I dreamt up that whole evening, of us out there, in union? Had it all been a childish flirtation between us? Did she now love another? And who was that baby?

“Gon stand down there all day?” she yelled down at me. Then she walked back inside. I followed until I was outside Thena’s old cabin, and memories of myself, appearing before her with only my victuals, overran me. But there was not much time for such things. And looking in, I saw Sophia had the baby on her hip again, bouncing her just as she had outside, singing a song.

“Hello,” I said.

“Well, hello, Hiram,” Sophia said. She had a smug look about her and I could not decide if this was her usual teasing or if it was something deeper. She sat on a chair by the window and then invited me to take a seat myself on the bed. The baby was brown, about my complexion, and cooed quietly in Sophia’s arms. It was only then that I began to do the math of it all. So much had changed. I must have given some sign of this awareness, perhaps an arched eyebrow, or a widening of the eyes, because Sophia sucked her teeth, rolled her eyes, and said, “Don’t worry. She ain’t yours.”

“I am not worried,” I said. “I am not worried about anything anymore.”

And when I said this, I saw her relax just a bit, though she was trying to maintain that same cool distance she had offered up when I first arrived. She stood and walked to the window, all the time cradling the child.

“What is her name?” I asked.

“Caroline,” she said, still looking out the window.

“It’s a beautiful name.”

“I call her Carrie.”

“And that is beautiful too,” I said.

Now she sat down across from me, but she did not meet my eyes. She focused on the child, but did so in such a way that I knew the child was a pretense for not looking my way.

“I did not think you would come back,” she said. “Don’t nobody ever come back here. I heard Corrine Quinn had gotten ahold of you. Somebody said you was up in the mountains somewhere. In the salt mines, they said.”

“And who is ‘they’?” I asked, laughing quietly.

“That ain’t funny,” she said. “I was worried for you, Hiram. I am telling you, I was terribly scared.”

“Well, I wasn’t nowhere near no mines. It’s true I was in the mountains,” I said. “Up at Bryceton. But wasn’t no mines. Wasn’t half-bad, in fact. Quite beautiful up there. You should go sometime.”

And now Sophia laughed herself and said, “And you come back a joker, huh?”

“Gotta laugh, Sophia,” I said. “I have learned that you gotta laugh in this life.”

“Yeah, you do,” she said. “Though I find it harder every day. Need to think of good things and better times. Do you know I talk about you, Hi?”

“Talk about me to who?”

“To my Carrie. Tell her everything.”

“Huh,” I said. “Ain’t much else to talk about, it seem. Place so empty now.”

“Yeah,” said Sophia. “So many lost. So many gone. Natchez got ’em. Tuscaloosa. Cairo. Hauled ’em down into that big nothing. It get worse every day. Long Jerry from over at the MacEaster Place was by here only two weeks ago. I felt surely he was too old for them to take. He was here, right here, with a offering of yams, trout, and apples. Thena even came down. We fried it up and had a good supper together. Was just two weeks ago. And now he gone.

“It’s been so many, Hi. So many. I don’t know how they keeping this thing afloat. Was a girl named Milly come through here a few months back. Beautiful girl—which was her loss. She ain’t last but a week. Natchez. Fancy trade.”

“But you still here,” I said.

“Indeed, indeed,” she said. Now Caroline began to stir, wriggling in her mother’s arms, until she could turn her head and get a good solid look at me. And the child held me there with a stare of the deepest of intentions, regarding me in the way infants do when brought before someone unknown. I never knew what to do with that look. It discomfits me. But there was more because that look, and all its intense study, was the inheritance of her mother. Perhaps it was all the moments I had spent conjuring the face, recreating the particulars. And there was something else now, more math. Caroline had the same sun-drop eyes as her mother, but the color—an uncommon green-gray—came from somewhere else. I knew this because my own eyes were the same color, and the color was a Walker inheritance, given not only to me but to my uncle, Nathaniel.

Again, my looks must have betrayed me, because Sophia sucked her teeth, pulled Caroline close, stood, and turned away.

“Already told you,” Sophia said. “She ain’t yours.”

I know now what it is to feel things that you have no right to feel, I knew it even then though I did not know how to describe it. What I remember was one half of me wanted to get away from Sophia, to never speak to her again, to disappear into the Underground and cut away that girl who would not be
Sophia. And then another part, a part of me conceived in my mother’s own strife, then reared on the Underground, the part that was dazzled by that “university” upstate, the part that found the wisdom to tell Robert that nothing is pure and thank God—was shocked to find such resentment still curdling in me.

I watched Sophia watch the baby for a moment, then shifted away and said, “So how many of us left?”

“Don’t know,” Sophia said. “Was never sure how many was here to begin with. And for the sake of my own heart, I stopped counting the departed. Surely these are the last days of Lockless. They are killing us, Hi. And not just here. Across Elm County. They are killing us all.”

She sat back down with Caroline.

“But you did come back,” she said. “And you look good for yourself. It has been a blessing of mine to see you return to us, to be reborn, twice in a lifetime—up out of the Goose, and now out of the jaws of Ryland. Must be some powerful meaning, for we are not in Natchez, but right here before each other. Some meaning in us, I think. Some powerful, powerful meaning.”

But the discovery of that meaning would have to wait. I walked back that evening and tended to my father and his supper. Then I descended into the Warrens and joined Thena for supper. There was no ambient action outside the doors, nor in the house above. It felt like we were all alone on some far side of the world, and I understood some of how it must have been in the earliest days of Lockless, when it was only the progenitor and his team of tasking men, with nature closing in around them.

After we finished, we walked outside and sat at the edge of the tunnel to the Warrens.

Thena looked over at me and said, “So you went to see her.”

I looked to the ground and shook my head.

Thena laughed to herself.

“You could have told me,” I said.

“Like you could have told me?”

“Was different then,” I said.

“Naw, the same. You judged it to be no business of mine. I did not agree. But I am struggling to see how telling you that girl was a grass widow would make me anything more than a gossip. There are things between you two that do not concern me.”

She was right. I thought back to that moment when I’d last seen her before running, and I recalled my harsh words and I knew that while I could apologize for the pain I had caused, the break was real. The child had left home. He could not return.

“I’m not even angry with her,” I said. “Wasn’t ever like she was mine.”


Caroline was, by my estimation, perhaps four months old, which meant that when I ran with Sophia, she was already carrying the baby. And knowing her intellect and independence, and thinking on all our conversations, I understood that she was not simply with child when we ran, but likely ran with me because she was with child.

“Thena, I am feeling that she had reasons to run, reasons that she declined to share with me.”


“And that has left me…with feelings. Like I laid myself bare before that girl. And when I ran, I did so giving all of my reasoning. Straight down the line.”

“Straight down the line, huh?”


“Yeah, all right. Listen, I’m gon tell you—ain’t nobody straight down no line, Hi. Least of all two young’uns like y’all two. Hot after each other as you was.”

“I did not lie,” I said.

“Huh. ‘Straight down the line,’ ” Thena said, shaking her head. “You sure about that? You sure you telling everything? I gotta say, I know I don’t feel like I done heard the whole of it. And I would bet my next week’s victuals that Sophia ain’t either.”


and our days grew gray and cool, our nights lonesome and blue. In those early days back, I worked as Roscoe once had, though my duties were lighter on account of the diminished number of guests entertained. The old days of Elm County royalty, of parasols and powdered faces, lady-cake and card-games, the old days when I would amaze whole parties with the magic of memory, were gone. From time to time, older friends, as ancient as my father, would call upon him. They would spend hours denouncing the young Quality, dazzled by tales of boundless land out west, who’d abandoned their Virginian birthright. There was still my uncle, Nathaniel Walker, who held Sophia and somehow maintained himself and all of his land. But his tasking folks had, besides a small team for maintenance, all gone west. Harlan was still there at Lockless, pushing the tasking folks to extract all they could from the dying land. But his wife, Desi, no longer ruled the house, because the house had so diminished that there was no need for her hand. My father’s most constant companion was Corrine, who, no matter Maynard’s death, he still held as the daughter he’d never had. She would arrive in full grieving costume—driven by Hawkins. She comforted my father. She let him regale her with that other age before the yawning fallows, when tobacco ever-flowing endowed the estates.

Still, the duties of everyday companionship mostly fell to me. So every evening, after preparing supper for my father, and taking mine with Thena, I would tend the fire in the parlor, serve warm cider, and listen to the last true lord of Lockless unspool his regrets. We now fell into the oddest arrangement, one that had been my secret wish in my younger years. I tasked for him, but the nature of the relation so shifted that he would, on those blue evenings, with the Argand lamp casting its long shadows against the old family busts, ask that I sit with him and imbibe. And it seemed to me, in those moments, that the whole world had fallen away, fallen into the pit of Natchez, and I alone was left bearing witness. On such an evening as this, finding himself far into the cider, my father spoke of his greatest regret of all—Maynard Walker.

At first he seemed to be speaking almost aimlessly, but then his words focused and out of them came a mourning that was larger than Maynard himself.

“My father never loved me,” he said. “It was another time, boy. Nothing like today where you see the young folks open and frolicking. My daddy’s only concern was station. And all my actions had to honor my lineage. Of course, I married a lady, Lord rest her soul, handsome enough. But she was never the girl I burned for, and she knew that. So when Maynard came, I was set on never putting him in that situation.

“I wanted him to be what his own nature commanded. So I gave the boy wide berth—too wide as it happened. He had no handling. He was not built for society and I, never loving society myself, did nothing to encourage it. And when his mother passed, well…He was my boy.”

He paused here. His head was now in his hands, and I sensed he was doing all he could to keep from breaking down and weeping. He pulled his hands away, then stared into the fire for a few long moments.

He said, “I almost feel as though May was put out of his misery. I know I was put out of mine. It is a terrible thing to say it. But there was nothing for him here, you see? I had not built him for this life. I had barely been built for it myself. And the young ones are now all headed west. He would have got himself skinned by an Indian, or lost everything to swindle. I know it, the boy was not prepared, and that is the fault of me.

“I am not a good man, Hiram. You, among them all, know this. I have not forgotten what was done to you.”

I remember how he was still looking into the fire when he said this. He was as close as he could come to an admission, an apology, for an act I knew but could not then remember. And even as we sat there, with our cider, as close as any Quality and Tasked in Virginia could be, still he could not look to me and speak with truth. He was as ill-prepared for repentance as Maynard was for mastery. His world—the world of Virginia—was built on a foundation of lies. To collapse them all right then and there, at his age, might well have killed him.

“The land, the management of Negroes, takes a special hand,” he said. “It was always beyond me. And what is odd is I always felt that you were the one who had it. You were colder than all of us, colder than Maynard, colder than me, perhaps because of what was done to you. But you had the makings, and I do believe that in some other time our separate acres could be swapped and perhaps there I might be the colored and you might be the white.”

I heard this the way an old man hears a young unrequited love attest to their true feelings from that bygone era—the mix of trivia and nostalgia, an ancient wound reawakened by the rain, the ghost of a feeling, once deeply held, but now only a stray memory from what seemed another lifetime.

In this lifetime, I looked over and saw my father now nodding into sleep. I took my glass, still half-filled with cider, and walked upstairs to his second-floor study. In the corner, I saw the mahogany highboy, the same one I repaired only a year ago. I took a drink of cider, set it on the windowsill, and then opened the drawers. Inside I found three thick bound ledgers. For the next hour I slowly pored over these ledgers, committing them to memory. Together they painted a picture, a grim picture, that would help fulfill my mission, according to Corrine, to ascertain the situation here at Lockless.

When I was done, I closed up the ledgers and returned them to the highboy. I thought of Maynard, when we were young, rifling through our father’s things. I laughed to myself and then opened a second drawer. Within it, I saw a small but ornate wooden box. I thought to pull the box out and open it, but thinking again of Maynard, I remembered how shameful I felt when he pilfered from our father. So I shut the drawer and walked back downstairs. My father was snoring lightly. I roused him to take him up to bed.

He said, “I got plans for you, boy. Plans.”

I nodded and moved to help him out of his chair. But he looked at me like a man condemned to death, as though he feared that if he slept he might never again awake.

“Tell me a story,” he said. “Please, any story.”

So I withdrew and sat in my own chair, leaned back, and I suddenly felt myself grow old right there, because I saw before me the room come alive with the specters of Caulleys, Mackleys, and Beachams, and all the families of Quality who’d once bid of me a story, a song. No, I thought. Not far enough. And I, with my words, took my father’s hands, back through the ages, back to the stone monument in the field, back to the Bowie knives, the catamounts and bears, the tasking men hauling stones and breaking creeks, back to the time of our progenitor.

The next day Hawkins drove Corrine over for one of her visits from Starfall, where she had installed herself for some time. Bryceton was mostly left to Amy and the few other agents who could keep up the cover. On these visits, I would confer with Hawkins and deliver any intelligence I had discerned. And so it happened on that day. We walked down to the Street, where the cabins were mostly abandoned, thinking this would provide us the privacy we needed. I maintained a hope of seeing Sophia, though I had begun to keep her at arm’s length. I was divided against myself. The intense feelings of only a year ago had not dulled, indeed had grown, so that knowing she was right there at Lockless, but not with me, made me sick. And that sickness scared me, for I now knew that some part of my welfare was in the hands of someone who held her own secret motives and designs.

“So what you think?” Hawkins asked.

We were seated in one of the abandoned cabins closest to the main house, and farthest from Sophia’s. We could see the tobacco fields, now mostly left to fallow.

“Not much,” I said. “Not much at all.”

“Yeah, I know,” Hawkins said, looking over the fields. “Place look dead.”

“The whole county feels dead. Nobody come to see him. No afternoon tea. No big dinners. No socials.”

“Yeah, not sure how Corrine think this gon fit into anything. Maybe it’s good she ain’t marry that boy.”

“I will tell you this, she would be marrying into a pile of debt.”

Hawkins looked over at me. “How much debt?” he asked.

“Well, there ain’t been much intelligence to be gleaned from society on account of there being none,” I said. “But I got a look at the ledgers last night. He’s in over his head. There’s an interest on almost every inch of this property. He’s stalling. Hoping for some relief.”

“Well, I’ll be,” said Hawkins. “Make sense, I guess. The soil was the wealth, and the soil done gone to dust. My pappy used to tell stories about the land, bout how red it was. But they done stripped the place for all the tobacco they could. It’s a shame, I tell you. They got as much out of this county as they could and now, having gotten it, the whole heap of ’em headed west.”

“And the tasking hands with ’em,” I said.


“How bout the man’s brother? Nathaniel? He lending a hand?”

“By the looks of them books, he done lent several hands. Howell ain’t paid him nothing back. Blood money after bad money, I guess.”

“Huh,” Hawkins said. “Nathaniel smart. Smart as any man can be in this business. He out Tennessee way, now. He moved while the moving was good. That’s the whole game, you know? Eat up the land, then keep going. Someday they gonna run out of land, and I don’t know what they’ll do then.”

We walked back up to the house to meet Corrine. Just before the main drive, Hawkins stopped.

“Something you said back there be turning over in my head,” he said. “The man own brother done left him out there, huh?”

“Seems so.”

“Stay on them books. Might be something in this.”

But there were those who profited in this new arrangement, in the most unlikely ways. Thena now hired herself out, taking in laundry, not just at Lockless, but for a number of the neighboring old estates who’d sold away their own laundry women. And she had brokered a deal with my father, allowing her to split payments with him, and in that way, someday, purchase her own freedom.

“Where will you go?” I asked. I was walking with her to the stables, for I had been enlisted in this partnership now, as a driver.

“Farther than you,” she said, smiling sardonically.

We loaded ourselves into one of the old chaises, sturdy but dating back to my father’s youth, and headed down the drive. At the juncture with the main road of the estate, I saw Sophia standing, wrapped in a shawl from her head down. I could see the little head of Carrie looking out. Thena told me to pull over, which I did, then I stepped out of the cart.

“She coming?” I said to Thena.

“Don’t be so joyful,” Sophia said.

“Been coming,” said Thena, taking Carrie from Sophia, who now, not waiting for any assist, climbed into the back. I got back into my seat, pulled on the reins to start up the horse, and asked, “How long y’all been doing this?”

“Quite a bit while you was out,” said Sophia. “When I got back, I felt a need to make myself useful in some other way than before. Started giving Thena a hand with the washing, till Caroline prevailed upon me, and then I had no more hands to give.”

“Got some things straight,” Thena said. “Had our share of talks.”

“About what?” I said.

“About you,” Thena said.

I shook my head, and blew out a dismissive breath through my teeth, and then all was quiet for a while, until we turned onto Hookstown Road and old memories began to spring forth for Thena.

“I had family all up and down here,” she said. “Uncles, aunts, cousins. Had to know who I could marry and who I could not. There was so many associations. The old folks kept the memory. Knew who was kin and who was not.”

“That is what they there for,” said Sophia. “To hold the stories. Keep the blood clean.”

“But they all gone now,” said Thena. “All the knowledged ones is gone, and we are reduced to our surmising upon a nose or eyebrow or a particular demeanor. Don’t matter much, I guess. So few of us left, and another year like this, Elm will be dust.”

We drove farther, stopping and picking up the washing from all the old mansions. The trees had all turned over and were now depositing themselves upon the floor of the woods in sheets of brown. The light of the season gave a ghostly glow to the old mansions, which had, only a year ago, heaved with their last energy and feeling. Most of them were like Lockless, stripped down to the barest of staffs, and I felt then that winter was not just marching on Virginia, but on Elm in particular, and would not be leaving.

In the back I heard Carrie grow restless. Thena told me to pull over and we watched as Sophia took Carrie in her arms bouncing and singing through a nearby field. Thena unwrapped some salt pork and shared it with me.

Sophia came back with Carrie, still bouncing and singing:

Who’s been here since I been gone?

A pretty little girl with a blue dress on.

We drove on and Thena considered her reminiscence.

“This path right here, used to lead right up to Phinny’s place,” she said. “I had a whole passel of people here. Had a aunt who used to cook for the first Phinny himself. And in a time when y’all was but the smallest of peppers, they used to have the grandest kind of social down at the quarters here.”

“I have heard,” I said. “By my time, Phinny the Second was mostly known for being so evil. Story was he shot Pap Wallace, put him all to pieces because he would not submit to correction.”

“Who you hear that from?” Thena asked.

“My uncle Creon,” I said.

We were quiet for a while, riding along. It was late in the afternoon now, and we had one more pick-up at the Granson place before turning back to Lockless.

“That was your uncle?” Thena asked.

“Sure was,” I said.

“He used to come down to the Street, at night. Would hang near your momma’s place for whatever scraps she had. It was not his best days. I remember him well.”

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