Authors: Ta-Nehisi Coates;
“I remember him too,” I said. “But he is all I remember of those times. I can see him at the door, and everything else is fog.”
“Might be good,” Sophia said. “No notion of what’s lurking behind that fog.”
“Ain’t nothing good about it,” I said.
We stopped at the Granson place. Caroline was asleep now and Sophia wrapped her in her shawl and made a hollow for her among the washing, which was tied in bedding sheets. She reached for a bundle left on the ground to hoist onto the chaise.
“I got it,” I said.
“Let me help,” she said.
“You done helped plenty,” I said, with more heat in my words than I intended. Sophia’s eyes widened but she said nothing. She went back to the chaise and we kept loading laundry.
We got back with the sun still hanging just over the trees. She stepped down and said her goodbyes to Thena and then she turned to me. It was only now that I saw that something had gone wrong.
“So this is what it is, huh?” she said. She had Carrie wrapped on her back now, with her shawl.
“What?” I said, indignantly.
“This is who you are? This is how you come back?”
“I don’t know nothing—”
“Don’t you dare lie to me. Don’t you dare, not after you done come back. Don’t you dare. You was suppose to be better. I told you be better. I told you I wasn’t trading no white man for a colored. And now look at you, stewing over what you don’t own, over what no man should ever try to own. You was supposed to be better.”
Then she was walking down the road, her anger made manifest in how she shook as she walked away.
When we got back to the house, I unloaded the washing while Thena started on supper. Then I went to the kitchen, picked up my father’s meal, and began to walk it in to him. He wanted company for his supper. So I stood there and watched him eat as he interrogated me about the day. I fell back into myself, until my face was a servile mask. After, I walked out, down the secret staircase, to Thena’s quarters. We sat at her table and ate silently as we always did. When we were done, she looked at me and said, “You punishing that girl.”
Thena cut me off. “You punishing her.”
I came back up and saw my father in the library, flipping through a volume. I went to the dining room and cleared his setting. Then I heated his cider and brought it to him and retreated upstairs to my room. The old toy horse I had carved for Georgie’s son was on the mantel. I picked it up and ran my fingers across it. I thought on Sophia’s words, the command to
. I walked out of my room, down through the library, past my already dozing father, into the Warrens, and out through the tunnel. I walked down the long path past the orchards into the woods until I was down on the Street. And I walked to the end, where I found Sophia, seated out on the steps, alone.
Sophia shot me the coldest eye imaginable, and then she walked inside. I came to the door and looked in. I saw that Carrie was asleep on the bed. Sophia was looking away from me. I sat down next to her.
“I am sorry,” I said. “I am so terribly sorry. For everything I have put upon you, I am so very sorry.”
I slipped my fingers between hers. All of my days spent dreaming of her, all of my hours spent wondering if she was lost out there, and all of my amazement at learning that she was down here, and all of my wondering again about what had become of her here, and about who she loved and who loved her, all of those hours of dreams and ghosts and blue whispers, all of it now was real, was right there, between my fingers.
“I want to be better,” I said. “I am trying to be better.”
And Sophia pulled my hand to her lips and kissed it and then turned to me and said, “You want me to be yours, I understand. I have always understood it. But what you must get is that for me to be yours, I must never be yours. Do you understand what I am saying? I must never be any man’s.”
Sophia, my Sophia—the notions I had, the lives I thought we might build, notions and lives all in my head, all built on my sole, lonely ambitions. I sat there looking into her big sun-drop eyes. She was so very beautiful, as beautiful as they said my mother was. And I knew, looking at her there, that those notions, those lives, had never considered Sophia, as she knew herself to be. Because
had not been a woman to me. She had been an emblem, an ornament, a sign of someone long ago lost, someone whom I now glimpsed only in the fog, someone whom I could not save. Oh, my dear dark mother. The screams. The voices. The water. You were lost to me, lost, and there was nothing I could do to save you.
But we must tell our stories, and not be ensnared by them. That is what I was thinking that evening, in that old cabin down on the Street. And that is why I reached into my pocket and pulled out the small toy horse I’d collected from Georgie’s and put it in Sophia’s hands.
“For Carrie,” I said.
And now Sophia laughed quietly and said, “She a little young for this, Hi.”
“I am trying,” I said, smiling. “I am.”
N THE END, WE—
Sophia, young Carrie, and myself—were all that was stable at Lockless. Powers of blood bound us. Sophia was Nathaniel’s chosen, and Carrie was her daughter. I was my father’s son, and as for Thena, well, to my father, she was the symbol of a bygone era. He had sold her children, an act that, in his mind, was a turn in the road that marked the end of the Virginia he knew. He never quite said this, but my father avoided saying too much to Thena, and if he was walking the property and saw her coming, he would turn the other way. I think now that this was his ambition for her laundry runs, to somehow assuage the guilt of selling a woman’s children on the racetrack.
Guilt or not, it saved Thena, and together, in those gray days, the four of us formed a kind of unit. We fell into a kind of routine. We took our meals together. After, I would see to my father, and then walk Sophia and Caroline back to their quarters down in the Street. One night I was seeing them home and Sophia said, speaking of Thena, “You know she is getting old.”
“She is,” I said.
“It is a hard life, Hi, a hard life on a woman—the laundry, the hauling, the rendering, the lye. I help out as I can, but it is hard. I am glad you came back. She need a break. Tell her sit tight tomorrow. You and me, we can handle the washing. And we’ll do the run on Monday too.”
When I got back, I told Thena our plan. She looked at me and gave some manner of protest, relenting only after insisting on looking after Caroline while we worked. The next day was Sunday. Corrine was coming in to take my father off to church. With Hawkins attending them both, I could take up the extra labor. That night, I lay in bed thinking of Thena and her plans. She still held out the hope of laundry money buying the last of her days in freedom. I held not to her plan but to my own, the plan of the Underground. Winter was upon us, the nights growing longer. I thought of Kessiah and how her face would look when she found her mother was delivered, and I thought, even then, that I saw in that look not just the fulfillment of a promise, but the healing of some ancient wound in me.
The washing was not easy work. We met in the early morning, with the sky still black and illuminated by the pin-prick of stars and the sliver of moon. We spent the first hour drawing up water from the well and filling our cauldrons. Then, while I gathered wood and got the fires going, Sophia separated the garments and searched for small tears. Then she delivered those few to Thena, whom we were not wholly successful in keeping from work, for darning. With the fires going and the black cauldrons heating, we held up the garments and bedding and beat the soiling out of them. While Sophia finished the beating, I carried three large washing tubs out from the Warrens to the side of the house, where we were heating the water. The stars had now faded and I could see the pale sliver of moon dissolving into the dark blue of those last small hours. When the tubs were in place, together, with our work gloves on, we lifted the cauldrons and poured the hot water. And then for the next few hours we scrubbed, rinsed, and wrung, and then scrubbed, rinsed, and wrung twice more.
We finished long after sunset. After hanging all the clothes, we walked over to the gazebo, as we had done in what seemed to me a lifetime ago. Our arms and backs were sore. Our hands were raw. We sat there in the silence of things for twenty minutes. And then walked back to eat with Thena.
“Not so easy,” she said, and our exhausted silence was the loudest affirmation imaginable. Afterward, I walked Sophia down to the Street, and lingered as she washed and dressed Caroline for bed. I stepped outside and knocked my knuckles around the gaps in the filled spaces between the cabin wood. A piece chipped away.
I came back in and said, “Daubing going to pieces here. Thinking I might could go over it one time.”
Sophia was then swaddling the baby’s bottom in cloth, singing softly. She stopped singing and said, “Is she a problem for you?”
I laughed nervously. “Takes some adjusting.”
“So you gonna be adjusting or no?”
“It is my notion,” I said.
I stepped in and sat down on the bed next to Sophia.
“Remember where your notions got us last time,” she said.
“I have not forgot a single thing,” I said. “But what I remember is not the hounds nor what came after. What I remember is you. What I remember is being tied to that fence, how I felt right ready to die, but when I looked over, I saw not an inch of dying in you—no matter what Georgie had done to us.”
“Georgie,” she said. At the mention of his name, I saw a look of rage. “He was gone when I got back here. Good for him he was, too. I cannot tell you of the vile and vengeful thoughts I put upon that man.”
“Maybe for the best, then,” I said.
“For him,” she said. “For him.”
We were quiet for a while. Sophia was holding Caroline over her shoulder now, gently rubbing her back.
“Hiram,” she said. “Why did you go away?”
“Wasn’t no ‘go’ about it. They up and carried me off,” I said. “You seen it.”
“Just like that, huh?” she said. “Carried you off?”
“You know how it happen,” I said. “We were not the first. Hounds catch you out there. Carry you off.”
“Well, I got this feeling that there was more to it. Things that maybe you cannot say, things that are not meant to be spoke about. Maybe it was you being Walker-kin. But that don’t feel like all of it, for I know that men down here, men who believe in the Task like Howell Walker do, why, they will sell their kin in a second, if only to no longer have to gaze upon the fruit of their sinful ways.”
“But I am Tasked,” I said. “Sure as you are Tasked. Blood can’t change that. It’s just as simple as it look. Corrine had a need. Howell felt bad about Maynard dying and sent me for consolation. Fact that we had run made it even easier.”
“Well, that is the other part. While you was gone, I seen my share of Corrine—more than I have seen of Nathaniel, even. She come down here every few weeks or so. And I do not know why she would have reason to see me. And I do not know why I myself wasn’t sent Natchez-way. Why are we here, Hiram? Why do we remain?”
“Seem like a question for Nathaniel.”
“Hi,” she said, “I don’t think he even know we ran. Times I have seen him since, and it has not been very often, he has not bothered a mention.”
“I don’t know. I ain’t in nobody’s heads.”
“I ain’t saying you are.”
“Yeah. Well, you are always saying something.”
She slapped me on the shoulder with her free hand and frowned. It was quiet between us for some long moments. I was thinking of Corrine, and why she would feel a need to look in on Sophia. I was wondering about what I had been told. And then I looked over to Sophia, who now had Carrie on her lap and was singing to her something soft and soothing. Baby Caroline was batting at the air, fighting sleep, fighting her own eyes.
For a moment I was back in Philadelphia, back with Mars, and I remembered how he opened himself to me, how the whole White family opened themselves and what that meant for me, how Bland had opened himself to me, how his words had freed me from the guilt of Maynard’s dying. And I felt now that I owed some of that to Sophia.
“I know a child ain’t only a joyful thing. I seen it. But so often I have seen women who would not wish a child upon themselves, still and all, forming their whole life around it. And I see you have formed your life around this young’un, formed your life around her before she even came. You would run for her. You would kill for her. I see how you look at the girl now, and I remember. I remember what you told me. ‘It’s coming, Hiram,’ you said. ‘And I will watch as my daughter is taken in, as I was taken in.’ None can say it was not said. And though I remember everything, I cannot say I always hear it. But I hear you now, and I hear much more.
“And I know that men put such terrible and wretched things upon a child brought to them who ain’t they blood. Mayhaps I’d be one of them men. Mayhaps I’d be so far in my own regard, in my own wrath and hate, that I…” I shook my head. “I am saying that she ain’t no problem, and you ain’t no problem, I am the problem.” And I paused here for a moment and Sophia squeezed my hand.
“I am saying that I knew who her daddy was, almost the moment I saw her. It was the rules. I come back and see you here with this baby Caroline, who is not blood…”
And I swear at this moment, it was as if baby Caroline could hear my words, for she looked over and reached a hand toward me. And I slipped my hand out from under Sophia’s and reached toward the baby, who took my small finger in her grip.
“ ’Cept, she is my blood,” I said. “High yella like me, with green-gray eyes like mine—but not only mine. These are Walker eyes and that is Walker hair. Goes back to the earliest one, for I have seen it noted in all descriptions of him in the local Elm County history.
“And it is the funniest thing. Because them green-gray eyes skipped Maynard. But they have arisen most prominently in Caroline, baby Caroline.
“And there is pain in that. Ain’t clean. It’s muck. I have told other men the same, even though I must now struggle to take my own medicine. I want you to know what I have seen, the men I have known since I have gone. The men who have had to decide what they love more, the everything, lovely and mean, right in front of them, or their own wrath and regard. And I choose the muck of this world, Sophia. I choose the everything.”
There were tears now in her eyes.
“Can I hold her?” I asked.
And she laughed through her tears and said, “Careful. She might well carry you off.”
Then she smiled and pulled baby Caroline up off her lap and, cupping her backside in one hand and shoulders in the other, presented her to me. And I saw baby Caroline look up with those green-grays and that same infant obsession. I reached out, trying to do my best imitation of Sophia, putting my hands directly under hers and then slipping them out. And I pulled the girl close to me until her head sat in the crook of my elbow. And when I felt her settle in, and she did not cry or wail, when I felt the warm muck of her in my arms, I thought of my father, and how he had never held me like this, not in symbol or in fact. And I remembered how I had, for all my youth, chased him, in search of this moment. And I thought of the woman who had given that moment to me, because that is what everyone told me, that my mother loved me more than anything, that she formed her life around me, until she was ripped away, my mother, whom I could not remember.
With Lockless hollowing itself out, with the Warrens all haunted and gray, and that dying season now folding into winter, Caroline was a light upon our world. It was Thena, with no one else there and willing, who had midwifed Carrie, and so, out of that feeling, Thena would at times care for the baby herself, to spell Sophia. That she did that following Sunday, when I was to repair the daubing on Sophia’s cabin. I worked for about an hour and then stepped inside. Sophia had started a fire. She was all bundled up and sat in front of the fireplace holding her hands toward it.
She looked at me and said, “You ain’t cold?”
“I am,” I said. “Can’t you tell?” And I put my hands on her cheeks and reached down to her neck. She laughed and shrieked, “Boy, stop!”
I chased her out of the cabin and into the Street for a few minutes until we collapsed in laughter onto the ground.
“All right, I really am cold now,” I said.
“I’m trying to tell you,” she said.
We went inside and sat by the fire. “Day like this,” she said, “could sure use me a demijohn. My Carolina Mercury, I tell you, he used to keep his share.” Then she looked at me and said, “Forgive me, Hi, I do not mean to speak of old things.”
“To be mine, can’t be mine,” I said. “Besides, give me an idea. Just wait right here.”
I walked back up to the house and into the Warrens. I stopped past Thena’s room and saw the door cracked open, and looking in I saw that Caroline was asleep on Thena’s bosom, much as Kessiah had told me she would be in days past. I walked into my room and took the bottle of rum that Mars had given me on my departure. When I got back, Sophia was sitting there with her hands underneath their opposite arms, and when I showed her the bottle she smiled and said, “I know there is something with you, something about the places you been.”
I opened the bottle and she said, “You ain’t the same man who left. You can try as you might to fool me, but you ain’t the same, I can see it, Hi. Can’t hide from me.”
I passed her the bottle and she took it to her mouth and tilted her head back as if trying to catch rain in her face, and then drank. “Ooh,” she said, wiping her mouth with her sleeve. “Yeah, you been some places.”
“But I am here now,” I said, and took a drink. “And besides, what about you?”
“What about me?” she said. “What you wanna know? I shall lay it out all before you.”
I took another drink, then sat the bottle on the ground.
“What happened?” I asked. “What happened after that night they had us out there?”
“Huh,” she said. “Well, they kept me pinned in that jail, much as I assume they pinned you. And I knew I was done, I tell you. Natchez calling, Natchez. And a girl like me, baby or no, I knew I would be put right out to fancy. I was right terrified, I tell you. I know I tried to be strong that night out there, Hi, and I was because I had you, and I felt I had you to worry for, and long as I had that, wasn’t much time for thinking of my own worries.
“But that day the hounds pinned me in that jail, it all hit me, all the evil that was bout to come down on me. Wanted to cry, but I knew I had to be strong. I just talk to my Caroline, that whole time. Just talk to her, and I am telling you, she soothed me. Like I felt myself to no longer be so alone. It’s like you say, I did not ask for her, but in that moment I was so happy to have her even though she was but a small thing blooming in me.
“And I think that was the moment when I became a mother to her. I was angry at what that man, Nathaniel, had done to me. What he had put upon me. And though I am thankful for her, I will never be thankful to him. Caroline belongs to me and my God. I named her for my lost home, for my Carolina, the land from which I was stripped by no doing of my own. And that is the whole of it—in that jail, with the knife of Natchez at my throat, Caroline—my home—she saved me.”