Authors: Ta-Nehisi Coates;
I handed her the bottle and she took another drink, shivered, and said, “Mmmm.” She wiped her mouth with her sleeve. And was silent for a moment and I just sat there watching her in this silence. When she turned back to pass the demijohn to me, I felt that she looked different, as though the very texture of her story had somehow been etched into her face.
“But that’s not really the whole of it,” she said. “Late that night, same night, I was drifting off to sleep, huddled in the corner of the jail, rats scurrying around, cold drafty air blowing in, and I look up and see a shadow looking in on me. And then the shadow walk away for a few, and I am wondering if this is some kind of dream. But then the shadow come back with one of the hounds, who opens the door to my jail and he say, ‘Get on.’
“Ain’t got to say it again, you know? So I get up and then I see that it ain’t no shadow at all. It is Corrine Quinn in her mourning clothes. And when I walked outside, her chaise was there with her people. They sat me in the back with her and she told me she knew what I was headed for, what was coming, should Nathaniel hear of my run. But he really ain’t need to hear nothing, she was sure of it. Nobody needed to know. I could go back to everything as it was before. Onliest thing she ask is, if she could stop down to the Street every now and again and speak to me.”
“Speak to you about what?” I asked.
“Mostly things down here,” Sophia said. “Like I tell you, she stop in now and again and ask about who still here and who gone Natchez-way. Always struck me as curious, you know. But after Caroline come, my only desire was to keep that baby safe. I ain’t care about much else.
“But I did ask her about you,” Sophia said. She put her arm around mine as she said this. “I asked her what they would do with you. She told me not to worry. You’d been gone a spell, but you would return. You would come back.
“Can’t say I believed her, Hi. You know I have lost so much in my time, and I have found that what’s gone is gone, and that is all there is.
“ ’Cept you. You came back,” she said. And she was looking at me, looking through me, with dagger eyes. I felt the room spinning all around me. “I can hardly believe it, but you have come back. Come back to me.”
I had now stopped thinking. I felt the beams and rafters and daubing of the cabin bend, and with them, the beams and rafters and daubing of the whole world encircle us, enclose us together. All of nature seemed in on it, so that when I tasted the rum of her mouth, it was the sugar of life.
And only then did I understand that I did not really remember everything, that there were things beyond my mother that I had chosen to forget—not pictures, but the feelings behind them. I had forgotten how much I dearly missed Sophia, how much I longed for her; had forgotten those days in Philadelphia, when all I wanted was for Raymond and Otha to leave me be, so that I could be alone with the memory of her, dancing by that large Holiday fire. And I had forgotten the low and deep sickness of longing pushing through the vessels of my body like a train pushing down the track. I had forgotten how I accepted this sickness, like a cough I could not shake, had forgotten the days when, alone, I drew my arms around my stomach and doubled over, feeling loneliness consume me. I loved her, and perhaps knowing, even then, the great danger of such a feeling under the Task, under slavery, and even in the Underground, I had forgotten as much of it as I could, though it had not forgotten me. And now it was here, with us, between us, and when she stroked her hand against my face, when she took my arm in her hands, she did not take it soft, but firm and wanting, and I knew then that all that I felt, all of the longing in me, all the bridled wanting of blind and violent youth, and the low need to vent it, was not solely my own.
Hours later, we were in the loft, staring upwards. Her arm was across my chest, her hand fingering my shoulder as if playing a piano.
“By God, it is you,” she said. “Your hands. Your eyes. Your face.”
It was now way past dark, so much so that I knew morning would soon be upon us, and then the rafters of the world would relax and we would be left in our regular places, and with our regular tasks at Lockless. But some things could not go back, and among them was a new knowledge that I felt upon me, and it was the same knowledge that compelled Otha White, the mania that took hold of him, how he could never truly sleep without Lydia. For the first time, I understood Conduction, understood it as a relay of feeling, assembled from moments so striking that they become real as stone and steel, real as an iron cat roaring down the tracks, chasing blackbirds from the awning.
As I dressed, while Sophia watched from the loft above, I looked at the mantel and saw the toy horse I had retrieved from the home of Georgie Parks, and I swear to you that it almost glowed. Sophia came back down from the loft now and stood behind me with her arms wrapped around my waist, her head on my back, as I studied the wooden horse in my hands.
“Go head,” she said. “Take it. Told you it’s a little soon for her to have such things.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Guess so.”
I turned to Sophia then, with the small wooden horse still in my hand, and one last time, there in the dark, the world drew my lips to hers, and we held each other as if holding to the mast of a ship in a great storm.
“All right,” I said. “Prolly should go.”
“Prolly should,” she said.
“All right,” I said again, and when I walked outside into a different world, I did so backwards to preserve the look of her in those small blue hours, to hold it for as long as I might.
Everything would have been easier had I simply gone back up to the Warrens then and blacked my brogans and wiped myself clean. But this new understanding, this unlocking of old notions, prevailed on me. What I did instead was walk down a path that led me through the darkness to Dumb Silk Road. I now risked the hounds, which even then patrolled these roads for what had to be the last runaways out of a diminished Elm County. But as I walked, I fingered the wooden horse in my hands, and I knew that even if it had been the good years, the hounds could never truly threaten me.
Twenty minutes later, I was back there, back at the river Goose, which appeared not as a river but as a wide black mass stretching out across the land. I walked toward that mass until I could hear the river lapping gently up against its banks. It was cloudy out, so that there was no moon to illuminate anything. But there at the banks, I held up my hand, the same hand in which I held the wooden horse, and I saw the blue light of Conduction glowing out. And when I looked back at the river, I saw the now familiar mist rolling toward me.
No one had to teach me what came next. I did it almost by animal instinct—it was the simplest of motions, a firm squeeze that I now applied to the wooden horse—and having done this I saw the new mist over the river reach out, like the white tendrils of some mythical beast, and snatch me into its maw.
HE SUMMONING OF A
story, the water, and the object that made memory real as brick: that was Conduction. What I might do with such a power was not my immediate concern, so much as making it through that day. The fatigue fell on me hard, the same fatigue I’d felt before and the same that I had seen on Harriet. Somehow I struggled through my duties, but when they were over I slept through supper until the next day, when I awoke to dress Howell, serve his morning meal, and assist him through the light rigors of his day. And when supper came, there was a part of me then that glowed bright as Conduction itself, for I knew that I would see Sophia there. And when I did, that evening, I felt myself walking in some other world. I wondered if I had dreamt it all. But she was right there, with Thena, and with Caroline, and when she saw me, she smiled and simply said, “You came back.”
We spent the next few weeks happily together. At first, we tried to hide the new developments from them. After supper, after Sophia made a show of leaving with Caroline, and after I had taken my father his cider, sat with him, and put him to bed, I would walk down to the Street. Early in those smallest hours, I would make my way back up to my own bed, lie there for a half an hour or so, and then begin my labors. It was not as strange as it sounds. For many a tasking man at Lockless, with wife and children on other manses, this had long been the ritual. But my version was bizarre because it seemed to pin itself on the blindness of Thena. And she was not blind. So it should have been a surprise when she said, one evening, after supper, while holding Caroline, “I am happy for you.” No more was said of it.
But there was not just Thena to worry after. Nathaniel Walker still held a known and particular title to Sophia and Caroline, and I well knew what happened to tasking folk found to have interfered with such claims. Corrine may have saved us once, but nothing would save either of us from his prideful wrath. It was a beautiful time, one of the best of my long life, but still it was built upon the shifting ground of the Task, and we knew that sooner or later the ground must shift again.
Early in December we heard of Nathaniel Walker’s return and, a week later, of Sophia’s inevitable summons. My father, still unwise to what was happening around him, told me to deliver Sophia. I cannot say that I found this pleasing. But I had now well absorbed the lesson—for Sophia to be mine, she must never be mine. And what was between us was not ownership, but a promise to be in the company of each other, by any means, for as long we could. And preserving the illusion was our means that wintery day when I drove her out to Nathaniel Walker’s place.
We left early. Sophia slept for the first leg. We talked for the second.
“So what was the daily with Corrine?” she asked. “A clawfoot tub? Five white maids, each one naked as the day?”
“I do not hear you denying it.”
“I don’t deny nothing, Sophia.”
“ ’Cept intelligence on your time away,” she said. “Boy, what in God’s name did they do to you?”
“Nothing really. I mean, ain’t much to tell.”
“It ain’t you I’m interested in, Hi. I am interested in her interest in me. I still can’t get, for the life of me, why she ain’t leave me to Natchez.”
“Don’t know. Maybe she favor you.”
“Whites favoring another man’s slave? When you done heard of that?”
I said nothing.
“I hear she travel a bit. Hear she always filling your daddy’s ear with stories of the scandalous sights she done seen up North. Guess she wouldn’t never take no colored with her on that kind of jaunt.”
“Maybe. I don’t know.”
“Sure you do, Hi. Either you been or you ain’t.”
I kept looking straight ahead at the road.
“Whatever. Don’t try that on me. You ain’t never been out of this here county, much less up North. If you had, I am sure I would never have caught a sight of you again.”
“ ’Cause if you was up there with them free folks, you’d have to be as dumb as rocks to come back down here. I tell you, should I ever set my foot onto any grain of free soil, you will not hear any tell of me ever again.”
“Huh. And that’d be the end of us, I guess.”
“Now, you know you are not, in any way, built to run. Tried it once before. But you are tied to Lockless. The very fact of your return is the proof.”
“Not my choosing. Not my choosing.”
We reached Nathaniel Walker’s place in late morning and drove off to the side road, where we waited for the courier who would greet us and then disappear with Sophia, and I must leave them to their private business. What did I feel out there? Surely there are higher callings than delivering a woman you love to another man. But I had years of practice having had to hide so much, and I knew whatever agony I felt being there must be doubled in Sophia. And I was older now. I understood things I could not even imagine months ago, so that I felt my greatest desire, in that moment, was to ease her. So when I noticed the edgy silence between us, and none of her usual jest, I spoke up and said, “How’d you get here while I was gone?”
“Walked,” she said.
“You walked here?”
“I did. With my whole costume and effects. Thank God for Thena. She watched my Caroline that weekend. Only had to do it once, but I tell you, when I got that call, I was a mess. But I did it. Fit my face, my dress, and unmentionables right over there behind them bushes.”
“Of all the things I done did, that was the one that left me feeling the most low. Had to strip down to what God gave me, in them bushes, afraid of who might walk by and what they might do. All I could do was sing to myself as I did, sing low and quiet, sing for courage.”
Then Sophia breathed out long and heavy and said, “Don’t ever doubt that I hate them. Don’t you dare doubt it.”
And as she said it, her face shifted into an executioner’s mask. There was no furrowed or raised eyebrow. No spread of the mouth. No light in her brown eyes. Her face mirrored the truth of the hate she now spoke. She shook her head and said, “The things I would put on them, Hi. The things that I would be capable of. You see me here now, in this small body…Why, if my hands, my arms, were as those of men, what I would do with my energies. I have thought of it, you see. I thought of it even in this body, my God, what I would do while he slept, with a kitchen blade, or a tincture in his tea or white powder in his cake….I thought of it very often, and, well, then I had my Caroline and that was that. And I am a good woman, Hi, I tell you I am. But what I would put on them, given my time, what I would put on them…”
She trailed off here into her own thoughts. After twenty minutes or so, a well-dressed tasking man emerged from the woody path. He walked over to the chaise and shot us a stern and disapproving look. “He cannot have you today. He will send word.”
Then he turned away and walked back down the path.
“Did he say anything else?” Sophia called out. But the man did not turn back, and even if he heard Sophia it was clear he had no inclination to answer.
We sat there for a few moments, not quite sure what to do. Then Sophia turned to me with a wry smile and said, “You happy about this, ain’t you?”
“I ain’t unhappy,” I said. “Besides, way you was just talking, I’d think you felt much the same.”
“I do. I do,” she said. “But it is odd. I have never had it happen this way before.”
She was quiet for a moment, thinking to herself, turning over some recent theory.
“What?” I said.
“You probably did it,” she said. “Some sort of way, I am betting that this is all your doing.”
I laughed lightly, shook my head, and said, “It is amazing what you take me as, like I got powers over these white folks. Or I am some sort of conjure-man.”
“You some sort of something, I will say that.”
We laughed. I pulled the reins on the chaise and turned back around toward Lockless.
“I am sorry, Hiram,” she said. “You know I don’t want to be back there. I wanna be as far away as I can get. But if I got to do the work, I’d like to be done with it. Hate having this hanging over my head. I am a slave with him. But since you done come back, I feel myself to be as free as I have ever been. And though I know this is not the true article, it is something. And I want it.”
Then she leaned over and kissed me lightly on the cheek. “I want as much of it as I can take.”
Oh, to be back there, and be young again. To be seated in the dawning hours of my life, the sun of everything breaking over the horizon, and all the promises and tragedies ahead of me. To be there in that chaise, with a day-pass, and a girl I loved more than anything, in the last doleful days of old and desolate Virginia. Oh, to be there with time to spare, with time to dream of riding out as far as that Elm County road went until fortune abandoned us.
We rode on, speaking of the old days and all the Lost Ones of Elm County—Thurston, Lucille, Lem, Garrison. We talked of how they had gone, how Natchez had taken them. Some quiet. Some singing. Some laughing. Some swinging.
“What happened to Pete?” I asked.
“Sent over the bridge about a month before you come back,” Sophia said.
“Thought Howell would never part with him,” I said. “That man had such a hand for them orchards.”
“All gone now,” she said. “Natchez. As are all the rest. As are we all, soon enough. All gone. All done.”
“Naw,” I said. “I think we are survivors, you and I. If by devilish means, we are survivors. Maybe not much more than that. But we are, I do believe, survivors.”
The winter had not yet given its full effect, and now we rode through a clear, crisp winter morning. We climbed high up on the road now, and I could see the Goose, and see across the shore over toward Starfall, and in the far distance I could see the bridge from which I had conducted myself into this other life.
“But what if we are not, Sophia?”
“All gone. All done,” I said. “What if there was some way by which we might make ourselves more than all the misery we have seen here?”
“This more of your dreams without facts? All sideways. You remember how that went, right?”
“I remember well. But we are connected, just as you say. We are older than our years. The place has made us that way, by all we have seen. We are out of time, you and I. What was glorious to them is crumbling before our eyes. But suppose we did not have to crumble with them? We know well that they are going down, Sophia. Suppose we did not have to go with them?”
She was now looking at me directly.
“I cannot, Hiram,” she said. “Not like that. Not again. I know it’s something about you. And when you are ready to tell me what that is, then I shall be with you. But I cannot go on just a word, not again. Ain’t just me anymore, so if you have something, I have to know the all of it. I have said it. I would kill to be off of this, kill to save my daughter from it.”
“Can’t kill this one,” I said.
“No,” she said. “Can only run. But I must know how and I must know to what.”
We did not speak much after that, as both our time was now much occupied with what had been said and the events of the day. But when we arrived back at Lockless, we found Thena seated at the edge of the tunnel with her head in her hand. There was a bandage wrapped around her head. She was in her work dress with no coat. Caroline was nowhere to be seen.
“Thena!” I said.
“Yeah?” she said.
“What happened?” Sophia said. “Where’s Caroline?”
“Inside sleeping,” Thena said.
Sophia darted into the tunnel. I squatted down and touched the side of Thena’s temple where a spot of blood had pooled in the bandage.
“Thena, what happened?” I said.
“Don’t know,” she said. “I—I can’t remember.”
“Well, tell me what you do,” I said.
She squinted her eyes. “I-I don’t…”
“All right, all right,” I said. “Come on, let’s get in.”
I put her arm over my neck and lifted, and as I did, I saw Sophia coming back out of the tunnel.
“She fine. Asleep, just like Thena said it,” she said. “Look like Thena put her in your bed, and…I can see why.” Then Sophia started to cry and said, “Hiram, they took it. I know what they was doing. They took it.”
We walked a few steps and I felt Thena’s feet begin to drag. So I picked her up in my arms and carried her. “Hold on,” I said. We passed Thena’s room first and what I saw was a half a chair on the ground and splinters everywhere. I walked past there to my old room, where I saw Caroline just beginning to stir. Sophia pulled the covers off and picked her up. I laid Thena down in her place and pulled the cover back over her.
I turned to Sophia. “The hell happened?”
She shook her head. She was still crying.
I walked back to Thena’s room. It looked like someone had taken an axe to everything—the bed, the mantel, the one chair, it was all smashed. And then I looked over and saw the true aim—Thena’s lockbox, which was splintered in two. Kneeling down, I saw some old souvenirs—beads, spectacles, a couple of playing cards. But what I did not see was the laundry money that Thena had so dutifully deposited every week, as her payment on freedom. I stood there for a moment trying to understand who would do such a thing. I had heard stories of old masters making such deals and then reneging, keeping all the money for themselves. But this made no sense with Thena—who was old, and willing to compensate Howell for her freedom and relieve him of her care. And the violence of it, the axing, spoke of someone who had no other means to compel Thena, and I knew, right then, that whoever had done it had to be Tasked.
You don’t ever know how much you need your people until they are gone. By then Lockless was down to perhaps twenty-five souls. But it was not as it had been before, when, though there were more, we were all known to each other. Now I only knew a few of them on the Street and knew fewer still down in the Warrens. In the old days there were men, slave-doctors, who could have seen to Thena. But they were all gone, sent out, and we were left to ourselves. I thought of Philadelphia, and the warmth I felt knowing there was always someone, and I felt that a kind of lawlessness had now descended upon Lockless. Whom would I tell of the assault on Thena? My father? And what would be his answer then? To send more across the bridge? Could I even believe that the right perpetrator would be sent?