Authors: Ta-Nehisi Coates;
“I seen Kessiah,” I said. All day I had tried to weave this announcement, somehow, into our conversation. I had failed at discovering some decorous way to accomplish this, and knowing that it had to be done, I elected for the most direct route.
Thena stopped and turned to me. “Who?”
“Your daughter,” I said. “Kessiah. I seen her.”
“Is this you being mad for what I said about that girl?”
“I have seen her,” I said, as firm as I could muster.
“Where?” said Thena.
“North,” I said. “She lives just outside Philadelphia. Was taken to Maryland after she was stripped from you. From there, escaped north. She got a family. A husband who is good to her.”
“She want you to join her,” I said. “She want you up there with her. Thena, this ain’t no joke. When I left her I told her I would get you back to her. I promised, and I now mean to honor that promise.”
And there in the forest, as I had done with Sophia, I explained what had happened to me, what I had become.
“So this the Underground?” she asked.
“It is,” I said. “And it ain’t.”
“Well, which is it?”
“It’s me,” I said. “It’s me. And I’m asking if you can hold to that.”
“Kessiah?” she asked of no one in particular. “Last time I seen her she was such a small thing. Willful as hell. She loved her daddy, you know? And he was so very hard. We used to have camellias. It was another time, another time. She would go out back and pick in them until I…”
She paused here and her face took on a look of confusion.
“Kessiah…” she said softly. And then the tears came, slow and silent, and without a cry or wail. She said her daughter’s name again and then she turned to me and asked, “Did you see any of the others?”
I shook my head and said, “I am sorry.”
And that was when the wailing came, and it was low and deep and throaty, and she moaned to herself, “Oh Lord, oh Lord,” and shook her head.
“Why you bring this back to me? Why you do this? You and your Underground? Hell I care. I have settled up with it. Why you bring this to me?”
“Naw, you done spoke, let me speak. Do you know what I done? And you, you should have known. You who I took in, you bring this back to me! You do this to me.
“In this very house where I took you in, when you wasn’t spit, and you come down here and do this to me? Do you know what it took for me to make peace with this?”
She was backing away from me now, backing her way out of the cabin.
“No, you stay away from me. You and your girl, y’all stay away from me.”
She ran out into the night and I chased after her, tried to take her arm. She shook me off, elbowing, punching, and wrenching her way loose.
“Stay away, I say!” she yelled. “Stay away! How dare you bring me back like this. Stay as far from me as you can, Hiram Walker! You are done to me!”
I should not have been surprised. I knew by then how much the past weighs upon us. I knew this more than anyone. I knew men who had held down their own wives to be flogged. I knew children who’d watched those men hold down their mothers. I knew children who rooted through slop with hogs. But worst of all I knew how the memory of such things altered us, how we could never escape it, how it became an awful part of us. And I must have known this in my young years. Why else that one memory, that memory of my mother, taken and shut up in a lockbox.
So who was I, in that moment, watching Thena disappear into the night, to begrudge her desire to forget? Oh, I understood it all. I walked back into that cabin and sat there silent for long hours, knowing how well I understood Thena’s rage. And all night I turned this over, until lying there with Sophia, and young Caroline between us, I knew what must be done. Kessiah would always be a souvenir of what Thena had lost, of what was taken, so that to see her daughter again, Thena must remember. And I knew that I could in no way ask this of her if I were not prepared to do the same myself.
ARLY THE NEXT MORNING,
I rose, drew up water for the washing, and cleaned myself. Walking up to the white palace in those small hours, I thought of all the pieces that had been assembled before me, the bread-crumbs along the road. I thought of that old African king, who had flipped it, and danced into the waves, as my grandmother had done, and with the water-goddess’s blessing danced his people back home. And what did it mean that I saw my mother there that night with Maynard, dancing on the bridge, patting juba, dancing over and under the water, flipping it?
Even if Thena came around and decided to go, it would take a powerful memory to move her. So that morning, after serving my father breakfast and taking him out for a survey of the property, while he rested in the parlor, I walked up into his study, where he kept his correspondences, and scrawled a few lines in care of the Philadelphia Underground. I had to be careful, of course. I made use of a local alias and directed my missive to one of our safe-houses on the southern docks of the Delaware, and by code and misdirection let it be known to Harriet what I would now be attempting. I do not know what I then expected. And more, I did not know, even with family in the balance, what side Harriet might take in the struggle. But she had said that should I find myself in need, I was to make it known. And I had done so.
With that done, I went and collected my father and went with him through his various correspondences—almost all of them now originating in the West. His eyes and hands had by then grown much too weak, so I read them aloud, took down his responses, and then prepared them all to be sent out. When that was done, we walked back to his room and I helped him change into a suitable set of work clothes. After this, I went down into the Warrens and changed into my overalls, and met him in the garden out behind the house and together with spade and fork we worked until the sun had just begun its descent. We walked inside, changed again, and then I served my father his afternoon cordial, and, as was his tradition, he soon fell fast asleep. It was now time.
I walked upstairs and then into my father’s study, and looked at the mahogany highboy and thought back again with shame to Maynard’s game of rummaging among things that were not his own. It was an absurd shame—nothing in this house, on this land, indeed on this earth, could be called the rightful property of Howell Walker. And yet, being Quality, being a pirate, this never stopped him from laying claim. It was only natural that Maynard do the same. Perhaps I should too.
When I pulled at the small bottom drawer and saw the ornate rosewood box, its silver clasps gleaming, I cannot say I knew what was inside. But when I rubbed my hands over the top of the box, I sensed that should I choose to open it, nothing could ever be the same again. And so it was.
What I saw was a necklace of shells, and in an instant I was sure that it was that same necklace that I had seen the night my brother died, shaking from the neck of the dancer, shaking from the neck of my mother. And what I did now was bring the necklace to me, reaching behind my own neck to put it on, and when the hook-and-eye clasp locked into place like a lost jigsaw, a wave rippled out through my fingers, through my wrists and arms, into the deepest part of me, so that I stumbled back. When I regained myself, I knew that the wave, which was only then subsiding, was the force of memory. The memory of my mother. And now, all that I had known as the words of others formed into portrait and pictures. The fog and smoke of my years blew away, so that I saw my mother in her full form, in all our short years together, and too, I saw her end, and I saw exactly how that end had come and I saw precisely who had brought it about.
I tell you, it took all of my restraint to not rush down those stairs and into the garden where the spade and fork were still planted in the cold ground, pull them out, and relieve my father of that brief splash of life that remained in his mortal vessel. And that I did not is only testament to what I felt then at stake, to those whom I loved, who I then knew were counting on me to remember, and to remember I had to live.
I closed the box and shoved it back into the highboy. Then I tucked the necklace of shells under my shirt. I walked back downstairs and saw that my father was now awake, and looking out the window I could see that evening was upon us. It occurred to me then that what felt like mere seconds had been much longer. I went out to the kitchen and saw that my father’s meal was being prepared and remembered that he was not to be dining alone that evening. I walked up the first course—bread and terrapin soup—and found waiting there at the dinner table with my father Corrine Quinn. She never betrayed anything that evening, but at the end, as they repaired to the parlor for tea, she mentioned to me that she believed Hawkins wished a word with me.
I walked outside and down to the stables, well anticipating what he would have to say. Hawkins was tied to the Virginia Underground and thus to the word of Corrine Quinn. It was her figuring, no doubt, that if she could not stop me, perhaps someone who had once seen the world as I had would make me understand. It was now late. The air was crisp and cold. A bright moon hung high in the sky. I found Hawkins seated inside the chaise, puffing on a cigar. When he saw me, he smiled and held out his hand to offer me a seat.
“I know why you here,” I said. “Ain’t nothing you can say to change what’s coming.”
“Huh,” he said. Then he reached into his pocket and said, “My only notion was to offer you a cigar.”
“That ain’t your only notion,” I said.
“Naw, it’s not.”
He handed me the cigar.
“My feeling is that I have been hard with you,” he said. “It is by virtue of my position, but it is also by cause of what I have seen and how I come to the position. You understand that me and my Amy, we were pulled out by Corrine, yes?”
“And you know that we was at Bryceton before she came.”
“Then I guess all I want you to know is how much hell passed on that place. It was not the normal, small stepper. It was not just the Task. Edmund Quinn was the meanest white man this world has known, I am convinced of it. And you see how it is now? You see how Bryceton put on a face whenever the Quality is about? Look like Virginia of old, don’t it? And then when they are gone we are back to our business.
“Bryceton always been that way—two-faced—but Edmund Quinn’s business was different. Many years I watched him pose as a man of God and honor, toasting at the socials, sending his money to the alms-house, money made off our backs. Forgive me, Hiram, but I cannot speak of what he did. What I will say is that it was such that I would have done anything to be out from under him, to save me and mine from that man’s wrath. And that chance only came from Corrine Quinn.
“I am thankful for Corrine. I truly am—thankful for what she done for my sister and me, and for all and every soul that come through the Virginia Underground. Ain’t too much I would not do in her service, for it was her plotting that rid us of that demon and, more, put us upon this new task of ridding the greater Demon he served.”
Hawkins leaned back and puffed on his cigar so that the tip glowed orange against the dark and wisps of white smoke flowed out.
“So when she come to me and say that one of our own, who was brought out of the Task, as so many have been brought out, was now planning to go against her, to go against us, and she ask me to speak to him and prevail upon him with truth and wisdom, I could only oblige.”
“Ain’t no point,” I said. “You don’t know what I seen.”
But he kept talking as though I had not spoken.
“I seen a lot of folks come through that Virginia station, and man, do they ever and always bring they troubles right along. Nothing ever go as it should on rescue. You seen it yourself. Bland into Alabama. That fellow who brought his girl with him last year. You know what I mean. It never play out like you draw and figure it. And when you out here in the field, it can be hard on you when folks do not act as you need them.
“Take you, for instance. What we heard was that you would be the one. You would open the door. You would snap your finger or twitch your nose and whole plantations would vanish.” Hawkins laughed to himself. “Ain’t quite work out as such.”
“I have tried,” I said. “I have done—” But once again he talked through me.
“But I think this is the lesson in it all. We forget sometimes—it is freedom we are serving, it is the Task that we are against. And freedom mean the right of a man to do as he please, not as we suppose. And if you have not been as we supposed, you have been as you were supposed to be.”
Now Hawkins was silent for a moment and we sat there and smoked, the cool crisp wind blowing through us.
“I don’t know what you done seen, Hiram. I don’t know what happened to them folks you bent on bringing out. And I would like to tell you, very much, that what you are doing is not what I would do. But I cannot speak as such in any righteous way, for who can say what I would have done to bring myself out, to bring out my Amy? You are free and must act according to your own sense. Can’t be according to mine. Can’t be according to Corrine.”
“Don’t matter none,” I said. “Look like they don’t want out anyway.”
Hawkins laughed quietly.
“Yes they do,” he said. “Everybody do. Ain’t a matter of if they want out. All want out of this. It’s just a matter of how.”
That following Sunday, I met Thena early that morning to deliver the washing, which was folded and boxed in crates. We did the rounds in silence, and when I returned the chaise and tied up the horse, she walked off without a word. I followed her up into the tunnel and found her in her old room, where she’d been living for the past week.
“Well?” she asked sardonically, looking up at me.
“So that’s it, is it?” I said.
“Seem like it.”
“All right,” I said, and walked down to the Street. But the next day when I came up for my dealings with my father, she was waiting there just before the secret staircase that led out of the Warrens into the upper house. I could see by the lantern-light that she had been crying. When she saw me, she shook her head and wiped her cheeks.
“It is a lot to put on anyone, Hi. It is a weight. A whole other Task.”
“I know,” I said. “I have seen it all now, remember it all now, and I know.”
“Do you?” she said. “Because I do not think you do. I think you know your end of it, which is the end of the child stripped from the bosom. But do you know the other side of things? Do you know how hard it was for me to love you as I did, Hiram? To be in that space again, after what had been done to my Silas, my Claire, my Aram, my Alice, and my Kessiah. It was so very hard. But I seen you up in that loft, looking down, and I knew that mines was never coming back, and yours was never coming back, and if we had nothing between us, at least we had that.
“And I did love you, Hi. I did go back into that room. And when you left me there, when you run off with your girl, I cried myself to sleep every night for a month. I was so very afraid for what they would do to you. I could hardly believe it. I had lost another one—but not even to the Task. And so it must be me. Something in me that push everything I love away. It tore me up, something awful. Then you come back, except you do not come back alone. You come back with stories, stories from that room where I was violated and trespassed upon. And now you are telling me that I have to go back.
“What will I say to her, Hi? What will I be? What will I do when I look at her and all I can see are my lost ones?”
Her head was in her hand and she was weeping softly and quietly. I pulled her to me and put her head in my chest and we held each other there, and so began the countdown of our last hours at Lockless.
We could have in no way remained, not at Lockless as it was, nor at Lockless as we believed it to be becoming. Sophia had protections now, the protections of Corrine, who for whatever her demerits had always been true to her word. But for Thena, the advance of age and the assault upon her propelled matters forward in my mind. My father was by then so much in the dealing and trading of his people, doing all that he could imagine to stay afloat and dodge the debtors that seemed to swarm all around him. He could not continue as such, and he would not, though I did not know that then. But even if I had, there was a promise I had made to Kessiah and I was determined then to make it good.
I waited two weeks for some reply from Harriet. But receiving none, I deduced that I could expect no assistance, a fact to which I could muster no rage nor disquiet. I had been with the Underground only a year, and knowing the intensity of the work, I understood the need to preserve allegiances. I was on my own then, an Underground station all to myself. I had done it in the smallest way on the banks of the Goose, but to conduct as the old African king, as Santi Bess, as Moses, seemed fantastic. I had my memories, though. All of them. And I had the object by which I hoped to focus the energies of those lost-found years.
Our last night all together was the coldest of that season. It was a Saturday, so picked because it would give a day for me to recover myself and be back at my duties on Monday, arousing no suspicion. We gathered together what we would then have considered a feast—ash-cake, fish, salt pork, and collards. We ate quietly together and then sat in the cabin, where Thena had returned. And now Thena amused Sophia with stories of her own youth, and much laughter passed on this account. And then the hour came upon us. There was a hurried goodbye. I told Sophia to wait for me back at the quarters, and were I not back by dawn for her to look for me down by the riverbanks.
Outside the cabin, I looked up into the night, which was big and clear, the moon bright as a goddess, the stars all her progeny, all her fates and dryads and nymphs, spread out across the cosmos. Then I held Thena’s hand and walked with her out from the cabin, through back-paths of the woods, the earth snapping and crunching beneath us, until we were at the banks of the river Goose. I had not told Thena what to expect. I did not know how I could. All she knew was that I had found the route of Santi Bess and that Sophia had testified to its truth. So it was understandable that right here Thena, holding tight to my hand, stopped in her tracks, and when I turned to her, I saw that she was looking up, and when I followed her stunned gaze, I saw that the night sky that had, moments before, been so big and bright, was now obscured by clouds. Wisps of white fog were now coming up off the river, which was only evidenced by the sound it made gently washing up against the shore. The necklace of shells was warm against me.