Authors: Ta-Nehisi Coates;
And on we walked, taking a southern route along the banks, until the wisps rising gently off the river began to congeal into a stew of fog, and over top of it all, we saw, looming in the darkness, the bridge that had carried so many of us Natchez-way. We had gone the back way to avoid Ryland, which, even in its diminished and infiltrated capacity, still haunted the county. Now we circled around, until we were at the bridge’s approach, and looking out, I saw that the fog had thickened so that it seemed the clouds had fallen and enveloped everything. But not everything, for in the distance rising up from where the water must have been, or where the water used to be, I could see the blue glow of halos all around, ringing out like memory, and I now felt the necklace burning underneath my shirt, burning bright as the North Star. I pulled the thing out so that it was over my shirt.
It was time.
“For my mother,” I said. “For all the so many mothers taken over this bridge from which there can be no return.”
And then I looked at Thena, and I saw now she was softly illuminated in blue light emanating from the necklace of shells.
“For all the mothers who have remained,” I said, with one hand clasping hers and the other on her cheek. “Who carry on in the name of those who do not return.”
I turned back to the bridge now and began to walk, and as I did saw the tendrils of fog lapping over the bridge and the blue lights dancing softly in the distance on what would have been the far end, though I knew that night that no such end would be our destination.
“Thena,” I said. “My dear Thena. I have told you much about me, but I have never revealed the essence of all that has guided me, for all of it has been for so long tucked away, hidden in a fog as thick as what surrounds us. It had to be as such, for I was too young to bear what happened, too young to survive with the memory.
“You know that my mother is Rose. And my father is Howell Walker. I was the product of their outrageous union. I was not alone. My brother, Maynard, was born two years before me, to the lady of Lockless, and it was believed that his blood carried all that was good and noble of the old place and he should someday make for a wise and careful heir, for the blood was magic, science, and destiny. But I defied the blood, and so defied destiny, and I think now, knowing all I know, that it was my lost mother who made it so.
“For so long I could not see, could not remember, but I see it all now. Her bright joyous eyes, her smile, her dark-red skin. And I remember her stories of the world that was, stories brought across from water, stories she would share only at night, before bed, if I had been a good boy that day. I remember how the stories glowed in my mind, how they filled our nights with colors. I remember Cuffee, who tucked the drum into his bones. And Mami Wata, who lived in that paradise under the sea, where we would all arrive, after our Task, and find our reward.”
And now the fog gathered around us, and I felt the bridge disappear under my feet. Thena still had my hand, and I could feel the heat pushing out from the shell necklace all around me, and the waves that once marked the river were quiet and low.
“But Cuffee, with the drum tucked into his bones, was in the now time, in the midst of the Task. And my mother had the drum beating in each and every one of her bones. There were stories when she danced, maybe more true than stories in her words. I remember her patting juba with her sister Emma, how the shell necklace would shake, how the jar of water stayed fixed upon her head. And those were the good years, good years, under the Task. But the Task is the Task, and I do believe my mother, my aunt Emma, danced as they did because they knew what good there was could not last.”
And at this, they came, the phantoms that I had seen flittering about that fateful evening. They were all around us, and I could see that it was Holiday, a Holiday I remembered, when I was five, and it was still the high times of Elm County, and Howell Walker had sent demijohns down to the Street. And down near the bonfire, I saw them, my mother and my aunt Emma, trading dances back and forth. I stopped here and watched, for though the moment was conjured up by me, I wanted to savor it, but when I tried, I saw them begin to fade from me, fade like mortal life and mortal memory, and I knew that I must keep telling the story.
“The world changed. Tobacco fell. I remember the strange men with their worried faces. I remember the soil now hard and the old manses along the Goose left to possums and field-rats. And I remember that there were fewer uncles about; that cousins were off on long jaunts that did not end. And I remember how we were conducted over the bridge, off to Natchez. And I remember because I was there.”
And now, where the phantoms had once danced before us, we saw that these same men and women were walking before us, and where they had once worn looks of great joy, there was now sorrow, and a longing in their eyes deep as the river itself, and where their arms and their legs had once been dancing, I saw now that from ankle to wrist they were chained.
“I remember my mother kneeling at my bedside, waking me, and carrying me off into the night. And for three days and nights we lived out in the forests among the animals, sleeping by day and running by night. And all she would say to me was that we must go, ’fore we end up like Aunt Emma, and though I was young then, I understood that my aunt Emma had been sold. If we could get to the swamps, that was her aim, to get us there to get us away, for she could not run across the water like her mother.
“But they ran us down, Ryland did. Caught us and brought us back. And we were held in their jail in Starfall. I was there with my mother, and I could not wholly understand. And so lost was I that when my father came, I truly believed he had come bringing salvation. He was so soft, Thena. He held his hand on my cheek, and when he looked at my mother, he was pained.
“ ‘Why did you, go?’ he asked. ‘What have I ever done to push you so?’
“But there was only silence in my mother’s regard, and when he asked her again, still she would not speak. And I saw then that his pained look twisted into a rage, and what I then knew was that my father’s pain was not for my mother, nor for me, but for himself. For my mother had seen him, had seen through all the noble facade, and she knew what he was—this was what her flight meant—that she understood, that he would sell her, as sure as he would sell her sister, as sure as he would sell his own son.
“My father walked away and my mother understood. She took the necklace of shells from her neck and handed it to me and she said to me, ‘No matter what shall happen, you are remembered to me now. Forget nothing of what you have seen. I am soon a ghost to you. I have tried, best I could, to be as a mother should. But our time has now come.’
“And then my father came back with the hounds and they pulled me away from her, yelling, crying, pulled me from my mother and left her there to be sold off, while I was to be taken back to Lockless.”
And now, for the first time in our journey, I experienced Thena as a weight upon my arm. It was the oddest thing—as though some force were trying to pull her from my arm and drag her back into the hole. The words I spoke were a power. We did not so much walk as float across the fog. I felt the heat in my chest and the blue shine of light pushing out. I could not let go.
“We returned to Lockless with a horse, for that is what he traded Rose for. He had taken my mother from me. But it was not enough. He took my memory of her too, for when we left, my father in more rage than I had ever seen in him, he took the shell necklace from me. And I ran from him. And the next morning I ran down to the stables, where I saw the same horse my mother had been traded for, and there by the trough of water, I felt my first inclination of what I give to you now—Conduction.
“I sat there in the stables crying. An ache filled me until my skin tore apart, my bones popped from their sockets, and my small muscles ripped at the tendons. I clinched to hold myself in. But a wave roiled through me, carried me out the stables, past the orchard, past the field, back to my cabin.
“The pain of memory, my memory so sharp and clear, was more than I could bear, so that this one time, I forgot, though I forgot nothing else. I forgot my mother’s name, forgot my mother’s justice, forgot the power of Santi Bess, of Mami Wata, and turned my eyes to the great house of Lockless.”
Now a ripping feeling overtook my body, and Thena was such a weight that I felt as though my arm would be torn away, and all around me was fog and blue light.
“So many…so many gave me the word…but they could not give memory. They could not give story…”
My words were halting before me now. And I felt us sinking back…sinking into something, into the fog.
“But I shall remain…and Sophia shall remain…And the child, Caroline, shall know the North Star, which…”
And then I had no words. The heat in my chest stamped them out and I felt as though we had been hurled from a cliff. And as I fell a sheaf of memories fell around me like leaves in yellow September. I am eating ginger snaps under the willow. Sophia is passing me the demijohn. Georgie Parks is telling me not to go. I am falling down.
Then a voice came from out of the fog, for as the light dimmed in me, I could see another—green and bright—call out from the distance.
“…which holds that no man shall spread his net in the sight of birds, which we are, Hi, though we were taken from our aerie and installed in the valley of chains.”
Then I was floating, again. Thena had my hand.
“What is this?” she yelled into the fog.
The green light came closer and answered, “It is Conduction, friend. It is the old ways, which shall and do remain.”
I looked into light and saw her there, Harriet clutching her walking stick, and holding her other hand was, my God, Kessiah.
“I am sorry for the late hour, Hiram Walker,” said Harriet. “But it took some doing.”
I could not speak. I felt her words were a rope from which I now dangled. I looked to the way where Harriet had come. I saw, amidst the fog, the Delaware docks.
“It’s all right, baby boy,” Kessiah said. “Go back. We have her now. It’s all gonna be all right.”
There was more, I assure you. But I cannot describe the fatigue and pain that was then upon me. I would like to give you some final notion, some look upon Thena’s face at the reunion with her daughter, recovered from among the lost. But I was then falling again, tumbling, amidst all the memory of my life, tumbling back through years, through Micajah Blands and Mary Bronsons, tumbling through my many lives, through free lovers and factory slaves, tumbling past Brothers White, tumbling back into the world.
AWOKE IN A STRANGER’S
bed, and like the morning a year ago when I had been conducted into the river with Maynard, all my muscles felt weighted. I looked over and saw sunlight peeking through the drawn blinds. I was in that rattled and confused state that one so often finds oneself in having just awakened, but slowly the memories of that night came back to me. Thena was gone.
I stood and, wanting to know the hour, walked gingerly over to the blinds, pulled at the rod, and brought in the sun. It was a blaring and bright January morning. When I turned to walk away, I fell to the floor, and likely would have lain there had Hawkins not then come through the door.
“Carried her off, did you?” he said. He was reaching down to help me back to the bed. I managed to sit and I felt life returning to my legs. “Carried her right off,” he said again.
I rubbed my eyes, then craned my neck toward Hawkins and said, “How?”
“Likely you know better than me,” he said.
“No, how?” I said again. “How did I get here?”
“Your girl called on us,” he said. “Your Sophia. Say she found you, just outside her cabin yesterday morning, shivering on the cold ground, fevered and mumbling. She sent for us in Starfall. We knew. Talked to Howell. Said you should be brought into town for treatment, of course.”
“You know we had no angle on what you might say in your condition, who you might speak to and who it might come to. So we thought to keep you here. Which was a good thought, because this Thena is gone and though Howell is not precisely aware of all events, he will take note. And it is the oddest thing how her vanishing do match up well with your fevers. But we know nothing of it, do we? Not even here. Because ain’t no way you had anything to do with that. No way you would countermand Corrine. No way you would endanger the Virginia Underground.”
“No way,” I said.
“Just what I thought. Soon as you feel fit, you may dress yourself and tell Corrine that directly.”
By evening I felt somewhere close to myself. I dressed and walked down to the common room of the Starfall Inn. At a far table there were three men, agents, enjoying an ale. At the far end of the common room a barkeep stood in conversation with Corrine, who was just then laughing at some joke or story. She was in her lady clothes—face-paint, balloon dress, and purse. I stood at the edge of the room, just by the staircase, watching her for a moment, wondering why her, what was it in Virginia, or in the North, that had so awakened the spirit of revolution? And what was it that would make this woman, this lady, who had it all, risk it all? I looked out on the common room, marveling at what Corrine had managed right there in the heart of Starfall, taking root right there in the heart of slavery.
Presently, she looked over and saw me, and the mirthful look faded. She nodded toward a table by the fire. We walked over and as we were sitting down she said, “So you have done it.”
I did not answer.
“You need not reply. We knew what you were, and the possibility of such a thing has long been told since the stories of your grandmother. Hawkins knew.”
“I did not,” I said. “And it ain’t work quite how I wanted it.”
“But she is gone.”
“She’s gone,” I said.
“I don’t like it,” said Corrine. “It is a problem. I must be able to depend on my agents. I have to know their minds.”
I shook my head and laughed. “Do you ever hear yourself?”
She was silent for a moment and then smiled.
“I do,” she said. “I do. But I need reminding every now and again.”
“I don’t doubt you,” I said. “But my grandmother, Santi Bess, she was before all of this, and this Conduction, it belongs to something older than the Underground. And as sure as I must be loyal to you, I have got to be loyal to that.”
“And the other girl, this Sophia? Will you conduct her too?”
“I will be loyal to her,” I said. “That is what I can say. Loyal to what she has done for me. This the second time she saved me. I cannot forget what I am working for, and there can be no distance between what I am working for and who I am working for.”
The barkeep brought over two warm ciders. The agents were still in their chatter. I drank from mine and said, “These people are not cargo to me. They are salvation. They saved me and should I be presented with any instance where I feel I must save them, I will do it.”
“Well then, we’ll just have to make sure no such instance arises,” Corrine said.
“And how will you do that?” I asked. “We are here in the heart of it, in the maw of the beast. Even with you having her title. What more could possibly be done?”
Now it was Corrine’s turn to be silent, and this she did, drinking from her cider and staring out on the common room, marveling at her own work.
It took another year to understand what Corrine’s cryptic meaning was, but I think now I should have seen the outlines of it all the time. My father died that following fall, and at his inquest the facts of his last days became clear. He had driven Lockless completely into debt—but had been rescued by Corrine Quinn under the stipulation that the entire manse and all who remained within its borders become her property.
And so the month after he died, we began a transformation of the property so that it resembled in form and function Bryceton, which is to say, on its face, an estate of old Virginia, but on its interior, a station on the Underground. We arranged to have the few remaining Tasked quietly dispersed into the country of upstate New York, New England, and some areas of the Northwest where Underground men had their share of land.
And with each of these sent out, we replaced them with agents, who continued their work throughout the state and even farther into those states that bordered. To the outside world it was Corrine’s property. But the stewardship of the estate fell to me. It is not how I imagined. But there I was, putative lord of the manor, agent for the Lockless station.
Two days after Thena’s departure, Hawkins drove me back up to Lockless. It was evening when we arrived, and my father was being served his supper. I looked in on him and he smiled.
“All better now, are you?” he said.
I leaned down low next to him, so that the cowrie shell necklace, which I still wore, shook a little and fell out from under my shirt.
“Better,” I said to my father. I did not bother to look at him as I said this. I was not interested in his response. But I wanted him to know that I now knew all that he knew, that to forgive was irrelevant, but to forget was death.
Then I walked down to the far end of the Street. I found Sophia in the cabin, over the fire, preparing supper. Carrie was on the bed, pulling gently at the cover and calling out various infant nothings. When Sophia saw me, she smiled, walked over, and kissed me softly. Then, while she finished dinner, I played with Carrie. We ate together in the far corner, the same corner where I once ate with Thena. I held Carrie on my lap, and pulled off small bits of ash-cake for her. Sophia just sat there watching us for a moment, smiling, and then she ate.
We all slept up in the loft that night, for even though Thena was gone, it felt somehow proper to respect, and observe, her place in the house. Halfway through the night, we were still awake. Sophia was looking up at the gabled ceiling, with Carrie asleep on her bosom. I had my fingers in Sophia’s thick hair, gently twisting the strands into nothing in particular.
“So what about us?” I asked. “What are we now?”
Sophia shifted Carrie off her bosom, so that the baby lay between the two of us, and turned on her side until she was facing me.
“We are what we always were,” she said. “Underground.”