Authors: Ta-Nehisi Coates;
“They say he went out to check on his horse,” my father said. “He loved that damn thing, but when he got out into it, he could not tell a stable from the smokehouse. I walked out on the porch that same day, and that wind, by God, I tell you I couldn’t see my own hand held out in front of me.”
“Why ain’t he send his boy?” Maynard asked.
“He’d let nearly all of them loose the summer before. Took them up to Baltimore—he has kin up there—and left them to their own devices. Poor fools. Doubt they made it a week.”
At that moment Maynard spotted me outside the doorframe.
“What are you doing out there, Hi?” he said. “Come freshen up the fire.”
I walked in and looked to my father, who regarded me as he so often did those days—as though he was between two notions and could not decide which to give voice to. He had settled on a particular smile for me—a half smile held frozen in a macabre rictus. I doubt he meant it to seem as sinister as it did. I don’t think he much thought about it. Howell Walker was not a reflective man, as much as he might have thought he should be one, having been born to a generation who fashioned themselves after the Revolutionary scholars of their grandfathers’ era—Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison. All over the house of Lockless were the instruments of science and discovery—great maps of the world, electrostatic generators, and the library that had so often been my home. But the maps were rarely referenced, the devices mostly used for party tricks, and if the volumes were in any way limber it was due to my hand. My father’s reading was constrained to useful things—
De Bow’s Review
The Christian Intelligencer, The Register
. To him, books were fashion, signatures of pedigree and status, which marked him off from the low whites of the county with their dirt-floor hovels and paltry homesteads of corn and wheat. But what did it mean to find me, a slave, dreaming amid those books?
My father had begun his family at a later age than most. He was now in his seventieth year and losing his vigor. His blue eyes, always intense and regarding, were encroached by the bags beneath them and the crow’s-feet extending out from them. There is so much in the eyes—the flash of rage, the warmth of joy, the pooling of sadness—and all of this my father had lost. I suppose he was a handsome man once. Perhaps I just like to think of him that way. But what I remember from that day, along with those lost eyes, are the worry lines carved into his face, the hair unkempt and swept back, his beard everywhere and wiry. He still had the dignified dress of a gentleman of Quality, the silk stockings, the many layers—shirt, vest, bright waistcoat, black frock. But he was the last of a particular species, and the dying was written all over him.
“Races tomorrow, Daddy,” said Maynard. “I’m going to show them this time. I’m going to put a passel on that horse Diamond, and bring home the whole acre.”
“You needn’t show them anything, May,” my father said. “They don’t matter. All that truly matters is right here.”
“Hell I don’t,” said Maynard, flashing anger. “That man had me tossed from the jockey club, then pulled a pistol on me. I’m going to show them. I’m going to ride out in that new Millennium chaise and remind them…”
“Maybe you shouldn’t. Maybe you should avoid it all.”
“I’m going. And damn them. Somebody gotta stand for the Walker name.”
My father turned back toward the fire with a barely perceptible sigh.
“Yes indeed,” Maynard said. “I think tomorrow will be something.”
Through the shadows I saw my father, exhausted by the need of his first-born son, give me a pained and sideways look and then tug at his beard, and this was a gesture I could read.
Guard your brother,
it said, and I knew it for I had seen it for half my life.
“Best start getting ready for tomorrow,” Maynard said. “Hi, go check on the horses.”
I walked down the steps into the Warrens and then out to the tunnel. I inspected the horses and then returned to the house the way I came. Maynard was gone, but I saw my father still there, seated before the fire. It was his custom, sometimes, to fall asleep there until Roscoe woke him up and prepared him for bed. Roscoe was not around. I moved to put another log on the fire.
“Let it die, Hiram,” my father said. “I’m almost finished here.”
“Yes, sir,” I said. “Anything I can get you?”
“No,” he said.
I asked if Roscoe was still attending.
“No. I let him go early,” he said.
Roscoe had two young sons that lived ten miles west of us, and whenever he could, he went over to see them. Sometimes, if my father was in the mood, he’d release Roscoe early from his duties to spend a few extra hours with them.
“Why don’t you sit with me a moment,” my father said.
It was an unusual request to make to a tasking man, but was not so unusual between us, at moments when it was only us, and each day it seemed there were more moments like this. He’d sold off half the kitchen staff in the past year. The smithy and the carpentry workhouse were empty now. Carl, Emmanuel, Theseus, all the other men who once tasked there had been sent off Natchez-way. The ice-house had been fallow for two years. One maid, Ida, worked the entire house, which meant the order that I remembered from childhood was no more, but more than that, meant that the warm smile of Beth and the laugh of Leah and the sad, vacant eyes of Eva were no more. In the kitchen, there was a new girl, Lucille, who seemed totally lost, and so she often suffered Maynard’s rages. Lockless had begun to feel desolate and gray, and it was not just Lockless but all the manors along the Goose, now drained of their vigor as the heart of the country shifted west.
I took my seat, the same that Maynard had abandoned, and for a few long minutes, my father said nothing. He just stared into the fire, which was dying, so that all I could now see was a diminishing yellow trace on his face.
“You will mind your brother, won’t you,” he said.
“Yessir,” I said.
“Good,” he said. “Good.”
And then there was a brief pause before he spoke again.
“Hiram, I know that there is not much I have been permitted to give you,” he said. “But I believe that in what I have been permitted to give you, I have made it known how high you sit in my esteem. It is not fair, I know it, none of it is fair. But I have been damned to live in this time when I must watch my people carried off, across the bridge and into God knows where.”
Again, he paused and shook his head. Then he stood, and walked over to the mantel to turn up the lamp-light, so that the parlor portraits and ivory busts of our forefathers were now illuminated in the flickering shadows.
“I’m old,” he continued. “I can’t reconstruct myself for this new world. I will pass with this Virginia, and these troubled times will fall to Maynard, which means they will fall to you. You have to save him, son. You have to protect him. I don’t just mean tomorrow at race-day. There is so much coming, so much trouble coming for us all, and Maynard, whom I love more than anything, he is not ready. Mind him, son. Mind my boy.”
He paused and looked directly at me. “Mind your brother, do you hear me?”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
And we sat there for perhaps another thirty minutes, until my father announced his retirement for the evening. I took my leave and went down into the Warrens, to my room. I sat on the edge of my bed and thought of that day my father called me up from the fields—the day he’d smiled and flipped the copper coin my way. Everything about my life flowed from that decision. It kept me from seeing the worst of our condition. Almost any tasking man at Lockless would have traded his life for mine. But there was a weight of being so close to them, the weight that Thena had tried to warn me about, but something more, the crushing weight of seeing how the Quality truly lived, in all their luxury, and how much they really took from us.
That night I dreamed that I was out in the tobacco fields again, out there with the Tasked, and we were, all of us, chained together and this chain was linked to one long chain and at the end of it stood Maynard, idling lost in his own thoughts, almost unaware that he was holding all of us in the palm of his hand. And then I looked around and I saw that we were all old, that I was an old man, and when I looked back I saw Maynard, not as the young man I knew, but as a baby crawling in a bowling green, and then I saw the Tasked slowly disappearing before me, their familiar faces and bodies fading and fading, one by one, until it was only me, an old man held and chained by a baby. Then everything fell away, the chains, Maynard, the field itself, and I was enveloped in the blackness of night. And then the black branches of a forest sprang up around me, and I was alone, and afraid and lost until looking up I saw a sliver of moon, and then the heavens blinked out from the blackness, and among them I could distinguish Ursa Minor, the mystical bear who secreted away the old gods. I knew this because Mr. Fields had shown me a star map on our last day together. And looking at the tail of the bear, I saw something else: the mark of my future days, wreathed in brilliant but ghostly blue, and the mark was the North Star.
AWOKE SHAKEN AND TREMBLING
at the dream. I sat up in my bed for a moment, then lay back again, but found no more sleep. I took my stone jar from the corner and walked out of the tunnel, out into the morning darkness, and down to the well, hauled up the water, filled the jar, and walked back through the crisp autumn air to the Warrens.
I thought back on the dream. All those other souls chained with me, who vanished, might one day include my own family, all in Maynard’s loose hand, to be pulled this way or that, or dropped on a whim. It pained me. I was of the age when it was natural to seek out a wife, but by then I had seen tasking women promised to tasking men, and then seen how such “promises” were kept. I remember how these young couples would hold one another, each morning before going to their separate tasks, how they would clasp hands at night, sitting on the steps of their quarters, how they would fight and draw knives, kill each other, before being without each other, kill each other, because Natchez-way was worse than death, was living death, an agony of knowing that somewhere in the vastness of America, the one whom you loved most was parted from you, never again to meet in this shackled, fallen world. That was the love the Tasked made, and it was that love that occupied my thoughts when time came to tend to Maynard—how families formed in the shadow and quick, and then turned to dust with the white wave of a hand.
Now, walking out of my quarters, then through the Warrens, I passed the doorway of Sophia, which was open, so that I saw her there knitting by the lantern-light. And stopping at the door, I saw her in profile—her small nose, the soft outcropping of her mouth, the twists of her hair peeking out from beneath the fabric wrapped around her head. She was sitting on a stool, her back straight as a stone wall, the light of the lantern casting her shadow out into the corridor, her long spider arms winding two needles back and forth, fashioning the yarn into something that had not yet taken discernible form.
“You come to say goodbye,” she asked. This startled me a bit, for she did not turn, but kept her eyes on that inscrutable whatever suspended between her two needles. I mumbled something garbled and confused. And at that she turned and I saw her sun-drop eyes alight and her soft mouth break into a warm smile. Sophia was conspicuous among the Tasked, because she seemingly did not task at all. She loved to knit, and I often saw her walking among the gardens and orchards, working her needles, so that this knitting might be taken to be her only labor. But all of Lockless knew better. She belonged to my uncle, my father’s brother, Nathaniel Walker. None needed to guess at the nature of this arrangement. But if I had had any doubts, they were quickly extinguished when I was given the task of driving her to and then retrieving her from Nathaniel’s property each weekend.
This “arrangement” was not unusual, was indeed the custom of the men of Quality. But something in Nathaniel revolted against concubinage, even as he committed himself to it. And like the dumbwaiters and secret passages that the Quality employed to mask their theft, Nathaniel too employed means to take as though not taking, and transfigure robbery into charity. So he had Sophia live down here in the Warrens of his brother’s plantation. He insisted she dress like a lady of Quality when visiting, but use the back road of his estate to enter. He kept tabs on who visited her and let it be known among the community of the Warrens that he did so, to ward off tasking men, all, as it happened, save me.
“Did you come to say goodbye, Hiram?” she said again.
“No, uhh, more like good morning,” I said, recovering myself.
“Ahh, well, good morning, Hi,” she said. Then she turned away from me and back to her knitting.
“Forgive me, I’m guessing I got it backwards,” she went on. “Funny thing is, I was thinking of you just now, just before you wandered past. I was thinking of you and the young master, and race-day. I was thinking how glad I was to not be there, and in my thinking, I had had a whole conversation with you, and it was like you was here. So when I seen you there at the door, I was thinking it was the ending of something.”
“Uh-huh,” I said. I felt myself barely able to muster words. I feared what I might say. I thought of the dream from last night—the dream in which we grew old while Maynard remained young, and held us all chained.
She exhaled hard, as though frustrated with herself, and said, “Don’t mind me none.”
Now she looked up at me again and a look of realization crossed her. She said, “All right, I am here now. How are you, Hi?”
“I’m good,” I said. “About as good as can be expected. Rough night.”
“You want to talk?” she asked. “Sit a spell. Lord knows I am always talking to you, filling you with my stories and observations on the world.”
“No,” I said. “Gotta get to the young master. I’m all right.”
“You don’t look it,” she said.
“I look fine,” I said.
“And how would you know?” she asked and then laughed.
“Don’t worry bout how I know,” I said, returning her laugh. “How bout you worry bout your own looks.”
“And how do I look this morning?” she asked.
I just stepped back into the corridor, away from the door, and said, “Not so bad. Not so bad, if I do say.”
“Thank you,” she said. “Well, since you are not in a conversing mood, what I want to say to you is, you have yourself a pleasant Saturday. And don’t let the young master trouble you none.”
I nodded, and then I walked up that back staircase of awful secrets into that house of bondage. And as I mounted each step, I felt the terrible logic of the Task, my Task, snap into place. It was not just that I would never be heir to even one inch of Lockless. And it was more than knowing I would never be a subscriber to the fruit of my own labor. It was also that my own natural wants must forever be bottled up, that I must live in fear of those wants, so that more than I must live in fear of the Quality, I must necessarily live in fear of myself.
We left late that morning in the Millennium chaise, turning out the main road of the property, and past the orchards, the workshop, and the wheat fields, out of Lockless, and turning down the West Road and driving past what remained of the old estates—Altbrook, Lowridge, Belleview, names that then still rang out across Virginia but are now, in this electric era of telegraphy and elevators, just dust in the wind. Maynard talked the whole way, and there was nothing new in this—just the usual fare of who he would show up and how. I listened for a bit, and then just let him go on while I retreated into my private thoughts.
And then we were crossing the bridge and turning our way in to Starfall, and it was such a beautiful and crisp November day, so that you could look west and see the last turning of the trees, bits of orange and yellow exploding off the mountains. We hitched our horse and chaise, then walked toward Market Street and were met by a parade of Virginian splendor. They were all out there, the Quality, out there in their masks and garments, the ladies in powdered faces, white gloves, and silk scarves, their bosoms heaving and their parasols held up by colored girls to preserve the ivory sheen of their skin. The men all seemed in uniform—black coats, cinched at the waist, gray trousers, horsehair stocks, stove-pipe hats, walking sticks and calf-skin Wellingtons. As always, they left the captain’s share of glamour to their women, trussed in corset and bodice so that they walked slow, measuring all their movements. But there was still a dance in how they moved, with their swanning necks and their swaying hips. I knew they’d been learning to walk like this all their lives, under mistresses and mothers, because it was never the costume that made the Quality, but how the lady wore it. The Northerners from New Hampshire and the pioneers of Paducah and Natchez and the low whites of Elm, all walked with them, but seemed to watch more than walk as this parade of the beautiful and divine made its way down the main avenue of our Starfall, looking as though they would never die, as though Virginia would never die, and this empire of tobacco and bodies would shine like some old city on the hill, so that all the world would wonder why it did not live in the eternal splendor of these first families of Elm County.
I recognized many among them, and remembered even some to whom there was no introduction, remembered them by some stray remark or act. And then there were those whom I knew quite well, men like my old tutor, Mr. Fields, whom I spotted walking alone in the parade. He seemed to be studying the crowd, and when he saw me, he offered a small, thin smile and tipped his cap. I hadn’t seen him since our last lesson so many years ago, though I know now that our ending, on the tail of Ursa Minor, was itself a sign. I looked over to see if Maynard had seen Mr. Fields, but he was hypnotized by the glamour, his eyes wide as dreams, a toothy smile spreading across his face. He was not like them, and I can remember feeling ashamed for my part in this. I had done my best for him that morning, fitting him into his clothes, but between his proportions and his habit of pulling at his waistcoat and collar, no ensemble ever properly fit. Still, he was so very happy to be there. All year he’d nursed his indignities, but now he hoped, through his merits as a sporting man, he would be returned to the fold. They were
his by regal blood, and so there he stood before that parade, with no power to distinguish his own place in it. He pulled at his shirt collar again, laughed loud, and then waded out into the slow parade of Quality, all moving toward the races.
Maynard sighted Adeline Jones, whom he’d once wooed, as much as Maynard had ever wooed anyone. I had heard that she’d quit Elm County, quit all of Virginia, for a lawyer up North. But the races had brought Adeline back, I assumed, if only to take in the changes in her old home. She was a kind woman, and Maynard had always taken this kindness as an invitation to her affections. Now he angled his way through the crowd, waving his hat, and approaching her said, “Hey there, Addie! How are you this day?”
Adeline turned and greeted Maynard with an edgy smile. They talked for a few minutes and then started walking again with the processional, Adeline ill at ease, and Maynard excited to have attached himself to someone. I shadowed them from the edge of the avenue, as all the other tasking men shadowed their charges, watching at a distance as Maynard grew more excited in conversation and Adeline’s tolerations were taxed. But she bore it well, as the ladies of Quality were trained to do. Her mistake had been appearing here without a gentleman at her side, one who could shield her from Maynard’s conversation, which was now so boisterous that I could hear it above the din of the crowd. He was going on about Lockless, about its prosperity and charms, about her mistake in not succumbing to them, and he did this in tedious jests that were only lightly concealed boasts, and Adeline was forced to bear all this with a smile.
When they reached the racetrack, I watched as she was at last rescued by a passing gentleman, who extended his hand to Maynard and then quickly, sizing up the shape of things, rushed her away. Maynard paused at the gates, and then looked up into the stands to the jockey club, just beginning to fill with subscribers, where he’d once held forth but had been unceremoniously ejected. I walked closer now, with Adeline gone, then stood off to the side and looked to Maynard, who was now lost in a world of painful longing, for race-days past when he was welcomed, or at least allowed, among the gentlemen of the county. And then I saw the insult compound as Maynard’s eyes shifted from the gentlemen to the area demarcated for the ladies of Virginia, so that they need not suffer the gambling, coarse talk, and cigars of the men, and in that region I saw Maynard’s intended, Corrine Quinn, who seemed to have suffered nothing in her standing for her association with Maynard. And Maynard was no longer smiling, for he felt himself henpecked. There was his future wife, elevated to a standing higher than his own.
I peered into the ladies’ club as subtly as I could to get a better look at this woman. Corrine Quinn was out of another time. She spurned the ostentation of the parade, the garments that, in their great extravagance, in their defiance, testified to the dying soil, the tasking families divided, the diminishing tobacco, the fall that was all around. She stood in the stands, in calico and gloves, talking to one of the other ladies, while Maynard watched with scornful eye. Then he shook his head and walked off to take his place, not among the gentlemen, but in the motley of low white men, a class whose position in this society of ours always amazed me. The low whites, men such as our own Harlan, were tolerated publicly by the Quality, but spurned in private; their names were spat out at banquets, their children mocked in the parlors, their wives and daughters seduced and discarded. They were a degraded and downtrodden nation enduring the boot of the Quality, solely for the right to put a boot of their own to the Tasked.
My place was among the coloreds, some Tasked, some free, seated on the waist-high wooden fencing, just off from the stables, where still other colored men tended to the racehorses, feeding them and looking after their health. I knew a few of them—including Corrine’s man, Hawkins, whom I saw sitting on the fence with some of the others. I nodded in greeting. He nodded back, but did not smile. That was his way, this Hawkins. There was something cold and distant about him. He perpetually wore the look of a man who suffered no fools, but felt himself surrounded by them. He scared me. There was something hard about him, and I knew just by his manner that he had endured some terrible, unspeakable portion of the Task. I looked over and watched as the other colored men along the fence shouted and laughed with still others working the stables. And watching this silently, as was my way, I marveled at the bonds between us—the way we shortened our words, or spoke, sometimes, with no words at all, the shared memories of corn-shuckings, of hurricanes, of heroes who did not live in books, but in our talk; an entire world of our own, hidden away from them, and to be part of that world, I felt even then, was to be in on a secret, a secret that was in you. There were neither Quality nor Low among us, no jockey clubs to be ejected from, and this was its own America, was its own grandeur—one that defied Maynard, who must forever carp about his place in the order.