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Authors: Ta-Nehisi Coates;

The Water Dancer: A Novel (8 page)

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I stood and walked out of my quarters. I had a notion to head out to the fallows, to the monument, hoping to find something there that might resolve my memory with Hawkins’s story. I turned down the narrow passage along which I lived, passed Thena’s quarters, and then into the tunnel that led outside. The sunlight beaming in blinded me. I stood there, looking out, my left hand formed over my brow like the brim of a hat. A team of tasking men walked past, with cross-back bags and spades, and among them I saw Pete, the gardener who was, like Thena, one of the old ones who had through his own ingenuity escaped Natchez.

“Hey, Hi, how are you?” Pete said as he passed me.

“Fine, fine,” I said.

“Good to hear,” he said. “Take it easy, son, you hear? And make sure…”

He was still speaking but the distance and my own thoughts overtook his words and I just stood there watching as he and his men disappeared into that blinding light, and at that moment I was, for reasons I do not know, struck by a great panic. It was something about Pete—something about how he disappeared like that into the sunlight, as I had felt myself to be disappearing only days before, but disappearing into a blindness. I rushed back to my quarters with this panicked feeling in me and lay down across my bed.

Again, by instinct, I reached in my pocket for the coin that was not there. I lay there for the rest of the day. I thought back to Hawkins’s story, of finding me on the shore. I was certain I had been in the high grass, I remembered it clearly, remembered seeing the great stone monument before falling under, and my memory never failed.

As I lay there I heard the sounds of the house, this place of secret slavery, rising with the hours into the afternoon, and then falling away, indicating evening had come. When all was silent, I walked back out of the tunnel, past the lantern-light, into the night. The moon looked out from behind a spray of thin black clouds, so that it seemed a bright puddle against the sky pinpricked by the stars.

At the edge of the bowling green, I watched as someone crossed the low grass, and as the distance closed, I saw that it was Sophia. She was wrapped from her head down in a long shawl.

“Little late for you to be out,” she said. “Especially given your condition.”

“Been in that bed all day,” I said. “I need air.”

Sophia pulled the shawl tighter as a wind pushed gently out from the bank of trees to the west. She was looking down the road as though something else had taken over her.

“I should let you be,” I said. “Think I’m gonna take a walk.”

“Huh?” she said, now glancing back at me. “Nah, I’m sorry I have this habit about me, I’m sure you seen it. Sometimes a thought carry me away and I forget where I am. Come in handy sometimes, I tell you that.”

“What was the thought?” I asked.

She looked back at me and shook her head and laughed to herself.

“You say you walking?” she asked.

“I did.”

“How bout I walk with you.”

“Suit me just fine.”

I said it as though it were nothing, but had she seen me at that moment, she would have known it was much more. We walked silently down the winding path, past the stables, toward the Street, the same path I had run up all those years ago in search of my mother. And then the path opened and I saw the long row of gabled cabins that had once been my home.

“You used to live down here, huh?” she said.

“In that cabin right there,” I said, pointing. “And then later when I took up with Thena, farther down.”

“You miss it?” she asked.

“Sometimes, I guess,” I said. “But if I’m honest, I wanted to come up. I had dreams back then. Big dumb dreams. Dead and gone.”

“And what do you dream of now?” she asked.

“After what I just came up from?” I said. “Breathing. I just dream of breathing.”

Looking down toward the cabins, we watched as two figures, barely shadows, emerged, stopping just outside. One shadow pulled the other close, and stayed that way for a minute or two, until they released each other, slowly, and one shadow went back inside, while the other turned toward the back side of the cabin, disappeared, then reappeared in the fields, darting now toward the woods at the far edge. I was certain that the shadow now running was a man, and the shadow gone into the cabin was his wife. It was a normal thing to see back then because so many marriages extended across the wide miles of the county. When I was small, I would wonder why any man would impair himself so. But now, watching the shadow bound through the fields, and standing there with Sophia, I felt that I understood.

“You know I’m from somewhere,” she said. “I had me a life before all of this. I had people.”

“And what was your life?”

“Carolina,” she said. “Born there the same year as Helen, Nathaniel’s woman. But it ain’t about her or him, you know. It’s about what I had down there.”

“And what was that?” I asked.

“Well, in the first place, I had a man. A good one. Big. Strong. We used to dance, you know. Go down with the folks to this old broke-down smokehouse on Saturdays and stomp the floor.”

She paused, perhaps to savor the memory.

“You dance, Hi?” she asked.

“Not even a little,” I said. “I am told my momma had the gift. But look like I favor my daddy in that capacity.”

“Ain’t about ‘favor,’ Hi, it’s about doing. Best thing about the dance is it really didn’t matter who had it and who did not. Only crime you could commit was to spend that whole night all lonesome against that old smokehouse wall.”

“Is that a fact,” I said.

“Yes, it is,” she said. “Now, don’t misunderstand: I was a caution. Every time I shook, I put some hen out her happy home.”

We both laughed.

“I’m sorry I didn’t get to see it—didn’t get to see you dance,” I said. “Everything had changed here by the time I came up, you know. And I was a different kind of child. Even now, a different kind of man.”

“Yeah, I see that,” she said. “Kinda remind me of my Mercury. He was a quiet one too. Was what I liked about him. No matter what happened, I knew it was between us. I should have known that it could not stand. But he danced, see. Man, in those days we’d dance before we would eat. Used to tear that old smokehouse down, and my Mercury, in brogans thick as biscuits, was light as a dove.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“Same as happening up here. Same as happening everywhere. I had people, you know, Kansas, Millard, Summer…People, you know? Well, you don’t, but you understand.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I do.”

“But wasn’t none like my Mercury,” she said. “Hoping he resting easy. Hoping he found himself some thick Mississippi wife.”

Now she turned without a word and started back.

“I got no idea what for I am telling you all this,” she said. I nodded and listened. It was always like this. People talked to me. They told me their stories, gave them to me for keeping, which I did, always listening, always remembering.

The next morning, I washed and walked out, just as the sun made its way over the trees. I passed the bowling green, then the orchards, where Pete and his team—Isaiah, Gabriel, and Wild Jack—were already picking and gently depositing apples in their burlap satchels. I walked until I was in the fallow field, covered with clover, walked until I saw the stone monument. I stood there for a moment, letting it all come back to me—the river, the mist, the high grass waving, black in the wind, and then the sudden appearance of the progenitor’s stone. I circled the monument once, twice, and then saw something glinting in the morning sun, and before even reaching down, before picking it up, before fingering its edges, before putting it in my pocket, I knew that it was the coin, my token into the Realm—but not the Realm I’d long thought.

6

I
HAD BEEN THERE IN
the fallow field. And if I had been in the field, then all of it—the river, the mist, the blue light—must bear out too. I stood stock-still amidst the timothy and clover, the coin now in my pocket, and felt a great pressure in my head, so that the world seemed to wheel and spin around me. I knelt down in the high grass. I could hear my heart pounding. I pulled a handkerchief from my vest and mopped the sudden drizzle of sweat from my brow. I closed my eyes. I took in several long, slow breaths.

“Hiram?”

I opened my eyes, to see Thena standing there. I wobbled to my feet and felt the sweat now running down my face.

“Oh my,” she said and then put her hand to my brow. “What are you doing, boy?”

I felt faint. I could not speak. Thena threw my arm over her shoulder and began walking me back to the fields. I was aware that we were moving, but through my fever, everything seemed a rush of autumnal brown and red. The smell of Lockless, the fetid stables, the burning of brush, the orchards we now shuffled past, even the sweet sweat of Thena, were suddenly acute and overpowering. I remember seeing the tunnel into the Warrens flitter before me in a haze, and then I was doubled over, retching into a basin. Thena waited for me to recover.

“All right?”

“Yeah, yeah,” I said.

Back in my quarters, Thena helped me take off my outer garments. Then she handed me a fresh pair of drawers and stepped outside. When she returned, I was lying on my rope bed with the blanket pulled up to my shoulders. Thena took the stone jar from over my mantel and walked out to the well. When she came back, she set the jar on the table, took a glass from the mantel, poured water into it, and then handed the glass to me.

“You gotta rest,” she said.

“I know,” I said.

“If you know, what was you doing out there?”

“I just…how’d you find me?”

“Hiram, I will always find you,” she said. “Taking these clothes for the washing. I’ll have them back to you by the Monday next.”

Thena stood and walked to the door.

“I gotta get back to it,” she said. “Rest. Don’t be no fool.”

I fell quickly into sleep, and into a dream world, but one of memory. I was once again out in the stables, my mother just lost to me. I peered into the eyes of the Tennessee Pacer, peered until I disappeared into them and came out in that loft where I had so often played among my young childhood thoughts.


The next morning, Roscoe came to my quarters. “Take it light,” he said. “They’ll be working you hard in time. Rest yourself now.”

But lying there, all I found were questions and paranoias that rattled around in my head—the deceptions of Hawkins, my dancing mother on the bridge. Work was the only escape. I dressed and walked out of the tunnel, rounded the house, only to be greeted by Corrine Quinn’s chaise crawling up the main road. This had become a regular occurrence since Maynard’s passing. Corrine would arrive with Hawkins and her maid Amy, and then spend an afternoon leading my father through prayer. There had never before been anything observant about the house. My father was Virginian, and like the relics of his Revolutionary fathers, a certain godlessness testified to the old days when everything seemed in question. But now he had lost his only heir, his legacy to the world, and his Christian god seemed all that was left. I backed into the tunnel a bit and watched as Hawkins helped his mistress out of the chaise, and then her maid, and the three walked up to the house. I did not then know why I found them so forbidding. All I knew was in their presence I felt something more terrible than any Holy Spirit.

I thought to return to my childhood habit of trying to fit in where I might be needed. But as I walked from kitchen to smokehouse, then from smokehouse to stable, then from stable to orchard, I was greeted with woeful looks, and it was clear that someone—Thena, Roscoe, or both—had dictated that I not be put to labor. So I resolved to find work myself. I returned to my quarters and changed out of my suit of house clothes into a pair of overalls and brogans. Then I walked out to a brick shed at the start of the woods just west of the main house, where my father kept a collection of lounges, footstools, bureaus, roll-top desks, and other old furnishings awaiting restoration. It was late morning. The air was cold and damp. Fallen leaves clung to the bottom of my brogans. I opened the shed. A block of light cut through a small square window, shining on the collection. I saw an Adams secretary, a camelback sofa, a satinwood corner chair, a mahogany highboy, and other pieces nearly as old as Lockless itself. I decided to work the mahogany highboy, on sentiment. It was here that my father had once kept secret and valuable things, a fact I knew because Maynard routinely rummaged through it and liked to detail his findings. Having decided upon my target, I went back to the Warrens. I took a lantern into the supply cupboard, and rummaged until I found a can of wax, a jar of turpentine, and an earthen pot. Just outside the shed I mixed the turpentine and wax in the pot. I left this solution to sit and then, with no small exertion, moved the highboy outside. I felt slightly faint then. I bent over with my hands on my knees and breathed deep. When I looked back up, I saw Thena looking out from the lawn into the trees.

“Get back in them quarters!” she yelled.

I smiled and waved. She shook her head and stalked off.

I spent the rest of the day sanding down the highboy. It was the most peace I’d had in days, as a kind of mindlessness fell over me.

I slept long and deep that night, dreamless, and awoke filled with the anticipation of renewing yesterday’s labor and achieving again that mindless focus. After dressing, I walked back to the shed and found the solution of turpentine and wax ready. By late morning the highboy was gleaming in the sun. I stood back to take in my work. Just as I was about to walk back into the shed, in hopes of discovering another suitable target, I saw Hawkins coming across the grass in my direction. Corrine had obviously returned while I was working.

“Morning, Hi,” Hawkins said. “That is what they call you, right?”

“Some do,” I said.

At that he smiled, a gesture that had the effect of underscoring the crisp, bony architecture of his face. He was a thin man of mulatto complexion with skin drawn tight, so that you could see in select places the green outline of blood vessels. His eyes were set deep in his skull like gems in a tin box.

“Was sent out here to fetch you,” he said. “Miss Corrine would like a word.”

I returned with Hawkins to the house, where I retreated to my quarters and changed out of my brogans and overalls into a suit and slippers. Then I walked up the back stairs, pushed open the hidden door, and emerged into the parlor. My father was seated on the leather chesterfield, Corrine at his side. He was holding her hand in both of his, with a pained look on his face, seemingly trying to peer into her eyes, an effort frustrated by the black veil of mourning Corrine wore over her face. Hawkins and Amy stood off to each side of the chesterfield, at a respectful distance, watching the room, awaiting any command. Corrine was speaking to my father in an almost whisper, but loud enough that I caught snatches of the conversation across the long room. They were speaking of Maynard, sharing in their longing for him, or at least some beautified version of him, for this Maynard—held by them as a sinner on the verge of repentance—was not one I recognized. My father nodded as she talked, then he glanced over to me, and released her hands. He stood and waited for Hawkins to draw open the sliding parlor doors. He gave me one last look, still pained, then walked out. Hawkins drew the door closed and I wondered if I’d misjudged the conversation, for I had the foreboding sense that the subject had not been Maynard alone.

I noted then that they were all in black, Hawkins in a black suit, Amy in a black dress and, like Corrine, a veil of mourning, though less ornate. Standing there, Corrine’s staff seemed extensions of her deeper mood, ethereal projections of her widow grief.

“You are acquainted with my people,” she said. “Are you not?”

“Believe he is, ma’am,” said Hawkins, smiling. “But when last I saw this boy he was barely acquainted with his life.”

“I should thank you,” I said. “I was told that I would have died if you hadn’t seen me on the shore.”

“Just happened to be out wandering,” Hawkins said. “And I see a large steer laid out. And I walk up and sees that it is in fact a man. But you needn’t thank me. It was you who got yourself out, which is quite a thing. Get caught in that Goose? Brother, it will carry you off. Man pry himself out? Well, that is quite a thing, quite a man. Goose is powerful, mighty powerful, even this time of year. Carry you off.”

“Well, I do thank you,” I said.

“Wasn’t nothing,” said Amy. “He just did whatever any man would for one fixing to be family.”

“And we were to be as family,” said Corrine. “And I think we should still. Tragedy should not break us. A man starts down a particular road. He remembers his steps, no matter what deluge may call upon the bridge.

“Woman is made for the completion of man,” Corrine went on. “Our Father has made it this way. We take hands in matrimony and the rib is returned. You are an intelligent boy, all know this. Your father speaks of you as one would speak of miracles. He speaks of your genius, your tricks, your readings, but not too loudly, for envy rots at the bones of man. For envy, Cain slew his brother. For envy, Jacob deceived his father. And so your genius must be hidden from them. But I know, I know.”

The light was low in the parlor, and the drapes half-drawn. I could see only the outline of Corrine’s and Amy’s faces. Corrine’s speech quavered under itself, such that it sounded like three voices trembling at once, a kind of perverse harmony, flowing out from whatever darkness lurked behind the veil of mourning.

And it was not just the tenor of her voice but the very nature of her address that felt unusual. It is hard to convey this now, for it was another time replete with its own rituals, choreography, and manners among the classes and subclasses of Quality, Tasked, and Low. There were things you said and did not, and what you did marked your place in the ranks. The Quality, for instance, did not inquire on the inner workings of their “people.” They knew our names and they knew our parents. But they did not
know
us, because not knowing was essential to their power. To sell a child right from under his mother, you must know that mother only in the thinnest way possible. To strip a man down, condemn him to be beaten, flayed alive, then anointed with salt water, you cannot feel him the way you feel your own. You cannot see yourself in him, lest your hand be stayed, and your hand must never be stayed, because the moment it is, the Tasked will see that you see them, and thus see yourself. In that moment of profound understanding, you are all done, because you cannot rule as is needed. You can no longer ensure that the tobacco hillocks are raised to your expectation; that the slips are fed into those hillocks at the precise time; that the plants are weeded and hoed with diligence; that your harvest is topped and the seed is filed and saved; that the leaves are left on the stalk, and the stalk spiked and hung at the proper distance, so that the plant neither molds nor dries out, but cures into that Virginia gold which moves the base and mortal man into the pantheon of Quality. Every step is essential and must be followed with the utmost care, and there is but one way to ensure that a man takes this care with a process that rewards him nothing, and that way is torture, murder, and maiming, is child-theft, is terror.

So to hear Corrine address me in this way, to attempt to draw some human bond, was bizarre and then terrifying because I was certain that the attempt itself concealed some darker aim. And I could not see her face, and thus could not look for any sign that might betray this aim.
I know,
she had said.
I know.
And recalling the story Hawkins told, and the truth of what had happened, I wondered then what, precisely, she knew.

Now I fumbled for words—“Maynard had his charms, ma’am,” I said—and was duly checked.

“No, not charms,” she said. “He was crude. Do not deny it to me. Put no flattery upon my ears, boy.”

“Of course not, ma’am,” I said.

“I knew him well,” she continued. “He had no enterprise. He had no device. But I loved him, for I am a healer, Hiram.”

She paused here for some moments. It was late morning. The sun blinked through the green Venetian blinds and there was an unnatural silence in the house, usually busy with the labor of the Tasked. I badly wanted to go back to the shed, to attend to the secretary or corner chairs perhaps. I felt that it was only a matter of moments before some trapdoor fell out from under me.

“They laughed at us, you know,” she said. “All of society cackled—‘the duchess and the buffoon,’ they called us. Perhaps you know something of ‘society.’ Perhaps you know something of men who mask their earthly aims in piety and pedigree. Maynard did not. He had no charm, no guile. He could not waltz. He was a boor at the summer social. But he was a true boor, my boor.”

When she said this, her voice quavered in still another measure—a deeper grief.

“I am broken, I tell you,” she said. “Broken.” I heard her weeping quietly under the mourning veil and it occurred to me then that maybe there was no device, that she was as she appeared, a young widow in mourning, that this urge to reach out to me was simply the need to touch those who had been close to him, and I was his slave but still his brother, and thus carried some of him with me.

“You, I think, perhaps, have some sense of how it might feel to be broken,” she said. “You were his right arm, and without his guidance and protection, I wonder what you now make of yourself. I mean no unkind word. They say you safeguarded him against impulse and iniquity. I am told you counseled him in trying times. And I am told that you are an intelligent boy. And fools despise wisdom and instruction. And he was your instruction, was he not? And now, the good Howell Walker tells me that you can be seen wandering these grounds, all hands and no direction.

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