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Authors: Ta-Nehisi Coates;

The Water Dancer: A Novel (9 page)

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“Are you taken as I am, marking your time in any activity, hopeful of moving your thoughts from him? Woman is not so different, you know? All have their task. And so I wonder if you, like me, see him in all your works. He is all around me, Hiram. I see his face in the clouds, in the land, in my dreams. I see him lost in the mountains. And I see him hemmed in by the river, in those last terrible moments, in noble struggle with the depths. This is how he was, was he not, Hiram?

“It was you who last saw him, who alone can give account. I do not question his passing, for I lean on my Lord, and never my own daily understanding. But I am miserable in my ignorance and imaginings. Tell me that he died as befitting his name, honoring his station. Tell me he died in the true word in which he lived.”

“He saved me, Miss Corrine, that is the fact of it.” I don’t know why I said this. I had spent very little time in the person of Corrine Quinn and everything about her rattled me. I was speaking out of instinct and what it told me was to soothe her, to ease her pain as best I could, for my own sake.

She brought her gloved hands up and under the veil. Her silence forced me to speak again.

“I was going under, ma’am, and I reached out,” I said. “I felt the water around me like great knives, and I surely believed I was done. But he pulled me up, until I was strong enough to swim on my own. When I last saw him he was right with me, but the cold and the tide was too much.”

She was silent for some moments. When she next spoke, her quavering voice was an iron rod. “You told none of this to Master Howell?” she asked.

“No, ma’am,” I said. “I have spared him the details, for the very name of his departed son is hard upon his ears. The story grieves us all. I say it only now because you have so heartily requested and I hope that it shall bring you some portion of peace.”

“Thank you for this,” she said. “You do yourself more credit than you can know.”

Again, she said nothing for a moment. I stood there awaiting her next request. When she spoke, her voice shifted upward. “So your master has left you. You are young, still—but idling as I hear it. What shall you now make of yourself?”

“I go where I am called, ma’am.”

She nodded. “Then perhaps you will be called to my side. Maynard loved you so. Your name was the subject of anticipation. My champion was your champion. He gave his life for you. Perhaps, in due course, you too shall give of yourself. Do you see this, Hiram?”

“I do,” I said.

And I did see, if not in that moment, then in the hour of reflection after. The grief and weeping might be true, but more certain was her dark intent—to pry me from Lockless and claim my services, my body, as her own. You have to remember what I was: not human but property, and a valuable property—one learned in all the functions of the manor, of crops, read, capable of entertaining with my tricks of memory. I was known for my industry, for my steady disposition, for my rectitude. And it would not be hard. I had, through her union with Maynard, been promised to her anyway. And now she would simply appeal to my father to leave this portion in place, to have me given over as terms of bereavement and mourning. And where would I find my home then? It was known that Corrine had property in Elm County but also farther west, across the mountains in the less developed portion of the state. This was the seed of her fortune, for through the management of multiple interests—timber, salt mines, hemp—it was said she had avoided the fall that now overtook Elm County. Whatever it was, I knew after that meeting I faced a new danger, not Natchez, but a parting from Lockless, the only home I’d ever known.


Maynard’s body was never found. But it was decided that all the far-flung Walkers who were able would assemble at Lockless that Christmas to share their memories of the departed heir. The whole month before, we prepared. We cleaned out, swept, and mopped the upstairs salon, which had fallen into disuse in the years after Maynard’s mother died. I dusted mirrors stored in the shed, repaired two old rope beds, and had them, along with a small piano, moved into the house. At night I worked down in the Street with Lorenzo, Bird, Lem, and Frank. It was good to be back there, for they had been my playmates as a young boy. We worked restoring cabins that had gone empty as the number of Tasked declined. We fortified roofs, swept out birds’ nests, and brought down covers for pallets, for we knew that we would have to house not just Walkers but all the Tasked who came with them.

I let my mind go numb with the labor, which now assumed a kind of intimate rhythm, so strongly felt that it compelled Lem to call out:

Going away to the great house farm

Going on up to where the house is warm

When you look for me, Gina, I’ll be far gone.

And then he called it back again, this time leaving space for his chorus, which was all of us, to repeat each line. And then we took turns adding on from other renditions or from lines all our own, building the ballad out, room by room, like the great house of which we sang. When it came to me, I hollered out:

Going away to the great house farm

Going up, but won’t be long

Be back, Gina, with my heart and my song.

And then it was decided by the elders that we too must have a feast, and a table fit for one. A tree was brought down, stripped and finished and then installed with legs, and in that fashion we had a feasting table. It was hard work, but forced all the difficult and thorny questions from my mind.

On Christmas Eve morning, I stood on the house veranda, looking out, and just as the sun peeked over the mountains, which had turned bare and brown, I saw, arriving with sunrise, the long snaking train of Walkers coming up the road. I counted ten wagons. I walked downstairs exchanging greetings and then began, with the tasking folk who’d come up, to help unload the baggage. I remember this time as happy, because there was, in this train of Walkers, colored people who’d known me as a child, who’d known my mother, and spoke of her with a great fondness.

As was the Holiday tradition then, we were all given an extra share of victuals—two pecks of flour, and of meal, thrice the share of lard and salted pork, and two slaughtered beefs for the whole of us to do with as we wished. From our gardens, we brought up cabbages and collards, and all chickens fit for eating were slaughtered and plucked. On Christmas Day we divided ourselves, half preparing their feast up at the house, and the rest working together for our feast, that night, down in the Street. I worked most of the morning chopping and hauling wood, both for the cooking and for the bonfire. Then in the afternoon, I walked up through the woods and brought back ten demijohns of rum and ale. By early evening the sun had set, and the savory smells of our late supper—fried chicken, biscuits, ash-cake, and potlikker—hung over the Street. Men and women from Starfall, with relations still at Lockless, brought up pies and treats for dessert. Georgie and his wife, Amber, smiled as they unveiled two freshly baked apple-cakes. I helped the men haul out the long benches that we had hewn only days earlier, but we had more people than seats. So we retrieved boxes, hogsheads, logs, stones, and whatever else we could find and positioned them around the bonfire. After the kitchen staff had made its way down, prayers were said, and we ate.

Then, by the light of the bonfire, with everyone stuffed and bursting at the seams, the stories began of the ghosts of Lockless, of all our lost and gone. Zev, my father’s first cousin who’d gone to Tennessee, returned with his man, Conway, a child-mate of mine, and Conway’s sister Kat. They’d seen my uncle Josiah, who now had a new wife and two little girls. They’d seen Clay and Sheila, who, through some incredible magic, had been sold off the land but sold together, and so had that as comfort. And there was Philipa, Thomas, and Brick, who’d been carried off with Zev and were now old, but still alive. Then the talk turned to Maynard.

“That boy May was mourned in death more than he was loved in life,” said Conway. He was sitting by the fire with his hands extended to warm them. “The lies come like gospel to these folk. Why, I tell you, they used to talk about that boy like he was the fall of nature. Now they telling us he was Christ risen.”

“It’s a homecoming,” said Kat. “Suppose they should detail each of his sinnings?”

“Would be a start,” said Sophia. “When I go, don’t want no lies spoken over my body. Tell them—start to end—what I was.”

“Way it go for us folk,” said Kat, “don’t nobody say nothing, ’cept ‘Get to digging.’ ”

“Whatever it takes,” said Sophia. “Just no lying. No gossamer. I came here rough, lived as such, and will die the same. Ain’t much more needing to be said.”

“Ain’t about Maynard,” said Conway. “It’s about them who is putting him to rest, about excusing themselves after a man they kicked around got himself drowned in the Goose. I tell you, it got even me. I used to riddle that boy something silly. I never got to see him as a man. Way I’m hearing it, Maynard ain’t much change. And if that is so, I bet they full of guilt and need to share.”

“Y’all niggers just as dumb as they say,” said Thena. She was standing near the bonfire, looking directly into the flame. “Y’all think this about Maynard?”

No one replied and now Thena looked up and scanned her audience. The truth is everyone was afraid of her. But the silence that now emerged from this fear only agitated her more.

“Land, niggers! Land! This here land right here! They flattering that man Howell,” she said. She paused again and looked around. I was close enough to see the shadow of the bonfire dancing off her face and the wintery clouds of her breath. “It’s his bequest they after. Land, niggers! Land and us! This whole thing is a game and the winner get to take hold of this place, get to take hold of us.”

We already understood. But this was our farewell too, perhaps the last time we would gather in community. And none wished to ruin the moment by loudly trumpeting this fact. But Thena, owing to her particular injuries and disposition, could not smile, could not lose herself in jest and reminiscence. So she shook her head and sucked her teeth, then pulled her long white shawl around her and stomped away.

Everyone sat there, eyes now downcast, stunned back into the reality Thena had put upon them. I waited a few minutes and then walked down to the far end of the Street, until I reached the farthest cabin, the one set off from the others, the one where Thena once stood with her broom, running off children, where I had appeared all those years ago, sensing that this woman, in particular, would understand the betrayal I felt. And now I saw her standing before her old cabin, lost in her own particular thoughts. I walked over and stood close enough so that she knew that I was there. She looked over at me for a few seconds, and I saw that her face had now softened, then she turned back to the cabin.

I stood with her for a moment and then walked back up, leaving her to her thoughts. When I returned, the conversation had turned back to stories, now reaching into a deep past, as much myth as memory.

“Ain’t no such thing,” said Georgie.

“I say it is,” said Kat.

“And I say it ain’t,” said Georgie. “If any coloreds had ever walked down to the Goose and vanished, I tell you I’d know it.”

Now Kat spotted me, and said, “You know it, Hi. It was your grandmother, was your Santi Bess.”

I shook my head and said, “Never met her. You know about as much as I do.”

Georgie shook his head, and waved his hands at Kat and said, “Leave that boy out of it. He don’t know nothing. I am telling you, if some slave woman walked off this here Lockless and took fifty-odd of us with her, I would know. I’m tired of hearing of this. Every year it’s the same.”

“Was before your time,” said Kat. “My auntie Elma was about these parts back then. Say she lost her first husband when he walked down with Santi Bess into the Goose. Said he went back home.”

“Every year,” Georgie said shaking his head. “Every damn year it’s the same with y’all. But I’m telling you—I’m the one who’d know, not none of y’all.”

I felt everything go quiet just then. It was true. At every gathering there was this dispute about my mother’s mother, Santi Bess, and her fate. The myth held that she had executed the largest escape of tasking folk—forty-eight souls—ever recorded in the annals of Elm County. And it was not simply that they had escaped but where they’d been said to escape to—Africa. It was said that Santi had simply led them down to the river Goose, walked in, and reemerged on the other side of the sea.

It was preposterous. That was what I had always thought, what I had to think, because Santi’s story came to me in a mix of rumor and whisper. And this faulty narration was fractured even more by the fact that so many of her generation, and the one following, had been sold off, so that by my time, not a single person left in Elm County had seen Santi Bess for themselves.

My thoughts were with Georgie—I doubted she even existed. But it was not Georgie’s assault on Santi Bess that made everyone quiet, it was his certitude—“I know,” he had said.

Kat walked over until she stood directly in front of Georgie. She smiled and said, “And how’s that, Georgie? How would you know?”

I looked hard at Georgie Parks. The sun had set long ago, but the light of the bonfire showed his whole face, frozen in discomfort.

Now Amber sidled up beside him. “Yeah, Georgie,” she said. “How you know?”

Georgie glanced around. All eyes were fixed on him. “Don’t none of y’all worry,” he said. “I. Know.”

There was a rumble of nervous laughter. And then the conversation switched back to Maynard and more news from all the far-flung places that our people now called home. It was late now, but the spirit was such that none wanted to part. And I am not sure how it happened, or when, because I was not watching for it, my mind was still on Thena, but by the time I caught wind it was all already in motion. I heard the beat but paid it no mind, until a few began to gather on the farther end of the bonfire, and looking over there I saw that one of the tobacco men, Amechi, had pulled a chair out from out of the quarters and a wash-pan and sticks and with this he was tapping out a beat, something up and happy, and then two then three tasking folk began clapping and slapping their knees, and then I saw Pete, the gardener, walk over with a banjo, and then strum the strings, and then it felt like it all happened at once, spoons, sticks, jaw-harps, the dance was upon us, had bloomed seemingly of its own accord, and there was now a circle just off from the fire, and there was a girl with her hand on the end of her skirt swaying her hips to the beat, and what I now saw was an earthen jar on the girl’s head, and looking down to her face, I saw that the girl was Sophia.

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