Main The Water Dancer

The Water Dancer

Young Hiram Walker was born into bondage. When his mother was sold away, Hiram was robbed of all memory of her—but was gifted with a mysterious power. Years later, when Hiram almost drowns in a river, that same power saves his life. This brush with death births an urgency in Hiram and a daring scheme: to escape from the only home he’s ever known.

So begins an unexpected journey that takes Hiram from the corrupt grandeur of Virginia’s proud plantations to desperate guerrilla cells in the wilderness, from the coffin of the Deep South to dangerously idealistic movements in the North. Even as he’s enlisted in the underground war between slavers and the enslaved, Hiram’s resolve to rescue the family he left behind endures.

This is the dramatic story of an atrocity inflicted on generations of women, men, and children—the violent and capricious separation of families—and the war they waged to simply make lives with the people they loved. Written by one of today’s most exciting thinkers and writers, The Water Dancer is a propulsive, transcendent work that restores the humanity of those from whom everything was stolen.
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so many changes being made, making healthy decisions on behalf of my future self. i’ve never been more committed to being the best me that i can be. learning to nurture myself spiritually, mentally, and emotionally as well as physically and socially is the greatest lesson i’ve ever learned. i hope you’re all well :) what are your aspirations in life? leave a comment i love talking to y’all <3
27 September 2019 (10:31) 
marilyn gallant
speedy response very appreciated!!
17 October 2019 (22:19) 
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				Title Page


			 				Part I

				 					Chapter 1

				 					Chapter 2

				 					Chapter 3

				 					Chapter 4

				 					Chapter 5

				 					Chapter 6

				 					Chapter 7

				 					Chapter 8

				 					Chapter 9

			 				Part II

				 					Chapter 10

				 					Chapter 11

				 					Chapter 12

				 					Chapter 13

				 					Chapter 14

				 					Chapter 15

				 					Chapter 16

				 					Chapter 17

				 					Chapter 18

				 					Chapter 19

				 					Chapter 20

				 					Chapter 21

				 					Chapter 22

				 					Chapter 23

				 					Chapter 24

				 					Chapter 25

				 					Chapter 26

				 					Chapter 27

			 				Part III

				 					Chapter 28

				 					Chapter 29

				 					Chapter 30

				 					Chapter 31

				 					Chapter 32

				 					Chapter 33

				 					Chapter 34


				Author’s Note

				By Ta-Nehisi Coates

				About the Author


			 				My part has been to tell the story of the slave. The story of the master never wanted for narrators.



			AND I COULD ONLY have seen her there on the stone bridge, a dancer wreathed in ghostly blue, because that was the way they would have taken her back when I was young, back when the Virginia earth was still red as brick and red with life, and though there were other bridges spanning the river Goose, they would have bound her and brought her across this one, because this was the bridge that fed into the turnpike that twisted its way through the green hills and down the valley before bending in one direction, and that direction was south.

			I had always avoided that bridge, for it was stained with the remembrance of the mothers, uncles, and cousins gone Natchez-way. But knowing now the awesome power of memory, how it can open a blue door from one world to another, how it can move us from mountains to meadows, from green woods to fields caked in snow, knowing now that ; memory can fold the land like cloth, and knowing, too, how I had pushed my memory of her into the “down there” of my mind, how I forgot, but did not forget, I know now that this story, this Conduction, had to begin there on that fantastic bridge between the land of the living and the land of the lost.

			 			And she was patting juba on the bridge, an earthen jar on her head, a great mist rising from the river below nipping at her bare heels, which pounded the cobblestones, causing her necklace of shells to shake. The earthen jar did not move; it seemed almost a part of her, so that no matter her high knees, no matter her dips and bends, her splaying arms, the jar stayed fixed on her head like a crown. And seeing this incredible feat, I knew that the woman patting juba, wreathed in ghostly blue, was my mother.

			No one else saw her—not Maynard, who was then in the back of the new Millennium chaise, not the fancy girl who held him rapt with her wiles, and, most strange, not the horse, though I had been told that horses had a nose for things that stray out from other worlds and stumble into ours. No, only I saw her from the driver’s seat of the chaise, and she was just as they’d described her, just as they’d said she’d been in the olden days when she would leap into a circle of all my people—Aunt Emma, Young P, Honas, and Uncle John—and they would clap, pound their chests, and slap their knees, urging her on in double time, and she would stomp the dirt floor hard, as if crushing a crawling thing under her heel, and bend at the hips and bow, then twist and wind her bent knees in union with her hands, the earthen jar still on her head. My mother was the best dancer at Lockless, that is what they told me, and I remembered this because she’d gifted me with none of it, but more I remembered because it was dancing that brought her to the attention of my father, and thus had brought me to be. And more than that, I remembered because I remembered everything—everything, it seemed, except her.

			It was autumn now, the season when the races came south. That afternoon Maynard had scored on a long-shot thoroughbred, and thought this might, at last, win the esteem of Virginia Quality he sought. But when he made the circuit around the great town square, leaning back, way back in the chaise and grinning large, the men of society turned their backs to him and puffed on their cigars. There were no salutes. He was what he would always be—Maynard the Goof, Maynard the Lame, Maynard the Fool, the rotten apple who’d fallen many miles from the tree. He fumed and had me drive to the old house at the edge of our town, Starfall, where he purchased himself a night with a fancy, and had the bright notion to bring her back to the big house at Lockless, and, most fatefully, in a sudden bout of shame, insisted on leaving the back way out of town, down Dumb Silk Road, until it connected to that old turnpike, which led us back to the bank of the river Goose.

			 			A cold steady rain fell as I drove, the water dripping down from the brim of my hat, puddling on my trousers. I could hear Maynard in the back, with all his games, putting his carnal boasts upon the fancy. I was pushing the horse as hard as I could, because all I wanted was to be home and free of Maynard’s voice, though I could never, in this life, be free of him. Maynard who held my chain. Maynard, my brother who was made my master. And I was trying all I could to not hear, searching for distraction—memories of corn-shucking or young games of blind man’s bluff. What I remember is how those distractions never came, but instead there was a sudden silence, erasing not just Maynard’s voice, but all the small sounds of the world around. And now, peering into the pigeonhole of my mind, what I found were remembrances of the lost—men holding strong on watch-night, and women taking their last tour of the apple orchards, spinsters remanding their own gardens to others, old codgers cursing the great house of Lockless. Legions of the lost, brought across that baleful bridge, legions embodied in my dancing mother.

			I yanked at the reins but it was too late. We barreled right through and what happened next shook forever my sense of a cosmic order. But I was there and saw it happen, and have since seen a great many things that expose the ends of our knowledge and how much more lies beyond it.

			 			The road beneath the wheels disappeared, and the whole of the bridge fell away, and for a moment I felt myself floating on, or maybe in, the blue light. And it was warm there, and I remember that brief warmth because just as suddenly as I floated out, I was in the water, under the water, and even as I tell you this now, I feel myself back there again, in the icy bite of that river Goose, the water rushing into me, and that particular burning agony that comes only to the drowning.

			There is no sensation like drowning, because the feeling is not merely the agony, but a bewilderment at so alien a circumstance. The mind believes that there should be air, since there is always air to be had, and the urge to breathe is such a matter of instinct that it requires a kind of focus to belay the order. Had I leapt from the bridge myself, I could have accounted for my new situation. Had I even fallen over the side, I would have understood, if only because this would have been imaginable. But it was as though I had been shoved out of a window right into the depths of the river. There was no warning. I kept trying to breathe. I remember crying out for breath and more I remember the agony of the answer, the agony of water rushing into me, and how I answered that agony by heaving, which only invited more water.

			But somehow I steadied my thoughts, somehow I came to understand that all my thrashing could only but hasten my demise. And with that accomplished, I noted that there was light in one direction and darkness in another and deduced that the dark was the depths and the light was not. I whipped my legs behind me, and stretched out my arms toward the light, pulling the water until, at last, coughing, retching, I surfaced.

			And when I came up, breaking through dark water and into the diorama of the world—storm clouds hung by unseen thread, a red sun pinned low against them, and beneath that sun, hills dusted with grass—I looked back at the stone bridge, which must have been, my God, a half mile away.

			The bridge seemed to be almost racing away from me, because the current pulled me along and when I angled myself to swim toward the shore it was that current still, or perhaps some unseen eddy beneath, pulling me downriver. There was no sign of the woman whose time Maynard had so thoughtlessly purchased. But whatever thoughts I had on her behalf were broken by Maynard making himself known, as he had so often, with hue and cry, determined to go out of this world in the selfsame manner that he’d passed through it. He was close by, pulled by the same current. He thrashed in the current, yelled, treaded a bit, and then disappeared under, only to reappear again seconds later, yelling, half treading, thrashing.

			 			“Help me, Hi!”

			There I was, my own life dangling over the black pit, and now being called to save another. I had, on many occasions, tried to teach Maynard to swim, and he took to this instruction as he took to all instruction, careless and remiss at the labor, then sore and bigoted when this negligence bore no fruit. I can now say that slavery murdered him, that slavery made a child of him, and now, dropped into a world where slavery held no sway, Maynard was dead the minute he touched water. I had always been his protection. It was I, only by good humor, and debasement, who had kept Charles Lee from shooting him; and it was I, with special appeal to our father, who’d kept him countless times from wrath; and it was I who clothed him every morning; and I who put him to bed every night; and it was I who now was tired, in both body and soul; and it was I, out there, wrestling against the pull of the current, against the fantastic events that had deposited me there, and now wrestling with the demand that I, once again, save another, when I could not even conjure the energy to save myself.

			“Help me!” he yelled again, and then he cried out, “Please!” He said it like the child he always was, begging. And I noted, however uncharitably, even there in the Goose facing my own death, that I had never before recalled him speaking in a manner that reflected the true nature of our positions.


			“I can’t,” I yelled over the water. “We are under the ox!”

			With that admission of imminent death, memories of my life descended on me unbidden, and now the same blue light I’d seen on the bridge returned and enveloped me again. I thought back to Lockless, and all my loved ones, and right there in the middle of the misty river I saw Thena, on wash day, an old woman heaving the large pots of steaming water and, with the last of her powers, threshing the dripping garments until they were damp and her hands were raw. And I saw Sophia in her gloves and bonnet, like a woman of mastery, because that is what her task required of her, and I watched, as I had so many times before, as she hiked the bell of her dress to her ankles and walked down a back-path to see the man who held her chained. I felt my limbs submit, and the mystery and confusion of the events that had deposited me into the depths nagged me no longer, and this time, when I went under, there was no burning, no straining for breath. I felt weightless, so that even as I sank into the river, I felt myself rising into something else. The water fell away from me and I was alone in a warm blue pocket with the river outside and around me. And I knew then that I was, at last, going to my reward.

			My mind journeyed further back still, to those who’d been carried out of this Virginia, out Natchez-way, and I wondered how many of them might well have gone farther still, far enough to greet me in that next world I now approached. And I saw my aunt Emma, who worked the kitchen all those years, walking past with a tray of ginger cookies for all the assembled Walkers, though none for her or any of her kin. Perhaps my mother would be there, and then, at the speed of thought, I saw her flittering, before my eyes, water dancing in the ring. And thinking of all of this, of all the stories, I was at peace, and pleased even, to rise into the darkness, to fall into the light. There was peace in that blue light, more peace than sleep itself, and more than that, there was freedom, and I knew that the elders had not lied, that there really was a home-place of our own, a life beyond the Task, where every moment is as daybreak over mountains. And so great was this freedom that I became aware of a nagging weight that I had always taken as unchangeable, a weight that now proposed to follow me into the forever. I turned, and in my wake, I saw the weight, and the weight was my brother, howling, thrashing, screaming, pleading for his life.

			 			All my life, I had been subject to his whims. I was his right arm and thus had no arm of my own. But that was all over now. Because I was rising, rising out of that world of the Quality and the Tasked. My last sight of Maynard was of him thrashing in the water and grappling after what he could no longer hold, until he began to blur before me, like light rippling on a wave, and his cries diminished beneath the loud nothing all around me. And then he was gone. I would like to say that I mourned right then, or took some manner of note. But I did not. I was headed to my ending. He was headed to his.

			The apparitions now steadied before me, and I focused on my mother, who was no longer dancing, but instead kneeling before a boy. And she put her hand upon the boy’s cheek, and she kissed him on his head, and she placed the shell necklace in his hand, and closed his hand around the thing, and then she stood, with both hands over her mouth, and she turned and walked off into the distance and the boy stood there watching, and then cried after her, and then followed after her, and then ran after her, and then fell as he ran, and lay there crying into his arms, and then stood again and turned, this time toward me, and walking over, he opened his hand and offered the necklace, and I saw, at long last, my reward.


			ALL MY LIFE I had wanted to get out. I was unoriginal in this—all the Tasked felt the same. But, separate from them, separate from all of Lockless, I possessed the means.

			I was a strange child. I talked before I walked, though I never talked much, because more than anything, I watched and remembered. I would hear others speak, but I did not so much hear them as see them, their words taking form before me as pictures, chains of colors, lines, textures, and shapes that I could store inside of me. And it was my gift to, at a moment’s beckoning, retrieve the images and translate them back into the exact words with which they had been conjured.

			By the time I was five, I could, having only heard it once, holler out a work song, its calls and responses, and to that add my own improvisations, all to the wide-eyed delight of my elders. I had individual names for individual beasts, marked by where I had seen them, the time of day, and what the animal was doing, so that one deer was Grass in Spring and another Broken Oak Branch, and so it was with the pack of dogs that the older ones so often warned me of, but they were not a pack to me, but each singular, singular even if I never saw them again, singular as any lady or gentleman whom I never saw again, for I remembered them too.

			 			And there was never a need to tell me any story twice, because if you told me that Hank Powers cried for three hours when his daughter was born, I remembered, and if you told me that Lucille Simms made a new dress out of her mother’s work clothes for Christmas, I remembered, and if you spoke of that time Johnny Blackwell pulled a knife on his brother, I remembered, and if you told me all the ancestors of Horace Collins, and where in Elm County they were born, I remembered, and if Jane Jackson recited all her generations, her mother, her mother’s mother, and every mother stretching all the way to the edge of the Atlantic, I remembered. So it was natural that I recall, even in the maw of the Goose, even after the bridge fell away and I stared down my own doom, that this was not my first pilgrimage to the blue door.

			It had happened before. It had happened when I was nine years old, the day after my mother was taken and sold. I awoke that cold winter morning knowing she was gone as a fact. But I had no pictures, no memory, of any goodbye, indeed no pictures of her at all. Instead I recalled my mother in the secondhand, so that I was sure that she had been taken, in the same way that I was sure that there were lions in Africa, though I had never seen one. I searched for a fully fleshed memory, and found only scraps. Screams. Pleading—someone pleading with me. The strong smell of horses. And in the haze of it all, an image flickering in and out of focus: a long trough of water. I was terrified, not simply because I had lost my mother, but because I was a boy who remembered all his yesterdays in the crispest colors, and textures so rich I could drink them. And there I was, awakening with a start to nothing but ephemera, shadows, and screams.

			I must get out. This also came to me as a feeling more than a thought. There was an ache, a breach, a stripping of me that I knew I had been helpless to prevent. My mother was gone and I must follow. So that winter morning, I put on my osnaburg shirt and pants, then slipped my arms into my black coat and tied up my brogans. I walked out onto the Street, the common area between two long rows of gabled log cabins where those of us who tasked in the tobacco field made our homes. An icy wind cut up the dusty ground between the quarters and slashed at my face. It was a Sunday, two weeks after Holiday, in the small hours just before sunrise. In the moonlight, I could see smoke rising up in white puffs out of the cabin chimneys, and behind the cabins, trees black and bare, swaying drunkenly in the whistling wind. Were it summer, the Street would have, even at that hour, been alive with garden trade—cabbages and carrots dug up, chicken eggs collected to be bartered, or even taken up to the main house and sold. Lem and the older boys would have been out there, with fishing poles on their shoulders, smiling, waving to me and yelling, “Come on, Hi!” as they headed for the Goose. I would have seen Arabella there with her brother Jack, sleepy-eyed but soon to be plucking marbles in a dirt ring they’d drawn up between two cabins. And Thena, the meanest woman on the Street, might have been sweeping her front yard, beating out an old rug, or rolling her eyes and sucking her teeth at someone’s foolishness. But it was winter in Virginia, and all in possession of good sense were huddled inside by the fires. So when I walked outside, there was no one on the Street, no one peering out the door of their quarters, no one to grab my arm, swat my bottom twice, and yell, “Hi, this cold bout to be the death of you! And where is your momma, boy?”

			 			I walked up the winding path and into the dark woods. I stopped just out of view of Boss Harlan’s cabin. Was he part of this? He was the enforcer of Lockless, a low white who meted out “correction” when it was deemed appropriate. Boss Harlan was the physical hand of slavery, presiding over the fields while his wife, Desi, ruled the house. But when I sorted through the scraps of memory, I did not find Boss Harlan among them. I could see the water trough. I could smell the horses. I had to get to the stables. I was certain that something I could not name awaited me there, something crucial about my mother, some secret path, perhaps, that would send me to her. Walking into those woods with the winter wind cutting through me, I heard again the seemingly aimless voices, now multiplying around me—and in my mind turned again to a vision: the trough of water.

			 			And then I was running, moving as fast as my short legs could carry me. I had to get to the stables. My whole world seemed to hinge upon it. I approached the white wooden doors and pushed up the bolt lock until the doors sprang open and knocked me to the dirt. Rising quickly and rushing inside, I found the elements of my morning vision scattered there before me—horses and the long trough of water. I came close to each of the horses and looked them in the eyes. The horses only stared stupidly back. I walked over to the trough of water and stared down into the inky blackness. The voices returned. Someone pleading with me. And now visions formed in the blackness of the water. I saw the Tasked who’d once lived down on the Street but were now lost to me. A blue mist began rising up out of the inky darkness, illuminated from within by some source. I felt the light pulling me, pulling me into the trough. And then I looked around me and saw the stable fading away, as sure as the bridge did all those years later, and I thought that this was it, the meaning of the dream: a secret path that would deliver me from Lockless to reunite me with my mother. But when the blue light cleared, I saw not my mother but a wooden gabled ceiling, which I recognized as the ceiling of the cabin I had departed only minutes before.

			I was on the floor, on my back. I tried to stand, but my arms and legs felt weighted and chained. I managed to rise up and stumble over to the rope bed I shared with my mother. The sharp smell of her was still in our room, on our bed, and I tried to follow that scent down the alleys of my mind, but while all the twists and turns that marked my short life were clear before me, my mother appeared only as fog and smoke. I tried to recall her face, and when it did not come, I thought of her arms, her hands, but there was only smoke, and when I searched to remember her corrections, her affections, I found only smoke. She’d gone from that warm quilt of memory to the cold library of fact.

			 			I slept. And when I awoke, late that same afternoon, I awoke full in the knowledge that I was alone. I have now seen a great many children in the same place I found myself in that day, orphans, feeling themselves abandoned and left open before all the elements of the world, and I have seen how some explode in tantrum while others walk in an almost stupor, how some cry for days and others move with an uncanny focus, addressing only the moment before them. Some part of them has died, and like surgeons, they know that amputation must be immediate. So that was me, that Sunday afternoon, when I rose, still in those same brogans and osnaburg, and wandered out again, this time finding my way to the storehouse where I would collect the weekly peck of corn and pound of pork deeded to my family. I brought them back to my home, but I did not stay. Instead, I retrieved my marbles, my only possession besides the sack of victuals and the clothes I was wearing, and walked back out until I reached the last building on the Street, a large cabin set back from the others. Thena’s home.

			The Street was a communal place but Thena kept to herself, never joining in on the gossip, small talk, or singing. She worked the tobacco and then she went home. Her habit was to scowl at us children for playing our rowdy games within earshot or sometimes to emerge almost whimsically from her cabin, wild-eyed, swinging her broom at us. For anyone else, this would have brought conflict of some sort or the other. But I had heard that Thena had not always been this way, that in another life, one lived right here on the Street, she was a mother not just to five children of her own but to all the children of the Street.

			That was another age, one I did not remember. But I knew that her children were gone. What was I thinking facing her door, holding my sack of pork and cornmeal? Surely there were others who would have taken me in, others who actually enjoyed the company of children. But there was just one on the Street who I knew understood the suffering that was just then compounding in me. Even when she swung her broom at us, I sensed the depth of that loss, her pain, a rage that she, unlike the rest of us, refused to secret away, and I found that rage to be true and correct. She was not the meanest woman at Lockless, but the most honest.

			 			I knocked on the door and, receiving no answer and now feeling the cold, I pushed my way in. I left the ration just inside the door, then climbed the ladder to the loft, where I laid myself, looking down, waiting for her to return. She walked in a few minutes later, looked up, and gave me her familiar scowl. But then she walked over to the fireplace, started it up, and pulled a pan down from the mantel above, and within minutes the familiar smell of pork and ash-cake filled the cabin. She looked up at me once more and said, “You got to come down if you want to eat.”

* * *


			I lived with Thena for a year and a half before I got to the precise root of her rage. On a warm summer night I was awakened from the small pallet I maintained up in the loft of the cabin by loud moaning. It was Thena, talking in her sleep. “It’s fine, John. It’s fine.” And she spoke this with such clarity that when I first heard it, I thought she was speaking to someone present. But when I looked down from the loft, I saw that she was still sleeping. I had already gotten into the habit of leaving Thena to her ghosts, but the more she spoke, the more it seemed to me that this time she was in distress. I climbed down to rouse her. As I got closer, I heard her still moaning and talking: “It’s fine, fine, I told you. Fine, John.” I reached out and pulled on her shoulder, shaking it until she awoke with a start.

			She looked up at me, and then around the dark cabin, uncertain of where she was. Then her eyes narrowed and focused again on me. I had for the past year and a half been mostly immune to Thena’s rages. Indeed, much to the relief of the Street, the rages had diminished, as though maybe my presence had begun to heal an old wound. This was incorrect and I knew it as soon as I saw her focusing on me.

			 			“Hell you doing here!” she said. “Little rugrat, get the hell out of here! Get the hell out!” I scrambled outside and saw that it was almost dawn. The yellow spray of sun would soon be peeking over the trees. I walked back to the old cabin I’d shared with my mother and sat on the steps, until it was time for the Task.

			I was eleven by then. I was a small boy for my age, but no exception was made, and I was put to work like a man. I daubed and chinked the cabins. I hoed the fields in summer and hung leaves like all the rest in the fall. I trapped and fished. I tended the garden, even after my mother was gone. But on a hot day like the one that was coming, I was sent with the other children to bring water to the tasking folk in the fields. So all that day I took my place in a relay of children that extended from the well near the main house of the estate down and out to the tobacco fields. When the bell rang and everyone repaired for supper, I did not return to Thena’s. Instead I took up a safe vantage point in the woods and watched. The Street was by then lively but my eye was on Thena’s cabin. Every twenty minutes or so, I saw her walk out and look both ways as though expecting a guest and then walk back inside. When I finally came back to the cabin, it was late and I found her sitting on a chair by the bed. I knew by the two empty bowls sitting on the mantel that she had not yet eaten.

			We had supper, and just as it was time to retire, she turned to me and said in a cracked whisper, “John—Big John—was my husband. He died. Fever. I think you should know that. I think you should understand some things bout me, bout you, bout this place.”

			She paused here and looked into the fireplace, where the last of the cooking embers were dying.

			“I try not to fret it much. Death is as natural as anything, more natural than this place. But the death that come out of this death, out of my Big John, wasn’t nothing natural about that. It was murder.”

			 			The din and racket of the Street had died down and there was only now the low and rhythmic whining of the insects of the night. Our door was open to allow for an easy July breeze. Thena pulled her pipe from over the fireplace, lit it, and began to puff.

			“Big John was the driver. You know what that mean, don’t you?”

			“Mean he was boss of the fields down here.”

			“Yes, he was,” she said. “Was chosen to superintend all the tobacco teams. Big John wasn’t no driver ’cause he was the meanest like Harlan. He was a driver because he was the wisest—wiser than any of them whites, and their whole lives depended on him. Them fields, they ain’t just fields, Hi. They the heart of the thing. You been around. You seen this place and all its fancy things, you know what they have.”

			I did. Lockless was massive, thousands of acres carved out of the mountains. I loved to steal away time from the fields to explore these acres, and what I’d found were orchards flush with golden peaches, wheat fields waving in the summer wind, cornstalks crowned with yellow silken hope, a dairy, an iron-works, a carpentry house, an ice-house, gardens filled with lilacs and lilies of the valley, all of it engineered in exact geometry, in resplendent symmetry, the math of which I was too young to comprehend.

			“Nice, ain’t it?” Thena said. “But all of it start with what’s right down here in the fields, and with what’s right here in this pipe. Master of it all was my man Big John. Weren’t nobody who knew more about the ways and knacks of the golden leaf than my man. He could tell you the best way to dig out the horn-worms, which leaves you s’pose to sucker and which you might like to leave be. So that gave him a kind of a favor with the whites. Was how I got this big house here.

			“And we was good about it. Gave our extra helping of victuals to those who did not have. It was John who insisted on it.”

			 			She stopped to puff again on her pipe. I watched as lightning bugs drifted in, glowing yellow against the shadows.

			“I loved that man, but he died, and after that, it all went bad. First terrible harvest I remember came after John was gone. Then there was another. Then another. Folks’ll tell you even John couldn’t have saved us. It was the land, cursing these whites for what they done to it, for how they done stripped it down. Still some red Virginia left, but soon it all gon be Virginia sand. And they know it. So it’s been hell since John been gone. Hell on me. Hell on you.

			“I think of your aunt Emma. I think of your momma. I am remembered to them both—Rose and Emma. Why, they were a pair. Loved each other. Loved to dance. I am remembered to them, I say. And though it hurt sometime, you cannot forget, Hi. You cannot forget.”

			I looked on dumbly as she spoke, as the full weight of having already forgotten now came upon me.

			“I know I will not forget my babies,” Thena said. “They took all five of ’em down to the racetrack, and put ’em in a lot with the rest, and sold ’em, sure as they sell these hogsheads of tobacco.”

			Now Thena bowed her head, and brought her hands to her brow. When she looked back up at me, I saw the tears streaking down her cheek.

			“When it happened, I spent most of my time cursing John, for it was my figuring that if John had lived, my babies would still be here with me. It was not just his particular knowledge, it was my sense that John would have done what I could not find the courage to do—he would have stopped them.

			“You know how I am. You done heard how they talk about me but you also know something is broken in old Thena, and when I seen you up in that loft, I had a feeling that same something was broken in you. And you had chosen me, for whatever your young reasoning, you had picked me out.”

			 			She stood now and began her nightly routine of putting her home in order. I climbed up into the loft.

			“Hi,” she called out. I looked back to see her watching me.

			“Yes, ma’am,” I said.

			“I can’t be your mother. I can’t be Rose. She was a beautiful woman, with the kindest heart. I liked her and I do not like many anymore. She did not gossip and she kept to herself. I can’t be what she was to you. But you have chosen me, I understand that. I want you to know that I understand.”

			I stayed up late that night peering up at the rafters, thinking on Thena’s words. A beautiful woman, the kindest heart, did not gossip, kept to herself. I added this to the memories of her I’d collected from the people on the Street. Thena could not know how much I needed those small jigsaws of my mother, which together, over the years, I forged into a portrait of the woman who lived in dreams, like Big John, but only as smoke.

* * *


			And what of my father? What of the master of Lockless? I knew very early who he was, for my mother had made no secret of the fact, nor did he. From time to time, I would see him on horseback making his tour of the property, and when his eyes met mine he would pause and tip his hat to me. I knew he had sold my mother, for Thena never ceased to remind me of the fact. But I was a boy, seeing in him what boys can’t help but see in their fathers—a mold in which their own manhood might be cast. And more, I was just then beginning to understand the great valley separating the Quality and the Tasked—that the Tasked, hunched low in the fields, carrying the tobacco from hillock to hogshead, led backbreaking lives and that the Quality who lived in the house high above, the seat of Lockless, did not. And knowing this, it was natural that I look to my father, for in him, I saw an emblem of another life—one of splendor and regale. And I knew I had a brother up there, a boy who luxuriated while I labored, and I wondered what right he had to his life of idle pursuit, and what law deeded me to the Task. I needed only some method to elevate my standing, to place me at some post where I might show my own quality. This was my feeling that Sunday when my father made his fateful appearance on the Street.

			 			Thena was in a better mood than normal, sitting out on the stoop, not scowling or running off any of the younger children when they scampered past. I was in back of the quarter, between the fields and the Street, calling out a song:

			 				 					Oh Lord, trouble so hard

					Oh Lord, trouble so hard

					Nobody know my troubles but my God

					Nobody know nothing but my God

			I went on for verse after verse, taking the song from trouble to labor to trouble to hope to trouble to freedom. When I sang the call, I changed my voice to the sound of the lead man in the field, bold and exaggerated. When I sang the response, I took on the voices of the people around me, mimicking them one by one. They were delighted, these elders, and their delight grew as the song extended, verse after verse, till I’d had a chance to mimic them all. But that day, I was not watching the elders. I was watching the white man seated atop the Tennessee Pacer, his hat pulled low, who rode up smiling his approval at my performance. It was my father. He removed his hat, and took a handkerchief from his pocket and mopped his brow. Then he put the hat back on, and reached into his pocket, pulled out something, and flicked it toward me, and I, never taking my eye off of him, caught it with one hand. I stood there for a long moment, locking eyes with him. I could feel a tension behind me: the elders, now afraid that my impudence might bring Harlan’s wrath. But my father just kept smiling, then nodded at me and rode off.

			 			The tension eased and I went back to Thena’s cabin, climbed up to my loft space. I pulled from my pocket the coin my father flipped to me just before he’d ridden off, and I saw that it was copper, with rough uneven edges and a picture of a white man on the front, and on the back there was a goat. Up in that loft, I fingered the rough edges, feeling that I had found my method, my token, my ticket out of the fields and off the Street.

* * *


			And it happened that next day, after our supper. I peered down from the loft to see Desi and Boss Harlan talking to Thena in low tones. I was afraid for her. I had never seen Desi or Harlan wrathy, but the stories I’d heard were enough. It was said that Boss Harlan once shot a man for using the wrong hoe and Desi once beat a girl in the dairy with a carriage whip. I looked down and saw Thena looking at the floor, nodding occasionally. When Desi and Harlan left, Thena called me down.

			In silence she walked me out onto the fields, where no one would eavesdrop. It was now late in the evening. I felt the stiff air of summer releasing into the night. I was all anticipation, feeling I knew what was coming, and when I heard the night sounds of nature all around us like a chorus, I believed they were singing to a grand future.

			“Hiram, I know how much you see. And I know that even though we all have to handle the brutal ways of this world, you have handled them better than some of your elders. But it’s bout to get more brutal,” she said.

			“Yes, ma’am.”

			“White folks come down to say your days in the fields is over, that you going up top. But they ain’t your family, Hiram, I want you to see that. You cannot forget yourself up there, and we cannot forget each other. They calling us up, now, you hear? Us. That trick of yours, and I seen it, we all seen it, it got me too. I am to come up and tend to you, and you might think you have saved me from something, but what you have really done is put me right under their eye.

			 			“We have our own world down here—our own ways of being and talking and laughing, even if you don’t see me doing much of neither. But I got a choice down here. And it ain’t great, but it is ours. Up there, with them right over you…well, it’s different.

			“You gon have to watch yourself, son. Be careful. Remember like I told you. They ain’t your family, boy. I am more your mother standing right here now than that white man on that horse is your father.”

			She was trying to tell me, trying to warn me of what was coming. But my gift was memory, not wisdom. And the next day when Roscoe, my father’s jowly, affable butler, came for us, I had to work hard to hide away all my excitement. We walked up from the tobacco fields, past the field-hands, their songs ringing out:

			 				 					When you get to heaven, say you remember me

					Remember me and my fallen soul

					Remember my poor and fallen soul

			And then we were past the wheat fields and crossing the green lawn, and through the flower garden, until I saw, elevated on a small hill, the big house of Lockless shining like the sun itself. When we were closer, I took in the stone columns, the portico, and the fanlight over the entrance. It was all so magnificent. This house, I felt with a sudden shiver, belonged to me. It was mine by blood. I was correct, but not in the sense I thought.

			Roscoe glanced back at me, grimacing I think, seeing that shine in my eyes. “We go this way,” he said. He led us away from the door, to the base of the small hill on which the house stood, and at that base, I saw the entryway to a tunnel. As we walked through, other tasking folk emerged from side rooms to greet Thena and Roscoe as they streamed past into smaller adjoining tunnels. We were in a warren, an underworld beneath the great house.

			 			We stopped in front of one of the side rooms and it was clear that here was my place. There was a bed, a table, a washbasin, a vase, and a cloth. There was no loft. There was no under-space. There was no window. Roscoe lingered at the door with me by his side as Thena put down her bag of things. She didn’t take her eyes off of me and I could feel her words repeating in that stare—They ain’t your family. But after a moment her stare broke and all she said was, “Might as well take him up.” Roscoe put his hand on my shoulder and led me back into the Warrens and up a set of stairs, until we faced a wall. Roscoe touched something I did not see and the wall slid away and we walked out from the darkness into a wide room flooded with light and filled with books.

			I stood in the doorway, my senses overwhelmed: the flooding light in the room, the smell of turpentine, the gold and blue Persian rugs, the shine of the wood floors beneath them, but the books were what held my eyes. I had seen books before—there were always one or two of us down on the Street who could read and who kept old journals or songbooks in their cabins—but never so many, shelves from floor to ceiling on every wall. I did my best not to stare. I knew what happened to coloreds who were too curious about the world beyond Virginia.

			Diverting my eyes from the books, I saw my father, dressed down to his waistcoat and shirtsleeves, seated in one corner of the room, watching me and watching Roscoe. Turning my head, I saw in the other corner a boy, older than me, and white. By some trick of the blood, I knew at once that this was my brother. My father waved his hand lightly, effortlessly, and I saw that Roscoe recognized in this motion that he must take his leave. And so he turned, as though executing a military maneuver, and disappeared back behind the sliding wall. And I was there alone with my father, Howell Walker, and with my brother, and they both regarded me in curious silence. I reached into my pocket and found the copper coin and fingered its rough and uneven edges.


			MY ASSIGNMENT CAME DOWN from my father to Desi to Thena to me—make myself useful. So each day I would rise before the sun, as did all the Tasked, and walk about the house, fitting in where I could—raising the kitchen fires for Ella, the head cook, fetching the milk from the dairy, retrieving the trays after breakfast—or labor outside with Roscoe, washing and grooming the horses, or in the apple orchard with Pete, grafting saplings. There was always work to be done, for while the needs of the house had not diminished, the numbers of the Tasked had, and that was my first inkling that even here in the house the Tasked could be sent Natchez-way. I worked energetically, more still when, from time to time, I would catch my father glancing my way with a thin sidelong smile. He’d found a use for me.

			It was autumn of my thirteenth year, four months after I took up residence in the main house. My father had called for a social to celebrate the season. All day a kind of private fatigue blanketed those who tasked in the house. Early that morning I brought the eggs up to Ella, whose large and welcoming smile I’d come to regard as a natural portion of the morning. But nature was beside itself this day, so that when I came upon Ella with my wicker basket of eggs, she only shook her head and motioned for me to put the eggs on the table where Pete stood picking through a bushel of apples.

			 			Ella sidled next to Pete, cracked and separated six eggs, and then beat the whites. She spoke just above a whisper and would not give full vent to her feelings. “They don’t think about nothing and nobody,” Ella said. “It’s wrong, Pete. And you know it’s wrong.”

			“It’s all right, Ella,” he said. “It’s worse things to be wrathy about.”

			“Ain’t wrathy. Just want some consideration. Is that too much? Was supposed to be small supper tonight. How it spread out to the whole county?”

			“You know what it is,” Pete said. “You know what is going on with them.”

			“No, I don’t,” Ella said. “Hi, get me that rolling pin. And get that fire going, will you?”

			“You got eyes, you know. It ain’t like it was. The gold leaf ain’t what it was. All the old families gone west. Tennessee. Baton Rouge. Natchez. Them kinda places. Ain’t too many left. And those that’s still here feel a tightness between them. They holding on. Small supper bigger to them now. Don’t none of ’em know who moving out next. This goodbye might be they last.”

			Now Ella laughed quietly to herself but it felt boisterous and mocking, wide enough that I wanted to join her though there was nothing funny going on. “Hi, that thing there, baby,” she said, motioning to the shelves. When she called me baby, I got warm inside. I left the fire and took the dough cutter off the shelf and brought it over. Ella was still laughing to herself. She looked up and gave that large and welcoming smile.

			Then the smile shrank and she looked dead at me, looked through me almost, and then turned to Pete, “I don’t care nothing for they feelings. This boy here know more about goodbye than all of them put together. And he ain’t nothing but a boy.”

			 			All that day there was the same tension among the Tasked as I’d seen in Ella. But neither my father nor Desi knew or cared, and that evening when the carriages and chaises began arriving, all of us were smiles and pleasantries. I was assigned to the waitstaff. By then I had learned how to wash and groom myself until I shined, how to hold the silver tray in my left hand and serve with my right, how to disappear into the corners, emerging to scrape away bread and then fading again back into the shadows. When dinner adjourned, we cleared away the dishes and stood in the cherry-red drawing room and waited at attention while the guests all settled into the room’s deep chairs and divans.

			I looked across the room, meeting eyes with the three others charged with attending to whatever need struck our guests. Then I watched the guests themselves, trying to anticipate whatever need might strike them. I took note of Maynard’s tutor, Mr. Fields, a young man, overly serious with deep-set eyes, drawn back in his chair. It was hard to stay in the moment. I found myself admiring the women’s fashion—their white bonnets, their pink fans, their side-curls, the baby’s breath and daisies in their hair. There was less to see in the men, who wore all black. But still I thought them beautiful, for there was distinction in how they walked, grace in their smallest movements, as when they opened the bay doors and repaired out back, leaned into one of the Tasked to light their cigars, and spoke of gentlemanly things. I imagined myself among them, settled into a chair or whispering into a lady’s ear.

			They played seventeen hands of cards. They drank eight demijohns of cider. They ate lady-cake until they could barely stand. Then, just past midnight, a woman with her bonnet on backward began cackling hysterically. One of the men in black began berating his wife. Another nodded off in the corner. The Tasked on the waitstaff grew tense, a subtle tension I was sure the guests could not detect. My father sat staring at the fire and Mr. Fields sat back in his chair, looking bored. The woman stopped cackling and pulled down her bonnet, revealing a broken mask of streaked face-paint.

			 			The woman was one of the Caulleys—Alice Caulley—a family, many years ago, split in two. Half had gone off to Kentucky while half remained. I remember her because the Caulleys who left took along those who tasked for them and among that number was Pete’s sister, Maddie. I never met her. But he spoke of her often, and whenever news of her filtered up from Kentucky through the grapevine of tasking folks who moved between the Caulley branches—news that she was alive and whole, united with the remnants of family that traveled with her—his face would light up and remain as such for the rest of the week.

			“Give us a song!” Alice snapped, and when no one answered, she walked over to Cassius, one of the men in waiting, and slapped him. Now she yelled again, “Sing, damn you!”

			It always happened like this—that is what I had been told. Bored whites were barbarian whites. While they played at aristocrats, we were their well-appointed and stoic attendants. But when they tired of dignity, the bottom fell out. New games were anointed and we were but pieces on the board. It was terrifying. There was no limit to what they might do at this end of the tether, nor what my father would allow them to do.

			The slap roused him. My father stood up and looked around nervously.

			“Come now, Alice. We have something better than any Negro song,” he said, and turned to me, and though he did not say another word I knew what he wanted.

			I scanned the room and caught sight of a deck of oversized cards stacked on one of the small coffee tables. I recognized the cards as the kind Maynard used in his reading lessons. On one side the cards were all the same—a map of the known world. On the other side they each featured an acrobat contorted into the shape of a different letter, with a short rhyme underneath. I had overheard Maynard reading from these cards with his tutor. I had with sideways glances, and a few minutes of study here and there, memorized them, for no other reason than the fact of enjoying the silly rhymes on each side. Now I retrieved the cards from the table and turned toward Alice Caulley.

			 			“Mrs. Caulley, would you shuffle, ma’am?”

			She leaned over unsteadily, took the cards from me, and shuffled them in her hands. And then I asked if she would be so kind as to let me inspect them. Having done this, I handed them back to her and asked that she place them each on the table, face-down in any order. I watched her hands until the small coffee table was covered with maps in miniature.

			“And what now, boy?” she asked warily.

			I asked that she pick up a card and show it to anyone she pleased, except me. When she’d done this, she turned back to me with raised eyebrows. I said, “With the rest he’ll agree, and assist them with a letter ‘E.’ ”

			Now her eyebrows retreated some toward their natural position as skepticism turned to pique. “Again,” she said, and then picked another card, showed it to more people now. I said, “Here he is, twisted and twined, to make an ‘S’ if you do not mind.”

			And then the pique turned to a slight smile. I felt the tension in the room slack a bit. She picked another, showed it, and I said, “He’s forced to train hard, less the letter ‘C’ be marred.”

			Now Alice Caulley laughed, and when I looked over, I saw my father smiling thin and small, and though the others who tasked like me that evening were still standing at attention, I felt the fear flowing out of their stoic faces. Alice Caulley kept reaching for the cards, flipping faster now. But I matched her speed. “Here’s a letter ‘V’ to view. You’ll find its shape just like new.”…“With his hands in the air, a letter ‘H’ he does declare.”

			 			By the time the deck was done, they were all laughing and now applauding. The man in the corner was no longer snoring but looked up, trying to understand the sudden commotion. When the applause died down, Alice Caulley, her smile carrying the edge of menace, looked to me and said, “And what else, boy?”

			I stared at her for a moment, longer than any tasking man should, and nodded. I was only twelve, but I was fully confident of what came next, a trick I had long practiced down in the Street. Having the guests in my confidence, I requested that they line up against the drawing room wall. I went first to Edward Mackley, who wore his blond curls pinned back like a woman, asking him to tell me the first moment he knew he loved his wife. And then I asked Armatine Caulley, Alice’s cousin, her favorite place in all the world, and then I went to Morris Beacham, and asked him to tell me about the first time he’d hunted pheasant. I went down the line like this until I held a clutch of stories in my head, so many that no one else could remember who had said what and what the particular details were. Only Mr. Fields, Maynard’s gruff tutor, declined. But when I went back down the line, repeating back to each of the speakers their own stories, in every detail, but with drama and embellishment, I saw the tutor pull up to the edge of his seat, and his eyes were aglow like all the others’, aglow like those of my tasking elders, down on the distant Street, used to be.

			Now even the waitstaff had to break their solemn gaze and smile. Indeed, among the whole party, only Mr. Fields was able to preserve his customary gruff aspect, save the glow in his narrowed eyes. It was late now. My father bid each of his guests to quarters throughout the old house and we were dispatched to make sure each of them was comfortable. When all the guests were settled, we retreated into the Warrens exhausted, knowing that our duties would begin again in mere hours, for all the guests would expect their breakfast prepared and waiting when they arose.

			The Monday morning following that party, I was helping Thena prepare the wash when I was called away by Roscoe and sent to see my father off in the side parlor. I first went to my room, washed, put on a set of house clothes, then wound my way up the back stairs until I emerged in the central corridor, and then, walking down that corridor, found my father standing, as if he’d been waiting on me. Behind him, I saw Maynard seated at a desk writing and a gentleman standing over him. The gentleman was Mr. Fields, who tutored Maynard three times a week. He wore a look of pained frustration, and Maynard’s own face was stricken.

			 			My father smiled at me, but this does not convey the look he gave, because my father had a variety of smiles—smiles of displeasure, or disinterest, or shock and amazement—indeed he smiled so much it made him hard to read, but I knew the smile I saw that morning because it was the same smile I’d seen, mere months ago, down near the Street, down in the fields where he’d flicked me the copper coin.

			“Good morning, Hiram,” he said. “How are you?”

			“Fine, sir,” I said.

			“Good. Good,” he said. “Hiram, I want you to spend some moments with Mr. Fields. Would you do that for me?”

			“Yes, sir,” I said.

			“Thank you, Hiram,” he said.

			And with that, my father looked at Maynard, still smiling, and said, “Come on, son.”

			I saw an immediate look of relief extend over Maynard’s face as he left his work. He didn’t look my way as he and my father left the room. We were, Maynard and I, at a distance at that time in our lives. We spoke only in banalities, with no acknowledgment of what we were to each other.

			Mr. Fields spoke with an accent, one I had never heard before, and I immediately imagined it might hail from the Natchez my elders spoke so much of.

			“The other day,” he said, “that was some trick.” I nodded silently, still not sure of his intentions. There were penalties for the Tasked who’d learned to read, and it now occurred to me that my “trick” might bring some sort of wrath. But my trick didn’t hinge on reading, because I could not read. I had simply filed away what I had heard of Maynard’s own fumblings and matched them with the cards left scattered on the table. But Mr. Fields knew nothing of that technique, and I was not quite sure how, or whether, I should explain.

			 			He regarded me for a moment and then pulled out a set of regular playing cards and handed them to me.

			“Examine them.”

			I pulled cards from the deck one after the other, taking time to examine each one, and furrowing my brow more for effect than out of any sense of labor. When I was done, Mr. Fields said, “Now place each of them face-down on the table.”

			This I did in four neat rows of thirteen. Then Mr. Fields took one card at a time from the table so that only he could see the face, and asked that I confirm its suit. This I did with each one. Mr. Fields’s face did not alight.

			Now he reached into his bag and produced a box. When he opened it, I saw that it was a collection of rounds, small ivory discs, with a carved face or animal or symbol on each. He laid these rounds on the table face-up, asked me to look at them for a minute, and then he turned the rounds over so their blank bottoms showed. And when he asked me to find the round with a portrait of the old man with a long nose or the pretty girl with long locks or the one with the bird perched on the branch, it was as though he’d never turned them over, and they were right there facing me.

			Finally, Mr. Fields pulled a sheet of paper from his satchel, and then he pulled out a book filled with drawings. He turned to a drawing of a bridge and he told me to look at it, to concentrate on it, and after a minute, he closed the book, handed me a pen, and told me to draw the bridge myself. I had never done anything quite like this, and unsure of Mr. Fields’s intentions, and knowing, even then, that the Quality resented the pride of the Tasked, unless that pride could be fitted to their profit, I gave him a puzzled look, and pretended that I did not quite understand. He repeated himself, and then watched as I took the pen, gingerly at first, and began my sketch. For effect, I would glance up, as though straining to recall the picture in my mind. But there really was no need to recall, for it felt to me that the bridge was right there, on the blank paper, and all I need do was trace the lines to reveal it. So I traced the stony arch, the small opening at the right end, the arch over-top, the rocky outcropping in the back, and the tree-filled ravine over which the bridge spanned. And now, seeing this, Mr. Fields’s eyes grew wide. He stood and adjusted his jacket. Then he took the sheet, told me to wait, and walked out.

			 			Mr. Fields returned with my father, who’d pulled from his assortment of smiles one which spoke of his own self-satisfaction.

			“Hiram,” my father said. “Would you like to work with Mr. Fields on some regular basis?” I looked to the ground, and pretended to turn the question over in my head. I had to, because what I then felt was the avenue opening before me, light streaming through. I did not wish to be found too eager. Lockless was still Virginia—the epitome even. I could not yet acknowledge all that this moment portended.

			“Should I, sir?” I asked.

			“Yes, Hiram,” my father said. “I think you should.”

			“Then yes, sir,” I said. “I will.”

* * *


			So the lessons began—reading, arithmetic, some oratory—and my world bloomed with them, my ravenous memory filling with images and, now, words, which were so much more than I had before believed, words with their own shape, rhythm, and color, words that were pictures themselves. We would meet three times a week for an hour, my time always following Maynard’s, and though I know that he tried his best not to show it, I could always see the relief in Mr. Fields’s eyes when Maynard departed and I entered. This moment became a source not just of pride but of quiet derision—I was better than Maynard, given so much less yet made of so much more.

			 			He was clumsy. He squinted constantly, as if always searching for the next foothold. He was negligent and rude. My father would have guests over for tea and Maynard would think nothing of bursting in and speaking whatever thought then possessed him. He loved to jest, and that was the best part of him—but even that quality betrayed him into telling crass jokes to the young daughters of Quality. At supper he reached across the table for rolls, and spoke with a mouth full of food.

			I was certain my father saw things as I did, and I wondered how wrong it must have felt to see the best of you emerge in this way, in the place you didn’t expect, indeed in the place your whole world depends on it never appearing.

			I tried to remember the Street and Thena’s admonition, They ain’t your family. But seeing the estate as I now did—rolling green hills in summer, woods blooming in red and gold in fall, and then in winter a snow dappling everything, and seeing, though living below, the main house of Lockless, the great columns of the portico, the setting sun casting itself through the fanlight, seeing the winding corridors, and seeing the grand portraits of my grandfather and grandmother, my eyes in theirs, I began, in my quiet moments, to imagine myself in their ranks. And there was my father, who would pull me aside and tell me of our lineage stretching back through his father, John Walker, back through the progenitor, Archibald Walker, who walked here with a mule, two horses, his wife, Judith, two young boys, and ten tasking men. Would tell me these stories as if granting in these asides a teasing share of my inheritance. And I never forgot.

			There were evenings, the Task complete, when I would wander to the far eastern edge of the property, past the sprawl of timothy grass and clover, and stand reverent before the stone monument that marked the spot where the first plots that became Lockless were cleared. And when my father told me the stories, passed from his grandfather, of chasing off catamounts, of hunting bear with a Bowie knife, of felling great trees, hauling up stones, and diverting creeks, and by his own hand bringing forth the estate I then beheld, how could I not want to claim this, the courage and wit and all the glory it built with its strong arms, as my inheritance?

			 			But too, with all of that imagining, the facts of Lockless began to make themselves manifest. There were of course the tales of Pete and Ella, their invocations of Natchez and Baton Rouge. There was the tragedy of Big John, of my mother. And to all of this, I now began to add my own stray readings, when left in my father’s office, of De Bow’s Review, which harped constantly on the falling price of tobacco, and then finally the conversation of the Quality themselves. It was tobacco that made for the largess of Lockless, indeed the largess of Elm County. And every year the tobacco yields shrank, the entail of those high families of Virginia shrank with them. The days of tobacco leaves large as elephant ears were no more, not in Elm County at least, where crop after crop had exhausted the land. But out west, past the valley and mountains, on the Mississippi banks, down Natchez-way, there was land in need of improvement, in need of masters to superintend, and men to harvest and hoe, men such as those in the diminishing fields of Lockless.

			“Used to be they was shamed to sell a man,” I’d heard Pete once say, while I was working in the kitchen.

			“Easy to have shame when you got the harvest,” Ella answered. “Try shame when you a dirt farmer.”

			These were the last words I ever heard from Ella. A week later she was gone.

			My young way of understanding all of this was singular, a sense that what really had doomed Lockless was not the land but the men who managed it. I began to see Maynard as an outrageous example of his entire class. I envied them. I was horrified by them.

			As I learned the house, and began to read, and began to see more of the Quality, I saw that just as the fields and its workers were the engine of everything, the house itself would have been lost without those who tasked within it. My father, like all the masters, built an entire apparatus to disguise this weakness, to hide how prostrate they truly were. The tunnel, where I first entered the house, was the only entrance that the Tasked were allowed to use, and this was not only for the masters’ exaltation but to hide us, for the tunnel was but one of the many engineering marvels built into Lockless so as to make it appear powered by some imperceptible energy. There were dumbwaiters that made the sumptuous supper appear from nothing, levers that seemed to magically retrieve the right bottle of wine hidden deep in the manor’s bowels, cots in the sleeping quarters, drawn under the canopy bed, because those charged with emptying the chamber-pot must be hidden even more than the chamber-pot itself. The magic wall that slid away from me that first day and opened the gleaming world of the house hid back stairways that led down into the Warrens, the engine-room of Lockless, where no guest would ever visit. And when we did appear in the polite areas of the house, as we did during the soirées, we were made to appear in such appealing dress and grooming so that one could imagine that we were not slaves at all but mystical ornaments, a portion of the manor’s charm. But I now knew the truth—that Maynard’s folly, though more profane, was unoriginal. The masters could not bring water to boil, harness a horse, nor strap their own drawers without us. We were better than them—we had to be. Sloth was literal death for us, while for them it was the whole ambition of their lives.

			 			It occurred to me then that even my own intelligence was unexceptional, for you could not set eyes anywhere on Lockless and not see the genius in its makers—genius in the hands that carved out the columns of the portico, genius in the songs that evoked, even in the whites, the deepest of joys and sorrows, genius in the men who made the fiddle strings whine and trill at their dances, genius in the bouquet of flavors served up from the kitchen, genius in all our lost, genius in Big John. Genius in my mother.

			 			I imagined that my own quality might someday be recognized and then, perhaps, I, one who understood the workings of the house, the workings of the field, and the span of the larger world, might be deemed the true heir, the rightful heir, of Lockless. With this broad knowledge I would make the fields bloom again, and in that way save us all from the auctions and separation, from a descent into the darkness of Natchez, which was the coffin, which was all that awaited, I knew, under the rule of Maynard.

* * *


			One day I came up the back stairs to the study for my instruction with Mr. Fields, and I was excited because we had just then begun our study of astronomy, and star maps, starting with Ursa Minor, with more to come in our next session. But when I came into the study, I found not Mr. Fields but my father there, seated alone.

			“Hiram,” he said. “It’s time.” A deathly fear overcame me at these words. I had been studying for a year now with Mr. Fields. It occurred to me that perhaps this was merely the fattening, perhaps I would go the way of Ella. Maybe they had heard my thoughts somehow or seen the hazy dream of usurpation in my eyes. Maybe they’d done the math themselves and realized my learning could only end in a coup.

			“Yes, sir,” I answered without even knowing what it was now time for. I clenched my teeth behind my lips, trying to hide the fear now pulsing out from my gut.

			“When I saw you down in that field, and I saw your parlor tricks, I knew there was something to you, boy, something that the others down there couldn’t see. You had a particular talent, one that I thought could be useful, for these are not prosperous times, and we need all the talent we can get up here in the house.”

			I looked at him blank-faced, concealing my confusion. I simply nodded, waiting for the thing to clarify before me.

			“It’s time for you to take on Maynard. My days will not be forever, and he will need a good manservant—one such as you, who knows something of the fields, and something of the house, and even something of the larger world. I have watched you, boy, and what I know is you never forget a thing. Tell my Hiram something once, and it is as good as done. There ain’t too many like you, ain’t too many of such quality.”

			 			And now he looked at me and his eyes gleamed a bit.

			“Most of the folks up here would take a boy like you and put him on the block. Fetch a fortune, you know. Nothing more valuable than a colored with some brains in him. But that is not me. I believe in Lockless. I believe in Elm County. I believe in Virginia. We have a duty to save our country: the country your great-grandfather carved out of wilderness will not return to the wild. You understand?”

			“Yes, sir,” I said.

			“It’s our duty. All of us, Hiram. And it begins right here. I need you, boy. Maynard needs you at his side and it is your great honor to be there.”

			“Thank you, sir.”

			“All right,” he said. “We’ll start tomorrow.”

			And in that way my lessons came to an end just as their purpose was revealed. I was tasked with Maynard, his personal servant for the next seven years of my life. It may seem strange now, but the insult of it all did not immediately dawn on me. It accumulated slowly and inexorably over the years as I watched Maynard at work. And so much hung in the balance—the lives of all those whom I’d left down in the Street, and even those of us now in this gleaming, collapsing palace, all of it depended on Maynard maturing into a competent steward of it all, however unjust the entire edifice. But Maynard was not that man.

* * *


			It all finally came cascading down upon me the evening before that fateful race-day. I was nineteen. I was standing in my father’s second-floor study, having filed away his correspondence into the cubbies of the mahogany secretary, and under the silver arms of the Argand lamp I found myself carried away by the latest volume of De Bow’s Review. I marveled at the volume’s presentation of Oregon country, a region I knew from the maps strung aimlessly across the house, but now brought alive for me in these pages as a kind of paradise, a land rich enough to hold all of Virginia many times over, a land of hills, valleys, forests, teeming with game and black soil so fertile it nearly burst out of the earth.

			 			I still remember the words that brought me up: “Here, if anywhere, must be the seat of liberty, prosperity, and wealth.” I stood. I closed the volume. I paced back and forth. I looked out the window, far across the river Goose, and saw the Three Hills to the south, looming like black giants in the distance. I turned and spent a few minutes looking at an engraving on the wall. A chained Cupid and a laughing Aphrodite.

			And then I thought of Maynard, my brother. His blond hair had grown long and unruly. His beard was an array of mossy patches. Social instinct and grace had not found him in manhood. He gambled and drank to excess, because he could. He fought in the street, because no matter how throttled, he could never be throttled from his throne. He lost fortunes in the arms of fancies, because the labor of the Tasked—and sometimes their sale—would cover all his losses. Visits from family still in Elm often turned to the fate of Lockless, and when Maynard was out of earshot, I would hear them cursing his name and considering all manner of schemes to find another heir to run the family stead. In fact no heirs were present, for when these cousins searched the Walker lineage what they found was everyone of Maynard’s generation had gone to where the land was rich and blooming. Virginia was old. Virginia was the past. Virginia was where the earth was dying and the tobacco diminishing. And so with no suitable heir, the Walker masters looked to Lockless with worry.

			My father had plans of his own—find Maynard a talented and suitable partner, and thus engage another family in the struggle to save Lockless. And incredibly, he found one in Corrine Quinn, who was then perhaps the wealthiest woman in all of Elm County, having inherited a fortune from her deceased parents. There were rumors among the Tasked as to the nature of this inheritance, rumors about the way in which Corrine Quinn’s parents had met their end. But among the Quality, she was regarded as superior to Maynard in every way. But she needed a husband because Virginia still operated on the code of gentlemen, meaning there were still things beyond her, places she could not go, deals she could not be party to. And so these two needed each other—Maynard an intelligent partner to save his land and estate, Corrine a gentleman to represent her interests.

			 			That night I walked out of the study, disturbed and shaken, and wandered the house until I found myself at the threshold of the parlor, from where I could see the glow of the fireplace and hear Maynard and my father in conversation. They were speaking of Edwin Cox, patriarch of one of the oldest and most storied families of the region. Last winter, he’d wandered out of his home and was caught in a great blizzard, which had just that morning come up over the mountains and blanketed the county. He had somehow lost his way and was found the next day, frozen solid, only a few yards from the mansion of his forefathers. I stood in the shadows outside of the parlor for a moment and listened.

			“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.


			I 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 people, 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.

			It was early afternoon now, cloudless still, and the races were about to begin. But when the first flight of horses galloped off, I was not watching them, I was watching Maynard, who had, it seemed, forgotten all the insults and slights and was now laughing and boasting with the low whites, and it seemed that Maynard had, in spite of himself, found his people. Or they’d found him. The prospect of a high-born Walker frolicking among them allowed these low whites, too, to bask in the glamour of the day. This esteem only increased itself when Maynard’s time came and his own horse, Diamond, running among the other horses in a great cloud of brown and black, everything noses and legs, emerged from it all, taking a clear lead from the cloud, and holding this lead all the way to the finish. Maynard exploded. He screamed and hugged everyone around him, threw his arms into the air, and then pointed up in the box, toward the jockey club, and yelled something haughty and rude. And then sighting his Corrine in the ladies’ box, he did the same. The men in the jockey club stood there stoic, their lovely sport having been desecrated by this oaf who was born among them, but whose every win lowered the entire game.

			 			After the last race, I met him back off Market Street. I had never seen Maynard more happy in all of his brief life. He looked at me with a huge smile, and said, “Hot damn, Hiram, I told you, didn’t I? It was my day, I said it.”

			I nodded and said, “You did call it.”

			“I told them,” he said, climbing into the buggy. “I told them all!”

			“You did,” I said.

			And then, mindful of my father’s admonition, I turned the chaise back out of the town toward home.

			“No, no! What are you doing?” he said. “Go back! I want to see them. I told them and they did not heed me. We have to show them! They have to see!”

			And so I turned back around and headed toward the center of town, where, by then, the gentry had gathered themselves, along the streets for the last bit of intercourse before parting for the day. But when we rode past in the Millennium chaise, instead of any show of respect, the men and women of Quality glanced our way, nodded without smiling, and went back to their conversation. I don’t know what precisely Maynard wanted or why he expected to get it. I don’t know what was in him that made him believe that this time they would at last acknowledge the merit of his blood, or forgive his impulses and outbursts. But when it was clear he would find no satisfaction, he growled and ordered me to turn to the far edge of town, where I was to leave him at the pleasure house and recover him in an hour.

			 			I was now alone, and grateful for the privacy of my thoughts. I hitched the horse and began to wander the town. I was recalled again to recent events, to my dream, to the realization of the unending night of slavery, to that morning, when I watched the daylight of Sophia fade like dying sun over the blue Virginia mountains. I do not claim to have loved Sophia then, though I thought I did. I was young and love to me was a fuse that was lit, not a garden that was grown. Love was not concerned with any deep knowledge of its object, of their wants and dreams, but mainly with the joy felt in their presence and the sickness felt in their departure. And in Sophia’s own private moments, did she love me? I did not think so, but in another world, a world beyond the Task, I thought she might.

			There were two roads leading to such a world—buying one’s freedom and running. What I knew of the first consisted of a cluster of free coloreds, living in the southern corner of Starfall, who, in the era of red earth and booming tobacco, were allowed to save some small wage and then buy back their bodies. But that road was closed to me. Virginia had changed. Even as the old lands of Elm County, of Lockless, declined, the luster of those who tasked among them increased. What was lost in their labor upon the land could be recouped in their sale, at a premium, Natchez-way, where the land still bloomed. So where once the Tasked could work their way to freedom, they were now too precious to be granted the right of paying their own ransom.

			If the first road was blocked, the second was unthinkable. Every single person I’d ever known who’d run from Lockless was either returned by Ryland’s Hounds, the patrols of low whites who enforced the order of the Quality, or they had lost their heart and returned themselves. In any case, so total was my ignorance of the world beyond Virginia that running seemed insane. But there was one who was said to know more.

			 			No man was more esteemed among the coloreds and the whites of Elm County than Georgie Parks. He was the mayor, the ambassador, the dream, though the dream took its meaning from whatever vantage it was glimpsed from. Back when he was tasked, Georgie worked the fields and, much like Big John, seemed to have a preternatural understanding of agriculture and all its cycles. He could spend an hour walking among your wheat fields and tell you about the harvest three years