Underground Railroad Open Thread
No outside sources
Take a look at the attachment files from the assignment please
Your post on the novel is open to any themes or topics you wish to introduce. Your post should be about 200 words in length, clearly state the task you aim to complete, clearly articulate the point you are making, and present specific textual evidence from the readings (including page numbers), making sure to explain explicitly how the evidence relates to your overall point.
In addition to topics of your own design, you can usethe options below to guide your writing and thinking (you can also use these frameworks for the directed threads as well):
Working through Confusion
Share a passage from the week’s reading that confuses you in some way. Describe why you are confused by the passage, and offer a tentative interpretation of what causes you the problems. Extra engagement can be demonstrated by responding to each other and working through confusion collaboratively.
Structure and Meaning
Offer your observation of some particularly striking, strange, or significant surface feature(s) of one of our texts, and explain how that feature(s) contributes to or drives the meaning of the text in that passage or overall.
Offering an Interpretation
Contrive some kind of interpretive statement about a text from the week’s reading and support with an explanation of relevant and strong textual evidence.
Criticizing a Perspective
In all of our texts, you will encounter characters, groups, and authors who seem to be communicating particular perspectives on the world. Describe whether you agree or disagree with this perspective, and what about the text drives your agreement or proves problematic for the perspective you discuss.
ALSO BY COLSON WHITEHEAD
The Noble Hustle Zone One Sag Harbor
Apex Hides the Hurt The Colossus of New York
John Henry Days The Intuitionist
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2016 by Colson Whitehead
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Doubleday, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, and distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited, Toronto.
DOUBLEDAY and the portrayal of an anchor with a dolphin are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.
Cover design by Oliver Munday
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Names: Whitehead, Colson, 1969– author.
Title: The underground railroad : a novel / Colson Whitehead. Description: New York : Doubleday, 2016.
Identifiers: LCCN 2016000643 (print) | LCCN 2016004953 (ebook) ISBN 9780385542364 (hardcover) | ISBN 9780385537049 (ebook) Subjects: LCSH: Underground Railroad—Fiction. | Fugitive slaves—United States—Fiction. | United States—History—19th century—Fiction.
BISAC: FICTION / Literary. | FICTION / Historical. FICTION / African American / General. | GSAFD: Historical fiction.
Classification: LCC PS3573.H4768 U53 2016 (print) LCC PS3573.H4768 (ebook)
DDC 813/.54—dc23 LC record available at http://lccn.loc.gov/2016000643
ebook ISBN 9780385537049
Cover Also by Colson Whitehead Title Page Copyright Dedication
Acknowledgments About the Author
THE first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no. This was her grandmother talking. Cora’s grandmother had never seen the ocean before that bright
afternoon in the port of Ouidah and the water dazzled after her time in the fort’s dungeon. The dungeon stored them until the ships arrived. Dahomeyan raiders kidnapped the men first, then returned to her village the next moon for the women and children, marching them in chains to the sea two by two. As she stared into the black doorway, Ajarry thought she’d be reunited with her father, down there in the dark. The survivors from her village told her that when her father couldn’t keep the pace of the long march, the slavers stove in his head and left his body by the trail. Her mother had died years before.
Cora’s grandmother was sold a few times on the trek to the fort, passed between slavers for cowrie shells and glass beads. It was hard to say how much they paid for her in Ouidah as she was part of a bulk purchase, eighty-eight human souls for sixty crates of rum and gunpowder, the price arrived upon after the standard haggling in Coast English. Able-bodied men and childbearing women fetched more than juveniles, making an individual accounting difficult.
The Nanny was out of Liverpool and had made two previous stops along the Gold Coast. The captain staggered his purchases, rather than find himself with cargo of singular culture and disposition. Who knew what brand of mutiny his captives might cook up if they shared a common tongue. This was the ship’s final port of call before they crossed the Atlantic. Two yellow-haired sailors rowed Ajarry out to the ship, humming. White skin like bone.
The noxious air of the hold, the gloom of confinement, and the screams of those shackled to her contrived to drive Ajarry to madness. Because of her tender age, her captors did not immediately force their urges upon her, but eventually some of the more seasoned mates dragged her from the hold six weeks into the passage. She twice tried to kill herself on the voyage to America, once by denying herself food and then again by drowning. The sailors stymied her both times, versed in the schemes and inclinations of chattel. Ajarry didn’t even make it to the gunwale when she tried to jump overboard. Her simpering posture and piteous aspect, recognizable from thousands of slaves before her, betrayed her intentions. Chained head to toe, head to toe, in exponential misery.
Although they had tried not to get separated at the auction in Ouidah, the rest of her family was purchased by Portuguese traders from the frigate Vivilia, next seen four months later drifting ten miles off Bermuda. Plague had claimed all on board. Authorities lit the ship on fire and watched her crackle and sink. Cora’s grandmother knew nothing about the ship’s fate. For the rest of her life she imagined her cousins worked for kind and generous masters up north, engaged in more forgiving trades than her own, weaving or spinning, nothing in the fields. In her stories, Isay and Sidoo and the rest somehow bought their way out of bondage and lived as free men and women in the City of Pennsylvania, a place she had overheard two white men discuss once. These fantasies gave Ajarry comfort when her burdens were such to splinter her into a thousand pieces.
The next time Cora’s grandmother was sold was after a month in the pest house on Sullivan’s Island, once the physicians certified her and the rest of the Nanny’s cargo clear of illness. Another busy day on the Exchange. A big auction always drew a colorful crowd. Traders and procurers from up and down the coast converged on Charleston, checking the merchandise’s eyes and joints and spines, wary of venereal distemper and other afflictions. Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted
into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain. Cora’s grandmother saw a little boy among the gawkers eating rock candy and wondered what he was putting in his mouth.
Just before sunset an agent bought her for two hundred and twenty-six dollars. She would have fetched more but for that season’s glut of young girls. His suit was made of the whitest cloth she had ever seen. Rings set with colored stone flashed on his fingers. When he pinched her breasts to see if she was in flower, the metal was cool on her skin. She was branded, not for the first or last time, and fettered to the rest of the day’s acquisitions. The coffle began their long march south that night, staggering behind the trader’s buggy. The Nanny by that time was en route back to Liverpool, full of sugar and tobacco. There were fewer screams belowdecks.
You would have thought Cora’s grandmother cursed, so many times was she sold and swapped and resold over the next few years. Her owners came to ruin with startling frequency. Her first master got swindled by a man who sold a device that cleaned cotton twice as fast as Whitney’s gin. The diagrams were convincing, but in the end Ajarry was another asset liquidated by order of the magistrate. She went for two hundred and eighteen dollars in a hasty exchange, a drop in price occasioned by the realities of the local market. Another owner expired from dropsy, whereupon his widow held an estate sale to fund a return to her native Europe, where it was clean. Ajarry spent three months as the property of a Welshman who eventually lost her, three other slaves, and two hogs in a game of whist. And so on.
Her price fluctuated. When you are sold that many times, the world is teaching you to pay attention. She learned to quickly adjust to the new plantations, sorting the nigger breakers from the merely cruel, the layabouts from the hardworking, the informers from the secret-keepers. Masters and mistresses in degrees of wickedness, estates of disparate means and ambition. Sometimes the planters wanted nothing more than to make a humble living, and then there were men and women who wanted to own the world, as if it were a matter of the proper acreage. Two hundred and forty-eight, two hundred and sixty, two hundred and seventy dollars. Wherever she went it was sugar and indigo, except for a stint folding tobacco leaves for one week before she was sold again. The trader called upon the tobacco plantation looking for slaves of breeding age, preferably with all their teeth and of pliable disposition. She was a woman now. Off she went.
She knew that the white man’s scientists peered beneath things to understand how they worked. The movement of the stars across the night, the cooperation of humors in the blood. The temperature requirements for a healthy cotton harvest. Ajarry made a science of her own black body and accumulated observations. Each thing had a value and as the value changed, everything else changed also. A broken calabash was worth less than one that held its water, a hook that kept its catfish more prized than one that relinquished its bait. In America the quirk was that people were things. Best to cut your losses on an old man who won’t survive a trip across the ocean. A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth. A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money. If you were a thing—a cart or a horse or a slave—your value determined your possibilities. She minded her place.
Finally, Georgia. A representative of the Randall plantation bought her for two hundred and ninety- two dollars, in spite of the new blankness behind her eyes, which made her look simpleminded. She never drew a breath off Randall land for the rest of her life. She was home, on this island in sight of nothing.
Cora’s grandmother took a husband three times. She had a predilection for broad shoulders and big hands, as did Old Randall, although the master and his slave had different sorts of labor in mind. The two plantations were well-stocked, ninety head of nigger on the northern half and eighty-five head on the
southern half. Ajarry generally had her pick. When she didn’t, she was patient. Her first husband developed a hankering for corn whiskey and started using his big hands to make
big fists. Ajarry wasn’t sad to see him disappear down the road when they sold him to a sugarcane estate in Florida. She next took up with one of the sweet boys from the southern half. Before he passed from cholera he liked to share stories from the Bible, his former master being more liberal-minded when it came to slaves and religion. She enjoyed the stories and parables and supposed that white men had a point: Talk of salvation could give an African ideas. Poor sons of Ham. Her last husband had his ears bored for stealing honey. The wounds gave up pus until he wasted away.
Ajarry bore five children by those men, each delivered in the same spot on the planks of the cabin, which she pointed to when they misstepped. That’s where you came from and where I’ll put you back if you don’t listen. Teach them to obey her and maybe they’ll obey all the masters to come and they will survive. Two died miserably of fever. One boy cut his foot while playing on a rusted plow, which poisoned his blood. Her youngest never woke up after a boss hit him in the head with a wooden block. One after another. At least they were never sold off, an older woman told Ajarry. Which was true—back then Randall rarely sold the little ones. You knew where and how your children would die. The child that lived past the age of ten was Cora’s mother, Mabel.
Ajarry died in the cotton, the bolls bobbing around her like whitecaps on the brute ocean. The last of her village, keeled over in the rows from a knot in her brain, blood pouring from her nose and white froth covering her lips. As if it could have been anywhere else. Liberty was reserved for other people, for the citizens of the City of Pennsylvania bustling a thousand miles to the north. Since the night she was kidnapped she had been appraised and reappraised, each day waking upon the pan of a new scale. Know your value and you know your place in the order. To escape the boundary of the plantation was to escape the fundamental principles of your existence: impossible.
It was her grandmother talking that Sunday evening when Caesar approached Cora about the underground railroad, and she said no.
Three weeks later she said yes. This time it was her mother talking.
THIRTY DOLLAR REWARD Ran away from the subscriber, living in Salisbury, on the 5th instant, a negro girl by the name of LIZZIE. It is supposed that said girl is in the vicinity of Mrs. Steel’s plantation. I will give the above reward on the delivery of the girl, or for information on her being lodged in any Gaol in this state. All persons are forewarned of harboring said girl, under penalty of law prescribed.
W. M. DIXON JULY 18, 1820
JOCKEY’S birthday only came once or twice a year. They tried to make a proper celebration. It was always Sunday, their half day. At three o’clock the bosses signaled the end of work and the northern plantation scurried to prepare, rushing through chores. Mending, scavenging moss, patching the leak in the roof. The feast took precedence, unless you had a pass to go into town to sell crafts or had hired yourself out for day labor. Even if you were inclined to forgo the extra wages—and no one was so inclined—impossible was the slave impudent enough to tell a white man he couldn’t work because it was a slave’s birthday. Everybody knew niggers didn’t have birthdays.
Cora sat by the edge of her plot on her block of sugar maple and worked dirt from under her fingernails. When she could, Cora contributed turnips or greens to the birthday feasts, but nothing was coming in today. Someone shouted down the alley, one of the new boys most likely, not completely broken in by Connelly yet, and the shouts cracked open into a dispute. The voices more crotchety than angry, but loud. It was going to be a memorable birthday if folks were already this riled.
“If you could pick your birthday, what would it be?” Lovey asked. Cora couldn’t see Lovey’s face for the sun behind her, but she knew her friend’s expression. Lovey
was uncomplicated, and there was going to be a celebration that night. Lovey gloried in these rare escapes, whether it was Jockey’s birthday, Christmas, or one of the harvest nights when everyone with two hands stayed up picking and the Randalls had the bosses distribute corn whiskey to keep them happy. It was work, but the moon made it okay. The girl was the first to tell the fiddler to get busy and the first to dance. She’d try to pull Cora from the sidelines, ignoring her protestations. As if they’d twirl in circles, arm in arm, with Lovey catching a boy’s eyes for a second on every revolution and Cora following suit. But Cora never joined her, tugging her arm away. She watched.
“Told you when I was born,” Cora said. She was born in winter. Her mother, Mabel, had complained enough about her hard delivery, the rare frost that morning, the wind howling between the seams in the cabin. How her mother bled for days and Connelly didn’t bother to call the doctor until she looked half a ghost. Occasionally Cora’s mind tricked her and she’d turn the story into one of her memories, inserting the faces of ghosts, all the slave dead, who looked down at her with love and indulgence. Even people she hated, the ones who kicked her or stole her food once her mother was gone.
“If you could pick,” Lovey said. “Can’t pick,” Cora said. “It’s decided for you.” “You best fix your mood,” Lovey said. She sped off. Cora kneaded her calves, grateful for the time off her feet. Feast or no feast, this was where Cora
ended up every Sunday when their half day of work was done: perched on her seat, looking for things to fix. She owned herself for a few hours every week was how she looked at it, to tug weeds, pluck caterpillars, thin out the sour greens, and glare at anyone planning incursions on her territory. Tending to her bed was necessary maintenance but also a message that she had not lost her resolve since the day of the hatchet.
The dirt at her feet had a story, the oldest story Cora knew. When Ajarry planted there, soon after her long march to the plantation, the plot was a rumble of dirt and scrub behind her cabin, at the end of the line of slave quarters. Beyond that lay fields and after that the swamp. Then Randall had a dream one night about a white sea that ranged as far as the eye could see and switched his crop from dependable
indigo to Sea Island cotton. He made new contacts in New Orleans, shook hands with speculators backed by the Bank of England. The money came in as never before. Europe was famished for cotton and needed to be fed, bale by bale. One day the bucks cleared the trees and at night when they returned from the fields they got in chopping logs for the new row of cabins.
Looking at them now as folks chased in and out, getting ready, it was hard for Cora to imagine a time when the fourteen cabins hadn’t been there. For all the wear, the complaints from deep in the wood at every step, the cabins had the always-quality of the hills to the west, of the creek that bisected the property. The cabins radiated permanence and in turn summoned timeless feelings in those who lived and died in them: envy and spite. If they’d left more space between the old cabins and the new cabins it would have spared a lot of grief over the years.
White men squabbled before judges over claims to this or that tract hundreds of miles away that had been carved up on a map. Slaves fought with equal fervor over their tiny parcels at their feet. The strip between the cabins was a place to tie a goat, build a chicken coop, a spot to grow food to fill your belly on top of the mash doled out by the kitchen every morning. If you got there first. When Randall, and later his sons, got a notion to sell you, the contract wasn’t dry before someone had snatched up your plot. Seeing you out there in the evening calm, smiling or humming, might give your neighbor an idea to coerce you from your claim using methods of intimidation, various provocations. Who would hear your appeal? There were no judges here.
“But my mother wouldn’t let them touch her field,” Mabel told her daughter. Field in jest, as Ajarry’s stake was scarcely three yards square. “Said she’d dig a hammer in they heads if they so much as looked at it.”
The image of her grandmother assaulting another slave didn’t jibe with Cora’s recollections of the woman, but once she started tending to the plot she understood the truth of the portrait. Ajarry kept watch over her garden through prosperity’s transformations. The Randalls bought out the Spencer spread to the north, once that family decided to try their luck out west. They bought the next plantation south and switched the crop from rice to cotton, adding two more cabins to each row, but Ajarry’s plot remained in the middle of it all, immovable, like a stump that reached down too deep. After Ajarry’s death, Mabel assumed care of the yams and okra, whatever struck her fancy. The fuss started when Cora took it over.
WHEN Mabel vanished Cora became a stray. Eleven years old, ten years, thereabouts—there was no one now to tell for sure. In Cora’s shock, the world drained to gray impressions. The first color to return was the simmering brown-red of the soil in her family’s plot. It reawakened her to people and things, and she decided to hold on to her stake, even though she was young and small and had nobody to look after her anymore. Mabel was too quiet and stubborn to be popular but people had respected Ajarry. Her shadow had provided protection. Most of the original Randall slaves were in the ground now or sold, some variety of gone. Was there anyone left who was loyal to her grandmother? Cora made a canvass of the village: Not a soul. They were all dead.
She fought for the dirt. There were the small pests, the ones too young for real work. Cora shooed off those children trampling her sprouts and yelled at them for digging up her yam slips, using the same tone she used at Jockey’s feasts to corral them into footraces and games. She handled them with good nature.
But pretenders stepped from the wings. Ava. Cora’s mother and Ava grew up on the plantation at the same time. They were treated to the same Randall hospitality, the travesties so routine and familiar that
they were a kind of weather, and the ones so imaginative in their monstrousness that the mind refused to accommodate them. Sometimes such an experience bound one person to another; just as often the shame of one’s powerlessness made all witnesses into enemies. Ava and Mabel did not get along.
Ava was wiry and strong, with hands as quick as a cottonmouth. Speed that was good for picking and for clopping her little ones across the face for idleness and other sins. She cherished her chickens more than those children and coveted Cora’s land to expand her coop. “It’s a waste,” Ava said, ticking her tongue against her teeth. “All that for her.” Ava and Cora slept next to each other every night in the loft and even though they were crammed up there with eight other people Cora could distinguish Ava’s every frustration as it moved through the wood. The woman’s breath was humid with rage, sour. She made a point of knocking Cora whenever she got up to make water.
“You in Hob now,” Moses told Cora one afternoon when she came in from helping with the baling. Moses had made a deal with Ava, using some form of currency. Ever since Connelly had promoted the field hand to boss, to one of the overseer’s enforcers, Moses had set himself up as a broker of cabin intrigues. Order in the rows, such as it was, needed to be preserved, and there were things a white man could not do. Moses accepted his role with enthusiasm. Cora thought he had a mean face, like a burl sprouting from a squat, sweaty trunk. She wasn’t surprised when his character revealed itself—if you waited long enough, it always did. Like the dawn. Cora slunk over to Hob, where they banished the wretched. There was no recourse, were no laws but the ones rewritten every day. Someone had already moved her things over.
No one remembered the unfortunate who had lent his name to the cabin. He lived long enough to embody qualities before being undone by them. Off to Hob with those who had been crippled by the overseers’ punishments, off to Hob with those who had been broken by the labor in ways you could see and in ways you could not see, off to Hob with those who had lost their wits. Off to Hob with strays.
The damaged men, the half men, lived in Hob first. Then the women took up residence. White men and brown men had used the women’s bodies violently, their babies came out stunted and shrunken, beatings had knocked the sense out of their heads, and they repeated the names of their dead children in the darkness: Eve, Elizabeth, N’thaniel, Tom. Cora curled on the floor of the main room, too afraid to sleep up there with them, those abject creatures. Cursing herself for her small-mindedness even as she was powerless before it. She stared at dark shapes. The fireplace, the beams undergirding the loft, the tools dangling off nails on the walls. The first time she had spent a night outside the cabin she’d been born in. A hundred paces and as many miles.
It was only a matter of time before Ava implemented the next stage of her scheme. And there was Old Abraham to contend with. Old Abraham, who was not old at all but who had comported himself in the manner of an elderly misanthrope since he first learned to sit up. He had no designs but wanted the plot gone on principle. Why should he and everyone else respect this little girl’s claim just because her grandmother had kicked the dirt over once? Old Abraham was not one for tradition. He’d been sold too many times for the proposition to have much weight. On numerous occasions as she passed on errands, Cora overheard him lobby for the redistribution of her parcel. “All that for her.” All three square yards of it.
THEN Blake arrived. That summer young Terrance Randall assumed duties to prepare for the day he and his brother took over the plantation. He bought a bunch of niggers out of the Carolinas. Six of them,
Fanti and Mandingo if the broker was to be believed, their bodies and temperament honed for labor by nature. Blake, Pot, Edward, and the rest made a tribe of themselves on Randall land and were not above helping themselves to that which was not theirs. Terrance Randall made it known they were his new favorites, and Connelly made sure that everyone remembered it. You learned to step aside when the men were in a mood, or on a Saturday night once they’d emptied all the cider.
Blake was a big oak, a double-ration man who quickly proved a testament to Terrance Randall’s investment acumen. The price they’d get for the offspring of such a stud alone. Blake wrassled his buddies and any other comers in a frequent spectacle, kicking up the dust, inevitably emerging the conqueror. His voice boomed through the rows as he worked and even those who despised him couldn’t help but sing along. The man had a miserable personality but the sounds that came from his body made the labor fly.
After a few weeks of sniffing around and assessing the northern half, Blake decided that Cora’s spread would be a nice place to tie up his dog. Sun, breeze, proximity. Blake had coaxed the mutt to his side during a trip to town. The dog stayed, lingering around the smokehouse when Blake worked and barking at every noise in the busy Georgia night. Blake knew some carpentry—it was not, as was often the case, a lie put out by the trader to bump up his price. He built a little house for his mutt and tried to induce compliments. The kind words were genuine, for the doghouse was a handsome piece of work, of nice proportion, with clean angles. There was a door on a hinge and sun and moon cutouts along the back wall.
“Ain’t this a nice mansion?” Blake asked Old Abraham. Blake had come to value the man’s sometimes bracing candor since his arrival.
“Mighty fine work. That a little bed in there?” Blake had sewn a pillowcase and stuffed it with moss. He decided that the patch outside his cabin
was the most appropriate spot for his dog’s home. Cora had been invisible to him but now he sought her eyes when she was close, to warn her that she was invisible no more.
She tried to call in a few debts owed her mother, the ones she knew about. They rebuffed her. Like Beau, the seamstress Mabel had nursed back to health when she was struck with fever. Mabel had given the girl her own supper portion and spooned potlikker and roots into her trembling lips until she opened her eyes again. Beau said she had paid that debt and then some and told Cora to get back to Hob. Cora remembered that Mabel had extended an alibi to Calvin when some planting tools went missing. Connelly, who had an aptitude for the cat-o’-nine-tails, would have stripped the meat off Calvin’s back if she hadn’t concocted his defense. Would have done the same to Mabel if he’d found she was lying. Cora crept on Calvin after supper: I need help. He waved her away. Mabel had said that she never discovered to what purpose he used those instruments.
Not soon after Blake made his intentions known, Cora woke one morning to the violation. She left Hob to check her garden. It had been a cool dawn. Wisps of white moisture hovered over the ground. There she saw it—the remains of what would have been her first cabbages. Heaped by the steps of Blake’s cabin, the tangled vines already drying out. The ground had been turned and tamped to make a nice yard for the mutt’s house, which sat in the center of her plot like a grand mansion in the heart of a plantation.
The dog poked his head out of the door as if it knew it had been her land and wanted to signal his indifference.
Blake stepped out of the cabin and crossed his arms. He spat. People moved in the corners of Cora’s vision: shadows of gossips and scolds. Watching her. Her
mother was gone. She’d been moved into the wretch house and no one had come to her aid. Now this man
three times her size, a bruiser, had taken her stake. Cora had been mulling strategy. In later years she could have turned to the Hob women, or Lovey, but
this was then. Her grandmother had warned that she would knock open the head of anyone who messed with her land. That seemed out of proportion to Cora. In a spell, she walked back to Hob and plucked a hatchet off the wall, the hatchet she stared at when she could not sleep. Left by one of the previous residents who came to one bad end or another, lung sickness or peeled open by a whip or shitting their insides out on the floor.
By now word had spread and bystanders lingered outside the cabins, heads tilted in anticipation. Cora marched past them, bent as if burrowing her body into a gale. No one moved to stop her, so strange was this display. Her first blow brought down the roof of the doghouse, and a squeal from the dog, who had just had his tail half severed. He scrambled to a hidey-hole beneath his owner’s cabin. Her second blow wounded the left side of the doghouse gravely and her last put it out of its misery.
She stood there, heaving. Both hands on the hatchet. The hatchet wavered in the air, in a tug-of-war with a ghost, but the girl did not falter.
Blake made fists and stepped toward Cora. His boys behind him, tensing. Then he stopped. What happened between those two figures in that moment—the burly young man and the slender girl in white shift—became a matter of vantage. To those watching by the first line of cabins Blake’s face distorted in surprise and worry, that of a man stumbling into a kingdom of hornets. Those standing by the new cabins saw Cora’s eyes dart to and fro, as if she took the measure of an advancing host, not just one man. An army she was nonetheless prepared to meet. Regardless of perspective, what was important was the message imparted by one through posture and expression and interpreted by the other: You may get the better of me, but it will cost you.
They stood a few moments until Alice sounded the bell for breakfast. Nobody was going to forgo their mash. When they came in from the fields, Cora cleaned up the mess that had been made of her plot. She rolled over the block of sugar maple, a castoff from someone’s construction project, and it became her perch whenever she had a spare moment.
If Cora didn’t belong in Hob before Ava’s maneuvering, she did now. Its most infamous occupant, and the most long-term. Eventually the work broke the crippled—it always did—and those in a state of unreason were sold off cheap or took a knife to their own throats. Vacancies were brief. Cora remained. Hob was her home.
She used the doghouse for firewood. It kept her and the rest of Hob warm one night, but its legend marked her for the rest of her time on the Randall plantation. Blake and his friends started telling tales. Blake recounted how he woke from a nap behind the stables to find Cora standing over him with her hatchet, blubbering. He was a natural mimic and his gestures sold the story. Once Cora’s chest started to sprout, Edward, the most wicked of Blake’s gang, bragged of how Cora flapped her dress at him while she made lascivious suggestions and threatened to scalp him when he refused her. Young women whispered how they watched her slink away from the cabins on the full moon, to the woods, where she fornicated with donkeys and goats. Those who found this last story less than credible nonetheless recognized the usefulness of keeping the strange girl outside the circle of respectability.
Not long after it became known that Cora’s womanhood had come into flower, Edward, Pot, and two hands from the southern half dragged her behind the smokehouse. If anyone heard or saw, they did not intervene. The Hob women sewed her up. Blake was gone by then. Perhaps having looked into her face that day, he had counseled his companions against revenge: It will cost you. But he was gone. He ran off three years after she busted up the doghouse, hiding in the swamp for weeks. It was his mutt’s barking that
gave away his location to the patrollers. Cora would have said it served him right, had his punishment not made her shiver to think about.
They had already dragged the big table from the kitchen and covered it with food for Jockey’s celebration. At one end a trapper skinned his raccoons and at the other Florence scraped dirt from a mound of sweet potatoes. The fire under the big cauldron cracked and whistled. The soup roiled within the black pot, bits of cabbage chasing around the hog’s head that bobbed up and down, the eye roving in the gray foam. Little Chester ran up and tried to grab a handful of cowpeas, but Alice swatted him away with her ladle.
“Nothing today, Cora?” Alice said. “Too early,” Cora said. Alice made a brief show of disappointment and returned to supper. That’s what a lie looks like, Cora thought, and marked it. It was just as well her garden had refused.
On Jockey’s last birthday she had donated two heads of cabbage, which were graciously received. Cora made the mistake of turning back as she departed the kitchen and caught Alice tossing the heads into the slop bucket. She staggered into the sunlight. Did the woman think her food tainted? Is that how Alice had got rid of everything Cora had contributed these past five years, treated every turnip knob and bunch of sour greens? Had it started with Cora, or Mabel, or her grandmother? There was no point in confronting the woman. Alice had been beloved of Randall, and now James Randall, who had grown tall on her mincemeat pies. There was an order of misery, misery tucked inside miseries, and you were meant to keep track.
The Randall brothers. Since he was a young boy, James could be placated by a treat from Alice’s kitchen, the sugar apple that cut short a fit or tantrum. His younger brother, Terrance, was a different sort. The cook still had a knot next to her ear where Master Terrance expressed his displeasure over one of her broths. He had been ten years old. The signs had been there since he could walk, and he perfected the more distasteful aspects of his personality as he lurched into manhood and assumed his responsibilities. James had a nautilus disposition, burrowing into his private appetites, but Terrance inflicted every fleeting and deep-seated fancy on all in his power. As was his right.
Around Cora, pots clanged and pickaninnies squealed over the delights to come. From the southern half: nothing. The Randall brothers had flipped a coin years ago to determine stewardship of each half of the plantation and in doing so made this day possible. Feasts like this didn’t happen in Terrance’s domain, for the younger brother was stingy with slave amusements. The Randall sons managed their inheritances according to their temperaments. James contented himself with the security of a fashionable crop, the slow, inevitable accumulations of his estate. Land and niggers to tend it were a surety beyond what any bank could offer. Terrance took a more active hand, ever scheming for ways to increase the loads sent to New Orleans. He wrung out every possible dollar. When black blood was money, the savvy businessman knew to open the vein.
The boy Chester and his friends grabbed Cora, startling her. But it was only children. Time for the races. Cora always arranged the children at the starting line, aiming their feet, calming the skittish ones, and graduating some to the older kids’ race if need be. This year she kicked up Chester one slot. He was a stray, like her, his parents sold off before he could walk. Cora looked after him. Burr-headed and red- eyed. He’d shot up the last six months, the rows triggering something in his lithe body. Connelly said he had the makings of a top picker, a rare compliment from him.
“You run fast,” Cora said. He crossed his arms and cocked his head: You don’t need to tell me anything. Chester was half a
man, even if he didn’t know it. He wouldn’t race next year, Cora saw, but loll at the sidelines, joking with his friends, devising mischief.
The young slaves and the old slaves gathered on the sidelines of the horse path. Women who had lost their children drifted over little by little, to mortify themselves with possibilities and never-would-bes. Huddles of men swapped cider jugs and felt their humiliations slip away. Hob women rarely participated in the feasts, but Nag hustled about in her helpful way, rounding up little ones from their distractions.
Lovey stood at the finish as the judge. Everyone but the children knew that she always proclaimed her darlings the winner, when she could get away with it. Jockey also presided at the finish, in his rickety maple armchair, the one he used to watch the stars most nights. On his birthdays he dragged it up and down the alley, to give proper attention to the amusements held in his name. The runners went to Jockey after they were done with their races, and he dropped a piece of ginger cake onto their palms, no matter what they placed.
Chester panted, hands on his knees. He had flagged at the end. “Almost had it,” Cora said. The boy said, “Almost,” and went for his piece of ginger cake. Cora patted the old man’s arm after the last race. You never could tell how much he saw with those
milky eyes of his. “How old are you, Jockey?” “Oh, let me see.” He drifted off. She was sure he had claimed a hundred and one years at his last party. He was only half that, which
meant he was the oldest slave anyone on the two Randall plantations had ever met. Once you got that old, you might as well be ninety-eight or a hundred and eight. Nothing left for the world to show you but the latest incarnations of cruelty.
Sixteen or seventeen. That’s where Cora put her age. One year since Connelly ordered her to take a husband. Two years since Pot and his friends had seasoned her. They had not repeated their violation, and no worthy man paid her notice after that day, given the cabin she called home and the stories of her lunacy. Six years since her mother left.
Jockey had a good birthday plan, Cora thought. Jockey awoke on a surprise Sunday to announce his celebration and that was that. Sometimes it was in the midst of the spring rains, other times after harvest. He skipped some years or forgot or decided according to some personal accounting of grievance that the plantation was undeserving. No one minded his caprices. It was enough that he was the oldest colored man they had ever met, that he had survived every torment big and small white men had concocted and implemented. His eyes were clouded, his leg lame, his ruined hand permanently curled as if still clenched around a spade, but he was alive.
The white men left him alone now. Old man Randall said nothing about his birthdays, and neither did James when he took over. Connelly, the overseer, made himself scarce every Sunday, when he summoned whatever slave gal he’d made his wife that month. The white men were silent. As if they’d given up or decided that a small freedom was the worst punishment of all, presenting the bounty of true freedom into painful relief.
One day Jockey was bound to choose the correct day of his birth. If he lived long enough. If that was true, then if Cora picked a day for her birthday every now and then she might hit upon hers as well. In fact, today might be her birthday. What did you get for that, for knowing the day you were born into the white
man’s world? It didn’t seem like the thing to remember. More like to forget. “Cora.” Most of the northern half had moved to the kitchen to get fed but Caesar dallied. Here he was. She’d
never had occasion to speak to the man since he arrived at the plantation. New slaves were quickly warned against the Hob women. It saved time.
“Can I talk with you?” he asked. James Randall had bought him and three other slaves from a traveling agent after the fever deaths a
year and a half ago. Two women to work the laundry, and Caesar and Prince to join the field gangs. She had seen him whittling, worrying blocks of pine with his curved carving knives. He didn’t mix with the more bothersome element on the plantation, and she knew that he sometimes went off with Frances, one of the housemaids. Were they still laying together? Lovey would know. She was a girl, but Lovey kept track of man-and-woman business, the impending arrangements.
Cora felt proper. “What can I do for you, Caesar?” He didn’t bother to see if anyone was in earshot. He knew there was no one because he had planned.
“I’m going back north,” he said. “Soon. Running away. I want you to come.” Cora tried to think of who put him up to this prank. “You going north and I’m going to eat,” she said. Caesar held her arm, gently and insistent. His body was lean and strong, like any field hand his age,
but he carried his strength lightly. His face was round, with a flat button nose—she had a quick memory of dimples when he laughed. Why had she kept that in her head?
“I don’t want you to tell on me,” he said. “Have to trust you on that. But I’m going soon, and I want you. For good luck.”
Then she understood him. It was not a trick being played on her. It was a trick he was playing on himself. The boy was simple. The smell of the raccoon meat brought her back to the celebration and she pulled her arm away. “I ain’t trying to get killed by Connelly, or patrollers, or snakes.”
Cora was still squinting over his idiocy when she got her first bowl of the soup. White man trying to kill you slow every day, and sometimes trying to kill you fast. Why make it easy for him? That was one kind of work you could say no to.
She found Lovey, but did not ask her what the girls whispered about Caesar and Frances. If he was serious about his plan, Frances was a widow.
It was the most any young man had talked to her since she moved to Hob. They lit the torches for the wrestling matches. Someone had unearthed a stash of corn whiskey and
cider, which circulated in due course and fed the spectators’ enthusiasm. By now, the husbands who lived on other plantations had come for their Sunday-night visits. Walking miles, time enough to fantasize. Some wives were happier at the prospect of marital relations than others.
Lovey giggled. “I’d wrestle with him,” she said, nodding at Major. Major looked up as if he heard her. He was turning out to be a prime buck. Worked hard and rarely
forced the bosses to raise the whip. He was respectful to Lovey because of her age and it wouldn’t surprise if Connelly arranged a match one day. The young man and his opponent twisted in the grass. Take it out on each other if you cannot take it out on the ones who deserve it. The children peeked between their elders, making bets they had nothing to back up with. They pulled weeds and worked in trash gangs now, but one day the field work would make them as big as the men grappling and pinning each other to the grass. Get him, get that boy, teach him what he needs to learn.
When the music started and the dancing commenced, they appreciated the extent of their gratitude for Jockey. Once again he picked the right day for a birthday. He had been attuned to a shared tension, a communal apprehension beyond the routine facts of their bondage. It had built up. The last few hours had dispelled much of the ill feeling. They could face the morning toil and the following mornings and the long days with their spirits replenished, however meagerly, by a fond night to look back on and the next birthday feast to look forward to. By making a circle of themselves that separated the human spirits within from the degradation without.
Noble picked up a tambourine and tapped it. He was a fast picker in the rows and a joyful instigator outside of them; he brought both kinds of dexterity to this night. Clap hands, crook elbows, shake hips. There are instruments and human players but sometimes a fiddle or a drum makes instruments of those who play them, and all are put in servitude to the song. So it was when George and Wesley picked up their fiddle and banjo on days of carousing. Jockey sat in his maple chair, tapping his bare feet on the dirt. The slaves moved forward and danced.
Cora did not move. She was wary of how sometimes when the music tugged, you might suddenly be next to a man and you didn’t know what he might do. All the bodies in motion, given license. To pull on you, take both of your hands, even if they were doing it with a nice thought. One time on Jockey’s birthday, Wesley treated them to a song he knew from his days up north, a new sound none of them had heard before. Cora had dared to step out among the dancers and close her eyes and twirl and when she opened them Edward was there, his eyes alight. Even with Edward and Pot dead—Edward strung up after shorting the scale by loading his sack with stones and Pot in the ground after a rat bite turned him black and purple—she shrank from the idea of loosening her leash on herself. George sawed with his fiddle, the notes swirling up into night like sparks gusted from a fire. No one approached to pull her into the lively madness.
THE music stopped. The circle broke. Sometimes a slave will be lost in a brief eddy of liberation. In the sway of a sudden reverie among the furrows or while untangling the mysteries of an early-morning dream. In the middle of a song on a warm Sunday night. Then it comes, always—the overseer’s cry, the call to work, the shadow of the master, the reminder that she is only a human being for a tiny moment across the eternity of her servitude.
The Randall brothers had emerged from the great house and were among them. The slaves stepped aside, making calculations of what distance represented the right proportion of
fear and respect. Godfrey, James’s houseboy, held up a lantern. According to Old Abraham, James favored the mother, stout as a barrel and just as firm in countenance, and Terrance took after the father, tall and owl-faced, perpetually on the verge of swooping down on prey. In addition to the land, they inherited their father’s tailor, who arrived once a month in his rickety carriage with his samples of linen and cotton. The brothers dressed alike when they were children and continued to do so in manhood. Their white trousers and shirts were as clean as the laundry girls’ hands could make them, and the orange glow made the men look like ghosts emerging from the dark.
“Master James,” Jockey said. His good hand gripped the arm of his chair as if to rise, but he did not stir. “Master Terrance.”
“Don’t let us disturb you,” Terrance said. “My brother and I were discussing business and heard the music. I told him, Now that is the most god-awful racket I’d ever heard.”
The Randalls were drinking wine out of goblets of cut glass and looked as if they had drained a few bottles. Cora searched for Caesar’s face in the crowd. She did not find him. He hadn’t been present the last time the brothers appeared together on the northern half. You did well to remember the different lessons of those occasions. Something always happened when the Randalls ventured into the quarter. Sooner or later. A new thing coming that you couldn’t predict until it was upon you.
James left the daily operations to his man Connelly and rarely visited. He might grant a tour to a visitor, a distinguished neighbor or curious planter from another neck of the woods, but it was rare. James rarely addressed his niggers, who had been taught by the lash to keep working and ignore his presence. When Terrance appeared on his brother’s plantation, he usually appraised each slave and made a note of which men were the most able and which women the most appealing. Content to leer at his brother’s women, he grazed heartily upon the women of his own half. “I like to taste my plums,” Terrance said, prowling the rows of cabins to see what struck his fancy. He violated the bonds of affection, sometimes visiting slaves on their wedding night to show the husband the proper way to discharge his marital duty. He tasted his plums, and broke the skin, and left his mark.
It was accepted that James was of a different orientation. Unlike his father and brother, James did not use his property to gratify himself. Occasionally he had women from the county to dine, and Alice was always sure to make the most sumptuous, seductive supper at her means. Mrs. Randall had passed many years before, and it was Alice’s thought that a woman would be a civilizing presence on the plantation. For months at a time, James entertained these pale creatures, their white buggies traversing the mud tracks that led to the great house. The kitchen girls giggled and speculated. And then a new woman would appear.
To hear his valet Prideful tell it, James confined his erotic energies to specialized rooms in a New Orleans establishment. The madam was broad-minded and modern, adept in the trajectories of human desire. Prideful’s stories were hard to believe, despite assurances that he received his reports from the staff of the place, with whom he’d grown close over the years. What kind of white man would willingly submit to the whip?
Terrance scratched his cane in the dirt. It had been his father’s cane, topped with a silver wolf’s head. Many remembered its bite on their flesh. “Then I recollected James telling me about a nigger he had down here,” Terrance said, “could recite the Declaration of Independence. I can’t bring myself to believe him. I thought perhaps tonight he can show me, since everyone is out and about, from the sound of it.”
“We’ll settle it,” James said. “Where is that boy? Michael.” No one said anything. Godfrey waved the lantern around pathetically. Moses was the boss
unfortunate enough to stand closest to the Randall brothers. He cleared his throat. “Michael dead, Master James.”
Moses instructed one of the pickaninnies to fetch Connelly, even if it meant interrupting the overseer from his Sunday-evening concubinage. The expression on James’s face told Moses to start explaining.
Michael, the slave in question, had indeed possessed the ability to recite long passages. According to Connelly, who heard the story from the nigger trader, Michael’s former master was fascinated by the abilities of South American parrots and reasoned that if a bird could be taught limericks, a slave might be taught to remember as well. Merely glancing at the size of the skulls told you that a nigger possessed a bigger brain than a bird.
Michael had been the son of his master’s coachman. Had a brand of animal cleverness, the kind you see in pigs sometimes. The master and his unlikely pupil started with simple rhymes and short passages
from popular British versifiers. They went slow over the words the nigger didn’t understand and, if truth be told, the master only half understood, as his tutor had been a reprobate who had been chased from every decent position he had ever held and who decided to make his final posting the canvas for his secret revenge. They made miracles, the tobacco farmer and the coachman’s son. The Declaration of Independence was their masterpiece. “A history of repeated injuries and usurpations.”
Michael’s ability never amounted to more than a parlor trick, delighting visitors before the discussion turned as it always did to the diminished faculties of niggers. His owner grew bored and sold the boy south. By the time Michael got to Randall, some torture or punishment had addled his senses. He was a mediocre worker. He complained of noises and black spells that blotted his memory. In exasperation Connelly beat out what little brains he had left. It was a scourging that Michael was not intended to survive, and it achieved its purpose.
“I should have been told,” James said, his displeasure plain. Michael’s recitation had been a novel diversion the two times he trotted the nigger out for guests.
Terrance liked to tease his brother. “James,” he said, “you need to keep better account of your property.”
“Don’t meddle.” “I knew you let your slaves have revels, but I had no idea they were so extravagant. Are you trying to
make me look bad?” “Don’t pretend you care what a nigger thinks of you, Terrance.” James’s glass was empty. He turned
to go. “One more song, James. These sounds have grown on me.” George and Wesley were forlorn. Noble and his tambourine were nowhere to be seen. James
pressed his lips into a slit. He gestured and the men started playing. Terrance tapped his cane. His face sank as he took in the crowd. “You’re not going to dance? I have
to insist. You and you.” They didn’t wait for their master’s signal. The slaves of the northern half converged on the alley,
haltingly, trying to insinuate themselves into their previous rhythm and put on a show. Crooked Ava had not lost her power to dissemble since her days of harassing Cora—she hooted and stomped as if it were the height of the Christmas celebrations. Putting on a show for the master was a familiar skill, the small angles and advantages of the mask, and they shook off their fear as they settled into the performance. Oh, how they capered and hollered, shouted and hopped! Certainly this was the most lively song they had ever heard, the musicians the most accomplished players the colored race had to offer. Cora dragged herself into the circle, checking the Randall brothers’ reactions on every turn like everyone else. Jockey tumbled his hands in his lap to keep time. Cora found Caesar’s face. He stood in the shadow of the kitchen, his expression flat. Then he withdrew.
“You!” It was Terrance. He held his hand before him as if it were covered in some eternal stain that only he
could see. Then Cora caught sight of it—the single drop of wine staining the cuff of his lovely white shirt. Chester had bumped him.
Chester simpered and bowed down before the white man. “Sorry, master! Sorry, master!” The cane crashed across his shoulder and head, again and again. The boy screamed and shrank to the dirt as the blows continued. Terrance’s arm rose and fell. James looked tired.
One drop. A feeling settled over Cora. She had not been under its spell in years, since she brought
the hatchet down on Blake’s doghouse and sent the splinters into the air. She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to stop theft. She had seen boys and girls younger than this beaten and had done nothing. This night the feeling settled on her heart again. It grabbed hold of her and before the slave part of her caught up with the human part of her, she was bent over the boy’s body as a shield. She held the cane in her hand like a swamp man handling a snake and saw the ornament at its tip. The silver wolf bared its silver teeth. Then the cane was out of her hand. It came down on her head. It crashed down again and this time the silver teeth ripped across her eyes and her blood splattered the dirt.
The Hob women were seven that year. Mary was the oldest. She was in Hob because she was prone to fits. Foaming at the mouth like a mad dog, writhing in the dirt with wild eyes. She had feuded for years with another picker named Bertha, who finally put a curse on her. Old Abraham complained that Mary’s affliction dated back to when she was a pickaninny, but no one listened to him. By any reckoning these fits were nothing like those she had suffered in her youth. She woke from them battered and confused and listless, which led to punishments for lost work, and recuperation from punishments led to more lost work. Once the bosses’ mood turned against you, anyone might be swept up in it. Mary moved her things to Hob to avoid the scorn of her cabin mates. She dragged her feet all the way as if someone might intervene.
Mary worked in the milk house with Margaret and Rida. Before their purchase by James Randall these two had been so tangled by sufferings that they could not weave themselves into the fabric of the plantation. Margaret produced awful sounds from her throat at inopportune moments, animal sounds, the most miserable keenings and vulgar oaths. When the master made his rounds, she kept her hand over her mouth, lest she call attention to her affliction. Rida was indifferent to hygiene and no inducement or threat could sway her. She stank.
Lucy and Titania never spoke, the former because she chose not to and the latter because her tongue had been hacked out by a previous owner. They worked in the kitchen under Alice, who preferred assistants who were disinclined to natter all day, to better hear her own voice.
Two other women took their own lives that spring, more than usual but nothing remarkable. No one with a name that would be remembered come winter, so shallow was their mark. That left Nag and Cora. They tended to the cotton in all of its phases.
At the end of the workday Cora staggered and Nag rushed to steady her. She led Cora back to Hob. The boss glared at their slow progress out of the rows but said nothing. Cora’s obvious madness had removed her from casual rebuke. They passed Caesar, who loitered by one of the work sheds with a group of young hands, carving a piece of wood with his knife. Cora averted her eyes and made her face into slate for him, as she had ever since his proposal.
It was two weeks after Jockey’s birthday and Cora was still on the mend. The blows to her face had left one eye swollen shut and performed a gross injury to her temple. The swelling disappeared but where the silver wolf had kissed was now a rueful scar shaped like an X. It seeped for days. That was her tally for the night of feast. Far worse was the lashing Connelly gave her the next morning under the pitiless boughs of the whipping tree.
Connelly was one of Old Randall’s first hires. James preserved the man’s appointment under his stewardship. When Cora was young, the overseer’s hair was a livid Irish red that curled from his straw hat like the wings of a cardinal. In those days he patrolled with a black umbrella but eventually surrendered and now his white blouses were stark against his tanned flesh. His hair had gone white and his belly overflowed his belt, but apart from that he was the same man who had whipped her grandmother and mother, stalking the village with a lopsided gait that reminded her of an old ox. There was no rushing him if he chose not to be rushed. The only time he exhibited speed was when he reached for his cat-o’- nine-tails. Then he demonstrated the energy and rambunctiousness of a child at a new pastime.
The overseer was not pleased by what had transpired during the Randall brothers’ surprise visit.
First, Connelly had been interrupted while taking his pleasure with Gloria, his current wench. He flogged the messenger and roused himself from bed. Second, there was the matter of Michael. Connelly hadn’t informed James about Michael’s loss as his employer never bothered over routine fluctuations in the hands, but Terrance’s curiosity had made it a problem.
Then there was the matter of Chester’s clumsiness and Cora’s incomprehensible action. Connelly peeled them open the following sunrise. He started with Chester, to follow the order in which the transgressions had occurred, and called for their bloody backs to be scrubbed out with pepper water afterward. It was Chester’s first proper licking, and Cora’s first in half a year. Connelly repeated the whippings the next two mornings. According to the house slaves, Master James was more upset that his brother had touched his property, and before so many witnesses, than with Chester and Cora. Thus was the brunt of one brother’s ire toward another borne by property. Chester never said a word to Cora again.
Nag helped Cora up the steps to Hob. Cora collapsed once they entered the cabin and were out of sight of the rest of the village. “Let me get you some supper,” Nag said.
Like Cora, Nag had been relocated to Hob over politics. For years she had been Connelly’s preferred, spending most nights in his bed. Nag was haughty for a nigger gal even before the overseer bestowed his slim favors upon her, with her pale gray eyes and roiling hips. She became insufferable. Preening, gloating over the ill treatment that she alone escaped. Her mother had consorted frequently with white men and tutored Nag in licentious practices. She bent in dedication to the task even as he swapped their offspring. The northern and southern halves of the great Randall plantation exchanged slaves all the time, unloading beat niggers, skulky workers, and rascals on each other in a desultory game. Nag’s children were tokens. Connelly could not countenance his mulatto bastards when their curls glowed his Irish red in the sunlight.
One morning Connelly made it clear that he no longer required Nag in his bed. It was the day her enemies had waited for. Everyone saw it coming except for her. She returned from the fields to find her possessions had been moved to Hob, announcing her loss in status to the village. Her shame nourished them as no food could. Hob hardened her, as was its way. The cabin tended to set one’s personality.
Nag had never been close to Cora’s mother but that didn’t stop her from befriending the girl when she became a stray. After the night of the feast and in the following bloody days she and Mary ministered to Cora, applying brine and poultices to her ravaged skin and making sure she ate. They cradled her head and sang lullabies to their lost children through her. Lovey visited her friend as well, but the young girl was not immune to Hob’s reputation and got skittish in the presence of Nag and Mary and the others. She stayed until her nerves gave out.
Cora lay on the floor and moaned. Two weeks after her beating, she endured dizzy spells and a pounding in her skull. For the most part she was able to keep it at bay and work the row, but sometimes it was all she could do to stay upright until the sun sank. Every hour when the water girl brought the ladle she licked it clean and felt the metal on her teeth. Now she had nothing left.
Mary appeared. “Sick again,” she said. She had a wet cloth ready and placed it on Cora’s brow. She still maintained a reservoir of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children—three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house. Mary descended from pure Ashanti stock, as did her two husbands. Pups like that, it didn’t take much salesmanship. Cora moved her mouth in silent thanks. The cabin walls pressed on her. Up in the loft one of the other women—Rida by the stench—rummaged and banged. Nag rubbed out the knots in Cora’s hands. “I don’t know what’s worse,” she said. “You sick and out of sight or you up and outside when Master Terrance come tomorrow.”
The prospect of his visit depleted Cora. James Randall was bedridden. He’d fallen ill after a trip to New Orleans to negotiate with a delegation of trading agents from Liverpool and to visit his disgraceful haven. He fainted in his buggy on his return and had been out of sight since. Now whispers came from the house staff that Terrance was going to take over while his brother was on the mend. In the morning he would inspect the northern half to bring the operation in harmony with how things were done in the southern half.
No one doubted that it would be a bloody sort of harmony. Her friends’ hands slipped away and the walls relinquished their pressure and she passed out. Cora
woke in the pit of the night, her head resting on a rolled-up linsey blanket. Everyone asleep above. She rubbed the scar on her temple. It felt like it was seeping. She knew why she had rushed to protect Chester. But she was stymied when she tried to recall the urgency of that moment, the grain of the feeling that possessed her. It had retreated to that obscure corner in herself from where it came and couldn’t be coaxed. To ease her restlessness she crept out to her plot and sat on her maple and smelled the air and listened. Things in the swamp whistled and splashed, hunting in the living darkness. To walk in there at night, heading north to the Free States. Have to take leave of your senses to do that.
But her mother had.
AS if to reflect Ajarry, who did not step off Randall land once she arrived on it, Mabel never left the plantation until the day of her escape. She gave no indication of her intentions, at least to no one who admitted to that knowledge under subsequent interrogations. No mean feat in a village teeming with treacherous natures and informers who would sell out their dearest to escape the bite of the cat-o’-nine- tails.
Cora fell asleep nestled against her mother’s stomach and never saw her again. Old Randall raised the alarm and summoned the patrollers. Within an hour the hunting party tromped into the swamp, chasing after Nate Ketchum’s dogs. The latest in a long line of specializers, Ketchum had slave-catching in his blood. The hounds had been bred for generations to detect nigger scent across whole counties, chewing and mangling many a wayward hand. When the creatures strained against their leather straps and pawed at the air, their barking made every soul in the quarters want to run to their cabins. But the day’s picking lay before the slaves foremost and they stooped to their orders, enduring the dogs’ terrible noise and the visions of blood to come.
The bills and fliers circulated for hundreds of miles. Free negroes who supplemented their living catching runaways combed through the woods and wormed information from likely accomplices. Patrollers and posses of low whites harassed and bullied. The quarters of all the nearby plantations were thoroughly searched and no small number of slaves beaten on principle. But the hounds came up empty, as did their masters.
Randall retained the services of a witch to goofer his property so that no one with African blood could escape without being stricken with hideous palsy. The witch woman buried fetishes in secret places, took her payment, and departed in her mule cart. There was a hearty debate in the village over the spirit of the goofer. Did the conjure apply only to those who had an intention to run or to all colored persons who stepped over the line? A week passed before the slaves hunted and scavenged in the swamp again. That’s where the food was.
Of Mabel there was no sign. No one had escaped the Randall plantation before. The fugitives were
always clawed back, betrayed by friends, they misinterpreted the stars and ran deeper into the labyrinth of bondage. On their return they were abused mightily before being permitted to die and those they left behind were forced to observe the grisly increments of their demise.
The infamous slave catcher Ridgeway paid a call on the plantation one week later. He rode up on his horses with his associates, five men of disreputable mien, led by a fearsome Indian scout who wore a necklace of shriveled ears. Ridgeway was six and a half feet tall, with the square face and thick neck of a hammer. He maintained a serene comportment at all times but generated a threatening atmosphere, like a thunderhead that seems far away but then is suddenly overhead with loud violence.
Ridgeway’s audience lasted half an hour. He took notes in a small diary and to hear the house speak of it was a man of intense concentration and flowery manner of speech. He did not return for two years, not long before Old Randall’s death, to apologize in person for his failure. The Indian was gone, but there was a young rider with long black hair who wore a similar ring of trophies over his hide vest. Ridgeway was in the vicinity to visit a neighboring planter, offering as proof of capture the heads of two runaways in a leather sack. Crossing the state line was a capital offense in Georgia; sometimes a master preferred an example over the return of his property.
The slave catcher shared rumors of a new branch of the underground railroad said to be operating in the southern part of the state, as impossible as it sounded. Old Randall scoffed. The sympathizers would be rooted out and tarred and feathered, Ridgeway assured his host. Or whatever satisfied local custom. Ridgeway apologized once again and took his leave and soon his gang crashed to the county road toward their next mission. There was no end to their work, the river of slaves that needed to be driven from their hidey-holes and brought to the white man’s proper accounting.
Mabel had packed for her adventure. A machete. Flint and tinder. She stole a cabin mate’s shoes, which were in better shape. For weeks, her empty garden testified to her miracle. Before she lit out she dug up every yam from their plot, a cumbersome load and ill-advised for a journey that required a fleet foot. The lumps and burrows in the dirt were a reminder to all who walked by. Then one morning they were smoothed over. Cora got on her knees and planted anew. It was her inheritance.