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The Underground Railroad(4)
Colson Whitehead

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.

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