Home > The Underground Railroad(8)

The Underground Railroad(8)
Colson Whitehead

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.

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