When Mabel was pregnant with Cora, she would apologize to the unborn child for bringing her into the world, just as she apologized to Cora for making her a stray—yet Cora heard none of these apologies. As she escapes, Mabel thinks about Moses, one of the bosses on Randall, who was a weak baby whom everyone expected to die young. However, thanks to Moses’ mothers efforts, he survived. Moses didn’t become mean when his mother was sold, but rather he became mean after he was promoted to being a boss. He began regularly raping Mabel after threatening to take Cora, who was only 8, instead. Mabel thinks of all the people she has seen die on Randall, both young and old. Cora’s face comes into her mind and she stops thinking, forcing herself to just run. Mabel’s decision not to die on Randall came suddenly, and soon afterwards she was escaping into the night. Mabel met Cora’s father, Grayson, when she was 14. Grayson was “sweet-tempered” and “swaggering.” They danced together, and Grayson promised to buy Mabel’s freedom. However, he was dead before he learned that Mabel was pregnant.
In this chapter, we finally learn about Mabel as she really was—neither a mystery nor the cruel and heartless person Cora imagines her to be. In fact, Mabel is strikingly similar to her daughter. Both have a powerful strength and an instinct for rebellion against all odds. Ultimately, the brutality and suffering Mabel witnesses on Randall means that she feels she has no choice but to try to escape, even if she dies only a mile away from the plantation. It is this spirit that Cora eventually inherits, and which enables her to endure the most horrific circumstances on her journey to freedom. The description of Grayson suggests that Cora also inherited some of his qualities, such as his kindness and ability to find humor in the midst of the brutality of life.
Mabel trips and falls into the water as she flees, taking this opportunity to eat a turnip from her garden. It is deliciously sweet. Mabel did not inherit Ajarry’s “perseverance,” but she did get the garden, “the most valuable land in all of Georgia.” Mabel listens to the sounds of the swamp, free of screams and the shouts of overseers. She feels peaceful, basking in her freedom. Immediately, however, she resolves to go back for Cora. She feels that she was foolish to attempt an escape, even though the memory of these moments of freedom will be a “treasure” she will keep forever. Maybe there is a chance that Cora will be able to experience such a feeling for herself one day. A snake bites her, and—though Mabel keeps running—she knows there is poison running through her blood. She comes across a soft bed of moss and decides that this is where she will stop and die. The water swallows up her body.
This brief moment of insight into Mabel’s life neither confirms Cora’s negative view of her nor romanticizes her. It is clear that Mabel has her faults and flaws, and perhaps there is an extent to which she should be blamed for impulsively abandoning Cora. However, this part of the narrative reveals that Mabel did in fact want to go back for Cora. Furthermore, it suggests that Mabel’s experience of freedom did somehow enable and prefigure Cora’s own flight. While Mabel’s experience of freedom is brief and ends in death, it is at least death on her own terms, and a death that ultimately helps Cora to also get free.