Hiram has a vision of his mother, Rose, picturing her dancing on the bridge and looking like she did when he was a child. She was taken across this bridge, which straddles the River Goose. Previously he has always avoided the bridge because it reminds him of family members who have been sent toward Natchez. However, he now realizes how important it is that he confronts the memories that the bridge evokes, because memories have the “awesome power” to transport people between the world of the living and the world of the dead.
This opening passage introduces almost all of the novel’s main themes, as well as showing how they work together. Hiram is connected to Rose only via memory, presumably because—like other members of Hiram’s family—she has been sold toward Natchez, a major slave-trading town in Mississippi that serves as a symbol of both family separation and the horrors of slavery in the Deep South.
Hiram sees Rose water dancing, wearing a large jar on her head filled with water which, despite her movements, does not spill. Hiram’s half-brother, Maynard, sits with a “fancy girl” (sex worker) in the back of the carriage. Yet only Hiram can see Rose, and as he watches her, he clearly remembers her dancing in a circle of his “people,” including Aunt Emma and Uncle John. Rose had been the best dancer at Lockless, though Hiram didn’t inherit her talent.
Hiram’s family members are deeply important to him, yet he is separated from them. They exist to him only as phantoms, happy memories of a different time and perhaps even a better version of the world—one not torn apart by slavery.
It is autumn, and Maynard has just won a bet at the races, though after he was shunned by other white men, who consider him a “rotten apple” and a “fool.” Furious, he ordered Hiram to drive him to pick up a fancy girl. They are now heading home, to the big house at Lockless. Maynard is Hiram’s brother, and also his master. Consumed by thoughts about those who have been sold South, Hiram accidentally drives the carriage off the road, causing it to tumble into the water. He is stunned by the shock and pain of finding himself underwater, with no air to breathe.
While Rose, Aunt Emma, and Uncle John appear as beautiful memories of a lost time, Hiram’s present relative, Maynard, provides no such comfort or solace. Indeed, Maynard is Hiram’s enslaver, and thus a brutal, dehumanizing presence. The few pieces of information provided about Maynard thus far suggest he is an especially cruel and unpleasant person.
Forcing himself to remain calm, Hiram manages to push himself to the surface, and sees that the bridge is already “a half mile away.” The current is strong, and Hiram can’t see the fancy girl, but he can hear Maynard shouting, “Help me, Hi!” In the past Hiram has tried to teach Maynard to swim, without any luck. Slavery has “made a child of him,” such that he is totally dependent on Hiram and helpless on his own. Hiram observes that being submerged in the Goose has made the reality of Maynard’s childlike dependence on him inescapably obvious.
This passage introduces another crucial idea in the novel: although slavery is founded on the racist lie of black people’s inferiority, it actually creates a situation in which white people are inferior in knowledge, talent, and skills to the enslaved. Totally dependent on Hiram, Maynard is helpless and rather pathetic in his own right.
Certain that he is about to die, Hiram thinks about his loved ones at Lockless: the elderly Thena and the young Sophia. He feels calm, convinced that he is “going to [his] reward.” He thinks about Emma, who used to work in the kitchen. Hiram is overcome by a sense of peace, knowing that there really is a world that lies beyond “the Task.” However, he is then brought back to the mortal world by Maynard’s screams. Maynard disappears, and Hiram knows immediately that he is dead. Returning to his vision, he now sees Rose giving a young boy a shell necklace and kissing him before walking away. Crying, the boy approaches Hiram and offers him the necklace.
There is a great deal of spiritual, mystical, and supernatural imagery in the novel, and it is often left to the reader to decide what is really happening when this imagery is deployed. The function of these phantoms is therefore unclear—a possible interpretation is that Hiram is being welcomed into a heavenly afterlife by his loved ones, or that his life is flashing before his eyes simply because he thinks he is going to die.