That evening, Hiram smells food cooking and comes downstairs to find Corrine, Hawkins, Amy, Mr. Fields, and three unknown black people. Seeing Hiram, Corrine invites him to join them. The food is extravagant, “the most indulgent meal” Hiram has ever eaten. After, he is shocked to see Corrine help clear the table with everyone else. The group then go to the parlor to play a game of blind man’s bluff; Hiram suspects that they are celebrating something. The next morning, Hiram sleeps late and eats two muffins for breakfast. He then walks outside and, surveying the landscape, concludes that they are somewhere around Virginia’s border.
In a sense, Hiram has awoken to find himself in a kind of utopia, where all the rules, brutalities, and injustices of life at Lockless have disappeared. At the same time, the lack of control he has over being brought here and the lack of information he has about his whereabouts remains reminiscent of slavery.
Hiram watches two white people come out of the woods in the distance, seemingly a father and son. The son greets him with a nod, but then they disappear. Hiram falls asleep and dreams of all the things he has undergone recently. He is awoken by Amy coming out onto the porch. She says she knows that Hiram probably has lots of questions, but also understands that he doesn’t want to talk much. She confirms that they are at Corrine’s property, Bryceton. As an only child, she inherited the estate after her parents died. Influenced by ideas from the North, Corrine is opposed to slavery, and Bryceton is a station on the Underground Railroad. Everyone who lives and works there is an Underground Agent.
Amy’s explanation reveals how difficult it is to operate as an abolitionist in Virginia. Corrine is only able to do what she does because she is extremely wealthy, and she doesn’t have any living immediate family members. Furthermore, as a woman, Corrine is in an extremely vulnerable position. Unmarried women could exercise relatively little power at the time, even if they were, like Corrine, very wealthy.
Being an agent takes many different forms. Some devote themselves to “paperwork,” a vital element of securing people’s freedom. Others work on gathering information through “gossip” and media. Amy says that she and Hawkins used to be enslaved by the “meanest man in the world.” That man married Corrine, and now he is dead. Amy explains that the “field agents” of the Underground are those who actually assist in whisking enslaved people off of plantations. She herself is a field agent, a position that helps her remember her own freedom.
As Amy’s words make clear, the Underground is not the swamp world that Hiram imagined. Rather, it is a network of people actively working to furtively free people from slavery. The Underground is not a place at all, but rather an action, or rather a group of actions coming together in service of one ideal.
At Bryceton, Hiram is trained to be an agent. He also spends time working on furniture. Every night he completes a training regime, which includes running a distance of six or seven miles in an hour. The men who lead the agents through this training regime are all white, some Quality and some Low. Meanwhile, Hiram also resumes his studies with Mr. Fields, picking up where they left off as if no time has passed at all. Hiram is able to browse through the library and pick up any books he wants; he also starts writing, recording his thoughts and experiences.
The act of writing down one’s own experiences has as very important role for enslaved people. Slave narratives not only helped advance the cause of abolition but provided a sense of justice through testimony. Although almost none of the huge number of people who committed brutalities against enslaved people were ever punished, a measure of justice could be found in recording them.
After a month of life at Bryceton, Hiram comes to meet Mr. Fields and finds Corrine there instead. Hiram is impressed by Corrine, but also intimidated. He feels that he recognizes some of his own loneliness in her. She reflects that as a woman of Quality, she was encouraged to have an education, but that any knowledge she gained was supposed to be “ornamental.” She places a package in front of Hiram: it is a bundle of documents, including letters, authorizations, and bills of sale. She says that Hiram may keep them for a week in order to memorize their characteristics. They belong to an enslaver, an educated man, and Hiram must memorize their contents as well as learn to recreate their style.
Corrine’s reflection about her own education shows that she has developed a desire to be of use to the world, rather than simply a pretty ornament for white men to admire. In a sense, there is a connection to the fact that Hiram’s instruction by Mr. Fields was meant to help make him a more impressive and useful object—his knowledge was never supposed to be used for his own ends. This has all changed, of course, now that he has entered the Underground.
Hiram spends a week studying the documents before meeting Corrine, who “rigorously” questions him about the details of the enslaver’s life. These interrogations take place over several nights. On the last night, Corrine mentions a jockey owned by the enslaver called Levity Williams. Hiram must fake documents for him, including “a day-pass for the road,” “a letter of introduction” and, eventually, free papers. Hiram does so, although he never finds out if Williams is successfully freed. Still, writing these fake documents makes him feel powerful, and this soon becomes his main role at Bryceton. Every few weeks, Corrine brings him a new bundle of documents to memorize.
Whereas before Hiram’s intelligence and extraordinary memory were used in service of enslavers, he is finally now able to put them to use in order to advance the cause of freedom. Indeed, Hiram’s particular skills make him a uniquely advantageous asset for the Underground.
Hiram finds it surprisingly moving to learn such intimate details about the lives of enslavers. At night, he dreams about Sophia or has nightmares about the time he spent in jail. Over time, he learns about another person in the Underground who also has the power of Conduction. She is “beloved and famed” all over the North and has been granted the nickname Moses. Although those in the Virginia Underground know that she is capable of Conduction, they don’t know how she does it, and thus they launch a series of experiments in order to see how Hiram can make himself conduct. Trying to summon his memories doesn’t work.
As some readers may know, Moses was the nickname given to the legendary abolitionist leader and agent of the Underground Railroad Harriet Tubman. She was nicknamed as such because, like the Biblical figure, she led an extraordinary number of her own people out from slavery, to the point that seems practically miraculous. In Coates’s rewriting of Tubman’s story, her power is literally miraculous and magical.
One day, after another failed experiment, Corrine tells Hiram that his training is nearly complete; he is almost ready to go out into the field as an agent. She says that before they brought Hiram to Bryceton, they knew he was educated and intelligent, with a fiercely powerful memory. However, they desperately need him to be able to master his power of Conduction. The current techniques they possess are not enough to rescue people from the “coffin” of slavery in the Deep South. Hiram asks what will happen if he is never able to use Conduction in service of the Underground, imagining he will be forced to do forgeries forever. However, Corrine emphasizes that he is free and can do whatever he wants. Growing indignant, Hiram asks to meet the people whom the Underground is saving. Corrine agrees to show him.
Although Hiram’s resentment and suspicion of Corrine might seem surprising, given the relief that it would theoretically be to be liberated from slavery via the Underground, his feelings are also very understandable. Corrine’s statement that Hiram is free does not cohere with the reality of his experience at Bryceton. He was brought there without his knowledge and has been put to work. Furthermore, the reality is that even if Corrine let him walk off the property, he would not make it far before being seized by slavecatchers. He remains trapped.