Like all enslaved people, Hiram has dreamed of escaping the plantation his whole life. However, he is unusual in that he “possesse[s] the means” to do so. He was a “strange,” highly observant child, with an extraordinary gift of memory. Any information he learned, he remembered, no matter how complex, detailed, or trivial. However, the one thing he is not able to remember is Rose. She was taken when he was nine years old, but all his memories of her are “secondhand,” as if he never knew her personally but only learned about her from other people’s stories.
For Hiram, memory is simultaneously a superpower and a deficiency, a site of joy and a site of pain. Indeed, the book suggests that memory achieves its significance through these paradoxes. If it were only one or the other, it wouldn’t be as meaningful.
When Hiram thinks back to the day that Rose was sold, he remembers “screams” and “pleading,” as well as a “long trough of water.” After Rose is taken, Hiram is seized by a new determination to escape. One Sunday in December, he awakes early. The Street is deserted, as everyone is inside, trying to keep warm. Hiram walks past the cabin belonging to Boss Harlan, a “low white” who works as the overseer on the plantation. He searches for signs that might lead him to Rose. He thinks again and again of the trough of water, and suddenly starts running as fast as he can go. He is overwhelmed by visions, and sees the blue light that will, many years later, appear by the bridge.
The Street is the part of Lockless plantation where the enslaved people live. The overseer is the person assigned to supervise work on the plantation, usually doing so in an extremely brutal manner. “Low white” is a category invented by Coates in this novel to describe white workers, many of whom are very poor and work in brutal conditions. However, they are not enslaved and have relative power over black people due to their race.
However, the blue light disappears, and Hiram finds himself back in the cabin where he woke up. When he tries to think of Rose, the memory of her dissolves into wisps. He falls asleep and wakes again realizing that he is now completely alone. He goes to collect the allocation of pork and corn he is given for the week, then gathers his clothes and marbles—his only possessions—and walks over to Thena’s cabin. Although most people on the Street are sociable, Thena “ke[eps] to herself.” Nowadays she is bitter and unfriendly, but Hiram has heard that in the past, she was a mother “not just to five children of her own but to all the children of the Street.”
The detail of the marbles provides a heartbreaking reminder that Hiram is only a child. Not only is he already made to work, but—after his mother is seized and sold—he is left to fend for himself. It is striking that of all people to go to for shelter and support, Hiram chooses Thena. This indicates that he sees something beneath her meanness that others do not.
Now those children are gone. Hiram is unsure if showing up at Thena’s house is a good idea, as there are others who are more likely to want to take him in. Yet he isn’t put off by Thena’s bitterness and aggression, because he sees that it comes from a place of pain. He reasons that “she [is] not the meanest woman at Lockless, but the most honest.” After he knocks and gets no answer, Hiram enters the cabin and curls up in the loft. He wakes up to the smell of food and Thena telling him to come down to eat.
As an unusually perceptive child, Hiram seems to appreciate Thena’s bitter demeanor as being more “honest” than those who act in a more cheerful manner despite the degradation around him. Hiram feels that he can trust Thena, and this inclination appears to be right.
It takes a year and a half of living with Thena for Hiram to understand the source of her pain. One night he hears her talking to someone named John in her sleep. Ever since Hiram moved in with her, Thena’s “rages” have begun to subside. However, when she wakes and notices that Hiram was watching her dream, she furiously runs him out of the house. He runs to the cabin he used to share with Rose and waits on the steps until the Task begins for the day. He is now 11 and rather small, but still has to “work like a man.” On a hot day like this, he and the other children are charged with bringing water to those who are tasking in the fields.
The Task is another term used by Coates in this novel as an alternative way to refer to the hierarchy of slavery. The Task refers both to slavery in general and to a specific unit of slave labor (hence Hiram waiting for the Task to begin). Enslaved people are referred to as the tasked, a term that highlights the torturously never-ending nature of their labor, as well as the fact that their whole existence is reduced to their ability to work for others’ benefit.
At the end of the workday, Hiram does not at first go back to Thena’s cabin. Then, when he does go, realizes that she has been waiting for him to come home to eat dinner. After they eat, Thena whispers to Hiram that her husband was known as Big John. He died of a fever, which should be a natural death, but in fact it was “murder.” She explains that Big John was the driver assigned to watch over the tobacco fields. He didn’t get the job for being cruel, but rather for being intelligent and skilled. She reflects that the white enslavers’ “whole lives depended on him.”
Thena’s words that John’s death from fever was “murder” illustrates an important point about the brutal impact of slavery. Enslaved people were forced to work in extremely difficult conditions, given hardly any rest, and denied proper medical care. As a result, even death from a seemingly natural cause can be viewed as a kind of murder.
Thena reminds Hiram that all the wealth of Lockless comes from the tobacco fields. John was favored by the white bosses, but he insisted that whatever extra provisions he was given were allocated to those who were struggling. She emphasizes that she loved John, and that after he died everything went “bad.” Many others died of fever too, and Thena believes the issue was caused by the land rebelling against the perverse horrors of slavery. She says she remembers Rose and Emma, how they used to dance, and urges Hiram not to forget them, no matter how much it hurts.
As this passage emphasizes, Thena’s bitterness is a form of wisdom. She has experienced the horrific reality of slavery for many years and understands it in ways that others are perhaps not able to. Now she passes on this knowledge to Hiram—and the fact that she emphasizes the importance of memory is especially important.
Thena then says that five of her own children were sold at the racetrack, too. She says she knows the other enslaved people in their community talk about how she is “broken,” but that she thinks Hiram sought her out to take care of him for a reason. She says she can’t take Rose’s place as Hiram’s mother, but that she appreciates that he chose her.
This passage introduces the ways in which enslaved people form new, improvised relationships in the wake of family separation.
Hiram’s father, Howell Walker, is the master of Lockless. When Hiram occasionally sees him riding through the plantation on his horse, Howell tips his hat at him. Hiram knows that Howell sold Rose, yet Hiram cannot help but see him as an aspirational figure. Still young, he is only just beginning to understand the distinction between the Quality and the Tasked, and dreams about the life of “splendor and regale” that the Quality lead.
The fact that Howell even acknowledges Hiram is somewhat rare. Under slavery, it was common for enslavers to rape the enslaved, which of course often produced resulted in pregnancies. The children born from this rape were usually enslaved, because the law held that children inherited their mother’s status.
One Sunday, Hiram is in the Street, performing a song where he sings both the call and response, taking turns to mimic the voices of the elders who have gathered around him. The elders are delighted by the performance, but Hiram is distracted by the arrival of Howell, who takes something from his hat and throws it toward his son. Hiram catches it one-handed. Howell, who is smiling, nods at Hiram and walks away. Back in Thena’s cabin, Hiram permits himself to look at the object, and sees that it is a copper coin. He convinces himself that this is his “ticket out of the fields and off the Street.”
Howell’s unusually cordial treatment of Hiram should not be mistaken for kindness. While Howell might appear friendly, it is important not to forget that it is his decision to keep his own son enslaved. Moreover, the small gestures of kindness create a false hope in Hiram that he will one day be able to escape slavery, as shown by the way he reacts to receiving the coin from his father.
The next day, after dinner, Hiram peeks down from the loft to see Boss Harlan speaking with Thena. After he leaves, Thena tells Hiram that his life is about to “get more brutal,” because he is being called to work in the house. She urges that Hiram must not forget her, and warns him that in the house, he will be under the constant surveillance of the white people. She tells him to remember that the white people aren’t his family, and that she is more his mother than Howell will ever be his father.
Thena’s reaction to this news is a little surprising. Usually, working in the house is seen as a relatively better position, because the labor is somewhat less physically intense and the treatment a little better. However, Thena emphasizes that the proximity to white people that comes from being in the house is dangerous—particularly for Hiram.
However, the next day when Hiram walks up to the house, he shudders with awe, feeling that the house belongs to him, that it is “[his] by blood.” Howell’s butler, Roscoe, leads Hiram and Thena down to the space in the basement where Hiram will sleep. When Roscoe takes him upstairs, Hiram is dazzled by the elegant furnishings and especially the books, although he is careful not to look at them too closely. Roscoe brings him into a room where Howell and a white boy around Hiram’s age are waiting. Hiram knows instinctively that this is his brother. He touches the coin in his pocket.
Again, it is painful to witness the way in which Hiram has been infused with false hope about his future at Lockless. Of course, he cannot be blamed for wanting more for himself than the life of degradation and brutality he has been accorded. At the same time, it is hard not to wish that Hiram had some more of Thena’s bitterness and less of his own naïve optimism in this moment.