Hiram knows that his fate is tied up with the Virginia families who have grown wealthy from slavery. He knows that his genius won’t “save” him, adding, “my genius would only make me a more valuable commodity.” Later in the week after they agree to escape together, Sophia comes to see Hiram. She compliments him on the antiques restoration he’s been doing. She asks if they can discuss their plan for escape further, and they agree to meet in an hour. While Hiram waits for the meeting, he feels removed from the physical reality around him. Although his body remains at Lockless, his heart is already free.
The fact that Hiram chooses to do antiques restoration during this period is poignant. Not only does this task allow him to use his talent, intelligence, and creativity, it also connects him to the past. Indeed, the purpose of antiques restoration is to ensure that an old object retains functionality and longevity while also remaining true to its original form.
When Hiram meets Sophia, he explains that he imagines Georgie can’t really talk about what he knows about escaping, but that he trusts him. Hiram mentions the Underground, which he believes is another world in the swamps where black people can live free. Sophia mentions that she just needs help getting out, and then she can take care of herself. Noticing Hiram’s reaction, she explains that she won’t get free only to be attached to Hiram like she’s attached to Nathaniel. To her, that isn’t freedom. Hiram admits that he hopes one day they will be together, but that he wants it to be her choice.
It is obvious from this passage that Coates is playing close attention to the gender politics that existed in this period of time in order to evoke the particular perspective of a woman like Sophia, who is chained to her enslaver in a system of sexual bondage. The book suggests that this experience is so harrowing that it puts her off the idea of being married at all, even if it occurs in a nonviolent, consensual way.
Hiram talks about his dreams of freedom, and he and Sophia spend a while in silent contemplation. Then Sophia leaves and Hiram runs into Thena. He suddenly feels very different from Thena and the other older people at Lockless, who have permanently given up any hope of freedom. Thena follows him back to his quarters and asks if he’s still sick, because she can’t understand why else he would be walking around with “Nathaniel Walker’s girl.” An argument ensues, and Hiram regrets the furious glare he directs at her. Thena warns Hiram that he will come to regret his actions, but in this moment, nothing can distract him from his fixation on seeking freedom.
Hiram’s assumption that Thena and the other older people at Lockless have given up on freedom should perhaps be met with some scrutiny. Of course, in order to survive a lifetime of enslavement, it is likely necessary to learn to control the yearning for freedom that all enslaved people naturally have. Yet Hiram’s assumption that he is different due to the intensity of his desire for freedom may be misguided and naïve.
The day finally comes when Hiram is due to meet Georgie. In the morning he passes Pete, seeing him for the last time ever. He watches Thena doing laundry, and feels angry and indignant toward her. He watches the sun rise over Lockless and thinks about the unknown adventure lying before him. He speaks briefly with Howell, who has assigned him to start working in the kitchen starting the next day, and thus tells Hiram that he has “One last day of freedom.” Hiram retreats to his quarters.
There is an obvious irony in Howell’s use of the phrase “one last day of freedom.” It is absurd to use the word freedom to describe any aspect of life as an enslaved person, even if that person has had a break from forced labor like Hiram. As the book has shown, slavery denies a person freedom in a far more holistic, totalizing manner than simply by forcing them to work.
When the evening finally comes, Hiram walks with Sophia to meet Georgie. They discuss what they are going to do when they get to the Underground, and joke about wanting to get away from each other. As they walk, the hear the sounds of footsteps and conversation; Georgie’s voice is among the chorus. Hiram sees Georgie smiling. Five white men are with him, one of whom is holding a rope. Sophia moans, “No, no, no,” and the white men congratulate Georgie for what he has done.
Georgie’s betrayal highlights an uncomfortable reality about slavery: there always existed black people who collaborated with white enslavers to harm other black people. There are many reasons why people did this, and many were more or less forced into this position. At the same time, this does not mean Georgie’s actions should be excused.