The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead Read Free Book Online Page B

Book: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead Read Free Book Online
Authors: Colson Whitehead
stories from the southern half were chilling, in magnitude if not in particulars.
    Big Anthony took his opportunity. Big Anthony was not the most clever buck in the village, but no one could say he lacked a sense for opportunity. It was the first escape attempt since Mabel. He braved the witch woman’s goofer without incident and made it twenty-six miles beforehe was discovered snoozing in a hayloft. The constables returned him in an iron cage made by one of their cousins. “Take flight like a bird, you deserve a birdcage.” The front of the cage had a slot for the name of the inhabitant, but no one had bothered to use it. They took the cage with them when they left.
    On the eve of Big Anthony’s punishment—whenever white men put off punishment some theaterwas bound to be involved—Caesar visited Hob. Mary let him in. She was puzzled. Few visitors ever came to call, and men only when it was a boss with bad news. Cora hadn’t told anyone of the young man’s proposition.
    The loft was full of women either sleeping or listening. Cora put her mending to the floor and took him outside.
    OLD Randall built the schoolhouse for his sons and the grandchildrenhe had hoped to have one day. The lonesome hulk was unlikely to fulfill its purpose anytime soon. Since Randall’s sons had finished their education it was used only for assignations and all those different lessons. Lovey saw Caesar and Cora walk to it, and Cora shook her head at her friend’s amusement.
    The rotting schoolhouse smelled rank. Small animals made regular habitation. The chairs andtables had been removed a long time before, making room for dead leaves and spiderwebs. She wondered if he had brought Frances here when they were together, and what they did. Caesar had seen Cora stripped naked for her whippings, the blood pouring over her skin.
    Caesar checked the window and said, “I’m sorry that happened to you.”
    “That’s what they do,” Cora said.
    Two weeks ago she had judgedhim a fool. This night he carried himself as one beyond his years, like one of those wise old hands who tell you a story whose true message you only understand days or weeks later, when their facts are impossible to avoid.
    “Will you come with me now?” Caesar said. “Been thinking it’s past time to go.”
    She could not figure him. On the mornings of her three whippings, Caesar had stood in the frontof the pack. It was customary for slaves to witness the abuse of their brethren as moral instruction. At some point during the show everyone had to turn away, if only for a moment, as they considered the slave’s pain and the day sooner or later when it would be their turn at the foul end of the lash. That was you up there even when it was not. But Caesar did not flinch. He didn’t seek her eyesbut looked at something beyond her, something great and difficult to make out.
    She said, “You think I’m a lucky charm because Mabel got away. But I ain’t. You saw me. You saw what happens when you get a thought in your head.”
    Caesar was unmoved. “It’s going to be bad when he gets back.”
    “It’s bad now,” Cora said. “Ever has been.” She left him there.
    The new stocks Terrance ordered explainedthe delay in Big Anthony’s justice. The woodworkers toiled all through the night to complete the restraints, furnishing them with ambitious if crude engravings. Minotaurs, busty mermaids, and other fantastic creatures frolicked in the wood. The stocks were installed on the front lawn in the lush grass. Two bosses secured Big Anthony and there he dangled the first day.
    On the second day a bandof visitors arrived in a carriage, august souls from Atlanta and Savannah. Swell ladies and gentlemen that Terrance had met on his travels, as well as a newspaperman from London come to report on the American scene. They ate at a table set up on the lawn, savoring Alice’s turtle soup and mutton and devising compliments for the cook, who would never receive them. Big Anthony

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