A slave named Orion (Ryan) completely resists the ways of the white masters and has a mystical connection to the ancient African god Damballah which is emphasized through the Classical allusion to the god Orion, who became a constellation after having had his sight taken from him and being shot with an arrow while swimming. Orion's fates foretell of Ryan's final fates.
Ryan garners nothing but displeasure from both masters and fellow slaves because he attempts to keep the traditions, beliefs and stories of Africa alive. He finally rebels so completely as to be rewarded with death. The boy who admires his mysterious ways and shadows him whenever he can and sees where Ryan meditates in the river, is the one to whom the soul of Ryan speaks--in keeping with the association to the power of the ancient gods--after his life is taken from him. Ryan tells the boy the stories he honors.
The really confusing part is that there are various narrators for the various stories that are told by Ryan's spirit to the boy before Ryan passes from this world. The stories cover many generations and tell many tales of ancestors and other times and other ways. Once Ryan has told all his stories to the boy, while stopped at the border between the dead and the living, he is free to rise out of his skull and transcend the bonds of earthly life.
Wideman develops analogous traits between Ryan and the boy to create a sense of metaphysical inevitability in the supernatural union between the slain Ryan and the shocked and mourning boy who has been sent as Orion's guide, his present day Kedalion to help him navigate on his journey to reclamation. [Kedalion sat on the blinded Orion's shoulders and directed him on his journey to the Sun god whose beams restored his sight.]