The narrator sees a vision on the stone bridge across the river Goose, which was used to transport slaves toward Natchez. It is the bridge upon which the Conduction begins. He realizes that the woman he sees is his mother, who was once the best dancer at Lockless, even though he does not remember her.
The narrator’s brother, Maynard, cannot see her. It is autumn and raining; Maynard, in the back of the chaise, is a “rotten apple” whom the narrator has always been forced to take care of. Now, the narrator remembers “legions of the lost.”
Suddenly, the road beneath the wheels of the chaise disappears, the bridge collapsing. Blue light explodes all around, and then the brothers are in the water. Maynard is thrashing; the narrator cannot understand how they have entered the river.
Maynard calls out for help, and the narrator yells that he cannot save him—“We are under the ox!” The blue light rises again now that he feels death imminent, and he sees many memories of people from his past, including his aunt Emma, who baked cookies for the “Walkers.” He realizes that there is “a life beyond the Task,” a homeland that fills him with a sense of freedom, especially as he realizes that Maynard will not be going there. Instead, he drowns, and the narrator sees the apparition of his mother kneeling before a boy and placing a shell necklace in his hand. The boy then approaches the narrator with the necklace, and the narrator finally sees his “reward.”
The narrator, like all the Tasked, has always wanted to “get out,” but he is unique in having “means” others don't. He can “see” others’ words as images; he has a photographic memory for everything but his own mother.
He saw the blue light once before when he was nine, after his mother had been sold. He envisioned a long trough of water and had a sensation that he had to escape, which drove him to leave in the winter morning, walking down the Street to the woods. He passed the cabin of Boss Harlan, a white “enforcer.” Then the vision returned, and the blue mist showed him the trough again. When the light cleared, he was on the floor of his own cabin once again. He slept.
When he woke, he set off for Thena’s home. Her own children had gone, and she let the boy in and looked after him for a year and a half. One night, he was woken by her calling for someone called “John” in her sleep. When she woke, she angrily told him to leave the house. Later, Thena explained in apology that John had been her husband and that he had been murdered. He was the driver of the slaves and worked them well; after he died, the harvest went badly. All five of Thena’s children were sold. She told the narrator she could not be his mother but would look after him.
The narrator’s father had been the master of Lockless, a member of the Quality rather than the Tasked. One day, he flicked a coin toward the narrator, who felt this was his “ticket out of the fields.” The next day, Desi and Harlan came to talk to Thena, after which Thena took the narrator, Hiram, out into the fields. The white people wanted Hiram to leave the fields; Thena reminds him that they “ain't your family, boy.” But Hiram was excited when Roscoe, his father’s butler, came to take him to the beautiful house where his father, Howell Walker,...
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lived. In the house, he saw a white boy: his brother, Maynard.
Hiram raised fires for Ella, the cook; labored in the stable with Roscoe; or worked in the orchard with Pete.
When Hiram was twelve, a social event was held. Maynard’s tutor, Mr. Fields, was there, as was Alice Caulley, for whom Pete’s sister, Maddie, worked. Alice was rude to the waiting staff, slapping one. Hiram tried to diffuse the situation by offering her a pack of cards and asking her to shuffle them. He performed a magic trick, guessing what was on each card she touched. The guests were entertained and asked for more tricks.
Hiram lined the guests against the wall and asked them personal questions, such as how they fell for their wives or what their favorite place was. The stories were too many for others to recall, but Hiram went down the line again repeating the right story to each person, with embellishment, until everyone was smiling.
The following Monday, Hiram was called to see his father. Howell then left Hiram with Mr. Fields, who asked him to examine some playing cards, which he then turned face down. When asked to pick a certain card, Hiram picked correctly. Mr. Fields also pulled out a drawing of a bridge and asked Hiram to memorize it and then re-draw it himself. The results suggested that Hiram should begin lessons with Mr. Fields.
Hiram met with Mr. Fields after Maynard’s lessons and knew that Maynard was far less intelligent than himself. He began to imagine himself among the Walkers but sought never to forget the Street, though he liked his father’s stories, too. He learned that the wealth of Lockless was based on tobacco and that the crops were dwindling. Then, one day, Ella disappeared to be auctioned.
One day Hiram found not Mr. Fields in his lesson room, but Howell, and was afraid he was about to be sold. But instead, he was asked to “take on” Maynard, becoming his servant, because Howell trusted him.
Howell engaged Maynard to a wealthy woman, Corrine Quinn. The day before the races, when Hiram was nineteen, he saw his father and Maynard arguing; Maynard had been expelled from the jockey club, and Howell had suggested he avoid the races, but Maynard insisted Hiram check on the horses and prepare for the day. Later, Howell spoke to Hiram alone, asking him to “mind your brother” and apologizing for being unable to give him more, because he esteemed him highly.
That night, Hiram dreamed he was an old man chained in a field and Maynard was a baby, his burden. Then, looking up, he saw the North Star wreathed in blue, “the mark of my future days.”
One Tasked woman, Sophia, labored little, as she was the mistress of Nathaniel Walker, Howell’s brother. She told Hiram she felt a goodbye was imminent. Hiram dismissed this and went to collect Maynard.
The Quality were gathered to watch the races. Maynard sighted Adeline Jones, whom he had previously courted, and Hiram disliked how he spoke to her. At the racetrack, another gentleman rushed her away, leaving Maynard feeling insulted. Corrine Quinn was in the ladies’ club, and Maynard looked at scornfully, seeing that she had been “elevated to a higher standing than his own.” During the races, Hiram sat with the Tasked. Maynard's own horse, Diamond, won, to Maynard's delight.
Afterward, Hiram made to drive the chaise home, but Maynard insisted on being taken back to town to the “pleasure house.” Left alone, Hiram thought of Georgie Parks, the “mayor,” a Tasked man tied to the Underground—a secret society of “colored” people.
Gunfire sounded, and Hiram, witnessing a duel, walked out past Ryland's Jail, which held Tasked who had been caught running away. Georgie's wife, Amber, in the free colored sector of town, encountered him and asked him to supper. Georgie told Hiram tales of his mother and the old days, and Hiram confessed that he intended to leave. Georgie cautioned him against this.
At the pleasure house, Maynard had picked up a woman. They all returned to the chaise and rode out toward the river, where Hiram had his vision of his mother on the bridge.