Shed awakened to find herself vastly improved, deathly thirsty, and able to see clearly for the first time in weeks. The constant headaches had receded, and she noticed the overwhelming stench in the room. She took it to be a sign that she would live, for which she felt decidedly ambiguous.
The next time she woke she raised her head off the floor and looked about. She counted at least twelve souls in the room, all asleep, most dressed in rags. She was chained next to a thin, white-haired, old woman, a cocoa-colored soul with a deeply wrinkled face, who woke up coughing and hacking, then sang softly:
Way down yonder in the graveyard walk
Me and my Jesus going to meet and talk
On my knees when the light passd by
Thought my soul would rise and fly . . .
The words blew about like raindrops in the wind, floating into the attics rafters and beams and settling on Lizs ears like balm. The old woman noticed Liz watching and stopped singing.
Lord, the woman said. Id give a smooth twenty dollars for a sip of that water there.
She eyed a pot of rancid-looking water behind Lizs head.
Liz, feeling dizzy, clenched her teeth, grimly propped herself up on her elbows, and reached for the grimy bowl of filthy water. With trembling hands, she held it to the old womans lips. The woman sipped gratefully, then reached over and laid a wrinkled hand across Lizs chest.
Feel that, she said.
Liz reached up and felt it. Cold and clammy.
Im hurt inside, the woman said. Aint seen a drop of my own water, though.
Where am I? Liz asked.
You in Joes Tavern. This is Patty Cannons house.
Shes a trader of souls.
Whos Little George? Liz asked.
The old woman stared at the ceiling silently. Her sweaty face, almost waxen in the growing light, hardened, and Liz saw a grimace settle into her lips.
I never livedGod hears me speak ita sinning life, the old lady said. But if I ever get these chains off, Ill send that nigger to his milk.
Be quiet, someone hissed, fore you wake him downstairs.
The woman turned to Liz, staring intently.
You know the code?
We will rise at sunrise and rest at midnight. All that sort of thing.
Liz looked blank.
I reckon not, the woman said. You was moaning so much while you slept, I reckon the Devil was throwing dirt in your face.
I been dreaming, Liz said.
Liz hesitated. In a room full of trapped runaways, where an informant would give away anothers life for a piece of bread, there was no trust.
You aint got to fret bout nobody here, the woman said. Her hand lifted from Lizs chest and scratched a line in the dust of the floor, drawing a line between them.
Whats that? Liz asked.
When you want trust, scratch a crooked line in the dirt. Cant no slave break that line and live to tell it.
But I aint a slave, Liz said.
Around the room, she heard laughing.
Me neither, said a man lying in a corner.
More laughter and tittering.
Pay them no mind, the old woman said. Ill tell you what: You tell me your dream, Ill tell you the code.
Excerpted from Song yet Sung by Charles Frazier Copyright © 2008 by James McBride. Excerpted by permission of Riverhead Books, a division of Pengion Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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