Mabel escapes one night from the plantation with only a whispered goodbye to Cora nestled at her side. She runs into the swamp, orienting herself by the north star. As she runs, she remembers Moses. When he was little, Moses was so frail no one thought he would survive. His mother, Kate, nursed him to health, only to be sold off when he was a boy. Moses’s first few whippings made him a silent and strong worker. He was the fastest cotton picker in the field.
Then Connelly made him a boss and he became cruel. He raped Mabel in the schoolhouse one day. When she tried to fight him off that first time, he smiled and suggested he go find Cora instead, who was eight years old at the time. Mabel didn’t fight him anymore, and he kept raping her.
Mabel also remembers her close friend, Polly. She and Polly grew up together on the plantation. They began working in the cotton fields on the same day. They became pregnant at the same time, and delivered their babies within two weeks of each other. But while Mabel’s daughter, Cora, lived, Polly’s was stillborn. Polly hung herself with hemp string in the barn after that.
One night, Mabel realized she wanted to survive, and the next she ran away. She had to leave Cora behind. Cora’s father, Grayson, was sold to the southern half of the plantation when Mabel was fourteen. She picked him out the first day she saw him. They were in love, and he planned to buy their freedom. She knew it wasn’t possible but believed him anyway. He died of fever before Mabel knew she was pregnant with Cora.
Mabel tires of running in the swamp. She rests on the ground and takes a bite of a turnip from her sack, uprooted from her vegetable garden for her escape. That plot is her inheritance from her mother, Ajarry. The sound of the swamp envelops her: the insects and reptiles, cranes and otters. She lies on the damp earth in freedom.
Suddenly, Mabel realizes she has to go back to Cora. Her daughter is waiting for her. She should share this moment of freedom with her, and Cora would understand there is life beyond the plantation. She could be back before dawn.
As she rushes through the swamp, back to her daughter, Mabel disturbs a snake hidden in the reeds. It bites her in the calf and in the thigh. At first, she thinks it is a water snake. Then her mouth gets minty and her leg tingles, and she realizes it is a cottonmouth. She makes it another mile until she lies down on a patch of of soft moss. There, the swamp swallows her up.
The last interval in the novel, and perhaps the most important, Chapter 11 finally tells the story of Mabel, Cora’s mother. Cora’s anger and resentment at her mother, it turns out, is misguided: Mabel died of a snake bite while trying to return to her daughter. Readers also learn the story of Cora’s father, Grayson. It turns out that Cora was born out of a loving union between Mabel and Grayson, a detail about Cora’s origins that punctuates the final pages of Cora’s story.
The placement of Mabel’s story here, between the final two chapters of Cora’s saga, provides a poignant conclusion to the ongoing parallel between the stories of Cora and Mabel. Throughout the novel, readers are led to believe that Mabel successfully escaped, making it to freedom. Maybe she left her daughter behind, but at least she provided a model for Cora’s escape, a reminder of what is possible. Indeed, Ridgeway points to Mabel as the ultimate example of a slave who got away, the driving force behind his dogged pursuit of Cora.
This chapter reveals, however, that Mabel never made it to freedom. She died alone in the swamp, still in the liminal space between the plantation and the rest of the world, on a journey back to slavery. Readers are about to discover whether Cora’s journey will end the same way, in death, or if she will escape as her mother never did. Either way, this chapter severed the novel-length cord that ties Cora’s story to Mabel’s.
Mabel’s story also provides another brief meditation on freedom, suggesting a different answer for what freedom looks like. Resting briefly during her escape, Mabel lies on her back and takes in her setting: the swamp. She watches the sky and its constellations and listens to the sounds of birds and otters. Some part of her lets go. Meanwhile, she eats turnips that she has uprooted from the vegetable patch back on Randall, literally reaping the rewards of her own free labor. This, according to the narrator, is freedom—resting when weary, enjoying the fruits of one’s own work, and unity with the environment.