Hiram decides that he must conduct Thena and Sophia to freedom on his own, and sets out to tell each of them separately about his work with the Underground. One night when Caroline is sleeping with Thena, Hiram tells Sophia the truth about where he was and what he did while he was away from Lockless. He also tells of his promise to get her and Thena out. Then he takes Sophia to the river Goose to show her how he plans to get them out, using Conduction.
To perform Conduction, Hiram holds the toy horse and tells the story of the last holiday they all spent together, when Hiram watched Sophia water dancing. As he speaks, fog rises over the river and they see the phantoms of the people they shared that holiday with. They cross the river via Conduction several times, until Sophia gets the hang of it. The final time they cross, Hiram conducts them all the way back to their house on the Street.
That night, Sophia tells Hiram the story of where water dancing comes from. Once an African chief came over on a slave ship with his people. When they got close to shore they killed the whites and tried to sail back home. But the ship ran aground and the whites’ army starting coming for them. So the chief told all his people to walk into the water singing and dancing. He said the water-goddess that brought them there would bring them back home. The water dance is a form of giving praise for those people who water danced all those years ago. Hiram tells Sophia that his plan is to set her and Caroline up somewhere and come see them from time to time. But Sophia tells Hiram that they are a unit, and she won’t go anywhere without him.
The following day, Sophia pretends to be sick in order to give Hiram a chance to speak with Thena while they do the laundry. At the end of a long day of work, Hiram tells Thena that he has seen her daughter, Kessiah. He explains his role in the Underground and his intention to get her out. At first, Thena reminisces about her daughter. But then she weeps and gets angry with Hiram. She tells him it took her a great deal of work to come to peace with the loss of her children, and now Hiram has undone all of that. Hiram is determined to unlock his lost memories and conduct Thena.
The following day, Hiram sends a coded letter via the Philadelphia Underground to let Harriet know what he will be attempting. When his father falls asleep in the afternoon, he goes into his study and eyes an ornate rosewood box that he longed to open many years ago. He opens it and finds the necklace of shells that he envisioned his mother handing to him on the day that Maynard died. Hiram puts the necklace on and feels a wave ripple through his body, which he recognizes as the force of memory. Finally, he is able to remember his mother and the full story of her departure.
That night Corrine comes over for dinner and Hawkins speaks with Hiram. Hawkins says that Hiram’s plans to go against the wishes of the Virginia station is not the way that he would do it. But also that Hiram is free and must act according to his own sense.
Thena moves back into her room in the Warrens. One day, Hiram sees her crying and she opens up to him about the pain of losing her children, as well as the pain of raising Hi and losing him too when he ran away. Thena worries about how she will react when she sees Kessiah. She weeps and Hiram holds her. Two weeks pass and Hiram receives no reply from Harriet. Figuring he will receive no help, Hiram decides to conduct Thena on his own. On a Saturday night, he takes Thena down to the river Goose and begins to conduct her by telling the story of his mother.
Hiram remembers how his mother ran away from Lockless carrying him. For three nights they ran in the forest. But Ryland’s Hounds caught them and brought them to the jail in Starfall. When Howell came for them, he asked Rose why she left and what he had done to push her away. But Rose did not reply and Howell got angry and left. Rose handed the shell necklace to Hiram and said goodbye. Then Howell returned with the hounds and tore Hiram yelling and crying away from his mother.
Howell traded Rose for a horse and returned to Lockless with Hiram. Still enraged, Howell took the shell necklace from Hiram. The next morning Hiram ran to the stables and saw the horse for which his father traded his mother. He cried and for the first time in his life conducted himself, via the trough of water, back to the cabin he was once shared with his mother. The pain of the memory was too difficult for him to bear and he forgot it.
Eventually, Thena begins to feel like a heavy weight on Hiram’s arm. They begin to sink back into the fog and Hiram finds himself at a loss for words. Suddenly, Harriet appears with Kessiah and they are floating again. Harriet takes over the conduction of Thena, and Kessiah tells an exhausted Hiram to go back home.
Hiram wakes up in a room at the Starfall Inn. Hawkins explains that Sophia found him in the morning outside her cabin, feverish and mumbling. She sent for them in Starfall and they told Howell that he needed to be brought into town for treatment. Hiram rests and in the evening he speaks to Corrine. He explains that Conduction is a power older than the Underground, and he must be loyal to that legacy. Those he loves are not cargo, they are his salvation, and if he is presented with an opportunity to save them he will do so.
The following fall, Howell dies and Hiram finally understands the depth of Corrine’s plan. Howell had driven Lockless completely into debt. Corinne Quinn rescues Lockless from debt under the condition that the estate and all of its Tasked become her property. Following Howell’s death, they arrange Lockless to appear like an estate of old Virginia but to function like a station of the Underground. They set up the remaining Tasked in free states and replace them with agents. Hiram remains with Sophia and Caroline and takes over the stewardship of the estate.
In the last chapters of The Water Dancer, Hiram finally learns the origins of water dancing and its connection to Conduction. Sophia, who grew up water dancing, tells the story about the origin of the practice. An African chief and his people rebelled against the whites on a slave ship. But when their ship ran aground he told them to enter the water singing and dancing. In this way he conducted them back to Africa, saying the water-goddess that brought them there would carry them back home.
Water dancing is thus a symbol of freedom and of a deep connection with the earth. Coates draws a contrast between the slave-owning class, which abuses the land until it is dead, and the Tasked, whose ancestors he suggests held a stronger respect for the earth’s elements. The novel implies that the original water dancers had such a deep connection with the water goddess that Conduction was a known practice among them. And there are still some, like Santi Bess, Hiram, and Harriet, who have inherited this power and strive to maintain this connection.
The practice of water dancing is a symbol of freedom because it pays respect to those who danced and sang their way to freedom across the water. It is also an act of freedom in the day-to-day, because it is one of the rare moments when the Tasked are able to move their bodies freely and joyfully, of their own accord.
Moreover, Sophia says that they have “flipped” the dance, “as we must do all things, make a way out of what is given.” Long ago the elders walked into the water, submerging their legs in its waves. Now, the Tasked may not be free enough to do so. But they dance with water balanced on their heads instead. This flipping refers to the power of Conduction itself, which makes it possible to travel from underwater up to the land, as Hiram did once did from the river Goose. To flip something is also, as Sophia says, to “make a way out of what is given,” finding ways to rebel and to seek freedom in any manner possible.
Just as Hiram discovers the truth about water dancing, in the final chapters of the novel Hiram finally finds the object that unlocks his lost memories: the shell necklace. Hi always knew that his father had sold his mother. But now he fully understands the cruel manner in which this happened. When Howell comes to see Rose and Hiram at Ryland’s Jail, he asks Rose why she ran, and what he ever did to push her so. Rose does not reply and a young Hiram sees pain in his father’s eyes. But even at that age, he knows that Howell’s pain is really only for himself. This is because Rose has seen through Howell’s lies and knows what kind of man he really is. Howell’s pride is damaged and he becomes enraged. It is in this fit of rage that he commits an egotistical act motivated by his own pride. He does not only sell Rose. He trades her for a horse and then takes from Hiram the one memory he has of her: the shell necklace.
The shell necklace thus becomes another powerful symbol of memory. After Hiram conducts Thena and returns to Lockless, he kneels next to his father in such a way that Howell is sure to catch a glimpse of the shell necklace around Hiram’s neck. Hiram does so because “I wanted him to know that I now knew all that he knew; that to forgive was irrelevant, but to forget was death.” There is a strong parallelism between this moment and Rose’s refusal to reply to Howell.
Without using her words, Rose let Howell know that she saw right through his lies. In this way, she damaged his pride, which was the only weapon she could use against him to hurt him. Perhaps she could have said that she was sorry and sucked up to Howell so that he would take her back. But she preferred to remain true to her own dignity and desire for freedom, which is the only thing that Howell couldn’t take away from her.
When Hiram first clasps the shell necklace around his neck, he feels the force of memory ripple through his body. This is the object that acts like the missing piece of the puzzle, allowing Hiram to reconnect with his blocked memories. Hiram understands that he willfully forgot his mother because he “was too young to bear what happened, too young to survive with the memory.” What his father did to his mother was so horrible and traumatic that he had to block it from his memory in order to keep on living.
When Hiram finally discovers the truth, he feels an urge to kill his father right then and there. But he doesn’t do this due to all of the people he loves who are counting on him. Instead, he performs a small act of rebellion like the one his mother did at Ryland’s Jail. Without using any words, Hiram informs his father that he knows the full story of what he did to his mother, and thus knows what kind of man Howell really is.