John Redding Goes to Sea by Zora Neale Hurston (1921)
By Nava Atlas | On September 11, 2023 | Updated September 17, 2023 | Comments (0)
Presented here is the full text of “John Redding Goes to Sea,” the first story by Zora Neale Hurston to be published.
Launching what would become her typical style, with characters speaking in dialect, the story was first published in the May, 1921 issue of Stylus, Howard University’s literary magazine. A slightly edited version in the January, 1926, issue of Opportunity, a prominent literary journal associated with the Harlem Renaissance.
More recently, the story is included in Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick (2020) a collection of Zora’s rediscovered short stories.
Set in a nameless Florida location that recalls Eatonville, the incorporated Black town where Zora grew up, a young man named John Redding wants set off and “go roving about the world for a spell” — much to his mother’s distress.
The central message of the story is that individuals need to be free to pursue their dreams and desires, even if doing so puts them at risk and distresses those close to them.
Analyses and discussions of “John Redding Goes to Sea”
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Zora Neale Hurston in her younger days
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John Redding Goes to Sea
The villagers said that John Redding was a queer child. His mother thought he was too. She would shake her head sadly, and observe to John’s father: “Alf, it’s too bad our boy’s got a spell on ’im.”
The father always met this lament with indifference, if not impatience.
“Aw, woman, stop dat talk ’bout conjure. Tain’t so nohow. Ah doan want Jawn tuh git dat foolishness in him.”
“Cose you allus tries tuh know mo’ than me, but Ah ain’t so ign’rant. Ah knows a heap mahself. Many and many’s the people been drove outa their senses by conjuration, or rid tuh deat’ by witches.”
“Ah keep on telling yuh, woman, tain’t so. B’lieve it all you wants tuh, but dontcha tell mah son none of it.”
Perhaps ten-year-old John was puzzling to the simple folk there in the Florida woods for he was an imaginative child and fond of day-dreams. The St. John River flowed a scarce three hundred feet from his back door. On its banks at this point grow numerous palms, luxuriant magnolias and bay trees with a dense undergrowth of ferns, cat-tails and rope-grass. On the bosom of the stream float millions of delicately colored hyacinths. The little brown boy loved to wander down to the water’s edge, and, casting in dry twigs, watch them sail away down stream to Jacksonville, the sea, the wide world and John Redding wanted to follow them.
Sometimes in his dreams he was a prince, riding away in a gorgeous carriage. Often he was a knight bestride a fiery charger prancing down the white shell road that led to distant lands. At other times he was a steamboat captain piloting his craft down the St. John River to where the sky seemed to touch the water. No matter what he dreamed or who he fancied himself to be, he always ended by riding away to the horizon; for in his childish ignorance he thought this to be farthest land.
But these twigs, which John called his ships, did not always sail away. Sometimes they would be swept in among the weeds growing in the shallow water, and be held there. One day his father came upon him scolding the weeds for stopping his sea-going vessels.
“Let go mah ships! You ole mean weeds you!” John screamed and stamped impotently. “They wants tuh go ’way. You let ’em go on!”
Alfred laid his hand on his son’s head lovingly. “What’s mattah, son?”
“Mah ships, pa,” the child answered weeping. “Ah throwed ’em in to go way off an’ them ole weeds won’t let ’em.”
“Well, well, doan cry. Ah thought youse uh grown up man. Men doan cry lak babies. You mustn’t take it too hard ’bout yo’ ships. You gotta git uster things gittin’ tied up. They’s lotser folks that ’ud go on off too ef somethin’ didn’ ketch ’em an’ hol’ ’em!”
Alfred Redding’s brown face grew wistful for a moment, and the child noticing it, asked quickly: “Do weeds tangle up folks too, pa?”
“Now, no, chile, doan be takin’ too much stock of what Ah say. Ah talks in parables sometimes. Come on, les go on tuh supper.”
Alf took his son’s hand, and started slowly toward the house. Soon John broke the silence.
“Pa, when Ah gets as big as you Ah’m goin’ farther than them ships. Ah’m goin’ to where the sky touches the ground.”
“Well, son, when Ah wuz a boy Ah said Ah wuz goin’ too, but heah Ah am. Ah hopes you have bettah luck than me.”
“Pa, Ah betcha Ah seen somethin’ in th’ woodlot you ain’t seen!”
“See dat tallest pine tree ovah dere how it looks like a skull wid a crown on?”
“Yes, indeed!” said the father looking toward the tree designated. “It do look lak a skull since you call mah ’tention to it. You ’magine lotser things nobody else evah did, son!”
“Sometimes, Pa dat ole tree waves at me just aftah th’ sun goes down, an’ makes me sad an’ skeered, too.”
“Ah specks youse skeered of de dahk, thas all, sonny. When you gits biggah you won’t think of sich.”
Hand in hand the two trudged across the plowed land and up to the house, the child dreaming of the days when he should wander to far countries, and the man of the days when he might have—and thus they entered the kitchen.
Matty Redding, John’s mother, was setting the table for supper. She was a small wiry woman with large eyes that might have been beautiful when she was young, but too much weeping had left them watery and weak.
“Matty,” Alf began as he took his place at the table, “dontcha know our boy is different from any othah chile roun’ heah. He ’lows he’s goin’ to sea when he gits grown, an’ Ah reckon Ah’ll let ’im.”
The woman turned from the stove, skillet in hand. “Alf, you ain’t gone crazy, is you? John kain’t help wantin’ tuh stray off, cause he’s got a spell on ’im; but you oughter be shamed to be encouragin’ him.”
“Ain’t Ah done tol’ you forty times not tuh tahk dat low-life mess in front of mah boy?”
“Well, ef tain’t no conjure in de world, how come Mitch Potts been layin’ on his back six mont’s an’ de doctah kain’t do ’im no good? Answer me dat. The very night John wuz bawn, Granny seed ole Witch Judy Davis creepin outer dis yahd. You know she had swore tuh fix me fuh marryin’ you, ’way from her darter Edna. She put travel dust down fuh mah chile, dat’s whut she done, tuh make him walk ’way fum me. An’ evuh sence he’s been able tuh crawl, he’s been tryin tuh go.”
“Matty, a man doan need no travel dust tuh make ’im wanter hit de road. It jes’ comes natcheral fuh er man tuh travel. Dey all wants tuh go at some time or other but they kain’t all get away. Ah wants mah John tuh go an’ see cause Ah wanted to go mah self. When he comes back Ah kin see them furrin places wid his eyes. He kain’t help wantin’ tuh go cause he’s a man chile!”
Mrs. Redding promptly went off into a fit of weeping but the man and boy ate supper unmoved. Twelve years of married life had taught Alfred that far from being miserable when she wept, his wife was enjoying a bit of self-pity.
Thus John Redding grew to manhood, playing, studying and dreaming. He attended the village school as did most of the youth about him, but he also went to high school at the county seat where none of the villagers went. His father shared his dreams and ambitions, but his mother could not understand why he should wish to go strange places where neither she nor his father had been. No one of their community had ever been farther away than Jacksonville. Few indeed had ever been there. Their own gardens, general store, and occasional trips to the county seat—seven miles away—sufficed for all their needs. Life was simple indeed with these folk.
John was the subject of much discussion among the country folk. Why didn’t he teach school instead of thinking about strange places and people? Did he think himself better than any of the “gals” there about that he would not go a-courting any of them? He must be “fixed” as his mother claimed, else where did his queer notions come from? Well, he was always queer, and one could not expect the man to be different from the child. They never failed to stop work at the approach of Alfred in order to be at the fence and inquire after John’s health and ask when he expected to leave.
“Oh,” Alfred would answer. “Jes’ as soon as his mah gits reconciled to th’ notion. He’s a mighty dutiful boy, mah John is. He doan wanna hurt her feelings.”
The boy had on several occasions attempted to reconcile his mother to the notion, but found it a difficult task. Matty always took refuge in self-pity and tears. Her son’s desires were incomprehensible to her, that was all. She did not want to hurt him. It was love, mother love, that made her cling so desperately to John.
“Lawd knows,” she would sigh, “Ah nevah wuz happy an’ nevah specks tuh be.”
“An’ from yo’ actions,” put in Alfred hotly, “you’s determined not to be.”
“Thas right, Alfred, go on an’ ’buse me. You allus does. Ah knows Ah’m ign’rant an’ all dat, but dis is mah son. Ah bred an’ born ’im. He kain’t help from wantin’ to go rovin’ cause travel dust been put down fuh him. But mebbe we kin cure ’im by disincouragin’ the idee.”
“Well, Ah wants mah son tuh go; an’ he wants tuh go too. He’s a man now, Matty. An’ we mus’ let John hoe his own row. If it’s travelin’ twon’t be foh long. He’ll come back to us bettah than when he went off. What do you say, son?”
“Mamma,” John began slowly, “it hurts me to see you so troubled over my going away; but I feel that I must go. I’m stagnating here. This indolent atmosphere will stifle every bit of ambition that’s in me. Let me go mamma, please. What is there here for me? Why, sometimes I get to feeling just like a lump of dirt turned over by the plow—just where it falls there’s where it lies—no thought or movement or nothing. I wanter make myself something—not just stay where I was born.”
“Naw, John, it’s bettah for you to stay heah and take over the school. Why don’t you marry and settle down?”
“I don’t want to, mamma. I want to go away.”
“Well,” said Mrs. Redding, pursing her mouth tightly, “you ainta goin’ wid mah consent!”
“I’m sorry mamma, that you won’t consent. I am going nevertheless.”
“John, John, mah baby! You wouldn’t kill yo’ po’ ole mamma, would you? Come, kiss me, son.”
The boy flung his arms about his mother and held her closely while she sobbed on his breast. To all of her pleas, however, he answered that he must go.
“I’ll stay at home this year, mamma, then I’ll go for a while, but it won’t be long. I’ll come back and make you and papa oh so happy. Do you agree, mamma dear?”
“Ah reckon tain’ nothin’ tall fuh me to do else.”
Things went on very well around the Redding home for some time. During the day John helped his father about the farm and read a great deal at night.
Then the unexpected happened. John married Stella Kanty, a neighbor’s daughter. The courtship was brief but ardent—on John’s part at least. He danced with Stella at a candy-pulling, walked with her home and in three weeks had declared himself. Mrs. Redding declared that she was happier than she had ever been in her life. She therefore indulged in a whole afternoon of weeping. John’s change was occasioned possibly by the fact that Stella was really beautiful; he was young and red-blooded, and the time was spring.
Spring-time in Florida is not a matter of peeping violets or bursting buds merely. It is a riot of color in nature—glistening green leaves, pink, blue, purple, yellow blossoms that fairly stagger the visitor from the north. The miles of hyacinths lie like an undulating carpet on the surface of the river and divide reluctantly when the slow-moving alligators push their way log-like across. The nights are white nights for the moon shines with dazzling splendor, or in the absence of that goddess, the soft darkness creeps down laden with innumerable scents. The heavy fragrance of magnolias mingled with the delicate sweetness of jasmine and wild roses.
If time and propinquity conquered John, what then? These forces have overcome older men.
The raptures of the first few weeks over, John began to saunter out to the gate to gaze wistfully down the white dusty road; or to wander again to the river as he had done in childhood. To be sure he did not send forth twig-ships any longer, but his thoughts would in spite of himself, stray down river to Jacksonville, the sea, the wide world—and poor home-tied John Redding wanted to follow them.
He grew silent and pensive. Matty accounted for this by her ever-ready explanation of “conjuration.” Alfred said nothing but smoked and puttered about the barn more than ever. Stella accused her husband of indifference and made his life miserable with tears, accusations and pouting. At last John decided to bring matters to a head and broached the subject to his wife.
“Stella, dear, I want to go roving about the world for a spell. Would you stay here with papa and mamma and wait for me to come back?”
“John, is you crazy sho’ nuff? If you don’t want me, say so an’ I kin go home to mah folks.”
“Stella, darling, I do want you, but I want to go away too. I can have both if you’ll let me. We’ll be so happy when I return . . .”
“Naw, John, you kain’t rush me off one side like that. You didn’t hafta marry me. There’s a plenty othahs that would have been glad enuff tuh get me; you know Ah wan’t educated befo’ han’.”
“Don’t make me too conscious of my weakness, Stella. I know I should never have married with my inclinations, but it’s done now, no use to talk about what is past. I love you and want to keep you, but I can’t stifle that longing for the open road, rolling seas, for peoples and countries I have never seen. I’m suffering too, Stella, I’m paying for my rashness in marrying before I was ready. I’m not trying to shirk my duty—you’ll be well taken care of in the meanwhile.”
“John, folks allus said youse queer and tol’ me not to marry yuh, but Ah jes’ loved yuh so Ah couldn’t help it, an’ now to think you wants tuh sneak off an’ leave me.”
“But I’m coming back, darling . . . listen Stella.”
But the girl would not. Matty came in and Stella fell into her arms weeping. John’s mother immediately took up arms against him. The two women carried on such an effective war against him for the next few days that finally Alfred was forced to take his son’s part.
“Matty, let dat boy alone, Ah tell you! Ef he wuz uh homebuddy he’d be drove ’way by you all’s racket.”
“Well, Alf, dat’s all we po’ wimmen kin do. We wants our husbands an’ our sons. John’s got uh wife now, an’ he ain’t got no business to be talkin’ ’bout goin’ nowheres. I ’lowed dat marryin’ Stella would settle him.”
“Yas, dat’s all you wimmen study ’bout —settlin’ some man. You takes all de get-up out of ’em. Jes’ let uh fellah mak uh motion lak gettin’ somewhere, an’ some ’oman’ll begin tuh hollah, ‘Stop theah! where’s you goin’? Don’t fuhgit you b’longs tuh me.’ ”
“My Gawd! Alf! Whut you reckon Stella’s gwine do? Let John walk off an’ leave huh?”
“Naw, git outer huh foolishness an’ go ’long wid him. He’d take huh.”
“Stella ain’t got no call tuh go crazy ’cause John is. She ain’t no woman tuh be floppin’ roun’ from place tuh place lak some uh dese reps follerin’ uh section gang.”
The man turned abruptly from his wife and stood in the kitchen door. A blue haze hung over the river and Alfred’s attention seemed fixed upon this. In reality his thoughts were turned inward. He was thinking of the numerous occasions upon which he and his son had sat on the fallen log at the edge of the water and talked of John’s proposed travels. He had encouraged his son, given him every advantage his own poor circumstances would permit. And now John was home-tied.
The young man suddenly turned the corner of the house and approached his father.
“Where’s mamma and Stella?”
The older man merely jerked his thumb toward the interior of the house and once more gazed pensively toward the river. John entered the kitchen and kissed his mother fondly.
“Great news, mamma.”
“Got a chance to join the Navy, mamma, and go all around the world. Ain’t that grand?”
“John, you shorely ain’t gointer leave me an’ Stella, is yuh?”
“Yes, I think I am. I know how both of you feel, but I know how I feel, also. You preach to me the gospel of self-sacrifice for the happiness of others, but you are unwilling to practice any of it yourself. Stella can stay here—I am going to support her and spend all the time I can with her. I am going—that’s settled, but I want to go with your good will. I want to do something worthy of a strong man. I have done nothing so far but look to you and papa for everything. Let me learn to strive and think—in short, be a man.”
“Naw, John, Ah’ll nevah give mah consent. I know yous hard-headed jes’ lak yo’ paw; but if you leave dis place ovah mah head, Ah nevah wants you tuh come back heah no mo. Ef Ah wuz laid on de coolin’ board, Ah doan want yuh standin’ ovah me, young man. Doan even come neah mah grave, you ongrateful wretch!”
Mrs. Redding arose and flung out of the room. For once, she was too incensed to cry. John stood in his tracks, gone cold and numb at his mother’s pronouncement. Alfred, too, was moved. Mrs. Redding banged the bed-room door violently and startled John slightly. Alfred took his son’s arm, saying softly: “Come, son, let’s go down to the river.”
At the water’s edge they halted for a short space before seating themselves on the log. The sun was setting in a purple cloud. Hundreds of mosquito hawks darted here and there, catching gnats and being themselves caught by the lightning-swift bullbats. John abstractly snapped in two the stalk of a slender young bamboo. Taking no note of what he was doing, he broke it into short lengths and tossed them singly into the stream. The old man watched him silently for a while, but finally he said: “Oh, yes, my boy, some ships get tangled in the weeds.”
“Yes, papa, they certainly do. I guess I’m beaten—might as well surrender.”
“Nevah say die. Yuh nevah kin tell what will happen.”
“What can happen? I have courage enough to make things happen; but what can I do against mamma! What man wants to go on a long journey with his mother’s curses ringing in his ears? She doesn’t understand. I’ll wait another year, but I am going because I must.”
Alfred threw an arm about his son’s neck and drew him nearer but quickly removed it. Both men instantly drew apart, ashamed for having been so demonstrative. The father looked off to the woodlot and asked with a reminiscent smile: “Son, do you remember showin’ me the tree dat looked lak a skeleton head?”
“Yes, I do. It’s there still. I look at it sometimes when things have become too painful for me at the house, and I run down here to cool off and think. And every time I look at it, papa, it laughs at me like it had some grim joke up its sleeve.”
“Yuh wuz always imaginin’ things, John; things that nobody else evah thought on!”
“You know, papa, sometimes—I reckon my longing to get away makes me feel this way. . . . I feel that I am just earth, soil lying helpless to move myself, but thinking. I seem to hear herds of big beasts like horses and cows thundering over me, and rains beating down; and winds sweeping furiously over—all acting upon me, but me, well, just soil, feeling but not able to take part in it all. Then a soft wind like love passes over and warms me, and a summer rain comes down like understanding and softens me, and I push a blade of grass or a flower, or maybe a pine tree—that’s the ground thinking. Plants are ground thoughts, because the soil can’t move itself. Whenever I see little whirls of dust sailing down the road I always step aside—don’t want to stop ’em ’cause they’re on their shining way—moving! Oh, yes, I’m a dreamer. . . . I have such wonderfully complete dreams, papa. They never come true. But even as my dreams fade I have others.”
“Yas, son, Ah have them same feelings exactly, but Ah can’t find no words lak you do. It seems lak you an’ me see wid de same eyes, hear wid de same ears an’ even feel de same inside. Only thing you kin talk it an’ Ah can’t. But anyhow you speaks for me, so whut’s the difference?”
The men arose without more conversation. Possibly they feared to trust themselves to speech. As they walked leisurely toward the house Alfred remarked the freshness of the breeze.
“It’s about time the rains set in,” added his son. “The year is wearin’ on.”
After a gloomy supper John strolled out into the spacious front yard and seated himself beneath a China-berry tree. The breeze had grown a trifle stronger since sunset and continued from the south-east. Matty and Stella sat on the deep front porch, but Alfred joined John under the tree. The family was divided into two armed camps and the hostilities had reached that stage where no quarter could be asked or given.
About nine o’clock an automobile came flying down the dusty white road and halted at the gate. A white man slammed the gate and hurried up the walk toward the house, but stopped abruptly before the men beneath the China-berry. It was Mr. Hill, the builder of the new bridge that was to span the river.
“Howdy John, Howdy Alf. I’m mighty glad I found you. I am in trouble.”
“Well now, Mist’ Hill,” answered Alfred slowly but pleasantly. “We’se glad you foun’ us too. What trouble could you be having now?”
“It’s the bridge. The weather bureau says that the rains will be upon me in forty-eight hours. If it catches the bridge as it is now, I’m afraid all my work of the past five months will be swept away, to say nothing of a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of labor and material. I’ve got all my men at work now and I thought to get as many extra hands as I could t0 help out tonight and tomorrow. We can make her weather tight in that time if I can get about twenty more.”
“I’ll go, Mister Hill,” said John with a great deal of energy. “I don’t want papa out on that bridge—too dangerous.”
“Good for you, John!” cried the white man. “Now if I had a few more men of your brawn and brain, I could build an entirely new bridge in forty-eight hours. Come on and jump into the car. I am taking the men on down as I find them.”
“Wait a minute. I must put on my blue jeans. I won’t be long.”
John arose and strode to the house. He knew that his mother and wife had overheard everything, but he paused for a moment to speak to them.
“Mamma, I am going to work all night on the bridge.”
There was no answer. He turned to his wife.
“Stella, don’t be lonesome. I will be home at day-break.”
His wife was as silent as his mother. John stood for a moment on the steps, then resolutely strode past the women and into the house. A few minutes later he emerged clad in his blue overalls and brogans. This time he said nothing to the silent figures rocking back and forth on the porch. But when he was a few feet from the steps he called back: “Bye, mamma; bye, Stella,” and hurried on down the walk to where his father sat.
“So long, papa. I’ll be home around seven.”
Alfred roused himself and stood. Placing both hands upon his son’s broad shoulders he said softly: “Be keerful son, don’t fall or nothin’.”
“I will, papa. Don’t you get into a quarrel on my account.”
John hurried on to the waiting car and was whirled away.
Alfred sat for a long time beneath the tree where his son had left him and smoked on. The women soon went indoors. On the night breeze were borne numerous scents: of jasmine, of roses, of damp earth of the river, of the pine forest near by. A solitary whip-poor-will sent forth his plaintive call from the nearby shrubbery. A giant owl roared and boomed from the woodlot. The calf confined in the barn would bleat and be answered by his mother’s sympathetic “moo” from the pen. Away down in Lake Howell Creek the basso profundo of the alligators boomed and died, boomed and died.
Around ten o’clock the breeze freshened, growing stiffer until midnight when it became a gale. Alfred fastened the doors and bolted the wooden shutters at the windows. The three persons sat about a round deal table in the kitchen upon which stood a bulky kerosene lamp, flickering and sputtering in the wind that came in through the numerous cracks in the walls. The wind rushed down the chimney blowing puffs of ashes about the room. It banged the cooking utensils on the walls. The drinking gourd hanging outside by the door played a weird tattoo, hollow and unearthly, against the thin wooden wall.
The man and the women sat silently. Even if there had been no storm they would not have talked. They could not go to bed because the women were afraid to retire during a storm and the man wished to stay awake and think with his son. Thus they sat: the women hot with resentment toward the man and terrified by the storm; the man hardly mindful of the tempest but eating his heart out in pity for his boy. Time wore heavily on.
And now a new element of terror was added. A screech-owl alighted on the roof and shivered forth his doleful cry. Possibly he had been blown out of his nest by the wind. Matty started up at the sound but fell back in her chair, pale and trembling: “My Gawd!” she gasped, “dat’s a sho’ sign uh death.”
Stella hurriedly thrust her hand into the salt-jar and threw some into the chimney of the lamp. The color of the flame changed from yellow to blue-green but this burning of salt did not have the desired effect—to drive away the bird from the roof. Matty slipped out of her blue calico wrapper and turned it wrong side out before replacing it. Even Alfred turned one sock.
“Alf,” said Matty, “what do you reckon’s gonna happen from this?”
“How do Ah know, Matty?”
“Ah wisht John hadn’t went away from heah tuh night.”
Outside the tempest raged. The palms rattled dryly and the giant pines groaned and sighed in the grip of the wind. Flying leaves and pine-mast filled the air. Now and then a brilliant flash of lightning disclosed a bird being blown here and there with the wind. The prodigious roar of the thunder seemed to rock the earth. Black clouds hung so low that the tops of the pines were among them moving slowly before the wind and made the darkness awful. The screech-owl continued his tremulous cry.
After three o’clock the wind ceased and the rain commenced. Huge drops clattered down upon the shingle roof like buckshot and ran from the eaves in torrents. It entered the house through the cracks in the walls and under the doors. It was a deluge in volume and force but subsided before morning.
The sun came up brightly on the havoc of the wind and rain calling forth millions of feathered creatures. The white sand everywhere was full of tiny cups dug out by the force of the falling raindrops. The rims of the little depressions crunched noisily underfoot.
At daybreak Mr. Redding set out for the bridge. He was uneasy. On arriving he found that the river had risen twelve feet during the cloudburst and was still rising. The slow St. John was swollen far beyond its banks and rushing on to sea like a mountain stream, sweeping away houses, great blocks of earth, cattle, trees—in short anything that came within its grasp. Even the steel framework of the new bridge was gone!
The siren of the fibre factory was tied down for half an hour, announcing the disaster to the country side. When Alfred arrived therefore he found nearly all the men of the district there.
The river, red and swollen, was full of floating debris. Huge trees were swept along as relentlessly as chicken coops and fence rails. Some steel piles were all that was left of the bridge.
Alfred went down to a group of men who were fishing members of the ill-fated construction gang out of the water. Many were able to swim ashore unassisted. Wagons backed up and were hurriedly driven away loaded with wet shivering men. Two men had been killed outright, others seriously wounded. Three men had been drowned. At last all had been accounted for except John Redding. His father ran here and there asking for him, or calling him. No one knew where he was. No one remembered seeing him since daybreak.
Dozens of women had arrived at the scene of the disaster by this time. Matty and Stella, wrapped in woolen shawls, were among them. They rushed to Alfred in alarm and asked where was John.
“Ah doan know,” answered Alfred impatiently, “that’s what Ah’m trying to fin’ out now.”
“Do you reckon he’s run away?” asked Stella thoughtlessly.
Matty bristled instantly.
“Naw,” she answered sternly, “he ain’t no sneak.”
The father turned to Fred Mimms, one of the survivors and asked him where John was and how had the bridge been destroyed.
“Yuh see,” said Mimms, “when dat turrible win’ come up we wuz out ’bout de middle of de river. Some of us wuz on de bridge, some on de derrick. De win’ blowed so hahd we could skeercely stan’ and Mist’ Hill tol’ us tuh set down fuh a spell. He’s ’fraid some of us mought go overboard. Den all of a sudden de lights went out—guess de wires wuz blowed down. We wuz all skeered tuh move for slippin’ overboard. Den dat rain commenced—an’ Ah nevah seed such a down-pour since de flood. We set dere and someone begins tuh pray. Lawd how we did pray tuh be spared! Den somebody raised a song an’ we sung, you hear me, we sung from de bottom of our hearts till daybreak. When the first light come we couldn’t see nothin’ but fog everywhere. You couldn’t tell which wuz water an’ which wuz lan’. But when de sun come up de fog begin to liff, an’ we could see de water. Dat fog wuz so thick an’ heavy dat it wuz huggin’ dat river lak a windin’ sheet. And when it rose we saw dat de river had rose way up durin’ the rain. My Gawd, Alf! it wuz runnin’ high—so high it nearly teched de span of de bridge—an’ red as blood! So much clay, you know from lan’ she done overflowed. Comin’ down stream, as fas’ as ’press train wuz three big pine trees. De first one wuzn’t fohty feet from us and there wasn’t no chance to do nothin’ but pray. De fust one struck us and shook de whole works an’ befo’ it could stop shakin’ the other two hit us an’ down we went. Ah thought Ah’d never see home again.”
“But, Mimms, where’s John?”
“Ah ain’t seen him, Alf, since de logs struck us. Mebbe he’s swum ashore, mebbe dey picked him up. What’s dat floatin’ way out dere in de water?”
Alfred shaded his eyes with his gnarled brown hand and gazed out into the stream. Sure enough there was a man floating on a piece of timber. He lay prone upon his back. His arms were outstretched, and the water washed over his brogans but his feet were lifted out of the water whenever the timber was buoyed up by the stream. His blue overalls were nearly torn from his body. A heavy piece of steel or timber had struck him in falling for his left side was laid open by the thrust. A great jagged hole wherein the double fists of a man might be thrust, could plainly be seen from the shore. The man was John Redding.
Everyone seemed to see him at once. Stella fell to the wet earth in a faint. Matty clung to her husband’s arm, weeping hysterically. Alfred stood very erect with his wife clinging tearfully to him, but he said nothing. A single tear hung on his lashes for a time then trickled slowly down his wrinkled brown cheek.
“Alf! Alf!” screamed Matty, “dere’s our son. Ah knowed when Ah heard dat owl las’ night. . . .”
“Ah see ’im, Matty,” returned her husband softly.
“Why is yuh standin’ heah? Go git mah boy.”
The men were manning a boat to rescue the remains of John Redding when Alfred spoke again.
“Mah po’ boy, his dreams never come true.”
“Alf,” complained Matty, “why doantcher hurry an’ git my boy—doantcher see he’s floatin’ on off?”
Her husband paid her no attention but addressed himself to the rescue-party.
“You all stop! Leave my boy go on. Doan stop ’im. Doan’ bring ’im back for dat ole tree to grin at. Leave him g’wan. He wants tuh go. Ah’m happy ’cause dis mawnin’ mah boy is goin’ tuh sea, he’s goin’ tuh sea.”
Out on the bosom of the river, bobbing up and down as if waving good bye, piloting his little craft on the shining river road, John Redding floated away toward Jacksonville, the sea, the wide world—at last.
. . . . . . . . . . .
More full texts of Zora Neale short stories
- “Spunk” (full text; 1925)
- “Sweat” (full text; 1926 and an analysis here)
- “The Gilded Six-Bits” (full text; 1933; and an analysis here)