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’s 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 Imagine 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’U 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…
The above is excerpted from “The Complete Stories” by Zora Neale Hurston. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022