“… and they ran. The gushing water ran faster. The great body was held back, but rivers spouted through fissures in the rolling wall and broke like day. The three fugitives ran past another line of shanties that topped a slight rise and gained a little. They cried out as best they could, ‘De lake is comin’!’ and barred doors flew open and others joined them in flight crying the same as they went. ‘De lake is comin’!’ and the pursuing waters growled and shouted ahead, ‘Yes, Ah’m comin’!’, and those who could fled on.
– Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
I love this passage. I’d say I’ve loved it forever but really, having loved it since eleventh (twelfth?) grade isn’t long enough to use such an expansive time frame. Let us just say that I’ve loved it since I was old enough to understand that one might love a string of words in that shivery and selfless way by which we determine that the universe is worth something after all. I love its rhythm. I love the precise and punctuated use of dialect – not too much, not too little, just the right size spoonful. I love the personification of inevitable – the rolling lake in the hurricane is not senseless, it plays its own part as an agent of the chase, like a child come out to play or talking tiger running amok. And I love how the fleeing people and the lake itself acknowledge the reality of the situation and capture their own responsibilities and capabilities amongst the general oh-shit-ness of the moment.
Did I mention I love this passage?
I’ve been thinking a lot about it lately. This month has been rough. In fact, large chunks of this past year could go missing and I’d gleefully see them on their way. No milk cartons for those days at all, those little bastard runaways can stay gone. I just keep equating that sense of overwhelm, of being caught in the path of something that can’t be avoided and comes bearing down with a seeming autonomy, with these choicely worded sentences. Partly because, or course, this all reads very beautifully. Not so much as to romanticize a hurricane (the dialect helps to skirt that cliff, in my opinion), but in the sense that the gorgeousness of it all makes it feel a little more true.
Dramatic or tense moments in life rarely (if ever) occur with such pretty vocabulary. However, when you sit down to read a recreation of such a moment, it has to be crafty and seductive in its literary devices. If you’ve ever tried to transcribe an exact conversation, word for word and without taking space to interpret nuance or little gestures, without taking the time to tickle the reader’s fancy in the right direction, you can’t ever capture the mood. When we live a moment, all its exquisiteness and spontaneity can neither be trapped nor duplicated with any literal exactitude. Whether it is a moment of agony or ecstasy. We rely on the figurative, and its penchant for interpretation, to see us through. We don’t literally believe that the lake has a discernible human voice and that it called an answer to anyone. But we do believe in spirit of it, of being run down by something larger than the self with its own driving life force battling against our own, and this emerges from the use of language. This is what those of us who call ourselves writers are always trying to do: we want to bullshit you, but to bullshit you so tenderly and brilliantly that, even knowing we’re full of shit, you go along with it because it just feels so damned good – moreover, it feels right.
So right, that anytime I feel stressed and scattered to a breaking point I practically hear the lake whisper “Yes, Ah’m comin’!” right in my innermost ear.
Things like this, this little blip on the radar of a masterpiece of storytelling, are the reason I fall in love with literature and the act of writing every day. They startle my spine awake when I slump at my desk at my laptop and spend hours agonizing over what word is best to describe a certain shade of blue. Because I’ve seen what true skill can do and I’ve fallen madly in love with it. Because ultimately, I aim to be that pervasive voice in someone’s innermost ear:
Yes, Ah’m comin’!