African American Poetry (1870-1928): A Digital Anthology

Zora Neale Hurston, "Drenched in Light" (1924)

First published in Opportunity (December 1924).

Drenched in Light

"You Isie Watts! Git 'own offen dat gate post an' rake up dis yahd!"

The little brown figure perched upon the gate post looked
yearningly up the gleaming shell road that led to Orlando,
and down the road that led to Sanford and shrugged her thin
shoulders. This heaped kindling on Grandma Potts' already
burning ire.

"Lawd a-mussy!" she screamed, enraged-"Heah Joel,
gimme dat wash stick. Ah'll show dat limb of Satan she kain't
shake huhseff at me. If she ain't down by de time Ah gets
dere, Ah'll break huh down in de lines" (loins).

"Aw Gran'ma, Ah see Mist' George and Jim Robinson
comin' and Ah wanted to wave at 'em," the child said petulantly.

"You jes wave dat rake at dis heah yahd, madame, else Ah'll
take you down a button hole lower. You'se too 'oomanish
jumpin' up in everybody's face dat pass."

This struck the child in a very sore spot for nothing pleased her so much as to sit atop of the gate post and hail the passing vehicles on their way South to Orlando, or North to Sanford. That white shell road was her great attraction. She raced
up and down the stretch of it that lay before her gate like a round eyed puppy hailing gleefully all travelers. Everybody in
the country, white and colored, knew little Isis Watts, the joyful. The Robinson brothers, white cattlemen, were particu -
larly fond of her and always extended a stirrup for her to
climb up behind one of them for a short ride, or let her try to
crack the long bull whips and yee whoo at the cows.
Grandma Potts went inside and Isis literally waved the rake
at the "chaws" of ribbon cane that lay so bountifully about
the yard in company with the knots and peelings, with a thick
sprinkling of peanut hulls.

The herd of cattle in their envelope of gray dust came
alongside and Isis dashed out to the nearest stirrup and was
lifted up.

"Hello theah Snidlits, I was wonderin' wheah you was,"
said Jim Robinson as she snuggled down behind him in the
saddle. They were almost out of the danger zone when
Grandma emerged.

"You Isic-s!" she bawled.

The child slid down on the opposite side from the house
and executed a flank movement through the corn patch that
brought her into the yard from behind the privy.

"You Iii' hasion you! Wheah you been?"

"Out in de back yahd," Isis lied and did a cart wheel and a
few fancy steps on her way to the front again.

"If you doan git tuh dat yahd, Ah make a mommuk of you!" Isis observed that Grandma was cutting a fancy assortment of switches from peach, guana and cherry trees.

She finished the yard by raking everything under the edge
of the porch and began a romp with the dogs, those lean,
floppy eared 'coon hounds that all country folks keep. But
Grandma vetoed this also.

"Isie, you set 'own on dat porch! Uh great big 'leben yeah
ole gal racin' an' rompin' lak dat-set 'own!"

Isis impatiently flung herself upon the steps.

"Git up offa dem steps, you aggavatin' limb, 'fore Ah git
dem hick'ries tuh you, an' set yo' seff on a cheah."

Isis petulently arose and sat down as violently as possible in
a chair, but slid down until she all but sat upon her shoulder

"Now look archer," Grandma screamed. "Put yo' knees together, an' git up often yo' backbone! Lawd, you know dis
hellion is g-vine make me stomp huh insides out."
Isis sat bolt upright as if she wore a ramrod down her back
and began to whistle. Now there are certain things that
Grandma Potts felt no one of this female persuasion should
do-one was to sit with the knees separated, "settin' brazen"
she called it; another was whistling, another playing with
boys, neither must a lady cross her legs.

Up she jumped from her scat to get the switches.

"So yousc whistlin' in mah face, huh!" She glared till her
eyes were beady and Isis bolted for safety. But the noon hour
brought John Watts, the widowed father, and this excused the
child from sitting for criticism.

Being the only girl in the family, of course she must wash the dishes, which she did in intervals between frolics with the
dogs. She even gave Jake, the puppy, a swim in the dishpan
by holding him suspended above the water that reeked of
"pot likker" -just high enough so that his feet would be immersed. The deluded puppy swam and swam without ever
crossing the pan, much to his annoyance. Hearing Grandma
she hurriedly dropped him on the floor, which he tracked up
with feet wet with dishwater.

Grandma took her patching and settled down in the front
room to sew. She did this every afternoon, and invariably
slept in the big red rocker with her head lolled back over the
back, the sewing falling from her hand.

Isis had crawled under the center table with its red plush
cover with little round balls for fringe. She was lying on her
back imagining herself various personages. She wore trailing
robes, golden slippers with blue bottoms. She rode white
horses with flaring pink nostrils to the horizon, for she still
believed that to be land's end. She was picturing herself gazing over the edge of the world into the abyss when the
spool of cotton fell from Grandma's lap and rolled away
under the whatnot. Isis drew back from her contemplation
of the nothingness at the horizon and glanced up at the
sleeping woman. Her head had fallen far back. She breathed
with a regular "snark" intake and sofr "poosah" exhaust. But
Isis was a visual minded child. She heard the snores only
subconsciously but she saw straggling beard on Grandma's
chin, trembling a little with every "snark" and "poosah".
They were long gray hairs curled here and there against the
dark brown skin. Isis was moved with pity for her mother's

"Poah Gran-ma needs a shave," she murmured, and set
about it. Just then Joel, next older than Isis, entered with a
can of bait.

"Come on Isie, les' we all go fishin'. The perch is bitin' fine
in Blue Sink."

"Sh-sh-" cautioned his sister, "Ah got to shave Gran'ma."

"Who say so?" Joel asked, surprised.

"Nobody doan hafta tell me. Look at her chin. No ladies
don't weah no whiskers if they kin help it. But Gran'ma
gittin' ole an' she doan know how to shave like me." 

The conference adjourned to the back porch lest Grandma

"Aw, Isie, you doan know nothin' 'bout shavin' a-tallbut a man lak me--"

"Ah do so know."

"You don't not. Ah'm goin' shave her mahseff."

"Naw, you won't neither, Smarty. Ah saw her first an' thought it all up first," Isis declared, and ran to the calico
covered box on the wall above the wash basin and seized
her father's razor. Joel was quick and seized the mug and

"Now!" Isis cried defiantly, "Ah got the razor."

"Goody, goody, goody, pussy cat, Ah got th' brush an' you
can't shave 'thout lather-see! Ah know mo' than you," Joel

"Aw, who don't know dat?" Isis pretended to scorn. But
seeing her progress blocked for lack of lather she compromised.

"Ah know! Les' we all shave her. You lather an' Ah shave."
This was agreeable to Joel. He made mountains of lather
and anointed his own chin, and the chin of Isis and the dogs,
splashed the walls and at last was persuaded to lather
Grandma's chin. Not that he was loath but he wanted his new
plaything to last as long as possible.

Isis stood on one side of the chair with the razor clutched
cleaver fashion. The niceties of razor-handling had passed
over her head. The thing with her was to hold the razorsufficient in itself.
Joel splashed on the lather in great gobs and Grandma

For one bewildered moment she stared at the grinning boy
with the brush and mug but sensing another presence, she
turned to behold the business face of Isis and the razorclutching hand. Her jaw dropped and Grandma, forgetting
years and rheumatism, bolted from the chair and fled the
house, screaming.

"She's gone to tell papa, Isie. You didn't have no business
wid his razor and he's gonna lick yo hide," Joel cried, running
to replace mug and brush.

"You too, chuckle-head, you, too," retorted Isis. "You was 
playin' wid his brush and put it all over the dogs-Ah seen
you put it on Ned an' Beulah." Isis shaved some slivers from
the door jamb with the razor and replaced it in the box. Joel
took his bait and pole and hurried to Blue Sink. Isis crawled
under the house to brood over the whipping she knew would
come. She had meant well.

But sounding brass and tinkling cymbal drew her forth.
The local lodge of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows
led by a braying, thudding band, was marching in full regalia
down the road. She had forgotten the barbecue and logrolling to be held today for the benefit of the new hall.
Music to Isis meant motion. In a minute razor and whipping forgotten, she was doing a fair imitation of the Spanish
dancer she had seen in a medicine show some time before.
Isis' feet were gifted-she could dance most anything she

Up, up went her spirits, her brown little feet doing all sorts
of intricate things and her body in rhythm, hand curving
above her head. But the music was growing faint. Grandma
was nowhere in sight. She stole out of the gate, running and
dancing after the band.

Then she stopped. She couldn't dance at the carnival. Her
dress was torn and dirty. She picked a long stemmed daisy
and thrust it behind her ear. But the dress, no better. Oh, an
idea! In the battered round topped trunk in the bedroom!
She raced back to the house, then, happier, raced down the
white dusty road to the picnic grove, gorgeously clad. People
laughed good naturedly at her, the band played and Isis
danced because she couldn't help it. A crowd of children
gather admiringly about her as she wheeled lightly about,
hand on hip, flower between her teeth with the red and white
fringe of the table-cloth-Grandma's new red tablecloth that
she wore in lieu of a Spanish shawl-trailing in the dust. It
was too ample for her meager form, but she wore it like a
gipsy. Her brown feet twinkled in and out of the fringe. Some
grown people joined the children about her. The Grand
Exalted Ruler rose to speak; the band was hushed, but Isis
danced on, the crowd clapping their hands for her. No one
listened to the Exalted one, for little by little the multitude
had surrounded the brown dancer. 

An automobile drove up to the Crown and halted. Two
white men and a lady got out and pushed into the crowd,
suppressing mirth discreetly behind gloved hands. Isis looked
up and waved them a magnificent hail and went on dancing
untilGrandma had returned to the house and missed Isis and
straightway sought her at the festivities expecting to find her
in her soiled dress, shoeless, gaping at the crowd, but what
she saw drove her frantic. Here was her granddaughter dancing before a gaping crowd in her brand new red tablecloth,
and reeking of lemon extract, for Isis had added the final
touch to her costume. She must have perfume.
Isis saw Grandma and bolted. She heard her cry: "Mah
Gawd, mah brand new table cloth Ah jus' bought furn
O'landah!" as she fled through the crowd and on into the


She followed the little creek until she came to the ford in a
rutty wagon road that led to Apopka and laid down on the
cool grass at the roadside. The April sun was quite hot.
Misery, misery and woe settled down upon her and the
child wept. She knew another whipping was in store for her.
"Oh, Ah wish Ah could die, then Gran'ma an' papa would
be sorry they beat me so much. Ah b'leeve Ah'll run away an'
never go home no mo'. Ah'm goin' drown mahscff in th'
creek!" Her woe grew attractive.

Isis got up and waded into the water. She routed out a tiny
'gator and a huge bull frog. She splashed and sang, enjoying
herself immensely. The purr of a motor struck her car and she
saw a large, powerful car jolting along the rutty road toward
her. It stopped at the water's edge.

"Well, I declare, it's our little gypsy," exclaimed the man at
the wheel. "What are you doing here, now?"

"Ah'm killin' mahseff," Isis declared dramatically, "Cause
Gran'ma beats me too much."

There was a hearty burst of laughter from the machine.
"You'll last sometime the way you are going about it. Is
this the way to Maitland? We want to go to the Park Hotel." 
Isis saw no longer any reason to die. She came up out of
the water, holding up the dripping fringe of the tablecloth.
"Naw, indeedy. You go to Maitlan' by the shell road-it
goes by mah house-an' turn off at Lake Sebelia to the clay
road that takes you right to the do'."

"Well," went on the driver, smiling furtively, "Could you
quit dying long enough to go with us?"

"Yessuh," she said thoughtfully, "Ah wanta go wid you."
The door of the car swung open. She was invited to a seat
beside the driver. She had often dreamed of riding in one of
these heavenly chariots but never thought she would, actually.
"Jump in then, Madame Tragedy, and show us. We lost
ourselves after we left your barbecue."

During the drive Isis explained to the kind lady who smelt
faintly of violets and to the indifterent men that she was really
a princess. She told them about her trips to the horizon,
about the trailing gowns, the gold shoes with blue bottoms she insisted on the blue bottoms-the white charger, the
time when she was Hercules and had slain numerous dragons
and sundry giants. At last the car approached her gate over
which stood the umbrella China-berry tree. The car was
abreast of the gate and had all but passed when Grandma
spied her glorious tablecloth lying back against the upholstery
of the Packard.

"You Isie-e!" she bawled. "You Iii' wretch you! come heah
dis instant."

"That's me," the child confessed, mortified, to the lady on
the rear seat.

"Oh, Sewell, stop the car. This is where the child lives. I
hate to give her up though."

"Do you wanta keep me?" Isis brightened.

"Oh, I wish I could, you shining little morsel. Wait, I'll try
to save you a whipping this time."

She dismounted with the gaudy lemon flavored culprit and
advanced to the gate where Grandma stood glowering,
switches in hand.

"You're gointuh ketchit f'um yo' haid to yo' heels m'lady.
Jes' come in heah."

"Why, good afternoon," she accosted the furious grand
parent. "You're not going to whip this poor little thing, are
you?" the lady asked in conciliatory tones.

"Yes, Ma'am. She's de wustest Iii' limb <lat ever drawed
bref. Jes' look at mah new table cloth, <lat ain't never been
washed. She done traipsed all over de woods, uh dancin' an'
uh prancin' in it. She done took a razor to me t'day an' Lawd
knows whut mo'."

Isis clung to the white hand fearfully.

''Ah wuzn't gointer hurt Gran'ma, miss-Ah wuz jus'
gointer shave her whiskers fuh huh 'cause she's old an' can't."

The white hand closed tightly over the little brown one
that was quite soiled. She could understand a voluntary act of
love even though it miscarried.

"Now, Mrs. er-er-I didn't get the name-how much
did your tablecloth cost?"

"One whole big silvah dollar down at O'landah-ain't had
it a week yit."

"Now here's five dollars to get another one. The little thing
loves laughter. I want her to go on to the hotel and dance in
that tablecloth for me. I can stand a little light today-"

"Oh, yessum, yessum," Grandma cut in, "Everything's alright, sho' she kin go, yessum."
The lady went on: "I want brightness and this Isis is joy
itself, why she's drenched in light!"

Isis for the first time in her life, felt herself appreciated and
danced up and down in an ecstasy of joy for a minute.
"Now, behave yo'seff, Isie, ovah at de hotel wid de white
folks," Grandma cautioned, pride in her voice, though she
strove to hide it. "Lawd, ma'am, dat gal keeps me so frackshus, Ah doan know mah haid f'um mah feet. Ah orter comb
huh haid, too, befo' she go wid you all."

"No, no, don't bother. I like her as she is. I don't think
she'd like it either, being combed and scrubbed. Come on,

Feeling that Grandma had been somewhat squelched did
not detract from Isis' spirit at all. She pranced over to the
waiting motor and this time seated herself on the rear seat
between the sweet, smiling lady and the rather aloof man in

"Ah'm gointer stay wid you all," she said with a great deal
of warmth, and snuggled up to her benefactress. "Want me
tuh sing a song fuh you?"

"There, Helen, you've been adopted," said the man with a
short, harsh laugh.

"Oh, I hope so, Harry." She put her arm about the red
draped figure at her side and drew it close until she felt the
warm puffs of the child's breath against her side. She looked
hungrily ahead of her and spoke into space rather than to
anyone in the car. "I want a little of her sunshine to soak into
my soul. I need it." 

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