Read “Spunk,” a short story by Zora Neale Hurston

“Spunk”

by

Zora Neale Hurston

A giant of a brown-skinned man sauntered up the one street of the Village and out into the palmetto thickets with a small pretty woman clinging lovingly to his arm.

“Looka theah, folkses!” cried Elijah Mosley, slapping his leg gleefully. “Theah they go, big as life an’ brassy as tacks.”

All the loungers in the store tried to walk to the door with an air of nonchalance but with small success.

“Now pee-eople!” Walter Thomas gasped. “Will you look at ’em!”

“But that’s one thing Ah likes about Spunk Banks—he ain’t skeered of nothin‘ on God’s green footstool—nothin’! He rides that log down at saw-mill jus‘ like he struts ’round wid another man’s wife—jus‘ don’t give a kitty. When Tes’ Miller got cut to giblets on that circle-saw, Spunk steps right up and starts ridin’. The rest of us was skeered to go near it.”

A round-shouldered figure in overalls much too large, came nervously in the door and the talking ceased. The men looked at each other and winked.

“Gimme some soda-water. Sass’prilla Ah reckon,” the newcomer ordered, and stood far down the counter near the open pickled pig-feet tub to drink it.

Elijah nudged Walter and turned with mock gravity to the new-comer.

“Say, Joe, how’s everything up yo‘ way? How’s yo’ wife?”

Joe started and all but dropped the bottle he held in his hands. He swallowed several times painfully and his lips trembled.

“Aw ‘Lige, you oughtn’t to do nothin’ like that,” Walter grumbled. Elijah ignored him.

“She jus‘ passed heah a few minutes ago goin’ theta way,” with a wave of his hand in the direction of the woods.

Now Joe knew his wife had passed that way. He knew that the men lounging in the general store had seen her, moreover, he knew that the men knew he knew. He stood there silent for a long moment staring blankly, with his Adam’s apple twitching nervously up and down his throat. One could actually see the pain he was suffering, his eyes, his face, his hands and even the dejected slump of his shoulders. He set the bottle down upon the counter. He didn’t bang it, just eased it out of his hand silently and fiddled with his suspender buckle.

“Well, Ah’m goin‘ after her to-day. Ah’m goin’ an’ fetch her back. Spunk’s done gone too fur.”

He reached deep down into his trouser pocket and drew out a hollow ground razor, large and shiny, and passed his moistened thumb back and forth over the edge.

“Talkin‘ like a man, Joe. Course that’s yo’ fambly affairs, but Ah like to see grit in anybody.”

Joe Kanty laid down a nickel and stumbled out into the street.

Dusk crept in from the woods. Ike Clarke lit the swinging oil lamp that was almost immediately surrounded by candle-flies. The men laughed boisterously behind Joe’s back as they watched him shamble woodward.

“You oughtn’t to said whut you did to him, Lige—look how it worked him up,” Walter chided.

“And Ah hope it did work him up. ‘Tain’t even decent for a man to take and take like he do.”

“Spunk will sho’ kill him.”

“Aw, Ah doan’t know. You never kin tell. He might turn him up an‘ spank him fur gettin’ in the way, but Spunk wouldn’t shoot no unarmed man. Dat razor he carried outa heah ain’t gonna run Spunk down an‘ cut him, an’ Joe ain’t got the nerve to go up to Spunk with it knowing he totes that Army 45. He makes that break outa heah to bluff us. He’s gonna hide that razor behind the first likely palmetto root an‘ sneak back home to bed. Don’t tell me nothin’ ’bout that rabbit-foot colored man. Didn’t he meet Spunk an‘ Lena face to face one day las’ week an‘ mumble sumthin’ to Spunk ‘bout lettin’ his wife alone?”

“What did Spunk say?” Walter broke in—“Ah like him fine but ‘tain’t right the way he carries on wid Lena Kanty, jus’ cause Joe’s timid ‘bout fightin’.”

“You wrong theah, Walter. ‘Tain’t cause Joe’s timid at all, it’s cause Spunk wants Lena. If Joe was a passle of wile cats Spunk would tackle the job just the same. He’d go after anything he wanted the same way. As Ah wuz sayin’ a minute ago, he tole Joe right to his face that Lena was his. ‘Call her,’ he says to Joe. ‘Call her and see if she’ll come. A woman knows her boss an’ she answers when he calls.‘ ’Lena, ain’t I yo‘ husband?’ Joe sorter whines out. Lena looked at him real disgusted but she don’t answer and she don’t move outa her tracks. Then Spunk reaches out an‘ takes hold of her arm an’ says: ‘Lena, youse mine. From now on Ah works for you an’ fights for you an‘ Ah never wants you to look to nobody for a crumb of bread, a stitch of close or a shingle to go over yo’ head, but me long as Ah live. Ah’ll git the lumber foh owah house to-morrow. Go home an‘ git yo’ things together! ‘

” ‘Thass mah house,’ Lena speaks up. ‘Papa gimme that.’

“‘Well,’ says Spunk, ‘doan give up whut’s yours, but when youse inside don’t forgit youse mine, an’ let no other man git outa his place wid you!’

“Lena looked up at him with her eyes so full of love that they wuz runnin‘ over, an’ Spunk seen it an‘ Joe seen it too, and his lip started to tremblin’ and his Adam’s apple was galloping up and down his neck like a race horse. Ah bet he’s wore out half a dozen Adam’s apples since Spunk’s been on the job with Lena. That’s all he’ll do. He’ll be back heah after while swallowin‘ an’ workin‘ his lips like he wants to say somethin’ an’ can’t.”

“But didn’t he do nothin‘ to stop ’em?”

“Nope, not a frazzlin‘ thing—jus’ stood there. Spunk took Lena’s arm and walked off jus‘ like nothin’ ain’t happened and he stood there gazin‘ after them till they was outa sight. Now you know a woman don’t want no man like that. I’m jus’ waitin‘ to see whut he’s goin’ to say when he gits back.”

II

But Joe Kanty never came back, never. The men in the store heard the sharp report of a pistol somewhere distant in the palmetto thicket and soon Spunk came walking leisurely, with his big black Stetson set at the same rakish angle and Lena clinging to his arm, came walking right into the general store. Lena wept in a frightened manner.

“Well,” Spunk announced calmly, “Joe come out there wid a meatax an’ made me kill him.”

He sent Lena home and led the men back to Joe—Joe crumpled and limp with his right hand still clutching his razor.

“See mah back? Mah cloes cut clear through. He sneaked up an‘ tried to kill me from the back, but Ah got him, an’ got him good, first shot,” Spunk said.

The men glared at Elijah, accusingly.

“Take him up an‘ plant him in ’Stoney lonesome,”‘ Spunk said in a careless voice. “Ah didn’t wanna shoot him but he made me do it. He’s a dirty coward, jumpin’ on a man from behind.”

Spunk turned on his heel and sauntered away to where he knew his love wept in fear for him and no man stopped him. At the general store later on, they all talked of locking him up until the sheriff should come from Orlando, but no one did anything but talk.

A clear case of self-defense, the trial was a short one, and Spunk walked out of the court house to freedom again. He could work again, ride the dangerous log-carriage that fed the singing, snarling, biting, circle-saw; he could stroll the soft dark lanes with his guitar. He was free to roam the woods again; he was free to return to Lena. He did all of these things.

(Read the rest of “Spunk”).

1 thought on “Read “Spunk,” a short story by Zora Neale Hurston”

  1. […] Spunk, also by Zora Neale Hurston. This story of a fatal love triangle, contrasted against the story Sweat, exemplifies the observable love/hate relationship Hurston seemed to have with the ideas of love and marriage. On the one hand she found strong men electrifying but was equally wary of weakness in a man masquerading as strength. Again, language barrier alert. […]

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