Set in the 1930s near the fictional town of Turpentine, Georgia. Explore the magic and mystery of nature . . . hear the critters in the swamp, sleep in a treehouse, and find a hidden grave.
Summertime, when I laid in bed, and it was too hot to sleep, that train running up the valley was a heap of comfort to me. I weren't allowed to have no light, and with the bugs chirrin' or some old owl hooting, it got mighty scary. The railroad tracks come right up the valley, and, laying in that bed, I know'd that sooner or later a train would be along. I'd hear one chuffin' up the grade long before I could see the light. It would sound so friendly and interesting that I would forget about being scared.
Sometimes in the morning I would sneak out early and follow a game trail down to the tracks to see the Birmingham train pull in and take on water. That's how I come to be settin' up on the bank by the railroad tracks that morning. I know'd where the train stopped to take on water, and I had me a spot on the bank where I could watch her real good.
That morning, I'd woke up early from the dream. It was something I dreamed a lot . . . about my mother . . . and it always made me feel sad and happy at the same time. It was a confusing dream. I'd be layin' on a quilt with picnic stuff all around me, and I'd look up and, even though I was still on the quilt, I'd see Momma walking through the grass leading me by the hand.
Her hair was all gold-looking, but she'd be turned away so I couldn't see her face. She'd call, Come on, Johnny! and start to turn my way, but before I could see her face real clear, I'd always wake up.
So this dream had woke me up, and I snuck out real early even though it meant getting no breakfast. I had me a cold biscuit left from some Sarah had give me the night before when Aunt Min had sent me to bed without no supper. I had messed up again for sure and spilt a glass of milk when I set down at the table. Auntie took me outside and whipped on my legs with a switch. It hurt enough, but I was used to it and never made no sound. This made her madder. She whipped harder, and I pulled my breath in through my teeth. I weren't goin' to give her the pleasure of making me holler.
Uncle Joe was a preacher and used to preach hell fire and damnation in his church every Sunday. He was a big, strong man with great big hands, but around Aunt Min, he kind of shrunk up and got mild as cow's milk. Once when she was goin' to whip me for tracking dirt in the house, he tried to stick up for me, but she tongue-lashed him so hard that he slunk off to the back yard looking worse than me, and I was some miserable.
Anyway, the Birmingham passenger train used to come through the valley about six every morning, but that day it was late. The sun come up and I stretched back against a tree, rubbing the switch marks on the back of my legs and picking at a callus on the bottom of my foot near my little toe, wondering what it would be like to have a real home. I remember I got up and peed off the bank on a toad that was down near the tracks and then laid back down.
The sun felt real good, and I laid there smelling some honeysuckle and went plumb to sleep on that red clay bank like it was a feather bed. The engine was almost at me when I popped awake, feeling excited like I always did when I seen a train. The bell was clanging, and the engine was hissing out steam, and I scooted over to the edge of the bank to get a better look and laid down, propped up on my elbows. The Birmingham train chunked to a stop, and I was staring into a Pullman car at a boy who was sitting on a bed rubbing his eyes. He took his hands down, and I near about fell off the bank. That boy had red hair and freckles, and his ears stuck out. He had a gap in his front teeth. He looked at me, and his eyes got big. I reckon mine did, too. 'Cept for not being skinny, that boy was me.
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As a boy I had the good fortune of growing up with the space and freedom to be outside, have adventures, explore, and get into trouble. A boy's purpose in life is to have fun, and the tantalizing possibility of getting into trouble added spice to that purpose. I was also blessed with a rich heritage of storytelling from the members of my wonderful, extended Southern family. I share some of my family stories in the Blackwater Novels.
Allen Johnson Jr.