(from IN MEMORY OF)
It was a summer long ago. They were on the back porch shelling purple-hulled peas. The morning smelt of dirt and green. Ever so often a breeze blew. Birds called. Bees hovered over the grass. The sun, already hot, dried dew.
Miss Edna swayed in the swing. Was six times fatter then. Apron spread across her lap. Building a mound of pale peas and the darker lengths of those just full enough to snap. Waited until she had a handful of hulls before throwing them into the washtub.
He was five or six. Just wore underwear if his mother wasn’t around. Sat cross-legged Indian style at Miss Edna’s feet. Carefully pierced the plump pods. Threw back the skinny ones. Dug the peas out. Dropped them into the bottom of the can. Each slender hull went into the washtub, their insides moist and sticky. Soon his fingers felt that way. Kept wiping them on his underwear.
“Now old Pharaoh was having all the Hebrew baby boys killed, but Moses got away. His mama made him an ark out of bulrushes and floated him down the Nile.”
Thomas knew every detail of the adventure, but asked the same questions anyway. It was a game they played. “Why didn’t the crocodiles eat him?”
“Because the Lord was there.”
“Why did Pharaoh’s daughter go down to the river?”
“Because the Lord told her to take a bath.”
“Why did Moses’ mother give him up?”
“Because she had to.”
His hand knocked his can over. It fell with a thud and rolled some. Peas scattered across the floor. Looked up at her. Face scrunched, fingers scratching his head. “I thought it was because the Lord told her to so Moses could one day led His children home?”
Miss Edna bowed her head. Shuffled through her peas. Let them rise and fall. Finally whispered, “That too.”
The Bible came with Miss Edna’s father from the Old Country though Thomas wasn’t sure where. Her family was a mystery, like characters in a fairy tale. He never saw their pictures. Once after telling him one of the Bible’s stories, she held the book up and said, “This is the only freedom. Live it and nobody can do you wrong, no matter how much they hurt you.”
“Even with a sharp knife?”
“Not all cuts bring blood.” He didn’t understand. Decided she was talking grownup. Back when he was a kid, his mother was always preaching, “There are things little ears aren’t supposed to understand.”
“May I hold it?”
Miss Edna shook her head back and forth. “It’s old and fragile and you may tear a page.”
“No I won’t, I promise.”
Her hands crossed over the book in her lap.
“Please, I’ll be careful!” he begged, his hands reaching out forth with fingers wiggling.
Miss Edna stared as if he wasn’t there.
“Pretty please just for a second!”
“No.” The word hurled like a stone. She got up and went into the kitchen leaving him zigzagging in the swing. That afternoon he picked wildflowers. Snuggled up to her and said, “I’m sorry,” though he wasn’t sure what for. She hugged him and said she wasn’t angry with him, but there were things he couldn’t touch.
Now Thomas was old enough.