Two Peas In A Pod
by Leah Weiss
My older sister Katie married her beau Clarence Barnhill in 1926, shortly after I was born. They spent their wedding night at the home place with the whole family a wall or two away. This was a common thing to do because no one had money and there was no place to go. Rural North Carolina was a soft mix of dirt roads and sprawling farms and the occasional small town hugging up against the railroad track. Next to tobacco, its biggest business was raising families.
In the middle of her wedding night, Katie was awakened by my crying. She got up, padded barefoot through the house, found me and brought me back to her bed. The practice of an older sister taking care of a new baby was routine in big families; even though I was Katie’s sister, I was also Katie’s baby. Mama could take care of the others.
Years later, after I married, Clarence often teased my husband Alvon by asking, Did you know Lucy slept with me on my wedding night? It was an off-color joke that he never tired of telling. Alvon and I hoped it would play itself out. It eventually did, but it was a slow death.
After a year of marriage, Katie and Clarence had our family’s first grandchild and my first nephew. He was a golden-haired, sweet tempered boy named David Abrams after his grandpa and my daddy. And from the first instant my Daddy laid eyes on him, he was smitten. If you saw Daddy, you saw David Abrams: on Daddy’s shoulders in the field; in Daddy’s arms in the yard; on Daddy’s lap at meals. The easy joy they experienced in each other’s company was a delight to watch. They were inseparable.
In winter, cutting wood was a forever chore. Daddy and my older brothers spent the twilight hours chopping ash, hickory and pine trees into rough chunks of firewood that, once dried, fed the appetite of our working farm. David Abrams would not be left behind.
So at daybreak, Mama bundled him up to protect against the cold. He had on so many clothes that he looked like a butterball with a baby face peeking out. Daddy would swing him up on the wagon seat, nestle him between his legs and drive across the road, past the chicken coop and the hog pen and into the woods. My brothers rode on the back with their legs dangling off the sides, their big bodies jostled by the wagon’s movement over frozen ground.
While the men chopped wood and loaded the wagon, David Abrams was propped against a tree out of harm’s way and watched the morning’s activities, never complaining. His brown eyes darting from one thing to another, he was a little sponge soaking up life. Whether he remembered or not, he heard the names of tools and the places on the farm where wood was necessary. From the wood stove in the kitchen to yard pots that boiled dirty clothes clean and the curing barns that dried our tobacco currency, mountains of chopped wood were sacrificed every day. Wood was essential to our existence. That was today’s lesson for David Abrams.
By the time he was three, he was his Grandpa’s natural shadow. In worn bib overalls, hands stuck deep in their pockets, they walked regularly to the barns and the fields together. On nights when David Abrams slept at our house, he would go with Grandpa before dawn to milk the cows. Often he came back to the kitchen with warm milk dripping off his chin. He liked to have fresh, warm milk squirted right into his mouth but it was such a little hole, it was easy for Daddy to miss. David Abrams often ended up wearing more milk on his face than he swallowed.
When there were errands to run, Daddy and the boy were a team. David Abrams would stand on the wagon seat leaning into Daddy’s right side, his little arm around Daddy’s leathered neck, the breeze blowing his straw-colored hair like dancing strings of silk. Two peas in a pod pulling out of the yard waving their good-bye.
They would stop at the seed store and get a soda pop from the ice chest on the front porch. If some of Daddy’s friends were there, they’d likely sit for a spell on one of the worn, wooden benches and catch up on news. And before they left, Daddy would tell a joke or two and have everyone grinning. David Abrams was one of the good ole’ boys in Grandpa’s circle of friends; he knew when to laugh at the punch lines.
Then came the odd day when a mad dog stumbled onto our farm. His weakened body trembled with spasms, his throat was paralyzed, his mouth foamed. He was a dangerous creature. He came by way of the woods on the far side of the road for no one saw him cross the fields or the yard. He weaved slowly, his eyes glazed from pain and hunger and thirst.
As Katie’s dusty car pulled into the yard, she beeped the horn and Mama came from the kitchen out the side screened door to greet them. She wiped her hands on the hem of her apron and then opened her arms and stooped to receive David Abrams’ hug. As usual, he was spending the day with his Grandpa. Mama told him there were new kittens in the barn in a wood box filled with soft rags. Katie had errands to run. Mama gave her a short list of things she needed and the little boy went in search of the kittens. He skipped across the packed road, around the corner of the barn, out of sight of the women and into the path of the sick dog.
A piercing scream ripped through the air. In seconds, Katie and Mama covered the distance and James Edgar appeared from the barn and stabbed the beast with a pitchfork. In the same instant, David Abrams was scooped up, and his mangled arm wrapped in Mama’s apron to hold back the bleeding. His face was already as pale as moonlight. They ran back to the yard with the tragedy reverberating across the land. Sisters came from the garden. Brothers came from the field.
Katie jumped into the passenger seat of the car, clutching her baby in her arms, rocking them both, trying to keep her panic under control. She was shaking like a leaf, her eyes wild with alarm but her voice crooned comfort into David Abrams’ ear as she slicked back the damp strands of hair from his forehead and peppered it with kisses. James Edgar slid behind the wheel, rammed the car in gear and flew down the road shooting a rooster tail of dust into the languid air as they raced the seven miles to town. Mama hurried to pick up the 342 party line in the kitchen and call a warning to the doctor. Daddy came in from the fields, heard Mama say David Abram’s name into the mouthpiece as she pointed towards town. He dashed to the wagon without even bothering to wash up. I had never seen Daddy or the mules move so fast. Then he disappeared around the bend and particles of dirt floated in amber sunlight where he’d been only a moment ago.
In a handful of heartbeats, our lives had changed. Those of us left behind were stopped still in shock. The ticking of the mantel clock was too loud. I could hear the chickens’ soft cluck across the way and the sound of my own breathing. My brothers and sisters in the yard were motionless like pieces on a checker board waiting to move. Mama quietly told Moses and J.D. to take care of the mad dog, wrap him in old feed sacks and burn him. They headed to the barn, grateful for something to do.
I was too young to comprehend how serious the day had become. I was only a year or so older than David Abrams and not experienced in life’s hardships, but I could see around me that nothing was normal. Mama was standing on the porch staring far beyond the fields. Her face blanched and hard, her lips pinched, her right hand clutched in a tight fist against her throat with her fingers kneading the soft fold of skin. My sisters walked slowly toward the garden but instead of picking vegetables, they huddled, then leaned on one another, swaying. Their soft sobbing drifted across the yard. I tugged on Mama’s cotton dress and in a small voice asked, What happened, Mama? She sat down heavy in the rocking chair, slowly pulled me on to her lap, buried her face in my hair and held me so tight it hurt. I didn’t complain. I waited. She finally said in a hoarse whisper, My little child…my little child…
The next week was a blur as we automatically did chores, ate bits of tasteless food in silence and waited for the doctor’s next report. Daddy spent as much time as he could by David Abrams’ side, watching his delicate body suffer and his brave spirit fight the virus unleashed by the rabid dog’s bite. We prayed for a miracle. We prayed the injections were helping. We prayed for Daddy. When he was home, his heartache was evident in everything he did and Daddy looked as old as Pap. If possible, he was suffering more than David Abrams.
And then came Wednesday. Day nine. Very early, just as the red sun was cresting the horizon already hazy with heat, the telephone rang its two shrill notes on the kitchen wall shattering the morning’s silence. No one moved. It rang again. And faded. On its third ring, Daddy pulled himself from his chair and moved slowly toward it and picked up the receiver as if it weighed a thousand pounds.
One heartbeat later, his bitter NO! slapped the flat air of the kitchen with a sharp wallop as he crumbled to his knees weak with grief. The receiver dangled from its cord and bounced off the wall, swinging back and forth in empty ovals. Mama ran and dropped to the floor behind Daddy, exposing the top of her nylons that were knotted just above her knees. She wrapped her arms solidly around his shaking body. They rocked and rocked together, locked in pain, eyes blind, ears deaf. The sounds of a wounded animal escaped from Daddy’s throat. David Abrams was gone.
I don’t know if families ever get over the taking too soon of a precious child. We were such a large number that some outsiders thought a small soul leaving would not be missed. But they were wrong.
I don’t know how Daddy survived those days leading up to the funeral and going beyond. Many of us feared he would never again see the good fortune right in front of him. But we were wrong.
And we were a broken family for a while simply going through the motions. Our necessary business from sunup to sundown was a salvation that required movement. And because of movement, the sounds of living gradually returned. A child’s freed laughter from across the yard bounced on a breeze. A boy pulled a silly prank and made Daddy smile. A lovely sunset had us pause and ponder its gift. If we ever doubted our resilience or the power of our union or the kindness of time, we were wrong.
Leah Weiss lives in Lynchburg, Virginia, and writes short stories, memoirs and novels. Her work has appeared in the Blue Lake Review and The Simple Life Magazine. She’s also written a book of short stories called “Just Shy of the Blue Ridge” and completed a novel “Finally There Mountain,” whose opening chapter won first prize in a national contest. “Two Peas in a Pod” is a memoir written in the voice of her mother, Lucy. “Born in 1926 and one of 15 children raised on a tobacco farm in Eastern Carolina, her simple life was full of stories,” Weiss says. “I captured some of them before she died and took it with her.”