When folks sat around and talked about that summer, they always said the same thing: “It was unseasonable hot that year.” When I heard that, I knew they were going to start talking about Emma Sue, the sister that disappeared.
Emma Sue was five years old that summer. She was small for her age, and kind of sickly, but that did not stop Mamm from expecting her to pull her own weight in the fields, just like the rest of us. There were six of us, all girls. I was the oldest at 12. Emma Sue was not the youngest, that was Polly Mae, she was three. We all worked in the fields, picking celery. It was hard work, cutting those tough stalks right at the base. Mamm would not let the younger ones have the sharpest knives because she was afraid they would cut themselves, but it was harder to cut celery with the dull knives.
Emma Sue especially hated it and was always sneaking off to play in the rows between the stalks. She had a great imagination and she was always talking about playing with angels in between the celery rows. We figured that was just talk, Emma Sue making stuff up so she would not get in trouble when she ran off to play. Mamm loved angels and she did not fault Emma Sue for wanting to play with them.
“Emma Sue!” Mamm called quietly so the foreman would not hear her and know that Emma Sue was missing again. “Where have you gotten to? You are way behind in your cutting. You come out now, hear me?” Mamm looked around but could not see Emma Sue’s faded blue bonnet poking up above the rows of celery. She could see everyone else bent over in the fields, busily hacking at the base of the plants, but not Emma Sue.
“Now where has that girl gotten herself to?” Mamm muttered as she tried to keep looking while she kept slicing at the celery plants. “She is going to get a whupping for certain when she comes back.”
We all kept working, the foreman was mean and we did not want to feel his whip lashing our backs as we worked under the hot sun. It wouldn’t be long before we stopped for our bread and cheese lunch, so we just wiped the stinging sweat out of our eyes and kept on cutting celery, listening for the whistle so we could stop to eat.
Emma Sue was still missing when the whistle finally signaled our lunch break. Mamm looked all up and down the rows, calling her name over and over. The only one who had not been bent over in the celery rows all morning was the foreman on top his big horse. Mamm finally got up the courage to ask him if he saw Emma Sue slip away.
“Nah, that girl is slick. She proll’y ran away. Don’t matter much, though, y’all still has to pick the same …Emma Sue or not.” The foreman trotted off toward the shade and a cool drink, leaving Mamm standing alone in the field.
“Mamm!” Polly Mae said, “Pretty!” We all looked out at the celery field to where she was pointing. A huge pair of white wings beat slowly just above the tops of the celery. Suddenly, they started glowing white-gold, so bright we had to look away. When we looked back, they were gone.
Nobody ever saw Emma Sue again.