Don’t get angry, you’ll make the food bitter, he told himself. It made no sense but he knew it to be true.
Heathcliff and Lucinda gathered around him.
“Should we invite them?” Heathcliff asked.
“We have enough,” Lucinda said.
“Let me talk to them,” was Joshua’s reply.
He walked towards the Mudds. He tried hard not to think about how much he hated them. Nan and Georgie may be guiltless but these two were the ones who turned their backs on him.
He breathed deep to calm himself. There was some connection to his feelings and the food that he didn’t understand. He wouldn’t let that spoil the meal. He wouldn’t throw them out or tell them to leave.
So what will I do?
He didn’t know.
I have a very bad habit of moving my feet before my brain knows what to do. I’ve obviously spent too much time around Heathcliff.
As he got closer to the Mudds, he could see they were even more gaunt and haggard than he remembered. He saw their scrawny limbs and knew it was from hunger. Their bodies had fed on their own muscles. That knowledge alone lessened his anger. But there was also the shame on their faces. They kept their gaze to the ground and avoided his eyes. Mrs. Mudd tried to speak but her words were choked.
They were two adults and they were ashamed to talk to a twelve year old boy.
Joshua could see their state plainly and it troubled him. Even though he wasn’t responsible for that state, he prolonged it. It felt like he had teased a helpless animal.
He said , “Mrs. Mudd, go sit with your daughters. Please.”
They looked up. Joshua could see the circles around both their eyes.
“Go Tilda,” croaked Mr. Mudd.
Mrs. Mudd stayed by her husband’s side.
“Not without you, Samson,” she said.
“Mr. Mudd and I are just going to talk,” Joshua assured her. It felt strange to assured someone so much older and bigger than he.
Mr. Mudd nodded to his wife. “The girls are waiting for you, Tilda.”
Mrs. Mudd detached from him and walked into the alley. That left Joshua and Mr. Mudd alone on the broken street.
Mr. Mudd said nothing. His face grew pinched and he hugged himself with his emaciated arms.
Joshua asked the only thing he wanted to know.
Mr. Mudd blurted out, “I am so, so sorry about that day. I saw you there in trouble and I left you. I felt so bad about it, I felt sick. For the last two days I’ve felt sick.”
Joshua felt a surge of bitterness. If it troubled him so much, why did he do it?
Calm yourself. Don’t spoil the food.
Mr. Mudd continued “It was for my girls. That Charity Kitchen isn’t much. Not much charity and even less kitchen. Most of the time, Tilda and I have to give the girls part of our bowls to make sure they have enough. I couldn’t take the chance that they’d kick us out or bar us. I chose the safe way and stayed out of trouble. It didn’t make me feel any better. I felt like a coward and I still do.”
Joshua saw Mr. Mudd for the first time as a man made weak by hunger. Before he’d assumed he was like all the other grown ups; immensely strong, invincible, and capable of anything. Seeing Mr. Mudd as he truly was, Joshua’s anger and resentment melted away.
Sometimes they need help as well.
Mr. Mudd turned to leave.
“I won’t trouble you Joshua Sage. I’ve no right. Just wanted to thank you for what you’ve done for my girls and my wife.”
“Mr. Mudd, you’re food’s getting cold,” Joshua said.
Mr. Mudd stopped in his tracks. He stayed motionless until Joshua pulled his sleeve.
He led the frail and hungry man back into the alley to his family. Mr. Mudd wiped his eyes with his sleeve. Joshua did the same.
They sat down and ate dinner. The pumpkin dumplings with butter sauce filled the stomach better than three bowls of charity gruel and the salad with its vinegar and salt tasted clean and pure after the richness.
Mr. Mudd said, “It’s like nothing I’ve ever had in my life.”
“It’s not lamb pie or eel and mash,” Joshua admitted.
Mr. Mudd said, “We’re not used to lamb pie. Back when I worked at the factory, dinner was mushy peas with bread and maybe some grilled bacon. And take no offense Tilda, but it never tasted as good as this.”
Mrs. Mudd nodded, “No offense taken dear. It just makes me wonder what young Joshua would be able to do with peas and a little bacon.”
Joshua knew the answer; quite a bit. But he didn’t feel like boasting.
He stood up.
“I hope you’ll stay a bit longer. Sophie here is a great storyteller,” he told the Mudds.
“What new tale do you have?” asked Heathcliff anxiously.
Sophie fidgeted for a bit without talking.
Finally she said, “Actually that’s something I need to talk to you about. I have learned a new tale, today in fact. I overheard it as I walked here.”
Joshua chuckled nervously. Something was obviously wrong.
“Well, what’s the tale?”
Sophie said, “They say there’s a boy in Dreamer’s Garden who can make food out of thin air. He can conjure up the finest meal you’ve ever had just like that.”
He stood stunned for a moment then let out a hardy laugh.
“They’re telling stories about me? Well, isn’t that keen. They say I can make food out of air? I wish that were true. What else are they saying?”
Sophie looked concerned.
She explained, “Joshua, you don’t understand. They say it because they believe. They believe you can produce soups and breads out of the ether. They say you’re here to feed all the hungry children of the city. And they’re coming to find you.”