Mama changed after Daphne died. It was weird ‘cause it wasn’t like babies dying was unusual. Marco had gone just the year before, but he was so little we barely got to know him I suppose. Daphne was old enough that she had her own pair of shoes, and she’d even wear them to church when Mama reminded her, so I guess she was kind of the favorite. Even so, something weird happened to Mama once Daphne was gone. Something unnatural.
I remember the day they put her in the ground, and the chewed up patch of dirt next to Marco’s cross that was left over from it. It looked like someone had gotten angry that the grass was growing too even and had to mess it up. Mama stared down at the dirt without blinking, and when Papa tried to put his arm around her, she dropped right to the ground and started rubbing the dirt on her face. It scared us kids pretty bad, and Papa took us inside and told us Mama needed to be alone for a while.
I don’t know for sure how long Mama stood out beside Daphne’s grave. Johnny reckons it was at least a week, but it felt a lot longer to me. After that first day, Papa told us not to disturb her, but he never said why and we didn’t ask. We’d see him bring her food throughout the day and leave it in little piles by her feet. I never saw her eat any of it though, and eventually there was so much of it rotting away that Papa had to stop.
For a while, we fought over who got to watch her from the kitchen window while we did our chores. It wasn’t like she would do anything particularly interesting. Every so often she’d get down on the ground and rub Daphne’s dirt over herself again, and while we all found it pretty funny at first, after the third or fourth time nobody wanted to watch her do it. Eventually Papa boarded up the window.
When she finally did come back inside, she was all covered in dirt and wouldn’t let Papa clean her off. She’d trail mud behind her wherever she went, and the house started to smell dank and acrid. It was especially bad because Mama had taken up the habit of wandering the house like she was looking for something that wouldn’t sit still.
It was an eerie sight. The dirt had turned her skin dark, making her look like the tree out back after it’d been hit by lightning. Jenna started having nightmares and came to sleep in my room, which I didn’t mind to tell the truth ‘cause I could hear Mama pacing the house in the middle of the night and it spooked me half to death.
One time Papa tried to stop her from wandering. He said it was ‘cause he was scared she’d hurt herself, but we could all see the dark circles under his eyes and they looked just like ours. That night, he locked her in Jenna’s old bedroom from the outside right before we went to sleep.
Jenna heard her first. I know this ‘cause I woke up when Jenna started crying, and when I listened, I heard what sounded like someone walking around too fast in the dark. We laid awake holding each other as the sounds got louder, but it wasn’t until Mama started shrieking that Papa woke up. We saw him go flying by in his nightshirt to the room at the end of the hall. Jenna was real scared, so I held her ears and wished someone would do the same for me. Papa must’ve opened the door ‘cause the next thing we knew Mama was down the stairs and out the front door. We raced to the window just in time to see her rolling in the dirt over Daphne. Me and Jenna went back to bed shaking, and Papa decided it was best to let her wander.
Nobody knows when it started, but eventually Mama started carrying around rags and singing at them like they were babies. It was like she missed having something to hold. By that time, she had got real thin. Even under all the dirt you could see her skin stretched too tight over her bones. The wrinkles that used to show up when she was happy all disappeared, and her movements became stiff, like she was afraid she’d rip if she weren’t careful. Jenna and Carl refused to be in the same room with her because they said she was scary, which none of us could deny. I saw how much it hurt Papa though, and so I did my best to pretend I wasn’t afraid.
By the time winter came around and Daphne’s grave was covered in snow, Mama was too weak to wander. Papa set her up in a rocking chair by the windows and all night you could hear her rock back and forth while she sang at her rag babies. The weird thing was the dirt never went away. We all figured that she’d been sneaking into the root cellar and prying up the boards to get at the earth, but after a week in the rocking chair she was just as filthy as ever. It was around then that all the soap in the house started going missing.
Everyone knew it had something to do with Mama, but since she couldn’t get out of the chair we didn’t know how she was doing it. One evening Papa asked me to watch her while he went out. I never liked doing it because she smelled like mildew, but I stood beside her anyway and rocked her as she mumbled to rag baby. Jenna was sleeping on the couch in the other room and I could just see her through the doorway. Mama must’ve thought I was distracted, ‘cause from the corner of my eye I saw her lift up rag baby’s head and caught the perfumed smell of soap. When I looked down she had covered it up, and I knew better than to touch rag baby to find out what she was hiding.
Later that night I woke up when I heard noises from the kitchen. I got out of bed quietly so as to not wake Jenna and tip-toed down the stairs. There was light spilling into the hall, and from the doorway I could see Mama hunched over the table, her dirty shoulders pressing together to the sound of a knife scraping against something chalky. From the lemon smell mixed in with Mama’s damp earth, I knew she had the soap.
I watched her for a long time wondering if I had been dreaming this all along; if I would wake up in the morning and find Mama holding Daphne by the fire. I shut my eyes tight, trying to remember Mama without the dirt. She was pretty then. Her hair used to curl up against her chin, and she smelled like apples all during autumn.
I opened my eyes and saw Mama watching me. She was turned around in the chair and the whites of her eyes looked like they were glowing inside the dirt. For a minute all I could do was stare. My heart was pounding so hard that blood was pooling up in my feet, so when I finally got the sense to run it was like moving through a bog.
I raced all the way upstairs and threw myself under the covers beside Jenna, listening for the sound of Mama following behind. She never did, but from then on I had a hard time sleeping.
This went on for a while. Late at night, I’d wake up and hear the scrape-scraping sounds of Mama’s knife on the soap and I’d know she was working. I kept my mouth shut about what I’d seen that first time though, and every morning we’d find Mama in her rocking chair right where we’d left her, so nobody had any reason to think she’d ever moved. That is until soap baby showed up.
Nobody asked Mama where she got soap baby, and even now I think I’m the only one who knows. At first we were all scared of it. It didn’t move when Mama adjusted its blankets, and its pearly eyes didn’t blink when she kissed it on the nose. But Mama didn’t have dirt on her anymore and the lines on her face started coming back, so nobody said anything and Mama got better.
By April she could walk up the stairs and in May she took her first trip into town. Things were still different though. Mama took soap baby wherever she went, and every once in a while she’d catch a glimpse of the crooked cross beside Marco’s and paused just a little too long. We were all afraid of the dirt coming back, so by June there was only one cross in the yard.
Even still, there were times when I’d find Mama alone and things didn’t feel so right. Normally she’d be cooing at soap baby or watching Jenna in the yard, but sometimes she’d just be staring. Johnny tried to joke about it and said she was recharging her batteries, but I remembered those white eyes in the dirt and didn’t think it was very funny.
This is the part that no one ever believes. I’d been sleeping, but not very well, and I woke up when I heard Jenna get out of bed. I sat up in time to see her sneak off down the hall, and before I let myself wonder why, I got up and followed.
I saw her slip through the door into what was now soap baby’s room. I could tell right then that something was off since Jenna had refused to be alone with soap baby from the beginning, so I hurried after her in case she was sleep walking and woke up screaming like she did sometimes.
When I pushed open the door, I saw the light on in the bathroom across the way. The water was running in the tub and I could feel the warm as I crossed the floor. Soon as I got in, Jenna looked up. She was knelt down over the water with both taps open so they thundered good enough that neither of us tried to speak. We didn’t have to though.
Soap baby didn’t squirm or cry as Jenna held it out over the rising water. The pair of them looked like Father Aarons during a baptism, only we both knew what would happen when soap baby hit that water.
I didn’t try to stop her. Sometimes I hate myself ‘cause of it, but then I think she would’ve found another way. Soap baby wasn’t part of our family. It didn’t belong in a crib and it didn’t deserve our Mama. As soon as it touched the water, foamy bubbles swirled like smoke from its fingers and it began to dissolve. The smell of lemon and honey swept so fast through the bathroom that we both stepped back. And then we hear Mama start shrieking.
Mama flew into the yard so fast none of us even saw her until she reached the patch of ground next to Marco. Papa held us back on the porch and we watched as the dark shape ripped at the earth that had grown back over Daphne. I could feel Jenna shaking, so I grabbed her head and held it to my chest because it wasn’t her fault. Eventually, the night went quiet and we knew Mama was gone.
Jenna still sleeps in my room. She says the one at the end of the hall smells like soap, but I haven’t gone in and checked. We don’t know what happened to Mama. Papa stood out in the yard every evening for about a month, but gave up when the snow started to fall. There are three crosses out there now, and even today the grass over Daphne doesn’t grow quite right.