Wheee. The death baby goes, wheee. It also gurgles something awful. We have a problem with them in the town, not the town proper but right outside. The death babies have gotten brave in recent years, crawling right up to the gardens and even to the homes.
Nobody knows where they come from, only that when one of us dies and we put the body in the ground, a new death baby will be found wandering out of the wilderness. They look the same kind of cute as any baby, the only difference being the skin. Their leathery skin, near as anyone can tell, is impenetrable. Death babies don’t feel pain, death babies don’t die.
Girls, grown women even, are afraid to go out alone at night. They fear one of the death babies will latch on and then they’ll spend the rest of their days stuck with the thing. What is the world coming to?
Take Emma. She got her first death baby when she was a child herself. She mistook it for a rabbit, caressing the top of the baby’s head. If you show a death baby any affection, any at all, that baby bonds to you. It will never leave you alone. Emma ran home. Later that night, she heard the baby scratching at her window. Her parents tried everything, including tying a rock to the baby and throwing it in the pond — it showed up at their door three days later.
Emma finally accepted the death baby, keeping it with her always or locking it in her chest to get a short break. Emma was also one of the town’s few beauties, her hair a dark wave of ringlets and her eyes a warming green. But for the death baby, she’d have married before her eighteenth birthday, instead of her twenties. Her husband, too disturbed by continually finding the death baby nestled between them, left, though not before leaving her pregnant.
As the birth neared, Emma, in love with the life growing inside her, tried one last time to lose her death baby. She tied its tiny limbs together and placed it in a bag at the bottom of her chest and filled it with rocks. She paid a merchant to take the chest to her farthest route and dump it in some still water.
The baby was born and christened Eleanor. Men ten years her junior courted Emma, cooing over the beautiful baby. Emma lived on the edge of town in a little blue house with Eleanor. Three months after the birth, Emma found the death baby sitting on Eleanor’s chest, laughing its baby laugh, its elbows pressed into the pillow over Eleanor’s face.
They buried Eleanor in the family plot, and Emma sat tear-soaked by the marker, refusing to leave. A day and night, she stayed. Then she saw the shape crawling free of the brambles by the cemetery, a baby. “Eleanor,” she called. It was not, but the death baby came to her. She whispered the name again and cradled the death baby in her lap.
Emma had two death babies then. The “twins” she took to calling them. Her family just shook their heads at the mention of her name. What was there to do? People began to talk about crazy Emma and her death babies. She took in another one, they said. And it was true. She began to collect them.
We watched her roll a wheelbarrow through town full of them. She haunted the edges of the forest, the night after a funeral, waiting on her next child. Her neighbors moved for the endless sound, a hum of death baby babble. Some talked about taking measures, but others of us said she was doing the town a favor, taking in the pests.
Soon the death babies just seemed to know where to go. We kept away from the house as it slowly fell apart and the grounds grew up around it, as if the wilderness were taking it back. We were at first relieved seeing less and less of the death babies, but sad to sacrifice the lovely Emma for that relief, and soon we just took it for granted.
Then, one day, a commotion drew everyone out of their homes, though night was coming on and we were draining out the stresses of the day. Even before the sight, the sound of the death babies and people murmuring and crying and shouting preceded it. No one could count the numbers of the death babies crawling through the main street, one almost on top of another in their slow procession. And on top of the mass of the death babies rode the limp body of Emma, looking as old as a woman could look, but still beautiful, her full hair all gone white and loose, but fanned among the babies like a glorious curtain. No one would touch her, afraid any sign of affection would be misconstrued by the death babies, so the parade continued through the streets, us following as the death babies bore Emma away. They disappeared into the wilderness where we would not go, just as all the light left the sky.
Now, they are everywhere, the death babies. They cry more. The death babies look for someone else to love them. We are building a wall, a very tall wall.
S. Craig Renfroe, Jr. teaches writing at Queens University of Charlotte. He is the author of the short story collection You Should Get That Looked At and his story “Stick” was a Million Writers Award Notable Story of 2008. Also, his work has appeared or will appear in Cemetery Dance, Flatmancrooked, storySouth, LITnIMAGE, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, 3:AM Magazine, and others. He blogs at craigrenfroe.blogspot.com.
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