The grass along the side of the house is yellow, just like the one place where the rock was. That morning, she’d lifted the rock in the yard. She’d watched the blades rise up like elbows rising over eyes against the sun.
The grass had drowned in the dark.
Mama drowned, Daddy had told her when Mama died five years ago. In her own lungs, Daddy said. It was how being sick could get. People could get so sick they couldn’t breathe anymore.
Ellie thinks, in the dark of herself, Mama died. She thinks, Mama wouldn’t know me now that I’m nine.
Mama wouldn’t know her with her freckles mostly gone.
On her knees, wet with the rain, she peers under the house, into the crawlspace. The scent is sharp.
Go under the house, Daddy told her this morning.
It smells. It smells like wet rot and raw dirt.
Something crawled up under the house and died, Daddy said.
You smell it? Daddy’s mouth was a narrow line. But sometimes, when he was drinking, his lips got bigger, and they got red, like the bottle made them pop out from where they were hiding. He wasn’t like Tom’s dad. Her Daddy didn’t get mean when he was drinking. Her Daddy got quiet.
Squinting, Ellie shook her head. She scratched at her sunburned shoulders. The honey-suckle drifted with the wind. The smoke from Daddy’s cigarette drifted too.
She did not smell it, she said.
Daddy looked down at her. The sun made him shadow, she could not see his eyes. You crawl under there later and go fishin’ for it. He smiled at her. The colorless hairs on his arms breezed into the heat, lifting like the sawdust in his workshop. Except for his eyes on the couch in the dark Daddy was dry all over, like sandpaper.
She looked away from him, down at the steps. She did not want to tell him she did not want to go under the house with the dead smell. She wanted Daddy to tell her, I changed my mind, Ellie. Don’t go down there.
Maybe a rat, Daddy told her this morning. Maybe a squirrel.
She is wearing shorts, the rain is on her legs. The rain is on her back. But her head is dry. Her head is under the dark of the house. She didn’t bring the flashlight. She doesn’t go back for it. She will be brave, she will go on without it. Every inch forward sinks her deeper. Her fingers are dark with the mud-dirt. Mama is in the mud-dirt. Does Mama smell like this, now, where Mama is under the dark too.
She was five when her Mama died. She still remembers her. But she can’t tell one morning when Mama was alive from the next morning when Mama was alive. Those mornings are all becoming the every morning before Mama died. Sometimes, when she is putting the laundry up in the hall closet, she remembers something about Mama doing that too. She can smell Mama’s vanilla skin. Sometimes she digs through the towels to reach for the things at the back of the shelves, the things that don’t get used anymore because Daddy thinks tablecloths aren’t important. When she presses her nose against those useless things she breathes in. Mama used to put out the tablecloths. Maybe that’s where Mama is, hiding in the things she’d thought were important.
But there is nothing of her pretty, soft vanilla Mama in them.
Above her, above the house, the rain falls harder. She hears it echo but the echo becomes endless, like the earth is humming around her.
She is in the dark like the grass.
She lays her cheek against the dirt. The dirt feels soft and damp. The rain will stop and the sun will come but she will not see it here. She will not know it. Maybe Daddy will come, to lift her up like she’d lifted the rock in the yard. If he does she will bend her elbows over her eyes. She will want to curl up into vanilla skin and Daddy will know it, and his eyes will get wet the way they do when he sits alone on the couch. He will set her down because he will say, you look so much like her, and when he says it he always looks away from her.
When she looks at herself in the mirror she doesn’t see Mama. She just doesn’t look like herself anymore with her freckles off. Daddy doesn’t look like himself anymore either. It’s the seeing Mama not here they see in each other.
Not-Mama is everywhere. She is forgetting her.
Here, she can imagine Mama, her new damp in the earth Mama, her under the dark no more vanilla soft Mama.
When Daddy comes, she will lie. She will tell him she could not find the thing that crawled up under the house to die. When she comes out from under the house she will find the rock. She will put the grass back under the dark.