“Tucker, Nelda, Aubrey…” a woman’s voice would call out.
“Farley, Vance, Giselle…” every day like clockwork.
“Odilia, Ainsley, Wesley…” regardless of the weather.
She was dubbed the Mad Mother of Main Street, this woman was, Miss Wilhelmina Soames by name, pushing an empty pram up and down the thoroughfare from sunup to sundown, calling out a series of names in the same manner that a mother would call her children and placing a hand behind one ear to listen for a response.
Most of the locals came to ignore Wilhelmina’s comings and goings because people had a way of accepting the things that happened every day, didn’t they, even madness. Those with nothing better to do than mind the affairs of others had many a nasty thing to say about the Mad Mother, but not one single solitary soul could have testified under oath that Wilhelmina spoke ill of anyone, not even of those who mocked and teased her as she strolled by.
Occasionally the mental Miss Soames would go rooting around alleyways and underpasses and all the other nooks and crannies that the city possessed, places ignored by upstanding citizens, places where the foolish, the nosy, the mischief makers, and the destitute often went missing, and she would sniff about and go digging like a truffle pig through the rubbish and muck. Most times she emerged disappointed but on rare occurrences there would be a smile wide enough to split her soot-speckled face in half, as she cradled something invisible to the eyes of everyone else but her own, and she would coo and sing lullabies to it as she gently placed it in the pram.
If Wilhelmina had a home, no one knew the address, and if she ate, no one bore witness to the consumption of food of any sort.
Because gossip was the least effective yet most prevalent form of communication, many rumors surrounded Mad Mother Soames, all supposedly from reliable witnesses explaining her separation from sanity. Some said she used to be employed as a childminder for a wealthy couple and lost track of her young charge while running errands, and the distraught parents ruined her socially, leaving her to fend for herself on the streets like a common beggar. Others claimed the baby lost was her own and in a moment of distraction, the handle slipped from her gloved grip and the pram rolled out into oncoming traffic.
And then there was the urban legend. Before cities were constructed, the planet was a patchwork of tribal lands filled with indigenous peoples who knew the ways to appease the forces that kept the balance of life in check. Those ways and the knowledge that accompanied them were lost when the colonizers arrived. As was the way with life, accidents would occur that sadly resulted in death and those souls too young to have bonded with their physical counterparts would become separated and wander aimlessly with no knowledge and no ability to find their path to the afterlife. So, every decade a new person who had unwillingly and unwittingly sacrificed a young life to the forces that kept the balance of life in check, would become the collector and guardian of those tiny lost souls.
The Mad Mother’s daily search ended when the city was asleep, and Wilhelmina would push her pram into a lot that had remained vacant as long as anyone could remember because it did not have a clear title. The ownership situation was so complicated that no real estate investor felt it was worth the time and effort to resolve.
Wilhelmina had been fortunate this day, so she scooped her invisible bundle out of the pram but tripped over a bit of rubble in the process, causing her to slip and strike her head on the jagged edge of a section of a demolished brick wall.
She awoke quite literally beside herself, her flesh encasement lying face down in the remnants of a building had taken on an ashen pallor, but she was surprisingly unconcerned because she realized it had served its purpose faithfully and it was now time for her to move on, as she had much bigger fish to fry.
Miss Wilhelmina Soames, the Mad Mother of Main Street, smiled as she looked out over the sea of baby souls surrounding her, all with arms outstretched for a cuddle and calling her Mummy.