Ray Bradbury

Death and the Maiden

Far out in the country beyond the woods, beyond the world, really, lived Old Mam, and she had lived there for ninety years with the door locked tight, not opening for anyone, be it wind, rain, sparrow tapping or little boy with a pailful of crayfish rapping. If you scratched at her shutters, she called through:

«Go away. Death!»

«I'm not Death!» you might say.

But she'd cry back, «Death, I know you, you come today in the shape of a girl. But I see the bones behind the freckles!»

Or someone else might knock.

«I see you. Death.» would cry Old Mam. «In the shape of a scissors-grinder! But the door is triple-locked and double-barred. I got flypaper on the cracks, tape on the keyholes, dust mops up the chimney, cobwebs in the shutters, and the electricity cut off so you can't slide in with the juice! No telephones so you can call me to my doom at three in the dark morning. And I got my ears stuffed with cotton so I can't hear your reply to what I say now. So, Death, get away!»

That's how it had been through the town's history. People in that world beyond the wood spoke of her and sometimes boys doubting the tale would heave chunks against the roof slates just to hear Old Mam wail, «Go on, goodbye, you in black with the white, white face!»

And the tale was that Old Mam, with such tactics, would live forever. After all, Death couldn't get in, could he? All the old germs in her house must have long since given up and gone to sleep. All the new germs running through the land with new names every week or ten days, if you believed the papers, couldn't get in past the bouquets of rock moss, rue, black tobacco and castor bean at every door.

«She'll bury us all,» said the town 'way off where the train ran by.

«I'll bury them all,» said Old Mam, alone and playing solitaire with Braille-marked cards, in the dark.

And that's how it was.

Years passed without another visitor, be it boy, girl, tramp or travelling man, knocking at her door. Twice a year a grocery clerk from the world beyond, seventy himself, left packages that might have been birdseed, could have been milk-bone biscuit, but were almost certainly stamped into bright steel cans with yellow lions and red devils inked on the bright wrappers, and trod off over the choppy sea of lumber on the front porch. The food might stay there for a week, baked by the sun, frozen by the moon; a proper time of antisepsis. Then, one morning, it was gone.

Old Mam's career was waiting. She did it well, with her eyes closed and her hands clasped and the hairs inside her ears trembling, listening, always ready.

So she was not surprised when, on the seventh day of August in her ninety-first year, a young man with a sunburned face walked through the wood and stood before her house.

He wore a suit like that snow which slides whispering in white linen off a winter roof to lay itself in folds on the sleeping earth. He had no car; he had walked a long way, but looked fresh and clean. He carried no cane to lean on and wore no hat to keep off the stunning blows of the sun. He did not perspire. Most important of all, he carried only one thing with him, an eight-ounce bottle with a bright-green liquid inside. Gazing deeply into this green colour, he sensed he was in front of Old Mam' s house, and looked up.

He didn't touch her door. He walked slowly around her house and let her feel him making the circle.

Then, with his X-ray eyes, he let her feel his steady gaze.

«Oh!» cried Old Mam, waking with a crumb of graham cracker still in her mouth. «It's you! I know who you came as this time!»


«A young man with a face like a pink summer melon. But you got no shadow! Why's that? Why?»

«People are afraid of shadows. So I left mine back beyond the wood.»

«So I see, without looking.»

«Oh,» said the young man with admiration. «You have Powers.»

«Great Powers, to keep you out and me in!»

The young man's lips barely moved. «I won't even bother to wrestle you.»

But she heard. «You'd lose, you'd lose!»

«And I like to win. So — I'll just leave this bottle on your front stoop.»

He heard her heart beating fast through the walls of the house.

«Wait! What's in it? Anything left on my property, I got a right to know!»

«Well,» said the young man.

«Go on!»

«In this bottle,» he said, «is the first night and the first day you turned eighteen.»

«What, what, what!»

«You heard me.»

«The night I turned eighteen… the day?»

«That's it.»

«In a bottle?»

He held it high and it was curved and shaped not unlike a young woman. It took the light of the world and flashed back warmth and green fire like the coals burning in a tiger's eyes. It looked now serene, now suddenly shifted and turbulent in his hands.

«I don't believe it!» cried Old Mam.

«I'll leave it and go,» said the young man. «When I'm gone, try a tea-spoon of the green thoughts in this bottle. Then you'll know.»

«It's poison!»


«You promise, mother's honour?»

«I have no mother.»

«What do you swear on?»


«It'll kill me, that's what you want.»

«It will raise you from the dead.»

«I'm not dead!»

The young man smiled at the house.

«Aren't you?» he said.

«Wait! Let me ask myself: Are you dead? Are you? Or nearly, all these years?»

«The day and the night you turned eighteen,» said the young man. «Think it over.»

«It's so long ago!»

Something stirred like a mouse by a coffin-sized window.

«This will bring it back.»

He let the sun wash through the elixir that glowed like the crushed sap of a thousand green blades of summer grass. It looked hot and still as a green sun, it looked wild and blowing as the sea.

«This was a good day in a good year of your life.»

«A good year,» she murmured, hidden away.

«A vintage year. Then there was savour to your life. One swig and you'd know the taste! Why not try it, eh? Eh?»

He held the bottle higher and farther out and it was suddenly a telescope which, peered through from either end, brought to focus a time in a year long gone. A green-and-yellow time much like this noon in which the young man offered up the past like a burning glass between his serene fingers. He tilted the bright flask, and a butterfly of white-hot illumination winged up and down the window shutters, playing them like gray piano keys, soundlessly. With hypnotic ease the burning wings frittered through the shutter slots to catch a lip, a nose, an eye, poised there.

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