The eye snatched itself away, then, curious, relit itself from the beam of light. Now, having caught what he wanted to catch, the young man held the butterfly reflection steady, save for the breathing of its fiery wings, so that the green fire of that far-distant day poured through the shutters of not only ancient house but ancient woman. He heard her breathe out her muffled startlement, her repressed delight.

«No, no, you can't fool me!» She sounded like someone deep under water, trying not to drown in a lazy tide. «Coming back dressed in that flesh, you! Putting on that mask I can't quite see! Talking with that voice I remember from some other year. Whose voice? I don't care! My ouija board here on my lap spells who you really are and what you sell!»

«I sell just this twenty-four hours from young life.»

«You sell something else!»

«No, I can't sell what I am.»

«If I come out you'd grab and shove me six feet under. I've had you fooled, put off, for years. Now you whine back with new plans, none of which will work!»

«If you came out the door, I'd only kiss your hand, young lady.»

«Don't call me what I'm not!»

«I call you what you could be an hour from now.»

«An hour from now…» she whispered, to herself.

«How long since you been walked through this wood?»

«Some other war, or some peace,» she said. «I can't see. The water's muddy.»

«Young lady,» he said, «it's a fine summer day. There's a tapestry of golden bees, now this design, now that, in the green church aisle of trees here. There's honey in a hollow oak flowing like a river of fire. Kick off your shoes, you can crush wild mint, wading deep. Wildflowers like clouds of yellow butterflies lie in the valley. The air under these trees is like deep well water cool and clear you drink with your nose. A summer day, young as young ever was.»

«But I'm old, old as ever was.»

«Not if you listen! Here's my out-and-out bargain, deal, sale — transaction betwixt you, me and the August weather.»

«What kind of deal, what do I get for my investment?»

«Twenty-four long sweet summer hours, starting now. When we've run through these woods and picked the berries and eaten the honey, we'll go on to town and buy you the finest spider-web-thin white summer dress and lift you on the train.»

«The train!»

«The train to the city, an hour away, where well have dinner and dance all night. I'll buy you four shoes, you'll need them, wearing out one pair.»

«My bones — I can't move.»

«You'll run rather than walk, dance rather than run. We'll watch the stars wheel over the sky and bring the sun up, flaming. We'll string footprints along the lake shore at dawn. We'll eat the biggest breakfast in mankind's history and lie on the sand like two chicken pies warming at noon. Then, late in the day, a five-pound box of bonbons on our laps, we'll laugh back on the train, covered with the conductor's ticket-punch confettiyblue, green, orange, like we were married, and walk through town seeing nobody, no one, and wander back through the sweet dusk-smelling wood into your house…»


«It's already over,» murmured her voice. «And it hasn't begun.»

Then: «Why are you doing this? What's in it for you?!»

The young man smiled tenderly. «Why, girl, I want to sleep with you.»

She gasped. «I never slept with no one in my life!»

«You're a… maiden lady?»

«And proud оf it!»

The young man sighed, shaking his head. «So it's true — you are, you really are, a maiden.»

He heard nothing from the house, so listened.

Softly, as if a secret faucet had been turned somewhere with difficulty, and drop by drop an ancient system were being used for the first time in half a century, the old woman began to cry.

«Old Mam, why do you cry?»

«I don't know,» she wailed.

Her weeping faded at last and he heard her rock in her chair, making a cradle rhythm to soothe herself.

«Old Mam,» he whispered.

«Don't call me that!»

«All right,» he said. «Clarinda.»

«How did you know my name? No one knows!»

«Clarinda, why did you hide in that house, long ago?»

«I don't remember. Yes, I do. I was afraid.»


«Strange. Half my years afraid of life. The other half, afraid of death. Always some kind of afraid. You! Tell the truth, now! When my twenty-four hours are up, after we walk by the lake and take the train back and come through the woods to my house, you want to…»

He made her say it.

«… sleep with me?» she whispered.

«For ten thousand million years,» he said.

«Oh.» Her voice was muted. «That's a long time.»

He nodded.

«A long time,» she repeated. «What kind of bargain is that, young man? You give me twenty-four hours of being eighteen again and I give you ten thousand million years of my precious time.»

«Don't forget, my time, too,» he said. «I'll never go away.»

«You'll lie with me?»

«I will.»

«Oh, young man, young man. Your voice. So familiar.»


He saw the keyhole unplugged and her eye peer out at him. He smiled at the sunflowers in the field and the sunflower in the sky.

«I'm blind, half blind,» she cried. «But can that be Willy Winchester 'way out there?»

He said nothing.

«But, Willy, you're just twenty-one by the look of you, not a day different than you were seventy years back!»

He set the bottle by the front door and walked back out to stand in the weeds.

«Can ?» She faltered. «Can you make me look like yourself?»

He nodded.

«Oh, Willy, Willy, is that really you?»

She waited, staring across the summer air to where he stood relaxed and happy and young, the sun flashing off his hair and cheeks.

A minute passed.

«Well?» he said.

«Wait!» she cried. «Let me think!»

And there in the house he could feel her letting her memories pour through her mind as sand pours through an hourglass, heaping itself at last into nothing but dust and ashes. He could hear the emptiness of those memories burning the sides of her mind as they fell down and down and made a higher and yet higher mound of sand.

All that desert, he thought, and not one oasis.

She trembled at his thought.

«Well,» he said again.

And at last she answered.

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