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The Old Woman In the Young Woman

Written by Gene Wolfe
Illustrated by Emily Tolson



He had been walking all day. Twice the wandering trails he followed had led him into ruined towns; in each case he had halted and spent an hour or so poking through such rubbish as nature had not yet buried. In neither case had he found anything worth keeping. Knives that would not rust were found in ruined towns, sometimes. Or so some said. Long Tom, who would have liked one, had never found one or even seen one.

To the people who had lived in those towns, he had given not a moment's thought. The roofs of their houses had fallen, and the walls were falling. The broad, black pavements were crumbling. The people who had made them had died long before he was born. He had never met anyone who had spoken to one of them, and he never would.

His belly was empty when he came to the village. The little buckskin pack in which he sometimes stored food held only an old pair of stockings. The slender rifle he bore was heavy on his shoulder, its weight reminding him over and over again that he had not had a decent shot all day. That rifle would no longer feed a cartridge when he pulled its lever down, but he rarely needed a quick second shot.

Up the hill along a path that was a little too wide and clearly marked to be a game trail. Through blackberry brambles on which not one berry was ripe.

Then, the crest of the hill.

Long Tom put down his rifle, setting its curved brass butt-plate almost carefully beside his right moccasin, and looked down at the tiny village in the valley. Six cabins, he thought, or it could be seven. Smoke rising from three chimneys. The cabins looked too poor to offer much comfort to a traveler. Too poor, although one was a trifle bigger than the rest and had an outbuilding. A little barn, or perhaps a woodshed.

* * *

Inside that larger cabin, young Emmy sat at old Miz Emily's bedside, listening. Listening, but the words came slowly, punctuated with much labored breathing. The wide spaces between those words had room for a great deal of dreaming, and Emmy was a practiced dreamer. Someday—some happy day very soon—Miz Emily would be close to young again. Miz Emily would rise from her bed and once more do all the things she now did only in her stories. She would bake bread, can, and heal.

"A brain," Miz Emily told Emmy, "spiles faster 'n a fish." She shut her eyes, and the breath whistled through her toothless old mouth. "Brain's the worst part of a man . . . Or a woman, either . . . You can't hardly never save it."

Emmy nodded, rapt.

"Ol' Sheller Shapcott . . . He wasn't hardly cold. I shot in my heart-get-up . . . Best I had. His heart . . . She galloped again . . . You see, Emmy?"

Emmy nodded as before.

"Never moved . . . Never spoke. Horse's alive, only nobody riding."

Still nodding, Emmy cocked her head, conscious of a new sound. Someone was tapping on the front door. She rose.

A faint smile touched Miz Emily's lips. "Somebody's sick. You see who."

Emmy hurried away.

Outside, Long Tom, who had been knocking with his knuckles, had changed to the handle of his knife. He was about to resume knocking when the door swung back.

The girl was young and small, with the sort of plain, smooth face that promises beauty (although not prettiness) to come. Her blue eyes widened at the sight of Long Tom, and her small lips formed an O.

Tom removed his cap. "I'm a man that needs a place to stay tonight, ma'am. There's rain comin', which you can feel if you breathe deep. Just a place out of the rain, and a bite to eat, if you can spare. Cornpone or what you got. Tell your ma?"

"I don't have no ma." The girl's voice was scarcely audible. "Never did."

Long Tom nodded and smiled. "You the lady of the house, ma'am?"

"Miz Emily." The girl reached a decision. "She said let you in." She stood aside.

Long Tom entered, still smiling. "I don't believe we've met proper, ma'am. Tom Bright's my name. Long Tom's what most folks call me. Guess you can see why." He held out his hand.

The girl's touched it; hers was far smaller than his but just as hard, the hand of a girl who scrubbed, cooked, and swept, Tom thought, from kinsee to kaintsee. "I'm Tom Bright," he repeated, "'cept you can call me anythin' you'd like. Long Tom or whatever."

The girl's hand had closed on his.

"Lazy, mebbe. Lazy's good. There's lots of folks call me that."

At last she smiled, and her smile stirred to life something in him he knew at once would never die.

"Hungered, Tom? Didn't you say you was? Stew for supper tonight, an' I got it on a'ready. Be fit to eat 'fore long. You could sleep by the fire, mebbe? I do, only in Miz Emily's room, you know. Case I got to git her somethin'. We got our own li'l fire in there, an' it's God's own blessin'."

"Your pa won't mind?"

The girl shook her head. "Ain't never had none, Tom. Ain't nobody here 'cept us. Miz Emily an' Emmy. I'll have to show you to Miz Emily, Tom. It's only polite. You come along. We got to see if she's wakeful."

Tom sighed. "If she don't want me, I'll go, Emmy. There won't be no trouble."

"She'll cotton to you," Emmy told him. "It's certain sure. There aplenty for us to be feared of without our bein' feared of you."

Hand-in-hand they walked through the big front room, a lofty room redolent of venison stew. A clean and orderly room that had, somehow, something of the air of the ruined towns. It might, perhaps, have been the high, stained table.

It might also have been the bags of rags, or the three lofty cabinets along one wall, locked cabinets of hardwood black with years, somber and silent.

Emmy motioned him back and opened the door of another room enough to put her head through. "Comp'ny, Miz Emily. Name's Tom Bright an' seems a well-favored man. You want to see him?"

Apparently Miz Emily did; Emmy turned and waved.

Going in, Tom saw the oldest woman he had ever set eye on sitting propped up in bed. Her white hair was almost gone, her cheeks fallen in, and her nose and chin so long they nearly touched. Only the eyes, blue eyes that seemed as young as Emmy's, remained alive in her ruined face.

"Long Tom's what they call me, ma'am." Tom touched his forehead. "I'm headed west, Miz Emily. There's land there that ain't so pizzoned as 'tis 'round here. So I hear tell. The folks is dead, mostly, like here. Only the land's better. So I'm goin' to claim a real good piece for my own."

The aged head nodded the merest fraction of an inch. For an instant, Tom thought he saw the dry lips twitch in what might have been a smile—or almost anything else.

"So I'm jest passin' through," he finished lamely. "I'd slept out in the woods like I done last night, only there's rain in the air, you know. So I seen your place here, all these houses, an' this's the biggest so I thought it'd have more room most likely. I'll work, if you got work to do, or else be gone at sunup. I'll go now, if you say to. Only Emmy said I got to talk to you."

"Goin' to farm, Tom? Know how to?"

Tom nodded. "Yes'm. My pa had a farm, an' me an' Cy, we worked it. Only us, out toward the end, you know. Then pa passed. Cy, he said we'd split. Only there wasn't enough for it. I want a couple fields an' medders. Enough for a horse an' a milk cow fer sure."

His own eyes had sunk in dream, although he did not know it. "Corn an' a garden, too. Chickens an' mebbe a pig. Got to have a sight of good land for all that."

"Like him, Emmy?" Miz Emily's voice shook. "Can see you do. Wouldn't have brought him to me if you didn't."

Emmy nodded.

"Got a wife, Tom? Girl back home?"

Looking stricken, Tom shook his head.

"Don't let that pretty face fool you, Tom. Emmy's a hard worker."

Tom managed to say, "I know it, ma'am."

"Smart, too. Smart as a whip."

"I . . . I ain't much, ma'am. I ain't much, an' I couldn't—"

Emmy made a tiny noise.

"Well, I ain't." Tom swallowed. "An' you got to take care of your grandma, Emmy. Only I guess I could, mebbe, stay on a bit . . . If you'd have me."

Miz Emily cackled. "She ain't my granddaughter, Tom. She's me."

Tom stared at her, then at Emmy. And found he could not tear his eyes from the latter.

"'Splain, Emmy. I'm that tired."

"There's a man here . . ." Emmy groped for words. "A neighbor, you know. Pen Perry's his name. He found a real pretty bush one time. Had pretty flowers all over it, an' he wanted two. Wanted one for each side of his door."

Rain rattled the cedar shakes of the roof.

"So he dug it up an' split it. I seen that. Seen him hackin' it into two with his hatchet. He planted the halves an' had him two bushes. You know 'bout that, Tom?"

"Sure thing. We done it."

"People can do it, too. 'Cept it's way harder for us."

From the bed, Miz Emily said, "I done it once. Made me a girl folks called Emma. Only she was me, and grown from little bits of me."

Emmy said, "She's a medicine woman, Tom. Miz Emily's a medicine woman."

"Soon's she'd growed big 'nough," Miz Emily continued, "I harvested. Took the eyes and the liver and kidneys. That was what I needed, and I buried the rest proper."

Tom said nothing; he was looking at Emmy.

"You'll be wonderin' how I set my new eyes in once the old was out. There's a lady in Swinton. Miz Pris, they call her. I help her, and she helps me."

"It's her heart this time, Tom. Heart an' lungs, too." Emmy touched her chest. "I'm growin' the new in me now. 'Fore long I'll be big 'nough. Next year, Miz Emily tells."

"It don't seem right," Tom muttered, "puttin' the young woman in the old one."

"Ever'body needs Miz Emily, Tom. There's folks sick all the time, sick er leg broke er shot. They got to have her, an' she's got to have me."

Miz Emily's breath wheezed before she spoke. "Pretty soon I seen I was going to need more, so I done it again. I missed Emma, too, and she'd been a great, great help to me. So I done, and here's Emmy that's been the same. She's a good girl through-and-through, Long Tom Bright. Don't you never forget it. She's me, too, just like my Emma was. Don't never forget that either."

She coughed. "Emmy . . . Emmy, honey, you come here. I'm going to do something I never done before, Emmy. Going to 'cause I got to. Hold out your sweet hand."

Emmy did, and Miz Emily laid a large key in it. A brass key, green with years. "That what you got's the key to the big cab'net I never did let you into." Miz Emily paused. "You open her up. Top shelf. A-ways in back."

She paused to breathe, the close air of her bedchamber whistling in her nostrils.

"Top shelf," Emmy repeated dutifully.

"In back, Emmy honey. It's a li'l blue bottle. The best medicine I got. Back corner."

She gasped for breath. "Tom. Long Tom. You hear all this?"


"You fetch it down for her. I don't want her standing on no chair."

Together they returned to the big front room, shutting the door quietly behind them. "That's her medicine-woman cab'net," Emmy whispered. "I never did open it before. She'd have me go 'way when she got somethin' out. I never did s'pose I'd hold this key."

The antique key turned smoothly in the lock; the highest shelf was high indeed, but not so high that Tom had difficulty in seeing the bottles and boxes that stood on it.

"Li'l blue bottle," Emmy told him. "Back in the corner's what she told. Way in back."

He found it and took it out. "No writin' on this one."

Emmy nodded. "Didn't want nobody that come stealin' to know what was in there, I guess. Them medicines . . . A body can't find 'em no more. Not nowhere."

"Out west, mebbe." Tom spoke mostly to himself. "Ain't so many lookin' out there."

Emmy took the bottle, and they returned to Miz Emily.

"Not so many lookin'," she said. "That's wise. You remember what all you said this day, Tom Bright. You, too, Emmy. Don't forget, nor let him forget."

Emmy nodded silently and returned the key.

"My medicine, Emmy? What I sent you for?"

Emmy handed her the blue bottle. A tear coursed down Emmy's cheek as she did, but neither of them commented on it.

No more did Tom, although he took a half step back.

"I'm weary with talking." Miz Emily coughed. "Only I got to talk more. I'll try to get it over quick."



Lean, blue-veined fingers drew the cork of the blue bottle. "I'm not going to tell you to do your duty, Emmy. You will, I know. Do your duty by Tom or whatever man you find. Do your duty by whatever children you get."

Emmy nodded vigorously. Hearing her stifled sobs, Tom laid his hand on her shoulder.

"There's a-many a man, Tom Bright, that never finds him a good woman. You got one here. Terrible young yet, but she'll get over that. There's no man that's as wise as a wise woman."

Tom nodded. "I've heard."

"She's not. Not yet. You got to be the steady one for now."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Build you a cabin when you've got that land. Make it li'l but solid. Won't be nobody but you to protect it, so it's got to be li'l. When there's more, you can make it bigger."

"Like you said, ma'am. That's the best, I know."

Nodding, as it seemed, wholly to herself. Miz Emily raised the blue bottle to her lips.

Emmy shrieked.

Miz Emily might not have heard her; Tom watched her swallow and fall back among her pillows.

Like a rabbit frozen by the serpent's eye, Tom saw the blue bottle roll slowly to the edge of the bed. The thump as it struck the floor freed him to kneel beside Emmy and—hesitantly, awkwardly—lay his rifle aside and put his arms around her.

So they remained as second after second ticked past, until someone began knocking on the door through which Tom had entered the house.

Emmy rose, wiping her eyes with the heels of both hands. "I'll see," she gasped. "Y-you stay right here."

He did, but listened through the half-open door of the bedchamber.

"You heard me cry out, Miz Ledbetter." The voice was Emmy's.

Tom could not hear the reply.

"She's tooken bad. Real bad. Asked me to fetch her medicine for her, which I done."

A woman's voice murmured, though Tom could not make out the words.

"You wait till she's better, Miz Ledbetter. She wouldn't want nobody to see her like she is now. Didn't want me to, even. Only you're gettin' soaked."

Nodding, Tom went to the bed and picked up Miz Emily's right arm. It was not yet stiff, but there was no pulse. He straightened her legs and crossed her arms on her chest.

When Emmy returned, he said, "She's gone. Reckon you knew 'fore me."

"My heart knowed." Emmy sighed. "I jus' kept sayin' no, no, no inside myself. Only my heart knowed soon's the bottle passed."

"Wasn't till that bottle fell that I did, Emmy." Tom looked for the blue bottle then, but he had kicked it under the bed.

"You didn't know her like me."

"I reckon not."

"I know the folks 'round here, too." Emmy sighed again. "They goin' to say I kilt her, Tom. They been prophesyin' it."

"You didn't."

"Don't matter now." Emmy shrugged. "It's what's said that does the work. Kill me for it, if they can."

"Have to kill me first," Tom told her.

"You sure, Tom?"

He nodded solemnly, and she embraced him, her smooth chestnut hair well below his chin.

When they parted at last he said, "We got to bury her, Emmy. Wouldn't be decent not to."

"Think you can wrap her up an' tie her tight, Tom?"


Emmy nodded. "Won't nobody see us carry her out back, 'cause of the rain. You want to eat 'fore we do it?"

He shook his head.

"Nor me, Tom. I'll feel better when she's been put under proper an' prayed over. Stew'll keep. It ain't but simmerin'. Where's the key?"

They found it among the bedclothes.

"Put it in her hand, Tom. She'd like it. Put it in there an' we'll tie her up."

Rolling the shriveled body in its blankets required no more than a minute. When it was done, Emmy carried in rags he tore to strips.

"Her bandages they was," Emmy murmured. "They're bandagin' her this day."

"She died for you," Tom told her.

"I died for me," Emmy corrected him.

He carried the long bundle like an infant in his arms when they left the house. Emmy, leading the way, bore the too-large spade with which she had dug Miz Emily's small garden that spring.

So it was that they passed through the clearing and into the trees, and at last entered another clearing, a place where no one lived. There, in the rain, Tom built a deep house for the dead woman, and laid her in it while Emmy wept, and heaped the sodden clay upon it.

Together they knelt and prayed aloud, their strong, young voices muted by the rain.

* * *

Back in the house that had been Miz Emily's, they hung their clothes before the fire and ate venison stew with home-baked bread. "Like seein' me like this?" Emmy asked.

He nodded, and she said, "Knew you would."

She smiled when her bowl was empty. "Don't have to wash no dishes. Been a long time since I've et an' didn't have to do up afterward. You got anything to take west 'cept your rifle an' what you got in your li'l pack?"

He shook his head.

"Have a look around. You see anything we might need, you take it." She went to the third cabinet, the one Tom knew he would never forget. Its door swung back, and she said, "I'll take from here. Much as I can carry, anyhow. I don't have much else."

"How'd you do that? Git it open?"

"You think I locked it again?" She smiled. "You git dressed, hear? I'll git dressed, too. I see what you're thinkin', Tom, plain as pikestaff. I'm thinkin' the same, only they'll say I kilt her once they learn, an' we ain't got time."

* * *

Neither of them was slow, and they got a start of a day and more; but when the little food Tom had carried away—for there had been but little in the larder—was gone, he had to hunt.

Even so, almost a week passed before they heard the distant crack of a rifle and the deathly whisper of the bullet that showered them with twigs and leaves.

Tom ordered Emmy back (a distance that she took as one-and-a-half paces) and waited until he had a clear view of the head and shoulders of their nearest pursuer. His rifle spoke. That man's hands flew to his face, and he fell.

The shrill, cracked voice of an old woman sounded behind him while he was reloading: "You there, Pen Perry? Answer me! Slim Ledbetter? Speak up!"

There was a silence before someone called, "I'm here, Miz Em'ly."

"That man Tom shot—"

The old voice shook, and Tom himself turned back to look at Emmy.

"Through the head, is it?"


Another man said, "Ain't cold yet, Miz Em'ly."

"That don't matter. I can't help him. You bury him proper, hear? Get him under and go back where you belong."

There were no more shots. They had walked almost until dark when Tom said, "I been wonderin', Emmy. It ain't—only I hope you'll tell."

"How I talked like her?" Emmy giggled. "I been listenin' to her all my life. Be a shame to me if I couldn't sound the same."

He shook his head. "I seen that right off. 'Bout that blue bottle. You knew what 'twas."

"Not till I handed it over I didn't." The giggle was gone. "When I handed it over, I seen her eyes an' knew."

"Them medicines you got. The shiny li'l knives. I was wonderin' if you know how to use 'em."

"'Course I do!"

Soon after, her hand found his. "She was me, Tom. An' I'm her. You got to remember it."



* * *

Gene Wolfe is the author of many books and stories.

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