If you walk down a certain street in a certain city, where the crumbling monuments of the past mix in with the gleaming present, and you are the kind of person who believes in nonsense like magic, or even that there is some good in the world, you may see a little house. Now, the house should definitely not be able to fit there. You don’t even see it until you walk by and look over your shoulder, the hairs on your neck prickling like something is watching you. The tall buildings on either side seem to arch around it.
The house itself has a timeless architecture to it: a mere two stories, with a sensible tiled roof and charming windows. Trees peek around its corners, their branches heavy with fruit, and a low fence surrounds the property. The gate has no lock, and the tops of the posts are carved with little birds.
If you were to walk up to the house and knock, the door would swing open to reveal the sole occupant. His name has long been forgotten, was never recorded on the pages of history, and if he knows it, he isn’t telling. If he takes a shine to you, he’ll invite you in, and give you a pastry. You will feel younger when you eat it. When you ask for the recipe, it will be the same as every other you’ve ever seen. When you ask what’s special, he’ll simply smile.
You are not his only visitor, of course.
“Why, just last week, I chased Hercules off with a broom,” he says, his eyes misting in fond remembrance.
“The Hercules?” you ask, with the indulgence you give the old and their fragmented memories.
“That’s the one,” he nods. “Keeps trying to steal my apples, calling them magic. Everyone does, really. Is it some sort of prank?” The question seems earnest, but there is a twinkle in his eye. You take another bite of your apple pie and think that, perhaps, these thieves are onto something.
“Of course not,” you assure him. “Kids are like that.”
“Grown men, too,” says the Old Man, “and Death.”
“Death?” you ask, surprised at the sudden change in topic. How morbid.
“Loves my baking,” he confirms.
You don’t stay too long after that. The pie might be good, but you’re unprepared to deal with his insanity — or one of the Four Horsemen, if he’s right. You leave with a hasty — and untrue — promise to return the next week.
After you’re gone, the Old Man tidies up the dirty dishes, picks up his trowel and gloves, and goes into the back. There is no sign of any buildings, any bustle of the city, just row after row of fruit trees, bushes, neat rows of flowers.
A rustle comes from one of the nearest trees. Its branches are heavy with pears, their skin metallic gold. There are several cores lying about the base of the tree, and the Old Man sighs. He picks up a cane from against the house wall. Its carved handle is worn under his hand, until the original shapes are naught but indistinguishable impressions.
There is a teenage girl sitting in the tree, a pear in each hand. Her mouth is smeared with juice. She blinks innocently down at him as he approaches.
“You could’ve asked,” the Old Man says.
“You were busy,” she replies. “I looked through the windows.”
“So, what are you here for?” the Old Man asks. “Immortality? True love? Happily-ever-after?”
“I’m looking for the magic fruit,” she answers. “I don’t know what kind, but it’s gold. I need it to cure the king so I can marry the prince and ascend to glorious power.”
“All pears are golden,” replies the Old Man, “and none of mine are magic.”
“Nonsense,” she says. “Everyone knows about this place. Everyone who’s anyone, anyway.”
“My fruit isn’t magic,” the Old Man repeats. “Shoo.”
“You can’t help me at all?” the girl asks, dismayed.
“Come back when you learn some manners,” he says, and thwacks her with his cane. She leaves in haste.
As he watches her vault over the low fence and disappear into nothing, Death pokes its head out from the shadows of the apple tree. A heavy, black cowl covers its head, obscuring its features into nothing. Not even the shape of its nose is visible, but if Death had a nose, Death would prefer it to be an interesting one. Maybe a little crooked, or with a lump in the middle.
“Having fun, Old Man?” it asks, in a voice like the last cries of a thousand men bleeding out onto the battlefield. The Old Man rolls his eyes.
“I’m not next on your list,” he says. “My old bones are doing just fine.”
“Oh, sure, of course,” Death says, pulling a list from its voluminous robes. It politely leans its scythe against the apple tree as it shakes out the list. It’s written on old parchment, in careful script. “Let me just check…oh look! It says Old Man right here at the top.” Death holds out the list to the Old Man, a bony finger resting underneath the top spot. It has clearly been tacked on to the rest, and the ink looks fresh.
“That’s not my name,” the Old Man says.
“Yes it is,” Death insists. “It’s what everyone calls you, and it’s right there on the page. C’mon, time’s up. Unless…” Death hunches down, making him only a full foot taller than the Old Man. Its body thrums with expectancy.
The Old Man sighs and goes inside the house. He returns with a neatly wrapped parcel of cookies, and hands it to Death.
“Oh, what do you know?” says Death, slipping the package into its robes. “Must be a different old man. Take care of yourself. I’ll be back!” It picks up the scythe and disappears into one of the bushes. There’s a rustling sound, a curse, and a sparrow drops out of the leaves.
“Oops,” Death says.
“Leave my birds alone,” says the Old Man.
The girl shows up an hour later, looking contrite. She offers him a grocery store cake with ‘Sorry’ spelled out in M&Ms.
“Can I have the fruit?” she asks.
“They’re not magic,” the Old Man insists, but shows her outside anyway. He reaches up and plucks a peach. They’re not in season, but the one he holds is rosy and full. She takes it from him with an expression edging towards awe.
“So I was eating the wrong fruit?”
“My fruit isn’t magic.” He closes her fingers around the fuzzy skin. “Not on its own. You have to believe.”
“That’s stupid,” the girl says.
“Do you want to cure your king or not?” the Old Man demands, and the girl leaves before he can rescind his help.
“It can’t really be that,” you protest. A blueberry pie is half-gone in front of you. This one makes you feel strong, down to the marrow of your bones, the roots of your being. The world is no longer too much for you. “I didn’t believe anything about the first pie.”
You’re not sure what you’re doing back here. It’s probably the pie. Death poked its head in earlier and got one for its own. You were surprised at its appearance, but not as much as when Death said, “Oh, you have company? I’m sorry, I’m being so rude. I’ll just take this and go…” before snatching up a pie tin and disappearing around the doorway. You heard a muffled thump, a curse, and the Old Man had sighed fondly.
“Don’t break my oven!” he’d called.
At least, you tell yourself it’s the pie, but there’s something more to it, this place: the feeling of a long-lost boat landing on a familiar shore, or going back to an unchanged childhood haunt, or maybe just a cozy blanket on a rainy night. You feel safety, nostalgia, a sense of belonging — strange, in this stranger’s house.
“I might have fibbed,” the Old Man admits. “But can you blame me?”
“No,” you agree. “But what is the secret, then? It’s not the fruit.”
“No, it’s not the fruit,” the Old Man says, grinning. “Someone gets it.”
You look at the Old Man, at the delicate skin just covering his veins, at the frail shoulders and the brown spots that pepper his face, the shocking strength of his hands. Through the back window, you can see the orchard stretch on forever, perfectly maintained. “I know the secret ingredient.”
His smile broadens. “Oh?” He doesn’t wait for your answer, getting to his feet and bustling to clear the dirty dishes. “Come back next week,” he says over his shoulder, as you get up to go. “I’m making peach cobbler.”
“I will,” you promise, and mean it.
Maria Schrater is a 2nd-year Fiction major at Columbia College Chicago. She has previously been published in the Lab Review. Maria has an extensive knowledge of interesting but useless facts about ancient literature, and lives in Chicago with two actors and an ungrateful cat, Horatio Stormalot.