The old lady huddled behind the tree was so wizened I didn't see her at all. Not until she leapt out from where she crouched with surprising agility and caught me unawares.
It used to be a dollhouse, she said. Her voice was hoarse and cracked, and she too appeared as if pieces of her would drift to the ground like autumn leaves.
I didn't know that. Even though I walk down this path every morning, always hurrying to get to my destination, the lake at the end of the road, I'm so lost in my thoughts that I only noticed this structure yesterday.
But you've passed by here before? the woman said, as if she could read my thoughts. It was more a question than a statement.
Everyday, I admitted.
Her face broke into a toothless grin. Then you must stay and play, she insisted.
I shook my head – too many chores to do, too many errands to run – but she had already grabbed me by the hand and led me to the side of the house.
There was once a young girl who played in this dollhouse, she said, and when the girl grew up her children came to play here while she watched over them from the sunroom of her mansion over there. The old woman pointed to a large house a few yards away.
What happened to them? I asked.
Children, you know, she said with a sigh, they always grow up and go their own ways.
She then instructed me to look through the windows on the side. What do you see? she demanded to know.
And there they were, all my little selves playing with dolls and rocking horses, playing hopscotch and jumprope, drawing crosses and noughts and fairytales, dusting themselves in chalk and mud, with no grown-ups to reprimand or instruct otherwise.
I turned back to find the old woman grinning at me expectantly. So, will you stay and play? she asked.
Yes, I said, but only if I'll never have to leave.