Chapter 20 – Elza – Iteration 1
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The late winter snow was beautiful as it twirled to the ground. Elza watched the frosted landscape around their tent, breathing in the chill air. It was almost time for them to leave the north, but not quite yet. The world promised more days of snow, more long, cold nights.

Hess emerged from the tent with a long, thin spear in his hands. “I’ll be quick.” He bent to kiss her, wrapping her tightly in his arms.

“The fire will be ready to light when you get back,” she said.

They stood there a moment, eyes locked. Since the day they agreed to separate once they traveled south of the mountains, their partings had grown longer. Hess bent to kiss her once more. When he straightened, she rested her forehead on his chest. This needs to end.

“I better go now if we want to eat,” Hess said.

“Hurry back.”

The way he looked at her in the moment before turning away . . . . Elza watched him disappear through the frosty trees. They still had weeks before they could begin their journey. Maybe a month to cross the mountains. Then their paths parted. They would stop whatever it was they were doing and return to Observing.

Trying not to think, Elza swept their stone hearth free of snow with the branch of a nearby shrub, then set out in search of firewood. The area around their tent was picked clean, so she made a large circle to gather fallen branches. Their existence in the frozen land had become routine.

Maybe we should visit the sea before we go our own ways. What is a few more months compared to the hundreds of years we have lived? She shook her head. It had to end soon. Before one of them said something to make things serious. Though their conversations touched on every other topic under the sun, they managed to avoid that one subject. Whatever was between them had to remain unsaid.

She stacked the wood in a dry spot on each trip back to their camp. When she had enough to cook several fish, Elza arranged the sticks and used a flint knife to create a pile of kindling. Then she filled a wooden bowl with snow and placed it where the heat of the fire could melt it later. There were few edible plants available and no palatable ones, so their diet consisted almost entirely of meat and fish. When she had tried collecting acorns in the fall, Hess had informed her that the ones this far north were too bitter to eat. She had quickly realized he understated the case against their edibility.

She sat to wait for Hess. As she did often lately, Elza reflected on her long life. The moment creation sprang into motion had been glorious, coming awake full of righteous purpose. Everything had fascinated her. The false memories of the identity provided her by the Creator were dim shadows incomparable to the experiences she accumulated every moment.

In the early days, nothing could perturb her. Elza had walked through life knowing everything was a temporary illusion, the Creator’s grand dream. People lived their transient lives and died without ever grasping the truth of their existence. She had felt so privileged.

Over the years, something had stolen the joy of her calling. Perhaps it had been enduring the constant rejections of the creatures she was sent to observe. Perhaps it had been the tedious monotony of centuries. Perhaps it had been the gravitation of the world towards brutality. Or maybe all of it together was to blame. There had been no single dramatic event to change her, only lifetimes of hollow memories. Despite enduring beatings and deaths over the years, it wasn’t until recently that she had truly experienced drama.

What if Hess hadn’t been there to stop the men? The men would have done what they wanted to her, of course. She could endure anything, but not without consequences. Would that have been the dramatic event that changed me? Like Hess had with his sister’s death? If I live long enough, isn’t it inevitable that something will happen that I can’t handle?

The wind picked up and Elza moved to avoid the snow-filled gusts, going inside the tent where their mingled scents took her mind in a different direction. Though few enough men showed interest in her, there had been many owing to the sheer number of years she lived on the world. Most treated her with apathy, happy to part ways when the time came. Several had regarded her as property. A small few had genuinely liked her. But none of them had looked at her the way Hess did.

If I was just a woman and he was just a man . . . . She didn’t finish the thought. The wind outside howled its loneliness while Elza waited inside the tent. Hours passed.

Then the entire world began to thrum in an impossibly deep pitch. With every second that passed, the sensation grew stronger, as if existence itself were about to shred into a million slivers. Without knowing how, Elza recognized what happened. From the moment of Creation, she had known this world was only the first Iteration of many and that it would end when the sky opened.

A counterpoint to the deep thrumming began, a wailing shriek emanating from everything and nothing. The volume of both increased with every moment, triggering an expectation deep within her. The ultimate moment of her existence was about to arrive. It was time to return to the Creator.

The sky opened. To all outward senses, nothing changed, but to Elza it seemed that the restraints of the mundane world vanished, ripped away by an unknown force. Nothing held her to creation. The rumbling and shrieking became louder still, warning her to leave or be consumed with a world marked for destruction.

Elza hesitated for just a second, eyes going to the door of the tent. Then she slipped free of the world to join the Creator.