She ran the entire way from her village to the somewhat larger village the locals called a city, drenching her wool dress with sweat and bruising her bare feet on stones hidden within the hard-packed dirt. Her race began in the Taro fields the moment she heard the news and ended when she reached the guest pavilion at the outskirts of the settlement. Her top concern had been that the visitor would leave before she arrived, but judging by the crowd, this was not the case.
Elza straightened her dress as she studied the people assembled to wish the stranger good travel. The group was disproportionately female. They had come from miles away to see a man with pale skin claiming to search the entire world for a lover from a previous life, each wearing her best dress, no doubt secretly hoping the stranger would recognize his true love in her.
The stranger was easy to spot. His skin was even paler than Elza's had been in the previous world and contrasted with the dark hues of everyone else. Elza seized the elbow of a woman she knew. “What is the stranger's name?”
The woman smiled. “We have taken to calling him Mister White, but he gives his proper name as Wren.”
Elza's lips compressed to a determined line. Names meant nothing. Among these people, she answered to Tessa, the name of a village on the other side of the mountains. Observers had to change identities often to prevent others from noticing they did not age or retain injuries.
“What is the name of the woman he searches for?” Elza asked.
The woman chuckled. “Mister White! Come here now and meet a beautiful young woman! She would like to know about your search! And maybe ask you to be her man!”
Mister White turned at the shouting and approached. He was plain in his looks, remarkable only because of his uncommon coloration. But the way he studied every face and every gesture confirmed to her in an instant that this man was an Observer. Unaccountably, Elza found she couldn’t speak.
She stared as the man spread his hands wide and nodded his head in the local manner of greeting. “Greetings, friends. I don't have time to tell stories now. The world is very large and I can't stay any place more than a few days. All I can tell you is that I am searching for a woman.”
The village woman threw her arm around Elza's neck. “Tessa here is a woman. She came here three summers ago and hasn't picked a man yet, though many have let her know they would say yes.”
Mister White bowed deeply towards Elza. “My apologies, Tessa. You are very beautiful, but I already have a woman.”
“What's her name?” she squeezed the question through the tightness at her throat.
“Her name,” Mister White said, “is Elza. Tell everyone you know a man walks the world looking for Elza.” Mister White – Hess – returned to his preparations, rolling up his bedding and packing his bags.
Embedded within Elza was the certainty that she existed for a single purpose: to observe creation on behalf of the Creator. The core of her identity rested upon that fact. Nothing mattered but her sacred duty. Nothing could be allowed to interfere with her work. The days she had spent with Hess would always live within her dreams, but they had been a mistake she could never repeat. Her existence had a purpose far nobler than that of a mortal woman languishing in the arms of a lover. She was an Observer.
Elza dabbed at her eyes as each of the village elders bowed to Hess, treating him like a man on a sacred mission, never realizing Hess had turned his back on his true purpose. She walked with the others as they escorted Hess to the turn in the road, where by tradition people would part. Hess never looked back as he passed the turn.
The women congregated before the collection of thatch huts they called a city, joking with one another that eventually some pretty face would catch Mister White. The one who had spoken on her behalf earlier patted her shoulder. “Don't be sad to see him go, Tessa. He's no different than any other man. Some day, he will realize his woman does not exist and forget about her.”
Elza jerked away from the hand on her shoulder. “What do you know of men?” she snapped. “What do you know about anything?”
The woman's shocked expression clouded with anger. “I know more than a girl without a man. You think you are special, girl. Some day you will settle with a normal man and realize different.”
Hess grew smaller with distance and the women began to disperse.
Elza ignored the woman at her side, studying the dwindling form of her man and recalling all the times she had wondered where he was . . . wondered in what way he was violating the sacred command of the Observers. Now she knew the answer to that question. He had been seeking her.
Letting him find her would only encourage his obsession. Their dalliance would taint the work of two Observers, depriving the Creator of precious input into the experience of Her world. The only solution was to remain hidden. Hess would eventually tire of his search and resume his duties. Given enough time, it might even be as the woman claimed. Hess might forget her.
Her feet moved before she could restrain them. In a moment, Elza was running again. The abuse to her feet had healed and her form in this world was light and swift. She caught up to Hess in moments.
He spoke without looking at her. “Go home, woman.”
Elza clasped her hands together. “I just need to know one thing. Please.”
Hess stopped walking. “What?”
“Do you love her?”
For a moment, it seemed he wouldn't speak. “I couldn't hate everything He made.” He pointed back to the village. “Go home. Choose a man and be happy with your life.”
Elza stared back towards the village, where the people went about their daily activities. That was where she belonged, among the subjects, among the participants of this world. She turned again to see Hess striding away from her.
This was where it should end. She had all the answers she had ever sought from Hess. She knew how he had spent his time in this world. She knew that those days together had meant as much to him as they had to her. She knew he loved her. Anything more would be a dereliction of duty.
“Wait,” she called. He continued walking. “Hess, wait!”
He froze at the sound of his name, then turned to face her. Elza took his hands in hers and pressed them to her face. Though every feature was changed, the way he looked at her remained the same. And that was all that mattered. She kissed his hands. “If you would walk the world for me, then I would go with you. I cannot believe She would disapprove of that.”