He looked more human than the others, his skin free of the frayed texture of their gray skin tone. He was clean shaven and the only defect on his face was a wide scar, deep and red, beneath his left eye. He wore a thin white linen suit, crisp and creased as though he’d taken it from its packaging and settle into it right away. His hair was long and black as a crow’s feather. It curled past his small ears and was pulled back by a thin hemp strap.
“Who are you?” I asked. I lifted my hand to shield my eyes from the incandescent brightness that shone from his head and arms. It reminded me of the reflection of lake waves on midday.
“Some call me friend.” He moved around me like the others, draping his body behind my shoulders, around my arms, but he did not frighten me. He smelled of lilies and when his fingers brushed across my cheek, I felt the velvet smoothness of that flower. “Some call me enemy.”
He let his hand rest on the small of my back while he stood at my side. I had long-since stop wondering how these creatures could defy gravity or suspended logic.
“Miss Matthews, do you know why you are with us?”
I was afraid to answer, still troubled by the cruel evidence of my past sins, still consumed by the weight of my shame. Was I being disciplined? Was this man the punisher, set in a fine cast, wearing a warm smile to lessen the shock of my judgment?
I looked away from his face and stared at the fine hairs on his ear. “I was dared.” The words came out weak and low enough that I was certain the man would not hear them.
“A dare? How very odd that you would accept a challenge from such weak-minded, simple girls. Girls who have no hope but what they are told to have from others.” I did not know how he knew of Ruth and her friends or how he could so accurately describe them. The man touched my chin and I lifted my head up to stare into his black eyes. The lily fragrance was diminishing. “You are here, Miss Matthews, to see the truth.”
“Whose truth?” I couldn’t help but ask.
He turned from me and lifted his hand, waving it once in front of the well wall until that white fog that heralded my past sins, returned and covered me. It shifted around my neck and moved the damp hair from my cheeks.
I saw a green light flash, like the quicksilver of lightening cracking across the black, starless night sky.
What I saw made me hold my breath.
I stood beneath the thin veil of the fog, my hair longer, my breast fuller, my hips rounder. I walked near the bank of Redwood Lake, holding the hand of a child. She was small, no more than five or six, with long blond hair that trailed past her waist. She ran ahead of me, following a golden dog who barked at something in the treetops above us.
“Tomorrow is a gift given to those willing to sacrifice,” the man said. I could not see him, did not take notice of where he stood, too consumed by this older version of myself, took caught up in the beautiful child and her play. “Gifts are not offered so easily, Miss Matthews.” His voice sounded behind me, somewhere in the depths of the well I had no interest in discovering.
The scene shifted and a still older Blythe Matthews appeared. Her hair was graying, but she was not elderly; still firm in her body, still having a solid, straight frame as she danced and twirled with a man. His face was hidden to me though I could clearly see the shape of his head and the length of his hair. His features, however, were blurred as though intentionally blotted out to keep me from a complete image of him.
“Sunshine,” he called Blythe. “My sunshine.”
The Blythe before me smiled and nestled her head against his broad chest. Content. Pleased.
“Tomorrow comes to those who choose it.” The man’s voice now sounded deeper and held a sterner timber. “Only to those who choose well, Miss Matthews.”
Again the green light flickered and the fog became thick, so thick and expansive that I could barely make out the figures that moved within it. I saw myself as very old. My back curved and my hands were twisted by the cruelty of time. My cheeks were heavily concaved and the skin on my face was thin and lined with deep wrinkles. Despite all this, despite the evident twist of my body and the old creases on my face, the old woman before smiled a toothless grin, surrounded by a room of people I did not know.
She laughed and giggled at two young children playing a game. They were all assembled in the front room of a cottage, every inch of the place taken by couples, by children, by an assortment of people that reminded me of my parents, of my brothers and cousins.
They were a family I had not yet designed; a consortium of lives that existed in my future, suspended in wait for the choices I had yet to make.
“Choose wisely,” the man said. The fog lifted and he stood before me. He had grown older. His hair was now thin and gray. His smooth skin was creased and he stood slumping in front of me. The sock of his appearance made me reach out to cradle his face.
“What’s happened to you?”
“Time,” he said, his grin weak, his lips giving a small view of missing teeth, “time transforms us all.” I felt the sting of tears corner in my eyes, not certain why I should feel such worry and sorrow for this strange man. His long fingers wiped back the moisture on my face. “Choose well.”