When the others have left, she remains. The room has emptied out slowly and you’ve been swept up in goodbyes, noting each person as they go, mirroring their smile and small nod. When it has completely emptied and you are nearly finished tidying up, you feel her presence, look up and make eye contact with her. She sits calmly at the other end of the room. Her gaze is level and she is as sweet or morose as you make her out to be. She says nothing. She will continue to say nothing. You finish your rounds, and make your quiet exit. Sometimes, she follows.
You may have met her as a child, but many don’t. She may have blended into the scenery or existed only in the periphery those early years. She was hardly memorable when you were young. In fact, she might have flitted by hundreds of times before you took note of her at all.
The first time is often the same. Blue skies, an empty horizon line, the absence of every conflict, worry or malady. The room, or field, or ocean ahead is completely and ecstatically empty. You move through the space in a calm or euphoric trance, tasting everything, swept up in the newly visible world around you. Being alone has never been this exultant.
And then you realize, sometimes quickly, sometimes after a very long time, that you are not quite alone. Sitting in a corner, or else peeking her head up from the grass, or floating silently in the distance between waves, she exists. Often she is completely non-threatening in this first sighting. You see her as she is – nondescript, wearing no expression, watching you without interest or disinterest. Something about her doesn’t invite conversation. But she is with you for a very long time.
Your non-relationship begins. Sometimes she doesn’t exist. Sometimes she does nothing but exist. She will at times appear behind you in the bathroom mirror, or else sit at the foot of your bed as you fall into a fitful sleep, or shadow you for weeks after a tragedy. One night you will think her a demon, fear her wicked, resolute smile, flee in terror. The next night she is voluptuous, inviting, your untouchable lover.
Whatever your path with her, she will inevitably become a larger part of your life as the years continue on. The woman you ignored in your youth becomes more present, and more interesting, over time. Though her demeanor is constant, there is a quality about her that becomes fascinating to you. You may at times believe her your spouse, sitting with you quietly on a long afternoon, more wrapped up in your secrets than you, turning each one over and exposing it to the light.
As with the beginning, the end is always the same. After a lifetime of silence, she speaks. The introduction of her voice is always jarring, causes some to flee screaming. She says very little – only a few sentences, and these are completely incomprehensible, perhaps not even words. But the sentiment is clear to everyone. She requests a gift.
And here is your one moment of choice. Unable to summon or banish her, speak to her or coax a word out of her, finally you can take this one act into your own hands. The gifts vary. Some hand her something immediately, while others devote years to hunting down the perfect gift. A few are ephemeral, most concrete. Many of the stories you have read, many of the most memorable scenes that have played out before you in town plazas or market squares have something to do with the finding of this gift.
Her reaction to the gift carries you until the end, sometimes joyously, sometimes in great pain. Whether in peace or unrelenting nightmares, her reaction is always the same. The quality of the gift only matters to you.
Illustration by Elle Hell