She looked out over the sea, walking next to her husband. The wind was picking up, waves crashing into rocks far below them as they navigated the cliff. She closed her eyes, listening to the white noise, memories drifting through her mind without a care for her current place and time.
“Did I tell you about the war?” Her question broke the long silence they’d been sharing.
“You’ve never been in a war.”
“Not recently, no. This was Korea.”
He blinked at her. “But… you were born in…”
“Yes, I know.” She smiled, holding his hand. “Do you think this life is all we get?”
“I mean, when you look up at the stars, and see into the infinite darkness that surrounds everything we are, and ever were, and ever will be… do you wonder about what we can’t see?”
“Honey, you’re scaring me.”
She squeezed his hand. “I know. I’m sorry. It just always happens this way.”
“What does? I don’t understand.”
“This isn’t the first time I’ve lived. I was a soldier in the Korean War. Before that, I hiding with my family in Poland when the tanks rolled in. I’ve been a slave, and I’ve sold slaves. I’ve explored distant shores, and cowered in fear of invaders. The older I’ve gotten, the more and more I’ve seen into the past.”
He said nothing. She turned to him and smiled.
“I know what you’re thinking. You think I’ve finally lost it. That I really need to be hospitalized until my head’s on straight.”
“I’ve never thought that. I mean, you’re a little odd, to be sure, but that’s what makes you so unique.”
“You’re kind. I know how I sound. I’m sorry I can’t say more innocuous things. But things are just becoming more and more clear.”
“Please stop. Come on. Let’s get you home. I’ll call a doctor…”
“Do you know what I’m afraid of?”
He stopped, and turned to face her. The wind whipped at her hair and she brushed it out of her eyes.
“I’m afraid I’d take you with me.”
“We’ve been married for, what, almost twenty years now? And it’s been lovely. I wouldn’t trade a second of it. You’re a good man. You’ve worked hard to take care of me, of our children. And you’ve never stopped loving me.”
“How could I?” He took both of her hands. “You’re brilliant. You make me laugh. You’re just as beautiful as the day we met. You’re scaring me because I’m afraid of losing you.”
“You won’t. I’ll always have this memory, now. These happy, quiet years with you. It’s something precious I’ll carry into the future. I just don’t want you to be afraid when your time comes.”
“What do you mean?”
“Death isn’t the end, darling. I know this for a fact. I just retain more than most people.” She paused. “I don’t want you to be jealous. It’s not something I chose from the start. But it is my destiny. To rise again, we have to fall.”
He blinked, and she leaned up to kiss him. She knew he’d never understand, but he loved her all the same, and that warmed her heart. After wars and terror and injustice, it was nice to have lived so simple a life. His eyes, full of love and concern, studied hers for a moment, and then he held her hands more tightly and pulled, trying to get her away from the cliff’s edge.
A powerful gust pushed against the couple. It staggered him, causing him to lose his footing. Even as he released one of her hands to steady himself, her feet also slipped. With a slight gasp of surprise, her leg went out from under her and she fell just over the lip of the cliff. Crying out, he grabbed for her, but gravity and momentum were against him, and after a moment, the forces won out over his grip, and she was falling.
On the way down she had flashes of previous moments like this. A fighter jet on fire over Korea. The terror of the camps. Staring down the barrel of a pistol. The sting of the lash. A knife in the back. Betrayal and hatred and duty and tragedy, all flooding against her in a rushing torrent of finality.
When she struck the bottom, there was no pain. She rested in the arms that had been waiting for her, looking upwards, heedless of the broken body she’d be leaving behind. This time the appearance of the shepherd was male, dressed in a dark and immaculate suit, untouched by the wind and the surf. She wrapped her arms around his neck.
“It’s odd,” she remarked.
“What is?” His voice was deep and rich, like a generous fondue pot of warm chocolate.
“Even as I knew I was coming back to you, I never stopped loving my husband.”
“There are all different sorts of love. Your love for your husband, your children’s love for you… ours. Some mortals foolishly try to limit themselves to one. In the short lives you lead, I do not know why one would deny oneself in things like love and joy.”
She shook her head. “Not everyone sees life the way you do.”
“I do have an interesting perspective.” He paused. “Your family – are you concerned?”
“No. He’s a good man. We made contingency plans. They will live on.”
“You’re sweet to ask. People misjudge you. They personify you so grimly. They don’t know how lonely you are.”
He kissed her forehead. “I’ve missed you, my phoenix.”
She smiled and nuzzled closer. “So what happens now? Do you shuffle me off to be reborn again?”
“Not yet. I’ve been waiting years to see you again. But just like how you can’t rush the moments of your life, you can’t rush moments like this, either. Between your fall and your rise there is an infinite number of forevers. Choose one, and let’s share it together.”