Did Eugenia know then? Did she know what she would say when asked the question, when faced with eternity?
Possibly not. Or maybe it was hidden deep within her heart, waiting to come out.
In all likelihood, on that afternoon she was blissfully unaware.
It was a Thursday.
She sat down, quiet, calm, in the sunny afternoon. Just another weekday. A weekday like all the others. It was cool, the first real chill of the year. And of course, it was Halloween. But otherwise, an unremarkable day.
She breathed deeply and noted that she felt like being a touch luxurious. She turned on some jazz, made a cup of black espresso, snapped off a piece of cinnamon-infused dark chocolate, and allowed her gaze to drift out the window.
Eugenia lived alone and valued her time to herself. She had converted the front half of her first floor into a small office from which she sourced and sold hard-to-find antique books. She had a short list of select clients who, in this age of big box bookstores, came to her for her personal touch, her familiarity, and her coffee.
She was able to choose her hours and enjoyed the seclusion and silence her way of life afforded her.
On this afternoon, she sat at the desk in her office among her books, allowing her mind to drift. She watched the branches swaying on the tree outside as she distractedly sipped her coffee and ate more chocolate than she had intended.
At some point, the lights seemed to dim, leaving a spotlight, a halo, falling softly about her.
Her thoughts alighted upon a dream, or perhaps it was a memory, maybe a story in a book.
In the dream, there was a house. In front of the house stood a statue. And during certain nights of the year, the statue would come alive.
For a moment, Eugenia pondered this, allowing her imagination to wander through the scene. She tried to remember where the story had come from.
Then her eyes focused, as though a lens had been adjusted on a camera to make a blurry image crystal clear, and she realized for the first time that the house across the street, the house she had been gazing at in a trance, had just such a statue outside.
Rising from her chair, she walked slowly through the room without looking away. She stopped at the window and kept her eyes on the view across the street. She had always been drawn to that place. Had often found herself standing at this window or that, looking across and thinking that there was something indefinable about it. Something magnetic, a sort of gravitational pull that always stopped her in her tracks, however briefly, when she looked out at it.
It was an old brick house, at least 150 years old, with soft, cream trim. It was large, with an elegant and stately verandah along its front side, facing the street and protecting the front door and heritage picture window from the wind that whistled and whipped up the leaves in the cold.
A maple, older than the house, towered over the property. Its branches, now bare, scraping across the black roof like so many witches’ fingers, its broad trunk rough and peeling. A wrought iron fence ran around the whole property, passing just outside the tree, protecting the grounds from intruders. The little gate had been left to swing open on its hinges, though, and it seemed to be welcoming, beckoning her to cross the street, pass through the gate and up the black cobbled path through the garden.
She turned away for a moment, sensing something she couldn’t name, then looked back at the garden itself. Shrubs grew in the front, under the tree and rising up before the verandah. Scattered here and there among the leaves were blooms that, even in this cold weather, appeared curiously fresh and bright.
The statue stood among the shrubs and flowers. She almost looked like a real maiden as she stood there, gazing up into the tree, or perhaps at the sky, her face open and bright, her hands clasped behind her back. She wore a crown of flowers in her long hair and a simple draping gown that, if real, might have been made of thin, white linen.
Eugenia noticed the silence, then, and realized that her music had stopped. Roused from her daze, she turned away from the window to find another album.
Inexplicably, she forgot what she was doing and did not put any music on. Instead, she walked past the stereo to the front door, put on her shoes, and went out.
She crossed the street and stood at the little gate she had been watching from her window.
The wind died down and again, she had the sense that the light was dimming everywhere around her, except directly overhead. She seemed to be standing in a sunbeam meant only for her and for the house she was facing.
From this angle, the flowers and garden seemed to sparkle, as though coated with the fairy dust of legends and tall tales.
It must be the way the sun is hitting everything, she thought.
Eugenia paused again to look at the statue from outside the garden gate, and then almost instinctively, passed through onto the cobbled path.
She did not turn back, and so did not notice that the gate behind her had shut.
In front of her, a girl was bending over the flowers in the garden. She was young and dressed simply in a long, white linen dress. Although it had been cold only moments ago, the garden felt warm and the girl’s clothing did not seem out of place.
Without a trace of self-consciousness, Eugenia cleared her throat and said “hello” quietly, not wishing to disturb the girl.
The girl did not appear surprised; it was as though she had been expecting Eugenia. She only half turned her face to smile and say, “hello, welcome,” and then turned back to her garden.
Eugenia watched her for a few minutes and then stepped forward.
“I’m Eugenia,” she began.
“Yes, I know. And I am Chloe.”
“Do you know me?” asked Eugenia.
Chloe only smiled over her shoulder, and then turned back to her garden once more.
Eugenia stood and watched the girl for a few minutes.
Finally, Chloe spoke again. “Please, have a seat, you must be tired.”
Eugenia realized then that she was indeed a bit tired and, looking around, saw that the sun was already setting and the brightest stars were shining in an indigo sky. She sat down on the soft, mossy ground and leaned against the trunk of the maple tree. Her eyes closed and she breathed in the sweet, warm smell of the flowers and the earth.
She must have fallen asleep, for she jolted awake to find that night had now descended completely. For the first time since entering the garden, she thought of her home across the street and had the uneasy feeling that she should not be in this garden.
Standing slowly, she brushed the earth and leaves from her clothes and looked around. The flowering shrubs were bare; their flowers and leaves had blown away while Eugenia was asleep. And Chloe was no longer gardening. Instead, Eugenia noticed the white marble statue standing where it had been when she had been looking at it from her own house. Now she was sure that the statue had not been there earlier, when she had first entered the garden.
She walked closer to get a better look at it and, seeing the upturned face, realized that it had been carved to look like Chloe.
Deciding it was time to leave, she turned down the path toward the gate. Although the path was short, she did not seem to be able to draw closer to the gate no matter how many steps she took.
The wind picked up and the fallen leaves danced about Eugenia’s feet as she shivered, looking back over her shoulder with a dawning unease.
A cloaked figure was standing in the shadows on the verandah. Although she could not see his face, she was sure that it was a man and that he had been watching her.
“So, you met Chloe,” he said in a deep but whispered voice.
Without waiting for an answer, he continued. “Her name means ‘the green shoot’ in Greek. Do you know the story of Demeter and Persephone?”
Eugenia stood transfixed in the middle of the path expecting him to continue.
After a few moments of silence, he did, but his voice when it came again was louder, harsher.
“Are you in the habit of walking into your neighbours’ gardens? It is probably not wise. You never know what you might find in there. Or where you might end up.”
You have happened upon us at a time of transition. Transition between day and night, light and dark, summer and winter, life and death, Chloe’s time and mine. Do you think most people, if offered the choice, would choose life and death, or eternity?”
Eugenia had looked briefly at the statue when the man had mentioned Chloe, in fact she thought he might have gestured toward it himself. She had been thinking about the story of Demeter and Persephone, and was trying to figure out how Chloe fit into its archetypal personification of the seasons. It took her a minute to understand the man’s almost off-handed question.
“You’re asking me if most people would want to live out a normal life and then die, or if they would choose immortality?” she asked. She thought she should, for her own safety, at least try to answer the question. “I think that, without thinking it through, most people would choose immortality.”
Having answered him, she turned again, hoping to leave.
His voice reached her again. “If I offered you a glimpse of eternity, would you accept it?” And then, in almost a whisper, “There would be a small price, of course.”
For some reason, on this night, in this garden, under the power of the cloaked man and in the shadow of Chloe’s statue, she was able to consider his question without distinguishing between truth and fiction, without fully realizing how strange the conversation was.
As she did so, she grew more fearful of the man before her and her apparent imprisonment in the garden. She thought for a moment of her house, just across the street, her books, her clients. Would they come looking for her if she disappeared?
But almost as soon as this thought had come to her, it was gone again, banished by the sudden memory of the story or dream she had been trying to recall earlier in the day. She realized that she had been dreaming it not long ago, when she fell asleep against the tree while Chloe gardened.
In the dream, the house had loomed large in front of her, the statue lifeless in the garden. As Eugenia watched, night fell and the statue had come alive, becoming Chloe. Chloe had stepped off her pedestal then, stretched her arms and turned toward the house, beckoning for Eugenia to follow.
They had walked up the steps and through the front doors, passing soundlessly down darkened halls. She had peered into old, lavishly furnished rooms as she passed their doors but now she could not remember precisely what she saw there. She knew, though, that they contained mysteries, horrors, and secrets no human is meant to know. And then, at the end of the hall, Chloe had stopped and opened a door. As Eugenia peered through the dark, she saw the cloaked, faceless man and realized before she fell forward into the darkness that this door led below ground.
Before she awoke, she had had the fleeting sense that the Earth was smaller than she had ever imagined and that the Universe stretched large and dark around her.
As she struggled to pull herself out of the memory of her dream, she saw the cloaked man reach out to her and felt herself lifting one foot after the other as she moved toward him and toward the house.
She realized then that she had already answered his question, that she had already made her decision.