There I was, sitting lakeside, when I first heard the rustle of leaves from the nearby trees. We had been warned dangerous things lurked in the dark forest, had been told many times that it was far worse than forbidden, so I was rather taken aback to have heard something so close to the edge. After all, a wise friend of mine had once made it plainly clear that anything inside the forest was as likely afraid of what was outside of it as we were of what was inside, and it was precisely for this fear that it was so dangerous to trespass.
On the contrary, I’d only ever heard a single fascinating story of this forest in my life: A man had entered on the night before his wedding, and when he emerged, he had vanished, entered a world in which he had gone missing forever, and no matter who he spoke with, no one knew who he was. He’d even met his brother at a pub, one version of the story said, but even he had no idea who this stranger was! So he returned to the forest where he would live forever until all the trees had gone.
I looked up, bending my knees at an angle beneath me in case I had to spring up and run away, but right when I moved, a twig snapped and I looked to my right–and there I saw him, standing twixt two trees, half bathed in shadows, statuesque, but soft and supple: The torso of a man, barely fledgling with the hair beginning to bristle over his heart region, his neck long and sturdy, his face curious and marked with broad bones and framed by dark black locks. He caught my gaze with his pearlescent blue eyes and then darted back into the forest at once.
I felt the springiness fall from my knees as I settled back into the grass. Was this the man those tales had spoken of? No, it could not have been… He’d have been long since dead if that were so. No, this was someone else, something else.
I knew I was being stupid, when I rose to my feet and brushed the grass from my trousers, but I couldn’t help but moving forward, moving into the trees. As the foliage overtook me, the sun banished me, and I was bathed in such solid darkness that everything became silent.
I had been in other woods before, had found for all their relaxation and relief from the ails of the town’s hustle and bustle, they were far from silent: The wind rustled the trees, birds chirped and hooted or pecked at wood, small insects unseen would rattle and hiss and screech, and all around you, with every move you could make, the world would whisper in response, pained in one step, soothed in another, stones sliding against stone, dirt and leaves crunching beneath you almost like freshly fallen snow, and the very soft thumping of human weight placed on earth with every step. Nothing was ever truly silent in nature.
But in this wood all of those sounds were gone. I took a glance over my shoulder, uncertain if at this point a return to the world would be a return to a world in which I was known, but having gone so far already–even if it was barely three yards in–I felt as though to go no further would be an injustice to the curiosity that had pushed me forward in the first place.
A few steps further in and I found something of a trail, so I began to follow it. The trees were as silent as ever, the wind never seemed to blow although the air was constantly cool, and no matter how hard I stomped my feet, they never seemed to make a sound. After a while I just assumed everything made as much sound as always, that I had merely gone deaf upon entering. On occasion it happens, when your ears forget to pop, so I assumed this was merely the case.
I called out for the stranger and I heard my own voice, and realizing this I suddenly found myself somewhat afraid, for surely now the silence was not my own, it was the wood’s. So I stopped calling out for him and took to following the trail wordlessly, breathlessly.
Finally, the trail stopped. It hadn’t led me anywhere, it just came to an abrupt end. I peered around the trees and undergrowth where it ended, but there was no sign that it began again on the other side, and with no wish to lose myself more than could be found, I turned around.
There he was! The stranger stood before me again, cloaked once more by the trees, as stunning as before, his skin glistening in pale, golden tones from a light source as yet unseen, or of his own glory, I could not tell. And as he had before, the moment he caught my staring eyes rising to his face, he retreated further into the shadows.
“Wait,” I yelled after him, suddenly running, “Wait! Don’t go!” I had passed from the trail into the trees, heard the sounds of loud galloping ahead of me, but kept going after him, certain this was the way.
I came to a sudden halt where the trees ended and I found myself at a short clearing, within which a few large boulders rested, each as tall as I was. They seemed to take up the entire clearing, a few spots covered in moss, but I saw a wide enough break between the two that I was able to slide through, so I did. The squeeze was tight, but I felt compelled to follow it, as if just on the other side….
I peeked out from behind the stones, and there I saw him; he must have been kneeling, for although his body was now near the ground, it still seemed as though he stood upright. And he was panting, wiping a bit of sweat from his brow with the back of his hand, looking rather panicked to have been followed so far.
I slid as silently as I could–which in this wood, didn’t require much effort–from my hiding spot and neared him.
“Hello,” I whispered.
He leapt up and backed away–but by then I’d already seen his secret and he went no further, knowing, too, that I now knew that he did not have human legs, not even a satyr’s, but instead the body of a buckskin stallion. He backed up, kicking at the ground like a caged animal, and these echoes I heard.
“What’s your name?” I asked, inching forward, holding out my hand. He took another step back, seemed trapped between me and a particularly dense wall of trees. I stopped moving, tipping my hand palm up and pushing it as forward as I could manage without stepping any closer.
“It’s all right, I won’t hurt you.”
He looked from my face to my hand a few times, then smiled, took an uneasy step forward, and clenched my hand in his. At once I felt my bones breaking, felt his hand retreat as he reared back as scared as before–and in that moment, as my teeth bit hard on my tongue, I realized I had screamed.
I shook my hand a few times, flexing my fingers, assured nothing was broken.
I nodded again, swallowed tightly, and then held out my hand again, compelled by something I couldn’t quite describe, a feeling in the pit of my stomach, a longing to understand, to be closer to this creature.
“I’m all right,” I said. “You just held too tight, that’s all. Yeah, that’s right, a little more gently, it’ll be fine.”
He held my hand again, and although his grip was firm, it was delightfully warm and supportive. I followed him forward as he pulled me closer; I found my face near his chest as I looked up and met his eyes, swayed somewhat, intoxicated by the beautiful muskiness he exuded so near to me.
Then he smiled, too, and brought his face down, closer to mine. Our foreheads touched, our eyes perfectly aligned. There we stood, head to head, for some time, seconds passing in silence, as my knees began to tremble with weakness, my lungs began to swim with fullness; my breath became shallow and long as a new, greater sense of warmth built up from beneath me, filling every part of me with an infatuation so inexorably deep I felt I had drifted into dreaming rather than a forest of silence.
“Excuse me?” I said, waking from my stupor. I almost thought I had spoken, or imagined it, but he smiled again and spoke once more.
“Thorne”–his voice was as rich and woody as that scent permeating every inch of air between us–“My name is Thorne.”
“Jacob,” I breathed, falling back against one of the mountainous rocks, finding myself unable to grasp all of Thorne’s splendor in a single glance. I staggered; he quickly put himself beside me, his arms now wrapping around me tightly, but gently, their warmth fiery in the coolness of the forest’s silence.
“What is this place?” I asked.
His grin made my heart leap a little.
“Mystery, magic, silence.” He looked around us, his voice growing softer as he drew his face nearer to mine. “I was once like you, following spectres into the trees…. I met a large oak that guarded a shining rose. I had seen nothing more beautiful and sought to take it home…” The centaur shifted his feet, pitter-patter in the dense dirt. “I pricked a finger on a thorn, and as I bled there, the oak told me I would never leave, lest I find someone as beautiful as the rose…”
He pressed his face into mine, kissed my lips with his. My head swam, my lungs suddenly full of the breath he had breathed into me, burning solidly like I’d swallowed the sun.
“You are more beautiful than the rose, Jacob.” He kissed me again. “Far more beautiful…”
I rose onto my toes and pressed my lips into his. I held my breath and waited for the fire to pour inside me as before, but instead I felt myself pouring into him. My feet were touching the ground again, I felt as if I were leaning forward, felt like the man before me was vanishing on the spot. And when I opened my eyes, Thorne was a head shorter, and instead of a horse’s body, he was now human, unclothed, embracing me with slightly thinner arms, with the same black hair falling around the same nacreous blue eyes.
When we parted, he looked at me, then down at his body, ran a hand through the bristling of hair over his chest, down past his waist to feel his human legs again.
He smiled at me, then kissed me again. When our lips parted, he held his face near mine again and whispered. “You’ve melted the magic, Jacob. Thank you.” He intertwined his fingers in mine and began leading me back around the boulders and into the trees.
“Come on,” he said softly, “the trail is this way.”
We found it with ease and began following it through the silence. I could hear his footsteps, could now hear mine, could hear the echoes of his heart as they pounded through his chest and carried through our hands all the way up to my ears, where I listened with a smiling face and bursting heart.
I saw the light breaking from the edge of the trees and tried to move faster, but Jacob stood his ground and turned into me, pressed his sturdy soul into me so suddenly I gasped in surprise, felt his lips pressed tightly into mine once more.
“Jacob,” he told me, “thank you.”
We were walking again, my hand on his even more tightly. I could not imagine being happier, could not think of anything better. We reached the end of the forest, the start of the light. I could hear the wind in the grass again, the soft lapping of the lake on the nearby shore, the sound of crickets and butterflies wafting through the sunlight.
“Jacob–there you are!”
I saw my mother running along the shore toward me and blushed deeply as I turned toward Thorne–but he wasn’t there. I glanced behind me, into the forest, but I didn’t see his face looking back as I had before. I hadn’t felt his hand slip from mine… He had simply vanished.
“What were you doing in there? Jacob, don’t lie to me. Why were you in those woods?”
I looked up at my mother with new eyes, remembering she was there for me. I shook my head dumbly, shrugged a bit.
“I… I don’t know…”
I couldn’t tell her the truth, could I, that I had met a centaur and kissed him and turned him into a boy my age, that we had returned from the forest hand in hand, except that when I left it, he never had? No, I could not tell her the truth.
“Well, come along now, Jacob, we won’t have any more of this, none at all.”
I followed her quietly, glancing over my shoulder at the trees. Thorne was nowhere in sight, and though I hadn’t known it at the time, I would never see him again.