When I was child, I wanted them to be real. But even as a child, I knew they were not. Not in this world. And so far as I knew, this world was the only world there was. The only real world. But for someone who’s never been anywhere near a real horse, I had a keen yearning for their mythical counterparts to be real. And for me to find them, meet them, be accepted by them, and in my deepest desires, be favored by them.
I learned all their stories.
And the stories were more vivid to me than the dry and distant history of my own kind.
The noble gildenfaere, whose golden manes gleam as bright as the sun and whose golden feathers retain the power of flight. The daunting thunderfaere, who gallop through storm clouds, whose hooves strike together to generate lightning, and whose wingbeats are heard as thunder. The jolly lachenfaere, whose feasts are as lavish and colorful as their language, and whose candy-floss rainbow manes float over glittering glass-feathered wings.
The noctemfaere. They who can enter the realms of dream and death.
The most mysterious of them all.
When I learned that every one of them was real—or at least had been at some point—I didn’t believe it at first. I’ve perceived some astonishing creatures, not just through recordings, but with my own senses. Most could be explained or debunked, and what was left over could be dismissed as a fluke. Slugs that seemed to vanish in thin air (they could change color and also reflect light to make themselves appear to vanish). An eagle that could grow as tall as a man (not prehistoric or even rare, just not a commonly known species). A deer whose antlers grew in shapes that depicted alchemical symbols (not a hoax, but maybe a coincidence).
I don’t dismiss these experiences. I even grant the hoaxes some measure of regard.
But mighty mythical horses that ride on clouds or sunbeams?
Revisiting a childhood desire in adulthood can be…unnerving. Reversing the crystallization of a belief, melting callouses that have hardened around my heart, it’s like feeling the solid ground beneath your feet slowly turn to sand, and even as if you slip and catch yourself, it turns to gelatin and then water and then air.
As a child, this was fine. Being in the air was fine, because my belief had its own wings, and could fly.
But as an adult that belief had lost its wings, fallen to the earth, and fossilized. It was cherished as a memory faintly etched into the stone of a past era.
This was not a sad fact. It was just the way of life.
So that belief could not be resurrected.
But maybe it could be reconstructed. Maybe it could serve as a foundation and framework for…for a new version of belief.
I revisited the old stories. And I found new ones.
They once allowed themselves to be seen. Some even granted gifts to human friends.
But this was in times when human eyes did not reach into as many corners and crevices as it did at present.
They could abide all advancements of science and technology. But they had to hold themselves away from the insatiable craving and the grasping envy of those who had placed themselves in the highest ranks of humanity. Those whose fingers had grown long enough to grasp the world entire.
(Legend says there are many beings and creatures who agree. Why else do they only appear to children, and to those who minds are both open and fortified, like the doors to the castle of a just ruler?).
I expected my research to eventually butt up against reality. After all, I knew that it wasn’t the striking of hooves and the beating of great wings that caused lightning and thunder.
It’s illogical for me to expect to find evidence of no evidence. But I need to, because I know myself, and I know what will happen if I don’t.
So part of me is annoyed, even angry, that I haven’t yet found evidence debunking and discrediting the very idea of these ethereal equines existing in the same world as…as me.
Annoyance. Anger. They’re well-defined, manageable emotions.
And they hide another.
They’re not real, I tell myself.
They’re not real.
I visited a museum where I stood before a glass case displaying a flight feather from the left wing. The feather glittered iridescently, and it was longer lengthwise than the six-foot-tall docent who stood beside me, explaining that this was just a replica. The real feather was locked away in a vault. The real feather was encased in wood soaked with alchemicals, and still had to be anchored to the ground with chains forged from seven metals.
I met with a renowned researcher in a field called “bioinformatics” (something about using computers to understand all the massive amounts of biological information being generated in modern times.)
When I told her I’d heard that she had an experience with lachenfaere in her youth, she recoiled. Her body grew still, and she glanced around as if looking for eavesdroppers, even though we sat alone in her office. She had never spoken of the experience on any official record.
Even before her reaction, I expected that she would be hesitant to speak of it.
But her eyes grew soft as they remembered the sight of something wondrous, and she went into the account without any more prompting.
It was her first year of college, and she was still shy and quiet, but wanted to break out of her usual patterns. She joined a club and went hiking. For someone who’d never gone hiking before, she was fairly well-prepared. She had food and water. She’d brought a flashlight, a first aid kit, a blanket, spare socks. What she had not brought—in her words—was her backbone. At the first instance of a headstrong classmate wanting to break off and follow his own path, she alone succumbed to his goading, and followed him. But she wasn’t in the best of shape and wasn’t able to keep up. He forged ahead, and she got lost.
She had a phone, but it was no use. It was late afternoon, and though she was scared, she had enough of her wits about her to stay put, and hope for her classmate to backtrack, or at least for her absence to be noted, so that the organizers would search for her. In the meantime, she had to stay safe and resist the urge to walk.
When she heard what sounded like voices, and saw a light that could be a fire not far from where she was, she decided to leave markers and risk approaching what she hoped was friendly fellow hikers.
The light grew brighter, golden, like sunset, and she smelled food. Warm breezes carried the scents of honey, buttered biscuits, savory stew, and even coffee toward her. She felt comforted, until she drew closer and saw something emerge from the light. It was big. That was the first thing she clocked.
And her first thought was “bear.”
She drew back. In terror, she stepped back, and she tripped over her own feet. She remembered wheeling her arms like a cartoon, and failing to regain her balance. She fell back. She caught herself with her right hand first and landed on her butt. She scrambled back as the creature came closer.
She was only mildly relieved when she saw that it was a horse. A horse could still do damage, trample her. The horse reared his head back and neighed, and she swore the neigh sounded like a laugh.
She could only see his outline against the bright golden light behind him. There was something on his back. When he stepped toward her, and lowered his head to take a closer look at her, she got a closer look at him too. His curly mane was colored lime and raspberry with streaks of black. And on his back were folded two massive wings whose feathers glinted in the light. They looked like they were made of crystal.
She had sprained or possibly cracked her right wrist. She held it against her body and sat still.
The horse peered at her. His gaze shifted to her injured hand. And she noticed that he was chewing something. She smelled the scent of green apples.
He lowered his head and moved it closer to her. The cautious part of her wanted to draw back, but the adventurous part of her, the curious part of her, sat still as he licked her hand and then stepped back.
He neigh-laughed again, turned, and trotted into the light. The light receded as the pain in her wrist receded. Before she knew it, she was sitting alone. The sun had dropped below the tree line, and daylight was quickly dimming. Before she had time to panic, she heard familiar voices calling her name.
She’d been found.
“I don’t believe it happened,” she said. “But it happened.”
A woman of logic, she had made her peace with the moment of wonder through which she lived. She had made a place in her mind for her disbelief to coexist with her experience.
I thanked her for her story. More than anything else it affected me. The story itself and her telling of it, not as if it were a dream or hallucination, but a wondrous, special, and real experience in the course of her life.
If I had had that experience, I never would have stopped believing.
I wanted to have that experience.
My research became just a search.
Even in the old days, it wasn’t something that a human being could just arrange. But if I wanted to even have a chance of a meeting, I had to start with the assumption that it was possible. Not probable. But possible.
I started by making a list and assessing.
Of all the various mythical flying equines, the ones that those of us living in modern times were most likely to encounter were not the one who seemed most earthbound, the lachenfaere. It was not the ones who seemed the most curious and friendly toward humanity (at least in days of old), the gildenfaere. It was certainly not the ones who never alighted on earth at all, but lived all their lives in the skies, the thunderfaere.
The ones I was most likely to be able to meet was the ones who traveled by shadows. The ones whose phantom forms could shift between flesh and mist. The ones whose spirits could breach the porous film between waking and dreaming. The ones who could part the delicate veil between life and death.
When I was a kid, I loved to swim. Lying on my back on the surface of a pool, pulling a smooth gentle stroke with both arms, was the closest I could get to feeling like I was flying.
So, I wanted to meet a mersifaere. The ones who lived in the deep. Their bodies were covered in scales, and flanked by fluorescent fins. Their eyes glowed with deep knowledge. The rare times when they would come to the surface, they were playful, spouting water, flicking their eyes in the air, gliding alongside boats.
I was always scared of the noctemfaere.
So many people met them in dreams. But it was difficult to discern which of the manifestations were noctemfaere and which were just dreams of horses.
Or sometimes, nightmares.
I was dreaming and knew it was a dream.
I had been preparing and practicing, and so I found some lucidity in my dream.
I found a candy bar in my hand, fun size. Stolen. I remember swiping it from the shelf in a shop that someone I knew owned.
What did that mean?
I was standing my bedroom, in the dark, but…
Moonlight drifted through a crack in the curtains that I hadn’t completely drawn before going to bed. I pulled open the curtains to a magical sight. A full moon, whose luminescent light fell gently on the earth below. I smiled at the outline of the tree against the night sky, the tree that stood just outside my window. Its branches danced in the passing breezes.
A night bird swooped through a clear sky whose stars were too dim to see at first, but started to brighten as I gazed up at them. Some of them twinkled in different colors.
The experience is earthly. This could be an actual waking moment of staring out of my window at a beautiful night sky. But my breath swells, and I feel that little flutter in my chest, as if I’m on the verge of something.
The light from the moon changes quality, pouring down into a denser stream, into a mist both bright and dark, like the colors of the end of dusk. The stream arcs down and toward my window. I step back just as I realize that I hadn’t opened the window.
But the mist seeps through. The window vanishes behind a cloudy cascade that pours in and spreads across the bedroom floor. Dim sparks bloom within it. A dark form approaches from behind it.
They emerge from the shadow-light of the moon mist.
Is it one or three?
The mist condenses into forms, faces, and wings. They are the color of night and space, nebulous nebulas. The one in the center solidifies as she approaches, raising a gleaming black hoof that drips sparkling drops of lunar dew.
She glances down. She lowers her head and dips her nose in the mist. When she raises her head, there is an unwrapped candy bar in her mouth, fun size. My offering. An offering of sweets.
The tips of her ears are still hazy. One of her wings remains in shadow. She holds the other up and colors begin to bleed into its feathers.
I resist the urge to reach out. I gasp and shiver. The room has grown cold. Not the crisp cold of winter. Not the numbing cold of ice. Not even the cold of night. It is a bracing but fortifying cold.
A vast cold.
But as they, or she steps forward, steps closer, an electrifying energy crackles along my skin and sinks to the marrow of my bones. She makes no sound when she moves, but there is a sound, a faint chord.
It grows louder, and I sense that the moment won’t last much longer.
I dare to reach out.
But not to touch.
I hold my hand up, paIm facing her.
A frantic side-to-side shaking. And then I smile.
And then I wake.
I’m on my bed, but not under the covers. My feet are cold. There’s a sizzling fizz at the center of my heart. It fades quickly.
There really is a full moon that night. I hop out of bed and just shift the curtains to peek up at the sky and confirm. A dog barks and I jerk, knowing I am truly awake now. Realizing that I was truly awake then.
Emerging into our world is painful for them. She did not have to answer my pleas. But she did. I don’t know why. If I thought she really would, I wouldn’t have—no, I’m lying. I’m only human. And sometimes my curiosity turns reckless. (Maybe hers did too.)
When I woke, I expected to see no sign of her.
But there is a sign starker than a vivid memory or a spectral photograph. Spilling across my ceiling.
Blood and black feathers.
They’ll melt away in the sunlight.
But even after they do, I’ll still know what I know now.
They are real.
Copyright © 2021 Nila L. Patel