There's something about the way they move that captures me.
I quickly scribble down brief, almost illegible notes upon the wrinkled paper with a stick of charcoal I'd found previously, then revert my eyes on the herd once more, watching silently, eagerly, patiently. I feel tempted to join them in their run, but I quell this childish urge. If I am to make any progress with my research, I must behave like a professional in the field. Detached, yet passionate, never interfering, always learning, remembering.
But it really is so exciting. Mentally, I run over my pages of thoughts and observations, putting them into more loving words as that is how I truly feel, yet I cannot fit it all in time in text. My real notes I keep in my mind and soul. My inner voice reads them out to me sweetly, like I'm singing myself to sleep, but my eyes are wide open, riveted, locked on the long legs casting dancing shadows in the dust storms and muscular, chiselled flanks bobbing with motion, then slowing until the herd stops to graze and feed upon fruit, calm once more.
It starts like this;
I have been following Centaurs all my life. My father before me was enamoured with them, but he died before he could truly understand their kind, leaving his notes incomplete in this old book. So I, inheriting this love from my father, have taken his place and continue to follow this herd, or as father called them, 'our' herd; there are numerous groups scattered wherever the grasses grow sweet, but Centaurs stake claims over land and appear fiercely territorial of their space, driving away strangers. This herd has successfully inhabited the valley for many human generations despite competition and, sadly, human intervention.
This thought draws a sigh out of me. Pushing aside my sadness I continue to mentally narrate to myself.
I count forty or so individuals today, that's slightly more than last year. Much to my delight, this total includes frisky young foals born with the spring. I enjoy watching them prance about their mothers' legs, challenging one another to mock battles that are practise for when they reach adulthood. The mothers must occasionally run over to break up squabbles that turn bitter. The adult males, slightly larger and quite regal and proud, wander about in pairs in a most militaristic fashion, stoically guarding the herd with their far-reaching eyes and sharp, chipped hooves. The elderly favour shady places where they can lean against rocks whilst chewing on apples brought to them by the others. Mature females, not yet mated, seem quite flirty and spirited, adventurous while their boyish counterparts learn from the fathers and take a more serious tone, yet they are not invulnerable to such charms and –
I stop, hearing a sudden sound; the snap of wood, a fallen branch bending into grass, yielding to a great weight and then shattering with a pop. A low, wary snort follows, and I sense the warmth of another's presence very close by.
Something tells me I've been spotted. I swallow and look down, then seize with fright as a pair of muddy brown eyes meet with mine. I have to grip my book to my chest to stop myself from screaming at the sudden intrusion, forgetting that I am a professional in the field.
I didn't expect this. And now that it's happening, I'm startled to find my discovery to be so… amiable.
A young Centaur girl stands at the base of my tree with her head craned upward and long, muscular arms wrapped around her naked torso in a shy sort of way, yet her face is filled with undeniable curiosity, like I am truly an oddity to her. Perhaps I am. There's no panic, no fear, no fleeing or rearing up on great hind legs to kick. The herd remains blissfully unaware that one of its members is currently within touching distance of a human. She almost seems tame.
Swallowing my instinctive fear I manage to relax again and take a calming breath. I realise this is truly marvellous. What an opportunity! If I can just keep her close by, perhaps communicate, I could get a wealth of notes, of experience, of understanding. My father would be so proud of me.
I decide to risk making contact. "Hello…"
Despite my soft, soothing tone she flinches and grunts, taking a step back. But, she does not retreat or call for help, continuing to gaze up at me like she's honestly never seen a human before, and I suspect she hasn't since we don't often cross paths, thanks to mistakes in the past. She's likely wondering why I have two strange legs and happen to be in a tree, like some ridiculous bird.
I offer her a smile. "Don't be scared."
She frowns slightly and cocks her head, as if asking me what exactly I'm doing, or contemplating my sanity. Studying her, I find she's quite pretty, almost an adult yet built somewhat daintily, her flanks a creamy colour and shimmering with health while her head of overgrown, tangled hair is darker, a shade of brown. I recognise her.
Perhaps she's noticed me before, too. I remember mentioning earlier in my notes how she always seemed to cast glances in the general direction of my hiding places, yet from a distance her expression was indiscernible, unlike now. I must've been a constant mystery to her, and now she's drinking me in, trying to understand.
I click my tongue and she perks with interest when I reach into my pocket, producing a parcel containing my lunch, which I unwrap before offering her a sliver of fruit, poking it between the branches without showing too much of my arm in case it startles her.
She bares her teeth and hesitates, appearing ready to gallop away, yet she doesn't. She stays rigidly motionless, glaring at that hand.
I don't move either save for my lips, cooing softly until she calms a little and takes the first step, reaching up with her own hand to take the slice, our fingertips – hers calloused and brown while mine are soft and smeared with black – lightly brushing. I let the fruit go and watch with a grin as she brings it to her face, sniffs it, then takes a small bite and, discovering it to be quite tasty, slowly pushes the rest of it into her mouth and chews, juice dribbling down her dirty chin whilst her eyes gaze up at me in a more friendly manner. "Yummy, yes?"
She swallows and reaches up again expectantly, allowing me to slip another sliver through the branches into her waiting hand. Shyness diminished considerably with the next five slices, she doesn't react negatively when I lower my arm through a gap and dangle it.
"That tickles." I giggle when she takes my hand in her larger ones and sniffs my arm up and down, her breaths heavy and quick, meditative. My father would love this.
A booming call makes her stiffen, then turn, her eyes trained on a large male in the distance, evidently calling for her her.
I understand. "Your dad?"
She looks back and me and snorts, almost as if saying yes, if I might daydream a little. I've never heard of centaurs speaking in human tongue.
"Better not keep him waiting, then." I wink at her. "Don't want you to get into trouble. I'll be here if you can come visit me again."
She blinks, yet seems to understand – or perhaps I'm just fantasising – and lets me go, offering one final meaningful look before spinning around and gracefully cantering away, exclaiming in a most cheerful manner as her father's hand rubs her atop the head once she's reached him, continuing to chatter as he leads her back to the safety of the herd. I wonder if she's telling him about me. Maybe she is. Maybe she considers that funny creature in the tree that looks like them but has only two legs instead of four, poor thing, to be a friend. Maybe she will seek me out again, assuming it is not prohibited. And even then, maybe she'll sneak out and meet me anyway.
I smile and turn a new page to begin my latest entry.