I see you now and it's as if I'm ten years old again: my age the first time I saw you.
Obviously I've changed quite a bit since that night, two decades ago. I'm a grown man now, married, two children, a five-year-old daughter and a one-year-old son. I have a family and a job and responsibilities. But tonight I managed to sneak away. Somehow I knew you would be here. No way could I let the chance pass me by: the chance to once more be in your presence.
So here we are, on a beach at midnight, just as we were when I was ten. And the shore is silver, just as it was then. The moon is bright and full. Its radiance blesses every ripple of seawater, every grain of sand; it envelops the vast white dunes, the pine trees and the live oaks and the cabbage palms, but most of it all I feel it in my own body, entering each cell, being pumped by my heart, breathed in through my lungs. I feel it quickening my bloodstream; pulsing through my nerves; shimmering in my eyes, my fingers, at the tips of my toes.
We are fortunate that this section of beach has not yet been lost to real estate development. There are no lights from homes or hotels to interfere with the glory of that vibrant and generous moon. There are no sounds but the faint whisper of soft timid waves lapping the shore. There is no movement but that of your hooves as you occasionally move about on the firm dark sand.
When I first saw you, you were standing in the surf. The light of the moon was so vivid that it seemed to be raining down on top of you. You were standing in the surf and the saltwater was circling about your ankles. I was actually a little afraid, because I didn't know how you would react if I got too close.
I remember thinking, at first, that you were a feral horse, like those that live on Cumberland Island (the larger island south of this one) even though I had never heard of any being found over here before. But I liked the idea. I thought it was cool that I might be the discoverer of a previously unknown population of wild horses on the barrier island where I had lived all my life. Then I thought, no, it's more likely he just escaped from somebody's stables. Still, I was fascinated to see you out here…and that was before I realized what you really were.
I'd had a rough night, up until then. My parents had started fighting not too long after I went to bed. I could hear them arguing. At first they tried to keep their voices down, but after awhile they both got so concerned with getting in the last word, or the best shot, they stopped trying and I heard everything. Even after the arguing died down, and they went to sleep (I guess), I kept hearing inside my head all the things they had told one another; all the accusations spat out; all the criticisms and insults hurled. Finally, sometime around eleven-forty-five, I got out of bed, put on my clothes, and sneaked out of the house, came down to the beach. I had to get away, you see. I had to get away from that disintegrating marriage; from the house of anger and hurt. I had to go to the one place where I always felt at peace: to the beach, to the shore that turned silver on special nights like this one.
So I went to the beach, which of course was completely dark and deserted, and I ran. I ran as hard as I could. Then, when I couldn't run anymore, I started walking. I walked all to the way to the end of the beach, where the island ends; all the way to this place. And then you entered my vision, emerging either from the moonlight or from the sea. It's never been clear to me which. It isn't clear to me tonight even. I just came out on this beach and, suddenly, there you were.
And you were the loveliest animal I had ever seen: pure white, lean and muscled; a spare yet luxurious mane; a body stunning in its power and nakedness, yet somehow ephemeral, even dreamlike, as if it were sculpted from clouds plucked out of the night sky.
Yet I panicked when you start to trot toward me. What were your intentions? Were you threatened by me, frightened by me?
I wanted to run, but I didn't. Maybe I was too afraid to move. Maybe you had some way of keeping me in place until you got there. I honestly don't remember. All I know is that I'm so glad I didn't, because if I had, I would never have seen that there was something different about you; something special.
I would never have seen the great horn rising from your forehead.
You had other differentiating features that were less obvious, but just as distinct. Your tail was not a horse's tail, but more like a lion's. Your hooves, I noticed, were cloven instead of single-toed. But it was the horn, of course, that I have memorized in every detail: its almost-but-not-quite golden color, the gleam of it, as if it were encased in varnish; the fearsome sharp tip at the end.
And you came to me, and you circled me a couple of times where I stood, and I began to feel at ease; you rubbed up against me, inviting me to touch your marvelous flesh, and I did, and at last I accepted that you were real. I can't tell you what that did to me. I can't tell you how wonderful I felt. I started crying. Do you remember that? I'm sure you do. I cried, and I threw my arms over your back and I put my head against your hide and I sobbed out of joy and astonishment. And I told you everything. The words just poured out with my tears. I told you everything because I knew you would understand. I knew.
I told you that I had come here to get away from home; to get away from my fighting parents. I told you I couldn't stand it that they didn't love each other anymore and were probably going to get a divorce and that the family into which I was born would soon disappear. I said I didn't care if they still loved me; I wanted them to stay together and get along and behave themselves the way they were always telling me to do. Besides, I told you, I felt that if they really loved me, they would stop fighting.
But I didn't stop with this. I told you all kinds of things. I told you my birthday and how old I was. I told you about my friends. I told you the coach of my baseball team said I was one of the best pitchers he had ever seen. I told you about a girl I liked who was a couple of years older and how she was finally starting to pay attention to me. I told you my favorite movies, my favorite cars, my favorite foods…I'm not sure if there was anything I didn't tell you that night. And I could tell you understood.
And when I was finished talking, finished crying, finished confessing, you went down on your two front knees so that I could climb on top of you, and you let me ride you out into the water, past the breakers; you let me jump off your back into that cold shining water, over and over again; and then, when I had grown tired from all that leaping and frolicking and could do no more than slump over with my head against your mane, you gave me my biggest treat of the night: you rose from the water, as if you were stepping up on the waves, and I saw that you were now standing above that water, treating the ocean as if it were no different from some vast green plain; and you began to race across the water, and it was all I could do to hold onto your mane as you carried me at a gallop over the waves, towards the brilliant moon, and the few clouds in the sky were scintillating like bright misshapen planets. And you ran and ran, faster than any four-legged animal on Earth can run, and I felt the wind sweeping back my hair, blistering my eyes dry, forcing me to close them for moments so they could moisten again; you ran out to sea and then turned back, and I remember how the coastline was dark but for occasional strings of twinkling lights.
At last you returned me to shore, and I understood, as I climbed off of you, that our time together had ended. It was all right. However long we'd had was enough. I told you goodbye and then watched as you thundered off into the moonlight, so bright now that it hurt my eyes and I was forced to rub them…then, when I looked again, you had vanished.
What's strange is that when I finally crept back inside my house, still electrified and giddy, I noticed that only about half-an-hour had passed since I'd left—at least according to my clock. I didn't see how that was possible. I felt sure we had been together for several hours. And indeed I believe we were. But I think you have power over time, because now I have just happened to glance down and see that the hands on my watch are no longer moving.
How do you do that?
You won't tell me, and I guess it doesn't matter. Tonight won't be like our previous time. Tonight I won't try to approach you. It was honor enough that I had you all to myself for at least one night, and perhaps later on another child will come along, like me, looking to escape from a world he finds very harsh and you'll be there to assure him of the presence of magic in the cosmos.
I think that's your job, actually. I no longer believe you're an animal, even a wondrous animal. I think that's just how you choose to appear. I think that what you really are is a message: a message of hope sent to human beings down through the ages; and that whether you are your own being or dispatched from a higher power is really beside the point. You show yourself to selected people to keep your legend alive, but more importantly, to keep those same people dreaming. Man has to dream, doesn't he? In the midst of all his toils, his lusts, his conflicts, and his pursuits, he has to take at least some time to lie on his back in the middle of a green field and look up at the sky and pick shapes out of the clouds; or glean images from groups of stars. He has to dream because dreaming leads to ideas and the best of those ideas lead to enlightenment. This is the role you play. And when people like me who have seen you go out into the world, because we are so insistent that life is infinitely deeper and richer than even we can imagine, the power of our belief affects other people; it spreads.
So this time I will be the one to turn away, not because I must, but because I should; because somewhere along this beach, either tonight or on some night in the future, another person will come along who needs to see you, and I know you will be kind and gentle and giving of your strength to this person; wonderful to him or to her just as you were wonderful to me on that perfect night twenty years ago: that night when anything was possible, and the shore was silver.