Sylvia had always known there were centaurs. Since she was a girl, she’d seen them occasionally, a flash of white flank between the trees, in the forest behind her grandmother’s farm. Sometimes when she wandered there, following the stream that glinted and gurgled over the rocks and led into the wild mountains, she might hear the distant thud of galloping hooves or a throaty laugh that always seemed to be just behind the next tree. Of course they wouldn’t let her get a good look, but they were unquestionably there.
It wasn’t something anyone talked about, though. If she mentioned anything about centaurs to her mother, she only looked away, with that disapproving grimace that Sylvia always hated to see, would do anything to avoid. When she spoke to her grandmother of those horse-men in the forest, the woman would simply smile a hint of a smile, then turn away and change the subject, leaving Sylvia to try to have a conversation with the steel-gray bun that was ever pinned primly to the back of her grandmother’s head.
Now Gran was gone, and Sylvia was left to manage the house and property alone. Her mother would have nothing to do with the place, but Gran’s will had insisted that the property be kept in the family. There was no one but Sylvia to care for it, so she was spending the summer here before going back to college in another state. She would spend hours struggling to focus on papers covered with legalese words she didn’t understand, or going through rotting boxes of dusty jars or rusty hand tools in the dirt-floored basement. When she could take no more of it, she went to the forest.
In the forest, the air was always fresh and cool. Sylvia breathed deeply of the scent of honeysuckle, feeling the relief of being out-of-doors again. There was a place she liked to sit and listen to the water, on a smooth flat rock that rose a few feet above the soil. The rock was half in and half out of the water, where it pooled below a waterfall about ten feet high. There was no place on earth where Sylvia could find greater peace and solitude.
But on this day someone was there. He stood in the knee-deep pool, directly under the waterfall, head tilted back to drink deeply. Water ran down his bare shoulders and chest, and splashed off his chestnut back and flanks.
Sylvia froze. She’d never been this close to a centaur, and she didn’t want to startle him. It occurred to her that she’d been just a girl last time she’d seen one, and now that she was more mature, she appreciated his robust torso in a way she hadn’t before. She liked the curve of his deltoids over the shoulder, the contours of the muscles of the abdomen. His arms were bent, hands resting at the place where smooth fur melted into bare skin.
He finished drinking, then stepped backwards a step, and turned toward Sylvia. His eyes widened slightly, and a look came over his face that Sylvia couldn’t read. He reared up, arms stretched out and up, and shook the water from his hair like a dog. Then he turned and loped away.
Sylvia gasped—she must have been holding her breath—and followed, splashing awkwardly across the rocky pool, and into the trees beyond. She thought she saw movement ahead, and stumbled toward it, but couldn’t catch up. Though much bigger, he was more agile and clearly better at making his way through the underbrush than Sylvia on her mere two legs.
She stopped to listen. Was there a rustle off to the left? She turned her head, but saw nothing. Then behind and to the right, a nicker, so close she thought she could touch him. But when she turned, he was already gone, nothing but the bottom of his hoof throwing up dead leaves in her direction. She followed.
But Sylvia’s clumsy flailing through the forest was no match for the centaur’s agility. After a while, sweaty and scratched from ankle to eyebrow, she gave up and went back to the house. She was in a part of the forest she didn’t know, but she knew which direction to go, so it didn’t take long for her to find a familiar path.
In deep slumber, she dreamt of the centaur. She was in the forest at night. Faint moonlight filtered through the leaves of the trees, but darkness prevailed. Though she couldn’t quite see him, she knew he was there, watching her. She turned, paused, turned another way, then suddenly she felt a touch on the small of her back. Far from being afraid, she was thrilled, and leaned into the touch. The hand stroked up her spine, over the curve of the shoulder, up the side of her neck, behind the ear, into the hairline. The touch sent tingles through Sylvia’s body, down her arms and back, all the way to that special secret place she had never shared with anyone.
The hand moved down her front, tracing the collarbone, taking the curve of her naked breast, circling the areola with a touch lighter than a night breeze. The nipple contracted at the touch. Shivering with desire, Sylvia could hold herself no longer, and she turned to the beast, but he was gone.
She woke still shivering. She wanted him. Her desire was so intense, she nearly jumped out of bed and ran into the darkness right then. But she was held back by her fear of being lost forever in the forest.