Some stories are true, because things really did happen the way the stories say, more or less. Some stories are labeled as fiction, but still true, because they show us things that we would otherwise think are impossible. Even the waking world still follows its own forms of dream-logic.
This is a true story.
We were sitting on top of the picnic table, the five of us, in the corner of the park that we had been going to since we started cutting classes together in middle school. Most of the street was hidden from view by a ragged screen of trees that ran all the way along the side of the park, providing a visual screen to hide the abandoned lot next to us. It was a good place to hide, without looking like we were hiding, which I guess is kind of what we all did best.
Jeremy had the weed that day, and was using an open safety pin to poke holes into a bent beer can that Dave found under the table. No one remembered to bring a pipe or papers that day, but Shay had swiped a big box of Krispie Kremes on her way out of work. She and Ella were licking chocolate filling out of them like they already had the munchies.
I tended to zone out on my own thoughts, whether or not I was high, and was looking across the uneven lawn of the park, out past the statue at the front of the lawn to the street. This had been a really nice part of town, a hundred years or so back. Back before people stopped caring when paint peeled or plaster was falling off, and started putting bars on the windows and steel gates on all the doors.
Grass is cooler than concrete, especially in the summer, and the trees made the air smell fresher than alleyways. It made me wonder what this land was like, before people came along and built all this crap on top of it. I bet it was more dangerous than the ghetto, when it was all still wild. But some kinds of danger seem nicer than others; more beautiful, at least.
Ella passed me a lighter and the can, being careful not to let the still-smoking coals fall out of the dent in the middle. I took a hit, mechanically.
Holding in the aluminum-flavored smoke, coughing, the world turned dreamlike as I lay back across the top of the picnic table. Silver and green branches overhead clashed with the blue and white sky. The voices of my friends blurred with the cars on the street into one noisy backdrop, familiar and meaningless. Time shrunk into its usual, ever-present now, but something was different. I felt a pulse, rhythmic and steady as a heartbeat, rising up from the ground, up through the air into the soles of my boots. It made my ankles twitch.
I closed my eyes, and took a breath. When I opened them again, the world seemed changed, in a way I could not grasp at first. It was like the world I was used to was just a stage set, and the real play was about to begin. If all I had been doing was following a script, or wandering through a dream, how much more real could life turn out to be than this?
That was when we all noticed, that a huge dark monster was standing next to our picnic table.
It was too close for us to do anything but stare in shock, frozen in place. None of us had seen it approach, though where could it have come from but the trees? I didn’t stop to think, until much later, that there was no way it could have forced its way out of that mess of thorns and branches without us hearing it, and seeing it. But by that point, I was the only one who still cared. In this moment, we were all fixed on how close this scary-looking thing had gotten to us. Close enough to bite somebody’s arm off if it wanted to.
It was not growling, or showing its teeth at all. Its head was hanging low. All it was doing actually, was standing perfectly still, silent except for its hoarse, shallow breathing, watching us with its head down as if it had done something bad.
We were stuck, sitting on top of that picnic table like a five-course frozen turkey dinner. I watched a dull, splintery hoof scuff the grass, watched it almost shy away from itself, and wondered how any creature that size could be as afraid of us as we were of it. Looking closer, actually focusing my eyes on the thing for the first time, I realized how that might happen.
Its skin hung from its bones like cracked, dirty leather, red standing out against the black where it had been slashed, over and over again. Some of the cuts were healed, but a lot of them weren’t. The way it stood, looking at us, reminded me of a (huge!) dog, begging with its tail between its legs after it had been beaten and starved. Maybe he just wants a doughnut, I thought, and almost laughed, almost cried, both in the same gasp.
It was only then, somehow, that I could see the thing that was so strange about the creature. What had made it so terrifying and unknown. It had wings.
They looked like they belonged to a huge bat that had crashed into something, hard. The skin hung in torn strips from the spines, which made an arthritic creaking sound as they moved. One stuck out higher than the other. Watching the creature try to fold them back all the way was painful. Still, they were wings, and as real as the rest of it.
The creature didn’t move, and neither did we. The silence stretched.
It just stood there, with its head hanging low, willing to wait for as long as it took for us to do something. So, I pulled a couple of doughnuts from the box, and carefully slid off of the edge of the table, making no sudden movements. Shay gasped. Dave leaned forward like he wanted to try and stop me, his eyes large and hard with fear.
The beast’s head snapped back, whites showing all the way around its dark eyes. Ropes of wasted muscle stood out in its neck, and it almost sat on the ground as it backed away from me.
Pressure flared in the corners of my eyes. I heard a sob catch in Ella’s throat, but no one else moved.
Making soft, comforting noises, I held the doughnuts out. The beast had stopped moving backwards. It leaned forward, stretching on its neck to sniff at my hand, then jerked away again, afraid to trust. Whatever this creature was, it had been through hell.
I kept standing there with my arm stretched out, shaking a little, until something in the air changed. Its eyes were still frightened, but they met mine without flinching.
“It’s okay.” I said softly, my voice squeaking a little. Tears slid down my cheeks when I blinked. I didn’t care, or bother to wipe at them. “It’s okay.” I jiggled the doughnuts encouragingly. The beast had gone very still, but wasn’t cowering anymore. I stopped moving too, hardly breathing. We kept watching each others’ eyes for a long time.
I wish I could tell you, now, what I saw in his eyes. Whatever it was, when that moment had passed, things were different.
He raised his head, and stepped closer. Carefully, gently, black velvety lips touched my fingers, as he took half of one of the doughnuts in his mouth.
I was in love. I wish I knew more words for that feeling, because one doesn’t even begin to cover it. I felt inspired, and at peace in a way that I didn’t even know how to hope for, before. The only thing that mattered was right here, this moment, and filling each one after it with this wonderful feeling as best I could.
He took the rest of the doughnut, and then the next one, as I gently placed my hand against the side of his neck. His skin rippled in response, letting me feel how much he had missed a friendly touch. I ran my hand down his side, then brushed my fingers through the long hairs falling from the arch of his neck. Expecting to feel crusty dirt and snarls, the silkiness of his mane made me jump. The hair was heavy, and it slipped through my fingers like rain. His coat left a green smell on my hand, like tulips.
Gradually, my friends moved in to stand around me. Their faces began to relax into smiles, as the fear left their eyes. They reached out hesitantly, but after the first touch, they were as brilliantly lost as I was.
Shay threw her arms around the beast’s neck and buried her face in his fur. Dave and Jeremy each took a wing, their eyes shining as feathers bunched between their fingers, where only bat skin had been before. Then they were both laughing, jumping up and down like boys on a spring mattress.
Those wings, glorious, powerful and whole, swept upward in triumph. They were like pillars of fire, their darkness refracting into colors of light and music.
It was impossible to look away, but the beauty of that moment was almost painful to watch. He had been so torn up when we first saw him, it was like a completely different animal was standing here now. What had happened to him, and why had just a little of our attention healed so much, so quick?
He was standing quietly again, watching me as if he could sense my questions. I let my eyes fall back into his, and I saw the red of his fury. I remembered how frozen I had been, with shock and indecision, when I first saw him. Goodness though he may be, I could tell there was danger in him, too.
Images began to play behind what my eyes saw, like a movie in my mind, or dreaming with my eyes open.
Long ago, this place had been a Grove. His sacred place of power, before the concrete footprints fell. Pieces of him had been cut and torn away with his trees, but he kept the place alive as well as his dwindling influence could, deep in the shadows and smoke of the ruins that now held him hostage.
He had watched my friends and I, all these years we had been coming to this place, but had not dared to approach us before today. City people hate his nature: the unpredictable wildness of life outside. They never felt the living earth through their shoes and the pavement. They never paid attention to why they went places, unless it was to make or spend money. His Kind were too risky, for people who wanted to sit and be entertained like kings.
Creativity and Inactivity were at war, and the wrecked shadow of his former glory that we had first seen, was what came from being caught in the middle.
He had dared to approach us, because he needed people, even if they no longer wanted him. His Kind were like fires, burning and giving energy in equal measure. He had watched that fire dim in us, over the years, but it was against his nature to watch such things die if he could help it. He wanted to rekindle it, to help things grow brighter again. So, he had taken form as best as he still could, in the hopes that we would maybe understand, and not be afraid.
Shay had sidled up without me noticing, and touched me on the shoulder, making me jump. “We should go.”
“Go…? Why?” My brain tried to resurface, as my heart fought to stay where it was.
“Yeah. Um. Now.” She was trying to look tough, but shaking like an autumn leaf, her face still puffy and red from crying.
I could not tear myself away from those deep dark eyes and their stories. I didn’t want to. How could anyone think there was anything else they would rather be doing?
“Come on.” Dave’s voice had a hard, brittle edge that grated in his throat. “Get away from that thing.”
That got me to turn and look at him. I could feel the steel hardening in my eyes, even though I was close to tears again. “Don’t you feel it? Can’t you feel what’s happening here?”
They all shifted their feet like they had something to hide, standing close together but still apart. I had always thought of them as a unit – us as a unit – but I could see now that it wasn’t true anymore. If it ever had been.
“You’re asking us what happening here?” Dave was looking like he was ready to drag me all the way out into the street, whether or not I was ready to go. “Some thing just came out of nowhere, and could’ve killed us. And you walked straight up to it, and fed it all our doughnuts! Do you have any idea how stupid that was? It could’ve had rabies and shit!”
He wasn’t making any sense to me. He looked crazy to me, and my hands balled themselves into fists before I knew what I was doing. Dave moved as if to lunge at me when he saw. Jeremy put a restraining hand on his shoulder, but looked scared. Shay and Ella were watching me like two rabbits in a cage.
I turned away. Just in time to see one last swish of black, as his tail disappeared between the branches of that last little slice of nature that he inhabited.
I threw myself in after him. The thin snarling branches of the undergrowth seemed to form a protective barrier behind him, locking me out with a net of vines and scratching, jabbing points. After three steps, there was nowhere I could go but backward.
Still, a name had come to me among the dreams I saw in his eyes, and I was shouting it as loud as I could. “Pegasus!”
I wanted him to know that at least one of us still cared. One of us wanted him back.
My eyes fly open. Disorientation, and the feeling of tears, sliding hot down the sides of my head from the outer corners of my eyes. Unbearably tickling my ears when they reached them. They make me sit up, to wipe them.
I have one, somewhere. Gotta find it, before this thing goes away.
My covers are a heap in the middle of my mattress on the floor. I try not to think of it as my dog bed. I search through some boxes in the corner: little-used stuff I haven’t unpacked since the last place. Near the bottom, I find what I need.
There is still a working pen stuck in the coil of the spiral, though the pages are starting to tear away from around it. I pull the pen free, uncap it, open to a fresh page, and start to write as fast as I can, sitting cross-legged on the carpet with the notebook on the floor in front of me.
I want to catch the exact way that dream made me feel, but don’t know if I can.
I keep writing anyway.
It does not take as long as I think it will.
I set the pen down with a relieved, contented sigh, then check the time.
Profanity. I’m still in my pajamas, and stinking with sweat. How was I sweating so hard, just from writing a story about a dream?
No time to think, as I pull on clean-ish clothes, grab my backpack, and spectacularly save myself from falling down three flights of stairs in my rush for the outside door to my apartment building.
My bus is pulling up to the stop on the corner, but there are enough passengers waiting for me to run up the block and still get there in time. But even if there hadn’t been, it would have been okay. If I had missed my bus, shown up late, even if I’d gotten fired, it would have been worth it. That feeling was worth everything, but somehow I’d forgotten that.
This was the first thing that I had written in almost four years. Which is funny, when you think about how the Pegasus, in Greek mythology, was considered a friend to the Muses.
If you would like a more permanent copy of this story, to re-read or share, you can buy it on Kindle by clicking here. Let me know if you’d like a paper copy. Your support makes me so much more enthusiastic about putting stories out there, that if you want more, please let me know. Otherwise, I’ll keep scribbling away inside my little writer’s cave, alone and unread. Reading is what makes it into a conversation.