by Marion Caldwell
art by Abby de Leon
Ría had always liked long, solitary walks through the forest, especially after sundown. The deep shadows between the trees, creaking winds in the branches, and mysterious star-studded skies inexorably attracted her. Usually, she brought only a weak flashlight to guide her in hope of preserving a little of the darkness. She loved the liberty of shadowed invisibility, sometimes running wildly along the trails like an untamed creature and sometimes standing in frozen reverence to watch the clouds crossing the face of the moon.
When she didn’t walk alone, she had to control her desires to bound powerfully along narrow trails like a startled deer and slink along the borders of open fields like a cautious fox. The eyes of a companion tethered her unwillingly to her humanity. Even so, she enjoyed company once in a while, and she generally said yes if a friend asked to join her.
This was the case one Thursday night in late August. Ría’s high praise of her nocturnal wanderings had sparked her friend Diego’s curiosity. The two left at nine, when the sun had set and the shadows had completely covered the forest. There were clouds that night, and the stars and moon were completely obscured. There was no rain, however, and the air was warm. In Ría’s opinion, it was perfect.
But because the night was so perfect, Ría felt horribly restless after only five minutes. Diego walked at a steady pace along the center of the trails, his bright flashlight illuminating every branch and leaf, scrubbing away every trace of mystery and magic. Ría thought she could feel her bones vibrating with the need to hide in the darkness and sprint through the towering trees.
Incapable of bearing the normalcy of the walk for another minute, Ría said to Diego, “I’m going to walk a bit behind you. I’m going to try to let my eyes adjust to the darkness so I can try to stargaze.”
“But it’s too cloudy, isn’t it?” he said skeptically.
“Yeah, probably, but I still want to try,” Ría responded with a slightly forced laugh.
“Okay,” said Diego, acquiescing with a shrug of his shoulders.
Ría stopped, allowing Diego to move ahead of her. Before he disappeared completely around the corner, she began to walk again. But this time, she moved through the night her way: close to the edge of the path, freezing when the brushes creaked and moving quickly from shadow to shadow. She was careful to keep the light of Diego’s flashlight in sight because she didn’t want to leave him alone in the dark forest, but she was essentially in a world of her own, allowing her sense of self to be subsumed by the pristine night.
At first, Diego frequently glanced over his shoulder to make sure that she was still there. Each time, the light blinded Ría for a moment. She felt like Eurydice, who faithfully tried to follow Orpheus despite his overly-cautious actions that threatened to drive her away. Fortunately, Diego soon decided to trust that Ría would not disappear into the forest and stopped checking so frequently.
Left in peaceful darkness, Ría’s soul sang in harmony with the rhythm of the woods. Her eyes adjusted to the night. There were no stars, but the lights of the city reflecting off the clouds prevented complete darkness. She let Diego walk farther and farther away, until his silhouette became blurred and indistinct—just a black figure outlined by a halo of light so weak that it seemed gray.
In the dark, it was easy to imagine that the silhouette wasn’t Diego—it was a foreign traveler, a ghost, something without substance or familiarity. Ría's imagination filled with ideas and stories. She was a wolf and the silhouette was her prey; the next moment she was a lost traveler and the silhouette a mysterious guide; a step later she was an adventurer and hunter of the supernatural and the silhouette a magical and dangerous phenomenon. She retreated deeper and deeper into her own mind until the fantasies seemed more believable than the physical world.
Distracted by the worlds unfurling in her imagination, it took her a moment to notice that Diego had turned around a bend in the trail and she could no longer see him. Only the faint light of the flashlight was visible, and that too was disappearing rapidly. Abruptly, the fear of her own imaginings surrounded Ría, suffocating and thick. Suddenly seized by the idea that Diego was nothing more than a dream, she began to run, rounding the curve and bounding across a small bridge. As she approached, the silhouette seemed to tremble and its edges seemed to shift and warp. She poured all her energy into a final sprint, irrationally afraid the outline would evaporate before she reached it.
Her vision blurred by exertion and fear, Ría reached the silhouette and grabbed its arm. “Hey, Diego, you almost left me behind—” she said breathlessly, her free hand resting on her knee and her head lowered as she caught her breath.
But Diego’s voice did not respond. Instead, she heard a chittering like that of a giant insect. Surprised, she looked up.
She did not see Diego’s face. She was grasping the elbow of an unfamiliar creature that held a lantern of an archaic style that shone with a cold, faint light. The creature’s face was too flat to be human, and the eyes—enormous, almond-shaped, and solid gold—seemed more like those of a praying mantis than those of a human. As Ría stared in shock, the creature opened its mouth of needle-like teeth and trilled again, inclining its head towards her in apparent curiosity. With a hum, giant dragonfly wings began to unfold from its back.
Startled out of her stupor, Ría screamed and let go of its arm. She whirled around and sprinted back the way she had come, but the dragonfly being leaped into the air with a flutter of its wings and landed on the path in front of her. She swerved sharply off the trail and stumbled through the bushes. She rapidly realized that the plants were different too: some leaves glowed when her hand or leg brushed against them, and others made chirping sounds. A patch of small flowers lit up and took flight in a neon cloud. She ignored it all, running in a dazed panic. She could hear the hum of the creature’s wings right behind her. She didn’t think about where she was running or why; she simply ran.
Then, the ground abruptly disappeared from beneath her, and she fell down the bank of the stream. She rolled to a stop at the bottom, breathless and with her feet submerged in the cold water. She stayed there, panting, immoble, listening for the hum of dragonfly wings.
But instead, she heard Diego’s voice. “Ría! Why’d you leave the trail? I heard a scream and a splash … What happened?” he said, suddenly appearing to peer over the bank above her.
Ría was confused and disoriented, her breath still coming in shallow, panicky gasps. She also wanted to know what had happened. She opened her mouth to explain what she had seen, but then hesitated. Would Diego believe her? She didn’t know. She wasn’t sure if she believed herself. In the light of Diego’s flashlight, visions of creatures with dragonfly wings and glowing plants seemed like a foolish impossibility.
“I don’t know. I think I got too far from you and the light and got disoriented. It doesn’t matter; I’m not hurt,” said Ría, crawling back up the bank. Diego grabbed her hand to help her up.
“Well, I’m glad you’re fine. But walk closer to me, please.”
“Yeah, of course,” responded Ría absent-mindedly. The forest seemed very dull and boring in comparison to the strange world she had just glimpsed. She looked at the trees and bushes, searching for some remnant of her mysterious experience. She had truly been terrified, but now that the surprise and confusion had faded, she only felt strong fascination. Feeling a drop of cold water rolling down her ankle, she vaguely recalled a myth from her childhood saying that the fae and the supernatural could not cross flowing water. Did the stream return me to this world? she wondered.
“Ría? You listening to me?” asked Diego. Ría glanced toward him, abruptly reminded of his existence. “Are you sure you’re okay?” he asked, worried.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Ría reassured him. “I’m ready to keep walking.”
“And you’re going to walk closer to me, right?” he said suspiciously.
“Of course. What’s wrong, Diego, don’t you trust me?” Ría joked, trying to hide the flare of guilt in her chest.
“Yeah, yeah,” Diego laughed, reassured by her words, “let’s go.”
He turned back to the trail and began to walk. Ría remained still for a moment, still scanning the dark woods for neon lights and dragonfly wings. Very slowly, she began to walk as well. She watched the stately darkness of the forest gradually consume the faint light of the flashlight as she followed the silhouette farther into the darkness, her eyes full of intense curiosity.