"Listen"—Smaolach held his breath—"to this."
At once, the snow changed over to sleet, which ticked against the fallen leaves and rocks and dripping branches, a miniature symphony of the natural world. We walked away from the river and took cover in a grove of evergreens. Ice encased each of the needles in a clear jacket. Luchóg pulled out a leather pouch hanging from a cord around his neck, first producing a tiny paper and then a fat pinch of dried and brown grasslike fibers that looked like tobacco. With deft fingers and a quick lick, he rolled a thin cigarette. From another section of the pouch, he extracted several wooden matches, counted them in his palm, and returned all but one to the waterproof compartment. His thumbnail struck the match, causing it to burst into flame, which Luchóg ap-plied to the end of the cigarette. Smaolach had dug a hole deep enough to reach a layer of dry needles and cones. Carefully taking the burning match from his friends fingertips, he set it in the bowl, and in short order we had a fire to toast our palms and fingertips. Luchóg passed the cigarette to Smaolach, who took a deep drag and held the smoke inside his mouth for a long time. When he exhaled at last, the effect was as sudden and percussive as the punch-line to a joke.
"Give the boy a puff," Smaolach suggested.
"I dont know how to smoke."
"Do what I do," said Luchóg through clenched teeth. "But whatever you do, dont tell Igel about this. Dont tell anyone at all."
I took a drag on the glowing cigarette and began coughing and sputter-ing from the smoke. They giggled and kept on laughing well after the last scrap had been inhaled. The air beneath the evergreen boughs was thick with a strange perfume, which made me feel dizzy, light-headed, and slightly nau-seous. Luchóg and Smaolach fell under the same spell, but they merely seemed content, simultaneously alert and peaceful. The sleet began to taper off, and silence returned like a lost friend.
"Did you hear that?"
"What is it?" I asked.
Luchóg shushed me. "First, listen to see if you hear it." A moment later, the sound came to me, and though familiar, its substance and origin mysti-fied me.
Luchóg sprang to his feet and rousted his friend. "Its a car, little treasure. Have you ever chased an automobile?"
I shook my head, thinking he must have me confused with a dog. Both of my companions took hold of my hands and off we went, running faster than I had ever imagined possible. The world whirred by, patches and blurs of darkness where trees once stood. Mud and snow kicked up, mottling our trousers as we sped on at an insanely giddy pace. When the brush grew thicker, they let go of my hands and we raced down the trail one behind the other. Branches slapped me in the face, and I stumbled and fell into the muck. Scrambling to my feet, cold and wet and dirty, I realized I was alone for the first time in months. Fear took hold, and I opened my eyes and ears to the world, desperate to find my friends. Fierce pains of concentration shot across my forehead, but I bore down and heard them running through the snow in the distance. I felt a new and powerful magic in my senses, for I could see them clearly, while realizing that they should be too far ahead and out of sight. By visualizing my way, I gave chase, and the trees and branches that had con-fused me before now seemed no obstacle. I whipped through the woods the way a sparrow flies through the openings in a fence, without a thought, fold-ing up its wings at the right moment, gliding through.
When I caught up, I found they were standing behind the rough pines short of the forest edge. Before us lay a road and on that road a car had stopped, its headlights streaking through the misty darkness, broken pieces of the metal grille glistening on the asphalt. Through the open drivers door, a small light shone in the empty cab. The anomaly of the car pulled me toward it, but the strong arms of my friends held me back. A figure emerged from the darkness and stepped into the light, a thin young woman in a bright red coat. She held one hand to her forehead, and bending slowly, she reached out with her free arm, nearly touching a dark mass lying in the road.
"She hit a deer," Luchóg said, a note of sadness in his voice. She agonized over its prostrate form, pulling her hair back from her face, her other hand pressed against her lips.
"Is it dead?" I asked.
"The trick," said Smaolach in a quiet voice, "is to breathe into its mouth. Its not dead at all, but in shock."
Luchóg whispered to me. "Well wait until shes gone, and you can in-spire it."
"Dont you know? Youre a faery now, same as us, and can do anything we can do."
The notion overwhelmed me. A faery? I wanted to know right away if it was true; I wanted to test my own powers. So I broke away from my friends, approaching the deer from the shadows. The woman stood in the middle of that lonesome road, scanning in both directions for another car. She did not notice me until I was already there, crouching over the animal, my hand upon its warm flank, its pulse racing alongside my own. I cupped the deers muzzle in my hand and breathed into its hot mouth. Almost immediately, the beast lifted its head, shouldered me out of the way, and rocked itself up into a stand-ing position. For an instant, it stared at me; then, like a white ensign, its tail shot up a warning, and the deer bounded into the night. To say that we—the animal, the woman, myself—were surprised by this turn of events would be the most severe understatement. She looked bewildered, so I smiled at her. At that moment, my comrades started calling to me in loud whispers.
"Who are you?" She wrapped herself tighter in that red coat. Or at least I thought those were her words, but her voice sounded alien, as if she were speaking through water. I stared at the ground, realizing that I did not know the true answer. Her face drew close enough for me to detect the beginning of a smile on her lips and the pale bluegreen of her irises behind her glasses. Her eyes were splendid.
"We must go." From the darkness, a hand grasped my shoulder, and Smaolach dragged me away into the bushes, leaving me to wonder if it had all been a dream. We hid in a tangle while she searched for us, and at last she gave up, got in her car and drove off. I did not know it at the time, but she was the last human person I was to encounter for more than a dozen years. The tail-lights zigzagged over the hills and through the trees until there was no more to see.
We retreated back to camp in a cross silence. Halfway home, Luchóg advised, "You mustnt tell anyone about what happened tonight. Stay away from people and be content with who you are." On the journey, we created a necessary fiction to explain our long absence, invented a narrative of the wa-ters and the wild, and once told, our story endured. But I never forgot that secret of the redcoated woman, and later, when I began to doubt the world above, the memory of that bright and lonely meeting reminded me that it was no myth.