I wake up in the dark of night in an unfamiliar, dirty blanket using a flat stone for a pillow in the middle of the woods?
The body next to me feels familiar but the face of my wife is… changed?
I jump up with an involuntary shout. Where on Earth have I been taken? And who took me?
My startled blanket buddy wastes no time grabbing a sword and getting to her feet. A sword? Is she going to hack me?
But it isn’t me she’s focused on. She glances about anxiously, sword at the ready in both hands. “Where?” she demands.
“What are you doing?” I shout. My heart’s thumping, internal pressure building fast, adrenaline surging. What is she afraid of? There’s no more time to guess where I am or what’s going on. We hear a noise. The crackle of branches overhead.
The strangely familiar woman cowers at the sound and turns defensively in that direction, looking futilely for whatever is up there. I don’t know what is going on but I know I don’t like the sounds that I hear coming next. These are the gutteral growls of a large beast of prey.
I don’t want to stay so I turn and dash into the blackness between the trees. When I look back and see the woman fearfully anticipating some horror, her body and moves seem exactly like my wife’s. It’s as though that’s my wife after all, and suddenly I can’t just leave her.
I watch and nothing happens. Is she paranoid? My own situation catches up with me again and I run back to her, for the first time realizing that I’m dressed in some kind of Medieval gear looking like an atmosphere actor at a Renaissance Festival.
“What is going on?” I try to whisper calmly. Damn! I can’t remember her name! My own wife’s name?
“It’s here…” she whimpers, teary eyed, still brandishing the sword bravely. “It found us.”
It? Then something above us moves closer…downward…but the darkness is too deep to see it…until -!
And when my eyes adjust to what hangs above them I’m looking at a horned face of horror, a deep forest killing machine. And while there’s no time to assess my accuracy, I think I know what this thing is. Here’s where a general education pays off. At least I have an idea of what’s about to shred me.
The Chinese called it Qilin, to the Hebrews it was re’em. However known, the thing was too monstrous for coexistence with humanity; so monstrous that nightmares of it had to be transformed into romantic fantasies of horned horses for the sake of children and a good night’s sleep. The original unicorn was no little girl’s fantasy…
While I stupidly daydream in confusion and awe, the smell of rancid breath and a fierce roar descend on us.
My wife defends us. Like a warrior she lunges at the weird animal, holding it back while I force myself to come around, snap out of it and accept a new reality. I want to run but running from this won’t work. I remember being attacked by a dog. Instinctively, I knew that running would get me torn apart. So it was time for the canine maneuver. Dogs don’t chase you if you don’t run.
Qilin breaks my wife’s blade with one swipe of a claw. Bloodied, exhausted, she closes her eyes waiting for the finish.
Suddenly I yelp and scream as loud as I can. I wave arms overhead and snarl, exposing teeth viciously. I take a jump toward the thing as if I could kill it effortlessly and like I just might. I growl, bark, snap and screech as I creep ever closer…
Some beings understand a bluff, others not so much. After a frightening moment of hesitation, it quickly disappears and never comes back as dawn brings a new day.
The day in that strange forest with my unusual wife is peaceful, but I am scared and stay that way. There is no explanation for what I’m experiencing. My “wife” can’t understand what’s wrong with my memory. I’m scaring her as much as Qilin had.
But as the hours pass my thoughts fill with acquired memories from this strange body that’s been here its entire existence. And for a brief instant of actual peace I enjoy the company and intimacy of the wife who is not my spouse.
I never recall her name. But when night comes we hold each other in the cool comfort of a small cave. We make a bed of her bearskin roll and our clothing. I rest my head and bones in ecstasy.
But that isn’t where I wake up.