Of Wild Beasts And Gallant Knights

WHENEVER the subject comes up, my wife won't let me forget it. `You ran!'' she says in smiling accusation.

`I didn't exactly run,'' I retort in mock indignation. ``I was merely putting some distance between me and the monster. Besides, I thought you were right behind me.''

``Behind you! You were a hundred yards down the beach in the pitch dark before I even knew you'd gone.''

It was not, I confess, one of the prouder moments in the history of bravery. But as I keep trying to explain, it happened several dozen years ago and thousands of miles away. Besides, it was just the sort of circumstances in which monsters, if they existed, would surely appear. So let there be, please, a modicum of forgiveness as the story gets told.

For reasons that have grown indistinct, we were spending a week that winter on Key Biscayne, a sandy spit of an island anchored along the south Florida coast.

In those days, the beach on the Atlantic side stretched unbroken for several miles from the hotel to a deserted lighthouse at the tip of the key.

No one lived out there. No one even went there except a scattering of hotel guests who, having heard of an abandoned tower standing like the lonely ghost of an earlier century, trekked out by day to see it.

BEHIND the beach, all along its length, lay nothing but jungle - a tangle of impenetrability shot through with tall palms and pines. And over it all, as predictable as the tides, blew the sea breeze.

Except that night.

In the dark of the moon, as we left the circle of lights from the hotel for a stroll shortly before midnight, the water lay flat and unruffled. A barely moving line of foam, glowing in the faint luminescence of the sea, marked the edge of the beach. Even the pines, accustomed to sighing through the long warm nights, were holding their breath, and not one palm frond clashed against another.

The only sounds were the movements of nocturnal beasts in the brittle leaves behind the dunes and the sudden, startled rustle of an occasional bird shifting position and chirping with surprise.

``And you, talking a little louder than usual.''

``Well, sure I was talking, and so were you.'' I reply. ``Isn't that what we always do when we go for evening walks? It must have just seemed loud because of the silence.''

Of course I know better. I was talking louder than usual, the way you whistle alone in the dark to keep up your courage. And to keep monsters away.

Which, as I am about to explain if she'll let me, didn't work this time. We had walked quite a ways, well around the curve that cuts off all hope of a friendly light from the hotel, when something rustled up ahead. Not your normal, small-animal-in-the-woods kind of rustle, either, but a first-class, Halloween-sized Rustle. Nor was it off to our right in the woods. It was squarely in our path.

TO this day, I am convinced that she gripped my elbow and just slightly sucked air, though she'll no doubt say it was I who gripped hers.

``It was! Of course it was.''

``Well, either way. The point is, we noticed something.''

But we didn't say anything about it - at least not right then. I suppose it was a matter of keeping up appearances. I guess I felt that if only I could overlook the gripped elbow and the sharp inhalation - just forge right ahead with whatever luminous insight I happened to be delivering myself of at the time - the whateveritwas would no doubt dissolve into its airy nothingness.

We peered ahead into the darkness. But the night, suddenly clammy, yielded up no clue to its contents. Only the luminous line of the sea, barely pulsing like something strangely alive, stretched ahead of us into the gloom.

Then it rustled again.

``Only louder.''

``Well, yes. And weirder.''

She always says I walk too fast and get ahead of her. Not that night. We must have left off gripping elbows by then, because by the time it happened I had already fallen a step or two behind. I don't know which of us first heard what happened next. But I imagine she sucked a prodigious amount of air. So she probably never even heard me turn tail and run.

But you have to understand what it sounded like. It was a snort - loud and angry, the kind dragons are reputed to make.

At almost the same instant there was a series of pounding thuds on the ground, so much so that the beach noticeably trembled. I guess it never occurred to me that her feelings were not identical to mine - nor that she, too, was not even at that moment turning sharply on her heel and galloping down the beach close behind me.

``You didn't even bother to look!''

``I did after a while. But by then there was nothing I could do but wait for you to catch up.''

``Some gallant knight you are!''

As I recall, we never returned that night to see what it was. Scurrying for the hotel, we avoided confronting the mystery by arguing over how much bravery had not been shown in the dark of that moon. It was not until the next morning, in the bright intrepid daylight, that we ventured back to the scene of our defeat.

``Your defeat.''

``All right, my defeat, if you insist. You remember what we found?''

``A horse.''

And not even a wild stallion. No, just a tame, well-tethered mare, standing docilely in the shade of a palm and munching hay.

It seems they'd been filming a commercial for some kind of soft drink - the kind where women in diaphanous gowns ride bareback through the breakers and pause to drink from glistening, cold-beaded cans.

Either the filming had gone on longer than expected or the breakers had vanished into that windless evening. So they pitched there for the night, horse and all. And wouldn't you know it, but, just as we were almost within touching distance, the horse cleared his throat and stamped the ground with his hooves.

``And a lot of help you were!''

``I admit it. But I'm more courageous now.''


``I am. I'm not saying I'm less afraid, but I'm more willing to face up to fears and face them down. Isn't that what courage is?''

``Prove it.''

``OK. I'll write the tale and publish it for the whole world to see.''

``You wouldn't dare!'' she says, sucking air and gripping my elbow.

Oh, yeah?

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