Once, there was a man named Severe. He had spent the morning hunting and his arrows were wet with the blood of the pheasants that he carried in a bag slung over his shoulder. He was ambling rather slowly back to the small cottage where he lived in the green shade of a valley when he noticed some movements ahead of him by the lake. He hurried ahead; perhaps he would sight a stag, after all. Crouching behind a large rock, he peered over it toward the lake and saw three wood nymphs filling a large clay urn with water. They wore garments the colour of mist, and each had a bow and a quiver full of arrows at her waist. One of the nymphs was as brown as topaz; one was the colour of pink marble; and one shone like copper, or oranges, or newly minted coins.
Severe was transfixed. Ducks bobbed on the surface of the lake, and the mirror fins of fish glinted underwater. The three nymphs were dipping the urn in the water, and as they did this they splashed each other occasionally and they sang three separate songs that melded together into one. Severe had never heard anything so lovely. He dropped his bag and stood up to see them better. The one with the copper-coloured skin, who was lifting the urn from the water, saw him immediately. She stopped singing, stood up with the half-filled urn clasped in her arms, and stared. He felt that he was looking at the sun, and when she and her companions turned from him and ran, her after-image burned blue in his eyes.
Chasing the three wood nymphs, he could see the flashing colours of their arms and legs through the trees in front of him, but they ran more swiftly and more silently than he did. He followed them over a large outcropping of rock. When he reached the bottom, the nymphs were nowhere to be seen. Instead, in a clearing beyond the rock, he saw three trees: a tall evergreen with the wind whirring through it, a blossoming magnolia, and a maple tree with golden leaves.
He ran to the maple and threw his arms around it. His tears fell, and when at last he wiped his eyes he saw that the bark too was wet. He put his mouth to the glistening sap upon the rough bark; its sweetness exploded inside his mouth, and he forgot all about his lonely life in the cottage in the valley.
From then on, Severe lived in the woods. When the sun shone in the sky, he lay in the shade of the maple tree. At dusk, he waited by the lake for the three nymphs to come with their urn for water. He carved a simple flute from a reed, and when he played for them, the copper-coloured nymph danced in the water. At night, when the moon was high, he went hunting with them and carried back their prey for them. Occasionally the copper-coloured nymph spoke to him in a low voice. He learned that her name was Nephele and that, although she looked as young as dawn, she was as old as the tree she sometimes inhabited. Severe and Nephele loved each other very much, but when he asked her to go with him to the land beyond the valley, she refused. It was her task, she said, to stay with her sisters and to fill the urn with water every day.
But the next day, when he waited by the lake at sunset, the three nymphs did not appear. Afraid he might never see them again, he fell to his knees to pray. Then, although he was very anxious, he somehow drifted into sleep. When he awoke, the goddess Diana was standing above him, and she was angry. “It is forbidden,” she said, “for a mortal to love a wood nymph.” And with that, she reached down to the lake and splashed water in his face.
As in a dream, he felt himself changing. His neck grew longer, his arms became his forelegs, his face lengthened, a tail sprouted from the base of his spine, and from his forehead grew a single horn. Horrified, he sprang away from Diana and was amazed at the speed and agility with which he could run. The air was filled with a thousand scents he had never noticed, and he could hear the voices of the animals who burrowed beneath the ground. He felt more a part of the life of the forest than he ever had before. Just to see how it felt, he tossed his mane. switched his tail, and reared up on his hind legs. His muscles moved perfectly, and through every pore he could feel the cool forest air. He hastened to the lake, eager to have a look at himself.
At the shore, he stepped carefully forward. In the still, emerald waters, he saw his reflection; he saw how beautiful he was, and he was thankful for this wonderful new life. He stared into the water, and on another part of the lake, saw the reflection of the three wood nymphs. The sound of their breathing was like the distant ocean, and when he looked up at them, Nephele was as golden as the orioles in the berry bushes, and her eyes shone amber. How he would love to ride through the forest with Nephele upon his back! He trotted toward her, and as he did, she reached into her quiver, pulled out an arrow trimmed with eagle feathers, and took aim. Severe wondered what she was aiming at, and he turned his head to survey the forest. He heard the soft creak of the wood as she pulled the bowstring back, and he heard her hold her breath, and he heard the high buzz of the string as she loosed the arrow. He looked back at her; she was the colour of flame and he saw that the arrow was aimed at him. “Nephele!” he cried, but his voice sounded entirely unlike himself, and before he could say another word, he felt the arrow pierce his smooth pale hide and then his beating heart.
He fell forward toward the water, and his legs gave way under him. He felt the water lapping at his face, and felt the tears flow from his eyes as the blood flowed from his heart. The tears and the blood together flowed into the lake, and they kept on flowing until even his bones had turned to water and he felt his body turn to tears. The tears overflowed the boundaries of the lake and formed a river that ran through the valley and beyond; and every Autumn, when Nephele wept for her lover who had disappeared, the golden leaves of the maple fell from the branches and they floated on the river to the sea.
— The Unicorn, by Nancy Hathaway.
[Artwork: Procris And The Unicorn, by Bernardino Luini.]