Your unicorn first finds you when you run away from home.
You had planned to live forever in the woods. You packed all the necessities: three cans of baked beans, a packet of butter crackers, your insulin, a water bottle, your clarinet, your marching band shirt. You drew yourself a map on the endpaper of your favorite novel, a map that ran through all the landmarks you’d named yourself in your rambles. The Crystal Stream. The Bramble Thickets. After that, the Beyond.
This time, you go all the way beyond the Beyond, to the soft, rotten place where mosquitoes breed. Your boots fill with mud and you polish off your crackers before it stops being fun. At nightfall, you find you’ve forgotten the can opener, right about when you learn, shivering, just how cold it gets when the sun sets, and how many hidden things buzz and skitter and howl in the dark.
This is how your unicorn finds you: lost, mudstained, sobbing, and worthy anyway. Worthy of her rainbow hair, her golden horn, her warm nose nuzzling tears from your face. You ask her, Are you real? In answer, she whuffles your cheek, your tangled hair, warming you through with her breath. She smells like a million wildflowers woven into a hundred crowns, like summer never-ending.
You never thought to wonder how a unicorn would smell.
It’s hard to mount the unicorn. You’ve read books on horses, but you’ve never actually ridden one. But the unicorn kneels and doesn’t mind the mane-pulls or flank-kicks while you find your seat. Mounted, you wait to be carried away to a magical kingdom, a secret quest, or wherever it is unicorns live.
But instead she brings you home.
Upon your return, you submit to your parents’ vicious desperation, the hospital visit to check your scratches, the midnight bed checks. They don’t trust you not to vanish again. You expect the unicorn to vanish too. You check out your window a half-dozen times, but she just paces the mud in the backyard, mane gone soggy in the rain, restless, directionless. You ask if you can keep her, which only raises more questions: is she wild, and if not, who owns her? Your parents have never seen a unicorn before. But in the end they open the garage, put out a pail of water, and allow you to feed her sugar from your open palm.
They had told you all your life that unicorns meant a special destiny, that unicorns could show you where you belonged. But that isn’t true at all. Unicorns don’t know the way any better than you do.
The other kids resent you for having a unicorn. They huddle in the bleachers and call you princess and horn humper and other falsehoods because they know you don’t deserve the soft white blessing of her, her dark-eyed loyalty, the way she gallops you to school, horn throwing rainbows.
It’s impossible to look anything but extraordinary when you ride a unicorn. No one notices the worn holes in your sock-heels, how your old jeans rise two inches above your calves, or how you braid your hair to hide the uneven ends of your mom’s bad haircut job.
You don’t know how to explain that the unicorn changes nothing. You’ve never had anything of your own. You wear hand-me-downs, you’ve got Type 1 diabetes, and your dad has gotten into couponing to afford all the new unicorn-related bills. When your mom gets home from work, her eyes crinkle tiredly and she shakes her head at the mess. She kisses you, pats your unicorn’s nose, and grabs the broom to sweep the mud tracked in by shoes and hooves. Late at night, long after you’ve gone to bed, sometimes you hear your parents talking about the burden of your unicorn. At least she’s not trying to run away anymore, they remind each other as they budget the cost of riding lessons.
You know very well that unicorns don’t stay forever, just like clothes, and friends, and teachers. You only get to keep things until someone else needs them more. Life is mostly about outgrowing, or wearing things out. You can’t hold onto it. Eventually, everything gets handed down again.
At night, you sleep on the floor, nestled against your unicorn’s flank. You breathe in her summer field scent and wonder who had your unicorn before you, and when she’ll leave you for the next girl.
Everyone claims they want a unicorn, but that’s because they believe unicorns are easy, when in truth unicorns are nothing but work. No one talks about the care, the upkeep, the muddy floors. People don’t really want unicorns, though. They just want pretty horses, pretty stories, pretty pictures on the wall to prove they are happy.
Some people don’t believe in your unicorn, even when they see the evidence firsthand. It happens a lot when you’re dating. Girls want to check her mane for hair dye lines, and guys spring on her neck to yank on her horn.
After you’ve convinced them she’s real, next come the virgin jokes. Like, aren’t unicorns for kids, and won’t she just vamoose if you get laid? And since that ship has already sailed, does she love you less now than she did before?
You’re not very good at listening to your instincts. You try so hard to be nice. You laugh along with their jokes and don’t bother correcting them. People like it when you laugh.
Once, for a whole year, you don’t tell anyone about your unicorn. You figure it’s better to spare her all the poking and prodding, their doubts and hesitations. You dye your hair bright colors to explain away the rainbows fuzzed into your sweaters and diligently vacuum the house free of hoofprint marks.
But it feels like a lie, like tying on a plastic horn to cavort with narwhals. Eventually you learn to let others hold their own doubts. Yours are heavy enough already.
Maybe it’s true what they say about unicorns. Maybe her love is only a half-mast thing, faded with your youth and innocence. You wish she could talk. You’d love to ask her, but she keeps her own counsel.
People say it’s hard to believe in unicorns, but that’s a lie. Unicorns are easy. It’s much more difficult to believe in yourself.
No one likes being a grown woman with a unicorn. Unicorns are needy and expensive, and they never let you forget them, not for a moment. Your unicorn gets separation anxiety if you leave her home. She won’t even stay put at the stable you’ve paid to board her. It takes her fifteen minutes flat to jump the stall, kick down the door, and bolt for the highway shoulder. That leads to near misses with motorists and awkward questions from animal control.
Your options are to ride your unicorn to work, or take the bus and risk her darting into traffic, confused and scared, determined to find you however far you’ve gone.
One day, fresh from another awkward conversation with HR about the proper use of company parking spots, you wheel on your unicorn in the parking lot. “What’s the point of you?” you demand. “You’re just getting in my way. Go find someone else to bother. I don’t want you anymore.”
You take the express bus home, leave her standing in the gutter, watching you forlornly and for once not even attempting to follow. You don’t even look back.
A streetlight flickers by, pale in the last dregs of sunset. By the time you pass the next streetlight, you already regret your words. You shouldn’t’ve said it. You didn’t really mean it. You can’t admit to yourself you’ve been trying to drive your unicorn away. That you’ve been bracing yourself for the moment she finds you unworthy.
When the express finally stops, you step off the bus and jog back toward work in the dark, calling her name, calling apologies. At every block, you expect to see her galloping toward you, her horn refracting moonlight, breaking the shadows, but it is only asphalt and streetlights and the drone of rush hour tearing by. She should’ve started following after by now. Maybe something happened. Maybe it wasn’t her who caused the accident this time.
You get all the way back to work before you find your unicorn still waiting in the parking lot. Your calves burn, and blisters swell inside your work shoes, which are lousy for running. You don’t know what to say, so you don’t. You bury your face in her mane until your body stops shaking.
The stories say unicorns reserve their company for those of the highest character, the best of humanity, the ones they deem worthy. But those stories know nothing of a unicorn’s love. Your unicorn is the only one you trust to see the worst version of yourself and still love you.
The unicorn nuzzles your cheek, horn dipped contritely. She whickers in your ear. You realize you’re not the only one who is waiting to be found worthy.
Adeline, your farrier, taught you how to shoe your unicorn. Once a month, you ride 45 minutes to her place anyway, just for the company. While she heats iron in the forge and lays out her hammers, you catch her up on your job search, your love life, the slow progression of your dad’s cancer treatments.
Adeline works the metal like dough, her bare arms gleaming. One time she misses the mark and burns her thumb. “How about we let your friend handle it?” she suggests with a laugh, nodding at your unicorn. “They’re supposed to be good for healing.”
You’ve long had your suspicions about your unicorn. You don’t get sick too often, and you’ve never broken a bone. But she hasn’t shown the aptitude. If she could cure disease at the touch of her horn, you sure wouldn’t have diabetes, and wouldn’t your dad be well?
“Probably for the best,” Adeline agrees, pulling a glove over the injury. “If word got out she could heal, you’d be fighting off half the world to keep her. Better just to be ordinary.”
For months afterward, you can’t decide whether or not you agree.
Years later, when your dad eventually succumbs to the cancer, you ride your unicorn home from the hospital, so caught up in your own darkness you barely notice your unicorn’s particular fleetness through traffic, like she is digging deep for her youthful strength to get you home quickly. When you dismount, you bury your face in her mane and moan. “A real unicorn could do something about this.”
You kiss her nose, a numb heaviness pressing where your heart should be. Your unicorn has never pretended to be something she’s not. “Sorry. It’s not your fault.”
Sometimes a unicorn is just a horse with a horn.
The next morning, you catch your unicorn wandering the backyard, touching her horn to skeletal leaves, broken branches, a little dead robin fallen from the nest. Her neck bows so low her nose brushes the dew-damp grass. When the robin fails to live again, she huffs through her nostrils and flees behind the workshed, where you find her lipping bits of grass and trembling.
“Let’s go,” you say. “You’re overdue for a shoeing.”
You ride to Adeline’s place together. Her shoes ring steadily on the highway’s shoulder like the heartbeat of a living thing.
You once believed your unicorn could save you, but you were wrong. You have no one but each other. This has always been the truth. If anything, you are the one saving her.
In your later years, it isn’t the things left behind that give you the most regret. It is the things you know you will have to surrender.
First you give up your vegetable garden. The squatting and bending is rough on your knees, and you just can’t seem to weed out all the yellow dandelions before they fold up and burst into clouds. Next it is the fine old apple tree after a storm leaves its branches hanging, half-dead. You hire out that chore, let a neighbor man climb the ladder with the saw and take it down limb by limb.
You drop the reins of life in stages, let the yard run wild, and ignore the dust that gathers in the bathroom grout. You let it all go so you’ll have the strength to muck out the stall and run the brush over every inch of your unicorn.
“What will we do?” you ask her, kissing her nose. “Where could we go that will take an old woman and a unicorn?”
You thought unicorns were immortal, but that isn’t true. Her rainbow mane has gone pastel, and sometimes she limps after a long ride. She’s probably going blind.
But they don’t make tiny cottages for aging unicorns. They don’t make apartments with wide, grassy pastures and a stable attached. They just make unsolicited suggestions. Give her away, your friends say. Pass her down to someone new.
But you can’t give away something you never owned, and a unicorn is no pet.
Finally, in tears, you discuss the problem with your unicorn. “Is there something I’m missing?” you ask her, your voice breaking as you lift your trembling chin to face the inevitable. “Is there any place left for both of us?”
She lips the tears from your cheeks, but she has nothing else to give but unicorn kisses, because the world has never made room for you and your unicorn. You always had to hold that space for each other.
And so you begin to make yourself smaller. You open your closets and purge the old clothes. You reach to the backs of cabinets for the expired cinnamon, the soft old bedsheets, the broken hair dryer, and you pile it on the back porch in bags to be given away or thrown out. Your unicorn noses around the wreckage, restless. She raises her nose and snuffles the wind.
When you finally take a break on the porch, drenched in sweat and aching, your unicorn ambles up to join you, flicking her tail in your face, knocking over your coffee.
“What’s gotten into you?” you grumble, but then you catch the old backpack dangling from her jaw by one worn strap.
“What is it?” you ask your unicorn.
She shakes the backpack. A can of baked beans thuds into the carpet.
“I don’t understand,” you tell her. “Do you want to go for a ride?”
She shakes the backpack again, and more things fall out. A clarinet case. A yellowed paperback. A water bottle. Everything a child might need to survive a night in the woods.
This is how your unicorn tells you in everything but words that it is time to go. It has been a long time since she surprised you, but you have learned to trust her.
Over the Crystal Stream, then. Through the Bramble Thickets. And after that, the Beyond, the two of you gliding through the forest, unicorn and rider, two halves of a perfect whole. The mud is bad in spots, yes, but there aren’t nearly as many mosquitoes as you remember. Not like when you were a child, lost and filthy and worthy you.
A fact about girls and unicorns: one is a wild, magical thing. The other is becoming one.
There is something else, something new beyond the Beyond. A whiff of sun-soaked wildflower crowns, a glittering music, a rainbow harmony whispering through the trees.
“You lied to me,” you tell your unicorn, and she whinnies back, a unicorn’s laugh. Because it is really you who were wrong, a believer in fictions, and this one most of all: that you’d learned everything there is to know about unicorns.
Your unicorn shakes her mane, tickling your face with a rainbow cloud, and you laugh, full and free. There is a place for both of you, and it’s not too late for that adventure. In fact, you’re right on time.
The sun is setting behind you. As it sinks, the rainbow path unfolds over the pine needles and mud. You’ve got good boots and insulin and your clarinet.
This time, you remember the can opener.
© 2021 Rachael K. Jones