The Truth About Unicorns
by Jennifer Hykes
The truth about unicorns is, you can never catch a unicorn. That’s the truth of them, and that’s the pain of them, too. You can be a virgin your whole life, you can sit for months or years in a field holding a golden bridle, or a paintbrush, or a pen, and you will never catch one.
Take my friend Pattie, for example. She saw a unicorn once, in the pot-holed lot behind the supermarket, the one that shut down five or six years ago. We all wondered why she took such a long lunch break on such a bleak and rainy day, and all that time she was standing in the lot, staring at the unicorn and crying. When she came back to the office, we all thought that somebody had died from the expression on her tear-streaked face. It took us twenty minutes to get the truth out of her, and even then, all she could say was that she’d “seen one.”
She couldn’t even say the word. But we all knew what she meant. It wasn’t the first time someone in our office had seen one. I asked Pattie what it looked like, but she just shook her head and said, “It looked like… it looked like…” and waved her hand as if suggesting a shape, like the gentle roll of a horse’s back, or the flick of a tail. That was it.
She started painting after that. And every painting had a unicorn in it—at least, something that suggested a unicorn. Sometimes it was a wavy white shape in the corner, peeking out from behind a building. Sometimes it was half the canvas, a myopic blur of light surrounded by gray sky, standing on pockmarked concrete. The closer it was, the harder she tried to capture it, the more the paint melted into a haze.
But she never stopped trying.
That’s the truth about unicorns. And that’s the pain of them, too.
“Holly wants a unicorn for her birthday.”
That’s what my wife greets me with when I walk in the door. I set my suitcase down by the overflowing shoe rack and sigh. “She’s turning five,” I say. “Of course she wants a unicorn.”
Rachel leans in the kitchen doorway and plants a fist on her hip. That firm, warlike gesture made me fall in love with her once, but right now it’s the last thing I want to see. “And?” she continues.
I shrug. “We can get her a unicorn doll,” I say, though I know that’s not going to cut it. Holly knows what she wants. She’s just like her mother that way.
Rachel sighs. I feel for her, I really do. If Holly doesn’t get a unicorn for her birthday, she won’t stop asking for one. She’s at that age. And Rachel is the one who stays home all day with the kids. No office retreat for her.
“You can take her to the circus this weekend,” she suggests. “Make it special for her—just her and her daddy. I can watch the boys.”
“There aren’t any unicorns at the circus,” I say. I try to imagine one in a saddle and bridle. But even the vague image in my head—the white horse of Holly’s imagination, with a shining golden horn and big dewy eyes, a cartoon really, chewing on a bit—is enough to turn my stomach. “You can’t catch a unicorn.”
“Don’t they have a horse show?” Rachel flicks her fingers about, like she’s trying to swat a fly.
“It’s not the same thing,” I snap. Rachel catches my eye, and her lips pull into tight frown. I apologize and shove my hands in my pockets. “It isn’t,” I repeat.
“You could at least try,” she says. “Maybe if she sees some horses, that’ll be enough.”
I doubt it. But a trip to the circus never hurt anything. I agree to go.
Holly is impressed by the acrobats, the clowns and the tiger. She waves at the elephant like he’s an old friend of hers and she had just popped in to visit. She even claps a little at the horse show.
“Look, honey,” I say, pointing to a bright white horse with long flowing mane and tail. A lady is perched on its back, balancing on her toes as the crowd applauds. “That’s called an Arabian horse. Isn’t he pretty?” As I watch, the lady bends and repositions herself on the horse’s saddle, only now balancing on her hands. The horse doesn’t even break stride.
Holly frowns in the way only a four-year-old girl can. Her feet tap idly on the underside of the bench. “It’s pretty,” she says. “But unicorns are prettier.” She looks up at me. “Daddy, can I have a unicorn for my birthday?”
My silence is not the answer she wants. “Daddy,” she whines, “I really want a unicorn!”
I wipe my face with one hand. “Holly, honey,” I say, “unicorns are—they’re wild animals. They belong in the wild.”
“Maggie’s parents got her a unicorn. She keeps it in her room.” She pats my hand as if to reassure me. “It’s okay if you take care of it.”
And there’s the rub. The children have been telling stories about poor Maggie down the street. No wonder Holly thinks I can catch one for her. I know there’s no unicorn in Maggie’s room, but Holly won’t believe me. The story is too big, too believable to her.
“I’d take care of it, I promise!” she insists, clutching at my sleeve. “I’d brush her mane every day, and feed her apples.”
I don’t know if unicorns eat apples. I don’t even know if they eat at all. “Honey,” I try once more, but I don’t know what to say. The word hangs there.
“Puh-leeeeeze?” She’s giving me the puppy eyes, but I can’t say yes. I can’t say no, either. Unicorns aren’t mine to give or to withhold, and I can’t bring myself to pretend that they are.
Thankfully I’m rescued by a man selling cotton candy in the stands. “Do you want cotton candy, honey?” I ask, but before she answers I’m waving my hand for the vendor. “You like cotton candy, don’t you? Two, please.”
Holly doesn’t ask more about the unicorn while she’s stuffing her mouth with clouds of pink spun sugar. But I can see it in her eyes. She hasn’t given up.
Rachel tries a few other tactics in the days leading up to Holly’s birthday party. She takes my “unicorns belong in the wild” excuse and runs with it. “A unicorn wouldn’t be happy in our backyard,” she says. “They need a lot of space to run. And besides, they’re happier with their own kind.”
But there is no hurdle she puts up that Holly doesn’t believe she can leap over with enough perseverance. The unicorn could share our backyard and the Levines’ yard next door. We could have two unicorns so they wouldn’t be lonely. She will do whatever it takes, because she will love her unicorn that much.
On the morning of her birthday, we get a surprise when a horse trailer pulls up in our driveway. The van pulling it is painted blue and covered in white stars, with the words “Melvin the Magician” in fancy script across the side, above a phone number and a web address. The man who steps out of the van—the presumed Melvin—is dressed in the shiniest wizard costume I have ever seen in my life. When he walks across the driveway to greet me and Rachel—both of us standing stunned on the front porch—the robes glint and glimmer in the sunlight like deep blue tinfoil.
“Are you the Urbanks?” he asks, producing a clipboard from his voluminous sleeves.
“Two o’clock, birthday party for Holly?”
I don’t even look at the paper on the clipboard. “I didn’t order a magician, I’m afraid,” I say, in that polite-but-firm business voice I learned on the job. “Did you?” I ask my wife.
But she is just as baffled as I am. Melvin scratches his head, clearly embarrassed. He pulls out a PDA, again from his sleeves, and checks. “Birthday party, Holly Urbank. The order was placed by a Mr. Gregory Urbank?” He flicks his eyes to me, and the name dangles between us like bait.
Next to me, Rachel groans and presses the heel of her hand to her forehead.
“Gregory Urbank is my father,” I say. Rachel mumbles some rather unkind comments under her breath. I don’t blame her. Still, Melvin is here and probably already paid for, so I take the clipboard and eye the paperwork for the first time.
This seems to ease Melvin, because he smiles and chirps, “Standard disclaimer. Where should I set up the pen?”
I sign my name. The tip of the ballpoint threatens to rip the paper. The curves of my signature remind me of the curve of a horse’s back, or the flick of a white tail.
Rachel stomps inside, no doubt to figure out exactly what she will say to my father when he arrives. Most of it will evaporate unsaid, but I let her have her anger. I hand Melvin back the signed paper and lead him into the backyard.
After a brief survey of our humble landscaping, he unloads the van and sets up a portable corral, a table with the usual array of stage magician props, and a cloth banner which he strings between the apple tree and a corner of the shed roof. Then he finally opens the gate on the horse trailer, and leads out a little white pony with a fake horn strapped to her head.
The horn is iridescent plastic, wrapped with pink and purple ribbons at the base to conceal the strap where it meets the head. The pony is as docile as any petting zoo animal, slightly curious as she lifts her head to sniff the unfamiliar yard, but uncomplaining. Melvin leads her into her pen, and she lets him.
“There we go, girl,” says Melvin, patting her on her round side. He holds out an apple, which she bites into eagerly.
Melvin steps out of the pen—easy enough for a man with legs as long as his—and brushes the dirt off his hands with a few sharp smacks. “So,” he says, as I stare at the pony, “the party starts at two, right? What time would you like me to start my act? It’s about forty-five minutes long….”
I don’t hear him. I just keep staring at that pony in the paddock. As a pony she is fine enough; but as a unicorn she is a lie, a travesty, and I feel sick at the thought of Holly seeing her. I nod absently, agreeing with whatever Melvin is saying, watching the heave of the pony’s sides as it breathes.
I don’t think a true unicorn would even breathe.
The sliding back door opens with a thud, and Rachel calls me inside to help with the cake. I excuse myself, leaving Melvin alone with his idea of a unicorn.
I find out from Rachel that she’d let slip to my mother the dilemma about the unicorn. And my mother, having nothing better to do with her days than watch her soaps and gossip, told my father, who in turn took it upon himself to make sure his little Holly got what she wanted.
And when my father does show up, red-faced and beaming, he bats away our protests with a wave of his hand and a broad laugh, as if we were trying to foist undeserved praises onto his shoulders.
“Oh, we want Holly happy on her birthday, don’t we?” he says. “It wasn’t any trouble.”
As if we had been holding a unicorn back because we thought it was too much trouble. Rachel silently fumes, but my father effortlessly slides over her anger, like a sun beaming down on craggy mountain peaks. I silently mouth an apology to her when his back is turned.
When Holly emerges into the backyard, she squeals and rushes right for the pony pen. She doesn’t quite reach it, though. She stops a few feet away and stares. Her breath catches in her throat.
When the pony—whose name, I discover, is Princess—lifts her head and regards Holly and her friends with placid eyes, Holly hides her face behind her hands, as if she is too shy to approach something so magnificent.
But Melvin is a professional, and the yard is full of well-meaning relatives. Within ten seconds he is gesturing her forward while Aunt Gwen, Rachel’s sister, pushes her gently from behind with soft it’s-okay-honeys and don’t-be-shys.
Holly gets close enough, eventually, to curl her fingers over one of the steel bars. Princess sticks a nose in her direction, probably expecting a treat. But Holly doesn’t offer a treat, or pet her, or anything so casual. She just gazes, wide-eyed, her mouth pressed firmly closed and resolute: a reverential believer at the altar, vindicated at last.
I sigh through my nose. Other children, Holly’s brothers and friends and neighbors and cousins, start clustering around the pen. Melvin, with a clever flick of his wrist and a healthy dose of showmanship, produces some horse treats out of thin air and hands them to the children, who gratefully shove them between the bars in hopes that Princess will deign to nibble at their offerings.
The only child who doesn’t is Maggie Granger from down the street, who gives Princess one brief, disinterested glance, then leans back to stare at the clouds drifting by. She hums absently to herself, a lilting melody that winds its way up to the sky. Her parents encourage her to go play with the other children, but they are unsuccessful. Maggie has seen a real unicorn, after all.
The party is in full swing. Melvin goes through his act, producing rabbits and rainbow scarves to the delight of most of the children. Holly, still riveted on Princess, misses the first half of his show before Aunt Gwen gently pries her away from the pen. I exchange the occasional glance with Rachel. I still feel sick for letting my daughter be lied to, but I know that underneath it, we are both relieved that she is satisfied. She can have her imitation dreams, this once. She will understand when she is older what the true fulfillment of a dream can mean, and what it can cost.
Melvin wraps up his show, and the kids spread out while Rachel and Gwen try to wrangle them into different games. I keep half an eye out in case I’m needed, but I almost don’t notice when Roger, Gwen’s seven-year-old, comes swaggering up to the pen with a knot of other boys.
“Check this out,” he crows, “you can totally see the string!” He reaches one long arm into the pen—when did he get so big?—and his fingers clutch at Princess’s plastic horn.
My feet dash for the pen, but my eyes seek out Holly. She is over by the cake with a cluster of her friends, but she is staring at Princess. I’m too late.
The horn comes off in Roger’s hand. The boys laugh and gasp at the same time. Roger stands there with a stupefied expression on his face, as if a part of him hadn’t actually expected that to happen.
Holly screams. It starts off as a low wail, but soon soars into an ear-piercing shriek. I try to interpose my body between her and the pony, but I know she’s seen everything. That plastic horn may as well have stabbed her in the heart, for all the damage it’s done.
I whirl on Roger. His friends have scattered, unwilling to be around when I rain down my adult admonitions. But I don’t say anything to him. I don’t need to. He meets my eyes, and drops the horn. His lower lip quivers.
I tilt my head in the horn’s direction. While I block Roger from sight of the rest of the party, he scoops up the horn and ties it back on Princess’s head. The end result is a little crooked; but the illusion is shattered anyway, and there’s no point in straightening it.
By the time I turn around, Holly’s screams have faded behind the sliding back doors. Rachel has taken her inside to calm her down. I force a smile as fake as Princess’s horn, and that’s the signal for everyone to return to the motions of celebrating the wonder and joy of the day.
Holly emerges a half-hour later, and we cut the cake and open presents. She doesn’t cry, but she doesn’t look in Princess’s direction and she doesn’t smile either. Melvin attempts a few tricks, but having had one illusion shattered already, Holly is unwilling to buy another. Melvin gets a few gasps and laughs from the rest of the children, but Holly sits crouched in her folding chair, knees tucked up under her chin, staring at the world in sullen boredom.
When the party deflates at last, and all the guests wander away and Melvin packs up his pigeons and his pony and drives off into the twilight, Holly still sits in her chair, staring out at the yard with its scattered toys and stray shreds of crepe paper. I come up beside her and lay a hand on her wind-blown hair. The shadows are growing long across the backyard, and the night is turning cool.
Rachel meets my eyes. I give her the slightest nod, and she leaves Holly to me, turning away to shove paper plates into a garbage bag.
“Holly…” I begin, but once more I am empty of words. How can I explain unicorns to her? They can’t be caught in words any more than they can on canvas.
But an idea opens in my head like a flower blooming. “Come on,” I say, and pick her up. “I’ve got something to show you.” I carry her to the car, noting how much bigger she’s grown, knowing I won’t be able to carry her like this much longer.
She doesn’t ask me if I’m going to show her a unicorn. She’s decided, I suppose, that I can’t or won’t bring one to her, and she is right. I buckle her into the car, and we take off as the moon begins to rise over the neatly-spaced suburban trees.
Pattie’s apartment is across town. I’ve only been there once before, but I find it easily enough. The large, familiar corner windows of the studio glow softly golden above the downtown street. I park the car and step out into the smell of asphalt and exhaust.
Holly hasn’t spoken a word during the trip. She follows me as placidly as a petting-zoo pony up the stairs. I ring the doorbell.
When Pattie answers, she raises both eyebrows at the sight of us. She is draped in a multicolored shawl splattered with stray spots of paint, which makes her look like a cross between a kindergarten teacher and a medium. I suppose there are elements of both in her work. Her hair has more white in it than I remember.
“Hi, Pattie,” I begin. “Sorry to drop in like this without notice, but this is my daughter Holly. It’s her birthday, and she would like to see a unicorn.”
Pattie’s eyes flit to Holly, and she smiles. “Hello there, Holly,” she says, leaning down and extending a thin hand.
In a sudden fit of shyness, Holly presses her face against my thigh. “H’lo,” she murmurs.
Pattie looks me over once more, and when our eyes catch, we exchange a silent moment of mutual sympathy. Then she steps aside, pulling her shawl close against the night breeze. “Well, won’t you come in?”
I take Holly’s hand and lead her into the studio apartment. It’s sizable—Pattie has been doing well for herself—and the high walls are covered with paintings and canvases. Some of them are finished pieces, some are little more than rough streaks of paint that have yet to form a picture. In each one, a blurry spot of white draws all eyes to it.
“Well,” she says in that cheery voice people use for children they don’t know very well, “these are the unicorns.” She gestures with a wide sweep toward the paintings.
Holly looks at them, her face screwed up in skepticism. The white blurs in the paintings are like Rorschach tests more than unicorns. White streaks through shadowy trees, white spots among city streets, the curving suggestion of a shape standing in a shopping mall or next to a swing set in a park. The ones that look almost horse-shaped are in paintings where the unicorn is most distant, hiding in the background–eyeing Holly with the same skepticism with which she is eyeing it.
One, I realize with a cold lurch, is a self-portrait. A woman is seated half in shadow, a multicolored shawl draped over her thin shoulders, her face partially obscured by one hand. As if she is crying, or in pain. Behind her, in a window glowing bright against the shadows, is a long white shape peeking inside. It is the muzzle of a unicorn, leaning in as if to nudge Pattie’s shoulder, but not quite touching her. The crystal blue streak of its horn is nearly invisible against the sky.
I turn away, feeling uncomfortably voyeuristic, like I’ve just stepped in on a private moment. I stroll around after Holly, and look at the other paintings in turn. Many of them I haven’t seen before, but each one makes me feel the same way. Like there’s an itch in the corner of my eye. A sense of familiarity fluttering in my gut. A memory of the almost-touched, almost-grasped, almost-understood. Looking at those unicorn-blurs is like trying to catch the moonlight on your skin: the moment you reach for that silvery light, it slides away behind the shadow of your hand.
Pattie hangs back. She doesn’t try to explain the paintings. What could she say that would explain them?
I turn aside, and that’s when I see it. There, in the corner of my eye, a unicorn peers at me from a screen of deep green leaves, its eyes startlingly clear and full of starlight. And there is another: the one in the shopping mall, standing next to a woman hunched on a stool at a cell phone kiosk. The unicorn, its form resolved at last, has set its muzzle on her shoulder, and its velvet mouth moves as it whispers a secret to her. The saleswoman’s eyes widen.
As I stand with my head turned away from the painting, I catch the motion at the edge of my vision. But I cannot tell what the unicorn is saying. When I turn my head to look at the painting, the unicorn slips away again, and the pensive saleswoman sits on her stool next to a white fog.
It is the same with all the others. At the edge of sight, just out of reach, unicorns dance on hooves like polished shells and shake their manes of sun-bleached cloud. They skip among traffic and perch on rooftops and dash over the waves of a gray-green sea. They watch from the background, curious and innocent and ageless, and every so often they will step close and whisper in somebody’s ears.
I turn to look and they scatter, white moths startled into flight.
Holly is still skeptical. I lean close and squeeze her shoulder. “Try looking at them from an angle,” I say.
She frowns, but she stands perpendicular to the picture of the unicorn in the park and sneaks sideways glances. After a minute she shakes her head in frustration. “I wanna go home,” she says.
Another sympathetic look between Pattie and I. “Okay, honey,” I say. “We can go home if you want. Pattie, I’ll see you at the office tomorrow.”
Holly’s breathing starts to hitch as she stands by the door. I can see the storm gathering in her eyes. I hustle her out of the studio and into the brisk night. The nearest streetlight flickers feebly and winks out.
Holly’s crying comes slowly, like the tide. Her face twists and turns red, and the sobs build in her throat before rolling out on bumpy breaths.
“I can’t have one, can I?” The resignation in her thin, faint voice is heartbreaking. Somehow it is worse than the anger I had expected. She stares at her shoes, rubbing one eye with a balled-up fist. In the garish fluorescent light of Pattie’s porch, her cheeks glitter with tears.
A knot gathers in my throat. I feel sorry for her, well and truly sorry. But there is a star in my eye, as there has been since the day I saw—
I cannot form words around its shape. Not the one that appeared to me and left its hoof prints deep inside my life. But its light is in my eye, and Maggie’s eye, and Pattie’s eye, and Holly doesn’t understand why she cannot have that light, too. She does not know why her father’s heart is split in two.
I tuck my arms under hers and lift her up, cradling her over my shoulder, patting her gently on the back as I used to do when she was an infant. “Ssh, ssh,” I coo. “I’m sorry, honey. I’m so sorry….” I tilt my head against hers. “I can’t give you a unicorn. I can’t catch one for you. But they were never meant to be caught….” I brush a wisp of her hair off her shoulder. My voice drops to a whisper; I can barely speak the words. “And unicorns will eat your heart.”
Her words come through a heavy rain of sobs, weak and wounded. “I wouldn’t mind….”
Foolish words. But she’s only five years old. She will learn someday.
Her sobs stop, and she freezes in my arms. I know what has happened. I know before I even hear her wondering gasp or feel her heart flutter against my shoulder. I want to pull her away, shield her eyes, but I resist the impulse and stand still.
There’s no way to guess when or to whom a unicorn will appear. It’s as unpredictable as getting struck by lightning–and just as apt to stop your heart and burn your bones in its glow. Maybe it was always intending to come to her at this moment. Maybe it was waiting for her to offer her heart freely. Maybe it was just chance. The unicorn will never tell me.
I think I hear the clink of hooves like bells. But I see nothing, not even in the corners of my eyes. This is not my unicorn, after all.
I do not move until Holly does. She grips my arm and tugs at my sleeve, and sighs, letting out the breath she’s been holding. I bend to set her down. The night is dark and empty now.
I have an inkling what the unicorn has done, the moment Holly’s sneakers touch the concrete steps. I see it in the way she holds herself with new poise, tense and alert as a deer ready to bolt at the drop of a leaf in the woods. I reach to take her hand, but she skips away and dances down the steps to the car.
We say nothing on the ride home.
Rachel is sitting on the front steps when I pull the car into the driveway. She stands and crosses the dewy lawn to meet us. When she sees Holly, she stops, and a shadow of sorrow passes over her face. She knows that there is a part of Holly that is gone forever from her reach.
But she smiles at last, and crouches down. “Well, Holly,” she says, “did you see a unicorn?”
Holly nods, slowly. Her eyes are distant.
“What did it look like?”
Holly looks up at the moon, which has risen high over the street. The whole neighborhood is bathed in moonlight. “It was…” she begins, but cuts herself off with a frown. She takes a deep breath, tilts her head, and lifts one arm. She begins to dance. It is not any sort of trained dance, and her movements are clumsy. But there is a suggestion of wild grace in it—a tossing head, a flicker of hooves, a joyful lightness unconquerable by gravity.
So the unicorn has made my daughter a dancer. I smile despite myself. There will always be an ache in Holly’s heart, but in seeking to fill it, she will fly. I will talk to Rachel about getting her lessons.
It is a quiet night, and the others are asleep. It is almost two a.m., but I cannot yet drop my pen. The flicker of a white tail beckons me around the corners of my mind.
I scratch these words across paper in the hopes that someday, when Holly and her brothers are older, they may read it and understand the shape I am trying to form. Perhaps only Holly will understand, with her faraway eyes and her knowledge of things seen at the edges of vision. But I write knowing that my words will never capture the one I saw, not really.
That is the truth about unicorns. And that’s the pain of them, too.
Jennifer Hykes lives with her husband and two kittens just outside of Pittsburgh. She might have seen a unicorn once. This is her second published story.