The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone. She was very old, though she did not know it, and she was no longer the careless color of sea foam, but rather the color of snow falling on a moonlit night. But her eyes were still clear and unwearied, and she still moved like a shadow on the sea.
She did not look anything like a horned horse, as unicorns are often pictured, being smaller and cloven-hoofed, and possessing that oldest, wildest grace that horses have never had, that deer have only in a shy, thin imitation and goats in dancing mockery. Her neck was long and slender, making her head seem smaller than it was, and the mane that fell almost to the middle of her back was as soft as dandelion fluff and as fine as cirrus. She had pointed ears and thin legs, with feathers of white hair at the ankles; and the long horn above her eyes shone and shivered with its own seashell light even in the deepest midnight. She had killed dragons with it, and healed a king whose poisoned wound would not close, and knocked down ripe chestnuts for bear cubs.
Unicorns are immortal. It is their nature to live alone in one place: usually a forest where there is a pool clear enough for them to see themselves — for they are a little vain, knowing themselves to be the most beautiful creatures in all the world, and magic besides. They mate very rarely, and no place is more enchanted than one where a unicorn has been born. The last time she had seen another unicorn the young virgins who still came seeking her now and then had called to her in a different tongue; but then, she had no idea of months and years and centuries, or even of seasons. It was always spring in her forest, because she lived there, and she wandered all day among the great beech trees, keeping watch over the animals that lived in the ground and under bushes, in nests and caves, earths and treetops. Generation after generation, wolves and rabbits alike, they hunted and loved and had children and died, and as the unicorn did none of these things, she never grew tired of watching them.
One day it happened that two men with long bows rode through her forest, hunting for deer. The unicorn followed them, moving so warily that not even the horses knew she was near. The sight of men filled her with an old, slow, strange mixture of tenderness and terror. She never let one see her if she could help it, but she liked to watch them ride by and hear them talking.
"I mislike the feel of this forest," the elder of the two hunters grumbled. "Creatures that live in a unicorn's wood learn a little magic of their own in time, mainly concerned with disappearing. We'll find no game here."
"Unicorns are long gone," the second man said. "If, indeed, they ever were. This is a forest like any other."
"Then why do the leaves never fall here, or the snow? I tell you, there is one unicorn left in the world — good luck to the lonely old thing, I say — and as long as it lives in this forest, there won't be a hunter takes so much as a titmouse home at his saddle. Ride on, ride on, you'll see. I know their ways, unicorns."
"From books," answered the other. "Only from books and tales and songs. Not in the reign of three kings has there been even a whisper of a unicorn seen in this country or any other. You know no more about unicorns than I do, for I've read the same books and heard the same stories, and I've never seen one either."
The first hunter was silent for a time, and the second whistled sourly to himself. Then the first said, "My great-grandmother saw a unicorn once. She used to tell me about it when I was little."
"Oh, indeed? And did she capture it with a golden bridle?"
"No. She didn't have one. You don't have to have a golden bridle to catch a unicorn; that part's the fairy tale. You need only to be pure of heart."
"Yes, yes." The younger man chuckled. "Did she ride her unicorn, then? Bareback, under the trees, like a nymph in the early days of the world?"
"My great-grandmother was afraid of large animals," said the first hunter. "She didn't ride it, but she sat very still, and the unicorn put its head in her lap and fell asleep. My great-grandmother never moved till it woke."
"What did it look like? Pliny describes the unicorn as being very ferocious, similar in the rest of its body to a horse, with the head of a deer, the feet of an elephant, the tail of a bear; a deep, bellowing voice, and a single black horn, two cubits in length. And the Chinese —"
"My great-grandmother said only that the unicorn had a good smell. She never could abide the smell of any beast, even a cat or a cow, let alone a wild thing. But she loved the smell of the unicorn. She began to cry once, telling me about it. Of course, she was a very old woman then, and cried at anything that reminded her of her youth."
"Let's turn around and hunt somewhere else," the second hunter said abruptly. The unicorn stepped softly into a thicket as they turned their horses, and took up the trail only when they were well ahead of her once more. The men rode in silence until they were nearing the edge of the forest, when the second hunter asked quietly, "Why did they go away, do you think? If there ever were such things."
"Who knows? Times change. Would you call this age a good one for unicorns?"
"No, but I wonder if any man before us ever thought his time a good time for unicorns. And it seems to me now that I have heard stories — but I was sleepy with wine, or I was thinking of something else. Well, no matter. There's light enough yet to hunt, if we hurry. Come!"
They broke out of the woods, kicked their horses to a gallop, and dashed away. But before they were out of sight, the first hunter looked back over his shoulder and called, just as though he could see the unicorn standing in shadow, "Stay where you are, poor beast. This is no world for you. Stay in your forest, and keep your trees green and your friends long-lived. Pay no mind to young girls, for they never become anything more than silly old women. And good luck to you."
The unicorn stood still at the edge of the forest and said aloud, "I am the only unicorn there is." They were the first words she had spoken, even to herself, in more than a hundred years.
That can't be, she thought. She had never minded being alone, never seeing another unicorn, because she had always known that there were others like her in the world, and a unicorn needs no more than that for company. "But I would know if all the others were gone. I'd be gone too. Nothing can happen to them that does not happen to me."
Her own voice frightened her and made her want to be running. She moved along the dark paths of her forest, swift and shining, passing through sudden clearings unbearably brilliant with grass or soft with shadow, aware of everything around her, from the weeds that brushed her ankles to insect-quick flickers of blue and silver as the wind lifted the leaves. "Oh, I could never leave this, I never could, not if I really were the only unicorn in the world. I know how to live here, I know how everything smells, and tastes, and is. What could I ever search for in the world, except this again?"
But when she stopped running at last and stood still, listening to crows and a quarrel of squirrels over her head, she wondered, But suppose they are riding together, somewhere far away? What if they are hiding and waiting for me?
From that first moment of doubt, there was no peace for her; from the time she first imagined leaving her forest, she could not stand in one place without wanting to be somewhere else. She trotted up and down beside her pool, restless and unhappy. Unicorns are not meant to make choices. She said no, and yes, and no again, day and night, and for the first time she began to feel the minutes crawling over her like worms. "I will not go. Because men have seen no unicorns for a while does not mean they have all vanished. Even if it were true, I would not go. I live here."
But at last she woke up in the middle of one warm night and said, "Yes, but now." She hurried through her forest, trying to look at nothing and smell nothing, trying not to feel her earth under her cloven hoofs. The animals who move in the dark, the owls and the foxes and the deer, raised their heads as she passed by, but she would not look at them. I must go quickly, she thought, and come back as soon as I can. Maybe I won't have to go very far. But whether I find the others or not, I will come back very soon, as soon as I can.
Under the moon, the road that ran from the edge of her forest gleamed like water, but when she stepped out onto it, away from the trees, she felt how hard it was, and how long. She almost turned back then; but instead she took a deep breath of the woods air that still drifted to her, and held it in her mouth like a flower, as long as she could.
The long road hurried to nowhere and had no end. It ran through villages and small towns, flat country and mountains, stony barrens and meadows springing out of stones, but it belonged to none of these, and it never rested anywhere. It rushed the unicorn along, tugging at her feet like the tide, fretting at her, never letting her be quiet and listen to the air, as she was used to do. Her eyes were always full of dust, and her mane was stiff and heavy with dirt.
Time had always passed her by in her forest, but now it was she who passed through time as she traveled. The colors of the trees changed, and the animals along the way grew heavy coats and lost them again; the clouds crept or hurried before the changing winds, and were pink and gold in the sun or livid with storm. Wherever she went, she searched for her people, but she found no trace of them, and in all the tongues she heard spoken along the road there was not even a word for them any more.
Early one morning, about to turn off the road to sleep, she saw a man hoeing in his garden. Knowing that she should hide, she stood still instead and watched him work, until he straightened and saw her. He was fat, and his cheeks jumped with every step he took. "Oh," he said. "Oh, you're beautiful."
When he tugged off his belt, made a loop in it, and moved clumsily toward her, the unicorn was more pleased than frightened. The man knew what she was, and what he himself was for: to hoe turnips and pursue something that shone and could run faster than he could. She sidestepped his first lunge as lightly as though the wind of it had blown her out of his reach. "I have been hunted with bells and banners in my time," she told him. "Men knew that the only way to hunt me was to make the chase so wondrous that I would come near to see it. And even so I was never once captured."
"My foot must have slipped," said the man. "Steady now, you pretty thing."
"I've never really understood," the unicorn mused as the man picked himself up, "what you dream of doing with me, once you've caught me." The man leaped again, and she slipped away from him like rain. "I don't think you know yourselves," she said.
"Ah, steady, steady, easy now." The man's sweating face was striped with dirt, and he could hardly get his breath. "Pretty," he gasped. "You pretty little mare."
"Mare?" The unicorn trumpeted the word so shrilly that the man stopped pursuing her and clapped his hands to his ears. "Mare?" she demanded. "I, a horse? Is that what you take me for? Is that what you see?"
"Good horse," the fat man panted. He leaned on the fence and wiped his face. "Curry you up, clean you off, you'll be the prettiest old mare anywhere." He reached out with the belt again. "Take you to the fair," he said. "Come on, horse."
"A horse," the unicorn said. "That's what you were trying to capture. A white mare with her mane full of burrs." As the man approached her, she hooked her horn through the belt, jerked it out of his grasp, and hurled it across the road into a patch of daisies. "A horse, am I?" she snorted. "A horse, indeed!"
For a moment the man was very close to her, and her great eyes stared into his own, which were small and tired and amazed. Then she turned and fled up the road, running so swiftly that those who saw her exclaimed, "Now there's a horse! There's a real horse!" One old man said quietly to his wife, "That's an Ayrab horse. I was on a ship with an Ayrab horse once."
From that time the unicorn avoided towns, even at night, unless there was no way at all to go around them. Even so, there were a few men who gave chase, but always to a wandering white mare; never in the gay and reverent manner proper to the pursuit of a unicorn. They came with ropes and nets and baits of sugar lumps, and they whistled and called her Bess and Nellie. Sometimes she would slow down enough to let their horses catch her scent, and then watch as the beasts reared and wheeled and ran away with their terrified riders. The horses always knew her.
"How can it be?" she wondered. "I suppose I could understand it if men had simply forgotten unicorns, or if they had changed so that they hated all unicorns now and tried to kill them when they saw them. But not to see them at all, to look at them and see something else — what do they look like to one another, then? What do trees look like to them, or houses, or real horses, or their own children?"
Sometimes she thought, "If men no longer know what they are looking at, there may well be unicorns in the world yet, unknown and glad of it." But she knew beyond both hope and vanity that men had changed, and the world with them, because the unicorns were gone. Yet she went on along the hard road, although each day she wished a little more that she had never left her forest.
Then one afternoon the butterfly wobbled out of a breeze and lit on the tip of her horn. He was velvet all over, dark and dusty, with golden spots on his wings, and he was as thin as a flower petal. Dancing along her horn, he saluted her with his curling feelers. "I am a roving gambler. How do you do?"
The unicorn laughed for the first time in her travels. "Butterfly, what are you doing out on such a windy day?" she asked him. "You'll take cold and die long before your time."
"Death takes what man would keep," said the butterfly, "and leaves what man would lose. Blow, wind, and crack your cheeks. I warm my hands before the fire of life and get four-way relief." He glimmered like a scrap of owl-light on her horn.
"Do you know what I am, butterfly?" the unicorn asked hopefully, and he replied, "Excellent well, you're a fishmonger. You're my everything, you are my sunshine, you are old and gray and full of sleep, you're my pickle-face, consumptive Mary Jane." He paused, fluttering his wings against the wind, and added conversationally, "Your name is a golden bell hung in my heart. I would break my body to pieces to call you once by your name."
"Say my name, then," the unicorn begged him. "If you know my name, tell it to me."
"Rumpelstiltskin," the butterfly answered happily. "Gotcha! You don't get no medal." He jigged and twinkled on her horn, singing, "Won't you come home, Bill Bailey, won't you come home, where once he could not go. Buckle down, Winsocki, go and catch a falling star. Clay lies still, but blood's a rover, so I should be called kill-devil all the parish over." His eyes were gleaming scarlet in the glow of the unicorn's horn.
She sighed and plodded on, both amused and disappointed. It serves you right, she told herself. You know better than to expect a butterfly to know your name. All they know are songs and poetry, and anything else they hear. They mean well, but they can't keep things straight. And why should they? They die so soon.
The butterfly swaggered before her eyes, singing, "One, two, three o'lairy," as he whirled; chanting, "Not, I'll not, carrion comfort, look down that lonesome road. For, oh, what damned minutes tells he o'er who dotes, yet doubts. Hasten, Mirth, and bring with thee a host of furious fancies whereof I am commander, which will be on sale for three days only at bargain summer prices. I love you, I love you, oh, the horror, the horror, and aroint thee, witch, aroint thee, indeed and truly you've chosen a bad place to be lame in, willow, willow, willow." His voice tinkled in the unicorn's head like silver money falling.
He traveled with her for the rest of the waning day, but when the sun went down and the sky was full of rosy fish, he flew off her horn and hovered in the air before her. "I must take the A train," he said politely. Against the clouds she could see that his velvet wings were ribbed with delicate black veins.
"Farewell," she said. "I hope you hear many more songs" — which was the best way she could think of to say good-by to a butterfly. But instead of leaving her, he fluttered above her head, looking suddenly less dashing and a little nervous in the blue evening air. "Fly away," she urged him. "It's too cold for you to be out." But the butterfly still dallied, humming to himself.
"They ride that horse you call the Macedonai," he intoned absent-mindedly; and then, very clearly, "Unicorn. Old French, unicorne. Latin, unicornis. Literally, one-horned: unus, one, and cornu, a horn. A fabulous animal resembling a horse with one horn. Oh, I am a cook and a captain bold and the mate of the Nancy brig. Has anybody here seen Kelly?" He strutted joyously in the air, and the first fireflies blinked around him in wonder and grave doubt.
The unicorn was so startled and so happy to hear her name spoken at last that she overlooked the remark about the horse. "Oh, you do know me!" she cried, and the breath of her delight blew the butterfly twenty feet away. When he came scrambling back to her, she pleaded, "Butterfly, if you really know who I am, tell me if you have ever seen anyone like me, tell me which way I must go to find them. Where have they gone?"
"Butterfly, butterfly, where shall I hide?" he sang in the fading light. "The sweet and bitter fool will presently appear. Christ, that my love were in my arms, and I in my bed again." He rested on the unicorn's horn once more, and she could feel him trembling.
"Please," she said. "All I want to know is that there are other unicorns somewhere in the world. Butterfly, tell me that there are still others like me, and I will believe you and go home to my forest. I have been away so long, and I said that I would come back soon."
"Over the mountains of the moon," the butterfly began, "down the Valley of the Shadow, ride, boldly ride." Then he stopped suddenly and said in a strange voice, "No, no, listen, don't listen to me, listen. You can find your people if you are brave. They passed down all the roads long ago, and the Red Bull ran close behind them and covered their footprints. Let nothing you dismay, but don't be half-safe." His wings brushed against the unicorn's skin.
"The Red Bull?" she asked. "What is the Red Bull?"
The butterfly started to sing. "Follow me down. Follow me down. Follow me down. Follow me down." But then he shook his head wildly and recited, "His firstling bull has majesty, and his horns are the horns of a wild ox. With them he shall push the peoples, all of them, to the ends of the earth. Listen, listen, listen quickly."
"I am listening," the unicorn cried. "Where are my people, and what is the Red Bull?"
But the butterfly swooped close to her ear, laughing. "I have nightmares about crawling around on the ground," he sang. "The little dogs, Tray, Blanche, Sue, they bark at me, the little snakes, they hiss at me, the beggars are coming to town. Then at last come the clams."
For a moment more he danced in the dusk before her; then he shivered away into the violet shadows by the roadside, chanting defiantly, "It's you or me, moth! Hand to hand to hand to hand to hand…" The last the unicorn saw of him was a tiny skittering between the trees, and her eyes might have deceived her, for the night was full of wings now.
At least he did recognize me, she thought sadly. That means something. But she answered herself, No, that means nothing at all, except that somebody once made up a song about unicorns, or a poem. But the Red Bull. What could he have meant by that? Another song, I suppose.
She walked on slowly, and the night drew close about her. The sky was low and almost pure black, save for one spot of yellowing silver where the moon paced behind the thick clouds. The unicorn sang softly to herself, a song she had heard a young girl singing in her forest long ago.
"Sparrows and cats will live in my shoe,
Sooner than I will live with you.
Fish will come walking out of the sea,
Sooner than you will come back to me."
She did not understand the words, but the song made her think longingly of her home. It seemed to her that she had heard autumn beginning to shake the beech trees the very moment that she stepped out into the road.
At last she lay down in the cold grass and fell asleep. Unicorns are the wariest of all wild things, but they sleep soundly when they sleep. All the same, if she had not been dreaming of home, she would surely have roused at the sound of wheels and jingling coming closer through the night, even though the wheels were muffled in rags and the little bells wrapped in wool. But she was very far away, farther than the soft bells could go, and she did not wake.
There were nine wagons, each draped in black, each drawn by a lean black horse, and each baring barred sides like teeth when the wind blew through the black hangings. The lead wagon was driven by a squat old woman, and it bore signs on its shrouded sides that said in big letters: MOMMY FORTUNA'S MIDNIGHT CARNIVAL. And below, in smaller print: Creatures of night, brought to light.
When the first wagon drew even with the place where the unicorn lay asleep, the old woman suddenly pulled her black horse to a stop. All the other wagons stopped too and waited silently as the old woman swung herself to the ground with an ugly grace. Gliding close to the unicorn, she peered down at her for a long time, and then said, "Well. Well, bless my old husk of a heart. And here I thought I'd seen the last of them." Her voice left a flavor of honey and gunpowder on the air.
"If he knew," she said and she showed pebbly teeth as she smiled. "But I don't think I'll tell him." She looked back at the black wagons and snapped her fingers twice. The drivers of the second and third wagons got down and came toward her. One was short and dark and stony, like herself; the other was a tall, thin man with an air of resolute bewilderment. He wore an old black cloak, and his eyes were green.
"What do you see?" the old woman asked the short man. "Rukh, what do you see lying there?"
"Dead horse," he answered. "No, not dead. Give it to the manticore, or the dragon." His chuckle sounded like matches striking.
"You're a fool," Mommy Fortuna said to him. Then, to the other, "What about you, wizard, seer, thaumaturge? What do you see with your sorcerer's sight?" She joined with the man Rukh in a ratchety roar of laughter, but it ended when she saw that the tall man was still staring at the unicorn. "Answer me, you juggler!" she snarled, but the tall man did not turn his head. The old woman turned it for him, reaching out a crablike hand to yank his chin around. His eyes fell before her yellow stare.
"A horse," he muttered. "A white mare."
Mommy Fortuna looked at him for a long time. "You're a fool too, magician," she snickered at last, "but a worse fool than Rukh, and a more dangerous one. He lies only out of greed, but you lie out of fear. Or could it be kindness?" The man said nothing, and Mommy Fortuna laughed by herself.
"All right," she said. "It's a white mare. I want her for the Carnival. The ninth cage is empty."
"I'll need rope," Rukh said. He was about to turn away, but the old woman stopped him.
"The only rope that could hold her," she told him, "would be the cord with which the old gods bound the Fenris-wolf. That one was made of fishes' breath, bird spittle, a woman's beard, the miaowing of a cat, the sinews of a bear, and one thing more. I remember — mountain roots. Having none of these elements, nor dwarfs to weave them for us, we'll have to do the best we can with iron bars. I'll put a sleep on her, thus," and Mommy Fortuna's hands knitted the night air while she grumbled a few unpleasant words in her throat. There was a smell of lightning about the unicorn when the old woman had finished her spell.
"Now cage her," she said to the two men. "She'll sleep till sunrise, whatever racket you make — unless, in your accustomed stupidity, you touch her with your hands. Take the ninth cage to pieces and build it around her, but beware! The hand that so much as brushes her mane turns instantly to the donkey's hoof it deserves to be." Again she gazed mockingly at the tall, thin man. "Your little tricks would be even harder for you than they already are, wizard," she said, wheezing. "Get to work. These's not much dark left."
When she was well out of earshot, sliding back into the shadow of her wagon as though she had just come out to mark the hour, the man named Rukh spat and said curiously, "Now I wonder what's worrying the old squid. What would it matter if we touched the beast?"
The magician answered him in a voice almost too soft to be heard. "The touch of a human hand would wake her out of the deepest sleep the devil himself could lay on her. And Mommy Fortuna's no devil."
"She'd like us to think so," the dark man sneered. "Donkey hoofs! Gahhh!" But he thrust his hands deep into his pockets. "Why would the spell be broken? It's just an old white mare."
But the magician was walking away toward the last of the black wagons. "Hurry," he called over his shoulder. "It will be day soon."
It took them the rest of the night to pull down the ninth cage, bars and floor and roof and then to put it back together around the sleeping unicorn. Rukh was tugging at the door to make sure that it was securely locked, when the gray trees in the east boiled over and the unicorn opened her eyes. The two men slipped hurriedly away, but the tall magician looked back in time to see the unicorn rise to her feet and stare at the iron bars, her low head swaying like the head of an old white horse.