The Unicorn

The young woman was sitting on a moss-covered stone in the middle of the forest. Her pale face wore a thoughtful expression, seemed to gaze through the barren tree trunks into another world, as if her green eyes tried to capture the verdure of the leaves now missing. She had exchanged her modern clothes for a green embroidered dress which set off her delicate white skin and caressed her slender, perfect figure, half veiled in a cascade of golden, slightly curly hair. She looked like one would have pictured the goddess Flora in the freshness of her youth, like the personification of summer in this bleak winter landscape. Yet her expression was grave as she sat motionless, absorbed in her brooding reverie.

She had found this spot some weeks ago, venturing further than ever before, well away from the noise of passing cars. Here only birdsong was heard. Tall trees surrounded the clearing on the edge of which she was sitting. The moss was cool and soft beneath her. The winter sun was slanting through the trees, casting fantastic shadows on the clearing and playing in red-golden reflections on her hair. She tried to imagine this place in summer. The leaves, the grass, the flowers. If anywhere, it would be here. And here she was sitting, waiting.

It was already late afternoon, turning into evening. She did not really know why she kept coming here. Some foolish dream she had listened to once. A legend living somewhere in her mind, a faint glimmer of another dimension, fed by some childlike hope that had survived, the kind of hope that sparkles in the eyes of children approaching the tree on Christmas morning, or opening an old, hidden chest on the attic. An elusive, intuitive belief in wonders.

The sun was now setting behind scattered clouds, the moon already looming pale above. Birds were only heard sparsely now. The time had come.

Slowly, she undid the laces of her dress and lightly stepped out of it, then took off her underclothes. The cold winter air pricked into her skin, but this was more important. Shivering, she sat down again on the mossy stone and waited, huddled into her veil of golden hair like some small, forlorn animal.

'I wish there was a stream to bathe in,' she thought, but at the same time knew it would make no difference. Contemplating, she twirled a strand of her blonde hair around her fingers, and a mirthless laugh escaped her lips. Everyone said she looked like an angel – but she knew better. She knew the stains that no one saw. They could not know her pain. If anyone cared enough to look closely, they could see scars. On her arms. On her legs. But no one saw the wounds beneath. Those running much deeper, those that fester again and again, those that even time cannot heal. Those she could not even see herself, only dimly feel. Those she could not even reach, no matter how deep she cut.

The forest had grown dark now. Small animals started to scurry on the ground around her. In the beginning, she had been frightened of the darkness and the nightly noises, but now she could control that fear. Yet she shifted uneasily, for she was stiff and cold. Her eyes stung with disappointment. Like a bat, the thought flitted through her mind: 'I must have hoped again. Against all reason, against all probability, I must have been hoping again. Such a fool am I.' Her eyes stung, but no tears came. Tears had deserted her long ago, locked up in underground regions beyond her access, or else sucked out together with her innocence. Nothing left to her to wash away the pain – no tears but crimson ones.

She did not want to think of it. Instead, her thoughts drifted from one small diversion to another. Already she was feeling drowsy. How the moonlight painted the boles of the trees. Ghostly grey and pitch black side by side. One tree divided into two. And that silver tree. So bright and shining. And moving. – Moving? Her eyes opened wide. Coming closer! This was no tree … A white mane. A horse. Such a slender, graceful, powerful horse. A horse with a horn! It … it had happened! A Unicorn!

She caught her breath, nearly would have screamed. For a moment, the wildest fancies kept racing through her head. It was true, after all! The legend was true! They existed! Oh if it should come! The legend – was true. A sudden chill froze her heart. The legend was true – all of it. She knew the full truth, the bitter truth. It would not be deceived. Not a Unicorn. It would see through her disguise, penetrate her golden locks and petal-white skin with the merciless accuracy of an X-ray and pierce straight into her sullied soul. It would see the stains she could not wash away. It would know she was not worthy. It would leave.

Yet some tiny part of her clung to hope. Had she dared, she would have liked to call, to cry out her need, to hurl her yearning into the face of all improbability – "Come, come because I need you – Come because my heart is breaking – Can't you see me bleeding, dying – Come because I'm helpless!" Yet her voice stuck in her throat, her need chained deep underneath layers of fear. All she managed was a look. Only a shy, pleading look.

It would not work. How could she, even for a moment, have thought it might be otherwise? No white Unicorn for her. For her no legend come to life, no wonder. Only crimson tears to fill the void.

The Unicorn was gone. Right there, opposite her, at the opposite end of the clearing, where but a second ago the moon had glossed that coat in shining silver, its beams now merely stained the trees with ghastly patterns of sick light and shadow. The bleak grey stems of skeleton trees in a nightmare wood. Her life was nothing more than this.

There was no point now in staying. There was no point in going home. Under the merciless rays of the moon, under the empty stare of the trees, her heart congealed into a concrete block. 'Not even blood could be drawn from me now,' she thought. 'Even if …' – what was that? Something had touched her neck! She would have jumped up and screamed but five minutes ago, but now she was beyond horror. Frozen in the certainty of rejection, in the icy loss of a last hope, however frail and deluded, the prospect of death was welcome to her. Time seemed to stand still for an eternity while she waited.

Yet what finally came was no poisonous spider to bite her neck. No wild cat came to scratch at her skin, nor human predator to strangle her. What she felt – trembling, incredulous – was the warm breath of horse-like nostrils, the soft caress of a velvety muzzle. Nuzzling her, the slender, muscular body moved closer, its silver coat glinting in the moonlight, its silver horn no menace to her, but a silent pledge of protection, a deadly threat to her foes. Dazzling in radiant majesty, yet familiar in tender affection, the Unicorn went down on its knees before the woman and carefully lowered its perfect head onto her naked lap.

As it lay there, making itself at home in trustful abandon, the delicate creature's eye half opened beneath its dense silken lashes, and the woman saw reflected in it the sky with its stars, saw reflected in it herself. Within this globe, this sable universe, she saw waters rise, pure waters mount and glisten. A big round tear rolled from the Unicorn's eye. As soon as it touched her lap, a quiver ran through her whole body. It was the touch of balm on wounds. The touch of morning dew on trodden, wilted grass. The touch of selfless love on a lonely, broken heart.

A heart that mattered. A heart that was worthy of a wonder. A heart that was made the centre of affection. The centre of a love that would not look away. A love that would not flinch. That meant her. Only her.

Her beautiful green eyes widened with the realization. The girl threw her arms around the Unicorn's neck, silver and golden hair mingling. Her hands buried in the white mane, clasping it with all her childlike, irresistible need, she felt a moisture bedewing her fingers. Tears were falling on the Unicorn's white coat, melting into it as if seeking refuge there. Her own tears. Transparent tears.

Gently, the Unicorn lifted its flawless head. There was warmth in its shining black eyes. Tenderness. A firm promise.

Softly, a fragrant breeze was stirring in the air. Spring had come.

1.2.2004