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Wicker Unicorns

by Sarah Ann Watts

In the starlight the horses wheel like shadows, phantoms of my dream. Their silvered coats recede into an unfinished sky. I can see the line where the vision fades, becomes a blank canvas waiting for someone who dares to follow the unicorns, to leave their footprints in the snow.

The unicorns are beyond my reach. They inhabit the wastes outside the world, and I know I lack the courage to follow, to risk my life in those uncharted drifts. I feel so cold, wrapped in wool and furs that do not hold the warmth. The wind whistles in the chimney and I hear voices calling to me.

I push back the ravelled blankets and the chill from the stone flags strikes up through my bare feet. The snow is not so cold. Already I am shivering as I push back the casement and look out on an altered world.

I ease back the clasp on the sash, quietly so as not to disturb the sleeper in my bed, and lean out into the landscape of my dream. The snowflakes chill against my cheek, shards like glass form on my skin. My tears are crystal, yet I feel nothing, numbed as I am with more than cold.

Overall there is the scent of snow in the air. The hooves churn it into clouds that sting my face, dragging me down into blankness. As the dream fades, I catch hold of it with my brittle nails, try to drag it back, wrap it round me like a shroud; but it tears, shattered by the sound of the clock striking the hour, and I am stung into awareness.

I burrow my face into the pillow, seeking to obliterate my tears before he wakes and breaks the memory with his unwanted questions, drawing me back into the shadows of this half-world he inhabits, the one he thinks is real. I do not blame him — this is not his fault. It helps if I remember to say that often, while he sleeps.

I had known earlier there was something wrong when I saw their twisted forms, their spirits caught in wire, curved into a shape that contained their essence like a spell.

I have lived with him for forty years, and as far as it is in me to love another, I love him. I would say more dearly than myself, but I am afraid of lies. They can be a snare to trap the unwary, open the way into the unreal and leave you stranded where you can never find a way back on your own. I should know. I left it far too late to return.

He caught me, the young hunter, in a net-like desire so that I lost the will to break free. His smile was gentle like the sun rising and in his arms I felt encircled by warmth and life. So I loved him then and I love him now when his hair is silver and the lines drawn upon his face are a map of his age and experience.

Wisdom I should say, but it is not true: honesty forbids the lie. Living in a small place, he watches the changing world as the tide of his life recedes, leaving him stranded on a dried-out shore. He is grown narrow and cold, and my youth taunts him with everything he has lost. As for me, I am trapped in the cage I built around myself. I shut out awareness of the world beyond and closed my eyes. None of this was ever his fault. I should not blame him.

I came through the rift long ago. Such things were common once, before the old knowledge was lost. They warned me that the times were changing with the new religion and that doors were closing. But I did not listen. I was in love, and I thought that youth would last forever. When I saw the first lines on his face and the grey in his hair, then I grew afraid. I started searching for the way home, but it was already too late.

It used to be that you could reach between the worlds with a breath or a whisper of a prayer — that a hair from the head of one you loved could draw you back like a thread. Now the realms shift asunder and there is impenetrable distance where once the paths were clear.

The unicorns are lost to me now. Fairy tales are the last to fade, and they are kept alive in the dreams of children. People have changed, and the world is smaller every day, filled with marvels; but the sense of wonder is lost. It was always dangerous, and now too much curiosity is fatal.

The way is barred and those who keep the gate are wary and cold. Fear made them so. They defend the lost realms against intruders. Even in the older days the penalties they exacted were cruel. Remember the tales? Those who spent a night sleeping within the shadow of the stones and woke to find their children buried, sleeping in broken graves, where even the letters of their names were fading beyond memory. The terror of the tales was deliberate, to keep wanderers away.

Many years have passed, and I have endured. I have buried my lovers down the centuries. For a time, the children held me. I hoped they would live forever, but they had too much of this world in them. Their lives were short, as if there were something in the mortal air that tainted their lungs, drawing them to early death. All save one failed to live beyond the cradle.

Sometimes I think I hear their voices on the wind, the sound of children playing, and they call to me. I wake in the night and I listen, yet their voices are stilled now. Tonight I look down on the snow sculptures frozen in time, not in ice; and with feet bare on the stones I go down to the kitchen and push back the shutters. The fire has not gone out and I blow on the embers and heat water while I take a knife from the drawer and sharpen it on the whetstone. I see a distorted reflection of my face, twisted in pain. It is more than time to let go.

It is hard to push back the snow banked against the door and let the chill into the house. The fire flickers in the draft from the door and it is as if something cased in ice — a jagged shard — enters. I go out into the night and slowly, methodically with the knife I begin to cut the unicorns loose.

Copyright © 2010 by Sarah Ann Watts

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