It is dusk when the unicorn comes to the boy, under the heavy trees. Dark leaves hang dull, dust-coated, and the air is tired. The boy, curled almost out of sight against one long smooth bole with his lame leg under him, knows it for what it is. He might have taken it for a horse, but he knows horses and they do not come sinuous-slow and prowling, they do not fill the air with a predator’s thick musk, and they make sound when they move. The unicorn is silent. He looks and sees its paws, long and clawed like a heraldic lion’s.
Its dappled-dun body blends into shadows, mottled and sly. It is the colour of the thin dust that coats the boy’s feet and rises from the roads during the long day’s walk. Perhaps, he thinks, the unicorn rose up from the road itself, shaped itself from his footprints to follow him here and look at him through the leaves with merry slanting eyes the colour of tea, slit-pupilled like a goat’s or cat’s.
“I know you’re there, boy,” it says. Its voice is melted tin, and the boy licks his lips as if he can taste it, burnt metal in the air. “Will you not come out?”
The spiralled horn is very long, a dirty whorl the colour of worn teeth. He cannot take his eyes from it.
There’s no point in hiding. “Why would I?” the boy says, sullen; he thinks the beast can’t tell from his voice that its presence makes his breath stick in his throat. He’s not used to beauty, even sinister beauty. He has dreamed of it, though, deep in small-boy dreams where he is a prince or god and wishes are granted and there’s more before him than the long dust road. And who, he thinks as well, has ever come to harm from a unicorn? But he stays coiled spring-tense under his tree, and watches.
The unicorn is amused. “Why would you not? Men have always hunted me. Will you be different, then? Come out, and tell me that I’m beautiful.”
“You’re beautiful,” he says, without hesitation, but he doesn’t move. The more he looks the less it’s like a horse: the body too long, the arching neck too slim and snaking. It has dappled haunches and a tufting deer’s tail. The horse-like face watches him solemnly, unable to smile except with those bright and glinting eyes.
“I smelled you,” it says. “I licked your footprints from the dust, I ate the scent of you from the air; your innocence called me after you. I know what you dream of, little prince of dust. Will you not come out and let me lay my head in your lap?”
If the boy is innocent, it’s in a technical sense only, unless need excuses sin. He feels sometimes that the things he has done are ground into his skin along with the dirt, that they can be read in the whorls of his fingertips and the pinched lines of his face. Perhaps such things are meaningless to the unicorn, too human for its animal eyes to see; perhaps it concerns itself only with the still-preserved innocence of the flesh. He glances through the leaves at the gather of its groin, thick hanging knot of testes and the sheathed promise of the shaft, and swallows.
“How do I know,” he asks, “that if I come out you won’t run me though?”
If it could smile, it would; instead it drops its jaw. A white gleam, a sliver of blue tongue before the teeth snap back together. “And why would I do that, when I’ve followed you so far? See, I will kneel down, and then you need not fear me.”
It goes down heavily to its knees, legs folding like a colt’s. Perhaps its horn unbalances it, makes it clumsy. It kneels first, the great sway of its body slanted, and then its back legs crumple and it’s down.
“Lie down,” the boy says, “lie right down on your side, to show you mean no harm. And then I will come out.”
It huffs through its nose like an affronted horse, but with a heave it’s over on its side, lying flat. It looks graceless, half-dead. The boy wonders if this is deliberate.
“But see,” it says, “I’m harmless. Will you not come out?”
The same question, but this time the boy scrambles out of his nest. His movements are wary and more awkward than the unicorn’s, his twisted leg threatening to buckle under him and send him to the dirt as well. It takes him a little time to approach it, while it watches him with one patient eye. At last he comes to stand by its head, and stirs the coarseness of its mane with one bare toe. The hair is tangled and thick with burrs, and he feels a little pang of sympathy for the unicorn lying there.
He sits down beside it and watches for a moment, then lifts its heavy head into his lap and digs bony fingers into the knots of its mane. A shudder goes through its skin, like a horse twitching away flies, and then it relaxes. The long horn rests against his hip. “May I?” he says, unsure, his fingers hovering.
“Of course,” the unicorn says. He feels its breath against his thigh, and though it’s hot and animal something in the feel of it against his skin makes him think of cinnamon and peaches in the marketplace, cloves and oranges and incense. The burst of stolen fruit against his tongue in a dark corner. He touches the unicorn’s face, fine bones under fur, and the stiff bristle of hair that starts up at the base of its horn. He expected the horn itself to be cold and smooth as a tusk, but it’s velvet under his fingers, like new antlers or the thinnest skin. He skims his palm over the point and looks at the thin line of red across his palm.
When he holds his palm out to the unicorn, its lips are gentle as a mare’s, and the tongue that snakes out is rough like a cat’s, made to lick meat from bone. He slips a finger into its mouth as he would a horse’s, finds not blunt plates but teeth as needle-sharp as a snake’s, slides his finger back and finds nonetheless the flat ridge of gum where a metal bit would ride. He does not think, whatever stories say, that the unicorn will let him bridle it.
“Do you grant wishes?” he asks. There is a lot of the child in his voice, though very little in his eyes. The unicorn snorts against the bare skin of his thigh.
“I am not some genie,” it says. “But whatever I have is yours.”
The boy’s smile is sharper than the bloodied tip of the horn. “I want your heart. You cannot hurt me, if I have your heart.”
He does not expect it to sound as if it smiled. “Oh, it is only a little thing these days,” the unicorn says, “and fragile, too. But if you want it, it’s yours. Put your hand on my breast.” Its voice is thick as creamed honey, and it makes him uncomfortable: he feels the instinctive uneasy prickle of an animal before a trap. The creature struggles to its knees and lies there looking at him, legs furled under it and placid as a cow in a field. “I won’t bite,” it says as the boy hesitates and snorts his own scorn — how can it, now that it’s lowered its head to him? — and presses his fingers against the smooth fur.
Skin and flesh part together under his touch, easy and unbloody. Its muscle is as cool and slick as raw chicken as he pushes his fingers inside, groping, feeling his way. No matter how much he scrabbles, he feels no bone, and no hot pulse of heart-muscle either. “It’s not there,” he says.
“Perhaps you’re looking for the wrong thing,” says the unicorn. “Look further.”
The boy pushes his hand in to the wrist, and then further. He’s sold his labour on farms, helping cows calve and wiry sheep lamb, and though the unicorn’s flesh feels unanimal there’s something familiar about this sensation. He almost expects to feel a tiny nose or hooves still soft against his fingers. Instead his grasping hand closes around something small and brittle, the size of a walnut in his palm. When he pulls it out it’s a stubby twisted thing, iridescent as shell, like an unborn horn.
“There.” The unicorn’s voice is soft. The boy smiles at it, and smiles again, and puts the fragile heart inside his mouth and bites. It breaks under his teeth, brittle as the shell it resembles.
He has never known the ocean, so he cannot think it tastes like sea. Instead he thinks that it tastes a little like tears, and a little like sweat, and a little like his own seed that he’s licked from his fingers. Mostly, though, the salty-thin sharpness is like nothing he’s tasted; he would think, if he were given to thinking such things, that this is how despair would taste. He crunches the pieces and one long shell-sliver pierces his tongue. A bead of blood springs up.
He thinks, when he sees the satisfaction in the unicorn’s eye, that he has done something very unwise. The long animal face looks sinister again, and the lion’s feet flex against the ground. Too late, now, to remember the eelish teeth, the softness of its step, that it is a hunter too. “You should think longer,” it says, dropping its tufted chin into his lap, “before taking someone else inside you in such a way.”
He doesn’t hear the thunder: he thinks the drum-rumble he feels through his flesh comes from the unicorn. It’s not until the first warm drops spatter without rhythm on his skin that he looks up. Clouds have swelled dun as the unicorn’s hide across the heavy sky, and the risen moon is sweating rain. The leaves above him stir, first sussuration of a storm. He looks up into it and grins open-mouthed, raindrops dissolving the last of the heart-shell on his tongue.
The raindrops are sending up puffs of yellow dust, leaving craters where they fall. He doesn’t think about the storm to come, about flash floods across hard dry land and how his small sister’s body once washed up swollen in a tangle of sticks and debris. He laughs instead and lets it wash the dust from his eyes and throat, feels the sudden flood of wetness in his lap. Looks down, and sees the spilling water where the unicorn was, all that’s left of it a glimmer of wet paleness. He grabs for it with cupped hands, but it’s just the reflection of the moon, and then the clouds swallow that as well.
He drinks the water anyway. It tastes of nothing, clean and empty.
When he leaves that place, under the beating rain, the youth walks more easily. Despite his twisted leg something sinuous hides in the sway of his long limbs. There is a scent on the heavy storm wind, stirring the electric air: scrubbed skin and innocence, fair hair and the beginnings of a woman’s musk. The unicorn stirs beneath his skin. Now you, too, must learn to hunt. His forehead itches as if something is trying to swell there, hard skull-ivory beneath the skin, and his bare feet leave the print of lion’s claws in the thick dun mud as he goes.
Story copyright © 2014 by Jack Hollis Marr
Artwork copyright © 2014 by Sebyth
Jack Hollis Marr is an English writer of speculative fiction and poetry whose work has appeared in Stone Telling, Goblin Fruit, and The Future Fire. He was living in Montreal for the past four years, and has just moved back to the UK. He frequently writes on issues of gender, sexuality, and disability, juxtaposed with mythic and folkloric motifs.
Sebyth (artwork) is old and usually unseen. Sebyth draws stuff and plays video games and doesn’t get out much. There are whispers of elves and strange games.