There is a unicorn.
When a unicorn stands rampant on a hilltop, lit by the sun until her organs and veins shine through her skin and glow with their own light, silhouetted in triumph and majesty, blood roaring like a hurricane, seething like the sea—well, then, when people crave her closeness, it is out of awe, out of respect for her magic.
When she lies sleeping, vulnerable and gleaming, in the dark of her own forest, magic pulsing like a heartbeat just below her skin, her mystery sings a siren song to the greedy. Those who come to her then come not to pay her homage, but to hunt her; they come to dig steely fingers into her softness and tear away her glow, to steal it away and keep it for their own. Those who come to a unicorn when she lies quiet only come then because they know she would never let them near if she were waking. They look through her, sideways and hungry. And the unicorn will sit there with sleepy eyes and heavy lids and let the carnage come to pass, because she is a unicorn, and she can see through their darkness and into the hearts of them, can see why they need the pieces of her that they try to take, and cannot hold their need and greediness against them.
There is a unicorn.
She has slept since she loved and lost, has slept to ease her wounds and her regret. But she can never heal if she allows the greedy, or even the misguided and needful, to steal from under her skin; she can never stand rampant again if her very self is cut away from her in pieces.
Every moment is subjective, is whole for a heartbeat and is then torn asunder, ripped into as many pieces as there are people who witness it. Because of this, no story can be true; instead, one may take a tattered fragment of a moment and pull out a thread, may follow that thread from end to end with blind fingertips and bated breath, and only when that thread has gone can another be taken up and examined in turn.
Here is one thread, one tangled piece of the unicorn’s story. There are a hundred others, a thousand, or as many eyes as took her in through it all.
One thread, only one. It is only as true as the dye it was steeped in, as the fingers that spun it strong.
One thread, beginning to end. That means something.
There is a unicorn.
She spends sixteen years in a human skin before she meets him. It’s so tight around her that her magic seeps out through its pores, sparkling like water under sun. Her bones itch with the pressure of its closeness, and her thoughts drift in a fog through the muddied confines of a human brain.
On the day she meets him, her skin shifts subtly, clinging a little more graciously to her skeleton; her bones ease their constant, fidgety chatter; her thoughts snap into focus for one agonizingly clear moment and cry out so loudly that she would swear that all the dust motes in the air catch her heart in their matrices and scream it back to her—
She looks at his eyes and sees the reflection of her true self, sees the echo of indigo and silver underwater, sees the snap and glimmer of mercury in the sun. He smiles, slow and cautious, and as the corners of his eyes crinkle into crows’ feet, she sees her human skin’s face reflected back to her, sees a smile on its lips, crooked and wry, knowing all the things that her ancient innocence fails to discern.
His mouth hangs open for long moments, stunned with awe, before he says, “You have the most beautiful eyes.”
Her heart roars into a storm in the silence after he speaks, stutters out through her mouth to murmur, “Thank you,” when what she really means to say is, You know me.
His smile this time has no trace of hesitation, is open and honest and raw, an exposed nerve thrumming.
Her human skin beams back, giddiness wild under her ribs.
You know me. It sticks in her throat, clings to the back of her tongue like saccharine sips of lemonade, clatters against her teeth like a mouthful of glass. Unbridled joy floods her lungs like seawater. You know me.
He is the first to know, is the only. It is the first time in almost two decades that she has seen herself, and she is drunk on the glimpse of her magic in his eyes.
You know me.
The world falls into place around them. He sweats honor, bleeds virtue, and the magic tucked under her skin streams out of her mouth to sing silent songs into his.
Nothing fits their humanity. His world can smell the magic in her, the reek of other, hates it. He laces his fingers tight through hers, squeezes hard, keeps her close.
Nightmares cackle under his skin in defiance of her; all his darkness screams to the surface and blisters her skin. She rubs a thumb across his knuckles and holds on tighter, keeps him closer, ignores the pain.
She pours all her magic into their tangled fingers, their close-pressed palms, and ignores the ugly grays in the world that swarm at her ankles, that snap at her skin, eat away at the firefly snatches of magic that linger in her limbs.
It isn’t long before all that’s left of her magic is a miniature sun, pressed between their palms, coveted close and warm, but the gray things in the world are always hungry.
He hates himself for not being able to save her. She can’t hate him for not saving her, how could she, when she can see through his eyes and into his heart, can taste the gasoline residue of aborted valor on his tongue? He hates her for that, for not holding his perceived failures against him. She can’t blame him for that, either, so she closes her eyes and bites her tongue and sends him away.
He goes, head hung low, and she rediscovers the ache of not being able to see her real self at all. It burns low and dirty, a trash fire under her sternum, and she holds her breath over and over until it burns low enough that she can pretend it doesn’t hurt.
When it burns out, leaving wet, charred garbage strewn through her gut, she looks at a her jaundiced human face in a mirror and thinks, harsh and unguarded, I wouldn’t know me.
After a while, the sickly yellow face in the mirror ceases to belong to a separate entity, becomes just hers, and it’s a Tuesday morning when she wakes up and sees dull, muddy eyes staring back at her and thinks of them as her own.
You have beautiful eyes, his voice says, only slightly mocking, from the pallid droop of her lids.
You know me, she tells the voice, even if I don’t.
It takes weeks of hunting her own thoughts through moonlight, shrieking songs into the skins of the pure just to hear her own echo, hoarse and rasping, come crawling out of the dark. She chases saffron down with silver, slithers like sibilant whispers through the underbelly of her own loss, smears the bioluminescence of her own innocence across her eyelids like war paint.
It takes weeks, but the jaundice fades to a fragile, too-soft shade of moon, and that’s close enough for her to step back out into the sun, heart hungry, and for the first time in an eon, in an age, lonely.
She coats her skin in sparkles to remind her of the magic that once ran from her pores like rain.
It doesn’t fool him, she knows it doesn’t, but it fools her, and that’s close enough for truth.
He knows something is different, something isn’t right, she can see it in his eyes, can see the it in the shuttered hesitation when he looks at her.
He’s still so relieved to see her face—and it is her face now—that he opens his arms and folds her close. His head tells him she’s the same, she can hear the echo of reason sticking to his eyelashes as he blinks down at her. His head tells him she’s the same, but his gut knows better, can feel the loss of the things she’s always been, but all that’s left is his, and better men than him—if there have ever been any—could not turn that away.
He folds her close, and she lets him, because for the first time, she is the needful, is the greedy.
She swallows hard against the ugly lump of wrongness in her throat and pulls him closer, closer, closest, and pretends that it’s nothing bitter, nothing new.
There is a distance between them. Maybe it springs from the void where her magic should be; maybe it takes root in the wake of his self resentment, his thinly veiled fears. Wherever its origin, it grows wider, grows stronger, until the only thing that hold them together is their skins, tangled and messy like sheep’s wool in the rain, humid and crackling with their own frightened electricity.
She can’t send him away this time. The only ghost of the things she’s been is hiding at the corners of his eyes, and she lives for it. He lashes out at her, angry at himself for expecting a magic his head tells him never existed at all, angry at her for not proving his head wrong. She waits, starved for glimpses of herself, and lets his new, angry words slide through her skin like gusts of wind.
When the ghost appears less and less, she has time to hear his rage, to harden herself until it rebounds and lashes back at him, sharp and unforgiving, desperate in her helplessness.
You know me, she tells him silently. Silently, because she still can’t bring herself to beg. I swear, she says, squeezing her eyes shut tight and sucking in gulp after gulp of stale, sticky air, I swear, you know me.
When he looks at her on the last day, she can’t find even a shadow of her ghost, so she presses his eyelids closed and kisses them, kisses her oldest self goodbye. He stands, sputtering and shamefaced, lost in himself as he squeezes the memory of the things he knows she can’t have been out of his eyes in fat, salty streams.
She catches them, one by one, on the tips of her fingers and drags them across the lids of her eyes, in case her ghost is hiding in them. When the oceans on his cheeks run dry, she lets herself sink down into the most human, the most petty parts of herself until they well up and spill over, until they assail him from every side, until they drive him away for her.
She closes her lips over the last of them, swallows it back down so she can remember why he’s gone, and hangs her head low so she won’t have to see him leave.
He doesn’t look back.
You know me, she promises him. She’s forgotten, now, what there is to know, but she knows it’s under his skin somewhere, lingering like old chalk on a slate, not quite wiped clean. You know me.
People tell her, now, to be herself. She doesn’t have the heart to tell them that it’s gone, tucked away under the skin of a boy who’s grown into a man, who turns his face from her and smiles for other things.
She can smell fire on his memory, threads of ash and garbage, burning hot and hateful for all the things she’s been. She catches flickers of her magic in the smoke that finds its way to her, but she’s a yielding thing now, fragile and moon-soft. To be herself, she would have to crawl under his skin and swim through his viscera, smile with sharp teeth around the magic she painted across his insides, and she can’t help but think that the boy who knew her is tucked in with it, wedged between organ and bone, and she can’t bear to do him a moment’s harm. He knows her. He was the first to know. The only. She can see through his immolating darkness and into the heart of him, can see why he needs the pieces of her that he’s kept, and cannot hold his need and greediness against him.
You know me, she reminds him, instead, murmuring to the dust motes in the air and the wash of moonlight over summer-sweet grass and concrete.
She pretends that, someday, he’ll know and remember, and she’ll wake up to find his eyes and her own smiling down at her. Until then, she sleeps, vulnerable and heartsick, in the shadow of her own forest.
You know me, she dreams, loud and pleading, feeble and aching. You. You know me.
He was the first to know. The only.
You know me.