Vanessa Fogg

Unicorn

When the unicorn showed up at little Alison Milbanks’ princess themed birthday party, Shannon knew that things had gone too far.

“Do you see what I’m seeing?” Shannon leaned and said to Jeannie Belvin as the graceful white creature rounded the house and was led up the flagstone path.

“A pony with a stick glued on its head?” Jeannie shrugged. “I’m sure it’s cheaper than the elephant at Gracie Adams’ party last year.”

The women watched as the unicorn was guided by its handler, a young man in medieval dress, across the lawn toward the children jumping in the castle-bounce pad and skipping around the maypole. Court jesters at strategic locations twisted animal balloons, juggled bright baubles, and applied face paint. A white tent, set with long tables and chairs, sat a little way up the hillside; bright banners flew from the top, the largest banner of all reading “Happy Birthday, Princess Alison!” in faux medieval lettering.

“I think the theme of the party is a bit scattered, don’t you?” Jeannie observed. “I mean, is it a Renaissance village fair? King Arthur’s circus? It all seems a bit jumbled.”

“Hmmmm,” Shannon said. She saw Jeannie’s point, but wasn’t sure how seriously to take it.

In truth, Shannon knew her own daughter’s costume contributed clashing notes. Her eyes scanned the crowd until they found Maddy sitting on the grass near the maypole; Maddy was plucking grass stems, her blue Cinderella dress bunched up around her knees. Shannon had thought the sparkly polyester dress—a gift from her sister—perfectly suitable that morning, but Maddy now looked underdressed next to the other princesses in silk, satin, and glittering brocade. Even Jeannie’s daughter, Olivia, was sumptuously dressed in Renaissance-styled burgundy and gold.

She had missed the memo again, Shannon thought. The underground memo with the party dress code precisely spelled out. The memo which told the other mothers what shoes to wear, what gyms to join, how to get their hair styled and what enrichment classes and schools they should enroll their children in. Even Jeannie, despite her mockery, knew the rules. Last week at a play date, Shannon had speculated innocently on enrolling her daughter in kindergarten for the following year. The other mothers had all reacted in horror. Maddy was so young—didn’t Shannon know that she should hold her back another year? No matter that she would meet the official age requirement and was bright; everyone in this district—if they sent their kids to the public schools at all—held the children back a year to give them an extra advantage in academics and sports.

Maddy got up from the grass, wiping her hands on her dress. Shannon saw another girl lightly tap Maddy from behind, and Maddy whirled after, chasing her friend past the jugglers and up the ersatz village green. The girls darted through the crowd, laughing, the plastic beads on Maddy’s blue dress sparkling like sun on water.

Maddy was happy. Both her children were happy. The baby was growing and doing well. Her husband was happy, too. After all the long years of medical and research training, he had finally arrived. He was a professor of orthopedic surgery at a major medical school. He was doing work that he enjoyed. And they didn’t live like graduate students anymore. They lived in a large house in an exclusive subdivision named “Tuscan Hills”; they drove nice cars, went on nice vacations, and sent their oldest daughter to a preschool with a tuition bill that approached the price of Shannon’s college education. If Shannon wanted, she could indulge without guilt in the designer handbags, spa treatments and private yoga classes that the other women at the party enjoyed.

But where do they find the time? Shannon thought resentfully. It was a mystery of physics. How to find the time to get a haircut—to even finish a complete thought—with two young children grabbing at you, sucking your attention, siphoning off all your mental and physical energy? The only respite came at rare moments like this: Maddy occupied with preschool or friends, the baby asleep or watched over by her father.

A white form floated across the green lawn, a stray piece of moon or winter snow. It was the unicorn, nearing the center of the gathering. A murmur began to ripple through the crowd as other parents and children caught sight of it. The creature moved as gracefully as a swan gliding through a lake. Shannon watched, mesmerized, as the animal slowed and came to a stop on an open patch of green. It was whiter than seemed right. No dirt or dust seemed to mar its pure coat. It was small, barely coming to Shannon’s shoulders—a pony or even a miniature horse, she guessed. Aside from the spiral horn, there was no adornment.

“It’s a unicorn!” “A unicorn!” Shouts leapt from the crowd. The children pressed excitedly near. The handler only held up one hand and smiled. Remarkably, no child pressed too close; the kids formed a respectful semi-circle before the animal and its guide.

“Line up,” the handler said, “and you can pet the unicorn.”

“Does it have a name?” a little boy in a pointed wizard’s hat asked.

The handler smiled again, and Shannon noted that he was only a teenager. “Unicorns keep their names secret,” he said. “Bet you didn’t know that, did you?”

Obediently, the children lined up. The handler helped the birthday princess stroke the animal’s curved neck. Shannon saw Maddy at the back of the line, staring in open-mouthed awe.

“Careful, honey,” a nervous mother spoke as another child stepped up, and the handler showed perfect white teeth with his smile. “She’s very used to children, ma’am,” he said.

A hush fell on the crowd. The animal stood easily under the gathering’s attention, good-naturedly allowing the caresses of children. One by one the children stepped forward and then moved away, eyes shining.

Behind Shannon, a woman groaned, “Great, my Liz’s party is next month. How am I going to top all this?”

Shannon found herself pressing closer. She knew nothing about horses, but she knew that this pony did not look like any she had ever seen. The body was slender, finely wrought. The horn rose gleaming from the center of the head, nearly a foot long. It looked hard, solid—like ivory, like bone. The spirals were fascinating: clear indentations that twisted and tapered elegantly to a dangerous looking point. Did spiral horns exist in nature? she wondered.

“I wonder what movie set it escaped from,” Jeannie murmured beside her.

Shannon said nothing, suddenly possessed by the idea that it was all real. Perhaps Alison Milbanks’ parents really had ordered a live unicorn for her. They had money. Alison’s father was a high-level executive at a pharmaceutical company—could he have walked into a meeting one day and ordered his scientists to engineer a unicorn? Shannon had studied biology in college; she read the newspapers and her husband occasionally talked about his research. She knew that scientists created wonders in their laboratories: they cloned animals and regularly spliced genes from one species into another, creating literal chimeras. In her husband’s lab they created mice that glowed green when placed under a certain wavelength of light. They created mice with crippling bone defects, mice with shortened limbs. How difficult would it be to make a horse with a horn? And Shannon remembered a classic picture from one of her college biology textbooks, an illustration of manipulated genes: a photograph of a fruit fly with legs growing out of its head where antenna should be.

She should have stayed in science. She should have gone on to medical school as her father had wanted. Instead, she had walked away from her biology degree and gone on to graduate school in literature, eventually writing her dissertation on a little known woman poet of the Imagist movement. She loved her studies but her father was right: there were no real jobs for English professors. She watched from the sidelines as her husband’s own academic star rose. As a physician-scientist, he would always have more earning power. They moved every few years for his residency and fellowships. She had taught for a while—piecemeal work at an array of colleges, grading freshman essays for less than peanut shells. She had tried to write. When her first daughter was born five years ago, she stopped both altogether.

Maddy was beside her now, pulling at her hand. “Mom, I touched the unicorn,” she whispered shyly.

“You did.” Shannon stooped down and hugged her, feeling suddenly protective. “You were very brave.”

Alison Milbanks’ mother, clad in an extravagant Tudor gown and headdress, clapped her hands. “We’re serving refreshments in the tent now,” she sang. “Who wants birthday cake?”

“Me! Me!” the children answered in overlapping peals. Two little boys in the crowd broke off and began running up the hill. The other children dispersed in clumps with their mothers, drifting more slowly toward the tent.

“Come ON.” Maddy tugged forcefully on her mother’s arm. And then Jeannie’s daughter appeared and took Maddy’s hand, and Maddy dropped Shannon’s arm and ran off hand-in-hand with her best friend. Shannon watched them go, feeling oddly bereft.

“Wow. Those kids. They really don’t need us anymore, do they?” Jeannie laughed. She started after the girls.

“Would you like to pet the unicorn?” a voice said behind Shannon.

She swung around and realized the pony’s handler was speaking to her. The crowd had almost completely dissolved now, and she stood alone with the horse and its young guide.

“Uh, sure.” Shannon took a step, then hesitated. The pony looked directly at her with soft black eyes. She found herself unable to move.

“Go ahead. She won’t bite.” The teen smiled faintly, the same slight, imperturbable smile he’d worn throughout the unicorn show-and-tell. His green eyes glinted. He looked like a kid, but something about his poise seemed far older. Where had the Milbankses gotten him?

Shannon looked at the unicorn and took another step forward. She marveled that even at this close range she saw no trace of dirt or dust on the animal’s coat. If anything, it seemed to glow whiter than before. What had the poet Rilke written, in his sonnet on unicorns? That they represented pure potential? She took one more step, close enough now to reach out and touch it. It’s a pony with a stick glued on its head, she said to herself. But her heart beat fast, and her hand trembled as she reached out toward that impossible, now incandescent, whiteness.

Vanessa Fogg is a molecular cell biologist and writer. Her fiction has appeared previously in Literary Mama.