The Lady and the Unicorn

At Mass, my hips loosen in places they normally do not. I kneel with relief and surrender—though not fully—still seated on the pew. The priest rambles on about Matthew and I instinctually wrap my head in a pink shawl to find soft lighting. The fabric is subtle, and the material appears translucent. I feel like the illusion of my mother, the woman who gifted it to me, and I become the illusion of the Christ she taught me to pray to. When the Lord speaks, I cover and am seen.


An architect designed this place after Noah’s Ark, so the walls curve at the front to remind us that we are on a ship: God’s ship. So much wood. But they fill it with incense (frankincense) and Latin elysium—the voice of the cantor. Sometimes I think my blonde hair absorbs the scent. When I run my fingers through it, hair stopping at my shoulders, I imagine the music too has been absorbed. “Let us pray.” I close my blue eyes.


I fold my hands and intertwine my fingers. As gentle as a breath, I love even the spaces in between them that are never touched. I lower the shawl from my eyes and release it onto my shoulders. I think of my mother and how I can’t wait to be one. “Amen.”


I remember praying, as a child, for a sister. Mamma would bring me to the pew besides the statue of Mary, towards the left side of the church, and not bring my brother. I’d pray to the unicorn, my most feverish childhood belief, and the magic she carried. I’d only refer to her as Mary. “Mother Mary was a unicorn mommy.”


A sister: it was the only demand I asked of the unicorn. Perhaps mamma had wanted that first; perhaps, I got the idea from her. In the whispers of the vestibule, I heard her many times, “wishing” before collecting offerings. She would purposefully suffer in hopes that she could choose her own pain. A trade off: for my sacrifice, bring me another daughter.

And so, mamma would play along with the unicorn thing. She’d come home from work, let’s say on a Tuesday, and tell me, “I saw her frolic.” And then I’d sit on her lap asking all of these questions: was she blue? was her horn rainbow? was her name Mary? did she smile at you? how do you know she was a girl? And then, by that Friday, let’s say, or maybe even Saturday, I’d ask these questions all over again. This went on for years.


Mamma would always say yes and yes and yes. But never answer if it was a girl. Still, her encouragement of the unicorn was all I needed.

Sitting close to that statue of Mary now, I am reminded of the dreams I had then. Mother Mary is still a unicorn.


Soon the Mass ends and my, what Matthew would call, “neighbors,” swarm the nearby parking lot. I am trapped in spaces I never asked for. They park three cars in a straight line at this parish, so that the person in the middle is always left waiting—one in front of another. I cover my eyes with my shawl, once more, to imagine the possibility of pink. I am one of those parked in the middle.


When ruffling my hair, removing the shawl, now in the car, I place my left palm to my womb, and my right to my heart. Maybe now I will get that sister just in a different way. Unicorn please, bring me a daughter.


And I question if the Church thinks so. Because how come when they say to “think” the Lord (we crucify our foreheads), “speak” Him (we touch our lips), and “believe” in Him (we cross our hearts),” they don’t bless the womb?


I believe from here because no one else does. My faith is in this water because ten weeks ago, it was made sacred. I became the only Holy chance of a new woman for this family. I crucify my womb and nod to my reverent unicorn.


Sean came in the bedroom, when I told him, home from work, and he kissed my belly in silence. His scruffy beard ran from side to side, kissing every surface of me. I could hear the tears as they blessed his cheeks that rubbed against my own. He traced my nose and then my eyebrows and said, “Robyn, I hope she will have your eyes.”


And I looked into his—brown and honest. It had been so long for us.


He watched me pluck all the tulips from the garden earlier that day, and how I ripped them from the ground in exchange for these azaleas—that were pink and hopeful. His eyes then were hollow. He pitied me and it hurt.


With dirt still on my hands from this maternal act, I said, “How do you know it will be a girl?”


And he said, “I only know your soul.”


I didn’t understand what he meant.


I often return to that day to try. He felt so far from me, yet I attempted to savor his tears like honey—never to expire. On this drive now, I think, I forget. It is rare for Sean to remember he can cry. I still don’t know what he meant.


Returning home, I get out of the car and embrace what little sun is peeking through. With my feet on a neatly paved driveway, I feel every stroke of the air even when it is only meant for the trees. Looking at my home, I am surrounded by forest and a community of trees; they communicate through scent as the breeze carries their messages. I am not made to hear them, though I know they are there. One step closer to the unicorn than I’ll ever be.


I keep to myself and hold my heart to know that these spaces in between are filled with dialogue. From mother to mother, or soon to be, I look to the oaks and pines, the birches and ashes, and pucker my lips like I’m about to play the flute. I blow my most gentle release of wind. I await a response: “What did he mean?”


“Sean.” I find him in the kitchen. He is leaning against the island and behind him is an open window. The view is to the backyard where my garden rests. The backdrop is only trees.


“How was church?”


I hug him. I only smile. I take a seat at the table and look out this same window, framed in white. Everything seems brighter today. There are shades of green I have never witnessed.


“Mamma’s coming for a walk today.”


“That’s right. Are you going to the lake?”


“Where else?”


“That’s true I guess,” and he takes a long breath in, hesitating to let it go. “Do you want pancakes?”


And we eat them with blueberries and chocolate chips—mine with rainbow sprinkles. I make more coffee in the French press, and I say out loud to Sean, holding my belly, “Amen.”


He embraces me. I look through the narrow window. My azaleas are in full bloom. My ashes, and birches, and pines, and oaks, they are their guardians. I take a deep breath. He holds me closer.


My exhale is the disruption of a cosmic dialogue—a conversation with something beyond me. Maybe it is Mary. The trees say, “You are safe. He meant to say, you are safe.” I thank them for their message back. Sean places his hands over my womb. I believe them.


Mamma pulls in. She is in grey today and looks like she’s lost weight. Her hair is now fully white, and she keeps it long. Her wrinkles have grown though they are somewhat elegant on her. She has spots on her face, and a smile. I hope she is eating.


After climbing the two stone steps, and knocking at the hickory door, even when we tell her to “just walk in,” she is immediately offered pancakes. Sean might notice she’s losing weight too because he forces her to eat more than one. We watch as she passes on the syrup and goes, only, for the butter. Sean winks at me: it means, “I get it.” I wink back: “thank you.”


Mamma says, “How are you feeling these days?”


“Good,” I say. “I have been praying more, and I planted azaleas.”


“Oh,” and she opens her mouth with joyful comfort. “I’m happy that you are done with those tulips.”


Sean looks to me as if to say, “it is over.” And I know the tress are chanting once again, that this time, “I am safe.”


I clean up her dishes, “Well, are you ready to go?” And I grab my bag, a unicorn keychain dangling off the side—kissing Sean goodbye, saying that we’ll be back in a couple hours.

And in the car, she says to me, “do you remember how often we’d walk this path?”


I laugh, “I do.”


“It’d always be after church, and you’d be so good sitting there rambling on about this unicorn and Mary. But I knew you needed to move.” Mamma held my free hand until I took it back to turn into the gravel parking lot.


The path is simple. It begins by murky water—Cranberry Lake—where we can see the other side of the trail. We stand there now, overlooking the visible signs of the path that encircle the lake. We can’t see the parts of our beloved blue trail that almost veer a mile away from shore. We can’t see how just beyond that veering, there is the start of the red trail that we never take. Mamma complains how the brush needs to be kept up there and how it’s always getting in the way; and she’s right. Sometimes, there are these stones we don’t see coming because the vines and thistles devour them like protected jewels. And sometimes, if we’re not careful, we almost roll our ankles on them. It’s dangerous; so, we keep to the blue.


Approaching the water, I discover a goose at the shoreline. With long white feathers I notice how its eyes tilt to follow me. I gaze back, noticing how the white of her body is yellow. I pause to meet it in its stillness, then, in the next moment, its movement. It turns mad. Like I had violated some code, it approaches me with vigor and force. I jolt back and quickly turn my eyes away. I did violate something. For, just in front of me is a nest with a couple of large white eggs. This goose is a mother: “I don’t want your babies,” I say as I turn away and make my way back to the path.


Mamma giggles. “Just keep walking.” We move along the route.


Shaken up I say, “Maybe today we’ll see the unicorn.”


“Maybe,” she encourages.


Despite her persistent faith in me, Mamma did once spoil my fun. When I got older, perhaps too old, and Mamma had had a miscarriage (which I only learned of recently), she yelled, “You don’t know how evil a unicorn can be,” and stormed off crying into the next room.


I followed her in and watched, with only my hand on her back, how she sobbed. I looked at her as some object of curiosity. It was the first time I ever saw her cry. My brother too. And he came in and pulled me out of there. He said, “Shut the door,” and put the TV on. He told me to watch, and I did, until she returned. Red eyes and with little breath, she told me of the famous French tapestries, "Lady and the Unicorn.”


I said, “Ok, but what does this have to do with Mary?” But I listened because I really didn’t understand why she was crying like that.


As if to encourage me to stop believing in unicorns, she went on about how the mosaic reveals more than just a woman within magic, employing her five senses. “Pay attention,” she’d say, “to how the unicorn, or Mary, stands tall next to the lady in each one.”


I learned, in olden times, only a woman who was pure and a virgin, could tame a unicorn. Before getting married, this was a test of virtue that women would go through. Fathers would drag their daughters to the forest where the unicorns lived and leave them there overnight with no food or blankets or weapons. If the girl was a virgin, the unicorn would protect her from any dangers of the wild. But if she was not, the unicorn would stab her through the heart, with its horn.


“But Mary would never do that.”


Yet Mamma continued on about how in the morning, when the men would round up their women, they would either find them alive or dead—knowing no sadness or guilt, but only the truth of this mystical verdict.


I cried. And she joined me, holding me to her chest.


I did stop asking about unicorns after that, as she wanted, but I never stopped believing. I realized we weren’t talking about the same things anymore. So, I held on to the parts of Mary that were of saving and healing. In my small ways I held onto the hope of it all.


And in this thought, I seem to have taken a slight turn onto the red trail, pulling away from our usual blue markers.


Mamma catches me immediately, “Don’t go that way.”


But I forge forward. “Why not? Let’s try a different way.”


I lead her with confidence, and even through her annoyance, she lets me wander at the thought that I might be a child once again—my last chance before motherhood. And maybe she is right. I don’t know. But something pulls me to the red trail, and I trust this urge.


I bend down to touch the moss in every crevice between my fingers. Just like church, I say a little prayer and fold my hands into the plants.


As we continue, the trees start to thicken and the thistles themselves overcome the trail. “They really don’t keep up with it here, huh?”


And mom tries to breathe through her “I told you so,” as to release this worry she holds over me like guilt. “Where is our unicorn?”


I bundle my jacket a little tighter, and I notice this wave of cold that seems to arise from the ground—not the air. I listen for the trees, but they have gone silent. No more scents to share. I think of the unicorn and how, maybe, one was coming for us. I hold my belly.


Looking down at my feet, I wish I had worn different shoes. Mud seeps in through the sides and I ask Mamma, “has it rained?”


She says, “I don’t think so. I don’t know why it’s so muddy.”


I debate turning back, but it’s not worth my mother being right. It’s probably just a patch. It’ll clear up. I walk with more purpose. I push hard into the mud, like I’m stomping, and remind this earth that I still have some strength in me. And soon, it is needed. The green of the brush thickens and thickens, like weeds, until I have to use my hands to clear the path.


“Honey, maybe we really should just turn around.”


But I can’t possibly bear this defeat, so I say, “Come on mamma, we’re probably almost through it.”


“Robyn, I just think it’ll get worse.”


The cold has made my toes numb. I move my hands back and forth to try and gain some warmth.


“Robyn.”


I keep pushing through.


My hands, still frozen, are pulling the vines and thistles apart—some parts stabbing my palms. My feet are only getting heavier. I cannot hear the trees. It’s as if the wind has stopped. Like in some valley, there is no movement of anything; except for us; just stagnancy. My breathing picks up. Mamma starts to fall behind. She can’t keep up.


I turn back to face her, attempting encouragement; perhaps I’m telling her she’s weak. She doesn’t see me look back. She’s too far behind, focused on getting through the entanglement of it all. When I turn back around, my feet seem to stop moving. This one second of pause must have activated the mud. It surrounds my feet in perfect casings. I pull at my legs. I still can’t feel my toes. I hold on to a nearby pine and use it as leverage. The leaves of the tress around me are almost black. I manage to get one foot out. I lose a shoe. I balance my left leg next to the pine, and in some squatting movement, get my right foot free. That shoe is gone too.


And suddenly, I can hear the trees again. They are speaking. Oh, thank you. Some part of me understands, but the whole of my mother understands more.


“Robyn. We have to go back.” She doesn’t seem to notice that I was stuck.


“I don’t understand.” I pull my shawl close, and a soft pink returns to my vision. Like I stood up too fast or drank too much, my sight doesn’t belong to me anymore.


“Robyn.”


Other colors encroach my vision too. Back and forth between pink, purple, and dark blue, soon there is only red. I hold on to the pine once more. I look down.


At my feet, there is only red. I cover my eyes. This can’t be real. And I look down again—something deformed. I drop to my knees. This time, I release it all. I let myself surrender. I scream out loud. Mamma must’ve seen me collapse and soon after, she runs to me. The black green of the trail slows her down, but I’ve never seen her move so fast.


I just stare—down. Does this soul know I have done this before?


Just as I touch the moss, I think how it is latent with evil magic. It is a curse on me. Where is my unicorn?


And I move my hands forward as if to question why my fingers look like that—pudgy and old. Filled with mud, I remove my pink shawl. It is absorbed by the red. Do they know?


In this moment, the trees halt their breathing. Mine continues. There is a space for me to fill: I wish I was kneeling in praise.


“Robyn. What is it?” And mamma catches up to me, sobbing.


It is a baby. On the ground, with blue eyes slightly open. “A baby.”


“What?”


And I fumble into words, “It’s dead.”


Mamma gasps and jumps back. I take my pink shawl and wrap the daughter in it. There is a puncture through her heart.


I think, how could a baby not be pure enough to be protected by the unicorn? It must be the water she was carried in.


I scream, “I have to wash her. I have to wash her.”


And I grab the child and run to the lake.


“Robyn. What are you doing?”


“Mamma.”


The tress whisper, “You aren’t safe.” But I will be. I keep running.


“Stop. Robyn, stop.”


The child’s blood cannot be contained in the shawl, and it drips over my hands like gloves. I hold her to my chest. I curse at unicorns. I pray to Mary as I dip her into the water. I scrub her heart to find the entryway of the wound. Only blood.


“I have to clean her.”


And finally, my mother reaches me and catches her breath. She pulls me away from the water and rips this dead girl from my arms. I rub this blood all over my belly. I rub it over my womb. I throw water in my face.


“Robyn.” She holds me. She rocks me.


I’m exhausted. “Why?” I stutter a breath. “This time, I thought.”


She repeats, “I know, I know, I know,” and I think she really does.


I am shaking and my legs are cold. I can feel goosebumps—blisters at my feet.

The goose returns my stare. This time, she doesn’t move. I look to her babies. I think, I will never have a daughter, and am envious that she has so many.


With my vision still partially gone, I can only see Sean’s eyes as he lifts me into his car. He drives me to the hospital in silence—my mother holding my hand—and I can’t look at him. I don’t want him to see me anymore.


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