It is universally admitted that the unicorn is a supernatural being of good omen; such is declared in all the odes, annals, biographies of illustrious men and other texts whose authority is unquestionable. Even children and village women know that the unicorn constitutes a favorable presage. But this animal does not figure among the domestic beasts, it is not always easy to find, it does not lend itself to classification. It is not like the horse or the bull, the wolf or the deer. In such conditions, we would be face to face with a unicorn and not know for certain what it was. We know that such and such an animal with horns is a bull. But we do not know what the unicorn is like.
— Jorge Luis Borges: Labyrinths
The black unicorn will be here, I said to myself, as the deeper shadows of what must be the Underwood reared up ahead. If the black unicorn can be found, here is where I will find it, I said. And I couldn’t come back without the unicorn, this went without saying. The black unicorn, with its glorious gold trim. I’d told them I would return one day, perhaps soon, perhaps not—but when I returned, it would be with the black unicorn. Or on it. On the black unicorn, with its gold trim. An obsidian streak across the sunset’s candied sky. Why had I promised? Only a fool makes such a promise, I said to myself, as I paused to wipe more sweat from my brow, leaning against the broad trunk of some deciduous tree, as the light waned.
The hills that fringe Underwood Forest are populous with wild goats. Most are harmless. But I was raised among goats, know their fickle affections all too well. As a rule it’s best to proceed with supreme caution and never to assume that a goat is docile or would care to be your friend, even if your first impression is of a docile creature inclined to be your friend. The goats are for only the goats, and harbor no illusions as to others’ allegiances. Wise policy, I said to myself, as I pressed on through these final outlying hills, casting frequent glances to all sides, searching the gentle slopes for signs of inimical goats. I bore before me my father’s staff, gently thwacking my palm as I walked.
She’d never understood about the goats, I thought, as I approached one last modest rise. And beyond, what could only be the true Underwood’s black vastness, the far foliage crested by a bloody fingernail of sun.
“Gold trim?” she had asked.
“Gold hooves, tail a tuft of sparkling fluffy gold. Horn, too, of course. A sleek golden horn inscribed with a helix rather than the traditional rings,” I had said.
Few people in these remote parts have seen a unicorn. Much less a black one, with gold trim—which of course no one will ever have seen, until they see the one I cannot come back from my journey without, I thought to myself, as I once again shifted the heavy load on my back.
“I can’t picture it,” she had said, I recalled now, as I shrugged my pack higher and entered the forest, the surrounding verdure immediately beginning to grow thick.
“You won’t need to,” I had told her. Arrogance!
In Underwood Forest, what paths there are seem to fold up under themselves, so that upon glancing down at the narrow dirt track beneath your feet you will often catch what would appear to be glimpses of lustrous pearl sky, far below. And above you? Through slits in the intricate branchwork? More sky! Of course it is insane, some skewed perspectival trick—and yet men have gone mad, I thought. Better men than I. Best not to look too hard. Keep your eyes ahead, I said to myself, peering into the darkness before me, seeing very little. No one could guide me to the black unicorn; the black unicorn would not exist until I found it.
The solar bear subsists primarily on sunlight, drawing supplementary nutrition from the lightsap found in gem-pines—“cocaine trees,” in the traditional folk parlance—clustered principally in the Underwood’s outer circles, I recalled, as the shadows seemed to deepen around me, silently reciting verbatim the brief account my father had found for me in his files—notes left by the last explorer to venture into the Underwood (a close friend of my father’s; they’d sailed together in his youth), some several decades before. Now deceased. And what had he wanted with the Underwood? Difficult to say, exactly, his otherwise-elaborate field notes being muted, even cryptic on the subject of ultimate aims. Naturally there was no mention of a black unicorn; but in the man’s crazed obsession with Ursula Solaris did I not detect a whiff of my own ambition?
As would be expected, the solar bear therefore prefers to roam during daylight hours, and between late morning and early afternoon may often be observed atop sturdier gem-pines, luxuriating in the nutritive warmth, paws sticky with plundered lightsap, growling his pleasure, I quoted to myself, surprised at the precision with which I could recall this ludicrous, possibly-fabricated text. I began to hum a tune I had not heard since the days when my mother, God bless the dead, wandered the house singing softly, poor woman, while my father chased his goatherds over the mountain range.
It was unclear what I intended to do with the black unicorn with the gold trim I had sworn to find and possess. Would I keep it for myself? Would I really want the black unicorn? If I ever found it? (Which I was bound by my promise to do.) Would the black unicorn be enough? Would I give it away? To whom?
As sated solars, during said hours, will frequently roam the pathless forest seeking challenge or prey, the wise wanderer crosses outer Underwood in the dark. The solar bear is unlikely to attack after sundown, unless roused from its slumber, which is deep indeed, I recalled.
My father had rummaged through several storage trunks to find an old volume of bear-repugnant limericks. “As a safeguard.”
I told him I was not afraid of bears—or anything, for that matter. I would face whatever I encountered on the road, as a man. “Take it anyway,” he’d said, “just in case. Better to be safe.”
“Safety is for cowards,” I’d said, I remembered now with a wince. The volume’s saffron vellum cover coated with dust, I recalled noting, as I’d slipped the book into my pack under his insistent gaze, waiting like a coward until I’d left the ranch’s sprawl around the road’s first full curve to throw the useless tome into a ditch. I shouldn’t have done that, I conceded to myself, as I scanned the darkness to either side of the disappearing path, hoping to reach the interior before dawn. Even a limerick is better than nothing.
“With golden wings,” I had added just before setting off, as I stuffed the last bit of goat jerky into the pack, my father standing a bit behind my wife. “A black unicorn with golden wings.”
“So a Pegasus, then,” she had said.
I didn’t know what to call the creature I sought other than a black unicorn with gold mane, tail, hooves, and wings (and, in truth, I had only just decided to incorporate the wings—now it was too late to take them back—though I didn’t necessarily regret their addition). No one had ever seen it except for me—and I, only in my dubious visions or dreams—so perhaps it had no name. Beyond “the black unicorn,” which designation I’d stubbornly repeated—with unnecessary sullenness, I now saw all too clearly.
“Well, but what you’re describing sounds just like a Pegasus.”
Not uncommonly, however, the solar bear—particularly males of the species—will at once meet both dietary needs by quaffing sunhoney mead, brewed by stirring paw-kneaded lightsap ferment into vats of raw sunlight. Resulting crapulent sprees may stretch on through sunshine and darkness—traveler beware!
“The eyes will be emeralds,” I’d declared—madly, I thought to myself, as an unearthly howl clove the indeterminate dark. She’d never tried to convince me to stay; I had steeled myself for theatrical weeping, desperate cries of “God, don’t leave me!”—not this placid nitpicking of my vision. “Don’t you know I’ll probably die? or at least go mad?” I could have shouted. I wished now that I had—though of course it was far too late for wishes. Instead I’d only described in greater detail the sparkling silver striations of the beast’s emerald eyes while she fixed the collar of my cloak, the cloak that even now was affording me laughably little protection from the Underwood’s unholy gusts.
Of course I would have preferred to don the forest shroud, I thought to myself, startling at what was probably only the snap of a twig. But she’d sold the forest shroud. Along with a garden hose, some wicker chairs, beer steins, binoculars and lepidopteristic texts, as well as several of my moths I’d collected at university—all pawned away during that bleak late-autumn, as we scrambled for means, my vision of our shared life disintegrating. And was it strictly my fault that while her beauty virtually guaranteed her an easy succession of office-clerk appointments in that middling university town, I couldn’t find work after Claudstein abandoned me? That for a season, yes, I took solace in the cup, before we’d at last conceded failure, returned to my father’s ranch: in shame, certainly, I thought to myself, as another chill blast penetrated my feeble cloak. My father had urged me to learn a trade, at the very least, if I refused to have anything to do with his goats, if I was hellbent on handing over my inheritance to the university in exchange for a useless, indulgent degree. Will your moths put a roof over your head, Son? Will they buy you your bread? Why not mail them your next request for an interest-free loan?
“You’ve never tasted beauty, Dad, and you never will,” I should have shouted, I realized now—instead of choking this rebuttal back until I’d reached the sanctuary of my garret, where I spent the remainder of that winter interregnum muttering bitter variations on the sentiment, rereading favorite works of lepidopteristic theory, including, naturally, Claudstein’s epic, The World as Wings and Representation (which I’d already scoured several times).
And before our return, she’d never even seen a goat, had she, I thought. Hadn’t she laughed at the stories I’d told of my father and his ridiculous retirement, his faux-idyll, his belated embrace of pacific tendencies? She’d said the very least I owed the man—by whose alleged goodwill, whose extravagant grace in taking us in, welcoming me back (in shame) I’d been made violently sick—was to tend and keep his flock as he advanced through his middle age. Middle age? I’d scoffed. Middle age implies a decline, a downward arc, an end: that man will never die, I’d said.
I watched her learn the work, watched her apparently learn to enjoy it, laughing and whooping as she chased the mindless creatures down the mountain, riding Sheryl, our pony, flanked by the exuberant dogs, the goats’ flight an ensemble of hideous bleat. I still see her smiling up at my father, her skin a luminous bronze in the fading light. Of course the labor fulfills her, I’d thought many times, I recalled now, tugging at the loose flesh beneath my chin (a near-unconscious tic accompanying serious thought): she hadn’t learned over a lifetime to loathe it and fear its inevitability. She’d never known desperation, had she? Never wanted more. What did she want? Nothing! Nothing but what joy or contentment could be found in each insipid day: the rush of a crisp westerly wind, the satisfaction of a newly mastered task, freshly-churned goat-butter on her tongue. Why can’t you just be happy, she’d often ask, offering me a languid smile, while the goats grazed vapidly out over the receding pastures. Perhaps she would understand what I had always been waiting for when she saw my return—like a late-annointed king, high overhead, astride the black unicorn, I’d stupidly hoped, I reflected now, smiling bitterly. Owls or some other nocturnal birds hooted nearby. She wouldn’t be watching the skies for me.
Three days ago, under that late-morning sun, I strode down the walk from my father’s estate, my carriage erect and assured—but even then, I remembered now (peering up at what stars could be seen through the Underwood’s reticulate canopy of branches and leaves), I’d been plagued by certain questions and doubts.
For instance: how would I find a black unicorn with golden hooves, a tail like sprayed fire, horn a glinting spear, eyes like emeralds, seraphic wings, when I couldn’t be sure such an animal existed? Did such an animal exist? Why should it? Where had I first got the idea? From a picturebook? A nursery rhyme? A dream? Evenings I would sit on the rounded wooden beam of the ranch’s vast pennery, staring up at my father, his staff raised high above his head, arm an unwavering rod, as if to scorn the winds shrieking down the slopes of Mount Boom, whipping up his great musky cloaks, a cavalcade of goats rushing past to fill the lush feeding fields—the entire tableau filling me with nausea and despair. Imbued me with a bottomless dread so absolute that I would leave behind my only golden one (will I see her again?), the only woman to ever love me, the only woman I will ever love . . . here in the Underwood, utterly lost, chasing a conjured beast, a dumb salmagundi of some slow child’s dreams. . . . I was a fool! Should I have heeded my father? Learned to minister to the goats? Settled down on his capacious ranch? Would she have been happy? Was this all she had wanted?
I will never find the black unicorn, I thought. There is no black unicorn. If there is a black unicorn, it isn’t for me to find—but most likely there is no black unicorn. I will die in the Underwood, alone and without hope. Exhaust my supply of goat jerky, fall from the treacherous path, plummet into the heart of whatever strange phenomenon casts its mirage of nacreous sky underfoot, I thought. I’ll be eaten by a solar bear.
Why carry on through this lugubrious gloom? For a vision? But what a vision! I see her on the slatted porch—her long blond hair aflutter in goat-scented breeze, she gazes skyward, wistful, forlorn, searching a cloud-obscured horizon . . . and then: an iridescent speck, glinting high against a cobalt sky, slowly swelling, at last assuming half-familiar form: yes, me—atop the fabulous steed, borne back on heaven’s roads, the beast’s wings refulgent, a glorious blaze of gold, we swoop down from above, skim the vast pastures that feed and fence in all the goats of my father . . . and I return, in triumph. . . . But supposing I were to turn around. Would she take me back without the black unicorn? (Certainly my father would, with a vindicated grin.) If I found the black unicorn, would I let her have it? What if I wanted to keep the black unicorn. What if I wanted to fly right past my father’s ranch—Westward a young man must always go—
“Why won’t you just lie down and die?” I shouted, wildly addressing the walls of dark foliage, looking for I wasn’t sure what. (A witness?)
As a boy I would lay my head in my mother’s lap, and she’d sing to me in a doleful minor key a lullaby about the end of all things—
Nothing is coming, she’d quietly sing, Nothing is coming to bear us away . . . Nothing is coming to carry us home. . . .
Goodnight, sweet little prince, she’d whisper as I drifted to sleep——
Mindlessly, as if acting out another fool’s vision of lonely valor I withdrew my father’s sword, and with it began to carve clumsy arcs through the fluttering night. My antagonists’ eyes glowed like droplets of blood, casting their rustling forms in faint, unreliable light. Their screeches were the wailing of the dead. They came in twos and threes, flapping like wet cloaks given unholy life, swirling round me like a clotted wind, avoiding my axlike heaves of the paternal blade—because I was never any good with the sword.
Few in this far-flung region now recall, but my father did not always herd goats. In the days before Elsinore Ranch no man but a fool would dare challenge him to a duel. My father, now a quaint provincial authority on the raising of goats, distributor of the district’s best milk, renowned healer of farm animals, a presence quietly venerated for his patience and hard work. Once a master of death. A man not to be trifled with. A legendary consumer of rum. The quondam Pirate King. With eyes like hellfires and a rage without likeness. Lord of the Night. Scourge of the Eastern Provinces. The Power and the Glory. The Thunder and the Rain. Hamnlet the Blade. In the end, retired to dismal distant mountains, to raise his herds (and me) in peace.
He was too kind to me, I thought, as the borrowed sword seemed to swing me, instead of the other way around. Too easy. He thought he was sparing me something. Saving me from something he’d taken on, so that I would never have to suffer—but all he did was leave me unprepared: Unprepared for battle. Unprepared to fight for myself. Unprepared for unexpected combat, with bats, in the deep darkness of a mysterious forest, on a vapid quest now for the moment all but forgotten as I struggled for my life, frantically fought off the rodential scourge as well as I could, which was not very well at all. (Aware all the while that these were only bats; what would happen when the solar bears came? Let alone the thunder wraiths?) He left me unprepared, the old bastard, for anything but goats, I thought, crouching low as the bats left suddenly of their own accord, for now, a sob welling in my throat.
At the university I was a man of science, a thinker, an unassailable intellect, lepidopteristic savant, the land’s leading moth scholar, collector of incomparable samples, intuitor of hidden migratory trends, the discipline’s rising scholarly star—I was respected—revered—for my considerable (but theretofore unacknowledged) cognitive gifts. And Professor Claudstein was like a father to me, dispensed unto me alone all the wisdom acquired over decades of tireless labor in the service of our shared passion: At sixty-seven he could still be found, afternoons, careering down emerald hillsides, slicing his custom net through perfected patterns of ensnarement, a hale physical specimen in spite of his advancing years, and in spite of the decades of nightly lucubration well into the lightening pre-dawn. I trusted Professor Claudstein. I was his chosen favorite, his only true pupil, he was meant to mentor only me—Claudstein, why have you forsaken me, I thought to myself, the whole of Underwood Forest seeming to deflate and collapse around me, quivering like a pinned specimen at its hub.
Of course, I might not have been the student he’d said I was. He might have been deceived, gradually disillusioned with my ability. I might have shown more promise than I could keep. Or perhaps he’d never harbored such illusions: was it I who had been deceived—duped into grandiose notions of my own worth, deluded by my beloved Professor C, who had never really reciprocated my veneration—or love—but had merely allowed me to believe what I would? Because he was too kind to give me the truth? Had he, too, meant to “spare” me—only to leave me ten times as vulnerable to the inevitable apprehension of my limits, the folly, the sorrow of weakness, under which I would eventually be crushed? No! Claudstein never would have hurt me! I would have died for that man. Given over my choicest specimens, all (excluding, perhaps, my cherished Crimson Luna). Ceded almost all glory to him. Served him to the end, asking in return only that on the day I finally deserved it, he might put his hand on my shoulder and say, “Well done, my boy: well done indeed.”
In those halcyon days I foresaw a scholarly dynasty: I would follow in the master’s footsteps, as he made his inexorable ascent, attained heights of unimaginable achievement. I foresaw brilliant new species, with wings like spun gold or shattered gems, sparkling as they fluttered through the weak light in recessed pockets of the earth. Our names ornately embossed on the pages of all the best periodicals. Fanfare. Symposia. Fortune. Fame. . . . Claudstein!
Of course I ought to be grateful for the time I’d been given; Claudstein was only a man; to expect more of him was to invite pain. Pure misery to indulge those foolish visions of Professor Claudstein and me carousing from tavern to tavern, deferred to wherever we went. On the porch of his on-campus-manse—endowed by a wealthy baronness—where we’d smoke tobacco-wheat pipes, seated on stools he’d hand-carved (and that I’d helped to varnish in mahogany and inscribe with letters of bronze, silver and gold) . . . later, with lyres on our laps, improvising melodic loops for hours on end, caught in an endlessly metamorphosing scheme, twin intrepid sensibilities loosed to gallop off on harmonic expeditions into the unknown—where all true endeavor must lead, as he’d so often (rightly) insisted. We might have visited his favorite brothels together. Breathed the fumes of boiled gem-pine sap. Watched the prismatic sunsets of his private butterfly collection’s wall morph in hallucinogenic light. He would have proudly witnessed my own nocturnal collection multiply in lunar grandeur. . . .
On the Underwood path I sat with my legs folded, knees to my chin. As a boy, I reflected, I was useless with the bow and arrow.
“Pop,” I would say, “why can’t I hit the bull’s-eye? No matter how hard I try?”
“Son,” he would answer, a twinkle in his own graying eye as he looked fondly out over my shoulder at his massed goatherd, all that marshaled fleece casting a faint silvery sheen up into the dusk, “you come close enough.”
But he never emphasized that I might develop my technique; never suggested that I might strengthen my feeble arms; never pointed out that I failed to sand or polish the shafts of my arrows, as all the other boys my age did, that I heedlessly left them lying around the cottage while I, too, lay around, like a vegetable staring stupidly into the radiant flames as they danced on the hearth. Even during daylight, while there was work yet to be done. I had always been a slothful, fat, pathetic child, I could admit now. The village boys had been right to call me “Goat’s milk,” I’d deserved that, and the beatings, and each of the schoolmaster’s lovely daughters’ scorn, and everything else (he never told me I should be better), I understood now, and would continue to deserve it, I’d never made a promise I could keep, I saw now, feeling weak with self-knowledge, as the fatigue began to settle into my bones, into my heart, I could never go back without the black unicorn. My father would expect me back soon—without the black unicorn, with nothing but further failure and shame, which he would unquestionably forgive. I could never go back.
The forest seemed to shudder or heave, and I lay down on the rutted path and sobbed for some time. My father’s sword lay beside me, blade unblemished with bat (I hadn’t actually so much as grazed a single one). I could take it, thrust it through my heart, could I not? The bats would eventually be back. Perhaps this time with a clearer sense of purpose. And if not the bats, then the solar bears, assuming there were solar bears. And if the solars, too, were mere fantasy, then I would starve to death. Or die of thirst (my goat-hide canteen already having grown disconcertingly light). I couldn’t leave the forest without the black unicorn, and the black unicorn (it was time to face it, someone ought to) did not exist. I was going to die in the forest. Sooner or later, I was going to die, I thought to myself, pausing for a moment, to let the truth settle, before continuing to sob. I could lie here and wait for the bears or whichever other forest element would eventually be my doom . . . wait for death to take me, as death surely would. . . . Or I could take up my father’s sword, raise it high—and with a shout thrust it home, through my ribcage, into my idiot heart. Or I could chop open my throat. Detach my own head, if I was strong enough to do so (which I probably was not). Slice open my wrists, if I wanted it to be easy . . . or plunge the saber deep into my stomach, carve through the bowels, twisting the blade within the viscera for as long as I could stand it, as I’d heard was the fashion among despondents in the East.
“Death will take care of me soon enough; why should I wait for it,” I wondered aloud, staggering to my feet now, though still hiccupping and sniffling, my eyes not at all dry. What an amusing malapropism “can’t hack it” (as the village children were wont to say of a weak boy who could not keep pace with what was daily expected of him), might prove to be if I were to retrieve my father’s sword from the dust where it lay, glinting a bit in what was presumably moonlight, though I certainly couldn’t see the moon, and hack myself to death, I thought, laughing aloud. “Who decided,” I soliloquized, “that it is more noble to go on fighting—to go on struggling against an ocean of woes—to take ridiculous arms against them all, when you might with your father’s bare saber or bodkin” (I’d brought with me both) “reject the fate you’ve been given? . . . I could do it right now,” I affirmed, nipping in the bud my loquacious propensities (no doubt a lingering academic affectation, I supposed, pausing once more to curse my beloved Professor C.).
I could end it——
Only what if the sword were not the end? What if I were to wake from one nightmare to find something worse? Did I dare really believe this folly was a nightmare? (Hadn’t I heard a tale of real terror? Hadn’t my own father looked into the red depths of real nightmare, pausing for a triumphant moment to peer down into ocular wells he’d uncapped with a flourish of that legendary blade, the bodies that were not yet corpses of countless enemies left screaming, writhing, blind in his booted wake—his, as it were, signature he’d once sickeningly revealed to me late one evening toward the close of the only prolonged discussion of his infamous past we’d ever had.) Perhaps it only seemed such to me now, at the height of my weakness, or the nadir of my “strength.” Did I dare? Would I ever dare?
I lay back and considered: Perhaps I simply hadn’t penetrated into the forest far enough. Perhaps I ought to rest a while. Perhaps a solar would come to kill me in the morning, I thought, my spirits now beginning to lift a little, as I sheathed my father’s sword in its leather scabbard and laid it down by my side (noting the twenty-three tabulatory skulls notched into the grain). No need to act, but merely carry on. Whatever would be, would be.
For some time I lay, quiet, on the forest floor, perhaps even briefly nodding off. When at last I stood up and resumed my clumsy progress further into the shadowed Wood, I felt entranced by a clarity that was almost hypnotic in its focus. Deeper into the darkness: where death or the black unicorn lay in wait.
Near dawn I came across a silver piano with keys of emerald and polished ebony. On a small throne or dais sat a knight whose armor was like wax, a corrugation of rippled gold, burnished and gleaming with hints of rose in the day’s first light, fit to the contours of his body as if it had been poured molten over him and allowed to cool, hardening as a gleaming cascade. Beside him, upright, was a great flaxen bear.
The piano stood beneath a stately cocaine tree, from the trunk of which corkscrewed a segment of tubing with its terminus in a hole punched through the rear of the knight’s helmet. This cannula must have been of some clear, rubberlike material, as it seemed to pulse or throb with the flow of the gem-pine’s viscous white sap.
I stood still, until the knight, as if keyed into motion, with his gauntleted fingers decrypted from those emerald keys a circling melody, simple, pure and sweet, and yet intricately glazed with such spectral flourishes that the enchantment, I imagined, standing rapt, transfixed, must entrance, not only me, but eternity—bearing hearer and creator aloft, away from witness or memory . . . and I saw myself in my own suit of gold, my fingers lifting the emerald keys’ hoarded tones, braiding the sweetness in an everlasting round, endlessly augmented, twisted, fluted, finessed, a kaleidoscope of fragile harmony bursting, relentless, like a lattice of sparks in the night.
And I thought I could see, poured through the motion of my fingers over the glittering keys, my own soul made bright, given chiming form, in the music permeating the depths of those haunted woods. . . . And it seemed that the knight played for neither me nor himself (nor the pale sentinel bear), nor for anyone, I understood, but he continued to play, and meanwhile I was under his spell so that I came to suspect he had been there forever, or a very long time, and likewise would remain . . . and here was a place I, too, could stay, I felt, for a moment undiluted by words—my breath caught, I disappeared for an instant, vanished like the silence in this sudden startling gap in the forest, I was swallowed by the interlude, and dissolved into the knight’s honey-fueled song that was itself like a kind of honey, suffused with some pale amber glow, pulsing like the white sap that seemed to be its furious source. . . . Could it be that the rush pumping into that knight of gold was passing through him unabated—but transfigured, entering the dusky bower’s air as radiance, as a shimmering, mystic transubstantiation of sound? A miracle song on which the hungry might feed, from which the thirsty might sip, under the canopy of which the beleaguered chaser of a black unicorn might lie down to rest . . . an aural vision passing through this strange figure, so that he was not the light, but an echo of the light, as it shone through the endlessly uncoiling variations that were his and were not. He was a conduit of the forest’s light . . . and the thought stirred in me: Could I be a conduit too? Deeper into the forest: might I find my own piano? A different instrument? An enchanted lyre? Would the song take a different form, just as this knight’s liquid light seemed transposed to song? Would my own light or song take its own, separate shape—for instance, that of a black unicorn? But what about the black unicorn? Would the black unicorn even be a black unicorn? Might it come as something else? As a lightpost? As a moth? As an echo (of an echo)? As a cloak? As layered whispers on a chill breeze at dawn? Had I already found the black unicorn? Who could tell me? Whom could I ask? Claudstein! Father! (I saw her standing on the porch at dusk, waiting, arms across her chest—but with shining emerald eyes upcast, as a mountain breeze wisped golden hair.) I walked on.
Jonathan Callahan’s first book, The Consummation of Dirk, was selected by judge Zachary Mason as the winner of the 2011 Starcherone Innovative Fiction Prize and is forthcoming from Starcherone/Dzanc Books in early 2013. His novella, Notes from a Burning Underground, was recently published in sections across Quarterly West, Used Furniture Review, and Keyhole. Other work appears or is forthcoming in Witness, The Collagist, Pank, >kill author, Fringe, and elsewhere. He lives in Fukuoka, Japan.