ALLEN DWIGGINS LIVED by himself in a brick townhouse in an old, forgotten neighborhood. A graphic designer, he went to work each day in a building overlooking a network of canals which, having once excited the city’s industry, now dashed picturesquely past streets and under bridges. On the weekends Allen went for long walks in a cemetery at the edge of his neighborhood—a vast and rambling necropolitan suburb with bending cypresses and weeping beeches and exotic specimens of spruce from the far east—a quiet, sylvan surround decorated with softly-carved crosses, prim statues of Grace, and mausoleums like gothic garden sheds.
Amidst this memorial splendor one Saturday morning, Allen met a unicorn. It was a sunny, bracing day in early Spring; he was sitting on a low rock wall listening to a flock of chickadees rustle in a nearby bush when the unicorn walked out from behind a great rock and clumsily folded itself into a knot at his feet.
The unicorn was spectacularly ugly. Swollen and thickly-jointed, it reminded Allen of a rhinoceros rather than the gracile equine of the old tapestries. The size of a middling hog, its hide was grayish-green, carbuncled, and hairless but for a few thin, coarse strands sprung from its spinal harrow and plastered here and there to its sides. In place of a mane it sported a bristle that was wiry, close-cropped, and thick enough of knap to scrub a ship’s hull. Its tail was no silky brush but a wrist-like, twisted stump that ended abruptly in a shrubby tangle of hair. Its eyes, wracked and inflamed, were yellow and bulging and punctuated with a black iris. But the horn, the horn was the thing: no flute of ivory and spun gold but a blade of obsidian, glossy and black, which rose to a narrow, jagged point. Its hooves—which it must be admitted were properly cloven—were of the same adamantine cast.
The unicorn looked up, its whiskered eyelids twitching. Allen felt a chill of anxiety run down his legs; the chickadees had gone still, and the whole scene, the wall of puddingstone and the bruised grass and the vacuous graves, seemed to gather around the unicorn’s pricked and empty eye, pressing in and locking together in a glimmering tunnel of vertigo. Allen could put no name to the sensation—this vague desire absent the pressure of longing, this quietude at once active and rooted, settled in time and place. The unicorn blinked, and its mouth wrenched itself into a blistering grin.
After a time the unicorn broke their mutual gaze, rose stiffly, and ambled about. It made no sound other than a high nasal rooting, which it emitted while snuffling windblown leaves gathered into the margins of the hedges. In subsequent visits, Allen found that the beast never tired of these browsings, although it never seemed to glean anything edible in the process.
It had a disconcerting habit of stopping every now and again to fix its gaze on a headstone. At first Allen wondered: could the creature be reading? Could it be sussing out the vital facts of the entombed, pondering their mortal traces? It was just as happy examining the backs of the stones as it was the graven fronts, however, and after a few such episodes, Allen concluded it was not genealogy but geology that captured the beast’s interest. And while it never tried to communicate, its uncanny eyes were always full of something Allen that supposed looked like love. Whenever Allen would resume his walk through the cemetery the unicorn would follow for awhile, mincing along on its quick splayed legs like a pug-dog in high-heeled shoes. But it would never travel far from the low rock wall with the bird-bustling hedge. Allen would climb a low rise or turn a corner, and the knotty, esoteric creature would be gone.
It took no time at all for Allen to become attached to the unicorn and their uncanny, silent ramblings. One Spring evening he stayed in the cemetery past closing. The unicorn’s eyes glowed faintly, reflecting and concentrating the evening’s crepuscular glow. It was a moonless night, and only a few stars appeared to prick the darkening orange tarp of the sky.
“Does it bother you that the sky is so empty?” Allen asked aloud, craning his neck. The unicorn vented a weak, baritone croak and settled into its customary crouch. “It’s always disappointed me. That’s not how it looks in the textbooks, on public television, in science museums. There it’s all toroid clouds of stars blown apart, lacy rings a thousand light years across, galaxies spinning and glowing in a thousand colors. But it never really looks like that, does it, the sky? Instead it’s just points of light, unchanging, very faint. The scientists use special lenses and software and equipment to make those pictures. But wherever you go in the universe, you look with your own eyes and all you’ll see are those faint points of light, always unbearably far away.”
He looked down at the unicorn, its eyes nebulizing, titrating the light. “Animals are like that, too,” Allen continued. “They’re always faint and faraway. It’s not just that nature is mostly empty space. It’s that everything is repelling everything else.”
The unicorn settled it head stiffly, stacking its wide snout atop its forehocks and shutting its pixellated eyes. A sheen of starlight swirled in its mirrored horn.
If the unicorn had any idea of Allen’s considered notions, it never disclosed them. The two continued their idle tours, however, and Inevitably, others noticed the unlikely pair. Dogwalkers would approach in amity only to find themselves tugging at the leashes of their dogs, who lay themselves at the unicorn’s scalpeled feet in mute, quivering submission. Most walkers changed course urgently, and Allen found himself ever more scrupulously avoiding funeral gatherings for fear of disconcerting the mourners. As weeks passed and the weather warmed, however, passersby traded revulsion for curiosity in increasing numbers. It was only a matter of time before a video of Allen and his fey companion went viral.
And so it came one bright morning that Allen found himself on the rock wall, the unicorn staring off into space at his side, while a mob of reporters crowded in on them baying and clamoring for answers. They asked him what the unicorn did and what its habits were; they asked when it came to him, and whether it observed any schedule or phases or rituals; they asked how it survived, whether it grazed the grasses or browsed the bushes or consumed meaner, perhaps unspeakable meals; finally, they asked Allen why. Why did the unicorn choose him?
Allen had pondered this question many times but had never yet felt bold enough to answer. His gaze drifted as he considered, and his eyes came to rest on a reporter’s tablet computer lying in the long grass playing an astronomical screen saver. It was high summer, and the reflection of clouds in the blue sky played across the sheen as planets and galaxies toiled in the tablet’s glossy void.
Allen thought of nature and the starry sky and everything he had said to the placid unicorn a few nights before. But all he managed was, “I don’t know.” And then, feeling stupid about it before the words ever left his mouth, “It’s a gift.”
It’s not because you’re a virgin, is it? came a cry from the back of the group, prompting vague chortles.
The reporters began to rustle and hum, absorbed in their own colloquy; Allen sat listening, hands laced together in his lap. The unicorn browsed at their feet, sniffing here and there; when it came to the tablet computer it looked down, curious, and placed one cloven hoof in the middle of the screen, which broke with a sharp snap and a little puff of smoke. Everyone fell silent as the reporter picked up her tablet and turned it over in her hands, examining it from all angles. The gadget still functioned, but its galaxies and star clusters spun now in splintery shards. Text and image alike now appeared in puzzles, like leaves of origami folded and rudely flattened.
The unicorn wandered away, as was its wont; and soon the journalists too disappeared, hying off to their own secret haunts. Allen watched as the unicorn fell to the ground and commenced snuffling the stump of its tail. “oh that was very nicely done,” he said to the self-absorbed mythical beast.
Allen wrote the reporter offering to pay for her broken tablet, but she told him not to bother. A few weeks later he received another email: the gadget was still working, even though she hadn’t charged it in all that time. In a shattering of capacitive glass, the unicorn’s touch had imparted to the gadget some source of undying energy.
Soon the story was all over the news. Pilgrims made their way to the cemetery, bringing their gadgets in hopes of receiving the unicorn’s blessing of unending power. Things got unmanageable for awhile; Allen and the unicorn appeared on talk shows (always shot on location at the cemetery, as the unicorn would never travel), and there was a harrowing episode involving a Russian mobster who wanted to harvest the unicorn’s glassy, fragile horn. Those episodes came and went, the kind of thing you read about in the news. And in about a year and half, scientists had reverse-engineered the unicorn’s secret, making gadgets with endlessly renewable power sources accessible to anyone with a credit card. The world changed, not as much as anyone had hoped.
After that, interest in Allen and his ugly little unicorn dwindled. Once explained, commodified, and made scalable, the unicorn’s secret had lost its glamor. But for occasional gawkers, pilgrims stopped coming to the cemetery. Allen went back to designing logos and arranging type on screens whose energies now never flagged; in renovated solitude he repaired to the habit of his walks, perambulating the cemetery twice a week save when illness or errands prevented it. Regularly he sat on the rock wall with the ugly little unicorn at his side watching the seasons come and go.
And so it continued as Allen grew old and infirm; and one day he couldn’t walk anymore; and one day he died. And still the unicorn watched by the rock wall: the seasons turned, blending into harshness year by year; headstones fell over and crumbled into dust; trees, shattering amidst the graves in ones and twos, were replaced by spiny vegetation with ground-hugging habits in ever more sere shades of green. Those plants withered, too, and were not replaced. Snow fell, ice rose and retreated; snow fell and the ice rose again and sublimed. And still the unicorn watched; it watched as clouds of oxygen bubbled and flared green on the edges of galaxies; watched a billion suns wheel and fall into immense black holes; watched star clusters collide and die and fade into glowing storms of gas and the unicorn could see all these things, for the unicorn it all seemed unbearably close at hand.