by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Luna Station Quarterly, December 2015
As I brought the mug of fresh-brewed coffee to my lips, the steaming liquid froze solid. Startled by the sudden coldness in my hand, I dropped the mug. The handle broke off when it hit the linoleum floor. To make matters worse, the magic wore off almost instantly, and the mug-shaped block of coffee-ice promptly melted, puddling on the floor.
For weeks, ever since Angelo’s horn came in, I’d been finding small works of mischief around the house — summer strawberries, fresh-picked from the garden, ruined by frost; icicles blocking up the faucets; and hot drinks that simply wouldn’t stay hot. This was the first time it had happened to something while I was looking at it.
I turned toward the kitchen doorway and saw the small fawn-like creature standing there, barely larger than my largest cat. The snowy whiteness of his fur and the pearlescent shine of his horn bespoke purity, but I could swear the bastard was glaring at me. He disappeared before I could move, running off to hide behind the sofa. We barely saw him anymore, only found the traces of his mischief.
“Stupid unicorn,” I grumbled, grabbing a fistful of paper towels and kneeling on the floor in my pajamas. I wiped up the mess on the linoleum, thinking about how I’d have to brew a whole new cup of coffee in the French press. It made good coffee, but it took longer than the instant stuff I used to have. That wasn’t a problem before, but, with a four-month-old baby, every minute counted. I didn’t know how long I’d have before Noah woke up. Chances were good I’d have to either skip the coffee or miss out on my five minute shower today.
The more I thought about it, the more angry I got. My husband was out of town, and I couldn’t stand the idea of a whole week of cleaning up after unicorn pranks on my own.
“Libby!” I called to my eight-year-old daughter who was reading comic books in the other room. “Where’s that golden bridle Grandma gave us?”
“The one for Angelo?” she called back. “I was using it with my stuffed toys. I think Muff-Muff is wearing it.”
I rolled my eyes. “Enchanted bridles aren’t toys. Could you go get it?”
A minute later, Libby appeared in the kitchen doorway, dangling the golden ropes of the bridle and kicking at the floor. “Does this mean we’re giving Angelo to Grandma?” she asked.
“He’ll be happier there,” I said. My mom had experience with mystical pets, and Angelo would get along better with her miniature dragon, Smug, than with my cats. They didn’t like him at all.
“You don’t think Gabriel and Angelo will miss each other?” Libby asked.
We’d found the twin foals more than a year ago in a hollow under the thorn bush that grew along the edge of our backyard. Back then, they’d been small enough to fit into the palms of my cupped hands. My mom and I had caught them, and Mom had cast a spell on their feral mother to make her infertile. The last thing we needed was a neighborhood overrun with feral unicorns. The foals were young enough, though, that I’d decided to tame them and keep them as indoor-only pets. They’d have a better life that way than out on the streets.
It had been working out well enough until their horns came in…
“I don’t know, Libby. If they miss each other, then we can always take Gabriel to live with Grandma, too.” Besides, I couldn’t be completely sure all the mischief was Angelo’s work until he was gone. Though, Gabriel certainly got along better with the cats.
“But then we won’t have any pet unicorns!” Libby stomped her foot and threw the golden bridle on the floor.
I frowned at her and said, “You know better than to act like that. Now will you help me catch Angelo before Noah wakes up?”
Libby and I chased Angelo around the house still dressed in our pajamas. He hid behind one piece of furniture after the other. Once Libby thought she’d cornered him in the gap between the washer and dryer, only to find it was actually Gabriel. He shied away from us, too. We could only tell them apart by Gabriel’s slight dappling of white spots on white, visible only from certain angles, and a softer look in his eyes.
Finally, we chased Angelo upstairs into Noah’s room, the smallest in the house. I sent Libby away, shushing her, and closed the door behind me. Angelo was trapped now. I’d put the golden bridle on him, call my mom, and then we could drive over to visit her — and give her this godforsaken unicorn — after I took my shower and got Noah up.
I peeked in the crib and saw Noah sleeping peacefully, rolled up in a swaddling blanket like a little burrito. If I was quiet, maybe this wouldn’t even wake him up.
The space under the crib was filled with boxes of hand-me-down baby clothes, and the only other piece of furniture in the room was a combination changing table and dresser by the window. It sat flat on the floor, so Angelo had squeezed himself into the narrow space between it and the wall. I approached him slowly with the bridle held out in front of me, crooning quiet words to soothe him.
“Good unicorn. Easy unicorn. Stay where you are, Angelo.” I knelt down by the dresser to get closer.
Angelo pawed the carpeted floor with his tiny, cloven hooves and reared back on his hind legs. He looked more like a wild animal than one of my pets, but I told myself it was just a show. I’d sheltered him, cared for him, and fed him for more than a year. When he was foal without a horn, I’d held him on my lap and stroked his fur.
My mom had told me the bridle would take Angelo’s frost magic away and make him docile, at least for a few hours. After that, the enchantment would begin to wear off. All I had to do was get it on him. How bad could it be? Even if he iced my hands, the cold would disappear as soon as the bridle was on.
I took a deep breath and reached my left hand toward him. He cowered as far in the corner as he could squeeze himself. His flank quivered when I touched him. I started to reach in to the narrow space with my right hand, holding the bridle, but Angelo reared back again, kicking at my left hand with his front hooves. He kicked hard, and his tiny, cloven hooves were surprisingly sharp. My hand seared with pain, but I had to get that bridle on him.
“Hold still,” I growled, trying to steady his struggling body with my increasingly battered hand. I brought the bridle forward. Angelo swung his head, aiming his horn, and ran my right hand through.
I gasped in pain and shock at the sight of his pearly horn emerging from the back of my hand. I pulled my hand away, sliding it off Angelo’s horn. It hurt so badly that I screamed out.
Noah cried, and Libby called from the other side of the door. “Are you okay, Mom?”
Somehow I’d backed myself across the room, away from the wild creature in my baby’s bedroom. A trail of blood followed me across the carpet, and I realized my hand was bleeding everywhere. My pajamas were soaked red. I couldn’t face the idea of trying to capture Angelo again. I’d have to leave him trapped in here and deal with him later. For now, I had to pick up Noah.
Libby wasn’t tall enough to reach into the crib, and I couldn’t leave the baby in here with Angelo. If he froze my coffee to annoy me when I let him be, and he did this to me when I didn’t, then who knew what he might do now that I’d made him mad?
“Bring me a towel!” I called through the closed door.
“Are you okay?” Libby called back.
I wrapped the towel around my hand as soon as Libby brought it to me, twisting it tight to staunch the blood. “Now get back out, and close the door,” I said. “I’ll get the baby.”
As I reached into the crib, I realized my other hand was bleeding too from all the little, crescent hoof prints. I started crying, but I couldn’t take the time to bandage my hands properly, just wipe them as much as possible with the towel. I scooped up the screaming baby whose arched body relaxed as soon as he felt arms holding him. Once outside the nursery with the door shut behind me, I said, “Libby, please hold your brother.”
She was crying, but she took him. Scattered dots of blood on his swaddling blanket matched the bleeding hoof-marks on my left hand.
First thing first: I got my cell phone from my bedroom and fought my shaking hands to call my mom. My fingers smeared blood on the display screen.
I sat down on my bed, feeling faint. I switched the cell to speaker phone while it rang and set it on my knee. I held my hands uselessly in front of me, watching the blood coil down my wrists.
“Hello, Janie,” my mother said.
“Mom!” The words poured out of me in a rush: “That unicorn is not a pet! He’s wild! All he does is glare at me and hide behind furniture and play frost tricks on me. I don’t think he’s let a human hand touch him since his horn came in. And now he’s stabbed my hand! There’s blood everywhere.” A sob shook my voice. “He can’t stay here anymore. What if he decided to freeze the baby? He’s trapped in the baby’s room. Can you come over and help me? He can’t stay. I have to get him out of my house today.”
There was a pause at the other end.
“Mom?” I sobbed.
“I’ll be over in ten minutes,” she said and hung up.
Ten minutes was too long to sit and stare at my hands bleeding, but I didn’t know how I was going to bandage them myself. I went into the bathroom and turned on the sink with my elbow. I rinsed off as much blood as I could, then I dried my hands quickly on the already blood-soaked towel. By moving fast and repeatedly dabbing the towel at the beads of blood that formed on my hands, I managed to get out the first aid kit and scatter an array of bandages on the bathroom floor without getting too much blood on the bathroom cabinet. I knelt down and started matching different sized bandages to the various hoof wounds on my left hand. Once I had the blood mostly stopped on one hand, it got easier.
My right hand was swollen and growing stiff. I wrapped gauze as tightly as I could around the stigmata-like gouge in my palm.
When I looked up, I saw Libby standing in the bathroom door, bouncing Noah and watching me. “I wish this hadn’t happened,” she said.
“I wish that too.” I didn’t say, Too bad unicorns don’t grant wishes.
My mom arrived wearing a ridiculous looking wizard’s hat from an old Halloween costume over her bouffant hairdo and one of the garlic braids that she gets at the farmer’s market draped around her neck. She held a bouquet of purple-dyed daisies that she’d probably bought at the grocery store on the way over.
“Isn’t garlic for vampires?” I asked.
“It’s a general purpose ward,” she answered, looking at me sternly over her bifocals. She went straight into my kitchen and got out the olive oil. “You don’t mind?” she asked.
“What are you going to do with it?”
“Anti-frost spell,” she answered opening the bottle. She dipped her finger in and smeared the oil on her forehead and cheeks while chanting. Then she asked, “Where’s the bridle?”
“I dropped it in Noah’s room.”
“And Angelo’s shut in there?”
I followed my mother dumbly up to Noah’s room. When she got to the door, I panicked and said, “Wait!”
She turned to look at me. I didn’t understand her spells, but she seemed so sure of herself. So prepared. Maybe I wouldn’t be in this situation if I’d taken magic lessons from her like she wanted.
“Never mind,” I said, wringing the towel that I was still holding in my hands. “Be careful.”
She went into the nursery and closed the door behind her. I couldn’t stand waiting outside, not knowing how it was going, so I cracked the door open, not enough for Angelo to squeeze through if he tried to escape but enough for me to see my mom scattering the purple daisies, dancing and singing. Once all the daisies were on the floor, she approached the corner where Angelo hid. I saw her crouch down, and I listened to the voice that had lulled me to sleep as a child.
Clearly, I’d handled the situation all wrong. I should have called my mother over in the first place. Then, my hand wouldn’t hurt. We’d already be drinking tea and watching Angelo get acquainted with Smug.
Then she screamed.
I should never have let my mother go in that room with a feral unicorn. She kept screaming. What had he done to her?
My mother came running out, no eyebrows and her hair on fire. I threw my blood soaked towel over her head, knocking off her wizard’s hat and inadvertently knocking her down too.
We sat on the floor in the hallway outside the nursery together. My mother’s hair was no longer on fire, but she’d turned her ankle, and the burns on her face where she’d smeared the olive oil looked bad.
“That little jerk set me on fire,” she said. “Since when can a unicorn have both frost and fire magic?”
“Can he still attack us out here?” I asked, looking worriedly at the door.
“Unicorns can’t cast spells on things they can’t see,” Mom said, touching her face gingerly and wincing. “Line-of-sight magic.”
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
I looked her over, trying to figure out what to do. Her face was red and cracked. I didn’t know how to treat burn wounds. “Let’s make sure you’re okay,” I said. I got up and called out in a loud voice, “Libby, get dressed! We’re taking Grandma to urgent care.”
I threw exercise clothes on and found enough supplies to dress Noah in the baby bag in the living room. Thank goodness. I only hoped Angelo wouldn’t set the house on fire while we were gone.
There was hardly any wait at the urgent care. I guess that’s the advantage of getting attacked by a unicorn early in the morning. My mother, daughter, baby and I crowded into the little examination room with the doctor. My mom sat on the examination table; Libby took the one chair; and I stood in the corner, bouncing Noah, leaving the wheeled stool for the doctor even though he stood too.
“Second degree,” he announced after examining my mom’s burns. “I’ll dress the wounds, give you something for the pain, and you’ll be fine.”
“I’m working on a healing spell that would clear something like this right up,” my mom said.
“Uh huh.” The doctor got supplies out of a drawer, spread a shiny salve over my mom’s wounds, and set to work bandaging them. When he was done my mother looked a little like a half-wrapped mummy.
“You’re the second person I’ve seen today for a mystical animal attack,” the doctor said. “The last guy had deep scratches all down his arm from his pet griffin. If you ask me, mystical animals should be outlawed as pets.”
I knew my mom loved her dragon, but, right then, I couldn’t disagree with the doctor. Though, I wondered how many people he saw for attacks from cats, dogs, raccoons. Any animal with claws can scratch.
“You should look at my daughter’s hands, too,” Mom said.
“I’m fine,” I said, but, when I tried to close my hand, I realized it had grown too stiff to bend.
I passed Noah to my mom, and the doctor looked at my hands.
“You’re lucky,” he said. “No bone or nerve damage. If that horn were any thicker around, I’d be sending you to a hand surgeon. As it is, you’ll have to be very careful to make sure it doesn’t get infected.”
We took the prescriptions the doctor gave us to the closest pharmacy. My mom waited in the car with Noah; Libby and I went in. While the pharmacist prepared our drugs, Libby hopscotched around the colored tiles of the floor, and I tried to figure out what to do about Angelo when we got home.
We couldn’t get the golden bridle on him. That was clear. I could leave him shut in Noah’s room until he starved, but that would be horrible. Besides, Noah wouldn’t let any of us sleep if I messed with his bedtime routine. Maybe there was someone I could call. There had to be professionals who dealt with situations like this. Who you gonna call? Unicorn-busters!
When we got home, Mom set Libby up with a movie and settled in the rocking chair to sing to the baby. I looked up the number for animal control on my computer.
I didn’t like the idea of having Angelo removed like a wild animal that had invaded my home. What if they insisted on putting him down? But I tried calling anyway. The phone tree I reached gave me options for reporting animal abuse, complaining about loud barking, advice for the proper care and feeding of mystical animals, registering a new pet… Nothing seemed right. None of it sounded like it would lead me to an actual human. I hung up.
After another minute of thought, I decided to call the vet who’d seen Angelo and Gabriel when we first caught them.
“Wellspring Animal Hospital. This is Dianne. How can I help you?”
“Hi, Dianne,” I said. “I’m calling you because I don’t know what else to do. I have this unicorn who I brought to see Dr. Eiler as a foal, and ever since his horn came in he’s been playing frost tricks on me. Today, he ran my hand through with his horn, and he set my mom on fire. I had to take her to the doctor.”
There was silence on the other end of the phone, so I kept telling my story.
“I’ve trapped him in the smallest room in the house, but I can’t let him out. I have a four-month-old baby who’d be completely defenseless, and now that Angelo’s mad… I don’t know what I’m expecting, but the vet’s who you call when you have trouble with animals. So, I thought… Do you have any ideas?”
After a moment, Dianne said, “Have you tried opening the window?”
“Angelo’s an indoor-only–” I stumbled over the word pet and ended up saying unicorn.
“It sounds like he can take care of himself.”
“That’s true.” I didn’t know if Angelo would be willing to go out the window. He was used to living in a warm house with bowls of fresh oats fixed with heavy cream, brown sugar, and mint leaves. Living on the streets would be a much harder life. Yet, he seemed to hate living with me. “I’ll give it a try,” I said. “Thanks.”
The window wouldn’t be latched since it was summer, and it would be easy enough to pop off the screen from the outside. Noah’s room was on the second story, but I got the ladder out of the garage and climbed up on the roof rather than risking going in that nursery with Angelo again.
When I popped the window screen out, I saw feathered fingers of frost on the glass panes behind it. Angelo had been casting his magic at the window. Was he trying to get out? Looking into the nursery, I noticed a few singes on the carpet, but those could be from when he attacked my mother. The rest of the room looked perfectly normal. I couldn’t see Angelo at this angle which meant he couldn’t see me.
I pushed up the window and quickly got out of the way. I felt terribly exposed, standing on the slanted shingles of my roof. I wanted to go down the ladder and get the hell out of there, but then how would I know if Angelo had gone? I waited with my heart racing.
A snowy equine head graced with a mane like a tiny waterfall emerged tentatively from the window. I wished I’d brought a shield or weapon to defend myself. Maybe one of my mother’s spells. Angelo stood on the window ledge, looking all around. When his head turned far enough to see me, our eyes locked. As fast as a shadow disappears when the sun comes out, Angelo moved from the window ledge to the edge of the roof.
He gave me one last look, triumph burning in his eyes, before jumping down from the roof. I escaped, his look said. You trapped me, but I outsmarted you. I wondered if I’d ever see him again.
I climbed in through the window and gladly shut it on the world of wild animals outside. The screen could be put back later. I sat on the bloodstained, singed carpet of my baby’s room for a while, cradling my swollen, injured hands and figuring out what I’d say when I went downstairs. I hoped Libby and my mom wouldn’t be too disappointed. They couldn’t really believe that Angelo belonged in either of our houses after this morning.
I must have sat there for a while, because Libby’s movie was almost over when I came down. Libby was stretched out on the couch, and Mom was still in the rocking chair. Libby paused the movie, and they both looked at me.
“Well?” Mom asked.
“Angelo’s an outdoor unicorn now.”
“I think that’s best,” Mom said.
“Can we still fix bowls of oats for him and put them outside?” Libby asked.
After all the trouble that Angelo had caused, I felt like he could forage for mint leaves on his own. There were plenty of nice gardens around. “Maybe,” I said.
Libby’s face quivered, and she cried, “I miss Angelo!”
Until today, Libby hadn’t interacted with Angelo for months. I closed my eyes and said with as much patience as I could find, “We still have Gabriel. They’re practically the same.” Except, of course, one of them turned out to be evil. I hoped it was only the one.
Exhausted, we all watched movies for the rest of the afternoon. My mom helped scrub the blood out of the carpet in Noah’s room before she went home. She pressed a small bunch of lavender and mistletoe sprigs into my hand when we said goodbye. “Treats for Gabriel,” she said. “Unicorns love mistletoe. Don’t let the cats or baby get it though. If you’re not mystical, it’s poisonous.”
“And if he gives you any trouble, I’m willing to take him. Do you know if he has the same kind of magics as Angelo?”
I shook my head. “I’ve barely seen him since his horn came in. I think Angelo was pulling all the pranks, but it’s impossible to be sure. I guess I’ll find out soon.”
“Hmm.” Mom frowned. “If he has frost magic — and only frost magic — the bridle will work on him. If he turns out to have some other kind of magic, let me know, and I’ll re-enchant the bridle.”
I couldn’t imagine trying to put an enchanted bridle on a unicorn ever again. I’d rather open another window. But it would be different with a unicorn who was really my pet, a unicorn who wasn’t feral, wouldn’t it? The question was: was Gabriel my pet?
All evening, I jumped at shadows, expecting objects to freeze in my hands or the water in the faucet to dry up, blocked by an icicle. I kept an eye out for Gabriel, but all I saw were my cats. I could have been imagining it, but they looked grateful to have Angelo gone.
Once the kids were down for the night, I could finally relax. I took the bandages off my hands. The left hand didn’t look too bad, but my right hand was still so swollen around my stigmata that I could barely curl my fingers. I’d assumed the wound would be getting better by now with all the medicine the doctor had given me, but it was worse. The gouge was bloody and oozed with puss. I washed it like the doctor had instructed and then re-dressed it, wrapping the gauze tight and trying to ignore the throbbing.
I crawled into a bed littered, as always, with cats. I began to drift off, then I felt a new weight at the foot of the bed. I opened my eyes and saw a pale shadow so much like Angelo it made my heart jump.
I forced myself to stay calm and reached for the sprigs of lavender and mistletoe that I’d tucked into the drawer in the bedside table. Gabriel lowered his head and nuzzled one of my cats, a grumpy calico who I’d seen hiss and spit at Angelo only a few days ago. The calico purred.
I pulled off a few leaves of mistletoe and lavender flowers, placed them on my good palm, and held out my hand. Slowly, one step at a time, Gabriel walked up the bed. I could feel his hoofs, a delicate weight, through my quilt. It terrified me how much he looked like Angelo, but he seemed equally terrified. I held perfectly still.
Gabriel ate the leaves and flowers from my palm. Then he lay down beside me just like he was one of the cats. I waited awhile, practically holding my breath, then I reached my right hand out, slowly, to pet him. Gabriel startled when my hand touched him. He turned his head, pressed his nose, whickering, against the bandages. I felt a warmth in my hand, and I stiffened, readying myself to fight a fire magic unicorn.
The warmth ebbed, and the throbbing pain in my hand subsided. Moving slowly, so as not to upset Gabriel, I unwrapped the bandage on my hand again. The oozing gouge had closed into a white scar. The swelling was going down by the second.
“You have healing magic,” I said.
Gabriel stared at me with soft eyes. I stroked his dappled white body with my newly healed hand. Hidden under his fur, Gabriel’s neck was covered in raised lines, healed scratches, and half moon scars.
“You’ve been fighting,” I said. “Who have you been fighting?” I didn’t think my cats would do this, and the half moon scars matched the cloven hoof marks on my left hand. Had Angelo been attacking his own brother?
I would not miss that feral unicorn.
This unicorn did not seem feral. He laid his head down on the quilt. His hooves were already folded beneath him. I stroked his neck. Slowly, so as not to spook him, I worked my way up to scritching his ears and running my fingers through his forelock. Finally I touched his horn, the heart of his magic. On his brother it was a dangerous weapon. On Gabriel, it was simply a part of this tiny animal’s body. It was like Gabriel had an evil twin outside, roaming the neighborhood, probably freezing songbirds and squirrels.
This morning, I’d had two unicorns, but, with the way they’d hidden behind furniture, darting out of any room I entered, it felt like I’d had none. Now, nestled on the bed beside me, as if he were one of my cats, was a lovely, tiny, unicorn. I’d lost a pet today, but it felt like I’d gained one.