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Fairytales and Other Stories / The Unicorn

   Have you ever seen a unicorn? Are unicorns just the stuff legends and myths are made of? Far from the habitations of man, deep in the last of the great forests is a place protected by the mystical power of the unicorns, or so the legends say. I have heard that legends are often based in fact.

   For many years now I have gone alone deep into the uninhabited regions of this country for my vacation. I cannot say this was wise, but there are times when I feel the need to be alone. I like to go where the only sounds you can hear are the birds and the rushing waters of a nearby stream. I find a place where the stars are not obscured by city lights, and fireflies gently flicker in the night, a place far from the insanities of man.

   There was one particular year the pressures of the world had driven me farther than I had ever gone before. Drawn by some unseen force, or perhaps pushed by the stress in my mind, I cannot say which. Perhaps it was a bit of both. I walked until the dirt road I was on became a fire break. I followed the fire break for a half a day until it ended and a game trail began. On I walked until even the trail I was on became obscure. I stopped only at night, and fell asleep quickly.

   I rose well before the sun, and continued my journey deeper into the land. The way was not easy. It was as if the land had risen up to prevent my going on. Still, the end of the day found me another twenty or thirty miles farther from civilization than I had been the day before. Sleep found me quickly as this day’s trek had been exhausting.

   I slept the night away, and was awaken by a flock of quail feeding near my camp. I watched them until they moved away and then I got up. The forest had almost become a living wall. The trees were close together and the bodies of giant trees lay where they had fallen many years past. I pressed on, climbing over the fallen trees, weaving in and out and around those trees still standing. It was almost nightfall when the land conspired to stop me completely. A wall of brush and trees blocked my way. It was so dense it was not possible to go on. It was here that I stopped for the night.

   I did not sleep well that night. The night was filled with strange sounds of creatures walking around my camp beyond the reach of my fire’s light. The worst was the whisperings of the wind that seemed to keep repeating, “Go back, go back.”

   The next day found me up early trying to find a way through or around the wall nature had placed in my way. It was like some great hedge that had not been trimmed in decades. It was mid-afternoon when I found what I was looking for, a small game trail. I would have passed this by had I not heard some thrashing about by some kind of animal within the living wall. I started down the trail trying to make my way through the thick undergrowth.

   I quickly grasped the nature of the place I was in. I fancied that I was in one of the last true thorn forests. The trees had thorns, the bushes had thorns, and even the vines that wove themselves between the trees and bushes had thorns. The thorns varied from a half inch for the vines to more than two inches for the trees. They tore at my clothes, snagged my backpack, and inflicted numerous scratches on my skin. Any sane man would have turned back.

   I could still hear the animal that had drawn my attention to the trail I was on. The noise it was making was growing louder. That meant either I was getting closer to it, or it was getting closer to me. Rounding a corner I got my first look at the noisemaker. I was relieved to know it wasn’t a bear. A young male deer had managed to entangle his antlers in one of the interlacing tree branches. The harder he struggled the worse it got. When he saw me he went crazy trying to get away which only made it worse. I took off my backpack, and sat down to wait for him to calm down. After a time he stopped his struggles. I could see the terror in the deer’s eyes as he watched me. I stood up very slowly. “It will be alright,” I said calmly. I started to walk toward him slowly. He started to struggle against the branches again. I stopped and waited for him to calm. We went through this scene over and over again until I was arm’s length. I reached out and stroked the deer’s neck taking care not to get kicked. I talked to him, and gently rubbed my hands over his body until at last I was standing next to him. I reached up slowly and pulled the branches apart that held him fast. The young buck pulled his head free, and then stood there looking at me. I reached down and scratched him behind one of his ears. “Good-by my young friend,” I said and turned around slowly and went back to get my backpack.

   The deer was gone when I turned back around. It was almost night so I spent the rest of the day trying to find a decent place to spend the night. There was none to be found. There was no fire that night. The overhead cover was too close to the ground for even the smallest fire. The thorn forest came alive with noises in the night, and the wind once again whispered, “Turn back.”

   I was up early the next morning. It was cloudy, and that made an already gloomy forest look even more so. The thorns ripped and grabbed and tore at me in an effort to keep me from continuing on. After spending a good part of the day making my way through the thorn forest I emerged on the other side of this natural barrier.

   Bleeding from a multitude of cuts and scratches, my clothes torn and my backpack ripped, but standing as I was I could not help thinking it was worth the trip. Stretched out before me was what looked like a great park where someone had forgotten to cut the grass. The grass was tall and lush. Flowers of every color were everywhere. Giant oak, pine, and aspen trees provided an endless scattered shade for the whole of what I saw. The wind rippled through the tall grass, and the fragrance of the flowers filled the air. There was such a feeling of peace; a feeling that I had never felt before or since.

   I could hear the sound of falling water in the distance. I made my way toward the sound through the tall grass. I could hear the birds as they sang merry songs to one another. I walked past a herd of deer that did little more than just look at me as they grazed. A rabbit hopped right past me on his way to who knows where. What manner of place is this where the animals have no fear of man? I wondered.

   The water leaped from rock to rock before falling twenty feet into a small crystal clear lake at the base of a mountain. The water was warm, and I could see fish swimming about. A fisherman would have been in heaven. All the fish would have been prize catches anywhere. Wild fruit trees lined the lake, and the small stream trickled out of the end of lake. Cherries, apples, and peaches, I would not want for food. At the far end of the lake a hot spring fed into the lake which accounted for the water being so warm. With hot water, there was no need to build a fire to heat water for my freeze dried food.

   I stretched my hammock between two apple trees at the far end of the lake near the hot spring, and cover that with a tarp. I wasn’t any too soon getting set up as it started to rain just as I finished taping up the last of the holes in my tarp. It was a gentle rain, not too hard and not too soft; the kind that can put you to sleep quickly. I watched the rain until I drifted off to dreamland. I slept better than I have in a long time, and did not wake until the sun was well into the sky.

   Most of the day was spent swimming in the warm waters of the lake, and sunning on a large flat rock near the waterfall. I could not help ponder the nature of this magical place. Could I have been the first human to set foot in this place? Was this all a dream from which I must shortly awake? What power enabled animals great and small to live together in peace? I had no answers, but I imagined that Eden must have been like this in the beginning.

   The next day was spent much the same as the day before. I took the time to read a book I had brought with me, and I watched the animals as they wandered down to the lake to drink. I crumbled up one of the pop tarts that I brought with me to feed the birds that had come to serenade me. Very quickly I found myself surrounded by small creatures of every kind and not enough pop tarts to go around. They seemed to understand the problem and soon wandered off. All except a small squirrel that had fallen asleep in the crook of my arm. Looking down at this small creature, I could not help but marvel again at this place I now found myself in with such trusting creatures in it. I did not move until my little friend woke up. I gave him a leftover piece of pop tart I had saved and set him on the ground.

   The next morning I felt something furry next to my face. There on my pillow was the squirrel from the day before. I had wakened him with my stirrings. He watched me for a moment before closing his eyes again. I went swimming, and picked some fresh fruit for breakfast. I shared an apple with my little friend, and then sat back and watched the clouds forming in the sky. The squirrel watched the clouds with me for a time and must have gotten bored. He scampered off. By late afternoon the clouds had turned dark gray and looked heavy with water. Not long after it began to rain.

   It started out slowly and began to build like a musical composition by one of the great masters. It started soft and slow and built into a raging storm. I could see the clash of the cymbals as the lightning played across the sky. I could hear the roll of the kettle drums in the thunder. It was magnificent. Lying there I watched the lightning dance in the sky well into the night.

   A small wet body ran up my leg, and snuggled in the bend of my left arm and looked out into the night. “It’s nice to have someplace dry on nights like this, isn’t it?” I asked as I dried my little friend off with my towel. I put him in the top corner of my sleeping bag, and then crawled in next to him. We were asleep in no time.

   I do not know the reason why I woke later that night. Maybe it was a clap of thunder that was loud enough to penetrate my sleep fogged mind. Perhaps it was a feeling of being watched that drove me to consciousness. In any case I found myself looking out into the storm late at night not understanding why. I laid there watching the lightning light up the night sky. The storm was at its peak, and jagged bolts of light licked the ground nearby. It was during one of the moments when the lightning lit up the night that I first saw it. Standing in the rain looking straight at me was what I can only describe as a unicorn. Had it been a horse it would have been flawless. A magnificent beast, but the horn that extended from its forehead made this beautiful creature much more than just a horse. For a brief moment I saw it, and in another moment it was gone. I do not remember falling asleep, but I remember waking up to the chatter of a small squirrel sitting on the end of my sleeping bag.

   Sharing one of my few remaining pop tarts with my small friend, I could not get what I saw that night out of my mind. Like a dream so real that it would not go away. I decided to explore this strange bit of the world I found myself in. It was more a search for what must have been a dream than an exploration.

   First I followed the stream along the base of the mountain to the edge of the thorn forest. Then I followed the thorn forest back around to where it met the mountain on the other side. I had seen many animals in my little exploration, but none even closely resembled what I thought I saw the night before. Perhaps it was only a dream; I though as I laid back against one of the giant oak trees that shaded much of this natural park I was in. It must have been later in the day than I guessed, and I more tired than I thought. I was awakened late in the evening by something crawling over my arm. Whatever it was bit me as I turned to see what it was. It was a snake, a rattlesnake to be a little more exact. I got a strange taste sensation in my mouth and I could feel the effects of the bite in my arm. I know enough to know I was too far away from help to walk out. I did the only thing I could do. I sat up, leaned back against the tree, and waited to die.

   Night enveloped me as I felt my life slipping away. The moon was up. A gentle breeze pushed the grass about. I remember the sweet perfume of the flowers filled me. I remember thinking that if I had to die that I could not have found a better place to do so. I remember every sound, every smell, as I slipped from this life into the next. I closed my eyes. I could feel the fire in my arm. It was with great effort that I opened my eyes again.

   There before me stood a small unicorn. If it had been a horse I would say it to be a colt not more than a few months old. It was all I could do to keep my eyes open. I could not move at all. I felt very heavy. My eyelids were almost closed when I saw a set of legs come into view. What strange hoofs, I thought. They were like a horse’s hoof, but cloven like a cow’s. A great head came into view, the mane swirled around the horn set in its head. It sniffed me and then my arm. The unicorn’s head came around until its horn rested against my chest. I watched as the horn rose until I felt it resting against my forehead. There was a sharp pain followed by a blinded flash of light.

   This has all been a strange dream; I thought when I woke the next morning to find myself lying on top of my sleeping bag. The fog in my mind cleared, and I suddenly realized that I was not where my sleeping bag should have been. It was with me under the oak tree. To this day I have no explanation how this came to be. I knew I had not been dreaming when I felt dried blood on my forehead, and saw the snakebite on my arm.

   I walked back to my camp carrying my sleeping bag with me. After a swim and a short nap I spent the rest of the day watching the rainbows in the mist from the waterfall. Try as I may I could not understand what had happened to me. It was like I was caught in a dream that was slowly becoming a nightmare. I sat on a rock watching the waterfall hoping to find answers to questions I was afraid to ask myself. It was almost night when I heard something behind me. I froze. I could not turn around, and I feared what I might see would plunge me deeper into this nightmare.

   Closer it came until I could hear it breathing as it inhaled the fragrant air. Slowly, ever so slowly I turned my head. There behind me a few paces away it stood. A unicorn, a fable, a myth, its silver coat reflected the colors of the fading light. I stood frozen to the ground not wanting to frighten it away. He walked slowly toward me until I could reach out and touch him. I reached out slowly and stroked his mane. “You’re real,” I said as I ran my hand down the back of his neck to rest on his shoulder.

   I stood there with my arm around the unicorn’s neck and watched as other unicorns came down to the lake to drink. I saw unicorns of all ages and all colors. There were black unicorns and white unicorns and unicorns with spots. I watched as young unicorns played in the tall grass by the light of the moon. The whole time I watched the unicorn on which my hand rested never left my side. As quickly as they had appeared they were gone. Only the unicorn that stood with me remained. I watched as the unicorn walked away. He stopped and looked back at me. It was like he was looking deep within my soul. Another moment he was gone.

   I never saw the unicorns again except to catch glimpses of them now and again. I spent two more days swimming, and lying in the tall grass watching the animals. I have sat in the middle of a herd of deer, and for a brief moment I was a part of them. I watched young animals at play that would in time would learn to hunt one another. I sat in a field of wild flowers of all colors and smelled the fragrance of it in the light breeze that gently rocked the grasses. The only thing that would have made my time there even more perfect would have been someone to share it with.

   I could not find the trail through the thorn forest when it came time to leave that wonderful place. Then suddenly he was there standing not far from where I stood, his long mane blowing in the wind. The long spiral horn on his head glowed gold in the sunlight. The unicorn looked at me and then looked into the forest and then looked back at me for a moment. He turned and walked off vanishing among the trees. I found a path next to where the unicorn had been standing. It was a much better one than the one I had used before. I found myself outside the thorn forest well before the end of the day with few added scratches. The journey home went much more quickly than my trek to that magical place. Three and a half days later found me standing on top of the last mountain I had to cross before I’d reach civilization again. I thought of going back, but no, I belong here. Then again perhaps I don’t.

   If I can teach one other being the things I learned in the place where unicorns run free. Then I will have done some good in the world. I hope there will come a time when the unicorns can roam beyond the thorn wall that protects their land form the outside. At that time we will have learned to live at peace with ourselves and the creatures of the earth. I should like to live to see that day.

   I have long since moved away from that place, but when the thunder roars, and the lightning flashes, and the full moon rises in the night sky, I stop and think back. Back to warm waters of a crystal clear lake, and gentle breezes of fragrant night air. Back to a time when I saw unicorns dance in the moonlight. At those times, I can feel the ache in my soul, and I long to return to that special place.

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