My horn is sharp and I thought I would never hesitate when they inevitably came for my family.
But I did.
A few definitions first.
Hesitation: a horn which slices through flesh so easily is a burden, one all unicorns must contend with.
Burden: whatever those without horns told me it would be. Tread careful now, They’d say, even your hooves strike sparks and your tongue might be set aflame.
Family: anyone we damn well choose it to be. Sisters and siblings of all definition. My family is legion, because my hearts are weak, They sneer.
They: Capital T. The Enemy. Simple in name. Don’t let that fool you. They are not simple in deed. They are patient and Old.
They also have no idea. The longer the stars spin, the more a unicorn’s heart turns to stone. We became the source of marble in this world, hard and unyielding as a statue whose hands are pressed lovingly into flesh, veil delicate across face. Beauty that pierces right through.
A singularity, my horn is made of tougher stuff still.
Breaking of a uniquine; an insidious word and deed, turning the wild and free into beasts of burden. They say we enjoy serving, that it benefits all of us Beasts to come together, but that’s a lie. My spine is not for bending or mastering.
They don’t come for us in the night, as you would expect. The full light of day is Their cover.
A corral and harness, for our safety.
A bit, for silence.
A bone-saw, at the ready.
A knife and goblet, for our blood.
And all the while, silence rings from the gold-glass cages of the menagerie.
A few things about lies.
Virgins: a whopper as big as unicorns. What is it about a hymen—a simple piece of skin, something as flexible as a tongue—that makes a woman pure? What about the women who don’t have hymens? We don’t have them, and yet…
Blood: prick us, unicorns bleed black and gold. Another burden, another thing stolen from us.
Blood again: that of virgins, of which we do not drink for immortality or power. You’re thinking of vampires.
Blood, yet again: unicorns drank blood long ago, but not for the purpose you think. I have no taste for it. It is a past we are careful not to forget.
I’m ashamed to say I hid in the deepest part of the forest, an orchard where even They hesitate to tread. Through the leaves and lashes, I see white: the stain of a rolling eye, muscle rippling under unicorn coat, snow falling on tongues.
This attack comes from a simple Arm of The Enemy, but I can feel His presence all over them, oozing hot and cold: the dankness of blood-mucked boots and batons and bridles; and sweat stinking like damp cardboard and stiff, old wool, yellow at the pits and crotch.
Blood spots my hide from where I bite and my horn pricks to keep from screaming. I am no use to my family dead.
But what use am I when I hesitate? I could have run Them through then and there. Stopped the madness.
But how mad is too mad? My hesitation always said: if I run this Betrayer through today, will there just be a bigger wound tomorrow? Dare I prove them right about unicorns? Dare I prove to myself?
I am paralyzed as They suck eagerly at the throats of my family, lead the ones away they believe are female.
Bits jangle, heads bow.
A voice rises, prelude to a scream, but They point a sister’s horn in its direction, push her flank, and the sound gurgles to a stop.
Unicorns are not actually white. Nor pure. You’re seeing us in the wrong light.
Angle the prism a little stronger and you will understand what I mean.
When the snow melts, churning the fallen forest of our home into pink slush, I run. From place to place, always finding sanctuary, but not for long. The more unicorn They harvested, the more they wanted. Our horns made excellent swords.
A horn is not a weapon unless you have the right head to wield it.
Just as blood is not something abstract. My family’s blood is painted into masterpieces They hang in every museum, decorate every textbook.
And the hearts. Oh, my sisters’ hearts…
My deep family take me in. They too are afraid and I don’t blame them. Look what we’ve become, so few. They frown at me and I can see it in the whites of their eyes: do something, why don’t you do something.
I run for what feels like forever. You do what you must do, day by day, minute by minute, to survive.
Deep in my hearts, I know I want to do it. One burns hot, one burns cold, a balance I can’t tip.
What is the worst that can happen?
I would die.
What is the best that can happen?
I could die.
There it lies: I am a coward.
Fear can be a powerful weapon. It depends on how you use it, how far it will take you, if you know how to wield it.
Snow can pack down into a glacier, bones upon bones, grinding along, carving out the land, making way for the river to get to the ocean and start the process all over again. Water back to water. Blood back to blood.
As the saying goes: take the bit between your teeth.
Cracked yellow bricks finally end beneath my splintered hooves. I make sparks no more.
Tarnished golden gates bar the way into the Glass Mountain. The Enemy’s Sanctuary. This is where the heart of darkness lives, within the middle of the light. Such a cliché. Light, dark, good, evil. But you also thought unicorns were made from snow and candy and ate virgins until now, didn’t you?
Because my hide is camouflaged, stained with the sweat of all my family who propelled me along, They don’t see me slip between the cracks. Snow has that habit when it melts, a trickle finding its way through. And then when it refreezes it expands, widening the cracks.
At the centre of the Glass Mountain, the conceit: a single great building, pillars made from the marble of my sisters’ hearts. Seeing my sisters’ veins running black and gold through the stone breaks the last shred of dignity in me and I can only crawl the last few feet.
He looms between the pillars, reverent hand stroking the stone. The Enemy. I quell my scream—not yet!—at the lascivious repugnancy.
His darkness hides in the glare of the spotlight, a mirage for the viewer’s greatest fears: cockroaches seething within a shadow, debonair sweptback hair and bright eyes, a cane toad in prince’s clothing.
A grin slicks its oily way across His face. He’s not afraid, because now my family is reduced to a mere shadow He thinks I am hobbled.
I won’t forgive myself for the lies I had to tell myself to get here, but I will not forgive myself more if I don’t try.
I need my fear, like it needs me.
Good girl, He croons, sweet girl.
Lies, lies. When I am done with this, I will never Be Good again.
He avoids my horn with practised ease. Thinks He doesn’t need to threaten the bridle, the bit.
Yes, come closer.
Pretty girl, He whispers. The flesh of His fingers roiling like a maggoty corpse sink into my mane, pick out thorns and burrs as if doing me some courtesy. Then, the horror of those fingers curling towards my hearts. He just can’t stop Himself even though He has everything. More, more, ever more. He’s grabbing for more stone, yet one more brick to prop up His edifice.
No, I can’t do it. I can’t be like Him. This is not what unicorns are made for, though we are made for just this purpose. Let him take my hearts and be done.
So close I can taste the citrus-over-rot of His breath.
The horn is a lie.
So easy, it doesn’t even require thought. Simple genetic muscle memory.
The bone of the singularity, a black hole devouring any light that dares to come near, enters His chest with the greatest of ease.
Ribs crack, a wet tearing sound of laughing wings and skittering carapaces.
What they don’t tell you is when a unicorn uses its horn, it’s a one-time deal. We maim to kill.
With a flick of my head and the searing pain of starlight scouring my skull, my horn tears off.
Blood everywhere. Black and gold and red all mixed together.
Evil laughs in my face, my twisted bone of confection lodged in His chest, point protruding out the back, blood dripping at each end.
I expected there to be some sort of muscle to fight through, no matter how scarred and hard and atrophied. But there is nothing.
A black hole cannot eat what is simply a void.
Those ugly hands twitch and keep reaching for my hearts.
Smile, little girl.
DON’T TELL ME TO SMILE.
This is not how the myth goes.
Another thing they don’t tell you about unicorns:
there is a dangerous place in our chests, right beside our hearts, where embers are banked. Waiting.
We can burn it all down with just one scream.
This is also a one-time deal. And it takes everyone, the dealer and the dealt.
These embers have simmered since the first uniquine ancestor crawled up from the mud. All it takes is a single spark upon our hot tongue to ignite. It is a secret we have kept too long and too well, reserving it for the right time.
And Each Time never seemed to be the right time. So angry, They said, so ugly. And slowly we let it drain from our myth along with our colours. We did not want to let our ugliness let the world drown. Perhaps we should have learned to let the scream out in small sips.
With a grimace that grows to a maw, I peel my lips back to reveal broken, rotten teeth burned from behind, acid staining my tongue.
With what little I have left, I strike a hoof against the gold bricks. The air shivers sparks.
A scream of purple-black-silver light death.
Flesh melts, simple wax. Blood boils away, the red first and easy, then the black and gold glimmering to vein-roped tar, which evaporates with the released triumphant bellows of my sisters. Bones crack, letting out their sweet, juicy marrow which I suck out to power the last of my scream.
Bones collapse into grey dust in the final blast. I swallow the dust, every speck. There must be nothing left of Him in this world; it will go with me as the untameable fire within expands and consumes.
Soon. The anger will take me soon.
But for this glorious moment, I can lie beside my sisters’ hearts. It is not my place to judge why they didn’t use their own voices; it will not be history’s place to judge their fear or what was enough.
As for my judgment? Martyr, betrayer, hero, invisible; whatever may be, let it come. There is nothing I can do about that now.
My hide spasms, charring from the inside with the heat of the universe’s vast stars. I try to lick away the congealing mess on my forelimbs, but the lingering iron-copper stench makes me gag. I keep the bone dust down by inhaling the satisfying storm-fresh scent of my own blood as it forms a pool fresh as a fae vernal.
A whisper. Not from the wall made of my sisters’ hearts; they ignore my exhortation to crumble at will and stand strong, perhaps forever now, a monument, a warning. The whisper comes behind me on the old, gold road and the glass mountain as they all fall down.
The snow melt, the burning steam. The avalanche. Slipping between the cracks, their hides beautifully dirty. The last of the unicorns are here to witness. They see what burns in me, how I cannot contain this handful of evil in my belly much longer.
One by one, my family kneel and lay their lips against mine.
A kiss to share the power. A kiss to take a pinch of the bone dust into each of them, to keep it safe beside each of their hearts. One by one, so many, not enough.
The fire lessens, a mercy.
A kiss each atop my head, to seal the searing wound, a blessing.
Twitching, I lie between the marble wall of my sisters dead and the soft wall of my family living, fire inside slowing my hearts to molten.
However, each kiss has given back some coolness of peace, a trickle of clear water between the cracks of my marble hearts. Much of it simply evaporates, but some pools there–a gentle pond to sip from to soothe my ravaged soul.
Who knows what way the balance will tip; blood, fire, water. There is no myth, no truth, to tell us what comes next for a unicorn with horn ripped from their head and scream ripped from their chest. I wait, my family curled alongside, and I do not fear.
AJ Fitzwater is a meat-suit wearing dragon (cousin of the unicorn), living in the cracks of Christchurch, New Zealand. Their work can be found in such venues of repute as Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Glittership, and Shimmer Magazine. They survived the trial-by-wordfire of Clarion in 2014. They Twitter at @AJFitzwater
Featured Image: Hannah Gibbs
Author of “Hearts Made Marble, Weapons Shaped From Bone.”
1) What inspired you to write this story?
Like many people, I was processing fear and anger around Trump becoming president, and the mainstreaming of hatred. The story came out in a fast rage in the week after the inauguration. I sat with my feelings from the Women’s March. I was reading a lot of essays about resistance and survival for the years to come. I wrote myself a Soul Survival Plan. I wanted a way to document my feeling from that time, so I didn’t forget one of the impetuses of my resistance.
2) What do you hope readers take from this story?
People have asked me why someone from New Zealand with a stable and currently wonderful woman leader should care about what happens in the US. And I ask back: why wouldn’t I? People are people, and we deserve peace and a sustainable future. I have many wonderful friends who live under the current regime, and I want them to live safe and free lives. On a grander scale, New Zealand is a small country, and the US is an influencer economically and socially. What happens there can affect us; indeed, racists and TERFs have taken advantage of the worldwide happenings to churn the debate about immigration and civil rights.
Along with expressing my anger, I wrote this story in part to say, “I will stand and fight with you” to queer people. I lovingly call my collection of queer friends my unicorns. I wanted to examine my failures and fears to violent contexts (I talk a big game but I haven’t been in a physical altercation yet; punch your friendly Nazi today!), probe how much I am willing to put my body and soul on the line, and where my strength may come from. And as corny as it may sound, that comes from the strength and love (and writing) of others.
3) To give other writers hope, would you mind sharing with us how many edits and/or submissions this story has been through?
I wrote the story quickly and only edited it once for clarity and length (I wanted it short and sharp, to hold fast to the originating anger; a pointed unicorn horn). It received a lot of positive feedback and high level rejections. It was rejected 13 times (on the average-low side for me). I knew I had something here, so… nevertheless, I persisted. There would be a right moment and place for it.
4) Recommend something! This could be a book, a short story, a video game, a project you’ve heard about, something you’re working on, etc. Anything that has you excited and that you want people to know about.
There have been so many good works in the last two years, and it’s too hard to recommend just one thing–it’s a collective effort to keep me sane! Music like Green Day, Against Me!, Janelle Monae, and Grace Petrie. Podcasts like The Guilty Feminist and Gender Reveal. Writers like N.K. Jemisin, Margaret Killjoy, Brooke Bolander, Charlie Jane Anders, and A. Merc Rustad. Books from Ta-Nehisi Coates, Reni Eddo-Lodge, and Ivan Coyote. Comics like Captain Marvel, Bitch Planet, Ms. Marvel, and Saga. I want to read more about resistance, anarchy, and anti-fascism, and I’m looking forward to “A Punk Rock Future” from Zsenon Publishing, Apex’s “Do Not Go Quietly!”, Crossed Genres’ “Resist Fascism”. And I always turn to my favourite movie of all time for a bit of Fuck Yeah, Fuck You: “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Witness me!