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The Unicorns

Bertuch-Unicorn - for "The Unicorns" by Alexander Lumans [1]The blizzard is over. But the sea waves still crash high upon the shore, making it impossible to row off any of the archipelago’s islands. The unicorns are cantering about and talking about the weather. “Fucking cold!” “And how!” The unicorns have come to the archipelago to be chosen by the Rider. It is the only archipelago for hundreds of miles with a Rider who will ride unicorns. “Fucking cold!” “And how!”

The unicorns have brought with them many board games— Snakes and Ladders and Stratego and a Yahtzee! dice cup—offerings to take the Rider’s mind off the weather that remains so dreary. The scientists back on the mainland are waiting for quarterly reports. The wild horses native to the archipelago stand in shallow pools and shout, “I am a hornless unicorn. I am neither good nor bad, and thus an example of meritorious and balanced perfection.”

These are good unicorns. The unicorn breeder Octavius Z said so. He is on the mainland, avoiding narwhals and mending pasture fences. Good unicorns can run on top of water, and they have silver manes. Bad unicorns are red and gray and roast arctic terns with their horns, their horns acting as spits, their spits acting as imperfect cookers because they do not rotate. The red and gray unicorns chortle hoarsely beneath the island’s satellite dishes, some of which are so badly damaged by winds and ice that they only pick up Scandinavian death metal stations. The dishes and radios need immediate repair. “You must promise not to tell Shackleton,” say the unicorns concerning their unicorn-ness. “Promise not to tell Shackleton. Fucking cold! And how!”

Down to their hooves, the silver-maned unicorns bow anxiously outside the Rider’s cabin in a demonstration of obedience. “Checked my coat for mites and horse bots!” “A necessary grooming activity.” “Checked my coat, this coat I’ve always worn; I think it’s very clean.” Outside the Rider’s cabin, the games go unplayed. Settlers of Catan resource cards are lost in the gusts. Ticket to Ride’s colored trains frost over. The sneer from a narwhal transforms an ordinary animal into a horned ordinary animal. Hundreds of miles away on the mainland, the Peruvian scientist has a toolbox. The Austrian scientist has five hundred screws. And the scientist from the United States, whose measurements are off, has a spare satellite dish just lying around. A unicorn with a blue die is examining the different games, looking for which game is missing a blue die. Someone says Shackleton has been seen rowing his boat at six knots toward the archipelago. “Alarm! An Authority Figure!” The scientists sent him; he executes. Contrary to popular rumor, Shackleton does not wish to be the Rider. He holds particular distaste for unicorns. His home is England where all the horses are dead or in races.

If you ride a bad unicorn, he will make you eat tern, or ride you, or take you in the wrong direction, probably toward a narwhal. There are too many unicorns on the archipelago and only one Rider. Archipelago rumor says that riding a bad unicorn will cure all bodily ailments, except blindness. The good unicorns try to play Candyland with only orange and violet cards, and they try to demonstrate their exceptional orienteering skills. “I know my way through fog! Would he like to ride me? I have an internal compass. I know my way through fog because of the stars. My internal compass is calibrated fine.” The sea waves are crashing. The satellite dishes are not dishing. The unicorns say: “Fucking cold! Fucking wet! I am a tepid-climate mythological creature. Would the Rider like to ride me away? I know my constellations.” The sea waves crash and crash upon the shore, upon the cold shore again.

Octavius Z once said, “There are good unicorns and bad unicorns, as there are good and bad ordinary creatures. Except wild horses.” Octavius Z said that many of the unicorns bred by him were clearly unicorns of the former kind and thus supremely fit to deliver men across large open bodies of water. They can also sit at a table for a nice sit-down dinner, give lectures on astronavigation. They could replace Siberian huskies as the preferred sled animals used to ferry goods: ice samples, hard tack, reindeer skins, energy drinks, office supplies.

Shackleton has already said no to this. When he is busy, the bad unicorns fill Shackleton’s rowboat on the cold shore with half-charred terns. If a bad unicorn gets you, he will negatively influence your long-term financial decisions—Yes, the mortgage-backed security loan; you would be very wise to invest in avian meats! When he is no longer busy, Shackleton has to bucket out the terns from the belly of his boat into a food pile for later, and he subsequently slips a disc.

From out of the snowdrifts, a unicorn approaches the Rider and explains the advantages of choosing to have this particular unicorn horn at the Rider’s disposal.

“First!” he says. “Hang your wet clothes. Drip dry!”
“Second! Hat rack, portable.”
“Third! Hole-maker for coat hook. Hang your wet clothes or your hat!”
“Fourth! Orange juicer! Immune system!”
“Fifth! Knife sharpener! Cut bread to go with OJ! Complete balanced breakfast!”
“Sixth! Eye poker-outer!”
“Seventh! Sparks on steel. Make fire. Dry your coat, toast your bread. A warm immune system is a healthy immune system. A healthy man is a consistent eye poker-outer. And how!”

This unicorn looks nervously at the Rider to gauge his success. Good unicorns consider bad unicorns to be excessive in their exclamations. Bad unicorns consider the others to be excessive in their comparisons of exclamations.

The Rider and the scientists have not communicated in months. The Rider is tired of being alone with broken equipment and incomplete games, although some are not completely incomplete. The scientists are tired of paying for this Rider to watch over broken equipment and to stay indoors and to not communicate. A bad unicorn says, “The Rider has nice legs. I would not take him in the opposite direction. I would not take him to a narwhal. I would share my well-cooked-but-not-burnt arctic tern.” Bad unicorns are leaning against the icy satellite dishes, chewing their red hair. Bad unicorns are allowed, by law, to carry only wax fruit and dirty laundry on their backs. The Rider does not want to ride a unicorn to the mainland, because it will be a long cold ride, and he is getting used to no communication. Scandinavian death metal—unlike wild horses—is not without its merits, but the unicorns are here, and the scientists pay his monthly salary. Someone said Shackleton the Authority Figure is on his way to the station.

One unicorn says to another unicorn, “This Rider is picky!” “Yes,” says the second unicorn, “I have seen less picky Riders: they are grateful and ride the whole herd, one by one, but they are not here.” The unicorn with the blue die finds that Yahtzee! is missing a blue die.

The Rider is painting the dreary glaciers outside his window. The Rider is not repairing the radio, not shaving. The Rider is picking mites out of his reindeer-skin comforters. Shackleton arrives at the Rider’s cabin with the toolbox and five hundred screws but no spare dish. His slipped disc slips more. In pain, and at the sight of the herd of unicorns and the station’s disrepair and the Rider’s amateur paintings of moraines, he cries, “Unheard of! Out of the question! Synonym for ‘Unthinkable!’” To console himself, he climbs a bad unicorn, he holds its red hair, he rides it fast in circles between Point A and Point A. The scientists should have sent him earlier. In his eyes, like horses in England, all things must either be dead or in races.

Octavius Z appears on a silver sledge pulled by two silver-maned unicorns. Octavius Z waves an orange-and violet-checkered flag.

Shackleton stops circling between Points A. He throws up his fists. He pumps them. He calls out “Winner!” His slipped disc, slipped completely, no longer pains him. Again, “Winner!” until with his two unicorns’ horns Octavius Z pokes out Shackleton’s two eyes very on purpose.

When the wind blows hardest and the sea waves are blown highest, the Rider successfully chooses his unicorn to ride. On the cold shore the unicorns play Yahtzee! The good unicorns, unchosen, turn to each other: “Let us canter about and talk about the weather and enhance our already exceptional orienteering skills. More radios will break down. More satellite dishes will cease to dish. Throw the dice.” The chosen unicorn says, “Thank you! Thank you! Fucking cold and I am racing!” Even though Shackleton’s two eyes are out-poked, his bad unicorn rides him away in the wrong direction. If you ride a bad unicorn, you will never see the scientists again. In the shallowest pools, wild horses continue to extol their hornlessness. Do not ride a bad unicorn: he will take you to a sneering narwhal and make you serve him orange juice, fresh squeezed.


Alexander Lumans was awarded a fellowship to The 2015 Arctic Circle Residency, where he sailed around Svalbard, Norway in a tall ship. He was also the Spring 2014 Philip Roth Resident at Bucknell University. His fiction has appeared in Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly, Story Quarterly, Black Warrior Review, Cincinnati Review, among others. He just received the 2015 Wabash Fiction Prize from Sycamore Review. He is an assistant editor of American Short Fiction, where he has also published an essay on H.P. Lovecraft [2] and another on Magic: the Gathering [3].