Fiction: The Girl and Her Unicorn, Part Two

Banner for Nine Laws: Allosexual Aromantic Fairy Tales. Image features a tree in the foreground, lanterns hanging from its branches, against a background of heavily-overgrown grey stone walls and archways leading into smaller courtyards. Vines and ivy cover the walls, archways and steps; an array of grasses grow around the bases of trees and walls. Text is set in a white, slightly-curving serif type; white curlicues matching the text, set in each corner, form a broken frame around the text.

Ponder Sheafed can’t stop asking questions. Ze isn’t the girl others presume hir to be. Ze won’t become a wife or let a wedding’s absence stopper hir lust. Ze isn’t good, so maintaining hir kinsfolk’s high regard demands a complicated dance of stealth, secrecy and untruth. Ponder does, however, own some ability in deception … so when tragedy befalls hir family, how does ze explain that–despite all appearance to the contrary–ze can’t trade hir life’s service for a unicorn’s magic?

Only virtuous maidens may enter the forest to seek a creature as pure as a unicorn. Returning home empty-handed avoids provoking Father’s rage by confessing unacceptable truths, so what options has ze other than embarking upon a farcical quest for hir family’s salvation … and dreading the failure to come? No unicorn can ever grace an unrepentant liar!

Ponder isn’t good. But neither, ze discovers, is the unicorn.

Why must ze learn hir lesson only after ze has been ordained to uselessness?

Contains: A genderless, non-partnering allo-aro who speaks lies to live hir truth in a village that prizes a girl’s goodness above all else … and a unicorn whose duty to humans has been wildly misrepresented.

Setting: Nine Laws but entirely stand-alone.

Content advisory: This story depicts a culture of misogyny, cissexism, sex negativity, heteronormativity and amatonormativity, including the presumption of being cis, experiencing sexual and romantic attraction, and marrying a cis person of the other binary gender. Please also expect depictions of purity culture, use of misogynistic slurs, forced gendering and/or genderless erasure, a focus on non-partnering and non-parenting experiences, death and illness mentions, and references to sex and sex acts. “Love” is used primarily in the romantic sense and, as is common in casual use, conflated with romantic attraction.

The word “girl” is used to mean “a not-adult female person”; the word “woman” is used to mean “an adult female person”. In this village, “womanhood” is bestowed upon a female (or presumed female) person who is or has been married. “Girl” refers to a female (or presumed female) person who hasn’t yet married, is expected to be virginal, and is young enough to bear children, even if she has otherwise reached adult age.

Length: 2, 809 words (part two of three).

After hours of trudging and tripping, the trees open onto a pond so still that stars glisten within its waters. Ponder steps onto a narrow beach framed by reeds, hir fear and loathing forgotten as ze gazes upon the sky’s mirror. Surely, ze looks upon a portal leading to the gods below? How else can the wind tease hir hair and stir the canopy but leave the pond’s surface unmarred?

Can a person plummet through its depths to find a world where freely bedding a man brings no disdain and unicorns share their gifts with all in need?

Hir slippers sink into silvery-grey sand, the damp grains sticking to hir oil-tacky skin. Here, not even a chirping insect breaks the quiet; no animals howl, no birds call. Only Ponder intrudes, swearing as ze sets down the lantern and pulls free hir bruised toes. The matrons who washed and dressed hir must have spent hours agonising over the stitches fastening satin to leather, but for what? Perhaps the soles can be repurposed, but no amount of fat and lye will restore the rent, fraying upper to function.

Hir robe’s condition is little better. Fastened only by ties wrought of the same flimsy fabric, it billows open at the top to bare both breasts. From the knees down it has become naught but hanging tatters, dirty and leaf-entangled. Ponder laughs, shaking hir head. Aren’t hir clothes as much a farce as hir pretence at purity? If people who aren’t Ponder insist upon expectations from which ze derives only degradation, what is this garb but dignity’s dishonest mimicry?

Anger, the red-tinged wildness ze must forever restrain, surges through hir limbs. Alone by a sacred pond, with nobody to pay witness but earth and sky, ze screams hir pain. Why must ze pretend to be good while Mama sickens, Father sees hir as either a problem or a solution, hir body chains hir to girlhood’s spectre and the best thing in hir life—a friendship in which ze feels seen—must be deemed amoral? Why must ze always be less than hirself? Why must ze preserve hir virginity when ze doesn’t wish to wed—or even if ze someday does? Why must Mama so slowly fade, leaving her family caught in a prolonged, grieving helplessness?

Ze rages: pummelling hir fists against the closest tree, kicking up sand, wrenching that ridiculous robe from hir body. The fabric tears, leaving hir to clasp aching fingers around a wad of rent uselessness. Dignity? Ze owns more dignity when as naked as a newborn babe than ze does clad in that insulting costume! Ze owns more dignity should the neighbours catch hir on hir back in the village square at noon, grunting and squirming as Faith’s tongue consumes hir cunny!

Good girls, innocent and pure, recognise the garb as marking sacred purpose … or so the priests teach, but surely those who came before hir knew humiliation enough to doubt?

“Isn’t this about some sordid look at a girl who’ll never become a woman if the unicorn accepts her—and will be loathed by all if not?”

Ze balls the robe in hir hands, raises hir arm and hurls it into the pond.

The slippers, their ribbons trailing, create two satisfying splashes shortly afterwards.

“And your sacred pond deserves my piss if that’s what unicorns do expect!”

If the gods object to such blasphemies, they don’t show it. The water stills, the stars shine, the breeze ruffles Ponder’s hanging curls. Ze kicks at the sand again, hir breaths easing, before dropping to hir knees beside the lantern. Hir beaten knuckles flare to aching as hir fury ebbs … enough to realise hir fit an exercise in pointlessness. Mustn’t ze still wait out hir vigil for a unicorn that won’t come? How will returning home in hir skin help people consider reasons beyond virginity for a unicorn’s denial?

Ze laughs again. Fool! Sensible girls who don’t treat with a unicorn take care to return home with their clothing intact. Nudity may be more truthful a state, but it won’t help hir quest to remain unwed beneath Father’s roof when fate’s offerings are limited to marriage and exile.

Like hir sister, girls become women by standing with a man before a god’s altar and surrendering her life to their union. A married woman cannot quest in search of a unicorn, for she serves her husband and children; how can a god or spirit have her when her first loyalty is given to a mortal? No, good women die, rewarded with all the homely things she should ever desire, as grandmothers and great-grandmothers. Womanhood is an endless road, a duty without variation, a dance to an ancient tune—the fate Ponder successfully avoided before Father demanded ze walk the moon-dark path.

“If you can’t learn to contain your moods,” Mama said after Ponder complained that Father’s anger never rendered him unbecoming, “they will then be your undoing.”

If only injustice never stirred hir soul and loosened hir tongue!

What, then, awaits hir tomorrow? Never was hir maidenhood idle: Ponder keeps Father’s books, runs his errands, cleans his house. Ze owns a neat hand with pen and needle alike, and while pastry frustrates hir, nobody need starve at hir hearth. When small children occupy hir sister’s hands and the smithy occupies hir brother-by-law’s, the household relies on hir and Mama’s labour in the kitchen and garden—Father’s lack of acknowledgement notwithstanding. When Mama dies, Father will still need hir. Can he appreciate that?

Or will he deem hir ruined? Too tainted to be welcome beneath his roof, no matter how useful hir labour? Too deceptive to be trusted, no matter hir honesty with his coin?

Hir many falsehoods rest heavy on hir bones … but why must it be wrongdoing to avoid others’ cruel judgement when ze cannot approve of their expectations?

Sighing, ze rests hir head upon hir knees and wraps hir arms about hir shins. Damp sand and cool air leech the warmth from hir flesh, cursing hir body with convulsive shivers. No, if ze walks home tomorrow without magic or robe, Ponder may become irredeemable … and Mama will still mount death’s horse.

Hir cowardice, hir pain, hir fury—what are they but nothing? To dwell on them is to adopt falsehood, a distraction from the grief ze so thoroughly avoids. Mama, hir illness beyond the aid of doctors and witches alike, needs a magic only the gods may grant … and Ponder can’t help her.

As the night wends closer to dawn, the truth becomes ever clearer: in the greatest task ever asked of hir, ze is useless.

No slur, no matter how much scorn it bears, hurts as much as that cruel word.


“I’m so sorry,” ze croaks. No longer does ze fight to endure the bruising ache in hir hands and feet; pain feels as natural as hir chest’s rise and fall. Ze shut hir eyes after hir last bout of tears: too tired to hold them open, too cold to fall into more than a brief, fitful doze. That, doubtlessly, voids hir vigil! “I’m sorry, Mama. I’m sorry that, when I chose Faith, I didn’t think of anyone but myself. I’m sorry I can’t save you.”

A soft, breathy snort startles hir into silence.

Slowly, Ponder raises hir head. Streaks of pink and orange turn the eastern sky to cobalt, providing light enough to see a white, four-legged shape standing at the pond’s edge. Ze stares with blurry eyes, hoping against all reason that the gods have delivered hir an undeserved, unlooked-for miracle…

… but a clear gaze reveals a small, swaybacked mare.

A horse. Giggles, mad and broken, tickle hir throat. Of course! What more can ze expect? No unicorn, no salvation: just a mare so old that her once-fleabitten coat has faded, like paper bared to the sun, to a shaggy yellow-white. Swollen fetlocks, cracked hooves, hollow flanks and a mane festooned with burrs suggest a horse grown too infirm to work and turned out in favour of one younger and stronger. Another useless creature, set adrift in a world scorning those who won’t or can’t serve as required.

Ponder sighs, rubbing life into unwilling legs with protesting hands so that ze can rise without falling. “I don’t know how I’ll get you home without belt or rope, but once you’ve had your fill, can I try? Someone must see to those poor feet.”

The mare’s ears twitch, but she doesn’t cease her drinking.

“Lovely girl.” Crooning, Ponder staggers upright. Pins and needles sting hir feet, and ze bites hir lip as ze walks at an angle towards the pond. Only when ze too stands at the water’s edge, within the mare’s line of sight, does ze move towards her. “Pretty girl. I won’t hurt you. I just want to pat you, give you a scratch, make friends so you’ll let me take you by your mane. Then when we’re home, I’ll give you a brushing. We have hay and chaff and a bed of straw…”

The mare lifts her head, watching Ponder approach with eyes as dark as the pond lapping at her front hooves.

“I’ll even steal you an apple from the cellar, if Father doesn’t ban me from the house.” Ponder extends hir left hand, hir palm flat; the mare, likely hoping for a treat, brushes wet, velvety lips over hir fingers. “I’m sorry. They didn’t give me anything to eat or anything for a unicorn to eat. Wouldn’t someone with a basket of carrots, apples and peppermints be more enticing than a girl with … well, nothing but virginity? I suppose that’s one of the many reasons why I’m not a priest…”

The mare snorts, bobbing her head, before rubbing her muzzle against the flat of Ponder’s hand—her dusty coat warm against hir frigid fingers.

“I’m glad we agree. I like your being sensible about these things.” Ponder works hir hand over the mare’s cheek, yearning to press hir shivering body against her flanks and back. “Can I touch your mane? Pick out those burrs?”

Her ears remain forwards, alert but relaxed, so Ponder rests hir right hand on her withers before running hir fingers over the coarse, tangled strands.

“I don’t know what unicorns want. Grooming seems logical, because unicorns don’t have fingers to hold brushes. But I don’t think, somehow, that the girls become grooms when they offer up their lives. They say that a chosen girl comes home for a day, with the unicorn’s magic, but then she vanishes at sunset. Why…” Ponder sighs, fighting stiff, fingers to prise a burr from the mare’s thick mane. Ze knows hir rambling to be all but nonsensical, but what ze says is less important than how … and who wants to be pushed, bitten or kicked by a nervous horse who sees hir, rightly, as a threatening stranger? Not when ze has naught but hir voice and hands to tame her! “Thank you for standing so nicely. I don’t know why they abandoned a mare as sweet as you—I mean, I know why, but they shouldn’t have! You don’t turn someone out after years of working for you, trying your best—”

Tears, sudden and unexpected, burn hir eyes.

“It isn’t right. Family should reward your work. Take care of you, appreciate you, because you take care of them … even if you aren’t properly good. Or you’re a slut like me. But I still want to care for my family, even when Father just sees a girl who won’t become a woman. But what I think is right … well, it isn’t. And that doesn’t matter anyway, because Mama still…”

Ze works free a bleached stem, hir arm trembling. If only ze can see those waters shift and ripple, the gods’ ordered world again rendered as volatile as hir own! If only ze can freely indulge an anger that doesn’t serve hir … and ze sighs, dropping the twig onto the sand. Why must ze learn hir lesson only after ze has been ordained to uselessness?

The mare swishes her tail, whipping coarse strands across Ponder’s shoulder. Ze cries out, startled, but she doesn’t shy; she thrusts her head against hir left hand, pushing downwards until hir fingers reach her forelock.

“I’m sorry. That just hurt. Are you itchy? Do you—”

Hir fingertips brush something hard and sleek, like mother of pearl inlays or wood lacquered to evenness. Something smooth and rounded like the curve of the nail finishing hir pointer finger. Something coiled and twisted like the white seashells Mama’s grandfather brought home from his many travels, cherished as an oddity atop the kitchen mantelpiece. Something so impossible that Ponder stumbles backwards, certain hir desperation has become insanity—for a swaybacked mare cannot own a spiral horn.

Ze sees a horse, thin and dirty, the days in which she can be called grey long past.

Ze sees a unicorn, cloven-hoofed and silver-dappled, her moon-coloured forelock draped around a translucent horn.

Is this a madness brought on by exhaustion and grief? Is ze ill after a night clad in nothing warmer than hir own skin? Have the scrapes battering hir toes become infected—or was ze bitten by a poisonous creature while ze dozed? Or does ze see what ze so yearns to see, delusion the result of a deep-buried hope Ponder couldn’t survive acknowledging?

“No. You don’t … don’t tease me!”

An eye as dark and deep as night rests upon Ponder’s face. A mane of iridescent silk, shining beneath the lightening sky, spills over the crest of the unicorn’s neck to rest upon a coat of mottled frost and metal. Plumes of feather, the strands as fine as that of her mane and tail, cloak hooves of crystal. Cat-like ears, long legs, slender quarters and a foreshortened muzzle mark her as indisputably not equine, an alien creature untouched by mortal harness.

She, godly and magical, shakes her head.

“You don’t come to people like me! So why, if not to tease?”

The unicorn brushes the base of her horn against Ponder’s left hand.

A flood of images tumble through hir mind. Girls—bathed, anointed and clad in fabric so thin as to be laughable—enter the forest. Some are nearly babes, scarce old enough to relinquish a parent’s hand; most walk upon the path towards adulthood. Others, like Ponder, possess years enough to be reckoned grown but have yet to exchange the hopeful “maiden” for respected “woman” or condemnatory “spinster”. Girls, with faces contorted by fear and determination and hatred, travel by night and lamplight to wait by the sacred pond. Girls sit vigil—slumbering, weeping, shaking, cursing—only to be greeted upon the sun’s rise by a plain, elderly mare.

Some ignore her, expecting a spiral horn: the mare leaves after drinking her fill, and the girls leave after the climbing sun confirms their failure. Others approach the mare, but impatient hands and commanding words send her wheeling into the forest. A few seek to pet her, gentle and kind, but they see only a horse and leave the pond, bereft, after sunup.

Only rare souls perceive the unicorn.

“I know this—or can guess at it, I think. But why me?”

The unicorn’s snort showers Ponder’s chest and arms with grass-green saliva. Another selection of memories parades over hir thoughts: moon-dark nights waiting by the pond, its banks undisturbed by petitioners. Leaving the forest come the dawning to spend her days cantering through icy streams and grazing upon mountain meadows. Descending from the high peaks to pay her own vigil every time the moon fades from the sky. The priest and Father, standing side by side to watch Ponder walk towards the edge of the forest.

You always come, but people choose who comes to see you. People…”

A wave of nauseating giddiness washes across Ponder’s belly. A deception, older and deeper than any ze can conjure, shapes the stories Mama heard as a child from her great-grandmother and the solemn words generations of priests deliver onto the villagers. A deception, as ancient and unquestioned as the direction in which the sun sets and the moon rises, shapes their very lives.

“Would you show yourself to anyone? Young and old? Wed and unwed? Boy, girl, neither, both? Would you…?”

The unicorn nods, snorting, before resting her soft muzzle upon Ponder’s shoulder—her breath scented by grass, dew and starlight.

How many lies, lurking in songs and lessons, has ze accepted as simple, indisputable fact? How many years has ze felt hirself floundering in quicksand only to now learn that the ground beneath hir feet was always sound?

How many times has ze been the recipient of falsehoods such that believing in them required hir to craft hir own?

Next: The Girl and Her Unicorn, Part Three

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