Fiction: The Girl and Her Unicorn, Part Three

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.

You may learn, given time, that ‘good’ is but sunlight and seafoam … and all else is sapience.

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, “woman” 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, 845 words (part three of three).

Ze stares, speechless and bewildered, into the unicorn’s dark eyes. The world halts, as still as the pond beneath the ever-brightening sky, while Ponder’s mind races through a chaos of cradle stories and priestly sermons. Do gods punish wrongdoers by denying them long-wished-for children? Does human worship ensure their provision of gentle weather and healthy crops? Do they watch mortals through crows’ eyes? Do the unicorns serve the gods? What even is a god…?

Only a nauseating wave of giddiness brings hir back to hirself—to hir shivering body, aching head and throbbing feet.

“Sorry,” ze whispers, stepping backwards. The sandy beach hurriedly greets hir descending rump, and Ponder flops onto hir back, resting hir palms atop a forehead pulled as tight as Mama’s bedstrings. “Sorry. I just…”

Nobody reckoned Mama a great beauty, but she was almost as strong as Father and owned as little patience for “willowy” women as he for shy men. As a child, Ponder thought her uncaring: Mama’s pragmatism didn’t permit words of warmth, understanding or comfort. She had no tolerance for a misery unsolvable by something done, made or given. If she thought someone wronged, however, nothing halted her quest for retribution. She just stood so disconnected from others’ feelings that even Father’s mercurial moods didn’t touch her; Ponder’s frustrations were but an inconvenience best left unvoiced. The world is what it is. Rules must be obeyed. What purpose lies in complaint?

The wasted woman in her sickbed looks little like the Mama of Ponder’s childhood … and ze yearns to hear hir mother of old scorn hir aching head after a cold, restless night.

What did you expect? Rise, wash and dress, for your moaning won’t chop the vegetables.

Such indifference at least meant Mama saw no reason to hurry her unwed offspring into marriage while ze scrubbed carrots, peeled potatoes and, after dinner, wiped the dishes.

“Let me help. I remember that human shapes don’t bear such sharing. I … forget that, sometimes.”

Ponder starts and lowers hir hands, blinking at … not a unicorn, not a human. Something both, in-between, elsewise and impossible. She sits with her feather-clad hooves tucked below skirts woven from spidersilk and thread-of-gold, a translucent mane of curls spilling down her back and over her bare shoulders. Freckles of grey and silver pepper her cheeks, forehead and arms like the dapples of the unicorn’s hide. Cat’s ears, furry and protruding from her hair, turn towards Ponder; round eyes, the sable irises rippled with streaks of gold, sit unnaturally high in an elongated, eyebrow-less face.

No jewellery—nothing that may appear mortal-crafted, save her skirts and bodice—weighs down her slender wrists and overlong fingers. Ponder finds hirself in mind of a dandelion seed: delicate and insubstantial, crafted only to be carried on by the next wind.

Beautiful? Why should an immortal creature concern herself with such mortal reckoning?

“Let me,” she repeats, her voice slow and breathy.

Ponder nods, and cool, nail-less fingertips cradle hir right hand. A violent shiver races down hir spine.


Headache, stiffness, exhaustion, hunger: all such pains melt away, leaving Ponder possessed only of an incredulous wonder. Ze sits up, staring first at hir feet—as hale as if ze hadn’t yet departed the temple—and then at the unicorn-girl, who returns hir glance with expressionless indifference. “What are you—who? How? What…?”

Never before has Ponder so lacked the ability to voice a coherent question.

“Kestrel. Kestrel Soulspire—the Soulspire remade. Or reborn. Maybe.” The unicorn-girl’s brow creases. “I know my name is Kestrel.”

“That…” Ponder releases a long, shuddering breath. Which should feel the most unsettling: the name or her uncertainty? How can she not know whom she is? “That’s a god’s name. One said to be … vanished, or dead, or dying, or elsewhere, or … well, all the priests I asked, because I asked about everything, shrugged and spoke of other things as if it weren’t to be bothered about. Or secret. Old, old history. You. The Soulspire. A … god. Above.”

Village priests keep, in Ponder’s experience, to honouring weather and hearth gods: those who need placating and those who need obeying.

Kestrel crooks her head, studying hir with wide, unmoving eyes. “We are all borne of the same decayed star, so what does a word matter?”

Ponder offers only a bewildered shrug in reply. As much as ze may rage against most rules, at least ze knows what they are. In knowing their expectations, those people who hew to normality become comprehendible—and a person inclined to observation can see how to navigate something closer to honest existence. Now, ze looks upon an alien vastness, not knowing which ze fears most: a world built upon unknowable rules or a world unable to conceive of their existence.

Nothing here meets expectation … but wouldn’t ze, otherwise, have to confess to a unicorn’s absence?

A wild, brilliant hope flares within Ponder’s chest. Ze has a chance! The unicorn—the girl—Kestrel, the Soulspire—knows why ze spent the night shivering by a preternaturally still pool. If she weren’t willing to help, why would she have revealed herself?

“Mama is dying,” ze says, pretending that ze talks to a swaybacked mare with brambles tangled in her mane. In that way, horses make for easier conversationalists than people: ze doesn’t have to hold hirself on edge, wary against revealing hir many secrets. Ze can, as when ze lies with Faith, freely talk. “Doctors and witches can’t do anything. She has days left, and they’d all be cruel ones. Father thought … well, he’d give me up for the magic to make Mama well. And I’ll give myself up. Please. If you want a servant or a groom or … well, I don’t know what you want of those who ask your aid. Nobody does…”

The breeze stirs Kestrel’s mane, and while the sun climbs and the stars fade, a remnant of their light remains trapped in those luminescent, ice-like strands.

“Give,” she murmurs, her eyes blank and brow stiff. “How kind one must be to offer what they can’t own!” She releases Ponder’s fingers, her grey ears flattened against her skull. “For your sake I offer this: I can strip the magic from your bones and blood to maintain your mother’s being. You may survive, if you carry power enough, and continue your life with your family.” She hesitates. “Most don’t … but maybe you aren’t most people.”

For but heartbeats, ze dared believe in an ending where Mama survives and Ponder returns to hir bookkeeping, cooking and trysts—an imperfect life, yes, but familiar. Navigable.

Ze laughs and nods.

“Or,” Kestrel says, her expression softening, “I can awaken your magic from slumber and guide you to the way of being for which your soul cries. Then you may join me as kindred and together build a place where you needn’t weave lies and keep secrets to possess family.”

Ponder rests hir hands upon hir thighs, staring at the narrow white crescents framing hir nails. How can the pink and orange sky betoken an ordinary day to come when hir world hasn’t been upended as much as dissolved—torn apart, crumbled, destroyed? Rent and shattered by a mare, a unicorn, a god, a girl?

Fury tightens hir limbs and tenses hir hands. Hir skin demands the pain of battering rain and the shock of lightning touching earth, to endure a pummelling maelstrom as devastating as Kestrel’s quiet words. When wind howls and thunder crashes, a not-boy, seen-as-girl person can scream out the pain burdening hir mind and body. When hail smashes rooftops and people cower indoors, Ponder races outside to vent hir rage—the weather’s cruelty unleashing hir from the chains binding good girls to sociable meekness.

Ze feels most like hirself within a storm’s sharp embrace.

“Is that … negotiable, somehow?”

“You may accept one or decline both.” The corners of Kestrel’s pale lips, framed by a cluster of silver dapples, curve upwards. “Contrary to human beliefs, I don’t embody goodness.”

Ponder shakes hir head. “That isn’t how folks tell it. You’re just expected to…” Fulfil others’ wants and needs, like the girls submitting to ceremony before walking through the moon-dark forest. Nobody asked hir if ze wanted to! The villagers assumed … just like they assume unicorns submit their magic to human need if one sufficiently pure of mind and deed posits the request. Did anyone ask Kestrel if ze wishes such a trade? Did ze? “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t … I should have asked you first.” Ze draws a gulping breath. “What … what do you embody?”

“Self.” Kestrel answers without hesitation, tapping her hand against the sand. “Nothing more or less.”

“Why do you come each time? Why should you?”

“I’m looking for you,” she breathes, her right ear twitching. Her dark eyes, struck with golden flecks like stars upon night’s canvas, catch Ponder’s own—and for a moment ze feels hirself tumbling into their depths, plummeting through space to arrive at worlds beyond knowing. “For you! I was demanded also to follow the dance of lovers, marriage, children. For the sake of the world, for all others’ existence, I was to be lover, wife and mother. A lover, I am … but in dances of the chance-met, the friendly and comradely, the intermittent crossings of two paths. My heart doesn’t pull me to partner those who call me lover.” She leans forwards, the crystal beads on her bodice glinting in dawn’s weak light. “I eschewed other dances, and in choosing self, I found more than a human girl could ever have thought for her life.”

“I … I like men, I think,” Ponder stammers, too astounded to utter anything sensible: were gods once human? How? Why? “At least, uh … all the people I wanted to bed are men, so…”

“Not a lover. Kindred.” Kestrel jerks her chin, ringlets of hair spilling over her chest. “For a sibling on a path not yet cut, family in a dance to which there is yet no common song.” Her face stills. A touch of humanity—a desperate, mortal sadness—lurks within her strange eyes. “I had a sister, once. I lost her, to fate and entropy, when she walked the obligate road. I have lovers. I want kin of our heart, to make together our own place.”

How can a god-creature share the pain of eschewing partners but craving family? Even Father, whose grief provokes him to drunken cruelty. Even Mama, whose kindness doesn’t always equal her dismissiveness. Even hir sister, whose road leads away from their shared childhood. They give hir name and home, even if they failed to create a space where ze can safely relinquish dishonesty. They cause hir pain and grief, but they’re hirs. They’re family, sheltered and clothed by Ponder’s hands as much as ze is by theirs. They’re family, bound by history, stories and countless meals shared at Mama’s table.

And Faith…

“You’re waiting for me. And those like me—us.”

Ze stands before a locked door, knowing miracles lie upon the other side. To gain the key, one offered by a god like hir—something no priest ever mentioned!—ze must permit Mama’s death.

How Ponder wants to fling hirself onto the ground, hammering hir fists in impotent rage! Why can’t ze live in a world free of illness and injury? Why can’t ze declare Mama and Father cruel beyond salvaging and therefore justifiable sacrifices to hir own wants, even though Father has so sacrificed hir? Why can’t gods offer miraculous solutions to all hir pains so ze needn’t be burdened by guilt or grief? Why can’t ze choose hirself without drowning in the harm such a decision inflicts upon those Ponder cares about?

Secrets let hir live—almost—as hirself without distressing all those who won’t accept a different dance.

Lies permit hir to unthinkingly obey the highest rule of all: be good.

Mama spoke of selfishness as a state requiring intentional, purposeful avoidance: as easy to fall into as envy or anger, a seducing compulsion one must fight. True in some ways, but what if one learns to first act in and for the best interests—or presumptions—of others? What if goodness, a quality encompassing selflessness, becomes the default such that ze must surrender hir needs for another’s desires? Is it so unreasonable to choose hir life, a life valued only for hir usefulness to husband or unicorn, over one possessed of husband, children and womanhood? Does Father need Mama as much as Ponder needs the mysteries Kestrel offers?

Save hir, Faith said.

“How do you learn,” ze whispers, “to carry the guilt for not being good?”

Kestrel shifts one dappled shoulder, her ears pricked forwards. “You may learn, given time, that ‘good’ is but sunlight and seafoam … and all else is sapience.”

Ponder shakes hir head, biting back laughter. “At least that’s honest, even if absurd. Everything I know says this is wrong … so that’s why. Because it’s hard. Because different can’t not be. But it’d be easier to choose the other way.” Ze swallows, sweat moistening hir palms, tears clouding hir eyes. “Mama lived the life she chose. I haven’t. I want to go with you—but please, please look to Faith, someday. Because he’s like us. And less prone to guilt.”

Hir heart thrums. The sun ascends, unperturbed by momentous decisions.

“Yes. I see that.” Kestrel extends her hands, her palms facing upwards. Freckles stipple even her fingers, forming strange constellations over her bloodless skin. “Please. I need touch.”

Hir every hair aquiver, Ponder places hir brown fingers atop Kestrel’s—and a once unrecognised part of hir, now as vital as hir very heart and lungs, explodes into being. For one wild and wondrous moment everything is all of hir and ze is all of everything—the mountains’ roots, the trees’ leaves, the rivers’ waters. Ze becomes flowers blooming at night, frost weathering rocky tors, worms wriggling through loam. Why oh why did ze agonise over the fate of meat and bones in their interactions with other beings of bones and meat, all iotas of insignificance amidst the vastness that is existence? To think of all ze could have heard and seen and felt, creation’s glorious abundance offered up to hir perusal … but ze wasted hir precious senses on fearing what mere iotas think? Shame!

Hir tears rain upon the land, swelling rivers, washing bones downstream until they reach the moon-tugged crash of waves upon a beach with no beginning nor end.

Never does the world halt for the sake of lives ended.


Two cool palms upon hir cheeks draw hir back to smallness—to eyes looking upon sand, to lungs inhaling air, to senses limited by flesh. A force that can only be magic pulses within hir, rendering all sharper, bolder, brighter than ze recollects: why didn’t ze revel in inhaling the richness of leaf and soil? How did ze ignore the pond’s intoxicating perfume, its water all but begging to moisten a parched throat? Why didn’t ze mark the wind’s stirring kiss in every hair of hir hide?

“You are Tempest Soulspire,” Kestrel murmurs, running her fingertips down hir nose, “and may you never again know your village’s bridle.”

Ze tosses hir head and frees hirself from Kestrel’s hands, set on answering the pond’s beckoning call.

Kestrel laughs as ze thrusts hir tongue into sacred waters. “See? Do you see?”

Even the pool’s sweetness can’t distract hir from its revelation, and ze raises hir head, staring in wonder. The mirror ripples beneath the droplets falling from hir lips, but it can’t hide the midnight mane cloaking muscled neck or a dark brown, bronze-dappled coat. Cloven hooves peep out beneath the silky feather adorning strong, sturdy legs. Tempest, crowned with a horn of ebony and onyx, nods before returning hir velvet muzzle to the pond, drinking as the last star fades from morning’s sky. Only then, the sun glittering upon the strands of gold and copper threaded through a cascade of black, does ze swish hir tail hard enough to catch the god-girl on her forearm.

All that came before, the truth that people denied based on their expectations of hir body, feels like nothing more than an ancient nightmare.

Hir name is Tempest, a god-transformed unicorn of the family named Soulspire.

Kestrel rests an arm over hir back, and an image of green meadows, rocky pinnacles and gushing rivers slips into hir mind. “Will you come with me, now?”

Ze stamps hir near fore in agreement before following the girl away from the pond, a burnt-out lantern and a score of sandy footprints. Some remnant cluttering hir soul, human and guilt-ridden, whispers that ze should look back, farewell the family that named and raised hir, consider hir dying mother. Shouldn’t ze, first and foremost, dwell upon hir sorrow—not hir joy?

Tempest shakes hir head and breaks into a canter, eager to see Kestrel’s world.

Ze doesn’t, after all, exist to embody goodness.

K. A. Cook is an abrosexual, aromantic, agender autistic who experiences chronic pain and mental illness. Ze writes creative non-fiction, personal essays and fiction about the above on the philosophy that if the universe is going to make life interesting, ze may as well make interesting art. You can find hir blogging at Aro Worlds and running the Tumblr accounts @aroworlds and @alloaroworlds.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.