It was in a faraway place, and another time,
The Unicorn's Tears
NOTES: Long ago, in 1977, I wrote a piece that editors universally admired, but couldn't buy: the editor at PLAYBOY suggested I send it to BLUEBOY, and THAT editor suggested I send it to COSMOPOLITAN, and THAT editor suggested I send it to PLAYBOY. At THAT point, I said, "to hell with it." And that wouldn't be the last time: This is another of my stories that doesn't quite "fit." It has, fortunately, nothing to do with the depraved subject of the story mentioned in the above anecdote. I got rid of THAT one..
by Hart Williams © 1988
I t was in a faraway place, and another time, but then, aren't they always? Still it might have been next door to your house, or even in your house, because people don't really change that much, after all. The stage dressing might be a little different, or the tinsel cut from a different mold, but people are people, wherever you go, and think that people who aren't like them aren't really people at all.
Her name was Lilah, and from her birth she was different. Something about the color of her hair, which was a shade different, and the texture of her skin, which wasn't quite the same. Her parents had come from the wrong place -- a place not too far distant from that far hill there -- and everyone knew they'd left for the wrong reasons (though no one could say what those reasons were -- still, they must have, mustn't they?).
They kept to themselves pretty much -- which is always suspicious -- and her father, Drax, was skilled in an art no one knew much about (which was suspicious), and which everyone needed just the same (which was even more so).
So it was no surprise that, when Lilah was a little girl, and her parents were killed in the fire, the Villagers were inclined to take her in, but no one was particularly inclined to accept her. As the years passed, and the fire faded to embers, then to ash, then to wash away with the spring rains, the memory faded, and Lilah was different, but no one could really say why, or how.
She was beautiful, though no one said that she was, publicly or privately (because she was different, and there was no basis for comparison), and while the boys of the Village secretly dreamed of Lilah, they made certain that they were seen with proper girls (which was well and good), or improper girls (which their fathers secretly admitted was better, though they cautioned their sons not to marry such women).
The Women of the Village were another matter.
Women are always, in such villages, the keepers of the traditions, and the bad-rememberers of things they feel should not be forgotten, and Lilah was definitely different -- though the women could no longer really say how -- and thus was an object of a certain affection, but a sterner code of tolerance. It had always been thus, and thus it would (or should) always be.
It was not reasonable, but small villages are rarely reasonable, and cherish and harbor their ancient prejudices, as much because they have always been there as because they immediately and positively identify villagers as villagers and not outsiders (who aren't really human after all, and no one wishes to be inhuman).
So Lilah was definitely an outsider (for reasons not quite remembered), who had been taken in by the village and raised and reared by the village (for reasons not quite forgotten) and was thus in the awkward position of being a villager and NOT a villager at the same time.
The women of the village (had they thought about it, which they didn't) would have admitted that Lilah was both and neither,
and that, while they loved her as a foster-daughter (which is to say: they loved themselves for being so kind to her), no one would have allowed her son to marry Lilah.
Lilah took to wandering through the glens and valleys outside the village early, which made everyone feel much more at ease. It proved that Lilah was different (which assuaged a certain guilt, since people are people, and know right from wrong, especially when they won't admit it), and at the same time allowed the village to cede her a certain special right because of her difference.
No one, not man, woman, child, or criminal would violate the unspoken law that Lilah had the special right to wander the outskirts of the village, and the wilds just beyond, though it was tacitly forbidden for villagers to do so.
The villagers held the houses and Lilah was supreme in the forest, and that was as it should be, and everyone knew it without ever quite putting it into words. It was a sop thrown to one who could never truly "belong."
It was on that day that Lucas, the carpenter's son, saw Lilah in the meadow near the abandoned water-wheel that the unicorn first made its appearance. Lucas did not see the unicorn. Only Lilah did. What Lucas saw was this:
He was making his way through the ancient ash-grove, seeking a certain type of tree for the lintel of the mayor's new house, which his father was building.
It had to be of a precise nature, for to season it, and mold it, and then to carve it required a tightness of grain, and a certain youth, neither too young nor too old, and above all, it must not contain knot-holes in the wrong places, else it would be impossible to carve in the elaborate manner required.
Lucas' father, Garth, had rejected the first tree Lucas came back with, and boxed the boy's ears for making such a ridiculous error. Right in the middle, where the most important carving --the sacred stag -- was to go, there was a wide grain, and a knothole.
Garth admitted that Lucas showed no real talent for carpentry, but born of a carpenter, and an only son, Lucas would become a carpenter, for that was the way of things in the village for as long as anyone cared to remember.
So Lucas walked through the thick, brown grasses, wary of snakes and scorpions, cursing his father, and rubbing the hot, tingling skin of his ears.
If he hadn't had nearly eighteen seasons behind him, he certainly would have cried, but now that he was a man, even in solitude, Lucas would not cry. Instead, he kicked at the thin roots, and at clods of dirt or clumps of grass. And then he saw Lilah, in the pool in the meadow, completing her bath.
He knew enough to stop, and crouch down quickly, for it appeared that she hadn't heard his heavy approach, and he stared at her long, black hair, and the beads of spring water glittering on her breasts in the afternoon sunlight. He felt a constriction in his chest, and it seemed as though he could hardly breathe. Yet, to Lucas, his breathing seemed as loud as the bellows of the blacksmith's forge.
She was perfectly formed, and Lucas felt the sharp tang of desire, making his knees tremble, and his throat thick and tight. He could not take his eyes off Lilah -- though she was not the first woman he had seen thus. Still, she was the first he'd seen in daylight, and Lucas knelt in the deep grass, afraid to move.
And so, he did not see the unicorn. But Lilah did.
With a whicker as soft as the brush of a cloud against the full moon, and a grace that made the hind look clumsy, he stepped into the far end of the meadow.
Lilah did not see him for a moment, so sudden was his appearance, and so still his halting. For a half-second, he regarded her, then shook his head to straighten a mane that seemed smithed by elves in gold -- and was gone.
"Oh!" breathed Lilah, for he was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. She stood stock-still for a long time, as if to move would ripple the vision she had seen.
And then, for the first time, tears came. Not the tears she was used to -- bitter and hot -- but tears of magic. Tears of springtime, and green leaves, and newborn fawns and joy. Tears as quiet and gentle as the whicker of a unicorn.
She finished her bathing in daze, taking long, dreamy moments for the simplest motion, and then she pulled her clothes from the rock she'd laid them on, and began to dress.
That was not what Lucas saw. He saw only that Lilah had been startled, and then had moved with a deliberateness, and a sensuality that set his ears burning, and his throat swallowing. "She knows that I am watching her," he thought. And then: "She wants me to."
And somewhere a girl was raped; a village shamed, a boy outcast, an outcast taken in. The village blacksmith wed the girl accepting her shame. The boy was killed by beasts in his flight from the villagers, and all said that this was the justice of their gods.
But in the glen, far from prying eyes, a Unicorn observed all that transpired, and sometimes, when he eats the delicate flowers that are his food, accepting the offerings laid out for it by the hummingbird and by the bees, Sometimes -- for that is the Unicorn's name -- thinks of the folly of human beings, and sheds a magic tear.
When men find them, they call them jewels.