The Last Living Unicorns

I am sadly posting this on the day that the Western Black Rhino was reported extinct.

This piece was Commended in the Somerset Short Story Competition 2013, whose theme was 'Lost'. Copies of the resulting anthology are available for purchase from the organiser Alyson Heap - contact her at alysonheap [at] yahoo [dot] co [dot] uk.

The Last Living Unicorns

Ammassalik, Greenland, 1861

Their fur-covered backs against the dense packed snow, faces flickering in the flame at the centre of the iglu, four teenage children are listening in rapt attention to their storytelling aunt.

In the story she tells them, there is a woman underwater, thrashing and turning in an attempt to disentangle herself from a harpoon rope, which surrounds her waist and whose sharp end has gone into a beluga. It was fired by her son. He used to be blind. When he was blind, she mocked him for it. This is his revenge - her efforts to free herself are in vain.

Like a fly on a web, her struggle is the trap. Her hair is caught in the rope and every determined convulsion of her body twists it one more time. The shot whale is turning the other way, trying to shake off the harpoon. Her hair stretches out on the rope - it’s twisting into something like a lance. Her body is starting to double over.

A mile directly below her, unseen in the navy blue depths, Sedna the Mother of the Ocean stands on the sea bed, her feet the size of giant squid. She touches a tooth with the remnants of a finger and swivels her wrist anticlockwise. As she does so, with one breath left in her lungs the hair of the knotted woman above her hardens to a spike. Her body swells obscenely and tapers towards her feet which are now fusing together in a mighty tail. With one last attempt to free herself, before she even knows what is happening to her, she flicks it and swims free of the harpoon, the world’s first narwhal.

Saverne, France, 1217

A female order sews an image of a unicorn at the Abbey of Mont Sainte-Odile. It is running, pursued by hunters on unhorned horses. Her picture shows their arrows breaking in mid-air as they’re loosed towards it from their bows, as if snapped in two by angels. Untrappable.

At the same time, in another stone room in another part of the abbey, a monk is grinding unicorn horn into powder. The powder will go into an ointment and the ointment will go onto sores in the skin of a local official. The unicorn horn is a narwhal tusk. The monk knows it was once borne by a narwhal, but he has no issue with thinking of the resulting powder as authentic unicorn horn. It’s not such a great leap, once transubstantiation is accepted. This tusk has been consecrated in one hundred Eucharists along with the bread and wine. Whatever it once was, it is now a unicorn horn.

France, 1596

Sent by Queen Elizabeth on diplomatic duties, Sir Henry Winton befell an accident. He is recorded as having been ‘physicked’ with ‘musk, amber, gold, pearl, and unicorn’s horn, and with pigeons applied to his side, and all other means that art could devise sufficient to expel the strongest poison, and he be not bewitcht at all’.

China, 1896

The pharmacist Li Shi Chen explains that Rhino Horn can cure ‘snakebites, hallucinations, typhoid, headaches, carbuncles, vomiting, food poisoning and devil possession’.

Guildford, England, 2010

A young girl places a small plastic toy in the centre of her playroom.

The toy is a white unicorn with midnight-blue mane and tail, stylised here out of all recognition, her face more reminiscent of a chipmunk’s with something like a miniature upturned ice cream cone for a horn. She is called ‘Rarity’. On her rump are three blue diamond shapes.

In the official My Little Pony storyline, Rarity gained this mark on her rump when her horn’s magical ability was revealed. The horn compelled her over great distance to a monolithic rock. As Rarity stood in front of the rock, it cracked open to reveal a panoply of precious stones. Her horn is therefore known to detect jewels in any place.

Such an ability would be of great interest to many poachers, of course.

A barrier with a good few metres radius has been loosely constructed with lego around the toy. The wide space around her takes up almost half the floorspace of the room. On top of the lego, she is carefully placing upturned drawing pins. Around the unicorn, facing outwards, guns raised with the sights to their eyes for anything hostile coming over the fence, she scatters toy soldiers. They are dwarfed by the creature.

Hanoi, Vietnam, 2011

A young woman has bitten her fingernails to the quick with worry over her dying mother. The woman who is the heart of her family - a world without whom she dreads the thought of.

The word is, rhino horn can cure cancer. That it did it for a politician, a few years ago.

She’d do anything to keep her mother.

Rhinoceros horn is made of just the same stuff - keratin - as her bitten fingernails and hair.

Powdered, it sells for more per ounce than gold or cocaine.

Ol Pejeta, Kenya, 2013

There are exactly seven Northern White Rhinos known to remain in the world. Two of those are in the Czech Republic. One, on the Western Coast of the United States. The other four - all those of mating age - live here. They have become a Schrodinger’s Cat of a species. In the space of one or two human generations, they could be thriving or they could be extinct: like other magical horned beasts, known only in our minds and in our books. They are monitored twenty-four hours a day. They are kept under armed guard.


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