The unicorn heard the tent canvas rustle and raised its head from the filthy straw. A girl was sneaking under the edge. So many of them sneaked into the tent after the shows, and so many more wanted to but didn’t. The girl wore dark denim overalls and a polka dot shirt.
“Hello,” said the girl.
The unicorn nodded and moved its head forward so the girl could pet its nose. It knew she would like that. When she touched it the unicorn smelled the copper in her blood.
“I’ve never seen a real unicorn before,” said the girl, “only pictures.”
The unicorn lowered its head so the girl could touch its horn. She did, gently, feeling the grooves, then reached up to pet the unicorn’s forelock.
“My aunt has a horse,” said the girl. “I’ve ridden her. You’re smaller, and softer. I bring my aunt’s horse carrots. I’m sorry I didn’t bring you anything.”
The girl touched the unicorn’s nose again. Her sincerity smelled like dried thyme.
The unicorn considered her, and how much like all the others she was, and thought it could tell her all things. It thought it could tell her it came out of the sea and sky when they first parted. It had seen mountains grow and seen trees climb the mountains until they reached the peak and turned to birds. It had walked across the world when all the sea was frozen, and again when there was only one land. It had seen fish swim onto land and green tendrils that followed and stretched up to strangle dragons in their sleep, and it had seen angry seven-eyed things creep up in the darkness and dissolve in the light.
It remembered the first girl it found, a naked mewling thing, lost, and the unicorn stood watch, protecting the girl from wolves and hawks, until other people came and took the girl away. The unicorn slept a long time after that while the sun went gray and the moon reddened with ash. The unicorn walked through the woods and found a girl with a satchel and told her secrets it had heard from mushrooms that glowed underground. The girl took these secrets with her. More time passed. Another girl was drawn to the unicorn. This one burned hot as a furnace and was wild. She wanted to keep the unicorn and it had to run from her.
The unicorn ran for many years and found another girl smeared with blood that was not her own, and she smelled of the iron she wore, and that she carried as a sharp stick.
It was a long time between that girl and the one before it now. The unicorn had come to live among people, to walk between dancers and clowns. It would swallow fire and strike stars from its hooves and send them spinning to the roof of the tent.
The unicorn saw that this girl would have a daughter, and the daughter would have a daughter too. One day the girl and the daughter’s daughter would sit at a table and the girl would add sugar to the daughter’s daughter’s tea, and stir clouds of milk into a storm.
“I saw a unicorn once,” the girl would say, “at the circus,” and they would talk about a time when there were circuses in the world.
The unicorn turned away from the girl, to say to her it was time to go.