Book Excerpt: The Unicorn, the Mystery: A novel by Janet Mason

From the Blurb:

“In The Unicorn, The Mystery, we meet a unicorn who tells us the story of the seven tapestries, called “The Hunt of the Unicorn” from the 1500s on display in “the unicorn room” in The Cloister in Manhattan, now part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The tapestries tell the story of what is still called an “unsolved mystery.” The story is set in an abbey in France not far from the barn in the countryside where the tapestries were discovered. Pursued by a band of hunters, the unicorn is led along by observing birds, smelling and eating the abbey flowers and fruits (including imbibing in fermented pomegranates), pursuing chaste maidens (there is one in the tapestry) and at times speaks to other animals such as the majestic stag.

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In the Beginning

(Chapter One)

“There is too much blood.”

The child pointed to the bright red blood dripping down my otherwise pure white side — and to the gash my horn had gouged in the side of the hunting dog. I do not normally hurt other animals – or humans for that matter – but the hound belonged to the hunters who had trapped and cornered me with their long javelins.

“That man is bad. I can see it in his eyes,” continued the child.

The child had a point. The man’s eyes are flat and glittering. Even as he points his javelin toward my head, you know that this kill – if it comes to pass — will not be enough for him. He will want more. I can see this but even now I still wonder – why would anyone want to capture me? Why didn’t they just leave me alone? Was I that important?

To distract myself from being bored, I watch the groups of people that pass through this room.

Today, the most interesting person in the room is small and is wearing a shiny and long magenta dress. I’ve heard little girls so adorned called princesses. Really, they are imitating a time long gone, and they are re-living a myth. It’s true that in my day princesses lived in castles.  But little girls were not passive. They had to be bred to be passive. The myth makers thought that they would make future little girls passive through the repetition of fairy tales. But young women did not dangle their long blond locks from towers and wait for the handsome prince to come and save them. They did not sit beautiful behind locked doors, waiting to be rescued.  They may have had to do it in secret, but many princesses developed their muscles. They learned to use javelins, shields and spears. They unleashed their power — even though they were frequently opposed and overpowered. I hear the tradition continues – despite the myth. This little princess may free me from the tapestry to tell you my story. Just remember that it is a real story — not a fairy tale.

I am going to start in the middle of the story of how they captured me. I’ve always wondered myself. How was it possible? Part of my legend and lure was that it was impossible to capture me. But this was not always true. People have hunted my kind for many reasons. They may have claimed that they were chasing my horn which they fancied as imbued with all types of powers. My horn was said to be a cure-all for everything, including mortality – as if that could be cured. They were especially keen on insisting that a ground-up horn from my kind acted as an antidote to poison. This was an untruth of course. Everything was false. They were chasing that which cannot be caught.

Let me start at the beginning – or rather in the middle. Of course, I defended myself. What other choice did I have? I see in this tapestry, that I am cornered and there is blood. But I am still surrounded by beauty. There is a stream flowing in front of me. Another day, I would have bent my head, lowered the tip of my horn into the stream, and cleansed it so the other animals could drink.

There are a few birds: the common gray goshawk, the noble falcon with its long wings who is not taking any notice of the hunters behind me as it stares down at the stream; and several types of ducks, including the mallard with its regal white ring circling its neck. Far in the background, at the top of the tapestry, is the pomegranate tree I have just eaten a ripe fruit from before I wandered away. To tell you the truth I was savoring some fermented fruits on the ground – which always makes me feel a little giddy. That may be why I didn’t see the hunters come up behind me until it was almost too late.

My hindquarters raised, I was poised to jump over the stream. The person who did the drawing for the tapestry maker caught me between galloping away and the moment when I realized that I had to give a swift kick, with both of my rear legs, to the hunter behind me. He was so close that I could feel the steely wind from his javelin on my rear quarters. As I mentioned, I am not usually aggressive. But I do like to be alone. It seemed that these hunters — suddenly surrounding me, with their javelins, bugles, and dogs — wanted to disturb my solitude and more.

I am surrounded by flowers:  white lilies, wild red roses, St. Mary’s thistle and my favorite, the pungent stock gillyflower. I can smell their mingled sweet and spicy scent. I see the blurred colors of lavender, pink and white as I gallop by. Nonetheless, I could still tell that the throng of hunters, that was gaining on me, meant to do me harm.

Now that I have time to really look at the scene depicted in this tapestry, I see that most of the men wear brown cloaks atop red tunics. Three of the men wear shiny blue cloaks crinkled like crushed velvet. All are wearing hats — more than a few are red, others brown — perched on their heads. One man, standing in the back, the man with a bugle hanging on him, wears a fancy red hat with a feather plume curling up from the brim. He holds his javelin straight up with the wooden pole near the ground. He looks down like he is musing. A poet, perhaps? He appears to be someone who thinks he is above the fray. Given his fancy dress – and the fact that there was always a hierarchy, he could be a representative of the King. It is said that the King represents God. If it is true – as I’ve heard it said — that I was a symbol of the son of God, then why would He want me captured? Wouldn’t He want me left alone to be part of the beauty of nature? There is so much in this world that doesn’t make sense.

I remember being in the grounds of the abbey. I was drawn there because there seems to be more room for solitude. The village inside the stone walls of the abbey was quieter and the people more contemplative. There was a church and a pig trough. The well was frequently unattended, so I could drink to my heart’s delight. There were more likely to be virginal maidens here – especially in the nun’s quarters – than other places. In the village that I had to pass through to get here, there were no virginal maidens at all. I had wandered into the burial ground, thinking that I could find some solitude. But then I had to flee from the people living there in makeshift tents and women plying their wares – and I do mean all their wares.

At the top left of the tapestry, behind the trees, the cherry, the pomegranate, the walnut, the bushy oak, is a castle in miniature. On the middle tower, a red triangular roof that appears tiny in the distance flies an equally small flag, a triangle with a point on the end. Perhaps the castle is within view of the abbey to remind the holy ones – even the Bishop – that they work for the King.

I admit that I was afraid of the hunters. I was especially concerned about their intent to invade my solitude. But I was not fearful of going to the castle, because I heard that the princess there – the king’s only daughter – was a warrior princess. She was a beautiful and virginal maiden. Surely, she would save me.

At the very top of the tapestry is a cerulean sky that has never seen smokestacks. The air was clean then. The forests were new, the land almost untouched by human hands and machines that were yet to be invented. The mountains smiled upon us. Everyone believed that I existed. It was undeniable that the earth was as alive as you or I. I could see the breath of trees — the vibration of everything.

I was found and captured – my story stitched into the warp and weft of centuries. Most of the threads are common and natural such as linen and cotton. But some of the threads are metallic. The glitter is magic — not only the stuff of my life but of yours too. These are the years that led to yours.

There were so many javelins coming toward me that I couldn’t stop to wonder then. But I do now. Who struck the final blow – if indeed there was one? Was it my human friend? I think of him as my friend, because he was the closest I’ve ever gotten to having a human friend. (I’ll tell you about him later.)  I’m not saying that I was above reproach. Perhaps no one is ever really innocent. Looking back on that day, I realized that many wanted me dead. But I did not understand why – or perhaps I should say I refused to. To tell you the truth, I never thought of myself as dying. I know it is inevitable, but perhaps I was too vain. I thought that what happened to all other beings wouldn’t necessarily happen to me.

I found myself musing and arranging words that came tumbling out:

“You will find that I am the creature written about in holy books, and the one associated with evil.

You will find that I am the rareness that is everywhere.

I am many. I am one.

I desire to be alone — yet I am always with you.

Wise men have written that I cannot be taken alive. Others say I am dead.

Worse, others deny that I ever existed.

Why do you belittle me, when I am wiser than thought?

I am the revered and the scorned one

I am the one who is always seen and the invisible one.

I am your purity, your hallucinations run wild.

I am said to represent your salvation – with my one horn.

But I existed long before this was said.

My will extends further into the future than you can see.

I am in the clouds above you.

I am the darkness of the woods.

I was captured, but I am free.

I answer to no man.

Even as you deny me, I am you.”

Chapter Two

{excerpt)

It all started innocently enough. That’s what I used to tell myself. Although when I think back on it, I have a nagging doubt.  Maybe it wasn’t so innocent. I knew he was spying on me. I pretended that I did not see him behind the bush. Instead of running away, I slowly walked to the nearby pond, bent my head, and admired my reflection. I kicked up my heels and pranced. My kind is known to be vain. I am no exception. 

I knew I was being watched. I knew it was the same one who was watching me. I never thought there was any harm in making him desire me. We were different species. I knew that nothing could happen between us. But I admit that I liked being admired.

That day in the clearing when I saw him gazing at me with intense desire, I felt powerful but, at the same time, had a sensation that felt like the earth was sinking and might soon open and swallow me. I see now that I knew then that it was the beginning of the end. I had wandered into the clearing quite by chance. I remembered that the sunlit grotto was edged with stands of birch trees. Their snow-white bark the same color as me, I usually hid behind them easily. But I wasn’t thinking of hiding that day. If I was thinking at all, I was thinking about the grotto and how I loved sitting in it and basking in the sun. When I looked up, I would see towering pines framing clear blue sky.

This clearing was my favorite place. I must have known that I was walking toward it. But at the time I really wasn’t thinking about where I was going. I just ambled through the undergrowth of the forest – admiring the curling fronds of the ferns. When I arrived in the clearing, I kept walking until I felt the sun shining down on my shoulders and haunches. I knelt down in the middle, with my front legs extended so that I was resting on my hooves. Then I relaxed. I closed my eyes and felt the sun’s rays warm my outsides and enter my insides too. For a moment I felt totally free – as if I were made of sunlight. Then I sniffed and caught a human scent. I opened my eyes and saw him gazing at me.

I should have fled. I would have ordinarily. Maybe I needed to prove to myself that it was my right to sit in the sun and shimmer – no matter what. But now that I think about it, I admit that his desire made me feel powerful. He gazed at me with such awe that I could feel it. It felt as if I symbolized something in his mind – like the light of creation.

Maybe in that moment, I was the light that haloed me. But the light falls on us all and emanates from us all. He did not desire anything in me that he couldn’t have found in himself.

I should have stayed outside the abbey walls that day and gone to the land near the castle like I had been planning. A stand of interesting rushes grew near the moat. They had long brown seed pods that were very tasty. I was always very cautious when I was near the castle, because this was the Middle Ages and barbarians in armor riding horses (who looked like they could be my cousins) and shooting flaming arrows could show up any time.

However, I almost never encountered anyone there on the land near the castle — except that one time when I ran into the princess and some other young women. They were jousting in the clearing. The tables were turned then. I was the one spying on them. The princess looked beautiful. Her dark blond hair flowed like a waterfall over the shoulders of her leather tunic. She wielded her javelin and her shield so well – like a muscular wind – that I barely noticed the other young women. I could tell that she would become a great warrior princess, one descended from the Celtic warrior queens – perhaps from Boudica herself.

***

Janet Mason is an award-winning creative writer, teacher, radio commentator, and blogger. Her book, Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters (Bella Books; 2012)was chosen by the American Library Association for its 2013 Over the Rainbow List. It also received a first-place Goldie Award.  

Her novel THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders was published in 2018 by Adelaide Books (New York/Lisbon) and was well received around the world. THEY also offended quite a few people – proving that the author did her job well! An excerpt from THEY was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.  

Adelaide Books published her novel The Unicorn, The Mystery in the fall of 2020. 

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