Braid of Days and Wake of Nights

The seat beneath her was glossy plastic and not interested in prolonging their acquaintance. Shifting from thigh to thigh, Julia Popova flipped through newspapers in search of the logo and slogans for bourbon that she had labored over for weeks.

New York Times, March 3, 2005—ESCAPED CARRIAGE HORSE. Reports to the Parks Department of a stray white horse in Central Park puzzled the Horse and Carriage Association and the Teamsters alike. “No one’s unaccounted for,” said spokesman Mark Houdlin. “Both the Clinton Park and Hell’s Kitchen stables are full at the end of the day.”

New York Daily News, March 3, 2005—LOST OPERA HORSE? Recent sightings of a white horse on the lam in Central Park have perplexed locals and police. A spokesman from the Metropolitan Opera was unable to confirm rumors that their production of “Aida” is short one four-legged cast member.

New York Post, March 3, 2005—MYSTERIOUS VOLUNTEER BEAUTIFICATION EFFORTS IN PARK. Seen Central Park lately? You might not recognize it. Over the last two weeks the Lake was raked for plastic cups, the Turtle Pond’s thick algae was skimmed off, and the Kennedy Reservoir is now clear as a freshly Windexed mirror. No one has owned up to seeing or being one of the unknown do-gooders, but park staff are thankful.

Julia found her quarter-page ads in Business and Travel. Orange silk and opalized ammonites. Blissful extinction. The amber bottle gleaming like sunken treasure in the middle of it all. But the colors that were arresting on the office computers were watery in newsprint, diluted by the fluorescent lights of the clinic.

“How’d they turn out?” Vivian asked. The soft leatherette armchair seemed to swallow both her and the taxane drip feeding into her left arm.

Julia shook her head.

“Okay, how was your date with whatshername, Ellen?”

Julia sighed. “I don’t want to talk about it. But look at this. They’re still writing about the horse.”

“For Chrissake, Julia.”

“Soup. It looks like they’re selling fancy soup. Beef, butter, onions. I told them to use less color. Save it for the slicks. Client’s going to yell at me tomorrow.”

“You should quit.”

“I wish.”

With an immaculate thumbnail, Julia peeled open the ziplock bag in her lap. The coil of hair inside, wide as her thumb and nine feet long, was woven throughout with black and gold strands in equal proportion. When Vivian began chemo last May, her hair had skimmed the lower edge of her scapulae. Three weeks later, her purple stripes had rinsed to blonde, and she had not dyed them again. Vivian had smiled at Julia in the bathroom mirror, eyebrows high and brave, but after the first handful slithered to the floor, she handed the humming razor to Julia and covered her eyes.

“You do it,” she said.

The braid was almost finished. Julia had added some of her own hair as needed, taking surreptitious snips behind her ears and bleaching her brown waves in a bowl. Vivian’s false gold was easier to match than her black. The braid felt both coarse and silky, crackling softly when she ran her fingers along it. Only a few loose locks remained at the bottom of the bag.

Vivian kept glancing at the braid, then away, shivering.

“The hell are you doing with my hair?”

“The Victorians made jewelry out of their relatives’ hair,” Julia said.

“Sure, but in front of them?” Vivian screwed up her mouth. “I’m not dead yet.”

“It’s not a mourning piece.”

“So what is it?”

“A gift.”

“For who?”

Julia hesitated. “Maybe you?”

“Nope. No way.” Vivian scratched the down on her skull. She couldn’t stand wigs and wore brilliant silk scarves printed with birds and stars instead. “Weird, isn’t it? Doesn’t bother me when it’s growing on my head, but I can’t stand it when it’s cut. Slopped around the salon floor—ugh. Like seeing a severed hand.”

“Sorry.”

“It’s okay, I won’t look.”

Vivian opened Applied and Environmental Biology and held it up to her face while Julia overlapped yellow strand and black, tugging, straightening, smoothing. When, after half an hour, she noticed Vivian hadn’t turned the page, she pinned the end of the braid and dropped everything into her purse.

Eventually a nurse in pink scrubs sailed over and slid the cannula out of Vivian’s arm. “How are you feeling?” she asked.

Vivian pushed herself upright without speaking, her face pale, and lurched toward the bathroom. Julia followed. Over the retching and splashing, she made soothing noises and rubbed circles in Vivian’s back.

“Pharmacy stop?”

“Thanks.”

Julia had bought her indestructible orange Beetle as a ticket out of rusting Paterson with three summers waitressing in an Italian restaurant and five illustrations for two evanescent magazines. She called it the Lady. When the art school letter came, Julia had fought all day with her parents and cried all night for a month before stuffing the Lady to the roof and driving to Providence. She had not looked back.

Although parking took a large bite out of her budget, the odometer clocked 170,000, and the odors of frying oil, mint gum, nail polish, and drive-through coffee had painted a thin and indelible layer over the interior, Julia kept the Lady when she moved to Queens. Even thinking about selling the Lady struck her as disloyal. Vivian’s sudden need was in many ways welcome, and Julia told herself that she had kept the car for times like these.

She left Vivian hunched in the car and ducked into the hard bright aisles of the corner drugstore. At the counter she collected a battery of pharmaceuticals in orange canisters: yolk-yellow Zofran, pentagons of Ativan, dented white Percocet, and smooth white Lomotil. The paper bags crinkled as she thrust them into Vivian’s hands.

“You doing okay?”

Vivian was breathing through her teeth, and a bitter, stinging smell drifted from her skin. She wouldn’t meet Julia’s eyes. “Swell.”

Julia double-parked on 119th and watched Vivian until she vanished into her walkup.

Although Central Park at night featured often in her mother’s monthly litany of New York horrors, and Julia could not walk there after dark without twitching and jumping at shadows, in all the newspaper accounts she had read, the horse had never been observed before twilight. She went at dusk on a Friday with the braid snaking through the belt loops of her jeans and a jackknife jammed into a pocket to compensate for the judo classes she had never taken. Hawkers of ice cream and soda were shuttering their silver carts. Couples pushed strollers through the orange puddles of park lights, leaning into each other. The air began blue and dimmed and filled with bats.

“Come out,” she whispered. “I’m here.”

The fine gray gravel of the Bridle Path crunched under her canvas shoes. She walked to Riftstone Bridge, now a pool of darkness, and peered underneath. The smell of urine scraped her nose but bothered her less than it once had. There was a faint, bubbling snore.

“Hello?”

Plastic rustled. Something moved.

“What do you want?” The voice was whiskey and dry leaves.

Squinting into the gloom, Julia distinguished two dim eyes and a glint of teeth. “I’m looking for a white horse.”

“Fresh out of horses, sorry. All I got is UFOs and Elvis.” The chuckle was low but female, and Julia unlocked her shoulders. “Why?”

“For a friend. She’s sick.” She tried a smile. “My name’s Julia.”

The woman who shuffled out was tall and swaddled in stained clothes. “Lorrie.”

“So have you seen a horse? No halter, no bridle. Just running loose.”

“How’s a pony ride help?”

“It might be a unicorn.” She bit the inside of her cheek, anticipating laughter. None was forthcoming. Lorrie only folded her arms and tilted her head. “Saint Hildegard wrote that unicorn liver healed leprosy. That unicorn leather cured fevers. The horn was good against poison. No one says anything about cancer, but I figure—”

“Why you askin me?”

“You live here. You might have seen it.”

“I don’t live here.” She coughed thickly. “I been crashin with my uncle when I can, but his house is fulla kids. New wife can’t stand me. Sometimes I hit the drop-in center, but those are bad nights.”

“Oh.”

“March is too cold to sleep outside. You hafta be desperate.”

Julia pulled a rumpled bill from her back pocket and held it out, but her hand was swatted aside.

“My problems they bigger than a dollar, unicorn girl.”

Julia said, “You must think I’m nuts.”

“Of course you is. You carryin a fruit knife shorter than my pinky. You think that’s gonna keep you safe from folks like me.” She wheezed with laughter as Julia’s hand went to her hip. “Your fingers smell like metal. You keep dippin in that pocket. You leanin backwards like you wanna run.”

“I’m sorry.” Her face went hot.

“It’s A-okay. You crazy. And whiter than Wonder Bread. Lots of you come joggin scared around here at night, like you think we bite.”

“You didn’t laugh when I started talking about unicorns.”

“Don’t nobody in this city think I exist either. Used to work at the Aqueduct before I hurt my back. Thought I was invisible then. Now? Bam! Gone. What’ve I got against unicorns?”

“Have you seen one?”

Lorrie shook her head. “Go home.”

“Please. Tell me.”

“You got ten dollars? I’d use it better than you.”

When the money was safely concealed in her clothes, Lorrie straightened and stared. “Think, babygirl. If there a unicorn here? All of us be sleepin sweeter. With no pain. We be smellin honey, fresh bread, lilacs, good days. The wild ones they settle. The angry ones they calm down. If we got a unicorn, why would I tell you? With that knife in your pocket? Leather? Livers? A sick friend? What’s that knife for?”

Julia heard bodies stirring sleepily under the bridge.

“Nowhere in this city is safe for me,” Lorrie said. “I do what I can to get by. You smell safe and selfish. Hunger and pain and need, you don’t know. Go home.”

Julia took two steps backward, then turned and hurried up the path. She could feel Lorrie’s eyes on her. Not until she emerged from the chained green tangle of the park into the traffic of Central Park West did she exhale her double lungful of fear.

“I have to talk to you—”

“If there’s a unicorn,” Julia said, “I’ll bring you its horn. I promise. Abracadabra, Australopithecus, poof, tumors gone. Like that.”

“No. Listen to me.” Vivian shut the cabinet and set two mugs on the scarred table. A chocolate cake slumped half-eaten on scalloped gold paper. WE’LL MISS YOU VIV in green jelly icing. A cardboard box of her notebooks and rubberbanded pens had been shoved under a chair, and Julia kept kicking it by accident.

Her last day at the lab, Vivian said. Everyone had pretended the departure was happy.

“But that’s not what you want to tell me.”

“Ginger? Chamomile? Black?” Vivian fanned out the teabags. “We’re stopping chemo. I’m done.”

“You can’t.”

“Three fresh lesions on my liver. You want to argue? It’s right here, you can talk to it if you want.” She tipped a kettle, and hot water chortled into the mugs. “Be real persuasive, cuz they say two months, best case.”

Julia raised a cup, the steam blurring her vision. The right words were somewhere, buried under jingles, loud typefaces, the shotgun poetry of advertising. Never again would she smell bergamot without the sting of tears.

“Give me some time. Let me try.”

“Spend my last days vomiting, you mean?”

“There’s a unicorn, Vivian.”

Vivian’s laugh was hard and tired. “People stopped believing in unicorns in middle school.”

“So I have a rich imaginative life. Sue me.”

“You couldn’t imagine your way out of a cubicle.” Vivian rubbed her eyes. “I remember when you talked grants, galleries, art shows, MoMA. Where are you now? Selling watches and vacations to people who don’t want them. Cold calling. Retouching portraits of steak.”

Julia pushed away from the table. “I have to live, Viv.”

“And I have to die. Well, we all do. But I’m going to do it the way I want. With friends. With dignity. More water?”

“No.”

Vivian refilled both mugs. “Anyway, Asian girls never get unicorns.”

“How do you know that?”

“Beagle. L’Engle. Lewis. Coville and Gaiman, even though I was too old. I looked anyway, just in case. When I was a kid it was Laurence Yep, take it or leave it. Lots of dragons, no unicorns. None for you either, right? Aren’t you more likely to find a domovoi or a leshy? When did Russia get unicorns?”

“Late fifteenth century.”

“You checked.”

“Of course I checked.”

Vivian grabbed Julia’s hand across the table. “It’s sweet of you, but you’ve got better things to do.”

“Fine. No unicorns for you.” Julia picked up a pen and one of the insurance forms on the table. “Say you’re giving up. What’s next?”

“Hospice. Starting next week.”

Hospice meant nurses, Julia discovered, and the sweetish smell of Roxanol. Clutching a sheaf of filled-out forms, she let herself in with the spare key, then stood in the hallway, bewildered, as brisk strangers squeezed past her. A silver IV tree had sprouted in the kitchen. Vivian’s aunt, who drove up from Queens on the weekends with cooked food in foil pans, fussed at Julia, plucking off her coat and bag.

“Nothing serious,” she said to the expression on Julia’s face. “It’s the rules. Someone has to be here every day. One of her cousins, or me.”

Vivian was lying in bed, her eyes closed, a transparent loop of oxygen around her head. The tall windows she loved were ajar and clattered softly as the warm, astringent air inside mixed with the damp breath of March.

Loneliness gusted through Julia, sudden as rain.

“What am I going to do without you?” she asked, hating herself for the question.

Vivian opened one eye. “Watch it. I’m not dead yet.”

“You know what I mean.”

“I can still beat your ass. Tremble in fear.”

Julia sat gingerly on the edge of the bed, careful not to bounce. Nine years ago they had washed up in New York together, both of them certain that success lay around the corner, or behind the next door, even as the gum-glazed sidewalk ate blisters into their heels and the rent came due again and again and again. The thought of living without Vivian’s rude jokes and good taste, her crayon annotations of newspapers and leaflets, her abrupt phone calls—“You free at eight? Nice dress? Good!”—hollowed her chest. “What will I do?”

“Cry. Breathe. Live. Fall in love. You’ll be better at that when I’m gone, really you will. Skydive. Have children, if you want them. Play tennis. Snorkel. Visit Morocco. All the things I can’t do anymore. Next question.”

“It’s not fair.”

“Fair?” Vivian smacked the mattress. “I wanted kids. I got Gregory and cancer. I wanted a career in microbiology. I got two postdocs and Gregory and a layoff and cancer.”

“And six second-author papers in first-tier journals.”

“I’m thirty-three, Julia. Thirty-three! I’ll never ride a horse or learn how to snowboard, I’ll never drive to the Grand Canyon and order coffee in every diner on the way, I’ll never see Moscow, I’ll never have a houseboat, I won’t win any Nobels, I won’t see any more meteor showers, I won’t pick any more apples, and I’ll never, ever have a daughter. Don’t talk to me about fair. Don’t even think about fair when you’re in the same room as me. I’ll rip it out of your head and crush it into a ball and eat it.”

Vivian’s aunt stuck her head into the room. “Everything all right?”

“Yup.”

“Doing great.”

The aunt retreated. Vivian bit her lip and crushed the edge of the quilt in her hands. In a quiet voice, she said, “He’ll be here Saturday. Can you pick him up from JFK?”

“Who?”

“Gregory.”

Julia blinked. “He’s coming?”

“He heard I was going off chemo.”

“How thoughtful. I’m shocked.”

“I may have called him.” Vivian put her hands over her face. “I may have asked him to come.”

“So I meet him at the airport and make him disappear? I don’t do murder, normally, but for you—”

“Just bring him here.”

“Vivian—”

“Loose ends,” she said, not meeting her eyes.

The marriage had not been a long one. Vivian had disappeared for a year, a deeper and more profound absence than when she was dating Gregory, while she tried on wife as if it were a winter coat, turning and stretching and looking at herself in it, testing its warmth. She smiled less and less, the few times Julia caught her, and a little gutter of worry dug itself into her brow.

One month after the separation, Vivian had called and let the room around her fill with silence.

“I’m coming over,” Julia said, after waiting in vain for a word.

In a voice small and sticky with grief, Vivian said: “Okay.”

Julia had barged into the apartment with two bottles of cheap chardonnay and a handful of black-and-white movies. Vivian scrubbed her eyes with the back of one hand.

“I’m such a mess—”

“It’s fine.”

Vivian’s third glass was almost empty when she snatched the remote and jabbed down the sound.

“He said he never wanted children. Three years into our marriage! He only told me he did because he thought I might change his mind. Or that he might change mine. ‘I wanted to give us a chance,’ ” she said, imitating his sweeping gestures, and laughed with a catch in her throat. “ ‘Too many cultural differences,’ he said. ‘I don’t want my kids speaking a language I don’t know. How would that look to everyone?’ He said it was hard enough listening to me jabbering with my relatives, not knowing when we were laughing at him. He said the kids wouldn’t resemble either of us—how was he supposed to handle that—”

Julia splashed out another half-glass for her. “He loved you, though.”

“Never. Never ever.” Vivian shuddered.

“I was at your wedding. I saw how he stared at you.” Vivian had glowed and glimmered, her dress a waterfall, her hair black wings. “No one could see you and not love you.”

“Except him.”

“All right. He’s a jackass. Why am I defending him?” Julia slung an arm around Vivian’s shoulders. “I barely saw you while you were together. He’s a jerk of the first water, just for that.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Doesn’t matter. You’re back now, so honestly, I owe him.”

After a long silence, Julia glanced sideways. Vivian had fallen asleep, legs drawn up to her chest, beginning to snore. Julia tossed a blanket over her before turning off the TV and the lights.

It was rare for Vivian to ask for anything, and although Julia disapproved so strongly her stomach hurt, she could not say no. On Saturday, she drove into the arteriosclerotic snarl of the airport to retrieve Gregory. She found him, punctual as a banker, planted at the prearranged section of curbside pickup: his hair as curly as ever, houndstooth jacket and trousers slightly mellowed from the straight line, a pair of tortoiseshell glasses weighing down his face. One suitcase, sized for the overhead bin, sat at his feet. He blinked rapidly at the Lady as Julia pulled alongside and beeped.

“You’re—Jean—”

“Julia Popova. You haven’t changed at all.”

He had to duck his head climbing into the car. “That’s right. Vivian’s friend.”

“Admit it, you don’t remember me.”

“I do, I do.” He grinned at her. “Her best friend. The artist. Took me a second.”

“Where are you staying?”

“I’ve got a hotel on the East Side. Vivian first, though.”

They inched out of the airport under a pewter sky, the churn of jet engines trembling the little car. Odd, how airports diffused an industrial grayness across the landscape, washing out yellows and reds, leaching warmth from complexions.

“How long has Viv been sick?” Gregory said. “If you don’t mind my asking.”

“She didn’t tell you?”

“She’s been very mysterious about the whole thing. I didn’t know until two weeks ago. ‘Hey Gregory,’ she says. ‘I’m dying. Stage Four ovarian, isn’t that funny? Want to swing by one last time?’ Like she hadn’t pitched me out the door.”

Julia snorted.

“So how long?”

“Chemo off and on for the last eleven months.”

Gregory chewed his lower lip, gazing at the pawnshops and discount clothing stores that glided by. “Did everyone know?”

“Her friends. Her family.”

“I don’t believe it.”

“Suit yourself.”

“Did they take out her ovaries?”

“Excuse me?” Julia almost missed a stoplight flicking from yellow to red. She stomped on the brakes, and they both choked against their seatbelts. “What’s that to you?”

“She’s my wife,” Gregory said. And that, however regrettable, was true.

It was night when they arrived. A half moon hung in the strip of sky between buildings. Gregory wavered on the sidewalk, looking up.

“You can go home now,” he told her through the car window.

“All right.”

“I’ll get a taxi. I appreciate it, Julia.”

She sat in the car, watching windows blink awake in his path. For forty-five minutes she listened inattentively to the radio station she had flicked on to forestall conversation, and to the light breeze that rattled paper cups and cans down the street. Black and brown people walked by, chattering, smoking, hefting groceries. The moon fell behind a roof. Gregory did not come outside.

At last she turned the key in the ignition and drove home.

The next day thickened into a soup of meetings in conference rooms sharp with the smell of whiteboard markers and phone calls that locked in zero new clients. Julia stopped at a café for a roast beef sandwich with too much mustard before heading to the park. She was looking forward to grass and greenness and the sight of water, even stagnant and sulfurous water. As she sucked threads of onion from between her teeth, her cell phone hummed.

“Are you going to Central Park?”

“Gregory?”

“Which entrance?”

“I’m taking the A.”

“Okay, which stop?”

“The Museum. Look, I’d rather not—”

“See you there.”

Julia huffed and stomped down the steps into the station. She was busy, urgently busy, and not about to wait for him. But as she walked to Naturalists’ Gate, she heard her name.

Gregory, pressed and polished, waved at her from a bench. Her own hair had blown every which way. Her irritation deepened.

“I thought this was it. Vivian said you used to meet here after work and walk to Conservatory Garden.”

The humid summer evenings she and Vivian had spent wandering through the park, pausing for ice cream éclairs and the occasional concert, appeared at an impossible distance. It had been centuries, surely. Kingdoms had risen and crumbled in the interim. She was obscurely hurt that Gregory knew about those days.

“What else did she say?”

“You’re hunting a unicorn.”

Julia compressed her lips. “She’s told you a lot, then.”

“Vivian’s very fond of you. Thank you for taking care of her.”

“Someone had to.”

“Do you mind if I come? I’ve never gone on a unicorn hunt.”

I do mind, Julia wanted to say, but the words stuck in her throat. Her silence did not discourage him. They walked together into the darkening park, Gregory glancing at her, tipping his head toward her, as attentive as if they were a couple.

“What are you planning to do?”

“I have some ideas.”

“Isn’t there a procedure? You need a virgin—”

“How do you know?”

“I read,” he said. “Or I used to. Viv fell for my bookshelf before she fell for me. Ask her about it sometime. So, you borrowing a kid for this?”

“No.”

“It’s just, if you don’t mind my saying so, you look past the age—also too beautiful—”

“Fuck off,” she said.

He stared at her. “You are?”

“I said fuck off.”

“Do you mean technically? Are you a lesbian? Or have you never—”

“I mean get lost. Catch a cab, go home. What are you doing here, anyway?”

“Look, I didn’t mean to—” He raised his palms in apology. “How do I say it? There’s no imagination in my job. No imagination outside of it, either. No time to read, no time to socialize, and no nice girl dates a married man. Work, sleep, work. Dull as hell. I got excited when I heard about your unicorn.”

“You’re laughing at me.”

“I’m not.”

Julia strode off, Gregory trailing behind her. At the eastern edge of the Ramble, she bent over two hoof-shaped patches of verbena and goldenseal. The clusters ran in double lines across the grass.

“What’s that?”

“The flowers of old New York,” she said. “They grow where it goes.”

Gregory pinched off a purple blossom and sniffed it. “This is amazing,” he said.

From what she had seen, she figured that the age of the plants corresponded to the freshness of the trail. She ignored luxurious, knee-high tracks of bee balm and wild ginger in favor of a younger trail of asters, following it until it vanished at an outcrop of schist.

“Damn,” she said, slapping the rock. “This one, I thought—”

“Keep going,” Gregory said.

“Don’t tell me what to do.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it.”

They were descending Cedar Hill when Gregory dropped to a crouch.

“Here,” he said. The print was damp, as long as her hand, an impression of teardrops curving toward each other. It was speckled with seedlings.

Julia knelt, bending until her nose was on a level with the sprouts. Their cotyledons were spread, the tips of the first true leaves beginning to unfurl. It was not clear what they would become.

“I’m not making this up,” she said.

“No.”

“They’re growing, look.”

There was a faint metallic scrape behind them, like a hobnail on rock. Julia’s neck prickled. She pushed herself upright, brushing her hands on her jeans, and dug in her purse for the knife. The night was thick around them, and she could not see much.

On the crest of the hill, a flash of silver.

“Oh,” she said, transfixed.

Tree trunks divided and obscured the white form, but as it picked its way through them, she glimpsed a feathering mane, a silver wisp of beard, a horn like a slant of light. It shone pearl and silver in the darkness.

“You are,” she said. “You exist.”

As if it had heard, the unicorn swung its head toward them. The point of its horn traced a bright curl in the air. In that long, frozen moment, Julia observed the fine pulse of one vein in its neck, the mud on its forelocks, the leaves tangled in its mane. Vapor fogged its nostrils. It regarded them with an opaque intelligence, considering.

Then it wheeled and trotted in their direction.

Gregory stayed still. Moving slowly, Julia slid the coil of black and golden hair from her purse and weighed it in one hand. Would the unicorn let her wrap her arms around its neck? Or would she have to lasso it? Any horse could snap the braid with a toss of its head, but according to her research, a unicorn would not. A gilt watch chain would do the trick. An embroidered girdle. A necklace. If her books were correct, all she needed was the horn.

Ten steps separated them, and still the unicorn advanced. Julia held her breath. Five steps. Three. Two.

Gregory snatched the knife from her left hand and lunged.

“Wait!”

The knife was cheap and small, but she had spent half an hour rubbing it over a whetstone, wincing, as her parents had taught her to do.

A dark, dripping line opened along the pale neck. With a cry like bells, the unicorn shied away. It ran faster and fleeter than any horse, a shimmer in the trees, a glint, then gone.

Gregory sprawled on the grass, the knife wet and black in his hand. She prodded each of his arms and legs, checking for injury, then yanked him to his feet. Tears burned her eyes, and she mopped at her face, frustrated.

“Asshole. How could you?” she said. The unicorn—Vivian—the question rang with accusations.

“What else was the knife for? What were you going to do?”

She opened and shut her mouth and could not speak.

They headed out of the park in silence. Here and there, on a bench, under the dark arc of a bridge, Julia spotted a huddled body husbanding its warmth. Those who needed unicorns as much as she did. Shoving her hands in her pockets, she walked faster, too weak and foolish, she knew, to ask forgiveness.

“Why waste your time with someone like him?” Julia said. She sat on the edge of the bed, watching Vivian eat breakfast, and offered mug and spoon at appropriate intervals.

“He’s helping with the bills,” Vivian said reasonably. “And it’s his health insurance.”

“He could write a check from anywhere.”

“It’s not just that.” Vivian dipped her spoon into each of the dishes that crowded her tray—zhou, strawberry jello, bone soup with slices of winter melon, chocolate pudding—without raising it to her lips. Her skin was soft and loose against her bones. She was not eating, the aunt had whispered to Julia. “I’m trying to remember what was beautiful about him.”

“Him? Nothing.”

“You’re angry at him?”

“Yes.”

“So am I. And I don’t want to die with that much anger. It’s the size of a house, roof, floors, porch, everything.”

“So you have him over every day to yell at him?”

“We talk.”

“For hours.”

“Don’t be silly. I talk to you too.”

Julia tightened her lips. “Not every day.”

“You have work.”

“It doesn’t seem healthy to me.”

Vivian sighed. “Didn’t you see the flowers?” The kitchen table was flooded with lilies and chrysanthemums, more than Vivian had vases for, and she made Julia haul home an armful every visit. “Know who they’re from? Classmates. Roommates. Colleagues. Friends. Cousins. He has to wait outside when anyone else is here.”

“Don’t tell me you don’t enjoy that.”

“Oh, I do. I do.” She smiled. “You’ve taken good care of me. I know. I notice. But when you’re looking death in the face at thirty-three—”

“You’re not. Don’t say that.”

“Cut the crap, Julia.”

“But Gregory—”

“He’s figured out something you haven’t. I’m dying. He knows it. He doesn’t waste words. We don’t waste time.”

“Tell me how.”

“How what?”

“How to not waste your time.”

“That’s your job.”

In the quiet that followed, they heard the long, bright song of the doorbell, then the snick and thunk of Vivian’s aunt unbolting the door. Muffled voices reached them, one a familiar baritone.

“Is Gregory here? Give us a minute—”

Julia returned to Central Park alone. The damp wind numbed her fingers and wormed its way up her sleeves. She clutched her thin coat, wishing for a scarf.

As she walked the twenty blocks from Sheep Meadow to the Reservoir, she could find no unexpected flowers, no tracks, no magic. Where hoofprints of columbine and wake robin had flourished the week before, there were now only bare and indistinct spots of earth. Few people remained in the park. The one or two she saw ducked their heads against the wind and never looked up.

It grew colder as the night deepened. Dew soaked her canvas shoes and cotton socks, prickling her toes. She wished for company, anyone at all, even Gregory. After an hour of searching, she had seen no sign that the unicorn ever existed.

“Well,” she said aloud, “that’s that,” and turned toward 86th Street and the subway.

“Nice bag there, lady.”

In the dark, Julia could make out only a pale grin, a paler shock of hair, and the switchblade presented by way of introduction. She had not noticed his approach, preoccupied as she was with her hunt. The calm of perfect terror settled over her.

“My wallet, right?” she said, fishing it out of her purse.

“Why not your whole bag?”

“There’s nothing you want in there.” She riffled the bills in her wallet and tossed it at his feet.

His eyes never left hers. He stepped forward and wrenched the purse from her arm. “I’ll be the judge of that.”

Every nerve shrilled at her to run. She locked her knees. “Please,” she said. “My friend’s hair. She’s dying.”

“You’ll shut up, if you know what’s good for you.” He upended her bag and shook it. Pens, tampons, fliers, and tissues scattered across the grass. The detritus of an insignificant life, she thought, starting to shake.

“Run.”

She didn’t.

He grabbed a fistful of her jacket and held the braid under her nose. “Or come get it.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Let me go, please—”

“Too bad you’re not prettier.”

He hooked his arm around her neck, cutting off her air. Her lungs burned as he tightened his chokehold. Her knees buckled. The unspoken fears of nights and days coalesced into a fine point. So this is it. My turn. This. Now.

A hundred carillon bells clanged together. Over the wet, dark grass, a white shape tilted at them, indistinct at first, but growing brighter and clearer every moment.

The man swore and dropped her. She fell on her face, grateful for the dew that seeped into her clothes, the distinct sensation of each blade of grass against her skin. When she had caught her breath, she pushed herself to her knees.

He was running, his jacket flapping around him. The unicorn crashed past her in a glorious arc of white, the whorled horn pointed at his fleeing back. For an instant she imagined it spearing his back, the stutter of blood, him stumbling, sinking, deserving it—

“No!”

The pale body pivoted, pawing the air. When it landed, snorting steam, it was facing her. The gash on its neck had scabbed over into a rough crust of garnets. Julia glanced down, ashamed.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. She picked up the braid of black and golden hair and offered it to the unicorn. “I won’t hurt you, I promise. Not this time.”

The unicorn approached her, formal and slow, and sniffed the braid. Her fingers tangled in its beard, which was silk and cobweb and gossamer. Its breath burned her skin with cold.

“I need you,” Julia said. “Will you come with me?”

She made herself meet its eyes, which were as old and secret as fossils, and felt very small. After a long, careful look, the unicorn sighed and bowed its head.

Julia looped the braid loosely around the broad neck and fumbled with a knot. She was close enough to smell the odors of cinnamon, tamarind, and cardamom rising from its skin. When that was done, she bent and shoveled the pieces of her life back into her purse, heedless of the wet leaves stuck to her keys, the mud on her wallet. The unicorn waited for her to rise and grasp the braid, and then it set out after her.

They left through Hunters’ Gate and went north on Central Park West. The streets were hushed and empty of cars. A few pedestrians hurried along on the far side of the road, none of them looking in her direction, though as they passed, Julia noticed, they slowed and straightened, brows smoothing, hands falling to their sides.

She was shivering with cold and shock. Every now and then she leaned against the unicorn’s side, and its breath was a deep rumble in her ear. The long, spiraling horn wrote eights in the air as they walked.

At intersections, the traffic lights flared green in all directions. Above them, one by one, lit windows snapped out. A shouted argument that had spilled onto a fire escape subsided to a murmur, and the high, inconsolable wail of an infant faded. Soon they were enveloped in quiet.

“Will you help her?” Julia said. “I can’t lose her. She’s the best thing in my life.”

The unicorn did not answer. As if it knew the way, it went up Seventh Ave and turned onto 119th. Its hooves printed moist, silvered daguerreotypes on the sidewalk behind them.

Vivian’s building was dark. Julia led the unicorn up the stoop and through the narrow doorway, watching anxiously as its flanks twitched and shuddered between the jambs. She had not planned for the two flights of stairs to Vivian’s apartment. But the unicorn placed one foot, then the next, on the threadbare runner, each step making a muffled chime. Less graceful, Julia groped hand over hand along the railing. Though she left the light switch alone, the unicorn gave off a fragile, glowworm light.

A neighbor’s tabby sat on the second-floor landing, its eyes two small bright moons. As the unicorn passed, it tucked in its paws and purred.

On the third-floor landing, Julia unlocked the door, and she and the unicorn entered Vivian’s apartment. Moonlight cut black paper silhouettes out of the flowers on the kitchen table. Everything was stark and sharp, but Julia still stumbled over a single shoe and skidded on a magazine before she grasped the loose brass doorknob and let them both into the bedroom.

Vivian was sitting in bed, resting against Gregory. His arms were around her, his cheek against her bare head. When he saw them, his face softened with wonder.

“Julia?”

Vivian opened her arms to them. Their arrival might have been the most ordinary thing in the world.

“You did find a unicorn.”

“I did.”

It went to her. Vivian cradled the long white head, touching their foreheads together. “How lovely you are. You’re so much more than I imagined.”

“You can cure her, right?” Julia said. Her shoes were icy puddles, and she was swaying on her feet. The unicorn paid no attention to her. With a pang, she saw that the story was no longer hers. It had slipped through her fingers as easily as the end of the braid, leaving her a witness at its periphery.

“Of course,” Vivian said, to a question no one else had heard. “Yes.”

The unicorn lowered its horn and nudged up the hem of Vivian’s oversized T-shirt, exposing the pale skin of her belly. Julia gritted her teeth, afraid to watch, unable to look away.

The tip of the horn plunged through the skin and withdrew.

Moonlight spilled out of the hole, an icy light that made the room swim. Vivian convulsed, whimpering. Gregory stroked her face, her hands, her arms, whispering to her, soothing, pleading. Julia ached to see them.

When the spasms had passed, and Vivian lay exhausted among the tangled quilts, there was no sign of the wound. But a glimmering light suffused her skin.

“Is it over?” Julia said. “Are you okay?”

“It hurts, but it will be all right.” Vivian clasped Gregory’s hand. “Help me.”

Gregory gathered her up, one arm around her shoulders, another under her knees. As the unicorn knelt, he settled her onto its back. She wrapped a fistful of its mane around each hand and smiled at Julia, through Julia, her eyes fixed somewhere else now.

“You shouldn’t be afraid,” Vivian said.

The unicorn clambered to its feet and tensed. Then the two of them leapt out of the open window—but the window had not been open, Julia thought—and landed with a sound like church bells on the pavement two stories below. Ringing and pealing, the unicorn’s hooves sang down the sidewalk, fading with distance.

Julia blinked, and the room was as dim as before, the window shut and locked against the night. Vivian was motionless in bed, Gregory feeling along her wrist with clumsy, desperate fingers, listening, waiting. Then he raised his head, loss naked in his eyes. On either side of the cold white bed they stood, unable, for a very long time, to say the impossible thing that had occurred.

E. Lily Yu

E. Lily Yu received the Artist Trust / LaSalle Storyteller Award in 2017 and the Astounding Award for Best New Writer in 2012. Her stories have appeared in venues from McSweeney’s to Uncanny and in nine best-of-the-year anthologies, and have been finalists for the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, Sturgeon, and World Fantasy Awards. Her first novel, On Fragile Waves, will be published by Erewhon Books in Fall 2020.

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