Unicorn Prayers

When she was little, when her mother was still
alive and breathing and her father still told her
bedtime stories about little princesses and kissed
her goodnight, she often thought about unicorns,
and at night, in dreams, she tried to conjure them,
but they would always appear misshapen or deformed,
with a chicken’s foot instead of a hoof, or with the
stripes of a zebra or a horn that was jet black
instead of silver.

When she was in kindergarten, she tried to draw one
using finger-paints once, but the smudges she made
were intolerable to her; she felt as if she’d
desecrated something pure and holy and it wasn’t
until many years later that she would try again.

After her mother passed away, her father was
infuriatingly kind and gentle. He treated her as if
she was a princess, and she hated him for it just as
she hated herself for living after her mother’s
death. In response, her father tried to become even
more understanding: he let her wear her mother’s
earrings, the ones her mother never let her borrow.

When she put the earrings on and looked into the
mirror, she realized for the first time in her life
how much she looked like her mother. She took a comb
and arranged her hair, applied lipstick and
eyeshadow. Suddenly she gasped and coughed it was
her mother’s face staring back at her through the
mirror! She knocked the mirror to the floor and it
broke into shards, and she ran out of the house and
kept running until she collapsed on the sidewalk, her
lungs heaving.

In the mornings, she made her father breakfast.
Coffee, decaf only, whole wheat toast with margarine,
pancakes, whole-wheat cereal, low-fat milk, no bacon
and no eggs. Afterwards, she went to school, where
she got straight-A’s, and when she got back she did
her homework until dinnertime. In the evenings she
and her father went out for walks in the park a few
blocks away from their home. She wore her mother’s
earrings and a touch of her mother’s perfume under
her chin, and they held hands while they walked and
pretended to be happy.

It wasn’t long until her father kissed her goodnight
and she felt herself responding to him; she wrapped
her arms around him and opened her mouth, but her
father broke away. “You’re getting too old for
bedtime stories,” he said, and he never kissed her
again. She felt sick, as if she’d defiled something
pure and holy.

The next day, she lost one of her mother’s earrings;
it fell off sometime during school. She searched
everywhere, getting more and more frantic, but she
couldn’t find it and finally she burst into tears and
the school nurse sent her home.

“What’s wrong?” her father asked. “Is it some boy?”
He tried to sound concerned, but she knew that deep
down he was jealous over her, and inwardly she
laughed with glee. She imagined her mother’s
consternation. You never gave me anything, she said
silently to her mother’s memory, and now I’m taking
him from you.

“It’s something only mother would’ve understood,” she
replied. A muscle inside her chest spasmed and
squeezed the breath out of her. She started coughing
and couldn’t stop.

And then she started having nightmares.

She often woke in the middle of the night gasping for
breath someone was choking her! she thought, but
there was nobody in the room but her and the shadows
of dreams. She closed her eyes and listened: the
sound of cicadas, the beating of her heart. Nothing.

One day, when she couldn’t fall asleep again, she
tiptoed naked past her father’s room and out into the
garden. She lay down and closed her eyes. The sharp
twigs and blades of grass scratched her skin; the
cool night air, and her fear, made her nipples ache
and she pinched and pulled at them and stroked
herself between her legs breathing quickly, panting,
but she couldn’t let herself come, she had to wait
for something she didn’t understand.

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