Friday, 29 July 2011

The Unicorn

         The day started out hot, with the kind of dry yet wet heat that you can only find in these Tuscan hills, this kind of heat that left your mouth dry but your body soaked with sweat. Fortunately though, some clouds came later in the day, which gave us some relief from the sun but not from the humidity. My father bore it with his usual stoicism, but my uncle Pietro was a different matter.
“Mother of God, Alfonso, it’s hotter than a whore’s sticchiu out here,”  he said, his normally loud voice echoing around us.
“Keep it down, you imbecile,” my father hissed.  “Your baying will give us away.”
My uncle laughed at that. “You don’t really believe that merda that the mayor is saying, do you? Only a child or a fool actually thinks that a unicorn is more than a fairytale. ”
“I know that if we do not find a unicorn today and he hears you screaming in the hills he will blame us for scaring it away.”
Just then we heard a sudden rustle in the bushes behind us. My father swung around and aimed his old Carcano rifle in the direction of the noise. The gun had been my father’s service rifle during the Great War almost twenty years ago, yet it was still in excellent condition. I followed his lead, and aimed my shotgun at the bushes. I‘d fired it several times at old bottles on our farm, and I thought I was a pretty good shot with it, though I’d never used it against a living being.
The rustling stopped and out stepped Angelo, his flat cap in his hand as he used his sleeve to wipe the sweat from his brow. He said he got the hat from Al Capone himself when he visited America last summer, although since he was the mayor’s son and wanted to become a politician like him not many in our village believed his story.
“Salve friends,” he greeted us as we lowered our guns. “I didn’t mean to startle you, though I have to same I’m happy that you confused me for the unicorn. I too have a very big horn, though I don’t keep it on my head.”
Angelo laughed at his own joke, and Pietro joined in.    

My father grimaced. “How can we help you Angelo?”

The mayor’s son paused a bit to (action) before he spoke. “I came to tell you that the beast has been spotted to the south of here, in Filippo’s fields. You will have to hurry there if you wish to ”

“That is very, very far from where we were going to and it will be dark when we get to Filippo’s farm,” my father said through clenched teeth. “And you or your father did not think to tell us before we left?”

Angelo shrugged, picked a few berries and threw them in his mouth. “I only tell you what I was told to say. Nothing more.”

“Angelo, what does your father want with the unicorn?”Pietro asked. “The money he offered for its corpse is rather…”

“Oh, my father has no real interest in the creature,” Angelo replied, cutting my uncle off.  “He only wanted to ship the beast off to Rome to have it studied. He believes there will be a big reward for the carcass.”

We turned around and headed south, covering distance we’d already traversed. It was already mid-afternoon when Angelo caught up to us, and we tried to march as fast as we could to get there before dusk. There was no guarantee though that unicorn would be there when we arrived, but like usual in those days we put our heads down and did as we were told . During the trip Angelo and Pietro talked politics, a topic I was not fond of and my father despised.

“Have you heard that our army has already reached the Ethiopian capital?” Angelo said. “It was such a short war that I thought Believe me friends, in ten years time I will not be surprised to find that our Il Duce will  have taken Italy to heights not seen since the Roman Empire. He has already stood up and told those bastardos at the League of Nations where to put there objections.”

I glanced over at my father to see him shaking his head and I held my tongue. I wanted to tell Angelo that that what he was saying would have been impossible, nothing more than a madman’s dream, but I knew that if I contradicted him Angelo might lie and tell his father my father and I were  dilettantes or even worse communists. My father often said when he was sure no one else was listening that the fancies of the powerful were the burdens of the meek, and listening to Angelo I now knew what he meant.

Fillipo’s farm was an unkempt apple orchard with the trees sprouted wildly and not in rows like in other farms. Fillipo often said the apples came out better this way, with a crisper taste. Whether this was true or not I did not know, but it did mean that the farm was more like a forest than anything else and was difficult to see. We split off into two groups, with Pietro and Angelo searching to the east and my father and myself in the west. Like my father had predicted it was nearly dusk, and that made it hard to see. After some time combing through the trees my father sighed, and I knew that he was ready to give up and return home. It was then that I saw a flicker of white ahead of me. I ran towards it as fast as I could as my father called out to me and tried to keep pace. I arrived at a clearing and saw the unicorn, and for a moment I could not believe my eyes. Even today I have trouble describing exactly what it looked like, and I can only say it is like trying to remember the face of the very first girl you fell in love with; the image of it blurs in your mind and you cannot quite remember details, but you know that it is perfect and unchanging.

The beast looked at me with eyes as dark as night and I stood motionless.  I could not look away no matter how hard I tried. It lowered its head, its horn pointed at me, and tensed its muscles. I knew that it was about to charge at me and gore me like a bull, but I could do nothing to stop it. It started to run at me, and I knew that I would die then. I closed my eyes and waited for the horn to rip into my chest. I heard a loud crack right next to my head, and there was a ringing in my left ear. I opened my eyes to see the unicorn on the ground before me, a bloody wound in its chest. I looked over to see my father lower his rifle and ask me if I was alright, though I could barely hear him.

By the time Angelo and Pietro got to us, drawn by the gunshot, the dark light in the beast’s eyes had gone out. It looked like just another dead animal, and there was nothing left of the glamour it had used on me.  The two joked and laughed over the beast, and Angelo paid my father half of what we had been promised. He did not say a thing about it though, and just put his arm around my shoulder as we made the long walk back to our village. I put the shotgun in my closet and never fired it again, and I feel good to say that I have still never shot a living creature in the rest of my days, despite the dark times I faced ahead in the ten years that followed the hunt of the unicorn.