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many thanks to Channing, Jason Lehrer, and LoveBear
It's raining today. Grass and sodden, spotty leaves of yellow and blurred emerald run together around Wain and over his sprinkled grey coat like in one of those watercolors where they try to get just this effect; the melting mostly-white look of his form has no depth, but loads of color. I feel trickles reaching into my neck from the curved-out portion of my leather collar. The droplets that formed on the outside of my coat are turning me dark and the actual skin of my nape is chilling just a little. It's a light rain, though. No reason not to graze.
At any rate, the rain slows down the flow of people to this section of the park and Wain gets a bit of time off from the hands and strident mothers' voices and sticky-candy children's breaths of a typical mealtime. One day when it was warmer, several children and two caretakers came out in their skirts and animated-character tennis shoes and braved a mild sprinkle to play with Wain, slide about on his withers, and pat him all over with their little hands while the caretakers giggled and held summer jackets over their hairdos. When they were done and filed away in their hand-to-hand line, Wain had six or seven small handprints in his white shoulder and flank fur. The rain was just enough to keep the rumples in place and not smooth them out.
My brother comes here every noon to graze. I come with him. The rest of the day, except on Sundays, I make myself useful at a travel office. At least, for the various things I do there and for borrowing cars to make runs at inopportune times in the traffic tides, I get paid. This is a good thing. Of course, I could be far worse off than I am. My brother is a big boy. Takes a lot to feed a person like Wain.
I don't know why people flood that travel office all the time like they do, when they could just as well pretend this town is Bermuda or Mexico or Nicaragua or what have you. Given the way they look at my brother, you'd think all they'd have to do is paint a castle tower effect around the front of their house, maybe dig a moat in mud and run a hose into it, and they'd believe they were in a some medieval idyll. Of course, the city sees it both ways. That's why we're off the hook with Wain's immense needs for greenery. The parks department knows a good thing when it sees one, and if I were even half a salesperson I would have thought to play it up that way instead of going begging.
Sometimes, here at the park, I eat cheese or some toasted sandwich from the bakery-cafe, but sometimes I toast and steak-season grasshoppers I buy at the pet shop and crunch those down in front of everybody. At least it sometimes gets me an odd glance, and anyway they're good for you.
Wain pulls leaves into folded piles from their limbs with his dove-grey lips and munches quietly. I can hear him, from a distance, today. I see him shake his stringy white mane with its little droplets of rain streaking his neck. In the rain, even a slight rain, there are not so many people here. And most of them that do come just nod or wave, and go on to lunch indoors someplace. Even in the sprinkling, though, I see that one does leave a donation in the padlocked red metal box by the walk.
The city wants me to be here when Wain partakes of the greenery every noon, because he is fully changed and I am still moderately shaped like a human being. I don't know what difference it makes; my temper is no more trustworthy than my brother's. I guess they just don't want to be Held Responsible if something happens to a park visitor when they themselves have invited and advocated the presence of a large creature.
He's a human, though. I don't know what it is with all this degree-of-change stuff. Sometimes I feel like we all changed from one person to another, and anything that looks like the old me is just a retake, no more the old Bob Chapsfeld than Wain is my sister, Wynona, anymore. If I could see something of my sibling from before in enormous blue eyes that were brown, how do I know that isn't just a horse-kudu-thing that _looks_ like my sister? There could have been any number of girls or boys or SCABS on the street that held some resemblance to her, and I never would have been expected to believe it. But her body went into the hospital, and as far as I understand it her mind came out wrapped in something entirely different. But she shows in his eyes. I show in some of my human features. For all I know, I changed into a partial human that looks kinda like me the same way Wynona changed into an animal with no human DNA in him that still... looks like a member of my family. I'm getting used to Wain.
Yes, still getting used to. She was startled by my SCABS, after I scuffled my way through a long battle with a number of symptoms of Martian Flu, and I was rather floored by hers. But mine isn't so spectacular. And I still feel like I'm getting to know someone that _everyone_ else knows in some deep and personal way, and all I have that I can really claim is the spark of a sibling in the brook-blue eyes. It's not that the awed vision-seekers don't see the eyes... I believe it's that they see a complete model in touchable life direct from blueprints in their fairy-tale books. So many delighted outbursts and quiet appreciations, and so much more advantage for the park's planning and budget. But I am still trying to build into that hooved form a person that they believe they already know.
My sister was living with me since our parents sent her out (at her request) from their home in New Mexico, and we dealt with the Flu as it sickened her, thinned her out, and then with a swift blow landed her in the hospital dead to the world and several hundred pounds heavier. It went a lot like mine had; I took some comfort in realizing I knew some of what she was going through. Her SCABS, though, is something different. Mother and Father came out once when she was sick, and as soon as they could when I stammered over the phone to them that she had changed. I think they are afraid of Pennsylvania. Too many SCABS. But they came to see their children. I showed them around the travel office. They pretended to be impressed.
They were able to see everything about my sister but his sex. They saw the horn, spiraling weighty and wood-shining from the place on his forehead where that little star of short hair would be on a regular horse. It was a fearsome thing to look at; I saw it first, after the doctors. Not a tight, clean spiral, but a damn-the-torpedoes, rich brown, sweeping double curve with a good several inches to either side before swinging back into the general forward line of eruption from the skull. When he keeps his head down, the horn seems to point with tapering end at whomever is near. When he holds his skull high, it seems to reach up to Heaven, except that you can't see the rest of it after it tapers out of sight. That is what it seems like, anyway. Sometimes I ask him to lower his head so I can touch the point, to remind myself that it probably really does end, and that our brains are too easily carried through into unseeables.
Our parents were not here when I got the Martian Flu; I went back home to be sick for awhile, then when I ran into the SCABS end of it I moved myself back out here. Wynona could never remember what I was called. I never tell anybody, not if I can keep it interesting for them to guess. I don't see what's so hard to remember about "bush dog." Of course, that's not what I told her. I lorded it over her, and I tease others with it now. _Speothos venaticus_, I told her, chiding her for her lack of recall and then feeling sorry when she blushed and hid her eyes. The last thing she wanted to do was damage her poor SCABS brother. I just like the sound of it, Latin and religious-feeling, and anyway I didn't know until some months after the change that the common name is "bush dog." It's not like they keep samples of these things in their little DNA labs or whatever they have for telling what their human patient just up and turned into.
I saw a lot of doctors in the SCABS sections of the hospital both times around that carried perpetual bewildered, somehow struck looks on their faces. They had these dazed ways of glancing at each other, as if wondering when one of their colleagues would turn into an unidentifiable. It's been a time, has the SCABS reign so far, of new and sometimes bizarre education for our medical communities. Bush dogs, indeed. At least they could see me, and there are some places in South America where as far as I know a child from off the street could identify me. But it's the small ones that must floor them, or the ones they touch _before_ they know they sting, or bite, or scream, or what have you. They say trauma patients are unpredictable, but I should think there was _some_ predictability before SCABS. Now... What if your patient disappears off the bed? Do you check the ceiling? What if he's not there? Break out the microscope? I wonder how many new and doomed amoebae have sunk unnoticed into sterile hospital sheets. Anyhoo, no matter. Wynona was large enough. And recognizable. No problem there. Kudu and domesticated cob-type horse, combined into one viable form, both species having been seen before and identified, much to the convenience of the harrassed hospital staff.
It sunk in right away, of course, to our parents, that that was Wynona on the bed, or rather on the pile of mattresses, and that she had been entirely changed. I think that is why they still send gifts and good wishes in the name of their daughter, even though he has named himself Wain and is my new brother. It was _her_, but utterly and completely changed. So, to them Wynona is all there can be, and the obvious melded antelope and equine sheath and testicles are no more offsetting of that fact than the cloudy-day coat, than the beard or the tail or the broad split hooves. I admire them for that. Perhaps it is Wain who is the fantasy.
But Wain is the one people recognize. From heraldry, and pink-edged bedroom posters, and bad photographic effects including horns molded from something and tied onto Arabians' heads. I admire our parents. I don't agree with them, however. I only see my brother in the blue sparkle of the eyes, and the change has little to do with it. My sister turned herself over to a brother. I guess I can handle that. I guess.
Take a guess. That's what I like to tell people, when and if they ever notice me. A few times a month (or less when I stock up on Wain's feed and call over the large-animal vet) I go out to have a drink by myself, without my brother. When Mother and Father send us money, I like to use it for something for the both of us; I feel guilty if I don't include him when her name is on the card. But I use a bit of my paycheck and go out drinking. I like the attention. I milk it for what it's worth, and go back to Wain. No one can be expected to be interested in a mild brown mystery forever.
I sit up to the bar, jacket open and fur brushing the water condensation left from the last guy's glass. I let everyone see my dark shading and brassy brown coat, and I wish I could get off a good, cocky, smile, but I have a sort of pink natural frown that gets in the way of that. My lips I entertain with the edge of my glass then, and I spark my eyes at people. They will get curious eventually.
I always get the people who point me out as a weasel, and I don't mind those, but they're no fun because they just go on about their business after they mention "the bull guy next to the weasel guy over at the far end of the bar." I'm a simple landmark, when seen as a weasel. Same as I am when I can be spotted sitting atop my short stone wall in the park, tacitly announcing the presence of the Unicorn.
Oh, they know he'll be there for at least an hour every noon, anyway. It's just that I'd like to think they'd miss me, the brown sad-lipped guy with the cheap leather jacket. He eats grasshoppers. No, really! Exhibitionist lunching.
People try the subtle approach. They ask how I'm doing, doesn't SCABS suck, talk about their own species-specific problems and prides a little bit and then leave a time for me to put in my say. I like to toy with that. I mention the lack of capybara meat in the area, and how grubs cost such and so down at the bait shop. They light up at the mention of capybaras-- I can see the mental maps scrolling down over their eyes and the eager placement attempt as they identify the prey and... Still can't place me. I hide a chuckle behind my glass. Sometimes they ask straight out, and then it's much easier to ignore their polite but uncareful attempts and not let slip anything about my identity. I don't have to tell anything to anyone who isn't truly holding a conversation with me, now do I?
They try stoat, and weasel (again, when they get it wrong the first time); they tentatively ask about pine martens and fishers. Some few land on some sort of canid, which I appreciate. And what is a "honey badger"? Two or three people have asked me whether or not I am a morphic honey badger. They think I'm an otter, or even, for the more adventuresome and cartoon-watching guesser, a Tasmanian devil.
They look for a tail, and tentatively guess some kind of possum even though my short, bushy bob-tail is tucked into my clothes. Being half humanoid looking, see, can really throw people for a loop when it comes to labeling a SCAB.
I probably shouldn't care; it's the individual, and not the form, that matters, right? And who cares what the Latin nomenclature is? If they get to know me, they call me Bob, and "weasel" does just as well as the common name correct "bush dog" when they don't know me and have nothing to say.
I've seen any number of these folks from the bar down here at the park, at one time or another. And they leave money in the box, and sometimes come in to scratch and rub gently around the base of Wain's horn and say hi to him. Yet they don't remember me nor wave and ask if they've seen me at the bar. At the bar, they don't remember me from the park. It doesn't matter. But I like to drink alone. I like the attention.
Wain is, by all accounts since the Olde Bestiary Book Thingies went out some couple centuries ago, a nonexistent creature. He never has existed, except in the profile of an oryx, or a goat dehorned on one side or a similarly unfortunate bull, or maybe even in the exotic shadow of a giraffe when such was thrown across an early explorer's eye.
My brother is a fantasy, people, a fantasy. I see it in the eyes of some few of those who pass, and I know I'm not the only one. But the vast majority of the human race is unable to see Wain as a SCAB. The parks committee showed me their view of it with their reaction, but I won't ever be able to not remember the piecemeal vision I had of my sister when I went to the hospital ward and searched desperately for anything that looked like her. Strangers get the full effect. The horn, the mane with its whiteness and tendency to curl (and to string up in the rain), the wide dove's-wing nostrils and large harmless eyes. They look for the hooves, and find them pointing two split sections each into the neatly grazed grass of the park lawn. They notice the tassled tail with some blue-grey short hairs at the top and white trailing fan below.
I saw the horn, and it was not Wynona. I saw the hooves, the tail and the faint dapples. None was reminiscent of my sister. So it took me until he awoke and looked at me for my mind to bring it into one, focused animal.
The parks committee took one look at my perpetually doleful face and the weak lead-string I had attached to Wain's neck in some semblance of "keeping control" of my "animal" while in a public building, and waves of sympathetic smell rolled off them. They liked Wain, couldn't see what I was so down about, but then I couldn't see why there was anything to be smiling for. I was sure we were ruined and would have to go back West, once I found out what it would cost to feed my brother. Mother and Father would help, they said, but it had already been necessary to lease a bottom-floor apartment with extra storage space and we were a tad desperate.
"I wanted to ask you a favor," I began, wringing the braided lead-string amongst my claws. "I-- we, we wanted to ask you... About pesticide sprays in the park. I-- we-- it's important that..."
"I see," said the woman behind the desk, and already two or three others at their humming computers were looking up and hiding smiles at the sides of their mouths when they laid eyes on my placid brother. She smiled, fully and without embarrassment since she was the one technically serving us, and I liked her too-heavy black glasses and red lipstick. I liked that she could see. "That would get difficult, wouldn't it, trying to graze in a city like this."
"I-- we-- wondered about the grass, you see..."
"Of course you did," answered the woman, seeming to just barely leave a 'dear' off the end of that. "We do spray it. Always wise to ask."
"What park is this that you go to?" someone else called out, from behind a computer. I gained my confidence back. They were on our side. I told them, and pretty soon there was a quick and chuckling conference in the middle of their office, while Wain and I sighed once each and read the ordinances posted on the drywalled pillars.
Wain is a Unicorn. Wain is a SCAB. Sometimes, people go past and they shudder, but more often the down-to-earth response is far more subtle, just in a brow, an eye, a mouth turned downward. I notice them, because I am watching for them. Other SCABS know, and they put money into the box because they don't want to see the arrangement fail. They don't need to know us to realize what's going on. But others, so many others, others who do not and will not see the travesty of a human being turned into a disfigured equinoid antelope, are paying for their fantasies, as much as if my brother had been commissioned for them. The children are even simpler than that. They don't know that Unicorns don't exist, because no one has told them yet, and they haven't asked because they haven't questioned their vision. They run to their parents' pant legs and bat at them excitedly, I saw a Unicorn! I saw a Unicorn! Just as they do if they see Such a Pretty Little Dog with a Bow or, even as exciting, a Mangy, Drooling Street Dog. But they never see the bush dog. I'm too close to my brother.
It's not that the park asked them to pay to see Wain, either, and it's not as if I consider what happened to my sibling to be a travesty as the shudderers do, when they jerk their heads or speed up their walking paces past this section of the park. I'm not feeling any particular tragedy deep within my breast, and I don't see why I should place such a dire emotion in Wain's for the sake of reality.
But the bush dog is the reality. And it took the doctors a good deal of thumbing through guides before they took a stab at identifying me, since the DNA wasn't on file. Wain they had on file, both species coded out. Everyone who passes by knows Wain; Wain is the Unicorn.
I hop down off the wall and pull down the back of my jacket even though the seat of my jeans is already well dampened from the steady soaking of the stones. Wain has been grazing his way towards me in a gradual clearing of the watercolor focus, and periodically he flicks an ear and dries it out, then listens to me. I know he hears my slight movements, and he knows the time; I have to be getting back to the travel office. I look a sight, I'm sure, soaked to the bone, but then it was a pleasant lunch anyway and they at work know I have my responsibilities.
Still. They do pay my wages. I'll run a comb through my headfur when I get back to the foyer at the office. Maybe take off my jacket and put on a button-down if I'm going to be hanging around in front of paying customers.
Wain crunches rain-laced grass stems in his molars and I can smell their green blood on the heat of his breath. I enjoy the fresh smell; I'm not much interested in eating greenery, but the cleansing odor lightens my spirit.
The parks committee likes for me to be here, but they would just as soon that Wain appear in the midst of the foliage, almost-white and silent as he is, and I suppose they enjoy both their wishes, for I am nigh invisible. Except to Wain. I tease others with the "bush dog" mystery now, but I do not lord it over him anymore as I did my sister; he could not pronounce _Speothos venaticus_ if he tried. His words are not Latin.
Wain lifts his head with a smudge of green stain on the lower lip, and presses his mouth tight shut in a pattern of loosening and tightening, and I make eye contact and nod. "You're welcome."
Wain bobs his weighted head and loosens his mouth more, blowing out warm grazing scent.
"No," I say, "it's nothing, really. Graze your way on over here, I gotta get back by..." I check my watch. "Within twenty minutes, anyway."
Wain eyes the sun tendrils that seem to be bleeding through the sprinkling haze. I feel a bit of light, but since he stopped wearing any kind of a watch Wain has gotten good at time whether there is a sun or no. He nods and shakes his mane out, and clips off a few more bites of the lawn.
The park has always had its red metal collection box by the entrance, but they say they are so far quite pleased with our arrangement whereby they do not spray the lawn and Wain appears here regularly. They like to remind the public that a well-funded park is a well-cared-for park. This season alone Wain's docile presence has contributed nearly enough for additional research for the ground water and plant life under the city's jurisdiction. We already helped hire a paid crew for general clean-up, and some volunteers from years past are now being paid to do their job. My brother lets children climb all over him and sighing women tangle his mane with flowers, but sometimes at night he admits to me that he would like to not be so obvious. If he didn't have to eat so much, he could have gotten away with deciding for himself whether everyone under the sun has to pet him.
I've tried to tell Wain how they seem to see it. To my brother, they are strangers, fans not of a talent or an aspect of his own creation, but of something they have seen in others' creation, or merely inside. He still does not grasp just what about him is so appealing. He sometimes gazes into the mirror, blue eyes worried, fretting over the "why." He does not know these people. He simply eats in a highly social situation.
But to _them_, I say, to them, you are The Unicorn. They have known you all their lives.
Wain swallows the last of his noon meal and plods over to me with light-heavy hooves. I smile at him, wiping persistent drips of rain from the grooves around my brown eyes. "Let's go, Bro."
Wain stays where he is and extends his neck to my chest, and I agree that we can take it slow. I'm full, too, and almost as lazy. I pull his shadow-bearded chin up in my scrawny palm and lean way over so I can reach his horn with my mouth. There's a lot of muzzle to lean past. I give him a quick kiss and pick a leaf out of his watered forelock. Wain starts walking, then, but keeps his head close over my right shoulder, the way he does when he has something on his mind.
"What is it?" We seem to talk about this so often. I don't suppose I can really see it, either, but at least I _think_ I can see it. He doesn't want to, because to do so would be to put himself on some kind of par with what had been in Wynona's mind when she was the little girls Wain now carries around the park nearly every day. Or perhaps it's just that he's embarrassed about taking charity. But I do know my brother better than that. He looks so hard in the mirror. Sometimes I have to boot him away so I can get a shot at the shower.
Wain shakes his head vigorously, in tiny short bursts, and presses his lips together without the calm loosening.
I sigh. Well, I can't really say that I have, either. He has always asked me this question, ever since the SCABS, and delving into my own memory's private bestiary I feel that he is right; I guess that our minds' eyes are somehow vastly different from the majority of the population's. That... or there are plenty of others who would never think of it, and we are simply surrounded by the ones who do.
"No," I admit. "I haven't. Not really."
I ruffle the wet mane with my pink-lined hand. My brother dips his head in towards my face and I flinch from the diffused shadow of the horn passing just over my head.
I've never seen a Unicorn like you, either.