Edition 20: Unicorn Meat by Gary McMahon
There’s a unicorn tucked away in an old tin shed at the end of an alley. For Jessie and her brother it’s the little bit of magic in their troubled existence. Until they are not the only ones who’ve seen it… SY
It doesn’t really matter when I found the unicorn. I think it had always been in my life, waiting for me to notice it there: a tale waiting to be told, a mystery to be unravelled. Maybe it was hiding in the shadows, or perhaps I wasn’t able to see the animal until I reached a certain age, a specific point in my existence.
All I do know is that I found it there, near the old tin shed in the back lane, a few weeks after my twelfth birthday.
The following day I took my sister, Jessie, to see the unicorn. It was just after school. Not quite dark yet. She was excited when I told her that I had a secret, and that she couldn’t tell anybody what I was about to show her. In truth, I still wasn’t sure if I’d really seen it myself.
“Can Dolly come?” she asked, dragging her battered old Cabbage Patch doll along by one arm. I hated that doll—it was ugly.
“Sure,” I said. “I don’t see why not.”
We went out of the house, through the gap in the fence at the bottom of the back garden, and across the little area of waste ground to the cobbled alley. It was late in the year. The sun dipped behind the roofs of the old terraced houses at the edge of town and there was a chill in the air. Jessie held onto my hand. Her grip was surprisingly strong for one so young.
“Is it far?” her voice was tiny.
“Not really. Just a little way along the lane.”
We walked past the old asbestos garages and the spot where people always dumped old furniture. I was never sure who the tin shed belonged to, or what was inside, but it was always locked. I assumed it was used by one of the neighbourhood bad boys to store stolen property. It was that kind of area—the kind where black market goods were not really an issue and nobody cared where an item came from as long as they could buy it cheap.
“This way,” I whispered. I wasn’t sure why I was talking so quietly. It just felt right. I didn’t want to speak too loudly in case whatever magic dwelled in this place was shattered, like a glass ornament.
The grass at the back of the tin shed was overgrown, knee-height. There were broken bottles, shattered crockery, empty food wrappers and other varieties of litter scattered around the area. Near the base of the tin wall, there was a long, narrow crack. Its edges were rusty, a dark red tinge, like old bloodstains. The tin had peeled back a little to form a lip.
I knelt down in front of the crack and started to speak in a coaxing manner. “Come on, boy,” I said. “We won’t hurt you.”
I didn’t even know if it was a boy. At that point, I wasn’t even sure if it was real. But whatever I had seen before, it had disappeared through this gap.
Jessie remained silent. She seemed to pick up on the atmosphere.
Before long, I heard a shuffling sound. Then, louder, what could only be something moving close to the other side of the damaged tin wall. There came a small whinnying noise, tiny hooves clopping in the dirt. Then the unicorn appeared, pushing its nose through the crack, which was followed by its neck, its body…
The unicorn was about the size of a small Jack Russell dog. Its legs were short, stunted—different from the long, muscular haunches I’d read about in books of fairy tales. There were scars along its flanks. Its mane was grubby and tatty, a mucky grey colour rather than white. One of its legs was lame; it walked with a slight limp.
The horn at the centre of its forehead wasn’t the graceful spiral I’d also read about in books. It was just a thin, tapered appendage; a protruding bone that ended in a tapered point.
The unicorn rubbed the side of its head against my outstretched hand, and then began to nuzzle my palm.
I could feel its hot breath on my skin. Only then did I admit it was real.
The unicorn licked my fingers, pushed its nose against my fingertips.
Jessie didn’t say a word. I wasn’t sure if she were scared or in awe. It was a beautiful sight, after all, no matter how unlikely. A tiny unicorn in a vacant lot behind a rusted tin shed.
After a short while the unicorn retreated back inside the shed. I didn’t know if it lived there, or if it simply liked to hide in the darkness. I wondered if anyone else knew of its existence, but then decided that they probably didn’t. None of the locals could keep their mouths shut about anything: the news of a dwarf version of some mythical beast living in the tin shed would have spread throughout the populace like a bad debt.
I stood. Jessie grabbed my hand.
“Was it real?”
I couldn’t answer her; I was once again unsure. I wasn’t certain about much. Not the whereabouts of our mother, or the reliability of our father. Not the future or the past; not even the present.
I squeezed her hand. “Come on. We’ll be late for tea.”
We walked back along the lane, across the waste ground, and climbed back through the gap in the fence. When I saw our house I wanted to run away. Take her somewhere she would be safe. But I couldn’t. There was no other place I could think of to be. This was my home. However much I hated it, I lived here. We both did.
There were no distant lands ruled by benign kings to which we could escape. The wardrobe in our bedroom would not provide access to some enchanted world. The alley led only to an industrial estate, not some enchanted forest.
This was it: home. There was nothing else.
Dad was drunk again. I could smell the liquor on his breath, and he made beans on toast for tea rather than cook something more substantial. That was always the big giveaway: if we ate crap, he was drunk. When he was sober he liked to cook us all a proper meal, pretending to be a real parent rather than the fake one he so obviously was. I’m sure he’d tried hard once, perhaps when Mum was around, but these days it was all he could do to throw some slop on a plate before opening another can of beer in front of the TV.
“Eat up. I’m going to watch my programmes.” He slouched towards the fridge, took out a can of ale, opened it, and shuffled through into the lounge.
“Another night in the magic kingdom,” I said, quiet enough that he wouldn’t hear.
We ate in silence. Even Jessie was quiet.
After we’d eaten—and I’d opened a tin of peaches in pear juice for our pudding—Jessie and I headed for the stairs. As we walked past the open lounge door, I glanced inside and saw Dad sitting there on the ratty sofa, smiling at the TV. I wasn’t sure what he was watching—a western, some sporting highlights, or a game show—but it pleased him. He raised a can to his lips and took a swallow of beer.
“Wait.” The sound of his voice was a hammer falling.
I crept back to the open door and looked inside.
He spoke without turning away from the TV, presenting to me only his profile. “Watch what you’re doing out there. I know you’ve been hanging around in the lane. There are some queer types in this town. Some old tramp’s been flashing his cock to kids.” He drank again from his can. “Stay away from there.”
He said nothing more; his silence was my order to leave.
He grunted. I walked away.
Upstairs, Jessie and I played Top Trumps. The Monster pack: my favourite. Jessie preferred the car ones, even though she had no interest in motor vehicles. I think she liked the colours of the different autos.
After a few games her head began to drop and her attention wandered. I smiled and put away the cards. “Bedtime.”
She nodded, stifling a yawn.
I led her into her room—the box room, the smallest in the house—and didn’t insist that she cleaned her teeth first. It was my way of doing her a favour.
“You need the toilet?”
She shook her head and slipped into bed, pulling the covers up under her chin.
“Night,” she said, eyes already closing.
I walked out of the room, switching off the light but leaving the door ajar. Jessie didn’t like to sleep in complete darkness. If she woke up in the night, it scared her. She liked to see a sliver of landing light at the edge of the door.
I went to the toilet, didn’t bother brushing my teeth either, had a piss and then went back to my room. The curtains were open. I could see the sickle moon above a bank of grey clouds. I stared at the moon for what felt like a long time but was probably only a matter of minutes. I wondered if Mum could see the moon wherever she was.
My limbs felt heavy as soon as I got into bed. My body sagged into the too-soft mattress. A greyness that reminded me of those clouds washed over me, obscuring my vision, weighting down my eyelids with a soft pressure. I’d wanted to read for a while but tiredness pushed me under.
I dreamed a lot back then, mostly about my absent mother. But that night I did not dream. Not really. There were visions in my head, painted behind my eyes, but they could not be described as dreams. Motionless pictures, like photographs. Dad, Mum, Jessie and I, smiling and standing on a beach we’d never visited in real life; then again, in the same poses, standing on an empty street somewhere; finally I saw us loitering beside the tin shed, those same manic smiles frozen onto our faces. I sensed a sort of barely-repressed panic behind the pictures, as if we were fighting back some kind of brute terror, a concentration of dread that might consume the entire world if we let it out.
I woke in the dark. I could make out the shapes of the furniture in my room but none of it seemed like mine. I felt as if I’d woken in a replica of my bedroom, a room that had been fashioned to look like mine but felt nothing at all like it. There was no trace of me in this place; despite being present, in my bed, I wasn’t really here.
Before I could examine this idea fully, I drifted back into a deep sleep. This time there were no pictures: there was just a huge and pitiless blackness into which I slowly fell.
The next day was Saturday so there was no school. Dad stayed in bed late with a hangover so I made breakfast for Jessie. I wasn’t hungry; I drank a glass of milk and watched her eat, feeling sad and cold inside. I wished Mum had stayed. I wished that she hadn’t run off like she did. Jessie needed a mother. This house needed her presence so that it might once again become a home.
After breakfast I went outside into the yard. My football was lying against the wall. It was partially deflated; I’d kicked it against something sharp a few days before. I picked it up and squeezed it. There was still some air inside. Sighing, I threw the ball onto the ground and began to dribble it in slow circles, practicing my footwork. I was good at football. I always had been. Back when Dad had allowed me to play for a local team, a scout from one of the big clubs had come to watch me play. When Dad found out, he pulled me from the team. He was like that: any sniff of potential success for anyone and he would do his best to smother it.
After a few minutes I let the ball roll away and left the yard. I walked round the streets, not with any destination in mind, just enjoying the movement. The sky was overcast but the sun was doing its best to be seen through the light grey clouds. Somewhere a dog was barking—the noise was toneless and incessant, like a recording stuck on a loop. I started to walk away from the barking sound, and before long I found myself approaching the place Dad had ordered me to stay clear of, but from a different route than usual.
I saw the tramp a long time before he saw me. I probably should have turned around and gone somewhere else—anywhere but here. Or home. Instead I kept walking. Something inside me—some nascent rebellious streak—didn’t like the idea of either my father or this scruffy vagrant dictating where I hung out in my free time.
The tramp sat with his back against the tin shed. The remains of a fire smoked near his feet. There was a rolled up sleeping bag and a plastic carrier bag filled with what looked like rags lying next to him. He looked up, smiled. His hair was long beneath the floppy hat he wore; his eyes were dull and narrow; his thin mouth was surrounded by straggly facial hair.
“Hello there, son.” He smiled. Most of his teeth were missing.
I ignored him—or pretended to.
“Wanna see something interesting?”
I thought about the small unicorn, its damaged leg, how its horn flashed in the sunlight. I didn’t realise what I was doing, and by the time I registered that I’d stopped walking it was too late.
“Yeah, thought so. Everyone wants to see something interesting, eh? Hard to resist…” He rose slowly to his feet, leaning against the side of the tin shed. He looked so old and slow that I knew I could outrun if I had to, but still I shuffled back a few steps, maintaining a good distance between us.
“No need to be scared,” said the tramp. He smiled again; a knife wound in his face. “I ain’t gonna hurt you. Not me. I’m too old and too tired for that.”
He started to fumble with the front of his pants, and before my brain had the chance to catch up with what I was seeing, he had his dick in his hands. It was small, fat, and hard.
“Come on, lad. Give it a wee stroke, eh? Just stroke my little pet…” He started to shuffle forward, moving towards me, and then the shuffle became a run. He’d been faking; he could move easily, and swiftly.
I turned around and burst into a sprint. Behind me, I could hear his phlegm-addled breath. I moved my legs faster, and then, unable to resist, I threw a glance over my shoulder.
The tramp had stopped chasing me. He was standing with his back to me, in a shallow crouch, one arm held out in front of him. “Hey, now…what the hell are you?”
Moving to one side for a better view, I looked beyond the filthy old man. There, standing in the dirt beside the dying embers of the tramp’s fire, was the unicorn. My unicorn.
“Come on, then…come and see what I got for you.” The tramp shuffled forward, inching towards the unbelievable creature.
The unicorn cocked its head to one side, lifted one of its front hooves—the left one, I think, and stamped lightly, three times, on the ground. It raised its head and flared its nostrils.
“No,” I whispered. “No!” The second time I think I actually screamed the word.
The tramp looked back at me, grinning. “You stroke me or I’ll stroke your pet. I’ll stroke it hard.” His eyes were flat and dead, just like old pennies.
Then, thankfully, the unicorn turned away and scampered clumsily into the long weeds behind the tin shed. I’m still not sure what spooked it—the inherent threat of the tramp, something in my posture, or perhaps it was some instinct of its own that told the animal things were not good.
“Little bastard,” said the tramp. I wasn’t sure if he meant me or the unicorn.
I ran. I did not stop running until I was home, and the only thing that made me stop running was the thought of Jessie in there with Dad. If it were not for her, I think I would have run harder and faster and further a long time before that day.
“Where’ve you been?” Dad’s words were slurred.
He seemed to be drunk earlier in the day lately, as if this was the only thing that could get him through. Weekends were the worst because he didn’t have to remain sober for work. During the week, he only drank at night; on Saturdays and Sundays he pretty much started on the sauce when he got out of bed and didn’t quit until he passed out on the sofa in the evening.
“Nowhere, Dad. Just out…walking around…
My answer seemed to satisfy him. He went into the kitchen, opened the fridge, and took out another beer. He sat down at the dining table. I couldn’t hear a thing. I couldn’t even hear him breathing. I stood there, outside the kitchen door, for what seemed like ages before the clicking of glass brought me fully back into the moment.
Jessie was upstairs. I went into her room and played with her for a while, and then read to her from one of her books—something about a cat on an adventure around the world in a hot air balloon. She loved stories about people running away. Perhaps it made her feel better about Mum’s absence.
“Can I see it again?”
Her question took my by surprise. I’d paused in my reading, thinking she might have fallen asleep because she was curled up with Dolly on the bed.
“What’s that, Jess?”
“The little horsey…the horsey with the horn.”
I nodded. “Maybe tomorrow.”
“I wanna see it today. I wanna pick it up and give it a cuddle.”
She always wanted to do that: hold everything too close. Cats gave her a wide berth; dogs seemed to sense that she wanted to manhandle them and tensed at her approach. She had so much love to give and only me to accept it. But I wasn’t enough; I was never enough. She needed more. Like a bucket overflowing with too much water, her love was slopping over the sides and staining the ground, wasted.
“Not now, baby.” I stroked her hair and held back tears the source of which I didn’t understand.
I climbed onto the bed alongside her and held her tight, still holding back those tears. I didn’t want to let them go; they felt valuable somehow, perhaps even sacred.
I’m not sure who went to asleep first, me or Jessie, but when I opened my eyes again she was gone. I looked out of the window. The sky was darker, but it was not yet night.
I went downstairs. Dad was in the living room, flaked out in front of the television. Empty bottles surrounded him like silent spectators; in his hand, he was throttling one of their brethren. His eyes were locked onto the screen, but he didn’t see a thing.
I stood in the hallway and felt cold and alone. I’d never felt so abandoned in my life. No mother, no father, and my little sister slipping away from me more and more with each day that passed. I walked softly into the kitchen; the back door was ajar. She’d gone outside, and I could make an educated guess to where she might be headed.
I put on my jacket and went outside. It was colder than it had been earlier that day. The sun had slid away, giving up the good fight. The clouds were thicker and darker, like a hoard of bad things waiting to happen.
I drifted through the gap in the back fence, glided across the patch of waste ground, and set foot upon the cobbles of the alley. The tin shed seemed to glow in the fading light; it was like a beacon, or a warning pyre.
Jessie was standing in the alley, her hands behind her back and her weight on one leg. The tramp was seated, smiling up at her. His slits of eyes were focused only on my sister; he didn’t even see me coming.
The fire had burned out a little while ago but the embers still glowed faintly, as if from a distance—light from another world. He’d assembled a makeshift spit from some twigs and tied them together with coils of old, rusted wire. Even as I approached, I could make out what he had been roasting there, on the fire…
Its ribcage had been split open and a stick rammed into its mouth to penetrate its body and emerge through its hindquarters. The horn was burned but still intact, sticking out from its charred little head. The meat had been stripped from its flanks and belly; the burned bones of its vertebrae were perfectly visible along its crooked back, where the meat there had been cut away. It could not have made for a very large meal, but I suspected the tramp had eaten poorer fare in his time.
In that moment everything focused to a point of clarity: my mother was never coming back; my father would sink deeper into alcoholism and the casual backhanders, the occasional playful yet slightly-too-hard kidney punches, would soon transform into more overt forms of abuse; my sister would become as much a victim as I was, and some day her life would cease to hold even the smallest hint of potential.
Everything positive would be ground down, worn away. The unicorn meat on the spit would be consumed; the slivers of hope we still clung to would go the same way, sucked into the maw of something rancid.
The tears I’d been holding back earlier—the ones I’d held in check for so long—spilled out onto my cheeks. They seared my flesh like acid.
As I got closer, I could hear what Jessie was saying. “I don’t want to. It isn’t nice.”
The tramp’s hands strayed to his lap but his eyes never left her face. “Just a little stroke,” he said. “Then you can help me finish off this nice dinner.”
He nodded towards the smoking embers and the scraps of meat still hanging from the jerrybuilt spit.
I’m not sure quite when I picked up the metal bar, but there were countless similar objects lying around out there and I could have taken my pick. It felt good in my hand, an extension of my body rather than something external. For a second, the metal bar felt both unbelievably light and depressingly heavy at the same time. It made my bones ache in a way that was not unpleasant.
Jessie was shaking her head. She looked to be on the verge of tears.
I remembered something my mother had once told me, a long time ago, once upon a time in a land that now seemed like something out of a fairy story. She had never been one for giving advice, so what little she did offer tended to stick.
“Never let anyone kill your dreams,” she’d said. I always imagined her mouthing those words in a low voice, as she rocked me to sleep. “And if anyone tries, you do the same to them. Be quick and hard and act without pity.”
Tears streaked down my face. The clouds above us seemed to shiver.
“Go home, Jessie.” My voice sounded different, older; the voice of a man, not a child.
The tramp’s eyes locked onto mine, and I think in that moment he knew. He knew that all stories had to have an ending and his was close to hand.
“It came back,” he said, shrugging. “I was hungry.”
As if that justified everything…
There were no more words. He simply closed his mean little eyes and waited for what was about to happen. His lips moved as he chewed the remains of his last meal. I could see grease in the coarse, matted hair of his beard. This final detail was the one that hurt most of all.
The blood rushed in my ears, a storm approaching.
Jessie moved away, ran back along the alley. I could hear her shoes clattering on the cobbles, a sound like firecrackers. I didn’t have much time. When she got home, Dad would come to see what had upset her so much and take even this small victory away from me.
The truth filled me, flowing with the blood through my veins. Fairy tales were not real. There was no mystery in my world; no magic. Only this: a moment of beautiful violence, heralded by a glorious aching of the bones, the sight of a shrunken, fire-blackened unicorn horn, the sound of distant thunder in my ears.
I clenched my fingers tighter around the metal bar and bore down upon the waiting tramp. If I heeded my mother’s words—was fast enough, hard enough and pitiless enough—he would barely even know what hit him.
Gary McMahon is the award-winning author of nine novels and several short story collections. His latest novel releases are The End and The Bones Of You. His acclaimed short fiction has been reprinted in various “Year’s Best” volumes.
Gary lives with his family in West Yorkshire, where he trains in Shotokan karate and cycles up and down the Yorkshire hills, screaming for mercy.