THE UNICORN STORY

By John Thomas Tuft

The grandpa drove carefully, his precious cargo ensconced safely beside him in the person of his 9 year old granddaughter, Haley. He steered the old battleship Pontiac along the Parkway West, from the Pittsburgh Airport toward the city. “You don’t give up on a car if it ain’t giving up on you,” was his theory of the 8 cylinder behemoth. “Whataya thinking about, Grandpa?” the girl asked, as they descended the steep, sweeping curves toward the Fort Pitt Tunnel. He glanced over at her trusting eyes. “In winter with warm tears I’ll melt the snow/And keep eternal springtime upon thy face,” he murmured. She gave him a quizzical look. “What’s that mean?” He allowed a small smile. “Just Willie’s way of painting a picture, my dear. Just ole’ Willie’s way.” Haley giggled. “Grandpa, your heart is so big it sticks outside of you!”

The man dug into his pocket, pulled out a peppermint and gave it to her. As she savored its sweetness, the old battleship broke through to the other side of the tunnel and all the wonder of the three rivers uniting at the Point, tall buildings etched against the clouds in the Golden Triangle, trains, tugs, tows, sports stadiums, cable cars climbing Mount Washington, all framed by the hulking girders of the giant bridge brought forth a rush of excitement. “Oh Grandpa! Look. It’s America!” Haley exclaimed. He looked at her again, the lump in his throat tightening at the sight of the ugly bruise on her neck. Her mother, his daughter, sent her for a visit. ‘Until Charles calms down. He didn’t mean to get so angry. Really, Daddy, he’s a good man. Just for a while. Please.’ The man shook his head, as if he could clear the pain from his heart.

After a bit, he pulled into the parking lot of an Eat N Park restaurant. While they waited for their order he handed Haley a small box, wrapped in red paper and a silver bow. With eyes wide, she opened it, and withdrew a bracelet. It was made of yarn and thread, from which there dangled a small charm, a pink and blue unicorn. “Do you like it?” he asked, a bit hesitantly. When she tilted her face up towards his, he could see the unmistakeable reddened fingermarks on the soft skin below her ear. “It has special power,” he continued, dread and bile gagging him. “Unicorns always look for the truth. Unicorns have hearts full of courage.” He leaned across the table, inches from her smile. “And unicorns can remove poison from water. And to those who aren’t truthful, the unicorn pierces their heart with its horn.” He gently stroked her cheek. Haley giggled. “Grandpa, your heart is so big it sticks outside of you!”

Their food arrived. Haley got her favorite, pancakes and bacon. Extra bacon. Her daddy wouldn’t let her get the extra bacon, but grandpa didn’t seem to mind at all. “I want you to wear that,” he said, with more intensity than he intended.  “All the time. You hear me?” She frowned. “Are you mad at me, Grandpa? Do you want me to go away, too?” He clutched at his heart, as though pierced through. “No, child. No.” His lips trembled, his courage faltered.  He sought the truth, a way to draw out the poison. There seemed no way open to him. “Grandpa only wants to hold you safe. I want you to remember the unicorn. No matter what.” She looked at him with absolute and complete trust. “But I don’t need a unicorn, Grandpa. I have you.”

The man’s vision blurred through his tears. “Oh, child. Grandpa won’t always be here. But unicorns live forever.” He slipped the bracelet onto her small wrist, and held her hand for a moment. “Remember. Only you can decide who you are, Haley. Now, say it with me.” And so it was that the patrons at the Eat N Park that winter evening heard the old man and the little girl reciting together: “Unicorns look for truth. Unicorns are full of courage. Unicorns take away poison. Unicorns pierce the heart.” Three times he made her recite it. Always ending with, “Only you can decide who you are.” And all those around fell silent. Wondering at the site of the holy haze that seemed to envelop the two in their booth. Maybe it was just the lighting gone awry. Maybe it was smoke from the kitchen. Maybe… But none who witnessed it ever forgot it.

And so it was, that the next morning, when the Pittsburgh Police found the old Pontiac apparently abandoned in the parking lot of the Eat N Park, it’s engine running, no sign of any foul play, no sign of the old man and the child, many wondered. To this day, if you stand at the Point on a cold winter’s night, after the river traffic dies down. And look out at the mist rising. Some say they see pink. Some see blue. But they all swear that when the wind comes down the Ohio, you can hear a child’s voice whisper, “Grandpa, your heart is so big it sticks outside of you.”

And etched into the stone lining the bank you will find these words: “In winter with warm tears I’ll melt the snow/And keep eternal springtime upon thy face.”

Words are magic, and writers are wizards.