Reviving the Legends
1329 words long
Everything happens for a reason, they say, but they'd be surprised at some of the actual reasons.
Notes from the author:
“The Snow White Pony,” a short story by Ardath Mayhar, included in Bruce Coville’s The Unicorn Treasury, supposes that intervention in the human world might sometimes be required of those horned beasts. The protagonist is assigned to a girl who, now recovered from illness, continues inexplicably wasting away. She’s lost her will to live, and the unicorn, in disguise as the titular pony, must help her find it again.
It’s a pleasant enough story, but, like many stories of its type, it provokes the reader to ask why heaven and earth are moved to save this little girl in particular. There are so many dying children across the world who could benefit from a unicorn’s visit--why this one rich spoiled kid whose parents are well-off enough to buy her a pony?
So that’s one of the thoughts rumbling along in the background of this fictionette. The other and more direct inspiration was a recent news article about a “unicorn” on the loose in Madera Ranchos, California.
The quote to which Blue alludes is from Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. I have it on a T-shirt.
“Petal, where do you think you’re going?”
Petal halted in her tracks, hooves ringing like crystal against the asphalt. She’d anticipated someone would track her down, but she hadn’t expected it to be her closest friend, the one who still called her by her foal name despite their being old enough to do without names at all. Nevertheless, she was wary. He’d undoubtedly been sent after her specifically because she was more likely to listen to him than to the Council.
“Hey, Blue. Thought I’d head up to the forest, let the humans catch a glimpse of me now and again, revive the old legends. It’s not like I can go home just yet.”
Blue whickered softly, amused. “Speaking of legends, that police officer you buzzed earlier is going to hear about it for the rest of his career.”
“Poor man. They’ll either have it that his romantic resume is nonexistant because I let him get close, or that it’s well-padded since I ultimately bolted.”
“That’s humans for you.” They were nose-to-withers now, and Blue rubbed his neck against Petal’s affectionately. His coat was as white-pearl-luminescent as Petal’s, showing no sign of the pale twilight tinge he’d been born with and foal-named for. At the same time, Petal could see his disguise, that of a bay stallion with a white star where his horn should be. Her own disguise was simpler. To the human woman accompanying Blue, Petal was merely a sturdy white pony with a fake fairy-tale horn.
The woman caressed Petal’s forehead tentatively. Her other hand held a harness and lead rope where she probably supposed Petal couldn’t see. “Juliette,” she murmured, “what’s gotten into you, huh? Let’s get you home.”
“But seriously,” Blue was saying, “what gives? Council won’t let you home until your assignment’s over. What’s the sense in running away?”
Petal lowered her head, dejected. “What sense is there in watching a little girl die?”
She’d just met Jean today. Jean was eight years old. Jean believed in magic. Jean was overjoyed to be a princess for a day, to wear make-up and a tiara, and to pose for a photo shoot with Juliette the unicorn. Jean was also thirty pounds underweight, bald from an aggressive chemotherapy regimen, and likely not to see her ninth birthday.
Petal had also met Jean’s ten-year-old brother, Robbie, as unpleasant a specimen as one might hope never to meet. When the grown-ups weren’t looking, he’d pinch his sister to watch how quickly the bruises bloomed. He wouldn’t share his toys, and he refused to sit next to her to eat, loudly declaring that he wasn’t going to catch her cancer cooties. He hated her, he said, and would be glad when she was gone.
“Don’t be too hard on him. He’s jealous because she’s getting all the attention,” the family’s counselor had said. “He’s too young to understand what it means.”
Petal had received a more thorough evaluation of him from the Council. “He has not yet learned how to love her. It’s not unusual; sometimes human siblings don’t learn to make room in their hearts for each other until they’re grown. But with Jean’s illness, Robbie hasn’t the luxury of time. And if he doesn’t come to love her now, guilt over hating her will eat at him all the days of his life. We can’t afford to let that happen.”
Saving Jean wasn’t Petal’s assignment. Saving Robbie was. Petal was expected to travel that evening to their family’s home--invisibly, of course, and having swapped places back with the real pony Juliette--and perform whatever interventions she deemed necessary to restore Robbie’s future peace of mind. He was the important human in the equation. It was vital to the well-being of the world that he contribute joyfully in memory of his sister rather than collapse under the weight of her ghost.
Petal’s assignment, in short, was to ensure that Jean’s death had the correct meaning for Robbie. Jean’s life presumably didn’t mean enough to rate an intervention.
“Death happens in this world,” Blue said. “You know that. Humans have to be mortal to be human. If we went around healing every terminal illness and gunshot wound and whatnot, they’d never have a chance to realize their full potential.”
The human woman had already slipped the harness on. Petal didn’t bother to protest. After all, if she decided to make tracks, there was nothing the woman could do to prevent it. Petal imagined her planned self-exile to Yosemite National Forest, appearing like a miracle from the shadows to heal hikers’ broken ankles and protect unwise campers from bears. And yet she wasn’t allowed to heal one little girl dying of cancer.
Blue shouldered her gently. “Maybe this situation is suppose to teach you something.”
“Of course. There is a lesson in Jean’s short life for me, just as there is for her bullying clodpuddle of a brother.” Petal tossed her head, eliciting a concerned murmur from the human woman. “For crying out loud, Blue, is that all her life is worth? Teaching the survivors lessons? Doesn’t it occur to anyone that Jean’s life might be worth more than that to Jean herself?”
“Short or long, every human’s life is precious,” said Blue. “What was it that one human wrote? Jean gets the same thing every human gets: a human lifetime.”
Petal continued walking quietly alongside Blue all the way back to the ranch. “Keep your horn high, Petal,” Blue said by way of farewell as the woman walked him away down the road. Petal herself was led into the stable, where the real Juliette lay invisibly under an enchanted sleep. Petal took the invisibility onto herself, allowed the pony to wake, and sloughed her disguise.
She made her way to Jean’s family’s house, walked through the walls, and came to stand beside Jean. The little girl was on the sofa, leaning against a pile of pillows that held her up so she could see the TV. She looked exhausted. Dark circles hollowed out her eyes. Maybe this situation is supposed to teach you something. Blue probably had a concrete idea of what that lesson was supposed to be. Humility, maybe. Acceptance. Detachment.
Into the sea with that nonsense. Petal let the invisibility fall from her and stood, shining and mythical, in Jean’s full view.
“Juliette!” Jean’s voice was a whisper but her smile shone almost as brightly as Petal’s horn. “I knew you were real.”
Petal? Are you about to do what I think you are?
Watch and learn, Blue.
Petal stomped her hoof, marking the place with her presence. If the house were razed to the ground, that hoofprint would remain; when stone and earth burned away, it would orbit the sun’s grave for eternity. Then she lowered her horn and touched, very gently, the little girl’s lips. It was very like the gesture made between two who keep a secret.
Blue arrived half a minute later. He’d ditched his own disguise and replaced it with invisibility, unwilling to join Petal in her shocking breach of protocol. Petal was reclining on the living room floor with her head resting in Jean’s lap. Jean had taken apart a sympathy bouquet to braid the flowers into Petal’s mane. She was already able to sit up without the pillows’ support.
“Oh, Petal,” said Blue. “What have you done?”
Petal swiveled an eye to regard her foalhood friend. “You were right, Blue. This situation has indeed taught me something. Consider: If a little girl’s death can teach her brother a lesson, surely a grown woman’s life might teach the world a thousand lessons more.”
Jean gasped. “Juliette! Don’t leave!” For Petal was fading to transparency. In a moment more, she was gone, and so was Blue. Only flowers remained, strewn in celebration across Jean’s lap. Assignments complete at last, the unicorns had been allowed to return home.
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