Late summer in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, in northern New Mexico. Aspens, standing tall and graceful on the steep mountainside, their white trunks with black striations gleaming brighter than white feathers under the full August moon. Just wait until a cloudless night, when the universe is open to view, and the Perseid meteor shower is in full swing, vivid enough that even the bright moonshine cannot drown it out. Coyotes yip and bark and laugh in the distance, as if enacting some long-lost Bacchanal rite, and the land smells delicious, as if every pore in the ground has been opened up by the late afternoon monsoon that comes crashing down and, just as quickly, vanishes. Sometimes, when the wind and the rain are just right, you can catch the scents of pinion, cedar, pine, juniper scrub, fir, chamisa, and sage, all at once. The trickle of a mountain stream, caused by snowmelt, gives a melodious backdrop against which the coyotes add their raucous chorus.
I am up in the mountains on this night with the man who will become my husband, but I don’t know it at this point, nor does he. Right now, he is not even a boyfriend but a roommate who was game for watching for shooting stars on a mountain perch. This night will turn out to be our first date, but neither of us knows that either. I start to have a sense, a sense of something big moving over me, much like those thunderheads moved over the town earlier this afternoon, when he whispers into the cool night air a suggestion. We should go look for unicorns, for surely if they can be found anywhere it would be here. His eyes gleam mischievously, and we begin to walk up the mountain road limned in moonlight.
How does he know? I wonder. How does he know that unicorns have always held a special place in my heart? Ever since I was a very young child undergoing one major surgery and then another to repair the cleft pallet I was born with, a crystal unicorn, given to my mother when I was born, was one of my talismans. When I experienced my first serious heartbreak a few years before this fateful evening in the mountains, the crystal unicorn was found again and accompanied me through another arduous healing journey.
Healing is appropriate work for the unicorn. Legend tells that the touch of the creature’s horn could heal any wound and draw out poison. Hildegard von Bingen, medieval nun and medicine woman, claimed that every part of the unicorn was magically protective and able to stave off both disease and injury. Moreover, the unicorn is the creature who dwells at the green heart of every forest. Hidden away and only seen by the pure of heart and by virgins, the unicorn’s presence is nevertheless felt throughout every wood and wild place. With them, such places are protected. But when the unicorns disappear, so do the forests. I find this is always interpreted incorrectly. Unicorns are never seen and therefore they don’t exist is the common understanding. Rather, unicorns are never (or almost never) seen, because there aren’t that many people who are pure of heart and sovereign enough to see them. The ones who do see such sights tend to share their miracles with keen discernment. And they don’t disrupt forests. But those lacking heart and sovereignty, the knowledge of self (what “virgin” originally meant), are all too likely to look at a woodland and only see the going price of lumber and tract housing.
Walking up that moonlight road, stars above us, surrounded on all sides by white-trunked aspens with their gracious leafy crowns, I feel something move within me, literally feel it move around my heart. It feels like I can’t breathe, and I wonder if it’s a heart attack for a moment, but just as quickly I disregard it. It is a shift in the inner constitution of my soul soil. Such a shift is so rare in life, you don’t know it when it happens. This man I am walking next to has a specific key, and all the barrels and cylinders in the lockbox of my heart are rearranging themselves to match its pattern perfectly. Our hands find each other in the moonlight, and we each think we catch a glimpse of magic.
I return home and find a few weeks later that my crystal unicorn is nowhere to be found. At first, I am concerned. Then I settle into fuller knowing. It is a talisman for deepest healing. It will venture off on its own when not needed, and when I need it again, I know that it will show up; this is the way these things work. Right now, my heart is healed and full, and even though I can’t see what they are specifically, I know that there are adventures aplenty to come. This is what happens when you go looking for unicorns. You may or may not find them, but they definitely find you.
It is early March now. The sky is an unbelievable blue. The more we look at it, the deeper it becomes and there is not a cloud, not a single cloud in it. We are a few days away from the novel coronavirus being declared a pandemic, before stay-at-home orders, school closures, and market crashes. But we don’t know that yet. The mountains are lit up by the high noon sun and in the foothills the winter snows are already beginning to melt. The higher up we go, the more snow we find. We are taking our two sons up the mountain, up to the place where we first met, where our story began, where we looked and where we found. The youngest is not yet two and he has never seen snow. The oldest has, but it has been a long while. He is excited, jumping up and down in the backseat, chattering away like a magpie flitting from topic to topic.
We park and pile out of the vehicle. The snow in this spot has been heavily trod upon, but it is thick cream icing and there is plenty for the boys to scoop up and throw at each other. A little raven-haired girl on a bright green disk sled slides down the mountain and over the frosted creek, sliding perilously close to the winding road. She catches herself, whooping and hollering with joy. The boys hold my hands, the littlest one sinking deep into the drifts, the oldest holding on with warmth and strength. He has heard the story of how mommy and daddy fell in love, and he looks shyly out over the valley with the aspen trees standing naked and proud in this late winter afternoon. Are there unicorns out there mommy? Are there really? I ruffle his corn-silk hair. You’ll know only if you go looking for them. A pause, and then: But if I were a unicorn, there is nowhere else I would rather be.
The moment breaks. He becomes interested in hiking further up the hill, but unused to icy terrain and new-colt clumsy, he needs help and takes on a wheedling tone as he calls my husband to assist.
I look over the land. Snow and ice are melting. Waters are running. In the stories, the unicorn touches its horn to the land and the waters rush forth, bringing with them life and sustenance. As it happens, all this healthy, life-calling, topside activity wakes a ravenous dragon that is never satisfied until it has eaten and devoured everything. They are forever enemies, the unicorn and the dragon, locked in a mortal dance. In the weeks following I will watch them play out their mythic drama in real time. We all will. The dragon shows us, as all monsters do, the things we would rather not see: disease, panic, hoarding, cruelty, bluster, ignorance, faithlessness, and death. We would rather not see them, but we need to. We need to remember they are here too. We need to remember also because where the dragon is, you know the unicorn must be close by. The unicorn meets every ill with bedtime stories cast out into the world, seeds planted in the good earth, restaurants feeding the hungry, sidewalk chalk art on pavement, and ten thousand daily small kindnesses we never hear about but know happen, most especially in times of trauma and horror.
What will emerge from the duel between the unicorn and the dragon this time around is still not clear. But I think there will be far more pure hearts and sovereign people emerging from their homes and hollows when the time is right. I hope they go looking for unicorns. I’m sure the unicorns will find them. The adventure is only beginning.