This story contains content that some readers might find disturbing.
The hunt begins as it always does: with quarry, bait, and hunter.
Let’s see if we’ve got this right.
A young maiden settles herself in a sun-kissed glade. Sixteen, eighteen, never much older than twenty. Clover cushions her feet and gold-drop daffodils bob in the breeze. Maybe there’s a stream burbling close by. There usually is.
Then—suddenly, silently—the creature steps from between two birch trees. The noble unicorn slips into our glade. Dark eyes blink; its dainty hooves don’t even bend the grass. White fur shines like spun moonlight. It’s the pony we all wanted growing up.
Except for the horn, of course. Long and spiralling, tapered to a sharp point. Maybe it’s black, maybe white, or maybe even gold. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that the horn is very long, very thick, and very hard.
Think about that for a moment.
So the unicorn steps towards our maiden, not looking anywhere else. Only at her. Like it’s devouring her with its gaze. And our maiden, she doesn’t even move. She barely even breathes. She sits there, frozen, her back ramrod straight as the wild animal draws closer and closer. Until its hot breath drags over her cheek, and its stench scours her nostrils. You know that reek. Dirt and musk and shit.
Our maiden still doesn’t move. The unicorn bends its knees, preparing to put its giant head in the maiden’s lap. You know, with the long, thick, hard thing a couple inches from her crotch.
Can we forgive the maiden for inhaling sharply and bolting through the woods, cold with terror?
See, here’s the thing.
Unicorns are horrific creatures.
Look at them. We’ve got this wild beast that’s mostly a horse, only with an ice pick on its head. Trust me: horses’ hooves and teeth are plenty sharp. They don’t need anything else.
Except a unicorn’s not only a horse. It’s a patchwork mess of the least attractive quadrupeds. Cloven hooves, like a goat—and Satan, incidentally, but the symbolism there would take a while to work through—and often the goat’s beard, as well. Boar tail. Elephant feet. Stag heads. Sometimes they’re actually just rhinoceroses.
I’ve never seen that in any tapestry. The gentle spring glade, delicate young maiden, and a rhinoceros barreling towards her. You’d run too, I bet.
Back to our maiden. She races through the trees. A shoe falls off, snagged on a root, but she doesn’t break stride. She didn’t know she could run that fast, but when you’re desperate and scared, you can do a lot you never realized.
Hooves pound the earth behind her. Our maiden gasps for breath, glances over one shoulder. In the forest’s treacherous light, she keeps losing sight of her pursuer. The unicorn is white in a dark forest, but that doesn’t make it any less sly. It cloaks itself in the shadows, hoping to catch the maiden unawares.
Sometimes, the sun glints off the horn. That’s her only warning. Once, it nearly catches her, but it ruins its chances by letting out a frustrated grunt. Without thinking, our maiden drops to her knees, rolling along stones and mud. The unicorn rushes past her, catches its horn in the trunk of a tree.
While it fights to free itself, stamping and screaming, our maiden scrambles to her feet. Crying with exhaustion, she gathers herself and runs once again.
The hunt isn’t over.
That’s an old motif, by the way. If you can’t get a maiden to lure the unicorn, the next best thing is to stand in front of a tree. You goad the thing into charging at you. If you time things right, you can leap clear at the last moment, and let the unicorn drive its horn into the trunk. Then it’s a simple matter of stabbing the unicorn to death, or cutting off its horn and running like hell.
Almost sounds like bull-baiting, doesn’t it? The unicorn’s nostrils flare the same way. Its muscles bulge, eyes go red—they’ve got tempers. Even Shakespeare said so:
“… wert thou the unicorn, pride and wrath would confound thee and make thine own self the conquest of thy fury.”
Timon of Athens. It’s no Hamlet, but Shakespeare’s got to count for something, right?
Pride and wrath. A unicorn denied is a unicorn enraged. This isn’t the way the story goes, after all. Young maidens should be delighted when a unicorn approaches them. They should be honoured. They should take the unicorn’s attention as proof that they’re worth something.
Our maiden is a mess of snot and tears. Sticks and leaves poke from her hair. Her dress has been ripped, and she tugs it lower with a flush of shame. Her other shoe’s gone too. She’s not going back to get it, but now rocks slice her feet. Every step cuts a little deeper.
And that’s just her feet. The maiden’s legs ache so much, it’s like she’s been beaten. She wants to stop, needs to stop. She’s too tired to fight any longer.
But she knows what will happen.
Wildness. Pride. Wrath.
The woods are thinning out; she glimpses open fields through the trees. Wide, clear meadows: nowhere for the unicorn to hide. Across the field and down the valley, her village waits. It’s nothing much: a handful of thatched-roof cottages that look like gingerbread from a distance.
But the village is home, and home is meant to be safe. Even for quarry.
In the Hunt of the Unicorn tapestry, the last panel shows the unicorn tied to a pomegranate tree. The red spots on its flanks aren’t blood, but pomegranate juice. Pomegranates are a fertility symbol. Split them open; they look about right.
The funny thing is, they kill the unicorn in the panel before. Then suddenly it’s back at the castle, alive and well and dripping with juice. Rather than assuming the weavers didn’t know what the hell they were doing, we interpret this as a miraculous resurrection.
But what happens to the maiden?
It never says; we never ask.
Maidens aren’t meant to run away from unicorns. Our maiden learns this very quickly. She rushes into her house, slamming the door. Sinking against the wall, she waits for her hands to stop shaking.
She was so scared, in the woods. So very, very scared.
But inevitably, the whispers start. They echo through the market square, run counterpoint to the hymns at church. They follow her to the henhouse, the garden, her best friend’s cottage. Wherever she goes, they slide into her ears as insistently as the unicorn’s breath.
It’s an honour, a privilege.
Close your eyes and get it over with.
It only hurts a little.
Our maiden lies in her cot under the attic’s eaves. She cannot sleep. She almost hears the unicorn’s dreadful hooves; she tastes its stench and filth on her tongue.
Your daughter’s giving herself airs, that’s all.
Just tell her to relax. It only hurts a little.
But she’s not scared of it hurting. The maiden twists fistfuls of blanket, the scream bunching in her throat. She doesn’t care about that. She’s fallen out of trees, and cut herself on kitchen knives, and once the cow kicked her. All of that hurt far worse than the unicorn would, she’s quite sure.
As with most cottages, there are gaps in the floorboards. Her parents’ voices float up from the kitchen below.
At least she’s a good girl.
It’s past time, though.
Was it something we did?
The same words, over and over.
Unnatural. Wrong. Broken.
The maiden wipes away burning tears. She has not forgotten the blind panic of the chase, the cuts in her feet, or the unicorn’s breath on her neck. But at this moment, quivering in her tiny bed, she thinks that being broken is worse.
She rolls over, her heart beginning a familiar gallop under her ribs.
She will rejoin the hunt, and this time, she will not run.
Honestly, I’m surprised no one talks about this.
Long, hard appendage. Wild beast that goes after virgins.
But no, no, the unicorn is itself a symbol of purity and chastity, even as it places its appendage on virgins’ laps.
Does no one else wonder about that?
Does no one else wonder: who’s really the hunter, here? Is it the man with sword and spear? Or is it the wild beast, stalking the forest for its prey?
Same scene, once again.
The sunlit glade: a cleft in the tangled woods. Grass soft and yielding as a marriage bed. The stream winds between the trees like ribbons through a corset. In the clearing’s centre, our maiden sits alone, trying to calm her racing heart. She has a knife tucked under her skirts—for wolves, or bandits. No use dying before the unicorn can get to her. Still, she starts at every sound: the low notes of birdsong, squirrels scrabbling in the branches overhead.
The dread is like metal in her mouth.
It doesn’t take long.
The unicorn pushes through the trees. Its nostrils flare. As it approaches, the maiden steadies herself. Remembering the advice—from her mother, her sister, her aunt, her friend—she forces herself to relax. She closes her eyes, because they say that way, it’s not as bad.
Coarse hair brushes her arm. Something hard and alien nudges insistently at her thigh.
The maiden grits her teeth. She is not unnatural, she is not wrong, she is not broken. She is quarry and bait together; this is the natural way of things. This is the story she has been told—the story we have all been told.
The stiff horn pushes harder against her. A low moan of pleasure issues from deep within the unicorn’s chest. Its tongue flicks over her cheek, and the maiden bites back a sob.
Soon enough, the hunter will come. The pain will end. Her part in the hunt will be over, and she will be maiden no more. Such is the natural way of things; such is the way of the hunt. In all the hunts that have ever been, what maiden ever feared the unicorn?
But our maiden cannot bear the rasp of its goats’ beard on her cheek. She chokes on its musk. The horn trails across her skin, edging closer to the juncture of her legs, and disgust rolls low in the pit of her belly. All her life, she’s tried to see beauty in the unicorn’s mismatched parts. She’s listened to the poetry, and looked at the paintings, and she’s walked the woods in hope and terror of glimpsing it.
All her life, the maiden has tried to understand. And now, she has finally realized: she doesn’t fear the unicorn. She’s repulsed by it.
“No,” she croaks. “No, I don’t want to.”
Even as she says it, the whispers resurge.
Why were you in the woods, then?
You let it into your lap.
It’s fine, don’t worry. It’s just the love it bears fair maidens.
“No!” She shoves the unicorn away. Its ears press flat to its skull, but she’s struggling backwards, her fingers grasping uselessly at the grass. “No, I won’t!”
She gets her feet under her, stands upright before a tree. The unicorn lowers its head, preparing to charge.
The maiden never kills the unicorn. She always disappears after some male figure appears and does it for her. The usual story in a nutshell: virginity furthering someone else’s ends, no matter what the maiden herself thinks.
But we left the usual story a while ago.
Our maiden doesn’t like unicorns. That’s fine, too.
Not everyone does.
If you can’t get a maiden to lure the unicorn, the next best thing is to stand in front of a tree. You goad the thing into charging at you. If you time things right, you can leap clear at the last moment, and let the unicorn drive its horn into the trunk.
We haven’t mentioned the hunter yet. There’s no strapping woodsman rising to the rescue. In the end, you always face these things alone. And so as the unicorn struggles to free itself, the maiden withdraws her knife.
With every slice into the monster’s neck, she cuts away another thread of shame.
Our maiden is quarry, she is bait, and she is hunter. She is the hunt all unto herself, and she needs no one else. It is not the story she has been told, it is not the story of a thousand poems and songs and paintings, but it is her story.
At last, the thrusting brute falls quiet and still. The maiden wipes her knife on the grass, tucks it back under her skirts. She leaves the horn where it is: wedged into the wood.
She has no use for it.
The hunt ends as it always does: with quarry, bait, and hunter.
And the maiden, free at last.