The girl thought. "A parakeet, perhaps. I do like parakeets. I have four. They eat from my hand." She ran around me to stand on the stairs above me. She didn't go higher. Yes, I thought. I've set out my wares and she's coming for a look. Come closer, my dear, and see my plums. Squeeze them.
"Not a parakeet," I said. "Surely you don't think of me as a squawker and an imitator."
"My parakeets make no noise. But anyway, you are an artist, non? Isn't that what you doimitate life?"
"I make things more beautiful than they arethough there are some things, my girl, that cannot be improved upon with paint." I stepped around her and stood three steps above. I wanted to see if she would come to me.
She did. Her eyes remained clear and wide, but her mouth was twisted into a knowing smile. With her tongue she moved the clove from one cheek to the other.
I will have you, I thought. I will.
"Perhaps you're a fox instead," she said. "Your hair has a little red in among the brown."
I pouted. "How can you be so cruel? Do I look devious? Would I cheat a man? Do I run sideways and never straight? Rather I'm a dog who lays himself at his mistress's feet and is loyal to her forever."
"Dogs want too much attention," the girl said, "and they jump up and muddy my skirts with their paws." She stepped around me and did not stop this time. "Comemy mistress waits. We must not keep her."
I would have to hurryI'd wasted too much time on other animals. "I know which animal I want to be," I panted, running after her.
"A unicorn. Do you know of the unicorn?"
The girl snorted. She'd reached the top of the stairs and was opening the door to another room. "I know it likes to lay its head in maidens' laps. Is that what you like to do?"
"Ah, don't think of me so coarsely. The unicorn does something far greater than that. His horn has a special power, you see. Did you know that?"
The girl slowed down to look at me. "What does it do?"
"If a well is poisoned"
"There's a well!" The girl stopped and pointed out of a window to the courtyard. A younger girl was leaning over the edge of a well and looking down into it, the sun bathing her hair in gold light.
"Jeanne always does that," the girl said. "She likes to look at her reflection." As we watched, the girl spat into the well.
"If your well there was poisoned, beauty, or sullied such as Jeanne has just done, a unicorn could come along and dip his horn into it and it would become pure again. What do you think of that?"
The girl moved the clove around with her tongue. "What do you want me to think of it?"
"I want you to think of me as your unicorn. There are times when you're sullied, yes, even you, beauty. Every woman is. That is Eve's punishment. But you can be made pure again, every month, if you will only let me tend to you." Plow you again and again until you laugh and cry. "Every month you will go back to Eden." It was that last line that never failed when I was hunting a womanthe idea of that simple paradise seemed to snare them. They always opened their legs to me in the hope that they would find it. Perhaps some of them did.
The girl laughed, raucously this time. She was ready. I reached out to squeeze her and seal our exchange.
"Claude? Is that you? What's taken you so long?" A door across from us had opened and a woman stood staring at us, her arms folded across her chest. I dropped my hand.
"Pardon, Maman. Here he is." Claude stepped back and gestured at me. I bowed.
"What's in your mouth?" the woman asked.
Claude swallowed. "Clove. For my tooth."
"You should be chewing mintthat's much better for toothache."
From The Lady and The Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier. Copyright Tracy Chevalier 2003, all rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Dutton Publishing.
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