What The Nutcracker Never Guessed

Chapter 1: The Okanogan

Sometimes it was hard to get to the house in the high remote Okanogan in the winter. In the summer, when the sun was tawny gold as the head of a lion in a powder blue sky, they whizzed along the black ribbon of the road and got there in just a little bit more than three hours. Sometimes it seemed to Elise they got there too fast. The trip went by so quickly that she didn’t have time to get ready. She didn’t have time to let go of the city and take hold of the different kind of place that was the rugged old Okanogan.

But in late December when snow was falling in the Cascades, it was a different story. They had to stop and put chains on all four tires of the car to help its wheels hold the road. Even though it seemed that the trip might take forever, it was a beautiful trip. Everywhere there was white and the slowness was like the slowness of a story, the slowness of a dream.

It made Elise glad to get away from the city and to be alone with her own thoughts and the sky and the mountains. She could leave most of her sorrows behind in the city and bring along only the hopes that were so close to her heart that they filled her with fear and wonder. Elise had the idea already that her sorrows and her hopes were sisters. Like sisters, they could bear to be apart for a while without losing their connection. Underneath they were very much the same. Like sisters, they simply happened to have set out along different paths in life.Her father always took two weeks off from his very difficult and important job with a software company around Christmas time. Up in the Okanogan her parents were less worried and more playful, too. If she worked very hard, she could even begin to imagine that they had once been children like herself. Her big brother Eric had more time for her. This could be a mixed blessing. When he was in one of his good moods, there was no one in the world she would rather be with. When Eric was in one of his mean moods, she was frightened of him. She wondered whether this was the same person she loved so very much.

Elise looked forward to going to the Okanogan in the winter. Each year, too, the family was joined at the house in the Okanogan by guests for the holidays. The house had gotten bigger and bigger as the years had gone by. Her mother’s grandfather, who had moved from Boston to Seattle because he felt New England was getting so crowded it might as well be Old England, had built the original log cabin shortly after he bought two thousand acres for about a dime an acre. People had thought he was a fool because he had spent so much, $200, on such a large piece of land that was good for nothing.

Elise’s mother always said that what she loved about the land up in the Okanogan was that it really was good for nothing, very good for nothing. With the exception of adding onto the original log cabin for the fifth time and installing a more powerful generator, they hadn’t done anything to the Okanogan place. They still came in the old dirt road and it was still a twenty minute drive over to the nearest neighbor’s house. Elise’s mother said that when you had land that was so good for nothing almost anything that you did to it was going to make it less good for nothing. Elise’s mother said that one of the big troubles in the world was that there was getting to be less and less land that was good for nothing, so if you were lucky enough to have some, then you had a real responsibility not to mess it up.

Elise wasn’t sure what her father and her brother, Eric, thought about what her mother said, but she knew she agreed. She was a lot like her mother and that made her a little bit different from other people, just the way her mother was. It seemed to Elise that something else was always on her mother’s mind, something other than what she ever talked about. Occasionally a gleam would show in her mother’s eye or her brows would furrow so that the shadow of a cloud seemed to pass over her whole face. Elise didn’t know what it was, but she knew it was there. She couldn’t tell if it was a hope or a sorrow or maybe both together. She was so curious, but she didn’t know how to ask, because she could tell it wasn’t something that came in words.

Last summer in early August when all the grasses were brown, Elise had climbed all by herself up the hillside behind Kidney Bean Pond at the north edge of their land until she was walking the ridge among scattered small spruces and looking down and east what seemed about twenty miles into the old landscape of Western Washington, a landscape that seemed so ancient it might even have been another planet. She’d never been so far from home up there by herself.

As she was walking along with a little fresh breeze in her face, she saw two does peacefully grazing at the other end of a small clearing.. She stopped and waited and watched. Every once in a while one of the does would lift her head and twitch her ears and sniff. They didn’t gaze off at the landscape but just went right on eating. Elise was surprised to see that they were just about exactly as tall as she was, no taller.

She spent the next half hour trying to see how close she could get to them without bothering them. When finally she got to about eight feet away, they didn’t seem like animals any more. They seemed more like friends, maybe a little bit different than she was, but not much. Their heads and necks rose up from brown platforms that were supported by four legs with hooves at the end, while she only had two legs to hold up her shoulders that held up her neck and head. When she looked into their brown eyes, they seemed so liquid and so smooth that she felt she might be able to dive into them and be only in the world of the deer and the forest, the ancient Okanogan hills rising above the snake twisting Columbia River.

As she took one more very small step towards them, they bounded away, lifting their tails like white flags behind them. The spring in their legs astonished and delighted Elise. They jumped so high they were up above the smaller of the spruces on the ridge. As she followed them with her eyes, she caught just a glance of a stag, who swiftly turned and disappeared. She wondered if he had been there all along. Once the deer were gone, Elise turned for home, stopping to jump into Kidney Bean Pond, swim a few strokes and get cooled off. Elise didn’t tell anyone about the does up there in the spruce on the ridge behind Kidney Bean Pond, not even Eric or her mother. She kept them all for herself. But whenever she thought about how the land was good for nothing, she thought of those does up there on the ridge line. She thought that, while all land couldn’t be good for nothing land because people needed land to grow crops on and land to live on, good for nothing land was a very good kind of land.

This particular winter it snowed more than anyone around could remember, even old Otis Tyler who was eighty-eight years old and had been living in the Okanogan all his life. It snowed every day for the first five days they were up there, which made for very good cross-country skiing. One afternoon there were flashes of lightning in the northern sky. The snow came falling down as to the beat of a huge thunder drum. Elise sat in the large living room of the newest addition and stared at the antique cabinet in which the old toys were kept.

Some of them had come over from Europe and had more than a century of history to them. There were wooden dragoons and hussars and lancers and cavalry and artillery men of so many different kinds. When Eric was little he had spent countless afternoons staging battles with these old toys. Sometimes, when the battles grew too pitched, one or another of the toys became real casualties of the mock war and broke. Their father was glad to repair them. He said that he didn’t believe in toys that didn’t get the chance to have children play with them. He said that, if children didn’t play with them, then all the life went out of them. That wasn’t a fate anyone would wish on a toy.

Sometimes, if the repairs were too intricate or delicate he would enlist the aid of the children’s Godfather, David Meyer, who was also known sometimes as Druid Meyer, because there was something of the wizard about him. He had an enormous shock of wild curly white hair that crowned his head. Druid Meyer worked with her father. What exactly he did was never clear to Elise. The best she could understand was that he thought about things. When there were particularly difficult problems he tended to come up with solutions that were very different than what other people came up with, because his mind worked differently than other people’s minds.

Druid Meyer was the most singular of their regular Christmas guests in the Okanogan. He was singular, first of all, because of his appearance. In addition to the tousled shock of white hair on top of his head, he had an almost all white full beard. This made his cheeks look like slopes that were covered with snow. He had large hazel eyes that scanned nervously and sharply. He was tall and could perform, even at sixty, a feat that always had impressed Elise, so that each year she asked him to do it for her. He always obliged.

While standing, he would grasp hold with his right hand of his left ankle and position it in front of his right knee. In this way, his left leg and his right arm made a sort of hoop, through which he would proceed to jump in one sudden motion so that his bent left leg, with his right arm still holding his left ankle, ended up now behind his right knee. When Elise saw him do this, she always laughed in a mixture of glee and terror. It was such an odd thing to do and Druid Meyer was such an odd person.

Druid Meyer had always been interested in computers and automata. He had built robots before anyone else was interested. He had worked as one of the principal debuggers of the computer software for the Apollo moon landing. Then he had left NASA to take up a career as a clown for fifteen years with the Ringling Brothers Circus before he came back to work again on computers and programming languages. To Elise, Druid Meyer’s face sometimes looked profoundly sad and sometimes profoundly cruel and sometimes, which was the most disturbing of all, completely blank.

Not all the toys in the antique toy cabinet were old. Some, in fact, were quite new, made just within the last few years. Since she and Eric had been very little, Druid Meyer had made them each a toy each year. He was uncannily good with his hands. Last year, he had made Eric an officer of cavalry mounted on a wooden horse. While both the officer and his horse looked as if they might be very old toys, the horse, about four inches tall, was capable of prancing across the floor moving all four legs gracefully while the officer waved his sword. Not only that, if you helped the officer dismount and placed his hand on his mount’s bridle and if you whistled, the officer, stepping smartly, could lead the horse across the floor.

Druid Meyer had inserted a miniaturized audio receiver and a computer chip and devised tiny cunning bearings for the joints. Tiny motors attached to cables concealed in the wood gave these little figures the muscle power they needed. Both Eric and the children’s father were thrilled with this gift. But Elise was not quite so sure. On the one hand, she felt it was an amazing thing to watch the horse and rider padding back and forth across the floor or a table top. On the other hand, there was something just a bit ominous. Where would Druid Meyer stop? What did he know and how did he know it? If he knew so much, why didn’t he seem happy or at peace? Why did his face sometimes look like an owl’s just at the moment it sighted some poor mouse in the grass of a field by moonlight?

In the toy chest, there were now three generations of Nutcrackers, the first more than sixty years old. Elise thought of them as grandfather, father and son. The newest one Druid Meyer had made for her last year at Christmas time. It was perhaps even more remarkable than the officer of cavalry and horse that he had made for Eric. This Nutcracker was able to whirl on one foot, leap and then salute after it came to a stop. It was uncanny because when it did this, it seemed so close to being alive. Elise had been fascinated with it last year and had made it do its trick over and over again.

She had wanted to take it back to the city, but her mother wouldn’t let her. Her mother said there were some ways it was safe to be hypnotized in the Okanogan that it wasn’t safe to be hypnotized all year round in the city when you had to go to school and to learn things. Elise had not understood what her mother meant, but she did not argue, because she knew that, when her mother said, “No,” in that very quiet way of hers with the gentle and deep eyes in her face, her mother’s mind was quite made up and there was no changing it. Elise did not like to admit it, but the way her mother had of saying, “No,” was one of the things she loved the most about her mother.

This year all their guests, some twenty or so people from the city that now seemed so far away, had arrived by the afternoon of Christmas eve – all, that is, save Druid Meyer. It was still snowing and each little group had its own story of the trip up and how long it had taken. All were veterans of the Christmas trek to the old Okanogan and all had come in four wheel drive vehicles with chains on the tires. Even so, it had been a difficult and exciting trip.

It was still snowing as the muffled sun, lighting up the clouds on the western horizon so that they were a brighter whiter softer gray than the rest of the sky, was sinking. Elise’s mother said that she was starting to get worried about Druid Meyer. Elise’s father laughed and said that Druid Meyer was the last person that he would ever worry about. Elise saw the small look of hurt and disapproval pass swiftly across her mother’s face.

Elise herself felt in a way that it would be a relief if Druid Meyer did not come. However, then she was curious, wondering what sort of marvelous things he would have made for them this year. Also, she knew Eric was beside himself with excitement waiting to see what Druid Meyer would have come up with this time. She had heard Eric tell their father that, when he grew up, he wanted to be just like Druid Meyer. She had heard her father answer, very thoughtfully, and in an almost sad tone of voice that being that way wasn’t something that you got by wanting it. It had to happen to you.

Chapter 2: Astonishing Gifts

Just as it was starting to go twilight gray all around, they heard the roar of a motor outside. When Elise’s mother went to the door, there was Druid Meyer, himself, wrapped in a long red and green scarf with a red and green cap on his head. He had a large sack under his arm. Elise knew that, in that sack, there were presents for her and for Eric. Druid Meyer came in and brushed the snow off. Then he hugged Elise’s mother and shook Eric’s father’s hand. Then he shook Eric’s hand just the way he had shaken their father’s hand. Then he stopped and looked at Elise.

“My,” said Druid Meyer, “you’ve gotten bigger. You’re a deep one, too, aren’t you? I can see you’re getting just that same look on your face that your mother has. I don’t know what it means, but I know that it’s deeper than what I can see.

Elise was thrilled to think that she was getting the same look on her face that her mother had. But she did not want to show it. She wanted to keep it private. Still she knew that her pleasure showed on her face. She knew also that her mother had seen it. But she had seen something, too, a look of pleasure and pride on her mother’s face that made Elise feel warm all the way down to the bottom of her toes. It was so nice to think that her mother wanted her to be like her as much as she wanted to be like her mother.But it was not nice at all to think that Druid Meyer knew so much about them. How did he see? Why was he so interested? What was there missing in his life that made him need to be so interested in theirs? Or was that just the way that he was made to be?

After dinner, which was very good and warm and fun and lasted a long time, they all went into the big room where the antique toy cabinet was. Everyone wanted to see what Druid Meyer had made this year. No one said anything about it, but the custom had grown up of opening the packages that held Druid Meyer’s latest creations on Christmas Eve, because they were special. Elise looked out the window and noticed that not only had it stopped snowing, but that she was able to make out a star in the sky. The wind had dropped, so that all around it was quiet.

As Druid Meyer brought in the sack that held the gifts, the only sound was the crackling of the wood as it burnt in the large fireplace. He took out Eric’s gift first. It was white and strikingly lifelike, a miniature snow leopard. It was soft to the touch. As Elise patted it, she had the eerie sensation that she ought to be able to hear it purr. Like Druid Meyer’s creation of the previous year, this one, too, could move. Druid Meyer whistled. It started to cross the floor silently and almost as gracefully as a real cat.

Then Druid Meyer whistled two quick whistles. Everyone assembled let out a gasp as the tiny snow leopard suddenly gathered itself and took a flying leap, landing with its paws extended in front of it and its tail stretching behind it. As it leaped, its mouth opened, showing two rows of tiny white teeth. Eric was enchanted and wanted to know if he could make it leap, too. He did and then was twice as pleased.

“Godfather Druid Meyer,” he said, his face radiant. “Thank you so much. You’ve made me a real wild hunting snow leopard of my very own.”

“I’m sure it will be right at home up here in the Okanogan with all this snow,” replied Druid Meyer very graciously.

Elise looked down at the black dress shoes on her feet. She knew what came next and felt a little bit embarrassed that everyone else knew, too. It was very nice to be the center of attention, but it was also scary, as if you no longer belonged to yourself but could be caught and stolen away to be used for someone else’s purposes without being able to do anything about it.

Elise wondered if her mother felt the same way about Druid Meyer as she did. When her mother said that she worried about him, did she mean that she wanted to keep him safe and to protect him or did she mean that she wanted to keep herself and the ones she loved safe from Druid Meyer and to protect them all from him? Or was it a mixture of the two? It occurred to Elise that you could be frightened of someone and want to protect that person at the same time.

The toes of Elise’s black shoes gleamed by the flicker of the firelight. She thought it might just be true she was a deep one like her mother. The thought filled her with a premonition of loneliness. She wondered what exactly it meant to be a deep one and what lay ahead on the journey of life for her if she was a deep one. It was so reassuring to look down at the black toes of her shoes, but even they seemed to have taken on an aura of mystery, as if there might be more to them as well than what she suspected.

But Elise could go no further in her thinking just now because Druid Meyer, holding the bag in hand, was advancing towards her.

She could feel not just his eyes but also the eyes of everyone else in the room on her. She had for just a second the fearful thought that in the very same motion Druid Meyer used to take whatever he had made out of the bag and loose it in the world, he would snatch her up and stuff her in the bag and tie the top so that no matter how she struggled she could not get out.

He was on her with the bag. Elise felt a glint of excitement which made her almost angry at herself, as if she had overpowered herself from within at least half against her will. She looked up into Druid Meyer’s peculiar face and, in the instant, found it beautiful and sad. Then her curiosity took over. Just what was in the bag? Would it be as nice as what her brother had gotten? Or nicer, even? She wasn’t proud of this thought, but there was no mistaking the fact that it was there. A flush came to her face.

Druid Meyer paused just as he was about to open the bag, deliberately heightening the suspense, like an astute showman.

Elise was aware of him holding the bag tight and studying her face, looking for a clue. But she hadn’t the least hint what kind of a clue he might be looking for. What was the riddle to which he sought an answer? What was the mystery? Why should she matter to him? What was she involved in that lay quite beyond her understanding?

She was surprised to notice that Druid Meyer was almost as excited as she was. There was an exultation on his face that revealed him to her as vain and insecure, even in a certain way, pathetic. In the heightened tension of the moment of anticipation, it was as if she were looking at him through a kaleidoscope, one that split him into many different parts, many different selves, an astonishing cascade of diverse Druid Meyers.

Then the lip of the bag was open and something all white and soft and small was born from it. Druid Meyer held it in his hand and offered it to Elise. When he gave it to her, she felt with her hand for a heartbeat. But there was none. It was a small white Arctic rabbit. Druid Meyer said that he didn’t know, but he thought that you probably would be able to find white hares like this high up in the Himalayas where the snow leopards lived, too. Elise wondered for an instant if Druid Meyer meant for her brother’s snow leopard to prey on her rabbit.

“Put it on the floor,” said Druid Meyer.

Elise didn’t want to let the rabbit’s softness go out of her hand but, because all eyes were on her and also because she was curious to see what this white rabbit could do, she did as Druid Meyer told her to do.

The white rabbit sat still as snow on the dark wood floor. Then Druid Meyer whistled and the rabbit began to hop, not identical hops, but hops that varied, just the way a real rabbit’s hops vary.

After a little time, it stopped and was still. Its nose twitched and its whiskers moved, every bit as if it were a live rabbit sniffing the air for news of danger or of special enticements.

Druid Meyer whistled twice. To the astonishment of everyone present, the white rabbit lifted its front paws from the floor, placed them on its hips and began to dance a regular jig. Now it was so cheerful a sight that everyone in the room began to smile. Soon grins spread from ear to ear. The little rabbit looked so wise and so serious, intent there on the floor on its own particular dance. It was just about impossible to believe that it was not alive, so convincing was it.

This was especially so when at the end of the dance, it stopped and winked at them. Then it hopped off in the direction of Elise’s father. Unfortunately, it took him by surprise, so that it bumped directly into his leg, something no real rabbit would have done. In this way, it revealed its mechanical nature, causing Elise’s heart to feel a stab of disappointment. How she wished that this very rabbit was alive, that it had a heart that beat and eyes that saw and ears that heard and a nose that really and truly smelled!

It seemed to her that there was an instinct of cruelty that lay behind a mimicry so marvelous as the kind that Druid Meyer practiced. Her present was both better and worse than the one that Druid Meyer had made for her brother. It was better because it was more intricate and intimate both, more beguiling, too. It was worse for that same set of reasons, because it won a place in your heart. Elise picked up the white rabbit and pressed it close to her chest. Even if it did not have a heart of its own to beat, at least it could hear her heart’s beat and take comfort in that.

As she thanked Druid Meyer for the present, her face flushed and her eyes filled with tears. She could not have said why. It wasn’t a matter of any one thing that she felt, but of a whole mixture of feelings that were in the process of coming to be. As they did so, they pointed towards what lay beyond the horizon of the present, towards the light and towards the shadow of life, towards grief and towards joy, towards hope and towards despair, towards a place where much that seems opposed becomes reconciled but in ways that are too mysterious to be readily described.

Elise was already in love with her little white rabbit. She vowed within herself to protect it against any and all hurts, against the loneliness and the cold and the terror that seemed so much a part of life even under the most favorable circumstances. Because of the white rabbit Elise stood a little bit straighter and squared her shoulders and carried her head just ever so slightly higher. It was, she whispered to herself in the secrecy of her heart, a wonderful thing to have found favor with Druid Meyer.

When she should have been in bed asleep, she was still up watching the white rabbit hop miraculously across the floor, stop and sniff for danger and then, with its paws on its hips, do the white rabbit’s own so very serious and accomplished jig. She was so excited that she could hardly imagine going to sleep. When waking is so much like a dream, then how is it possible to snuggle up in bed and give yourself into the confidence of sleep and dream?

Elise walked to the window of her room and pulled the curtain back. She meant to look for the star she had seen earlier in the evening so that she could make a wish on it, not that she had the least idea what the wish would be. Sometimes a wish was only a feeling, whose embrace was much wider than any word’s could be. When she pulled the curtain back and ducked her head in front of it, so that her nose was up against the cold pane of the window which was somehow steadying and reassuring just because it was so definitely cold and hard, she was surprised that she could see not stars at all.

The clouds had rolled back in. In the windless night, the snow fell straight down. The cabin was isolated, lost in the middle of the surrounding darkness and the descending whiteness. It was lost as surely as if it had been a ship drifting at sea in the midst of a fog bank. Because it was so isolated, it could have been anywhere, on any continent where snow came and it could have been any time in history. All alone in her home, with the white rabbit still clutched in her arms, Elise felt there was no point wishing because what surrounded her was already so strange and so familiar.

An impulse at once wild and quiet took hold of her. She knew it was very late, but the urge was irresistible. She opened the door of her room and then shut it very carefully, all the while half fearing and half wishing that her mother would hear her. Yet, somewhere deep inside her, she knew that her mother, tired from her hard day’s work and from all the guests, would not hear, so that she was on her own, still a child, perhaps, but already moving towards new frontiers within herself. Tiptoeing down the stairs in her nightgown was already an adventure. Even her brother was asleep. Even Druid Meyer, so she supposed, had let go of the waking state and voyaged off somewhere else.

Chapter 3: The Old Grudge

Certain troubles, certain grudges, certain tragic misunderstandings and mistakes almost as old as mankind and mouse kind span continents and centuries, hop from language to language and from people to people. While yet retaining an underlying similarity, they are translated from here to there, surge forth in all their splendor and horror to exact their toll over and over again. Even, or perhaps we should say especially those who suspect the least, carry them within their breasts and make their unwitting contribution to the spectacle of the ongoing tragedy.

Such was the trouble between the Nutcracker and his forces and fellows and followers on the one hand and the vast hordes of subjects and followers and sympathizers of the Seven-Headed Seven-Crowned Mouse King. It went from place to place, even from continent to continent, from century to century, wherever there were Nutcrackers and toys of other kinds, wherever there were mice to listen to the story of the original wrong that had been done to the Mouse Queen, who then cast her dreadful spell upon the Princess Pirlipat, as if two wrongs made a right, as if one’s hurt could redeem another’s hurt and hatred.

Of course, it was the Nutcracker who smashed the nut Krakatuk to smithereens and so liberated again the beauty of Princess Pirlipat which had been confined in the vengeful prison of Krakatuk whose walls were stronger than stone. However, this did not solve the problem, but simply added on another layer of enmity to what was already a many tiered cake of misery and hatred, ambition and hurt vanity. So, wherever there were mice and toys, a Nutcracker and a Seven-Headed, Seven-Crowned Mouse King, the battle was joined again, over and over again, as if it were something new and wonderful and necessary rather than just the retelling and redoing of an old and horrible story, one that need not have been in the first place.Clutching her white rabbit to her chest, Elise came down the stairs in the house in the midst of the snow in the Old Okanogan in the silence of the spell of her own heart, not knowing what would greet her as she opened the door into the living room where the old toy cabinet was set. Imagine her surprise when she pulled back the knob of the door and saw the toys streaming down out of the cabinet to take up their battle ranks against an array of mice that came marching armed to their mouse whiskers across the very same wooden floor where the snow leopard had leapt and the white rabbit had danced its jig just a few hours ago. There was hubbub and confusion everywhere. A battle was being joined in dreadful earnest.

Elise feared for the Nutcrackers, especially the one that Druid Meyer had given her just a year ago and with which she was still more than a little bit in love. She knew her brother Eric loved his Hussars, all the regiments of his toy soldiers, all their gleaming finery and weaponry. She knew that he loved the promise and prospects of conquest. Being a devoted sister, she loved, or tried to love, what he loved, but sometimes she could not help but wonder what sort of creature he was, this brother of hers who could be both so kind and so cruel. It was not that she was never angry herself, but rather that she seemed to have a different kind of memory that made it impossible for her to forget her love when she was angry. She could never give herself as purely and completely to anything as Eric could. This often made her feel inferior.

Watching the battle that suddenly and surprisingly surged there before her eyes, Elise found herself favoring one side over the other deep in that December night. Yet, something in her heart revolted against the ferocity of it all, so that even her own favoring of the one side, of the Nutcracker and the toy soldiers, frightened her. She felt a certain troubled compassion for all who fought and fell that gave her pause.

Might she not just as well have been born a mouse as a little girl? How great was the difference between one creature and another? Was there not a thread that bound all of life together? As she stood and watched the battle, fascinated in spite of herself, Elise heard the wind pick up outside of the house and wondered if perhaps now it was sweeping the sky clean so that the stars would once more be visible.

It so happened that a predecessor of Druid Meyer, perhaps even one named Drosselmeir, for all his genius, for all his frenzied devotion to his task, for all his uncanny mechanical wizardry, had overlooked just a few teeth on a certain brass gear that moved a pedestal on which was located a creature of white porcelain very near the rear right corner of the top shelf of the toy cabinet. These teeth failed to engage at a crucial moment. The pedestal would not turn. So, at the moment when the trumpets called and the terrible battle began, this creature of white porcelain was left staring back into the corner of the toy cabinet at a small exquisitely worked web of spider’s silk from which hung suspended three small chains of dust.

But what a stirring into life this lone white Unicorn felt. Simply by accident he was faced away from the battle. He felt his lids blink. He felt his lids quicken. He looked at the spider’s web he had seen so many times before with new appreciation. What a wonder it was that any creature was clever enough to spin so! He felt his hooves intolerably caught under him. He tossed his golden horn up and down three, then four, then six, then nine, then twelve times. As he did so, he blew seven quick snorts through his nostrils. He felt his flanks melt from glazed clay into flesh. He felt himself come free, as light and swift as he had ever been.

It had been so much too long that he had been in the toy cabinet.

How he longed for fresh air and fields and mountain meadows and wind and the light of the stars! How he longed for vast expanses of open beach and the song of the surf and the moonbeams under his hooves! How he longed for the company of butterflies and hummingbirds, of frogs and violets! As no doubt you already know, Unicorns are shy and elusive, gentle creatures that exist between shadows and silver, come and go in the flickers of firelight and frost. Nothing could be more foreign to their natures than war, that most peculiar and noisily and horribly sociable of all human and mouse activities.

The Unicorn went to the edge of the shelf and looked out upon the battle, which raged all about him and interested him not at all. In a twinkling of his eyes, he calculated that a single leap, no problem at all for a Unicorn such as he was, would take him from the toy cabinet, right past the flank of the battle. As he jumped through the air, he saw the Nutcracker and even caught sight of the Seven-Headed Seven-Crowned Mouse King. No one took the least interest in him, anymore than two boys intent on pummeling each other will notice a rainbow that flickers momentarily in the sky.

When the Unicorn landed, he slid just a little bit, because the floor was slippery and he was not accustomed to it. Being a graceful creature as he was, he easily righted himself. He was free and, just momentarily, at a loss.

An army is a vast and awkward creature. This mouse army was no exception. It had marched for days and days, for weeks and weeks to take up its present positions. It had pitched camp and struck camp and pitched camp and struck camp. It had built roads and bridges and made ruts and filled ruts. It had done all these things until monotony and drudgery became a kind of comfort.

It had shivered in the wind and scurried in the rain and moved even more quietly than usual as snow muffled the stubble of last year’s grain in fields already harvested. There was no fat on this march. Yet, even though most of the mice in that scurrying, worrying, shivering mass that was the army neither knew clearly where they were going, nor exactly why, there was great excitement, great eagerness, great anticipation in their ranks. Nor did any mouse stop to reflect that excitement, eagerness and anticipation are disguises that fear likes to put on so that he can move freely about among us.

A fight was coming. There were many rumors afoot about what the fight was actually about. It had to do with avenging some great wrong that had been done to the mice long ago and far away. Then their circumstances had been much different. There was fat, often and much. They were more respected then. They lived in warmer quarters then and rubbed shoulders with royalty, to whom they were actually related and from whom they had descended. No one now in the world liked to acknowledge that, treating it instead as just another example of mouse vanity. This added insult to injury.

The battle that would offer comfort and redress for both was close at hand. There would be not only fat but renewed respect for mice after this battle. Such were the kinds of thoughts and tatters of thoughts that whizzed about in the ranks of the mouse army. But the truth was that each mouse marched because the mouse next also marched, that the excitement and the eagerness were a contagion that passed from twitching whisker to scurrying paw, from quick tail to sensitive nose.

One particular mouse marched with special eagerness for reasons all her very own. Already in her young life she had won fame in the mouse community for her exploits as an acrobat. Other mice might run down the clock when it struck one, but she had done triple and quadruple flips off the swinging pendula of even grandfather clocks. She was quite fearless. She looked on a new clock only as a new challenge. She had brought new standards of excellence and daring to mouse acrobatics.

Even great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather clocks did not intimidate her. There was talk among the mice of issuing a commemorative stamp with her picture on it. She was a source of wonder and amazement to all the mice, but particularly to young girl mice her who admired her daring and saw in her a model for their own desires to change their places in mouse families and in mouse society more generally.

This particular mouse marched now in the ranks of the army with a special eagerness because she had a secret. She was disguised as a male mouse. If just a bit slight of stature, she had no difficulty keeping up and doing her part in the heavy labors that were demanded of her. In fact, she was aware that the march was generally easier for her than for many of her fellows, who were not in such superb condition as she was. She kept her thoughts to herself and did her best to master the particular style of banter and camaraderie that army life demanded. She had to keep herself from doing backwards flips, even though she missed them, the way they turned the world upside down and then right side up again all in an instant.

To be a good acrobat requires a quickness of will that borders on ferocity, because you must put all of you into the motion. Then there is no turning back, only coming through to the other end. This lightning will our young mouse certainly possessed. She could make a decision quickly and put all of herself into carrying it out. So much was this second nature with her, that she was not even particularly aware that there was anything unusual about this. She did remember her mother cooing over and over again, in that way that mouse mothers will do, “How can I have given birth to such a creature as this? How can it have come to pass?” The tone was loving and approving, so this young mouse cherished that part and did not worry herself over her mother’s bafflement.

When the great battle was just being joined, this young mouse in disguise found herself at the rear of a column of elite mouse soldiers just on the point of throwing themselves into the strife. There was noise and commotion all about her. Pellets flew and smoke rose. There was a din like none other she had ever heard. In the midst of a cloud of smoke, she saw the Seven-Headed, Seven-Crowned Mouse King himself. A trumpet sounded. Those all about her began to move forth, squeaking at the top of their mouse lungs. She was poised to move forward as well. She opened her mouth to squeak.

But then something odd and unexpected happened. She looked at the Mouse King and wondered why he had to have seven heads. Wasn’t one enough? Was it how many heads you had that counted or what you had in them, anyway? Even though she had been raised to be in awe of him, she found him suddenly greedy. All those teeth, all those beady eyes keeping a lookout in all different directions, as if he could never bear to trust anyone.

She even felt sorry for him. She could not imagine what sort of arrangement of pillows could possibly do to keep him comfortable at night. Suppose all those mouths starting talking at once. What a din that would be! And how did he go about getting along with himself, all seven of his own selves? That might really be a mess. Maybe he had to go to war just in order to distract himself.

These thoughts came all at once in a jumble, but they were not what really did it. They were instead a buzzing around the edges. What was at the center though was her sudden awareness of what was missing. Going into battle wasn’t at all like acrobatics.

There was no sense of freedom, no privacy, no sense of shape and flow. The march had been long, disorganized and irritating, but through it all she had been patient, expecting something else at its end. Only instead there was noisy confusion, wild shouts, air that did not smell good.

She had been expecting herself to go forward. She had been counting on it. Instead, with the same poise and certainty that she found herself applying to her most difficult acrobatic feats, she found herself going backwards. She was not in a panic. Her mind was suddenly clear, as if a fresh breeze had blown through it.

It was not a matter simply of being afraid. Many of the things she had done had carried plenty of danger. Other mouse acrobats had suffered terrible injuries.

If this was war, then, disguise or no disguise, it was not for her. So she went steadily and calmly to the rear, with such an air of self-command that she aroused no suspicion. The way she carried herself proclaimed that whatever errand she was on was an important one, not to be trifled with. Those who saw her assumed she must be going about a mission she had gotten from the highest levels of command.

It took her a while to pass through the ranks of the army. Finally, she came to an open vista of lacquered floor. When she did, she saw in front of her a creature unlike any she had ever seen before. He was white and slender with a golden horn protruding from his forehead. His beauty made her draw in her breath. Its intake established a silence very different from the noise of the battle. As she looked at him, it seemed to her not only that he was beautiful, but that his features showed the most moving and perplexing mixture of vitality and sorrow, joy and loneliness.

Since he had one horn and such a remarkable one at that, she decided he must be a Unicorn. She had always thought Unicorns were imaginary, if not extinct. Yet now here she was in the presence of a real live one. On this strange day, nothing was turning out to be as she had expected.

“Hello,” she said to the Unicorn, “I’m very pleased to meet you.”

“Hello,” replied the Unicorn. “I’m glad to meet you, too.”

The words came out of her mouth before she could stop them.

“You’re beautiful. Do you know that?” she asked.

“Thank you,” said the Unicorn. “I don’t imagine that I look any different than any other quite ordinary Unicorn. But I do like compliments. I have been standing in the corner of the toy cabinet so long that I had quite forgotten what they sounded like.”

“I’m so glad you got out,” said the mouse.

“I am, too,” replied the Unicorn. “Only now that I’m out, I’m not quite sure what to do.”

“Nor am I,” said the mouse. “But I wonder if you would mind if I rode you, just a little bit, just to see what it was like. I’ve never met a Unicorn before, let alone ridden one. I do hope it’s all right. I’m not very heavy and I can sit very lightly…”

It was the acrobat in her who spoke. Otherwise she would have been much too shy.

“No,” said the Unicorn, with a snorty laugh, “I’d like that. I’ve never had a mouse on my back before. You look like a very graceful little creature.”

Chapter 4: Freedom

So the mouse hopped up on the Unicorn’s back. The Unicorn began to prance. The mouse was thrilled, because the sense of freedom was back. She felt like herself again for the first time in a very long time. She wondered what had ever gotten into to her in the first place to make her join that army? Was it something so simple as that she had been told she could not do it and that had made it seem so wonderful?

“Unicorn,” she whispered in his ear, feeling that she could trust him with the truth about herself, “I do not like that battle. I am so glad to be out of it.”

Hearing that, the Unicorn jumped specially high up in the air, so that she had to grasp his mane to keep from falling off his back. His mane was so soft and yet so firm that she felt she held the wind in her hands. She threw her head back and gave a great happy squeak, so different than any she had heard on the battlefield. This was a squeak of joy, freedom and deliverance.Just at this instant, the Unicorn and the mouse happened to look over and to see a hole in the wainscoting. Was it that the hole got bigger or that they got smaller? In any case, there was a great roar from the battlefield behind them as, in a twinkling, they passed through it.

On the other side of the wainscoting the night was clean and fresh. The wind had torn the clouds so that the light of the moon shone through. Falling snow glistened in the moonlight. Silence and white were all around.

The smell of wood smoke came to the mouse’s nostrils. There was also another smell mixed in with it. This other smell was the scent of battle, of powder and rage and fear, of wanting to hurt and of being hurt. As the mouse sat on the Unicorn’s back, entranced to be out here in this marvelous night of peace and freedom, she felt a pang in her heart.

What had brought her into the battle in the first place? It seemed so menacing and eerie. The question nagged at her, because she was not the kind of mouse who was good at forgetting. No doubt whatever had brought her there had brought the others, too. It was a great puzzle to her and also a great sorrow. She had a good imagination. She had already seen enough to picture only too well in her mind what was taking place back there from where she and the Unicorn had so luckily and mysteriously escaped.

She tried hard to understand, to find a clue, but all she could think was, “It goes back a very long way and so it is likely also to go forward a very long way.”

At this thought, she was stricken with a great sadness, perhaps the greatest one she had ever experienced in her life. Small tears began to run down both her cheeks. She was happier than she had ever been, perched on the back of a white Unicorn with a golden horn watching the beautiful snow fall down through a silent night under the watchful eye of the moon. She was also sadder than she had ever been in her life, for she had realized that there was no way really to escape what was going on back in there. Wherever she went, she would carry the battle with her with its terrible mixture of horror and futility.

How she had loved her acrobatics! How she missed, even in this sparkling white night, the innocence of those days when she lived only for flips and twists, for somersaults and cartwheels, for whirling about rings and bars. Of course, she knew there was no going back. But what had possessed her to join the army? What mad wish, what mad desire? Why had the life she had had before not been enough for her? And what was to come?

Unicorns are sensitive creatures, sensitive almost but not quite beyond human understanding. As the little mouse began to cry, her body changed and the feeling transmitted itself through her legs and thighs to the Unicorn, who shuddered just a little bit as it entered him. Then, without a word, he changed his gait to comfort her.

He set off from the open meadow into a fir wood. Not five minutes after they entered the wood, they heard, “Hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo.” The shadow of an owl detached itself from the trees, became larger and larger and passed directly over them. Knowing that owls like nothing better than to eat mice, the little mouse was terrified. There was no doubt in her mind that the owl, keen eyed as he was, had seen her. She felt within an instant of her end.

So she buried her head in the Unicorn’s white silky mane, thinking, “What a foolish creature I am! I’ve escaped one peril only to find myself in a greater one.”

At the very last second, though, her natural bravery and curiosity asserted themselves. She looked up just in time to see that the owl passing overhead had an oddly human face. The Unicorn, of course, recognized this face which so much resembled Druid Meyer’s. The wings were just slightly crooked and the expression on the face was a bit feverish. But he was not afraid. He knew no owl would dare attack a Unicorn with a golden horn, because the horn’s gold light would daze and dazzle the owl, so that it would certainly crash into a tree.

What upset the Unicorn, though, was that, as the owl passed overhead it seemed to wink just one eyelid down at him, as if to say, “You haven’t seen the last of me. Of that you can be sure.”

When the little mouse lifted her head out of the Unicorn’s mane, she was surprised to find herself still alive, still perched on his back, not caught and crushed in the beak of that huge owl. She knew she owed her safety to the Unicorn, so she reached around his neck and kissed him in his ear. He gave a little whinny of pleasure, which sounded like tiny golden bells tinkling in the breeze. As the night wore on and the sparkling snow went on coming down, they passed deeper and deeper into the dark green fir woods.

The little mouse got sleepier and sleepier. She had had a long hard day, one on which more had happened to her and in her than in whole years that had gone before. Surely you can understand, dear readers, because you have had such days yourselves. You know the special kind of sleepiness that comes after them, as if you needed to go to sleep and dream in order to wake up to the myriad and marvelous meanings of what has happened to you.

The little mouse fell asleep right there on the back of the Unicorn. He moved so steadily, lightly and gently beneath her that she felt as she hugged his mane with her arms and his back with her legs that she was being rocked now just the way her mother mouse had rocked her when she was so much younger. For his part, the Unicorn, having been asleep so very dreadfully and dully long in the corner of the toy cabinet facing the spider web, had no use whatsoever now for sleep.

With the little mouse on his back, he trotted along, drinking in the night air through his nostrils and taking delight in each tree he passed, in each brook and rivulet, in every rise and fall of the way of the woods beneath his hooves. From time to time, he saw the owl’s weird eyelid winking at him, but, when he did, he tossed his head ever so slightly to banish the vision. He did not like it, for it reminded him of the battle. Although Unicorns are by nature cheerful creatures, they are sensitive, too, not without their own griefs and wraths, but full of feeling for their fellow creatures.

Chapter 5: The School

As soon as the little mouse had fallen asleep, safe and snug on the Unicorn’s back, with his mane for a pillow, she began to dream.

She was a little girl on her way to school in the spring. She ran down a wooded path beside a brook. The merry purple violets of May were in bloom. The brook laughed and sang as it ran. She called to the brook and the brook called back. A breeze waved the arms of the trees above her and they smiled down on her.

She caught sight of a thousand different faces coming and going in the trees’ bark. There were people of every different nation and time in those trees, young and old, from far and near, all intertwined all the way down through the roots that entered the earth. A rainbow trout jumped from the brook and got so close to her, he almost kissed her lips. Then he was gone with the merriest little splash imaginable.After a happy interlude in the company of the brook and the trees, she came out into a clearing. In the clearing was a stone schoolhouse. In front of it was gathered a whole collection of children, all dressed in the finest of clothes. For the first time, the little mouse who had been turned into a little girl was aware of the shabbiness of her own dress. She looked down at her feet and was comforted to see all ten friendly toes full of memories of the brook and the trees still there attached to her feet just as they were supposed to be. She looked up again and tried to move toward the other children to offer them a pleasant greeting.

However, as she looked up, she noticed that, for all the splendor of their clothing, their faces were grim and fearful, set in lines of worry and unhappiness. All of a sudden, there was a sound like thunder. The door of the schoolhouse crashed open. The figure of a woman in a red dress with a broom in her hand appeared there.

“Come in, come in,

Or I’ll sweep you in.

There’s plenty to learn

and more to earn.

Give up your play.

Do as I say

Or I’ll sweep you in

To the old dustbin.

Hah-hah, hooray,

An end to horrid play.”

So the woman sang. The children were so frightened that they all ran to the door. The little mouse who had been turned into a little girl ran along with them. Inside, everything was neat and orderly. The little mouse who had been turned into a little girl knew that she was shaking inside and could hardly take a breath at all, let alone a deep breath. To her surprise, none of the other children seemed in the least bit bothered. Their bodies were stiff and their faces seemed frozen, looking at once worried and unhappy and eager.

The little mouse who had been turned into a little girl thought to herself, “Oh, I see. Whatever this is, they are used to it, unlike me.”

Again, she was aware of the shabbiness of her clothing. She looked down at her feet for the comfort of her ten toes and their memories of the lovely walk along the babbling brook. One of her toenails winked at her. This made her feel a good bit better, so that she looked up again at the teacher.

By now, books had appeared on the desks in front of the children. The teacher began not so much to sing as to rumble. As she did, the pages of the book opened up. The other children seemed eager. On each page was the picture of a different battle. As the pages turned, the battles started to seem more real. The little mouse who had been turned into a little girl started to imagine that she could hear cries and that the room was starting to fill up with smoke.

The teacher’s voice grew louder and her eyes flashed. The little mouse who had been turned into a little girl felt something pinching her. It was one of her classmates. The little mouse who had been turned into a little girl looked around her. All her classmates were pinching each other.

Their eyes were shining and the room filled with shouts of, “You pinched me” and “No, I didn’t” and “Yes, you did” and “You pinched me first” and “You pinched me harder” and “You pinched me even harder than that yesterday” and so forth. It was total bedlam. No one but the little mouse who had been turned into a little girl seemed to notice. She thought she would really much rather have been stuck in a bucket with a whole tribe of sharp clawed crabs.

Now the room definitely was filling with smoke. All her classmates’ heads were getting bigger. Then one head became two and two heads became three and three heads became four and four heads became five and five heads became six and six heads became seven. The teacher was muttering about multiplication and division and how you had to conquer to divide and to multiply to expand and how two heads were better than one head and three heads were better than two and four heads were better than three and five heads were better than four and six were better than five and seven were better than six and there was no limit at all to what you might accomplish if only you put all your heads into it.

The little mouse who had been turned into a little girl was aware that she was the only one in the room now who had only one head and who was not pinching. She was in dreadful fear for that one head, because if two heads were better than one, someone might want hers and then where would she be? One seemed like such a good number to her. She wanted to squeak and protest and say, “No, no, I’ve wandered into quite the wrong place. I don’t belong here at all. I’m really only a little mouse who should never ever have left her house.”

But she was so frightened that no sound at all came. Luckily, she looked up and saw a small goldfinch perched just under the eave of the schoolroom’s one window. The light flashed off its golden belly and she felt rich and peaceful. Just then there was another terrible crash as the books of battles slammed shut. Now the teacher was smiling with a smile that was even more dreadful than anything that had gone before.

“Dandy, dandy.

What a class.

Never worry.

Candy, candy,

is your reward.

So eat the treat,

don’t fear defeat.

Kindness is blindness.

Just eat what’s sweet.

No tomorrow.

Never sorrow.

Dandy, dandy.

What a class.

Candy, candy.”

With that, she opened a drawer of her desk. A little man with bow legs, a green frock coat, white hair, a sack and the oddest wild eyes hopped out of it. The children all cried out in delight.

He hopped onto the first desk and took out shining candies shaped like spurs and stirrups and horses and sabers and swords. He hopped onto the second desk and took out candies that gleamed even more brightly. These were shaped like artillery pieces and medals and soldiers on parade and muskets. He hopped onto the third desk and took out candies of all brilliant colors shaped like the finest little dresses and dancing shoes and vases and buckles and captive kings and queens. Oh, how delicious they looked.

Soon the children were all sucking contentedly. Their faces were at peace and they looked angelic. The little mouse who had been turned into a little girl was jealous. Here they looked so peaceful and happy and she, in her shabby clothes, was so frightened and worried. How she longed for a piece of that bright and beautiful candy that shone so it seemed it might almost burst forth into song!

Sure enough, the little man hopped up on her desk too, only by now his sack did not seem quite so full. Yet, even so, marvels came forth from it. There was a Hussar’s hat and a beautiful black Arabian stallion and three cannons and a galleon and a peacock from far off India, all in candy. It was the peacock, with its glorious tail that most attracted her.

She found herself thinking what a splendid campaign it must have been that resulted in bringing such a beautiful bird back home, what a glorious string of smashing victories must have been involved, how sad it would be not to know such a bird, to have it, to possess it. As she thought this, her hand moved to take hold of the bird.

No doubt she would have done so and popped it into her mouth and sucked and savored it and been lost like all the other children, had it not been for the fact that her eye chanced to fall on the gleaming back of the peacock candy and to see there not only her own reflection but also the reflection of the little man.

What a strange reflection it was, too. Something about the eyes arrested her and froze her blood so that her hand stopped moving towards the candy. In the little man’s face she recognized the eyes of the owl that had passed overhead before and made her fear for life. So he was everywhere at work. But who was he?

She awoke, no longer a little girl but once more her very own mouse self, clutching hard at the Unicorn’s mane. It had been a long dream. The first pink and gold rays of a clear dawn were sifting their way through the branches of the firs on which the snow had caught in the night. The sun’s light gave delicate hues and tints to the snow, no two alike. The firs seemed to hold their arms still in reverence. The little mouse thought how much more beautiful this was than the candy in her dream. She was very grateful to be once more awake and her very own self. Surely school was a wonderful thing, but not that school.

Chapter 6: The Frozen Lake

Just as the sun, head like a lion’s even in winter, was finally clear of the horizon, the Unicorn stopped to drink at a place by the shore of a large lake, where the ice was broken and the water mirrored the vast expanse of the sky. The little mouse did a triple flip off the Unicorn’s back and landed by his side.

“Unicorn,” she said, “I think we should talk, you and I, for we have a great journey to go together.”

The Unicorn stopped drinking only long enough to smile at the little mouse and nod his head in agreement. How lovingly she had clung to his back all through the night and how her presence had warmed him after all that time stuck in the toy cabinet! How much distress he had felt trembling through her body as she dreamed! How it had moved him!He seemed to recall a little girl with warmth in her eyes like that. What was her name? Was it Marie? Or Rachel? Or Julia? Or Nora? Or Ann? Or Sara? Or Doris? Or Suzanne? Or Tamar? Or Nancy? Or Emily? Or Kate? Or Carly? Or Joan? Or Clara? Or Elise? Did it matter? It was the loving warmth that was the promise and the comfort that had sustained him for so long. For the sake of this, a Unicorn was prepared to go to the ends of the earth or even beyond.

The Unicorn finished drinking. The little mouse scurried about and found a few tufts of grass to nibble at. Then she went down right to the edge of the water and stuck her little pink tongue out fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, even three times seventeen times until she had gotten her fill of the clear cold water. Then she climbed back up on the Unicorn’s back and, despite the fact that she had intended to start talking right then, fell asleep for another nap, because she was still exhausted from her dream of the babbling brook, of the trees with the thousands of faces in their bark and of the truly horrid classroom and the strange little man with his candies that were the spoils of war.

While the little mouse acrobat napped, the Unicorn stood with his left front leg bent back at the knee and looked out over the frozen lake. He closed his eyes from time to time, but not to sleep. It was only so that, in this darkness of his own making, he could feel the fresh cold breeze ripple over his skin. This was so different from the cabinet that he felt sure he must be dreaming, but if this weight on his back, this cold in his nostrils that were jet black in contrast to the whiteness of his coat was a dream, he had no desire to wake up. It was enough just to enjoy the moment.

When the little mouse woke, she kissed the Unicorn once more, just to make sure. He did not turn into a prince. She was still a little mouse. So she was reassured and began to talk.

“Just as I was waking up, Unicorn, I remembered a spinning song that my old Great Aunt Viva used to sing when I was just a little mouse. She was a gentle and noble old mouse who had lived through three terrible famines back in the reign of Czar Whosososevevever-It-Was The Second Or Third Or Fourth. She was my father’s favorite sister. When she was young they said she was a terror of a tumbler, so perhaps it was from her that I got my acrobatic urge.

“I used to sit and listen to her sing it, even though I did not understand a word. I liked the way the wheel went “Whir-whir-whir” and the spun thread came off and she sat there with a smile playing around her lips and eyes. This is how the song went:

‘What’s wrong is wrong

and can’t be fixed

without a song,

without a dream.”

For need is need

and greed is greed

and the two are twins

born of poverty.

The seeds of grief

are born in greed,

because too much

is never enough.

What’s still and deep

is sweeter than sweet.

As the wheel turns

so the heart yearns.

Up goes down as

down comes up, luck’s

less than it seems,

less than good seams.

The thread that’s true

makes the dress warm

against the storm.

So turn, turn, turn

So turn, turn, turn,

let the wheel work

and make what’s you

come to be true.

What’s wrong is wrong

and can’t be fixed

with song alone,

without a dream.’

“She would sit and sing this for hours and hours, so that, afternoon after afternoon, when I was little I would fall asleep to it. As I was waking up, I heard her singing and all the words came back to me, as if a gentle wind had brought her voice to me from ever so far away.

“I remember once my mother asked my Great Aunt Viva where she’d learned her spinning song. I was very little, Unicorn, and also very sleepy, but I pricked up my ears so as to hear what she said.

“I was a curious little mouse. I didn’t want to miss out on the moment. She said she’d learned it from a spirit or Queen or wise woman or mouse named Blanche who lived beyond the farthest mountains but was in snow and silence and clouds and wind and apple and cherry blossoms, if only you knew how to listen and see and touch and smell and taste.

“She said this Blanche knew more even than the wise old owl because she knew enough to know less. I confess that part made no sense to me, either, but then triple back flips don’t necessarily make sense.

“Now I think, Unicorn, you and I must go to cross the farthest mountains and find Blanche and ask her if there is a way beyond battles and hurts and hates, beyond greed and revenge, beyond the candy that is too sweet and the anger that is only sour and bitter and burns like fire. If there is, then we must ask her to try to teach us at least a little bit of it.”

This idea made much more sense to her than joining the army had. She felt like herself again, but then in an instant her face fell.

“Oh, Unicorn, I think the noise of the battle came to me again in the night in my dream of a terrible schoolroom. I realized that no matter how far we go, no matter even if we fly as fast as moonbeam and wind, we can not escape that noise. I think of all the wounded mice and those that are beyond fixing, not to mention all the toys that will never be the same again. I think of all the slain smiles. Is a toy really so very different than a mouse, a mouse from a man? Or do we all come from the thread that is spun from the same spinning wheel with the same stillness at its center? I tell you, Unicorn, the noise of that battle did frighten me, even if I seemed so calm at the time. It’s enough to make a mouse or a toy or even a little girl sick.

“So, Unicorn, will you come with me? I know I must go and seek and ask and see if I can bring back some message from some far off place that may be even as near as the heart although we have to cross the highest mountains to reach it. I know I must go, but I also know better than ever that I am only a very small creature, a little mouse and more timid than I ever suspected.”

Here she recalled the noise of the battle, the dreadful schoolroom, the little man with the gleaming candy and the owl’s eyes. She shuddered. Her eyes were bright, so that the Unicorn feared that she might be coming down with a fever.

“Of course, Mouse,” he said, “I will go with you to the ends of the world or even, if need be, to the beginnings. I can not tell you how long I had spent in the toy cabinet under the spell of that owl eyed toy-maker, the one who thinks so much of his own ingenuity that he believes that he has the right to keep a Unicorn trapped in darkness and dust and, worst of all, immobility. How strange he was, how twisted, how unhappy! I always felt sad for him as if what he did not understand, for all his understanding, was only everything and yet I could not explain, neither to him, nor to myself. You know, Mouse, we Unicorns are creatures more of leaps than of speech.”

The little mouse acrobat hopped gracefully back up onto the Unicorn who rather enjoyed the very small jolt of her very little weight. Just as the little mouse landed, however, a gleam in the snow, a special sparkle, quite different than the sparkle of the candy in her dream attracted her eye.

Was it gold or silver that sparkled so? She tugged on the Unicorn’s mane, so that he looked, too. He pawed with his hoof at a little bank of snow. Soon were revealed there eight skates, two sets of four each, one set larger and one set smaller. The mouse acrobat leaped from the Unicorn’s back with a double flip with a twist, because she was feeling better than she had in a long time.

“It’s clear, Unicorn,” she said, “We must cross this very frozen lake to get to Blanche. These skates in the snow say so.”

Without further ado, she fastened the four little skates about her own paws and the four larger skates about the Unicorn’s hooves and they set out. Sometimes the mouse acrobat was on the Unicorn’s back. At other times, she would slide and glide at his side. After a while she figured out she could take two of her skates off, so as to have two paws free to use in acrobatic tricks. She glided by his side, lifted herself up on his mane, did flips off the end of his long golden horn and landed whirling on her feet.

For three days, they skated around the curve of this great frozen lake, pausing to rest for a few hours each night while they waited for the moon to rise. The wind piped tunes to their ears and they slid and glided together to these tunes. Sometimes, the mouse acrobat would sleep on the Unicorn’s back while he skated gracefully along. Her dreams were peaceful and gentle. In them her great Aunt Viva often appeared with her spinning wheel. Blanche turned into white feathers and snow and cherry blossoms and then finally to a silence that was indescribable as the peace in a smile of joy that has lost all awareness of itself.

As she skated along beside the Unicorn on the fourth day, she found herself sometimes looking down into the ice, past the twinkling of her silver skates. As she got into the rhythm of the skating, into its arc and glide and slide, it started to seem to her that she was standing still and the ice was moving past her. As the ice moved past her, she started to see farther and farther into its depths. At first she saw mice, with faces that seemed almost familiar, only dreadfully still there in the ice.

Once she felt a pang of terror as she thought she saw her own mother’s face, then her own face frozen in the ice. In the very next instant, she realized that the sun was starting to set. Fingers of rose and gold were reaching out from the horizon. The ice was darkening and becoming reflective. The little mouse acrobat was skating on a mirror, tracing patterns on it, finding patterns in it, both interwoven in the smooth glide she did at the Unicorn’s side.

It was not only mice that she saw in the ice, but also toys of all varieties, bright colored frozen rank of toy soldiers after bright colored frozen rank of toy soldiers, toy horses, toy camels, toy elephants like those fabled Hannibal of old used to cross the Alps, toy ships with toy sails and toy sailors, dolls waiting at home, cooking, cleaning, singing, playing the piano, taking care of baby dolls, dolls dressed in party dresses, anxiously waiting for their escorts, frozen dolls who took care of the sick, even dolls dressed like acrobats. All this and more was in the ice that passed beneath her feet, in the mirror that passed beneath her eyes.

There were not only toy soldiers and animals and dolls. There were people, too. There was something uncannily familiar about these people whose faces bloomed like flowers from deep within the miraculous mirror of the ice. They were at once familiar and frightening. The little mouse acrobat felt that perhaps she had seem them before and ought to be able to greet them. She worried that they might be frightfully put out with her for being impolite.

With this thought came a memory of her so distressing dream of the schoolhouse. Now she knew. The faces that bloomed deep in the ice, behind the mice and the toy soldiers and the dolls were the faces of the children she had encountered in the dream in which she had been turned into a little girl. The little mouse acrobat felt a chill in her bones. She skated faster and moved closer to the Unicorn, so that she could take comfort in the steadiness of his breathing, the way his chest moved so reliably in and out.

She remembered the babbling brook and how happy she had been at first in her dream of being a little girl as she ran alongside it and listened to its song. Perhaps there were many such babbling brooks. Perhaps there were so many as to be beyond count. Perhaps, she wondered, a brook like that ran through each and every heart. How many of them flowed into this very enchanted frozen lake on which she and the Unicorn now skated? Surely it would take many brooks to fill up such a great lake.

How sad, thought the little mouse acrobat, that they should be frozen so, turned to ice, prevented from moving, just like the poor Unicorn had been for so long in that toy cabinet. How thick was the ice? How far down did it go? Perhaps beneath the ice there was something that was not still, not frozen, something liquid and lively that resisted the cold and remembered the babbling of the brook and waited always for the kindness of spring. As she thought these thoughts and felt these feelings, she seemed to see even deeper into the ice, behind the faces that bloomed there like the faces of the children in the classroom in the dream in which she herself had been turned into a little girl.

First it seemed she saw dark looming waves in the deep of the ice and then, as she began to see more clearly, she saw large dark wings that beat slowly and steadily. There were owls in the ice, thousands and thousands of them. If there were owls in the ice, which way was up and which way was down? Had she herself been caught and frozen in the midst of a backward flip? If so, what claws had caught her? So frightening was this vision she had of owls coming at her from an unfamiliar direction, that she might have slipped and fallen, if the Unicorn had not been so nearby that she could steady herself up against him.

The owls came nearer and nearer, sweeping their huge wings faster and faster, but still completely silently, until she started to be able to make out their features, the glittering grey green eyes set in the midst of feathers with a regular pattern of bars, black on white, black on white, black on white. The black was so black and the white was so white. The eyes glittered and seemed at once so mean and so desparate. They were coming closer and closer. The little mouse acrobat felt her heart beating faster and faster. Even though she was gliding along the ice and knew she was gliding along the ice, she also felt that she was still, transfixed.

She was caught in a prison whose bars were black. The glittering grey green eyes held her. Suddenly the eyes reminded her of the face of the peculiar little man who had hopped out of the drawer of the teacher’s desk in her dream in which she had been turned into a little girl. Were those candies he had given out actually made of ice, cold on the tongue? How glad she was that, even in her dream, she had never tasted one. Just at the last possible second, she grabbed hold of the Unicorn’s mane and swung herself up on his back. She buried her face in his mane and was soon fast asleep.

Her Great Mouse Aunt Viva’s face rose up out of the mists that formed on the ponds of sleep.

Chapter 7: Up Into The Mountains

On the afternoon of the fifth day, they rounded a bend in the lake and looked before them to see a forbidding set of mountains rising up to touch the sky with craggy tips.

“Those,” said the Unicorn, “are the Allalonaya Mountains that go up to touch the first step of the staircase of the sky. Stars come to bath on their tops and tell stories of places so far off in the sky that they are almost beyond the edge of wishing. It has been many thousand years since a Unicorn crossed the Allalonaya Mountains. In Unicorn lore, although I don’t know if this is true, it is said that on the other side are vast deserts whose sands are the colors of the rainbow. When clouds come and rain falls and they burst into bloom, which is not often, they are carpeted with flowers that can be seen nowhere else. It is also said that these flowers can sing.”

“So it’s not impossible to cross the Allalonaya Mountains?” asked the little mouse acrobat with great eagerness.She had been so daunted by the sight of these mighty mountains that she could not think of anything but her mother’s sweet face which she had not seen for so long a time. But now she took heart and thought how beautiful the lands described by the Unicorn sounded. How she longed to hear the song of the flowers that carpeted the rainbow sand deserts when the clouds came! Or, if that was only a Unicorn legend, then still, how very beautiful a legend it was. Perhaps, other things even more beautiful were on the other side of those great mountains.

“No,” said the Unicorn kindly, “it is very difficult to cross, but not impossible. We will have to climb and climb and climb and hope that the moon wishes us well and that we can find caves to shelter in along the way. But we will try, because Blanche may well live just on the other side of these mountains. I, too, have been troubled by the sound of far off battles. Did you know a Unicorn’s horn picks up so many different kinds of waves and messages from the air that, if a Unicorn is not careful, he may become confused and pierced to the heart by the sorrow of what he hears and knows?”

When he said this, his face looked so sad that the little mouse acrobat’s heart was moved. She was moved and also a little bit shamed, because she had been so caught up in her own fears and troubles and hopes and worries that it simply had not occurred to her that such a mysterious and marvelous creature as the Unicorn could have sorrows of his own. She thought how she would have hated being locked up in that toy cabinet herself, unable to move at all. She reached over and patted him. As she did, she shed a tear. The Unicorn reached out and licked the tear from her cheek.

Now, dear readers, I apologize to you. For all my love of words and trust in them, I can not describe the feel of a Unicorn’s tongue on the cheek of a brave and tender mouse. Some things are beyond words. But what is beyond words is not necessarily beyond imagination.

So you will have to take on in the silence of your own tender and brave hearts, the job of imagining the feel of a Unicorn’s tongue licking a single tear off the cheek of a brave and tender little mouse acrobat. As you do this work, dear reader, dear fellow writer, you take over the leading part in that collaboration which is the telling of a story. Thank you for mingling your life with mine.

After a brief rest, the little mouse acrobat and the Unicorn, now closer than ever before, started off, leaving their skates covered in a small pile of snow just at the lake’s edge.

The little mouse acrobat kissed hers as she took them off and whispered to them, “Sleep peacefully, sweet skates, until we come back or until some other seekers such as we, whether with two feet or four, come by. Thank you for all the shapes you have shown us.”

She patted the Unicorn’s four skates, too. At first the climbing was not too hard. However, by late that afternoon, the only way they could move forwards was for the little mouse acrobat to cling tightly to the Unicorn while he leapt. His leaps took her breath away. She had never suspected any creature could move with such grace, agility and balance.

By dusk, they were not only higher than she had ever been, but higher than she had ever imagined being. The world of doing flips off the pendula of grandfather, great-grandfather and even great-great-grandfather clocks seemed far off, tame and very definitely appealing. She was beginning to wonder if adventure was such a good idea after all.

“If you listen very carefully,” the Unicorn told her just then, “I think you can hear the stars singing to each other in the far off distance.”

She pricked up her ears and tried to listen. Mice have very keen ears. They were at a little plateau just above a great bowl shaped wall that they had managed to climb. The little mouse acrobat happened to turn her head so that she saw, standing very quietly just a few paces away from them, a rabbit and a leopard, both white as snow. The rabbit was standing back on the pads of his back legs and smoking a long pipe with a wide grin on his face. He looked like he was having such a good time that the little mouse acrobat took an immediate liking to him.

“Now, why,” she thought, “couldn’t that horrid little man with all the candy in his sack have smoked a pipe like that, so peacefully, so contentedly, so endearingly?”

In fact, the rabbit did have bow legs and wide eyes, but there the resemblance to the little man, to the owl, to Druid Meyer and his ilk stopped.

“We’ve come to guide you,” said the rabbit, “because we approve of your errand. We want you to know that the Allalonaya mountains need not be quite as lonely as creatures think they are. In fact, we have our own kind of sociability, perhaps a bit quieter, a bit less exciting, but then the air is very thin up here.”

The snow leopard purred in agreement. So it was that the snow leopard and the snow rabbit led the little mouse acrobat and her Unicorn friend higher and higher in the days that followed. They climbed while it was light, then took shelter in a cave where a bear was sleeping. The sleeping bears kept them warm while they themselves rested and slept. Even the Unicorn slept a few winks, because it was awfully hard work climbing so high.

Each night, the snow rabbit took his pipe from its pouch, lit up and began to tell stories at once wondrous and sweet. The little mouse acrobat didn’t know what it was about these stories but they took her fatigue and fear away, smoothed her brow and sent her off to sleep with a smile on her face, so that she woke feeling fresh and free in the mornings. In the mornings, she did flips and twists, back and forward for the snow rabbit and the snow leopard. They laughed and laughed.

The snow leopard was so impressed that he began to try to do flips and twists himself. For all his natural grace, he found them very difficult, so that he looked at the little mouse acrobat with new respect. His flopping cheerfully this way and that was such a jolly sight that soon they were all four swept away in laughter. The Unicorn’s laughter was like nothing the little mouse acrobat had ever heard before.

It rang out in the thin air of that high cold clear morning near the blue roof of the world like the call of a tiny golden bird riding a swift running river all its own in the wind. Only the bear that had warmed them through the night slept on and on. Perhaps the sound entered his dreams and changed them so that a small contented smile appeared around his lips.

Chapter 8: Danger On High

When I think of the roof of the world, that place up so high where the blue posts of the sky sit on the earth for support, I feel a thrill that goes with a chill. The Unicorn and the mouse spent a considerable amount of time up near the roof of the world. Crossing the Allalonaya Mountains, something no Unicorn even had done for thousands of years, was no small matter.

As the days of cold clear high white and blue breathtaking climbing went on, as the nights of close comfortable caves with one sleeping bear after another so slowly and regularly inhaling and exhaling and the white rabbit telling story after story after story while the snow leopard purred in accompaniment went on, the little mouse acrobat found that the chill became less and the thrill more.

How vast were the vistas that the little mouse acrobat and the Unicorn could now see, peak after peak after peak tumbling off into the distance back down to the lowlands they had left! How glorious it was to be able to see so far and so effortlessly! The little mouse acrobat had been born in a tiny dark little hole. She had been a creature of stalks and tiny furrows in fields and scampering here and there from one row to the next. Now she was up above the world and free from all that. She began to smile with a new smugness and superiority.How well she appreciated herself! How proud she was of her new found vision! How she enjoyed thinking of herself as the only mouse who had ever dared venture to this altitude, undertaking a journey so difficult that it was fabled even in the lore of the Unicorns! How wonderful to be free of the distant roar and rumble of horrid battle, free of the need to think of the battle’s consequences.

She loved the white snow rabbit’s stories. They were all about the foibles and foolishness of the creatures of the lowlands she had left behind. They never knew what was coming around the next bend. Their lack of vision was their comeuppance in the end. They gave themselves airs and never noticed their errors until it was too late. Even what was most elementary in understanding was too much for them. The little mouse acrobat laughed and laughed and laughed. It was all so familiar and yet all so simple as the white snow rabbit described it. There were patterns and designs where she had seen none before. The one who saw the patterns and designs could be nimble and quick, picking her way through the maze that so baffled the others.

The white snow rabbit puffed his pipe. He seemed so indulgent and so friendly, as if so much understanding had set him free, so that where others who saw less might feel sorrow and fear, he knew only glee. He puffed his pipe and the shapes of smoke that came out danced their way up as if to say, “You see, life down there as we see it from up here is only so many shapes of smoke, present for an instant, then gone. How strange that they should make such a bother about it. How strange that they should fail to understand what we do.”

The more she listened the lighter she felt, as if her body like the air was getting thinner and thinner, purer and purer.

Now her previous tumbling feats started to seem to her more and more heavy and clumsy. She stopped doing tricks for the snow leopard, even though he begged her to go on. Only given how rare everything was up here, given how miraculous everything was up here, how mysterious and beguiling everything was up here, what was the point in a mouse’s little flips? What need had she of such?

She laughed indulgently when she thought of her previous efforts. Her laugh rang in her own ears almost as an echo of the so kindly seeming snow rabbit’s and, as it did, she was glad and proud. She held her nose a bit higher up into the air and carried her back just ever so slightly more straight and, yes, perhaps, even just a bit stiffly.

There were only two things that bothered her. Even of these two she was only glancingly aware for an instant here and there. Indeed these instants became shorter and shorter the more time they spent up near the roof of the world. The first was that the expression on the Unicorn’s face had changed. She remembered how happy, how profoundly pleased he had seemed in the first hours and days of his freedom, how gentle his face had been, how sadness and love, freshness and knowledge had mingled in his features.

Now it seemed his features had tightened, his mouth and lips taken on a grim cast. His eyes went back in the caves of his eyes. His brows were creased by the first hints of wrinkles. Sometimes he seemed to be looking at her anxiously and beseechingly.

Perhaps, she thought, more and more thrilled with herself as she seemed to glimpse wider and wider ranges of unexpected possibility within herself as they climbed higher and higher, Unicorns were really much duller and more mundane creatures that she had ever thought. Indeed, the Unicorn’s gold horn seemed to have lost a bit of its luster. Why, she wondered, had she been so enthralled with him, so awed by him, so taken by his grace, which was, after all, only physical, a matter of leaps and bounds down there, not up here?

Had she failed, the little mouse acrobat asked herself, back then to do justice to herself? What sort of inner insecurity had made her so ready, even eager, to offer herself such a slight? How lucky she had been to have the opportunity for repair afforded by this extraordinary journey. What ever would have become of her had she not been so daring? As she thought these self-congratulatory thoughts, the little mouse acrobat wanted to sing out loud, but no sound came, not even a squeak.

Nor was she upset about this. Sound was only sound. In a world grown so enthralling, did she even have any need of mere sound? She pursed her lips in a kiss directed back inside herself. Was not silence so much better, infinite of capacity? What song, what sound, could compete with silence, mother of all sounds, greater than what came forth from it, enduring beyond all that could come forth?

The little mouse acrobat, in fact, now looked less and less at the Unicorn and more and more at the white snow rabbit. The very sight of the Unicorn irritated her. So she did not look, keeping her eyes on the snow rabbit. Was he not their guide? Was it not he who knew where they were going? Only sometimes it was hard to find him in the strange thin, tremblingly glorious sunlight of that world up so high, so near the empty blue perfection of the sky. He was so white he seemed sometimes to lose his shadow and blend into the snow, like a smile that fades out, almost mockingly.

But the little mouse acrobat was faithful and resolute, just as she had been when she marched in the ranks of the mouse army in that time so long ago now and so far away that it seemed like the memory of a dream that was already fading. She tried her hardest, focused her eyes, found the white rabbit in the snow and made the Unicorn on whose back she rode follow after him, occasionally even giving him a little kick.

The Unicorn now seemed slow, as if each step cost him an effort. This was part of what irritated the little mouse acrobat, so that instead of looking at him, she looked past him, keeping her eyes always on the white rabbit. But the Unicorn never complained.

However hard it was to find and follow the ever so white snow rabbit by day, he was there each night, leading them to a cave warmed by another sleeping bear, charming them with the stories that flowed out of his mouth every bit as beguilingly as the white smoke that flowed so smoothly up out of his pipe. Night after night she drifted off to sleep in a daze of amazement and pleasure with her tiny delicate mouse’s head up against another bear’s coarse fur. For his part, the Unicorn never dozed off until she was safely asleep.

Even then, he slept only for a few minutes at a time, standing on three legs, as Unicorns will do, keeping relentless guard with his golden horn over the little mouse acrobat who had so won his heart down in the far off lowlands. Perhaps the reason he was tired by day was that he slept so little by night. But then again Unicorns can draw strength from moonbeams.

So, from time to time, when the moon, whether full or new or in between, shone down on those mountains high up above our world, the Unicorn would walk to the mouth of the cave to catch a few moonbeams. Sometimes, as he did so, a tiny half or quarter shadow of a Unicorn, a shadow more enigmatic even than the white rabbit’s presence in snow by day, was outlined on the floor of the cave.

How fiercely, how freely, how gloriously in its gentleness and loyalty, the Unicorn’s golden horn shone during these brief intervals when there was no one there to see it! It was as if another life gleamed within it, a life charged with a sublime privacy and tenderness all at once.

The second thing that bothered the little mouse acrobat way up high near the roof of the world took place in her sleep. Strange to say her dreams were much grander by day than by night. Night after night, she encountered her great mouse Aunt Viva. The kindly old creature was bent over her spinning wheel, but instead of looking comforting and approving, her face wore an expression not so different from the Unicorn’s by day.

She looked concerned as if some rasp or burr in the thread that ran through her fingers worried her. Some nights instead of singing or humming, she seemed only to be mumbling to herself, a bit distracted. The little mouse acrobat wondered in her dream if the old creature were beginning to go around the bend. Even a mind couldn’t last forever.

This annoyed the little mouse acrobat, because she had no need for a sick and dotty old creature in her dreams. How was she supposed to have dreams that were great and beautiful, as lofty as she was, if creatures in such desperate circumstances turned up in them? Was it her job to take care of a mouse who had lost her faculties? Surely, there should be special places to keep them, safely out of sight.

Of course, there were nights when her great mouse Aunt Viva was not quite so indistinct, worried and run down. In occasional dreams the little mouse acrobat could discern snatches of song:

“Beware my child,

Beware, my sweet.

Love’s not to eat.

What seems so mild

May still be wild.

Love’s not a feat.

Dangers repeat.

What goes up, child,

Must come down, wheel

goes round and round,

so lost or found,

don’t be beguiled.

Who begins to spin

gets so dizzy

she doesn’t know

who, who she is… “

After she heard her great Aunt Viva singing so in her dream, the little mouse acrobat awoke with a start and a shudder, because she thought she had heard an owl hooting. But the moment of terror passed. Her head was safely pillowed on the bear’s warm flank. She slipped quickly back into a dreamless sleep.

Another time she heard:

“High and low, child,

thin and fat, up,

down, all around,

to eat takes teeth.

The hunter, child,

can wait so still

to get his thrill,

use his power.

Up is easy,

but down is hard,

the wheel must turn

from hope to woe

and back again,

from friend to foe,

as snow is white

and night is black.

Truth’s our lack,

who can not see,

who can not be,

behind our backs.”

Again, the little mouse acrobat awoke in terror, thinking she had heard the hooting of an owl, perhaps far off, but coming closer, threading its way through the darkness towards her. How reassuring it was to wake and feel the bear’s warm flank beneath her head! Again, she fell back into a dreamless sleep.

Finally, one night, the little mouse acrobat dreamt she was safe and snug back at home in a tiny burrow at the edge of a corn field.

There was a full moon in the sky. By its light, she saw teeth rising out of the ground between the furrows. Each tooth bore the number “510” in raised white enamel. I have forgotten to tell you, dear reader, that, like many good acrobats, the little mouse acrobat was also a whiz at mathematics, so that, even in her dream, it occurred to her that 510 was nothing else than 30 sets of 17. She thought immediately in the dream of the cicadas that rise up out of the ground every seventeen years. Thirty sets of them would be uncountably many.

How long those teeth must have slept! How long they must have been waiting! Then the mouse acrobat became confused in her dream. Was it that the teeth had slept so long or was it that she had been sleeping so long? If it was she who had been sleeping, what had put her to sleep? Had she drunk a potion? In the dream, there was a sweet taste in her mouth. She thought of a candy, lovely beyond imagining, beautiful as a peacock’s tail. She seemed to be on the verge of remembering, but her dream left her no time.

The confusion cleared. The teeth formed a ring and began to dance. How the moonlight gleamed off them, as the ring began to turn, to go round, faster and faster until it was a white blur in which one tooth melted into the next.

As the ring of teeth whirled, a wind seemed to come up, so that the corn stalks in the field shook and shivered back and forth in frenzy. As the wind passed through them it began to whistle and then to howl. The whistling and the howling grew louder and louder. It would have been frightening, if the little mouse acrobat hadn’t been so much in the grip of watching those teeth go round and round like a wheel.

The noise rose in pitch and the ring began to slow. The teeth emerged from the blur. Each one was now distinct. The numbers were gone, as if the whirling had ground them away. The noise was now not only higher in pitch and louder, but also eerily familiar.

With a start in her dream, the little mouse acrobat recognized what was familiar. It was the sound of the battle, only a thousand times worse, a thousand times nearer, so near, in fact, that it seemed to be inside her. Then all of a sudden in her dream, there was an earthquake. The ground rose up, carrying her with it.

Suddenly she was awake and in real terror, facing a great white bear whose mouth was wide open, showing his teeth. What was he doing awake? In a strange, hallucinatory moment, she looked for the number “510” on the teeth, as for reassurance. She knew she was done for. Where was the ever-so-comforting white rabbit now when she needed him so much? Where was the snow leopard with the contented purr?

The bear raised his great paw, then, much, to her surprise, hesitated. It was only then, in that moment of hesitation, that she noticed that the Unicorn was still there, at her side. His head with the golden horn aglow was pointed forward and upwards at the bear’s heart. The bear’s eye was fixed on the horn, as if in the grip of a power too great for it to resist.

The little mouse acrobat looked up into the white bear’s sky blue eyes and saw twinned reflections not only of herself but of the Unicorn.

“What are we doing up so high?” she wondered.

It was far too blue in the bear’s eyes. Since when did mice belong in the sky? It was only in that moment that the spell was broken and she understood that she had brought the peril on herself. As she had back when the owl came so near, she leaped to the Unicorn’s back. He spun so swiftly and leapt so gracefully that the bear’s claw crashing down like thunder missed them and hit the cave’s floor. The bear gave a sudden sharp cry of pain.

Then they were outside in the night high on a narrow icy ledge. The little mouse acrobat shook and whimpered in terror. She clutched as hard as she could with both sets of paws, one around the Unicorn’s back and one in his mane. She didn’t worry that her grip might be causing him pain. How would they know where to go now without the white rabbit and the snow leopard to guide them?

Chapter 9: The Unicorn’s Horn

The Unicorn’s horn gave off a golden glow in the night, illuminating a small circle around them. But what good was a little circle of light, even if it came from within, in this vast high desolation? How could it possibly guide them?

Perhaps, thought the little trembling mouse acrobat once the first rush of relief over having survived the awakened bear’s attack had passed, it would have been much better to perish back there in the cave. At least, it would have been all over. What was left now, but an endless futile wandering up here, until they finally lost all hope and froze to death?

Suddenly, the little mouse acrobat started to wonder what was concealed beneath the white surface of the snow, the pale blue and pearly sheen of the ice that clung to these peaks. Who else, beguiled by their own solitary ambitions, led on by creatures as appealing and winning as the white snow rabbit and the snow leopard, had tried to pass this way and failed? How many were concealed in the snow, unable even to bear cautionary witness to others who were tempted? There and then, clinging and trembling on the Unicorn’s back, the little mouse acrobat felt a surge of gratitude towards her great mouse Aunt Viva.With this surge of appreciation came shame at her own attitude. High up there in the night in the Allalonaya Mountains, far beyond the reach of any maps, the little mouse acrobat’s face turned bright red beneath her tawny fur. The rush of shame brought warmth to her cheeks, so that the muscles about her lips, which had been so thin and tight, thawed a bit. She was able to smile, a very little smile, tentative and hesitant in the ring of golden light cast by the Unicorn’s horn. How good it felt, in a soft, private way, not the kind of good at all that a mouse might wish to talk about, but at once nearer and dearer.

So she wasn’t such a grand creature as she had thought. Once again, as before the battle when she had joined the army, she had lost her way. She was not so bold, nor capable of such vast feats of imagination and vision, but rather more of fear and terror. She was not so unique or special, but rather only a little mouse who was good at flips and twists and the like, but perhaps not so good at knowing who and when and how to trust. This little circle of golden light was all they had now. Who knew where it fit in the larger scheme of things? Who knew where they fit in the larger scheme of things? Who knew either where they were or where they were going?

Since the little circle of light, this golden glow emanating from within was all they had, they would have to trust it. It would have to be enough, even if it wasn’t very much, even if there was no authority to vouch for it. They would have to go on, simply for the sake of going on and getting wherever they might get. The little mouse acrobat clung and trembled and sobbed, tears of fear and worry and remorse and repentance. They were the tears of a little creature returning to scale, shuddering and shrinking down to meet herself more or less as she actually was.

She knew as she sobbed and felt the cables of her face begin to relax after being so painfully and silently taut for so long that she would never see that white rabbit again. Whether this was because she at last had enough good sense to be too frightened of him to get near him or because he was now too frightened to show himself and practice his deadly wiles around her she could not tell.

However, she missed the snow leopard, who seemed, although somehow like the white rabbit, yet also somewhat different. How she had enjoyed his antics as he tried to imitate her flips and twists! But perhaps it was the combination of the snow leopard and the white snow rabbit that was so dangerous, each one so appealing that together they enticed you to let your guard down, to stop trusting yourself and give them a terrible power over you. Where had they come from in the first place? This was as much a mystery as where they had gone to when the bear awakened and she had felt such a desperate need for them.

Who had been there at that nightmarish moment? Only the Unicorn, who had looked so worried and drawn and tired for so long. Now she understood why he had looked so bad. It was because of her, because of his concern for her that had worn on him so terribly day after exhausting day. He had kept on without any assurance that she would ever come to her senses. She had felt so great, so grand, so exceptional that she could not even conceive that a fellow creature could be concerned about her. What kind of greatness was that?

Was it not only the greatness of feeling like less than nothing, of demanding the impossible of yourself and using that demand to seek your own destruction? Had she conjured the white snow rabbit and the snow leopard from within herself? If she had, then from where within herself? Was it possible that there could be vast territories even within a little mouse such as she was herself of which that little mouse knew next to nothing? Were these territories perhaps even as vast and forbidding as these same Allalonaya Mountains in which they now journeyed?

If there were such territories, how much did a little mouse such as she was wish to know of them? In the midst of her sobs, the answer came clear as a bell, clear as a Unicorn’s laughter into her mind: “No more than absolutely necessary.”

She caught her breath and reached forward to pull herself up the Unicorn’s neck until she was able to kiss him on the ear.

“I’m sorry, so sorry, dear Unicorn,” she whispered.

“Ah,” said the Unicorn, “you’ve begun to forgive yourself.”

“But I won’t be able to forgive myself if I’m the cause of your being lost up here forever,” said the mouse, beginning to sob again.

“If I remember correctly,” answered the Unicorn, after a long pause in which he made certain of his footing at a particularly treacherous step, “the stories I heard from my great-grandfather and great-grandmother long long ago before my horn had found its glow, the pass that leads out of the Allalonaya Mountains lies between Ruin and Desolation.”

“The key,” continued the Unicorn, in his voice as soft as a moonbeam and as resolute as a star’s unquenchable spark, “is to stay on the side of Desolation so that you can avoid Ruin. Of the two mountains, Ruin is the loftier, the grander. Perhaps even it is the most gorgeous peak in a certain way in the whole range. Its aspect changes and shifts with the light, so that it stays looking young and fresh and alluring, as if it had a thousand secrets, when its only secret is revealed by its name, Ruin.”

The progress through the pass was hard and tedious, the descent much harder than the ascent. Always, there was the fear of falling. How the little mouse clung to the Unicorn and worried about him! How many times she kissed his ear, making her lips as soft and tender and encouraging as she possibly could! If he fell, then she would fall with him.

If that were to happen, she felt, the principal sorrow would be for him, not for such a foolhardy mouse as she was herself, first rushing after one lofty and exciting goal and then after another. She was, after all, the mouse who had decided to go to war, for the sheer excitement of it, yes, she had to admit, for the sheer fun of it. But what kind of fun was that, she wondered now in these long difficult days, as chasms of blue and white yawned beneath her, beneath the unicorn’s so careful, so steady hooves? Wasn’t it just exactly the wrong kind of fun, the fun that wasn’t really fun at all, any more than the white rabbit had been really friendly?

A thousand times as they groped their way along so slowly, without any help from outside, the little mouse acrobat heard snatches of her great mouse aunt Viva’s song in her mind:

“Up is easy

but down is hard,

the wheel must turn

from hope to woe

from friend to foe

and back again

as snow is white

and night is black…”

The song was a comfort, but also a warning. There was no knowing if they would make it. Yet, they were together again, the mouse acrobat and the Unicorn. This was the real consolation as they sought to find their way down the Mountain of Desolation and so out of the Allalonayas. The little mouse acrobat knew she wasn’t the same mouse that had set off on this journey, not so foolhardy, not quite so blind as to what a Unicorn was.

How she longed for a place flat enough so that she could dare even to do a simple single flip! How long it had been since she had tried! The fear entered her mind that she had totally lost her acrobatic ability. Maybe she would never be able to do another flip in her whole life.

“Well,” she thought, without even a trace of bitterness, “it would serve me right and I shouldn’t even mind, really, if I couldn’t, so long as I knew that the Unicorn was safe and happy, neither locked up in a toy cabinet, nor subject to the silly and dangerous whims of a foolish little mouse.”

And she kissed him on the ear with such great tenderness that his laugh rang out again and was heard in the air that was now not quite so thin as it had been before.

Chapter 10: Blanche

After a long and arduous time of wandering, the little mouse acrobat and the Unicorn came at last to a place where a vast and unfamiliar prospect opened up before their eyes. Beyond the blue walls of glaciers, the hills fell off into a steppe of rich but muted colors. The Unicorn found a cold trickling stream and followed it down until it became a roaring rushing river that headed off into the steppe country.

The little mouse acrobat clung to the Unicorn’s back. They had, in fact, crossed the Allalonaya Mountains. But where were they now? What was to become of them? The little mouse acrobat clung to the Unicorn’s mane and tried not to ask these questions. The Unicorn continued on, as if something led him. He would stop from time to time to paw the ground with a hoof, laying bare under the cover of lichens a patch of berries of such beautiful hue that, discouraged though she was, the little mouse acrobat managed to dismount to eat a few.

One morning, they spotted what seemed in the distance a small cluster of huts under three large trees of a kind the little mouse acrobat did not recognize. They were silver and slender of trunk, with leaves between gray and green. The Unicorn moved steadily and slowly towards this odd cluster. The little mouse acrobat sat on his back and clung to his mane, drifting in her mind as she had now for an indefinite number of days.Imagine her surprise when she heard a voice addressing her directly.

“Well, I’m glad you’ve come at last. I’m very glad you’ve come. It’s been a long time since I had a visitor. Or perhaps only a short time. Being a creature of the present moment, I forget. It’s strange and paradoxical, it is. The more I remember, the more I forget and the more I forget, the more I remember, only not the details.”

The speaker was a woman who seemed at once very old and very vigorous. Her eyes were green and her hair was white as snow, wild and wispy. A smile played about her lips. Yet it gave no clue as to what it was about, as if its bearer might be in so many places all at once that her smile, at once indulgent and rueful, might be about anything on the whole face of the earth.

“A little mouse looking so frightened and lost on the back of a Unicorn,” she went on. “Now that’s something new. No, you never know what is going to turn up here or anywhere else you might be. But tell me, little mouse, why should you be looking so frightened and lost sitting there on the back of a Unicorn? Not exactly the worst place to be, I should think? In fact, I would imagine it’s quite a lovely place. It’s not every mouse, after all, that gets to ride on a Unicorn’s back. So why not cheer up, dear little mouse?”

The speaker’s face and voice were so engaging, so cheerful and so matter of fact all at once that the little mouse acrobat was left speechless. She had no idea at all what to answer. The Unicorn’s back was a wonderful place. That was true. She certainly didn’t want to be unappreciative, especially since she understood quite clearly that the Unicorn had saved her life. She thought, too, with a delicate tinge of shy astonishment, not at all like her former pride, that, while there was no way to be sure, she might actually be the only little mouse ever to have sat on a Unicorn’s back.

“There, there, my little mouse,” went on this remarkable woman creature, “you’re looking as if you feel a bit better already. Now, perk up. You didn’t come her to mope. You came her because you had questions, because you were full of them, full up to overflowing. You came because you couldn’t stand the noise of one of those horrid battles they’re always having for no good reason at all, except that they enjoy themselves doing all those horrid things to each other because they haven’t the least idea what would really be enjoyable to do. That’s it, you know. They have those battles because they haven’t the least idea how to enjoy themselves just as they are, just at the particular moment, in the particular place. They haven’t a clue. They’re nothing but confusion.

“If you try to show them how to enjoy their very own selves, they get furious with you, as if you were taking something away from them, when actually you are trying your very best to give them something priceless. So, for the most part, I’ve stopped. I imagine the only way I can help is to enjoy myself and receive an occasional visitor, mouse or otherwise.”

The little mouse acrobat was amazed. How did this singular creature know all this? She wanted to ask. But when she pursed her lips to squeak, all that came out was a very soft sputter.

“Now, now, my little mouse,” said the creature, whose name the little mouse acrobat still did not know, “there is really nothing remarkable about my knowing all this. You see, there is really nothing new about it at all. Oh, it may be new to you. It may even be new to this handsome young Unicorn whom you have befriended. I must say, you do make a nice couple, the two of you, an interesting couple.

“But this business about battles is as old as the hills and so is all the greed and the “Get, get, get!” that comes before it, as if “Get, get, get!” ever solved anything. No, it only makes it worse, because the more we get, the more we think about what we don’t have, so the poorer we become. What do we really need anyway, my little mouse? A few moonbeams and berries, a handful of unicorn hair – now isn’t that really more than enough?”

She paused and then added as an afterthought, “By the way, they call me Blanche, because my hair is white, as if that was all there were to me, my white hair.”

With this, Blanche tossed her head and seemed suddenly much younger and more vigorous. How beautiful she was! Nor could the little mouse tell whether she was a woman or a mouse. She was somewhere in between. For an instant, she would appear a woman with the features of a mouse and, in the next instant, she would appear a mouse with the features of a woman. The effect was quite harmonious, though, so that the little mouse acrobat found herself feeling refreshed and delighted to be on the Unicorn’s back, as if it were even better than a flying carpet.

“Now,” said Blanche, “I know you have so many questions and you have come so far to ask them. If my memory serves me correctly, that is how it is with everyone who comes to see me. They have so many questions and they have come so far to ask them. I always say the same thing, which is that the most important things can be understood, but they can’t be explained. So the first step is to forget all about all the questions that you have in your minds, not because they are the wrong questions, but because they are the right questions.

“Forget all about how far you have come to ask them and all that you have been through to get here, not because all that was not real and important, but precisely because it was and is. Give yourselves right now into the present. Or should I say, forgive yourself right now into the present.”

Blanche’s voice was at once very soothing and very strict, very animated and a bit abstracted, as if her mind was not entirely on what she was saying.

Blanche tossed her head, so that her hair went flying back up into the air behind her head. As it did, a sudden breeze came along and held all the white hairs aloft an extra second or two.

“I can not explain anything to you,” Blanche went on, when her hair had settled so that now the breeze just teased and tugged at it, “but I do think that I can teach you to dance, to put movement to a different use than going places and getting things, than fighting and fleeing. Just because we come up with something for one purpose does not mean it can not be used for other purposes.”

“Oh, I would like that,” agreed the little mouse acrobat eagerly.

The strange thing was that, once Blanche told her to forget all about her questions and all about the long journey she had made to get here, the little mouse acrobat felt much better. There was a new twinkling in her toes.

“I would, too,” assented the Unicorn, in such a way that the little mouse acrobat could not tell for sure whether he was truly interested for his own sake or interested but only because she was interested.

A dark figure materialized by Blanche’s side.

“Ah,” said Blanche, “This is Djinnsky. I never know when he is going to grace me with his presence. Sometimes he is here and sometimes he is gone. He can leap so high and whirl so fast that he disappears. He goes into the wind and the light, into all rushing water and the night. Then, just as unpredictably as he left, he is back again. Which is a good thing, because he can be an enormous help in learning to dance. One more thing before we start. I tell this to everyone, too, but I’m not sure how many ever understand it, even though it is really very simple. We dance with our feet to teach our minds and with our minds to teach our feet. We must put our hearts into both and both into our hearts.”

Blanche smiled encouragingly.

Djinnsky, the dark presence, leapt suddenly into the air and began to whirl. He whirled as fast as a hummingbird’s wings. He seemed almost not to be there until, as quickly as he had gone, he was back again, more powerful and darker seeming than ever, his powerful sculpted muscles gleaming now with sweat. A smile played across his features, as if to proclaim how much he enjoyed his whirling and twirling, his disappearing and his materializing.

“With dancing, as with everything else,” said Blanche, “we have to begin at the beginning. And as we go along, too, we have always to search for the beginning, because invention, truth, beauty, kindness, grace and clarity are all present in the beginning, if only we know how to look for them. We have to feel our way. We have to imitate to get free of imitation. So, follow me, if you will.”

Chapter 11: The Dance

Blanche was still, so still. So, by her side, was Djinnsky, the dark presence, the two of them in the accord of an immobility which seemed also a reservoir in which was contained a promise of motion too vast and varied to be imagined. How young Blanche now looked! How strikingly beautiful and yet also how elusive her features were, as if they had been freshly found right at the border of formlessness.

They danced and they danced and they danced, for days and weeks and months and perhaps even years or more than years, but, if more than years, years of another kind of time, a time of the heart and the imagination, not the time of hurt and greed and despairing anguish. What they did was simple at first, extension and contraction, stretching and pointing, rising up and going down, gathering tight and letting go until they came upon the first hints of flow, how one movement becomes another, as if a veil had been lifted from its face, so that it becomes not less itself, but more so.

Blanche changed her form so slowly and so sweetly that at first the little mouse and the Unicorn did not suspect her power. Djinnsky stayed by her side, changing as she changed, counterpoising his darkness to her light, his tautness to her smoothness. The mouse and the Unicorn watched and imitated. Few words were spoken. From time to time, Blanche came to a stop and nodded her head to them, implying that they should repeat what they had just seen so that she could watch them do it.Sometimes she would nod and smile a tender little abstracted smile, nothing so wholehearted as approval, but yet encouraging, as if she meant to say something like, “Not bad for a start and likely, perhaps, to get even better, with a thousand repetitions, or two thousand or three or five.” Other times, she would scowl and motion them to be still and watch as she did it again. Once in a great while, she would walk over either to the Unicorn or to the mouse and change a posture, take hold of a leg and show the shape of a movement. Blanche was at once very gentle and very severe, as if what she was teaching was at once very difficult and quite essential, immune to compromise.

Each day’s work was exhausting and satisfying, draining and replenishing. Blanche and Djinnsky seemed tireless, as if they were simply repeating phrases from memory, perhaps modifying them ever so slightly out of simple caprice. What they did was, however, clean and elegant. It did not either overreach itself or stray off into confusion. If the movements sometimes seemed quite complex, the flows surprising in their direction and reach and recoil and repeat, they never lost definition or clarity. Blanche and Djinnsky did not show off. This was so different than acrobatics, not a matter of feats at all, but rather of exposing what already existed in space and time, in sequence and rhythm.

When the little mouse acrobat became aware that she was hearing music, there was no jolt of surprise, because the music played so softly that it seemed that it must always have been there and escaped her notice only because she was too preoccupied with other things to hear it. The music was inside her. Of this, the little mouse acrobat was immediately convinced. Once she heard it, it made the task of dancing, this endless imitation of Blanche, much easier, because it guided her.

It gave her time in accessible and intimate units and also both readied and steadied the flow of energy and impulse into the various muscles of her body. Once she heard this music within her, the little mouse acrobat felt and held her body differently. A small smile came to her face, as if she were bemused that it had taken her so long to catch on. Her movements were no longer separate, but each one maintained an alliance with the one before it and the one after, all under the influence of the music. Oddly enough, in the music she felt she heard echoes of the white rabbit and of the snow leopard. She sensed the special smile of the white rabbit, the curl of the smoke of his pipe, only gentled, not pretending beyond itself. There was a sense of reunion.

The little mouse acrobat looked at the Unicorn who danced by her side. It occurred to her that, of the four, she had been the only one who did not hear the music. She was always used to thinking of herself as the exceptional one, the one who was out ahead, and the one who did feats that made others admire her. Now she was the slowest one, the one who came behind, the one for whom the others had to wait. Once she heard the music, it seemed to her that how Blanche danced had changed. There was more verve, more gusto, more invention, more seduction, also more irreverence, as if Blanche was now beginning to turn loose something very familiar to her that she had been holding in check.

Now Blanche seemed to be getting younger and more lithe, more flexible, as if she were an incarnation of spring. Her hair grew longer and took on the delicate green color of the weeping willow’s branches in very early spring. As she grew lighter and more free in her movements, Djinnsky grew darker, more adamant, as if he were the spirit of a lowering day before a splendid thunderstorm came to sweep the sky clean and make it fresh and pale blue as a robin’s egg.

The little mouse acrobat felt a sudden pang of jealousy in her breast, something hot and painful and powerful. Blanche’s dancing was so beyond her. Why was it that Blanche was graced to dance that way? Why Blanche and not she? As she thought these thoughts, the music inside her dimmed and almost disappeared. Even in the midst of her dancing, the little mouse acrobat gasped. She could not let this music go. It was the envy that dimmed it. The love of the music saved her. Blanche was Blanche and she was who she was. She could never become Blanche and Blanche could never become her. Why, she wondered, did she hate herself so much that she wanted to become someone else, to become something that she was not? What was wrong with being a little mouse?

So this was where war started. She remembered the feeling she had had the day she had dressed up as a male mouse and gone off to enlist in the army. She had had a secret and the secret had given her a thrill. She had felt better than everyone else, alone and isolated. She had had a hope that was really no hope at all, but actually a mask for despair. She had been convinced that she knew who she was or that at least she was on her way to finding out, when actually she had been in full flight from something very near, something she now found very dear. She didn’t think it had been any different for the male mice, even for the Seven-Headed Seven-Crowned Mouse King, himself.

The music picked up its pace within her, becoming gay as a jig. Suddenly Djinnsky broke away from Blanche a few paces and nodded to the Unicorn. The Unicorn smiled at the little mouse acrobat. His horn glowed more fiercely and freely golden than she had ever seen it do. The music in her mind shifted and changed tone, as if an immense organ blew triumphant blasts of light. How astonishing it was to watch Djinnsky and the Unicorn dancing and cavorting. They were at once wild and free and restrained and in full control. The Unicorn could leap almost as high as Djinnsky, who would whirl and disappear and then reappear only a second later to leap almost up as high as the sky. Blanche beamed and so did the little mouse acrobat. The little mouse acrobat became so caught up in watching the dance of Djinnsky and the Unicorn that she forgot all about herself, until the music changed.

The music was still swift, but it became softer and lighter, took on a new gentleness and roundedness. Was it a flute she heard in the background, intertwined with a horn and an oboe? The little mouse acrobat did not know, but she was stunned to see Blanche beckoning to her. Could Blanche possibly mean that she, the little mouse acrobat, should come forward and dance with Blanche? This was simply not possible. This went beyond imitation. She was not worthy of any such honor.

Before she could come forward, the little mouse acrobat blushed bright red and bowed deeply, curling herself back into herself, as if for a last moment of respite before she released herself into dance and movement. She felt for a moment like a wisp of dandelion seed awaiting the wind. But no moment can last forever, so she soon straightened and came forth lightly, even tremblingly on her feet to where Blanche waited.

What a dance that was, far beyond the power of words to tell, for words are neither so quick nor so cunning as feet and, being made of air, lack the body, the elevation, the extension that is the glory of dance. Yet, since paltry words are all the story teller, often heavy of foot himself, has to call upon, words must serve.

Blanche looked the little mouse acrobat in the eye. The little mouse acrobat, all attention and stillness looked back. Blanche’s eyes were smooth as a vast lake that is newly thawed after it has been frozen through a winter that has lasted almost as long as forever is.

Then Blanche began to spin and to twirl, to leap and let her feet beat as gracefully against each other as the wings of migratory birds in flight. To the little mouse acrobat’s great surprise, when Blanche began the dance, she could follow. It was not effortless, the way it appeared to be for Blanche, but it was also not impossible. The music guided her, inspiring her and calming her all at once. Her body had a center, something she remembered from her days of doing flips off the pendula of grandfather and great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather and even great-great-great-grandfather clocks. Only now her center was different.

It had softened, so that she was in touch from her center with all of her little body. Now only had her center softened, but so had her will. She could set herself in motion swiftly, but gently. There was no longer that sense of precipitate total commitment, nor the danger-be-damned kind of recklessness. If she leapt and she beat her feet together or leapt and spun, she knew in advance where the landing was and kept herself composed throughout. Where before there had been fits of ferocious willfulness, now she had the sense of alterations between moments of willed effort and moments of yielding, a back and forth that let her relax even in the center of the dance. She felt the dance coming to her and coming through her.

Now Blanche’s aspect had changed again. She looked not so much young as full, rounded, brimming with the promise of life. The music slowed and deepened. Violas and cellos could be heard in the background. Blanche led and the little mouse acrobat followed, as Blanche and her movements became more and more rounded, more and more charged with giving birth to all manner of forms that were round in their own ways. So much came forth from the circle, from the emptiness that was contained with it. Everything that came forth had in common the rhythm and logic of coming forth. To know this in her own body both soothed and stirred the little mouse acrobat. As she danced, looking into Blanche’s eyes, she saw that, while she was just exactly what she was, she had so much in common with everything else that also was, on condition that she remember her own shape, her own form, her own mouse manner of coming forth.

She looked into Blanche’s eyes, so calm and blue and deep and tranquil and saw there the possibility of being a tree, a mountain, a brook, a river, a rabbit, a flying swan whistling in the wind under the light of the moon, a silent deer, a toy, a leopard, a bear and even at last an owl. This was a shock to her, that Blanche knew the dance and the trance of the owl, that creature that frightened her so much and seemed so much the opposite of what she was. As Blanche went on and on, exploring the roundness of motion and all that it could bring forth, the little mouse acrobat noticed that the Unicorn and Djinnsky were dancing with them, too. This was a dance for four, not for two.

It seemed to her now that the music changed again, became softer and slower, sweet and deep, reaching to the edge where sadness and beauty intermingled. The little mouse acrobat danced and danced, more slowly, lingering at each phrase, as if to express regret that she could not give it more. But each phrase, each movement revealed the next phrase, the next movement. She could linger. She could appreciate, but there was no stopping. As she found a new ease and grace in the movements of the dance, she found also a new capacity for sadness. As she looked at Blanche, as she looked at Djinnsky, it seemed to her that they were aging before her very eyes.

The music went into a minor key. The viola and the French horn discussed the change. The cello chimed in, somewhere between ecstasy and melancholy. That Blanche could age, that her hair could go to rose and silver and nut and gold and then from rose and silver and nut and gold to snow, struck the little mouse acrobat as heart rending. Her sorrow straightened her back, gave her arms and hands a new delicacy of arch and curve, brought her attack at once a new discretion and a new precision.

If the moment was fleeting and if the moment was all there was, then what was there to hold in reserve? What was the point of refusing to reveal what you felt? Did she not owe it to Blanche, the aging Blanche, who had once been as tender green and lithe and tentative as spring’s new willow, to pay her the tribute of showing what she had gotten from her, what she had gotten of her, what she found in herself?

How strange it was now that the little mouse acrobat seemed to find not only the music in herself, but also the dance. Blanche was only a flurry of snowflakes. The movement flowed out from her own center, carried her along with it, up on her toes, twirling, then leaping and extending, then closing back within herself, only to open up again like a flower that not only blooms but remembers.

Yes, she could dance the dance that was her own, the dance that was the dance of herself, the dance of a particularly nimble and vain little mouse who was still quite nimble but not quite so vain.

Blanche was gone. She had become snow not so different from that white stuff that the little mouse acrobat and the Unicorn had encountered right after they escaped from the great battle. Djinnsky was gone, too, as if he had become darkness and retreated into the distant sky somewhere in the space between the stars.

The music played on. The moon shone down through the clouds that were parted like a curtain. The little mouse acrobat and the Unicorn danced on and on, quite oblivious of where they were and even, at times, of what they were. Such a dance is neither chance nor necessity, but something in between, something from a place that the ingenious and owlish of the world, for all their intricate cunning, don’t know. The little mouse acrobat now gave the owls of her dread no more thought. The hoot of the owl had become the tender sorrowful tone of the French horn, calling from the edge of the place where all form vanishes, where time triumphs over hope and does not even know that it has done so.

What, then, was it that the little mouse acrobat found in her dance with the unicorn under the moon after Blanche and Djinnsky had disappeared? Was it an answer to the question of war? We can only say, “Perhaps yes and perhaps no.” These are matters that each and everyone, mouse or not, must ponder for himself or herself. War, this particular little mouse acrobat thought as she whirled and wondered beneath the moon, is a very loud voice, a noise of heavy feet and fists and need and greed, that must be answered in a very small voice, with light feet and tender hands and a resolute and generous heart.

The response, she felt, to the vice of war was peace and effort and kindness and rest and pity and belief and sadness and relief and joy and memory and hope, all this given a home in the little house of the mouse self, the modest body that now did this dance beneath the moon.

The music faded into the moonlight and joined the golden glow of the Unicorn’s horn. As the moon was about to set in the west, the little mouse acrobat noticed an arch that appeared at the edge of the place where she and the Unicorn were dancing. She leapt up on the Unicorn’s back. They danced through the arch and discovered themselves back on that same wooden floor where the terrible battle had been fought. Only now there was no trace of it.


p style=”text-align: center;”>Chapter 12: Return

They were back in exactly the same place from which they had departed. A few last embers glowed red in the fireplace. The dark doors of the antique toy chest were closed. Only in a pink armchair a little girl holding a white rabbit slept all alone, breathing in and out. She seemed familiar to the little mouse acrobat.

“I know her,” she said to the Unicorn. “I saw her just as the battle was starting. I saw the look of consternation and terror on her face as the battle raged. Perhaps it was even that look that gave me the courage to flee.”

“I saw her, too,” said the Unicorn, “as I made my desperate leap from the old toy chest. I remember the look on her face.”

“I think we should dance for her,” said the little mouse acrobat. “I think we should show her what we learned from Blanche. I think that she is someone who could understand.”

So it was that Elise awakened in the pink chair to the extraordinary sight of a mouse and a Unicorn dancing together across the wooden floor as if it were a great and severe and simple stage. They did a dance like nothing she had ever seen or imagined, one that suggested great struggle and great peril and great tenderness, great sorrow and great joy, being old and young, near and far all at once.

Clutching her white rabbit, Elise watched in rapture. Finally, she could bear it no longer. She put the white rabbit carefully down on the seat of the chair and began to dance with them. They danced and danced and danced until the first light of dawn started to show in the windows and Elise thought she heard her mother’s step upstairs. Their dance traced the outlines of an enormous journey.

Very quietly, Elise led the mouse and the Unicorn in the dance to the front door, which she opened. No longer moving herself, she watched them dance away across the snowy meadow to the edge of the woods, where the mouse leapt up onto the Unicorn’s back just as he took an enormous bound into the forest. Only the golden glow of his horn lingered behind.

“You’re up early, aren’t you?” said Elise’s mother when she caught sight of her.

“Yes, I am,” Elise agreed.

“Did you hear the thunder in the night?” her mother asked.

“Oh, yes,” said Elise. “It was quite a storm.”

“When I was a little girl, the thunder terrified me,” Elise’s mother said, “I thought the world was coming to an end. Or maybe I wished it would.”

They both laughed, standing together looking out the window at the beginning of dawn. Just as they laughed they heard the hoot of an owl in the woods, soft and low and, in its own way, shy and sweet.

What most of the guests remembered about that Christmas in the Okanogan in addition to the snow and the thunder was that both the snow leopard and the white rabbit that Druid Meyer had made mysteriously failed to work on Christmas morning. This seemed both to surprise and to upset Druid Meyer in a way that no one present could recall ever seeing him be upset before.

He seemed desperate to fix his two creations. In fact, he wanted to leave that very morning to go back to the city to work on them. However, Elise’s mother insisted that he stay for dinner. Elise, herself, said that she loved the white rabbit even better just as it was. She didn’t need for it to do any special tricks.

Eric, though disappointed, followed his sister’s lead and told Druid Meyer that he loved the snow leopard just as it was and would cherish the memory of its remarkable leaps. Druid Meyer ate very little for dinner and left in the early evening to go back to Seattle. Elise was not sorry to see him go.

No one looked in the antique toy chest to notice that a Unicorn was missing. The spider’s web was undisturbed and, if the spider, herself, felt a pang of loneliness, she kept it to herself and went on weaving there in the darkness that held within it the memories of untold struggles.

Elise went up to bed early that night, for she was tired. But she could not bring herself to get into bed without repeating bits and pieces of the dance she had done with the mouse and the Unicorn. She knew her feet would never forget. Unbeknownst to her, her eyes had deepened so she looked even more like her own mother. She had acquired the gaze of a person who tries to see, as best she can, to the very center of things.

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