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January 29, 2004

Strange Animals

When Tanha finally captured the unicorn, this is what he told her:

"When the zoo was young and the world was still filled with strange animals, your grandmother tracked me down. I was to be her prize possession, the only unicorn in captivity, even if she had to keep it secret. The chimæra and the amphisbæna and the minotaur were hers already. Dragons, manticores, well, everyone had one of those. But a unicorn, that was another matter.

"Poor Barda. You were often at the house, you know how it was. I remember you as a girl, you know, when Barda was dying and Dexter becoming a drunk. Some of the animals used to say there was a curse on the Mycroft family, and they'd look to you and wonder what lay in store. I don't go in for that sort of mystical guff myself.

"It took Barda years to capture me, but she had nothing better to do. When the trap was sprung, she approached so tentatively, with such trepidation, I was tempted to shout Boo! just to see her jump. Of course the rules don't allow that. One of the problems with being an imaginary creature is being bound by illogical and unnatural rules of behaviour. It depresses me, I must say. But why must I say it? When you're immortal everything seems so wearisome.

"You should have gone to bed with him. General Aileron, I mean. I'm sorry, but it's true. Preserving your virginity to capture a unicorn just isn't well-adjusted behaviour. Sex is more fun. I should know.

"I'm forgetting myself. Personal comments like that aren't part of the game, but I feel I know you well enough to dodge the formalities occasionally. Do you remember the zoo? Perhaps you were too young to really take it in. Yet here you are, hunting just like Barda did; it must have made some impression on you.

"I know, I'm supposed to tell you about Barda. She was a queer fish, frankly. I suspect she didn't tell the truth even once during her life. Certainly I never heard anything but lies from her. It wasn't malicious. She wasn't a liar in the unpleasant sense of the word, but she wantonly obscured the truth at every opportunity. With good reason, I suppose.

"Look, why don't I start again?"

Tanha did remember the zoo, of course. The cast iron and glass hallways lived in her memory forever as an overblown Edwardian dream. There was magic there, the sort of magic that seems legitimate to a child but later nags the adult mind, its wrongness so self-evident that it cannot be denied. Hence the hunting.

Barda pursued her eccentric dream in a world where eccentricity was still tolerable. Her peculiarities frightened her contemporaries, but she had money and position and she knew how to be discreet. Few people really knew her; those who did understood her to be insane, kept out of Bedlam by her family's wealth and influence but to be handled with utmost caution or, for preference, avoided altogether.

Everyone tried to protect Dexter from her, his twin sister Elizabeth especially, but it was already too late. His lunatic schemes took their cue from his mother, and he hunted mythical creatures through the ruins of war-torn Europe with the obsessive dedication unique to the mad. His first capture was a harpy, one of a flock to descend on divided Berlin in 1946. It cost a fortune in bribes to transport her home through the confusion of national authorities and border controls, but Dexter had a fortune to spend and no-one to answer to but the senescent Barda. Her pride in his achievement gave him perhaps the only true moment of happiness in his tortured life.

Elizabeth wanted her daughter to have no part of this insanity. The menagerie was a no-go area for Tanha, but she went there anyway. Barda was dying by then and Dexter sank ever deeper into self-destruction following the failure of his decade-long attempt to capture the phoenix. With no-one to care for it, the menagerie decayed and the animals escaped one by one.

In the period Tanha remembered clearest there were only a handful of captives left. Barda never left the house, but sat always at the dining room table talking to herself. Her hair was long and white, quite unlike the short pomaded coiffure she had affected in her prime. The sole remaining servant brought her food and cleared up afterwards and Dexter would occasionally wander through in a drunken haze. Otherwise, Barda's only human contact was with Tanha on illicit visits to the house. Tanha would sit cross-legged on the table and listen to her grandmother's demented ramblings, sometimes not understanding a single word in thirty minutes or an hour of speech, but maybe learning something from the rhyme and meter, learning to appreciate the sound and feel of madness.

When that palled, Tanha would take herself off to the menagerie and converse with the animals. The unicorn was always the most talkative, though sometimes his manner and logic were too much like Barda's for comfort. Later, when she took up the hunt herself to chase the bitter dream of her childhood, the unicorn's voice rang often in her mind. When she finally tracked him down he was exactly as she remembered.

The harpy would only spit bile and abuse, yet she was the last of all the animals to leave, staying until Dexter vanished. Tanha suspected she really loved the house and the menagerie, which was true. But she loved Dexter more, had done so since she first laid eyes on him. She loved him enough to let herself be caught and imprisoned, enough to squander twenty years of her eternal life in thrall to a passion that would never be consummated. It was her sacrifice which gave Dexter his first and greatest triumph; but perhaps it also drove him on to the quest which ruined him. Tanha asked the unicorn about her and this was what he said:

"Ah, poor Ephgenia. She must have known it was hopeless from the start, these things always are. She bound herself to the zoo because Dexter needed success in this hunting business more than anything; and then ever after she blamed herself for his downfall. Nothing ever happened between them, of course. Dexter was like you in that respect, keeping himself 'pure' for some stupid reason. Both of you would have been better of with a good fuck in my opinion, but for Dexter at least it's too late now. Meanwhile Ephgenia spent twenty years taking it out on us poor buggers in the zoo. Silly old bag."

The moth-eaten sphinx would only moan about the cold and the wet, She had been one of the earliest successes of Barda's hunt, but the years had not been kind. Accustomed to the desert and tropical heat, forty English winters were almost more than she could bear and had she not been immortal she would gladly have died before seeing another. As the menagerie declined she would speak longingly of flying south forever, but her courage had failed during her years of captivity and she feared she would lose her way and be stranded on the ice-floes of the frozen North. Even after Barda died she could not bring herself to leave until a flock of migratory birds promised to show her the way.

Tanha would pester the sphinx for riddles but was seldom rewarded with any, more often being quizzed on the vagaries of the weather and the reliability of seaweed as a rain predictor. Very occasionally the mournful creature would manage a half-hearted "What's black and white and red all over?" or "Why did the chicken cross the road?" Tanha felt these were somehow unworthy of the legend and eventually she stopped asking.
Posted by matt at January 29, 2004 10:38 AM


The sphinx fallen on hard times--oh, how ineffably sad.

Posted by: Faustus, M.D. at January 30, 2004 12:45 PM

I think I've caught my Unicorn.

Posted by: Stairs at January 31, 2004 04:27 PM

Does that mean you can go ahead and lose your virginity now?

Posted by: matt at January 31, 2004 04:45 PM

One step at a time, impertinent devil.
But maybe.

P.S. Ditto.

Posted by: Stairs at January 31, 2004 09:39 PM

Oh, damn, and I missed it.

Posted by: Faustus, M.D. at February 3, 2004 04:26 AM

What? Where?

Posted by: matt at February 3, 2004 01:03 PM

Where did the author get the name Barda from??? Just wondering.... Nice name at that.

Posted by: Barda at December 11, 2004 12:59 PM

I'm afraid the author hasn't the faintest idea, but he agrees it's a nice name :)

Posted by: matt at December 11, 2004 03:06 PM

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