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Authors: Beth Hautala

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BOOK: Waiting for Unicorns
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IT WAS WARM AND QUIET
inside, and I paused in the entryway, letting the warmth wash over me before I hung up my coat and unlaced my boots. Sura stood in the kitchen, stirring a small pot of hot chocolate over the stove, and she turned, smiling, as I came in.

“Cold?” she asked.

I nodded, chewing the ends of my hair.

She handed me a blue mug and I wrapped my fingers around it, letting the warmth seep in. Leaning against the counter, I sipped, careful not to burn my tongue, and we stood there in the kitchen for a few minutes, listening to the radiator clunk and gurgle.

“You are her daughter,” Sura said, leaning against the counter across the kitchen from me. “In many ways, you are her daughter.”

Her words were soft, but she might as well have shouted them at me. It made me uncomfortable to hear Sura mention my mom.

I took a deep breath, running my fingers around the spiraling white handle of my mug, tracing its shape from base to lip. It was exactly like the horn of a unicorn, only curved, tight against the back of my hand where I'd curled my fingers around the mug.

“They met here,” Sura said. “Did you know that?”

I shook my head. I wondered why they never told me.

“Katherine was doing her thesis on oral culture and storytelling, and your dad was here researching whales. My mother was alive then—Ahana. She was one of our elders.” Sura shrugged. “Churchill is much different from a traditional Inuit village now. Modern. But our people are the same, and some of our traditions are the same. We tell a lot of stories, and my mother was a storyteller.”

“So was mine,” I said, and Sura nodded.

“She stayed here with my mother and me to learn about our culture. She would sit here and listen to Ahana—learning things we can only teach through stories.”

“What sort of stories did she tell? Your mom, I mean.” It was so strange, standing here in Sura's kitchen, knowing my mom had been here, too, a long time ago.

“Oh, all kinds—‘Why the Stars Are in the Sky,' ‘Crow Brings Daylight,' ‘The Fox Wife,' ‘How the Raven Became Black,' ‘The Unicorn of the Sea'—”

“What?” I sputtered into my hot chocolate and nearly dropped the cup. “What about a unicorn?”

Sura jumped up and handed me a napkin. I hadn't told anyone about the stories Mom read to me, and the last thing I expected was to hear anything about unicorns way out here in the frozen Arctic.

“‘The Unicorn of the Sea.' It's an old Inuit tale. But if you ever find one, close your eyes. Tight,” Sura said. “Unicorns break your heart.”

I frowned, setting my hot chocolate on the kitchen counter and wiping my mouth.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

She didn't say anything for a minute, and then sat down.

“Would you like to hear the story?”

I nodded and joined her at the table. Fast. Too fast. But my knees had gone all wobbly and the tips of my fingers were tingling.

“There are a couple different versions of this story,” Sura began. “But I will tell you my favorite.”

As Sura spoke, I was certain I heard the wishes in my jar start to shift and rustle around.

“Many, many years ago there was an Inuit girl who fell in love with the sea,” Sura said. “Every day she would go out on the water with her father, who was a hunter, and beg him to spare the whales. And because he loved his daughter, he did. But the Inuit people needed the whales,” Sura said, “and without them, they began to starve.”

I remembered Dad telling me about all of the ways the Inuit people used the whales they hunted. They would eat the whale meat of course, but they would also eat the fat, or blubber, because it is so rich in nutrients. Other times they would melt down the blubber into oil to use as fuel for light. They even used the bones, boiling them into glue and grinding them down for fertilizer. In fact, bones and teeth can be carved into tools and shaped into special hooks for fishing nets.

I knew this was a way of life for the Inuit, but it was a lot different from mine. Different than what I was used to. It seemed cruel. I understood why that girl didn't want her dad to kill those whales.

“Even though the people were going hungry and growing ill,” Sura continued, “the hunter's daughter still begged her father to spare the whales. And so he spared them, until his daughter also grew weak and sick for lack of food. And then, because he loved her more than he loved her happiness, the girl's father took his harpoon and went out to hunt the whales.

“But the girl, who did not understand either the sea she loved or her father who loved them both, tied herself to his harpoon. Her father never knew, and when he cast it out, his daughter was dragged into the sea.

“The father's grief was so great that the sea took pity on him, and the girl did not drown. Instead, with the harpoon held tightly in her hands, she was bound to a beluga whale. Tangled in the ropes of the harpoon, and wrapped around one another, together they became the unicorn of the sea. Today, they are known as narwhals.”

Sura paused.

“But unicorns break your heart, Talia,” she said, and this time she said it firmly, like a warning. “The girl loved what she could not have. She was permanently changed, more creature than human. And it broke her father's heart. They were separated from each other forever.”

Sura looked sad.

“But she saved the whales, didn't she?” I sat in my chair, thinking about the story and listening to my wishes rustle in their jar. “That was what she wanted more than anything.”

Sura nodded thoughtfully.

“So maybe that was enough for her. Maybe it didn't matter that she was separated from her father. Maybe they were already kind of separated before she was changed because they were so different, and maybe she was actually happier with the whales.” In my mind, all I could see was the gray mottled body of a narwhal whale and the single spiraling horn that rose up out of the water like the lance of a jousting knight.

“Perhaps she was.” Sura smiled. “There is a piece of truth in all stories. Including this one. Those pieces make stories magic, which is part of the reason the Inuit tell them over and over, generation after generation. The pieces we choose to keep, to make our own, change us. They change the way we live and think, and what we believe. Perhaps the girl was happier as one of the whales. Or perhaps she wished she could return to her father.” Sura shrugged. “Whichever piece of truth you choose to remember will change how you hear the story. And it will change
you,
too. It's magic.”

Magic unicorns or magic stories, I wasn't quite sure which one rang the most true to me, but I had no trouble believing that the things you chose to take away from a story could change everything.

I knew from one of Dad's excited rants that during medieval times people thought the narwhal's horn, which is actually a tusk, was the horn of a unicorn. They didn't realize it came from a whale. And Vikings and other northern traders thought the horn was incredibly valuable. They exchanged the narwhal's tusk for gold and even believed it had magical powers. Cups were carved out of tusks for important people, like kings and queens, who believed drinking from them destroyed poison. Even Queen Elizabeth of England bought a narwhal tusk for as much as it would've cost her to purchase a
castle.
She used it as a scepter. I wondered if Sura knew about any of that.

Before, no matter how much I wanted the magical stories about the little white horse to be real, I knew I couldn't possibly wish the creature into existence.

But out here, where the winter sky glowed with the pale light of the aurora borealis, and where the frozen Arctic Sea was mysterious and alive beneath the ice, and where the Inuit people tell old, magic stories—out here, unicorns were
real.

And somewhere between the stories that help explain something people can't believe and the stories that help them believe something they can't explain, there was just enough truth to make me hope for something crazy—something
impossible.

I excused myself from the table and left Sura to finish her hot chocolate alone, then bolted up the stairs to my room. Throwing myself to the floor, I pulled out my jar from beneath the bed.

With shaking fingers I drew out that first wish, the same way I always did. Then one by one, plucking out the rest, I smoothed and read them, almost too excited to bear it. But I needed to go slow.
Deep breaths.
This was too important.

Finally, when the jar was empty, I took out a pencil and a little slip of paper from the bedside table drawer, and I made another wish. The biggest wish I'd ever made.

All this time I'd been hoping if I believed hard enough in the stories I already knew—in the stories Mom had told me—that the mysterious possibility or secret truth hiding in them would be enough to make them come true. And now, way out here on the edge of the Arctic, I'd finally found what I was looking for. I'd found the spark that would bring them to life.

I'd been waiting for unicorns all along—I'd just been waiting for the wrong ones.

A plan was starting to form in the back of my mind.

I had to see one for myself. I had to get out on open Arctic waters and wait for that spiraling white horn to rise up out of the sea.

It was risky, planning around something as rare as a narwhal whale, but if the unicorns in my mom's stories could grant wishes, maybe the unicorns of the sea could, too. And if there was even the tiniest hope that this was possible, then I would take it.

I chewed on the end of my pencil, staring out the window from where I sat on my bedroom floor. Sura would probably be up to check on me before long. I'd left her sitting at the kitchen table without much of an explanation. I hadn't even thanked her for the story or the hot chocolate.

I sighed and started picking up my wishes. The last thing I needed was for Sura to walk in on me with my wishes spread out all over the floor. So one by one I kissed them, and dropped them back inside until my jar was full of paper slips again. Only my newest wish still lay beside me.

I set my pencil down and rolled it across the floorboards, watching as it came to a slow stop against my jar. I studied my newest wish. It felt heavier than the rest, like it would fall through the air faster than the others if I dropped them all at the same time.

I stared at it, fresh and crisp against the dingy floorboards, my handwriting firm and deliberate across the white paper. And then I gently picked it up and kissed it, before dropping it inside with all the others.

THE AIR ON THE FRONT
porch was crisp and clear, freezing as it left my body and hung around my head in a glittering cloud. I narrowed my lips and blew a stream into the morning air, leaning against the porch rail and staring out across the frozen surface of Hudson Bay.

I couldn't see any trace of them—Dad and his team—not even tracks in the snow where the airboats had propelled them over the ice just a few days ago. The wind had blown away any evidence that they had ever been there. It was ruthless like that, carving away the landscape, never bothered by ice, or snow, or people's lives. It pushed drifts halfway up the north side of the blue house, and at the same time, swept the surface of Hudson Bay smooth as glass.

This was a strange place. Cold and empty, and if you weren't paying attention, you might think it never changed. But you would be wrong. It changed constantly. This was something I was just starting to figure out. I'd spent enough time staring out my bedroom window to finally see it.

Some things were obvious, like the way the snow shifted under the relentless wind. There was the ice, solid and thick enough to drive cars and trucks across if you wanted. But eventually, it would break apart under the gentle force of the sun, or so Sura told me. And then there were the changes that had happened long ago, long before I was here and even before the Inuit. Maybe only Dad's little white whales were around to witness it—the massive movement of glaciers carving away the landscape and leaving moraine in their wake.

I hunched deeper into my heavy coat, trying not to think about the fact that Dad had only been gone for three days. It made time drag on as slowly as a glacier. That's what I was doing—trying not to think about the weeks and weeks between today and when Dad would eventually come in off the ice—when I heard faint strains of music drifting across the tundra. Turning, I watched as a boy came walking past the blue house.

No. Not walking. He was practically
dancing.
Kind of rocking and swaying, and strumming a guitar. The Guitar Boy singing Bob Dylan in the middle of the frozen, snowy street. I craned my neck to get a better look at him as he strolled by, singing and playing, his breath sparkling around him. I recognized the song immediately as one of my mom's favorites: “It's All Over Now Baby Blue.”

He couldn't have been much older than me, straight and tall with a shock of blond hair sticking up off one side of his head. He reminded me of the spruce trees that grew here, their branches clinging to only one side because of the constant driving cold and ice.

He was underdressed. It was relatively warm today—thirty-three degrees Fahrenheit—but still. In place of the typical Churchill uniform of a thick parka and fur-lined boots, he wore an army green peacoat, unbuttoned over a lopsided gray sweater someone had probably made for him. He wore sturdy boots laced up loosely over the hem of his jeans, barely keeping the snow out, and fingerless gloves that couldn't possibly have kept out the cold. It couldn't have been easy to play the guitar in those gloves, either.

He was nearly a block past me when he finished his song, whirled around, and caught me staring. Then he bowed.

You're supposed to bow with one arm folded at your back and one folded against your stomach. I knew this because our band teacher always insisted we bow after our school concerts, and she was pretty specific on how it was done. But not that boy. He bowed deeply, one hand grasping the neck of his guitar, the other flung out behind him.

I didn't know what else to do, so I bowed back. But just a bit.

This boy was the strangest thing I'd seen since arriving in Churchill, which was saying something. And yet, he seemed to belong here, too. If I'd been at home and that boy had come waltzing down the street in front of our apartment with his guitar, I probably would have laughed. But not here. Here, he fit. And it was all I could do to keep from jumping off the porch steps and following him wherever he was going. It was like that old story—I felt like one of those children of Hamelin, wanting to follow the pied piper out of the city.

“His name is Simon,” Sura told me later over lunch. “He's the Birdman's grandson. The two of them come to Churchill every summer.”

I chewed my sandwich thoughtfully.

“The Birdman?”

I took a gulp of milk. It seemed a funny thing to call someone. I pictured a comfortably fat, elderly gentleman with round glasses, a large nose, and very long legs.

“He collects birds,” Sura replied.

I added a giant net and a birdcage to the picture growing in my mind.

“The Birdman is a researcher, Tal, like your father,” Sura continued. “An ornithologist. He makes lists and writes descriptions of all the birds he's observed and studied.”

“And what about Simon?” I asked. The guitar and that boy's easy bow waved in my memory like a welcome flag. It was like he just didn't care what anyone thought of him. I never would have done that, even if I had a good reason to.

“Simon is . . .” Sura trailed off and then reached out and patted my hand. “Why don't you go find out? Are you done?”

I nodded, swallowing the last bite of my sandwich. She took my plate and began washing up our lunch dishes.

I knew I should stay and help. Offer to dry or something. But I didn't want to. Sura and I were getting along pretty well, considering. Still, it wasn't like we were best friends or anything. I didn't want to stand beside her at the sink and pretend.

“Go on.” She nodded to the door and smiled.

She didn't have to tell me twice.

Churchill might be a small town, but it was still unfamiliar to me. Fortunately, many of the locals seemed to know each other, so I had a good feeling that if I got lost, all I had to do was tell someone where I was staying and I'd probably get a guided tour of Churchill all the way back to the blue house.

I wandered around town for a while, trying to catch a glimpse of the boy with the guitar and feeling like a spy. This wasn't the sort of thing I would normally do. But then, there was nothing normal about this whole thing—me being here and Dad being gone, this frozen place, that boy.

I stopped at the post office to pick up our mail and chat with the woman behind the counter. I thought the boy might be there. But he wasn't. Then I wandered over to a restaurant called the Hub and ordered a hot chocolate, even though I'd just had one.

“Hello, Talia,” Meryl, the owner, greeted me cheerfully. Loudly. The other diners turned to glance in our direction. I didn't like being the center of attention. But Meryl did, and in her restaurant, she always was.

Meryl ran a damp cloth across the counter, scattering leftover crumbs from the previous diner's meal. I thought about doing the same thing—scattering. But I gritted my teeth and remained sitting.

“Hi,” I said, sipping my hot chocolate and scanning the people who'd returned to their lunch.

Meryl made it her business to know everything about everyone in Churchill. Dad and I hadn't been here for more than a few days before she dropped by Sura's house with a plate of cinnamon rolls. Meryl was a big woman—she filled a room with her presence and her voice. Really, she was no taller or wider than Sura, but she always made me feel swallowed up.

“Are you meeting someone?” She cocked an eyebrow at me, leaning her elbow against the counter. Dad and I had come here together our first week in Churchill, but I'd never come by myself.

“No.” I shook my head, trying to look mature, like I went to restaurants by myself all the time. “I was just thirsty.”

I wished Meryl would go away. She didn't. Instead she followed my gaze around the room as I searched for a shock of blond hair sticking up off just one side. But he wasn't there, and I drank my hot chocolate too fast, burning my tongue and the roof of my mouth.

Meryl winked at me as I paid for my drink. She knew that nobody came to the Hub just for food. Everyone came for the company. Even me. Churchill, Manitoba, was too cold and too far away from the rest of the world for people to pretend that they didn't need each other.

Tugging my hat down over my ears, I stepped back out into the cold, feeling more alone than before. It was silly. I didn't even know Simon, or anything about him. So I had no reason to feel any different than I had before. But I did. I felt like I'd missed out on something. He seemed like the sort of person who would be fun to be around.

I took the side streets toward the blue house, dragging my feet in the dirty snow until I found the gravel road that ran along the edge of town. This eventually wound along the shore, and though it was sort of a long walk, I wanted to look at the frozen bay before going back. Sura would worry if I was gone too long, but the bay tugged at me. My dad was out there somewhere, standing on its frozen surface, looking for whales. The wind pushed at my back, urging me along, and every now and then I scanned the scrub brush for the off chance that a polar bear was there, waiting for an afternoon snack to come along.

Rounding a small bend in the road, I could see the curve of the shore stretching out ahead until it met the mouth of the Churchill River. And I was so busy tracing that curve of shoreline I almost ran straight into the Birdman.

He was standing in the middle of the road, and I
knew
it was him, though I couldn't say how I knew. It was just that he couldn't have been anyone else. He wasn't fat at all, but wonderfully fit, like a runner. His hair was salt-and-pepper gray and he had a long mustache, which curled up at the ends just a little, making him look happy even if he wasn't smiling. A small pair of binoculars hung around his neck.

I was about to say hello when he raised a finger to his lips and pointed. He was aiming just over my left shoulder into the scrub. Slowly, he brought his binoculars to his face. I froze, caught in the crosshairs of a fantastic observation.

“Northern Wheatear,” he said, his voice low. I didn't know if that was a good thing or not, but I didn't dare move. I barely even breathed.

At last, he lowered the binoculars.

“Come, have a look,” he said.

I relaxed, curious, and took the binoculars he offered, holding them to my face. With some help, I found the nondescript little bird, teetering on the sparse limb of a black spruce.

“Notice the inverted black
T
along its tail,” the Birdman pointed out.

I noticed and nodded, and we both watched until the little bird flew away into the scrub. Reluctantly, I returned the binoculars.

“Talia Lea McQuinn,” I said, sticking out my hand, and he took it with a surprised grin. “And you're the Birdman,” I finished with certainty.

He threw back his head and laughed, and for a minute I wondered if anyone actually called him that directly. Maybe they just called him the Birdman when they were talking
about
him.

“Why, yes. Yes, I guess I am the Birdman,” he said. “It's very nice to meet you, Talia Lea McQuinn.”

“Tal,” I said.

BOOK: Waiting for Unicorns
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