The Unicorn in the Park
Danielle, who has been my daughter for a quarter of a century, visits me every other week on Sunday, a day which to her – on account of her pertinent atheism – is no holy day even if she is not working.
She tells me about traffic. Even on a Sunday the highway is packed. She regrets living so far away from me. More and more cars appear on the highways and the streets every year. Soon there will be more cars than houses. People will live in their cars, never being able to get home any more. Carmakers will have to change the way cars are designed – there’s going to be a need for a miniaturised bathroom and sleeping facility in the everyday car. And a TV-screen, so nobody misses Friday’s match.
It takes her two hours for the forty kilometres that separate her flat from mine. In the meantime she could have read at least four or five chapters in her book. She’s not a fast reader, she never was a fast reader in school, she hasn’t got my genes.
I cook noodles for her and prepare fish with mushrooms and herbs, the way she likes it.
What’s your weight, she asks. I tell her: one hundred and ten kilos, which is a lie, and she knows it.
You should find yourself a wife, she says, but she knows I’m not in the market for a wife. Mother has been dead for five years now, you should move on with your life. As if she would know how I should conduct my life, while she has had three affairs, with older women, one of them married and with children.
It’s she who moved away from me. Closer to her job, that was her excuse. The year after her mother died. Soon people will no longer die, not in any real sense. Their brains will be locked into a machine or their thoughts stocked in a computer and we’re all waiting for something like artificial brains. We’re on the threshold of major inventions concerning consciousness, the scientists say. All those who are already dead are just plain unlucky. There isn’t much that can be done with dead brains. We can clone a new human from dead DNA, the scientists say, but it doesn’t work quite that way with consciousness.
Danielle opens the photo album of her youth. Grown-ups appear, all oddly dressed. Even me, wearing the wrong sort of slacks, wrong shirts, even a totally wrong hairdo. I’m embarrassed by my former self. That former self was all too eager to prove he didn’t have to resemble his parents.
She still drives that small, green Japanese car with the dented fender. There’s probably a guidebook for Barcelona in the glove compartment, a city where she lost her heart and part of her sensibility. She intended to learn Catalan and bought a few books, but nothing came of it after her return home. Soon people will no longer have to learn a foreign language. They will get it implanted. Some day our brains will be too small for all that knowledge. We’ll need extra brains. External, portable brains.
You should look after your health, she tells me. She’s a nurse and is supposed to know everything about health, particularly mine. So much concern is making me feel uncomfortable.
She hesitates in front of the bookcase. She reads very little, not having the time. I tell her that humans don’t become smarter. There will soon be machines that learn in our place. That will appreciate music and literature. That will eventually write poetry and stories. It’s already happening, she tells me: in America there’s a computer that writes poems. I want to know where she got that nonsense from, but she can’t recall.
I glance out of the back window. It looks out over the park. That’s why I chose this flat. The park is my garden. I don’t have to take care of it and can use it for recreation whenever it suits me. The park is extensive. Occasionally children discover wood faeries in it, and a lost unicorn, a white one of course, but I do not believe every story I hear.
Danielle never stays for long. An hour, at the most, over lunch. Just so she can chat about my health. And then she leaves again. Nevertheless, every visit consumes five hours of her life. This is what plagues our world most: we are always in between places and cannot enjoy the moment of being somewhere. Soon there will be machines that do the travelling for us.
Elsewhere in the apartment building things tend to get lost. Some people lose their mail, others their laundry, even garbage gets missing, occasionally a car. The old lady who lives at the other end of my corridor asks me: Where do these things go? You wonder what happens to them and who takes them. They’re not getting lost by themselves, are they? Of course they aren’t, but old ladies have their own particular way of looking at the impossibilities of life. There must be some vast conspiracy behind these disappearances, of people who steal the most common objects, for some particularly esoteric reason. Nobody in his right mind would have bothered with the car, that’s how old it was.
The flat opposite hers is occupied by an old matador. He used to be famous. During his long career he entered the arena ninety times for an encounter with the bull. Twice wounded by the horns. Each time death played his usual game with him, but in the end the matador won. He now knows he will not die in the arena. He will die at seven fourteen on the morning of April twelve next year on account of a failing and cancer-ridden pancreas. He will die alone, just as he was alone for all of his life.
The matador thinks he might have seen some of the thieves, carting off flower pots and a set of summer dresses. They were gnomes, he says. Gnomes, that’s the description that would suit the thieves. They looked like gnomes and behaved like gnomes.
How do gnomes behave? My elderly neighbour wants to know. She obviously knows nothing about gnomes or thieves. And this disturbs her.
They behave like a bull would in an arena, wounded, knowing it will die shortly, the matador explains. That’s what gnomes are: doomed creatures and very different from humans. And very different from animals too, because they bear their destiny with passion and pride. That’s what gnomes do.
Maybe we should invent gnomes, to allow stupid people an explanation for everything that’s going wrong with the universe. It’s the gnomes all the way: theft and rape of white women, and unemployment and the vandalism in parks and churchyards. Send the gnomes back to where they belong!
Certainly a large number of gnomes live in the park behind the apartment building. It’s a no-go zone for most people around here. The gnomes steal everything not too heavy or too possessed. This is only the beginning. We will be talking murder soon. And we will know whom to blame for this deterioration of life.
The matador retreats in his flat, where he lives – so I assume – amid pictures and memories. In his dreams he is chased by the ghosts of the bulls he killed. A young couple further down the corridor hasn’t lost anything as yet. They keep their door well locked. Only at the last moment they put the garbage out.
The police have visited us, but without making any comment. Things disappear, but nothing of great value. There’s been no violence. Nobody got hurt, nobody has been threatened. There are no traces. No witnesses. Let’s not point the finger in the gnomes’ direction, the police suggest. There is no such thing as gnomes anyway.
A minority of the inhabitants considers forming a militia. To guard the premises at night. They won’t keep at it for long. Three or four nights at the most.
Meanwhile the gnomes hide in the park, between the bushes. They wait. They are certain of their plans. They want to destabilise our society. That’s why they steal stuff with no value. To keep us wondering what their next move will be.
A crack has appeared in the middle of the street. This seems like the last thing we need, a crack all along the street. It widens every day. It looks like both sides of the street will soon be separated for good. Personally I don’t complain. I see no reason to complain. I’ve never been very happy about the sort of people who live across the street. The usual bunch of middle classers, lower middle class actually, plastic chairs in their gardens, a green steel barbeque and a Japanese hatchback and a garage filled with junk instead of the car. Nobody knows how that crack happened. Some men came to investigate. Engineers from Sewerage and someone from Roads, but they all left again without mentioning a solution. After four days the crack is a hand wide.
First thing I do in the morning is look at the crack. It’s irregular but nevertheless runs parallel with the street, from one end to the other. There are a few places where a faint vapour seems to escape, as if it’s hot down there, at the bottom of the crack. People talk about this phenomenon, but nobody is talking with someone from across the street. Nobody seems to be blaming the gnomes anymore.
More often than before strangers walk through the street, seemingly lost. They try to find the origin of the crack. They’re like explorers, the sort that used to look for the origins of the Nile. They carry maps of the city, and look for the origin of this occurrence. They are lost, these people, since they have not learned that the landscape is not the map – a truism they could have learned from Count Korzybski and his theories, back in the thirties.
At the other end of the street a man in an improvised stall sells maps of the area. He even has some geological charts, which he tries to pander to the tourists. Maybe these charts will prove the existence of an underground volcano below our street. When Danielle returns she brings me one of these maps. I assume you don’t know all there is to know about your own street, she says. She just barely avoids telling me the crack is my fault. She has parked her Japanese car some distance away. More people visit the area now, looking for a disaster to happen. The police allow them. People tell each other: let’s make a trip to this disaster area, and look at other people’s troubles. Soon organised trips will be available for rich customers, to war zones and to famine-stricken places. Somalia, Darfur. The choice is nearly infinite.
I prepare chicken and curry, and steamed vegetables. The curry is too strong, but that’s the way she prefers it, like it is made in southern India. After an hour she leaves. Down in the street she ponders the crack. The vapour is darker now, a dirty yellow, and it smells like brimstone.
A fire truck is parked at the end of the street, surrounded by men in red safety coats. They look relaxed and are chatting away, like they received no specific instructions about the situation. See you next week! Danielle calls from the street, and then she’s gone. Soon we will have androids to keep old people company, when family no longer bothers to show up. If they freeze me now, and I awake in a hundred years, there will be a nice android nurse at my disposal, with more than decent bedside manners, and it will be difficult to recognize the least bit of artificiality in her behaviour. And I won’t be surprised because I’ve read more than my part of science fiction and so I’m prepared for the future. Yes, I would even welcome the future because an android nurse never has a lesser day, never takes her job back home, never is tired or moody.
Soon the future will be tangible.
The crack slowly widens. A couple of reporters stroll along. They question people and take pictures. I avoid them. They’re all standing at the other side of the crack. Maybe I won’t understand their questions, maybe they won’t understand my answers. They are all at the other side of the widening gap. They belong to that other world from which we distance ourselves more and more. That’s why I haven’t anything to tell them.
Danielle brings me a picture. I don’t want to see it. I don’t want any pictures. I prepare noodles, with shredded squid and matching herbs, all very Japanese. I don’t watch the picture.
Danielle occasionally brings pictures. I never watch them. Our conversation covers the small things in her life. There are only small things in her life, never anything grand. She will never have a grand life. I weigh one hundred and twenty kilograms and no grand things will ever happen in my life either. The only thing happening is the crack, now a meter wide.
Stuff no longer gets stolen in the block. The gnomes obviously have gone. What happens at the other side of the street we don’t know anymore, since all possibility of contact is now past us. The matador is uncomfortable with the situation. He sees shadows stalking along the length of the crack every night, he tells us.
The stench of brimstone is everywhere. Our block is almost completely isolated from the rest of the world. The world beyond seems lost to us. We retreat inside our flats. Soon everyone on the planet will live like we do: fully isolated. Only screens and the internet by way of communication. So be it. Man is no social animal. If he attempts to be social, he wages war.
Danielle has exchanged her Japanese car for a European model. She admits it is no improvement. I’m happy not to need a car. I tell her the gnomes bring me groceries. She smiles, pitying me. She has heard the stories about the unicorn. She enjoys the noodles I cook for her.
The fire truck at the end of the street has gone. There’s a roadblock in its place, on both ends of the street now. It is there to provide the city council with an excuse: they have done something responsible. All day long a dirty, yellow vapour rises from the crack. We can no longer keep the stench out of our flats.
Danielle does not complain. She asks if I get along. She is already leaving. She wants to know if I take care of my health. And then she says: I was looking in the album a few days ago – and the way she says it proves she’s tense, as if that simple message bears a meaning and a content.
Yes, I reply, waiting for her to respond. She nods, and leaves. I close the door behind her. I step back into the living area.
The photo album waits for me on the table. I pick it up. Danielle is in most of the pictures, as a child. One of them has the park in the background. Between Danielle and the trees, fully visible, and grinning, is a white, proud unicorn.
Guido Eekhaut has published more than forty books in Belgium and Holland, including half a dozen concerning the imaginary city of Orsenna. He has also written crime novels, which were nominated for major awards and the first of which, Absint, won the Hercule Poirot Award in 2009 (and was translated into German). His stories have been anthologised many times, and several of them have appeared in Germany, Poland, Denmark, Italy, Argentina and China. He has worked as a freelance journalist for a number of newspapers and magazines. He also publishes essays on literature, geopolitics, history and philosophy, while working as a futurist. His story "Just Words" appeared in Issue 19 of The Cafe Irreal and "Time Machine" appeared in Issue #21.