The Unicorn Bell

Nana’s house was full of magic things, and the unicorn bell was the most magic of all.

Sophie liked to list the other things in groups of three, because she was seven, and Nana said seven and three were the luckiest numbers. She had to think hard about her three favourite goblets, but she decided on the biggest glass one and the smallest pewter one and the one made of battered brass, polished until it displayed her own face, glowing brown in the metal. The Sophie in the goblets had a wild smile, with sharper teeth, and the real Sophie was a little afraid of her.

The Sophie in her three favourite teaspoons was much easier to understand; the same girl, with huge eyes or enormous chin, depending how she tilted them. The magic in the teaspoons lay in the pictures of castles on the handles. The castles were called Monea and Duino and Versailles; strange names that Nana had to help Sophie say, with all the enchantment of lands across the sea.

The paintings were much less interesting, and mostly of deer or dogs or horses. Mum couldn’t afford riding lessons and Sophie didn’t like horses anyway. Her best friend Tracy Cho was learning how to ride, and talked importantly about manes and fetlocks and mucking out. This was a secret code, and not very fair. Still, Sophie picked her three favourite paintings. Two of them were dogs. There was a big painting of a lady in a long skirt and a blouse that buttoned all the way up her neck. She was sitting on a bench with a lot of books and leaning her chin on her hand, her forehead wrinkled like Mum’s was on Thursdays. Sophie chose that as her most favourite. The lady was clearly studying spells, not Mum’s accounting books, but homework was homework.

Anyway, horses were stupid.

There were many goblets and spoons and paintings. There were mirrors and brooches and books. There were records and china statues and butterflies pinned down in boxes. Almost nothing in Nana’s house was by itself; everything came in groups, like Tracy and Sophie and Jade. Or like Sophie and Mum and Nana. There were three photos of Nana and Grandad on their wedding day, with Nana’s hair smooth and black instead of white, and Grandad in a brown uniform looking excited to the tips of his big ears. It was the exact same photo three times. That made it hard to pick the favourite, but Sophie decided on the one with a long scratch in the frame, because it needed her to love it more.

But there was only one unicorn bell.

The little bell was made of silver, and the unicorn made the handle. The unicorn was rearing, with a glint in its eye and its long spiral horn brandished proudly. Nana had found it at a fleamarket, and now it sat in the hallway on a little table of its very own, on top of a doily Nana’s mum had made in the olden days.

It was Sophie’s most favourite thing.

When Mum went on holiday, or organised some grown-up time with her boyfriend, Jeff, Sophie was allowed to stay the night at Nana’s house. Nana and Sophie would make mousetraps, which were tomato sauce and bacon and cheese on toast. While they grilled, Nana would tell Sophie a story; sometimes from a book, but sometimes from Nana’s life. Sophie liked the story about the time the priest had visited, and a mouse had run into a hole in the curtain hem, and stayed there for the whole visit, wriggling while the priest talked to Nana about flowers for church.

Then they would eat the mousetraps and watch the news and have hokey pokey ice-cream for pudding.

Nana’s spare room bed had heavy blankets, and no duvet. There was no carpet, but there was a rug on the wooden floor, made out of rags, plaited and coiled. Some of Sophie’s baby clothes were in there, and Mum’s school uniform, and Nana’s wedding dress and Grandad’s work shirts. When Sophie walked on the spare room rug, she walked very softly. On Nana nights, she would get changed and climb into bed by herself. Sometimes she would skip brushing her teeth, because Nana never checked and she could keep the hokey pokey taste on her tongue all night.

When Sophie was in bed, Nana would tell her the story of the unicorn bell.

“I knew it was magic,” she would say, her black eyes bright. “I bought it for three gold coins and a smile, and I felt it shiver in my hands. After my William died, I walked into the garden on a wild nor’wester night. The moon was full, and the wind was alive. I rang the bell, and watched the unicorns thunder down the sky, their riders on their backs.”

“Who were the riders?” Sophie asked every time, but Nana would always shake her head.

“I can’t say. Some things are for the seers only.”

“Tell me about the unicorns.”

Nana would smile. “They are very proud, and very strong. Some people will say unicorns are innocent, and only come to innocents. That’s not true. Unicorns know the good and the bad of the world, and they judge according to their own ways, which we can never know. And when the time and the moon and the wind are right, they might come to you. Goodnight, Sophie-my-Soph.” Then she would kiss the top of Sophie’s head, and walk slowly out of the spare room, turning off the light as she went.

When Mum came to Room 3 one early Tuesday afternoon in April, Sophie thought she was in big trouble for calling Jade a pig at lunch.

“She made me get off the swing and it wasn’t her turn,” she told Mum, but Mum knelt down on the corridor linoleum and held her shoulders and said,

“Sophie, I have to tell you something sad.”

Because Nana was dead, Sophie went home early. She stayed home for three days, and people were especially nice to her. She felt important, and she felt guilty for feeling important, especially when she remembered that Nana would never tell her the story about the mouse again. She tried to tell the story to Mum, but she didn’t do it properly, and Mum just sighed and made another cup of tea.

When Sophie went back to school, Ms Wirihana smiled at her a lot, and Tracy gave her a new rubber for the end of her pencil, in the shape of a pink horse. Horses were still stupid, but this one was all right. It smelled like raspberries.

At lunchtime Sophie went to the toilets and cried, just like she was a five year old baby instead of almost a big girl. Tracy and Jade got Ms Wirihana, and when Sophie came out she got a hug before she even washed her hands.

“My Nana is dead,” Sophie said, talking into Ms Wirihana’s purple top, suddenly not minding too much that she was acting like a baby.

“Mine too, Sophie. It’s tough, eh? You cry as much as you like.”

Sophie cried some more, and when she was done, Ms Wirihana helped her blow her nose and said “Kia kaha,” and they went back to Room 3.

That night Sophie said, “Mum, can I have the unicorn bell?”

Mum went very still. “Your grandmother is dead,” she said, in a voice like a stretched rubber band.

“I know,” Sophie said. “That’s why I want it.”

Mum opened her mouth, and Jeff said, “Hey, Soph, come help me cut up these apples, okay?” before the rubber band could snap. Mum got up from the table and went to the bedroom very fast.

“Soph,” Jeff said, while she was arranging the apple slices on a plate, “I was thinking of asking your mum to marry me. Do you think that would be a good idea?”

Sophie ate a piece of apple while she thought about it.

“Will you live here?” she asked. “Or will we live with you?”

“I’ll live here,” Jeff said. “You like your school, and your friends, and your bedroom.”

Sophie thought some more.

Jeff was tall and nice, and when he laughed, Sophie could see a gold tooth in the back of his mouth. He had a black car and a white laptop. He made Mum laugh, and was good at telling stories. Though not as good as Nana was. Had been. Sophie sniffed hard.

“All right,” she said finally. “If I can wear a headband with ribbons and carry pink flowers.”

“Deal,” Jeff said and held out his hand for Sophie to shake, like she was a grown-up lady. Then he yelled “She said yes!” through the open kitchen door, and Mum came in with red eyes and a wobbly smile, to dance with both of them. Mum was a very good dancer, and so was Sophie. Jeff wriggled his arms too much and made funny faces, but that was all right. This could be another kind of group; Mum and Sophie and Jeff.

Three weeks later, Mum sat Sophie down and told her that they had to sell Nana’s house.

“What about her things?” Sophie asked.

“We’ll keep some, and give some away. Nana’s things will make a lot of poor people happy. She’d like that, don’t you think?”

Sophie thought Nana probably would, but she felt her face scrunching up anyway.

“I’m going to stay there this weekend and start packing,” Mum said quickly. “Would you like to help? That way you can keep anything that’s important.”

Sophie said yes. She was thinking of the unicorn bell.

But when they went to Nana’s house, she walked straight past the little table in the hall, her eyes turned to the side. Because of Mum’s rubber band voice, Sophie knew she must keep silent, and when she had completed the packing quest, she would win the unicorn bell as a reward.

The packing quest was difficult, but Sophie worked hard. Dusting made her cough, and wrapping plates and china statues in newspaper made her fingers black with ink. Her best job was picking out things to be kept. There was a fight when Sophie tried to put her paintings in the keep pile with her other favourites. She let the dog paintings go with no sorrow, but she wanted the big one of the thoughtful lady with the books, and Mum gave in.

“Though I don’t know where we’ll put it,” Mum sighed. She looked around at the boxes. There were six big ones and ten small ones, and half of them were full. Much more than half of Nana’s things were still sitting on bookshelves and behind glass doors in cabinets, hanging on the walls and clustered on tables.

“I don’t know where we’ll put any of it,” Mum said. “All of this stuff, why did she have all this stuff?”

Mum sat down on the spare room rug and cried. The only thing Sophie could do was hug her very hard.

That night, while Sophie slept in the spare room bed, the wind changed.

Warm, wet air rose from the sea far to the west of Nana’s house, shaking off raindrops to fall on the grateful forests and the less grateful foresters below. The high mountains caught the wind and pushed it into the sky. It was bitterly cold up there, and the wind was glad to descend again, shaping white clouds in a high arch above the clear air of the mountains. On the wide plains, it found heat again, and became bigger and bolder. The wind picked up quiet conversations and loud laughter, the dust of drying paddocks and the skeletons of leaves, the rustling of ground birds under bushes and the hissing of possums in trees, and carried them east, rushing faster and faster towards the coast. It yearned towards the ocean, and saw no reason to wait.

The wild nor’wester blew through Sophie’s dreams.

She woke up, prickling all over and very warm. The full moon shone bright through the gap in the curtains. Sophie slipped out of bed and into the hall, where the small table and its gleaming burden waited.

Outside, the wind breathed hot and dry through her nightie, whispering secrets to her skin. The back lawn was damp under Sophie’s feet, and she stepped carefully, dodging a patch of prickle grass. Everything was black and silver in the moon’s clear light.

Sophie raised her silver hand and rang the unicorn bell.

The tinkling peals were high and sweet and quiet, but Sophie felt them shudder through her bones. The sound went back and back, moving against the wind, until it reached the high mountains and rose up into the high arch of cloud.

The unicorns rode down the sky.

They were black and white and all shades in between, from lightest snow to darkest coal. Some had little beards and goat feet. Some had long manes and the powerful haunches of lions. Some wore bridles of worn brown leather and some wore saddles studded with diamonds and sapphires and emeralds. Some were shod in copper and some in gold and some ran unshod altogether. One and all, they had horns on their proud heads, and as they reached the ground, the music of their hooves was a joyful thunder.

But even more wonderful than the unicorns were the riders.

There was the lady in the high-buttoned blouse, books bound in a leather strap and bouncing from her hand, and people in silly hats and big coats from Monea and Duino and Versailles. There were a family of acrobat mice, who turned somersaults over their tiny unicorn’s horn, and a priest in a long black robe, carrying great bunches of sweet-smelling flowers. There were people Sophie had seen in books, and people she had seen in her sleep, and people she had never seen before. There were librarians, sailors and witches, cooks, bookbinders and weavers, magicians, musicians and thieves.

And at the front of the herd rode Nana in her wedding dress, her hair smooth and black, on the proudest unicorn with the longest horn. Behind her rode a man in a brown uniform who looked excited to the tips of his ears.

Neither the unicorns nor their riders looked at Sophie. They swept past her and towards the distant ocean on the other side of the city.

At the back of the pack straggled one small unicorn without a rider. It looked a little like a pony, and a little like a dream. It alone slowed, stopped, and stared at Sophie with big black eyes like starless nights. The wind danced around them, lifting Sophie’s hair and the little unicorn’s mane. Then the unicorn splayed its front legs and dipped its spiral horn, and Sophie, in her white nightgown, made the best curtsey she could.

The last unicorn kicked up its heels and pranced after its fellows, leaving Sophie by herself in the windy night.

She wasn’t very sad, but tears pricked in her eyes. “Kia kaha,” she told herself, and went back to bed.

In the morning, Mum sang a song about wishing and hoping and made bacon and eggs for breakfast. She kissed her daughter’s head and put extra tomato sauce on her toast. “What are you thinking about, Sophie-my-Soph?” she asked.

Sophie looked up from the kitchen table, through the window’s glass, over the wide plains.

“Horses,” she said. “After you and Jeff get married, can I learn how to ride?”

“The Unicorn Bell” was my first ever story to appear in an anthology. In February 2011 there was a nasty earthquake in Christchurch that destroyed huge chunks of the city and killed 185 people. The aftershocks kept happening, and people were demoralised and scared and angry.

Something like three days after that deadly quake, Anna Caro and JC Hart started putting together an anthology called Tales for Canterbury: Survival, Hope, Future. All proceeds go to the Red Cross. I really recommend it to you – there’s some sensational work in there, and it was all donated.

“The Unicorn Bell” was an original piece written for the anthology. It’s inspired by a few things; my relationship with my own grandmothers, the strange bell that was in a cluttered stone cottage I stayed in during a writing retreat with friends, and the wild nor’wester winds of the Canterbury plains. They plagued me when I lived in Christchurch, but I missed them when I left.

I live in Christchurch now, which is replacing some things and reconstructing others and making some things entirely new, and is very much occupied in being busy and alive.