Once upon a time there was a small village by the edge of a forest. In this village there were many houses, and the tiniest of these was a dear cottage with a beautiful garden. The lady that lived in this cottage kept to herself most of the time, but this isn't to say that she was unkind or unloved. On the contrary, nearly everyone in the village liked her: the women would come to her for advice about their gardens, the animals knew that they would always find a soft hand if they came to her door, and the children loved the stories, sweets and toys she would share with them.
Each day the lady would walk into the forest where she would sit and listen to the birds singing, or wander along the brook that flowed through its center, or gather wild flower seeds to bring home to her own garden. One day, she strayed further into the forest than she ever had before. There she discovered a beautiful moss-covered clearing surrounded by tall willow trees that hung like a veil as if to protect the space. In the midst of this clearing she saw something she had never before seen: a beautiful white creature that looked very much like a horse, except that it had a glimmering horn protruding from its forehead. The horn sparkled in the sunlight like spun sugar and his white mane shook out like silk as he nodded his head towards her. The lady could only stare in disbelief, wondering what this marvelous thing might be. She should have been frightened and yet something about the beast made her feel safe and she found herself walking nearer until she could have reached out a small hand and touched it had she wanted to. The beast only bowed its head slightly, bending one of its front legs at the knee. The lady smiled and curtsied, delighted by this gallant display.
What are you? she asked.
The beast stood upright again and whinnied, cocking its head and sending magical thoughts into her heart.
I am a unicorn, the thoughts murmured, the only one of my kind.
A unicorn! she whispered, as much to herself as to the beast.
She had heard of such things, of course, and had even read of them in the faëry books she would share with the village children. And in her heart—a heart that easily imagined things that other hearts did not—she always wondered if such a thing might truly exist. But to imagine they did, and to find one in the forest near her own village, was more than even she could expect.
The unicorn lifted its muzzle and she instinctively placed her palm on its nose. How soft it was! The animal whinnied softly and then backed away, through the veil of willows, disappearing into the inner depths of the forest.
The lady turned and hurried home, excited about what she'd seen but unsure as to whether or not she should mention it to anyone. After all, she didn't want to invite the ridicule of those who wouldn't believe her. She stopped a moment and peered into the brook. What if they did believe her? What then? She didn't want to endanger the creature or invite intruders into the place it called home.
As she approached her small cottage, she decided that for now she would keep this amazing discovery to herself.
And so it happened that the lady would take her walks each day, and each day she would approach the place where the circle of willows formed a perfect veil around the moss clearing, and there the unicorn would be waiting. Over time, she learned how to listen to the things he would think. And oh! what things he would tell her! Stories about magical castles and fire-breathing dragons and sleeping princesses and faëries that were so small they could sit on the tip of a lily without even bending the stem.
All the things you've ever read and dreamed about are true, the unicorn told her, but only a special kind of heart can believe, and only a special imagination can ever see a unicorn.
Most often, the unicorn told her, only children's hearts and minds can imagine such things. Rarely does a grownup heart find the pathway to the truth behind the faërie tales they knew as children.
One day, while reading to the village children, the lady could not help herself and she told the children of her secret: that a unicorn, very like the ones she had shown them in her picture books, really could exist.
A unicorn! the children squealed.
Yes, she said with a smile. In fact, there could be one in our forest.
The children's eyes grew wide at this, drawing closer and begging her to explain what she meant. With careful words, without revealing the exact place, the lady explained that once, while walking through the forest, she had seen a unicorn with her own eyes. She warned them that only those with imagination and open hearts could see such things, and that they must do what they could to remain as children for as long as possible, in order to enjoy all the magic in the world.
The next afternoon, as the woman returned home from her daily walk in the forest, the parents of one of the children were waiting for her by the cottage gate.
Why are you filling their heads with such things! they cried. Telling our children about mythical beasts that can't possibly exist! Hereafter, you must either explain to them that you were only spinning tales, or we shan't let them come to your cottage again!
But they do exist! the lady insisted, incensed by their lack of imagination and unable to stop the words before they spilled out. In your own forest you can see such things!
The parents' eyes grew wide at this and they ran off into the village center, looking back over their shoulder at the lady who stood alone by her gate, already regretting what she had said.
Later that evening she sat by the fire, worrying that she had been unwise to say anything about the beautiful unicorn, and fearful that she had shared a secret with hearts and minds that could not grasp such things. What would they do? Would they hunt for the unicorn? Would they spread rumors to the other villagers that she was mad? Or worse still, tell the children that she had lied to them?
All night long she stared into the fire, wondering what to do. And then, as the chittering of birds started to fill the air and the milky light of dawn began to shine on the flowers in her garden, she smiled to herself, realizing what the solution was.
Within the hour, a group of villagers came to her door and demanded that she speak with them.
About what? she asked, trying to mask her nervousness.
About the silly tales you've been spinning to our children, they said grimly, and the impossible lies you've told their parents.
The lady thought a moment, looking off into the forest and then turning her face to the garden where sunlight was dancing on all the flower tops. Was a that a faërie, sitting on one of the lilies? The lady only smiled to herself and then turned back to the adults who stood there, waiting for her reply.
You are right, she murmured softly, it was wrong of me to fill their heads with such things, wrong to get caught up in the magic of the story books and let them think those creatures and stories were true.
Then you admit that the things you told them aren't true? one of the villagers asked.
The lady only laughed and the sound danced like chimes over the garden.
I admit it freely, she said. None of it is true. I was only trifling with their imaginations, letting them enjoy a bit a magic before the long years of tedium and responsibility overtake them. Indeed, I even allowed myself to get caught in the web of my own stories.
The villagers muttered and looked at one another, satisfied with this explanation.
Very well, one of them said. Let this be forgotten then. But mind you do not do such things again!
And with that the villagers shuffled off into their humdrum lives, leaving the lady to smile sadly and shake her head.
Later in the day, just before twilight, she took her usual walk into the forest, approaching the clearing and then smiling as the willows parted and she saw the Unicorn standing there proudly, his hooves pawing the beautiful moss.
Without having to say a word, the lady's thoughts were made clear to the beast.
You told them I don't exist, he said quietly.
Yes, she whispered, coming nearer and placing her palm against the side of his beautiful face. But I did it to protect you. If they think you don't exist, they won't harm you.
The unicorn only nuzzled his face on her hand, grateful for her wisdom and her caring.
Yes, he said, I know.
Over time, the children would still come to the lady's cottage, and she would let them pick the flowers in her garden, or play with the toys she kept, and every now and then she would read to them. But never again would she let them think that anything in the magical books was true.
And so it came to be, throughout time, that no one believed in Unicorns.
And that is how they remained hidden, and quite safe.