You're Sleeping Now, Storyteller to Unicorns
glenn mcdonald

It's so hard, because meeting you was the only reason I can think of for even having a twelfth birthday. Camille, you knew everything so young. So fast for anyone to learn what to build worlds on, and what to throw away. Every time you said you didn't like something, it was like I was picking it up to look at it for the first time, and seeing it crumble and escape like colored steam. I just stood there in the middle of my world, looking straight up through a tunnel of smoke. I wonder if you ever touched anything solid.

You walked into my room and started tossing around things that had been in dust like cement. You can't sleep through breaking glass. You can't walk into dreams. I didn't even know where I was going. I just sat and watched you, waiting to see what you got rid of, and what you decided I could keep.

Bryan walked away during a baseball game. You threw after him all his sweatshirts, and his Jewish family, and all the magazines he reads and all the jokes he and I had. He picked them off the pavement, one by one, watching me, and I let him.

Adam called me up. Do you want to go to the movies? Do you want to build a fort out of wood and metal? Do you want to ride bikes to the harbor and along the docks where the boards pop one by one as the dirt bike tires roll over them, and straight towards the middle of the ocean? Do you want to dig a hole big enough to fly to the walls?

You reached up from where you were, lying on the rug lying on the floor holding the walls of my room together. You stuck your foot up and kicked the phone through the window, and your boot came off and stuck on the broken glass for a moment and then fell into my back yard.

Eva promised me that if she was Princess of Regulus, I could be her general. I could sail her armies into the mouth of the Horsehead, riding on starlight, where the world is so cold that your soul becomes solid, and you can never die. I could take the war like a flag. I could fly the fire.

But a war needs soldiers. And a war needs weapons. And a war needs power, and Eva had a light red bicycle with green reflectors and her mother had thrown roses into Niagara Falls, but water doesn't have the power to start a war. A honeymoon is a cease-fire, not a declaration. I wanted to fight. I didn't want to see rock through the spray of the Falls and the arms and legs of tourists, complaining about the cold and the air. That's what you told me, and I said it back to you perfect.

Louis left a note on my locker, and you ran after me and past and got there first and tore it off and screamed at me, laughing, until I screamed back and they sent us home in an armored car and we told them we lived in a cave in a mountain, and had been raised by bears and in turn were bringing up cubs to wear clothes like us and scream just like us.

And Amanda, who I knew since I was six, who came to my ninth birthday dressed as a rabbit because it fell on Easter. You told her you were an angel, and she was about to die. You told her her mother was a witch, and you showed her the marks. You told her you knew the word for what she was feeling. And you told her something about me that made her parents tell her brother not to walk on our street. It took me a while to understand why Amanda couldn't be okay. I was slower with her. Even then.

But all of these people, all my friends, were all torn and thrown away like my trading cards, which I found in quarters down the alley for three blocks and started trying to pick them up, but there were too many quarters of cards, and I ran down the line of them until I found you at the end, in my room, sitting on my bed cutting out the missing people from the backs of milk cartons to give me something new to collect. You threw away all my friends, and replaced them with people no one has seen for years. You told me all about their lives. You knew where they were, all this time.

I remember saying to you, "Why did you throw away my friends?" over and over again, for hours, until the sun came back before my parents and you rolled over and looked at me and said "I'm your friend. I'm your friend."

And so you were.


I'm going through it like this because I have to work it out this way. I want to say it for myself, but most of all I want you to know. Because this isn't make-believe danger, and I have to believe that if I let go, you'll still be able to fly. I think you will. I think you will barely even dip. Camille, you were always the flyer. I learned to stay in the air, but never to steer.

You look so beautiful lying there. This is so difficult, but I have to get through it.

I'm going home.


If my parents hadn't gotten divorced, maybe you wouldn't have gotten half as far with me. If my father had stayed around, I think he would have picked you up by the back of your spray-painted trenchcoat and thrown you through our bay window just like he did with my mother's plants the night he left. He never liked you. He hated hearing you tell me stories. He hated seeing you walk in barefoot in the middle of his breakfast, and he hated the looks you always flashed him as you closed the door to my room in his face. He hated your bright blue contact lenses and he hated your long hair and your short hair after you cut it.

If my father had stayed around to see me turn thirteen, you wouldn't have seen me turn fourteen, and I wouldn't be so far from home, sitting in the Thunderbird Motel tonight in Amarillo, Texas, trying to work out my life on their stupid light blue stationery.

If you hadn't been smart enough to pull me out of the disaster you pushed me into, maybe I would have thrown you out myself. I didn't like failing. I felt like failing was falling, and I could see the ground arching up into me, and only as the trees blasted up at me did I realized that at some point I must have let go, and I realized that it had gone too far.

At first, it was a game. One day we'd not go to school, and then two, and then a whole week. For years I'd done so well. And suddenly years of doing well and just a couple days off grinned up at me like most of a year and no more momentum, and the wind was whistling in my ears until you saw what I thought was happening.

You decided you didn't want me crushed, spread out in thin layers across an acre of Nebraska. You nodded and made a note so you'd remember this limit, and then you reached out and grabbed me back and started feeding me everything I missed. All I could do was sit and let you save me. The problem with stopping running is that it usually means you gain weight, and then you get hard to carry. If you stop running, you have to stop eating, too.

But you thought of everything, and you carved off the fat with the muscle and clipped my bones onto your belt. You pushed my hand across pages of tests with your hands, licking the back of my wrist and burying your toes in the laces of my shoes. You kept me in school because you saw I wouldn't leave for you, and because you let me stay I promised to follow you anywhere. You wrote me out of textbook history, and into your own private history where kingdoms rise and fall when you say so, and rivers are mountains if you want to look down.

You wrote me into the story that you live.


But the problem with living a story you write yourself is that when you fall asleep your story stops. As long as you sleep, the world fills in its own chapters, and until you wake up and erase them, there they are. There they are, spinning you away, killing off your characters and scaring off all the unicorns you so tenderly lured near. They're telling the unicorns the truth they should have seen. You're sleeping now, storyteller to unicorns.

And as you lie there, I'm the one writing. I used to have stories, too, Camille. Stories all my own. They weren't like yours, grand and exciting. But now I'm telling stories again. Now I'm going back and rewriting your stories. I'm fixing the things you got wrong. I'm rewriting all your stories with me in them.

Storyteller, I'm writing myself out of the whole thing. I'm writing out and then I'm running away.


I'm starting with the first day of summer. Two years I give you. You earned them. You can keep them. But I'm taking back the last six weeks. From the first day of summer up to now.

The first time you looked at me in the morning and said we should leave. In your story, that's a lovers' scene. Rolling over, naked, into my arms, and murmuring "Let's run away" and kissing me before I could answer. If I had a picture I could blow it up and find the violins in your hair and the lace veils you draped across the sun.

But I'm fourteen, and you're fifteen.

The afternoon you spread out posterboards on the floor of my room and started making lists and maps and charts. You were Napoleon planning your war. You didn't think I knew about Napoleon, did you? If it wasn't for Napoleon, this might not be happening. Napoleon was a real general. Even you need two hands to fly.

You can't kill birds with cannons. But you don't fight wars against birds.

Every moment we sat silent. You were us dreaming. You wrote in our visions and plans. You made countries out of the clouds we were staring up at. You made places we would go where no one would know how young we were, and how unreal.

Every night that your body pretended to tighten your grip on me. But every time we had sex, I got stronger. That was one of the few mistakes you made, but after midnight the unicorns go inside, and sometimes you forget to think.

I'm fourteen, and you're fifteen.


Most of all, I'm going to rewrite the last two days.

We're not going to steal the money. We're not going to steal the car. We're not going to leave without seeing my mother one last time. We aren't going to drive out of Nebraska, neither of us old enough, for all your practice. We aren't going to drive so long. Neither of us had slept for a full day and a half by the time we started, and Texas is too far, so we're not going to do it. And right now, we aren't going to be here in Amarillo, and then I won't have to leave.

We're going to stay at home. I'm going to have friends, and eat breakfast with my mother every weekday morning, and then I'm going to go to school and learn about History until I know enough. I'm going to sit at the third desk from the windows on the second row, right beside Amanda, and she's going to learn History with me. Just like we did that one day in April when I went to class and you didn't. It was my birthday. I didn't tell you about that day. I like history. I'd forgotten how much I like it.

Compared to your stories, my story isn't very good. It isn't exciting, and it isn't grand. It's a fourteen story, and fourteen isn't exciting or grand, you'd say. But you don't know history. I'm going to learn it all. Because history is exciting and history is grand, but most of all, history is real. I'll tell my own stories someday. I'll have a world all my own, but before I start inventing, I want to find out what is real.


So I'm leaving. I talked to the night guard. I can walk to the bus station. The buses go north, and they keep leaving all night. I'm leaving you enough money for a little while. Then I'm going home.

I'm not scared. I have to thank you for that. I came this far, I can go back.

Camille, I really don't know what is going to happen. I wish the story could have ended right, but you weren't ready for a story this big. As long as you were awake, it worked, but as soon as you fell asleep, it came all unraveled. The car parked out front is stolen, and I'm fourteen and you're fifteen, and this isn't where I want to be. This isn't what I want to do. This isn't real.

So I'm going home. I'll have to tell them about the money and the car, but they probably already know. They'll come after you, but you'll be okay. I was the problem. You can write your story for you. You'll be okay when you wake up.

You look good. Lying there, sleeping, you still look good. You need the sleep. You were so tired. It will be a while before you wake up. I'll be far away. I'll be in a different story. I'm writing my own, long enough to get home, and then I'm giving up stories and taking up baseball again.

You taught me so much. You showed me a whole life. You showed me years in months, and days in seconds. You taught me experiences that I will never be without, no matter what I do. You changed everything in my life, and I could spend the next five years changing things back and still miss half of them. But half of them were wonderful, and I'll never want to change them back. I could never explain it all, but you knew a hundred boys would have killed me for you, but you protected me.

So I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, but good-bye. I'm not sure what else there is to say. I don't know if you'll really understand. For all you taught me, I've suddenly realized that I'm fourteen. If you were ever fourteen, it was only for a week, and you were seven. You grew up too far. I'm going home. I hope it makes some sense. In moving so fast, I've missed some things that were important, so I'm going back.

I will miss you, perhaps forever. When I get home I will sit on the edge of my empty bed and look out the window and wonder how the story is coming, and whether I should have stayed. The farther I get from fourteen, the less important what I'm feeling now will seem, and more I'll wish I'd stayed, the more I'll keep hoping a unicorn or two will come by.

And if they do, my little storyteller, if the unicorns come, looking for you, I'll tell them where you've gone. I won't tell them that you aren't the virgin they're looking for. I won't tell them that the same stories that made them, made you. I'll tell them where I last saw you, and I'll wish them well. They're your unicorns. History doesn't have any, so any I find are yours, and I'll send them.

I'll let you deal with them. I'll let you decide how much truth the unicorns should know. And then I wonder, if they got you alone, if it might be them teaching you. I wonder what truths only the unicorns know. I wonder if unicorns can't write their own stories.

But that's your problem, and tonight is not the night for it. Not here. I'll let you deal with it when you need to. I'll let you figure it out then.

Right now, storyteller, I'm going to let you sleep.


6 April 1988

Copyright 1988, glenn mcdonald


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