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Essay: Unicorn

A handmade figurine represents sacrifice

February 11, 2011 | 12:00 a.m. CST


Photo by Jonathan Stephanoff

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The battle raged on, black smoke from the rifles and cannons filling the air until I could no longer see the blue and gray shadows across the valley. There, fathers waged war against their own sons, boys far too young to know such violence. I hated the carnage, the deafening explosions and the debris littering the once-verdant landscape. I didn’t know it then, but the next year my brother would be among the fallen, still-twitching soldiers lying facedown on the dead grass.

Lovely things

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That was the last time my dad dragged our entire family to a Civil War re-enactment, but it was too late to stop those battles from influencing my brother’s and my childhood, albeit in different ways. Russell was so enamored by the faux soldiers’ pageantry that he stepped up to join their ranks the next year, but I loathed the experience more than General Lee hated the Confederacy. As a teenager, I dreaded these re-enactments almost as much as I dreaded being seen in public with my embarrassing family. After being forced to attend so many, I was resentful of my dad and of family time in general—an attitude that didn’t begin to change until a magical creature appeared to me.

It was the spring of 2005 just as I turned 17. My parents decided it was time for another Hensley family outing, but they knew better than to press their luck with another re-enactment. Knowing that I had some interest in art, they piled my brother and me into the family minivan and headed to Paducah, Ky., for the Lower Town Art & Music Festival.

My dad promised culture and not just a craft fair, but I suspected that this little adventure could only bring me misery. It was insufferably hot for springtime, but the heat quickly became the least of my worries. As we walked from booth to booth, it became increasingly apparent that much as they tried to behave at the festival, my family members aren’t what anyone would ever call art aficionados. My mom pointed out all of the pieces with nudity and laughed hysterically. My brother feigned extreme exhaustion and repeatedly asked when we could go home. My dad kept pointing at different sculptures, such as a tower of hard candy wrapped in rainbow foil, and declaring, “I could make this.”

Trailing behind them, I privately agreed with their mocking assessments. I was unmoved by the gentle pastoral scenes, the rusty sculptures or the outlandish arrangements that looked, in my father’s words, “more like piles of junk.” If they didn’t enjoy this stuff, why did they drag me over an hour away to waste a perfectly good Saturday afternoon?

Just before I melted into a puddle on the streets, I saw something to lift my spirits. In a small booth near the exhibit of brass yard sculptures, a unicorn posed magnificently among a menagerie of animals braided entirely out of hemp. Every animal, both real and imaginary, had a hemp counterpart: monkeys, cats, kangaroos and Chinese dragons painted red and green, none of which caught my eye quite like the majestic unicorn. It stood barely a foot high, but it seemed to suddenly occupy my entire field of vision. I knew it had to be mine.

“I want it! Ooh, can I have it please?” I begged my father.

“What are you going to do with that?” was his response as he struggled to understand why I could possibly want something so curiously useless. My asking him to buy me things was nothing new, but he didn’t usually cave. That day, something in my voice or expression must have been more adamant than usual. Or maybe after watching the artists work on the streets, he realized but didn’t want to admit that they had skill. Whatever the reason, my dad quietly gave up, without even complaining about the price, and bought me the unicorn. For his valiant attempt to see eye to eye with me that day, I started to forgive my father for all the re-enactments. After all, he did finally find something we have in common. At the festival, I learned we enjoy blues music and looking at good art and laughing at the bad. Only something as magical as a unicorn could have helped us keep the peace that day and set our relationship moving in a direction that would develop, with a few years time, into understanding and friendship.

Six years later, the unicorn stands proudly on top of my living room television as a reminder of what my parents have sacrificed to keep me happy. Although my cat’s attacks on it have left it looking rather shabby, I treasure it more as time passes. Growing older has a way of making things appreciate in value.

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