To avoid spoilers, read Helen's story on Atticus Review: 'What the Unicorns Saw.'
There is nothing fluffy and ‘unicorn’ about this story. And this is made clear in the first two lines: ‘We found the unicorn in a backstreet behind the Walmart. It was stretched out nose-to-tail along a north-south alignment, like the others we’d been finding lately, its horn a compass point.’ For me, it is the reference to ‘the others,’ that gives the opening its unsettling tone. There is nothing like dead unicorns to grab the reader’s attention.
The autopsy of the unicorn is graphic, not only because of the detail, but because it is a unicorn. At this point in the story there is a sense of foreboding of biblical proportions: ‘We pulled out the entrails and things looked worse: earthquakes and eruptions and specifics of firestorms and famines and civilizations falling and falling and none of them rising.’ This is a wonderful line. The repetition of ‘falling,’ followed by the contrasting ‘rising,’ compounds the end of the world feel of the story.
Each time I read this story, Yeats’ immense poem: ‘The Second Coming,’ comes to mind. As in Yeats’ poem, Helen creates an end to the world that is mythical but at the same time no less real or frightening. When I read the story for the first time I made an unflattering noise when I came to the line that begins: ‘And when dinosaurs heaved themselves out of the earth, flexing their muscles, their fossilised bones creaking with the weight of new flesh…’ This line and paragraph in particular makes me very happy. (Not that the thought of an apocalypse makes me happy. Just, if the world is going to end, I want it to be like this.) This is a beautifully written paragraph that flows and turns in a poetic way, contrasting brilliantly with its dark sentiment.
The story gathers momentum, giving the reader a sense of impending doom as they near its end. But the last lines do something unexpected. The structure of the sentences slow the reader, and along with the repetition of ‘we,’ for me, generates a feeling of acceptance. This ending is ambiguous, which is a good thing; how else can you end an epic piece of flash fiction like this?
Helen has written a brilliant story that shows even the epic can be expressed in flash fiction form. It is one of those wonderful flash fiction pieces that demands you go back and read again. Which I have done, again and again. I know I will be returning to this one.
Note to self: Don’t shy away from the epic in flash fiction.
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