Unicorn Mountainby Michael Bishop
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Unicorns roam the uplands of Libby Quarrels' mountain ranch. When Libby takes the AIDS-afflicted Bo Gavin out of exile in Atlanta to live with her in Colorado, she sees no connection between his disease and the fantastic secret she guards. But it so happens the unicorns suffer from an ugly, implacable plague of their own, and the parallel world that touches the high country has unleashed magic sinister as well as marvelous. While Libby's Indian ranch hand Sam is stalked by his wife's headless ghost, his estranged daughter has visions that propel her toward the grueling Sun Dance ritual, where an encounter with the spirit world may decide the fate of both the unicorns and the people whose lives they've touched.
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Read an Excerpt
Libby Quarrels was standing at the produce bin in the gigantic Safeway grocery store in Huerfano, Colorado, scrutinizing the bell peppers and hefting bag after cellophane bag of brown-edged celery stalks and runty carrots. You got lousy produce in winter, of course, and Libby didn't really expect to improve it by giving it some of her body heat, but she did hope to dig out the best stuff squirreled away in the frigid bin. For which reason she was eyeing and feeling up almost everything.
"My God, shopping! Annie Oakley Belle Starr Calamity Jane is actually standing here squeezing vegetables. If I hadn't seen it myself, I'd've never believed it."
The voice--the voice and the jolly sarcasm--identified its owner for Libby even before she looked up and saw Gary's grinning face reflected in the tilted mirror above the cabbages. He was wearing a sixty-dollar Resistol hat, a string tie with a turquoise hasp, and a fleece-lined denim jacket. In spite of the crow's-feet around his eyes, he looked about twenty again. But Libby knew too well that he was an aimless, silver-tongued, two-timing asshole, and the sight of his smiling self did nothing to wipe from her mind that hard-won knowledge.
Without turning around, she said, "Beat it, Gary."
"Dropped in to buy some Skoal. Got as much right in Safeway as anybody else, don't I?"
"To hell with Safeway. What're you doing in Huerfano?"
"You're a vision, Libby. Never seen you so pretty."
Libby was wearing jeans, a flannel shirt, a navy pea jacket that had once belonged to her father, a floppy-brimmed leather hat, two pairs of socks, long johns, and some well-scuffed boots that she'd picked up last year ata KMart in Pueblo.
If I'm pretty, Libby told herself, England's Queen Elizabeth is a surefire candidate for Miss Universe.
But Libby felt good--righteous, in control, and intelligently dressed for both the season and her mission into Huerfano from the Tipsy Q. Running into Gary wasn't her idea of the perfect shopping trip, but she could handle it. Just as, for almost fourteen years, she had met head on and handled his me-first boozing, buckle-bunny humping, and irresponsible rodeoing-around.
"I said, 'What're you doing in Huerfano?' One of the terms of our settlement was--"
"Hey, I'm not harassing you, Lib. I'm passing through. This is just a ... you know, a serendipitous meeting."
"Serendipitous is your word, Gary. Mine's maddening. Have you been to see Covarrubias again?"
Covarrubias was a lawyer in Huerfano; he had an office over the bank, and Gary had pestered him endlessly about finding some way to reverse that item in their divorce decree--Gary always called it "that item," as if it were a simple nuisance--granting Libby full title to the ranch that he had bought with inherited money in 1969, the year of their marriage.
"I looked in on Julio. Just to say howdy. Nothing wrong with that, is there?"
"You're supposed to be at least three counties away. Unless you want to start paying alimony too."
Gary lifted his hands in a hey-wait-a-minute gesture, but Libby turned around and slapped his left one with a bag of carrots. He stepped back and began to rub the assaulted hand with a pained but completely phony look on his face. I'm just a little boy stealin' cookies, his off-center smirk told her. What'd you expect? It's the nature of the male animal.
He nodded at the bag. The blow had torn the cellophane, and a carrot was dangling from the split. "Whatcha cookin', Libby?"
"Yeah, I grate a few in."
"What's wrong with that?"
"You never used to put carrots in chili."
"I do now. For the vitamin A. I'm going to cook up enough to last Sam and me a couple of weeks."
"Lucky Sam. Lucky you."
"Snow keeps dumping on us. When you're trying to haul water, scatter hay, and keep a close eye on the puny ones, there's damn little time left to cook."
"That's all you do is remember. You didn't crack a fingernail to help with that stuff when the place was yours. I use the word yours loosely."
"Don't start, okay?"
"I mean, you never--" Libby stopped. As Gary had surmised, she had been about to start. And it did no good. It simply riled her up and drew the shades on any sign of intelligent life in her ex's baby blues. "All right. I won't. Do me a favor, though, and honor your part of our bargain--get your bronc-bruised tail out of Huerfano."
"Libby, you can't--" He reached for her arm.
She twisted away. "Mister," she said in a voice loud enough to shatter pond ice, "goose me again and I'll put a can of party nuts right in your own cheatin' assemblage."
Placatingly, Gary's hands went up again. Libby was pleased to note that several women with shopping carts were looking at him disapprovingly. A stock boy at the end of the produce aisle lifted his eyebrows--"Need any help?"--but she didn't and told him so by a grimace and a curt "No, thanks" and swung the bag of carrots into her own cart. (In any case, Gary would have taken the overeager stock boy apart.)
"Look," he said. "I need to talk to you."
"Yeah, well, there were times I needed to talk to you that I didn't get what I wanted, either." She put her foot on the cart's undercarriage, made it rear like a spirited horse, and wheeled the squeaking vehicle toward the checkouts.
"I'll buy you a beer."
She kept going. He tagged along like a chuck-wagon dog.
"I've got news, Libby. Family news. Do you remember Beaumont, my first cousin? My daddy's sister's oldest boy?"
"You and I aren't family anymore, Gary."
"You kind of liked him, Libby."
"Beaumont? You've got to be kidding."
"You recall Bo. He bucked hay for us one summer. Back in seventy-three, I think. He'd just graduated high school."
"For all I care, your cousin Bo can go screw himself."
"Well, Lib, it's nearly that perverted," Gary said cryptically, still dogging her wheeled basket. "More perverted, maybe."
Badly out of sorts, Libby stopped in a small fort of magazines and paperbacks near the checkouts. She snapped the tops of a dozen or so gaudy romances before uncaging a horror novel. Ah, good. She'd been looking for this one.
Reading it tonight might blunt the horror of this run-in with Gary--and briefly obliterate the drudgery of winter ranch work--by immersing her in a spooky story with no immediate connection to the farrago of her private life. If only she could twitch her nose--the way that actress on Bewitched used to do--and make Gary vanish. To remanifest (preferably without a space suit) on the far side of the Moon.
She wished she were back on the Tipsy Q, her chili made and her eyes on her novel. Meanwhile, the control on her electric blanket would occasionally click, keeping her toasty warm.
"Come on, Libby. Thirty minutes. For auld lang syne. Is that so damn much to ask?
Was it? Libby looked speculatively at Gary. Then she held up the novel she'd pulled from the whirl rack.
"Buy me this book?"
"Sure. I like to buy you books. Gave you Even Cowgirls Get the Blues one Christmas, didn't I?"
"You gave this cowgirl the blues a dozen goddamn Christmases, Gary. Never mind birthdays, Easters, and Fourths of July."
"Libby, that's not--"
"The author didn't know cowflop about ranching. Four hundred pages of mystical flapdoodle and gratuitous feminism."
"I read it. I liked it. It was funny and it--"
"You read my copy before you ever gave it to me. Another Gary Quarrels two-time."
"Look, I said I'd buy that for you." He pointed at the horror novel around which her hands had angrily closed.
"Buy me these groceries too. Buy me these groceries and I'll let you talk to me. For thirty minutes."
Gary's baby blues flared sapphire. "Hey, I thought you got a kick out of your holy self-sufficiency. So why're you working me like a hooker lining up a mark in Vegas?"
"Take it or leave it. I figure you owe me about a thousand shopping carts full of groceries."
"You know what you can do with those carrots, don't you?" And Gary walked, striding from the fort of books and magazines toward the automatic entrance-and-exit doors. "Good riddance," Libby hissed subvocally: Good goddamn riddance.
But when she entered the nearest checkout lane, Gary reappeared in the entrance door opposite the exit he had just used. He angled around the cashiers' stations, eased into her lane, and gripped the handle of her shopping cart.
"Forgot my smokeless," he said. "Might as well get these too, hadn't I?"
In Huerfano, an old coal-mining town in southeastern Colorado, three kinds of businesses outnumbered all the others combined: gas stations, liquor stores, and grimy little bars. Maybe that was because the coal had pretty much given out years ago, and anyone with any sense had moved to Santa Fe or Denver. The population was a quarter Slav, a quarter Italian, a quarter Chicano, and a quarter almost everything else imaginable: Anglo-Saxons, Scandinavians, Arabs, American Indians, etc.
Every Huerfanovian who owned a car or a truck needed the gas stations, and everyone--whether afoot or on wheels--eventually required a snootful. The pious frequented the liquor stores and took the stuff home. But more forthright or gregarious citizens ambled into the bars, paid their money, and sat in pine-paneled gloom--animated beer signs rippling on the walls--brooding over their Coors or their unabashedly watered whiskey.
Libby and her ex-husband were sitting in a booth in Tío Pepe's, trying to keep their elbows out of the overlapping mug rings on the scarred surface of the table. A wicker bowl filled with pretzels and another filled with corn chips sat between the Quarrelses like outsized counters in an arcane game. Libby ate nothing from either bowl; she didn't know how often the county sanitarian showed up to inspect the premises, and in January she'd gone a couple of rounds with a stomach bug that had made her deeply leery of food prepared anywhere but in her own kitchen.
"You're still calling yourself Quarrels," Gary said. "Thought you'd rush to change it back."
"Why? I was Libby Quarrels for fourteen years."
"Yeah, but from what you used to tell me, it wasn't a name you were all that proud of."
"It did a good job of summarizing our relationship, didn't it?"
"We don't have a relationship anymore. But you're hanging on to my name like it was a valuable heirloom or something."
"Maybe I'm trying to redeem it for your mother."
Pamela Fay McInnis Quarrels, Gary's mother, lived in a condo in Colorado Springs. Gary had just been to see her, taking a week off from the ranch work he was doing for a man with a spread not far from Dumas, Texas. Although Gary's mother had been glad to see her son, she'd been equally glad to bid him adieu again.
Miss Pamela relished the fact that Libby had won the Tipsy Q in the divorce settlement. Still, it was a better-than-even bet that had Gary's daddy--Don Reynolds Quarrels--been alive then, Libby would be frying hash browns in an I-25 truckstop instead of running cattle on the subalpine ranch purchased with some of Dear Old Dad's Otero Steel fortune. For the elder Quarrels had been a confirmed male chauvinist pig--he could have used M.C.P. after his surname the way that some men use Esq.--and Pamela Fay McInnis Quarrels had never been happier than during the twelve years since her husband's early but thoughtful demise.
"Mama doesn't care what folks think of the name Quarrels," Gary said. "You don't have to 'redeem' it for her."
"Then maybe I'm trying to redeem it for you. I'm sure as hell not hanging on to it because I think that one day you and me'll get back together."
"No, sir. Em-damn-phatically not."
"Well, it's easier to say than a Polack name like Ruzeski. I guess I wouldn't want to go back to that one, either."
"Leave my family's name out of this."
"I will. I am. Just like you're doing."
"Look, the main reason I'm keeping yours--not that I didn't put up with enough shit from you to get to do whatever I want with it, including tattooing it on my rosy red rump--is convenience. Simple convenience. Feed-store clerks, equipment salesmen, other ranchers--everybody I count on knows me as Libby Quarrels. I'm not about to cross 'em all up by going back to Ruzeski."
"Sure. Who the hell's Ruzeski? they'd wonder. It makes sense not to confuse 'em any more than you have to."
Libby, sipping her beer, looked into Gary's eyes. Already, he was on his second Coors, and already his eyes resembled those of a teddy bear's--hard, blue-black buttons with nothing but straw or mattress ticking behind them. The mockery that he was putting into his words, he deliberately held out of his eyes. And he had never seemed emptier or less attractive to Libby. But she had let him buy her groceries, and now she was bickering with him, sort of, over an utter triviality. She ought to be negotiating the asphalt hairpins between Huerfano and Snowy Falls, hauling her supplies back to Sam Coldpony and mulling ways to save her most vulnerable heifers from scours and pneumonia.
Two teenagers behind Gary were playing an old-fashioned bowling game. They kept sliding some sort of metal puck over the waxed and sawdust-sprinkled lane of the game box, trying to trip a bracket on its floor that would make all the wired pins fold back out of sight in unison. If the puck hit brackets to either the left or the right of this central trip, only three or four pins would fold back, and the bowler would have to go for a spare. Today, the kids playing were Chicanos, and jarring bursts of Spanish escaped them each time they slid their pucklike "bowling ball."
Why aren't they in school? Libby wondered. She took a last sip of beer, wiped her mouth, and began wriggling sideways.
Gary bolted upright. "Hold on," he said. "It hasn't been any thirty minutes." He tapped his wristwatch.
"Seems like it."
"Sit, Libby. Sit. You made me a deal."
And a deal's a deal, Libby scolded herself She ceased trying to wriggle clear of the booth and folded her hands in front of her, too distracted to imagine what Gary might have on his mind.
"You really don't remember my cousin Bo?" he asked. "Don R.'s sister's boy?"
"Yeah, I remember him. A little." So what? she wanted to add, boredom already creeping in.
"His parents--my aunt and uncle-in-law--they just found out that the guy's a swish."
"You know, a pansy. A homo. A queer. A--"
"Okay, okay. I've got it."
"My own cousin. My own first cousin."
"Gary, it's not all that damn astonishing. Plenty of people in this country--it's a big country--swing that way. Even a girl like me, an innocent from Saguache County, has met a couple. It's not like tripping over a Bigfoot or anything."
"But this is Bo. Think about it. Who'd've ever guessed?"
Libby let go an exasperated sigh. (While married, she'd become a master of exasperated sighs.) "All right, if that's the case, how'd Bo's parents find out?"
"He has AIDS," Gary said. "Poor Beaumont's got AIDS. And he was always as smart as a Spanish quirt, too."
This news stunned Libby. She did remember Bo. The summer he'd come up from Pueblo to buck hay for them, he'd carried himself with endearing modesty. Not quite so tall--or so muscular--as Gary, he had nevertheless pulled his weight. Whenever the crew had begun to horse around at lunchtime or on breaks, Bo had cracked wise in a gently witty--rather than a smart-alecky--way that had doubled over even the nincompoopish Mitchelson twins from Pagosa Springs. Now Bo had AIDS, and AIDS was fatal.
God, it hurt to think of someone as healthy and full of spirit as the Gavin kid, Gary's cousin, falling victim to a ... well, a syndrome that wasted its victims, depriving them of hope even as it turned them into latter-day lepers.
Libby said, "Bo could've been as smart as a nuclear physicist and still not've sidestepped that one."
"It's weird." Gary shook his head. His teddy bear's flinty blue-black eyes finally struck a sentient spark. Plaintively, he said, "My own first cousin."
"He's living down in Georgia or Florida, isn't he?"
"So when's he coming home, Gary?"
"That's what I've been working up to tell you. He's not. He's not coming home."
"Is he that sick? Almost gone?"
"What it is, Libby, is Aunt Josey and Uncle Nate don't want him to come home. They don't want nothin' to do with him."
"He's all alone then? He's got this horrible disease--and his own mother and father won't let him come home to die?" Libby was appalled.
Purportedly, the Nathaniel Gavins had attended her and Gary's wedding in '69, but the Quarrelses--for various snobbish reasons of their own--had seldom socialized with the Gavins. Libby could not recall having talked to or seen them since. It wasn't very likely she would recognize them even if they were suddenly to pop up from the next booth in Tío Pepe's.
"Right. They've cut him off totally. I stopped to see them on the way up to Mama's, and they told me they don't ever want to see Bo again. 'Our son,' Aunt Josey said, 'isn't really a man. He's an in-between kind of monster. He chose to be that way to spite us for favoring Ned.' Swear to God, Libby--Aunt Josey's exact words, more or less."
"And they probably think his getting AIDS is God getting back at him for being ... 'an in-between kind of monster'?"
"Right. Right again, Lib. I didn't try to argue with 'em. It wiped me out that they could even think such things about Bo."
Cheered by Gary's compassion for his cousin, an emotion he usually reserved for rodeo clowns and ranch dogs that ran afoul of porcupines, Libby reached across the table and put her hand on her ex's wrist. "Frankly, Gary, I'm amazed you're not on the bad guys' side. It really doesn't bother you that Bo's a--?"
"Gay, let's call him."
"Why should I care if he's queer? It's his life, I figure. It sure ain't any of my beeswax."
"Good for you."
Uh-oh, Libby thought. Except what?
The Chicanos at the bowling game began to scuffle. One claimed to have tripped the strike bracket, but the other held that he hadn't--that he had illegally folded all ten pins out of view by banging on the side of the box. In any case, he had thrown the puck out of turn.
"Tú maricón!" cried the accuser.
"You lying cocksucker!" shouted the accused.
The bartender, an average-sized man of thirty or so, came over to them carrying a polished oaken cane. He hit the alleged cheater across the buttocks and then used the crook of the cane to topple the accuser to the floor. "Behave yourselves or get out," he told them. And, muttering at each other rather than at the bartender, the boys apparently decided to behave.
To this brief set-to, Gary paid no attention.
"It's just that if Bo, my own first cousin, is a swish," he was telling Libby, "I can't help wondering if"--Libby saw, but found it hard to believe, that her ex's face was reddening from the roots of his hair to the cleft of his chin--"... if maybe I've got those kinds of tendencies myself."
"My God, you're blushing!"
"Lib, please. Some folks think it's inherited. In the genes, like. And my daddy was Bo's mama's brother."
"You're seriously afraid you have homosexual tendencies?"
"Shhh. Remember how I used to run around on you? How I'd find me a couple of buckle bunnies at some two-bit rodeo in Wyoming or Idaho? How I'd take both of 'em to a motel and do my best to give 'em what-for? Or how I'd--"
"What is this, Gary? A confession or a brag fest?" Jesus, the man hadn't changed. He was still a pagan in a yoke-collared shirt, a lout to shame all louts.
"No. Neither. I'm just trying to ask you if you think I did those things--ran around like that, busting my balls--because I was ... uh, secretly afraid I might be ... well you know, like Bo's turned out to be."
"Back then, you never suspected a thing about Bo!"
"Of course I didn't. But I could've been worried on a ... you know, an unconscious level. Such tendencies get passed along. They're common to certain families."
"'If your father had no kids, chances are good that you won't either.'"
"You think that's smart, but actually it's illogical. A guy who's mostly swish can still father a kid, just like a woman who's mostly lesbo can get knocked up and have a baby."
Are we really having this conversation? Libby asked herself. Is it possible?
Gary's blush, she noticed, had already faded. But if he truly had any cojones, he would realize that he had stopped blushing too soon. Not because he was talking openly about homosexuality, but because he was pontificating about it like the Chief Ignoramus in Charge of Obfuscation. He thinks he's an expert on the topic, yet he's afraid that because Cousin Bo has AIDS, all his heartbreaking infidelities were simply attempts to compensate for an inherited preference for guys.
With no warning even to herself, Libby began to laugh. She let her head wobble against the back of the booth, laughing and wiping her eyes and laughing some more.
The kids at the bowling game looked at her disgustedly, their expressions a lot like Gary's. One of them was cradling the metal puck as if thinking about throwing it at her.
Go ahead, Libby thought. I'm too damn numb to feel it.
On the drive from Huerfano to Snowy Falls, the heater in her GM pickup whirring as if a leaf had fallen into one of its vents, the slush-crimped fields on either side of the asphalt reminiscent of over-floured pie crusts, Libby realized that Gary had not taken her to Tío Pepe's just to spin a crackpot theory exculpating him of the responsibility for two-, three-, and even ten-timing her, but to apprise her of Cousin Bo's plight, and to spur her to find a way to help him.
Or was that attributing too much ulteriority to Gary? Usually he was as up front as a chorus girl's chest. If you couldn't read his motives in his eyes, you were probably waiting for some shyster to offer to sell you--cheap--the world-famous suspension bridge over the Royal Gorge.
But maybe Gary really had been looking out (in his roundabout, assume-no-true-responsibility way) for Bo, and he had come to her because he knew she wouldn't be able to get a decent night's sleep until she did something about the matter. But what, though? What could she do when she had livestock to care for, Sam Coldpony to nudge through the remainder of the winter, and creditors aplenty waiting for her to stumble into their snares?
Libby drove. The Twin Peaks were cone-shaped fortresses to her left, while Greenhorn floated to the north in a cloudbank crawling the downslope prairie like a phantom dreadnought.
A bitter winter's day, problems abounding.
Even a fleeting memory of the pale unicorns in the upland vale above her ranch house--beasts that had reappeared, shortly before or after Christmas, for the past three years--could not make her smile. After all, those half-fragile, half-indomitable creatures had problems of their own, and Sam Coldpony had already told Libby that some of them might be dying.
Slamming her foot down hard, Libby Quarrels made her protesting truck gobble up vaster hallucinatory stretches of highway. Up into the clouds and mountains, past bland-faced cattle, rusty windmills, solitary spires of sandstone, and the occasional melancholy ruin of a miner's adobe dwelling or a storekeeper's tumbledown dream. The color of her world showed monochrome, but its subsurface complexion was mottled.
For which reason Libby stopped thinking and simply drove, her mind as dimensionless and clear as a windshield.
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