The Last Unicorn is playing.
Parking karma blesses me with a spot near my voice class, only two streets over from the theatre school. Fourth Avenue is the same route I walked to work fifteen years ago, but now is transformed: no longer the broken-down light industrial of Kurt Cobain’s time–his first show at a bar a few blocks north–but a hip urban neighborhood of midrise condos, bars, comfortable places to eat and drink, Pike Place and the Space Needle all easy walks away. There’s even a gourmet cupcake place, with cupcake happy hour. (They aren’t very good cupcakes, unfortunately.)
The Cinerama glows out its transformative promise. One of Paul Allen’s projects, the millions he spent in the late Nineties restoring one of the last Cinerama theatres is pocket change from his Microsoft fortune, and a whole different value scheme applies to the delight the venue has given this town. In 1999 when I worked a few blocks up, the new Star Wars movie had a line stretching past my building, thousands of nerds lined up almost to the Space Needle for a ticket at the biggest, loudest show in town. Tonight the drizzle is no match for the marquee and its uninspiring messages to buy gift certificates and check out the website. As I wait for the walk light I read the crooked black letters on the other side, and read them again: THE LAST UNICORN. 11/16, 11/18
I miss half the light reading this, not understanding. The Last Unicorn I know is a 1968 novel by Peter S. Beagle, one of my adolescent and early adulthood favorites. 1982 brought an animated feature produced by Rankin/Bass, an elegant and sophisticated production out of character with its normal fare of network TV holiday specials. Is it really at the Cinerama? Allen the film buff regularly brings back 70mm masterpieces like Lawrence of Arabia and Baraka in two week heavy rotation; and the theatre retains one of the last functioning Cinerama projection systems, with yearly showings of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Ice Station Zebra. A little film like The Last Unicorn is not out of character. I scribble a note on a parking receipt and resolve to check it out.
And it does check out. The Last Unicorn Screening Tour with Peter S. Beagle is getting started in the drippy Northwest. Mr. Beagle will be in attendance for questions and signings. The website shows lush stills from the 2K digital print: the indigos and violets, the randomness of hand-drawn and hand-inked outlines, the analog glow of a human-made, hand-made thing. Monday’s showing coincides with the class I just left, but the Saturday showing is at 1pm.
The Last Unicorn is not just another book I read. Though I will admit to seeing the movie first, and that years after its premiere, I was so taken with the movie I immediately sought out the book. The Fantasy Worlds of Peter Beagle was the only book I could find, and lucky too, as it contained three other short stories and novellas, including the funny and ultimately transcendent A Fine and Private Place.
From the now of my early 40s, to understand the emotional sea of the me of my mid-teens is a stretch. What’s garbled, reformatted, elided, forgotten? At my twenty year high school reunion, a friend remembered a stunt I pulled while driving my mom’s 1971 Ford Pinto: to demonstrate the engine was really off while coasting down a hill, I pulled the key from the ignition. At fifteen I did not project forward the immediate effect of this locking the steering, thus being unable to keep the car’s increasing speed from also increasing its hunger for mailboxes and trees. (I screeched to a halt before hitting anything, a family outside looking up with intense interest, my friend beside himself as I white-knuckled it out of there.) I know that event tormented me for weeks: that I would be found out as driving underage, hauled before grim elders, punishment and greater shame exacted. But I had completely forgotten the incident by age 38. So I realize that to write about The Last Unicorn from now is from a point parallel to ignorance.
My mother had an arrangement with a friend who lived in the town proper, and thus with services like ambulance, fire, and cable TV: every so often my mom would come home with a half-dozen VHS tapes her friend had filled with things of interest. Though we had not been asked (my youthful self-centeredness leaving me incapable of realizing another mother would think about someone other than herself), some HBO and Cinemax wonders had been selected for my sister and me. I remember a classic 80s anime science-fiction show I took no small delight in, a few afterschool-special type shows that were a little young for me (and seemed amateurish and weird), and the ghostly, addict-faced Shelley Duvall, adrift in her lavish costume, introducing each Faerie Tale Theatre.
The Last Unicorn was at the head of one tape. It must have been summer when I first watched it, some time-plugged afternoon smothered with cicadas and air conditioner drone, blinds down against the interminable sun. I remember the colors, the light tinkle of the music coming on, the dream of Mia Farrow’s voice asking am I truly the last? Then long pans over gorgeous fields of color and pattern that was the unicorn’s woods, a song by America playing as credits rolled.
The movie got me, sucked me in the way books and movies can when you are a child. Was my sister there, school glowering out of September, the Earth still orbiting the Sun? I didn’t know. It could have been the first time I paid attention to a story’s arc, been frightened in a mature way for a character that was somehow like me, empathized with loss. The story, the bold look, the somewhat uneven production values, the great charge of the Red Bull and the unicorn beating him back into the sea: I didn’t know the word, but it was transcendent. Is that shallow to say of a movie, especially dubbed down and down to VHS, compared to looking up at the stars, holding a fossil, learning in no uncertain terms that all life ends? Maybe. We are only so profound.
High school brought the book, at first from the library, then my own copy. (I think. We don’t remember what we remember.) The copy in the pictures is that same copy. (I’ve never owned The Last Unicorn as a standalone book.) I pored over it. The narrator is hilarious, cracking underhanded jokes. The characters have distinct voices, and the story unfolds with a satisfying arc, even the few diversions others think of as throwaway (“have a taco” with the forest bandits) round and interesting to me. I felt light, even delusional, reading this book. It was perfect for me. I didn’t know the word then, but now I would say it had grace, and gave it to me.
Depression can crush any grace. It lays things flat and colors bleed away on their own. My junior year of 1986 felt more grim at the start, and that mildew never lifted. I can’t remember what it was, and couldn’t explain it to the doctors’ satisfaction even then: a dark, smothering, waterlogged sense that everything was wrong, there was no point, school would never end and I was unprepared for anything after anyway. I don’t remember: even with working happy pills thirty years later it is wise to not ask penetrating questions. It was a bad time and the help just made it worse.
I skipped school. My father would open the bedroom door, tell me it was time to get up, and when I said I didn’t feel well, there was no interrogation. Okay, he said. For a while my mother argued–he needs to go and be around other kids, I can retrieve from memory. I never made out my father’s response, but it was short and final. I heard him call the school, registering the absence as excused. Then they were gone. No silence is more total than the weekday suburban house.
Sitting on the floor in front of the TV, I would watch The Last Unicorn. I sat very close, the sound down even though I was alone, the purring VHS deck almost too loud. I flipped through Nancy Hathaway’s beautiful The Unicorn, a thoughtful treatise on unicorn myth concluding with her own sublime short story. I remember crying but not why. Shame, probably. I had screwed everything up.
I would have walked into that screen and lived there, safe in that story, safe in the peril designed as loss, an eternal nowhere place of gorgeous color. Nothing worked out, not really, and that was the point. That was why the story was so beautiful.
Long before anyone came home I would have put anything away. The next day I would go to school, afraid of falling too far behind, tipping somebody off, something.
This is all from memory. I last read Beagle’s books in early college and haven’t re-read them since. At the time I re-read some books I had greatly enjoyed in fifth or sixth grade and was horrified to discover those books incomplete, fractured with characters suddenly saying the wrong things, whole chunks of plot missing. One of my first genuine adult realizations was to not re-read the books I had most cherished, to preserve the inaccurate memory. Things were changing.
Yesterday is Saturday. I get up at a reasonable time, put an hour into the novel, write some other things, do laundry. I want to finish cutting up a blown-over tree before noon, so I can ride the bus to the showing. It is to be a highlight of my weekend.
Morning had brilliant unpredicted sun, but now the clouds are resurgent, though undetermined. I have lucked into meeting a wonderful woman, the kind that loans her chainsaws. The tree is work, but not too much work.
The stump opposes. I can’t cut it with the saw, and pushing it shows only the northern edge was snapped: roots hold tight. I feel compressed like in the bad months of this past spring, unable to decide anything. A shadow of April’s panic comes–nothing at all like April, but close enough I can see the edges of the world. I take a deep breath, get the axe-sledge and whack at the stump, dig out the sides with the shovel. It doesn’t seem to go anywhere, offers no point of attack.
It’s at least 11:30. I’d need to get a bus not long after noon, need to clean up. But there is something stronger.
I saw The Last Unicorn seven or eight years ago. I remembered it, randomly, and checked it out of the library–perhaps the last VHS I’d ever checked out. Even in VHS smeariness I remembered the colors, the story, that strange indescribable sense of Late 70s-Early 80s aesthetic. High school pressed up, but I did not let it in. I watched it once and returned it to the library, satisfied.
Standing in the fall bluster, hot and trembling from whacking at a cedar stump with an axe-sledge, I realize the confluence of realities. I have whacked stumps before, spent Saturdays doing things I Am Supposed To Do. I have spent man-weeks watching a movie that enchanted me, that in some ways saved me, that likely informed my sense of story and timing as much as Ray Bradbury or Raymond Chandler.
A few years ago I found Peter S. Beagle’s website. He was getting money together for a Last Unicorn remake. Live-action animals–some kind of midget deer–would play the unicorn with CGI enhancements. He was writing a poem a week. I signed up for his email updates. Emails came multiple times a week, but after the first my mood changed. I was amazed, then heartbroken, to realize I did not think the poetry was much good. Upon reflection, remaking a thirty year old animated movie as live action seemed incongruous, then ridiculous. The whole thing seemed desperate.
I had written freshman English research papers on Beagle and The Last Unicorn, surfed the early internet for other fans, taken heart in other aficionado’s web pages. The Last Unicorn had been a magic undercurrent to my phony-punk, suburban, bad accent youth, a promise of a better reality. But at the time I was 37, maybe 38, I realized not even this novel is reality. I unsubscribed from his list, and forgot.
Now, here, in the moment and free of memory, the world is now. The freedom I long imagined as an adolescent is mine, so much so I remind myself this is true. I am writing–slowly, but writing. I have notebooks full of ideas I’ll never complete in a dozen lifetimes, and I no longer interpret this as failure. Interesting friends and opportunities have come my way. I sense a capability I can’t remember. And the woman who lent me the chainsaw is turning into something wonderful.
Yesterday I stood in a confluence of paths and understood the roar I heard was choice. We can never go down all of them. There is no point in going down where we’ve already been, and sometimes it takes reflection to understand which ones those are.
A whack at a time, the stump loosened and cracked, until at last it bent all the way, freed. At 1pm–the start of the showing–a friend of now calls. He is at the airport, lost keys found, and has time to swing by before his next show. Do I want some lunch? He owes me.
We walk down the long curve to a falafel truck, making unrepeatable jokes, then back up, eating in a hurry. He sews a buttonhole in his tux with my borrowed needles and thread, leaves clotheshangers he doesn’t want, checks his pockets and checks his pockets.
Just like New York, I say.
Now that’s love, he says.