Beneath Their Hooves
by Katharine E.K. Duckett
We go to Grandmère’s house to ride the unicorns.
We only go once or twice a year, and it’s never enough. Riding the unicorns is the most fun a person could have, and I don’t know why we can’t do it every day. Mom never gives us a good reason. It’s not like ice cream, where it’ll give you a stomachache if you have too much. You could ride the unicorns for hours and hours. They never get tired. They prance and they fly a little, just a foot or two, and they’re blue and pink and green and purple, and their horns shine in the sun like candy canes, like candy canes after you’ve licked off all the red and made them white and sharp with your tongue.
Grandmère watches us from the veranda as we ride. She never touches the unicorns herself. They’re here for us. They’re here because she loves us, and she wants us to have fun. She watches, and sometimes she waves with her hand cupped like she’s a queen, the big diamonds on her necklace sparkling across the lawn, and Robin and I go around and around until we’re dizzy and Mom yells at tell us it’s time to go home.
Grandmère is not mean.
She is “imposing.” That’s what Mom says. But Mom always looks a little afraid every time we leave Portland to go to Connecticut. “Home” when we go to Connecticut is the hotel six miles from Grandmère’s house, which is an estate. An estate is a big house I guess, and Grandmère’s house is the biggest I’ve ever seen in real life, stretching out across acres and acres of thick green grass. When Grandmère was young her mother raised horses here, but now there are only the unicorns.
We call Grandmère “Grandmère” because she wants us to, even though my parents don’t seem to like it. “There’s not even French in your family. She’s putting on airs,” Dad always says to Mom at the hotel as we’re getting ready, but he never says that at Grandmère’s house. At Grandmère’s house he laughs and laughs, and his cheeks get pink, like when he’s been drinking. He’s so happy, and I wish we could stay there always, but we always leave, and as soon as we’re a mile away both Mom and Dad have sad looks on their faces, like they’ve left something they love behind. I don’t understand why they don’t want to stay longer. I don’t understand why we never stay the night.
Robin, my brother, is three years older than me. He just turned eleven last month. My mom had a brother too, but he died when she was young. Robin says he hung himself, though Robin says things just to scare me sometimes, and I can’t be sure when he’s telling the truth. I asked Mom about it, and she got quiet and scary and told me never to ask her about that again, so I don’t ask anymore.
For his birthday, Robin got a book of facts about the world, a real atlas. Now that we’re at Grandmère’s house and everyone’s happy, he keeps trying to ruin everything by telling me the worst things he can find in the book. We’re sitting at dinner with Mom and Dad and Grandmère, and all the adults are talking, about what I can’t follow, and Robin keeps trying to talk to me even though I keep trying to munch my salad as loudly as I can so I can’t hear him.
“They eat horses in Kazakhstan,” Robin whispers to me as he gives me the mashed potatoes.
I kick him under the table, but the sentence keeps running through my head as the roast beef is passed around. They eat horses in Kazakhstan. They eat horses in Kazakhstan. Do they really? I know we eat cows, and pigs, and chickens and clams and fish, but those are different. Aren’t they? When the bowl of steaming brown meat gets to me, I only put a little bit on my plate, and bury it under my mashed potatoes when no one’s looking, so that I don’t have to put it in my mouth, don’t have to think about whether or not it tastes differently than horses do.
Robin starts to poke me in the ribs. I ignore him, but he keeps doing it. I don’t want to hear what he’s going to say. I don’t want to know what else people eat or think about all the animals we eat, either. Finally he stops poking and leans in close to my ear.
“Grandmère’s necklace isn’t real,” he says in a low, low voice.
I look at him out of the side of my eye. Grandmère is talking to Mom, but I don’t want her to hear us. “What?”
“It’s not real,” he hisses. “The house, the unicorns, none of it is real. There’s a ghost in the attic and he told me everything. He told me if we destroy her necklace, we can see everything clear. He told me, Izzy, he told me that we—”
I see Grandmère’s eyes sweep across the table. The light glints off the diamonds on her necklace, which I’ve never seen her take off. I drop my fork, and Robin stops talking. She keeps staring at us, and Mom and Dad stop talking too. Her eyes are very, very blue. Her eyes look like her mother’s, though I’ve only ever seen her mother’s eyes in black and white. I think she was dead before they invented color cameras.
Grandmère’s mother, my great-grandmother, was named Emilia Allison Ayre, and she was a movie star. She starred in a movie everyone’s seen, a love story that plays all the time on the channel with all the old movies. She made a lot of money and she built this estate with her third husband, who was not Grandmère’s dad, because Grandmère’s dad left when Grandmère was small. Soon Emilia’s third husband left too, and then it was just her and Grandmère and Grandmère’s big sister Isabelle, and all the horses, which Emilia loved more than anything. She had a stable of them, and she brushed their coats until they shined, and she took them to shows where they won all the ribbons.
I didn’t learn about the horses from Grandmère or from Mom. I learned about them in a book. Emilia used to be really famous, even though no one at my school has heard of her. No one but the librarian anyway, who helped me find this book some guy wrote about her life. The guy talked to people who knew Emilia, even though she wouldn’t cooperate with him. She wasn’t very nice, I guess. She liked horses more than she liked people, or at least that’s what her third husband said in the book.
Other than the ribbons for the horses, all Emilia wanted was for her daughter Isabelle to be a movie star too. Isabelle was beautiful and talented, and she made one movie, which they talk about in the book. But one day when she was nineteen she was riding her mother’s horses, and she fell and broke a lot of bones in her body. She couldn’t be a movie star anymore. She had to use a wheelchair, and they only let you use a wheelchair in a movie if you’re faking it.
It says in the book that Emilia got very angry when Isabelle fell. There’s even a story that she kicked her while she was there on the ground, but it also says that’s probably an exaggeration.
Grandmère is kind. It doesn’t say that in the book, because it barely talks about her at all, except to call her “homely” and say that Emilia always told people she could never be a movie star, but Mom says it’s true. She made the house easy for Isabelle to live in after their mom died, put in ramps for her and everything. Grandmère just wants everyone to be happy, which is why she made the unicorns in the first place, and why she helped Isabelle until she passed away. Isabelle died the year before I was born, and that’s why I’m named for her, though everybody calls me Izzy.
Not so long after Isabelle fell, all the horses died. No one could say exactly why. It seemed like poison, but nothing was detected in their blood, even though everyone suspected the third husband. Emilia buried all their bodies on the estate. Not so very long after that, Emilia died herself. It doesn’t say where they buried her body, but from then on it was just Grandmère and Isabelle, until Grandmère had Mom and her brother.
I don’t know if Mom has a dad. I asked her about it once, and she got real quiet about that too.
Robin falls off the unicorn the next day.
I’m not riding with him. Grandmère tells me to sit with her on the veranda, and Mom and Dad are inside. Robin is on the pink unicorn, the plump one. There are four unicorns. I never thought to count them before. I’m trying to remember more things now, to notice details, like a spy would. I know that how I think at Grandmère’s house is different from how I think at the hotel, from how I think back in Portland, but it’s hard to concentrate there. I want to write things down on my hand, or in a notebook, but I’m afraid Grandmère would see. So I focus as hard as I can. I focus, and I count, and I feel all the objects that I pass with my fingers, and everything feels solid and firm beneath my touch. Robin is wrong. The house is real. The unicorns are unicorns. Grandmère loves us as much as she always did.
We watch Robin go around, around and around, and I notice he’s going faster. Faster than he’s ever gone before. The unicorns always move in the same circle, one after the other, never stopping, but they usually clop along, nice and bouncy and safe, with little flying hops. Now they’re speeding up. I look at Robin’s face, and see he’s making an “O” with his mouth, even though I can’t hear him screaming. I’m frozen. I try to speak. I try to reach for Grandmère’s hand. I can see it there next to her, papery and white and just out of reach.
My eyes flick back to Robin, and his face is bright red. His hands are tight on the unicorn’s mane. Hold tight, Robin, I think, hold tight, but then the unicorn bucks, and Robin flies off, crashing headfirst on the ground.
There is screaming now. There is screaming, lots and lots of it, and Mom and Dad come running. Grandmère isn’t moving. Her blue, blue eyes are fixed on Robin, who is red and splattered on the ground. I can see, even from this far away, his leg bone, which is outside of him now.
“It stuck up just that way.”
My neck swivels. I can move it again. “What?”
Grandmère’s voice is wavery. I realize I’ve never heard her talk much. She always talks to Mom and Dad, never to Robin or me. “When Isabelle fell. It stuck up just that way, right up through her skin.”
I start to throw up. Mom and Dad are still helping Robin and so only Grandmère is there to help me. She holds my hair back, and when I’m done she takes me inside to brush my teeth and lie down.
I’m afraid of the unicorns now. I don’t want to ride them the next day. But I have to pretend, because otherwise Grandmère will know something’s wrong.
The unicorns don’t feel like horses. I know, because I rode a horse at camp. When you put your hands on their neck, it feels rubbery, and a little cold. I never noticed it before. When I try to look at their hairs, at the small ones defined in their mane, they all blend together. I can’t look at them too closely, because Grandmère will see, from where she watches me on the veranda.
I’m alone with Grandmère at the house because Mom and Dad are at the hospital with Robin. I don’t know what they told the doctors happened to him. I don’t think they told them about the unicorns. Every night Dad comes and picks me up, later and later each time, and brings me back to the hotel. Mom stays with Robin. They don’t say it, but I know things are very bad. I know not to ask how very bad they are.
Grandmère takes her nap that afternoon, and I go up to the attic. All by myself, even though I’m holding my breath between every creaky stair. “Ghost?” I say, when I get up there and turn on the light. “Ghost?”
No one replies. Maybe since he’s a boy-ghost, only boys can hear him. It doesn’t seem fair, but then the world isn’t fair. Mom and Dad say that a lot, anyway.
Robin is the hospital four days, and then five, and then a week. We were supposed to go back to Portland three days ago. Dad doesn’t say anything about it, and I don’t even have to remind myself to ask. I try not to talk anymore.
Grandmère does the same thing every day. I notice it now, now that it’s only me around. She takes her nap every afternoon, and a bath every evening, just before dinner, just as the sun is starting to go down. Before she does, I can see through the open door of her bedroom that she always takes off the necklace, and leaves it on the table beside her bed. The bathroom is attached to the bedroom, but I don’t think you can see the table when you’re soaking in the big bathtub in there.
I walk by her bedroom door a few days in a row, but I can’t make myself go in. Not until the ninth day, when I know Robin and I should be back in school. Summer break is over. Mom and Dad always say education is the most important thing in the world. If I haven’t gone back for school, I don’t know what I’ll go back for.
I stand a little bit down the hallway and wait until I hear Grandmère stop running the water to creep up to the door. The necklace looks real from the doorway, and even when I get up close, when I’m sure Grandmère can’t see me, it looks so shiny and beautiful that I think Robin must have been wrong. But then I get really really close, bending as low as I can, and I realize there are air bubbles in the jewels. Diamonds don’t have bubbles, because they’re rocks. And the edges of the metal on the necklace are all brown and flaky, and the clasp is old and rotting. It looks more like the fake jewelry Mom would buy me for a dumb princess costume than something Emilia Allison Ayre would ever wear.
Robin was right. The necklace isn’t real. Maybe unicorns aren’t real. Maybe the unicorns hurt Robin: or Grandmère did.
I start to reach for the necklace, but I hear the bathwater rippling. I turn and run down the hall, down the stairs, and out to the lawn and the hills. I go about as far away as I can, and I find a rock, the heaviest one that I can find but still fit into my pocket. Even if Grandmère can change how things look, the way they are, she’d have no reason to change one rock, all the way out here.
I keep the rock under my pillow at the hotel that night, and in my pocket at Grandmère’s the next day.
I ride the unicorns for hours. I ride them because I don’t want to be in the house. I’m still afraid of them, but I’m more afraid of inside. It’s too quiet there. Grandmère only ever tells me to go out to play, or to eat my lunch. I wonder if the food is real.
Robin has been in the hospital for two weeks. I have to help him, somehow. If the unicorns hurt him, I’m the only one that knows. I don’t want to do it, but Mom and Dad can’t help. Not unless they see.
Grandmère is watching me from the veranda. I make my unicorn slow down and stop, and get off of it. They won’t slow unless you tell them to. They all start at once, and stop at once, and when I get a few feet away they start going again, their hooves pounding the ground as I walk back to the house, toward Grandmère.
Emilia’s famous movie is on Netflix at the hotel. I’ve watched it over and over again while Robin’s been in the hospital, every night while Dad’s at the bar. I know how to make my eyes big, my lips pouty. “Grandmère, I just love your necklace,” I say, making my voice sweet and soft, like the ladies in the movies do. “Can I try it on? Please?”
She looks at me for a long time. A very long time, but I remember Emilia and how she looked in the one scene where she had to convince the Nazi she’s not lying and she loves him, and I keep my smile very still. Grandmère rises, and motions for me to turn. I do, my breath going faster, and she pushes my hair to one side of my neck.
I feel the weight of the necklace come down on my collarbone. I slip my hand into my pocket, and curl my fingers around my big rock as she fastens its clasps. As soon as she’s done, I slam the rock to my chest, right on the jewels. It knocks the wind out of me, and I stumble back, into Grandmère’s legs, but I push myself forward, out of her reach. Bits of the necklace are already on the ground. I pull it from my neck, hard, and it hurts, but I need to see. I need to see the unicorns. I need to see if they’re real, so I smash the necklace on the stone of the veranda, stomping it beneath my foot, and look out to the lawn.
The unicorns are still going around. The unicorns are there. But the unicorns are not unicorns. The unicorns are dead horses. Regular horses, white and brown and black. Their coats are streaked with dirt and blood. Long strings of jelly hang from their mouths. I can see pink-purple muscle peeking through their skin as they gallop and gallop and go.
The horses’ eyes have fallen out. The manes are gone from their heads and I can see patches of their skull, but chunks of meat flap from their cheeks as they run. I can’t stop hearing Robin in my head. They eat horses in Kazakhstan. They eat horses in Kazakhstan.
I can remember all the things my parents were saying to Grandmère all those times we came to visit now. I remember every conversation, every dinner, every afternoon. They were never saying anything at all. Their mouths were moving, but they were saying nonsense. All those times they were talking to Grandmère, my parents were speaking gibberish.
The dead horses aren’t unicorns, but they still have horns. Their horns look the same. The horns are bone, carved to spiral points. What kind of bones would you need, I hear Robin asking in my head, to make horns like those?
I am realizing the horses having been running for years and years, pounding the dead grass beneath their hooves. I am realizing I have nowhere to run. And then I feel her hand on my shoulder, and I turn to face Grandmère.
About the Author
Katharine Duckett is a writer of weird fiction by night and works in science fiction and fantasy publishing by day. She is a graduate of Viable Paradise, and her fiction has appeared in Interzone, Apex, Uncanny, and various anthologies. Her debut book, Miranda in Milan, is forthcoming from Tor.com Publishing in February 2019.
About the Narrator
Larissa is a Vancouver-based voice actor and producer, most recognized for her work on The Centropic Oracle, a science fiction and fantasy short story audio magazine available on YouTube, The Sojourn, an original science fiction audio drama & motion comic, and is the co-founder of the YouTube channel The Templin Institute.