‘Purity’, Jennifer R. Donohue

Art © 2023 Fluffgar

 [ Unicorn © 2023 Fluffgar ] Whenever possible, Corli’s pappa closed one deal and opened the next on the same day. It was efficient, and it was lucky, and he stacked the deck whenever possible. It was a simple formula: any final payment was given to Pappa, and Corli would hand over the object. Then they moved on to another outdoor cafe for the next contract.

The object was always kept in a modified instrument case, black with bright brass clasps. Inside, the gleaming spiral length of ivory was nestled into red velvet, or blue. Rarely did the clients open the case immediately; it was too risky. But Corli would envision their faces at the moment of reveal. As she grew older, she wondered if it was worth it.

It was the first of the month, white rabbits Pappa said, but also Tuesday. Slated to be particularly favorable. The handoff was picture perfect, the client sweaty-palmed in anticipation. The next client did not come himself, but rather sent a proxy, a jumpy guy in squeaky new clothes. Boots which had never seen mud, shirt with the super-clean stripe on it from where the size tag was adhered. Five minutes into the discussion, he pulled up a cryptocurrency calculator on his phone.

Corli sighed.

“I don’t accept that,” Pappa said.

“Mr. Bekker, I find most professionals I deal with enjoy the anonymity and security of cryptocurrency. Many of them are no longer associated with governments, per se.”

“I want something that’s still money if the power happens to go out. Cash, metal, gems. I feel this was communicated very clearly.”

The proxy put his phone down. “Of course, of course. You understand, I had to try. Mr. Smith prefers digital but can accommodate your needs.”

“If it’s a problem, we can stop wasting everybody’s time and walk away now.”

“No, not a problem, not at all.” The proxy licked his lips, glanced at Corli, then back to her father. “Our agreed upon price was five hundred thousand, correct?”

“Correct. Half now, half on delivery.”

“Mr. Smith is prepared to offer considerably more, 1.5 million in total.” Pappa grunted, right eyebrow raised just a bit.

“And the reason?”

“He wants to come along, with one guest.”

“Absolutely not,” Corli said, pushing her chair back. It wasn’t part of the act, for her to engage, especially now that she was no longer a pigtailed child. But for an outsider to come on the hunt was unheard of, it was horrible to consider, it was—

“We can work something out,” her father said. He finished his coffee and signaled the waitress for another, eyes resting on Corli briefly.

She bit her lip and sank back in the chair again. The proxy looked at her.

“Forgive my daughter’s outburst, we have a way of doing things, you understand.”

“Of course,” the proxy said. “You two have an impeccable track record. Not a single unhappy client.”

“Just talkative ones, apparently.”

“You’re willing to negotiate my client’s wishes, then? Make it a bit of a safari as opposed to just a delivery?”

“Your client will only be a spectator, but yes, give us a couple of days to hash out a contract with rules needing strict attention. For safety’s sake, of course. We’ll bring in another guide as well.”

“Of course.” The proxy removed a folded piece of paper from his inner pocket and slid it across the table to Pappa with a small metal key. “I trust that’s acceptable as a down payment? Take your two days, Mr. Bekker, Miss Bekker, and then call the number provided.”

Pappa lifted the edge of the paper, then left it on the table. “Yes, it’s acceptable.”

The proxy left, and Pappa sipped his coffee. Corli sat as long as she could, watching the edge of the paper flap in the breeze. The key could only be for a bank box. “Pappa, how could you—”

“I understand you think this is a partnership,” he said. “And your part in our hunt is crucial to our success. But I make the decisions.”

“Yes, Pappa.” He had never once hit her, but some of his strictness had always implied that he would be willing should he deem it necessary.

“Now let’s collect our down payment and make arrangements.”

“Yes, sir.” Corli left her coffee unfinished.

The bank was in City Centre, and the whole way there Corli imagined how to tell Pappa she didn’t want to hunt any longer. Her father lived and breathed the hunt, while she preferred tricking rich people out of money to actually killing unicorns, preferred it when the mark didn’t know what they were asking for, and could be provided with a white narwhal horn instead of the light-drinking black ivory of the real deal. They’d done both, but Corli knew where Pappa′s heart lay.

Pappa left her in the bank vestibule when he went in to retrieve the deposit box’s contents, coming out within the half hour, his canvas satchel considerably heavier on his shoulder. Once they’d fetched the car and were on the road home, Corli lifted the flap of the satchel and peeked inside at a black velvet bag. Diamonds.

“Where will we go?” she asked.

“We won’t need to leave the country, love. One’s been spotted on the Highveld within the last week. There’s a bounty on it, so we’ll be paid twice for one job. Can’t graze cattle when a unicorn’s about.”

“Oh good,” she said, because it was expected. She wondered, sometimes, what her long-dead mother would have thought of this. Corli had no sense of her from personal experience, just a few round-cornered pictures, yearly awkward meetings with her grandmother. If she left Pappa, somehow, could she live with her grandmother? Perhaps not. She was old enough to go off on her own, really, but how would she get a job and protect herself?

They met up at the airfield. The clients were Americans, dressed in what they must have imagined safari clothes looked like. Corli nodded and mouthed appropriate greetings to the client, a dark haired man with silvering temples. His son was tall and dark, probably university age. Corli concentrated on the dogs while Pappa talked to the pilot. The guns were all logged and signed for, and then they strapped in for the two hours’ flight north.

The client seemed torn between being very friendly, or keeping himself and his son anonymous. They gave their names as Mr. Smith and Jack, which Corli understood to be fake. Jack sat across the narrow plane aisle from her, and Corli stole glances at him; Jack was more than handsome. She wondered what kind of work Mr. Smith was in, and if his son had ever worked a day in his life. Perhaps she was spoiled too, if she considered what they did work. Did emotional burden count?

“So this is kind of a joke, right?” Jack asked at one point, with an easy grin.

“What do you mean?” Corli turned to him.

“Unicorn hunting? Really? My dad just brought us out here for a regular safari and wants to dress it up. People aren′t so happy anymore if you go shoot a lion.”

“It’s not a joke.”

When they landed, Pappa strode off towards the garage for their Land Rovers while Corli uncrated the dogs and had a bouquet of baying leashes to deal with. They were well behaved, the Ridgebacks, just antsy. She let them blow off some steam then whistled through her teeth once, sharply. All seven tawny heads turned to her as all seven haunches hit the tarmac.

“Wow,” Jack Smith said under his breath. They belonged to her father, heart and soul, but she had some small bits of their hearts, anyway. She was softer of word and generous with treats. From his earliest hunting days, before Corli was born and before unicorns reentered the world in whatever manner they had, Pappa always used Ridgebacks. They were tireless and they were loyal, and maybe that was why Corli couldn’t tell Pappa she didn’t want to do it any longer. The words just wouldn′t come, and even if they did, he wouldn′t hear them.

Pappa pulled onto the tarmac, followed by a guide they’d worked with before, Alphonse, a giant Frenchman. She loaded the dogs up in the second Land Rover and climbed in with them. Jack and Mr. Smith got into the first one with Pappa. Jack turned his head towards her more than once, eyes obscured by mirrored aviators. Mr. Smith and Pappa got along famously, and more than once, the roar of Pappa’s laughter floated back to her over the growl of the engines.

They parked near accessible water, though far enough away not to invite local fauna through the camp. Corli took the dogs round the perimeter, and they roamed at the ends of their leashes, sniffing intently, marking the occasional bush. Alphonse and Pappa set up, Mr. Smith and son standing about with canteens. Corli set up the tie outs for the dogs and popped up her own tent before rummaging in the cooking supplies. The dogs were not fed the night before a hunt; Pappa said it helped make them sharper, more intent on the trail and on pleasing their masters.

That night Corli fidgeted. It was far too early to go to sleep, but she was unprepared for being social around a campfire. They’d hunted with Alphonse before, but typically for something more run of the mill like a cloned rhinoceros.

Jack moved his chair a bit nearer. “At least our dads get along,” he said.

“Pappa finds it easy to get along with people,” she said.

“I feel like they’re pretending.”


“My dad’s really good at pretending about things. Like this. He decided for my birthday I needed an African safari.” He glanced at Corli. “I know, boo hoo, rich kid didn’t want an awesome trip. But really? I don’t want to seem ungrateful, but it’s nothing I asked for.”

“I get it.” Corli had a hard time listening to him. Across the fire, Alphonse was using his penknife to work the cork from a bottle of wine. None of the adults had looked their way in a very long time. “Nobody’s ever come with us before. I wouldn’t have thought Pappa would allow it.” What if Pappa would change things, now that they′d had spectators along once? What if he made all of it a larger production, parading her for show, never again using a Narwhal? Always having the carnival of slaughter.

“So this is weird for you too.”

“Very much so.”

“I’m sorry, then. It was my dad’s idea. He got on the internet and found something he knew would be expensive and make people jealous.”

“What’s the point of that?”

“I don’t know. Unicorn horns are worth a lot.”

“I know.” Corli stood, and in the darkness one of the Ridgebacks yipped. She turned her head, but no other dog noises happened. “I’m going to bed. We’ll be up early.”

“Goodnight.” He watched her go, Corli could feel it between her shoulder blades, but she didn’t look back as she went to the flickering edge of firelight and zipped into her tent. Until lately, she′d done her best to never think about how much it cost her to be the virgin lure for unicorns, year in and year out. She’d been a child for so many and not kept count, and then grown into her teens and adulthood and now, it seemed like it must be such a staggering number. How could there possibly be more, why would they keep coming?

In the morning she put her hunting face on and went out in her tall boots and khakis, loose light scarf around her neck, shirt buttoned up all the way. Then an idea began to form, or had begun to form last night, and she undid a few of the buttons. She might not have to tell Pappa anything. The dogs leaped around her in joyous greeting, already in their hunting vests, and on her father’s nod she turned them loose with the command to track. They tore off in a tawny trail, tails erect, noses sweeping. Jack and Mr. Smith trailed behind with Alphonse while Corli and Pappa led the way.

 [ Unicorn © 2023 Fluffgar ] They saw signs. Acacia trees nibbled on at a certain height. Three long silver-grey hairs wrapped around a branch. In one spot, Pappa paused and showed Mr. Smith and Jack a partial track, indistinct cloven hoofmark in the light soil. But the dogs never went into full bay, and they circled back around to camp by noon. “No sense running them ragged,” Pappa said, and fed the dogs half rations, an unusual allowance.

Corli and Jack once again found themselves sitting together as the afternoon wound into night and the men drank and smoked, Alphonse telling complicated jokes, which always lost the thread but were still somehow funny at the end. To the men, anyway. She found it hard to look at Jack, and hard to look away. His eyes were the color of the sky, and his tan had deepened from their morning in the sun. “Do you have a girlfriend?” she asked finally. What did one talk about with boys?

“Not really.” He looked at her, really looked. She′d hoped Jack and nobody else would notice her undone buttons. Her pulse thrummed in the base of her throat. “Is it stupid to ask if you have a boyfriend?”

“Probably.” They laughed, a static field of tension between them.

“Do you think we’ll find the unicorn tomorrow?” he asked.

“I do. It’s never more than two or three days, once we’ve seen signs like this.” Corli looked off into the night, the velvet black in which all the world’s beasts roamed unseen. She ran through her head, a few times, how to say it. Businesslike was probably best. “After you’ve gone to bed, come to my tent.”

“Don’t you think that’s awfully fast?”

“There isn’t the time to go about it a different way.” Corli walked off to her tent, glancing backwards at him once, breathless. He was still in his chair, finishing a soda. She zipped herself in with shaky hands. Maybe he wouldn’t show up, wouldn’t that be an embarrassment.

She’d almost gone to sleep when the zipper on her tent made its slow arc. “Sorry I took so long,” he said, as he slid next to her on the slick sleeping bag, breath wine-sweet. “They decided it was a good night to talk about what it meant to be a man, in anticipation of witnessing my first kill. Alphonse especially thought this was important. There′s something about drinking blood?”

“It′s a thing men do, when—” Corli said, but then he was kissing her, and her hands were in his hair, and all she could think or feel was his lips, his hands. She′d never had a boyfriend; it would have been impossible. This was nice. They paused for a moment, fumbling with buttons, zippers. “Do you have a condom?” she asked.

His hands stopped. “No.” His disappointment palpable.

Corli rolled towards her bag, stretching to slip her fingers into the depths. It was kind of funny, she had them to keep equipment dry. The ability to take charge like this pushed away her nervousness. “Always have condoms.” She pushed the foil packet into his hand.

In the small hours of the morning, Jack disentangled himself from her sleepy embrace and went to his tent. Corli smiled and pushed her head into her pillow. He was sweet, and kind, and she would probably never see him again. But she would be free. She could figure out the other details as they came.

At the day’s dawning, they again released the Ridgebacks, and immediately they set up the cry of a hot trail. “Take the GPS and go to the clearing,” Pappa said. Corli nodded and set off, her steps light. The dogs would circle the unicorn around to find her there as the final lure. She didn’t wait for Alphonse, or Jack and Mr. Smith. They would catch up, and they would be disappointed.

The clearing was a killing field they had used before; it was some small miracle the earth there wasn’t barren with the sin they’d committed, over and over, but tender young grass grew, and Corli settled herself cross legged to wait, GPS beside her. Pappa was still trailing the dogs trailing the unicorn, a click or so away. Alphonse settled Mr. Smith and his son at a safe vantage, with field glasses. The sound of dogs drew closer, and then the unicorn broke the tree line.

She loved this part, and she hated it, when the unicorn stepped from cover and into the misty sunlit morning, preceded by its spiraled black horn, dark eyes limpid, thin-skinned nostrils wide and quivering. More beautiful than any horse, more graceful than a deer, its cloven hooves seemed not to touch the ground, and left almost no trace. This time would be the last; the unicorn should not cross the clearing to her, should not breathe its sweet breath onto her face, should not fold its legs and lay its head in her lap to be stroked.

But it did.

Corli could not stop herself from caressing the curved alabaster neck with her fingertips, stroking through the silken mane. Hot tears ran down her face and fell on its head even before the shot rang out. The unicorn stiffened, then relaxed, sweet breath coming no longer.

Pappa stood over her and Corli, frozen, stared at the unicorn’s eye, already dusty dull. “On your own mission, weren’t you?”

“I can’t do this anymore.”

“I think we just proved you can.” He pulled the saw off his belt and held it out to Jack so the birthday boy could take the horn. Jack took the saw hesitantly, looking at Corli, looking at the unicorn. He didn’t believe it until now, she could see that, even as she struggled from beneath the neck and head, the limp weight of it.

“I said no, Pappa!” The ragged edge of her voice caught in the air. Father and daughter stared at each other over the corpse, over the years they’d spent hunting unicorns, together. Her entire life. A quiet thump, and they turned; Jack had dropped the saw in the grass. “I’m not doing this anymore.”

“And I suppose we’ll leave this one to rot, because you’ve taken this idea in your head?”

“I don’t care what you do anymore,” Corli said. She whistled for the dogs as she began to walk back to camp.

© 2023 Jennifer R. Donohue

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