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art by Melissa Mead

Bless This House

Beth Cato is an associate member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. Her stories can be found in The Pedestal Magazine, Crossed Genres, Every Day Fiction, and Niteblade, while her essays and articles appear in WOW! Women on Writing, Totts Magazine, and several Chicken Soup for the Soul books. Beth is originally from Hanford, California, but now resides in Buckeye, Arizona, with her husband and son. Despite how often her husband's co-workers beg, she will not quit writing to bake cookies all day long. Information regarding current projects can always be found at www.bethcato.com. Sometimes those projects do include cookies.

A pink sliver of sunrise glowed over the hills, and the cows lowed their need. Emma parted the barn doors. Her metal pail and other gear met the dirt floor with a solid thud.
She began the morning routine, her joints stiff and eyes bleary. The baby had been up at all hours, and Kurt had fallen into a feverish sleep again. Not even little Grace's wails could fully rouse Kurt anymore. Emma had sat within the candle's glow, holding Grace at her breast and laying wet rags on Kurt's forehead. His breaths rasped and rattled.
Her husband had acted all nonchalant after that nail went through his foot, but now… now. From toe to heel, his flesh resembled a charred mass. Emma shuffled to the next cow. The tuft-ended tail swatted the back of her head. The old bay stallion whinnied in the next stall over.
"I'll feed you next," Emma said. And after that, God help her.
She couldn't get Kurt to town. The wagon's dismantled axle sprawled in the middle of the barn where her husband left it after his accident. The next-closest homestead housed ornery bachelors who tended to shoot first and ask questions later.
The baby's shrill cries cut through the thin wooden walls. Emma's breasts ached in response. She choked a sob against her wrist and stood. She had to do it. She had to. How could they survive without Kurt? There wasn't a spare penny for her and Grace to head back home to Georgia, and she could already see her mother's tight-lipped I-told-you-so expression. And Kurt was a good man, his callused hands soft on her skin. He was the one who could shush little Grace, the one whose kisses still made her warm on the coldest nights. Three years of marriage wasn't enough.
In the back corner of the barn, the unicorn watched her with expressionless eyes. He didn't tug against the ropes. One cloven hoof tapped the hard dirt. Bandages swaddled his left foreleg from fetlock to knee. Emma had found him a week ago snared in the barbed wire. She brought him home, cared for him, and stroked the silky length of his forelock. It would take him weeks to mend and hold weight on that leg.
"Of all the barns, he's come to bless ours," she had told Kurt a week ago. An eon ago.
Emma set the half-full milk pail by the barn door and unwrapped the bundle of cloth. Kurt's best hunting knife lay there in its tooled leather scabbard. With a grunt she straightened her back. The blade unsheathed without a sound.
The unicorn watched her approach. He couldn't run, even if freed. Grace continued her colicky screams from the house.
"Forgive me. Oh, Lord, forgive me," Emma whispered, tears plinking to her chest and mingling with the seeping circles of breast milk.
The unicorn's golden horn glinted as he bowed his head.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, October 12th, 2010

Author Comments

I love unicorns. I love tales about strong pioneer women. I love making characters face impossible situations that would drive me, personally, into years of therapy and guilt. This story first emerged as a poem I wrote last year, but the poem didn't work. The emotional depth wasn't there; the stakes weren't high enough. I went through several drafts before setting it aside in disgust. Six months later, I rewrote from scratch to create the flash fiction version. This time it worked. Sometimes all a story needs is time, a strict word limit, and a screaming baby.

- Beth Cato
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