At least, that was how she claimed to feel.
Personally, I didn't understand how someone who said she averaged more than a john a day for thirty years could even remember that phrase. But Dirty Annie, who had turned her life around less than a week ago and now wanted to be called Annabelle, sat on the park bench and smiled serenely at me as she continued her story.
"It happened right over there, Mr. Ozzie." She pointed a crooked finger at one of the giant elm trees. I could still see remnants of neon-green nail polish around her cuticles.
"Just Ozzie," I corrected her.
She nodded and continued. "I had just finished-" A flush came over her weathered face and she looked away to recompose herself. With a deep breath, she met my eyes again. "...with Johnathon Robles. People around here know him as Johnny Lonely. He is, was a regular of mine. He brought a bottle of scotch with him. Said it was for my birthday." She smiled, put a hand to her chest, and rolled her eyes heavenwards with the memory. "Sweet man. He knew it wasn't my birthday.
"Anyways. It was a warm night and late enough I knew there wouldn't be any more business. So I decided to sit and listen to the crickets before I went home. And that's when it happened."
"The red unicorn?" I held my voice recorder a little closer to her, not wanting to miss any description of the creature.
"It walked up, bold as anything, and lay its head in my lap, just like in the fairytales."
"What did it look like?" I needed details.
"It glowed, like moonlight shining off the water of a pond. If the moon were red, that is. It was the most beautiful thing."
"Glowed? Like a glow-in-the-dark toy?"
"Oh, no." Annabelle shook her head. "No. This was different, radiant. Not just a lighter spot in the darkness, but actual light. Like a giant red firefly. But without the blinking."
"And it just came up you to? It wasn't afraid?"
"No. It wasn't afraid. If anything, it acted like it didn't want to scare me off. Can you imagine?"
I was trying hard to imagine a unicorn walking up and putting its head in my lap, but there were so many things wrong with that idea.
"Of course, if I hadn't been so-" Annabelle looked around for anyone else who might be listening, lowered her voice and whispered. "So drunk..."
I could tell it pained her to admit it, and I was again surprised that a woman her age, who had lived the kind of life she had, would be so chagrined to admit such a small 'discretion' as drinking.
"...I suppose I might have run away," she continued.
"Then what happened?"
"Then," she got a wistful look in her eyes, "I felt the weight of all my sins lift off me. It was like that feeling I used to get in church when I was a little girl, when I knew I was being the best I could and God was happy with me."
Annabelle smiled kindly at me. "I can still feel it. Not as strong, but I can. I know all my sins have been forgiven. And I want it to stay that way. That's why I asked to be taken to the Crimson Convent."
"Don't worry," I assured her. "They're expecting you."
My trip to this little city of Calcasieu had been specifically because I wanted to visit the Crimson Convent, and Calcasieu was the closest place I could stay. The convent was notoriously closed to outsiders and situated on a small piece of privately owned land deep in the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge. Accessible only via a canal cut through the marshland surrounding it, Annabelle and I would get there on the weekly supply boat.
It had been a slow process, trying to arrange my visit using snail-mail. The sisters of the convenient weren't interested in telling their stories. In fact, they seemed quite interested in keeping them quiet. It had taken the promise of non-disclosure and a six-figure donation to get them to allow me to visit. Now that I was nearly there, I couldn't believe my fortune to have arrived at the same time there had been another red unicorn sighting.
The sightings were rare, or at least rarely reported, and little information was ever given. All I had been able to piece together was a tenuous connection to the Crimson Convent, based on rumors all of the convent's sisters were converts after seeing the red unicorn. It was one of those local legends that never really gets exposure out of the county it originated in. I had stumbled across it accidentally while digging through archived microfiche.
Yeah, I know. Ironic that I, the billionaire electronics guru, would be digging through microfiche by hand. Well, the truth is the "trash rag" magazines had it right. After my 'incident', I walked away from technology and anything to do with my old life. Well, as much as I could anyway. Kind of hard to get around without a smartphone these days. And when I get lost, the GPS app helps quite a bit. But other than that, I walked away. Mostly.
I kept the money.
The boat ride to the convent wasn't what I expected. For some reason, my own ignorance I'm sure, I thought it would be one of those swamp boats with the big fan on the back, but it was a nice, comfortable, normal flat bottom boat.
Annabelle sat in the back seats with her hair blowing in the breeze, face to the sun like an angel without a care in the world. I felt a pang of jealousy as I noted her bliss.
"So she saw the unicorn?" Clyde Bondurant, our boat driver raised his eyebrows as he looked over at me.
"That's what she says."
Clyde nodded and went back to steering the boat, keeping an eye out for alligators. Apparently hitting one could ruin our trip pretty quickly.
The canal was man-made, an unnatural straight line of water through tall swamp grass. Unable to see over the berms or the foliage, I soon began to feel as though we were in an open-sky tunnel that went on forever.
"You look at lot like that billionaire guy- Dodge Newdawn." Clyde broke me out of my reverie.
"Yeah. I get that a lot." Because I was Dodge Newdawn, or at least that's what they tell me. My name and face had been all over the news 6 months ago, and most people still remembered. It was pretty easy to dissuade them though. No one really expected to meet a billionaire.
"Too bad you don't have his money to go with his looks, hey?" Clyde grinned.
"That would be something." I smiled back.
The Crimson Convent came into view as a distant dark spot on the horizon an hour into the boat ride. As we got closer, I realized the dark area was caused by something I hadn't seen since we had left town: trees.
Genuine, honest to goodness, now that looks like a swamp, mossy trees surrounded a three-story stone castle covered with gargoyles, crosses, and strange things only some medieval architect could have come up with.
No one knew exactly when the covenant had been built, records had been lost to fires and hurricanes, but it was thought to have been built in 1717 under the directive of a Spanish missionary. Looking at the structure, I got the feeling it was much older.
Clyde expertly maneuvered the boat into a shallow depression near old, rotted pylons I suspected were the remains of long gone dock.
Several nuns, at least six or seven, appeared from behind the convent's oversized wooden doors. Their habits were a somber maroon color rather than the bright red I would have expected from a name like the Crimson Convent. The women were of various ages, from what I could tell of exposed faces, with the youngest appearing to be in her late twenties and the oldest too old for me to venture a guess I would have been happy with.
"Good day to you, Sisters!" Clyde hopped off the front of the boat, rope in hand, and gave a couple good tugs to beach the craft.
Familiar greetings were muttered back pleasantly, but all eyes skipped past Clyde and myself, settling excitedly on Annabelle. For her part, Annabelle looked as though she was seeing long lost family for the first time in years.
I helped her to the front of the boat where eager hands helped her down. Wordless hugs were exchanged all around, and tears flowed from all of the women as they welcomed one of their own into the fold.
Movement caught my eye and I looked up to see at least a dozen more nuns coming out to greet us.
To greet Annabelle, I corrected myself. It was plain they had no interest in me.
Clyde grinned and offered his hand to help me down from the boat. "Been five years since the last time I brought a new convert. They were just as excited then, too."
"About how often does someone join?" I hopped down onto the dry, packed dirt of the shore.
Shrugging, Clyde gave the rope one more tug and pulled the boat up onto shore another four inches. "I've been doing this for fifteen years. This is the fourth time."
"So someone sees the unicorn every four years or so?" I mentally tried to add up how many nuns would be here if they got eight every thirty years.
Clyde laughed at me. "No. People say they see the unicorn all the time. Supposed to be good luck. Only once in while does someone feel the need to come here afterward."
I realized one of the nuns was patiently looking at me and I turned to greet her.
Ignoring Clyde's sideways glance at the mention of my name, I nodded. "Please, call me Ozzie." Whether or not I felt Dodge Newdawn was really my name, I hadn't been able to bring myself to lie to nuns, even in a letter.
"We are a little more formal than that around here. Mr. Newdawn will have to suffice. I am Sister Anne Eligius. Welcome."
"Thank you. I appreciate you being willing to meet and talk with me."
"Of course. Would you be so kind as to assist Mr. Bondurant?" She gestured to the crates of supplies Clyde was unloading.
Clyde and I unloaded the crates. Some were really heavy. "What's in here, lead?" I grunted as he handed one down to me.
"Probably pewter. Maybe stones. The nuns make jewelry that gets sold in town to raise money for charity."
When we finished unloading, he pointed to a pile that needed to be loaded. "Pass those up, hey Mr. Newdawn?"
I had just started to think Clyde was going to let my name slide. "Please, call me Ozzie." I handed a crate back up to him.
"What are you doing out here... Ozzie? Why aren't you sipping iced tea in that giant mansion I saw on the news?"
I don't know why, maybe because I liked him or maybe because I was standing in front of a convent full of nuns, but I decided to do something I hadn't done with more than a handful of people. I told Clyde the truth.
"Remember that news story they said wasn't true? The one about me not remembering who I was, even my own name?"
"I remember." Clyde stopped to wipe sweat from his eyes.
"Well, it was true. Kind of." I realized my eyes stung too and wiped my face on my sleeves. "I remember things, but I remember them like I read a book about it, like it wasn't me." I met Clyde's eyes. "When I look in the mirror, my face doesn't seem familiar. When I hear my name, it doesn't sound right. That's why I go by Ozzie. That sounds right to me.
"I don't know what really happened to me, a stroke or whatever, but the old me is gone. It doesn't even feel like he was every really there. I don't know how to explain it."
"Sounds like a mid-life crisis to me." Clyde grinned.
Yeah. It kind of sounded like that to me, too. But it didn't feel like that. It felt more... supernatural. Which was why I had taken up my 'hobby' of trying to chase down things like this unicorn. I was desperate for answers to something I didn't understand enough to even ask questions about. So far I had only managed to make myself realize I really didn't understand anything.
We finished with the crates, and I bid Clyde farewell, pushing his boat out into the canal while re-securing his promise he would be back to get me in two days. The nuns came out with hand-pulled carts just in time to wave goodbye.
As I stacked crates into the carts for them, I wished they had brought the conveyances out while we were unloading so I wouldn't have to handle all the supplies twice.
Dinner was a simple fare comprised almost entirely of greens and vegetables from the convent's garden. It was served with a tart jelly I was told was made from bull grapes, a wild vine the convent had cultivated. I couldn't decide if I liked it or not. I definitely did not like the warm, weak beer I had to wash it down with.
The dining hall itself was exactly what I had expected after seeing the outside of the castle-like structure. Cavernous, the stone walls rose at least twenty feet up to a wooden celling I assumed was the floor of the level above us. High on the walls, stained glass windows depicted the usual biblical scenes I expected to see, with the exception of the largest, centered on the back wall, facing west to catch the evening sun.
The image in the colorful glass portrayed a unicorn, red, not white as in typical depictions, reared up waving to the angel ascending into heaven above it. The angel wore a grateful expression.
Annabelle's words came back to me as I ate and contemplated the window. I felt the weight of all my sins lift off of me. It was just like that feeling I used to get in church when I was a little girl, when I knew I was being the best I could and God was happy with me.
Sister Anne Eligius arranged for me to speak with a few of the other nuns after dinner and before Compline, their last service of the day. The stories they told me were remarkably similar to Annabelle's.
I had a lot of food for thought as I was shown to the simple room I would spend the night in. It took little imagination to think of it as a dungeon cell. It was clean, had a simple cot for a bed, and a small wooden table with a wash basin and a candle, but it was everything I had ever imagined a dungeon cell would look like, right down to the iron bars on the window and the exterior lock on the door.
"I hope you don't mind, Mr. Newdawn," Sister Anne Eligius said as she finished explaining she did indeed plan to lock me in. "It is for the sense of security the sisters have become accustomed to."
After hearing some of their histories, I did understand. It didn't mean I liked it, though.
I had blown out my candle and just started to doze when I heard commotion echoing through the stone hallways. The voices were too distant for me to make anything out, but the excitement was evident and seemed to move back and forth and around the whole of the convent.
When I heard voices outside, I tried to see out the window, but the bars were set too far in for me to see anything through the old rippled glass.
My calls went unanswered. Trapped in my dungeon cell, there was nothing I could do. I gave up and waited for the light of morning.
It was still dark when my door unlocked and opened just a crack.
"Breakfast will be served in the main hall in just a few moments." Sister Anne Eligius's voice carried through the slight opening and then the door shut again.
Rubbing my eyes, I sat up, not sure if I had slept.
"Sister?" I called after her as soon as I was aware of my surroundings enough to realize I wanted to ask about the occurrences in the night, but she was already gone.
The water in the wash basin was cool and refreshing on my face. I took a moment to change shirts out of my backpack and put on some deodorant. I considered brushing my teeth but wasn't sure where to spit in a room with no drain, so I skipped it.
I noticed the chamber pot under the bed for the first time as I turned to shut the door behind me. The sudden pressure in my bladder made me glad I hadn't noticed it last night. I really didn't want to ask a nun where to dump my own refuse.
After a quick visit to an outhouse, where I found a hand-pump well and water to brush my teeth with, I made my way to the main hall and had a breakfast of bread and watered down beer. I don't recommend it. The beer doesn't go well with toothpaste.
After breakfast, Sister Anne Eligius found me and offered to give me a full tour of the convent.
"I would be honored. But Sister, I have to ask, what was all of the commotion last night?" I tried to keep my voice calm. I didn't want her to think I was upset about being kept in the dungeon all night. Even though I was.
Her countenance darkened and she led me out of earshot of the other sisters. "Last night was a bit of an embarrassment, I'm afraid. Several of the sisters thought they caught glimpses of the unicorn out their windows and became convinced it had come to see Annabelle again." Looking chagrined, she met my eyes. "I'm afraid they got out of hand trying to take her outside and see the creature. They were very excited, but their behavior was completely unacceptable, and I apologize that you had to bear witness to that."
"No need to apologize," I assured her. I just wished they had let me out to look for the unicorn too, but there was no point in saying that.
The tour of the convent was incredible. As we walked past dark stone corners and small, simple rooms, the feeling of age-old timelessness was near overwhelming. The chapel proper was smaller than I expected, with ancient pews enough for not more than forty people. The rough-hewn carving of Jesus on the cross, hung on the wall above the pulpit, was crude by modern standards, but, as I tried to imagine someone carving it here in the swamp three hundred years ago, my respect for the work, love, and labor that went into it grew.
The final room Sister Anne Eligius showed me was the library. Another small, simple room, it was nearly three times the size of the room I had slept in. A humble desk sat in the center and four bookshelves lined the walls, each containing what appeared to be various copies of the bible.
She pointed out a shelf I hadn't noticed. "This contains all the records we have left of our convent. I am sorry to say the earliest volumes were lost in a hurricane a hundred years ago. What we have left are the testimonies of some of the women who have come here."
"Have they all been women?"
"There has never been a man? Isn't that strange?"
"Was the convent established by women then?"
She shook her head. "That, too, is lost to history. All we have are the rumors passed down through time. It is said the convent was started by some of the whores brought by the French soldiers who came to conquer the Americas, but that the building itself was already here."
"I thought a Spanish missionary founded it." I raised my eyes in surprise.
Sister Anne Eligius shrugged. "I am sure that sounds better to those who attempt to record history."
In an unexpected act of trust, I was left alone to examine the tomes containing the stories told by women who had come to the convent over the last two hundred years.
All had lived, in their opinions, terribly sinful lives before seeing the unicorn and finding redemption. In fact, all had been guilty of what several called promiscuity.
It was like the story of the unicorn being attracted by the virgin innocence of a young maiden, but in reverse. The red unicorn seemed to seek out only women who had been quite the opposite of virginal.
When Sister Anne Eligius came for me, I was squinting to read in the dim light of the fading day.
"I didn't realize so much time had passed," I said.
"I checked on you earlier, but you were so intent you didn't notice, so I left you to continue. I hope you found what you were looking for. There is little more I can tell you other than the day to day of our lives."
Stretching my back, I stood and shelved the book I had been engrossed in. "Honestly, I don't know what I was looking for, but you have been very generous to open your doors to me."
"And your donation was very generous."
"Everyone has a good cause they want me to give money to," I said with a smile, "but this is one I know is worthy. I read these stories, and I see the contentment on the faces of the women here, and I know this is a good place for the people who have found it."
Her warm smile was gratitude enough for me, even if I hadn't learned much about the mysterious unicorn. I couldn't be too upset about not finding something when I wasn't even sure why I was looking for it.
"I did save you some dinner, but if you don't mind, it is late, and I would ask that you take it in your room."
My smile faded. "Of course. But I really need to use the outbuilding first."
"Of course." Her smile widened.
I made it to the rudimentary facilities just in time. I had spent my entire day in the little library. I was just glad I had thought to ask before being locked back in my cell with the little chamber pot.
At first, sitting in the dark little room doing my business, I thought the red glow was my imagination, maybe my light-deprived eyes' neurons randomly firing. By the time I finished, I knew the light was real, as I could see the texture on the walls.
Opening the door cautiously, I found myself not ten feet from the luminescent red unicorn. Piercing, angry blue eyes watched me from behind an iridescent spiral horn, pointed at the center of my chest. A white tuft of hair hung from the chin of the face, which looked more deer-like than the equine features I had imagined it would have. Its hooves were splayed and not at all like a horse's. The creature was much smaller than I had thought it would be, only slightly larger than some giant dogs I had seen.
I was finally able to imagine a unicorn laying its head in someone's lap. But the aggressive stance it held left no doubt in my mind it had no intention of cuddling with me.
What are you? The words unmistakably came from the creature, though I knew it had not spoken.
I was neither nervous nor frightened. Another side-effect of whatever it was that had happened to me six months ago. Nothing seemed to scare me anymore.
"I would ask you the same." Even after six months of feeling little in the range of fear, I was surprised at my calm. I was staring eye to eye, talking to a mythical creature, and I felt little more than wonder and curiosity.
It took a step towards me, motioning with its head. I wasn't sure if it was smelling me, or waving its horn like a weapon.
You are unlike anything I have ever encountered.
"Again, I could say the same."
Why are you here? You must know I will not allow you to hurt these children of God.
Confused, I hesitated. "I didn't come to hurt anyone. I came looking for you."
Why? It stepped closer again, its flank quivering nervously.
I was close enough I could reach out and touch it now. Or it could run me through before I could move. "I don't know," I answered honestly. "I seek... answers to questions I don't have."
The unicorn raised its horn slightly, making itself less threatening. I could sense you from a distance you couldn't comprehend. It cocked an eye at me, curiously. Or perhaps you could.You bear a terrible burden, the likes of which no mortal has ever known. Your soul doesn't even know its name. No. That's not right. Somehow you have changed your soul's name. Changed it so that you can endure your burden.
"What are you talking about?" My stomach knotted at the unicorn's words. They made me uncomfortable and panicky in a way the thought of being skewered hadn't been able to. It was the first thing I had found disconcerting since my 'incident'. I didn't want it to say anymore. I wanted to turn and run. Yet, I felt I was close to what I had come here for, so close to an answer. I forced myself to stand my ground.
As I stared at the creature, I realized its eyes held fear as well. Why would it be afraid of me? Surely it could run and I could never catch it.
Others of my kind were known for stealing innocence; it is what they fed upon. I see none in you. I have never seen a being so devoid of innocence.
The words stung, but they felt true.
"What is your kind?"
Why I am a unicorn, of course. I am the last. I am the one, the only, the lone unicorn to heed God's call and board the Ark. God rewarded my obedience with a gift.I became unique among my kind. I feed upon sin and guilt. I can grant forgiveness. At the last word, the unicorn froze, its unblinking eye again reading my soul. You call yourself Ozzie so that you remember to forget.
"Remember to forget?"
You cannot allow yourself to know. You cannot allow yourself to forget. You cannot forgive yourself. It stood up straight and shivered as if shaking something off. I hadn't realized it had crouched so low while staring at me. It had nearly been cowering.
Ozzie. That is only a partial name. Only part of what you have renamed yourself. I cannot see what you are. It is possible that were I able, I could not comprehend what you are. But I can ease your burden. The red unicorn timidly stepped close to me and lowered its horn. Hold your hand out, but do not take hold. I fear this will be more like drinking from a waterfall than a fountain.
I did as I was told.
The unicorn laid its horn upon my palm and warmth spread through my body. A divine glow of forgiveness, of acceptance, of belonging washed over me. I became unsteady, losing my balance and falling to my knees, breaking contact with the unicorn's horn.
The unicorn stumbled back from me as though kicked in the head, eyes wide looking shocked and confused. You are a bottomless well. I am sorry. I cannot help you.
But it had helped. I could feel it. Hot tears of relief fell down my cheeks. Something had changed deep within me. Somewhere, the darkness had lightened, if only a shade or two. Somewhere, I had found a hope I hadn't known I needed.
"You have helped. I feel... better. I still need answers." I shook my head. "I don't even have the questions yet, I need those, too. But I feel better. Knowing you are here, and the things you have done. The things you can do... they make it better."
The unicorn turned and looked at the nuns in red habits who had gathered, unnoticed, along the wall of the convent. The awe in their eyes as they watched us was overwhelming.
It is not good for faith to have too much evidence. The unicorn looked back to me. I must go. I doubt we will meet again, Ozzie. Remember, we are all God's children. All of us. That means you, too.
With a bound like a deer, the red unicorn was gone into the Louisiana swamp, the red glow marking its passage through the mossy trees for only a moment before it faded.
Questions began to form in my mind. What was my real name? What was I, that a creature made to feed upon sin and guilt would find me a bottomless reserve it could not endure?
I realized a hand was on my shoulder and I looked up to find Sister Anne Eligius next to me.
"Now there has been a man who has come here because of the red unicorn."