The Unicorn in Captivity

Materialized by Marguerite Sheffer on Friday, September 22nd 2023.

“For his part, Oi-Cheong Lee felt his sense of time dissolve. ‘The time we spent with the tapestries was nothing—only a moment in the life of the tapestries,’ he said.”

— “Capturing the Unicorn” by Richard Preston, The New Yorker, April 11, 2005


The tapestries are worth more than the walls. For feast days they are hauled out and hung, adding life to the cold stone hall. Eight panels depict the capture of the unicorn: the hunters, in the end, victorious: bright red threads.

When the tapestries hang it is like the young queen’s wedding all over again. Then, they still stank of vinegary dyes; their threads were gleaming, overlooking hens, puddings and hot wine.

Now the trumpets of battle blare; the castle is under siege. The young queen thinks: the unicorn is me; treasured, trapped but able to see beyond its flimsy cage.

She steals away to a place no one will recognize her. She leaves the tapestries hanging, to slow the conquerors, to distract them with treasure. The barbarians behead her husband. The world ends.

But she survives a little while longer, a handful of years. She finds work at a mill. She covers her hair with a white kerchief. The world goes on.


The chateau is a riot of torches and pillaging and shouting and stomping. The common folk rip down all the grandeur, every sign of obscene wealth. The Marquis’ fine ceramics mosaic the floor.

Many rough hands pull down the tapestries. They might extract the metal from the gilt threads, like they do the gold teeth from the rolling heads, the aristocrats giving back—finally, giving in spite of themselves.

But a cobbler, seeing the unicorn tied up in that little man-made fence, so slight, thinks we will display the tapestry as our flag so everyone will see: our brotherhood is the unicorn, the aristocracy is the fence and the whole future of liberty is laid out like a green carpet to sink our hooves into. The cobbler calls on his brothers-in-arms to carry the tapestry out before set the whole chateau alight.

The cobbler sees the guillotine himself, soon afterwards.


The tapestry is a blanket. It rests in a barn in Northern France. Sweet and oily fingers touch it often, for there are many children here. In a hard freeze it warms root vegetables.

A favorite cow gives birth under it. The calf has a white mark on its forehead where a horn would be. The family pampers him and calls him Licorne. They give him ribbon crowns and the sweetest sounding bell for his neck. The calf nuzzles into the stiff folds of the tapestry. He softens them with rolling and gnawing.

After two unyielding years of famine the family abandons the farm. They leave Licorne in the yard and the tapestries in the barn. Now a cow, Licorne lies among the tapestries and misses the family, wonders why they have left and what he is to do, now.

Tufts of his soft brown fur become permanently woven into the weft of the tapestry. They will not be able to be removed, later, without causing damage.


The museum warden is standing on a ladder propped against a stone wall. He is loosening the tapestry panel from the sturdy clips that hold it up for viewing. He is cradling it gently to the floor as it falls. He is too old for this shit.

On previous nights’ watch the warden would watch the tapestry shift in the slightest of breezes, as if alive. Now he wrestles it like a body, like a gentle giant. The warden has spent years alone at night with the tapestry, with the unicorn, wondering why the beast doesn’t make a break for it. He decides that what he is doing now, crouching his old knees carefully beside its old threads and starting to roll, is a kind of guarding too.

The warden hears the rest of Manhattan beyond the oasis of this museum—a helicopter, a siren, the rip of a military jet. Are those regular city sounds? Or warnings? After the President’s broadcast he is hyper-aware. Probably everybody is. It is unclear: should he continue to go to work? Is the subway still safe? For how long?

The warden has hired an outrageously priced cab to drive him two miles to where the Little Red Lighthouse touches the Hudson. This is where he has arranged the dropoff. He watches the river and waits for bubbles. What surfaces is white, the size of a van, beaching itself lightly. It beeps. A hatch opens.

It is tempting, of course, to throw himself in, to straddle the tapestry, to ride it all out. He’s heard others have tried. But these are vacuum submarines, not built for humans at all. He doesn’t get the coordinates.

He only had room to send one panel of the tapestry, so he chose the one reproduced on tote bags—his favorite and everyone else’s: the punchline to the eight-panel comic strip, “The Unicorn is in Captivity and No Longer Dead.” Sure there’s an arrow, sure there’s a chain around its neck and a paltry fence. But it lives.


All that green, the children of the sunken city think. They press their greasy hands against the plexiglass that protects the tapestry, a familiar material to them; it keeps the water at bay.

They are more fascinated by all the green than the unicorn—that seems less plausible. They’ve seen plants, of course, but also behind plexiglass, in little rows. They’ve learned the name of the color but never seen it as the backdrop to everything. The interpretive materials share that the tapestry once doubled as a botany textbook: 101 different species of foliage portrayed. Can you find them all?

“Why doesn’t the unicorn just break free?” one asks.

Her question is not answered in the plaque.

“Use your imagination. For all we know,” her teacher replies, “he does.”

Marguerite Sheffer is a writer and educator who lives in New Orleans, Louisiana. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Dread Machine, Cast of Wonders, The Pinch, and The Adroit Journal, where she is a 2023 Anthony Veasna So Scholar in Fiction. Maggie is a founding member of Third Lantern Lit, a community writing collective, and volunteers at 826 New Orleans. She is a member of the Nautilus and Wildcat Writing Groups. You can find her online at and @mlensheffer.