Rita Oakes






















Jewels In A Jasper Cup
By Rita Oakes
(Originally published in Dogtown Review, May 2004)
“That minister of ministers,
Imagination, gathers up
The undiscovered Universe,
Like jewels in a jasper cup.”
     --John Davidson, 1857-1909


     Meghan usually hurried when she had to walk by the alley off Fifteenth Street. There was no bridge there, but there was a troll.
     The big kids said he wasn’t a troll. He was only The Man Who Lives in a Box. Troll or not, he scared her. Mostly it was his voice that scared her: big, mean-sounding, like her father’s before The Divorce. And he talked to people who weren’t there.
     She supposed he was playing “Let’s Pretend,” but why did he always have to pretend he was so mad?
     Today she forgot to be afraid, forgot even to walk on the other side of the street. Mrs. Bounderman had yelled at her in class, because Meghan hadn’t finished her homework. Meghan hadn’t even begun her homework. She had no idea how to do it. Mrs. Bounderman made her miss recess and she still hadn’t finished. Mrs. Bounderman said she would call her mother if Meghan didn’t have the work done tomorrow.
     Meghan didn’t want that. Mom would yell at her, and probably cry. She cried a lot, since The Divorce. Meghan knew it was all her fault, but she didn’t know how to stop it. She tried to be good. She really did. And if she couldn’t be good, she tried to be invisible.
     Meghan wished Mrs. Miller would come back. She was a nice teacher, and always smiled. But Mrs. Miller was having a baby, so they were stuck with Mrs. Bounderman, who never smiled, and who used to teach 5th grade. She didn’t like Meghan at all. Meghan had heard her talking to another teacher about “kids that just didn’t breathe right.” Meghan didn’t know what that meant, but she knew it was bad. Maybe Mrs. Bounderman didn’t like her because she had allergies. But she didn’t think she breathed differently from the other kids.
     Maybe it was because Mrs. Bounderman was really an ogre. Sometimes when Mrs. Bounderman was grading papers, Meghan could see her face twist. Then she could glimpse the ogre underneath--all cold eyes and yellow, curving tusks.
     Meghan knew all about ogres. They were in the book of fairy stories her father used to read to her. Ogres liked to eat people and suck on their bones like peppermint candy.
     She had never been afraid of ogres while Dad was with her. She would squirm into his lap and breathe the safe smells of aftershave and cigarettes. She would laugh when the hero outwitted the ogre. Dad would laugh with her and tickle her before tucking her into bed. But that was Before.
     She still had the book. She slept with it under her pillow. Sometimes she would flip through the pages, the smell of her father drifting up like a ghost. It made her stomach ache. She would always thrust the book back under her pillow until the burn of tears went away.
     The class had been talking about pets all week. Most of them had dogs or cats, but Alex had a pet snake. It ate live mice. Hector had a black and white rat named Aloysius. Everyone made fun of Hector for having a rat for a pet. Alex said he might feed Aloysius to his snake, which made Hector cry. And then David, who was Hector’s friend, said Alex better shut up, or else. Today David had to miss recess, too.
     Lanisha had two parakeets. Mei had goldfish. Only Meghan didn’t have a pet to draw a picture of or to report on in front of the class. Mom said they couldn’t afford one, and besides it would be bad for Meghan’s allergies. So Meghan just sank lower in her seat, doing her best to avoid being called on.
     That hadn’t worked, so she told Mrs. Bounderman she didn’t have a pet, and that was why she hadn’t done her homework. The ogre slid into hiding behind a lipstick smile. Mrs. Bounderman said that was no excuse, she could have a pretend pet.
     Meghan liked the idea of a pretend pet. But what pet should she pretend to have? She spent all afternoon thinking about it, but couldn’t pick one. She thought about it so hard after school that she lagged behind the big kids on the walk home and forgot all about the troll.
     He was big, the troll, with legs like iron lampposts, and hair like a great gray scrub pad. He said “oof” when Meghan ran into him. He caught her when she almost fell, which was a good thing, because the sidewalk was covered with broken glass. She looked up at him, too startled to remember to be afraid.
     “Watch yourself, little girl,” he said. He didn’t sound mean today, just kind of gruff.
     “I’m not supposed to talk to you,” she said.
     “Then don’t.”
     She backed up a step. He smelled bad, because he didn’t have a bathtub in his box, but he was looking at her with a smile in his eyes. His jeans were dirty, belted with a piece of rope knotted tight over skinny hips. He had draped a gray blanket over his shoulders. His shirt, half tucked in, had a squirming lump over the ribs.
     “Your shirt is moving,” she said.
     “Yeah. I know.”
     A button popped off his shirt. Something pushed its nose out of the gap, and then a head.
     It was a pony, but a pony too small even for her Barbie to ride. And it was green. She’d never heard of a green pony. Or of a pony with a horn upon its head.
     “I didn’t know ponies could have horns,” she said.
     “Don’t they teach you anything at that school of yours? This is no pony.” He caressed the animal’s nose so gently that Meghan could tell he wasn’t really angry with her.
     “Then what is it?”
     She studied the troll who was not a troll and the pony that was not a pony. “I have an apple,” she said. She unslung her backpack and rummaged a moment for her leftover lunch. She found the apple and held it out.
     The animal lipped it, then bit into the apple with a great crunch. His breath was warm on her hands. The eyes were purple like the stone in the necklace her grandmother had given her for her birthday last February. His coat was the creamy green color of melted lime sherbet.
     “Where did you find him?”
     “He found me. I woke up and he was curled up next to me. Damnedest thing.”
     Meghan thought about telling the troll he shouldn’t say “damnedest.” Instead she said, “So what is it, really?”
     “You sure you don’t know?”
     She shook her head.
     “This, little girl, is the rarest of the rare. More precious than diamonds. Quarry of kings.”
     “You’re using words I don’t know yet.”
     “Bet you don’t know your times tables either.”
     “I can read,” she said.
     “Can you now? That’s something. This, child, is a unicorn.”
     “Unicorn,” she said. The word felt strange in her mouth. “Can I hold him?”
     “I suppose.”
     The troll drew the tiny unicorn from inside his shirt. The hooves were sharp and hard, divided like the hooves of a goat she’d seen once at the petting zoo. The legs had hair fine as the feather boa she’d worn for Halloween. Strands of hair from his chin blew gently in a cold wind. He flicked his ears at the sound of a newspaper scraping by as it flew down the sidewalk. He nuzzled her hands as if he expected another apple.
     She took the unicorn into her arms. He didn’t weigh hardly anything at all and she had never touched anything so soft, not a kitten, not a feather, not the velveteen dress Grandma had made for her. He smelled nicer than the troll, too, fresh, green, a little sweet. She waited for her nose to close up like it did when she played with the kitten in the apartment below, but it didn’t. She stroked the unicorn’s neck with her forefinger. He curled up against her, resting his horn upon his flank. He closed his eyes.
     “He likes you,” the troll said.
     “Do you think so?”
     “Yeah. Maybe you should take him home with you. I can’t keep him. The street’s no place for magic.”
     “Sure. What else would you call a creature like that?”
     “Wishing magic?” She could wish her father home again.
     “Not that kind.”
     “Oh.” She struggled with disappointment. “My mom might not like it.”
     The troll shrugged within his blanket.


     Meghan managed to get into her apartment building without being seen. Mom was still at work, so Meghan put her backpack on the table and let the unicorn explore the kitchen while she made a snack of peanut butter and crackers. His hooves made a tap-tap sound on the linoleum. She gave him some peanut butter and a saucer of milk before going to watch cartoons.
     After cartoons she drew a picture of the unicorn for her report. It took her a long time, because she couldn’t settle on just the right color of green from her box of sixty-four crayons. None of them was the color of melted lime sherbet. But she colored neatly, keeping within the lines she made.
     Then she pulled her writing tablet from her backpack. I have a pet unikorn, she wrote, careful to close the “o” completely. He is small. He eats apples. She chewed on the eraser at the end of her pencil. He is my friend.
     What’s his name? He couldn’t have just any old name. Not if he was magic. She should have asked The Man Who Lives in a Box.
     Maybe Hector would help her pick out a name tomorrow. He was good with names. Or David. Not Alex, though.
     Meghan hid the unicorn in her bedroom. Mom had a grim look on her face when she came home, so Meghan didn’t tell her about it. Besides, Mom would be cross with her for talking to The Man Who Lives in a Box.
      They ate the fish sticks and fries Mom microwaved and watched television without talking. Meghan decided she was invisible again. She liked being invisible at school, but it made her feel funny to be invisible at home.
     As soon as she could, she went to her room. She found the unicorn chewing on the strap of her backpack. She picked him up. Settling onto her bed she stroked him until they both fell asleep.
     Sirens woke her in the night. Meghan reached for the unicorn, in case the noise scared him, but he wasn’t in bed beside her. Seeing her bedroom door ajar, she rose. She flipped the kitchen light switch. The trash can had tipped over. Meghan darted an anxious glance at her mother’s bedroom, but that door remained securely closed.
     She scooped the unicorn out of the trash. He blinked at her as he nibbled on a damp coffee filter. Dark coffee grounds coated his muzzle. Unicorn droppings littered the floor. “Bad boy,” she whispered. “You’ll get us both in trouble.”
     She cleaned up the mess as quietly as she could. Then she took him back to her bedroom, making sure the door clicked when she closed it.
     Meghan couldn’t risk leaving the unicorn at home alone all day. Not after what he’d done last night. She put a towel in the bottom of her backpack and zipped the unicorn inside. Perhaps the troll would take him back. But when she reached the alley off Fifteenth Street, The Man Who Lives in a Box was gone. So was his cardboard box. She felt almost as bad as when Daddy had moved out. Meghan went on to school, trailing after the big kids.
     She squeezed by Alex and circled around desks grouped in islands of four. She placed her backpack upon the floor beneath her seat, careful not to jostle it too much.
     Her desk stood at the back of the room, near coats and overshoes and dented lunchboxes. Sometimes she wanted to hide among the coats, curl into safe dark away from Mrs. Bounderman’s ogre sight. She thought if she could only stay there long enough, her Daddy might come looking for her.
     She tried, but she couldn’t really make herself listen to Mrs. Bounderman. She was too worried about the unicorn in her backpack. What if he couldn’t breathe? What if he ate her lunch? Or her homework? What if he went to the bathroom right in her backpack, like he had in the kitchen?
     She gulped. “Yes?”
     The class was giggling. “Pay attention, Meghan,” Mrs. Bounderman said. “I’ve called on you twice. Did you finish your homework from yesterday?”
     She nodded.
     “Good. Come to the front of the class and make your report.”
     She nodded again, and unzipped her backpack to remove her papers. The unicorn was no longer inside. Instead there was a ragged hole in the side of her backpack. She glanced around the classroom, eyes wide.
     “Hurry up, Meghan. We don’t have all day.”
     She slid out of her seat, still looking around for a movement of soft green. The class giggled again. Mei and Lanisha whispered to each other. Meghan’s face burned. Everyone stared at her. She glanced at Mrs. Bounderman, then quickly away again.
     “Go on.”
     Meghan smoothed out her drawing and held it up for the class. “This is my pet unicorn.” Hector looked interested. David smiled, revealing the dark space of missing front teeth. Alex rolled his eyes. Lanisha and Mei were still whispering.
     Meghan wished she could be invisible again. Her throat tightened like it did when her allergies acted up. She drew a shaky breath. “He likes apples and peanut butter. He looks like a pony, but he’s very small. And he has a horn.” She pointed to the wavy horn she had drawn.
     Mrs. Bounderman’s jaw tightened. Her teeth showed in a clench of yellow. “Meghan.”
     “Yes, Mrs. Bounderman?”
     “Unicorns are not real.”
     “Yes, they are. I--”
     “When I told you to write about a make-believe pet, I meant a dog or a cat. The point of having a pet is to learn responsibility. How can you learn responsibility if your pet is a mythological creature?”
     Meghan didn’t know what mythological meant, and she wasn’t quite sure about responsibility, either. But she did know that Mrs. Bounderman was wrong. “Unicorns are real,” she said. Her face felt hot. “Mine knocked over the trash last night and I had to clean it up.”
     “Nonsense. Even if they were real, they most certainly would not be green. You may sit down.”
     “But, Mrs. Bounderman--”
     “Sit down, Meghan. You may miss recess until you learn to follow directions.”
     “That’s not fair! I can show him to you.”
     Mrs Bounderman folded her arms across her chest. “Very well, then show him to me.”
     Meghan’s face felt even hotter as she remembered that the unicorn was missing. “I would--but he chewed a hole in my backpack. He’s here somewhere.”
     Alex’s shoulders shook with silent laughter. Hector traced a gouge on his desk. David bent to look under his chair.
     “Nice girls don’t lie, Meghan. Sit down.”
     Meghan knew about lies and liars. Like the time Mom had promised to take her for ice cream after work, then said she was too tired. Or the time Daddy said he would let her stay with him for the weekend, but forgot. Grown-ups lied all the time. Tears pricked at her eyes. “I’m not lying. The unicorn--”
     “Sit down, Meghan! Or would you rather sit in the Principal’s Office?”
     Alex was laughing so hard he slumped over his desk. David punched him on the shoulder. Alex yelped.
     “David! You can miss recess today, too, young man.”
     Alex sniggered even as he rubbed his shoulder. David gave him a look of dark promise.
     Meghan made her way back to her seat slowly, for the floor had turned to a soft caramel that pulled at her sneakers. Everyone was laughing at her now. Everyone but David.
     She slid into her chair. The unicorn didn’t like her any more, just like her Daddy didn’t like her any more. They’d both run away. Even the Man Who Lives in a Box had run away. She scrubbed her eyes with the heels of her hand. Her stomach hurt.
     At recess, she and David remained seated across from each other while shrieks of laughter and thumps of dodge ball drifted through the window. Mrs. Bounderman said they might color, so David bowed his head over a piece of newsprint. He drew a picture of a brown and white puppy. From time to time his tongue probed the place where his front teeth used to be.
     Meghan’s own piece of newsprint remained blank. “I’m not a liar,” she whispered.
     “I know.” David did not look up from his picture.
      “Alex is a jerk,” she said. She had never dared say such a thing before.
     David nodded.
     Meghan made her voice even softer. “Mrs. Bounderman is an ogre.”
     David lifted his brown crayon from the paper, scrunched his face in thought. “That’s probably why your unicorn ran away. I bet ogres like to eat unicorns.”
     Her eyes widened. She hadn’t thought of that. Her stomach uncoiled a little. Maybe the unicorn didn’t really hate her, after all. And she was sure he could outrun Mrs. Bounderman. She picked up a crayon.
     “Trade you my brown for your green,” David said.
     “OK.” The crayon felt warm from David’s hand. She watched as David began to draw a green kitten to play with his brown and white puppy. “Cats aren’t green,” she said.
     “Mine is.”
     “Mrs. Bounderman won’t like it.”
     He shrugged and continued drawing, as if he didn’t care what Mrs. Bounderman liked.
     Meghan put down the brown crayon, selected another. Purple. She liked purple. She began to draw a tiger. A great tiger with purple stripes. A tiger who would be gentle with a green unicorn, but who liked to eat ogres.