Unicorn in the Park
Not long ago, I went out for a stroll in the park. It was the one place where I routinely cleared my thoughts. But lately, a dense fog had gathered inside my head and the frequents walks had not done much to disperse it. On that particular day, my feet, apparently without me noticing, had taken a detour from my usual route. As I emerged out of my thoughts, I found myself standing in an area that I have never seen before. I saw a clearing with a small pond covered with colorful water lilies. Dragon flies were fluttering above its surface, their translucid wings glistening in the sunshine. It felt like I had jumped right into a Monet painting. A wooden bridge led to the other side of the pond where a tall, drooping willow tree stood. Underneath its branches, a little girl, around seven or eight years old, was sitting on a bench quietly reading a book.
I felt a tug of longing for the shelter offered by the many arms of the willow tree. I hesitated for a moment, not wanting to disturb the child who seemed so engrossed in her book; however, the pull of the tree’s promising hug was mighty. I crossed the bridge. As I approached the bench, the gravel on the path crunched beneath my feet. The little girl did not seem to notice my presence.
I sat on the end of the bench furthest from the girl and relaxed my head on its backrest. Closing my eyes, I focused my attention on the surrounding sounds. The light breeze shuffling trough the willow tree branches, the birds singing in the trees, and the muffled laughter of playing children in the distance all rocked me gently back and forth. For a blissful moment, there was peace, and in a moment, it was gone. The little girl had clapped her book shut and was now looking sharply in my direction.
“Excuse me!” she unapologetically snapped. “What would you do if you saw a unicorn in the park?”
“How cute!” I thought to myself. “I don’t know,” I said as I lifted my head from the backrest and straightened. I tried to imagine a unicorn quietly grazing in the green grass by the pond and added, “I would probably look at it in disbelief.”
“Are you saying that unicorns don’t exist?” asked the little girl reproachfully.
Not wanting to disappoint her, I tried to explain myself. “Well, that depends very much on the meaning of the word exist. You see, they exist in our imaginations, in books and in stories.”
The girl did not seem satisfied with my answer. She looked at her book for a moment, now laying closed on her lap, and said, “You are wrong! They are real and they can travel between worlds because they are magic. Maybe there is one here now!” She looked around searchingly.
“They are invisible, you see. They don’t want to get hurt.”
A sudden wave of sadness washed over me. “Maybe you are right. Maybe it is better that we can’t see them after all.”
“No, it’s not better! It’s unfair!” The little girl jumped up and stomped her foot on the ground.
“I will never get to see a live unicorn because grown-ups are so stupid.” Tears welled up in her eyes. but what was I to say? That there is no magic in the world, that all children have to grow up sometime, that unicorns are just like Santa Claus, cruel inventions meant to disappoint children?
Sitting back down, the girl sulked and stared at the tips of her toes. We both sat there in silence lost in our thoughts.
“What are you reading?” I asked after a while, trying to brighten up the mood.
“Mary Poppins in the Park.” she said.
Mary Poppins! Suddenly I remembered another little girl from a long, long time ago, reading that same book. Yes, The Children in the Story. Mary Poppins had taken the Banks children to the park. There, three little princes and their unicorn had jumped out of the pages of a fairy tale book.
“Is there a unicorn in your book?” I asked, feigning to ignore the answer.
“Yes. But all the adults want to catch it. All of them: the policeman, the park keeper, the zookeeper, the circus manager.” The little girl was really agitated. “Even the Professor,” she added, “and he is usually nice. He reads fairy tales. But now he wants the unicorn stuffed and sent to the museum. Why are they so mean?” She turned her sad blue eyes in my direction.
“Because… they… don’t know better,” I said hesitantly. She kept staring at me, so I added, “You see, they may act in a mean way, but they are probably not mean.” The look on her face clearly indicated that I was not making any sense.
“And why don’t they …… Why don’t you know better?”
“Maybe we are not reading the right books,” I answered. I said this only because I had to say something, but it was apparent that she was losing patience with me.
As she stood up, she said, “I wish I was living inside this book,” and she waved her book at me. “I wish Mary Poppins came to my house.” And then, not waiting for an answer, she turned on her heels and ran away.
At that moment, a flash of white brushed the corner of my eye and I heard clapping of hooves chasing after the little girl. Impossible! My heart skipped a beat. Just as suddenly as it appeared, the wondrous feeling slipped away. I was not going to be played for a fool by my imagination.
The sun was beginning to set, and it was time for me to go home. Back to stifling ordinary, back to the grey haziness of days filled with chores, errands, endless emails, and phone calls. Something heavy pressed on my lungs. It was despair. I had been avoiding it for some time now, but it finally made its presence impossible to ignore. Making its way up my throat, it squeezed it mercilessly. The rising tide of tears broke down all my defense mechanisms, and it was then that I saw her. Mary Poppins sitting quite properly on the other end of the bench.
“Didn’t your mother teach you not to stare at people? It’s quite rude,” said Mary Poppins. “And can you please close your mouth, it’s not becoming of a lady.”
“Well, ladies are no longer trending in our time.” I replied defiantly.
“I see,” said Mary Poppins, “you do have a temper.”
“What if I do? Why should I care what some weirdo dressed like Mary Poppins thinks of me anyway?” As soon as the words escaped my mouth a taste of bitterness took their place. Is this what shameful regret tastes like?
Swallowing, I looked the other way. “I am really sorry.” I looked back in Mary Poppin’s direction. “I don’t know what’s gotten into me. I guess, I meant to say, you are making a particularly good impression of Mary Poppins, and I am not talking about Julie Andrews or Emily Blunt. I’m talking about the real Mary Poppins, the one from the books.”
“Actresses indeed.” sniffed Mary Poppins. “I have no patience for actresses. Narcissists, that’s what they are.” As she spoke, she pulled a small mirror out of her purse, took a look at her own reflection, and nodded with approval.
I had to admit, there was something unusual about the woman, something I could not put into words.
“Well, my day out is almost over. All good things must come to an end if they are to begin again,” said Mary Poppins in a pontificating manner.
“I guess you can put it that way.” I paused for a moment. “But don’t you wish sometimes for more than an evening out every second week?” I asked, deciding to play along with the stranger.
“To do what?”
“I don’t know… Don’t you ever get tired of taking care of children? Don’t you wish for something else sometimes?”
“Wishing is tricky, my dear! My cousin, Mr. Twigley, knows a great deal about wishes, and so does Sarah Clump. Let me tell you, she learned that the hard way.”
A vague memory of a story I read long time ago echoed through my mind. Mr. Twigley’s Wishes was it? It did not end well for the woman who was catering to Mr. Twigley, that much I remember; that and the music boxes.
“Anyway,” I said, “it was a stupid question. If you are Mary Poppins, then you can make all your wishes come true, can’t you?”
A satisfied smile spread on Mary Poppin’s face. “Well, it’s time for me to go,” she said. And suddenly, I saw the parrot-headed umbrella. As she opened it, the parrot handle spoke, “Ask her your question.”
Now that was startling! Was the umbrella handle really talking to me? No, it certainly wasn’t. It had to be some fancy trick. Again, I decided to play along. “What is your magic, how does it work?”
“How impertinent!” said Mary Poppins sternly. “And just as expected! But it is your lucky day, so I will give you a second chance. Ask the right question.”
“Okay….then…how can I be more like you?”
At this, Mary Poppins burst into a loud cackling laughter. I felt hot and cold at once, and strangely enough, at that precise moment, I believed I was talking to Mary Poppins.
“You want to be like me! Goodness gracious, this is the funniest thing I have heard in ages! And why would you want that, if I may ask?” said Mary Poppins.
“Isn’t it obvious? I want some magic in my life. We all want some magic in our lives,” I said. “Why is this so funny to you?”
“Because no one can be like me!” Then with the blink of an eye, her face turned to stone. Mary Poppins looked at her parrot handle and said condescendingly, “Really, these people are hopeless. You show them the path, but they stubbornly refuse to get on it. Well, it turns out I cannot help you, even on your lucky day.”
“Wait! Don’t go! Of course, you can help me, if you really are Mary Poppins!” I cried out.
“And how do you think I can help you?”
“Maybe you can help me get some clarity.”
“Well, well! This is the first reasonable thing you have said this entire afternoon. Let me tell you, clarity is the first step towards a sound wish.”
“But the thing is, I can’t think clearly. Not anymore, not since….” I wanted to explain my problems, but she interrupted abruptly.
“Think, think, think. All you will do is spin off your head from your shoulders.”
“It does get dizzying at times,” I had to admit. Sometimes, it even made me nauseous.
“Have you tried thinking less and dreaming more?” asked Mary Poppins.
“Dreaming? Who has time for that? And how is dreaming going to pay my bills?”
“Listen, you will have to make up your mind. You said you wanted magic in your life. Dreams and wishes are the only way, but you must believe they can come true. Or else, why bother wishing?”
Then she opened her umbrella and gently glided upwards. I pinched myself to make sure I was not dreaming. But no, I was not. I was looking at Mary Poppins flying up to the sky. And I was left speechless.
“Don’t underestimate the ordinary.” She said looking down on me. “It walks hand in hand with the extraordinary. You can’t have one without the other.”
“Then, unicorns are real after all, aren’t they?” I cried out so she can hear me.
“Only you can know what is real to you. Trust. Trust your intuition.” And pouf, just like that she was gone.
Lina Slavova is obsessed with Mary Poppins and the creative genius of her author, P.L. Travers. A few years ago, after reading P.L. Travers’s biography, she was left wanting for more, so she went in search for it: more understanding, more depth, more nuance. At the end of 2016, a year into the project, she started The Mary Poppins Effect blog (www.themarypoppinseffect.com) to accompany her research and study of P.L. Travers’s life, spiritual beliefs, and literary works and She has not stopped writing ever since.