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The blue unicorn

On the wall above my desk hangs a drawing of a blue unicorn stepping from a curtain of mist, a clear light rising above its head. The animal, which seems poised as if to leap from the wall, has an unearthly beauty which has been the source of many comments and questions. When someone asks I tell him the unicorn is a reminder of someone very special I knew years ago. If he inquires further, I offer some variation of the blue unicorn story.

It begins in a white frame house with my mother and father and me looking out the window at the house across the street. On the lawn three strangers are unpacking suitcases, some boxes. ''Our new neighbors,'' my mother says, and we speculate for a moment what sort of people these might be. Later I walk with my parents as we go to welcome the newcomers in their new home. Greeting us inside the door, the mother and father seem happy to meet us. Their son, a child of about my age, hangs back slightly as if reluctant or frightened by our intrusion. I hear him introduced as Sonny, although he draws back farther when I extend my hand.

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''Sonny is a deaf-mute,'' the father says, and without thinking I pronounce my own name, aware all at once that words are of little use. Afterward I feel sad as well as a bit fearful. Sonny seems a kind of alien, someone different from my other friends. For several weeks I ignore my parents' suggestion that I invite Sonny over to play.

Entirely by accident I run into the neighbor's yard one afternoon. Chasing a softball, I nearly fall over Sonny. He's sitting in the grass, drawing a picture , and when he glances up a silence hangs between us like a glass curtain. I feel again the anxiety of our first meeting, yet now I am curious. The image on his drawing pad, a landscape, has caught my attention. It's so beautiful, like nothing I've ever seen, not in anyone's backyard.

I stand for a long time looking down at his picture, and then I kneel and look closer. It's a likeness of a lake drawn against blue, snowcapped mountains. From the water's surface rises a white fog which gives the scene a quality like something I've seen in dreams. The impact of the picture comes to me gradually, until what he's done seems a kind of miracle. It seems doubly miraculous that someone who can't speak or hear a word should have made something so wonderful. There is a truth to be learned here, I decide, and promise silently to return each afternoon.

The following day I'm sitting with my chin propped on my knees in the grass next to Sonny, who is working. On his sketch pad is a partly completed face. In a moment I recognize it as his mother, the lines of her face softened and perfected under his hand. As he continues he looks up at intervals as if to gauge my response. I can only smile back at him, nod, and attempt to convey with my eyes my sense of wonder and joy. Those times he returns that smile, the light rising in his eyes, I know we have spoken to each other and been heard.

Over a period of time I begin to see his art as an expression of something he is trying to say to me: an affirmation of the beauty he perceives around him. Looking into his landscapes I could see the world reflected there, illuminated by his humanity and warmth. As I watched him draw I sometimes felt as if we were talking to each other, as though I were listening to something deep inside him - that somehow he had learned to hear me. After a period, during which our afternoons had been shaped around the ritual of his drawing, I began to feel a closeness with Sonny that I'd never felt before with anyone else. It was a friendship that required no words, one in which words would have diminished rather than created understanding.

He wasn't able to tell me finally, or maybe he was afraid to tell me, that his family had decided to move. When my mother broke the news to me I was completely unprepared, bursting into tears and crying for a long time without shame. I cried, but understood gradually that this was for the best, that Sonny was moving so that he might attend art school. On the day of his departure he handed me a drawing he'd been working on, an intricately drawn blue unicorn, his farewell gift.

As that picture diminished the pain of his leaving many years ago, so now it endures as a reminder of our friendship, something marvelous, rare, and wholly wonderful I found in Sonny, and something I believe exists in all human beings. When I begin to doubt that, I look above me to the picture that hangs over my head: a blue unicorn rising as if from a long sleep, a clear light spreading above its head like a handful of diamonds someone has thrown into the air and which hang suspended there, as if forever.

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