White as Soap
By Teresa Milbrodt
I’m not sure what to think when the people from the soap company call and ask about filming a commercial at my unicorn ranch. They want to feature unicorns wild and free and running across the open prairie and all that other romantic shit.
“Unicorns have a great universal appeal,” says the director. “They’re mythic and romantic. That’s the sort of thing that will sell soap.”
“Oh,” I say because I sell unicorns and not soap. After raising unicorns for twenty years I’ve learned that there is nothing romantic about them. I also have a vague notion that doing a commercial could be classified as selling out, but I’ve also been told that the kind of people who talk about “selling out” are the kind of people who can’t sell anything. What matters is if you can live with yourself in the morning.
I’m not worried about being able to live with myself, as my primary morning concern is if the unicorns will get fed, not only on that morning but on subsequent mornings. People aren’t buying unicorns like they used to. They’re considered a luxury item, even though I argue strongly against that idea. Most people overlook the practical uses of unicorns as work animals–a unicorn is no more expensive than a good horse, and just as strong. Unicorns owners and breeders simply have to be aware of unicorn biology and certain medical concerns like horn rot. But I digress.
In the end it comes down to having more food for the blessing versus less food for the blessing, so I say yes. The director says she and a camera crew will be out in two weeks. She doesn’t sound pleased when I tell her that the nearest airport is four hours away, but this is Wyoming so what do you expect?
I say she and her crew should schedule three days to be around before they start shooting.
“Do you really need three days?” she says.
“It takes the unicorns a while to get used to new people,” I say. “Some of them will be curious and some will be scared.” By the time the camera crew arrives I will have selected the unis that would be good candidates for the commercial, but I’ll need to see their reactions to the crew and their equipment to be certain.
The director agrees but sounds a bit grudging about it.
“These are domesticated unicorns,” I say, “but they’re not used to cameras. If you need trained unis, I can tell you who to call.” I’ve sold a few unicorns to wranglers who train animals for the movies. I’ve saddle broken a few of my unis, but I don’t have time for much beyond that.
The director says she wants to use the “wild backdrop” of Wyoming and so my untrained unis will be fine. I figure she’s probably working on the cheap and doesn’t want to shoulder the cost of more expensive animals and handlers.
She says she’ll get my contract and all the necessary forms in the mail to me this afternoon.
I explain the arrangement to my ranch hand Orrin when we eat lunch in the farmhouse. He nods like he’s not excited about the idea. I’m not surprised at his reaction, but pretend that I am.
“What’s wrong?” I say.
“Nothing,” he says.
“You’re worried,” I say.
“They don’t like it when a lot of strangers come around,” he says. “They get moody. It’s a hell of a lot harder to keep them under control.”
“That’s why I’m having everyone in the crew come early,” I say.
“I hope it helps,” he says.
“Why wouldn’t it?” I say.
“It can take them a while to get used to new things.”
“If they’re really upset by the people and the cameras,” I say, “I’ll tell the soap company that the deal is off.”
“Really?” he says.
“Yes,” I say, though things will have to get really bad before I say no. Orrin knows that and I know that because we need the money. We’re having problems with the water heater in the trough. Even though it’s early fall we’ve been having cool weather and it gets below freezing at night. I have to break the ice on the troughs in the morning. Unicorns won’t drink if the water is too cold, and when they get dehydrated it can lead to colic and other intestinal problems. We need to replace the heater, and there’s enough in the bank account to cover that cost, but that cuts down on the amount of money we’ll have to buy hay and keep the blessing fed over the winter.
That afternoon when I check on the blessing grazing in the pasture, I make mental notes about which unicorns would be best for the soap commercial. I need unicorns with an even temperament, ones that will be calm around a bunch of new people and cameras. Those tend to be the roan and paint unicorns, not the white ones. I’m not sure why this is, but the classic white unicorns tend to have slightly larger horns and sharper tempers. I prefer the roans and paints anyway. They’re prettier in, my opinion.
It’s not always a good thing to promote the mysticism of unicorns, some people buy unicorns for their horns, cut them off, grind them into a powder, and sell the rest as horse meat. When I read news of an illegal horn trading ring outside of Toronto last year, it made me shudder. I think the people I sell my unis to are good people, but how can I ever be sure?
When Orrin and I make the ten-mile drive into town the next day to have lunch and buy groceries, everyone has heard the news of my soap commercial. The director called the only motel in town to make reservations for herself and the camera crew, and Bernice who works at the motel front desk had breakfast at the cafe this morning and told Myrna the waitress. Telling Myrna anything is like standing in the middle of town and shouting something over a megaphone.
Myrna and the other waitresses are already star struck, asking if they can drive out to my ranch and bring their grandkids around when the camera crew is here.
“It would be educational for them,” says Myrna. I figure she and the other waitresses hope to appear in the soap commercial. I say I don’t know and I’ll have to check with the director.
Orrin and I sit at the front corner like usual and order cheeseburgers. On Orrin’s other side, Phil eats a grilled ham and cheese and grimaces at me.
“We don’t need any Hollywood types coming out here,” he says, “the only thing that will bring is more Hollywood types and then town will go to shit.”
“They’re not from Hollywood,” I say, “they’re from St. Paul.”
“Don’t be an old stick-in-the-mud,” says Myrna as she pours another cup of coffee for him. “You’re just jealous that no one wants to film your cattle for a soap commercial.”
“We need to keep our herds fed same as you do,” Orrin says to Phil with and smile and a shrug. “You know what the times are like.”
Phil mutters something I can’t hear, but I don’t imagine it’s anything too bad because he likes Orrin. Most of the ranchers around here like Orrin more than they like me–he’s not a transplant, and he sympathizes more with usual rancher concerns. I moved here from Ohio twenty years ago, but some people will always think of me as an outsider. I don’t like the idea, but it is what is.
Orrin and I spend the next two weeks figuring out which twenty unicorns from the sixty in the blessing would be good candidates for the small screen. There’s a lot to consider—which ones will be most photogenic and least camera shy and most hospitable to strangers. I also have to sign a whole bunch of forms and waivers and other legal documents that the director sends in an inch-thick packet. Orrin and I drive to the cafe again, buy the town lawyer lunch, and get her to skim through everything and tell us what it means.
The lawyer orders a grilled cheese sandwich with mustard and home fries, and says that the forms state the film crew has insurance for their equipment and accidental injuries caused by my unicorns to the equipment or crew. I need to have insurance to cover injuries to my unicorns, and I have to keep reasonable control over them at all times.
“It’s telling you that they have their rears covered, and making sure that you have your rear covered,” she says.
“Why did they need a whole pile of papers to say that?” I ask. “Does it really take more than a page?”
She shrugs and sips her coffee. “We have to make sure those years of law school are worth something.”
“You’re going to be a huge TV star,” says Myrna when she comes to refill my iced tea. “We can say we knew you when.”
I say it’s not me but my unicorns that will be in the spotlight. “I just want to keep them fed.”
Myrna nods and smiles, but I know she sees me and the whole blessing of unicorns bound for Hollywood. Nobody seems to remember the crew is coming from St. Paul, which is colder and much less glamorous.
Phil sits at the counter two stools away from us.
“Blasted show animals,” he mutters. “Not worth their oats.”
In the past I got into debates with him and said that one of my unis could outwork a horse any day, but any battle with Phil is just wasted words.
Myrna keeps yapping about Orrin and me being bound for California. I get a little sick of it, and am almost happy when Phil breaks the conversation.
“Wolves got another two of my calves last night,” he says loud enough to set everyone in the cafe grumbling.
“Pests,” Orrin mutters. I glare at him but he just shrugs. “They don’t belong here,” he says.
“They were around here at the same time unicorns were,” I say, “not their fault the herds got shoved north to Canada.”
“That doesn’t mean we need to bring them back down,” he says.
The scientists who’ve been reintroducing wolves to Wyoming say that disease kills more sheep and cattle than wolves, but when a wolf takes out a couple sheep, everyone knows about it. It’s not the same when a couple sheep die of intestinal problems. Maybe I’m biased because unis can take care of themselves–they’re territorial and they have that horn—so I don’t worry about wolves taking out any members of the blessing.
Orrin’s family is from the area so he knows the difference between the way things used to be a generation or two ago, and the way they are now. I’ve only been here for a couple of decades, so my definition of what is and is not normal is different. I feel bad for the wolves, but I’m the only rancher around who has any sympathy for them. The reality of nature is that humans moved the wolves out and the cattle in. Scientists are trying to restore what was, but it has to coexist with what is. That is not an easy feat.
The director and camera crew arrive at my ranch on a Monday morning, grumbling about the lack of good coffee shops in town. The cafe does a pretty good breakfast, but they’re not experienced with making things to go. The director’s frown gets even deeper when I explain my best candidates for the commercial are roan and paint unicorns. She wants white ones.
“They symbolize mysticism and purity and all that shit,” she says. This is not her phone voice, this is her getting-down-to-business voice.
I take a deep breath.
“Oh,” I say. After you’ve been around unicorns for a while and watched them take a dump, neither mysticism nor purity come readily to mind. The people in the camera crew seem surprised when a big white unicorn shits in the pasture, which makes me smirk. What else are unicorns supposed to do? They eat hay, they make fertilizer. Simple as that.
“We can try using white ones,” I say, “but they’re going to be more temperamental. White ones don’t always go where you want them to go.”
The director paces.
“We need unicorn makeup,” she says finally. “Paint on the horns. Powder to make the unicorns look more snowy and clean. That’s what soap is all about.”
Orrin and I drive into town and buy a lot of white talcum powder and shoe polish. We apply it to the unicorns in the pasture so they can watch us work, recognize each other more readily, and not be scared over their new, lighter coats.
“It’s not bad,” the director says finally. “We can fine-tune things later.”
Then she’s concerned my unicorns are not willowy enough.
“They look fat,” she says.
I sigh. I spend a lot of time explaining the unicorn’s build to prospective buyers. Unicorns are stockier than most people expect and have a heavier coat than horses, but they need that coat to survive in the wild. My unicorns are domesticated, but there are still some wild blessings in Canada. Willowy unicorns tend to have more colic and intestinal problems, so even selective breeding isn’t a good idea unless you want a sick unicorn on your hands.
Members of the camera crew seem to like my unicorns more than the director, and ask if they can feed and pet them. Today they’ve come without their cameras and other equipment, since I think my unis should only have to deal with one confusing thing at once.
I like the camera people—they’re polite and easygoing and seem like they want to make friends with my unis. I spend two days with the camera crew and the unicorns in the pasture, giving them carrot and oat cookies to feed the unicorns, letting them scratch the unicorns behind their ears and around their horns, and teaching them the basics about unicorn body language. The most important thing is to pay attention to their ears. A unicorn’s ears point in the direction of its interest, and that can shift pretty quickly. When a unicorn’s head turns the horn is sure to follow, and you have to watch for that. It’s also important to notice when a uni’s ears are flat against the sides of its head. That means an upset unicorn, and suggests you should get out of its way.
Working with five camera people and twenty unicorns is stressful because I have to pay attention to all twenty unis at once, and make sure no one looks scared or aggressive. The director doesn’t spend as much time in the pasture as I’d like, she wants to be in town where she can get better cell phone reception and call people back in St. Paul to discuss other projects. I’m suspicious that she was turned off by the fact that my unicorns are not what she expected, but she still wants to shoot the commercial, so I guess it doesn’t matter that much.
After their second day in the pasture, one of the guys from the camera crew asks me about buying a unicorn from me for his kids.
“Ever worked with large animals?” I say.
He says his grandfather had horses when he was growing up. “My kids keep asking for a pony,” he says, “and there’s a place where we could stable it outside of town.”
I give him one of my brochures, tell him to think about buying a uni, and call me later. His interest makes me pleased and worried. It would be nice if the commercial would promote my ranch as well as soap, but there are always risks. Buying a unicorn is like buying a baby rabbit or duckling or Dalmatian puppy. It’s a nice thought, but those pets are usually more work than the owner expected.
Unicorns are more finicky than horses, require more grain and less hay, and they’re more susceptible to colic. They can also get horn rot if they’re kept in a damp place for too long, so it’s best to keep them in an open shelter rather than a stable. The white unis don’t always like kids, but no matter how much I caution prospective buyers, some of them won’t be dissuaded from buying a Diamond or Snowy or Cloud.
I’ve had more than one unicorn returned to me over the years because of ornery behavior. Snapping at kids. Refusing to be bridled. Stripping the bark off trees with their horns. I’ll refund most of the money, but not the initial deposit. People get pissy about that, but it’s a standard business practice.
In the evening after the camera crew has gone home, I hear a wolf howl and know a pack is near. It makes me smile, but Orrin grimaces.
“The unis will be fine,” I say.
“That’s not what I’m worried about,” he says. “They don’t belong here.”
“They used to belong here,” I say.
“Not anymore,” he says.
“People could say the same thing about unis,” I say.
“They don’t kill anything,” he says.
I drop the subject because I know I’m not going to win.
The next day the camera crew arrives with their equipment and the director. They spend the morning setting up in one of my pastures, figuring out how they want to stage the shots and where they want the unicorns to run. Orrin and I herd ten unicorns into the round pen and let them sniff the camera and tripods. They’re not scared of the equipment as much as they’re curious about it, which makes me think the main problem won’t be the unis running away from the cameras but getting too close.
In the afternoon we test out a few different camera angles. Orrin and I ride behind the blessing, driving them through the pasture like we do when we need to move the herd back to the round pen or barn or their winter shelter. We get three rounds of footage, everything goes well, and the director surveys my pastures to decide where she’d like to film next. Orrin and I stay mounted on our unicorns, but then I see Princess start.
I don’t know what spooks her—it could be something small, an imagined movement in her peripheral vision—but it’s enough to make her rear up and charge off, heading straight for the cluster of cameras and slamming into one that costs I don’t want to know how much money. The camera person has enough time to get away, but I don’t know if the camera is salvageable.
I yell and whistle to Princess. It takes a moment for her to calm down, but she walks to me slowly like a toddler who just threw a tantrum and knows she’s in trouble. The director moans over the upset camera while I inspect Princess for wounds. There’s a small cut above her leg, one I’ll have Orrin tend to in a minute to make sure it doesn’t get infected, but right now I have to tend to the director.
“What the fuck was that?” she says.
“She got upset by something,” I say.
“I thought you had control over these animals,” she says.
“I do,” I say, “but I can’t control everything they do. You can’t control a dog or elephant or little kid all the time. I can be alert to their body language, but if something scares them…” I sigh. It’s not the best of answers, but it’s true.
“This camera is shot,” she says.
“Don’t you have insurance for that?” I say.
“I’d hoped not to use it,” she mutters. “And this limits the number of different angles we can shoot from at once.” She glares at Princess. I roll my eyes. This is what happens when you use untrained animals.
The rest of the afternoon is wasted because the crew has to examine the camera and see if they can make repairs. They’re more calm about the whole thing than the director, but they also like my unis more than she does.
The next day of shooting goes better, but the director arrives with a larger cup of coffee. Extra caffeine may improve her mood. We shoot in two different sections of the pasture, get footage of my unis running over a hill and past the little wooden section of my property, then we get another angle of them running diagonally towards and past the camera crew. Life is good, the unis are well-behaved in all their false white glory, and the director almost smiles.
“This isn’t that bad,” I tell Orrin that evening as we feed the blessing and give them the daily once-over, looking for runny eyes or flesh wounds.
“Sure,” he says, glancing out to the pasture.
“What’s wrong?” I say.
“My mind is still on that wolf,” he says.
“They won’t hurt the unis,” I say.
“It’s not the unis,” he says, “it’s everything else. It’s not good for anyone in the area.”
“They don’t take that many sheep,” I say.
“Two is more than enough,” he says. “You’d feel different if it was your profit being gobbled up.”
I bite my lip because I can’t disagree.
The director and camera crew arrive early the next morning, before sunrise, because she wants to get a shot of the herd galloping through the pasture as the sun paints the sky Wyoming pink. Orrin and I ride out with them but I notice the blessing is restless and edgy. Something is not right. They always see changes before I do.
Over a hill near my property line, I see what they smelled.
Beside the barbed wire fence, a wolf lies dead. Gored.
“Oh my God,” says the director.
The camera people gasp.
“They protect themselves all right,” says Orrin.
I dismount and walk to the wolf. It hasn’t been dead for long. We’ll have to bury it before it gets much warmer. Five minutes after we discover the wolf, a group of eight unicorns pads over the hill. Corduroy, one of my pure white stallions, has blood on his horn and forehead.
It doesn’t surprise me. Corduroy is one of the bolder males, a self-appointed alpha guard of the blessing. The camera crew gasps again. The blood against his white horn and forehead is stark, but the reality of the horn is that it’s not just for show.
I scratch Corduroy behind the ear, a place where it’s not bloody, because he was doing what he’s supposed to do, protect the herd.
I think a few members of the camera crew are ready to throw up, but when you work with animals you get used to blood and shit and everything else. If you don’t have a sturdy stomach, ranching is not for you.
“I think we should go back to the motel for the rest of the morning,” the director says. “You need to deal with…what needs to be dealt with.”
I agree that would be best.
Orrin and I dig a hole on the edge of the property line while the unicorns graze around us. They aren’t nervous so I don’t think the rest of the wolves are nearby. Orrin and I wear leather work gloves when we move the wolf to the hole, but I can feel the softness of its fur through the leather. I don’t cry, but I’m upset. This must have happened two centuries ago when wolves and unicorns were both roaming these plains, but it’s sad to see something beautiful die.
After we bury the wolf, I lead Corduroy to the barn so I can wash off his horn and forehead. The blood is dry so it takes more than a little scrubbing to get the stain off, and I can’t get the earthy tinge out of his coat. That will have to be cleaned by the rain over the next few weeks. Corduroy is oddly patient while I tend to his horn and coat. I’m sure he wants to rid himself of the smell of blood as much as I want to see him clean again.
The camera people return around two in the afternoon. We get two more hours of footage, including filming the unis at sunset (to replace the shot we missed at sunrise). The members of the camera crew are more edgy than before, start when a unicorn whinnies or stomps or shakes its head suddenly. Their nervousness transfers to my unicorns, and it’s harder to make them behave.
“We have enough footage,” the director tells me at dusk.
“I thought you were going to stay one more day,” I say.
“We have enough,” she says again. “This won’t decrease your paycheck, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“No,” I say. I don’t want them to leave with a negative impression. Any large animal can be dangerous if you’re not careful, the trick is not to be scared and to pay attention to their body language. The guy who wanted to buy a unicorn is staying further away from them before, and I figure he won’t call me about a purchase in the near future. I’m a little sad and a little relieved.
With the camera crew out of our lives, I figure everything will get back to normal. This is true until two in the afternoon the following day when Orrin and I drive into town and discover my unis have become wolf-slaying heroes. Even Phil is grudgingly pleased.
“Those show animals finally provided a service,” he says.
It makes me mad, even if I can admit this was the way of things when there were no ranchers with barbed wire fences and we didn’t force animals to obey property lines. I don’t always like the dirt and blood and inherent messiness of life on the plains, how nature is so often less than tidy, but that’s what I get for wanting to live closer to the land than most people. At least now my unicorns can go back to being themselves, without powder and shoe polish, and they’ll have grain to eat through the winter.
Four months later when my unis finally make it to the small standardized screen, I’ve almost forgotten about the commercial save the fact that I don’t have to panic every time I see a bank statement in the mail. I’m not the first person in town to watch it. Myrna is since she’s always got the TV on at the cafe. When Orrin and I stop in for cheeseburgers, she makes us sit down at the front counter and refills our coffee cups until the commercial appears. This process consumes forty minutes of channel-flipping, during which Myrna will not let me go to the bathroom.
“What if you miss it?” she says, gripping my wrist with one hand and the remote with the other.
I resist the urge to say, “What if I wet my pants because you won’t let me go to the ladies’ room?” Myrna doesn’t have time for such logic.
“There!” she says, sighing and letting go of my wrist when a purple screen flashes on TV after a toothpaste commercial. The advertisement starts with a shot of my unis running across the field at sunset. A giant bar of soap rises behind them like a huge moon and hovers over the field like a big pale spaceship, while an announcer says something about feeling mystically clean and pure. There’s a second shot of my unicorns, without the soap backdrop, charging in another direction. The commercial has more unicorns than soap, but I guess that’s how people sell things now.
“Not bad,” I say, rubbing my wrist.
Orrin rolls his eyes. “I have to pee,” he says.
Myrna clasps her hands together and sighs. “Well, I think it was just lovely,” she says.
I thank Myrna for the coffee and excuse myself to use the bathroom.
Over the next week Orrin and I become minor celebrities in town, or at least people stop me in the bank and grocery and cafe and tell me they saw the unis on TV. Some people say the unis look great. Other people say they saw the unis and leave it at that.
When Orrin and I see Phil at the cafe, he just harrumphs.
“I suppose your wolf-killers are okay if they know their place,” he says.
Town is not flooded with director types wearing sunglasses and leather jackets, or picture-snapping paparazzi driving around in SUV’s, but that’s one of the benefits of living in the middle of nowhere. Myrna doesn’t let the lack of stardom sway her devotion. No matter what she’s doing, she stops to watch the commercial when it comes on TV at the cafe. If she’s tallying a receipt at the register, she quits punching numbers. If she’s slicing a pie, she pauses with the knife in the air. If she’s refilling cups of coffee, she sets down the pot and picks it up again when my unis disappear from the screen. Many customers roll their eyes, but Myrna doesn’t notice because she’s too busy yapping about how my unis are famous.
“All across America, people are watching those unicorns,” she says. “Our unicorns.” Myrna has decided my unicorns belong to the town, at least in some spiritual sense. Other people have started to appreciate my unis as well, for a variety of reasons.
Since the wolf incident, three sheep ranchers purchased two unis each to protect their herds. One of the ranchers told me the unis will pay for themselves in the number of lambs they’ll save. I don’t want to stop the ranchers from buying unicorns, these are my best sales all year, but I don’t like the reason for their purchases.
Orrin says, “We’re selling unicorns. That’s a good thing.”
“I’m not raising my unis to be prized for killing things,” I say.
“You’re too picky,” he says. “Those sheep ranchers will take good care the the unis.”
“I know,” I say. But frankly I’d rather they do more commercials.
Because we can’t have the entire blessing crowd into our front yard to watch TV and sharpen their horns on the side of the house, most of my unicorn will never see their thirty seconds of fame. But I do bring Lavender inside the fence, because I want at least one unicorn to see the final product. She’s a calm and thoughtful mare, and strikes me as the unicorn most likely to appreciate cinema.
“This is crazy,” Orrin tells me, but he rolls the TV over to the window anyway. I hold Lavender’s bridle as she watches the commercial, peering at herself and the other unis and occasionally flicking her ear. When the commercial is over, she noses me for a carrot and oat cookie since she knows I have one in my pocket.
“So what did you think?” I say, giving her the cookie. Lavender crunches on her treat, unwilling to give me feedback, but perhaps she’s wondering about those lovely white creatures galloping into the sunset, and why those hills looked so much like home.