“Feral” By J. T. Townley

         When I realized the thing might be chasing me, I ducked into a small courtyard. The light was dim. A sticky smell sweetened the air. It wasn’t long before it rolled right by without paying me any attention. Yep, exactly. But it wasn’t just any donut. I mean, yes and no. Your basic chocolate glazed, except three-feet high, like a giant sweet-smelling tire.

         Nope, not a dream. Now listen.

         It passed me, then hung a Louie at the corner, so I was in the clear. A blueberry cake was headed my way, but it was spinning down the far sidewalk, so I wasn’t too worried. A pair of plain glazed followed but didn’t seem to notice me. I took a deep breath. No wonder they were all out for a spin, what with the sun shimmering in the cloudless blue. A mockingbird warbled from a powerline. Hummingbirds thrummed and whistled around the zinnias.

         By the time I nosed out of the courtyard and strolled down a couple of blocks, they were everywhere, all of them on the move. A powdered donut barreled diagonally across an intersection. A jelly donut oozed a raspberry trail down the sidewalk. A dozen glazed with sprinkles idled in the middle of the road, raising the ire of this huge cinnamon roll in a serious rush. None of them paid me the least mind. Don’t ask me: what do I know about feral donuts?

         Plus, all the little donut holes, darting across playgrounds or chasing after their mothers. Technically, yes: a hole is an empty space. But it’s just a name, it doesn’t mean anything. And, anyway, everybody knows what donut holes are.

         So there I was, watching every kind of donut dashing up and down the street. Nope, no cinnamon twists. I know how you love those things, so I’m sorry I can’t oblige. I spotted one apple fritter bumping along, but it was having a hard time. The air glistened with powdered sugar. Flecks of sweet glazing sparkled on the breeze like dust motes. Then the damnedest thing happened: my stomach growled. I realized I hadn’t eaten all day.

         What punch line? Do I look like I’m joking?

         Now I was wandering around among all these delicious breakfast treats. The air hung with a sweet, cakey smell. Although the donuts never spoke a word, they hummed as they rolled along, their particular pitch a function of their diameter and speed. That’s right. Deeper for big, slow ones, higher for small, fast ones, and so on. Traffic thickened. When a cinnamon cake almost mowed me down, I sidestepped right into the path of an oncoming pack of donut holes. They swerved and veered around my legs just in the nick of time. The scent of warm glazing reminded me of grandma’s kitchen. My belly growled again. My mouth wouldn’t stop watering.

         I had no idea what would happen if I grabbed one of those rings of fried dough and stuffed it in my mouth. Not that any but the smallest donut holes would fit, but you get the picture. I might’ve satisfied my curiosity, but would there have been screams of pain? Would the others band together and turn on me for devouring one of their own? Would they steamroll me until all that was left was a stain on the asphalt? I wasn’t about to find out, hunger be damned. I slipped into a little park and found a bench, then unwrapped a granola bar and wolfed it down.

         That’s when I started thinking, What about the police? Not because I was worried about being cited for loitering. I wasn’t a vagrant. But you know how the boys in blue are: All the cops in the donut shop, as the ditty goes. If they showed up, sirens wailing, lights flashing, we were in for a bloodbath. They would make a mad grab for every donut in sight, and when the donuts fled, a high-speed chase would ensue. The streets would flow red with raspberry jelly. The one thing that would stop their porcine appetites might be third-degree burns from coffee spilling as they screeched around a corner in hot pursuit. It would be an ugly scene. I could only hope they were all napping the afternoon away.

         Who said they represent anything? They’re just, you know, donuts. Leave it at that.

         Anyway, I haven’t even gotten to the unicorns. I know, right? I mean, I’d been hearing this strange noise way off in the distance. I don’t know, kind of like breaking waves — but wetter and somehow more sparkly. When I couldn’t place it, I let it fade into the background. But I should’ve paid more attention. More to the point, so should’ve all those donuts. If I’d known what was coming, I would’ve sounded the alarm, maybe run through the streets waving my arms and screaming, “Roll for your lives!”

         Then a small herd of them galloped into town. That’s right, unicorns. No, not wings, that’s Pegasus. Horns. Now don’t be so dismissive. You were willing to entertain a mob scene of three-foot rolling donuts, right? So why not unicorns? Because like it or not, they thundered into the town square, their hooves sparking silver against the pavement. That wet sound was their whinnies. They smelled of pink bubblegum. What do you mean, how did I know? A wave of syrupy sweetness washed right over me, is how.

         No, it’s not a religious allegory. Where do you come up with this stuff?

         So, like I said, those donuts should’ve been paying more attention. Even with the unicorns on the scene, they went about their business, whatever that was, spinning up and down the street. How could I have known where they were headed? The point was, they were in motion. All I could figure was, this was the first time they’d ever run into unicorns, or they would’ve known better.

         I was on the edge of my seat. Literally perched on the lip of the park bench, hands on my knees, watching and waiting. The air felt electric. The sweet breeze now held a charge of promise. Something was coming, but the only ones who had the first clue were—you guessed it. The unicorns.

         And these weren’t any ordinary unicorns. True, good point. They’re magical, extraordinary creatures any way you look at it. But besides their shimmery manes, glittery eyes, and liquid-rainbow horns, not to mention those weird, wet whinnies, what got me was their sheer size. Those creatures were huge. Now that I think about it, though, I guess they were proportional to the donuts. We could work it out. If a typical donut might be—what?—three inches across, and the donuts were three feet, give or take, that would be a one-to-twelve scale, right? And unicorns are normally about how many inches high? Oh, forget it. Just believe me when I say they were gargantuan, real monsters of sweetness and light. As a matter of fact, the only thing out of proportion in this whole rich tableau was me.

         The donuts never saw it coming, figuratively speaking. Maybe they didn’t have eyes, but they seemed to possess an awareness of their surroundings. Well, for instance, dozens of them were out there, rolling this way and that, in different directions and at different speeds, and I never once witnessed a collision. Not even a near miss. But to all indications, they had no idea that a herd of unicorns had stampeded into town in a storm of silver sparkles.

         Now that’s a deeply philosophical question. I’ve wondered about it, too, though I don’t have much to contribute to the conversation. All I can say is, they were animate, semi-aware, and seemed to express emotions. A whole range, in fact: determination and annoyance, obstinacy and sheer glee, you name it. Yet somehow not fear, the one emotion that might’ve saved them. Odd. I’m willing to concede, of course, that I may be reading more into it than was there. It’s difficult not to. It’s what, in a sense, we’re all trained to do: an army of over-analyzers, filling the world with our own terror and longing.

         So here’s the way it went. The unicorns hunted as a herd, if you could call it hunting. What I mean is, they worked together. One would thunder after a donut, stab its horn into the donut’s empty space (the literal hole, not the donut hole), and in the same motion toss it into the air toward one of the other unicorns. They would catch those donuts in their mouths. Slack-jawed and gaping, all I could think was, So that’s what their horns are for. That went on for a while. No, the donuts didn’t struggle or cry for help. How could they? Not even when the unicorns had fun with them, playing what amounted to ring toss, from one horn to the next to the next, until one of them caught the donut in its mouth and ate it. Maybe that’s an argument against those donuts’ sentience, I don’t know.

         No, it’s not a tale about sexual domination. Why is every horn a phallus to you?

         The whole thing didn’t take more than ten minutes. Maybe it all seemed like a rainbow- and-glitter frolic, but those unicorns were nothing short of rapacious. They laid waste to the entire town, decimating the donut population in nothing flat. Nope, the little donut holes avoided the carnage, assuming they didn’t get trampled beneath those gargantuan, silvery hooves. You would’ve thought the unicorns could’ve impaled them on their horns. That’s what they did to the cinnamon rolls, apple fritters, and jelly donuts. But they paid the donut holes no mind whatsoever. Go figure.

         It’s got nothing to do with race, class, or gender. I mean, donuts and unicorns. Would you stop trying to make this into something it’s not?

         Soon the whole thing was over. All that was left were crumbs, cinnamon-sugar dust, and specks of chocolate glaze melting in the bright sunshine. Raspberry jam oozed and pooled on the warm pavement. Yet the donut holes rolled into the park, oblivious to the slaughter, making a happy little parade toward the playground. The swings creaked as they traced their parabolas. The little ones hummed with delight. As for me, I still perched on the park bench, gaping. Even when the unicorns trotted my direction, throwing me glittery glares, I didn’t budge. I couldn’t. My legs were made of concrete.

         Keep scale in mind here. Those magical creatures were the size of elephants. They clustered together and stopped a few feet from where I sat, their muzzles smeared with chocolate, cinnamon, and raspberry. Some of them had squashed donut holes stuck to their hooves. I was sure this was it. They would trample me in a bubblegum dance party of death. I sat there, suffering their shimmering silence, far longer than was comfortable. Then, without speaking, one of them said:

         “What’s the matter? Don’t you like donuts?”

         That’s exactly what I meant: none of their mouths moved. I couldn’t tell where the voice was coming from.

         “Me?” I said aloud, since how else was I going to say it? “Love them.” Of course, like all of us, I was having all these thoughts at once: delicious, greasy, unhealthy, croissant. It seemed the unicorns picked up on that. And by “picked up,” I mean “read my mind.”

         “What’s a croissant?”

         “Come again?”

         “Croissant. Never heard of it.” It remained impossible to discern who was speaking, or whatever they were doing. Telepathy.

         “Call it a French donut,” I explained. “A roll made of sweet, flaky pastry.”

         Then other voices, all at once, though all the unicorns stood there, snorting and nickering rainbows: “Do they come glazed?” “Is there a blueberry cake flavor?” “Are they dusted with powdered sugar?” “Can you get them with sprinkles?”

         I chuckled. I didn’t know how else to respond.

         Now one in the back whinnied. The air went saccharine with bubblegum stench. It moved to the front, shook its silvery mane, then whinnied again. It was a foot taller—or do you say hand?—than its friends. “Sorry about that. Sometimes we get overexcited.”

         “And no wonder,” I said, grinning. “You’re nuts about donuts.”

         The giant unicorn stamped and blew. “You’re a funny little man.”

         I swallowed my laughter, gazing across the park to hide my delight. I didn’t want to provoke them.

         “Just not as funny as you think.”

         No, genius, they didn’t blow and snort and trample me to death in a glittery frenzy. I’m here talking to you, right? I lived to tell the tale. They whinnied and laughed, then cantered away, and that was that. I mean, the donuts were gone and wouldn’t be back, but I took comfort in knowing there were still a few holes left.

         Yep, that’s all she wrote. The unicorns came, they saw, and they conquered. Sure, there are lots of other ways it could’ve ended, but that was how it went. Well, guess what? Tough luck. Your failure of imagination isn’t my problem, though I can’t help feeling sorry for you. Oh, is that a fact? Well, here’s an idea. How about the unicorns thunder in right here and now and trample you into the ground in a shower of rainbows and confetti? How’s that for a better ending? Same to you, buddy. Take a flying fuck at a rolling donut.

J. T. Townley has published in Harvard Review, The Kenyon Review, The Threepenny Review, and dozens of other magazines and journals.  His stories (“A Christmas Letter,” “My Life as Mark Wahlberg,” and “The Hole That Dave Dug”) have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.  He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and an MPhil in English from the University of Oxford.  He has been a Fulbright Scholar in France and a fiction fellow at Fundación Valparaíso, Spain. To learn more, visit jttownley.com.


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