How Zebra Got His Stripes

May 6, 2010

 A very long time ago, when the sunrise burned brighter and the grasses waved taller and the world was still young, the zebra lived on the savannah just like they do today and will do tomorrow and many days after. But the zebra that lived in clay huts and lived off the land just like us looked rather different from the People of today. No, back then, the People wore pure white coats which shone brightly when hit by the soft light of the moon.

One day, a very curious foal was born to one of the mares of the People who had been kissed by Moon. The little filly’s fuzzy coat was black as the night, her hooves appeared cracked, and there was a strange bony lump in the middle of her forehead. Her mother had been gone on a long journey until recently, and the People blamed her wanderlust for the foal’s disfigurement and made the poor little filly the subject of ridicule.

Eventually, as foals do, the filly shed her foal fuzz along with the other young that had been born that year, growing in a coat more brilliantly white than any of the other zebras. For a while, her peers lay off her, awed by her pristine coat that seemed to be impervious to any stains, but as they grew into yearlings, their disapproval returned.

Her hooves were still split, and her tail had long since grown long enough to drag on the ground. The strange lump on her forehead had grown into something resembling a gazelle’s horn, but the color of an elephant’s tusks. Her mane was not short and bristly, but fell long and glossy from her neck, light and ethereal as spiders’ silk. She was different from them, and that scared the People, for they had never before seen one of her kind.

When the strange filly grew into a young woman, of age to marry, she felt very lonely. The only zebra who were nice to her were her own mother and one of the young warriors. He was the son of the herd’s leader stallion, and very handsome with his wide muzzle and strong shoulders. It didn’t matter to him that the filly looked strange, for he had talked to her when they grew up and knew she was a bright and pleasant companion.

She was not the only one who wanted to woo the leader’s son. Many of the fillies swung their wide hips at him, and even Wind would have liked to take him as her mate, fancying that he raced her as he ran through the tall savannah grass. He had not eyes for the fillies, and never noticed Wind playing with the grass around his feet as he ran, try as she might to impress him.

Both the young warrior and the filly knew that his father would never allow them to build a clay hut together. She was tolerated because her mother’s mother had known the leader’s mother, but it was well known that he was trying to get his son to develop a fancy for one of the other fillies.

“Look, my son,” he would say, pointing at a filly who was the cousin of the lead mare from a neighboring herd, “she has good, wide hips, a strong back, and a glossy coat. What more could you want?”

But the young warrior just shook his head, and when his father wasn’t looking he snuck off to meet his filly, stealing moments when they could.

As time passed, the leader grew impatient, quarreling with his son and forbidding him to even look at or speak to the strange filly, claiming that she must be cursed to look so little like one of the People, and she grew lonelier than ever as it became more difficult for her to steal time with her suitor. She was clever, however, and she had noticed the envious looks she got when nobody thought she saw and her long mane caught the moonlight. If she could present her suitor with a gift so breathtaking none of the People had ever seen the like, maybe then she could be allowed to marry him?

For many days and weeks and months, she simply combed her mane with a fine comb, carefully collecting every last hair that stuck in the comb and putting them in a small carved chest he had given her. Then, when she finally had gathered enough, she used the long, silky hairs to warp her loom. She had to do this in secret, for not even her own dam approved of her relationship with the young warrior, and if she was caught her mother would surely be very angry with her.

Many more days passed as she every day combed her hair and painstakingly inserted each strand of hair into the weave, slowly crafting a shimmering fabric as thin and light as a thought. Her eyes grew sore from working in the dim light of the banked fire and her limbs grew weary from the lack of sleep as she spent her nights weaving, but her heart sang in joy as the weave grew.

One day, towards the end of the rainy season, she finally finished her work, carefully taking it off the loom and securing all loose ends to make sure it would not unravel. But a commotion outside made her put it down in the little carved case before she could go to present the gift to her suitor. Hooves stomped noisily on the packed dirt between the village’s huts, bracelets jingling and hands clapping in time.

Curiously, the filly peeked outside, and saw the leader stallion standing in the center of the village, smiling from eartips to hooves, with his son on one side and the young woman he had been trying to get his son to marry on the other. The zebra filly wore nothing but bone-and-tooth girlands, dyed red with ochre, the proper outfit for a bride-to-be.

The strange filly, with her curious horn and her too-long tail was very hurt by this, stomping inside her hut to retrieve the carved box, then running off, her long mane trailing behind her in the wind. She didn’t notice when Wind started running at her side, and didn’t hear when Wind, who had already grown very jealous of her but had not yet seen the couple in the village, started making cruel comments about her. Neither did she notice that her suitor had pulled free from his father to follow her.

Eventually, he caught up with her, wrapping his strong arms around her.

“Why do you run from me?” he asked her.

“I try to run from my broken heart,” she answered, clutching the small box with the shawl in it to her chest.

“Did you leave it behind?” he asked, frowning as the wind started to pick up around them.

“No,” was her answer. “It followed me here.”

“What is in the box?” he asked next.

“Oh, it’s so silly. I tried to make you a gift.”

With a blush tinting her nostrils and ears pink, the filly pulled the shawl out of the box, unfolding it gingerly and draping it across his shoulders. He saw that she had made it from her own mane, which he had always admired, and that made him treasure the gift even more.

“I don’t think it’s silly at all,” he told her. “I think it is beautiful, just like you.”

The fair words further kindled Wind’s jealousy, and she started pulling the filly’s mane, hissing angrily, making the grass whip the filly’s delicate legs.

“Leave me to think,” the warrior asked. “There must be a way to change my father’s mind!”

The filly hesitated a few moments, then did as she was told. She could do nothing more to convince her suitor’s father, and if they were found together the leader would be much too angry to listen to any reasons they might be able to put forth.

Wind stayed with the young warrior, however, desperately trying to make herself known to him. Nothing she did seemed to phase him, not even when she in a fit of rage made the grasses whip his legs so hard they broke the skin. Nothing she did could make him drop that silly blanket, either. Disappointed, Wind flew a little further away, still keeping the warrior in sight. She had to find some other way to get his attention.

After a while she happened upon an ember, which gave her an idea. She would show him the consequences of ignoring Wind’s courtship! Carefully at first, reining in her impatience, Wind breathed on the ember, encouraging it to grow. There were many dry grasses around, and soon she had created a lively little fire which danced gleefully as it consumed the vegetation.

Wind blew harder then, flying towards the warrior, letting out an angry howl. He saw the red glow in the grass and heard the crackle and roar of the growing, hungry flames, and they filled him with fear. Grass fires were swifter than any of the People could hope to run, but he had little choice.

With the shawl still draped across his shoulders and spilling down his back, he started running in the direction of the nearest water. Thorn bushes caught on the shawl, creating rips in the fine material, but even with it so damaged, he wouldn’t let go of it. This angered Wind more, and she chased the fire and roared at it to speed up.

Obediently, the fire ate everything in its path, passing close enough to the village to draw the attention of the zebra. They stared at the fire being herded in pursuit of one of their own, unable to do anything to intervene.

Eventually the fire caught up with the warrior, and he brayed in pain and fell to the ground, the torn shawl draped over him. Now realizing what she had done, Wind created a great gust, so strong it killed the flames, before settling down into a gentle breeze, trying to soothe the warrior’s wounds.

“Don’t you think you’ve done enough?” the strange filly asked and looked straight at Wind.

This surprised her, it had been very long since one of the People, or any of the Others, had seen her clearly. But the filly turned away from her, pulling the ash-covered shawl off her suitor’s back to look at his wounds.

The entire village gasped in awe, for underneath the deceptively flimsy fabric the leader’s son was very much alive. The filly offered him a hand up and he took it, rising to look sternly at the herd. His white fur had been charred pitch black where there had been tears in the shawl, but he was unharmed.

“If not for this filly, I would be dead!” he bellowed, and the villagers murmured amongst themselves in agreement.

The herd’s leader stallion and mare stepped forward then, as the young warrior’s parents they were very grateful to see their son alive even if his fur looked strange to them with its black stripes.

“What do you wish for, to pay you back for our son’s life?” the leader asked the filly.

“Your son,” she replied bravely, standing straight and proud before the larger stallion. “If he will have me.”

The next year they had twins. One of the young sons had stripes like his father, while the other was born black as night with the beginning of a horn on his forehead. Their blood spread until all the People were born with stripes, but only in their herd are unicorns ever born.

The young couple also made peace with Wind, giving her the ruined shawl to show that they held no ill will towards her. It was a very thoughtful gift, for Wind could not be seen by most people, and with the shawl she could appear as a haze in the air if she didn’t move too much, which made her much less inclined to thoughtless pranks like the grassfire.

And that is the story of how Zebra got his stripes.

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