by Mary E. Lowd
A Deep Sky Anchor Original, September 2022
The lion cub hid among the rushes and narcissus flowers at the edge of the lake and watched her father, King of the Jungle, meet and talk with the shining white unicorn who presided over the deep dark woods adjacent to the lions’ sunny savanna home.
Sarah thought the unicorn’s forest looked more like a jungle than their savanna did, and she wanted to tell the unicorn that… but she’d promised her father to hide quietly during his meeting. He only brought one cub with him at a time to these meetings, and given her plethora of sisters, brothers, half-siblings, and cousins, Sarah’s turn to accompany her father didn’t turn up very often. She wanted to prove she could be a good little cub, so she stayed quiet as a mouse.
Sarah batted her paw at the lake water and watched ripples spread across the reflective surface, twisting and warping the image of her face. She imagined herself with a twisting pearlescent horn rising out of her forehead like the unicorn’s, and the thought made her smile. She wanted to tell the unicorn about that too… but again, she kept it to herself.
Sarah had a lot of practice keeping her thoughts to herself. Again, with so many siblings and other cubs her age, it was easy to get lost in the chaos. Someone was always begging to play a different game or arguing for a larger share of dinner or pleading for more stories at twilight while the adults were trying to convince the cubs to all drift off to sleep. Sarah didn’t feel like fighting to be heard.
What Sarah did like doing was fixing the stories her mothers and aunts told in her head while she listened to them — she’d add extra details, subplots, bits of intrigue, side characters and backstories. She’d embroider and weave her own ideas into the stories her mother and aunts told until the stories were hardly the same anymore. More her own than the original storyteller’s.
Sarah wondered if the unicorn liked stories. She looked up from the ripples in the lake and, for a while, watched the ripples in the unicorn’s mane instead. Silver and white, pale and glowing, like the moon when it’s full or the snowfall that only ever happened when the travelling fairies came past the lions’ village and cast magic spells to delight everyone.
When her father was done with his meeting, the unicorn disappeared into her deep dark forest like mist melting in the morning. Sarah sighed at the sight of such beauty disappearing form her sight.
“You look lovestruck, little one,” King Edmund pronounced. He never just said something. In his voice, even a simple observation sounded like a pronouncement.
Sarah turned shy and shrugged.
“The unicorn is very beautiful, isn’t she?” King Edmund asked.
Sarah nodded. Then — trying to be very brave, because she knew her father was brave, and she wanted to be like him — she said, “I’d like to speak to her too sometime.”
King Edmund laughed fondly and said, “Maybe someday.”
Feeling very brave now that her father had encouraged her, Sarah hazarded, “Maybe I could even tell her one of my stories.”
King Edmund laughed again, less fondly and more like he actually thought his daughter was very funny. “You’re not as special as you think you are, little one.” He laughed again, as if he were sharing a good joke with himself. Then he shook his head, making his golden mane ripple, and said to himself, “Telling tales to unicorns.” He said it with wonder… but not the kind of wonder Sarah would have liked to inspire. Not awe at her inventiveness and ambition and bravery… more bemusement at her foolhardiness.
Sarah felt like a fool. And she followed her father back to their village with her tufted tail hung low. Her father’s words echoed in Sarah’s head for many days after that. She struggled with shame and embarrassment at first, figuring she must have done something very wrong in order to make him say something so cruel. But when she tentatively told the story of her father’s words to a frog who she liked to hang out with at the local watering hole, the frog’s reaction of horror told her that it couldn’t have been her fault. Those were simply words a father should have no reason to say to his daughter.
Sarah decided she would prove herself. She would show King Edmund exactly how special she was. She just needed to figure out a way to do that.
Sarah knew she was special, because her mind sparkled with stories and ideas that were much more interesting than the plain savanna around her. She stared at waving gold grasses, and she saw more than just the grasses — she imagined the rise and fall of entire dynasties among the tiny ants crawling among the grasses’ roots. She imagined the blue sky above was another plain of waving grasses where blue lion cubs gamboled and played in an upside-down world. She imagined the golden grass was secretly the fur of a giant lioness curled up beneath their paws — a lioness so large that she was the entire world, and all the smaller lions like Sarah and her family merely lived upon her back.
No one else in her village told stories like those. So, Sarah, determined to prove herself to her father, started telling them herself. Instead of keeping her stories inside, she waited until the other cubs were busy gnawing on their dinners, mouths too full for them to interrupt, and then she began whispering the words of her tales. The other cubs’ eyes turned to her, and even as their mouths emptied, all the food resting in their bellies now, they stayed quiet, raptly listening to her whispered tales.
As the days passed, Sarah’s confidence grew, and she began telling the stories louder and more often. The other cubs stopped bickering and bantering when they heard her start to speak and settled down to listen.
After less than a week, she was the most beloved story teller in the village, much preferred to her mother and aunts. Her mother and aunts were proud.
Then finally, one day, King Edmund walked by while she had all the other cubs circled around her, listening raptly. She puffed out her chest, sat very tall, and made sure to add extra sparkly details to the tale she was telling of a frog warrior seeking treasure in the hidden caverns behind a waterfall.
King Edmund stayed and listened. When the story was through, he looked at Sarah fondly and said, “You’ll make a good aunt and mother someday.”
“My stories aren’t for putting cubs to sleep!” Sarah roared in her tiny cub’s voice.
“What do you think they’re for?” King Edmund asked around his laughter. “Telling to unicorns?”
It wasn’t really a question. Just an indictment. And Sarah’s ears flattened in fury.
She would tell her stories to the unicorn one day. She was sure of it. Her father would see. She would do it in spite of him. She’d do it specifically to spite him.
King Edmund’s cruel and dismissive words chased themselves in circles through Sarah’s head for the following weeks. She stopped telling stories to the other cubs and was dismayed to find they hardly seemed to notice, let alone care. None of them pleaded with her to tell them what happened to the frog warrior next. None of them begged her to make up new stories. They just went back to their games and squabbling, as if she’d never told them stories at all.
Sarah was stunned. It felt a little like she didn’t even exist, because the parts of herself that she valued the most seemed to be invisible… or at least irrelevant to everyone around her. She wanted to make them visible. Telling stories hadn’t done that, so maybe she needed to do it in a more material, visceral, physical, literally visible kind of way.
Her brothers, half-brothers, and male cousins of about her age had begun growing longer fur on their heads and chests. Their manes were coming in, making them look more like miniature versions of King Edmund than Sarah ever would.
Sarah didn’t want to be a male lion, but she did feel the curdling of envy in her breast when the male lions of her age cohort acted boastful and bragging about their new manes.
Sarah decided she would outdo them. She would make herself a mane. A better mane. Since she couldn’t grow longer fur by simply wishing (and why would she want to? what was so great about some extra fur anyway?) she came up with a plan. The first step involved consulting the fairies the next time they came through the lions’ village.
The last troupe of fairies to fly through the village had been black-and-orange monarchs, flying by day, as bright and cheerful as summer sun filtered through the trees. But they wouldn’t return for a long while. The next troupe to fly through the region came at night — they had long-tailed green wings, pale and edged in gentle pink. Sarah had to sneak out of the village after the other cubs were asleep to meet with the Luna moth fairies without the watchful eyes and interference of her aunts and mother in the way.
The traveling fairies had settled on flower heads and curved blades of grass beside the edge of the pond. The frog choir was singing for them. Sarah settled quietly on a bare patch of dirt beside the lake, careful not to disturb any of the fairies or the singing frogs.
When the concert was done, Sarah’s friend — the frog who had reacted with horror to the story of King Edmund’s cruelty — hopped his way over to her.
“What brings the gentlest princess of the savannah to our carnival of the night?” the frog, whose name was Jiggy, asked her. She was the only lion cub who could have crept up on the frog choir and Luna moth audience without causing the smaller creatures to scatter out of fear. Most of the other lion cubs would have rushed and pounced and caused trouble. But all the small creatures of the lake knew Sarah. They knew she was different. She could be trusted.
“I want to ask a favor of the fairies,” Sarah said, keeping her voice as low and soft as a lion could. “I need their help.”
One of the Luna moths fluttered off of the flower where she’d been perched, flapped and floated her way closer, and landed on the ground beside Sarah.
“What kind of help–” the Luna moth sang, for fairies always sing, it’s simply how their voices sound, “–does such a powerful young lioness think we humble fairies of the night can provide?”
“I want to grow a mane,” Sarah stated simply. “A mane of flowers. I know you have magic. Can you help me?”
The Luna moth smoothed her feathery antenna with her front-most talons while her middle pair of arms crossed across her fuzzy white breast. Her green wings flapped slowly, ponderously. “We do not truly have magic,” she said eventually, her proboscis singing the words with the clarity and bell-like resonance of a flute. “But for you, I think I can help with this plan.”
Sarah was skeptical about the idea that the fairies didn’t have magic — she’d told enough stories about them granting wishes and casting spells with their tiny, miniscule hands that she’d started to believe them herself. But she wasn’t about to argue with a fairy who sounded willing to grant her wish. So, she simply lowered her head, keeping her eyes respectfully on the ground right in front of the beautiful fairy, and said, “I would be ever so grateful for your help.”
The fairy flapped her wings and took flight. She floated like a dream over the bent savannah grasses, and other Luna moths joined her, drifting together like a constellation of stars moving across the sky as the seasons passed.
Sarah watched them, deeply impatient inside herself, but showing only the most stolid patience on the outside.
The group of moths flew across the lake, fluttered on the far side for a while in the darkness where Sarah could barely make them out, and then returned, carrying broken piece of foliage stretched between them. It was a small yellow flower with a dangling piece of stem that straggled out into a bit of torn up root. It had no leaves. It wasn’t a fancy flower — a very simple, common dandelion.
The group of fairies flew up to the lion cub who had entreated them to grant her wish and hovered in front of her. One of them spoke — Sarah suspected it was the same fairy who had spoken to her before, but she couldn’t tell for sure — and said, “Do you see the ladybug among us?”
Sarah’s eyes narrowed, trying to make out what she was expected to see — at first she saw nothing, but then, yes, hovering just beside the golden petals of the dandelion was a tiny, red ladybug with its shell split so its tiny, black, lacy wings underneath could flap furiously enough to keep the small beetle aloft.
“I do,” Sarah said.
“This is Ruby,” the fairy said. As the fairy spoke, the ladybug bobbed in the air, as if making a tiny bow before the daughter of the king. “She is a gardener, and she has agreed to help us fulfill your request, in exchange for safe harbor.”
“Safe harbor?” Sarah asked uncertainly. That sounded like what her father had refused to grant to an antelope prince who had come begging for help after a period of political unrest amongst his own people. He’d made a delicious meal for the village. King Edmund had said the antelope prince had requested asylum though, not safe harbor. And he’d said it was a fool’s errand to seek it — if you’re too weak to defend yourself, then you’re better off hiding than advertising it to neighboring kingdoms.
King Edmund could be harsh to more than his own daughter, Sarah realized. She didn’t want to be like him. Not at all.
But she still wanted a mane — a mane entirely different from his. A mane built upon the principle of offering safe harbor.
“I don’t know entirely what that means,” Sarah said, because she was a very honest and direct young lion cub. “But I hope I can offer it.”
“All it means,” the fairy said, “is that you will let Ruby live among the flowers that she helps to grow on your head. Perhaps, as the garden of your mane grows, you will even allow her to bring friends and family to live among the flowers too. If your mane grows full and glorious, there should be plenty of room.”
Sarah’s breast puffed up in anticipatory pride at the idea of a full and glorious mane of flowers. “I would like that very much,” she said.
And so the fairies took the dandelion carried between them and tucked its root up behind Sarah’s left ear, where they used pitch to stick it to her fur. The stem was short, and the flower dangled beneath her pointed ear like a fancy golden earring. Sarah admired her reflection in the water, and if she’d been a human girl who’d read The Last Unicorn, she would have thought about Mommy Fortuna’s need to put a false horn on a real unicorn so that people could see past their own preconceptions.
But she was only a lion, and she delighted in the fanciness of the first flower that would soon become a full mane.
It took a few months, but flower by flower, the growing colony of ladybugs who lived on Sarah’s head grew her mane into a garden. Green moss with little white star-like flowers filled the space between the larger dandelions and daisy blooms. The dandelions were gold, matching Sarah’s fur, but the daisies grew in shades of pink from the palest blush to the most electric sunrise. The colorful bouquet of flowers grew all around and between Sarah’s rounded ears and all the way down to under her chin. Sometimes, when the wind rustled through her new foliage, the blossoms tickled her, but mostly, the green moss holding it all together felt like a warm, comforting hood.
Sarah’s single flower earring grew into a full mane more slowly than she would have liked, but the upside was that it gave her mother, aunts, and fellow cubs time to get used to it. Sure, the other cubs might mock a single dangling dandelion, but it was a mere eccentricity — nothing to worry about. By the time the ladybugs’ garden had grown into a full mane, the other cubs had worn out their mockery and the adults had accepted that this was simply Sarah now. She had a flower mane. Sure, it was weird, but that was just Sarah. The weird one.
Sarah didn’t see herself as the weird one, though. She was still, in her own eyes, the storyteller. And now, she had an entirely new audience for her stories — the ladybugs who made their home among the flowers growing on her head. Ruby and her kin would perch in front of Sarah’s ears where their tiny voices could be heard as they exclaimed in excitement and delight at the stories Sarah made up for them.
Sarah didn’t share her stories with the other cubs any more. They hadn’t really appreciated them. The ladybugs did. Ruby claimed that she was even transcribing some of the best ones on tiny blades of grass that she kept tucked under the moss beside Sarah’s left ear. Sarah had no way to verify that — she could only see the little ladybugs when they flew away from her mane or she watched herself reflected in the lake. And either way, Ruby’s writing on the tiny pages made of grass blades would have been far too small for a lion to read. Even a cub with a cub’s sharp eyes.
Sarah had always believed her stories were good, because she enjoyed them. It still felt good and affirming that her colony of ladybugs loved them too. It had been lonely being the only person who cared about the imaginary characters who danced through her head — like the frog warrior who was more than a little based on her friend Jiggy.
Jiggy was a brave, bold frog, and in a different world, Sarah could absolutely imagine him donning armor made from the shed shells of nuts and brandishing a sword of sharpened obsidian while fighting his way across the savannah. Instead, he hung out beside the lake, refusing to be frightened by Sarah’s rowdy and boisterous kin, always listening to her stories whenever he could, and encouraging her to be brave.
At Jiggy’s behest, Sarah finally got up the courage to follow her father, King Edmund, to the edge of the forest, even though he had not invited her to come.
Sarah didn’t hide from her father, but neither did she turn back when he asked her to. King Edmund’s broad, golden face scrunched sideways when she defied him, but he didn’t swat her with his giant paw or roar at her with his booming voice. He simply sighed deeply at his eccentric child and continued on. So she kept following.
Sarah had heard King Edmund argue with her mother late one night over her new mane, and so she knew he didn’t like it. But Sarah liked it. And in the end, for better and worse, she wasn’t important enough to her father for him to really put his paw down about the issue. Her mother, who wanted her to be happy, had won the fight, and King Edmund had hardly looked at Sarah since then.
Perhaps that would change when she impressed the unicorn. Perhaps then her father would be impressed and understand she was, indeed, special.
When they arrived at the lake by the edge of the forest where King Edmund regularly met with the unicorn, Sarah settled down among the rushes and narcissus flowers beside the water, like she’d done before. After checking that she planned to stay where she was a while, the ladybugs in her mane sent out scouts to see if there were any good flowers to pull up and bring back to plant in their garden. Sarah, meanwhile, struck up a conversation with the local frogs who were excited to hear about the choir Jiggy sang with back at the savannah watering hole. These frogs didn’t have a choir, but they did have a few barbershop quartets who wore adorable little hats woven from the rushes and a trio known for covering the songs of the most skilled and sought-after nightingale singer in the woods. They called themselves Frogs-in-the-Dale and promised to give Sarah a private concert the next time she came back to visit.
Sarah became so absorbed talking to the frogs and listening to her ladybugs’ periodic reports on the possible flowers they could bring her that she completely missed the end of her father’s meeting with the unicorn.
“It’s time to go home, silly little one,” King Edmund said, looking down at his daughter with an expression that seemed to be composed of equal parts fondness and disgust. It made Sarah feel both loved… and completely invisible at the same time.
“What?!” she cried. “Is the unicorn gone?”
“Trotted back into her forest, just like a good girl,” King Edmund said. “Just like it’s time for you to trot home with me and your brother.” King Edmund had brought one of Sarah’s younger half-brothers along. The brother sneered at her, clearly unimpressed that she’d intruded on his special time with their father.
Sarah glared back at both of them. She wasn’t ready to leave, and neither were her ladybugs. Ruby had settled on a clover plant to add to the garden-mane — one with a tawny, off-white blossom and the rare, precious trait of four leaves — which she was still busy fetching, along with a whole passel of her relatives. Sarah couldn’t possibly abandon them.
“I’m staying,” Sarah said defiantly.
King Edmund narrowed his eyes, and his paw twitched. It took everything Sarah had in her to keep flinching. And then she realized, if her father did swat her with his giant paw, he wouldn’t just hurt her — he might tear apart her ladybugs’ village. As soon as that thought entered her mind, she didn’t just flinch, she full-on cowered.
King Edmund stepped back, seemingly startled by the idea that a child of his would actually cower at the sight of his twitching paw. He sighed in definite disgust. “Fine, stay,” he said. “You know the way home. I didn’t bring you here; I won’t be responsible for you getting home.”
Sarah’s father hadn’t touched her with his paw, but his words felt like a slap. She stood by the edge of the lake, too surprised and shocked by his disdain for her to do anything but watch him leave, her brother prancing along proudly beside him.
For a moment, she was scared, but then, one of the frogs in her little rush-woven hat croaked, “You wanted to meet with Glory?”
“Is that… the unicorn?” Sarah asked, struggling to form words as she continued to stare dejectedly in the direction her father and brother had gone. King Edmund had never told her the unicorn’s name.
“Yes, that’s her,” the frog answered. “Would you like us to bring her back?”
“What?” Sarah turned to look down at the frog quizzically. “You can bring her back?”
The frog shrugged and croaked again: “Sure, no problem.” She hopped away toward some of the other frogs, and Sarah could practically watch the news travel from one frog to the next across the lake until it reached a pair of nesting quail among a stand of cattails. The quails conferred, and then one flew off toward the forest.
Sarah waited patiently, and while she did, her ladybugs returned carrying their chosen clover between them. It was a small flower, but very large to them. Sarah loved the ladybugs very much for caring enough about her mane — their home — to bring a talisman of good luck back to become a part of it.
Sarah held very still while the ladybugs worked to weave the clover’s bits of root under the moss, tucking it up behind her right ear. She was still holding still when Glory arrived.
The unicorn shone like moonlight; her silvery mane rippled like a zephyr playing across water. She was too glorious for Sarah to look at her without staring, so the abashed lion cub lowered her eyes to be polite.
“I hear you wanted to visit with me,” Glory said. She didn’t sing like the fairies — her voice was more like your mother telling you not to worry, everything will be okay, just as you drift off to sleep and can no longer tell the difference between reality and a dream.
“Yes, m’lady,” Sarah said. “I wanted to show you my mane and tell you some of my stories.”
The unicorn was silent for a long enough time that Sarah couldn’t keep herself from raising her eyes and looking at her again. When she did, Sarah saw the unicorn had tilted her head, seemingly waiting for the lion cub to look at her.
When their eyes met, Glory smiled, a gentle twist of her long, narrow muzzle. “There are your eyes,” she said.
Sarah smiled too. “I’m sorry, I was afraid you wouldn’t want to see me… my father said…” She couldn’t repeat what her father had said about her not being special. Not again. She couldn’t hear those words anymore, even said by herself.
“Your father…” Glory began, but she cut herself off with a sigh. “He is not known for his kindness. But you are, aren’t you?”
“What do you mean?” Sarah asked, intrigued and perplexed. The unicorn knew of her?
“I’ve heard your name in the buzzing of dragonflies, the songs of birds, and the croaking of frogs for many months now. ‘Sarah Flowermane,’ they call you, and they all hope you’ll one day rule over the savannah. You’re beloved, little lioness, because you’re kind.”
Sarah hardly knew what to say. Her emotions welled up inside her, too big and confusing to even feel them. But in a good way. They were good feelings, and she almost didn’t know what to do with that, not after the long months of feeling ignored and misunderstood, surrounded by lions who looked like her but didn’t seem to be anything like her on the inside.
The ladybugs in her ear cheered and told her the unicorn was right. She was their Sarah Flowermane, and they were dearly proud of her.
Sarah had thought she needed her father’s approval. She had craved it. But now… that craving melted away.
“You look overcome, little one,” Glory said, using Sarah’s father’s pet name for her without realizing it. The name sounded so much better — so much kinder — coming from the unicorn. She didn’t mean it to be demeaning; she wasn’t trying to put Sarah in her place. She was simply speaking the truth — Sarah was still little. Still a cub. But she was growing, alongside her glorious mane of flowers, and some day, maybe she would rule over the savannah. If she did, she would do it with kindness for everyone, no matter how small or different. Because when it came down to it, it wasn’t Sarah’s stories or flower mane that made her special — although they did make her different. What made Sarah special was the way that she was kind to everyone, and that’s a way that everyone can be special if they choose.
The unicorn settled down on the ground beside Sarah, beside the lake, and said, “You wanted to tell me a story? Is that right? Perhaps, you could start with the story of your mane. I think I would like to hear that one.”
Over the coming months, Sarah would visit with Glory many times and tell her many stories, just like she’d dreamed. But right then, right now, she started with this one.