The Muddy Unicorn

by Mary E. Lowd

A Deep Sky Anchor Original

“Alivia thought she would have liked being a frog.  They spent a lot more time in the water than she did.”

The sky was a the kind of empty blue that foretells a sunny, uneventful day, as untouched by actual weather as a day can be.  Alivia couldn’t stand it.  She wanted to frolic in mud puddles, dancing under the droplets of a gusting storm.  She wanted to prance and twirl on her cloven hooves, shake raindrops from her snowy mane like a waterfall, and spear the thorn-sharp tip of her horn into as many individual drops of water as she could.  She wanted to play rainy day games.

Alivia was a unicorn who loved the rain.

But she lived among a herd of other unicorns, and most of the others loved sunshine.  They liked bright, clear days when the sun glistened on the pearlescent curves of their twisting horns, gleamed on the downy fuzz of their milk-white flanks, and glittered in the curling locks of their ice-white manes.  They liked to sleep in green meadows where the long grasses rippled from gentle breezes.  They did not like it when Alivia caused trouble.

And Alivia’s favorite form of trouble was dark, grumpy, gray rainclouds that fairly bristled with their overburdened atmosphere, chock full of too much moisture, ready to come pouring down at the slightest provocation.  If the rainclouds sizzled with a little electricity, threatening to crack with thunder and flash with lightning, then that was even better in Alivia’s estimation.

For years, through her entire colt-hood, Alivia had fought with the other unicorns in her herd, casting spells to call rainclouds down on their meadow.  The clouds rarely lasted long.  Before the clouds could do more than scatter a few raindrops — barely more wetness on the grass than from dewdrops on a foggy morning — some other unicorn would cast a counter-spell, causing an extra beam of sunlight to burn the rest of the raincloud away, melting into a harmless fog that wouldn’t get a unicorn’s pretty pelt all covered in mud.

Alivia had even tried sneaking into the nearby forest and casting her rainclouds there, but one unicorn or another from the herd always spotted them anyway.  Even obscured by trees, raining on a forest adjacent to their meadow, the other unicorns took offense at Alivia’s rainclouds.  They didn’t like it when she came back to the meadow all covered and caked in mud, her shining pelt dulled and brown.  Too ordinary for a unicorn.  Covered in mud, she looked like a common deer with an unusual, singular antler on her brow.  The other unicorns wouldn’t stand for it.

So, Alivia let herself be boxed in by their expectations.  She learned to settle for prancing along the rocky edges of the nearest stream, a narrow trickle of water which bordered the far side of the unicorn herd’s meadow and then cut its way through the forest, winding and wending a twisty path.

Alivia liked the feel of water running over her cloven hooves, wetting the tufts of downy white fur at her ankles.  She liked to dip her horn into the water and stir up silt from the creek bed with its pointed tip.  She watched tadpoles and tiny fishes dart about in the little mud-storms her horn whipped up.  She imagined being one of them.  A tiny creature, barely more than a wiggling tail, darting back and forth under the water, growing up to one day develop big, jumping legs and a tongue long enough to dart out and pull down dragonflies from the sky.

Alivia thought she would have liked being a frog.  They spent a lot more time in the water than she did.  The creek that ran beside her meadow wasn’t deep enough for her to swim.  She could lay down in the creek, but even then, the babbling water only wetted her folded legs, chest, and belly.  She could never be fully immersed in such a shallow body of water.  She had tried using magic to shrink herself down, small as a frog, but she’d only succeeded in losing a few inches of height while staying basically unicorn-sized.

And so, one day, Alivia decided to follow the babbling brook as far as she could and see where it would take her.  There must be lakes or, at least, deeper rivers ahead if she followed the water downstream.  And if there weren’t, well, perhaps she could get enough distance between herself and her herd that no one with magic would notice her casting raincloud spells and stop her.

Alivia walked all day, gamboling her way downstream.  Her delicate hooves danced over the wet rocks, only splashing through the crystalline water when she felt like it.  She played games with herself, seeing how many rocks she could step upon between wetting her hooves, and then seeing how far she could splash before too many rocks blocked her way and she had to hop over them.  It was a pleasant if somewhat lonely way to spend a day.  Alivia was used to the company of other unicorns, and she both loved the freedom of being away from the others and also missed their familiar if somewhat judgmental presence.

Who was Alivia, she wondered, if she wasn’t the difficult, iconoclastic unicorn hassling all the others with her inexplicable, profoundly unnecessary rainclouds?

“I am sea foam, melting in sunlight.  I am white water rapids, coursing across a rocky river bed.  I am the stream,” Alivia said aloud to herself, testing the sound of her voice in the air, even when there was no one to talk to but the stream itself.

One of the rocks in the stream answered her back.

“Your hooves tread more heavily than stream water.  Please step carefully.  I wouldn’t want such a dangerous cloven thing to land heavily on my back.”

The rock who had spoken to Alivia was round and green.  On closer examination, she found a small head, four feet, and a tiny pointed tail poking out around the edges of the rock.  It was an especially pretty rock, decorated with hexagons laid out in a geometric pattern.

“I’ve never met a turtle before,” Alivia said.  She’d heard about them.  But they were rare enough in the unicorn’s meadow that she had never seen one.  Though, she knew what it must be.  The funny creature seemed kind of magical to her.  “I’m Alivia.  What’s your name?”  She stared levelly at the little creature, which involved lowering her head and making sure not to accidentally poke it with her horn.  Though, she wanted to.  She wanted to tap the tip of her horn against its convex back and see if it sounded hollow or maybe chimed like a bell.  But she didn’t.  She knew it wouldn’t be polite.  She wouldn’t have liked it if any other animal — especially one much larger than her — came traipsing up and poked her without permission.

After a long pause, as if the turtle were trying to remember something he hadn’t needed to know for a long time, he said, “Geode.  It’s a kind of pretty rock.  My mother named all my hatch mates after different kinds of rocks.”

This seemed perfectly sensible to Alivia.  She half-suspected turtles were simply enchanted rocks anyway.

“Would you like to travel with me?” Alivia asked.  “I’m following the stream downriver, looking for a place with deeper water where it might rain more often than here.”  She didn’t bring up why it never rained up here.  If this turtle, Geode, was unfamiliar with local unicorn politics, she didn’t want to be the one to inform him.

“More rain?” Geode asked, ponderously.  “That does sound lovely.  But I don’t think I can keep up with a creature that has legs as long as yours.  My people are notorious for traveling slowly.”

“If you’d like,” Alivia offered, “I’d be happy to let you ride on my back.”  She had been finding the silence around her from the lack of other unicorns oppressive.  “I would enjoy the company.”

The turtle assented, and Alivia used a little levitation magic to make him float up from the bottom of the creek bed, through the air, to just above the middle of her back where she dropped the spell, allowing him to settle gently on her white fur.  Alivia could have simply picked Geode up with her mouth — he was small enough, and her flat teeth were gentle enough — but she felt like showing off for her new friend.

The unicorn and the turtle traveled together for three days and two nights as the stream widened.  They traded stories of frogs, salamanders, and birds each of them had known.  Geode told a story about how he’d recently, against all odds, beaten a jackrabbit at a race.  Alivia continued to avoid talking about the other unicorns, but Geode didn’t seem to find that odd.  Apparently, turtles like him were usually solitary creatures, not living in herds, so he wasn’t phased at all by the idea of Alivia being the only unicorn around.

For her part, Alivia was amazed that Geode had lived so close to a unicorn herd his whole life — only half a day’s travel away — and never known about them.  The world was a bigger place than she had known, large enough for creatures who lived in one part of it to know next to nothing about the streams, forests, and meadows only a short voyage away.

It made Alivia wonder:  what creatures were out there who she knew nothing about?  What might she find at the river’s end?  She knew the babbling brook began at a spring in the mountain peaks on the far side of the forest beside the meadow where she had lived and grown — some unicorns traveled there, a pilgrimage to visit the ice-capped peaks and play in the ever present snow.  Alivia had been invited on several such pilgrimages, but she had never gone.  She’d heard enough about snow to know it didn’t interest her.  She liked her water wet, not crystalline and powdery.  She wanted mud not more sparkling whiteness.  But for all that she’d heard about the stream’s origin, she didn’t know where its water wended to, what she would find at the river’s end.

On the third day of her travels, the water of the stream deepened.  Alivia found herself sloshing along through water as deep as her knees.  By sunset, she could nearly swim, and Geode alternated riding on her back with swimming along beside her.  She had trouble keeping from laughing at the way he floated along the water’s surface.  Rocks don’t float, but this turtle did.  He looked like a floating rock, and again, she was struck by how magical he seemed.  A rock come to life, behaving in ways that a normal rock never would.

Of course, if you asked the other unicorns, Alivia behaved in ways a normal unicorn never should, muddying her hooves and dirtying her pristine horn.  So, she was not one to judge.

Before settling down for their third night together, Alivia frolicked through a meadow beside the river which had grown so wide, she could no longer hop across it in a single jump.  She had to swim from one side to the other.  She grazed the clover and sweet grasses of the meadow as the sky turned gold, then pinkish red, and finally a deep, satisfying purple.  When she made it back to the gurgling rocks beside the river to find her friend, Alivia was surprised to discover Geode had invited another animal to join them on their journey — a snow-white swan named Orange Beak.

Orange Beak had been raised by ducks.  A tale as old as… well, mermaids who want to walk on land.  The adopted swan had long been embarrassed by her glaringly white feathers, wishing she blended in better with the brown- and green-feathered members of her duck family, and she was clearly immediately smitten with Alivia’s shining white fur.  They matched each other in a way Orange Beak had never matched anyone before.

So, Alivia slept beside the babbling river that night, listening to the water gurgle and burble, as her head rested on a turtle’s back, as if his green shell were a pillow, and a swan roosted on her back, as if their matching colors meant they could blend together, becoming a creature of hooves and wings, like the mythical Pegasus from ancient Greek stories of the gorgons.

Alivia had heard the stories of her distant winged cousins, but she’d never met one of Pegasus’s descendants herself.  The unicorns in her herd had been somewhat snide and judgmental about how equine bodies weren’t suited to flying in the sky.  But then, they were equally snide and judgmental about Alivia’s love of rain and mud.  So, she didn’t really trust their judgements.

The next few days passed in a blur of bonding as Alivia, Geode, and Orange Beak swam down the ever widening river, sharing stories, playing games, and generally having the best time any of them had ever had.  Occasionally, Alivia would cast a spell pulling a small raincloud down to shower them with beads of water, which her new friends enjoyed, but mostly, she saved her energy for traveling.  All three of the companions wanted to see where the river would take them.

Alivia didn’t think she’d ever go back to the meadow where she’d grown up, regardless of what they found at the river’s end.  She was happier with her new friends than she’d ever been with a bunch of unicorns who scolded her for getting her hooves wet.  They’d have been horrified to see her swimming through neck-deep water now.

In spite of being the shortest, Geode was the first to spot the change on the horizon.  The blueness of the sky ahead deepened, thickening into a much richer shade that spread across the very bottom of the horizon.  It was a puzzle to look at it.  None of them had ever seen the sky behave like that before.  However, Orange Beak had heard stories from migratory birds who had passed by the part of the river where she’d lived, and so she was the first to figure out what it was they were seeing:

The ocean.

The river, which had been continually widening as they’d traveled, spread so wide that it opened into the mouth of a bay, and beyond the bay, the great blue ocean spread all the way across the horizon.  As Alivia stood at the edge of the bay, looking out, the ocean filled one half of her world.  She had never imagined so much water, more than she needed, but not more than she wanted.  It filled her heart until it floated upward on a rising tide of joy.

The three friends — traveling companions who were already becoming much more than that:  a strange little found-family — made their way to a beach at the edge of the bay where towering waves, crested in white foam, crashed onto the golden sand like thunder cracking, over and over again, creating a rhythm that resonated deep into their water-loving hearts.

Alivia felt her cloven hooves sink into the sand, leaving hoof prints behind her that spelled out the path she walked.  Geode toddled over the sand on his short legs, dragging his belly, and Orange Beak flapped her wings, causing the glittering golden grains of sand to fly up and sparkle in the air.  The three of them pranced, frolicked, splashed, and swam in the surf.  Alivia’s silvery white fur became marred with smears of sand; her shining mane hung in bedraggled tangles.  She couldn’t have been happier.

When the stars came out that night and shone down on Alivia, Geode, and Orange Beak, their celestial faces saw a trio of friends exhausted from dancing and playing, sleeping in a pile among the reedy grasses on a dune beside the shore.

The sky was clear, completely free of clouds, but Alivia didn’t mind the lack of rain clouds anymore.  Not when she had an ocean to play in, and friends to play with her, helping her to muddy her hooves.  Instead of slicing the tip of her horn through raindrops as they fell, she could spear her horn into the waves as they broke around her.  She could feel the power of the water rattle all the way through her body, sharp and cold, all the way down to her bones.

Alivia had never been meant to be unicorn in a peaceful meadow; she was a creature designed for the raw wildness of an ocean shore.

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