Once upon the light of a horned moon, a girl was born with the legs of a gazelle.
Instead of milk lullabies, her mother singsonged warnings of never showing her gazelle legs lest the tribe believe her cursed or a demon come to snare them. When the girl was old enough to walk, her mother exchanged her swaddling clothes for a flowing robe whose hem swept the sand clean of the hoof prints she left in her wake. The tribesmen first praised the mother's modesty, then, when the child's lurching gait did not improve with age, turned their eyes and tongues politely away, never mentioning the deformity that must be the girl's lot in life.
The girl, however, did not understand why she had to hide her legs. She thought them beautiful, so graceful their lines, so strong despite the slenderness of their bones. Because of them, she could climb the highest, steepest crags without fear of losing her footing; she could outrun everyone in her tribe, even the camels. That is she could have had her mother let her. But she loved and trusted her mother and so hid away the most wonderful thing about herself.
One day, after a rain so heavy the tents sagged with it, the other children climbed the rocks surrounding the oasis to splash in the water that puddled there. The girl with the gazelle legs followed and looked on sadly while the others hitched their robes to their knees and danced in the shallow pools.
"Join us," they shouted to the girl. "We won't laugh at your crooked legs."
The girl almost believed them, but she believed her mother more. The tribe would cast her out, and her mother. She was too different.
"You're not our friend," said the children. "It is not enough to carry others through the desert; one must also be carried. How can we carry you when you will not allow us close enough?"
Their words shamed the girl. "I don't think you will laugh. I think you will be afraid and won't accept me once you see them."
"You are not only legs. Why should we judge you as if you were?"
Hope flowered in the girl's heart like a cactus blossom after the rain. "Swear on the milk of your fathers' herds you won't speak of what you see."
After she had their solemn promises, she lifted her robe just enough to show her hooves. The children stared for a long time until someone broke the silence with, "Is it just your feet?"
The girl pulled her hem higher, showing them the tawny hide, the slender-strong bones.
The children looked at one another as if regretting the vow of silence, and she feared they would risk drying up the herds to tell their parents.
"Well, no wonder you win at races," said one boy, and everyone laughed and returned to their play.
Relief made the girl as limp as if she had spent the day weaving under the sun's glare. She frolicked with the others, her gazelle legs flashing as she leaped and spun. While some faces grew a bit troubled from time to time, no one laughed, no one mocked her, no one ran off to tattle.
The sun's belly melted against the scorching dune tops, and the children scrambled down the rocks to calls of supper and chores. The girl bounded across the sand to her mother's tent.
"They know, mother," she exclaimed. "They know about my legs and didn't call me a demon."
Her mother dropped a ladle, full of rice and camel's milk, into the sand. "My foolish, foolish child." She fled into the tent, leaving the pot of food to scorch on the fire. Her quiet sobs were almost inaudible beneath the clanging of bells as the flocks meandered to the water for their nightly drink.
Darkness fell, but the girl was too ashamed to go into the tent and face her mother's grief. She was not only ashamed of disobeying; she was ashamed of ever having been born. Her mother did not deserve a monster for a daughter, not when she no longer had a husband or hope of other children to fill her heart.
The girl dozed off to thoughts of running away and woke when the night grew chill. Her heart was just as cold as she snuck into the tent to kiss her mother goodbye.
But her mother's sleeping rug was empty. The girl ran back outside to dark tents and a tranquil night. Wherever her mother was, she was not being harangued or punished for bringing ruin upon the tribe.
The girl studied the ground and followed the freshest set of footprints to the perimeter of the camp. Camel- and goat-tracks pockmarked the land, but a single set of footprints led into the heart of the desert, shadowed by a line of perfect ripples, the kind left in the wake of a mirage demon.
The girl pulled up her robe and ran like she had never run before, straight towards the cruel grin of a crescent moon. She ran up dunes and down dunes, hooves sure but breath ragged, until at last she came to a jutting curve of stone she knew only by name: The Horn.
The horn of the beast that sleeps beneath the desert, the beast that will someday wake and shake the sands from its great body before it devours the world.
Her mother's footprints headed straight for it. Drawing a breath for courage, the girl charged down the dune and into shadow of the Horn.
An odd ebb and flow of wind led her to a crack at the Horn's base. She crept inside the rock, her hooves clicking softly. The crack widened to a cave, and at its center, a demon loomed over her prone mother, the contours of its body shifting like dunes in a storm. The girl stilled when the demon turned its gaze of blazing suns and dancing mirages on her.
"Do not be afraid," said her mother in a parched voice. "I came willingly." She smiled, lips cracking as if she had not drunk for days. "The sand spirit is prepared to make you whole."
The girl's heart sank. "Whole? At what price?"
"A price I'll pay." She held out a hand, and despite the demon's burning presence, the girl moved to take it. "Now all you must do is wish for the legs of a girl."
The girl cringed but did not release her mother's hand. "You find me so hideous, mother?"
"Hideous! Never. I want only to protect you. The children will talk. The elders will demand proof. But you'll have your human legs, and they cannot harm you. Go on. Wish it."
"Wish," the demon hissed, the cave heating with its breath.
Tears welled in the girl's eyes, a waste of water all desert peoples know. "But I don't want to change. I...I like my legs the way they are."
An emotion fiercer than the sun's dawning brightened her mother's face, terrible to see. "Oh. Oh, my daughter, you aren't the foolish one. I am. Never once did I allow you to enjoy your beauty."
"Wish. Wish," the demon whined.
The girl stared into its swirling eyes. "No."
It whoosed closer, sand grains pelting the girl and her mother. "I must be paid. A conjuring debt is owed."
"I summoned you, and I'll pay," insisted the mother as she levered herself onto her elbows. "Let my daughter go first."
A whirlwind engulfed the girl and spun her out of the cave. It flung her into the side of a dune and died, raining sand upon her. By the time her head cleared and she climbed to feet, all but the tips of the crescent moon had sunk beneath the horizon.
From out of the Horn walked her mother, appearing unharmed. Arms outstretched, the girl ran to her, never gladder of her gazelle legs.
Her mother wrapped her in a hug and whispered, "Forgive me," then stepped away, glancing at the sky. "Look for me under the light of the horned moon; the power of the mirage fades then."
The moon set, and the girl's mother transformed into a gazelle.
The animal flicked its tail and bounded away, too fleet for the girl, even with her gazelle legs, to follow.