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The Lion Who Thought She Was a Zebra

a fable

East Africa is where this lion’s tale
Takes place—a land of rugged plains of grass,
Acacia trees with thorns as sharp as nail,
And wild beasts of every shape and class:

Giraffes and warthogs, elephants, baboons!
Egrets and flamingos pinkly clad;
Loud hyenas howling hungry tunes—
And Artemis the Lion who was sad.

Although a member of the Lion Pride
Artemis was anything but proud.
Her hunting skills were poor. Although she tried,
She barely squeaked a roar—and never loud.

She spurned her tawny mane and feline claws.
Her catlike tread so shamed her she would whine.
Claiming freedom from all lion flaws
She fiercely scorned to be called “leonine.”

But how she loved the zebras of the plain!
Their classy stripes of tasteful black and white.
The graceful way they grazed on grass and grain;
Their dignity when trotting out of sight.

Thus Artemis discerned the shocking truth:
No lion she! She had a zebra’s soul!
Being forced to hunt had scarred her youth,
And only zebra life could make her whole.

She rubbed stripes on her back with chalk and mud
And left the Pride to find the zebra herd.
But when the zebras saw her they feared blood
And fled from her en masse without a word!

Except for one—a zebra youth named Zeke,
Who shamed his herd as slaves to unjust hate.
They would not let a peaceful lion speak!
Such fear was wrong! Their bias had no weight!

So Zeke and other zebra-justice youths
Dislodged the leaders of the Zebra Nation.
They then declared the falseness of old truths
And granted Artemis a dispensation:

She would be a zebra like all others.
Her lethal claws and fangs no longer mattered.
Next Zeke claimed all lions were their brothers
And all ideals but Love must now be shattered.

To help young Artemis feel right at home
The zebras knitted lion manes from hay.
They placed them on their heads fixed with a comb,
While Artemis was taught to graze and bray.

The younger zebras all loved Artemis
Who’d learned to sheathe her claws when they embraced.
Elders who held back were deemed remiss
As zebra-cat distinctions were erased.

But soon, the zebra youths lost who they were.
Some crouched like cats until their backs were weak.
Some tried to hide their black and white striped fur.
Some tried to hunt and starved within a week.

Rather than confessing his huge blunder
Zeke said justice needed one more measure:
Although the herd was being torn asunder,
The zebras would divulge their greatest treasure:

A Secret Place where hunted zebras hide;
Where foals are safe, where tracks fade in the mud;
A place of refuge from the Lion Pride—
From predators demanding meat and blood.

The elders cursed their secret being told!
What fools to let a lion know their dealings!
Zeke’s response was arrogant and cold.
These hateful elders lacked respect for feelings!

And then one day a lion charge occurred,
The zebras caught up in a deadly race!
When Artemis fled with the zebra herd
Her lion-scent revealed the Secret Place.

The stricken zebras had no chance to win.
They’d turned their backs on every skill they knew,
Preferring to pretend that cats were kin.
Their lunacy now left them in a stew.

The aftermath was bloody and perverse.
For “Artemis, the Zebra” wasn’t real.
Her feline hunger surfaced. Even worse:
She joined the lions in their zebra meal!

Zeke survived, though shocked—shocked and enraged
By Artemis’s treachery! In shame
He fled, his hopes for peace left unassuaged,
But sure he’d find another cat to tame.

That day the lions ate till they were fat
Then turned to Artemis and asked her plain:
So… was she now a zebra or a cat?
With unsheathed claws she combed her splendid mane.

“A lion,” she replied with newfound pride,
Accepting Nature’s lesson as her view:
When shame had ruled her mind, her thoughts had lied.
For only fools think all they think is true.

.

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He Made That Choice

a rondeau 

He made that choice. He couldn’t bear
The way he was, his face, his hair.
He felt he had to change his life,
To flee a selfhood that was rife
With shame he couldn’t share.

Professionals who didn’t care
Spoke words as empty as the air
On how to free him from this strife.
He made that choice.

Now with mirrors everywhere
He sits and sobs. Some days he’ll stare.
When he allowed the surgeon’s knife
They said he’d make the perfect wife,
But now he’s trapped in worse despair.
She made that choice.

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Brian Yapko is a lawyer who also writes poetry. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.


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10 Responses

  1. Margaret Coats

    Brian, the fable is a lot of fun, and the thought patterns of Zeke and Artemis are recognizable in humans. The last line, “For only fools think all they think is true” is a superb conclusion. But since lionesses don’t usually have manes, I wonder what you’re doing with the mane. Having looked it up, I see one theory that says a lioness develops a mane due to hormonal abnormality, and that this may happen more often in captivity. Maybe Artemis with her poor hunting skills was already eating a vegan diet that went to her head. Things got worse when she joined the zebra nation. Her thinking cleared after the big feast on zebra tartare, but by that time her mane was big enough to be called splendid.
    The poem is a splendid story, while the rondeau is both pathetic and stinging.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you, Margaret! You’ve given me a most convenient and creative explanation for a female lion having a mane. I had not given it much thought — and I should have. But where your comment leads me to is the idea that Artemis’s mane is so wrong that it’s right given the normative-bending subtext of the poem. I’ll keep it. And you’ve made me laugh out loud with your mention of zebra vegans and zebra tartare. Thank you for that as well!

      Reply
  2. Julian D. Woodruff

    Brian,
    A great pair. The fable reminds me of a kids’ poem I wrote about a color genie who drops by the local zoo offering his fashion services, and of a kids’ book from the 50s by WP DuBois, Bear Party (starring koalas) with similar identity chaos. My personal theory is that this trans-identity craze (but probably not only trans) results from the rise (so to speak) of 1- and virtually 0-parent households, which deprive kids of models of sane, responsible living; and of guilt-ridden acquiescent support for the delusional, peer-driven behavior that arises as a result.
    One question: the line “Wrongly forced to hunt …” seems to lack a subject. What about “Being wrongly forced …,” or else simply “Being forced …”
    Although it doesn’t make a true rhyme, the line “Some tried to hunt and starved within a week” is priceless.
    Congratulations on both!

    Reply
  3. Brian Yapko

    Thank you very much, Julian! You’re quite right about line 23 and I will ask our moderator to change it per your suggestion. I happen to agree with your assessment about what the absence of parents does to the children. I think the disintegration of the nuclear family is responsible for a great many of society’s ills, including young people’s lack of boundaries and a clear moral compass.

    Reply
  4. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Brian, “The Lion Who Thought She Was a Zebra” is a fable that should be be on the school curriculum and given to every drag queen reading to children across the land. Your beautifully crafted and utterly compelling poem speaks volumes. It is Aesop updated with a moral that needs to be shouted from the library rooftops of all those who believe transgenderism is to be held up as normal and warranting of applause, and I endorse it wholeheartedly. Thank you for your talent and your courage.

    My favorite is the rondeau. You have mastered this form and I am reveling in the caring message of wisdom it carries. I particularly like the subtle and adept change from “he” to “she” in the repeating line at the close. Superb!

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Susan, thank you very much for your comment on these two poems. I knew that writing them was a risk but I had your fearless work as an example of poetic bravery to inspire me and there was something that I needed to say. I do believe that transgenderism (gender dysphoria) exists, but I think it’s a vanishingly rare thing compared to how widely promoted it is by our society. From a diagnosis standpoint I think it should be the last house on the block rather than the first. And I think that it’s sheer lunacy to yank our entire society so far left that we are forced to pretend that gender doesn’t exist simply for the sake of the small number who legitimately carry the diagnosis. Forcing me to say that there is no biological difference between men and women insults my intelligence.

      I’m really pleased that you liked the poems — especially the rondeau. I’m glad you noticed the change from “he” to “she” which worried me as messing with the rondeau form. But the emotional effect seemed worth it. I also struggled greatly over line 5 which has only three feet instead of 4. I ultimately decided the line should stay shortened as a metrical representation of the poor subject’s perceived infirmity.

      Susan, thank you again for your kind and supportive words. I especially appreciate your support given how uneasy this poem leaves me. But I felt I had to write it. When the emperor is wearing no clothes, someone needs to point it out. You never shrink from doing so. Thank you for that.

      Reply
      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        Brian, I am with you on the decisions you made with the rondeau. When I write poetry, I always put meaning above form. I try my hardest to uphold the integrity of the form, but, if form, meter, or perfect rhyme, get in the way of my message, I always choose the message above all else. I believe when it comes down to form versus message, the message must shine. But, the poet must know the rules before he can tweak them a tad. That’s my opinion. I’m certain other poets will disagree vehemently. The wonder of poetry ensures there’ll always be robust debates with a lot of telling going on. That’s when it’s time for poets to pick up their pens and start showing – and you’ve done just that, admirably.

      • Margaret Coats

        Brian and Susan, I should point out that change to a refrain was accepted in medieval France. Eustache Deschamps, a poet who wrote the first treatise on French versification during the heyday of refrain poetry, says the words of a refrain may be altered, except that the final word must remain the same. It is interesting that this permission was rarely used, showing that poets had an artistic sense favoring preservation of form, except in cases where grammar or some significant creative consideration applied. That certainly seems like you here, Brian!

  5. Jeff Eardley

    Brian, I enjoyed these immensely. The fable is a lovely bedtime story with the warning to never trust a lion, not that you would even consider having one as a pet. Give me a Cocker Spaniel anytime. The sad transgender piece has proved so true for some of our young people. A very good read today.

    Reply
  6. Brian Yapko

    Thank you very much, Jeff. I’m pleased you saw what I was trying for! And yes, Cocker Spaniels are great, though I’m partial to our Texas Heeler!

    Reply

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