Once long ago, when the world was still new and all the creatures young, the first hedgehog looked very different from the way they look today. He had no spines at all, and no fur either. He was pink and bald, like a piglet. He was a very vain creature, and he thought he looked ridiculous among all the other animals. He was sure they laughed at him, when his back was turned.
One morning, he decided he couldn't stand it any longer. So he left the river-bank where he lived, and trotted off through the jungle; and when the animals asked where he was going, he said, "I'm going to find the Changer."
Now, the Changer was a god who walked the earth in those days; and he was called the Changer because more than anything else, he loved to change one thing into another. He lived on the far side of a hot, dry desert where the sun beat down all day, where no rivers ran and no trees grew to give shelter. The hedgehog was too sensible to cross the desert alone, so he made his way round the edge, where the sands gave way to the jungle. It was a long journey, and it took him nearly a week; but at last, he found the Changer.
"Well, hedgehog?" the Changer said, laughing, when he saw the little pink beast trotting up to him. "What would you ask of me?"
"Please," the hedgehog said, "give me a coat of feathers or scales or fur, like all the other animals. They mock me, because I am pink and naked."
Now this wasn't true, and the Changer knew it; but he just smiled, and said, "Very well. Go back to your home, and choose the coat that you would like to wear; then come to me again, and I will change you so that you and your descendants will wear that coat forever."
The hedgehog made his slow way home, thinking hard. "I could have beautiful fur, like a tiger's," he thought, "or shining scales like a snake. But the Changer has said that I may choose whatever coat I like; and there is one that is more beautiful than any..."
When the vain little hedgehog reached the river-bank, the other animals asked him what the Changer had said. The hedgehog told them; and the tiger and the fox and the other furry creatures offered him some of their. fur to wear, if he would like that. The snake had changed his skin just the day before, and he said that the hedgehog could dress himself in the old one, if he chose.
But the hedgehog simply snorted. "No, I don't want fur, or scales," he said. "I want a coat of feathers."
"Feathers?" the badger repeated, astonished. "Only birds have feathers!"
"I know," said the hedgehog. "But they are more beautiful than any of us; and when I have a coat of feathers, I and my descendants, we hedgehogs, will be more beautiful than any of you. We will be the most beautiful animals in all the land."
So he spoke to the birds; and each of them gave him a single bright feather. When he had a big heap of them, he rolled in it till the sharp quills stuck into his skin. Each one pricked like a needle; but at least he was covered in a thick coat of feathers. It looked very strange; but he thought his new coat was wonderful, and he went running off to find the Changer as quickly as he could, before any of the feathers could fall out.
This time, he was in too much of a hurry to go the long way, around the desert's edge. He just galloped straight across the hot sands, squinting against the sun's glare.
As he ran, he got hotter and hotter, while the sun beat down on his skin and his fine new coat of feathers. His pink snout started to itch, and turn red; and he wondered if perhaps he should turn back and go the other way. But he'd come so far already, it couldn't be too much further; and he was desperately eager to find the god, and have his coat made a part of him. So he ignored the burning feeling on his skin, and just kept on running.
Before he found the Changer, his snout had turned from red to brown, and his back felt as though it were burning. But at last he reached the far side of the desert, and there was the god, waiting for him.
"Well, little hedgehog?" the Changer asked. "Have you chosen your new coat?"
"Yes, please," the hedgehog panted. "I want to look just like this, please. And all my descendants, too."
"Like that?" the Changer said, with a smile. "Truly?"
"Then let it be so." The Changer reached out a hand to touch the little creature, and change him. Then he said, "There is a pool among those rocks. Go and look at your reflection, to see what you have become."
The hedgehog hurried excitedly to the pool's edge, and peered in at the still water.
At first, he didn't recognise himself. He was expecting to see a glory of bright feathers, coloured like a thousand birds; but there was only a little brown animal staring back at him, with strange bristly spines all over his back. He looked, and looked again; then he twisted his chubby neck round to stare at himself, and make sure that it was true.
He remembered then the burning feeling across his back, as he had galloped through the desert; and he realised that the sun had done more than burn his snout brown. It had singed all his feathers, until there was nothing left but the scorched quills. And the Changer had said that he would be like this forever, and all the hedgehogs after him...
Miserable and ashamed, he crept back through the jungle to his river-bank. This time, when the animals saw him, they really did laugh.
"Let's throw him in the river," the fox suggested. "Perhaps we can wash the brown off, and have him pink again."
The hedgehog curled himself into an unhappy ball as the mocking fox ran up. A paw prodded at him; but suddenly there was a howl of pain. The hedgehog looked up, to see the fox licking his paw fretfully.
"That hurt!" he said. "Like a hundred thorns jabbing me, all at once."
"Serves you right," grunted the hedgehog. "I'm going home."
He shuffled off through the grass; and all the other animals backed out of his way as he passed. They all knew how much a single thorn could hurt; and the hedgehog wore a thousand of them in his new coat.
And so the hedgehog got his sharp spines; and hedgehogs have worn them ever since. They still don't like them very much, and they still dream of feathers. But at least the other animals don't laugh at them any more...
Fine Feathers was published in The Dragon in the Ice and other stories (Arnold Wheaton, 1988), illustrations by John Bennett. The other stories in this collection are:
- The Dragon in the Ice, illustrated by Jane Gospel
- The Grey Minstrel, illustrated by Ray Mutimer
- The Fire Snake, illustrated by Denise Thomas
- The People under the Hill, illustrated by Rodney Sutton
- The Miserable Prince, illustrated by John Lupton
- The First Tree, illustrated by Richard Hook
- The Raven Girl, illustrated by Caroline Dadd
Fine Feathers © Chaz Brenchley
Illustration © John Bennett
Border design from an illustration by Caroline Dadd to The Raven Girl