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Janice Reed, Southfield Stables' owner handed out the work assignments.
The younger girls first: tack cleaning; mucking out; skipping out the front
paddocks. Then the thirteen and fourteen year-olds, according to their
competance; more of the same or priviledged to help with lessons or escort
hacks. And finally us two oldest: Ellen who intended to become a
professional instructor and was close to achieving this, and me -
odd-man-out. Only man out in fact. Thirty years old and
hanging around the stables with the same infatuation for horses as the
twelve-year-old girls. Or at least a similar infatuation...
"Ellen, could you lead the eleven o'clock hack? It's a slow one: Mrs Smith's children are on it. I know she thinks they're up to three-day-eventing already, but I don't want you to let them go faster than a nice active trot. Oh, could you do the lunch feeds before you go? Thanks. Matthew, donkey work again as you're the only man around. That new straw delivery needs stacking in the barn, and when you've done that, could you spread about half a bale in Tim's stall. Keep an eye on those little ones will you? I know they all think they know how to put a bridle on, but just in case, okay? Great."
We all seperated to our various assignments. The younger girls fought over the best wheelbarrows, and there weren’t enough brooms to go around: there was a healthy amount of tomfoolery, and the scene could have been a riding stables almost anywhere.
I got down to my job, happily lifting bales from the wooden pallets, humping them across the the far wall of the barn and stacking them neatly, soon perspiring heavily but enjoying it. If it's for horses I enjoy it. It doesn't matter what it is or how distantly related. I've helped to mix concrete for the foundation of a stable, helped pick up a giant ex-army washing machine that was to find new employment washing New Zealand rugs, and hand-weeded all the ragwort in a five-acre field. It just makes me feel good to do something towards the well-being of the horses, makes me feel closer to them I guess.
Ellen gave me a grin as she crossed the yard. "You'll have muscles like Sammy at this rate," she said, Sammy was Southfield's Shire-cross, seventeen hands of gentle strength. He had been idly watching me as I lugged bales past his loosebox door. I paused there now, breathing gently into his nostrils as he raised his muzzle to my face. His own grassy breath puffed at me in return and then his attention went to a hopeful exploration of my trouser pockets. Ellen joined me, stroking Sammy's neck.
"I'm almost envious of him," she said with a chuckle as the huge horse closed his eyes and leaned into her caress. "Lazing around in the sun half the time, putting up with the constant smuggled tidbits from his many admirers." A slice of apple found its way beneath Sammy's questing lips and quickly vanished.
"I wonder what it's like, being a horse," I mused, as if it were a concept that had never occurred to me before.
"Probably not that different from being human," said Ellen. "Just different advantages and disadvantages." She looked at her watch. "Time to gather my troops and head off again. See you later, Matthew. I wonder if anyone's tacked Susie for me."
Funny, I thought, how all the horses are named at Southfields. Tim, Sammy, Susie. Robert (Bobbie), Kay, Marcus, Sara. No Flickas, Polos, Sugars. There was an attractive Palomino named Alan for goodness sake. I mean, it's a good name for a human, but a horse?
Once I asked Janice about the odd naming convention of all her horses; some twenty in all.
"I don't know," she said. "Those are the names they already had when they came here. Change a horse's name and you change his luck. Since none of them seemed to be suffering greatly, I assumed they were all quite happy and in no need of a change."
I finished stacking the straw bales, split one, and carried an armful to the Small Barn (as opposed to the Large Barn and the New Barn). Tim's stall was the one on the end of a short row of four: Kay, Lorna, Nick, and Tim.
Not really concentrating, I walked up to the end of the aisle, and suddenly stopped, puzzled. One, two, three, four, five!
Now let me assure you: I knew Southfields very well. I even helped build some of the newer bits, and I was the one who produced the coloured visitor's map in the main office. I'd been in this barn hundreds of times, and I knew Tim's stall was the fourth, last loosebox. Except for today: still fourth - it had his name on it - but no longer last.
Life doesn't prepare you for anomalies like that. I knew damn well there had always been four boxes, but I also knew damn well that barns don't just grow another twenty-five percent. I stared stupidly at the fifth box. Neat and clean, just like the others, deeply bedded with fresh, clean straw. I looked at the nameplate on the door, sure that if I knew what horse was normally kept here, I would suddenly remember the fifth box.
There was a plate there, but it was blank. No clues there. I opened the door and wandered in. The door, hung at a deliberate angle, swung shut and the latch clicked home.
A wave of dizziness suddenly assailed me and I sat down suddenly. The feeling passed quickly, but it had been so unexpected that I continued to sit in the straw, worriedly anticipating its return. My left arm itched and I scratched it idly. The sleeve of my sweater came away on my fingers.
“What the hell is this?” I demanded aloud, considerably unnerved by this and forgetting everything else. The fabric was dry and brittle, like flaky pastry. I tried to remember if I had touched any chemicals accidentally. Concentrated deturgents maybe? Battery acid from the tractor? But no: I hadn't knowingly been near anything like that.
More of the sleeve broke away, shriveling like ash, just as fragile. In a kind of shock, I watched as the whole garment disintegrated into powder. When my teeshirt started to follow, I leapt up in genuine fright, only to sit back down almost as fast. For one thing, the sudden move brought on another surge of dizziness. For another, the sudden movement caused the rest of my teeshirt, my trousers, and a goodly portion of my boots to crumble into grey dust. Sitting down again rendered me abruptly, shockingly naked. Even my watch had disintegrated.
Part of me was terrified at what this mystery agent might have done to my skin if it could destroy cotton, denim, and rubber so easily, but this was somewhat outweighed by my embarrassed horror at finding myself completely nude in the middle of a very public place, where most of the people were teenaged girls. This is not a situation that most thirty-year-old men would feel comfortable with.
On hands and knees I scooted to the front wall of the box, cowering beneath its scant protection. The movement was awkward: my back felt stiff and my shouders ached fiercely if I moved my arms to the side at all. Wincing, I crouched on all fours waiting for the discomfort to pass and wondering what to do next. The quandry was wiped from my mind though when I happened to glance down and see what was happening to my hands.
At first I thought they were disintegrating like my clothing. My thumbs and three of my fingers on each hand were shrinking: retracting back into the heel of my hand. But the remaining digit was swelling, and the nail was spreading and thickening until it bore an uncanny resemblance to a hoof. And then it became a bit more than a resemblance. The proportions of my arms were changing: joints sliding up and down my limbs in an almost liquid fashion. It wasn’t painful - almost pleasurable in fact, but it was a disturbing sight. And while my arms were so engaged, my legs changed also. I was amazed to find myself standing on four legs, each ending in a broad equine hoof. Shaggy hair began to sprout from my skin, and I became aware of other changes: my torso swelling; my neck extending; my nose and mouth growing out and away from my face to form a muzzle. I cried out - not loudly but in wonder - and the sound was an unmistakable whinny. A twitching sensation at the sides of my head spoke of newly mobile ears, and a similar sensation at the base of my spine was the first knowledge I had of my tail growing.
I was aware that I should not be taking this so calmly: accepting it so easily or so willingly, and yet I was. My overwhelming reaction was a sort of wondering delight. I watched in willing amazement as my skin... no, my hide developed a pattern of irregular brown and white patches. My body continued to grow, legs lengthening and thickening. My ears began picking out sounds they couldn't previously hear, and my nose to take in a wealth of scents in more detail than I had ever imagined possible. My sight did become marginally poorer, but not so much as I might have imagined. The biggest diference was the loss of binocular vision unless I looked straight forward.
And then the change was complete. I shook myself, and raised each foot in turn to squint at it. I craned my long equine head around on my long equine neck and drank in the sight of my own equine body. I swished my tail; tossed my head. Every movement brought new sensations. Even breathing felt different: a great flood of air into bellows-like lungs. I could sense the immense new strength I possessed too: feel it coiled in my hind legs and broad back.
Sound and movement caught my attention. Someone was coming. How would they react to a new horse in the stable, I wondered. What would they make of me? Would they be very worried about my apparent absence - the absence of my human self?
It was Ellen, with one of the Smith girls, and to my surprise, they came straight to the loosebox I inhabited. "Got the bridle?" Ellen asked. "Good girl. In we go then. No need to worry. He may be big but he's very gentle. You haven’t ridden a pony as big as him before, have you?" She was carrying a saddle.
“No,” said the girl looking up at me in awe.
Bemused and fascinated I stood completely still as the two approached me. I was less concerned with my lack of attire now: for a start my long skewbald coat and full tail felt almost like clothing themselves, but it also seemed to matter less now.
They’re going to put a saddle on me! I thought in amazement. As if I were any normal horse! Had Ellen known about this... this... whatever this bizarre sequence of events was?
Do I resent this? I asked myself. Should I try to make Ellen recognise me?
And I decided, no. This, however unexpected, was a long-cherished fantasy come true. I wanted to play this out. Feeling very strange, I patiently stood while Ellen showed the little girl how to put a bridle on. And then I was obligingly lowering my head and opened my mouth to accept the bit, feeling the unfamiliar sensation of the leather bridle about my head; tentatively mouthing the cool metal of the bit. Ellen settled the saddle on my back, and drew the girth tight around my belly. I grunted and turned my head to look. The little girl giggled and told Ellen, “He’s going to bite you!”
“He’s just curious,” Ellen said. “Wouldn’t you be if someone put a saddle on you?”
“I don’t wear a saddle!” exclaimed the little girl, thinking this was very funny.
Ellen smiled. “Well, not if you don’t want to then. But maybe you’ll change your mind one day.”
She handed the reins to the girl and held the loosebox door open. Still a bit bemused but tentatively beginning to enjoy myself, I followed the light tug on my reins out into the aisle. I heard Ellen shut the loosebox door behind me, and turned my head slightly to see the previously blank nameplate had changed.
In neat itallics was printed my name.