|The Little Bulls' Room|
|The Changing Room|
1. The Little Bulls' Room
"Crikey," he muttered. "You'd think they wanted to keep the things secret."
He smiled at the two doors – instead of displaying the universal silhouette of a man and a woman, one showed a humorous cartoon bull, and the other a matching cow.
"Cute," he thought, and pushed confidently through the left-hand door.
A wave of disorientation swept over him, and he stopped in amazement.
His first thought was, What the hell? The door leads straight into the farmyard!
His second thought was, Oh my God! What happened to my clothes?!
Followed closely by his third thought: Why am I on all fours?!?
His fourth thought, less coherent but more confident, followed the observation that there were several wide-eyed Friesian cows looking at him with interest: Moooo!!!!
2. The Changing Room
And then there it was: Spells R Us, a little shop that put me in mind of an old second-hand bookshop: dim and ancient-looking. It looked like it had always been there, but I was sure I had never seen it before, and I'd lived here for years: walked past this spot thousands of times. Intrigued by the costumes in the window, I entered the building. A little bell jangled as I opened the door, and as I entered the comfortable quiet of the shop itself, an elderly man popped up from behind the counter.
"Welcome, Sir! What can I do for you?"
I explained I wanted a costume for a party, and he chuckled sympathetically. "Not really your thing, eh? Worried about feeling a bit of an ass?"
I nodded ruefully, and he laughed. "Well, let's see what we can do for you. Ah, yes, this might do. Very popular, this one."
"It is?" I asked doubtfully, holding up the garment he offered me. A large expanse of brown fur, long ears and a ropey tail presented themselves. "A donkey suit?"
"It's always been my experience, Sir," the man said, "That if one enters into these things half-heartedly, one will invariably have a completely miserable time. My advice therefore, is that if you're worried about making an ass of yourself, embrace that fear! Deliberately make an ass of yourself!"
"Well, I'm not really…"
He held a hand up, interrupting me. "Please! By all means change your mind, but give the costume a try first. Sometimes these things grow on us unexpectedly. Give it a go? You don't even have to leave the changing room if you don't want to."
Reluctantly, I took the costume and followed his gesture towards the dim rear of the shop where a narrow door bore a small plaque:
The room was oddly but pleasantly decorated. A deep shag carpet was a vibrant grass green, and the walls were a matching colour at their base but became paler as they rose. The ceiling was sky blue, and again the top of the walls matched this, fading to a pale blue lower down. Green and blue met at eye-level, creating a plausible illusion of a great plain beneath an empty sky. The back of the door, when I closed and bolted it, was decorated to match – in fact it blended so seamlessly with the wall that it was hard to make out at all.
Feeling curiously exposed, I spread out the costume, and verified that it was indeed a donkey costume. I had half a mind to go straight back out, but gave a resigned sigh and decided to humour the old man's suggestion.
The costume, though large and padded, had a surprisingly tight fitting. I'd assumed I could just pull it on over my clothing, but this was uncomfortable. I removed coat and jumper, and slid one arm into the appropriate limb of the costume. The entire thing was a bit like a boiler suit, with the head of the costume a sort of hood, all one piece. I examined the look of the arm, and gave a reluctant nod of approval. No second-rate stage-clothing, this! I flexed my arm and marvelled at how real it looked. Smooth brown fur, and a hoof perfect in every detail. Even the proportions looked convincing.
Intrigued now, sheer curiosity drove me to try the rest of the thing on. With a little difficulty, for it was a comfortable but tight fit, I pulled my arm out long enough to chuck my trousers and shoes, and then pulled the costume on in earnest. Legs first, then arms. I sat down, finding it hard to both dress and balance on the costume's hind hooves; a bit like a ballet dancer on tip-toe. The costume appeared to have something like Velcro lining the join all the way from crotch to neck. Not too hard to join, which was a good thing for me: with both my hands in the suit, I had no fingers to manipulate zips or buttons. I supposed that was why the maker hadn't used zippers. As it was, it would be tricky. I clumsily managed to reach behind me and sort of knocked the hood over my head.
I blinked. Wow! I'd never worn such a comfortable or well-designed mask! Considering it was probably designed to fit a wide variety of sizes, it fit incredibly well! And I didn't feel stifled at all, and my range of vision…
I raised my arms to my face, and promptly clouted myself with the hooves, and reeled back as they made contact with face, not mask! And yet, the hood covered my whole head, didn't it? I scrabbled at my chest for the costume's join, intending to remove the thing, but could feel nothing through my hooves. I ducked my head but the angle was a poor one, and it was difficult to see my own chest. I began to get angry! I was stuck in this stupid thing! And yet it hardly felt like I was wearing anything, and what was the story behind the eyes! Were they lenses? Fish-eye and slightly sepia toned, but I could see a good way all around me, quite clear to the horizon…
I gave a self-conscious chuckle that I had fallen for the room's illusion, made uncannily real by the mask's eyes. I couldn't see where the carpet ended and the wall began. Or the door.
It dawned on me that I was stuck in the suit, and that I could not locate the door. Heat flushed my face as I realised I would have to call for help. I sighed, trying to quell my embarrassment, and tried to stand. I made it, briefly, but it was near to impossible: the hips of the suit were so designed as to make standing erect practically impossible, and coupled with the need to balance on tip-toe, I could not manage the feat for more than a few seconds. I fell to all fours, and found it a surprisingly natural posture. I looked down, down my furry muzzle to look down my arms. Despite my predicament, I could only admire the artistry of this suit. It looked so real!
I almost laughed out loud. Here I was, trapped in a donkey suit, unable to rise from all fours, and unable to find the door to the changing room. But an uneasy feeling stole the humour from the situation. The suit was good. Really good. Too good.
With the utmost reluctance, I drew breath and tried to call for help. I rocked in shock to the deafening bray that left my lips. I tried again, but with the same bewildering result. What was happening? Some sort of clever vocoder in the suit? But I couldn't convince myself of that, or of various other little details, all of which seemed just a bit too good for a seedy-looking costume shop. The more I moved, the less it felt like I was wearing anything at all: when a breeze blew, I felt it against my fur as if it were my own skin. Not cold, but too intimate; too close.
I did a double-take: breeze? Where did that come from?
I whirled on my hind legs (the only way to plausibly describe them at the moment). No matter how carefully I tried to break the illusion, I could not see the room anymore. Cautiously I moved forward, again a bit spooked at how natural quadrupedal movement seemed. I did not encounter a wall. I walked perhaps fifty yards and did not encounter a wall. I carefully turned a hundred and eighty degrees and retraced my steps - or thought I did. I did not find my discarded clothing.
I panicked. This wasn't illusion! That was sky above me, with the sun shining down. There were clouds, and I could see them moving. There was a steady breeze, and the carpet was grass. I could smell it, and smell the wind, and the soil. And there was no question about this being a suit anymore. I could feel my huge nostrils quivering in the air; I could feel my long ears switching to and fro. I could feel my tail.
I ran. In retrospect, it was a stupid thing to do: if it was an incredibly good illusion, I would have hit a wall pretty hard. Common sense might also have advocated staying close to where I thought the door might be. But I ran, knowing only that I was terrified, and that when you're frightened, you run. I ran until I could only stagger, and the heaving of my barrel chest further attested to the reality of my new situation.
I looked around, exhausted. The plain was no longer featureless. There were bushes and trees now, and nearby I could smell and hear water. I followed my senses to a stream and drank deep, then began to graze, not even realising what I was doing until I had chewed and swallowed several mouthfuls. That kind of brought it home, in a calmer, unarguable way, what had befallen me. And now that it was sinking in, what exactly was wrong with it? I felt wonderful: very different, but strong and alert, hearing and sense of smell conveying so much more information than they ever had before.
I decided to go with the flow, at least for now, and lowered my head to get on with some serious grazing.
3. Road Signs
So far things hadn't been too bad. She knew she wasn't supposed to be out driving on her own on a provisional license, but she'd wanted to know what it felt like to drive solo, and this wasn't a heavy traffic area. In fact, since she'd taken that last turning, she'd seen no traffic of any kind at all. This was too the good – the road had narrowed to the point where she was worrying about what would happen if she met anyone else – her reversing wasn't too hot. Possibly she'd taken a farm access road – some of them were good enough to be mistaken as full public roads and the well-maintained tarmac was not unusual. Certainly she'd lived in this general area all her life and hadn't known of this road, or where it went. No matter: if it ended up in a farm yard, she'd have a chance to practice her three-point turn.
But what had caused her to stop was a sign she didn't recognise. It was almost identical to the familiar "Hazard Ahead" sign – an exclamation mark in a red-rimmed triangle – but what the hell did a question-mark mean? Well aware that her theory test was only a week away, Susan lifted a well-thumbed copy of the Highway Code from the passenger seat and thumbed to the road-sign index. There was the sign she knew well, advertising an unspecified hazard ahead, but a question-mark? Was it a joke? "Guess at what's ahead?" she thought. "Variable hazard ahead?"
But how to obey this one? She chewed her lip as she looked around her. There was no way she was going to try turning the car here. The road was possibly just a little wider than the car was long, but only by inches. And she didn't fancy reversing to the last wide spot she'd seen. Beginning to regret her whimsical decision to try an unknown road, Susan decided to drive on slowly in the hope of finding somewhere more favourable to turn in. If she saw anyone, she'd apologise.
Feeling as if fifty traffic cameras were focused upon her (a sensation she always acquired when she felt uncertain), she carefully checked her mirror, indicated that she was pulling out (a change of position slightly less than eight inches) and promptly dropped the clutch. The car gave a protesting cough and stalled with a lurch. Flushing, she restarted the engine, and this time pulled off successfully, advancing past the sign at a cautious twenty miles per hour.
Steep banks arose on either side of her, topped by woodland that soon formed a leafy tunnel – it grew sufficiently dark that despite the sunny day, she turned her lights on, more to be seen by than to see with. Something caught the light, reflecting it back: another road sign. A tall oblong with a red border, and three black diagonal stripes on a white background – obviously a countdown marker, though she only recalled seeing them on a motorway before now, and usually white against blue or olive.
She decided it must mean "Horses only" or something like that. But why didn't it simply have (and she located the sign she was looking for) "No motor traffic beyond this point", or come to that, why not the different graphic for a horse and rider?
More specifically, why was the sign here at all? The road at this point decided to straighten out and emerged from the wooded banks to run across what looked like a large common – a wide grassy area level with road. There were no animals that she could see. Well, maybe there just weren't any just now. But her confidence rose with the increased visibility: she wasn't in any danger of accidentally running headlong into something here.
Not, she admitted to herself candidly, that she was likely to damage much more than a hedgehog at the speed she'd been travelling anyway.
She started again, with the thought that if the road showed no promise by the time she reached the far side of the open area, she would try turning on the grass and head back the way she came.
She got nearly twenty yards beyond the last sign before a tingling in her hands and feet began; an insistent pins-and-needles feeling that rapidly worsened until she stopped the car again and rubbed at the offending limbs frantically. Her feet were worst, and she removed socks and shoes to scratch at them.
What on earth? In the shadow of the foot-well, she could see the skin looked dark and bruised, her toes crabbing as if in cramp. Her hands weren't a lot better.
Bitterly regretting her decision to come out driving alone now, Susan gritted her teeth, and attempted to drive on – she was going to turn around here and now, and head straight home.
The car jerked, and the engine made an odd clattering sound and died.
"That wasn't me!" she exclaimed, furious at the injustice. "I haven't even started to release the clutch! Why did you stall?"
The car did not reply to her angry demand. She twisted the key in the ignition, and with a brittle sound, it snapped. Susan regarded the snapped-off fob in disbelief and then smacked both throbbing hands as hard as she could on the steering wheel. The steering wheel not only came off its column, it broke into two pieces.
That stopped her in her tracks. The car wasn't that old, and she couldn’t conceive of any way she could have done that.
There was a slight hissing sound, then a pop, and then more hissing, louder. The car creaked slightly and settled a little lower as without fuss or drama, all four tyres limply expired. Then, like a layer of frost on a warming surface, the vinyl lining of the car's interior crazed over and began to flake off, like an automotive dandruff.
Panting, Susan looked around wildly. What was happening? Had she driven through acid or something? And were the increasingly urgent sensations now spreading up her limbs the same thing? She made to grab for the door handle, but it snapped as she hit it – snapped into several crumbly pieces that further disintegrated as they tumbled to the floor – but she scarcely noticed for she was absorbed in the horrified examination of her hand, for her fingers had made no attempt to actually take hold of the door handle.
She held both hands up before her and watched in sheer disbelief as they elongated. As they did so, her middle fingers stretched too, and widened, and the nail on those fingers thickened and spread around the tip of the finger. As this happened, her remaining digits, as if being drained to fuel this growth of their siblings, retracted back into her swelling hand. Her skin darkened and grew rougher, and as her middle fingers grew to the same girth as her arm, her shocked mind suddenly made a mental switch, and she thought, "I've got hooves! Like a horse!"
She could not muster the presence of mind to wonder how, or why; to believe or disbelieve: she could only watch in horrified fascination, too shocked to utter a cry or make a move, and so she merely sat there, while her car fell to pieces around her, and her body continued its outlandish transformation.
The car's doors fell off, and the bonnet fell inward, braking into great rusty fragments that further broke into flakes and then a dark brown powder. There were clunks and chunks and brittle breaking noises all around, and a large fragile crash which was the engine falling to the road in a cascade of disassociating components. The car dropped abruptly as the wheels gave way and the axles folded and snapped, and the shock destroyed the failing integrity of the vehicle's main frame. Susan found herself suddenly sitting beneath open sky, while the remains of her car unfolded like an opening lily, crumbled into dust, and blew away in the breeze.
She registered this only dimly, even when her seat disintegrated and left her sitting on the bare road surface, for she was transfixed by the sight of her four limbs, now quite different from her human arms and legs. Not much different in length, they were greatly different in proportion, and each ended in a single, neat hoof. Her skin had darkened to a grey black colour, and short, glossy fur was spreading rapidly up from all four hooves.
Her stomach rumbled alarmingly and she suffered something like acute indigestion; not quite painful – none of the changes were actually painful – but distressing and uncomfortable. Then her belly began to swell. She'd always prided herself on her trim figure, but as she watched, her stomach began to distend, almost balloon-like. Her clothing began to tighten uncomfortably, and then painfully. There were popping, ripping sounds, and she moaned as the fastener on her jeans gave way, and the zipper ripped open. The supposedly tough denim tore down her thighs which were growing similarly massive.
Her belly and chest had swollen to twice their previous girth and showed little inclination to stop. The straps on her bra snapped, but the fabric of her teeshirt seemed inclined to stretch forever, though the lower hem began to roll up, exposing the same dark grey skin, and a following coat of short black fur. As her weight changed, she lost balance and fell back, and then over to her side, suddenly discovering that her shoulders and hips seemed to have lost much of their freedom of movement, more or less forcing her limbs to stretch out in front of her. And as she desperately tried to keep track of the changes to her body she realised how easy it was to swivel her head – her neck had grown long and arched.
Again her perception made a sudden readjustment and her eyes stopped seeing a grotesquely transfigured human body, and began seeing a different creature entirely, as her jaw and face stretched forward into an equine muzzle.
She lay still for a minute as the tingling sensations abandoned her, leaving other, fascinating sensations to come to the fore. Then she dazedly rolled onto her belly, now a great round barrel, and struggled to four feet, simply doing it, without really wondering how she knew how. She felt the presence of a tail behind her, ridiculously confined in the seriously over-stretched Lycra of her panties that were still valiantly trying to preserve her modesty, if not her dignity, which lay among the red ashes that seemed to be all that remained of her car. She felt the pointed ears, so mobile, sifting the wind for sound on the top of her greatly lengthened head.
She shook herself, trying to come to terms with the fact that, against all rational expectations, she had transformed completely into a small black pony. Logic and sense failed her utterly, and all she could think was, "Well, I did obey the road signs!"
4. Changing Fortunes
"The key is all in the breeding," he was saying. "Do you know, you can actually charge more for meat if the animal is purebred? It's like the meat has a pedigree. I got four good big sows from that paranoid farmer up the road – he reckons foot and mouth is due to explode again." He took a drink and wiped his mouth with his sleeve. "Ah, but then there's the breeding itself. A purebred boar is expensive, and artificial insemination even more so when you calculate it on an annual basis."
I chuckled as the waitress placed a bowl of fortune cookies on the table between us. "You sure set a good topic for the dining table, Ted."
Ted laughed as he reached for a cookie. "Uh, sorry. I get kind of carried away." He snapped the cookie in half and removed the motto inside. "Uh huh."
The first few dishes arrived at the table as I broke my cookie open and unrolled the little strip of paper. I didn't like the cookies too much, so I popped a pork-ball in my mouth. I read the motto. "Hah, very funny."
"What does it say?"
I dazedly rose to all fours, staring cross-eyed at the large snout that now protruded from my face, and grunted.
Ted stared, white faced at me from across the table, before reaching under his shirt and rapidly unwinding a length of rope from around his middle. "Oh, wow! A Chester White! Hold still a minute…"