by Phil Geusz
What would it take to persuade you to be turned into a horse?
Merle Castison, perpetual ne'er-do-well, accepted a rich man's horse-curse for a mere ten thousand a month plus room, board and free shoeings. After all, he only expected the old gentleman to live a few more years. Then he'd transform back into a normal human and have a nice nest egg to retire on. It wasn't a bad life...
…until the old man died and the hooves-and-mane thing went right on as if nothing had happened. What went wrong? Merle must find out if he's not to spend the rest of his life on four legs. And if his quest for the answer leads him right into the middle of the most dangerous sorcerer's war ever fought, so be it.
Roses have their thorns, the preacher had just explained, as life has its sorrows. This wasn’t a terribly original thought, though it hit the target. I held my head low and my eyes downcast as I stepped carefully forward. Aunt Georgia might not have been my favorite relative, but she hadn’t been by any measure a bad person either. In death, she was certainly entitled to all the respect and dignity that I could possibly muster. Besides, funerals were for the living and my mother was still very much with us, weeping her eyes out in the front row.
Georgia was her twin sister, and Mom wasn’t taking her sudden death at all well. It’d been a very unexpected thing; one minute my aunt had been on her way to the beauty salon and the next she was lying crushed and broken under the wheels of a semi loaded with, of all things, a cargo of rolled oats. I felt vaguely guilty as I eased my way down the cramped aisle, everyone staring daggers at me. There wasn’t enough room for someone of my bulk to pass between the mourners and the little portable podium, so I improvised by stepping gracefully outside into the cold rain for a moment and reaching out over the casket from behind. Then I tossed my head slightly and released the prickly little blossom from my sensitive lips. Despite all of my fears, it landed perfectly-centered amongst the love-offerings. I breathed a deep sigh of relief as I backed away from the grave…
…until my hind legs stumbled over something big and hard and cold. It was a tombstone! Instinctively I whinnied a little in pain as the grave marker tumbled over into the mud. Then, while scrambling for balance, I managed to place a hoof squarely on top of the tumbled slab. The monument snapped with a loud crack, attracting the attention of another funeral party a few yards way. “Sorry,” I murmured to my assembled family, none of whom could possibly have missed a single detail. “Very sorry.”
There was nothing for it but to go on as if nothing had happened, of course. The rest of my cousins took their turns one by one to offer their rose, the younger ones craning their necks as they did so in order to examine the freshly-despoiled stone lying just a few feet away. Then the minister spoke again for a little while and the graveside service was over. One by one everyone stood up to leave. Except for me, of course. I pretty much stood up all of the time these days.
“Go find out how bad it is, would you?” I whispered to Cole, my old friend and nowadays full-time caretaker. “Write down the name and talk to the gravediggers. I’ll pay whatever it costs to fix things. Then give me a little time alone with my family. I especially want to talk to Mom.”
“Gotcha,” Cole replied in his usual terse way. With his wildly ragged blonde beard and hair, Cole looked out of sorts in a black suit and tie. “I’ll take care of things, then go wait for you in the truck.”
“Good,” I answered. My family, Dad in particular, didn’t particularly care for Cole, and hadn’t made any secret of the fact for over twenty years. Aunt Georgia’s funeral was certainly not the right time to try and patch things up between them, especially not the way things were already going. “I’ll come over and get you when it’s time to leave.”
“Right,” he answered, ambling off into the rain.
I sighed and looked around me, suddenly feeling very much alone. A graveyard is dreary by its very nature, but on a chilly fall afternoon, this one was a downright depressing place to be. Even worse, not only was I cramped and irritable from the long and uncomfortable trailer ride across three states, but I also had to be excruciatingly careful in every move I made as well. People were conversing in little groups all around me, and there were also delicate furnishings and even more delicate social taboos to keep in mind. Things were bad enough already; a second breach of good manners would be absolutely unforgivable.
“Hi, Merle!” said a feminine voice from behind me. “It’s been a long time. You’ve sure changed a lot!”
I felt my ears prick; it was Bethany, my youngest sister and probably the only one of my relations whose company I genuinely enjoyed. “Beth!” I answered her, bobbing my head up and down in pleasure. “How have you been? And how’s Keith?”
“Pretty well,” she acknowledged. “Keith’s fine; the band was scheduled to play in Akron today, so he couldn’t be here.” Beth’s husband was a minor rock star. Dad didn’t approve of him either, which brought my sister and brother-in-law and I just that much closer together. She looked me up and down carefully. “You’re beautiful, Merle! White is definitely your color!”
I shifted my hooves a little, trying to ease the cramping in my legs. “Maybe, maybe not. I’m just in it for the money, you know.”