Traffic had been light, and I was about fifteen minutes early when I rang the bell. "Oh, hello, Jeffrey," Carol said unenthusiastically when she answered the door. "David will be down in a minute. Won't you come in for some coffee?"
"Sure," I replied, barging in. I followed her to the kitchen, where an automatic coffee maker was issuing small clouds of steam, and sat in one of the white wicker chairs by the small table. "Are you sure you don't want to go today?"
Carol actually smiled as she poured some of the brew into a mug- like the table and the chairs, it was white. It had a yellow sunflower on the side, I noted as I mixed in some sugar. "I'd not want to get between you boys and those horses." She wrinkled her nose a bit, as if she could smell them. "Is this another of those 'furry' conventions?"
"No," I replied. "This is the horse fair."
"For normal people with normal horses, then?" Carol sat in the chair across from me, a look of amusement on her face. "Are you taking Elizabeth?"
"No, she's bruised her hoof," I replied. "This is really good coffee."
"It's just Folger's from the supermarket. Have you heard from Nancy?"
"She's off with her new boyfriend, in Mexico," I said, staring at the brown liquid in the cup.
"I'm sorry," Carol said. "I know you'd always hoped to get back with her."
"It's the horse thing, I guess," I said, my happy mood diminished.
"I can deal with David's silly fantasy," Carol said. "If you two were just gay or something...it's much easier to deal with. But why would you want to be donkeys?"
"David wants to be a donkey," I corrected. "I want to be a horse."
At that, David came bounding in. "Hello, Jeffrey." He leaned over and kissed Carol. "Sure you don't want to go, dear?"
"You and Jeffrey go. Hopefully you won't find some pretty jenny there." She picked up her coffee. "If you do, I just don't want to know about it."
David was halfway to the door. I gulped down the coffee and sprang to my feet, putting the mug down. "See you later, Carol," I said, chasing my friend out to my battered green Ford Explorer.
He was into the passenger seat and staring at the map. "You know the way there, right?"
"I've been every year for the past four years, and it's down the interstate- hard to get lost," I said, backing my truck into the road. The gears ground slightly, and I let out the clutch.
Two hours later, we were at the horse fair. It was an enjoyable place, filled with all sorts of equines. We drifted about, looking at a variety of demonstrations, then wandered through the barns. David was a bit disappointed. "There must be a thousand horses here, and only a half dozen donkeys."
I reached through the bars of a stall, scratching a Percheron mare on the face. She looked at me, sniffing through her big nostrils as if she knew I was a kindred spirit. "Well, they did call it a horse fair. There just aren't that many donkey fairs around." "Let's go see the pavilion, the tack market," David suggested.
"I doubt if there are any donkeys there, but all right," I said.
As usual, it was filled with vendors, with piles of saddles and tack, ranging from brand new to falling apart, and quality from absolute junk to top of the line. I looked at some new show saddles- Elizabeth would be beautiful in one, but they were outside my price range- while David picked through some bins of ancient looking halters and bridles, over which a sign proclaimed 'Your pick- $2'.
"Look, here's one." He held a rotten leather halter up. "It's only two dollars. Why don't you buy it for Elizabeth?"
"Two dollars too much." I reached into the bin, feeling some smooth leather, and pulled out another. It was different- after years handling tack, I could feel quality, and this was a nice halter. It was an odd style, with strange gold inlays, and was quite old, but the leather was smooth, supple, and top quality. The buckles were shiny and smooth, as if they had just been polished, and I realized with a start that they were silver, not stainless steel.
I walked over to a small woman who sat in a chair near the bins. "Is this one only two dollars?"
She looked at me strangely. "It is. Are 'ye certain 'ye want it?" she said in a lilting voice.
"One of us will," David said.
She nodded, a bit of a smirk on her face. "Then enjoy it."
I paid her the two dollars. We meandered about a bit more, buying some odds and ends of tack. I really didn't need a pony harness, as I didn't have a pony, and David didn't have a horse to use the brushes he purchased on, but we were both 'horse junk' collectors.
It was quite late, and starting to get dark as we drove back. The interstate highway is pretty dull, and I was fighting to stay awake. David was sorting through the items we'd bought. "This halter is kind of small," he said.
"It might not fit Elizabeth," I admitted. She had a fine head, but was a fairly big horse, and the halter looked too small now. It'll join the rest of the stuff I bought last year.
David unbuckled it and pulled it over his head. "It's just right for a donkey."
"Yeah, right," I said, pulling into the left hand lane and accelerating to pass a large truck. David suddenly lurched against me, thrashing his arm slightly. "What's... oh, shit."
I stared at him. He had started to swell up, like a balloon, and his shirt was already tearing, revealing greyish fur. What was even more amazing was he was getting taller- or more accurately longer; his neck was swelling and also sprouting the fur, and his ears were rapidly enlongating.
The truck began to shake slightly, and I looked up- we were half off the road and onto the median strip. I snatched the wheel back to the right, hearing the truck I'd passed blow his horn. "David, you're changing," I said, fascinated, alternating my eyes between the road and the sight of David becoming a donkey. He was making some gasping sounds, and I realized that the shoulder harness was choking him.
Trying to steer the truck with my left hand, watch the road, and fumble with the seat belt release was quite an accomplishment, but I managed to do it. The truck was blowing his horn, and I realized that I'd taken my foot off the gas. I pushed it down and pulled into the 'slow' lane, letting the Explorer decelerate, and yanked at David's belt- it would be the next thing to cut off his air.
He half fell onto me, too big for the passenger seat. I pulled the truck off the road, ignoring it as it stalled- I'd forgotten to push the clutch in. The truck driver shouted an obscenity as he passed, but I didn't care- I had a bigger problem to deal with.
David was jammed against the roof, his forelegs stuck out against the dashboard and his neck and head halfway across me. His shirt had torn, but the rest of his clothes were largely intact. I looked down into his brown donkey eyes. "David, can you understand me?"
"HAAAh- hee!" he replied.
"I'm going to open my door," I said, pulling on the handle. The traffic along Interstate 94 was not terribly heavy, but there was a more or less constant stream of cars going by. Everyone looks at automobiles that are pulled off the road, and more than a few people gawked as they drove by.
I stood by the SUV. David was stuck pretty good, and I wasn't quite sure how to get him out of the passenger seat.
Another car pulled off the road behind mine. It was a Ford sedan, and the push bars on the front and blue lights on the roof didn't bode well as it's occupant got out. He was tall and wore a tan uniform with a gold badge and a 'smokey bear' hat. "Good evening, officer," I said.
The state trooper walked up. Even though it was dark, he was wearing sunglasses. "Having trouble?" he said, looking past me at the donkey in the front seat of my truck.
"Uh, just pulled off for a second," I said. "I'll be moving along."
He ignored me, walking past and looking through the Explorer's drivers window at David. "There's a donkey in your front seat," he said.
"Yes, officer," I said meekly.
"He's wearing blue jeans, a polo shirt, and penny loafers."
David brayed loudly. "Yes, officer," I said.
The policeman took off his sunglasses, still staring at David. "I don't believe there are any statutes in Wisconsin against allowing donkeys to ride in the front seat of motor vehicles. Do you know of any?"
"No, officer," I said.
"I've been a state trooper for fifteen years. You know that?"
"Fifteen years. I have ten to go before I retire. And you know what?"
"I don't want to hear for the next ten years 'there goes the trooper that gave a guy a ticket for having a donkey in the front seat of his car.' Do you understand that?"
"Fifteen years." He put the sunglasses back on. "Don't let me find you on my highway again with a donkey in your front seat. Got that?"
He walked back to the big sedan and got in, starting it and driving off. I walked back to my Explorer. "Damn. Now what are we going to do?"
David brayed again. "HAAAH-hee." I walked around to the passenger side, opening the door.
"If you get out, maybe you could get in the back," I suggested. I reached down, carefully pulling his hind legs out, then helping him move his bulk out of the car. Once he was out, he began to stomp his legs, and reached around with his neck, pulling at the jeans. I figured it out, and pulled off his clothing.
He was unusual in that his hooves were perfect- no chips, no mud, they looked as if someone had carefully polished them. I looked him over, finding nothing out of place. "Well, you made a fine donkey," I said.
The thought hit me- if the halter made him a donkey, would it make me a horse? I reached up, deciding that it was worth the risk- I'd rather be a horse, but being a donkey would be good enough- but the buckle wouldn't budge. "Halter won't come off," I said.
"HAAAH-hee," David replied.
I shrugged. Cars were still slowing as they passed, as seeing a donkey standing by a car was a bit unusual, even for rural Wisconsin. I opened the hatchback of the Explorer, leaning in and folding down the back seat so there'd be enough space. "Try to fold your legs, and I'll help you in," I said.
He stumbled a bit, and he was a lot heavier than I'd expected, but he managed to wiggle into the back of the truck. I shut the hatch, then walked around to the front of the Explorer, shutting the passenger door as I passed, started it back up, and pulled back onto the road.
As we drove along, I was deep in thought. What am I going to tell Carol? I wonder if I can get the halter off, will it work on me? It's not fair in a way, after all, I bought it.
It was pretty late- I thought about taking David to the barn where I kept my horse- but decided that it would be better to tell Carol right away. I pulled up into their drive, then walked to the back of the Explorer, opening the hatch and pulling on David's hindquarters. Once he got his hind legs out, he was able to push himself with his forelegs, and was soon standing beside me.
Carol had heard the car, and watched as David got out from her porch. "It's a good thing David didn't come back," she said. "That's his donkey, isn't it? He bought a donkey at the horse fair." She seemed somewhat resigned.
David trotted over to the porch, his big donkey ears up. "HAAAH-hee! HAAAH hee!"
Carol looked down at him. "Well, at least she's kind of cute. I might forgive David for this."
"It's not a she," I said. "And, um.."
Carol tentatively reached forward, then started stroking David's face. "Maybe I'll keep you, and get rid of David instead. Where is he, Jeffrey?"
"Oh, it's all right," Carol said. "It's better having a husband that isn't off chasing skirts. It's a bit odd, but I suppose there are worse things than him wanting to be a donkey."
"Maybe we'd better go inside," I suggested. It was late, but even still, people might happen by, and I doubted that donkeys were allowed in the suburban neighborhood.
"Where will you put your donkey?" Carol asked, but David had already pushed past her. "Is he housebroken?"
"I think so," I said. "Yes." We followed David into the living room, where he stood beside the sofa, looking at it, then at Carol. I sat in the recliner, Carol looked at David then sat on the sofa.
"Now, seriously, where is David?" she asked.
"He turned into a donkey," I blurted out. "On the way back from the horse fair."
"Come on, Jeffrey, this is kind of silly, even for the two of you."
"HAAAH-hee!" David said, looking at Carol.
She reached over, tentatively touching his face again. "He'd better not be so noisy. He'll wake up the neighbors."
"David...this is David, this donkey is David, he turned into a donkey," I said. "He put on a halter, and turned into a donkey."
Carol was starting to laugh. "I thought you and David considered the stories with magic halters really lame," she said. "I suppose you bought it from an old crone in an antique shop."
"Actually, she was about thirty, and was at the fair selling used halters," I said. "And I bought one, and David put it on while we were driving back."
David flicked his tail back and forth, knocking over a small picture on the end table. "Careful, now, dear," she said sarcastically.
David turned around, picking the picture up with his mouth and setting it on the table, then turned back to face Carol. He came up close, bringing his muzzle close by her face. "He doesn't bite, does he?" she asked.
"Has he ever bitten you before?" I replied.
"Jeffrey, I'm tired," Carol said. "It's really late." She glanced toward the door.
"Carol, this is David. I swear," I said.
Carol shut her eyes and leaned back on the sofa and sighed. "Jeffrey, it's a funny joke. But it's really late. Tell David to come home, or he can stay at your place tonight."
"How can I convince you?" I pleaded.
"Jeffrey, that's enough." She stood up. "Now take your donkey and go home. It's almost midnight."
David followed me as we walked outside. Carol watched from the porch, then shut the door. I opened the back of the Explorer, but David stood and looked at me. "I don't know what to do," I said to him.
He wiggled one ear and stood there. "Go on, get in," I said.
He pinned both his ears back and looked back at the house, then back at me. Defiantly, he turned and started back up toward the house.
"Oh, no," I said. "She's already pissed off." I reached over and grabbed the halter, pulling David's head back toward me. He tried to pull away, but I'd been working with horses for twenty years, and knew how to keep him under control, turning him constantly toward me so he couldn't get leverage. "Sorry, pal," I said.
If he'd been bigger I couldn't have done it- but he wouldn't have fit in the back of the Explorer anyway. I spun him back toward the vehicle, then grabbed the yellow nylon tow rope that I had in the back- every now and then it was handy, and this was such a time. Looping one end over the trailer hitch, I pulled the other behind David's hind legs, just above the hock, and pulled. He had no choice but to go forward into the back of the small truck, and I slammed the hatch as soon as he was in.
"HAAAH-heee! HAAAH-heee!" he brayed, clearly angry as I got into the driver seat.
"We'll deal with her tomorrow," I said. "Tonight...aw, hell, you've finally got to be a donkey, so enjoy it."
They were used to me coming out to the barn at all hours, so no one came out when I pulled up the drive. "I'll put you in the stall next to Elizabeth," I said, "and leave them a note. Don't act weird or anything, OK?"
David had calmed down. He'd always wanted to be a donkey, just as I'd wanted to be a horse. In most of the stories, you became an equine and either no one knew or it was some evil enchantress that did it to you. They didn't go over how to break the news to your wife, or what to do if your friend suddenly changed. We walked into the barn- it was strange, he walked beside me and other than the episode at his house I hadn't put a lead rope on him. I turned on the barn lights. Several horses poked their heads over their stall doors, wondering if I was bringing carrots, and several snorted, flaring their nostrils to smell the new barn occupant as he passed.
David slowed, touching his nose against some of the horses, and I watched with envy, wishing I'd been the one to put the halter on and wondering what he could smell in their breath. We got down to the empty stall next to Elizabeth's. She reached over, nickering, and David touched his nose to hers.
She'd always liked David, and she seemed to get excited, as if she recognized him. "Don't get any ideas," I grumbled to her. "Now get in the stall," I said, turning to David. He walked into the stall, then turned to face me, flicking his tail. I shut the door, then latched it. "Night, David."
He brayed as I turned off the lights, then walked out.
I drove straight home. It was late, I was exhausted, and even though I was a bit tense, there really wasn't much else I could do. I slept restlessly all night. Why did David get so damned lucky? Why couldn't I have put the halter on first? I guess it's a good thing David wasn't driving...
The alarm went off too early- I slapped it off, and went in the bathroom and stared in the mirror- no luck, no equine ears or tail, no hooves. It was Monday, and I was supposed to be going to work. I thought for a few moments about going over to the stable, but I'd missed too much work this month already and settled for a phone call. I tapped in the number, listening to the phone ring, then the answer machine came on as I'd guessed it would. "Hi, Mike, I won a donkey at the horse fair, and put her next to Elizabeth last night. I'll see you this afternoon." Mike Harrington hopefully wouldn't mind, and would take care of David if he needed anything.
Work was it's usual boredom of reviewing contracts for minute and meaningless details, and I couldn't wait until 4pm- much earlier than I usually left, but I wanted to get to the barn, wondering if David had changed back, or was still a donkey, or if I'd hallucinated and imagined the whole thing. I was caught in traffic when the phone rang.
"Jeffrey, this is Carol."
"Hi, Carol," I answered guardedly.
"David still hasn't come home or called. Do you know where he is?" Her tone was concerned, but clearly conveyed that she expected that the answer to her question was yes.
I was silent for a bit too long as I pondered how to reply. "Jeffrey, where is he?"
"He's at the barn," I answered truthfully as I downshifted as a traffic light turned red. A woman in the car next to me glanced over uninterested, talking to someone on her own cellphone.
"When you see him, tell him that this prank has gone on long enough. He didn't call work today, they were expecting him for some kind of a contract review."
I hadn't remembered and cursed silently. David was our lead negotiator on a multibillion dollar contract at the multinational electronics firm we both worked for, Swallow Electronics. The company had been in a decline for a few years, and was described by stockmarket analysts as an 'ailing giant'. The deal was with All Nippon Semiconductor, and the final negotiations were to be on Wednesday. David and I had been working on it for three months and we both agreed- it was either done with finesse and would bring Swallow back to health with licensing arrangements to build All Nippon's products, or if it were botched it was all over. I thought about my retirement fund, mostly tied up in Swallow Electronics stock. "The contract's been a lot of stress," I said.
"It's not that easy on me, either," Carol said. "Tell him to at least call, OK?"
As she hung up, I pulled into the drive. Mike Harrington came out of the barn as I got out of my truck, shaking his head. "Jeff, I can't believe you'd buy that donkey."
"I didn't buy him," I said. "He was free."
"Well, he's a pistol, that's for sure. You gonna keep him?"
"I'm not sure."
Harrington followed me as I walked into the barn. Elizabeth was out, with the rest of the horses, but David was still in his stall. "HAAAA hee!" he greeted me, peering over the top of the door.
"I'd let him out," Harrington said, "but he's still got his equipment. You know?"
"Yeah," I said, standing by the stall. David looked at me expectantly, his donkey ears up. I started to reach over to scratch his forehead, but stopped. That's too weird. If he was a regular donkey, that'd be one thing. But this is David...it's too weird. I pulled my hand back; David looked at me, flicking one ear back.
"Does he bite or something?" Harrington asked quizzically.
"Not that I know of," I replied. David still had the halter on, so I glanced around for a lead rope. "I guess I'll take him out for some exercise." I pulled the door open, snapping one on- more for appearance's sake than anything.
"Keep him away from the mares," Harrington suggested gently. "Donkeys are a lot stronger than you'd think, and pretty pigheaded."
I had David halfway out of the stall, and he pinned his ears and shook his head at Harrington. "Be careful, he understands every word you're saying," I said.
Harrington laughed. "Vet's coming out next week, if you want him gelded...hey!" David kicked out at Harrington with both his hind legs. The stable owner deftly stepped aside, laughing again. "I guess you're right."
I led David down the aisle and outside, away from the barn. There was a nice grassy area near where the horse trailers were parked, and we walked over there. "Have some grass," I suggested. David lowered his head and began to experimentally pull at the stems with his small incisors. We'd both wondered what it would be like, grazing for real and not just playing at it, and now he was getting to find out. I reached down, feeling the halter's snaps- it was as if they were welded shut.
Dropping the lead rope, I sat on the grass near an oak tree. "The damned contract negotiation is in two days," I said.
"HAAAAhee!" David replied, looking up at me.
"Should we offer them the marketing rights for Europe before or after we propose the cash buyout clause on the Polaron?"
"HAAAH hee hee!" He seemed to have a double air intake, splitting his high pitched intake breath in half, and tilted his head at me slightly.
"And do we offer them the whole cash buyout amount at first, to shake them up, or do I stick with seventy percent like we discussed a month ago?"
David suddenly wasn't paying much attention to me, but picked up his two long ears and was staring at a mare in the pasture. He suddenly started off at a trot, dragging the lead rope behind him, and I jumped to my feet, running to catch up, but David broke into a canter and quickly outdistanced me.
The mare looked up from her grazing as she heard the hoofbeats approach. It was Goldie- a large palomino pony, one of those ponies that are just under the maximum height and in top demand for children's show mounts. I'd met her owners, who were snotty pains in the butt. David slid to a stop on the wet grass, almost crashing into her shoulder. Goldie took a hard look at him and pinned her ears in warning. "David, don't!" I shouted as he moved near her rump, rolling his weight back on his haunches to try to mount her.
Goldie let loose with both hind hooves, sending David rolling over on his back, then galloped off toward the other horses in the pasture. They all snorted and began running. "Are you all right?" I demanded of my friend, my annoyance replaced with concern. He looked at me with his equine eyes and rolled onto his stomach, then pushed himself up with his hind legs. Shaking the dirt off himself, he walked over and butted me gently with his head. I started to reach to scratch his mane but stopped- it felt weird, this was David after all and not a real donkey. Again I felt a bit of resentment that I hadn't put the halter on first. Well, maybe next time I buy a magic halter... right. "Forget the stupid buyout deal," I told him. "You've finally got what we always dreamed of. Enjoy being a donkey, David. Just don't screw around with the mares." I unsnapped the lead rope- Harrington would be irritated at me leaving David with the mares, so I gestured toward the gate. "Let's get out of here."
David and I walked together to the gate. I reached to unsnap it when I heard hoofbeats behind us, and looked around to find Elizabeth galloping up. She also had her ears pinned- not at me but at David. She was very possessive as many mares are and didn't like me being near other horses- David seemed to also fall into the category. "Quit, mare," I called out to her in warning.
She ignored me and lunged at David, her teeth bare. A normal horse or donkey would have already fled but David was a bit surprised as she snapped at his face, grabbing his halter in her teeth. David jumped away.
The halter fell to the ground.
Elizabeth looked at David, not understanding why the donkey didn't run away, then pushed between us. I stared at David- would he change back? But after a minute that seemed to take an eternity, he still stood there and looked back at me, still a donkey, still on four hooves. I became aware of Elizabeth pushing on me, trying to herd me away from the other equine as she might a foal.
David let out a loud bray, then trotted off about forty feet and turned around, looking at me expectantly. I reached down to the ground, my hand shaking slightly as I picked up the halter. A million thoughts ran through my head- would it work again? Would David and I be stuck forever as donkeys- would I change into a horse? What if it didn't work? What would happen to us and Elizabeth if I 'vanished' too? I unbuckled the halter and started to bring it to my face.