THE SPECIAL

Ken Poyner

He bought the horse for his glaringly mediocre daughter: a fine quarter horse, purebred, and with papers and a lineage that could be respectably played out in long hand and framed. Everyone knew he paid more for it than some locals had put into their primary family cars. Fourteen hands, it had the look of well-cured, old royalty; with a way of turning its head that dismissed onlookers, no matter how distant they might be. He had a flick of his mane that curried butter, and a gravity that made you respect the grateful air around him.

The whole town knew it was too much horse for the girl. You can’t stuff a thousand pounds of proud promise into a hundred pounds of edge-wise sassy. The girl was just not made for a show horse. She folded like a poor man’s wallet, and the line of her was a geometry that made sense to average boys. Her slick sided jeans were made for slipping off under the football stadium bleachers, not bearing the subtle pressure that brings a fine equine around to a human sense of direction.

Nonetheless, the man loved that horse. He carried it everywhere he went, and people marveled at it, stood in line to stroke its withers, to look up into its falling-away eyes. The horse would wait patiently on the man’s shoulders, balanced with all four legs in the air, drinking in the attention of townspeople and visitors alike, expecting along every inch of himself to be desired and envied. He seemed to understand his public fame, and rested calmly in the place adoration had made for him. Sometimes he would be over the left shoulder, sometimes the right, and occasionally draped placidly around the man’s neck. He would hang with luxurious patience, hooves nearly touching the ground—but not quite—and his wondrous legs dangled delightfully down, as straight as a courting boy’s sex, and as equally unused.

No one could understand the balance. Yes, the man was larger than most townspeople, but not so large as to make the horse an easy heft. It was thought that only the grace and peerless agility of the horse allowed the man to keep him aloft. Surely, the man had strength and talent, but it was the horse that completed the circle—the horse: whose long, luxurious and pure bloodline made its subtlety and grace an embedded, biological effect of its selective cause. Only in such noble blood would there be the ability to remain in equilibrium, to become with the man one unparalleled balancing unit: a magnificent horse, suspended in the air by a more fragile being, a supporting being of less regal elements, a being without such a panorama of possibilities that such a peerless horse, as this archetypal creation in look and bearing, must have.

The man would walk into town with the horse, tilt the horse with one hand to best advantage on his shoulders, and still have one hand to use in greeting, or opening doors for strangers, or carrying his purchases. When he had to go into a building, he would carefully set the horse down, and the horse would stand there waiting while the man busied himself inside:  the horse waiting with his head up, waiting without obviously being either waiting or not waiting, yet still being the center of attention. When the man’s business was done and he came back out, the man would lean sideways into the horse, reach around under his belly, shimmy his knees, and drive the horse up. I have seen him do it with half a week’s groceries towed in a sack in his other hand. The horse remained stone-faced throughout.

This town is not so rich as to not be mindful of which stray bits and pieces of ordinary life might be turned into profit. Soon, the local businessman's club decided to print up fliers,  to impress them at the bigger towns along the road leading uncertainly here. People would want to see the fine horse, held aloft by the man who bought him and loves him and carries him everywhere. Visitors need a reason to come visit. This wondrous horse could be a reason. Restaurants and Five and Dime stores could, it was proposed, harvest the unsuspecting gawkers; hot dog carts could call ahead to find out where the man might be going that day and strategically place themselves in advance, parking where unsuspecting voyeurs might linger. People attempting to measure the horse—to harvest some of the nobility of that noble horse, to mark how the man is ennobled by such a burden—would be rife for the street vendors, the small store fronts, and even the larger establishments proudly displaying sidewalk hurdy-gurdies.

We would honor the horse, and be sustained by the return on the depth of our appreciation.

Our venture worked marvelously. People came, and the man walked through town and the horse looked regally past everyone, staring out of the lower half of his eyes, dropping his business when he felt like it, the extra height focusing gravity and making for a remarkable thud, and on special occasions a splatter. The man carried the horse at home as well, and some guests drove out to his place, parked street-side to wait for the man, just in case he decided to come out, pick up the horse that was left idle by the working class entry back door of the middle class farmette home, and then stride about the yard, or carry the special animal to the drab barn. One man would walk along the street, hawking coffee and treats, feeding the waiting congregation from a stash of day old brew and week old pastries that otherwise would go to waste.

I suspect the man nearly stank of pride in that horse. He had chosen a good companion. We all thought better of the man for his excellent choice in horses. His family became the object of speculation. Was the man so gifted at selecting other opportunities, other creations as well? The caliber of men and boys seeking to date his daughter markedly improved, and the scenery where she became their working flesh saw an up tick in class and refinement: with her entire experience of each carnal event having a more appreciative and longer lead in; and being speckled with more patternless small talk, more follow through, and an occasional repeat performance.

Our luck would not hold out forever. We do not know how old the horse was when the man bought him, but by the time the man’s daughter had saddled her second husband, the horse was surely old, and though happy to be carried, nonetheless was approaching his expected expiration. And then one day he died. We do not know what of. Maybe a ruptured spleen or some malady associated with the pressure of a rough shoulder in his belly. One morning the man simply went to the barn to pull out the horse and get him up on his shoulder, to settle him into the groove of his long utility—and the horse was over and gone. All that nobility and regal bearing, that peerless haughtiness and lovingly languid disdain, reduced to horse flesh that would need to be expunged in the usual way. The town was sad and indignant and without answers, each citizen holding on to his now somewhat thinner shadow and feeling as though the special had been spirited out of our lives.

The man was heartbroken. He seemed bent in burden.   He bought three graves across in the municipal cemetery, then started to take donations for a monument. The entire town turned out for the funeral, if only to see the broken man, to watch him pass the hat. But the man still possessed his strength, his drive. And with his daughter no longer of riding age, he could, if he had the will to stagger on, make a selection of horse more appropriate to the use he had in mind for it.

We could not tell in his demeanor what his character would countenance. There was a buzz of it. Old couples would opine on the man’s options in the pre-sleep banter that years before would have been the prelude to industrial sex. Concern for the man would be the introductory line in young couples’ opening banter before their training sex. One pastor referenced it in a small, cautious corner of his Sunday service.

From two towns over, the man bought a draft horse: a great monster of a beast, noticeably outweighing the original royal equine, and the lifting of which would be some feat. Broad shoulders and thick in the limbs, the working horse would require more blind skill of the man; but better demonstrate his mastery of balance, and of the communication between muscle and bone. It is rumored the animal had hauled barrels at a craft brewery, one of those places that revel in doing business in primitive ways, draft horse and all, as though the primitive alone were in any way ennobling. The horse had pulled a cart or a sled or some other impractical means to accomplish practical ends, and was eventually seen as an economic liability.

On an average day, he hefted the horse, and strode into town and people moved out of his way. The horse sat calmly on his shoulder, head moving side to side, looking always down, eyes always down, his tail swishing the back of the man’s neck. The horse would neigh, and occasionally kick, rock forward or backward awkwardly: making the man artfully adjust, swing about in nearly inhuman ways, skillfully arrange himself in rapid and fickle gravities, and contort into geometries almost no other man could accomplish.

The tourists stopped coming. The hot dog vendors returned to the strip outside of the fairgrounds. The coffee vendors went back to selling their wares as cheap contraband to children. Locals would nod, but not stop to talk. Everyone was pleasant to the man, but his fame slipped ever quicker away, like the heat of a candle in a cold room, or the wisdom of a man who ceases to learn.

He walked about, and the horse simply hung alternately limp, alternately fidgety, looking like the brute force whose time had passed that this horse truly was. He fouled the street with the end of his digestion; he smelled of sleeping too late in straw that needed to be refreshed. He was the type of horse anyone might see if practical feats of dumb, brute strength had not been turned over to simple, lithe machines.

Poor man. He could not understand this was no longer the same; that the reason for this attempt at art was insufficient. Townspeople began to think he carried a once good thing too far, and muttered as much under their breathing as he strode overburdened through town. His exertions were seen as unnecessary; and even his daughter asked him to stop.

And so he stopped.

And the horse milled about in the open spaces behind the man’s house and he survived, thinly, the first winter—the shadow of an opportunity laced into the clothing of a mystery—but not the second. He was put into the earth beyond the edge of the barn and quite possibly on someone else’s untended property, the lines sometimes being a bit confused given the inutility of the land. Done and done, before the first good freeze, when the earth would turn too hard and unbreakable for such humility. Done. And so much for that beaten and befuddled man. Perhaps it would have been better had he never learned to balance a horse at all.

Author Portrait

Ken Poyner has lately been seen in Analog, Café Irreal, Cream City Review, The Journal of Microliterature, and many wonderful places. His latest book of short fiction, Constant Animals, is available from his website, www.kpoyner.com, and from www.amazon.com. He is married to Karen Poyner, one of the world’s premier power lifters, and holder of more than a dozen current world powerlifting records. They are the parents of four rescue cats and assorted self-satisfied fish.

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