There’s those would call me a loser.
“If you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen.”
How did such a masculine sentiment find its way into a woman’s domain? I mean wouldn’t ‘stay out of the foundry’ be better, or ‘stay away from the forge’? Something manly for a manly sentiment.
There’s others would look at me with pity and sorrow.
I’m not sure which is worse.
Does it make me such a terrible person that I struggle to cope? I mean what right do they have to judge me anyway? It’s not as if they know the burden I carry. They just look at me and assume I’m the same as them, but I’m not.
Which one of them has to wake up every morning to a world that’s just wrong? Which one of them has to live life with the glaring awareness of something missing inside – an awareness that grows each day until it blots out everything else.
Hierarchy of needs. When something fundamental is not there, something essential, then everything above it loses significance. You focus all your attention on the missing part of your life, and everything else is neglected.
But there is no resolution, no answer to that question, no response to that anguished cry, no way out that satisfies, that soothes, that lets you move on.
And while you quietly implode, life falls apart around you.
First to go is the job. ‘Performance specifications not met, sorry have to let you go.’ No hope of a decent reference and no energy or enthusiasm to take advantage of it should an another job be forthcoming.
Next is the family. ‘I don’t understand how you can just sit there. You have responsibilities you know? I’m leaving, and I’m taking the kids.’
I do know I have responsibilities; I know I’m not meeting them. Does it help me to cope better, being told I’m a mess? Is there some succour to be found in your rejection? Am I supposed to find strength in having my feet swept out from under me?
Perhaps you’re right. Perhaps it is best that you go. I have nothing more to give, and you have no way of filling the hole in my life. You deserve better. We’re not right together anyway; I’m not right.
My own arguments feed the emptiness within. Ever decreasing circles as the black hole in my soul devours all that is light and hope. What is the speed of hope? It doesn’t matter, nothing can outrun the sweeping tide of ugliness within me.
Things fall apart rapidly after that. The money goes. What few items of value I have are sold in a final attempt to stem the flood, to pay the bills, but the inevitable foreclosure comes, leaving me out in the cold with little more than the clothes on my back.
Life on the streets takes its toll. Clothes that were once neat and clean became torn and filthy. Expressions of distaste, of disgust meet me everywhere. A few coins here and there – a salve for a troubled conscience, a bribe for me to take my broken life somewhere they can’t see. It pays for a coffee and a sandwich; enough to keep once corpulent flesh on bone.
Needs, even more basic than the unmet monster that tore me down, demand my attention. Cold and hunger gnaw at me until there is little left. A shambling mound of former humanity, mind numb, eyes unseeing.
I feel the step down from the curve jarring my foot. It means nothing.
I hear the squeal of tyres. It means nothing.
There is pain, momentary disorientation and darkness.
I wake to unaccustomed warmth and softness. It’s disconcerting and, for once, shakes me out of my stupor.
This isn’t a hospital room – not clinical enough. The walls are covered in a rich velour, and there are paintings hanging from a picture rail. The bed is lower than a hospital bed, and wider with room enough for two. Instead of harsh enamelled metal, the frame is made from dark oak with a pillar at each corner, draped in voile and lace . There are other furnishings that suggest a woman’s touch – the deep pile of the carpet, the dressing table with hinged mirrors, the large wardrobe, both in the same warm dark oak.
I slide my legs out of bed. They are naked, hanging out the bottom of a cotton nightshirt. The left one is bound in tight bandages and sends twinges of pain as I settle my feet into the deep shag . With some effort, I lever myself upright and hobble across to the dresser.
The nightshirt is an ugly thing – a ridiculous caricature of a woman’s nightdress with substance but no style. It highlights all the ugly ungainliness of man and mocks any attempt at grace. My hair is still matted and filthy, but an effort has been made to clean the rest of me. The offensive smell I have carried so long is gone, or at least so reduced I am aware of its absence, and my skin no longer bares the muddy streaks of a life without running water.
I open the wardrobe, wondering if my clothes will be there, but it’s jammed tight with dresses and skirts, blouses and sweaters. A woman’s room alright. I allow myself a wistful gaze, a moment’s indulgence to stroke the soft fabric, to breath in the aroma of lingering perfume, then I close the door and stagger painfully back to bed.
My movement doesn’t go unnoticed. No sooner have I made it back under the covers than an attractive young woman breezes in with a breakfast tray in her arms. She settles it across my lap and smiles at my Pavlovian response to the bacon, egg, sausage, coffee! She lowers herself gently on the edge of the bed and indicates that I should eat.
“The doctor says you have a bad sprain and some rather nasty bruising, but you should recover soon enough. The hospital thought your injuries were too minor to keep you in, so I had you brought here. I hope you don’t mind.”
I shake my head, my mouth too full of unaccustomed texture and flavour to permit any politer response.
“Well you are my guest, at least until you’re back on your feet. I managed to borrow a wheelchair from the hospital – some advantage in being a major donor. The doctor says you should try not to put weight on your leg for a week at least, so I’ll come and collect you later, after you’ve finished eating and had a bath. Gerard is running it for you as we speak. He’ll come and help you in a while, once you’re done here.”
She gives me cheerful smile and sweeps out of the room, leaving me to the biggest and best meal I’ve enjoyed in some months.
I finish eating and settle back, enjoying the pleasantly tautness of my stomach, the memories of exquisite flavours. I don’t have long to wait before the door opens and a dour face peers in.
“Gerard I presume?”
“Indeed sir. I am to assist you with your ablutions.”
He removes the tray and helps me to a sitting position.
“Was it you..?”
“Who undressed you, washed you, put the bandage on your leg, put the night shirt on you, put you to bed? It was sir.” He d0esn’t seem particularly happy that this should be the case.
“I’m grateful. Thank you.”
“You are welcome sir.” Again, from the tone of his voice, the sullen demeanour, this is evidently not his choice.
He drapes my left arm over his shoulders, slips his free arm around my waist and lifts me to my feet. The journey to the bathroom is relatively painless, and once I am seated on the side of the bath, he sets about removing the bandage from my leg.
The skin is livid with bruises, stretching from mid-thigh to the bottom of my calf. Without the support of the bandages, the knee appears more swollen and tender and I wince involuntarily at the sight of it. Gerard is less sympathetic and, having tossed the used bandage in the bin, turns towards the door.
“I trust sir will be able to manage without further assistance?”
“I should think so.” The bath taps aren’t so stylised as to require instruction, there is soap, shampoo and a towel. I should be able to get by. “I get the impression you don’t approve of me.”
He turns back to me slowly and deliberately, showing remarkable patience and control.
“There are those in this world, sir, who work hard all their lives, who press on every day despite failing to make much headway. And then there are those who give up, who throw away the benefits they have and step out into the middle of the road in a drunken stupor. Those who are fortunate enough to be hit – very lightly I might add – by a car belonging to a compassionate and somewhat overly trusting woman. The former have little reason to be enamoured of the latter sir.”
He leaves, closing the door with a deliberate thud.
I settle into the bath, wincing at the temperature and the sensitivity of my skin, so long used to the cold. I lay back for a long soak, feeling life and vigour seep into me from the hot water and the light scent of bath oils. When I finally set about washing, it takes four applications of shampoo, two of conditioner and a complete change of water before the greasy rat’s nest that my hair has become begins to show signs of relinquishing its savagery. Likewise, my skin takes some intensive work with a rough loofah, a lot of soap and yet another water change before being restored to something of its former self.
I climb out the bath, still struggling with the pain in my leg. The tub will need some cleaning before it it’ll be fit for anyone else to use, but I’m hardly in a state to do anything about it.
My hair has grown in the months spent on the street and, rather than rub it into a tangled mess as I might have done had it been shorter, I wrap it in a towel. I remember seeing my wife do so something similar, winding it into a turban and settling it out of the way on top of my head. The first attempt doesn’t work, but with a few adjustments, my second try proves to be successful enough. Not much I can do about the beard, so I leave it as it is, dangling in bedraggled curls from my chin.
I grab a second, larger towel and rub myself to a healthy rawness. I pick the nightshirt off the floor, but it is impregnated with the smell of the street and my own bodily effluence. The bath has washed my nostrils clean and the odour offends me. I marvel at the generosity of the person who is willing to invite me in to their home despite such a thing. Discarding the offending article into a washing hamper, I wrap the larger towel around my waist. A part of me wants to hitch it higher, under my armpits, but a better part wins out, respecting the normalcy of this place, and the kindness and generosity I have been shown.
I struggle to the door to find Gerard waiting outside. He approaches unhurriedly and offers me a shoulder to aid my limp back to the bedroom.
“Madam requested that some clothes be purchased for your use sir,” disdain drips from every word. “I took the liberty of taking your measurements whilst you were still unconscious, so I trust that these will fit.”
He indicates a pair of light tan slacks and a white shirt, socks and boxers as well. He deposits me on the bed next to them and stands back to let me to fend for myself.
“Do my injuries need to be bandaged again?”
“The doctor indicated that once the bandage was removed, it would be best to allow your leg freedom to move and to breath. He did say that, should your knee show any signs of pain or weakness, you could make use of a surgical support.”
He offers me a length of off-white, elasticated tubing. Given the struggle I’d just had coming from the bathroom, it seems wise to make use of it. It brings instant relief, evoking a gasp as the ache receded. The rest of the clothes go on easily enough, despite the reluctance of my bruised body to bend.
“I don’t suppose there’s a brush I could use?” I ask as I limp cross to the dressing table and its mirrors.
Gerard lifts his sour face, and I waves at an array of brushes on the table, all with hairs trapped in their bristles.
“It’s not that I mind sharing, but I wouldn’t want to assume your employer feels the same way.”
“One moment sir.” Gerard disappears for little more than the indicated period and returns tearing the packaging from a new brush. He hands it to me and I unwind my makeshift headgear and set about working out the tangles in hair and beard.
A quick search of the dresser drawers reveals a small trove of scrunchies. I take one in a neutral colour and bind my still wet but manageable hair into a rough ponytail. It will do. Certainly a major improvement on my earlier bedraggled mess.
My leg gives way underneath me, and I barely make it back to the bed. I’m all but ready to give up and slip back between the sheets, when my hostess returns pushing the afore mentioned hospital wheelchair.
“Well, you do scrub up well,” she says. “Climb aboard and I’ll give you a tour.”
Bed is just an alternative to struggling with the pain. The prospect of her cheerful company, rather than that of the taciturn butler, is too appealing, so I lever myself across into the waiting chariot.
The tour takes longer than expected, the upstairs of the house – or rather mansion – being divided into two wings, each with its own multitude of bedrooms and bathrooms. A long sweeping staircase separates them, and I manage to hop my way down with the support of the balustrade, rather than risk a descent in the wheelchair. The bottom floor is just as extensive, with kitchen and dining hall, living room and office, and a whole number of rooms, the purpose of which I cannot fathom.
From there, we make our way out into the extensive grounds. The weather is holding fine for a change, and I take in the rare warmth of the sun as we make our way down a gravel path, past manicured lawns and flowerbeds, resplendent with colour.
“Do you like horses, Mr er..?”
“Andrew, Andrew Lenton. Please call me Andrew. And yes, though I’ve not had occasion to spend much time with them.”
It seems so incongruous that I should be holding such a conversation in such idyllic surroundings. Only yesterday I had been stumbling around in the filth, begging and scrounging my way to my next mouthful of food, and yet here I am, replete and restored. The previous months seem like a dream.
“I’ve been rather rude haven’t I? My name is Margaret. Smith. Maggie to my friends, and I hope you will consider yourself one of them.
“The reason I ask about the horses, is that they are my great passion in life. Far more than anything else I have encountered, they have brought me health, wealth and happiness, and I consider them to be my friends as much as any human being.”
Eccentricity bordering on obsession. It will be interesting to find out which side of the loony line my hostess stands. The sickly sweet smell of the stables rises to greet us, bringing with it an understanding of where she developed her tolerance for unpleasant odours.
Introductions are slow and formal. I rise to the occasion as well as my leg allows me, stroking the soft felt of one horse’s nose after another. There are perhaps a dozen in all, each seemingly an outstanding examples of its kind, and in excellent health, though I wouldn’t trust my unpractised eye to offer much more of an opinion. Names are presented, one after another, and despite trying to register them, they escape on the wind. I hope there won’t be a quiz later.
The last stall in the stable has no gate. There are sounds of movement from within though, and shadows dance across the wall.
“And last but very definitely not least, this is Moonshine.” She approaches the open door and the most magnificent creature I have ever seen steps forward to greet her. “Not after the drink of course. I’m sorry, you should stay back. She doesn’t take well to strangers, and especially not men.”
Definitely not from the drink. She stands a magnificent nineteen hands high at the shoulder and her coat shines with an astonishing silver white brilliance. Unbridled and unfettered, she doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the occupants of the stable. It’s as though she lives here by choice, disdaining the locked doors and trappings of servitude worn by the other horses.
She steps out of her stall into Maggie’s gentle embrace, nuzzling her in tender recognition. Her mane and tail are long and untrimmed, but bare no snags or tangles. She is well fed and cared for here, and loved, which is perhaps reason enough for her to remain.
“Moonshine is the secret of my success, the source of my wealth and a constant joy. I found her in the woods not far from here. Some sleazebag had dumped a whole lot of rubbish in a clearing, including a mess of rusty razor wire. She was hopelessly caught up in it and panicking. I managed to calm her down and pull her free without causing much more pain or injury, and she rewarded me by staying with me.”
The horse tosses her head at me and pulls gently away from Maggie, approaching me slowly, cautiously.
“What the..?” Maggie breathes as the magnificent creature gently probes my leg with her snout. I feel a warmth spread from my knee into my thigh and calf. After a moment she steps back and raises intelligent, liquid brown eyes to look at me.
“I’ve never known her to approach a man before,” Maggie says quietly from the background. “Usually she becomes skittish and restless whenever there are men anywhere near, often running off into the woods until they’re gone. I think she senses something special about you.”
I push myself out of the wheelchair and gingerly add more weight to my injured leg until it carries all of me without the slightest protest. Moonshine steps forward, offering her enormous head to me, allowing me to stroke her nose and her neck, but shying away when I reach for her forehead.
“Did you do that?” I ask her, not really believing, but grateful all the same. “If it was you, thank you.”
She snorts an acknowledgement and steps back to let Maggie into my field of view. I turn to her.
“She really is magnificent, isn’t she? I can see the reason for your passion, though I’ve never understood why horse seems to attract women so much more than men. I wish I did.”
Maggie’s mouth forms a shocked o. I only barely notice it though as the same warmth that had so recently spread through my injured leg suffuses my entire body. Maggie’s eyes widen in shock and I look down at myself. For some reason my clothes don’t fit any more, straining around the chest and the hips, and my hands… They are somehow slimmer and more elegant. I raise them to my mouth, only to feel soft skin instead of the course grizzle of my beard.
“What’s happening to me?” My voice is higher pitched, softer, more fem…
Shocked realisation sets in and I reach between my legs. There Is no bulge, no… maleness. I turn to Maggie.
“What is this?”
She takes me into her arms and I feel her breasts pushing against… mine. I have breasts! What the hell is happening?
“I’m so sorry Andrew. I never expected… Wishes have this habit of coming true around Moonshine. I just never expected her to take to you like that, or I would have warned you.”
“What are you saying?”
“After I rescued her in the woods, she followed me and kept prodding me with her nose until I realised she wanted me to climb onto her back. She took me for the wildest, most exhilarating ride through the trees; it left me breathless. I wished that I had the means to care for her and she proceeded to lead me out of the woods to this place. I’d never seen it before in my life, but the people working here treated me as though I were in charge. It took me a while, but I finally accepted that I was when I found the deed to the mansion and grounds in my name and bank details which showed me with more wealth than I could easily use in a lifetime.
“I think she has to like you or feel some degree of responsibility towards you in order for a wish to have any effect, because I know some of the girls who come here to work or to ride have wished out loud in her presence and nothing has happened.”
“So why me, and why this?”
“I think she senses some of the obligation I feel towards you. I mean I know you just staggered out into the street, but if I hadn’t been so distracted, I could have stopped in time. I think that’s why she healed your leg without asking.”
“Hard not to. It’s obviously been giving you pain today, and now you’re leaning all your weight on it.”
“So why am I now a woman?”
“Because of your wish.” She managed to smile and look embarrassed at the same time. “You wished you could understand why women especially are passionate about horses, and it’s not something you can fully understand unless you are… er… well, a woman.”
Moonshine steps alongside and looks around at me expectantly.
“Go ahead, it’s not often she offers anyone a chance to climb onto her back. If you need to hang onto anything, grab a handful of her mane – the more hair you grab, the less it pulls, less discomfort for her – and grip her with your thighs. Enjoy.”
I grab a double handful of mane and leap up. The new lightness and suppleness of my body means that even this impossible act is easy. I hardly settle into position when I feel powerful muscles bunch underneath me and we are off.
At first there is the sheer thrill of the speed and boundless energy as we chase across the field towards the woods. I hunker down against Moonshine’s neck until my breasts touch her through the taut fabric of my shirt. The movement of her headlong gallop massages me in places I never had before, and by the time we reach the shelter of the trees, unusual and exquisite feelings are coursing through my body. Liquid fire and electric ice dance through me, lifting me to peak after peak, each one higher than the last, until it feel as though I have been launched into some impossibly glorious journey through space and sensation.
I don’t know how long the ride lasted, but I am spent and deliciously sore by the time we trot back down the hill towards the stable and a patiently waiting Maggie, shovel in hand, clearing the inevitable from the concrete floor.
“That was amazing, Moonshine,” I murmur in her ear. “How did you know?”
She turns a liquid eye towards me and tosses her head gently. As much of an answer as I am going to get.
“I wish I could stay with you for always, and enjoy feelings like that again and again.”
Careful what you wish for Andy.
Maggie props her shovel against the stable wall and comes out to greet us.
“You look positively flushed Andrea.” The feminine use of my name feels right, natural, like she’s been using it forever. She entwines her arms around my neck as I slide back down to earth, and kisses me passionately on the lips. Glowing embers inside me flare with renewed fire and I kiss her back, enjoying her softness and her sweet smell. “So I take it you’ll stay then?”
I look over at Moonshine who tosses her head and nickers as if at some private joke.
It’s as though I had never been a man. Truth be told, I never really felt like one, but to be seen now as though I had always been as I am now… Maggie shakes herself as though realising something.
“The guy you knocked down in the street the other day, yes.”
“A girl now. I guess so, thanks to Moonshine.”
“Don’t mind a bit, no. If I had my druthers, I’d have spent all my life in this form. I was a bit surprised by that kiss though.”
“Yes, so was I, but I suppose it works. I’ve always felt more drawn to my own sex, but never had the courage to admit it. I suppose since you were born male, then I shouldn’t feel guilty about my feelings towards you should I?”
Magic rearranging reality around us to fit in with my wish, with both our wishes it seems.
“And the invitation to stay?”
“I guess I never actually asked you did I? It would mean a lot to me if you would consider it; it’s been rather lonely for me. I mean the servants don’t treat me as an equal, and Moonshine can only communicate so much.”
“Well, even if I had anywhere else to go, I think I’d rather be here.” I feel desire for Maggie swelling inside me and glance at Moonshine, suspecting her magic is still at work. She turns her head away and walks towards her stall, pretending she had nothing to do with it.
We set about brushing the dirt and sweat out of her coat with curry combs, Maggie uses stiff metal ones on her neck and back, leaving me to take softer ones to her legs and face. It is while I am brushing gently above her nose that I make a discovery.
Moonshine was holding still while we ministered to her comforts, so I’m not sure if it was deliberate or accidental at first. I reach up to brush her forehead and find something in the way. I can’t see anything there, but once I remove the brush from my hand, I can feel a long and bony protuberance between her eyes.
“You found it then,” Maggie’s eyes shine with the mischief of a secret shared. “I think it must have been someone else’s earlier wish, that she look like an ordinary horse and not stand out. I mean can you imagine how impossible it would be to for her to live a quiet life if the horn were visible?”
“That’s where the magic comes from then? And the wariness around men?”
“Yes, I’m pretty certain. I still don’t understand why she was so attracted to you though.”
“Ah, I think I figured that part out myself; it’s part of the magic too. You see I was only ever a man on the outside, and I think she could sense that. This is how I’ve always felt I should be. It was being otherwise that caused my life to fall apart in the first place.”
“Well it looks like we’ve both had wishes come true today, and some surprising ones at that.”
We shift to stiff brushes and take a side each, working in silence, each of us content simply to have the other present. Eventually Moonshine is satisfied, snorts her thanks and heads into her stall and the feed Maggie laid out for her earlier.
“You can’t tell anyone, you know?” Maggie says.
“I know. As if I would anyway; she’s such a magnificent creature, and so kind. Do you think we’re enough for her though? I mean I wish she could find companionship of her own kind to make her happy.”
There is a snort behind us and we turn to see a jet black stallion standing in the stable entrance. He is even larger and more powerful looking than Moonshine and resplendent with a single horn sticking out from his forehead. Moonshine reappears at the entrance to her stall. I have never seen a horse look surprised before, but there is genuine wonder in her eyes as she trots up to the newcomer. A brief glance our way and they are gone, chasing across the fields towards the woods.
“You really are going to have to control your wishes a little better, Andrea.”
“Do you think they’ll be back?”
“The magic is binding; it can’t be undone. I wished I could take care of her for all my life, you wished something similar I imagine?” I nod my head. “A few years back I felt the same sadness you noticed and tried to wish her free, but it didn’t work. The first wish takes precedence, which is why I didn’t suggest wishing you back into a man.
“They’ll be back, but whether or not he stays is another matter. Your wish was only that she should find companionship.”
“Maybe we could…”
“Think about it another time? You’ve done enough good for one day, and tomorrow is soon enough to deal with anything that might come up. We should ask them what they want too. Wishing them into a lifelong relationship would be poor payment for their kindness if they don’t feel that way inclined.
“Come on, let’s change for lunch. I asked Gerard to put together a prawn salad for us, and I’m just dying to see what you look like in a dress.”