“It’s just they’ve got this connection,” said Denny. “Her and that horse, it’s like spiritual.”
“Mmm,” said Marty. He was younger than he looked, but still not that young. His face was crooked from the horse-kick in his youth that had made him want to become a horse whisperer. “I’ve heard it all before, Denny. I told you, I don’t change ‘em anymore. I just don’t understand it well enough. It scares me.”
“If they’re separated, it’ll kill her,” said Denny. “Ever since I told her Butterloaf can’t come with us to town, she hasn’t eaten, she hardly sleeps, she just mopes around. Marty, you gotta do this for me. Not for me, for her. She’s a little girl, she doesn’t understand money problems. She doesn’t understand why we gotta rent in town. She’s only ever lived on a farm. She doesn’t understand why we can’t have a horse in an apartment. I told her over and over and she just sits there crying with her hands over her face and she won’t listen. She just moans ‘Butterloaf, Butterloaf.’ Did you know Madeline and Butterloaf were born on the same day, Marty? Come on. That means something.”
“Yeah, it means they’re the same age,” said Marty, but Denny could tell he was softening. Denny just needed to keep pressing.
“Butterloaf was a gift to Madeline from my dad,” said Denny. “She’s never known life without Butterloaf.” His words sounded so sad in his own ears that he had to stop talking for fear of crying in front of Marty.
Neither man spoke for a while. They stood in the white glow of the barn’s exterior motion-detecting light that was either stuck on or else had sensors that were too sensitive and therefore always detected motion outside of the barn even when that motion was too subtle for human eyes to perceive.
“There were a few times when changing one worked out,” said Marty. “Once or twice.”
“I knew you’d come around,” said Denny, his smile brief and heart-rending.
“I’ll see the horse,” said Marty. “But I’m not making any promises. And even if I try, there’s no guarantee it’ll work. I have to make the horse want to change, and with some horses, it just won’t happen for whatever reason.”
“Just try,” said Denny. “That’s all I ask. This is our last hope. If you can’t change Butterloaf, we’ll have to try to sell him and move on without him, I suppose, but we wouldn’t have much time to sell and he’s had some health issues, as you know, and if we couldn’t sell by the time we’ve gotta move, then, you know, Marty, the options get real sad real quick from there.”
“I know,” said Marty. “I want to help you, Denny, I really do. If changing the horse seems like it might be an option, then I’ll give it a whirl.”
Denny nodded. The snow crunched under the men’s boots at a volume out of proportion to the slight shifting of their weight, the flexing of their cold toes in their boots. Though neither man had mentioned it, both seemed to understand that they would finish their coffees before they went into the barn. That, if nothing else, was a given.
Butterloaf lay on his side, naked and pale, his face pressed into a pile of hay. He was just under six feet tall, Marty guessed, and sort of soft-looking, though not fat, exactly. His drab brown hair was thinning down the middle of his head. Butterloaf sat up.
Marty stood at the stall entrance with Denny, side by side, looking at Butterloaf. Denny was smiling at Butterloaf like he was a newborn baby and not a naked, slightly overweight man with thinning hair sprawled on a dirty barn floor. Marty felt tired. He didn’t know if it was because he hadn’t done it in years or what, but it had taken over six hours to get Butterloaf to change himself from a horse into a man. Marty had only ever done three other changings – all for women who wanted to marry their horses – but none of those had taken more than four hours. This really was Marty’s last time, though, for real this time, end of story. He’d encountered a fair amount of resistance from Butterloaf throughout the process, but he’d forged ahead anyway even though he’d promised himself at the outset that he’d only see the changing through to the end if the horse was totally open to it. Now, looking at Butterloaf’s new, inherently unimpressive human form, Marty felt guilty.
“I’m gonna go wake Madeline,” said Denny, visibly brimming with nervous energy which he had nowhere to put. “She’s gonna want to see him right away.”
“Whoa, whoa,” said Marty. “Give him something to cover up with first, Denny, come on.”
“Oh yeah,” said Denny, looking back at Butterloaf. “Didn’t have to worry about that when he was a horse. I’ll be right back.” He left the stall.
Butterloaf scooted backwards and rested his back against the barn wall. He was shivering. He placed his hands palms down on his thighs and looked down at them.
Marty sighed. He wanted to go home and go to bed, but first he had to make a few things very clear to Butterloaf, both for Butterloaf’s well-being and for the condition of his own conscience. He took two steps forward and crouched down so that he and Butterloaf were on eye-level with each other. “How’re you feeling?”
“I’m cold,” said Butterloaf. “And I’m confused.”
“That’s natural,” said Marty. “Denny’s getting you some clothes or a blanket or something.”
“All right,” said Butterloaf.
“And for the other thing,” said Marty, “you just turned yourself from a horse to a human. And from what I understand, that’s a disorienting experience, to say the least.”
Butterloaf looked queasy. His eyes darted all around and he kept licking his lower lip.
“That’s some of that disorientation you’re experiencing right there,” said Marty. “That’s what happens to humans when we don’t know what’s going on or why things are the way they are and so on.”
Butterloaf closed his eyes, his fingers digging into his thighs. “Did you turn me into a human?”
“No, you did that. I just helped guide you through it.”
“I did it?”
“Yes,” said Marty. “All horses can turn themselves into middle-aged men. Even mares. Well, as far as I know, they can. If the circumstances are right. But it can only happen when a horse wants to. You know how hard it is to make a horse want to turn into a human? I started whispering to you in this stall over six hours ago. I’m beat.”
“But why would I-?”
“Why would you have wanted to be a human when you were a horse? I don’t know. My technique is complicated, and to be honest, I never really know how much is getting through. In the end, your motives were your own. What you need to be concerned with now is why you should want to stay a human.”
Butterloaf kept shivering. His eyebrows arched as if he was trying to force his eyelids apart, but his eyes remained closed. Marty sniffed as an audible signal for Butterloaf to interject if he felt like it.
“Stay a human,” said Butterloaf. “Why?”
“First of all, because there’s a little girl named Madeline who’s relying on you to be her friend and to look out for her and whatever else.”
“I know Madeline,” said Butterloaf. The way he said the name sounded almost reverent. It seemed to calm him. Some of the tension went out of his body, the creases in his face softening.
“Good,” said Marty. “And the second reason you need to stay a human is that if you slip up and go back to being a horse, you’ll wish you hadn’t, or whatever the horse equivalent of wishing is. When you go up from horse to human, it’s awkward and uncomfortable at first, sure, but if you go from human back to horse, it’s ugly. ‘Cause you can’t just be a horse again. There’ll still be some human in there, but the horse won’t be equipped to deal with the humanness in the horse the same way the human can deal with the horseness in the human, right?”
“Right,” said Butterloaf. It didn’t sound like he understood, really, but he did sound scared, which was the important part. As long as he was scared to go back to being a horse, he would cling to his humanity long enough for it to stick. Marty didn’t really understand it either, but he knew what he’d seen in the eyes of horses that had spent brief periods of time as men and it was truly horrifying.
“Horses are noble,” said Marty. “But they’re simple. Having horse remnants inside a human doesn’t do much harm except make him long for a return to that simplicity when life gets complicated. But that’s the danger. ‘Cause if you succumb to that temptation and go back, you’ll have some of the complexity of a human imprisoned in the simplicity of a horse, and that’s just constant agony. And you’ll be stuck in there, ‘cause once you’ve been a human, if you go back to being a horse, you can’t go back to being a human again. My theory is that the brain of a horse that spent some time as a human is so scrambled and disturbed that the horse can’t focus enough to change back to human again. That door is only open once. You don’t want to suffer like that, buddy, no way.”
“No way,” said Butterloaf. His face was a picture of eyes-closed concentration: slight frown, eyebrows knit, brow furrowed.
“Got this blanket,” said Denny, stepping back into the stall.
Marty grunted and stood up, stepping out of Denny’s way. Denny stepped forward and draped a thick, heavy blanket over Butterloaf’s lap, covering his body from the waist down.
“OK,” said Denny, his voice raised to project outside of the stall. “You can see him now.”
Madeline stepped into the stall, black curly hair frizzing out sideways from under a gray and pink stocking cap, her perpetually sad eyes skeptical, hopeful, wary, frightened, eager, disappointed, credulous, and on and on forever. “Butterloaf? Is that really you?”
Butterloaf opened his eyes. “Madeline,” he said, and he used his lips and his teeth and the other components of his face to generate the first genuine human smile of his entire life.
Madeline hated the new apartment in Multioak. It was small, smelled weird, and since it was garden level, dark. Even in the middle of the day, only little bits of sunlight found their way into the tiny rooms of Madeline’s new home, and some corners had never been touched by natural light, she could tell.
Madeline also hated her new school even though she wasn’t going to start attending until after Christmas break was over. Her dad had driven her and Butterloaf past the school so she could see what the outside looked like and she had not liked what she saw and neither had Butterloaf, although he hadn’t admitted that to her until later that night after Madeline’s dad had gone to sleep and she’d crept out of her room to visit him on the living room couch on which he slept with his bare feet up on the armrest, heels together, toes pointing up and out so his feet formed a crude V.
Madeline also hated thinking about the farm and how that whole part of her life was over and gone, and even though she didn’t hate Butterloaf, she hated that he wasn’t a horse anymore, and she hated that her dad insisted that she call him “Titus” even though his name was and always had been “Butterloaf.” His name was the only thing that still connected him to the horse Madeline had loved. If she started calling him Titus instead of Butterloaf, she might forget that he had ever been her horse and then she’d just be spending all of her time with a quiet, somber, middle-aged man for no reason.
Madeline’s dad worked second shift at his new job at Runker Boat Company, so Madeline and Butterloaf were alone in the apartment from 2:30 in the afternoon until 11:30 at night. It had been an exceptionally cold, icy winter so far, so Madeline and Butterloaf spent most of their time watching and re-watching Madeline’s favorite movies in the apartment. Butterloaf always made macaroni and cheese for dinner, which was the only thing he’d learned how to cook so far. Madeline thought some of the stuff Butterloaf knew how to do since becoming a man versus some of the stuff he didn’t know how to do was weird. Like, he didn’t know how to cook or drive a car, but he knew how to talk and he knew how to read and write.
Sometimes Butterloaf’s presence irritated Madeline and she could barely stand to look at him. As a horse, Butterloaf had looked beautiful and powerful and majestic. As a man, he looked like one of her dad’s friends, which was to say old and dull and ordinary, and seeing him only reminded her of how far he’d fallen in his transformation. But sometimes Madeline looked at Butterloaf and she could tell who he was, she could recognize the creature she loved and it didn’t seem to matter as much that he was a man instead of a horse now. At these times, which usually occurred in the hour or two before her dad got home from work, Madeline became very affectionate and would often curl up next to Butterloaf on the couch and confide in him, just like she’d confided in him when he was a horse. And just like when he was a horse, Butterloaf would say nothing but give the impression that he understood everything, and as long as Madeline kept her eyes closed and her face pressed against his side, the illusion that not everything had to change could last at least until her dad got home and she was sent to bed.
One night, after an hour of fitful sleep, Madeline tip-toed out of her room and down the hall to the living room where she found Butterloaf awake on the couch, lying on his back and feeling his face with his hands, bathed in the light of the muted television.
“Butterloaf,” said Madeline in a low voice, standing at the foot of the couch in a thin nightgown with a herd of wild horses galloping across a shallow river pictured on the front. “I got an idea.”
Butterloaf took his hands from his face and looked at Madeline, waiting for her to continue.
“You could turn back into a horse just while my dad’s at work,” said Madeline. “Then, right before he comes home, you could turn back into a human.”
“That won’t work,” said Butterloaf. “I’ll be stuck as a horse.”
“We could just try it,” said Madeline.
“No,” said Butterloaf. “I’d be a horse in this tiny apartment. I wouldn’t understand why. I’d panic and maybe even hurt you on accident.”
“You wouldn’t hurt me,” said Madeline. “You never hurt me when you were a horse.”
“I’d have to go away,” said Butterloaf. “You’d never see me again.”
Madeline looked around the cramped living room, evaluating its dimensions in terms of potential horse accommodation. “I think you’d fit,” she said. “This room’s bigger than your stall was.”
“I’m sorry,” said Butterloaf. “I can’t be a horse again. It would hurt me, Madeline. Marty told me it would hurt me really bad.”
“OK,” said Madeline. “Just be an ugly, old, boring man instead of fast, smart, perfect horse forever, then.”
“I’m sorry,” said Butterloaf.
Madeline trudged back to bed looking as dejected as possible, but that was just for show. She wasn’t defeated. She was determined.
Butterloaf had the backseat of the car to himself. Denny drove while Madeline rode in the front passenger’s seat, breathing on the window and scribbling in the condensation with her little finger. No one said anything. It was Christmas Eve, snow was falling to an extent that seemed to please Madeline and worry Denny, and they were all on the way to Denny’s parents’ house to spend three days celebrating the holidays. Denny had explained Christmas to Butterloaf and he more or less understood, but he wasn’t particularly interested. He was more interested in the fact that their destination was actually the farm where he’d been born. He’d asked if either of his parents were still there, but Denny had told him they weren’t. Denny’s parents had sold all of their horses shortly after Butterloaf was born and their barns now housed only pigs.
Before departing, Denny had sat Madeline down and explained to her in a stern voice that she was only to refer to Butterloaf as “Titus” while they were at her grandparents’ house and that she should not under any circumstances make reference to the fact that Titus had once been a horse. The story that they all had to stick to was that Titus was one of Denny’s new friends from work and that he didn’t have anywhere to spend the holidays because his parents were dead and he didn’t have any siblings. Madeline had agreed to abide by these restrictions in a distant tone that Butterloaf understood to be an indication that she would do whatever she felt like doing in the moment, even if it was the exact opposite of what she’d been told to do. She’d been a handful in the last few days. Butterloaf wasn’t afraid of her, exactly, but he was afraid of what she might do. There had already been a few incidents.
The day after she’d tried to convince him to turn back into a horse and he’d refused, Madeline had asked Butterloaf for something called a “piggy-back ride,” which sounded innocent enough until Madeline explained the logistics of the maneuver in a roundabout way that took Butterloaf a few minutes to decipher. The next day, he awoke from a nap to find Madeline holding a handful of granulated sugar up to his lips and making the “shh, shh” sound she used to make while feeding him treats when he was a horse. The day after that, before he left for work, Denny waited until Madeline went to the bathroom and then he showed Butterloaf her Christmas list for Santa. The only thing written on the list was Turn Butterloaf back to horse.”
“She’s trying to go over our heads,” Denny had said, his smile nothing if not rueful. “Just be careful. I don’t know how long it takes for you to be cemented in your human form, or if you ever truly are, and Madeline’s craftier than you’d expect from a 10-year-old.”
“I’m aware,” Butterloaf had said, and it had been at that moment that he first realized that he didn’t like Madeline anymore. Even minutes earlier, he would have said such a thing was impossible, but the more he’d considered his growing distaste for Madeline in the days since the moment when it first occurred to him, the more certain he’d become that it was true. She was entirely self-centered. She wanted what she wanted even when it made no logical sense and would hurt other people. No matter how many times Butterloaf explained the horrible consequences that would befall him if he turned back into a horse, Madeline kept pushing because she wanted him to be a horse and that was all that concerned her.
The most twisted aspect of all of this was the fact that nothing made Butterloaf want to turn back into a horse more than the fact that he now disliked Madeline for wanting him to turn back into a horse. As a horse, Butterloaf had loved Madeline completely, he thought, although it was hard to remember or articulate what it was that he’d felt for her when he was a horse. But however one would describe what he’d felt for her, he knew that it had never changed, that circumstances had never had any bearing on that feeling. That feeling, whatever it was, had been steady, solid, reliable, unfading, unflagging. But in just over two weeks as a human, the human equivalent of that feeling, which was probably love, had dissipated entirely, and now here he was resenting Madeline’s lack of concern for his own well-being so much that he no longer enjoyed anything about her. Any time spent with Madeline had been the best part of Butterloaf’s life as a horse, but now that he was a human, he saw that she was actually just an obnoxious, entitled little girl, of which the world had millions, and he preferred being alone with the TV to doing anything with her. Butterloaf remembered how delighted he’d been when Madeline had appeared in his stall right after he’d become a human, how relieved he’d been, how even naked and cold and confused, whatever he’d felt for Madeline had cut through everything and lifted him up. She was the same girl now as she was then, but Butterloaf’s humanity had spoiled their relationship with its constant analysis and evaluation, speculation and criticism, its scrutiny, its dissection, its judgment and self-consciousness. When he was a horse, Madeline’s existence had been enough to secure Butterloaf’s eternal devotion. As a human, Butterloaf couldn’t help but want some level of devotion returned to him, and this reality disgusted him and made him hate being human.
“How much longer ‘til we’re at grandma and grandpa’s?” asked Madeline. The subtle whine behind the seemingly innocuous question made Butterloaf cringe.
“Half an hour,” said Denny. It was just after 5 p.m., but with dark clouds obscuring the setting sun and dumping snow, it already looked and felt like night. Butterloaf could feel the car shudder whenever an especially powerful gust of wind came rushing over them from out of the blanked-out fields and bare, black trees that flanked the deserted country road.
“Where’s Butterloaf going to sleep?” asked Madeline.
“First of all, you have to call him ‘Titus,’ I already explained that to you. And second of all, I don’t know. Grandma will probably have him sleep on the couch in the basement.”
They drove past an ice-encrusted sign warning of ice on an upcoming bridge. Then, between the sign and the bridge, the car hit a patch of slushy ice for which there was no official warning sign, slipped sideways down into the roadside ditch as Denny spun the wheel, and slammed into two stout trees, shattering both windows on the driver’s side and popping every exterior light on the car.
Butterloaf was not hurt, that he could tell, and Madeline was struggling with her seatbelt in a way that seemed to indicate that she wasn’t seriously hurt either, but Denny was slumped forward against the steering wheel and he wasn’t moving.
Madeline finally got out of her seatbelt and got up on her knees on the seat, shaking her dad by the shoulder. “Dad? Are you knocked out? We’re off the road, dad!” The dark shape of Denny’s head waggled with no resistance on the steering wheel.
“Stop shaking him,” said Butterloaf.
“I can shake him if I want to,” said Madeline, shaking her hopefully-just-unconscious father harder. “He’s my dad. You’re just a horse.”
Butterloaf hadn’t noticed that the car was still running until it sputtered and died. The wind found its way into the car through the broken windows and whirled around, sucking up all the heat and leaving again.
Butterloaf wore one of Denny’s old coats and a wool hat to cover his balding scalp, but that was the extent of his protection from the cold beyond his regular clothes. Madeline had a coat, hat, scarf, and gloves, but neither of them had boots or any extra insulation for their legs. In fact, Madeline’s shoes were low-top canvas shoes and she’d been complaining that her toes were cold ever since they’d gotten into the car.
“Do you know how to get to your grandparents’ house from here?” asked Butterloaf.
“No,” said Madeline. “I know that after the bridge, you go through the woods for a while and then their house has a long driveway. Oh, and you can’t see the house from the road, but it’s sort of blue.”
Butterloaf looked out of the window and up to the road. He tried to remember the last time he’d seen another car. There had been a truck headed the opposite direction at least ten minutes before the crash and nothing since. This stretch of road was probably sparsely traveled even on non-holidays in ideal weather conditions. On Christmas Eve in a snowstorm, barring a miracle, there would be no one.
“How come you can’t drive?” asked Madeline. “It’s stupid. If you could drive, you could just drive us to grandma and grandpa’s house and everything would be fine.”
“That’s not true,” said Butterloaf. “The car’s broken. Even if it wasn’t, there’s no way we could get it back on the road.”
“You could drive it back on the road!” said Madeline, turning around to face Butterloaf. “If you knew how to be a real human, you’d fix the car and drive it back onto the road and find my grandma and grandpa’s house and wake up my dad with CPR!” She swung at Butterloaf’s face with an open hand, only missing because she had short arms. She leaned over the seat and tried again to slap Butterloaf across the face, but this time he caught her by the wrist. Butterloaf could see Madeline’s eyes glittering at him out of the darkness, and he could feel himself suspended at the center of all of her disappointment and dissatisfaction and directionless hurting, and worse, he could feel himself projecting all of that and more right back at her. The simple bond the two of them had shared had dissolved and been replaced by this miserable tangle of spiteful dependency that neither of them was equipped to interpret.
“I have an idea,” said Butterloaf, stilling gripping Madeline’s skinny wrist.
“What is it?” asked Madeline. “Watch TV and look sad until someone rescues us?”
“I was born as a foal on your grandparents’ farm. Animals can sense things like that, they can find their way home across great distances. Hundreds of miles, sometimes.”
Even with her dad maybe dying on the seat next to her, Madeline smiled. “You’re going to turn back into a horse now?”
Her victorious, gloating tone got right under Butterloaf’s skin, but he squashed his anger and said, “You’re going to put on as many articles of clothing as you can from your suitcase and then, yes, I’ll turn back into a horse and you’ll ride me to your grandparents’ house. Then you can tell your grandpa about the accident and he can come back here in a truck and help your dad. Got it?”
Madeline pried her wrist out of Butterloaf’s relaxed grasp and clapped her hands. “Yay! You’re going to be a horse again!”
Butterloaf’s heart thumped against his ribs and his hands shook. He was so scared. “Madeline, listen to me. Once everyone’s safe, you have to tell your grandparents what happened, or your dad, or somebody so they can tell Marty. You have to make sure Marty knows that I’m a horse again so he can…so he can take care of me.”
Madeline frowned. “But I’ll take care of you. Why would we need Marty?”
Butterloaf could tell she was suspicious. She sensed a trap of some kind. She knew he was holding something back, but she couldn’t figure out what it was.
“He’ll know what to do to help me,” said Butterloaf. “That’s all. It’ll be better for everyone. It’ll be better for you too.”
Madeline’s face went blank so quickly that Butterloaf knew it was intentional. “OK,” she said. “I’ll make sure Marty knows you’re a horse again and comes to see you.”
Butterloaf knew she was lying and he hated her for it. But he also knew she would soon be dangerously cold, that she would freeze solid here in the car or out walking on the road, so he opened the car door, stumbled out into the merciless wind and deepening snow, and turned back into a horse.