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Fiction #301
(published October 26, 2006)
Horse Sense
by John Hawfield
The novice bowed his head to the others assembled in the royal stable. They were the brushers, each one given their own horse from the king's herd to groom. He was already late, and hastily moved toward his stall hoping that he was not the last novice to arrive. There, he removed a well-worn brush assigned to him and his horse from a little shelf attached to the wall and began to pick stray hairs from the bristles. Every morning this was to be done as stated in the rulebook: making the brush clean was a must before beginning the daily exercise in trying to perfect one's method.

Plucking the final strand of hair from the bristles, the novice caught a glimpse of a shovel-pusher entering his stall—placing his dirty hand, holding an equally filthy towel, upon the shelf to support his rather substantial girth as he leaned against the wall.

"We are not allowed to place anything upon the shelf other than the brushes," said the novice eyeing the shovel-pusher's hand.

"Ah! I see you are passionate. Excellent. You are on your way to becoming an expert like me."

"An expert like you?" said the novice a bit surprised and more than a bit skeptical. "But you are just a shovel-pusher."

The shovel-pusher made a notably theatrical scan of the goings-on around the stable before continuing. "Yes, that is true. I was once only a novice brusher and now I am a shovel-pusher. But, I am an expert as well. All the other novices know this to be true."

By now, as the novice saw, all of the other brushers were deeply engrossed in their exercises; each practiced small, deliberate, strokes against their horse's shiny coat—each like a living sculpture waiting for the brush to clear away any imperfections.

"And how is it that you have become an expert?"

"Because," said the shovel-pusher rubbing his grimy hands into the towel, staining it like ink pouring across a page, "I am around these animals all the time. By this, I know everything there is to know about horses, more so than anyone here. And, I especially know all that there is needed to be known regarding their care and daily preparations."

The shovel-pusher crossed his arms and glared. "These novices," he stated ruefully. "What do they know with all of their constant practicing and following techniques. Watch and I will show you what a true expert can achieve."

With that, he grabbed the nearest shovel and commenced scraping up piles of manure, the shovel's head making a sickly sound like the continuous striking of one large key across a greasy platen, and dumped each load into a single mound. Back and forth he went across the stable, uttering words of wisdom—such that the novice did not recall reading in the rulebook—with each pass, while the heap piled up higher until it was level with his chest.

"Is it prudent to place that all in one single pile?" questioned the novice. "Won't it be much more work than is necessary to remove it later?"

"You question me? Remember, I am an expert. That means I know best. Correct?"

"But I believe it might be a bit too high, though. The rules state that—"

"Silence! See. This is why you are just a novice. You are not taking into account that this is my style."

Higher and higher the pile of manure blossomed as he continued plowing across the floor—higher until it towered over their heads, all the while the shovel-pusher chastised the gathered novices for their lack of ambition and attention to detail.

"Brother shovel-pusher, I do fear that the pile is now dangerously high."

"Brusher, who here is the expert? If you refuse to learn from me you will always be a novice."

The novice sighed, maybe the shovel-pusher was right. There was so much he was uncertain of, but had trusted, as the rulebook stated so sagely, that practice and patience would make it right. Yet, here was a true master willing to teach and guide him. Besides, he thought, glancing at the looming monolith, the manure does have a certain artistic appeal. "I will try my best to learn, Master."

"Excellent. You shall be my protégé," he said tossing aside the shovel. "Now you will show me how you brush."

The novice conceded with a nod, placed his brush to the horse's coat, and proceeded to make the small, deliberate, downward strokes as outlined in the rulebook.

"No! No. No. You are doing that wrong," exclaimed the shovel-pusher.

"But the rules—I mean—I am just a novice."

The shovel-pusher struck the brush from the novice's hand. "You foolish amateur. With feeling! The horse must feel the brush. Here. I will show you how to do this properly." He pressed the brush hard into the horse's coat, around the neck area, and pulled along the length of the animal's back until the brush dug painfully into its hindquarters. The horse reared causing the shovel-pusher to stumble and drop the brush.

"See! See how he plays. See how much the horse is enjoying this!" he proclaimed to the novice, while hacking his way around behind the horse to pick up the brush, his puffy body bumping unapologetically against the animal. "Now pay attention," he admonished, his eyes leveling with the novice's. "You can learn a lot from an expert."

With that, he twisted the brush deep into the horse's rump and jerked down hard. The horse bucked, at first, then fiercely kicked both of its back legs outward propelling the shovel-pusher into the mountain of manure he had created. For an instant the manure seemed to mushroom upward, the atomic reaction to a horrible chain of events, before it imploded trapping him underneath.

The novice, bits of defecation peppering his canvas smock, edged gingerly over to the pile and freed the brush from the shovel-pusher's twitching hand. He carefully cleaned it of all debris before he resumed making his short deliberate strokes against the horse's coat.

"Glad I'm not an expert," he said to no one in particular.

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