Four-Legged Blues

        I grew up with my best friend from next door, Rusty. His family was all centaurs, and Rusty was just a centaur colt when first met him, back when we attended the same grade school. We lived quite a ways from school, and sometimes when I didn't feel up to the long walk to and from school, Rusty would let me ride on his horseback. In return, I would help Rusty with his homework.

        By the time we were grown up, Rusty was  a very tall centaur, with a broad-shouldered, long-armed torso, springing from an exceptionally sleek and glossy stallion's body. His face remained boyishly handsome.

        I had grown tall and athletic, so sometimes I would run alongside him as he cantered along, although he could always outrun me, just as any horse could. But when I was out of breath and stumbling from trying to keep up his incredible pace, he'd laugh and give me a ride home.

        I was kind of the envy of the school to be Rusty's friend. But he mixed it up with the other students, and even though he was the only centaur in our school, such was his demeanor that he was welcomed and accepted by everyone.

        He had gotten an exception to be allowed to play on our school's polo team, since all the other players were guys who rode horses, as polo is normally played. Naturally, Rusty enjoyed a tremendous advantage over the other players, but he was a good enough sport and a fair enough player that he was a valued and respected member of the polo team. In fact, guys always wanted to have him help them learn the game, since he could explain and demonstrate, using his horse body as well as his human intelligence.

        And it was a beautiful thing to see when his team won. The victory celebration always included as many teammates as could fit on his horseback clambering onto Rusty, usually with someone astride Rusty's human shoulders as well; they would ride Rusty back to the locker as the crowds cheered.

        And Rusty was always there for me at my team's basketball games. In fact, he gladly allowed himself to be roped into an unofficial mascot role. Our games were always a lot of fun, starting with the team introductions, when Rusty would ride as many of the starting lineup out onto the court as he could, then cantering back for a second and third load of basketball players.

        I even rode him as he good-naturedly pulled a bunch of us on a hayride in the country.  And we had fun with Rusty's equineness in other ways—for instance, around campfires, I would entertain the others with the amazing feat of having taught Rusty to count. He could, with proper bribing with carrots and a lot of broad hints, stomp out the right answer to simple math problems with his right front hoof, while folding his arms and holding his chin in a show of high effort and concentration.

        He envied me my humanness — I guess he envied the fact that I fit in to the real world so much better than he.  This came to light more and more as the real world began to loom closer in the final months of our academic lives.

        And when it came time to graduate, Rusty was, naturally, concerned about his career and future, as his centaur body posed a challenge. Outside of the ivory tower of our priveleged world of higher education, many people had never heard of centaurs, much less seen or hired one. How would he find a job, Rusty fretted, as we helped each other through the remaining evenings of our academic lives. How would he get into buildings for job interviews, past guards, up and down steps, onto busses, into taxis.

        I tried to reassure him as the new-found fears surfaced the and realization of his bodily predicament dawned on him.

        Graduation day only served to sound the gong of warning, even as fellow students flocked around Rusty and hugged him goodbye before scattering to the various excitements and challenges that awaited them far away in the real world.

        "Perhaps your parents or other family members can help you on this one," I said to Rusty, as I rode him home from the graduation ceremony. He still wore his cap, out of pride, although I carried the gown in a box with mine, to be returned to the rental company. "Your dad always found good jobs that were especially suited to centaurs."

        "True," Rusty said, "but I feel that I would be wasted following his career. He was always a security officer, and later on became a member of the mounted police—and since he was a centaur, he was the only member with a partner, because his partner could ride him on patrol. I wish I could get a regular human job, and it's hard to find one because I am a centaur. If only I could become human!"
        A thought occurred to me. "What about Professor Perkins?" I asked Rusty. "He has done a lot of research on transmutations. If anyone can make you human, he can. He works from your genetic code." I could feel the spring return to Rusty's canter beneath me as I rode him.

        "Good idea!" he said.

       A couple weeks later, Rusty was strapped into some complicated-looking machinery that the professor had cobbled together just for Rusty's transformation. "I can't guarantee you'll end up human," the professor had warned Rusty, "but you'll definitely have human legs. No doubt about it." The professor was confident indeed, mainly because I had volunteered to have my genes mapped, so that Rusty's body would have the proper architecture for human legs. Rusty's centaur body had more than enough mass to work from, but no "map;" thus as Rusty's friend I submitted to the hours of scans and sample withdrawals.

        "We'll be twins from the waist down," I joked with Rusty, as he gamely held a thermometer in his mouth while the professor attached the final connections to Rusty's magnificent equine portion. He smiled his appreciation of my joke. And indeed we would be twins below the torso, since his new human legs would essentially be clones of my own. Not bad, considering I was a runner and a swimme, and one of the tallest members of the basketball team, so the legs he would be getting copies of were probably the best in the state.

        Rusty smiled and said, "I am sorry in a way to be changing to human. Being four-legged does have its advantages. Remember me carrying you home from that beer bash last quarter? If I hadn't had four legs, we both would have fallen over!" I laughed with the memory—Rusty was right. I couldnt have remained standing at the time, and it was all I could do to hang onto Rusty's shoulders as he stumbled for home—with his four horse legs for balance.

        But my reverie was broken as the professor switched on the transformation equipment. "Stand by!" he shouted. Lights dimmed, electrical connections sizzled and the instruments on the control panels blinked and flashed, as the transformation took place.

        "Oh!" Rusty shouted, more startled than hurt.

        But when the smoke cleared, it was the Professor who shouted, "Oh!"

        "Wow!" Rusty and I said, in unison.
        "Oh no!" the professor said. "And we can't attempt a second transformation—it would be too dangerous!"

        Rusty turned and smiled at me ironically, then laughed.

        "What?" I said, as if I didn't already know.

        He was no longer a centaur with the body of a horse. He was now fully human, with perfect clones of my legs - four of them! Rusty wiggled the toes of all four feet, and gave each of his four legs a shake to make sure all four of them worked, which they did, just fine.

        "Maybe I can get a job stomping grapes at the local winery," Rusty said wryly, idly shfting his weight among his four new human legs. "With four legs, at least I can keep my balance on the way home from our next beer bash."

Josh Dugan