Ax thought in shorthand. His tools were always close at hoof. No level of grime and grease could stop him from completing his task. The sweat on his brow was the salt of the earth. Engines danced under his hooves, their pieces moving like so many ballet dancers locked into perfect synchronicity. He knew each and every one of their names by heart.
His shorthand mind sometimes wandered as he worked. It wandered to a great deal of things, from the new manuals he got in the mail to the quality of the oil his repair shop received from out-of-town distributors. When he took his mind off the task, he inevitably found something to fret over. Wander wandered into worry.
The engine block hoisted above his prone form shifted ever so slightly under his touch.
He didn’t often remember his dreams, but he could recall one particular nightmare. He sat on the concrete slab floor of his shop with nothing but a piece of cardboard underneath him, trapped in place as a massive engine block fell towards him. It would grow large in the light, an unearthly large engine with infinite pieces inside, each kaleidoscoping into their own endless engines. The engine to end all engines. The end-gine.
Wander wandered into worry. It was just a dream. And at any rate, he always woke up before it hit him.
“Ax!” his co-worker, Knick Knack, called to him from across the shop. “Two quarts, mark it.”
Ax’s horn lit up. Across the room, a pencil floated over a clipboard and made a note. “Two quarts,” he said, and refocused on the engine. It swayed again, held safely aloft by a massive pulley system mounted to the ceiling. Every once in awhile, he would take his kids to work and lift them up and down on one of the many pulley hooks. Never fast. Never more than a few lengths off the ground. To them, it must have been like flight.
“Ax,” his co-worker said again, this time much closer, “wanna see something funny?”
“Can it wait?”
“Customer’s gonna be back in like two minutes. You won’t believe where she tried to put her wiper fluid.”
Ax surveyed his work and found it satisfactory for the time being. He was just shuffling out from underneath the engine when he heard the familiar chime of the front door bell, a real bell taped to the handle.
Knick Knack turned away. “Axle’s Axles and More,” he said, “what’ll it be?”
In that moment, something went wrong. The engine hanging over Ax swayed suddenly to one side. Ax realized a moment later that it wasn’t swaying, but falling. One of the pulleys snapped up and smacked the ceiling.
The engine fell onto the concrete floor. Bits and pieces of the intricate machine went flying. All those hours of tuning, half a day’s work, disappeared. Most of Ax’s right foreleg also disappeared under the machine’s enormous weight.
Knick Knack said something, but Ax couldn’t hear him. “What?” he tried to say, but his breathing was all funny. He couldn’t breathe in deeply enough to exhale speech. He needed to know what his co-worker had said. “What?” he wheezed. “What?”
The mind is prone to wander at the strangest of times. Wander wandered into worry. Ax worried about the engine, all its little bits and pieces. He worried about his body, all its littler bits and pieces. All the bone and sinew, endlessly complicated.
Ax passed out.
Ax awoke in the hospital to a grand party. His wife and three kids, Knick Knack, and a swarm of medical students crowded his bedside. Each and every one of them wanted to poke and prod and ask their set of questions, most of them overlapping. Ax knew if they would just speak one at a time and listen, they would probably hear their question answered before they even spoke it. But they were happy he was awake, or in the case of the medical students relieved that they could get on with their day.
His questions were much simpler; is the arm still there, followed by will I walk again, followed by how long. The answers came in order; yes, maybe, you’d better ask the doctor.
“I thought you were all doctors,” Ax said.
“We’re trying our best,” one student replied.
After another barrage of questions, the students left. Ax’s family offered to let him rest, but he asked them to stay for awhile. He wasn’t one to take naps, and if he let himself think about his predicament too much he’d really start to freak out. He hadn’t even dared to look at his arm yet. He knew from the way the kids couldn’t stop staring at it out the corners of their eyes it must have been bad.
The doctor--the real one--arrived a short time later. He introduced himself as Doctor Heart.
“Little on the nose,” Ax commented.
“It’s actually Tender Loving Joyheart the Third,” the doctor replied. “Heart’s a nickname.”
Together, Doctor Heart and Ax went over the prognosis. Though there was a strong chance he would walk again, it would take many months of hard rehabilitation. “Not everyone makes it out of the rehab program with fully-restored function,” Heart said. “There’s still a chance it won’t work.”
Ax’s wife choked up in the corner. Ax gave her a despairing look, a look of no comfort in an impossible moment. “We’ll manage,” he said to the doctor, still looking at his wife. “We’ll do it.”
Doctor Herat nodded. “In the meantime, we need to do two more surgeries on your arm. It will be a month or so before you can start any rehab programs.” He stood up. “That’s all the information I have for now. I need to go see some other patients.”
“Doctor,” Ax said pleadingly, “Isn’t there anything you can do to get me out of here sooner?”
“If you’re worried about work,” Knick Knack chimed in, “put it out your mind. The pulley company wants to pay all your bills so you won’t sue ‘em. Union’s got your back, too.”
Doctor Heart rested a hoof on the edge of the bed. He looked tired. “If you take well to the surgeries, we’ll see what we can do. Until we put everything back into place, you might as well be trying to strengthen jello.” He spared a glance at Ax’s wife. “Metaphorically speaking.”
“Is that all you can do, really?” Ax asked.
Doctor Heart nodded. “We’re trying our best.”
A wandering mind wandered into worry. Bedridden and unable to work with his hooves, Ax had no choice but to worry.
Every day, his wife came to see him at the hospital and shower him with love and kindnesses until he felt undeserving. His kids were never far behind his wife, and they had a blast exploring every inch of the hospital room. Ax loved the kids with all his might. Their curiosity was his curiosity, their love his love. Their fear was mitigated by the wisdom of his age. Soon, he promised, he would be playing outside with them again.
Still he worried. His body was an engine, and part of it had just been crushed. Things were out of alignment. Without proper repairs, they’d rattle themselves apart the moment he tried to use them.
So he resolved to find ways to take his mind off things. Together with his wife, they looked through all the local events calendars. In the days leading up to his surgeries, they planned out nearly three months’ worth of activities that wouldn’t require standing too long or moving too fast. He (and the kids) were dismayed, but accepted their fate. Engines, like ponies, could be run into the ground all too easily. Nopony was getting run into the ground for his sake, least of all himself.
On the day of the surgery, he asked one of the doctors how the anesthesia worked. The doctor tried to explain, but it all went right over Ax’s head. To the best he could understand, it was sort of like starving a diesel engine of gas until it shut off. Sort of.
He was still trying to understand when the drugs kicked in.
There was so much to do once the surgeries were complete. Doctors to pay and family to comfort and forms to fill out. Physical therapy loomed on the horizon, but Ax was ready. After all, his arm looked better than ever--shaven, puffy, loaded with scars, oozing strange-colors sometimes, but fully attached and more or less usable. The swarm of medical students from before encased his arm in layers of velcro-strapped soft casts until it felt more like a club than a leg.
Doctor Heart visited him one last time and gave him some crutches and strict instructions not to put any weight on it unless a physical therapist told him to. He promised he wouldn’t make any promises, then hobbled off.
The afternoon he returned home from the hospital, he found all his work friends and immediate family waiting for him at home. They cheered as he hobbled in. The sheer joy in the room almost bowled him over.
When he regained his balance and wiped away the tears on his cheeks, they presented him with a cake. Written in big red letters across the top were the words, Crushin’ it, Ax! along with a dusted sugar image of an engine block.
He got the first piece.
Physical challenges never bothered Ax. It was the mental game where he was weak. Building the shop that became his business took sweat and blood and hard work, but it was never tiresome. Hoisting and turning and bolting and manipulating machinery came as naturally as reading did to a librarian.
Asking his wife out on their first date, paying bills, broaching the topic of having children, talking through his fears--those were difficult.
The physical aspect of therapy, Ax found easy. The routine helped. Stretch. Put one hoof in front of the other. Stretch. Walk some more. Stretch. One more step. Struggle. Step. Stretch. Endless stretches, until he became convinced he could become a Yogi master in the Eastern hills, teaching the path of zen to passing travelers.
Where he faltered was the therapy part of physical therapy. His thoughts were plagued with doubts as complicated as the engine block that maimed him. Every micro-failure was another piece of gunk building up between the gears, impeding the flawless motion of pony machinery. The machine had been fixed, the analytical part of his brain thought. Why couldn’t it work again?
One day, after a particularly grinding session, he told all this to his therapist, a pleasant-looking earth pony who stole morbidly fascinated looks at his injured leg as he rehabbed.
“I just don’t feel like it’s ever gonna get fixed right,” he admitted, the cap on a rambling vent.
“You’re not an engine. Remember that,” the therapist replied. “The surgery didn’t fix you. It just made sure everything would be in its right place.” She pointed to her office, full of treadmills and weights and stretching tables. “This is you fixing it.”
He felt a little better after that. If he could just convince himself he was fixing things, however slow the process may be, he could find the strength to see it though.
The things he and his wife had planned to do prior to the surgery seemed less important now that he was out of the hospital, but she was so thrilled to get gussied up and hit the town that he couldn’t find the will to say so. And at any rate, they had been practicing walking in therapy, so walking around on his own must be like additional therapy.
Something told him that didn’t make good sense. But his wife wanted to do, and she had been such a trooper, and she’d already paid the babysitter, and heck, maybe a trip to the city for a show wouldn’t be so bad after all.
They were on the train into the city when he leaned over and said, “So what kinda show are we seeing, honey?”
The sheer dirtiness of the look that followed told him he should have already known the answer. “We planned it two months ago, honey.” Sweetness was the furthest thing from her voice. “Did you really forget?”
He shrugged. “Must have been the anesthesia.”
She rolled her eyes. “We’re seeing a ballet.”
“A ballet? Hot dog. Always wanted to see one of those.”
She laughed dryly. “Get out of here.”
“No, really. Always wanted to see one. The dancers in those little tutus. Kick lines and confetti, and--hey, can you imagine me in a kickline?” She was laughing harder now. He pressed his luck. “Swinging the boot, hitting all the other dancers? Boom!” He mimed an explosion and went in for a kiss.
All was forgiven.
The ballet was not uneventful.
The first two hours were filled with strange noises and scene changes. Symbolism Ax couldn’t understand manifested itself in a series of acrobatic but alien choreographic sets that left him with more questions than answers. Music and movement came together to form a language he didn’t understand.
It wasn’t until the final half hour of the show where things started to pick up. By then he was already falling asleep, squeezing his wife’s hoof so she thought he was still invested.
Just as he was about to doze off, a loud bass drum sounded throughout the hall. The music picked up, and dozens of dancers from the previous few hours of show ran on stage all at once and assembled in the center. Lights from high above painted their bodies with ethereal color.
It was like waking up in a dream. He was lying on his back as the dancers began their final number, leaping and soaring in different directions before coming together and racing apart in time with the swell of the band. For their final move, they all came together to form a circle in the middle of the stage. They soared above him as the music picked up. Faster and faster they spun, until their bodies began to blur. Their outlines ceased to exist, and only the colors projected onto their forms remained. Spinning in perfect synchronicity. Spinning... spinning...
The applause roused him. He stood up slowly to join the rest of the crowd’s ovation. His wife was already on her hooves, beaming.
All that excitement made him ready for a nap. His wife insisted on staying, however, even as the hall cleared out and the last of the patrons had thrown their roses on the stage and left for the comforts of home.
She went right up to the stage and flagged down one of the dancers helping to clear the set. Ax cringed and made himself small in his seat. When his wife turned and pointed to him directly, he covered his face.
The two walked over to him. “You’re Axle Grease?” the dancer said.
“Just Ax,” he replied. “I’m sorry she pulled you away from your work.”
“Quite the opposite. I was hoping she would.” The dancer extended a calloused hoof. “I’m Spark Star. Spark for short.”
Ax noticed Spark’s grip was surprisingly firm. “Nice to meet you, Spark.”
“Your wife wrote to the company director about your situation and was hoping to get some advice from the professionals.”
“You’re a physical therapist too?”
“No,” he laughed, “I’m a professional at hurting myself.” he turned slightly and motioned to his rear right leg. Faint but still noticeable scars ran beneath his fur. “I broke my leg five years ago. Took four surgeries and two years of work to get it in working order again. It should have ended my career.”
“If you ever needed someone less lucky than me, you’d be out of luck yourself. But we all know what it’s like to get hurt and not be able to do your job.” He gestured to the stage behind him. “It hurts to not be able to do what you love.” Ax nodded. “But I’ve always found comfort in the fact that there’s a great deal of success buried inside every setback. You just have to tool it out.”
“Well, if there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s tools,” Ax said with a smile. “Thanks for the kind words.” He felt his wife looking at him. “Thank you too, honey.”
“We’re leaving town after tomorrow night’s show,” Spark said, “but if you’re free tomorrow morning you’re welcome to attend our rehearsal.”
“Do I have anything going on tomorrow?”
“Not a darn thing,” his wife replied, beaming.
And that was that.
He had never in his life been to a rehearsal.
No costumed memories of middle school class recitals or flirts with high school drama classes for Ax. Middle school was something he did before coming home to help at the family shop. Drama class was pure silliness.
The rehearsal he attended the following day was unlike anything he had seen before.
In particular, the group warm-ups had him captivated. All the dancers, thirty-something ponies in all, queued up in five rows on one side of the large rehearsal room. Tucked away in the corner, one instructor beat a rhythm out on a bongo drum and called out some Prench-sounding words.
The first pony in each row flashed to life. They took off galloping, then leapt into the air in perfect synchronicity. They spun, landed, and got out of the way as the second pony in each row mimicked the move. Once the entire group had cycled through to the other side of the room, they repeated the move the other way.
The instructor beat the bongo and called out moves for nearly an hour. At the grand finale, the dancers spaced themselves across the room and stretched out. The sound of heavy breathing slowed to a meditative pace, set somewhere in between the pulsing of the drums.
Ax became self-conscious about his crushed arm, though he knew he shouldn’t think that way. If he tried most of these stretches, it wouldn’t matter how healthy he was. His legs would pop off and run away.
One final crack of the bongos signaled the end of the group portion of rehearsal. Dancers broke off to talk amongst themselves and rehydrate before launching into small-group rehearsals. The small crowd of onlookers, mostly family and students, went their separate ways.
Spark broke from the crowd and walked over to Ax. “What’d you think?” he asked.
Ax smiled. “Pretty darn cool.”
The troupe left town the following morning. Ax went back to his grueling physical therapy routine the same way a working stiff rose from bed on Monday.
One night, Ax’s wife came home to find a trail of rose petals laid inside the entryway. She followed them through the house, collecting a bottle of wine and two glasses she found along the way. The trail went down the hallway of their single-story ranch house and ended at the master bedroom door.
Inside was Ax, standing awkwardly at attention in his best suit. Candles threw their flickering light across his face, cast in a self-conscious smile. A boombox was on the floor beside him.
As she entered the room, he hit play. The sounds of her favorite Oldies tunes hit her ears, and the waterworks began.
“I’d like to dance with you,” Ax said, straightening his tie. “Doctor Heart said not to, so go easy on me.
She laughed and wiped the tears from her eyes. “I will,” she said.
He returned to the shop a few hours at a time. He took his time fussing over the work Knick Knack had done in his absence, slowly making his way down the rows of carriages and lifted engines. He hesitated before inspecting the last one in the line-up, a crushed-looking engine stripped of most of its non-essential parts.
“Listen, Ax,” Knick Knack said, “I’ll take care of that one. You don’t have to go back to it.”
“And let you do all the tinkering?” Ax laughed. “You can stick to the boring stuff.” His eyes traced the interwoven straps and harnesses of the brand new pulley system all the way up to the ceiling. “I’ve got beef with this one.”
The engine was done just a week later.
After they dropped it back into the carriage it had come from, Ax and Knick Knack took a moment to fire it up. The first sputtering sounds of life morphed into a continuous roar. It was just the sound Ax hoped to hear. A pitch-perfect engine at work.
Knick Knack patted him on the shoulder in a brotherly way, then went to turn the carriage off. Ax stopped him short. “Give me a second,” he said.
Knick Knack gave him a funny look. “Whatever you want, boss.” He wandered off to complete his other tasks, leaving Ax alone with the engine.
It was a pleasure to look into the depths of the fully-completed engine and see all those moving parts come to life. His work had reached its fruition.
His mind began to wander, but this time there was no worry. He had a vision in his mind, something to fixate on to keep any worry at bay. The vision was of an endless line of dancers forming ranks until they formed a circle in the center of an imaginary stage. There they spun around each other like one cog in an infinite engine, breaking off to form new circles, intertwining into infinity. Perfect synchronicity.