• Published 27th Oct 2020
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Ride the Pony - Five Dollars - Irrespective

Want to ride a "real" My Little Pony? It'll only cost you five dollars. No refunds.

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He could not remember his own name.

He had a name, of course, but years of walking in the Circle had bent his mind into circles of its own. It was something fresh and breezy, something that could be called out while laughing in the tall grass of a fragrant meadow.

It used to scurry around in his head, as a reminder of who he was and what he had once been. But over time, he had learned to force it down when it rose up to the back of his throat. He walked. He no longer spoke. When he spoke, people screamed. They threw things. Hard things. Speaking was pain. Conceal it. Hide it in the shadows. Every day, there were more shadows. Every bite of food, every swallow of water stole the light away from him. Stole his thoughts. Replaced them with shadows.

Then there were masters. So many Masters. They had names, but he refused to think of them as anything else. They came in circles, just like his walk. He would be purchased, put to work, beaten and abused, then sold to another. They had blurred together over time, so alike in temperament that it was like picking out a single drop of water from the ocean, and their reasons for selling him were similarly indistinct. One Master, somewhere, had tired of feeding him. Another Master didn’t want to pay for medicine when he was sick.⁽*⁾

⁽*⁾Medicine always burned his mouth and hurt his stomach, anyway.

The walking circle remained the same. He knew how many steps were in a full circle, and how many circles were in each turn. He even knew how long his stride had to be to keep the metal bar in his mouth from pulling him painfully along behind the long metal arm. The machine that moved the arms didn’t care if he was sick, or if he was hurt. The only thing it wanted was something called ‘fuel,’ which Master provided to it far more regularly than he provided hay to his slaves.

He knew that Master cared about the machine. It was expensive, and when it broke, Master did not earn any money. Master would look over the parts of the machine very carefully each day, poking and prodding with tools to make sure it would run without any problems. Master didn’t care about the ponies. They were stubborn, and Master paid scant attention to their care and cleaning. Master was supposed to feed the ponies every night, but there were many nights when Master forgot to, or had more important things to do. Master would say that the ponies would be fed in the morning, and that the ponies would be fine.

When Master did feed them, it was always the same meal of dry, prickly hay and plain, mineral-tasting water. Sometimes he had enough hay to fill his belly, but it never fully took away the hunger. He would think of creamy vanilla cupcakes and chocolate ice cream when he ate, and when the weather turned to snow, he would warm himself with the memories of fresh apple pies and minty hot cocoa, with whipped cream and sprinkles that would always stick to the end of his nose.

The water wasn’t so bad, in a relative way, but it was nothing like the water from home. Here, the water was laced with the taste of dull metals, and sometimes it was fouled with leaves and dirt. It was so unlike the sparkling fresh water he had once known, straight from the melting ice of the mountain top and as clear as a cloudless sky.

A distant roll of thunder pulled his eyes up to the cloudy sky. Even after all of this time, he still looked for the playful pegasi in those clouds, swooping and ducking among the billows as they cheerfully patched together a pleasant summer rain or the first snowfall of winter. He remembered how confused he had been when the first storm of this world had struck, seemingly out of nowhere and with an unnatural fury that could never exist at home. The lightning was sharper than knives here, stabbing and slashing at everything that dared to exist below it. He had quickly learned that being hit by the lightning was not a harmless jolt, like he had known. Here, it was so angry that it struck down ponies right where they stood without hesitation or mercy.

It was a lesson he had learned at Buttercup’s expense.

This was not his home. Buttercup was not a real pony, like he was. She could not talk, even in his own language, even after he had quietly spent many evenings in the dark trying his best. She had been a beast of this world, and the tears he had shed in her memory after the lightning strike had been wasted.

The worlds were blurring together the longer he stayed. Even the words of home were slipping away, replaced by the foul curses and profanities of Master. Long ago, he had learned not to speak, or show any sign that he was not what the others were. It had only taken one lesson, one question to Master, for him to find out just how powerful words were in this place.

The beating had been relentless, cruel, and continued even after he had fallen over unconscious. That Master was long gone, but a Master was a Master, and he would not survive another lesson of that sort. So he remained silent, listening and watching, learning the strange and harsh words of this place and only practicing them in the darkness of his stall when all were sleeping.

He kept the words he had learned tightly inside him now, as they were the only possession that he could truly call his own. Master and the other humans would try to take them away if they discovered he had them.

He would not let the humans have them. They had already taken his freedom, his health, his time, and even his memories of how he had come to this perpetually gray land.

Their stolen words were all he had left.

* * Ω * *

It was often said that familiarity bred contempt, and the truth of that statement was reinforced when Master tied his reins to the walking machine once more. Through all of the Masters in all of the different places, the machine and the circle it forced him to walk in hardly ever changed. There were some times when the machine had rainbow colored ribbons tied to it, like this one, and sometimes the current Master had to walk with the ponies instead of feeding the machine fuel to make it work by itself. One machine had been covered by a brightly colored tent, with cheerful streamers dangling from the edges.

That one had been one of his favorites. The festive colors had kept him dry, and it had given him something nice to look at while he walked.

This machine looked something like a rusty octopus, with long arms that reached out and rotated around a central hub. It dutifully led the ponies along the same path, never letting them stray to smell a flower, or to stop when their hooves began to ache and throb. It was relentless and unyielding, and he had decided long ago that it was one of the most devious and demented contraptions that could ever be invented.

Ponies were creatures that needed to move on their own. They walked down the cobblestone streets and skipped along dirt paths to meet with friends. They pranced in fields of clover, danced together in large parties, and ran as they frollicked under a golden sun.

The machine let ponies move, but only in one direction, and at one speed. It gave him something he needed, and took away everything he wanted all at the same time.

His musing was interrupted when Master threw an itchy blanket and heavy saddle roughly on his back. This too was a torture device, corrupted to serve a wicked purpose instead of simply making a sporting fashion statement. Here, the saddle marked him as a beast of burden, a mere animal who existed for the human’s sole use.

He watched with indifference as Master repeated the process for the other ponies. There were seven ponies all together, excluding himself, and all of them together were as dumb as a box of rocks. They were the reason why people screamed when he spoke, why they hobbled him with thick shackles and heavy chains when he had tried to escape. Ponies here didn’t talk. They didn’t sing, or joke, or play games. They only walked the Circle, ate, and slept.

There were times when he wondered if they had once been like him, but had been turned into beasts by Master and the people.

A welcome scent made him breathe deeply, and his eyes flicked to a small stand just outside the enclosure. The man within was selling corn on the cob, dripping with butter and just a hint of salt. If he remembered correctly, Master had said this place was called Neigh Braska, and that corn was popular here. Even though Master frequently moved to different locations for things called fairs and carnivals, the view never really changed. It was always so gray, and so flat. There were never any trees to provide some welcome shade from the sun, never any snow-capped mountains to admire from a distance, never any sparkling blue sea dotted with white sails.

A series of screeches pulled his attention back, and he forced himself to suppress a groan. There, at the entrance to the enclosure, were three reasons why he walked in circles day after day.

Children. Like pony foals, these came in a huge variety of shapes, sizes, and personalities. There were the Pokers, the Petters, the Find A Weed And Try To Feeders, the Heel-Jabbers, the Mane-Pullers, and the Screamers. Oh, and the Pee-ers, the worse ones of all. Very few were Riders, settling in on the saddle and moving in harmony with his steps. Those, at least, were tolerable. Sometimes even pleasurable.

But none of them were what he was looking for. Whatever that was.

He could still remember that one thing, even after everything else was stolen away. He was supposed to find someone, or somepony. Who it was, or what they looked like had long been lost, but he liked to fool himself into thinking that he was the only one that could find them.

But by now, the reason why he needed to find them had come and gone for sure.

Master was swift to take the money from the parents of the children. The green strips of paper called ‘dollars’ were valuable, and all of his Masters were obsessed with them. With it, they bought food for themselves. They bought clothes. It bought fuel for the machine. They would buy things that brought pleasure and entertainment. People who had more money were more important than people who had less, and no human could ever have enough of it.

Master charged five dollars to let the children ride the ponies for a short and fixed time. If a child wanted to ride the ponies more, Master was happy to let them—for another five dollars. The parents never fought with him about the cost, but some would complain to others about it. They would watch from the fence, cheering and taking pictures, until the ride was over and they didn’t want to spend more money. Some children would kick and scream when they were told they couldn’t ride anymore, but unless they paid, Master would simply pick them up and push them to their parents.

Or grandparents. Human families came in different styles, he had learned. Some children were cared for by grandparents, and some by aunts and uncles. Some had only one parent, instead of two. A few of them had no parents, and were cared for by people who were paid to look after them.

Master didn’t care about any of that. Master just wanted the five dollars.

Once the money was paid and the child was put on his back, Master started the machine and the walk began. He followed the arm as the child whooped and screamed in delight. His steps were slow and measured, just like always.

In the past, he had passed the time by thinking of home. He would think of his life before the Circle, and what he would do when returned to it. He would think of his friends and of his family. He thought of everything and anything that was not connected to this place.

But one at a time, the Circle had consumed those thoughts. Thinking them was unproductive, and they would only remind him of what he had lost. That would make him sad, and he didn’t like being sad.

So now he thought of the Circle. The Circle didn’t care if he was happy or sad. The Circle was numb, it was empty. It took away his time, and in exchange, it offered the cold comfort that things would remain the same.

The machine stopped, and he stopped with it. The child on his back was removed and replaced with another. After a moment, the machine started again, and his walk resumed. Off and on, on and off. All day, and sometimes all night, the pattern remained the same.

When the day grew hot, Master stopped the ponies and gave them a drink of water. He had to, or the ponies wouldn’t be able to walk, and then the parents would be upset. Once Master thought the ponies had gotten enough, more children came, and a young girl swung herself into his saddle.

This interested him. Most children could not get into the saddle by themselves. They needed Master or their parents to help them up. He tried to twist his head to look at his young rider, as much as he could before his reins and the arm stopped him.

She was a pleasant-looking child, with fair skin and long blonde hair tied back into a ponytail with a large pink bow. He liked her bow, and he liked how she sat up straight, her blue eyes looking over him just as intently as he was looking over her.

“Look, Grandma!” she called out with a wave. “I’m riding the pony, just like you used to!”

His eyes followed her wave. The young girl’s grandma looked similar to the girl, but more worn by the years, with wispy grey hair that escaped from a colorful kerchief and deep wrinkles, particularly around her sparkling blue eyes. The old woman seemed unbowed by her long life, which showed in her broad smile as she waved back to the child.

“You are, sweetie! Remember to grip with your legs, and don’t slouch!”

His head began to buzz. Old thoughts were pushing out of the shadows, trying to escape. They wanted to remind him of something, something important…

The machine stopped his thoughts, and the Circle drove them back into the shadows. The Circle was everything, and it would always be everything. This young rider would be gone in a few moments, like all the others. Masters changed, riders changed.

Only the Circle remained constant.

But his head hurt. His thoughts refused to be smothered by the shadows and the Circle this time. They clawed and scratched, desperate to get out. There was something more here, something he had to remember.

The young rider waved to her grandmother each time they passed. She laughed and cheered. She gently patted his neck and softly scratched behind his ears, in just the right place. Before her turn ended, she leaned down into his mane and pressed her slim fingers against his neck.

I wish you were a real pony, like the ones in my grandma’s stories.”

He froze. His hooves stopped, his legs stopped, the entire world stopped. The machine screamed at him, pulling furiously on his reins. Master shouted, and his yelling made the parents scream.

None of that mattered. He dug in his hooves, and for the first time, he pulled back.

More screams came when the arm of the machine bent backwards, twisting and deforming until it began to look like a pretzel. The machine let out a crunch, a pop, and then it stopped. Master rushed to the machine, yelling that it was broken.

He didn’t notice any of it. The buzzing in his head grew louder, pushing at the back of his eyes and pulling claws through the back of his brain. She had spoken to him in a language that he had not heard for many, many years. It was the old language, one filled with magic, joy, and carefree delights. The words filled him with hope, with happiness, and with purpose.

He fought to remember. He fought his way down to the memories as they struggled to the surface, boiling up and rolling like the fresh green hills of his home. Something deep within him surged out, creating a lush carpet of tall, thick grass that ran from his hooves outwards until it escaped the enclosure. Some of the people began to run when small flowers sprouted, but others simply stared at the scraggly yet colorful blooms. A few people whispered that they had never seen such a rainbow of colors before.

He remained still, his hooves half-buried in the suddenly rich soil as parents rushed to their children on the other ponies. Master helped them to leave, but Master did not approach him or the Rider who had spoken to him.

The grandmother slowly came, her four-footed cane moving in tandem to support her slow shuffle. Master told her to stay away, but she did not listen. The grandma produced a small pill from her purse, and she quickly ate it before helping her granddaughter out of the saddle.

She pulled his face up with her hands. They were wrinkled and spotted, but soft and tender. She studied his eyes, and she stroked his muzzle.

What are you doing here?” she whispered in the old language, her free hand reaching up to touch a golden locket hanging from her neck. “You’re an Equestrian.”

He said nothing. He wanted to, but he feared what would happen if he did. Master beat him if he talked. The people threw things. They would take away his words.

She patted his muzzle, and he nickered with the warm touch. He wanted to go with her. She would be a good Master. She would be nice. She would give him treats and let him run.

Master was shouting something, but he didn’t hear. The grandma didn’t listen either. She moved slowly to his rear, and paused when she reached his flank.

“Well, now,” she softly said, her hand tracing a shape on his coat. “That’s something I’ve not seen in a long time.”

His eyes moved to his flank, and followed her tracing. There was a picture there, a dim and faded picture that he had not seen in many years. For a moment, he thought that the grandma had somehow put it there, but then a memory broke free, and he remembered.

The mark was a part of him, just like his tail or his legs. It was supposed to be there. It was him, and he was it.

“Grandma?” the young girl asked. “What is it?”

The grandma did not reply. She took her granddaughter’s hand in hers, and with a smile, they both left the enclosure.

He tried to follow them, but Master grabbed his reins before he could. He could see a furious burning in Master’s eyes. He had broken the machine. Master was going to beat him for what he had done.

But not here. Master couldn’t beat him with so many other people around. They would not let Master hurt him. Master called out to the people with a laugh, and said they would fix everything quickly. Just a few minutes, and the pony rides would begin again. He would only make them pay three dollars, if they waited.

As Master led him away, he glanced over his shoulder. The grandmother and granddaughter were walking away, but they both glanced back.

A name came out from the deep shadows of his mind. It was not his name. It was the name that had brought him here, the name that he was supposed to find.

“Megan,” he whispered.

* * Ω * *