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THE MONKEY AND THE HORSES

    Once a monkey took up the painting of horses.
    It felt good to get out with one’s brushes and spend the hours of an afternoon with these fine symbols of strength and beauty as they ambled about the pasture or abruptly galloped over the hill and back again in less time than it took the monkey to whistle in admiration.
    What joy it must be to possess such mastery! These rippling flanks, this sureness of hoof and stride, even the confidence with which the horses raised their heads and announced their presence through flared nostrils was an inspiration. Plus the colors—what a commanding range across the herd, and for some an equally commanding range in themselves. To the monkey’s mind, nothing else it knew expressed such a consummate spirit of independence as a horse did. And painting them would be the monkey’s own declaration of that spirit’s worth, it confidently told itself. 
    So it set to dashing off sketch after sketch of its equine models, thinking to refine whatever flights imagination might take after it returned to the studio. For these hours, though, the monkey would let color, line, form, movement run wild and animate every brushstroke. To one horse after another it would open itself in turn until, deep within, it might feel the force of all combined: a power that must snap every rein or hobble its own life might ever impose. 
    When sundown came, exuberant over the day’s efforts, the monkey gathered up all it had brought with it and headed back. The anticipation of turning the sketches into finished works made the return trip race by, as if the monkey had only to wish their completion for the studio to fill with them. 
    But that night, after hours of unexpected false starts and increasingly frustrated daubs, the monkey stood motionless before the one remaining unspoiled canvas, searching for some clue to what had gone so wrong. From the beginning, the vitality of the sketches faded away with each successive brushstroke until it vanished completely beneath layers of uninspired technique. Once the paint dried, would the day’s exhilaration at feeling in touch with the essence of being a horse also have hardened this way into drab convention?
    Even the sketches, now the monkey examined them again closely, appeared to have lost much of their original vigor. Had that happened since its return, or were the colors already losing their boldness from the start, unnoticed in the day’s enthusiasms? Had they failed all along to capture the truth about horses?  Had the horses themselves actually been other than what the monkey thought it saw in them?
    Consumed by these questions, the monkey grabbed brush and paints and raced out into the night, not stopping, not even for breath, until it had reached again the field of horses. There they stood in the light of a crescent moon and the distant stars, their forms as vague as their muted, uncertain colors.
    The monkey moved silently in among the herd, hoping to get close enough to assure itself it hadn’t been wrong. Yet even though it succeeded in stepping right up to one flank after another, no farther away than the tip of its nose, none of them matched what it remembered. In fact, they appeared quite different now. What had become of the taut muscles, the commanding hues—that match to the inner strength and freedom of spirit epitomized in each horse? 
    To the monkey, it seemed they’d ceased to stand for all they had before. What was happening here? If a horse didn’t measure up to being a “horse,” what good was it? Would some other creature have to be found to take over the role of representing what the horses had? But which other one could prove so suited to that charge?
    The monkey realized it must act without another moment’s delay. Smearing a brush with every color it remembered from the afternoon, it swung up onto the nearest horse before it could shy away, clamped its knees in the suddenly quaking sides, wrapped its long tail around its mount’s nose so tightly a spot of blood appeared in one nostril, and began to paint away at the twisting neck for all it was worth.
    Rearing, bucking, pulling against this strange assault, the horse looked back at the sweep of the brush across its coat with a surprise as deep as the determination in the eye of this rider it could not throw. For there in the dim moonlight, seized with confusion, it saw it was turning a shade it hardly knew. 
    One that looked very much like the monkey’s own.