Bulls and Magic
Jarod K. Anderson
At first, the bull couldn't be bothered with me. My whole damn life I'd listened to my parents tell me to stay out of the western pasture. Uncle Frank even had a pale, puckered-looking scar just above his hip that he'd throw in as supporting evidence for the cantankerousness of bulls. I was always left with the impression that the bull was a hereditary enemy of mankind, and I'd wonder why we didn't trade it in for something a bit safer, like a rabid anaconda or starved tiger. But, when fifteen-year-old me snuck out the back door a couple hours before dawn, jumped the split-rail fence and slapped the 2,800-pound menace right on the rump, he didn't even turn to look at me.
Hell, I had expected a bellow loud enough to splinter trees and an almost mystical degree of anger. I was ready for a snort capable of knocking the breath out of me. I wondered if the ground would rattle me off my feet before I had the chance to run. I never once considered that I might be ignored. If you spit in the devil's eye, you don't think he'll turn the other cheek.
But, there I stood, the dew soaking into my socks, listening to the boot-stuck-in-mud sound of my most vivid childhood fear chewing his cud. I rounded to the front of the animal, which felt a bit like aiming a shotgun at my face, and leaned in to study the distant house lights reflected yellow in the wet blackness of its eyes. And I realized this wasn't the danger I'd expected, but it was danger just the same. The danger of nothing happening. It seemed like the worst thing in the world at the time.
See, it was all about magic. I'd figured it out. Story after story it was always a supreme and seemingly unconquerable danger that brought it out in people. The young mother lifting a burning car to save a child. The camper that manages to fight off a bear and drag himself for miles back to town long after his body should have quit. And I'd heard stranger stories too. Everything from drowning twin boys who turned into frogs and swam to shore, to an old farmhand who grew a scaly new arm after a chainsaw accident.
Maybe I didn't understand the details of how real magic worked, but it was pretty plain that it didn't happen safe in bed. It was like everything else. If it were easy, everybody would do it.
I panicked. I cocked back a fist and punched the bull right in the nose. And there it was. Clear and unambiguous. Magic.
I heard a sharp "pop" sound, like champagne being uncorked and there was a smell somewhere between ozone and barbeque. A shower of sparks held the shape of the animal for just an instant before shimmering down and hissing out in the wet grass. I stared blankly at the space the bull had occupied, then at my shaking fist.
I nearly jumped out of my skin when I heard the wet chewing noise behind me again. I whirled around and there it was, chewing placidly just as if nothing had happened. Its obsidian eyes focused on nothing.
I reached out with tentative fingers just to see if it was real. It was. I felt its hot breath on my hand and the cool roughness of its snout. I laughed aloud and the sound of it seemed small and out of place. Faster than thinking, with a giddy energy streaming through my limbs, I hauled off and socked the bull right on the kisser once again.
There was a "pop," but this time it was accompanied by a thick smack sound and a shooting pain in my hand. Then, a slow instant later, I felt as much as heard over a ton of muscle awakening to sudden fury. I ran.
I don't think I ever ran that fast before or since. I don't know how I cleared the fence before getting gored and trampled, but I didn't look back. I didn't stop running until I could see my own bed. I flung myself down on it, mud and all, and tried to laugh and cry at the same time.
This would probably be the part where a brighter man would tell you that he learned some sort of lesson. Got his fill of magic. Maybe I should have been scared straight and stopped tempting fate in an effort to tease out the unexplainable from the better-left-alone. Unfortunately, I've just never been that bright.
It's been nearly two decades now since I punched that damn bull and I've insulted, poked, and prodded some of the most dangerous things on the planet. I've seen a lot of unfortunate things, but nothing else that I could call magic. I've made jobs, friends, and money disappear at an almost miraculous rate, but that's all pretty commonplace.
I've had one taste of magic. Just one. And now I doubt even that singular memory. I doubt it like I doubt nearly everything since I "proved" to myself that magic exists, that everyday life isn't what it seems to be.
But, I'm sure of one thing. My parents were right about that bull and the western pasture. Maybe I made it out of there alive. Maybe luck and adrenaline got me over that fence before the bull and all its primal rage could get to me. Maybe.
When I think of what could have happened, it's hard not to consider that there are worse revenges than faded scars and old breaks that ache when the weather changes. Not every old hurt makes for a good story at the bar and not everything you survive makes you stronger. Sometimes with bulls and magic, a little can be worse than none at all.