Edition 20: The Black Bull by Liam Hogan
I desperately repeat my mantra as I walk slowly across the muddy field:
I must not run.
I must not fall.
And above all, the jet-black mountain of muscle and sinew that is busy snorting clouds of vapour-laden air and digging a mighty hoof through the soft earth, is not what it appears to be.
I’m further from the safety of the gate than from the beast when it finally breaks its stance and trots a few heavy paces towards me, expecting me to turn and flee. Instead, I take another tentative step and this time when it bows its head and launches forward it’s the real thing: a thundering, full-blooded, earthshaking charge. My legs tremble and I stagger half a pace back before I can stop myself.
“I know what you are,” I say, in as steady a voice as I can manage.
It halves the distance between us in a single stride and my eyes clench shut as I fear my weeks of searching have misled me and it is exactly what it seems, which would make my mistake a very short-lived one indeed. I squint and realise it has pulled to a dead halt so close that I’m trapped between its horns, enveloped in a cloud of steamy breath.
There’s a long pause before it speaks. “You smell like him. Not a son, though. A grandson?”
“Nephew,” I reply, my heart still pounding.
“Ah yes. How is the old fool?” the bull asks.
It’s talking about Uncle Mort.
Uncle Mort was supposed to be my safe, boring refuge from my warring parents. I’d gone up for Trinity term at St Aidan’s and by the time the summer holidays rolled around, I had no home to come back to. Dad had moved into his pied-à-terre in the city and Mum had closed up the family house to spend summer with her parents.
We sat in a pub garden—neutral territory—while they argued over who should have me. But it quickly turned into a slanging match over which was the worse parent and as I slumped in my chair feeling rotten I realised I didn’t really want to spend time with either of them.
“Uncle Mortimer?” Mum said, surprised. “Are you sure, hon?”
I nodded, feeling the beginnings of tears, watching as both of them thought for a moment before scoring it a draw.
Uncle Mort lived in a ramshackle three-storey house on the rural outskirts of Bedford. He’d been a Professor of something or other at sometime, but now…now I didn’t know what he did, but it involved a lot of old books and very little else.
I don’t think he’d had company for a while: he certainly didn’t know what to do with me. He told me I had free run of the house and then, in the very next breath, he asked me to keep quiet while he was working, which was all of the time. He didn’t have Wi-Fi, he didn’t have Sky, and I was beginning to regret my choice when I came across the room in the basement.
It was locked, but the plate holding the padlock to the doorjamb moved under my gentle push and it didn’t take much to wiggle it loose from the rotten wood. Uncle Mort had said I had free run and, since his study was on the second floor, I knew I wouldn’t be disturbing him, so I felt no guilt as I pushed the door open. I fumbled across the cold clammy plaster, looking for a light switch, before my fingers brushed the frayed end of a cord.
The bare bulb blinked alive. The room was full of shelves, each one crammed from top to bottom with dusty oil lamps, gleaming a dull yellow. At first, I thought they were miniature teapots, bronze maybe, with an unusually long spout. I picked one up—it was surprisingly heavy—and as I turned it over I noticed strange shaped writing on the base. I was about to rub the dust off for a closer look when the firm grip of my uncle’s hand on my shoulder made me jump in sudden fright.
The bull licks its lips. “What do you want?” it asks.
“A wish,” I reply.
It snorts. “You have no power over me, related or not. So what makes you think I will grant you one?”
I pause, trying to remember how I’d rehearsed this, but with the horns so close and those deep, dark, liquid eyes, I forgot the glib words I’d practiced.
“I know how to free you.”
Uncle Mort steered me out of the room, before trying unsuccessfully to secure the door. “It’s locked for a reason,” he said, his voice quavering. “It’s not safe to go in there.”
I shrugged. “It’s just full of old lamps—”
His hands came down again on my shoulders, gripping hard. “Not just any old lamps,” he said.
“One of them is the lamp of a fiendish and powerful genie. The rest are identical copies, but all of them—all of them—are cursed.” He rocked back and forth on his heels. “The inscription, in Aramaic of course, warns that anyone who rubs a lamp twice without making the genie within show the proper obeisance, will be forced to take the genie’s place, for all time.”
He scratched his head, his eyes watering behind the thick and grubby lenses of his ancient glasses. “I found the lamp on a dig in Palestine. When I rubbed it, another lamp popped into existence. And when I rubbed that one, another appeared! I tried to come up with a system for tracking them, making sure that I only ever rubbed the new lamp each time, when—”
Uncle Mort fixed me with a steely glance. “Promise me you won’t go back into that room?”
I looked up at his perspiring face, his eyes glittering in the dull light of the cellar. “I promise,” I said. “On my parent’s honour,” I added as an afterthought.
He sucked in a deep breath. “When I reached 343 lamps, seven by seven by seven, a very magical number, it wasn’t just a lamp that appeared; it was a full grown and extremely angry bull.
“It upset the shelves, sending the lamps I had so carefully arranged flying, and I barely got out unscathed. Of course, I couldn’t work out which of the lamps was which anymore, which ones I’d rubbed already and which I had not, so I stacked them back up, and sealed the door.”
He rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Thirty years I’ve spent trying to work out which lamp has the genie inside—to no avail!”
If it had been anyone but my Uncle telling it I would have thought it an odd joke. “And the bull?”
Uncle Mort sighed. “A magnificent beast. Black, powerful, massive, of ancient pedigree. I gave him to a local farmer, on the condition that he got him out of the cellar. He did exactly that, led him out as gentle as a lamb. Every time I see a black heifer around here I wonder if she’s a child, or a great-grandchild, of that bull.”
The bull nods as I relate my uncle’s story. “I know all this,” it says. “I was there.”
“But Uncle Mort didn’t realise he’d released you, did he?” I point out. “He thought you were just a trick, something to divert him from the genie that was still in one of the lamps. Uncle Mort said you went quietly?”
The bull shifts its head gently from side to side. “He wished it so, in the strongest possible terms.”
“Why stay a bull?” I ask.
The bull jerks its head, its lips curling in distaste. “Because if he knew I was the genie he’d order me around. I’d be his slave.”
“But you don’t want to be a bull forever?” I say.
“Why not?” it replies. “It’s not a bad life. I’ve been through three owners already. No one knows exactly how old I am. And that doesn’t even require any magic, just plain old-fashioned greed. Each farmer who sells me lies about my age to maximise his returns. Speaking of age, how old is your Uncle now?”
I stare at the bull. It looks to be in its prime, but then, it probably did the day it emerged in Uncle Mort’s cellar. Was it waiting patiently for the death of my uncle to secure its freedom?
“Oh, he’s in fine form. Fit as a fiddle. We come from quite long-lived stock ourselves, you know.”
The bull harrumphs. “Indeed. Brave little man, talk. How do I secure my freedom?”
I told him.
“Can’t be done,” the bull says after a moment’s thought. “The curse cannot be removed from the lamp.”
I scratch my head, momentarily defeated. “But…you could collapse all the lamps back into one? And make uncursed copies?”
The great black head dips slowly. “That, I can do.”
I climb the steps to my Uncle’s office with trepidation. Tapping lightly on the door I don’t wait for a response before I push it open with my foot and rub rigorously at the lamp in my hands. Uncle Mort yells incoherently and leaps up from his desk.
“What are you doing? What have you done?” He stares at me in horror.
“That,” I say, “was the last of the 343 lamps. I’ve rubbed every single one and there’s no genie in any of them.”
He rocks back on his feet, his mouth a perfect O.
“And there’s something else…” I raise the lamp and quickly rub it again.
“Noooo….” he shouts, as I breathe on the now shiny surface and gave it one last polish with my sleeve.
“There,” I say triumphantly. “No genie, and no curse.”
“But the bull…the lamp…the 343 lamps…”
I shrug. “Old magic, perhaps. But not active anymore.”
Uncle Mort leans on his desk for support and waves a trembling hand at the piles of discarded parchment scattered over every surface. “Thirty years…thirty years…All for naught! I wish I’d never found that blasted lamp! What do I do now?”
I think for a moment. “Go back to the Middle East, dig up something new. Or teach. Or, heck, buy a yacht and live a life of idle luxury. With a cellar full of solid gold lamps, I think you can do anything you want, Uncle.”
I drag the memo-recorder out of my pocket and hit play. “I wish I’d never found that blasted lamp!” the tinny voice echoes.
The bull nods. “Not exactly admissible in a court of law, but it’s enough. You’ve fulfilled your end of the bargain. So, what is your wish? Do you want your parents back together?”
“Would that make them happy?” I ask, already knowing the answer.
I reach into my satchel, delicately removing the lamp, the original lamp, the one still inscribed with the curse.
The bull’s eyes flash red and it lowers its horns towards me. “Be careful, little man!”
“It isn’t what you think,” I say, gathering my thoughts.
My Uncle had freely given me the lamp, not knowing it was any different from the other 342 copies, but still, I wasn’t the genie’s master unless I wished him back into it. Made him show the proper obeisance, as my Uncle had put it.
And I’d considered doing exactly that, briefly, until I’d thought about Uncle Mort’s thirty wasted years. We all daydream of having a genie at our beck and call, but when it actually happens, when you hold that lamp in your hands…Maybe in the end, I lacked the imagination.
“I wish,” I begin, as the bull’s eyes narrow and its body tenses, “I wish for you to put this lamp somewhere safe, where it can never be found, never be rubbed.”
The bull breathes out slowly and then it nods, and the lamp vanishes from my hands, leaving nothing but an odd tingle and the memory of the weight. “It is done. Neither man nor beast will ever find it. And I thank you. It is the one wish which not only frees me but means I will stay free.”
I smile and stand there, waiting patiently.
The bull taps its hoof. “There was…something more?”
“I was waiting for you to turn back into a genie. I’d like to see that.”
The bull sways its head, suddenly vague, its eyes darting away from mine. “Oh…there’s no rush…”
And then the penny drops. “You’re…you are actually a bull, aren’t you?” I ask in amazement. “But the magic? The talking…”
The bull solemnly nods. “I don’t know whether I ended up inside the lamp by accident or by design. I was merely a simple beast when first I was trapped. But after 2000 years inside a magic lamp, some of the power rubs off.
“So yes, I am a bull, and I am a genie. Though with the lamp far away, my powers will slowly fade and I will become again what I always was: a bull. Now though, it’s time for you to leave. There’s a rather perplexed farmer watching us from the north gate.”
“What will you do? Where will you go?” I ask. There are so many questions, so much I still want to know.
“Go? Do?” the bull snorts. “These are not concerns for me, I am a bull. Nor as it happens, are they concerns for you. No, your concern, brave little man, solver of puzzles, liberator of genies, is how much of a head start I’m going to give you.
Liam Hogan is a London based writer and host of the award winning monthly literary event, Liars’ League. His short stories have appeared in Sci-Phi Journal, Martian Wave 2014, and most recently, Leap Books “Beware the Little White Rabbit” #Alice150 anthology. More details at http://happyendingnotguaranteed.blogspot.co.uk/, or tweet him @LiamJHogan