Published on 2011/06/26

Agney's Aeronautical Swine

Justin Dow

I had put a lot of planning into that moment. It had taken me weeks to get up the courage to approach Petra. Hours of my nights, which should have been spent sleeping, were spent plotting, planning. Going over the same conversation over and over and over again until I was sure that I had the wording perfect. I would probably have continued to stew and ponder in a vicious cycle that spiraled on into infinity if Bram hadn’t snapped me out of it one day and insisted I bite the bullet and go talk to her.

You have to understand, one doesn’t simply approach the most beautiful girl at the school. One doesn’t saunter up and strike up some mundane conversation about how blue the sky is. One must have an angle, a way in. I’d considered a thousand different ways. Perhaps I would launch into a philosophical discussion of whether or not the sky was blue, and whether I saw the same blue that she did, but I didn’t want to annoy her. Philosophical discussions are only interesting if they simply pose an interesting question and move on. Most sixteen-year-olds are not going to want to discuss the finer points of how the eye perceives and all that.

This may sound foolish, but I finally came up with the idea of being direct. The key to this particular strategy, though, was to get her alone. I had to find a moment where she was completely isolated from her clique. Then, like a jungle cat stalking a pack of caribou, I could strike.

I got my chance just before school began. We were outside of the schoolhouse, milling about, discussing mundane thing, like what our fathers had accomplished the night before and what chores we’d been assigned for the week. That’s when I saw her. She was running late, and yet she was still keeping her stride dainty and even. If you were a casual observer, you’d have no idea she was late at all. For a moment, I simply got lost in my fantasies, imagining that she was going to come over to me, confess her secret love for me, and we’d march away, find the first priest, and get married.

I shook myself and only then did I realize that I wasn't alone in noticing her. By then her friends had noticed her cresting the hill. Even worse, they’d noticed me noticing her, and given the imminence of the school’s spring harvest festival, they seemed to guess my motives. I had to beat them there. It became a race, a race for the future of Petra’s attention.

I tried not to run; I tried not to hurry. I didn’t want to appear crazy, or awkward, but I could see the girls running and skipping forward. Luckily, I was closer and could probably beat them…but I was worried about the speed of their approach.

As I neared Petra, though, it didn’t matter anymore. The world became secondary. There was only Petra, and Petra was everything. She saw me, and I saw apprehension flicker across her face. I was unfazed.

“Hi, Petra!”

“Er…hello,” she mumbled. I noticed her gaze flickered past my head to the approaching gaggle of girls. I had to be fast.

“My, those books look heavy. Would you like me to carry them?”

She considered that for a moment before plopping them into my arms. To tell the truth, they hadn’t looked heavy, but in fact they were. Quite heavy.

“Thank you,” she said with dark amusement, and I could tell this is going all wrong. I wondered how close the girls were.

I plunged on, “So, listen. The spring festival is coming up and I don’t have a date. I would be honored if you would consider going with me.”

So there it was, out in the open. No witty opener, no charming discussion to win her over, just a fumbled attempt at chivalry and a heavy pile of books.

She pretended to mull it over. A smirk played at the corner of her mouth as she stood there, eyes cast toward the sky, which I noticed wasn’t blue, but a low, overcast gray.

“Ummmmm…” She let it drag out, and I could feel my heart sinking.

The clatter of four pairs of feet alerted me that the girls were there, surrounding Petra and me. They were all smiles, bouncing, excited, like they’d heard one of us was giving away free puppies.

“Hey, Petra!” They all said. A couple of them turned their eyes on me, cocked an eyebrow and said, “Hey, Tam. What are you up to?”

Petra’s smirk broadened into a full-on grin, and I felt my stomach sink.

“He was just asking me to the spring festival!”

All of the girls turned to me. “Oooooh! Is that right?”

I didn’t say anything. I just smiled. The smile felt dead.

“And what did you say?”

“I have not given my answer yet. I was waiting for all of you.”

The girls giggled and surrounded us like wolves, a hungry look in their eyes. Petra was regarding me with a similar look. I felt like she was the queen wolf and she was about to make the kill that marks feasting time. This had definitely not gone as well as I’d hoped.

“Tam Agney, you are dreaming if you ever thought I would go with you to the festival. You are creepy, gross, weird, and worst of all, a total bookworm. Pigs will fly before I’ll go anywhere and be seen with you, you freak!”

I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. I tried not to let myself get too worked up, but I could feel the tears burning at my eyes, trying desperately to get out, but I held them back. The girls didn’t stick around for a damage assessment; they just laughed and walked off. This would be all over the school in a matter of hours. I’d be laughed at and ridiculed for thinking that I ever had a chance with Petra Bearce.

At that moment, the school bell chimed and we all began to funnel into the building. I hesitated and looked up at the gray sky again. A solid blanket of gray with no chance of light penetrating through…I could relate.

The rest of the school day went predictably awry. In our school, we had one teacher all day, so it was basically impossible to get out there and see how badly damaged my reputation was, but I knew the story wouldn’t be isolated. Petra was the only one of the girls in my class. The rest had other home rooms. By the time lunch rolled around, I could already see the sidelong looks and the barely concealed laughter. I just ducked my head and tried to plow through the rest of the day. It couldn’t end quickly enough.

As the school bell chimed, signaling the end of the day, I practically teleported out of the classroom. My school bag beat an erratic pattern on my back as I sprinted along the hard-packed dirt road. I ran almost the whole way home, a futile attempt to escape the bad memories, the embarrassment, and the scorn and leave them behind at the schoolhouse. When I finally stopped to catch my breath, my shirt was soaked with sweat and I could barely breathe. I saw my house just at the top of the hill, but I could barely think, much less get up and continue on. I didn’t notice the wagon until it practically ran me over. I leaped to my feet, using what precious energy I had left, and glared at the wagon. Mr. Marley nodded at me absent-mindedly as he straightened his wagon out on the road.

Mr. Marley was the school custodian. He spent most of the day locked up in his closet reading trashy books he’d picked up the last time he visited the city. After school, before he could do his custodial duties of…you know…cleaning…he used his personal wagon to haul some of the students home. Our village wasn’t very big and he’d lived there so long he knew where practically everyone lived, so most kids took him up on the offer. The problem was Mr. Marley’s age. He’d become so old, he was easily distracted, and sometimes forgot that he was driving the wagon. It was hard to be mad at him for almost running me over. After all, I usually accepted his ride, too.

My attempt to escape the crowds wasn’t successful. I could tell by the laughter erupting from the wagon, but I could’ve written most of it off as schadenfreud until I saw one of the girls at the back making kissy faces at me. I recognized her. She was in my grade, although she didn’t hang with Petra’s group. So word had gotten out.

Tired, sore, and feeling like my entire life was crumbling around me, I made my way into my house and collapsed into a chair at the kitchen table. An enormous, fresh, golden loaf of bread sat in the middle, wafting glorious tendrils of heaven at me. I reached for a knife to cut a slice when my mom came out of nowhere and smacked my hand with a spatula. I cried out in shock and released the knife.

“What was that for?” I shouted, rubbing the back of my hand.

“You should know better. That bread is for Old Man Ursin. Besides, you’ll spoil your appetite.”

I muttered under my breath and got up to head to my room.

“Where do you think you’re going?” I heard from over my shoulder.

“My room?”

“If by ‘your room’ you mean ‘Old Man Ursin’s to deliver the bread to him,’ then yes, you’re right on.”

I let out a groan and thunked my head against the wall. Mom wasn’t impressed. She prattled on about responsibility and how lucky I was to be so young and how I would’ve appreciated the gesture from Mr. Ursin if our roles were reversed. It wasn’t something I hadn’t heard before, so mostly I just heard “blah blah blah, do as you’re told.” That’s what it basically boils down to, if you think about it. I mean, you can have all of the excuses in the world for something, and they may all be true, but they’re not necessarily the reason for it. I think adults like to pile on excuses for why kids should do things we don’t want to do because, in the end, they don’t want us to know that they simply don’t want to do them either.

It didn’t take me long to make it to Old Man Ursin’s place. It was located at the edge of the village, just outside of the village wall. None of us were sure if, when the village wall was built, Old Man Ursin built his place purposely outside of it, or if the wall-builders just didn’t want to go all the way around it. Because of the extra isolation that the village wall added, Old Man Ursin’s place had a reputation for being haunted. Most of the little ones didn’t even know someone lived there. The older ones that knew of him claimed that he was an ancient wizard and he’d lived in his house before our village was even built.

Of course, I knew better. He moved to Swine’s Squire just after the coronation of King Torquil IV. There was a bit of a discrepancy about whether Torquil IV’s place on the throne was legitimate, and Ursin had been on the opposing side. After the coronation, Ursin decided to take up residence in an area somewhat out of the monarchy’s reach.

As I approached the run down old shack, I couldn’t help but take in the place. It was shabby, the paint was peeling, one of the shutters was off its hinge, and the grass in the immediate vicinity of the house had withered to a crispy brown. I was about to knock on the door when I heard something from behind the house. I crept around and heard a commotion coming from the old tool shed. Quietly, I snuck up to the window just in time to see an explosion of pink sparks. They shot all around the room with the old man frantically chasing behind, waving his arms madly, his dirty gray robes flapping like tiny surrender flags. The sparks bounced around the walls like shimmering rubber balls and only came to a rest when they bounced into a kettle suspended over a fire.

I couldn’t move. Did I just see what I thought I saw? What had I just seen? I didn’t even move when Old Man Ursin grumbled and stomped toward the door, flinging it wide open and smacking it into me. I fell to the ground in a clatter, but managed to save the bread. The tiny room belched thick black smoke, and it took Old Man Ursin a moment to realize that he’d knocked me over. When he did realize, he stood there, paralyzed for a moment, as if trying to decide whether he wanted to flee and leave me on the ground, or knock me out and dump me somewhere further away. The only thing that was clear was that he wasn’t pleased to see me.

He cleared his throat and wiped some of the soot off his face. “Well, Mr. Agney. What brings you here?”

“My mother,” I said holding out the loaf of bread. “It’s fresh out of the oven, sir.”

The old man studied it for a moment, mumbling, “What is it? Let’s see here,” and fumbling for his spectacles. When he finally placed the grubby little things on his nose, his face softened and he helped me to my feet.

“Well, there’s certainly no need for you to sit out here, is there? Come in and have something to drink before you head back.”

I’d never been inside Old Man Ursin’s house before. The walls were covered with hundreds of clocks of every variety and design. Some were very simple; some were incredibly ornamental and foreign looking. The sound of hundreds of clocks ticking just slightly off from each other filled the room, like a thousand of the king’s clerks working on their adding machines.

Old Man Ursin fumbled around in his cabinets, banging things, swearing, and just generally causing a fuss. He finally pulled down an old tin of some kind and ran a kettle of water. He lit a fire and set the kettle over the stove. I don’t know what made me decide that that was the moment to confront him, but I found the words sprinting out of my mouth before I could stop myself.

“What were you doing in the tool shed?”

Old Man Ursin paused for a moment, as if considering his answer, his back still turned to me. Then, he huffed and began searching for cups in his disastrously cluttered kitchen.

“I wasn’t doing anything,” he said as he hunted. “Just tinkering with some old tools that have fallen into disrepair.”

My curiosity and suspicion was too much for me and I blurted out, “Then what was that light?”

The old man froze, his hand suspended over a chipped porcelain cup. “What light?”

“The pink one. The one you were chasing around the room,” I pressed.

It took a long time for him to answer. In that time, I began to question my sanity. After all, if he was a wizard, there was nothing that said he was a nice one. “Cantankerous old man” could have been his cover. He might do seriously nasty things when no one was about. Maybe he kidnapped children and drained their blood for spells? What if he didn’t want his secret revealed? What would he do with me if I knew too much?

Dozens of horrifying fates danced through my mind, each one more gruesome than the last. My palms started to sweat, and I began wracking my brain for excuses to leave when he laughed and turned to face me. He was still as scary looking as ever, but there was a light in his eyes.

“You’re a bothersome little crapper aren’t you?” He walked forward, his hand outstretched and I wasn’t sure what he wanted.

“Yes,” he continued, “but what to do with you? I can’t kill you. That wouldn’t be right to your mum. And I can’t just play dumb, can I? I mean, after all, I’ve been caught red handed, haven’t I?”

I sat in petrified silence while he talked like that, back and forth to himself. Clearly crazy behavior. I wondered if that made me even crazier for not finding an excuse to leave. He finally let out a loud, bellowing laugh.

“Alright, the truth’s the best, I s’pose,” he said settling himself down on a stool in front of me and pouring himself a cup of tea. “I’m a practicing magician of the seventh rank.”

“So…you’re a wizard?”

Ursin sputtered. “That’s like calling a general a soldier or calling the king some guy with a fancy hat. Yes, I am a wizard. One of the highest ranking wizards in the country.”

My mind was buzzing. All those years of jump rope rhymes and stories told around campfires late at night. Old Man Ursin…a real life wizard! I wanted to doubt it—but I had seen the proof with my own eyes. Well, I didn’t really know what exactly I saw in that shed. There were some impressive colorful explosives that were being imported from foreign lands for celebrations. Maybe he had been using one of those.

“So, if you’re a wizard, where’s your wand? Don’t all wizards use wands? Or big gnarly wooden staves?”

This clearly tickled Ursin, who began belly laughing, jiggling and squirming all over his stool.

“You have been reading entirely too many children’s stories. No self respecting magical practitioner would be caught dead with one of those archaic devices. Magic is much more complicated than that. It’s all about equations, masses, various types of matters and densities. It’s complex stuff.”

I regarded him for a moment, trying to read his face. Craggy, not too easy on the eyes, and sprouting hair in more places than I thought possible, it didn’t give a thing away. I wasn’t entirely sure what to believe. I had seen something spectacular in that tool shed, but I wasn’t sure what exactly I’d seen either. I decided to go for broke and try to get some proof from the old man.

“I’m sorry, I just don’t believe you.”

The old man burst into a new wave of belly laughs that ended in a furious coughing fit.

“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to laugh at you. It’s just…I’ve never heard of a magical practitioner having to prove himself to a youngen. But, what the hey. I’ll give you a thrill,” he said as he fumbled through some loose papers. He finally found a small scrap of parchment. Adjusting his reading glasses, he mumbled a little, cleared his throat, and spouted off something that sounded like gibberish in an authoritative voice.

I sat for a moment, waiting for something to happen. I waited. And waited. I wasn’t exactly impressed.

“Wait a blink,” he demanded as he squinted and regarded the scrap of parchment again. “Oh,” he added sheepishly as he cleared his throat and tried again.

This time, there was a significant pressure change in the room. It felt like when you went swimming and tried to touch the bottom of the lake. Just when I thought I was going to explode, there was a sharp pop followed by a horrible screeching sound. Ursin’s teacup had grown legs and a tiny mouth and was shrieking at the top of its…whatever it had in place of lungs.

“Alright, that’s about enough of that,” Ursin cried as he overturned a pot and slammed it over the cup. From inside came sharp rapping sounds as the cup clearly careened off of the walls of the pot, trying to break out. “I still haven’t got the kinks worked out of that one, yet.”

I was speechless. I couldn’t begin to process what I’d just seen. The old man regarded me with a craggy stare and for a moment I began to worry again. There was still time for him to turn on me and curse me, maybe make my ears the size of ship sails or my feet the size of large dogs. He could turn me into a rat, or a toad, or a newt, or any number of slimy, unpleasant things. Instead, he just laughed and patted me on the shoulder.

“All right, then. I’ve got something to show you.”

We went outside and around back—the old man practically dragging me by the hand—and as I stepped into the tool shed, I noticed how similar the décor was. Ursin really favored haphazard stacks of random junk scattered throughout the rooms and piles of dirty, useless, or broken gadgets littering every available surface. I noted the walls were covered with more clocks, all ticking and tocking.

“Over here,” the old man said as he waved me toward a table in the back of the shop. Among the other piles of random junk, there were six or seven tiny winged ships. The wings were stylized in design, made to look cartoonish, more like clouds than bird’s wings, but they were there. I wondered if he’d carved the ships and the wings as a whole or if he attached them later.

“What are these?”

“These are proto-types. I’m working on something that could revolutionize intercontinental travel.”

“Inter-what-a-whatwhat?”

“Intercontin…traveling to countries across the ocean.”

“Oh.”

He gingerly picked up one of the models and held it out to me. I took it and marveled at how light it felt. I was terrified I’d break it. I noticed the old man’s eyes went misty as he looked at his ships, like he was looking at one of his children or something.

“What you saw me doing earlier,” he said snapping out of his daze, “was failing another attempt at flight. I’ve been trying to work out the right spell. Some sort of combination of levitation, transfiguration, and happy thoughts should do the trick, but I’ll be damned if it the spell doesn’t elude me.”

I was confused. “Work out the right spell?”

“Oh yeah. Like I said before, magic isn’t as easy as spouting off gibberish and thinking. You’ve got to calculate energies, which type of spell you want, the effectiveness. Do you want countercurse defenses or will a simple magic bubble do the trick? Stuff like that.”

“Oh. I get it,” I said, not really getting it.

As I stood in the cramped shop regarding the tiny winged ships, something echoed through my mind. Something Petra said to me that morning.

Pigs will fly before I’ll go anywhere and be seen with you, you freak!

“Pigs…fly…”

“What’s that?” the old man asked.

I suddenly had an idea. A brilliant idea. Genius. I’d make a pig fly. That would show that shrieking harpy, Petra. I’d do it to make her eat her words. I’d do it for the purest motivation a sixteen year old can do anything—revenge.

“Mr. Ursin, sir, I’d like to help you with this.”

The old man laughed again, hacking tobacco breath all over me.

“You don’t know anything about magic,” he said through his chuckles.

“I’ll learn. I’ll work double time, triple time. Give me some books to take home and I’ll study all night and all day until I get it right. A pair of fresh eyes might give you a different perspective.”

The old man regarded me sidelong, amused doubt etched into every crack and crevice of his old face. Even his chin scratching looked doubtful. I didn’t care. I had something to prove. I tried to look determined and motivated, but I think it may have just come off constipated. Regardless, after a few moments the old man shook his head and handed me a stack of battered old books.

“Good luck,” was all he said.

I was true to my word. I stayed up into the wee hours of the morning, pouring over every single spell. I got the fundamental principles of magic in no time, and it only took me a couple of months to move onto level two spells. Of course, I still had schoolwork and chores around the house to do, but the rest of my time was filled with magic and the study of it. Bram got frustrated with me because I never wanted to go out and hang out with his friends, but he didn’t understand.

The teasing from the other kids in school was merciless at first, but I barely noticed it. I was so wrapped up in the practice of magic. Eventually, they got tired of mocking me and moved on to some other poor sap’s latest social flub.

For the first three weeks of study, Petra and the rest of her crew hung in my brain like the night sky. They colored my every action, my every thought. Each time I failed to grasp a concept, I heard their mocking, sharp laughter and a new determination burned through me like fire in my bloodstream. Then, something changed. Sitting in my room late one night, a glass of water on my nightstand, I was reading through the theory of matter and the three different forms of water. Finally, I closed the book, dug out my scratch paper, and worked out the spell I thought would work to turn the water to ice. Then, I closed my eyes, waved my hands over the glass and chanted. After a few moments, I still hadn’t felt any change or anything. No discharge or pressure change or anything. I had been expecting at least a pop of something like static electricity. I sighed and opened my eyes. To my surprise, the glass laid in shards around a perfectly formed cylinder of ice. At that moment, and from then on, I began studying magic for me.

With my newfound dedication, I worked twice as hard. It was no time before I was reporting to Mr. Ursin after school every day. We bounced ideas off of each other, scratched out a few theories, and then I would go home for dinner. My mother started to worry that I was spending too much time with the old man, but I assured here everything was fine. She didn’t understand. Parents so rarely do.

Crawling into bed at night was the most rewarding thing ever, a symbol of a job well done. Sleep was a welcome friend. Dreams, even more so.

One night, I bolted upright in my bed. I had it. The perfect combination for making pigs—for making anything—fly. I had to tell Mr. Ursin right then, but I knew Mom would never let me out. So I snuck out my window.

Mr. Ursin came to the door in a huff.

“I’ve got it!” I shouted.

He shushed me before continuing. “Got what?”

“How to fly.”

Inside, I mapped out the entire thing on paper. At first, Ursin looked dubious, but as I explained, his face lit up and broke into an enormous grin.

“That’s brilliant, kid! Brilliant!”

We hurried to the tool shed, composed ourselves, and gave it a try. I began the chanting. It was a first for me, but I was the most experienced with the chant—after all, I had made it up. Old Man Ursin picked it up quickly and soon we were chanting and shouting and even throwing in little dance moves. Our chanting reached a climax and then we both stopped simultaneously. For a moment, we were too scared to open our eyes. I didn’t until something sharp pricked me in the face. Hovering before me, its tiny wings flapping like mad, was one of our ships.

“It’s flying!” I shouted.

“It’s flying!” Ursin agreed.

And then we began dancing. I’d never seen the old man move so vigorously. After a few moments, though, the old man settled and cleared his throats.

“This is great, but you know this is simply the prototype. We’ll have to build another model, much bigger, and try again.”

I nodded for a moment, the solution still keeping my spirits high above me. Then, I thought back to what Petra had said, and I remembered wanting some good old fashioned redemption.

“What would you say if I told you we could test it on something much larger and solve a big problem of mine, as well.”

In twenty minutes, we were standing outside of Petra’s house. Her hogs were snoring pleasantly in their pen off to the side.

“Are you ready?” I asked the old man. He was grinning from ear to ear.

“Hell, kid, I’ve been dying for someone to put this stuffy old brat in her place. Her family has been a thorn in this town’s side for years. It’s bad blood is what it is.”

I smiled and we lined up and began the chant. It was much more difficult this time. I could feel the toll the spell was taking on me, but we keep at it, chanting and dancing. Soon, I heard a surprised oink and opened my eyes in time to see a pig launch out of the pen; protruding from its back was a pair of glistening silver wings that looked like they’d been made from starlight. I hurried over to Petra’s window and rapped on the glass. A few moments later, Petra threw them open and glared at me.

“What the hell are you doing here? Do you know what time it is? If my father catches you, he’ll destroy you.”

“Just thought you might want to see this.”

I gestured toward the pig, which was swooping and sailing through the sky, leaving a trail of light in its wake. Petra’s jaw fell open and her arms hung uselessly at her sides. She simply stood and stared and I felt a delicious rush that only comeuppance can deliver. It’s a fleeting feeling, though. And yet somehow I didn’t feel empty afterward. Something else had replaced it. I had accomplished something huge. Something not even Ursin had accomplished.


Justin Dow is a high school English teacher and lover of all things literary. Although resistant to the Call of the Nerd in high school, he has since embraced his nerdiness apologetically. When not writing, he enjoys video games, critiquing movies, and reading copious amounts. He lives in Northwest Arkansas with his wife. This is his debut publication.