As the bull stood tremulous in the tunnel to the arena he could smell the burnt paper from the noisemakers that the young boys in the crowd were intermittently pulling between their howls of impatient delight. Each yank of the strings on their tiny cap-boxes sent streamers flitting through the stifling air with a pop. Then they would turn to the meaty thighs or bony knees of their fathers and complain about the wait. Interminably, together, they waited. The men of the great city, the boys, and the 1,500 pound bull. The assembly and the living sacrifice for the altar of their lust, bound yet completely separate, anticipating the coming of the toreador. The man that none of them had ever laid eyes on.
The bull could sense the same consuming madness in the air that he felt in his own electric blood when the cows were in heat. It was mixed with what he could not understand. Their banality. Some would contend that the bull, “perceives nothing. Is he not but a brute beast?” Yes, it is true that the gargantuan bull did not speak the language of men nor possess the faculties of a man. Yet his intuition was in its own way no less sensitive for being calibrated with a different tuning hammer, aligned with a different set of crystals than the spiritual instruments and divining rods of a man.
The barbers and the businessmen, the floggers of stainless steel ball bearings, the school teachers, fishermen, policemen and grocers, all with sons and cousins and uncles and grandfathers, a great rabble of aficionados and ignorant drunks alike talking and shelling peanuts and undulating like a tide in the stands, lapping at the white sand beach of the inner pit, all enraged him equally. For they cried for his blood. And though he did not know, in the sense that a man knows, just what it was that their great noise spoke too or called forth, the bull could nonetheless sense in his heart the great power about to overshadow him, and he could smell the blood of the bulls that had died before him, and a great fear settled on his heart like a fell bird on a rusty scythe.
It was the stone of this fear rolling around his empty stomach like a rotten apple in a barrel that caused him to piss noisily in the dust of the cool hall. The handlers laughed with derision but before they could salt him with the unique curses of their argot the sound of the trumpets announced at last the entrance of the matador. The bull was released from the halter around his neck and, cued by a rough slap on the flank, trotted grimly into the blinding light.
The crowd had begun cheering when they caught sight of the toreador entering the ring, chanting with the fervor of devotees at a shrine. As the trumpets and accordions of the stadium band rode out the last bar of the entrance song and ended with a final flourish waves of adulation continued to sweep over the darling of the pit. Finally the music ended and he raised a hand toward the crowd. Then, with a lifting of his blood red cape into the air, he beckoned the bull forward.
The bull had stopped short at the edge of an invisible circle proscribed some twenty yards from the man. Now his limbic instincts drew him on towards the lone figure standing at the center of the hot expanse of sand, dangling the square of vermilion cloth low. The bull did not know, could not know, the inevitable finale of the game into which he had been introduced against his own will with no consultation and no recourse. The final line on the day’s card, the last fight of the corrida promised to see him sundered and broken, weeping the lifesblood of his heart into the dirt.
During the moments that the bull spent closing the distance between them, his counterfoil took him in. He was struck by the bull’s beauty. His smooth red hide dappled with islands of white. The sheen on his enameled horns with their strange geometry and razor tips. His ribs moving back and forth as he trotted on legs tapering to impossibly skinny tips. A tuft of hair fit for an emperor’s scepter swayed at the end of his tail and spoke of the regal soul behind those black eyes, inchoate, wet with an intelligence that spoke to a body and mind no less capable of feeling pain for their inferior capacities of abstract reasoning. The matador saw the bull with his flaring nostrils and in seeing him felt rising of all the ritualized feelings tied to the ring.
A man from the newspaper was in the crowd that day and he took in the matador as the matador took in the bull. Though the crowd had never seen this toreador he was well known to them by way of various legends, stories, confabulations and bald-faced lies passed from friend to friend, father to son. There were rumors from the corrals of Bautista and Coimbra. Tales of his performances in neighboring provinces. An ill-defined catalogue of the ways by which he held sway over the bulls had been described by boys to their younger brothers in the days leading up to the fight, not least among which was said to be the composure of his own body in the fact of certain death. His glory preceded him; he the immortal one untouched by Baldiston the Man-Gorer, he who harkened back to a brighter day and moved with an artistry and power that spoke to the command he held over an enchanted realm set apart from politics and taxes. Here was a hero.
The reporter described his appearance later to a friend. The dark eyes with their black irises never blinked. His hair rose from a widow’s peak in a rakish wave. The gold braid and jet flatstock of his garb was immaculate, gleaming in the sun and at his side he wore a rapier of burnished steel, its handle done up in alabaster. He was said to have forged it himself. The man was like a wizard, the effect of his physical presence like unto that of the lush words with which the soothsayer plies his lord’s ear. Indeed, the animal seemed to fall under some enchantment as he drew near.
Earlier that day, in the deep hours when night brings morning into being through a tearing labor, when all was still blackness and he was safely in his stall the bull had sensed a darkness rising about him. Some stark eventuality come for him on the same wind that spun the scent of bougainvillea through the open bay doors of the barn. The temporal signature of the physical world seemed as it were to flicker before a swelling wall of oncoming oblivion.
Now that he stood in the white hot sand already stained with the blood and plasma of the first five bulls of the corrida the toro again the full force of the deep fear and he stumbled, halting just out of the matador’s reach. The enchanter snapped his heels together and twirled his red cape so that it sat low on the ground in front of the bull. Aroused by the movement and the brightness of the cloth the bull lunged forward. Rather than finding a satisfying purchase with his horns the animal was astonished to find himself stumbling awkwardly into nothingness as the matador turned deftly to one side, whipping the cape away. As the animal turned the curtain dropped again and again he charged only to have the illusion ripped out from under him at the last moment as he thundered inches to the side of the matador’s thigh.
It was on this second pass that the bull felt the lancing agony of the sword for the first time. Just as he passed, a breathtaking bolt of lightning permeated his left shoulder. The sword had caught the meat of his back. Enraged, white fury jostling his fear to one side, the bull wheeled hard and stampeded madly back through the space he had just vacated. He churned for the toreador’s legs and it seemed impossible that he should miss. In the final moment before contact his antagonizer leapt from his path and plunged the shining rapier blade through his shoulder again.
Blood rose to the bull’s lips from a punctured lung, escaping onto the sand as the beast lowed mournfully as if in recognition of his plight. His vision went blurry. The great horns pointed toward the center of the earth, weighing tons. When he raised his head again there were two matadors before him. He knew not which to address. The roar of the crowd had grown deafening. What had been a rolling sea of swells had given way to an unabated storm of noise, a bald clamoring for his blood.
There then came a moment of singular clarity for the bull, the clarity that may be bequeathed any animal regardless of his faculties. The double-vision momentarily dissipated and he was able to see the matador again. The commingled admixture of sorrow and pain that crushed his will lay like a heavy stone across the top of a grave, and he looked into his tormentor’s eyes and saw that which he could not name but could feel acutely. What he felt from the man was not hatred, nor indifference. Something else. A knowledge stored in a cipher the bull could not unlock. He could only stand upon the lintel, unable to cross the threshold.
Why would one who held so much power over another choose to destroy he who had done nothing to him? The bull could not formulate this question. But he could and did taste the iron of futility along his gums mingling with the tang of dust. A primal spray of anger flooded through him, bringing with it a shotgun blast of adrenaline and lactic acid.
In the flared corona of that moment’s renewing energy he charged a final time. His girth shook the ground. Unleashed from the bonds of self-control and in the very act of dying he presented his greatest risk to the matador. As he reached the last stride before he would have made contact the bull lost his balance, becoming tangled in the wires of his own weakened legs. He crashed to the ground, sliding forward and rolling over several times in a cataclysm of legs and horns. His opponent sprang clear of the trainwreck with the unfathomable reflexes of a giant cat. As the bull crashed spectacularly beneath him, the executioner plunged his sword into the beast’s exposed heart. An excruciating bloom of pain illuminated the bull in a moment of pure ekstasis which propelled him out of himself for a portion of eternity in which he soared high above the stadium and looked down on the matador in midair looking down on his expiring body. The killer hung in the air above him, untouchable. The sound of the crowd was like a gentle wave on a distant shore. Then the bull rushed back into his body and commenced to succumb like all his brethren before him.
The spectators roared their approval of the artistry and agility displayed by the matador. They screamed themselves hoarse, spilling their beer. The victor raised his blade in glory. It glistened red in the Catalonian sun as he brought it up to his face and then, whip, slashed it away from himself in a centuries-old salute. The sweat on his brow spoke to the effort he had expended. The bull had been worthy. He, the matador, had called forth his power and had triumphed over him.
Gore-caked sword in hand he approached the bull. The animal’s sides were heaving and lathered with foam, his lips bright with blood. He tried to stand but had no strength left at all. For a moment the toreador stood over the bull with his blade held out at his side. Then in one swift motion he raised the steel into the air and jammed the point down into the sand beside the bull’s head. There was a gasp from the bleachers. The cheering faltered. By what fell stroke and for what reasons had the fingertip of God sent the hand of this incredible swordsman wide of the bull’s eye at point blank range?
Leaving his sword hilt up, seemingly undismayed by shame or regret, the matador stood gazing at the bull as the invisible waterfall of time shot slow seconds out over its lip. The onlookers had drawn down into a stupefaction. Utter silence fluttered like a blanket above the sand. Slowly, the matador knelt by the bull. More slowly still he reached out his hand and laid it flat on the heaving, blood-flecked ribcage. He remained like that for a moment. The bull could sense him but could do nothing to shrug him off. With a soft sighing of his silk pantaloons the matador walked his knees around to where he could reach the sign of his craft on the bull’s back. Holding his cape length-wise, he tore off a large strip. This he used to staunch the flow of blood in the larger gash. The stadium was a churchyard filled with dandelions and the sleeping dead.
With a tenderness utterly incongruent with the brutality he had displayed only minutes before the matador proceeded to dress each of the bull’s wounds. When the final strips of his cape were gone he removed his sequined jacket and tore the velvet lining from one of the sleeves. This he soaked in a flask of water he had produced from some magical pocket and laid it across the bull’s steaming brow. Then he addressed his hand to the bull’s neck and gently stroked the dying beast like a mother tends a child fallen ill.
After long moments of unbroken silence the bull stirred. It seemed impossible to the newspaperman, as he would vociferously attest in the following morning’s edition, that an animal so grievously wounded would have any embers left in the fire of his will. Finally, after several more minutes, the bull rolled on its side and stumbled to its feet. He was disoriented. Fresh rivulets of blood assayed down its flank. After a long pause, the animal trotted away from the matador who stood still and silent, sword yet sheathed in the earth. He disappeared into the darkness of the tunnel mouth, weaving drunkenly past the dumbstruck handlers and officials. The crowd was transfixed. The newspaperman looked back to the matador. Tears glistened in his jet black eyes.