A Certain Death

The bar was dim and cool, and the man next to me was thin, harried, and crazy.

“I am predicting bad things for this afternoon,” he said, then took a generous sip from his rum and coke.  ”Bad things.”  He slammed his glass down onto the stainless steel bartop.  ”You coming with me?”

The bullfight started in an hour.  I was planning to attend, but not as this man’s guest.  ”No,” I said.  ”I am going to stay here.” He stared for a moment, then blinked.  ”Probably better that way, you don’t want to see what’s going to happen to that kid.”   He turned and began to bump his way through the dense crowd towards the exit.  I was in Brazatortas, Spain, smack in the middle of its annual festival.

At the door, the crazy man turned back, threw his arm in the air and yelled something that was lost in the din.  Then he turned and staggered away, disappearing into the light.

I lingered long enough to be sure he wouldn’t be waiting for me outside, then finished my carajillo–a small glass of hot coffee and brandy–and paid the bartender, who hadn’t slept since the festival had started two days earlier.  He glided towards me, took my cash, and deposited it in his register like a robot low on batteries.

Bad things.  I threw my camera bag over my shoulder and headed toward the bullring.  The crazy man had told me that there would be two matadores this afternoon.  Nobody cared about the first one, he said, but the second was a 16-year old kid from a neighboring village.  ”Yesterday was his birthday,” he told me, “and today he celebrates with his first real fight.  He’s never seen a bull this big before.”

As I approached the bullring, I thought about what I was doing the day after I turned 16.  I couldn’t think of much.  I certainly wasn’t staring down a beast that might gore me to death.

The bullring was small and underwhelming.  It had the feeling of impermanence usually associated with carnival rides, sitting there in the flat dust of  an abandoned parking lot: a red corrugated steel wall, bent into a circle, baking in the heat.   I walked around to the shaded side and found the taquilla.  A small hole had been cut in the steel, and as I leaned forward to peer inside, a young man’s face appeared suddenly.

“Hey, I know you,” he said to me, squinting.

“What?”

“I was behind you in line at the train station, you were renting a car. You’re American, right?  I saw your passport.  ”

I nodded, thinking it was odd that he would remember me; I rented my car over a week ago.

“Have you been to a bullfight before?”

“No, first time.” This wasn’t true.  I’d been to a bullfight in Puerto Santa Maria, and another in Jerez, but that was over ten years ago.  Also, those were different from this in many ways:  those bullrings were hulking structures of concrete and stone, and the spectators were men and women in their best suits and dresses.  They were high culture events; this was something else.

“You are going to flip out.  The atmosphere inside the ring will be intense.  You will love it.”  I handed him 20 euros, he handed me a ticket.

“Gracias!”

Inside, people had already gathered in the seats on the west edge of the ring, so their backs were to the sun. I made my way to the opposite side, still empty, knowing I wanted my photographs to be lit from behind, even if this meant squinting into the sun for the next two hours.  I sat down and immediately began to sweat.

Bad things. I fired off a few test shots: the sun was punishingly hot but I was pleased with the angle of the light.  Did I just pay to watch a kid get killed?  I couldn’t shake feeling a sense of guilt over the fact that I was patronizing something with the potential for such violence, not to mention the bull’s inevitable death.  I adjusted my shutter speed. The bleachers filled with spectators and we all blinked into the brutal light together, waiting.

With a blast of trumpets, the matadores entered the arena accompanied by their banderilleros .  They familiarized themselves with the size of the ring, with the way the sand felt beneath their feet, with the angle of the sun.  The kid was there, easy to pick out because he looked even younger than his sixteen years.  The crowd stood and applauded him in his brilliant greentraje de luces.  He took his place behind the wall and then the first bull was released.

It burst onto the sand with ferocious strength, a tightly-wound 1,000 pound hulk of muscle.  This bull would face the more experienced matador, a man whose name nobody knew and whom nobody really cared to watch.  His banderilleros played their capes and the bull played its part, thrusting its horns into the fabric as the men nimbly sidestepped out of the bull’s path.  When the time arrived, the matador stepped onto the sand and did a miserable job, needing six attempts to find the seam between the bull’s shoulder blades with his sword and drive it through the heart.  With each failed plunge of the sword, the bull let out deep, panicked grunts and struggled to catch its breath.  When it was finally over, the matador acknowledged the crowd’s tepid applause and retreated to his spot behind the protective barrier.  A man wearing a white collared shirt with the black silhouette of a bull on his back tied a chain around the brutalized corpse and hooked the chain to a team of horses, then slapped the nearest horse with a whip .  The team sprinted out of the ring, dragging the bull behind them in a trail of blood.

The crowd was silent.  Someone tapped me on my shoulder, and I turned around to see a man in his mid thirties holding a fork inches from my face.  On the fork was a tomato slice dripping with olive oil.  ”Eat,” he said, enthusiastically.  A woman leaned over his shoulder and draped her arm across his chest, looking me straight in the face.  ”Eat, it’s delicious,” she said.  I took the fork and swallowed the tomato, then turned my attention back to the ring.

The trumpeters raised their instruments and blew a sharp note into the hot air.  The door on the opposite end of the ring swung open and the kid’s bull exploded into the sun.  It was huge.  The crowd gasped.

The kid’s banderilleros presented their capes to the bull, taking it through a designed series of maneuvers so he could watch it fight, analyzing how it moves, how well it sees, which horn it favors when it strikes.  The way it behaves with the bandilleros gives the kid clues about the way the bull’s mind works: is it attacking the cape, or is it trying to protect its territory?  A bull that has claimed an area of  sand as its own is unpredictable, making it an extremely dangerous opponent.  Through my lens, I could see the kid’s eyes but couldn’t read his expression.

The banderilleros abandoned their capes and took up their banderillas, long poles decorated in bright colors that end in a sharp point.  They approached the bull in turn, holding their poles high in the air then leaping forward and driving the points into its bulging neck before sprinting away and leaping over the barrier to safety.   The bull was then all alone, seeping shiny streaks of blood from the banderillas lodged into the enormous muscles of its neck.  The work of thebanderilleros had weakened the bull by making it difficult for it to raise its head and gore the kid with its horns.  Difficult, but not impossible.

Now it was his turn, the kid whom everyone came to see.  He entered the ring to riotous applause and immediately presented his muleta–the special red cape of the matador. He deftly performed a series of passes as the bull charged within inches of his legs, groin and torso.  With every pass the crowd grew more and more enamored with the kid as he fought with surprising bravado and courage. I found myself being carried along by his performance, watching the duel through my lens but not thinking to release the shutter and take a picture.  When the kid asked for his sword, the crowd rose to its feet as one.

The spell we were under would not last, however.  Having worked the bull into a perfect position, the kid struck with his sword and missed, badly.  He ran the bull through a few more simple passes and tried again, but once more the tip of his sword missed its mark and the bull leapt and cried out in pain.

The crowd was eager to forgive and the kid tried again, but again without success.  I forced myself to stop keeping track of how many times he’d stabbed the bull only to have his sword rebound off its muscular shoulders.  The bull was suffering terribly and if this had been any other matador, he would have been whistled out of the ring in shame.  But finally, after countless attempts, the sword slipped through, the bull collapsed, and it was over.

Bad things, indeed.

It was an ugly piece of work from the birthday boy, but in the end the crowd offered up an enthusiastic applause, perhaps for the simple fact that he had made it out of the fight without being gored.  He was, after all, only sixteen years old, and had just squared off against his first real bull.  But still.  It was painful to watch.

The man with the tomato slices tapped my shoulder again, and when I turned around he and his girlfriend were surrounded by a dozen amigos.  ”Photograph!  Photograph!” they shouted together.  I raised the camera to my eye and framed the shot.  I couldn’t help laughing at what I saw through the viewfinder:  a dozen men and women, all semi-intoxicated and sunbaked, grinning wildly for a photograph they would never see.  I snapped the shutter.  Ole!