Above the orange sand, blood shines like paint on the flank of the bull. With a cracked horn, it seeks the taffeta banderillas speared into its back, spinning, turning on the novillero with the red muleta at his knees.
The novillero calls out “Toro”. It is a command and the beast obeys, lunging past the boy, swinging its head, digging into the space where the threat should be. The boy’s posture is slack and his cape is smeared with mud. We know from the program that he is twenty-one, but from our seats his face is tense, smooth, much too young. When he calls again the bull shakes its head. No. The boy thrusts the cape forward, insisting that the animal obey, and half a tonne of muscle quivers. But doesn’t move.
I have seen twelve bulls killed in Seville’s Plaza de Toros. In these deaths, I felt privileged to watch something true and grotesque and sad. It is true that death causes an instant ‘glassiness’ of the eye, but the phrase has lost its power to cliché. I remember one bull in particular. He had fallen onto his side and seemed to stop breathing, but his eye, brown as dark as to be black, still seemed full, seemed to sense, was open. When the puntillero stabbed the short dagger into his neck, the eyes went inside out. The window had become a mirror. The animal had left the flesh.
In the dirt, the boy is shuffling forward, arching his back, presenting the cape. The bull begins to move, head low, and as it nears it turns, battering him with the flat of its skull. He is thrown from his feet, rolls in the dirt as the bull is searching for the flashing shadow, is drawn by new capes, turned aside – the boy is on his feet. He brushes off the hands of his team, these banderilleros with their grey hair.
The bull comes again. It knows where he is now, can sense the body hidden behind the cape. It catches his leg and tosses him into the air.
It is horrific to witness and, though I have felt pity for every murdered bull, nothing can prepare you for when the bullfighter is struck. Breath leaves. You are certain he is dead. The bull has crushed him. But as his team draws the bull’s attention and he staggers to his feet, you realise he is okay. And then – shockingly – that he will fight on. His suit of lights, pale blue trimmed with gold, is torn with dust and blood.
When the bullfight is good, your heart will rise with the crowd; you will express elation with applause. But when the bullfight is bad, as this one was, you will want him to leave. To leave this mad pursuit, to let the bull be, just sit this one out. But it cannot be so. The bullfighter cannot walk away; he must be carried. Or else he is no longer a bullfighter.
The bull’s blood is darker now, its sides slick, guts heaving uncontrollably as it pisses itself in terror. The boy is limping, bloodstained, slouching away from the driving beast. They suck in breath, drowning in air.
When the boy drives the sword home, the bull begins to bleed from its mouth and nose. Grisly black gouts pour in rhythm with its stubborn heart. Finally, the legs go. It folds onto the ground and it is stabbed a final time. In the deep cerulean sky, sparrows spin like black motes, masters of the air, the tight circle, free of the bloody Earth below.
When the puntillero stabbed the short dagger into his neck, the eyes went inside out. The window had become a mirror. The animal had left the flesh.
April and I had seen a bullfight once before, in the same arena a fortnight earlier. The stadium was packed to capacity for the Feria de Abril, a festival of drinking and celebration that features a week of the most prestigious bullfighters in all of Spain.
Two weeks later, we are watching novilleros – apprentice bullfighters – in a half-empty stadium filled with white Western trash. In front of us, three Frenchmen roll off round after round of photos with telescopic lenses. Then they talk, jab their fingers toward the beer vendor and message their wives on their iPhones. Behind us, the Americans have started back up.
“So they said the contract wasn’t available anymore. They said they can give me a class of younger kids but I dunno, so, I’m thinking of maybe looking in Barcelona?”
Her blonde hair is pulled in a ponytail, tattooed midriff below a black tank top. Her massive black friend, whose name is Shanikwa, mouths half-sentences between her prattle.
April is pale. She looks to me with the shaking fear I am feeling, but I am vacillating between disgust and rage. As the bull is lanced from horseback, the American says:
“Oh my god. I didn’t know this would take so long.”
The Frenchmen bubble away through beer-numb lips. Schlik-schlik-schlik go their cameras. I am nauseous. I say to April:
“If the next one is as bad, would you like to go?”
I am not an expert on the bullfight. Here is what I do know: the bullfight is an art, not a sport. It is a dance which consists of the stillness of the bullfighter, the movement of the bull and the silence of the crowd. It is a painting that uses for its palette soil, sun, blood and sky. It is a theatre where death and ugliness are as likely as grace and beauty.
One overlooked lesson: you may weep for the slain animal, but you could never cheer its triumph – despite what the keyboard warriors proclaim. There is nothing necessary about the bullfight. The bull dies in great pain.
The last fighter of the program, Posada de Maravillas, 23, steps into the arena. His foe is fast and strong, turns after the charge, 497 kilograms pivoting on its front legs. He calls to it. The bull comes thundering across the sand but the matador’s feet are planted.
He is sure to die. And then, inexplicably, the cape at his waist flashes and the bull flies past. The man has not moved. Your heart is pounding; you are muttering strange oaths. The bull turns, charging in again and the man still has not moved. His cape flickers, the world pauses, the bull misses.
Now, the man drops to one knee. The bull need not lift its head to gore the throat of the bullfighter, who incites it to charge. “Toro!” he calls. There is the orange sand, the black bull, his suit of lights. The beast is falling on him like a stone. The bleachers are quiet. In that moment, death approaches the man. And he does not move.
Painting by Picasso, Bullfight: Death of the Toreador (1933)