Pedro Hermoso de Fuentebonito and Antonio Espíritu Santo mounted horses beside a third rider. The gates opened: roaring crowds made Espíritu Santo feel immortal, the feeling he loved returning to crowds.
From the ring’s centre, the three horses reversed, three horses’ bottoms meeting the barrier simultaneously at equidistant points around the ring, Espíritu Santo not smiling as they lifted their hats to the president of the rejonería who sat in a high balcony above.
Arsehole, Pedro thought, dentures brilliant in his smiling mouth. Being first up, Pedro stopped at the barrier beneath the high balcony, and raising his hat again to the president, he grinned while thinking: Prick.
Faking reverence towards authority figures, who lacked the virtues to fight bulls, freshened Hermoso de Fuentebonito’s grin, his calcium lights shining towards a man he loathed. But the president wasn’t the only man Pedro detested. Being Spain’s youngest ever equestrian champion, early accolades had reinforced his superiority.
A bull faced him in the ring’s centre. His horse’s front legs went one way, then the other, Hermoso de Fuentebonito planting a lance’s tip into the bull’s neck, twisting his wrist so that a white flag fell from a capsule under the lance’s end. He rode across the ring, the vertical lance aloft, fluttering white not indicating surrender.
“He thinks I should do that,” Espíritu Santo said. “Raise white flags.”
Pedro’s red jacket made Espíritu Santo add: “Let’s hope red reddens.”
Luis Fernández García said: “Careful. He might become your best friend.”
“With friends like that,” Espíritu Santo replied, “who needs a social life?”
Antonio’s dry smile emphasised his humanoid-crow appearance. His irises were black; he was determined to do unheard-of things, creativity and revenge brewing in his scheming mind.
Pedro took a long banderilla from a man whose crystal-covered bullfighter’s suit flickered with stars, the green-and-white stick handed over the fence, fans flickering in the crowd’s hands, rider and horse approaching the bull, Pedro admiring the bull’s curiosity, an animal bred for serious games.
And no game matches this, Hermoso de Fuentebonito thought, except war. And you, bull, are in a war.
A red slash on the bull’s left flank, beginning where the lance-flag had pierced the bull’s black hide, impressed Hermoso de Fuentebonito: the same width to the stomach as if a craftsman had adorned the bull’s ebony with a red ribbon of glory.
Pedro extended his right arm so that the banderilla was vertical, his horse’s front hooves lifting up and down, Espíritu Santo saying: “Oh, how beautiful,” Luis saying: “Be happy the crowd’s so easily pleased,” Espíritu Santo replying: “They’ll be dancing for joy after I get through with them.”
Hermoso de Fuentebonito’s horse reared up, forelocks describing circles, the bull closing in, the horse, feigning a move to the right, went left, Hermoso de Fuentebonito leaning over, the banderilla piercing the bull’s shoulder, fans dropping as hands clattered, Pedro raising his hat to the crowd.
Hermoso de Fuentebonito’s perfect execution of the fundamentals was designed to demonstrate to his young enemy that art and flashy tricks aren’t synonymous.
Hermoso de Fuentebonito’s third long banderilla ended up swaying vertically in the bull’s shoulder, the bull believing it was chasing the horse; but it was being led around the ring, horns fractionally behind the horse’s rear, man and horse looking behind at the following bull, the three becoming an eight-legged, three-headed beast speeding beside the barrier, the crowd’s roaring increasing as the three-headed creature negotiated a circle at running speed inches from curving wood, the rider not even glancing at the barrier.
When the bull stopped, Pedro raised his hat to the crowd, his teeth making Espíritu Santo think of a shark, teeth bone-white in leaf-shaped lips, Espíritu Santo silent, his chin on his right forearm, the forearm on the barrier’s top, his clamped lips in a downward curve.
The crowd’s roaring died, fans flickering like butterflies upon fabric petals, clothing hues making the stands resemble steep fields of flowers.
Hermoso de Fuentebonito took three short banderillas from the man in the shining apparel; the sticks got thrust into the bull’s shoulders, Pedro’s right arm like a fulcrum, each banderilla proceeded by the horse sending the bull the wrong way, Hermoso de Fuentebonito circling the bull, leaning over, placing his right hand on the bull’s head between the horns, man, horse and bull rotating, connected by that hand, the crowd roaring, the hand, coming away, raising Pedro’s hat, the bull left standing, Espíritu Santo saying: “Ha! Nothing!”
Luis said: “He’s got other tricks. He’s waiting for you to set a standard.”
“He isn’t going to be disappointed.”
Luis García was moulding his young compatriot into the performer that Luis knew that Espíritu Santo could become, both observing Pedro’s right arm being raised, a red stick hanging vertically from that raised right hand, the bull watching, its black back now decorated with artefacts, as if an African tribesman in ceremonial dress was before a man attired like an eighteenth-century colonialist, the tribesman armed with ivory daggers, the colonialist preparing to kill with a lance, the horse rising, fans flickering like butterflies in the crowd’s hands, the black bull dashing towards the charging, white horse, opposites attracting, the lance’s spike finishing between the bull’s shoulders, the bull’s tongue hanging out, the horse, facing the bull, stepping forwards, the bull stepping back, the horse stepping towards the retreating bull, the bull’s tongue reddening, the distance between horse and bull maintained, two facing creatures stepping towards the barrier.
The bull’s rear legs crumbled, an assistant thrusting a dagger into the bull’s spine, bull legs suddenly horizontal in death.
“Every time I killed,” Luis said, “I recalled my doubters, transferring the hate that produced onto the bull so I could kill with the efficiency that revenge produces. Nothing has been purer for me than that.”
Espíritu Santo looked at Luis, thinking: Never mock someone’s sense of destiny.
“You’re too young yet,” Luis continued, “to appreciate that. You haven’t had any doubters. I had plenty. I didn’t have your talent. So show these people how great you are. And do it for people like me who could never be in your league.”
Antonio patted him on the back and disappeared into the pens.
Luis observed the ring where horses were dragging the dead bull to the ring’s abbattoir, the carcass’s curving trajectory leaving a question mark in the sand, that carcass making Luis recall his father carving up cattle in his childhood village where the roads had been unpaved, where everyone, gathering wheat in golden fields, had bowed under the jagged-fist sun, dying where they had been born.
But Luis had scorned dying in obscurity. They laughed the day he left; he was going to Madrid to learn bullfighting, no one expecting him to get out of the butcher’s shop where one of the truck drivers, who passed through the village, had got him a job.
In Madrid he used an electric light for the first time, the first place he saw a car, the first place he had a drink from a tap, the first time he slept on a bed, and not on straw mattresses on the floor.
He jumped the fence at the bullfighters’ training camp at Batan. Trainees were receiving instruction, a red cape being drawn back and back and back, Luis’s mind floating like a kite as that cape went back and back, back like a bow yearning for release.
The instructor’s head turned; the distracted trainees weren’t looking, the instructor seeing a short, strong teenager, with a bent nose, staring from the ring’s barrier.
“Please, señor, I need a job here. I’ll do anything,” Luis said.
The instructor asked: “And what are you dedicated to?”
“I’m a butcher’s apprentice,” Luis replied, “but I want to fight bulls.”
The instructor, Jesús Del Bosque, had had a distinguished career as a bullfighter, cutting two ears and a tail one day during the Festival of San Isidro in Madrid, the highest achievement for a matador.
“And is your name,” he smiled, “Pedro Romero?”
Luis’s big, shy smile delighted Jesús.
“Luis Fernández García.”
“Well, Luis Fernández García,” Del Bosque said, “if fighting bulls is what you want to do, then that’s what you’re going to do.”
Del Bosque acknowledged that desperation that separates obsession from desire.
“Be here tomorrow,” he said, “at nine.”
Luis clenched and shook his fists with the thrilling relief of liberating revenge against doubters as he left the ring.
He handed a lance-flag to Espíritu Santo and said: “Be yourself. That’ll be enough.”
Espíritu Santo, who Luis knew was one of “the chosen ones”, faced a waiting bull. Curiosity has killed some cats, Luis thought, but it has annihilated more bulls–and killed countless men.
Cats, Luis thought, are third in line.
The bull’s eyes became crystals of inquisitiveness. Curiosity produces knowledge; and there is no greater knowledge than discovering what you possess under death’s threat, that knowledge so great that men are prepared to die trying to get it.
What beautiful eyes you’ve got, bull, Espíritu Santo thought, the eyes of one who can’t resist dangerous games. I know how you feel. We, bull, are amongst the chosen few and I already feel ten metres high and I haven’t even done anything yet.
The horse stared at the bull who stared at the man. Luis wondered what a horse and bull would say to each other if they could speak. Perhaps: “No bastard will ever get on top of me.” (Bull). “That’s because you’re an idiot.” (Horse).
The horse’s front legs reared, the bull charged, the elusive horse sending the bull the wrong way, Espíritu Santo inserting the lance into the bull’s back, twisting his wrist, releasing a blue and red flag that he waved into the bull’s face, the bull pursuing the horse, man, bull, flag and horse circling the ring at sprinter’s speed, all elements unifying, the horns almost touching the horse’s rear, horse and man looking behind at the horns, hail-storm applause rising as that unity rushed inches from the barrier, moving out slightly to avoid the protrusions where bullfighters could enter the ring, then moving back to brush past upright wood, the crowd’s applauding erupting into cascading appreciation as the bull stopped its charging, Espíritu Santo riding across the ring, holding his flag pole aloft, blue and red a pretty rectangle above his circular, white hat that he raised to the crowd that clapped and smiled, a crowd brought alive by something so alive that it made everyone behave homogeneously, irrespective of character, a true sign of art.
Antonio took a long banderilla from Luis. He returned to the bull whose left flank was now streaked red. The horse’s head went one way, then the other, its sideways strides so enormous, unexpected and original that the crowd gasped, certain the bull would strike with its horns; but it missed, Espíritu Santo leaning over, driving the banderilla into the bull’s back, contact producing a hissing squelching, the crowd’s roaring like a rushing cascade, a shower of delight, Espíritu Santo riding around the ring, right hand raised, roaring-river crowd a single entity of appreciation.
“He thinks,” Pedro smirked, “that he’s done something special. What a baby.”
Pedro hadn’t realised yet that Antonio was being deceitful. Espíritu Santo knew what he had just done was outstanding, but it was what you would expect from genius, and what you would expect from genius wasn’t what Antonio had in mind.
“Give me both,” he told Luis.
“You sure?” Luis asked.
Espíritu Santo, facing the bull, held the two remaining long banderillas, one in each hand, all four limbs operating independently of the rest, vertical banderillas, like vast, tropical fangs, hanging from his outstretched hands, the crowd cheering with the pleasure of the unexpected, the horse’s head swaying one way, then the other, front hooves moving with the head, the dancing horse holding up a humanoid, tropical insect whose colourful fangs were poised to pierce a horned beast, the horse avoiding the bull by making a sudden, huge sideways step that surprised the crowd, Espíritu Santo’s elbows rising up, spreading apart, fangs in front of their owner’s face, the fangs plunging at forty-five-degrees, striking the bull’s back on either side of the lance-flag’s red stump, an excellent target against black, the hanging banderillas swaying against red flanks, the crowd unleashing rushing-water delight, hands beating, Espíritu Santo smiling, waving his hat, acknowledging the generosity in this unity of appreciation, Luis thinking: What creativity; Hermoso de Fuentebonito thinking: Have I got a surprise for you, kid; Luis thinking: Hermoso de Fuentebonito is going to do something about this. He isn’t going to let this go.
The crowd, returning to waving fans, had been opened up to unexpected possibilities, freshened by originality, the cynical crust removed to expose the unexpected palliation of renewed hope.
Taking the three short banderillas from Luis, Antonio said: “Prepare thyself, humble, but noble, servant for bang, bang, bang.”
Espíritu Santo’s smile was boyishly naughty.
Luis said: “It’s not me who has to prepare himself, but Señor Hermoso de Fuentebonito.”
“He’ll never be ready for it,” Antonio replied, the response Luis had been expecting.
Luis watched Espíritu Santo’s horse’s tail, of creamy, cascading follicles, spreading as it fell towards the ground, a waterfall of delicacy and exuberance that shone, like youth, making Luis contemplate the vein of talent running through his young compatriot, shining, Luis thought, like justified confidence. We admire confidence, he thought, because it appears natural and beautiful like that tail, a tail like ivory silk; there’s nothing more beautiful than a downpour of follicles enveloping a face of great beauty, for that showering concentrates our minds upon the positive things beneath those beautiful facades. And this is the power of confidence.
Espíritu Santo faced the bull whose eyes didn’t quite express confidence, but were switched on nonetheless by the thrill of being invited to play a dangerous game; bulls aren’t as stupid as they look. This one knew its opponent had great trickery; hence its iris lights possessed wariness mixed with the determination to learn. And so Espíritu Santo knew from those lights that what he was about to do would require maximum skill without margin for error; but justified confidence told him in its clear voice that what he was planning was within his grasp, even an elegant trifle whose execution would exhibit an audacity that would make the traditionalists believe that Antonio was mocking the past.
The three short banderillas went in, one, two, three, bang, bang, bang, rapid-fire succession, Luis’s heart rising like a fountain of wonder, Espíritu Santo circling the bull on his horse, spinning, leaning over, right palm placed on the bull’s head between the horns, man, horse and bull rotating as one, all elements harmonised, the crowd, smacking their hands together, producing the equivalent of hailstones striking corrugated-iron, Pedro saying: “Gentlemen, I’ve got a little trick of my own,” Espíritu Santo riding to the barrier, front hooves placed on the barrier’s bottom rail, horse and man rising, hands and hat rising to salute the rising crowd, Luis thinking: Talent turns imagination into reality; that’s power.
He had never seen a rider acknowledging the crowd by getting his horse to place its front hooves onto the barrier’s bottom rail, Luis thinking: The crowd appreciates his extraordinary creativity more than some professionals because the crowd’s envy is ego-free.
Espíritu Santo rode over to Luis; taking the killing lance, Antonio said: “I’m going to call this horse Cervantes. He’s almost as intelligent as you.”
“Cervantes was a gorilla in comparison to me,” Luis replied, with his bent-nosed grin.
“There’s nothing like self-belief,” Espíritu Santo said.
The bull, with its African-style adornments, stood waiting for its beguiling playmates to return. A red lance rose above the horse’s white head. The bull now had no illusions about that prong’s intentions. It knew it had to avoid that fang while trying to gore that double-headed creature whose sense of humour possessed eccentric naughtiness.
This time the bull didn’t follow the horse’s movements; it focussed on its own will, not moving when it should have, fang missing its target, Pedro saying: “Gentlemen, gentlemen, gentlemen, why do these upstarts ignore the basics? Is it possible that there is a coherent answer to that question?”
Luis thought: That prick up there will use this to avoid giving Antonio an ear; but Mister Prick is going to get it from the crowd if no ear is awarded.
The fight’s president was a well-known narcissist disdainful of fanciful displays, unless they involved obsequious respect for his authority. And Pedro knew it very well. He had learnt all aspects of the game, in and outside the ring, “the noble art,” he often said, “of artistry.”
He was amused by how Anglo-Saxons said mierda de toro when referring to artistry.
The second attempt ended with the killing lance’s head rammed in perfectly between the bull’s shoulders, a blade between the blades, Luis thought, while flashing a pink cape into the bull’s face, Espíritu Santo dismounting, observing the bull whose legs had found strange, skew-with positions, a creature now lost in impending death’s wilderness, that desert where no game pleases; and when the shadow of departing consciousness had flashed away, the bull’s legs horizontal to the sand, sandy blood necklaces laid by the hands of creative brilliance upon the ring’s yellow chest, fluttering, white handkerchiefs of appreciation erupted amid the whistling crowd that rose, demanding that el President de la Rejonería award this display with the merit it deserved, the whistling mounting as the President’s handkerchief didn’t appear over the balustrade of his high, white balcony, someone screaming: “What’s that bastard up there doing? Pulling himself off as usual?”
Luis told Antonio to “get into the middle and acknowledge the crowd. They’re more important than him. They’re your gauge–not that bastard up there.”
Espíritu Santo stood in the arena’s heart, rotating, his raised hat following the ring’s curve whose occupants produced a snow-white avalanche of butterfly-wing fabrics, the method used by a crowd to indicate a great performance, Antonio feeling as if he was flying, like in one of those dreams, Luis recalling the day when Jesús Del Bosque stormed into Batan’s offices, and slapping his hands down on the president’s desk, Jesús had said: “If you throw this kid out I’m leaving!”
The son of the man who Jesús had screamed at was now observing from the high balcony, watching the rotating Espíritu Santo, who failed to acknowledge him, Espíritu Santo still young enough to believe that merit comes because of talent and nothing else, Hermoso de Fuentebonito grinning his toothy, leaf-mouthed, wicked, shark grin that flared Hermoso de Fuentebonito’s nostrils, as if Hermoso de Fuentebonito was smelling something putrid, Hermoso de Fuentebonito saying: “This bastard isn’t generous, kid, unless you kiss culo. Purse thy lips for artistry.”
He said this before heading off to mount a horse. His view of politics: Adore fooling them into thinking you’re genuine.
His estimation of the situation was accurate. The president used the failed attempt with the killing lance to not award an ear, Luis repeating: “The crowd is more important. They’re unprejudiced towards originality. They know the past gets left behind.”
He recalled Jesús saying: “This kid has got more guts and inspiration in his left earlobe than most people will ever have in their entire bodies. You throw him out of here and I’ll take everyone from here and start my own school.”
When Pedro rode back into the ring, the crowd knew that the challenge that had been set by Espíritu Santo would now have to be met, and surpassed, if Pedro was going to maintain his reputation as history’s greatest ever bullfighter on horseback; so excited ignorance filled the atmosphere, an unknown unknown awaiting, expectation as fresh as the white that had just erupted, like a spring-outburst of petals, over the crowd, waving fans wafting in hot air, heads still, faceless heads turning into faces as the eye traced a path around the ring to where that eye’s beholder might have been, the stillness, apart from the fans, filled with the concentration that comes from our fixation with the present, the past meaningless to the beholders of those eyes whose imaginations demand the new, fascination magnified by a fight that had become a question of dignity. And there is no bigger question than that.
Hermoso de Fuentebonito’s determination had been uplifted by this atmosphere that felt like an impertinent suggestion, for it suggested that he might fail the challenge. He interpreted it this way intentionally. Even if only one person doubted his capacity to retaliate, he was going to make that individual regret their “failure of vision.”
The bull, fascinated like the crowd, was absorbed by Pedro’s horse that lifted its front hooves up and down before the bull’s face that looked sweet as it stared, the crowd’s silence slashed by roaring, spontaneous surprise, charmed by this dancing, the lance-flag vertical in Hermoso de Fuentebonito’s right hand, the horse’s head swaying with its hooves.
Surprise, the artist’s goal, should be natural, an unconscious manifestation of a deeper inspiration, a force that drives imagination out of its dungeon of dormancy. And the biggest force is love. Whatever they say about me, Pedro thought, no can claim that someone else has loved this more than me. No one.
For the one thousandth, three-hundred and eighth time, Hermoso de Fuentebonito was in a rejonería; it had been the same every time, like dreaming while flying, the crowd’s chorus as uplifting as anything he had ever heard in a concert venue.
The horse stopped dancing, face-to-face creatures in a tension waiting to snap. The horse’s rising front hooves became the wooden tips of sinewy arcs of elegant provocation. The bull went one way, the horse the other, Hermoso de Fuentebonito, in his red jacket, planting a green-and-white stick into a black hide; then riding across the ring, his colours flying, the bull pursuing, Hermoso de Fuentebonito placing the flag into the bull’s face, the three creatures speeding around the perimeter as one.
When the bull stopped pursuing, Hermoso de Fuentebonito spun his horse to face the bull; a second passed and then another and then another, tense disbelief mounting; then the bull charged, Hermoso de Fuentebonito spinning his horse in the tight space between the bull and the barrier, the bull just missing with its horns, no margin of error in Hermoso de Fuentebonito’s daring calculation, the crowd heaving out its river music of felicitous surprise, a song plentiful with harmoniously clashing pitches of delight.
Pedro rotated his horse in the ring’s centre, acknowledging the crowd’s freedom from vanity. The crowd, liberated from predictability, adored the brilliantly unexpected, moved by the twisting, then creation of rules: by brave execution of unconsidered newness.
“These babies,” Espíritu Santo pronounced, “haven’t seen anything yet.”
It’s motivating for a talented man to discover that rules are broken to create excellence.
Pedro stopped his horse’s rotation to face the president whom he acknowledged with that smile of delighted disdain.
“Sucking up as usual,” Antonio said.
Pandering to egos wasn’t Espíritu Santo’s forte, and neither was being insulting to inferiors, his life sliding along sincerity’s steel edge. Seeing Hermoso de Fuentebonito insert two long banderillas into the bull’s back, he said: “The only thing the man has ever done is to follow what others have done.”
But the crowd saw it differently. They were interested in what Hermoso de Fuentebonito could do, not in what he was like, and what Hermoso de Fuentebonito did was so gracefully executed that his potential seemed limitless, the crowd interested in the future, not the past.
Because Hermoso de Fuentebonito did things so easily–seemingly no barrier to his free-flowing expertise–he provided a surrogate lift for the crowd out of the predictably of limited circumstances, a vicarious link to greatness.
But Espíritu Santo was so gifted, creatively, that it didn’t surprise Luis that his young companion felt that Hermoso de Fuentebonito wasn’t creative enough, Espíritu Santo’s unique point of view born from his unique talent, Antonio’s vision often appearing radical to those without his gifts.
Hermoso de Fuentebonito took the game onto a new level. Arms outstretched, short banderillas in both hands, the crowd singing their river song of excitation…………
The short banderillas landed beside their longer brothers, Hermoso de Fuentebonito’s right hand connecting three rotating creatures, hand between the horns, little room for manoeuvre, time becoming mesmerising forgetfulness, the crowd’s roaring a crackling oneness of different pitches.
The man broke the link by taking his hand away, finishing this balance of elements by raising his hat to the crowd, the bull now a bemused spectator in the ring’s centre.
“One day,” Luis said, “they’ll learn that bang, bang, bang is more difficult.”
“Who’s going to teach them?” Antonio asked.
“Time,” Luis replied.
Hermoso de Fuentebonito’s smile contained naughty gratification. The thing isn’t what is better, he thought, but what people believe is better. Not having sufficient knowledge, they believe anything. Their instinct for believing aids survival.
“Time,” Luis continued, “for Hermoso de Fuentebonito to tell them.”
Antonio looked quickly at Luis.
“He’ll tell them for sure,” Luis said, “when he retires, which will be a long time before you do. It’ll give him enormous pleasure telling everyone they’re wrong.”
The knowledge that Espíritu Santo suddenly gained came like a fast-working antidote. Luis removed impatience from Espíritu’s waiting. Destiny is unavoidable, a hard fact swallowed with recognition sweeteners.
“Do what you can do,” Luis said, “and he will do the rest for you.”
“How do you know?” Antonio asked.
“Being recognised as the best,” Luis said, “makes a man modest. There is no greater opportunity than that. That was what I observed about Jesús Del Bosque. His gratitude was religious, to the point where he would help anyone. It’ll happen to him as well.”
Luis pointed at Pedro who was poised to eliminate another victim. Hermoso de Fuentebonito had already killed three thousand, two hundred and seven bulls, this going to be amongst the sweetest. Being doubted by a young rival was inspiring, a fresh thrill late in his career, a new opportunity to demonstrate what had to be done to reach the zenith. What was necessary to reach the summit wasn’t just based on brilliance with horses. There were other factors, common sense to find those others factors amusing.
Pedro turned his horse away from the bull to raise his hat again to the man in the presidential box. Sometimes, Pedro thought, it pays to dedicate a kill to someone you detest. I’ve never been a great one for sincerity, except with myself, which is the only sincerity that counts.
“Beautiful,” Luis grinned, watching Pedro’s hat describing an arc of flamboyant acknowledgement to a flourishing ego.
Luis adored the wit inherent in Hermoso de Fuentebonito’s flamboyant insincerity; he thought that Hermoso de Fuentebonito should become a politician.
Pedro, turning his steed’s white head to face the black beast, noted how wonderfully placed the banderillas were, like a composer who, hearing the final touches to one of his compositions, realises that improvement is impossible.
And this is the real reason for sincerity, he thought. You cannot fool yourself. If you produce garbage, recognise it. Acknowledge the opportunity to show improvement. This gives you another yardstick to measure performance. The more yardsticks you have the better.
His mind entered the arena’s silence whose purity possessed the intensity of profound concentration. The stillness of man, horse and bull was made to be broken, a stillness without tranquillity, the damn of rising expectation reaching its brim.
The sound born from the rhythms of swishing fans got engulfed by the arena’s quietude, a silence broken by a waterfall roar as the killing lance struck, volume increased by death’s hand.
The bull wandered without purpose, its back a display board of coloured paper dipped in blood. It stood, rear against the fence, facing Hermoso de Fuentebonito who dismounted and leant forward, right leg stretched, weight on the left leg, right hand of death on the bull’s head, arm outstretched, weight forward to “pressure” the bull to collapse, the bull collapsing–dead.
Snowy handkerchiefs fluttered in flying fingertips, the president’s white cloth falling over his balcony’s balustrade, the crowd roaring.
An assistant cut an ear off the bull; Hermoso de Fuentebonito held it up as he circled the ring, people rising, Hermoso de Fuentebonito being pursued by three assistants whose crystal-covered clothes sparkled, the crowd’s applause rising and falling around the ring with Hermoso de Fuentebonito’s movement towards and away from the rising sections, like an auditory Mexican wave, fans being thrown from the crowd, Hermoso de Fuentebonito picking some up and kissing them and throwing them back, his assistants throwing back the rest.
Espíritu Santo had mounted the horse he most loved, the creature who best understood. He whispered into this horse’s ear: “I love you, baby, you know that. Today we need your best. Be free.”
He could hear the roar that indicated that Pedro was circling the arena, Hermoso de Fuentebonito going to its centre, the ring’s circular rows like ripples expanding out from an explosion of wizardry.
Pedro rotated on the spot, holding aloft his hat and the ear, his teeth exposed by the idea that recognition has to be sought by the talented from the untalented so that talent can flourish, his pirouette completed with a final acknowledgement to the president.
Hermoso de Fuentebonito felt grateful that he accepted realities with amusement, unlike Espíritu Santo whose entry into the ring occurred as dark clouds obscured the sun, crooked, gilded light outlining vapours that had turned the sun into a hazy-edged globe.
Espíritu Santo had too many things on his mind as he lined up the bull with the lance-flag, crying out: “Hey, hey, hey,” to get the bull’s attention, so many things that he made a clean swipe, his “ahohhhh,” audible to those near the fence.
The crowd groaned.
It’s surprising how encouraging a crowd can be, after cynicism, when it understands that you have the right to do what you want to do. The spectators had things on their minds as well, especially what was going to happen in the later stages; so they ignored this error, knowing that something remarkable awaited. Their appreciation of Espíritu Santo’s talent was now so high that any errors the young horseman committed were dismissed as anomalies.
But the president wasn’t so generous.
“He’s not interested in details, is he?” he said.
The meaning of “details” might have been beyond many, but not Hermoso de Fuentebonito who would have interpreted it as an expression of relief. Andrés Martínez, the president, didn’t award accolades without receiving them, his picturesque self-analysis not enabling him to judge with that love for art that creates its own system of objectivity, Hermoso de Fuentebonito, behind the barrier, saying: “Basics, man, basics. Don’t you know El Cabrón Presidente was born to misuse power?”
Hermoso de Fuentebonito’s teeth looked like they were being exposed by wires pulling the corners of his mouth towards his ears. He knew his throne on the pinnacle of greatness was now not going to be challenged that day. Espíritu Santo was an upstart who needed humility, something Martínez, Hermoso de Fuentebonito thought, could use himself; but that bastard up there will never have to face a test to his glorious self-perception. He has come from a hallowed past whose virtues cannot be challenged. Time has frozen those virtues into an unbreakable capsule that chance has inserted into the walls of tradition’s halls. And doesn’t that bastard lap it up, like an emperor who thinks he’s been blessed by divine providence. He has never had to live with permanent obscurity being a threat.
Espíritu Santo’s second lance-flag attempt was better, but not perfect, the flag not unfurling as it should have. Then he missed with the first long banderilla and when he inserted it perfectly with the second attempt he lifted off his hat and rode quickly to the fence, giving the spectators the opportunity to express their appreciation, spiting his rival who said: “At least he’s learnt the art of taking the piss.”
“He loves himself, doesn’t he?” Martínez persisted.
Self-love wasn’t permitted unless it involved an inflated acknowledgement of others’ undoubted qualities.
But the crowd loved Espíritu Santo. They loved him for his audacity, his flair, his imagination; and they loved him because he was sincere; they loved him unconditionally, because that was how they loved art. Espíritu Santo felt that love. It steadied him, clearing his mind, giving his thoughts a quality of crystalline mother-of-pearl. He needed that tranquillising love; it was for this reason that he had provoked an undue outburst of recognition after a poor beginning. The trick worked. He flourished on confidence. You gave him confidence and he rewarded you with brilliance, satisfying your love of genius.
He reversed away to the fence, his horse’s hooves prancing, the crowd clapping; he charged the bull, placing the banderillas correctly and dangerously at high speed, roaring enrapture enveloping the ring, thrilled disbelief evoked by reckless bravery.
The third long banderilla was followed by a pass so close and at such a shallow angle to the bull that some people gasped, thinking that the horse had been hit.
Then Espíritu Santo circled the bull, his horse’s neck extending, its teeth becoming exposed, the horse pretending to bite the black hide, the impromptu-choir crowd producing its crackling, river song, the horse’s jaws champing, the bull turning and turning, being “nipped” by a cheeky, white head.
Then Espíritu Santo rode quickly around the ring’s perimeter, holding his hat aloft, Luis thinking: Resolve is measured by how quickly a man recovers.
Espíritu Santo placed three short banderillas in in rapid succession, bang, bang, bang, his trademark style that was so original that it was never going to bore, always entertaining, like a permanent one-off, like a truth that could be read and re-read and re-read, gaining poignancy the more it was analysed and read.
Espíritu Santo circled the bull, holding his hat in his right hand; he leant over, placing the hat between the horns onto the bull’s head, the hat staying there, Espíritu Santo riding away, a white hat crowning a black head.
The gasping, yelping, grinning, laughing crowd looked at the stationary bull, the white hat perched between the horns, the bull’s red flanks covered by colourful banderillas, the bull adorned like a tourist in Hawaii.
Hermoso de Fuentebonito was appalled by this “ridiculing of a bull.” He was twenty years older than Espíritu Santo, beyond his education to consider doing such a thing, even if it gave the crowd pleasure. There were limits that had to be preserved; Hermoso de Fuentebonito felt that Espíritu Santo had done this to spite the past’s traditions.
“You have permission to kill me with a killing lance,” he told his assistants, “if you see me do something like that.”
But Espíritu Santo had not considered the past’s traditions; he was concerned about demonstrating his art in any way that pleased the spectators, the general response over time, in his opinion, the defining factor in terms of justification. This placing of hats on bull’s heads was going to become a part of the tradition, separating itself from questions of decency.
Espíritu Santo raised the killing sword, the bull fixated on the heads that faced him. The sun had now half emerged from behind a cloud, its misshapen radiance sending bands of light towards the ground, cloud edges ringed gold.
The bull charged, three united creatures, moving in different ways, Espíritu Santo’s right hand just above his head, his left foot protruding out from near the horse’s back, the horse balanced on its front left hoof, the three other hooves off the ground, the horns under Espíritu Santo’s face, the lance at sixty degrees, the right arm and lance forming the top sides of a triangle, and then—
The bull staggered, Espíritu Santo dismounted amid men in sparkling suits who were waving pink capes into the bull’s face, Luis amongst them, the bull’s back hooves awkwardly apart; the bull plummeted, terminal-velocity crash in the flash of an eye, four rigid legs suddenly horizontal, the crowd rising, Espíritu Santo clenching his fists and punching the air, the crowd roaring, white handkerchiefs fluttering around the ring, the crowd demanding that Martínez award an ear, fabrics waving, Martinez not giving the ear, the crowd’s whistling getting louder, Espíritu Santo pirouetting in the ring’s centre, acknowledging the crowd’s appreciation with a raised hat, the whistling a shrilling plea for justice, the ear still not being awarded, someone yelling: “You blind bastard!”
Luis said: “Listen to that crowd. Forget presidents. That’s the sound you want to hear. Look at that winter white in summer sunshine. They know.”
The fluttering white always reminded Luis of butterflies upon steep fields of coloured flowers that made him recall the poppy fields of his youth; the fluttering stopped and the roaring descended to a rumbling soft clattering and the crowd was taking a rest from its appreciation and Luis and Antonio left the ring and then all three riders returned with their assistants. They grouped on the other side of the ring, facing the doors that led back into the changing rooms, Pedro hugging Leonardo Hernández, the other rider that day, who had cut an ear in his final, clinical performance that had lacked creativity, but had observed all the basics, and Hermoso de Fuentebonito’s felicitation of Leonardo wasn’t just designed to hammer into Espíritu Santo the necessity of doing the fundamentals perfectly, of pointing out who was best, but Hernández had come back after losing the sight in his right eye in a terrible accident, Hermoso de Fuentebonito admiring this tenacity, the assistants of the three riders shaking hands in a sombre ritual of acknowledgement that contained a genuine, but repressed, undercurrent of respect that highlighted the fact that Hermoso de Fuentebonito and Espíritu Santo were ignoring each other; then Pedro took off back across the ring, holding up the ear he had cut, the crowd roaring and applauding, Espíritu Santo feeling small–he didn’t want to be there–and when it was his turn to start walking back across the ring his head was down, a man who had not cut an ear between two who had; but the crowd screamed and roared and clapped and shouted and yelled, thumping their hands together, raising those hands above their heads, the vast increase in volume making Espíritu Santo lift his head; when his head went up the volume went up even more, causing Espíritu Santo to cross his arms across his chest as if to say: “What else could I have done?” a wave of cheering sweeping around the ring, Espíritu Santo’s doubts getting replaced by that motivating certainty that causes a man to think: You bet your fucking arses my performance was magnificent! His chin could now not have been higher, Luis thinking: Yes, crowd, you’re right. You have seen something today that you know cannot be stopped.
And Hermoso de Fuentebonito knew it as well; he just wasn’t telling anyone yet.