[ Issue 7 / November 2013]
The heat hangs so heavy it is cinematic. It is four in the afternoon and she would have expected a certain cooling by now, but it has heightened, intensified. This moment of walking the large worn slabs of stone through the village with a murmuring mass of people, towards the Plaça del Toro, is in formal contrast to their happy noontime pool splashings. The air shines; the crowd’s heads are illuminated; sun strikes off walls into a throbbing of lust and expectancy. Life is suddenly a thing of vital drama.
Their group arrives at the entrance of the circular stone place. The crooked, naughty smile of the fair-haired English boy Simon floats back to her, and she feels it incongruous, not serious enough for here, this now. She cannot express such lightness in this atmosphere of waiting passion. They file into their row of wooden seats, in tiered levels high above the central, sand-covered arena. Little plastic cups of sweet red wine are procured from some cabin below. They sit, solemn or sarcastic, joking or nervous, according to type. People are getting excited and from all around the oval of the Plaça float laughs and cries, holas and celebratory meetings.
When it begins it is shocking and hurtful and cruel – for everyone, she thinks. It is a show and a spectacle and the people watching all around play their full part. A dirty-white bull with large curving horns is released through gates at one end of the arena and runs into the centre. He stops, and looks up. She thinks what it would be like to look up and be surrounded by this crowd of eager animals in circles, all watching with brutal intent, and she imagines his terror and she feels an awful tug of heart like she might for a frightened child. A long-limbed man in a tight white tunic, narrow legs wrapped in flared trousers, enters from the central alley atop a frilled horse. He invades the animal’s periphery and starts to ride around it.
Deep shouts from the throats and heavy beats from the hearts of the villagers start to stoke a fire, a mass physical thrill that whips her up with a fierce power that her cool brain defuses, to prevent such cries issuing from her own throat. Heat still plasters all. As the fizzing white length of male torso bounces around the arena, flicking long sharp decorated prongs into the flanks of the maddened, galloping animal, Helen, one of the group, gets up and runs from the row and from the place.
The torture lasts for fifteen minutes. A series of shiny-clad toreador men with oiled hair and bright coloured tassels stitched to their costumes, and pointed weapons swinging from their hands, poke, prick and prance at the white victim, the lone member of his own team, until he is weakened and his knees knock and falter beneath him. The last matador enters his dagger, but clumsily, into the creature’s neck, festooned already with green and pink garlands of lances. It is badly done and the bull shudders at length before falling still on the ground. The crowd falters for a second in its cheers.
Their holiday group is silent. The dead animal is lifted onto a cart and rolled away. The second fight is less shocking, and the finishing knife-blow smoother, more effective. Before this bull is taken away, his tail is cut off by the grinning, winning matador to great roars from the crowd, and hurled into the rafters. It arcs towards the group and Phil, one of the English boys, grabs it and turns towards them all in triumph and leering madness, raising it aloft in his fist.
She leaves the row to go to the fountain and fill up her water bottle, for a break and to rinse her dry throat. Outside the gate she finds Alvaro’s jolly father and he sees her large-eyed, rueful response to his community’s display of bloodlust. He tells her, somehow, that this is their tradition. It is what is done. It is part of the life of the village.
She carries on down to the fountain, and puts her hands under the fresh cold flow to drink. As she begins the filling of her plastic bottle, she turns to her right and there, coming down the street from the plaça, is a cart, rolled by brown wrinkled men. It carries the first dead bull. White, grimed, the sun still lights its skin but gently now. A short, sturdy man approaches the creature’s head and shoves a dagger into its broad throat. A red fountain of blood gushes from its jugular, pours off the side of the cart down to the cobbles and runs down the gaps between them, away from her and the man. As she watches, he comes to her side and plunges the dagger and his stubby, dirty hands into the water of the fountain’s stone bowl, below her bottle. She steps back, and walks up to the bullring again.
After another two bulls are killed, the crowd is satisfied and the fight is over. Only it wasn’t a fight, she says to her group. A fight has matched opponents. The bulls had no fair chance at all, that was clear. Discussions of wrongs and ethics, bans and dead matadors, gorings in Madrid are floated and lost when a new air of merry lightness enters the arena and the deep red purple wine blood passion dissipates, as it has to, into a mirthful hour of amateur bullbaiting. Small baby bulls are released into the circle and young village men jump over the seats to run with them, and away from them, tanned hairy legs pumping in excited fear towards the wooden railings. Bangs and yells fill the space as horny heads and desperate hands crash into the sides. The boys laugh and joke and grab each other. Alvaro calls down to his young cousin Javi who is there below, tells him to meet them in the bar for canas. Phil crows over his prize tail to the others and Helen, the tender vegetarian, is repulsed. But he is a brash, thick-skinned boy and does not desist.
As the plaça starts to empty out, men enter the reddened sandy centre with sweeping implements and rake over the blood, neatly, methodically, until the whole oval is tidy and clean again, and ready for the evening. As twilight passes and the air cools and night comes, the village will enter once more, to dance over the sand. The band play salsa and waltzing tunes for husbands and wives, and grandmothers twirl with brown-haired children. Later they will go home to eat and the young will fill the arena to disco under strobes. No sign is left of what passed before, and the multi-purpose village space wears a new glamorous outfit, and everyone hangs by the gates, drinking, and laughing, and smoking. The fiesta goes on, all night long, and dark-haired girls swing down the streets and old men croak to each other, smoking in little circles, and thick hot potato soup is cooked up in giant cauldrons and stirred enticingly, and buckets of rum and coke are passed over the steel bartops, and the party is fine and long and tireless. They dance, and drink, and play table football, and love the moment and roam in gangs with their arms wrapped about each other. She gets lost amongst the maze of steep streets and Alvaro’s cousins bring her back to the group.
She wonders where the four maimed bull carcasses ended up, and whether their souls mind that everyone has forgotten them, or that their dusty death scenes have been lit out by bright coloured strings of lightbulbs. In the weary, joyous dawn that shows the mountains clear and the young villagers, now their fast friends, rolling between club tables and street corners, she eats churros with chocolate and it is the most perfect breakfast imaginable.
The heat comes again later. They leave the village and the pool’s blue coolness at midday, and her heart hurts. She sleeps in pieces through the long terrible journey down the mountain and to the city, and images of the night play through her mind in confused, hallucinatory sequence. The others are not so affected; for them it was a holiday, no more, no less. At least that is how it seems to her. Always, in after days, she feels the pressure of that dramatic heat on those people and those old stone slabs, on her hair and on her cheekbones. As if that day a starring role as an extra in a wild, unforgettable film had left a mark, a brand on her, a heat-burn from another consciousness. Her friends roll their eyes when she wishes they would all return together to Pedro Bernardo; and maybe they are right, for sequels often turn out to be laughable, and the first-time thunder of blood can never be revisited.
Rasheeqa Ahmad is a herbalist, writer and lover of travels, based in Walthamstow, east London, UK. In March 2013 she attended the UEA International Creative Writing Workshop in Kolkata.