The sun mercifully didn’t shine that afternoon.
If it had, the spectacle would have been unbearable.
In three hours, I watched six bulls fight against an inevitable fate. And lose. Some lost with dignity, falling gracefully as the glinting blade penetrated flesh in a swift, clean motion. Others suffered beneath a misplaced jab, resigning themselves to one cruel stab after another as the impatient crowd began to mutter, wishing the damn thing would just die already.
I had to look away.
The trumpets bleated raspingly as the toreadors milled about, dragging their pink capes in the yellow sand. Without warning, the bull burst through the gate, a solid black mass of muscle, an angry brand protruding from its flank. The toreadors scattered, their suits of light clinking, their pants stretching tightly across their skinny calves. After galloping around the ring the bull came to a halt, wearily eyeing the men behind the wooden barricades. One stepped out, then another, and the real show began.
One can’t deny the intrinsic artistry behind the way the men maneuvered the capes, taunting the bull to charge once, then again, and again, and again. They whirled around in carefully synchronized movements, and all of a sudden I understood where flamenco must derive from.
The trumpets echoed and the men retreated, two entertaining the bull as two horses were lead into the circle, blindfolded and draped with a thick layer of protected padding. I squinted in confusion; why would the horse be blindfolded? Didn’t that seem unfair? (And then I thought of the unfairness of the entire situation itself—six men and two horses versus one bull—and kept my mouth shut.) But then the bull charged, hitting the horse at full force as it staggered backward, and I realized that if I was lead into a ring to be attacked by a bull I wouldn’t want to see it, either. The horse just stood there as the picador raised his lance and drove it into the beast’s fleshy back. I winced as blood began to stream from the wound, but the bull didn’t stop its ferocious attack, again and again and again.
The trumpets echoed and the horses trotted out, seemingly unfazed and without any obvious limp. How many times had it been subjected to this, I wondered? To what point had it been desensitized to being plowed in the side by 500 kilograms of flesh, over and over again.
To what point had we ourselves been desensitized?
The toreadors sauntered back into the center of the ring and formed a haphazard circle around the bull. A few now wielded bandilleras, which are short colorful barbed sticks. After a few simple passes with the cape, the toreador with the banderillero rose dramatically on his toes, raised his arms in the air, and began a full sprint at the snorting bull. In an instant he leapt into the air, stabbed the banderillas into the bull’s back, and fled on nimble feet as his comrades descended in to distract the incited bucking beast, trying to rid itself of the barbed metal jammed in its fleshy neck. One by one they ran up and drove their stakes in, until the poor thing was decorated like some sort of twisted holiday ornament. The trumpets echoed, and the men retreated. Two for three.
The third spectacle is what our notion is of the Spanish bullfight. It is the matador tossing his felt cap into the stands and strutting into the ring with an unquestionable air of arrogance, alone. It is the wounded bull eyeing him warily as he makes his approach, suit jingling as he tosses out insults. It is the charge at the red cape, one after another, as the crowd shouts “olé!” and “baja la mano!” and jeers if the bull—not the matador—makes a mistake. It is the effortless plunge of the sword, the instant kill, so fast that I didn’t even notice until the bull froze, swayed for a moment, and fell to the raucous applause of the crowd, who drew out their white kerchiefs to show their approval for the easy kill. I can stay for this, I thought to myself. If the bull died like that, instantly, the next 2.5 hours would be bearable.
A team of donkeys trotted in the ring to drag the bull away unceremoniously, and it only got worse from there.
Bull #2 was white, which only meant that I could tell exactly how much it bled when the picadors and banderilleros did the preliminary dirty work. The matador was excessively vainglorious and, according to the old men behind me, was attempting passes that were much too difficult. “Idiot’s going to get himself gored,” the man grumbled.
He was right.
In an instant, the matador was on the ground and the bull reared its head, sensing an opportunity for vengeance. He rose in the nick of time and went back to whirling his red cape without batting an eye. But pride raised his ugly head and the matador stumbled, only to go flying through the air on razor sharp horns. The woman in front of me buried her head in her neighbor’s lap; I squeezed my eyes shut like a small child, only to open them and see the matador still on his feet, without any evident limp or injuries.
It still took him more than few tries to make the final kill, though. I couldn’t watch, but the groans of the crowd with every miss was enough.
With each bull I became increasingly more nauseous. #3 was brown and nothing out of the ordinary. I don’t remember anything spectacular about #4.
#5 was clumsy, but not as clumsy as #6, which did two complete somersaults and had the crowd chanting for its removal from the ring for being a sub-par bull. The ending was unbearably gruesome; a far cry from the first black bull that died with dignity a few short hours ago.
Did the bulls know their fate when they entered the ring? Did they know that they were going to die?
It was an experience to say the least, but I can’t see myself ever going back.