By Suzy Beal
This is the ninth episode of a memoir that is unfolding, one chapter each month, here on True Stories Well Told. Stay tuned for more of the adventure as teenage Suzy’s family moves to Europe, builds a sailboat, and takes up life on the high seas circa 1961. Click here to read the earlier episodes.
We experienced another cultural adventure Mom and Dad thought important for us to see. I wasn’t so sure when Mom announced that Conrad and Frank were too little and it might upset them. I didn’t understand why, until I realized we were going to a bullfight!
The gate opens, the band plays and the participants parade into the ring. First, are the lesser matadors. Next the picadores, men on foot with sharp spears in their hands followed by the banderilleros, men on horseback with long spears. The crowd comes to its feet, hollering the matador’s name, and the band plays his song, a pasadoble. The beat of the pasadoble is quick and racing, just like my heart, but when the trumpets sound, the matador steps into the ring. He parades around the ring waving his hat and bowing. Then he retreats behind a wooden protective fence.
The side door opens. A large, black bull enterers the ring, snorting and holding his head high. Banderilleros come out first on foot with a barbed spear (banderillas–little flags) in each hand, hollering at the bull to get his attention. The bull turns and charges, the banderillero steps aside and drives the spears into the hump on his neck, they stay in his neck, swaying with his movements. With each movement they cut further into the bull’s muscle, sick with apprehension, I cover my eyes. Next come the picadores on horseback. I’m worried about the horses getting gored by the bull’s horns, but they cover them with huge padded blankets that go all the way to the ground. The lance the picador carries is on a long pole. The riders can reach the bull from horseback. Angry and hurting the bull lunges at the horse. The picador shoves the blade into the hump on the bull’s neck cutting the neck muscles.
Blood oozes down the bull’s neck, matting his shiny black fur. I cover my face. It is too cruel to watch. The band strikes up the pasadoble. The beat of the music intensifies and causes me to hold my breath. This music means the matador is about to enter. By this time, the bull has difficulty holding his head up because the muscles in his neck are so damaged. The Spanish ladies cheer and everyone hollers “Olé” every time the bull charges the matador’s cape. His suit of shimmering gold fits skin tight, so the bull can’t catch it on his horns. He sways with the cape. I try to focus on the cape and not the blood when Mom screams. I can’t believe it came from her. The look on her face shows she can’t believe it, either. The bull has charged the matador and caught him under the arm. With a motion so quick we almost miss it, the bull tosses the matador over his head. Suddenly our emotions switch to side of the matador. The other matadors run out with their capes to draw off the bull. The matador rises unhurt; at least he isn’t bleeding. Relieved, we see him pull a sword from under the cape. He poises himself with his back arched while making subtle motions with his cape to keep the bull’s attention. The bull hurdles himself towards the quivering cape. The matador leans forward and shoves his sword into the bull’s hump clear to the hilt. A hush comes over the crowd. I can’t breathe. The bull stops in his tracks for a few seconds as if suspended, falls to the ground, and rolls on his side, dead.
The roar from the audience is deafening. I’m stunned by what I’ve seen. A team of horses comes out to pull the dead bull from the ring, but first the matador slices off an ear. Dripping with blood, he parades it around the arena holding it high in the air as a trophy. He presents it to a lady love in the stands. My stomach lurches. The crowd wants more blood. I wonder who these people are, and whether I can adjust to their strange customs.
We stand up to leave and everyone around us is talking to us and motioning us to stay seated. We realize they are saying the drama isn’t over yet and there are still five more bulls to fight. Mom makes it clear: We were leaving, so they let us pass. Once outside, Dad says tradition dictates we go to a tapas bar after a bullfight. Sick to my stomach after all the blood I want to cry, but the tears won’t come. Food is the last thing on my mind, Dad insists. I recognize the eels, squid, and octopus, but am too afraid to try them. I’ve tasted the black olives before and know they are bitter and skip them. The potato salad made with olive oil makes my stomach turn. I decide on the fried calamari and a coke and then leave them untouched on the table.
© 2019 Suzy Beal
Suzy Beal, an occasional contributor to True Stories Well Told, has been writing her life story and personal essays for years. In 2016 Suzy began studying with Sheila Bender at writingitreal.com. Watch for new chapters of her travel memoir to be posted! Please leave comments for Suzy on this post.
This was an exciting account of a bullfight. You made it clear exactly how you felt watching this sometimes gruesome sport. I think your mom made the right decision in leaving early.