Becoming a senior bullfighter had finally arrived, a pandemic having frustrated a dream that Rafael Gonzalez had had since showing precocious creativity before danger as an eight-year-old when fighting young bulls. The day’s senior bullfighter presented Rafael with a sword and cape in a ritual called la alternativa when one alternates from promising to elite.
Rafael’s father kissed the hat thrown to him by his son, the crowd’s applause imitating a bursting dam.
“Thanks for everything, Papa,” Rafael said.
Crowd mouths imitated plummeting liquid again in appreciation of this gesture to someone pertinent in the process towards pertinence.
Rafael knelt in the ring’s centre. Murmuring concern rippled around the crowd as they realised Rafael’s intentions.
At one end of timber jutting from the barrier so bullfighters could slip into safety, a bull placed its snout, lured there by a banderillero during Rafael’s dedication to his father. The bull had already received the banderilleros and the picadors.
Rafael screamed: “Toro!” The bull turned. The crowd gasped, the bull charging at a kneeling man.
As the horns were about to hit fabric, Gonzalez moved the cape back, bull turning with turning fabric, Gonzalez still kneeling, bull turning with turning red, crowd gasping its river roar of surprise.
After three orbits Gonzalez rose, still turning the bull, horns sailing by Rafael’s chest, a wing-cape flying, crowd applause mixing delight with relief. Few bullfighters had ever greeted a charging bull with the smaller red cape while kneeling, this was usually done with the large, pink capote.
“I would have tried convincing him not to do it had I known,” his father said. “He saved me from worry.”
A running banderillero lured the bull back to the barrier by dragging a pink capote along the ground, the pursuing bull hitting a timber upright that supported the protrusion that projected enough so the banderillero could squeeze behind it, the bull smacking that upright so hard a bolt had to be hammered back into place to keep the upright vertical, this reflecting the bull’s vicious power.
Its snout filled the protrusion’s opening. Again it heard “Toro” coming from where Gonzalez this time was standing. Its speed while passing Rafael’s body generated a gripping sense of danger, bull dashing through where the cape had just been. After the picadors and the banderilleros, a bull should have been weakened by effort and blood loss. But Rafael wished to smash assumptions. This bull was a real beast, perfect for creating glory.
He turned the bull until it was so slowed down that Rafael transferred the cape to his left hand, drawing the bull’s snout upwards, then stopping it an inch from his legs, Rafael again producing the rarely seen, the crowd’s applause like a river flowing over boulders, intermingling tingling pitches shivering gratitude through Rafael’s torso, like tapping into life’s current.
Fame for fame’s sake doesn’t compare with recognition for doing the difficult. Gonzalez had dreamt about this while gazing out windows in classes at school. He had dreamt about it when travelling on the Metro and while supposedly studying, hours spent fighting imaginary bulls, “hearing” recognition’s river, those tingling, intermingling pitches, the chimes of freedom. Using tablecloths in his school’s cantina to fight imaginary bulls, he ignored the mocking laughter of those destined for obscurity, their mediocrity hidden from them by their weak powers of perception.
Now he was performing at the world’s premier bullfighting festival in the city where he had been mocked for being “deluded.” He shuffled in a slow march of minute steps across the bull’s line of sight, half a metre from that snout, cape behind his legs, crowd caught between appreciation and fear at this seemingly reckless bravado, Rafael’s father’s fists clenched in anxious hope, Rafael’s lips puffed up in a display of fearless challenge to a wild animal that moved when Rafael drew it forward with the cape, sucking it past him as if that red had magical magnetism, sucking it past him until the bull flew after red that suddenly stopped flying, stopping the bull again before Rafael’s thighs, the silence cracking under roaring amazement, like water cascading over a cliff.
Rafael strolled away, bull left stationary. Rafael turned and faced it. The crowd behind the bull saw Rafael between the bull’s horns that rose vertically at their ends, like reverse divining rods built to sense prey.
Red again tempted black. Temptation moved, not quite able to reach red, like trying to swat a fly. Moving the cape from his right hand to his left, Rafael spun three hundred and sixty degrees to complete this series of passes by putting the cape before the bull’s nose, making it rise onto its back hooves in pursuit of that elusive wing that flew before descending, stopping the bull inches again from Rafael’s thighs, Rafael touching the bull’s right-hand horn tip, the cascade plummeting again, intertwining swishing pitches born from delighted surprise.
The crowd gasped as Rafael tapped the other horn’s tip with the index finger of his left hand, disregarding danger in order to pursue excellence, causing crowd’s shock. This wasn’t just style before death, but a reaffirmation of the virtues required to be an artist in the art of living.
Doing passes with the riskier left hand, Rafael suddenly flew airborne, as if lifted by the strings of a puppeteer, the bull’s turning left horn having clipped Rafael’s left thigh.
He hit the ground, rising immediately, not seriously hurt. His father expelled air. The damage had been minimal because Rafael had reacted quickly when seeing the bull’s change of direction, his left thigh suddenly moving with the horn to reduce penetration by that weapon of sharp Fiberglas.
Demonstrating that the horn strike was irrelevant, Rafael faced the bull with the cape held in both hands behind his back. Someone screamed “NO!” not wanting Rafael to act without margin for error. But Rafael had dreamt for years about performing this move, the increasing NO chorus dismissed by Rafael as the paranoid concerns of the risk-averse, Rafael wishing to open a page NOW in bullfighting’s annals.
The NO’s! came because the bull was uncharacteristically dangerous. It often turned its head when attempting to strike. Fear hit the crowd as the bull attacked the cape that Rafael moved out from behind his back, the bull’s right horn passing Rafael’s right hip by an inch, Rafael’s feet courageously still. Rafael then moved the cape to his left. The bull went for it. Suddenly Rafael was perched on the bull’s right horn that penetrated the inside of Rafael’s left thigh, Rafael pirouetting airborne, silent crowd shock cracking in a single voice of dismay, Rafael’s rising father, son’s hat in his right hand, shouting that Rafael’s assistants distract the bull, grimacing Rafael rising before collapsing onto the knee of the half-kneeling main bullfighter, Rafael saying: “I can kill it. It’s mine.” They held him back up. He walked a few steps, agony when stepping with his left foot, spectators yelling: “NO. NO. NO;” but Rafael faced the bull, lining it up with the sword. Man and animal attacked each other. When Rafael tried coming down on his left foot the pain stopped him from applying the force necessary to drive the sword home. He hobbled away, an assistant retrieving the fallen blade.
When they gave Rafael the sword again, people rose, screaming “KNEEOHHH!” One man’s left arm shot out in a plea for reason while howling: “DON’T DO IT!”
Rafael had already impressed with his style and courage; but that was irrelevant to Rafael. His dream insisted that the bull die at his hand.
He faced it, performing two passes to test his leg, “NO, NO, NO,” singing out around the ring, Rafael trying to lift the sword again, stumbling back, falling over, the two other bullfighters, with their banderilleros, rushing forwards, carrying pink capes to control the bull, Rafael’s banderilleros picking Rafael up and running, carrying him along the alleyway behind the barrier, people giving a standing ovation as Rafael passed, that part of the dream becoming real, but not under the circumstances envisaged, and when he lay on the operating table in the infirmary, holding a banderillero’s right hand, he asked: “How did I go?”
“You were magnificent,” the banderillero said. “Just great. Now be quiet.”
He grabbed the banderillero’s left sleeve, desperate for confirmation.
“You were fantastic.”
“Yes. Now let’s keep quiet.”
The doctor’s eyes burnt with incendiary worry while facing the gaping-mouthed banderillero, a red waterfall pouring from the wound, doctor and banderillero, seemingly seeing visions of hell, knowing, right then, speechless amid bottomless silence, that white-faced Rafael was going to die, the father reaching the infirmary, his son’s permanent quietude contrasting with the shrilling wails of shrieking disbelief that seared from the father’s mouth, ocean silence and shrilling grief the extremes of a dream’s destruction.
Kim has worked for NGO's in Greece, Kosovo, Iraq, Palestine and Macedonia. He likes painting, art, bullfighting, photography and architecture, which might explain why this Australian lives in Madrid. 188 of his stories have been accepted by 109 different magazines.