Fiction

La Figura

by Terin Tashi Miller
.
He had become a figura, a celebrity. He had done it this time last year as he had done it before, with grace in the handling of the small red cape and good, swift, merciful killing of the bulls from all the acclaimed ranches. It had happened on the second of May, in a bull fight celebrating the time of El Don Francisco, the painter Francisco de Goya.
.
Jose Miguel, the bull fighter, had dressed in period costume like the rest of the bull ring’s staff, the men with long hair in Queen Anne nets and he himself carrying a large, Napoleon-style hat.
.
And, as in Goya’s time, Jose Miguel alone fought one at a time six bulls from different ranches. He had cut six ears in all that day, two on the second bull and one on the third; two on the always capricious fifth and one on the sixth, in the driving rain that almost always opened the Madrid bull fighting festival just before the feast of San Isidro, Madrid’s patron saint.
.
His poise in handling the more than 1,000-pound bulls, his closeness to their life-threatening horns, and his compassion in dispatching the less-worthy, less-brave and more stupid bulls, made it nearly impossible for bull fight fans to afford tickets for the rest of the year.
 .
His skill had made him rich, again, from the tourists who would pay the inflated prices to see him in front of a bull. He was now 26, and he had been through all this once before.
 .
It was because he had been through this before that he had not lost his head to the fame this time. And it was because he had been through this before that, after his usual circuit of fights in South America, he had spent the Spring practicing with his own bulls on his ranch. It was, however, because he had been practicing that now he wore a cast on his right hand, to keep his tendons in his forearm from becoming more badly damaged by the punishment they took each time he thrust a sword to its hilt into a bull. He had practiced charging the bull simultaneously as it drove toward him in its last fatal attempt to take the life of its oppressor. And he had practiced standing still, receiving the bull as it came for him, allowing the bull, as a man might if the situation were reversed, to take its own life at his hand, his estoque sword the instrument of the termination of the bull’s life, the final judgment having been made by something greater than them both, the judgment that the sheer power and will and brute force and bravery of the bull should not overcome the grace and ballet-like art of the man with the cape, and the intelligence to be able to avoid death while holding it at his finger tips.
 .
He had practiced killing swiftly, severing the aorta of the bulls by placing the sword at the first try in the cross where the bull’s shoulder blades met the bulls spine if his feet were apart, where a space for the sword that would end the bull’s life existed if the bull’s feet were together. Each miss was to his wrist like placing a stick into the hood of a moving truck. Each success was like placing the stick in the space between the truck’s hood and its windshield.
 .
Now, his right hand was in a cast from all this practice. And he wore green and gold, his favorite colors, on his shimmering gold-embroidered costume. It was the twenty-first of May, and again, he would spend the afternoon in this deadly ballet. But this time, he had competition from two other experienced killers of bulls.
 .
This year, he was a figura because of what he’d done last year. This year, what he’d done, and how he’d brought fans to their feet in their plastic rain gear or holding their umbrellas, chanting “Torer-o! Torer-o!” and clapping, some crying, waving their white handkerchiefs into a sea of white around the bullring from the stands for the Presidente of the ring to award not just one, but two ears for his valor and bravery, and his merciful, almost slaughtering-house-swift killing, would not be enough. This year, he had to do better. And again, it was raining.
 .
A cheer and a wave of applause enveloped him and the others as they waited to step into the ring for the procession that would start the day’s event. The King of Spain had just arrived and taken his seat at the lowest row, behind the barrera that separated the ring from the stands. He could tell by the cheer, the applause, and the first trumpet notes and drum roll of the band starting. It was darker in the callejon where he and the others waited, smelling the horses of the picadors and knowing they smelled the bulls. He was glad the King had arrived. And he was glad the King preferred to sit at the barrera. It made it easier to dedicate a bull to the King. It also made it more likely, the King being an avid aficionado, that the King would be able to catch Jose Miguel’s hat when he tossed it to the King for safekeeping until the bull had been killed. He smiled to himself, his head down, shifting his weight to his right side. He could not toss his hat so well with his right arm in a cast now, and he hated trying to throw his hat up the two stories of the open stands to the Royal Box, where the King’s mother, La Infanta, always sat in her wheelchair with her head resting on her shoulder from her stroke.
 .
It was their turn to enter the ring. Jose Miguel stepped forward in the center of the others and held his dress cape wrapped tightly around one shoulder and his waist. When he reached the required spot in the outer part of the ring, near where he and the others had entered, he unconsciously made a cross in the sand with his right slipper. He smiled to himself, still superstitious after all this. It was raining harder.
Jose Miguel looked up into the drops of rain. Across from him he saw the seventh section of the ring, Tendido Siete, where the eternally critical, loud and raucous fans sat, and knew The Plaza was full. The promoters would be pleased with this.
 .
Besides the King, several members of the new government were present. Even the rich and famous came to see him kill. He remembered being hungry. He remembered being poor. He remembered being an orphan like several others at the Madrid bull fighting school. He was glad the beef from the bulls he killed would be sold to the bars near by and not wasted.
 .
To his right stood a friend, another figura whose greatness was eclipsed by his own. Jose Miguel was better with the old-style flourishes of the long and the short cape. He always had been.
 .
To his left stood a lesser-known bull killer, another friend, a Colombian. He would provide comparison, as would the former figura, Enrique.
The bulls were supposed to have been bred by one of the best ranches in Spain.
 .
His two friends each took on the first two bulls. In the beginning of those two fights, Jose Miguel stepped up with his pink and blue long capote and distracted the bull to come toward him, so that he could show his twirling passes, his veronicas that spread the long cape like a skirt over the bull as it charged at the motion, its head low but its hoofs forward – a bad sign. At the part of each friend’s first bull of the day, he stepped forward again, “stealing” the bull’s attention in a quite, removing his long cape from it’s shield-like position in front of him and spinning it over his shoulder, revealing the picador’s horse to the bull and causing the bull to gather strength and try to push the horse and rider out of the ring, the bull still believing itself to be master of all it could see.
 .
The other figura handled the first bull, a dark black beast of more than 600 kilos, well. Enrique killed very cleanly, controlling his bull with the movement of his small cape, the muleta, well, not needing to spread it too wide with the wooden stick at its top to get the bull to follow it.
When there was no rain, there was a cooling breeze that the people in the stands enjoyed. But Jose Miguel preferred the rain. His footing was sure, his toes gripping the damp sand of the ring as it sloped from the center, even if the bull’s footing wasn’t.
 .
Jose Miguel killed his first bull of the day in the driving rain in front of Tendido Siete. He could barely see the section of the stand because of the rain, which struck his costume loudly. But he could hear them over everything which is why he brought the bull there, in front of that section, to kill.
 .
The bull was bleeding some from the picador’s work. The barb-tipped banderillas that hung at the bull’s side from the bull’s shoulders had soaked in some of the bull’s quick-clotting blood. The bull, tiring from its attempts at clearing the ring, was breathing hard, its tongue feeling the cooling rain. Jose Miguel rose to his toes and lifted his killing sword over his head in an arc and sighted down its tip at the spot over the bull’s horns where he intended to take the animal’s life. Then he lowered the small red muleta to get the bull’s horns and massive head more at the level of his own chest.
 .
The movement of Jose Miguel’s small red cape sparked the bull’s charge.
 .
As the bull charged, Jose Miguel charged, and the killing sword, the estoque, sank in straight and smooth as if it belonged in the center of the open cross left when the bull’s shoulder blades moved away from beside its spine. Jose Miguel passed the bull to his right with the small red muleta in his left hand, his arms forming a cross as he plunged the estoque and knew the minute the sword went in that he’d killed the bull. All the fans, seeing the bull’s massive head, its horns hooking inward, still on its feet in its charge, and Jose Miguel’s lunge directly over the bull’s head, his waist to his feet, which were in the air, directly in front of the bull in its charge, feared the worst.
 .
But Jose Miguel knew he was fine. He only hoped he’d shut up “Los Sietes.”
 .
On his second bull of the day, Jose Miguel threw his hat to where he planned to kill the bull near the center of the ring. His hat fell bottoms up, causing some of the older fans to gasp with superstition. He walked up and turned his hat so it sat as if it were on top of the center of the ring.
 .
But this next bull would not charge. It was either smart, or cowardly. Bulls normally attack anything in their vision, feeling their territory threatened. Jose Miguel knew this. People said he knew bulls as if he’d been one before being human. All he knew right now was that there would be no killing his last bull of the day in front of the same section in which he’d killed his first. This bull had barely even noticed the picadors’ horses, despite the picadors’ attempts to clank around in their stirrups and attract the bull’s attention.
 .
As he was thinking this, he noticed the rain had stopped. Then he noticed a very faint breeze. What he did not notice in that instant as he stood in front of his second bull, a bull that would not allow him the opportunity to do his old-style cape work to the delight of the fans and the improvement of the bull’s last appearance alive, was that the breeze had gently lifted the muleta, which he’d had in his right hand. He noticed the rain had stopped while trying to get the bull to move past him with the small red muleta held out from his right side, watching it over his right shoulder rather than his standing in front of the bull. He decided it would be better to switch his position from the natural to stand in front of this statue-like bull. He turned on his left slipper, feeling the wet sand under his toes, moving his right foot in a semi-circle until he was almost facing the bull, still keeping the cape in front of the bull’s face.
 .
The bull saw its chance. The bull saw the cape move and the man move, and it knew the man was bigger. In the instant Jose Miguel moved to face the bull from standing to its left, he knew also that the bull had charged. And the man, the figura, was helpless.
 .
For in that instant of mutual recognition, the bull dug its left horn into Jose Miguel’s right hip, near his groin, and lifted him into the air like a toy. Jose Miguel was impaled on the horn, facing the sand of the ring of Las Ventas, the most important bull ring in the world, the ring in which he’d become a figura twice, from on top of a horn, with the red muleta cape still in his right hand.
 .
He grabbed the sand when the bull’s horn became unhooked, and he waited for everyone to get the bull away from him before hurrying back to his feet. He felt as if he were still in the air above the bull, facing the sand. But he was on his feet, as were the people in the stands.
 .
From the stands you could see just a trickle of blood near his ankle. It appeared to be perhaps some of the bull’s blood. Then you saw it getting bigger, flowing more rythmically, and it was deep maroon.
 .
Jose Miguel took his red-handled killing sword out of its dark leather scabbard. He held the estoque in his left hand, his good hand, while waving back the others who rushed in to make certain he was all right. He picked his muleta up off the sand where he’d let it go, all the while keeping his eye on this bull that had his blood on the tip of its left horn. He bent over for a second, his hand at his hip. There was blood on his cast. He went to the side of the ring where the bull waited, watching him.
 .
The two watched each other without speaking. Both were catching their breath with their mouths.
 .
“Vaya, hombre! Vamos!, ha, toro!” said one loud voice in Tendido Siete, hoping to get the bull to move.
 .
“Callate, cabron!” shouted several voices from the stands.
 .
He lined the bull up at the tip of his killing sword after scraping it along the sky. He now held his muleta in his left hand.
 .
“Huh! Huh!”
 .
But the bull did not move.
 .
He raised himself with his toes digging in the sand, lowering the muleta.
 .
Still, the bull would not move.
 .
So he charged it.
 .
He and the bull came toward each other, both in pain. Being careful to pass the muleta in his left hand across to his right side, his left arm forming a cross underneath his right, he felt the tip of the estoque find resistance and braced himself for the jarring, searing pain of hitting bone with his hurt wrist. But the resistance gave way, and the fingertips of his right hand felt the damp hair on the bull’s hide and the rush of warm blood rising through the opening before the pain of the impact shot up his arm. He rolled over the bull to its side. Jose Miguel killed the bull so fast that, still in shock from seeing the bull get Jose, none believed it until the bull took two steps forward and stopped, as if having just remembered something, and dropped to its side in the sand, its four legs sticking straight out.
 .
Jose Miguel, the figura still, walked stiffly to the infirmary.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Terin Tashi Miller spent many of his formative years in India, the child of anthropologist parents. Since then, he has lived and worked in a variety of countries in Europe and Asia. The author of three novels, Kashi, Sympathy for the Devil, and Down the Low Road, his writing has appeared in guide books, international magazines including Time and Geografica Revista, and newspapers including The Wall Street Journal, The Dallas Morning News and The Los Angeles Times. His short stories have also been published in numerous literary magazines.
He began his writing career as a part-time reporter for Time magazine, then worked for The Associated Press in India and North Dakota and AP-Dow Jones News Services in Spain and New York, and as a reporter for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, The Milwaukee Sentinel, Amarillo Daily News and the Hilton Head Island Packet.
Born in St. Louis, Mo., and raised in Madison, Wis. and several provinces in India, he currently lives in New Jersey.
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kristi48
photo by Kristi Harms
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