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Poster - Tienta Hda. San Augustin - Lasso-Ambato, Ecuador

Several views of Tienta Hda. San Augustin - Lasso-Ambato, Ecuador

LA TIENTA

from

COMING TO CONCLUSIONS

The Autobiography of Peter Tristan Stuart

by

Gene C. McCoy

BOOK TWO

CHAPTER 16

Marsha reluctantly agreed to go to the tienta. She was embarrassed by the spectacle she had made at Thais' brunch the previous Sunday, and she was not anxious to see any of the people who had witnessed it. I told her to forget about it, that everyone had too much to drink that day, and that no one would remember what had happened to her. They would all be too busy repenting their own foolishness.

It was raining on Friday morning when we met in front of Thais's apartment to leave for Sevilla, and none of us had much expectation that the tienta would take place. Both Jack and Marsha wanted to drop the idea of going. Thais and I argued in favor. We went ahead with our plans.

"Why don't you ride with Jack in the Porsche, Marsha?" Thais said casually. "I've heard all of his jokes and the epithets that Jack hurls at Spanish drivers. I'll ride with Pete. I need to expand my repertoire."

The way Thais pulled it off, it seemed the natural thing to do, and she didn't wait for any consent or agreement from either Jack or Marsha. Thais walked to the side of my car and slipped in.

We were both silent as we weaved through the early morning traffic with the just the click of the windshield wipers, and the sound of music coming from the radio. I had a wonderful sense of well being and oneness with the world. I wished that life could always be as sweet as it seemed in that moment. Words were not necessary. Thais and I seemed locked together. We were sharing some cosmic connection in our silence and each perceived what the other was thinking.

My thoughts were about the tienta: the culmination of the round-up when the young calves of fighting bulls are branded and tested for their bravery. On most ranches a tienta is a festive occasion, and the bull breeder invites friends and well known bullfighters to join in a weekend of bullfighting, horseback riding, drinking, dancing and eating. A tienta to me epitomized the essence of everything Spanish that I loved.

The protocol of the branding and testing of the calves is strict and serious business. Nobody even presumes to enter the small bullring where the action takes place without an invitation from the ganadero, the bull breeder. Those who are not asked to participate sit in the stands to cheer and drink.

The father of "Flaco" Valenzuela, one of my school pals in Mexico City, was a bull breeder, and "Flaco" was a novillero, an aspirant torero himself. While we were living together in a student's pension I let "Flaco" know that I was an aficionado of bullfighting. He took me under his wing to make me into a pretty fair and knowledgeable amateur bullfighter.

"Flaco" and his father taught me a lot, and I became a regular at their tientas, where I was always included in the select group invited into the ruedo, or bullring. I learned enough over the years so that I was able to perform real working tasks in the testing process.

The bull calves are never caped since they learn too fast, and it is essential that they not know that a man is behind the cape when they are grown and go to their final destiny. After branding, the calves are released in the ring with only a man on horseback carrying a long, dull pointed vara, or pole.

The calf is judged for his bravery by how quickly and fiercly he charges the horse, and for how long he will continue the attack under the punishment of the vara being jabbed into his shoulders, which even though it does not break the skin, is painful.

The young cows, vaquillas, however, are worked by the professional and amateur bullfighters with capes after they have been tested for the quickness of their attack on the horse, and their willingness to take punishment from the vara. Unlike an actual bullfight there is no blood since there is never any killing.

Even though the last tienta that I attended had been over ten years earlier, I still felt an electric thrill at the prospect of passing a calf with a cape. I hoped that I would be invited to participate this weekend. Learning to pass a bull is like learning to ride a bike or have sexual intercourse. Once you have learned you don't ever forget; nor do you forget the feeling.

We were out of the city, on the highway to Aranjuez, and Thais rubbed her hand on my thigh.

"You handle the car very well. It gives me a feeling of confidence. Jack's a good driver, too. I hate to ride with a person who appears unable to concentrate. Balzac, for instance, makes me nervous."

I touched her hand and had a sensation of completeness, and oneness with the universe. My soul pressed out from the center of my body and filled me with energy. All of the nagging discontent of the past few weeks disappeared as though some eccentric cam inside of me had turned. All of the pieces of my being fit together like some precision machine so that the valves, orifices, and channels through which the life juices flowed were perfectly aligned. The circulation was uninterrupted and free of turbulence. I felt snug and secure in our little capsule as we streaked across the rain soaked Castilian countryside. Behind us the little Fiat churned up a wake of flying mist.

"I wish that this moment could last forever," I said. "I wish there were some way to record the feeling, so whenever I wanted to relive it, I could just bring it out and play it back." I said, and reached to take her hand in mine.

"I know what you mean," she said and squeezed my hand. "It's the kind of feeling that in Japanese we say should never be expressed aloud. Once you're aware of it, you're no longer living it. It's like nirvana. If you're experiencing nirvana then you're not aware of it. If you're aware of it then it's not nirvana."

"That's very oriental, I said.

"Do you understand what I mean?" she asked.

"I think so," I replied.

"I think you do. You're very sensitive."

Thais' ability to always say something kind, and complimentary was disarming, and I knew that she was sincere. She was not just seeking favor or people pleasing. Thais looked for the good in people, and when she found it, she commented on it. She was not bitchy.

I had never had a woman talk to me in that way before. She seemed to always show her concern for me as a whole person, and not merely a sexual or economic animal. She showed her concern for me, Pete Stuart, a living, feeling, fucking, struggling human being.

"Thais, I don't know if you have the same effect on all men, but for me you do wonders. You make me feel more alive, more aware, more confident - more me." I reached out to take her hand. "It's a very pleasant sensation."

I glanced at her face and there were tears in her eyes. "Why are you crying? I asked.

She turned her head to look out through the rain streaked side window. "I don't know. Maybe because I feel the same way about you, Pete. You make me feel like I am more than I think I am." She pulled a tissue from her bag and dabbed at her eyes. "You don't mind if I smoke do you?"

"No, go ahead," I said and offered her one of my cigarettes.

"I think my feelings for you sort of came into focus the other day when I came to your office to renew my passport. When I saw the Roman artifacts and the paintings you have in your office you became more clear to me. Before that day I had seen you only at parties, drinking, dancing, having fun, not that that's bad. When I saw the place where you worked, though, I realized how much in common we share; that my attraction to you is not just physical. As a decorator I can tell more about a person from their physical surroundings than by their actions and words. People communicate with me through their sense of aesthetics."

"I never thought of myself as having much of a sense of aesthetics," I said.

"Oh, but you do. You see beauty in very simple things. I saw that immediately when I walked into your office. That's really the essence of good taste. Bad taste, over arranged arrangements are because people don't see the beauty in simplicity."

I knew how vulnerable I was to falling desperately in love with Thais, but I couldn't face that possibility. I wanted our relationship to remain as it was. If it was love I wanted it to be an unconsummated love. I recalled how Henri had cautioned me that having an affair with Thais would not be a just casual coupling and parting.

My thoughts went to the Spanish verb querer, to want. The Spanish rarely use the verb amar, to love, to express love between men and women. They use querer, to want, to desire. They say "Te quiero," I want you, when in English we would say "I love you." To the Spanish to love means to want, and the object of wanting is to possess. To love is to possess, and to be loved is to be possessed. I was reminded that the Spanish can express very complicated things in very simple language.

We were approaching Sevilla, and on the horizon a strip of blue sky showed below the fierce black thunderheads moving inland from the Mediterranean Sea. The storm was passing, and tomorrow would be a good day for the tienta.

In the village of El Arahal I turned off the highway and headed across a dirt road through pastures where a herd of black fighting bulls grazed. Nestled in a hollow in the distance we could see smoke rising from the chimney of the main house in the cluster of white, red tile roofed buildings of Hacienda Marques del Valle.

"I told Jose Maria that you knew a lot about bullfighting," Thais said as we neared the house.

"Jose Maria? I asked. "Yes, Jose Maria del Prado is the Marques de Villa Noble. "I didn't know that," I said."And he's the owner of this ranch?"

"Yes, he's a wonderful man and you'll love him. He's like something out of another century. Anyway, I told him that you had been to tientas in Mexico, and he said he would invite you down into the ring."

Thais had an amazing facility to become an instant friend, confidant and intimate with rich and powerful people. They were somehow drawn to her; they craved and wanted her friendship. They wanted to do things for her, to please her. And in this case, in so far as I was concerned, the friendship provided me with an opporunity beyond my wildest dreams.

"Oh God, Thais, you're fantastic! How did you know that I wanted that more than anything?" I said.

"I don't know. I guess I just anticipated your needs," she said and smiled.

Jack and Marsha had already arrived, and I pulled up beside Jack's car to park in front of the low white¬washed house. We climbed out, and Jose Maria del Prado, the Marques de Villa Noble, strode out to greet us.

He was tall, lean and big boned. I could easily imagine him dressed in a traje corto in the saddle of a horse rejoneando, bullfighting from horseback.

"Hola, Thais." He took her hand in his and kissed it.

"Hola, "Hola, matador, mucho gusto," he said offering his hand, then slipped his arm around me in an abrazo. "Come on inside and get warmed up."

We followed him into the house where other guests were gathered in the bar set in a room built around a massive stone wall covered with photographs of Jose Maria in various moments of taurine glory. From the wall over the hearth, the mounted head of a bull stared down on us.

There was a warm convivial, festive mood, and after the introductions, I pulled off my jacket and warmed myself in front of the fire burning in a large open hearth fireplace. Thais came to stand beside me.

The Marques walked over to us. "Don't have too much to drink tonight because you've got to have a clear head and a steady hand tomorrow," he said. "We've got ten calves to brand and test, but the big event is that we're going to have a three-year old novillo, to work. Thais tells me that you've worked bulls before."

"Yes, in Mexico," I said. "On the ranch of Don Lizardo Valenzuela."

"I know the name and the brand, but I don't know Don Lizardo," he said. "Have you ever worked a three-year old?"

"No, I replied. "The biggest one I've ever had was two."

"You're ready to move on to bigger things. You have to show us what you learned on those ranches in Mexico."

"I'll try," I said. "Are you going to kill the novillo? "

"Yes, he's infected with aftosa, hoof and mouth disease, and he has to be put down. Do you want to make the kill?"

"Thank you, no," I said. "It's been ten years since I've been near a bull, and I've never made a kill. I'll watch you or someone else."

"Well you can play with him," Jose Maria said.

"I appreciate the honor, I'm looking forward to it."

"Excuse me, please," he said and left us to walk back outside to greet some other guests who were arriving.

"Are you excited?" Thais asked.

"I'm more nervous than excited," I replied. "Working a four year old novillo was more than I bargained for."

"You'll do fine," she said and touched my hand. "Don't worry." She turned and walked to where Jack and Marsha were seated.

I walked around the room to examine the photographs, paintings and artifacts that were displayed: patina encrusted amphoras, and pitchforks formed from the branches of trees. Mixed in with a few traditional paintings were several modern pieces signed with an "M. de la Soledad" that, done in an impressionist style, I liked very much. I was studying one of the paintings when from behind me a man spoke to me.

"Pete, what a wonderful surprise. I was just thinking about you last week. I wondered when you would be back from Libya."

I turned from the painting to face Juan Calderon, one of my contacts in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a fellow classmate when I studied at Georgetown University.

"I've been back a little over a month, Juan. I've just been busy in the embassy," I said. "It's good to see you."

Jose Maria, accompanied by a handsome young couple, walked to where Juan and I stood and put his arms around both of us.

"What's going on here? A conspiracy between the American Embassy and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs," he joked. "No business between you two big shots. We're all bullfighters this weekend. Pete, I want you to meet my niece, Soledad Benalcazar, and her husband, Rafael Rodriquez." I turned to look into the most transparent green eyes I had ever seen. Long hair, the color of burnished copper, hung down to her shoulders and fell softly over the short, Spanish traje corto jacket that she wore over a ruffled bullfighter's shirt. Her grey, tight fitting, wool trouser's revealed a long slender body that would have been envied by most women and admired by all men. She offered her hand and spoke in English.

"How do you do, I'm Soledad Benalcazar."

"Buenas noches, señora," I replied in Spanish. "Tengo much gusto en verle, otra vez." I kissed her hand. "I think we met once at the American Ambassador's residence."

"That's right," she said. "It's nice to see you again."

"All you guys have got real competition tomorrow, " Jose Maria said. "Soli is a fantastic bullfighter."

"Ay, Tio," she said, and slapped at Jose Maria's arm. "Stop it! You embarrass me."

"What do you mean, embarrass you? You're good and you know you're good." He said and laughed. "I know you're good because I taught you."

Jose Maria was obviously proud of his niece, but her husband seemed jealous of her. He was sullen, and said he was not going to bullfight when Jose Maria asked if he was ready to compete.

I suspected that she was the "M. de La Soledad" who had painted and signed the paintings I had admired, and at dinner she confirmed it.

Soledad sat on my left while Thais was on my right. They knew one another and the two of them talked around me about their work. Thais thought that Soledad was a brilliant young painter, and Soledad complimented Thais on her taste as a decorator. There was a dynamic that was more than mutual admiration between the two women. They were like two peas from the same pod. Even though one was oriental and the other Spanish, they were both stamped from the same mold in so far as their personalities were concerned. They were dulce without being sweet. They had what the Spanish call educacion and duende which means a great deal more than education and spirit.

I thought that Thais might be just a bit jealous of the younger woman. I could not tell whether it was jealousy of the attention I showed to Soledad, Soledad's talent or her social position. Thais demonstrated her educacion, however, by concealing the jealousy with effusive praise. It was obvious that neither of them liked to share a man. They both enjoyed being the focus of all male attention.

After dinner we moved away from the table into the living room to sit in big overstuffed leather chairs and sip cognac and coffee. Two enormous mastiff dogs were sprawled on the floor on either side of the fireplace.

Etched in the brandy snifters from which we drank, and glazed on all of the china, was a stylized M placed over a W, as though one were the mirror image of the other.

"Is this the brand of the hacienda, Jose Maria?" I asked.

"Yes," he replied. "It goes back four generations to my great grandfather."

"I've been trying to figure out the symbolism," I said. "It seems like one letter is the mirror image of the other. I think I understand the M but I don't grasp the meaning of the W." "Actually, it not a W. It a V and an N. The M above is for Marques, and below, the V is for Villa and the N for Noble. The right leg of V forms the left leg of the N."

"That's obvious," I said. "I should have been able to figure that out."

"Not necessarily. A lot of people don't figure it out, but you have a good eye in so far as the mirror image is concerned. It's intended to represent a mirror image."

I asked him to explain the significance.

"I love to explain it," he said and his eyes sparkled. "But it lets some of the family skeletons out of the closet." He looked at his brandy snifter and rubbed his thumb over the etched glass. "Antonio del Prado, the third Marquá‚ás de Villa Noble, my great grandfather, brought the first seed bull and ten cows here to start this herd of ganado bravo.

"He was a lusty young man, and he had a beautiful wife, but she died and left him without an heir. After a suitable period of mourning Antonio left to find a new wife, and he met Lola, a beautiful young Sevillana travelling with a troupe of gypsy dancers. Antonio fell in love with Lola. He brought her here to the ranch, but they never married. Lola gave birth to a son who they called Antonio, too, and for five years they lived happily until one day, without explanation, Lola and the baby Antonio disappeared.

"Antonio, the father, was heartbroken and desperate. He left the ranch to search for them all over Spain. He would go and come back, but he could never stay for more than a few months. He would get a lead as to where they might be and leave again. Finally, after twenty years, one lead paid off. He found Lola living in a cave in Guadix, caring for her sick mother.

"Lola was a simple gypsy girl with no education. She had learned that her mother was ill, and thinking that the elder Antonio would not allow her to leave she ran away, taking their son with her.

"Antonio was overjoyed to have found Lola. She was still beautiful, and she was still a dancer. She told Antonio that his son was a bullfighter. He was just a struggling novillero, she said he was very valiant. Young Antonio was due to fight the next Sunday in Granada. Lola and Antonio went together to Granada, where they had an emotional reunion with their son.

"Antonio the younger cut the pigtail, as they say when a bullfighter retires, and came here to become a ganadero. It was like a fairy tale. Overnight he had been plucked from obscurity to become the son of a famous bull breeder and a gentleman.

"Antonio the elder married Lola, and his son Antonio junior became his legitimate heir, but the young Antonio who became the fourth Marques changed the brand from an M over V-N to an M over what looks like a W. He intended for it to be a mirror image. He said he was not a real Marques but the mirror image of one." Jose Maria pushed himself out of the chair.

"Follow me, and I'll show you a portrait that my sister, Soledad's mother, painted of what she thought Antonio must have looked like."

I got up, and followed Jose Maria down a long vaulted corridor and stopped in front of a large painting of a young man, dressed in a traje corto.

Standing ramrod straight with his chin turned slightly up in defiance, he had his left hand placed on his hip. His right arm hung loosely at his side and in his hand he held a black sombrero cordoves.

In order to incorporate the family myth, the artist, Soledad's mother, had composed the painting so that the viewer's eye was drawn to the man's painted reflection in a mirror. The image outside the mirror depicted a gentleman, seen from his back, with the poise and self-assurance of an aristocrat, but in his face, seen only in the mirror, the olive skin, and almond shaped eyes belonged to a gypsy.

"There he is, my grandfather," Jose Maria said. "My sister's idea of what our grandfather, Antonio del Prado, the fourth Marques de Villa Noble, was like. Now you know there's a slight break in our breeding line, but we're all proud of our gypsy blood."

"How about the bulls?" I asked and smiled. "Is there any break in their breeding line?"

"The bulls are perfect. They are direct descendants of the wild animals that roamed the Andalucian plains. There's not a drop of domestic blood in their line," he answered and laughed.

It was almost midnight by the time we all left the warmth of the living room to go off to our bedrooms, and away from the fireplace the big house was cold. A fire was burning in the fireplace in our bedroom, however.

Between the turned down sheets, under the stack of blankets and comforters, a servant had slipped hot water bottles on either side of big canopied double bed. The room was smokey and I opened a window then stood looking out into the clear cold night.

The sky was cloudless, and the stars seemed near enough to touch. A full moon was rising behind the hills in the distance. Marsha walked to the window and stood behind me.

"It's a very romantic place, isn't it?" she said and slipped her arms around my waist.

"Magnificent," I replied. "Like something out of a dream." I turned to look at her and she lifted her face for me to kiss her. I brushed her lips with a kiss then turned away from her to again look out the window.

"What's troubling you lately, Pete? I thought after you came home from Libya things were going to be better for us, but for the past few weeks you've seemed distant. Is it something at work?"

"No everything at work is fine," I walked from the window and picked up a package of cigarettes from the night table, shook one out and lit it. "I don't know what it is. I seem sort of dissatisfied with everything, but it will pass."

"I'll tell you what I think it is," she said. "It's Thais and Henri. I don't think they're a good influence on you, or us for that matter." She turned and walked away from me then picked up a cigarette and lit it.

"What in the hell are you talking about, Marsha? Why do you say that?" "I don't know for sure," she said. "It's just something that I feel. Intuition, if you will. You've changed since you've been seeing so much of them. You don't show any interest in the children. You're dissatisfied with your work, and before you were crazy about your job. You don't show any interest in me, but that's nothing new. You haven't shown any interest in me for years."

"What you're trying to say is that you don't like my friends," I said with a raw edge in my voice.

"That's not what I'm saying at all, but I can tell you that I don't like anyone who threatens my marriage."

"What in the hell do you mean, threatens your marriage?

They're no threat to your marriage.

"All right, put it this way. I don't like the way that slant-eyed bitch runs after you. She thinks she can have any man she sets her sights on. I saw the way she pawed and hung all over Balzac before you came along."

"Bullshit Marsha. You don't fit with these people, and you're just taking out your own inadequacies on them."

"You bet I don't fit. I don't like pimps and I don't like sluts. Thais doesn't give a damn whether a man is married or not. All she wants is someone to go to bed with her. She's a slut, and Henri is her pimp. Every chance he gets he pushes you closer to her." Her eyes were brilliant with anger and tears.

"I think you better go to bed, Marsha. You're making me angry."

I turned and walked into the bathroom to brush my teeth, and when I returned Marsha was in bed either asleep or feigning sleep. I crawled into bed and turned off the light, but I lay awake looking into the flames of the fireplace. I thought about the story that Jose Maria had told, and how satisfying it must be to own your own land, to work the soil, and watch it yield its harvest. I wondered what it would be like to watch your children grow up in the same place where your father and grandfathers had grown up. Travel had left me rootless, and I was dependent on an institution for my security and well being. Institutions come and go, but the land goes on forever, I thought.

I dropped off to sleep and I dreamed of Thais. In the early hours of the morning Marsha and I made love. I slept again, but the dream did not return.

Dressed in a pair of Levis, a cashmere turtle neck sweater, my wool visored cap, and wearing a pair of stiff leather botas camperos, I took up a position behind a burladero, the opening in the fence enclosing the bullring through which the bullfighters and vaqueros can slip in and out of the ring.

There were four burladeros, evenly spaced around the circle of the fence. Jose Maria was behind the one directly in front of me on the opposite side of the ring. Soledad was in the one to my left and Juan Calderon was behind the one to the right.

A group of vaqueros wrestled to bring the first calf into the ring where it was branded, first with its number, and finally with the M/W brand of the hacienda. When they finished the branding the vaqueros released the calf. It charged the horse standing on the opposite side of the ring.

The horseman jabbed the vara into the calf's shoulders, and leaned into it. The calf retreated. Stopping a few feet away from the horse, the calf turned, pawed the ground, bluffing, then made another charge, only to again retreat from the punishment.

"Pete, call him!" Jose Maria shouted to me.

I slipped out from behind the burladero and took a few steps toward the center of the ring.

"Uh huh!" I shouted. The calf turned his head, looked at me and then at the horse, still pawing and bluffing.

"Soledad, llamelo," Jose Maria shouted again.

Soledad slipped out from behind her burladero. "Uh huh!" she shouted, and, holding her arms straight over her head, jumped in the air to call the bull's attention. The calf looked at her and pawed the ground.

Jose Maria ran toward the calf, shouted, and still the calf pawed, and bluffed, unwilling to charge either the horse or any of us.

"Quitelo!" Jose Maria shouted. "Es malo!" The calf had not shown much bravery, and Jose Maria ordered the vaqueros to take it out of the ring.

The vaqueros followed the same routine five more times with new calves. They were all brave. They continued to charge the horse under the punishment from the vara, and they attacked the four of us as we called to them.

We then started with the vaquillas, cow calves, and after the vara part of the testing, Juan, Jose Maria, Soledad and I alternated passing them with capes. The crowd in the stands gave cheers of "Ole!" as each of us tried to outdo the other, but both Juan and I were outclassed by Jose Maria and Soledad.

Bullfighting was in their blood.

The last vaquilla was larger than the others, was especially brave, and persisted in its charge on the horse.

"Pete, quitala!" Jose Maria shouted, ordering me to take the calf away from the horse.

With a cape in my hands, I ran to the center of the ring and stopped just behind the calf. The horseman leaned into the vara, but the calf was pushing the horse sideways toward the fence.

"Uh huh!" I shouted. The vaquilla stopped its charge, turned away from the horse then charged me.

I passed the calf with a veronica. The vaquilla was perfect, and charged straight and clean, like she was on rails. I passed her two more times and finished off with a rebolera by swirling the cape, flat in the air, to sculpt a full circle around me. I folded the cape over my arms and backed away.

"Soledad, Es perfecta, la vaquilla! Enseñanos como se torea!" Jose Maria shouted.

The calf was perfect, he said, and he ordered Soledad to show us how to bullfight.

She slipped from behind the burladero, walked to the center of the ring and called to the vaquilla. "Uh huh!" she shouted.

The vaquilla charged and Soledad was poetry in motion with long, slow passes and graceful movements. She pirouetted, wrapping herself in the cape. She swirled the cape over her head then held it behind her in a Gaonera pass, exposing her body to pass the calf first on her left then her right. She finished with the swirl of a rebolera, folded the cape and backed away from the calf to leave it panting in the center of the ring.

"Asi?" she shouted, as if to ask, "Is that what you meant?" She smiled at Jose Maria.

"Asi es," he said, that's what I meant, and ordered the vaqueros to take the calf out and ready the novillo, the three-year old bull.

Jose Maria walked to the burladero where I was standing.

"Okay, Pete, now comes the good part," he said. "He'll come into the ring over there through t h a t g ate. I'll give him a couple of passes, and then he's yours. You're the matador. Buena suerte," good luck, he said, and turned to walk to the burladero on the opposite side of the ring.

"Wait a minute," I shouted. "I'm a coward!"

"Que va," he said. "You're ready to take the alternativa, your baptism of fire. Go ahead."

I walked back to the burladero and slipped behind it, and looked up into the stands where Thais and Marsha sat beside one another. They both waved at me, and I waved back. I wondered if I looked pale, and I could feel my gut tighten as adrenalin pumped into me to combat the fear. I had looked down into the corrals at the novillo. It was three times the size of any of the calves, and it had a full set of horns. I could have said no, and I wondered what had possessed me when I accepted the challenge. I wondered if there was some self-destructive streak in me, and a wave of anxious nausea passed over me. I almost gagged with fear.

"How do you feel?"

I turned to face Soledad who had slipped behind me into the burladero.

"Scared to death," I said. "I never imagined when I met you a year ago in Madrid that one day I would be bullfighting with you."

"Fate can be cruel," she said and laughed.

"In this case Fate may have been kind. I may need you before this thing is over," I said. The word fate reminded me that a Gypsy flamenco dancer once read my palm and told me to stay away from bulls.

"I'll be your peon de confianza, and if you need me I'll be here. I watched you with the calves and you know what you're doing, so don't worry. Just watch out for this wind that's coming up. If the wind catches the cape it can direct the bull right into you."

"I know," I replied. "I've seen it happen more than once, and to people who know a helluva lot more about bullfighting than I do. Maybe I can just slip away to my car and get the hell out of here," I said with a nervous laugh.

"I don't think you're the kind of man who runs from a challenge," Soledad said.

I turned and looked into her pale, green eyes. "You know all of the right things to say, don't you?"

I slipped out from behind the burladero into the ring, and with the capote, the big red and yellow working cape, made a few mock passes. Then, grasping the top edge of the cape in my teeth, I held it while I folded it together over my arms. I stood waiting for the novillo to enter the ring. A ranch hand swung open the gate to the toril and a three hundred kilo, black, young fighting bull charged out.

He may have been sick with aftosa, but he didn't look sick to me, and the horns were bigger than I remembered them. I'm in deep water, I thought, way over my head. The bull stopped in the center of the ring and looked around, trying to decide where to attack. Jose Maria shouted at him.

"Uh huh, Toro!" he said and moved the cape.

The bull charged and Jose Maria passed him wide the first time. He then ran after the bull calling to him. The bull stopped, turned quickly and charged. Jose Maria passed him close with a veronica, turning him sharply to pull the muscles in the neck to lower his head. He passed him two more times and finished off with a media veronica. He folded the cape over his arms and backed quickly away.

"Okay, Pete," he shouted. "He's all yours."

I walked to the center of the ring. The bull was still watching Jose Maria; I shouted. "Uh huh, Toro!" The bull turned, looked at me and charged. I passed him with a veronica. My feet were together, and I moved the cape slowly just ahead of the horns. From behind me I heard the crowd shout Ole! I passed him two more times with veronicas, then swirled the cape over my head performing a Gaonera pass. The cape was played out behind me exposing my body. I shouted, "Uh, huh!" and passed the bull, first on my right side, turned quickly, and passed him on the left. I finished off the faena with a rebolera, by swirling the cape full out around my body.

I took two steps back, readied the cape for another series of veronicas, and shouted, "Uh huh, bonito." The bull charged, and when he was about four feet in front of me, a gust of wind caught the corner of the cape. The bull followed the movement and hit me square in the middle of the stomach.

I went down; I pressed my arms and elbows against my body, clasped my hands over my ears on either side of my head, and I started to roll away from the bull. I wondered how far it was to the nearest doctor, and I remembered what Carmina de los Reyes told me about staying away from bulls.

I felt the horns slip under me - the bull picked me up, and threw me like a rag doll. I was again on the ground, my face in the sand, trying to roll away when I heard Soledad shout.

"Uh huh, Toro!"

She worked the bull away from me with a series of undecorative, working, mariposa passes out to the center of the ring.

I jumped up, grabbed the cape, and stood watching her as she performed a series of low, slow veronicas. She finished off with a pirouette, and a media veronica to wrap the cape around her body, then backed away, leaving the bull panting in the center of the ring.

"Are you all right?" she shouted.

Jose Maria ran to where we were standing.

"You okay, Matador?"

"No broken bones, and no blood, so I guess I'm still in one piece," I said and brushed the sand off my face.

Soledad slipped back behind the burladero, and left Jose Maria and me standing alone.

"He's ready for the muleta now," Jose Maria said. "Are you up for it."

"Como no!" I replied in Spanish. "Este pendejo ahora es mi enemigo." I was not only shaken, I was angry.

I walked to the burladero and threw the big working cape over the fence, and took the small red serge muleta and wooden ayudado from Soledad.

I walked to the center of the ring, removed my cap and held it in my hand as I raised my arm in a salute to the crowd in the stands.

It was time for me to dedicate the first bull I would ever kill. I could have made the dedication to Marsha, Thais, Jose Maria or the crowd. Returning to the burladero I stood in front of Soledad.

"Thanks for saving my life, Soledad. Fate was kind to me, and I hope I can kill this bull in such a way that you will not be embarrassed that I have dedicated it to you."

"Thank you, Pete, I'm sure you will," she replied and smiled. "Suerte, Matador!"

I turned, threw the cap over my shoulder and unfurled the cape. I was ready to meet my first moment of truth.

With the wooden ayudado under the fold in the muleta I took them both in my right hand, and with my left hand on my hip, I walked to within about four feet of where the bull stood. I arched my back and slowly moved the cape in front of the bull.

"Uh huh," I said and stepped forward.

The bull pawed the ground, and I moved the cape slowly back. The bull looked at me, and I moved the cape in front of the horns again. I stepped forward to cross into the bull's terrain. The bull's head turned following the cape, then he stepped sideways, and charged. Moving the cape just ahead of the horns, I led the animal around my body with a derechazo pass, then followed it with another, and another, before finishing with a pase de pecho. The crowd roared its approval with a series of Ole's, and I had that wonderful feeling of having lost sense of myself that comes with deep and sustained concentration.

Shifting the cape to my left hand, I held the wooden ayudado in my right. I went through a series of left hand natural passes, and finished with Manoletinas, leaving the bull panting in his querencia, the part of the ring where the bull felt secure.

I turned my back on the bull and walked to the fence and exchanged the ayudado for the steel killing sword.

I returned to the bull, passed him several times with naturales, and left him positioned for the kill. I glanced across the sand to where Jose Maria stood watching me. He nodded his approval.

With the muleta in my left hand, I held the sword in my right. Looking down the edge of the sword to the point between the bull's shoulders where it would go in, I aimed the sword as one would aim a rifle.

"Uh huh!" I shouted and leaned into the sword as the bull charged.

I went in over the horns, vola pie, keeping the bull's head low in the cape. The sword penetrated to the hilt, and the bull stopped dead in its tracks, looked at me with disbelief, and fell over.

I returned to the burladero, and Soledad slipped out into the ring and kissed me on the cheek.

"You were fantastic," she screamed.

Breaking all of the rules of tienta protocol the crowd rushed down from the stands and surrounded me. "Ma-ta-dor, Ma-ta-dor, Ma-ta-dor," they chanted.

"I told you not to worry," Thais said and kissed me. Finally, Marsha came and stood beside me

. "You were good, Pete. Congratulations," she said and kissed me.

I really wanted a drink and when somebody passed me a leather bota, wineskin, I held it out at arms length to squeeze a stream of red wine into my mouth, then tossed it to Soledad. She did the same.

Jose Maria pushed his way through the crowd and stood in front of me.

"That was a great faena, Matador, and I am proud to present these two ears."

I accepted the ears, then gave Jose Maria a big abrazo. Holding the ears in my hands above my head I trotted slowly around the ring to the cheers of the crowd and the ranch hands.

People began to walk back to the house. I followed along beside Soledad.

"Now how do you feel, Matador?" she asked slipping her arm inside mine.

"I'm glad I did it, but I'm glad it's over."

"How in the world did you ever learn so much about šbullfighting?"

"Well, I went to school in Mexico, and I got to know a bunch of novilleros. I started practicing with them. There was a time, if you can believe this, that I even considered becoming a professional."

"I can believe it," she said. "What made you change your mind?"

"I decided that I had a very big defect of character. I realized that I was a coward," I replied.

"Well, it doesn't show."

"If you could see inside me you would see the knot of fear in my gut," I laughed and slipped my arm around her. "I'm also very glad that you were here, not just to save my life, but just because you're you."

"Thank you," she said and pulled my arm close to her. "I'm glad you're here, too."

The party regrouped in the bar and soon spilled over into the living room and out to the patio where a table overflowed with a spread of roast lamb and a paella loaded with clams, chicken, shrimp and lobster along with pitchers filled with sangria. The vaqueros brought their families and girlfriends in to join the party. Before long a couple of guitarists appeared and started playing Sevillanas, and the dancing started.

I was constantly interrupted by well wishers, and I enjoyed the brief period as one of the day's heros. Soledad was very much in demand by the rest of the party, too.

She was an excellent dancer, and as the fiesta progressed the crowd insisted that Soledad dance by herself, and for a while she resisted. Finally she left to change from her traje corto to a blue and white polka dot gypsy dress.

When she returned there was a round of enthusiastic applause and cheers. She came to stand beside me.

"So you're going share some more of your hidden talents," I said.

"Yes," she replied. "You sit down and I'll try to weave a spell for you. Imagine we are in a cave on Sacromonte in Granada lighted only by candlelight, and in the shadows there is a guitarist sitting on a straight back chair holding his guitar on his thigh. His fingers crawl over the strings like a spider as he goes through the intricate falsetas to Soleares."

The guitarists followed Soledad's lead and started to play Soleares. From one of the vaqueros came the raspy voice of a cante hondo singer in a protracted lamentation like an Islamic muezzin calling the faithful to prayer.

"I am a gypsy dancer sitting on a straight back chair," Soledad said, continuing her soliloquy, and sat down on a straight back chair on the other side of the room. The singer walked to where she was seated and for several minutes he stood beside her repeating his lamentations while the guitars played in counterpoint.

She rose from the chair and in two quick feline steps she was in the center of the room where she stood, back arched, head erect, face turned upward.

Slowly her left hand moved in serpentine rhythm with the guitars. Her left arm rose until it was fully extended above her to complete an arc with her right arm which was thrust downward behind her.

The guitars stopped. The lamentations ceased - she was thee focus of all attention.

"Ole," I said.

The guitars started again, and Soledad ebbed and flowed from the guitarists then back to the singer. Her hands and arms undulated like the wings of an angel in flight. With their music the singer and guitarists charmed her, and with her body she seduced them. Her face was illuminated with the torment of creating and the sweet agony of release. The tempo of the music increased. She swayed, lifted her skirt and clicked her heels against the floor. Pulling a comb from the back of her head she let her hair fall over her face, and she taunted us like a wild creature with a final explosive flourish.

I glanced across the room where Thais sat transfixed by Soledad. What I saw in Thais face was not jealousy, but raw animal attraction.

The music stopped and I, along with the rest of the party, clapped my hands with applause.

"Ole," I said.

Thais rushed to Soledad and embraced her.

"You're marvelous! If you ever get tired of painting you can be a dancer," she said.

"Did you like it?" Soledad asked breathlessly and slumped into the chair beside me.

"I loved it - you're really, really good," Thais said.

"Oh thank you. That was fun," she gasped trying to catch her breath.

Soledad's husband walked up to us and stood in front of her chair.

"Vámanos!" he said. "Es tarde." Let's go, it's late. "Si, vámanos," she replied, and stood up to follow him.

The party was over.

Gene McCoy © July 2000

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