Dancing in Red Rings

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Numbers are marked on old cement benches that circle and rise concentric from a lustrous red wooden wall making an amphitheatre around the giant circle of fine-raked yellow sand. On the ground, following the wooden wall, has been painted two massive red rings. High over the empty sand and all of us in the Plaza del Toro is a clear Spanish sky. Tourists wear shorts and carry blue vinyl seat cushions. Locals are in Sunday dress and carry glossy colored programs. People climb over one another, arms stretched to hands trading Euros for Cerveza’s, Ice Crème and Peanuts. The crowds’ soft rumble grows and above it sound whistles and hollers from seated friends to wandering ones.

Dressed in tights and jewel studded armor of bright blues, pinks and yellows, the players parade into the ring. They are a star matador and an army of others who strut and wave with a noble dignity. From their march, they take to positions beyond the freshly painted red wall. The crowds’ common voice had hushed for the display, but returns now. As the full bullring chats, drinks, eats and waits an anxious excitement grows inside all of us.


With a gunshot, the sound of a wooden gate swung fiercely open to crash upon its hinges, it begins. Like water freed through a dam, smooth golden sand reaches from the giant circle through the open gate, a large bay door and into a room where he stirs confused, enraged and hidden in darkness. The loud crack of the gate has silenced us. We hear him grunting and kicking up dirt, trying to decide what to do. Disoriented by the light, he slams his head into the wall, a bang that rocks through the ring and calls for shouts all around me, an assertive and anticipatory roar. It feels as if I’m awaiting the entrance of a champion. The suspense straightens my back.

With moments passing and still nothing for my eyes, the feeling begins to dip. Then from a mysterious silence, the black mass explodes into view, furious, his feet heavy into the earth, his black eyes alert and head all around. His face is rigid with mean angles, his legs strong and stubby and turning stiff from his skull are two short and aged horns. Met with open space and a cheering crowd, his wild entrance slows to a trot around the empty ring. His shoulders are broad and high. The wild bull is confident.

I see random gray burnt fur raised from his coat; clues to cause for his rage. He hunts for a way out of this place, but with the gate swung shut behind him, he finds only a constant and infinite red. Perplexed and maddened, the bull stops alone in the center as if the position were scripted. On display, he makes quick turns of his head and sudden changes in stance. His dark coat shimmers silver in the late sun except for low, behind his rib cage, where a black shadow shrinks and grows with a brave and healthy pant.

Touting bed sheet sized, pink faced and yellow backed capes, three dark skinned and agile looking men dressed like jesters take to the ring. Valiantly one of them approaches. By a light wave of his cape, like flinging wrinkles from laundry, he brings the first charge. Darting to the side, he lets the black machine pass under soft fabric. The beast’s movements are alert, decisive and dangerous. Between each lunge, the bull breaks to breathe and stand again tall and strong, his head high, drooling and looking. The man dances with the bull, only one of them knowing his fate.

In a quick dash he once wins the cape, leaving the lanky jester seemingly naked in the ring. He turns and bolts with his chin buried into his shoulder so he can watch the bull’s chase; who drives clumsily forward. Just before being rammed, the man jumps over the wall, outsmarting the beast, the final lunge bringing his head and horns to crash fast and rigid into unforgiving wood. The sound of it is exciting. Its volume breaks the quiet we had given the frightened man and pulls me down towards the sand.

Like an on deck batter in the dugout, the matador watches all of this with pierced eyes. He learns the bull’s pitch and then takes to the ring. His skin is the darkest, hair is the slickest, stance is the proudest and he brings the same cape and dance. I watch another cycle of kicked dirt, fluttering fabric and theatric twirls. This match is a decent one. It’s a fair fight; a good game.

With the bull visibly tired from charging, turning and charging; two more men enter on horse back. Dressed in a pale yellow, their costumes are the dullest of the bunch. They wear safari hats and armored medieval looking boots which go up to their knees. An armored quilt of the same pale yellow is draped over each horse and hangs near to the ground. The protected animals have also a black fabric over their eyes, blindfolding them and making their use seem quite mechanical. With some taunting by a little jester and his pink cape the bull charges the horse.

His horns catch the unsuspecting animal low, where a long front right leg joins his covered body. The strike is strong, but causes no harm through the thick fabric shield. The tall horse simply bears his high weight down, bringing them into a rigid stalemate. Above, the rider has readied his wooden spear; a crude ten foot shaft, with a blunt, but sharp and shining point, which goes a few inches to a catch that works like the basket on a ski pole to limit the depth of penetration.

Straight from above, the man plunges the shaft violently into the bull’s shoulders, the blunt tip pushing into his flesh like a thumb breaking the skin of an orange. The man stands high on stirrups, his left hand wrapped around the reigns and the other gripped tight on the staff rising under his armpit and towards the sky. He lays his weight over the beast; who remains with his horns locked under the blind horse’s front leg, shocked by the sudden pain.

A red syrup burps once from the bulls back and splashes down his left side. At the sight of first blood, a still swings over the crowd clasping shut lips, sending air in through noses and lighting a small spark in everyone’s heart. He bucks upward in defense, but the high horse returns his armored weight down. Carrying the shaft with him, the man bucks up his weight too. With a pull, reach and twist of his left, he wraps the reins tighter, following with a leap from the stirrups back onto his shaft, downward, plunging again.

Over and over the bull thrusts up and the man down, the bull up and the man down. His tails whips about, wincing the pain. Thrusting and thrusting, they work the rhythm hard like for love. For the man this is love. Then his motions become obsessive and hauntingly aggressive. His face shaded by a large white hat, I imagine the stretch of his eyes and grit of his teeth.

Some of the others come from behind to break up a fight that’s become just the three of them. With shouting and waving of capes, the bull breaks away the repeated punishment of a blunt spear. He turns for the men. They scatter giving him many options and he takes none.

With a wet lap of blood down his Labrador coat, the bull trots aimlessly about. The sun has set some and half the sand is now shaded. He loses his bladder. Some in the crowd laugh at the site.

For a time, three men move slowly about keeping the bull full of attention and empty from action. Then again capes wave and bring him dashing. Being outnumbered, his decisions now prove frustratingly fruitless. They move him around the ring, taxing him more. Once a chase brings him into the remaining sunlight, which breaking white over the top of the stadium, comes like a flash on his big body. Towards the comfortably shaded stands, his wet fur now gleams a vibrant red. The blood is like ours and I can feel the crowd know it.

The sandy ring empties of men and the bull again stands alone. I watch him viciously reaching for air, trying to numb the ache in his shoulders. I wonder if he thinks this is the worst of it.

Carrying two short and colorful sticks, one man returns to the ring. He holds them delicately, as if sacred relics, and prances around waving the things in a silly looking ritual. At the edge of the shade he halts to face me with the bull directly between us. The man’s feet snap together. He raises his arms and from each hand dangles a colorful stick. Behind him and to the right along the sand grows a stretched silhouette of the crucifix. My eyes follow the line from his feet, through his shadow, over the red barrier and into the empty section of sunlight cement, straight up the far wall of Plaza del Toro where the ring meets the empty sky over a hidden Seville, except for far in the distance, where standing taller than everything, a cross topped steeple rises form the cities cathedral and watches over the bull, the man and his shadow.

The sounds in the stadium are now like before a putt at a golf game. Some of the crowd talks softly, but mostly respect and concentration is given to the man with the two sticks.

“Hey hey!” he shouts.

The bull watches but does nothing.

“Hey hey!” he yells again.

With a quick tempo the man shuffles his feet looking foolish in his tights. Still nothing. He then begins jumping straight up and down with legs locked together, stomping like a child learning to maintain composure while frustrated, but without his cape he struggles still.

Finally the bored bull comes. The man hops high, strikes with them parallel and silent and runs for the wall. Both spears fall to dangle from hooks buried under the bull’s thick burlap back. Like a dog with a bow tied slyly round its neck, he bucks and twists his head side to side, trying to remove the pain. From his fierce rearing, the bright sticks simply bounce and dance over him. Being whipped about, his tale dances too.

The man is one stroke under par. Proper clapping resounds.

This goes on twice more. Each time the cheering grows louder, its sound transforming from the primness of a golfer’s audience to the hostility of boxer’s crowd. After the second strike the bull loses his bowels and again some laughter from the crowd. Once, instead of charging, breaking instinct and showing his fear, he runs in fear from the man. Shouts sound of disapproval.

With clapping fading from the last putt and proud bow, I watch the bull again search for a way out to whatever painless memories he can foster. His breathing is tremendously heavy now, his stomach sinking deep and pausing before each long inhalation. Six short spears dangle from his back and a pancake of dark red motor oil reaches wide down both sides. His shoulders are still high, but his head hangs lower. In an ordinarily expressionless face, a fear and anger is visible. I can see him wanting to hurt just one of them, but bound by man’s rules he has not a chance. So he waits dazed in the empty ring, walking, standing, drooling, bleeding and wondering.

I feel an emotional pull from two directions. One is the sheer excitement of the fight; the danger in man facing a beast so large and enraged. There is a strange attraction to the brutality. It’s an often denied, but real animal part of me that loves survival and wants more. I despise it and wish to be above it, but it’s at me now.

On the other side is that source of that wish, a climbing empathy. The bull’s black fur reminds me of my dogs’. I remember petting his short black coat and how soft it felt. I remember how his ribs jumped up and down after a sprint and how watching this made me love him because I knew we were both alive. I can feel the pain in the bull’s chest from squeezing for air. I know his pain of split flesh and the throb of his bruised, punctured muscle. His blood is as warm and sticky as mine and I know how the smell of it scares him.

The matador takes to the kicked yellow sand, carrying at last a bright red cape. His posture is extremely erect. He arches his back, squeezes his tight turquoise pants into his backside and pompously pushes his chest over the bull and up towards his fans. With a red wave, the bull charges again defiant, but also gauchely now. He gives all he has but gets only wind. Between each attempt he must rest a long while now and so the matador stands safely and proud a few feet from the hanging snout, which bobs up and down and puffs small clouds from the sand. His tail hangs straight between his legs, an exhausted pendulum.

The matador’s pride gets him sloppy and once he is too close. Crude horns catch the man between his legs and lift him into the air. Sliding across the bulls wet back, looking like a flailing doll in a bedazzled blue costume, his costume is painted with dark blood. Over the bull he lands in the dirt, flat on his chest. The mass of us gasp and some shriek in horror. The bull bucks his back legs trying to stomp the man, but his accuracy is dulled and his energy drained. I hope for a strike, then think of the infirmary in the bull stadium with its stainless steel table, oxygen tanks and bright lights. Noticing another strange desire for pain, I just wish it would end.

The man scurries out like a cat, and runs for the wall where he jumps to safety. Like a pebble dropped in a lake, the dishonor his face and ripples out from him, up the stepped benches soaking us all with disgrace. It is time the game ends.

From a waiting hand, the matador snatches another red cape and a razor sharp sword. Carrying them stoutly, he marches back into the ring. The two dance on again. The man is more careful this time, but appears just as proud.

“Olay!” he shouts to bring the bull, his voice echoing through the silent stadium.

No one is talking. It is like a foul shot, a deciding putt or an execution.

Everything moves so slow and so quiet. The bull stands still, growing and shrinking for breath. We can hear it. I can see him dreaming again. The matador positions his feet and I watch his heels build small mounds in the sand. His back is to me, his blue pants are smeared with the bull’s blood and every muscle in him is squeezed tight. He looks over his left shoulder to the sad bull by his side.

The crowd is still hushed and I look out at them. With everyone waiting eyes fixed, the only motion is a sea of white hand held fans fluttering softly at their heads for a comfortable finally.

Slowly the matador reaches out with his left and hangs the red cape directly between him and the bull. He raises his sword in his right, over his head and points it towards the sky, holding it there, like Babe Ruth over the outfield.

With a small nervous bounce, he quakes the cape in his left. In my periphery, I see birds circling soundless overhead see the still steeple on the horizon, but I don’t dare again look away. Again and again, he flaps the cape yelling “Olay!” The sword is still over his head.

At last, the fluttering red cape takes the bulls mind. With a snort and a heavy, but soft gallop on the damp shaded sand, the worn animal storms his last storm in a straight line for the matador. Perfectly timed, the man jumps up and at him. The mirrored sword seemingly on its own, magically, dives deep into the bulls back, entering smooth with a quick and audible sip. The sight of if is uncomfortably satisfying, like driving a tent stake deep into soft ground.

This pain is new and inside, like a sickness. A sudden heart burn and then he’s drowning. Blood fills his lungs and comes up his throat. He spits, sneezes, coughs and then blood pours from his face. His head drooping through this progression until his faucet of a snout kisses the ground. His ramped body convulses like a dog puking, the pain starting at his rear and carrying in a wave through his square aching brain.

He fights for comfort and life. I can see it in the way he trips in a clockwise circle, struggling to stay standing. Spiraling lower and lower near the center of the ring, he draws a red trail around a place to die. This circle matching the red rings painted on the sand, the red wall around the ring and the cement benches filled with wide eyed men and women. In a final collapse to his knees and the side of his face, the bull rolls to his back and his legs go up, kicking and twitching. Blood pumps from his mouth and snout once and twice more, then stops with his heart.

An instant of death beats out from him over all the rings and through everyone, meaning nothing or something for each of us.

In many the spark of empathy that came at the first sign of blood now burns like a flame. I can feel it in the silence. We sit mortified, pondering the reason this goes on, the reason we came. We think about the money we spent, the number of bulls killed, eating meat and how wild it seems. We wonder what makes us different than the man with the cape and his fans around us.

Some jump to their feat cheering and screaming. With the bull gone, the death is over and it’s just something that’s happened. Then the sound of the first cheers spreads like a wave over us all, extinguishing small fires of compassion. Suddenly nearly the entire stadium is standing, clapping, shouting and ferociously waving white flags high over their heads. It’s an awkwardly mixed expression of approval, pride and aggression.

I stay seated and watch in amazement how something so obvious and real and important that burned for a moment inside so many people came and went so quickly. It wasn’t about the bull. It was about the existence of a conscious life I saw people connect with, feel for and then not care about all in a matter of seconds. Watching a wave of violent energy be born, surge and overtake a small, but real compassion was hands down one of the scariest things I have ever seen in my life.

2 Thoughts on “Dancing in Red Rings”

  1. UT Says:

    Thanks Ernie. Nice job. Putt (doube T)

  2. Dana Says:

    unifying aggression, the dance of power, the beauty of control, life into death. something so wrong but real about it all. thanks for writing this.

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