The banderillero swaggered across the dry yellow sand, knelt in front of the bull gate, crossed himself – slowly, carefully – and spread out his pink cape. He was perhaps my age, probably younger. From our cheap seat, near the top of the Plaza de Toros, Claire and I could not see or hear the gate open. We saw only a blur of brown muscle, the flash of a cape, their meeting, melting, and then the banderillero rolling to the side, away.
The bull paused, sniffing. It was the second of six: blood had already been spilled in the ring. Its head oscillated, eyes acknowledging the crowd and, perhaps, its circumstances at the center of a confusing spectacle. Again it charged.
The youngster played with the fresh bull. He treated it with mock disdain while approaching and then, when it leaped, with urgent respect. Each strut was deliberate, proof that he had the skill, and the balls, to be a matador.
Two other banderilleros, both older, joined him. They danced between the bull and their barricades, tiring it. Trumpets sounded. The picadors entered, sitting arrogantly astride armored and blindfolded horses. Monosabios, the grooms, trotted alongside, wearing blue overalls, carrying sharpened sticks, looking proud and silly. The picadors kept close to the edge of the ring, near its walls, where they could not be toppled.
The bull struck hard against one of the impassive animals, twisted its horns amongst the armor. It drove the horse into the wall.
The picador drew back his short spear and thrust it into the knot of muscle on the bull’s neck. It did not flinch. He turned the spear slowly, one way, then the next. The bull pushed harder, horns writhing. Blood had begun to pour down its flanks, soaking the
animal’s dark coat. It dripped down and sank into the sand below.
Trumpets sounded, the picadors retreated. The banderilleros appeared again. Two carried their capes, the other carried only two banderillos: harpoons mounted on a short stick, colorful, confetti-like flags dangling from them.
The bull was kept distracted, attacking air and the walls, by the constant wave of a cape. The harpoon carrying banderillero waited, his back gradually stiffening. Erect, he ran at the bull. It saw him, pawed the earth, and charged.
Almost between the horns – banderillos raised above his head, ready – the banderillero jumped with both feet to the side. He pushed the harpoons firmly into the bull’s back as it passed.
One by one, the banderilleros harpooned the bull. It now had six banderillos dangling brightly from its sides, moving as it moved. These small flag bearing sticks gave this third of the fight, now over, its name.
The matador entered, threw his hat down in the center of the ring (he hoped to collect it later), and the third and final stage of the fight began: the tercio de Muerte, or death third.
The bull was by now breathing heavily. Its charges were frantic, but shorter, in a close circle around the matador. He danced aglitter through its lunges, a blur of pink and yellow sequins reflecting the flash of a stiff crimson cape.
The heat of a sultry day faded and floodlights came on. This was the last dance: the matador had 15 minutes to kill the bull or it would be returned to its pen.
The brush of bodies continued. The matador was suddenly knocked to the floor. He rolled desperately between the bull’s horns and hooves and the banderilleros returned, urgently trying to distract the bull. It reluctantly moved away from the helpless target and stood frustrated, dazzled by the return of three forgotten capes.
The matador stood. He had lost one of his shoes. It was small and dainty, for dancing. Furiously, he cast away the other and ordered the banderilleros off the ring. He stomped petulantly towards his opponent, in pink stockings, and continued the fight.
There was no extravagance now. He made a series of quick passes, readied his sword and launched himself at the animal, which was standing still now, resigned and exhausted. The sword pierced the bull’s back. It was aimed down, towards the heart and lungs, but stopped halfway to the hilt.
The crowd started to twitter. The kill was not clean. The matador would now have to use a shorter weapon, to sever the bull’s spinal cord. And he must do so quickly, staying clear of the animal’s still upturned horns.
He made an ugly and bloody mess of this too. After two failed attempts the crowd started to boo. After the third failure, an Italian sitting near me ejected a long and loud stream of insults. The bull died after the fourth attempt, at last collapsing under its enormous weight, blood streaming from its numerous wounds. The matador slunk from the ring.
The crowd now turned, shouting illegibly, to focus their attention on the Italian. He haggled for a while, waving his arms about in consternation, but was eventually removed by a disapproving security guard.
I had watched the ugly conclusion of a bullfight on a hostel television while in Madrid. The parade of g