The Third of Death


By Stephanie Rene Mendoza

          For a while now you’ve been half-listening to the women in the seats next to you, puzzling at the faded magazine in your lap. You nod every few sentences, laugh when it seems appropriate. Sip on cool drinks and comment on their speculations for the match. “El Juli?” You are incredulous. “No, no, he has only technical precision—no grace, no artistry. There are nine qualities—”
          “Not this again,” Venetia laughs—when did they tell you their names?—turning to Isabella next to her. “Do you remember—oh it’s starting, it’s starting!” With a broad grin she leaps to her feet, her sister beside her, the murmurs of the crowd rising to a cacophony of cheers, the enclosed arena ensnaring the noise, capturing the whistles of men and women, the screams of children, the triumphant march of the band.
          It is warm under the heavy sun, your skin hot, but despite this you feel calm, cool, unaffected by the heat that usually leaves you weak and hungry and tired, craving the comfort of your bed. For so long you have dreamed of returning here, to the place where your heart never quickened and the drum of your pulse never echoed, to the place of your closest—to this day—and most lasting relationship with any living being. The surge of energy that pulses through you with each round of applause is infectious, unbidden. You feel seventeen again, feel as though you too could stand before the Miura bulls and emerge victorious. Bulls of Death, they are called, the Black Legend, they are called, but for the moment you fear nothing, for the moment you are every bit as fearless as they say, every bit as worthy of the title as they once proclaimed. You want to bear witness to this moment, to remember everything.
          Instead you turn back to the magazine, and like that, the moment is gone. You are sweating and the noise hurts your ears and you wish you could go home, though you have not been there for some time. The man on the cover stares up at you, silent. There is something familiar about his shadow gaze, something hard to ignore—something about the coy half-grin, the shadowed scar across his left cheek. He looks like someone you know, someone you used to know.
          Like someone you should remember.

          For years the profiles have declared that you were born in a barn—surrounded by bulls and cows and sheep, the hallowed savior of a failing farm, the firstborn son and salvation finally come. They say you are raised with the creatures that come to define you, that you stalked the fence line as they roamed the fields behind your home, that you did not watch but absorbed the bullfights, scrutinizing the pirouettes and the stances, the suit of lights and the passes and the final thrusting sword.
          (You have read everything. Read it all. Read it under the lamplight by your bedside, in the shadow of the rising sun, by the garden across the courtyard. You have read and reread it again and again, you can’t stop reading it, you—)
          You know that you lingered in the emptying parking lot, wielding a filthy jacket and a fallen branch, pranced around parked vehicles practicing the veronica and the porta gayola and the estocada. You know the torero who spent weeks and months and years supplying you with swords and capes and uniforms, the livestock on which you practiced, the competitions you traveled to across the country. You’ve watched clips of your face flashing across the screen, seen your own black-and-white gaze staring up at you. El Chico, they called you, shouting it in the streets. El Chico, the youngest matador in history. El Chico—the boy without fear. For decades, even after your retirement, you were considered one of the world’s greatest living matadors, an icon. A legend.
          That is until Santi.
          You have read of him, too. Read of the rigid poses he struck as his sister charged towards him with wood-mounted horns. How he guided the magenta and gold cape over her head as she darted beneath and twisted his body as she turned to rush past him again and again and again. For months, they say, he practiced, switching to the twins when his sister grew bored, back again when they did. The family dog when they lost interest. His imagination when it was all he possessed.
          You gather his profiles: Santi facing his first calf at six in the stable of a generous neighbor. Eight and his first appearance as a becerrista, cape clenched in his fists and suit of lights clinging to his frame. Nine and waiting on his knees before the bull chute, cape draped in front of him, edges grasped firmly in his hands.

          As the toreros begin their march into the stadium, clad in their suits of lights with capes draped over their arms or sitting tall on an armored parade horse, the crowd’s cheers intensify, trumpets rising to an ecstatic climax, enthusiasm drifting uneasily into aggression. Rarely were you a bystander to the corrida rather than participant; rarely did you notice the intensity and focus of the toreros, the monosabios, even the mules that bring up the rear. The unfamiliarity, the foreignness leaves you uneasy, uncertain. It makes you wonder what else you might have missed.
          Beside you, Isabella and Venetia wave to the men passing, wishing them luck, catching your eyes every few moment as they do their best to incite your fervor equally. “Fun, yes?” Venetia asks, laughing as a rejoneadores tips his hat and pushes his horse into a quick dance for her. “Don’t worry, he’ll be by any second now!”
          “Yes, yes,” you say. “Exciting.” There isn’t much about this spectacle that you could find thrilling anymore, not after the hundreds you walked through from your boyhood well into your youth, and well after. They bleed into each other, one after another after another after another: an endless procession of arrogant men and the starry-eyed youths that assist them, dreaming of the days they will enter a stadium to a packed crowd and echoing cheers, not knowing, not caring that only one in a hundred—a thousand—go on to enter the ring, certain they will be that one.
          They were always so certain.
          There’s this image you can’t shake from your mind: boards with peeling paint and rusted machinery, charcoal shadows across chasm eyes. Your tongue bubbling on half-formed words, lips parting on hot, dust-filled air—
          “Look, look!” Isabella shouts, breaking your reverie, and she taps your shoulder and points to the arena where the matadors begin to turn in your direction. “See?” she asks, and jabs her finger at the cover, then again towards the center. “Over there, look—Santiago!”
          And it is—the man on the magazine.
In truth he is shorter than his picture suggests: well-built, but stout. His suit of lights clings to his skin as he halts in the arena and digs his slippers into the sand, as he raises his hand against the sun to search the faces of the audience. When his gaze passes the judges box, Venetia and Isabella leap to their feet, gesticulating wildly, pointing towards you again and again.
          Santi has nearly crossed the stadium by the time he takes notice. He faces the girls. There is a moment when his body makes an abrupt, aborted motion, where his solemn expression dissolves into one of disbelief, a sort of boyish wonder—then he notices the banderilleros and picadors walking just behind him, and the expression fades.
          Just before he exits the ring, he turns back one last time. Raises his hat in your direction.
          “Did you see, did you see?” The women are asking, twin grins lighting up their features. “Did you see him look at us?”
          When the crowd quiets down, you are finally able to respond. “Yes,” you say, flipping back through the magazine’s pages, anxious, half-aware. The audience is too many, the noise they are making too much. You ask again: “How much longer now?”

          Here’s what the profiles don’t tell you: at ten years old Santi was a quiet boy filled with a quiet intensity. Already he understood the importance of the quick thrust, the clean strike, had seen it demonstrated more times than anyone would care to count. But the action itself, the part that followed—this he struggled with. Each day he pranced with the practice calves as if he did not know what came next, striking poses and throwing passes, running his fingers over their fur as they rushed past. “Can I go, Papa,” he asked anyway when the invitation arrived, and in the weeks that followed the question became a plea then became a promise: he was ready, he swore. He could do it, he swore. With all the conviction he could muster he swore.
          As the chute opened, as the cape shook in waves, Santi lowered himself into position. He did not flinch as the calf rushed towards him, as he jerked his arm above his head, as the cape rose, swinging in smooth arch to the left and passing just over the calf’s head. As the gasp of the crowd swelled to a vicious, exultant crescendo, as the calf charged again, as Santi raised his sword—
          “Papa,” Isabella asks you, and she has the charcoal eyes of your father and the delicate voice of your mother, and you are struck suddenly by all the things you can’t remember. “It’s okay, mija, it’s okay,” you hastily say, and as you become yourself you are alarmed to find that Santi has already begun the final third of the corrida, that Venetia is looking at you with the same tender, anxious expression she wore when you first learned of the diagnosis, sitting in the stark examination room, hospital gown ill-fitting, displaying too much of an aging, frail body you no longer recognize as your own. “I’m fine,” you tell the girls. “I’m fine. Watch your brother.” But how can you talk, because you are not watching your adult son—you are remembering your child. Remembering how his expression fell the moment he dropped his sword in the swirling dust and looked up at you with his dark, cavern eyes. Remembering the bulls that lowered their weary heads as you raised your sword above them, how the blood spilled from their back with such force that you know the taste of it still, the salty, bitter trace that lingers on your tongue. How though the red washed easily from the fabric of your suit of lights you are certain the stain remained, that it burrowed deep within the strands and fibers and particles and deeper down, into your DNA. How it wasn’t the six-inch gash in your thigh that ended your career.

          “Papa,” Isabella says again, and as you turn to her you squeeze her hand and reach for her sister’s and blink the tears from your tired, half-blind eyes, eyes that could once anticipate the motions of the creature facing Santi now, trembling fingers that could once wield the deadly weapon of your forefathers for hours on end. “I’m here, mija, I’m here,” you tell her, and you are, for now you are, and while she and Venetia share another nervous look the three of you watch Santi standing tall and stiff before the Miura.
          What the magazines and articles and documentaries never captured was the shame you felt at returning to your impoverished community. How your righteousness melted into disgrace as the cameras and reporters faded, as the features shifted to retrospectives. They don’t know the glimmer of recognition you glimpsed as you pulled up to service stations in your broken down truck and offered change from scarred, calloused hands. They don’t know that Santi flinched each time a matador pierced his sword into the bull’s neck, that he begged to quit training, for your forgiveness, begged for anything you would give him, anything at all, and for this very moment, for as long as you can remember, you are mad with the lost days that well up inside you, with the infinite shortage of possibilities, with everything you might have said and everything you might have done and everything—everything—too late to change.
          The Miura lowers his head to Santi’s waving muleta as the crowd rises to their feet, as your daughters cheer beside you, as Santi—El Santi—raises his sword—
          You rise from your seat. You want to move. You want to be seen. You want to transmute your body to the agile build of your youth, to leap over the guardrail and sprint across the dust, to fling your son aside and pick up his fallen sword, to shout into the stadium, into the town, into the city, the country, shout until Santi can hear you, until he listens, until he understands what you’ve always meant to say.
          “Papa,” Isabella asks. “Are you okay?”
          Look at me! you want to say. My son, Santi. Listen.
          There are things I want to share with you.


Stephanie Rene Mendoza is a book publicist living in Queens, though she is originally from San Antonio. Her fiction and poetry has appeared in Humid.

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