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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Tuesday 21 February 2012

The Gringo In The Ring

One of my first short stories...

The sun shone fiercely, reflecting the harsh reality of the land below. This was Latin America - what mattered here was real, could not be ignored. In the acrid smoke from the cooked pork, the sweat-smelling dry heat and the sickly sweet scent of stale liquor was an undeniable edge, a truth of life that jeers and intimidates the ignorant. The masses of mestizos and indigenas swarmed past the food stalls and shouting merchants, sweated exhilaration out of every pore. Chickens squawked and dogs dashed under foot, children chasing them with sticks. Into this tumult of raw existence walked Jack Mackenzie.

Sweat streamed from his skin at the base of his spine, around his temples, neck and chest. The taste of hot salt sat heavy on his tongue. Pulling the cotton of his shirt and wiping the sting from his eyes he took in the arena, a massive structure of shoddy beams and aged twine older than most people there. Ragged and mountain-old, a Quichua woman approached, hands cupped and lowered in penitence, looking for alms. Jack had none to give. The sea of humanity pushed and pulled at him. He pushed back, fighting to claim space where he did not belong. Beyond the makeshift arena, the "bull fight" - the corrida - awaited.

The lower tier of the stadium sat on the dry earth; fire heat and rich odour dwelled in the darkness of its stalls. Behind the smoke, wizened faces watched the world with detached suspicion. Jack escaped the crowd up a ladder to a booth on the second tier. It had been rented by Soledad's grandparents, and they and some cousins were there. They welcomed him and motioned for him to sit. His eyes darted towards the crowd surrounding the barren field, searching her out. Despite her assurances, he would not find Soledad today. Tonight, perhaps, as the stories of bravery and loss were told in Sangolquí.

Jack sat on the wobbling pole that served as a seat next to the cousins. One, young Esperanza, held a single rose tightly in her small hand; so, she had a man in the field. Her father, perhaps - fathers did such things there. Shouts grabbed and shook the gringo Jack and forced the energy and fear upon him - the fear of the bull. Between aged abuela and young Esperanza he sat, and looked out to the field.

Life and Death clashed there. Watching the black blaze across the earth, waiting for their brush with feral nature or too drunk to know better were the men. They waved hats, pink and red capes called muletas or held nothing - maybe a bottle of warm drink. Those who wanted to live kept their eyes on the animal. It charged, spun, charged anew. A young man stepped brazenly forward, his muleta held at an angle. The cape did not flutter, the man stood calm. Its hooves catapulting it forward, the bull lunged; snorts from its massive face washed hot breath over the chest of the torero, ruffling his shirt.

The muleta rose between hand and horn, soft, at peace, and fell again. "Olé!" roared through the crowd.
And through Jack as well.

Again the bull turned, rage and heat straining its muscles beyond taught. A horned head arced, searching, tore again towards a red flapping across the field. Bodies ran, daring hands slapped at massive flanks as the beast thundered on. The bull had been in the arena long, had grown wise. It charged not the muleta but the man. Jack's wide eyes mirrored the horror of the would-be bull fighter as the beast's horn tore through his chest about the belly and the body was in the air, the animal running. Limbs flailing, girlish screams piercing everywhere, it was a full ten seconds before the body came down. With a snap of the neck the form went flying, shook the earth. Even as the blood collected on the horn's tip the boy was up and running. By the time the red drip touched barren soil, returning home to the Pacha Mama, he realized his mortality and dropped heavily to the ground, was still. Hands clutched the boy, pulled at him as the bull turned his head, hunting for more.

Esperanza leaned forward, hand to breast as the beast tore across the earth once more. Jack barely registered the charge; what he saw now he'd never seen before. Coils of pink and red hung from the body of the boy as it was pulled to safety. Only a red stain was left, and that was quickly soaked up by the dry earth. Jack shook his head, trying to clear the image which had branded itself on the back of his eyes. He saw the younger boy holding the red school sweater in trembling hands. Somewhere, a woman cried out. How light the little body looked as the child sailed into the air, like a doll, as the little head deflated under the bull's hoof. To Jack's left a scream pierced high and far, a single rose fell to arid soil on a gentle breeze.

Jack was not frightened by the horror of a young life gone so savagely, nor by the brutal violence of the corrida. What scared him was the fervid thrill he felt within. All eyes had been on the boy. His shirt stuck to his body, his pulse beat its way through clenched hands into the railing they were fastened too. Galloping, hooves - caballeros with lassos came into the arena to catch the bull. It had learned too much - grown too dangerous. It was time for fresh blood. In the midst of a run a lasso landed on the bull's horn, its great head snapping around as the cord pulled taut. Horse and rider vied for position as the second lasso whirled through the air. Too late - turn, charge, bull horn sank into horse flank, then again. Red reached to touch the dry earth. It took two more caballeros and lassos to reign the bull in.

Pulled to the paddock, the vicious air of the beast evaporated like the stinking sweat that permeated the air. Tame, as a scolded child, it bowed from sight. Leaving all told three dead and seven wounded, and one horse that would have to be put down.

With a word to no one, with no real conscious thought Jack was over the railing and down, falling hard through the ankles to the knees onto the field below. As real as the sound, the violence, the whole ritual that was the corrida had been from above, Jack learned that there was no match to being in the ring. He learned that to watch was distant, a cheap thrill. The real thing was unequivocal, full, and deadly.

Sound amplified. The smell of distant perfumes wafted to his nostrils in perfect clarity. Every hair and inch of his skin developed additional awareness and he knew what was the state of alive. It takes the face of death to know it. No gringo had learned this before, and none was likely to later, either.

Dust kicked up about him, every shout and rant rung in his ear as clear as a single voice in an empty room. The blood in his veins rushed a force of nature, his heart the heavy storm driving it. Jack ignored the astonished looks from the latinos around him. He ignored thoughts of Esperanza's flower crushed on the dead grass below. The entry gate loomed closer with each step, shook from some impact within.

There was nothing else. Somewhere in the crowd, Soledad must have caught sight of him. There is no word for the fear, and pride, she felt at that moment. At least, not in English.

A few kids - teens - hung about the gate, high off of adrenaline and hard drink. Latin machismo prodded them on. Then the gate bucked. Fearing the bull, Jack found himself five metres back, where the other boys had rushed as well. The gate did not open. Shame swelled inside him, ate at his sensibility and forced him to move closer. Closer. The gate bucked again. Jack twitched, took a step back. Nothing. Again the gate rattled. Another shudder, but he held his ground. Silence. Still. His veins swelled and recoiled as the sound about him coalesced into one pleading shriek...

The gate opened. The crowd roared - Jack thought for him. He was a novelty, after all, in an ancient spectacle. The new bull, fresh and haughty, burst forth with ungainly speed. The toreros were everywhere, organized in their confusion as they raced to get away. Stones, sticks, taunts attacked the bull, chided him, mocked him, stirred him to hatred. Jack joined the baiters - he would not be out done.

The bull was briefly confused, head spinning this way and that. An arena of thousands of human bodies and a field of far less were hurling fury and pain its way. Too much confusion leads to anger; more, to rage. With a deep bellow the bull thundered onward. The sound was buried beneath the waves of roared ecstasy from the crowd. In the middle of it all, Jack smiled.

Charging blindly, the bull found a cape. With practised steps the torero entered the bull's terrain, passed it with a classic verónica to cries of "olé." All Jack saw was a rapid movement, a flutter of cloth. All Jack knew was that the bull was fear, danger in solid form. He was in a land not his own, knew none of the rules. Anyone could see that to challenge the bull said something about one's mettle. That something would be said of him. Whether he became local legend or tragic tale - he was white, just hadn't understood - Jack would not be denied. From the ground he found an abandoned muleta; from somewhere visceral the force in a man that goes beyond courage, beyond testosterone-driven lunacy gave him what else he needed. He walked on.

The bull was across the field; Jack tired quickly of the scatter-approach-scatter-approach of other toreros, cut straight to the animal. It turned, charged off to the left, and Jack turned with it. Horns materialized from beneath a sweater. Jack walked on. Thirty, twenty, fifteen feet away where the most daring of the toreros manned their ground. The bull charged - right past him. There was no time to even feel afraid. Many things could have happened. A charge, a near-miss, many things, but he had not expected to be ignored. He, the lone gringo, the only one who needed the confrontation. Alone, standing, rage flushed from deep within and Jack saw the bull with hate.

He charged. Not the bull - Jack. He charged shouting vehemently every Spanish and English indignity he could think of. The bull turned in his direction, caught sight of movement elsewhere and rushed off.

From the swarm around the bull, machos dived in like fisher birds for a quick jab before taking flight. That was the way it was done. Jack moved in - ten feet, six. The machos were remote at the corners of sight, the crowd a distant whisper somewhere at the edge of perception. He was alone in the bull's space. With furious anger and a roar to shake the heavens Jack raised his muleta high, brought it down with vengeance upon the animal's hide. The bull turned again, this time acknowledging no distraction.

Eternity took root in that moment. Jack looked at the bull, and his hatred vanished. Sweat glistened, dripped down it's back, collected beneath its eyes. Deep breaths inflated, deflated the mammoth lungs that sustained life as did Jack's own. The bull stood tall, proud, dignified. There was nobility in its countenance. It was as it should be, in every way - the focus, the soul of the corrida. Only he did not belong. Jack felt shame; he dropped his muleta. The bull's eyes focused, and as Jack saw his own reflection in their depths time returned, fell upon him like an avalanche.

Stories were told of him that night.

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