I grew up in a fighting family. My father, his father and all the men going back over two hundred years. It’s what we do. It’s all I’ve ever known. Even though my grandfather died in the ring, my father still wanted to fight, and he would have, except he had a bad knee. He was born with it. It’s the only thing that kept him out.
My father is proud. When people first meet him, they think he’s stern. They see someone who’s quiet, respectful, above average height, black hair, with a strong build and unwavering eyes. Some even they think he’s disapproving and unapproachable. But that’s not what I see. He’s the most loving parent a child could have. Underneath his serious demeanor, he dotes on my sisters and me, though he gives me most of the attention because I’m his only son. He’s the one who checks to see if we’ve done all our chores or if we’re getting to bed on time. He takes care of us when we’re sick. Once when I was playing tag, my friend knocked me down and the last thing I remember is my father running over to see if I was okay.
Others don’t see it, but I can tell his knee bothers him. He tries to hide his limp, but my uncle, Cesar, always reminds him of it when I’m around. It’s my uncle’s way of putting down my father.
Uncle Cesar is the acknowledged master fighter of the last three generations of our family. Long retired, he argues he’s still the best. And if you did challenge him, he would remind you that no one in our family has ever achieved his level of fame. It’s true. Everyone in the fight world knows him and still talks about his career. He’s my father’s older brother and has always treated my dad like he was inferior. My mother tried to talk to my father about it once, but he wouldn’t say anything. He says it’s a family thing — between him and his brother.
I’ve heard Uncle’s fighting stories hundreds of times. I know them so well, I could tell them myself. From the early days of training with his brothers, all the way to his last fight, which he won in spectacular fashion. I can’t wait until I can fight, so I can have my own stories. I’ve practiced with friends on my own, but my uncle says that doesn’t mean anything. It’s not until you step in the ring and face your opponent in front of a crowd that anything counts.
Uncle Cesar is tall with broad shoulders and long muscular legs. He used to be a fast runner until his legs were injured. That changed everything. I suspect the visible scars are nothing compared to what he feels inside. He would never admit it, but I can tell he hurts when he walks. Whenever he takes more than a few steps, he has to bite down so hard his jaw muscles stick out.
He isn’t nice to anybody. Me, my father, mother or my sisters, it doesn’t matter. He just never has anything positive to say. His two sons were fighters of minor note, but they never came back to our ranch after they left. I think they didn’t want to come back, because they would have to listen to how they would never be as good as their father.
My Uncle oversees my training. My father didn’t argue when my uncle suggested it. My father said it was for the best. I think my father wanted to train me himself, but he didn’t want to argue with his brother. The official reason was my uncle had the experience and my father wanted to give me the best chance to be successful. The night before I started my training, my parents got into a big fight. My father was afraid that if I turned out to be successful, then he would be even more beholden to his brother for it.
My mother wouldn’t hear of it. “That’s your stupid pride. If you don’t keep those thoughts away from our son, he’s lost for sure.”
My father didn’t have an answer for her. I think deep down he secretly hoped I would be better than his brother, so, for once, he could tell Uncle Cesar he wasn’t the best. My father didn’t pressure me, but I wanted to make him proud of me. I wanted to make both my parents to be proud of me.
Uncle Cesar has trained dozens of fighters, but works me harder than any of them. My strength and stamina are better than any of the others. I can run three miles before I start breathing hard. I can do wind sprints for two hours before I need to rest. Sometimes I catch my father watching my training from the barn. I know Uncle Cesar sees him too, but he doesn’t say anything.
My first test came last summer when another young fighter, Islero, came to train at our ranch a month before his debut. This kid was named after the bull that killed the famous matador Manolete. I thought that could only be bad luck. He was a good kid from outside Barcelona who wanted nothing more than to step into the ring and prove himself.
Cesar took charge of his workouts and trained us together. One of the first things Uncle Cesar ever told me was to never get angry when you fight. The second you get angry, you lose control and your edge. You don’t think straight, and then you start making mistakes. Then, he would always say, you’re lost and no one can help you. Poor Islero, he’d been taught the exact opposite. He was taught that from the moment you step into the ring, it’s a battle to the death. Take no prisoners. Kill, kill, kill!
Uncle Cesar soon realized he couldn’t change the years of Islero’s previous training. Instead, he tried to give him as much of his own knowledge as he could. At the end of his stay, Islero made a grand gesture, thanking my uncle in front of everyone. My father couldn’t watch it; he had to leave. Word got back to us that Islero died in the ring on his first day.
My name is Alejandro, but everyone calls me Alex. I am a fighting bull from the Miura family line. I have jet-black hair and weigh four hundred and ninety kilos, or one thousand and eighty pounds, and my horns are identically curved. I can trace my ancestors back 200 years and I am the next in line to leave our ranch for the ring. That day came one week after my birthday.
When my time came, there was no fanfare, no grand goodbye. Our foreman pulled me from my corral just after sunset, loaded me into a truck and drove me to Madrid.
My father warned me to stay focused. He said the only way to survive is to keep my mind clear and remember what I’d been taught. Ignore the crowds, he would say. Everyone wants to look at you, touch you, or somehow make you angry. Keep quiet, save your energy and wait for your time to come. Everything he said was the same as uncle Cesar had said.
I arrived at the plaza at night, two days before my fight. I was put in the stables with a dozen other bulls from around the country. The few that I got to know— Andre, Carlos, Miguel, Juan — were all nice looking, muscular and had good horns. Some of them were nervous, some angry, while some others didn’t appear to know what was going on.
My uncle was right. As I started to focus on the others, I found myself getting tired. At noon on the day before my fight I was herded with the others for our viewing, when the matadors and the public got a first glimpse at us. By this time, I was ignoring everything around me. The other bulls were getting irritated and acting out, wasting energy. I just kept my head down and went where they told me. It was only important what I did in the ring. If I did well, I would live. If not, I would die.
The last night before my fight, I slept well. I dreamt about our ranch and it relaxed me. When I wasn’t training with my uncle, I would run the fields and play tag with the younger bulls. It was always fun and kept me agile on my feet. Other times my father and I would walk down to the creek behind the barn and talk for hours. He would always quiz me on my training, to make sure I was fully prepared. I wanted to assure him I was ready, but he would wipe my confidence aside and say, “Remember your training.” He would ask me how his brother was treating me or talk about his childhood and his father. He would give me advice, and I made it a point to remember everything he told me.
My memories of those talks will always be with me. And even though he never said it, I knew my father loved me. He never showed his emotions, but I could tell by his behavior how he felt. Yet, when I woke on the night before my debut, I was plagued by doubt. I realized that even after my father I spent hours talking together, I was always left wanting more. I just wished my he would’ve come out and say it. Or, show it in a way that was unmistakable. “When you get into the ring, it’s unlike anything you can imagine. The pain is incredible and the urge to go for the kill will take you over.”
When fight time came, I was chosen first. The rumble of the crowd was loud, even down in the dark stables. Several of the other bulls had already pissed themselves. They knew what was coming and they were scared. Just as the gate opened, I remembered my uncle’s first direction. Run straight across the sand, then stop, head up and proud. Show them our family is worthy of respect.
As I expected, the sunlight blinded my eyes as I first ran into the ring. I sprinted across the sand and stopped, nose to the air. The audience roared with approval as I waited. I had passed my first test. The way the bull enters the ring tells a lot about his character. Running straight denotes strength and courage, while veering off and running around the arena can show nervousness, youth, or fear.
I slowly turned my back to the wall and waited for someone to appear. I could feel the adrenaline coursing through my body and remembered to take deep, calming breaths. I knew what was before me. All I had to do was follow my training.
“You must first win the crowd and eventually the matador will come around,” my uncle would say. “When you do, you give yourself the best chance of surviving. If you make an enemy of either, your destruction is assured.”
My strategy was simple: run straight, strong, and most of all, don’t give up.
When they brought the armored horse out, I knew the pic was coming. My uncle told me it hurt, but that didn’t begin to describe the feeling when they sunk the spear into my shoulders. The pain shot through my entire body. I thought I might pass out right then. My impulse was to run away and back to the stables, but I remembered my uncle’s words. Endure. Never let them see all your energy. Endure. “Humans admire courage, especially when the odds are against you. They must come to think you are making a valiant effort.”
I saw it before it happened, but I wasn’t sure what he was going to do. The man on the horse thought he was having a difficult time. He wanted more applause. I could see the frustration as it wrinkled his face. I realized he figured he would be more daring. I rammed the horse appropriately, moving him sideways to show my strength, but the picador wanted to “win” this encounter more definitively. That’s when it happened. His spear veered off and dug into the top part of my foreleg. I felt my right front hoof go numb for a second, but I continued on.
The spectators close by saw what he’d done and started yelling foul. They felt he was taking unfair advantage. When the rest of the crowd started a round of booing, the matador signaled for the man to leave. I tested my right leg and it was fine. I knew I could still last a long time. Now the crowd was coming over to my side.
As the horse and his rider left, one of the banderilleros appeared. By this point, my shoulders were numb. My head felt heavy. I could feel the blood running down my sides, but I willed my thoughts to the task in front of me. I saw my uncle’s face. “Endure.”
The banderilleros were there to tire me some more and straighten out my charge. My uncle always said if you charge straight, they put fewer darts in you. If you seem to tire, they put fewer darts in you.
As I had practiced, with each charge I slowed down my speed, making it look like I was getting tired. I couldn’t slow down too much or too quickly, because the crowd would think I was weak and they would stop rooting for me. I kept my charge straight and ran the length of the arena each time.
I followed my plan and in no time the matador stepped into the arena. Now was the time to prove myself. Prove whether or not I deserved to live. My task was to make myself look good by making the matador look better. If I made good clean passes, without either of us stumbling, I could help make him look accomplished. If I gave him time to set up before each pass, then allowed him to finish all his cape work it would serve me well.
The man was fairly short, but had a strong jaw and handsome face. His legs were muscular and he had small calves. He was older than I expected and I didn’t know how this would affect my chances. No matter. When the cape appeared, I lowered my head and charged.
Endure. Over and over my uncle would say, never stop. Do not get angry. Do not kill the man. If you do, they will do the same to you as punishment. The man used his cape to make large attractive flourishes, but when I passed him, I saw that he moved away from me – he was afraid. I made the adjustment and passed a little further from him, so he could stand still. This gave him more confidence and he performed better.
I’d been keeping time, as I was taught, and knew the moment of decision was coming. The matadors have roughly twenty minutes from when the bull steps into the ring. I had done well so far. Performed, in the peoples’ eyes, admirably, made the matador’s team look decent, and even gained some sympathy points thanks to the overzealous picador.
As the fight progressed, the matador gained confidence and moved more quickly. He kept running to get in front of me and show off his cape work. At a signal from his sword man, he disengaged and retrieved is sword for his finale. The crowd roared. I waited.
He looked to the president’s box to ask for permission to kill me and quickly received it. It was the first fight of the day and they had to get things moving. The matador stepped towards me and beckoned me with his cape. I charged, adding a little more speed than I had in my previous passes. The spectators noticed it and moved forward in their seats. The crowd quieted. I heard one of them yell, “He’s not tired.” When I heard others repeat it, the crowd started cheering louder.
The matador decided to give me several extra passes to tire me out, but each time I added speed. “You must show them what you’re made of,” my uncle would say. “You must earn the right to live from a crowd that wants you to die. They must overcome their blood lust with something more attractive: magnificence.” Pass after pass I kept my speed. For each charge, I would start slow and then hit maximum velocity just before I reached the matador. It was the most exciting for the watcher and added momentum to the performance.
I could tell I’d won the crowd over sufficiently, but not the matador. He was still focused on what he was doing and not on me. If I didn’t get him on my side, he may not give up or get careless. Then the spirits of my ancestors smiled on me.
On my twentieth pass, just as I started to pick up speed, the matador stumbled and fell into my path. I immediately stopped in my tracks and waited for him to get up. The rest of his team stepped out from behind the barriers ready to get me away from their man or kill me, if necessary. For the first time, I saw panic in the matador’s eyes. Any other bull would’ve taken advantage and killed the human without hesitation. Not me, I tossed my head up and down, inviting him to get up, as if to say, “No, we fight clean and fair.” It took a few moments before the crowd figured it out. Then they roared with approval.
After the man stood up and composed himself, I saw a different look in his eyes. He was really looking at me. Trying to figure out why I had stopped.
The crowd was screaming now. They loved it – the bull had shown mercy. The matador pulled out his sword and showed it to the crowd. He stepped forward to engage me. I picked up speed and charged. As I reached him I raised my head, so he would not have a good view of my shoulders. His blade caught my skin, and tore it, but I completed my pass.
I turned and the matador lined up again. My neck felt heavier. The pic work had been successful – it was getting harder and harder to keep my head up. I charged, and again, with all my effort, lifted my head to restrict his access to my shoulder blades. This time he hit the bone and the sword bent as I ran off, turned and waited. I was getting tired, but nothing compared to the training my uncle had put me through. He’d made my run until I vomited, and then he’d made me run some more. Now I realized how important it was. Everything I’d worked for came to this moment. Endure.
When the matador held up the bent sword for the crowd, they cheered even louder. More unspoken points for me. He went to his sword man and got another sword and approached. He nodded to me, as if to say, “Well done.” The tenor of the fight had changed. The matador now saw us as a pair of gladiators, courageous and valiant, putting on a show for the crowd.
I shook my head and charged. Unlike the two previous passes, this time I saw him bending his legs – he was going to jump to get a better angle. Just as the blade passed over my head, I jumped too, taking away his angle. The blade left only a scratch and I ran to the opposite side of the arena. The crowd understood immediately, jumped to their feet and cheered for me.
The matador stopped and looked at his sword man. The question was entering his mind. He had done everything right, accomplished very good passes, and put on an accomplished show, yet I was still strong. It was the first time he’d let the thought occur to him: should he let me live?
I could see the hesitation in his eyes as well as the crowd’s. They weren’t convinced. I still needed to show them I was worthy. I started to run.
I kept five feet from the wall and sprinted around the arena. The crowd hushed. I showed them I wasn’t tired, that I could go all day. After my second lap, I stopped facing the matador, ready for another pass.
“Don’t kill him.” It was a child’s voice from the back row. Everyone heard it. Some laughed and others quieted. Suddenly, another followed with “Let him live,” and soon it turned into a chant. I watched the matador. It was within his right to continue, but I saw him grin and nod his head. He turned to the president’s box for confirmation and the signal was given.
Next thing I knew the matador stepped behind the barrier and the gate to the stables flew open. They were going to let me live. Head high, I ran around the arena one last time and then ran into the darkness of the stables. When they got me to my pen, two of the stablemen came over to me, applauding with big smiles on their faces. They had never seen a performance like that.
Late that night, I was stepped off the truck ramp at my ranch. My mother and father stood side by side, watching. In the distance by the stables, I could see Cesar and the rest of my family staring at me. I was walking slowly; my shoulders and legs were sore. As I came up, my father put his head against mine, not saying a word. My mother turned and walked away, not wanting to cry in front of me. Uncle Cesar stepped forward and spoke to me, but his words were for his brother’s benefit. “Now, you are the master of this family. You are a better man than me.” My father wasn’t listening to him, he was staring at me. His eyes were moist.
With that, my uncle turned and left, leaving me alone with my father. My father licked my face and we went into the barn and I told him my story.
Sven Toorvald has worked as a carpenter, ballroom dancer, and surfboard shaper. He lives in Southern California and teaches ballet.
© 2014, Sven Toorvald