A Bull-Fight

Excerpt from A Rose for the Winter by Laurie Lee

A superb, straight-limbed young man now stepped forward into the ring and a cheer went up, for he had already earned some reputation. He was dressed, no in the heavy gold embroidered garments of the professional matador, but in Andalusian riding-clothes – a broad black hat, short waistcoat, tight-fitting trousers and high-heeled boots. With cape folded, hat held to his breast, he faced the President’s box, bowed, raised his head, and in ringing eloquent tones dedicated the next bull to one of the virgins, whose name was Gloria. Her companions congratulated her rather noisily upon the honour, while she, huge-eyed and delicate as a doll, waved a small hand, and then went pale as death.

The President leaned forward and gave the signal, the trumpet sounded, and the doors opened for the fourth bull. And this time there was no doubt about it. He came in like thunder, snorting and kicking up the dust, his black coat shining like a seal’s, his horned head lowered for immediate attack. Two assistants, trailing long capes, ran out and played him first, a formal prologue designed to discover the unknown temper of the bull, his way of charging, which horn he liked using, and so on. Slowly, their job done, they were beaten back towards the barriers, and the bull stood alone. Then Gloria’s champion walked out across the sand. He took up his stand, the pale sun gliding his rigid face, gave a loud clear shout to the bull, and from that moment we witnessed an almost faultless combat. Elegant, firm-footed as a dancer, but with cold courage and movements of continual beauty, the boy entirely dominated the bull. He seemed to turn the fury of the beast into a creative force which he alone controlled, a thrusting weight of flesh and bone with which he drew ritual patterns across the sand. The bull charged and charged again, loud-nostrilled, sweating for death, and the boy turned and teased him at will, reducing him at last to a kind of enchanted helplessness, so that the bull stood hypnotized, unable to move, while the young man kissed his horns. Alone in the ring unarmed with the armed beast, he had proved himself the stronger. He never ran, he scarcely moved his feet, but he turned his cape like liquid fire, and the bull, snorting with mysterious amazement, seemed to adore him against his will, brushing the cape as a bee does a poppy.

After the short barbed lances had been thrust into the bull’s shoulders, drawing their threads of blood, the moment for the kill arrived; and this was accomplished with almost tragic simplicity and grace. The boy, sword in hand, faced the panting bull. They stood at close range, eyeing each other in silence. The bull lowered his head, and the crowd roared ‘Now!’ The boy raised the sword slowly to his eye, aiming horizontally along the blade; then he leaned forward and plunged the weapon to the hilt in the bull’s black heaving shoulders. Such a moment, the climax in the game, carries with it mortal danger for the matador. His undefended body, poised thus above the horns, is so vulnerable that a flick of the bull’s head could disembowel him. It is the moment of truth, when only courage, skill and a kind of blind faith can preserve the fighter’s life. But the boy’s sword had found its mark, and the bull folded his legs, lay down for a moment as though resting at pasture, then slowly rolled over and died.

The crowd rose to its feet with one loud cry. Hats, caps, cushions, even raincoats, were thrown into the ring. The young man stood among these tributes and smiled palely at the crowd. Then he came, sword in hand, and bowed low to the President and to Gloria. Colour and intoxication had returned to the girl’s cheeks; she stood up and clapped him wildly and threw him a box of cigars. His triumph was hers; it was the least she could do.