It was an afternoon that brought back memories, some of them happy, many of them, not. The small plaza and the noisy crowd that always expects and demands too much. The unseen bulls, pounding against the sides of their dark, mysterious prisons. And, the dreams of glory and triumph which were destined to be shattered by the gods who determine such things.
It was all too familiar. How easily the scene was recalled. Those afternoons that took place in another world and in another time. There was great fear, then, but it wasn’t of the bulls. For they, after all, were mere animals, while we were nearly men. Of far greater importance was the fear of failure, the dreadful sounds of rejection, and the echoes of disgrace that linger in the soul and haunt the mind.
Young men. Enthusiastic, determined young men, possessed of much more courage than of common sense. Thus it was for myself, and thus it has been and will be for hundreds, perhaps thousands of others, before and since. And, thus it will be tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, and the day after the day after tomorrow. For, the initiation fees to membership in the world’s most exclusive fraternity and most painful profession are, indeed, dear. And, they never cease to be levied, even after expulsion or resignation.
The stories of hard earned success born of such occasions are numerous. Stories of young men who have challenged the odds, the public, and the animals of brave blood to eventually become rich and famous in the bullrings of the world. These are well known. But, what of the others, those stories that end in discouragement, pain, despair, and tragedy? These are seldom told, because they’re ugly. And, because they’re the rule, rather than the exception.
We don’t like to recall such afternoons. Young toreros, their heads filled with the money and fame that will most certainly be theirs, do not wish to be reminded of the countless others, those forgotten young men whose illusions of destined glory were pounded into the dust, or spirited away by the deadly winds, or answered upon the point of an anxious horn.
But, such is the painful truth. And, such was the case, one cold and windy Sunday in a colorful little plaza, called Misión del Sol. The scene was Tijuana, Baja California. But, it could just as easily have been any other city on any other Sunday, in any other plaza in which men and bulls come to learn of each other.
The winds raced through the canyons and over the hillside on which the Misión del Sol appeared to be precariously perched. Below, in the city, only a few were aware of the drama taking place in the tiny plaza. Business and life continued, pausing only briefly, an hour and a half later, when the wailing sounds of a siren demanded the right of way for the rushing ambulance.
The winds blew, also, into the plaza, awakening ambitious whirlpools of dust, chilling the spectators, and biting deeply into the heat of youthful exuberance. Those who braved the conditions to pay their money and take their seats in the splintery stands complained of the discomfort of the cold. But, they would, nevertheless, insist that the brave, young men should thrill them with their valor, and entertain them with their impetuous recklessness.
The bulls were large, far too large for a festival of this nature. Their horns were untouched, although the tips would normally be shaved when greenhorns shall face them. The bulls, after all, don’t know that these young men are inexperienced, and they don’t care. It is man who invades their terrain; therefore it is up to man to take his chances and to suffer any consequences. The bulls will not have the opportunity, later, to feast upon the fruits of triumph or to choke upon the bitterness of failure.
The first gate swings open, to release its fearless contents onto the sand. Antonio López meets his adversary and attempts to defy the laughing winds. Lopez has been around. He has seen many afternoons such as this. And, he prays that one of them may provide his passport to stardom. But, in his heart, he knows that such will never be.
He provides several fleeting seconds of excitement, inciting enthusiastic shouts of approval from the crowd and a valiant attempt at music from a band whose members have taken generous portions of tequila, liquid fortification against the chill. At the end, he kills poorly. A liberal ear is cut. He displays it with mixed emotions, a combination of embarrassment and pride.
The next bull is for Roberto de Grijalva, who is known to his friends as Bobby Chipres, of Los Angeles. But, such a common name does not befit a future Matador de Toros. Six months have passed since he last challenged the horns. He’s nervous. He can’t keep his feet steady. He transmits a feeling of calm, but it’s only a mask to cover the pounding of his heart, which threatens to beat a tattoo through the roof of his mouth and into the recesses of his brain.
The bull is good, but the wind is mighty. In the end, Bobby incites neither pain or glory.
“Damn the wind! Damn this bull, which I have faced and killed, and with which I have failed. Damn myself! Damn this plaza and this crowd. Damn! I know I’ll do better, next time.”
Again, the gate opens, exposing a new chapter in the life of Guillermo Torres. He’s talented. He has performed in dozens of amateur festivals. He does it for the sheer joy of it.
Torres and López share an unspoken spark of hope. Given half a chance...
But, half a chance is about all that any aspirant can hope for. Failing it, he may as well turn his attentions to a different vocation, one that has nothing to do with suits of lights, bulls, crowds, and windy afternoons. There are so many toreros and so few half chances.
The wind bothers Torres. He makes several technical errors that bring the bull upon him. Soon, his short jacket is only a memory of what the tailor had in mind. But, finally, he gains confidence and obtains the best moments of the afternoon. The music plays and the crowd cheers. His sword is well placed and honorable, but the bull fails to comprehend its intent. Several more thrusts are required, thus denying the ear that would have been awarded and provoking verbal abuse from those in the safety of the stands. Finally, death bestows its mercy upon the wretched creature, and the crowd offers polite applause for the efforts of Torres.
There is one bull left. It’s smaller than the others, but its horns reach to tickle the clouds. What a shame that the crowd does not realize that Rodrigo Zamora will be facing only the second bull of his young career, and this animal is beyond his experience and knowledge. But, Zamora has nerve. His courage is so great, it might just pull him through. It is said that God protects drunks and foolish toreros.
But, on this afternoon and in this place, such protection is inadequate. Within seconds, Zamora is on the ground and is rescued by his compatriots. Finding no serious wound, he returns to his bull, and in spite of a complete lack of seasoning, is able to raise the crowd. But, his reckless passes are accomplished blindly. His enthusiasm hides the fact that the animal is gaining ground. Then, one of those long horns discovers its target, burying itself in the abdomen of Rodrigo Zamora.
His face turns white. Blood spreads through his fingers. Clutching his wounded stomach, Zamora stumbles and falls into the arms of his friends.
There is no doctor in attendance. Luckily, the horn discovered no vital artery. A ruptured femoral could bring death before professional help could arrive.
“It’s only a scratch,” says someone who has attended Zamora. Only a scratch that penetrated his abdominal cavity.
Minutes later, the stands are empty. Only the paper cups and other junk remain for the wind to punish. The ambulance, bearing its hapless passenger, roars away, kicking gravel upon a nearly new Cadillac.
The incident forgotten, a small group of musicians begins to tune festive instruments. Bartenders, with white towels over their arms, mingle with the celebrants. From outside comes the smell of freshly-roasting meat. The fiesta lasts long into the night, with hardly a whisper of concern for Zamora, who is basking in the depths of ether induced coma.
Nobody speaks of the toreros and of their dreams which have been transformed to nightmares. And, nobody ponders the wind, which has left this place, in search of other plazas, other Sunday afternoons, and other brave, young men.