There is virtually nothing electronic about Sevilla’s bullring. For an American raised on piercing lights and amplification and an overall plugged-in humming-ness, this lack of electricity is like stepping from the city into the deep woods. Entering the ring is to experience a kind of focused simplicity, for it comes down to this: There are only your eyeballs and the thing you’ve come to see.
The thing you’ve come to see is the ritualized killing of bulls. Sevilla has the Fenway Park of Spain’s bullrings, an old place comprised of old parts. There are graceful brick arches. There are pastel yellows and burnt reds. There are lots of dark Spanish people handsome enough that they are used to being stared at. But there is no announcer, no booming, startling public address system. There is no scoreboard. There is not a single advertisement, not for Coca-Cola nor Heineken nor some discount cell phone carrier. The place’s full name is the Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería de Sevilla, and if it’s possible for a place to look like a name such as that, Sevilla’s bullring does.
In watching your first bullfight, there’s a clear before and a clear after. Before, it’s like this: You’re buying your tickets in your broken, no-grammar Spanish, buying the overpriced bottles of water, haggling with the leather-skinned men for the cheap cushions you aren’t sure are necessary. There is the usual clambering for your assigned seat, but it’s more difficult here because the rows—really just brick benches—are very close together. Using some deduction and all of your available Spanish, you ask, “¿Cual fila es esta?” until, finally, you find your row. You see no lines that say, “Your butt goes there and my butt goes here,” and so you take a guess. You lower yourself to that cheap cushion, gulping from the now-only-cool bottle of water, and view with pity the just-arriving Australians who, now that the stadium’s really filling up, are having a much harder time than you did. And the stadium is really filling up now, for when you look around you see that, should you need to leave in a hurry, you could not. You’d have to get past fifty pairs of knees and fifty sets of brown Spanish eyes. The heart races at the thought, and then seizes, and so you try to ignore this feeling. It is, also, very hot. Sweat collects in the hollows of your lower back. Dealing with this series of annoyances, you nearly forget that you are now sitting in an arena used for the killing of bulls, for sport. But then that first bull comes charging out of the tunnel, and you remember.
Before you can convert all those kilograms to pounds—you are able only to picture, for some reason, your parents’ first refrigerator on its side—this dark, huge, muscled animal is suddenly charging at the man wearing the glittering, flamboyant traje de luces.
Everything else disappears because now, in an instant, you are utterly focused. You’ve glanced at the board above the tunnel, and so you know that this first bull weighs 524 kilograms. But before you can convert all those kilograms to pounds—you are able only to picture, for some reason, your parents’ first refrigerator on its side—this dark, huge, muscled animal is suddenly charging at the man wearing the glittering, flamboyant traje de luces, and this bull is all sharp horns and dark, solid, agitated meat, and he’s bewildered and very angry and everyone around you, including the pretty woman to your left, goes, “Ohhh.” In that instant, you remember what you’d read, which was that these special bulls never do this before they actually do it, that they’ve never done anything except eat and sleep and mate. This bull, as new to this arena as you are, is here to die. And that man out there, fancy and handsome and rigidly intense, he might be run through with a horn. You can’t help but think: So this is what your college fiction teacher meant when she said that stories must have at their heart a stout stake. You wonder: Where, in this old building, is the ambulance parked?
You have, through your reading, tried to prepare yourself for what you’re about to see. About the intersection of bullfighting and your first stop in this country—slick, pretty Barcelona—your guidebook says only this: “In 2010, the Catalonian Parliament passed a ban on bullfighting.” You understand that this sentence, by force of its brevity, assumes that you know precisely why it’s been banned. A friend, back home in Baltimore, had said of his bullfight experience: “It’s not for everybody.” You had, you thought, girded yourself.
From your right, comes the unlikely, irritating, jittery treble of a brass band playing what sounds like a rushed high school fight song.
Inside the bullring, it is quiet enough that you can hear the bull’s snorts. The matador, who the Spanish call the torero, says something like hep, hep, his voice clear and sharp, which prompts a brief, elaborate dance with the angry and bewildered bull. Then, from your right, comes the unlikely, irritating, jittery treble of a brass band playing what sounds like a rushed high school fight song. On come two men on horseback called, you know from your reading, picadors. They are handed spears and this first suggestion of violence makes your heart pick up a beat. The bull, breathing heavier now, is lured into charging. He collides terribly with the horse, which has been blindfolded and so does not react. After that opening dance, this initial contact makes the pretty girl next to you sharply draw in her breath and say, “Oh, shit.” The young Sevillan woman in front of her turns and offers up a look that could only mean, Oh, I know, honey, it’s a tough thing but you’ll get used to it. At the same time that you notice that the horse has begun to bleed, the picador slams the sharp end of his spear into the bull’s mass of shoulder meat at the place where the animal’s neck meets the body. The pretty girl next to you again gasps but no one else does. They’ve all seen this before, but that doesn’t mean they’re not paying attention. They are. Some smoke cigarettes, but they pay attention as the bull urinates. Some fan themselves, but they pay attention as the bull’s coat turns shiny with thick, viscous, wine-red blood. Then the banderilleros come out on foot, and they goad the bull into charging before driving their long, cloth-covered darts into the bleeding place. The crowd applauds the first of these men but whistles at the second, though you can’t tell which of the two has done what well, or poorly. To you, as perhaps to the bull, it is all new, and confusing, and exciting, a whirlwind of bright, brutal theater.
And then the band again and then it’s on to the final third of the fight. The matador returns and with that famous little red cape leads the bull, the animal’s chest heaving, through a series of charges. After each charge the crowd says what you think is “Bien,” though it could be “olé.” It’s a chant, said softly, and it reminds you immediately of St. Ambrose Catholic Church in Cresaptown, Maryland because it sounds so much like “Amen.” They say it again, and again, after each charge, “Bien. Bien. Bien.”
It is, you realize, a dance, and highly choreographed. This dance has been happening for a long time and is just as rehearsed as any dance you’ve ever seen at a Greek wedding or at a country-and-western bar, just as rehearsed as the electric slide. But there’s no music, only hushed watching. The matador is the priest and the crowd is the congregation. It’s “amen” in one place and “bien” in the other. You remember the first time you really studied that church. The stained glass shone its deep blues and reds, and it seemed ancient and revered. The old people with their old smells bowed their heads and sang softly and moved like muddy rivers and you thought about how they must actually look forward to church, and that seemed important. The priest, up front, in his flowing white or sad purple, he broke the host, sipped the wine, and chanted his secret chants. You took it all in, hungrily. For a moment, you were enraptured. It was ancient and good and smelled like old-lady perfume but then, by the next Sunday, it was dull. Forever after, you were there, in those cramped wooden pews, but you weren’t.
After a small eternity, the matador makes his slight, ancient move, and at that, the entire bullring is transformed into expanded ribcage, a gigantic held breath, all seat-edge, all wide-open eyeballs.
Your first bull, urinating freely now, bleeding, stands his ground. The matador, by now having secured from his helper the terrible long and thin blade, has squared himself to the bull’s horns. He stands, and waits. After a small eternity, the matador makes his slight, ancient move, and at that, the entire bullring is transformed into expanded ribcage, a gigantic held breath, all seat-edge, all wide-open eyeballs. The bull, also ancient in his own way, charges one last time, but more slowly than before, almost dutifully, as if he too were now merely following the protocol of this dance he’s only just learned. Then, as is also the protocol, the matador, in a single, brutal motion, raises himself onto his toes and thrusts the blade deep into the bull’s bleeding spot, all the way in, to the hilt. You can’t help but wonder which, exactly, of the tender vital red things has just been terribly disturbed. For a moment, the crowd falls silent. The pretty girl to your left goes silent. There is no movement, no inhale nor exhale, only that tight fullness that is one hundred percent watching.
The bull takes a step. He halts. He takes another, and falls to his front knees. One of his back legs kicks out wildly. He tilts and falls. The crowd erupts. You gulp air. Everyone is clapping. The girl next to you is clapping. You are clapping.
You can breathe again. They remove the bull from the ring. Everyone stands. The seats are so close together, much closer together than even airplane seats, and you’ve just got to stand. There is regular, human chatter, laughing, coughing. It sounds like the end of church. And then, as your breathing returns to normal, you do something that, only minutes before, while that first bull was still alive, you hadn’t cared whether or not you’d do ever again. You remove your cell phone from your pants pocket and check the time. Five more bulls, you think. And then you’ll find some dinner.