“Papa, why are we eating tacos on a bus?”
“Have we ever done it before?”
From the windows of the bus the Puerta del Sol pupated into the Gran Via of Madrid. The line of trees came into view and the whiteness of the buildings gave them their architecture. It was a hot, dry day, and the two were happy to be in the air-conditioning of the bus.
A lot of people recognised Cayetano Ortega, one of Spain’s leading bullfighters. They all smiled at him but politely left him and his daughter alone.
The two were eating tacos they had bought from the Taqueria mi Ciudad. Emilita Ortega was eating a taco filled with bull’s tongue.
“Papa, did it hurt when the horn went through your leg?”
“What do you think, pretty one?”
She bowed her head and stayed silent, as if feeling ashamed of having asked the question. She was only ten-years-old. Cayetano Ortega ruffled her hair and kissed the top of her head.
As the bus jolted Cayetano Ortega remembered what it felt like when the horn hooked through his calf, severing several veins but missing crucial arteries. Cayetano Ortega remained conscious until the operation.
It was amazing how quickly his body familiarized itself with the pain; within a few minutes his body felt as though it had always been in pain and would always be. The bull’s horn had carried out an intimate wedding that forever bound Cayetano Ortega and pain.
But no, he told himself, this body isn’t made for pain.
I will never be gored again.
“Why is this square called Plaza Cibeles, papa?” Emilita Ortega asked as she sipped on her soft drink.
“Cibeles was an ancient goddess, a mother, a protector of cities. She’s there to protect Madrid too.”
“Protect it from what?”
“From people who don’t eat their tacos on a bus.” He smiled and Emilita Ortega looked confused.
They got off the bus at the Retiro. It was cool under the canopy of trees there and the sound of the waves from the artificial lake kept the air fresh and bearable.
“Alright, Emilita, let’s do a chicken race.”
“We’re going to run around the lake, and the first one who stops, loses.”
“But you’re faster than me!”
“It’s not about who finishes first. It’s about who gives up first.”
“Oh, okay. Then bring it on.”
They began running and Cayetano Ortega knew all the people were watching him. But their stares soon dissipated like a sudden rainstorm. Soon he was feeling the runner’s high. The old familiar adrenaline rush was overtaking him.
But this time, he didn’t have the small, black eyes of a bull staring him down, there wasn’t the smell of blood in the sand and the feeling of suffocation in his trace de luces; there was only the cool air from the lake and the sight of his young girl running in her light blue dress, her brown hair bopping like an octopus swimming through the depths.
Soon after, his leg began to hurt. His wound still hadn’t recovered so he had to pull up. Emilita Ortega saw him and turned around, jumping up and down, fisting the air, proud she had beaten her father at his own race.
Cayetano Ortega high-fived her. She hit hard and he felt the recoil in his leg. How am I supposed to fight with this wound, he thought?
On Sunday, two days from now, Cayetano Ortega would be fighting his last fight. No one knew it. But after his last goring he couldn’t go on.
It wasn’t a matter of physical pain. It was more the memory of his daughter’s face as he hit the sand.
“Can the winner get ice-cream, papa!”
They had ice-cream at a parlour overlooking the lake. The old monument opposite had children climbing all over it. They looked like a colony of ants. Emilita Ortega wanted to climb it too, and her father replied: “whatever you want, pretty one.”
When they finished their ice-cream they began to arm wrestle. Cayetano Ortega gave himself a handicap and he coached his daughter to give her a fighting chance. As she pushed his large hand with all her strength, her eyes nearly shut close, he saw on her face a beautiful resilience that showered him with pride.
She had sweat trickling over her delicate eyebrows, over the bridge of her nose and into her fair lips. He pushed her back, refusing to let himself lose, and then gave her a piggy-back ride all the way to the old, shaded monument.
He began climbing with her; the only adult doing so. He felt his leg hurting still. He could remember the warmth of the bull’s horn tearing inside him. For one moment, he and the bull had become one organism. He had failed to kill him, as he thrust in for the kill, he didn’t pull the muleta away fast enough and the bull instead followed Cayetano Ortega’s leg.
It was his first major goring. He thought he would take it better. Not the pain – pain was part of his art. Rather, he thought he would be more philosophical about the goring. But somehow, he couldn’t.
For a brief moment he had wished he had never had Emilita. And that was the thought that made him decide to leave bullfighting.
But what is a bullfighter to do out of the ring?
The thought ran through his mind as the anesthetic put him under its murky embrace on the infirmary’s operating table. All he’s ever known is bullfighting.
His fondest memories are of himself as a ten-year-old passing young bulls on his uncle’s ranch. He remembered the smell of sand and the breeze of the northern wind, the horizon of silver-tipped mountains and the feast later that night, eating bull’s meat under a canopy of stars.
Away from all of that, away from all the adoration he had come to expect like some golden god of death, what was he?
“Papa, papa, look!” Emilita Ortega, still hanging on to one of the statues of the monument, pointed skywards. A colourful parrot was cutting through the cloudless sky, squawking as it flew.
“It’s beautiful, pretty one.”
“Aren’t they supposed to be, like, in Africa?”
“For them, Spain is Africa.”
“I don’t get it.”
“You don’t have to Emilita, just enjoy it.”
After the Retiro, the two got on a bus again and went to Emilita Ortega’s favourite place in all Madrid: the Plaza Mayor.
It always reminded her of a bullring. She felt safe in the closed square. Climbing over one of the bridges that lead into the Plaza, she gave some money to a homeless man asleep in his cocoon of abandon. Cayetano Ortega wrinkled his lips in pride.
That feeling stayed with him inside the Plaza Mayor. Emilia Ortega asked if the giant statue of a man on a horse was the statue of a picador. Cayetano Ortega laughed and said, “no, that was an old king.”
“I prefer picadors than kings.”
“And I prefer matadors than prime ministers.”
“Me too.” They were both laughing.
Why was I worried at all, Cayetano Ortega thought? Next Sunday it’s my last fight. After next Sunday I’m an ex-matador. After next Sunday I’m a father.
Cayetano Ortega and his daughter began playing bullfight in the middle of Plaza Mayor. He borrowed a serviette from one of the restaurants of the square and used it as a make-shift muleta. Emilita Ortega gracefully charged at him and he passed her, at times, even passing her on his knees.
In his head he was hearing the thundering ole’s of the crowd. He could hear the gut-wrenching applause as he turned to the crowd after a successful round of passes. He could feel the warmth of the bull’s severed ear in his hand, his trophy for yet again surviving death, his offering to the crowd.
As his daughter passed him, there was no noise, only silence.
At first, that terrified him, but now, it was growing on him. The world is either noisy or silent, he thought. And happiness can be found either way.
Today has been good, he thought the same way he reflected after a corrida. The bus, the tacos, the park and now the plaza; I’m looking forward to a lifetime of this. I’m not a bullfighter, I’m a father.
“Papa!” Cayetano Ortega was awoken from the reverie of his thoughts by the sight of two men running towards him, their fists suspended menacingly in mid-air.
Before Cayetano Ortega could react, one of the men brought his fist down in a low jab on the matador’s nose. The other thrust an uppercut in his stomach.
Cayetano Ortega fell on his knees, blood gently pouring from his nose, his arms wrapped around his stomach. In his ears he could hear Emilita’s wailing.
“Now you know what it feels like, you murderer.”
Two policemen patrolling the Plaza Mayor came running and the two attackers ran off. Cayetano Ortega got a glimpse of them. They both had long curly hair, big beards, and were wearing black t-shirts with something written on it.
Emilita had her hands tight around her father’s shoulders. He stood up slowly, his head feeling dizzy like he’d drank too much brandy. “I’m fine, pretty one.” He wiped tears away from her eyes with his thumbs.
“Who were those bastards?”
“Men who would rather see a man die than a bull.”
“Why, why, papa?”
“They see we’re the sadists.” He said under his breath.
“I hope they die.” Emilita Ortega exploded into anger. It scared her father.
“No, pretty one. Then we’re no better than them. I feel sorry for them, those men have no passion except for what they hate.”
One of the policemen came running up to Cayetano Ortega. He informed him, very courteously, that the two men had been caught and prosecuted. He offered to take him to a nearby clinic. Cayetano Ortega refused. He would treat himself. He’s had worse, he joked.
As the policeman walked away he wished him luck for Sunday’s fight. Cayetano Ortega thanked him and he knew, then, that it wouldn’t be his last fight.
“Papa, shall we call mama and tell her what happened?”
“No, your mama’s faraway. She doesn’t need to know.”
Cayetano Ortega noticed his daughter bow her head. She was holding back any more tears with the will of a Miura bull.
He wrapped his hand around the back of her head, stroked her hair with his fingertips, and whispered, “I’m sorry, Emilita.”
I’m sorry, but I will keep on fighting, otherwise, they win.