“But he promised!” She glares at her husband. He shrugs. “I promised.” Her whole body says, “How could you?” “You really want to go see a bull covered in blood? You hate blood!” Manolito smiles, a big, innocent, light-up-the-whole-face smile. “Vicente will be there.” As if she could forget. Her oldest, a toreador in training. Another angelic youth, taken up by this crazy passion. He’s been practicing on young bulls, and he’s invited them to come and see him and his buddies. Well, it’s her own fault for marrying into a matador family. “It would mean a lot to him if you came too,” whispers Vicente Sr. She picks up her good scarf, he changes into a good shirt. The boy, well, there’s not much to be done to clean him up. They head out, holding hands through Manolito, swinging him between them, all animosity gone, happy to be spending time together away from chores.
They walk for a time, keeping Manolito in sight as he frolics around. They are in the countryside now, cars far behind, fields ahead. A small crowd of onlookers and hangers on has massed ahead. Manolito’s excitement is contagious. They hurry along. Other parents have come, and kids. Manolito looks at them. “Go,” says the father as he darts off to cluster with a group of children at the far end. She says, “I thought we’d said we’d wait until his birthday. He’s not yet five. I worry about what it will do to him.” “I know, mami. But what’s done is done. It’s in his blood.” He straightens as they come near, addresses the other men, and she joins the women. They chat amongst themselves, some knit, others fuss over kids, most hold a rosary.
A hush falls over the crowd. The young toreadors who had been mingling with their families have been called back and now form a straight line. They make their entrance one by one, with panache, determination, whimsy, focus, depending on their temperament. Vicente is one of the smallest at twelve, all skin and bones, except for his chubby round face. He’s flanked by his best friend Victor. The two Vs are childhood friends. The mothers have been sewing little matador costumes forever. They all have the regulatory cape on hand, but the rest is handmade, dripping with love and care. The boys are resplendent. She’s glad to have come when Vicente’s gaze rests on her and she feels his obvious joy. Now that the athletes have been introduced and seen whole, and clean, the match may begin.
The boys file back out. They’ve learned all the roles and will fill them for each other. It is good for them to understand what a good picador needs to do, so they can appreciate each other. Not everybody will end up a matador. Many are called, few are chosen. She gets pulled in by the dance. The novillos are also being assessed. Young bulls for boys. They are as frightening to the boys as the large ones are for the adults. They are quick and crafty; the danger is real. The younger boys are in the ring, as is one bull, and three adult trainers. One trainer keeps an eye on the bull, one on the boys, and the other ensures overall security and entertainment, keeping an eye out on the audience, lest an inebriated spectator disrupts the proceedings in an attempt to show the youngsters how it’s really done.
It’s a good crew. There’s never been a serious accident on their watch. The entertainer explains the exercises and talks about the novillos’ temperament. The best bulls and the best boys go on to the big scene. You never know who is scouting. There are always rumours and the boys do their best. She sees boys whose names she forgets then Victor, who is more assured now, his moves more precise, his overall technique better. He slips once, loses his footing as the novillo charges close, ever so close. “¡Ole!,” they all chant as he recovers in a flourish of the cape. The crowd is charged. Nothing like a near-miss to get the blood going. Vicente is next. Light on his feet, elegant as a dancer, the focus on his baby face showing the seriousness of the budding man. Her heart expands and shrinks in turn, as pride and fear fight for pride of place.
Vicente does well, Manolito is entranced, hero worship written all over his face. Her gaze goes from boy to boy to man, in a blur of concern, apprehension, joy and relief as the boys finally exit so the older boys can take their place. Everybody stays for the real spectacle. The older bulls, the older boys, not as numerous and definitely more experienced. Both parties are heavier with muscle. The young ones will be lancing the bulls, to get used to the blood and learn to gauge a bull and direct him. She hates that part. As Vicente hits the bull and blood gushes out, she sees something cross his face, a puzzled look as he looks in the bull’s eyes. They circle each other, a silent conversation taking place between them, the crowd a distant memory. He’s losing form, dropping his shoulder. The bull is still. Finally, Vicente leans in again, and quickly removes the lance from the bull’s shoulder. He immediately gets reprimanded but he doesn’t seem to hear, still communing with the bull. He puts his hand on the wound, to everybody’s horror, and instantly gets pulled away and made to sit out the rest of the event, his hand dripping with sacrificial blood.
She rejoins her husband and calls over Manolito. The little family is united in shame. They stay strong and wait for Vicente. Vicente Sr and the trainers discuss seriously. Vicente hands back his cape. Victor is standing by his side, uncomprehending. They walk back home, Victor in tow. The parents are talking in hushed tones. Manolito senses something is wrong. Vicente’s left hand has been hurriedly wiped and is still tinged with the bull’s blood. Manolito is not babbling, but holding both boys’ hands as he’s walking between them, with furrowed brow. At last, Vicente Sr turns to his son. “What happened to you, son?”
The unexpected gentleness of his voice releases Vicente’s tears. He had braced himself for the harsh words, the slap, the condemnation. He is disarmed by the concern in his father’s voice. “I heard the bull cry out when I lanced him. He asked me what he had done to deserve this. He chided me for hurting him. I don’t want to do this anymore,” he pleads. Father and son face each other. Victor is still holding Manolito’s hand. “Well, they won’t have you back, so don’t worry about that.” They resume walking in silence, everybody lost in thought, the matter not really resolved, the boy in limbo. The parents exchange looks. The father tries again. “Bulls don’t talk, you know that? What you heard were your own thoughts.” “No, papa. I would never have thought that on my own. There is more. He was in pain. I felt his pain in my shoulder, where the lance was.” “It’s a miracle,” she cries out. This doesn’t help matters.
The next day, she heads out to morning mass and stays behind to talk to the priest. He has heard of the disgrace like everyone in the neighborhood. He hears her in confession, which means he will not be able to gossip. She uttered the words and he put on his stole. He agrees that it looks like the child has heard the voice of God through the bull. He tells her to pray for guidance because he is at a loss. Nobody knows if they should treat the boy as a hero or a villain. He was perfectly normal until now, a little bit of a celebrity, but now has brought shame to his family. Victor is still training, but Vicente stays home and minds an ecstatic Manolito. Other kids taunt him “Is the cat talking to you?” “The rooster?” He surprises himself and everyone else by answering simply, “Yes.” He seems to have lost his ability to lie, and he makes liars of all of them. They resent him and admire him for that. His is not an easy path.
Adults give him their grudging admiration, then turn the faucet full on. He’s still a nice kid, the Vicente who loves to laugh and is quick to help. Maybe they have a saint in their midst? The priest is non-committal, but people start talking of little events, happenstance maybe, who is to say. They wish he would take on the mantle of saint. They need a label to affix to him, this strange boy with the bloody hand.