BY JOSEPH GRANT
In the old city plaza, off the sun-beaten, dusty and nearly-forgotten path, far away from the roar of the tour buses, there exists a sad little cantina that the locals and only a handful of adventurous tourists ever seemed to go. For those in the know, the cantina offered cheap lunch and drink specials, as well as discount coupons for the circular, open-air mall across the street. Lunchtime entertainment was provided in the way of customers being serenaded by an elderly woman who accompanied herself on guitar and sang popular Mexican folk songs. Invariably, before wandering out to the open-air shopping center, the travelers would leave her a few dollars, their generosity owing as much to the heart-felt passion of the woman’s singing as to the half-priced drinks. But just because that is the way it is now does not mean this is the way it has always been.
The song she sang told the tale of a young girl named Marquetta who worked in a cantina much like this one and of a young man who walked through the door one day in her youth.
“Marquetta, pay attention. A group of important men have just come in.” The balding man at the counter said.
“Where? I don’t see anyone important.” She countered.
“Don’t be insolent, mija. Just because you are my youngest daughter does not mean I won’t treat you like any other employee. I will fire you in an instant. Now, take their order, please.”
“Important? They’re toreadors.” She scoffed, looking at the three men seated at a table. The first man was heavy-set, the second was slightly effeminate looking and the third was a handsome boy, not much older than her seventeen years.
“Don’t make me put you back in the kitchen with your sister, Bruna.” He threatened.
“Yes, father.” She rolled her eyes and sluggishly walked over to the table.
“Hola. What can I get you gentlemen?”
“¡Como esta, mi querida!” The heavier of the bullfighters smiled and eyed her up and down. “You certainly are a pretty one. Much better looking than the last one they had.”
“That’s my sister.” She snarled.
“Easy, mi preciosa, easy.” The rotund man said. “I was just teasing.”
“Excuse our friend, señorita.” The second man at the table spoke up. “He does not have a civil bone in his body.”
“Well, one.” He blurted as the others laughed.
Marquetta’s face flushed as much from her innocence as from her rage.
“And you certainly are a prized bull.” The first man said and put his arm around her waist. She immediately removed it and stepped aside.
“Ferdinand! You’re scaring the poor girl.” The second one said. “Behave yourself.”
“Never.” He laughed. “When have you ever known me to behave myself in the company of such a beautiful young woman?”
Marquetta glared at him. “I am not one of your prized bulls, señor.”
“Of course, not.” He smiled and smacked her bottom. “You don’t have enough meat on your bones.” He roared as the others echoed his amusement. Marquetta stormed away.
“Father, did you see that?”
“Did I see what?”
“Did you see him hit me on my ass?”
“Mind your tongue, this is a place of business. You’re not with your friends on the street.” Her father scolded her. “Maybe a smack on your behind from time to time would keep you in your place.” He said as he continued looking over the receipts from the night before. “Now, go back and take their order like I asked. They are frequent, paying customers. We need the business. ¡Vamanos!”
Marquetta returned to their table. “Have you gentlemen decided?” She asked, pronouncing the word gentlemen as acerbically as possible.
“Sí, señorita. We were only teasing. I hope you didn’t take offense.” Said the bullfighter who had been the most disparaging.
“Have you decided?”
“Tapas and tequila all around.” The second man said.
Marquetta looked at the two and then the third. He was extraordinarily handsome, with dark eyes and chiseled features that were accentuated by the darkness. Even the traje de luce he wore, although a cheap knock-off, gave him a rakish, dramatic appearance, “Tapas and tequila, por favor.” He echoed.
“It speaks.” She said as the young man’s friends erupted in laughter as she walked back to the kitchen to fill the order in triumph, she felt.
But what triumph, she asked herself? Her behavior bothered her all day and into the night until her sister explained that she must have a crush on this handsome stranger, despite her virulent protests.
In the coming days, she realized her sister might have been accurate in her assumptions as every time the front door opened or banged shut, Marquetta’s attention was piqued to see if it was her handsome stranger. Finally, when the three men did return, Marquetta and her sister both realized that it was true as Marquetta could barely function from nerves, let alone look at the young man in the daylight who stole her dreams at night.
“Señorita, I’d like you to meet Armando.” The plump man said, gesturing to his dark, brooding companion. Armando half-stood, nodded and bowed clumsily before sitting again. “I am Ferdinand and my other friend is Rafael.” He smiled. “Armando has spoken of nothing but your beauty since we were here last.”
“I have not. That is a bold-faced lie.” He growled.
“Eh, what is worse? The arrogance of youth or the folly of old age?” Ferdinand chuckled and smacked Rafael on the arm.
“I’d say telling a beautiful girl you’re not interested.” Rafael offered.
“Rafael, old friend, I agree. I don’t think there is anything worse.” Ferdinand concurred.
“There’s one thing worse.” Marquetta spoke up. “Saying nothing to her.” She said pointedly as the two men bellowed in laughter at the expense of their young friend and stormed away.
She did not see him for quite some time after. The two older gentlemen frequented the cantina, but without Armando. Marquetta inquired about him the next time they came in.
“Hola, Ferdinand, Rafael. Where is your amigo? Have I scared him away?” She smiled.
“On the contrary. Our young charge, Señor Valez is in training to be a matador.” Ferdinand beamed.
“We have him doing practice runs with the wheel while we have our tapas and tequilas.”
“Is he too afraid to come see me?” She mocked.
“Perhaps.” Rafael nodded. “The beauty of a young girl can be more daunting than the face of an angry bull.”
“Señor, are you comparing my looks to a bull’s?” She seethed.
“Never!” Rafael quickly waved his hand, diffusing the situation. “I’m just saying that to a young man who is shy like Armando, a beautiful girl can be more terrifying than an angry bull.”
“Even if many women your age share the same temperament.” Ferdinand blurted before choking in a fit of laughter.
“Very funny.” Marquetta snapped.
“We are playing, Señorita.” Rafael interjected. “Be proud of him. He’s proving to be a very capable bullfighter.”
“Why should I be proud of him? If he is as brave as you say, why then is he so afraid to come in and see me?”
“I will send him over in a little while, Señorita. A young man needs to eat.”
“That’s quite alright.” Marquetta said, nervous at the idea of seeing him. She knew she looked a mess. The humidity had played havoc with her hair, she was drenched in sweat and her outfit was covered in grease and frijoles in the heat of the cantina.
Before Marquetta knew it, an hour and a half had gone and Armando came swaggering into the cantina. He walked the floor with his boots pounding self-assuredly in the late afternoon shadows of the now near-empty restaurant. He paced the floor before settling on a table in the corner.
“Don’t look now, but your Romeo is here.” Bruna said and nudged her sister as she washed dishes.
“You’re lying.” Marquetta’s eyes widened, even though she had seen him enter the cantina through the very same open area by the kitchen that Bruna had.
“Go to him.” Bruna prodded her sister.
“He can wait.” She huffed. “He doesn’t show up for weeks and now he comes in and expects me to jump just because he has finally decided to show?”
“Marquetta, customer!” Her father called out.
“Now the old man has joined in. See what you have started, Bruna?”
“You know you want to, ‘quetta.” She elbowed at her sister.
“Did you see him? He comes in, strutting around like some proud peacock, thinking he owns the place.”
Her sister interrupted her. “Nobody has said such things. No one but you!” She corrected her sister. “I told you his looks are adequate, but you’re the one who’s making a spectacle out of him and yourself!”
“Adequate?” Marquetta balked. “The only taste you have is in your mouth.”
“Look at you, you’re an emotional wreck. I mention him and you get all loca.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You’re all flushed and sweaty.”
“You don’t see me sweating.”
“You’re used to being back here.”
“Yes, the ugly sister hidden from view. Father doesn’t want to ruin the business so he puts the pretty one up front.”
“What’re you talking about? I can’t cook. You’re the one who chose the kitchen, remember? I didn’t.”
“God forbid you’d be back here out of view.”
“Stop it, Bruna. You’re wrong and you know it. You have a talent for food.”
“Is that a joke about my weight?”
“No, you’re a great cook and I am not as skilled as you. I can’t make anything but burnt toast.”
“Eso es verdad.” Bruna smiled.
“Beauty is a curse, believe me. There is a price that comes with it.”
“Oh, please.” Bruna shook her head. “I see where this is going. No.”
“Please? I can’t go out there. I look like mierda.”
“Sorry, I have my own job to do. I won’t do yours, as well.”
“Why? I help you. I did the dishes.”
“Yes, dishes that you dirtied yourself. Don’t be so spoiled, ‘quetta. Go take the order.”
“Marquetta, now!” The old man’s voice raised.
“Your bullfighter awaits.” Bruna shook her apron like a cape, bowed and gestured towards the door.
Armando sat in the cool shadows of the corner table. If anything, his angular features were heightened in the darkness. She was taken aback by his perfect bone structure.
“I almost left. I thought you were closed.” He declared sullenly.
“You just got here, I mean, sorry, we’re busy.” She said in a fumbled thought.
“There’s no one else here.” He correctly observed. The other patrons who had been there had gone.
“That’s beside the point. We were busy. Now, what can I get you?” She nervously snapped. It was not meant to sound antagonistic but that was the way it came out and that was the way it was perceived.
“Are you on the menu?” He smiled, leaned to the side and ran his fingers along the frills of her dress.
“Don’t be fresh.”
“Señorita, if you are going to be as bull-headed towards me, then I shall return the favor.” He concluded.
“Well, at least you’re polite to me for once.”
“Well, at least you’re not afraid to speak to me for once.” She glared.
“Who said I was afraid? I face an eight-hundred pound bull in the ring every day and you think I am afraid of a one-hundred pound waitress?”
“Ninety-five pounds.” She cleared her throat. “Again, what can I get you, Señor?” She gritted her teeth.
“I am afraid of nothing.”
“How do you know my name?” He wondered. “Have you been speaking to Ferdinand and Rafael about me?”
Marquetta blushed. “No, of course not! They mentioned your name.”
“I’m certain they did.” He smiled and ran his finger along the cleft of his chin.
“They did!” She protested.
“Tapas and tequila, por favor.”
Marquetta furrowed her brow.
“For lunch. Tapas and tequila?”
“Oh.” Her eyebrows raised as it finally registered. “Can I get you anything else?” She added awkwardly.
“No, Señorita. your essence is filling enough.” He flirted. She rolled her eyes as she was not used to such comments, nor, did she fully understand their meaning.
When she returned with the order she asked: “So, do you always speak so boldly to women?”
“Señorita, I am honest. For what else is there in life but truth, such as the moment of truth in the ring? The bullfight can teach us many things about life, no? It can teach us how to live in the moment for the next moment is never promised. It can teach us how to embrace our time, how to see the truth in the light and shadow that is life and death and how to bravely confront that death with the romance of life.”
“You speak like an old man.” She sniffed.
“But I speak the truth, that is for certain.” He held a finger aloft.
“Maybe.” She pondered aloud.
“People sometimes do not like to hear the truth. It bothers them.”
“Too much truth is never a good thing, Señor Valez.”
“Now, you know my last name. Amazing!” He beamed as she blushed again. “Is there anything about me you don’t know?”
“Don’t be forward.”
“Well, don’t be insolent.” She pouted.
“How can I be?” He said with a smile. “I don’t even know what that means.”
“Neither do I.” She giggled. “I heard my father use it.”
Armando smiled. The moment melted whatever ice was still left between them. Marquetta brought him another tequila without charging him and shared in one, even though that was against the cantina’s rules. Her father shook his head.
Emboldened by his youth as much as Marquetta’s beauty and the tequila, he kissed her soft cheek and said: “By the end of the bullfight season, I will have killed many bulls in your honor and will have made love to you.”
Shocked, Marquetta did not know whether to slap him for being so brazen or return his kiss and inform him that if he continued to play it the way he was, he wouldn’t have to wait an entire season.
Armando’s apprenticeship in the ring started to pay off as he began building a name for himself and gaining a following as great as that as his mentors, Ferdinand and Rafael in the arena across town. This created tension. Ferdinand, the older, experienced matador was being usurped by this up-and-coming younger man as were many of the more established bullfighters. Consequently, Ferdinand’s manager signed his client’s protégé as his new, rising star and booked Ferdinand, Rafael and older bullfighters to lesser and lesser venues.
While Marquetta’s father enjoyed the idea of entertaining such esteemed customers as matadors in his establishment, he did not entertain the idea of enjoying one as a potential son-in-law. Quite the contrary, he had plans of her marrying Reynaldo Ruiz, one of the richest landowners in all of the pueblo and even though over fifty years old, Marquetta’s father figured the repugnant man had not too much longer to live and his pretty daughter would therefore be free to marry whomever she wanted. Meanwhile, she could give Ruiz an heir, him a grandchild, thereby sealing an inheritance.
Ruiz had always shown an unseemly interest in her from an early age and it was sort of an unofficial agreement between the two men that as soon as Marquetta turned eighteen years old, she would marry the old man. Ruiz, in turn, would give her father the dowry to save the struggling cantina and everyone would be happy. That is, except for Marquetta. But business was business and to help her family survive, Marquetta would have to make sacrifices, her father had explained to her from an early age. This was what Marquetta had meant by the price of beauty.
Despite this, Armando began seeing her and she recognized that if one looked past the bluffing and conceit that there was a sensitive and articulate young man, even if uneducated in the traditional sense, behind the bullfighter’s stance.
As they sat in the cantina one day, Armando spoke. “Bullfighting is in my blood, but I do not enjoy it. In fact, I loathe it. My father and his father’s father before him were all toreadors. I do not enjoy killing bulls. It is a job like any other, but I can earn more in the ring in one day than I can in a factory an entire week! For myself, it is a vocation, rather than an avocation.”
“Why risk your life every day?” She worried. “Why don’t you at least find yourself a job that makes you happy?”
“It is expected of me, just as with you and this cantina, it is the family business. It is what I have been brought up to do from when I was very young. Happy?” He derided the comment. “No one is ever truly happy in their trade unless he is either rich or a fool.”
“I worry about you. I’m very fond of you.” She said, too afraid to say the words, to utter those very three words she truly felt, fearful that they would not be returned in kind.
“Death is the candle that burns within us all. No one can escape it. If the Almighty decides to take me in the corrida, then so be it.”
“You speak so bravely. Don’t you ever feel pity for the bulls?”
“If the bulls sense emotion, I’m as good as dead. I won’t apologize for what makes me a man.”
“Killing a bull makes you a man?”
“No one goes to the butcher or the abattoir and calls them beasts!”
“I’m not saying you are a beast, Armando. A bullfighter must have conviction, above everything else.
You possess many strong qualities, but you lack conviction. You’ve admitted this yourself. ”
“That was before.” He gestured. “I have become skilled since and have grown into a man.” He said with the self-assuredness of one still quite young.
“How can one kill better?” Scoffed Marquetta. “It’s barbaric.”
“Is that why I never see you at one of my bullfights?” Armando inquired. “You do not like what I do?”
“No.” Marquetta said shyly. “I’ve told you so.”
“Yes, you have.” He nodded. “It’s my wish that one day you reconsider. Then you will see how great I am.”
“Why do I need to see how great you are when you tell me every chance you get?”
“My renown for knowing my opponent well is my reward. I know all there is to know about my friend.”
“And yet, you kill your friend?”
“You will certainly not complain when you are married to the richest bullfighter in the pueblo, we have ten children and live in the biggest hacienda on the hill.”
“Ten children?” Marquetta balked. “You talk about things you don’t know as you do about yourself.”
“I know the bulls well and I, the handsome bullfighter, will be paid handsomely for it.” He smiled. “To know them, you must live on their level. Eat like them, sleep alongside them-”
“You can sleep alongside them. That I will never do.”
“I know them well. My point is-”
“Armando!” A man’s voice filled the empty cantina. His silhouette wiped muddy boots upon the doorstop.
“Señor Vasquez!” Armando stood and greeted a man not much older than he.
“How is my premier toreador doing?” The man beamed. “Is this the lovely lady you’ve been telling me about, the doctor’s daughter, no?”
“N-no.” Armando spat. “You are mistaken, Señor Vasquez. I’ve told you only of the cantina owner’s beautiful daughter.” He said nervously. “This is Marquetta.”
“And a beauty she is!” He exclaimed and cleared his throat. “Certainly, I am mistaken. For I would have remembered such a beauty as this.”
Marquetta smiled diplomatically and let the man kiss her hand as Armando made clumsy introductions, but inside she was seething. She had heard rumors of other women but now knew them to be true in at least one instance. Perhaps sensing this, Armando removed himself from the conversation and asked Marquetta’s father for three tequilas.
While her father shook his head at becoming his own daughter’s waiter in a place he himself owned, he dutifully poured three large tequilas and brought them to the table.
“These are strange times.” Señor Velasquez said to Armando and Marquetta. “People are trying to ban the sport of bullfighting on the bounds of cruelty, but yet these are the same people who order steaks in the finest restaurants. Where do they think it comes from?” He chuckled.
“¡Bastardos! Armando agreed.
“¡Señor Ruiz!” Velasquez shouted as Marquetta’s eyes widened.
“How does the construction in my stadium across the street fare?”
“All goes well.”
“I should hope so. It’s costing me enough. I’d like to have my corrida finished soon. I’m not getting any younger, mi amigo.”
“Don’t worry. It will open for the new bullfight season.” Velasquez assured him. “I’d like you to meet a prodigy of mine, Armando Valez.”
“Ah, the young bullfighter you’ve told me about.” Ruiz smiled and looked him over. “You’ve seen the pile of mud and bricks across the street, no?”
Armando nodded respectfully.
“You shall make me a very rich man. I would like to add you to my stable.”
“An honor, Señor.” Armando bowed.
“Not to be rude, but this young lady is Armando’s novia-”
“Nonsense.” He chuckled. “She is my fiancé. Hola, Marquetta.”
“Hola.” She said timidly.
“Apologies, Señor.” Pedro nodded.
“Now, Pedro. Let us go to the bar and leave these two, um, young lovers alone. I trust I can trust your charge.” He smiled and put a paternal arm across Velasquez’s shoulder and smiled back at Armando and winked at Marquetta as they walked away.
“One second.” Marquetta’s father said, passing them by. “Marquetta, back to work. Why didn’t you tell me Señor Ruiz was here?”
“Back to work, Marquetta. We’ve got customers, important customers.” He reminded her with a stony insistence.
“So, it’s true?” Armando balked.
“We’ll speak later.” She murmured sadly. “Meet me at closing.”
“So, it is true.” He glared.
“Only as true as you and the doctor’s daughter.” She snapped.
“I can explain.”
“I wish you would.”
“Marquetta!” Her father bellowed.
“I have to go. Walk me home? We can talk then.” She pleaded. Armando shrugged.
He did not show at closing nor for weeks after. Broken-hearted, he concentrated on his art. He did not come into the cantina any longer. Ferdinand and Rafael came in frequently, but their tone was different regarding Armando. They were dismayed at his newfound success and even larger conceit that it brought when Ruiz finally opened his Grande Esadios de Toros across the street with Armando as his star attraction, but not them as well.
A dejected Marquetta waited on them but didn’t ask about Armando nor of the stories of women in the town who threw roses at him in the ring in the afternoon and themselves at him in his bed at night. Nor did she think anything of it when she heard Ferdinand speak of an older cousin who worked the bulls at the new stadium, but she did question his meaning much, much later.
Perhaps feeling guilty seeing her sister in such heartache over Armando, prodded her sibling to walk across the street and confront him. She even offered to go with Marquetta, but Marquetta thought it best that she go alone. In many ways, it was the longest walk of Marquetta’s young life and one that she would continuously make in her mind for many years to come.
There were restrooms, it was said, that rivaled the porcelain palaces of the Hotel Delgado down the street. Marquetta was curious to see if this were true as the only bathroom in the cantina was basically a hole in the wall with a hole in the floor that teemed with all sorts of vermin no matter what time of year.
A pair of eyes followed her as she wandered the back of the arena where the public was not allowed. Half-dressed matadors roamed around, smoking cigarettes, nervously joking and waiting for their time to face death in the arena, but none of them were Armando. It was dusty and fetid behind the scenes, she thought, not at all what she pictured. There was a rancid stench that saturated the area near the bullfighter’s dressing rooms. Perhaps in an aside to what Ruiz really thought of the bullfighters, this was where the stadium’s refuse was dumped, rife with flies, bees and scurrying rodents. It was also where the blood-stained sand and fecal matter from the bulls were deposited, next to that of the carcasses of the bulls themselves. The corpses of the bulls would then be washed of their blood and guts and wrapped in cheesecloth to be loaded on the back of a truck by an old man, the same old man who had espied the young Marquetta where she did not belong as he sprinkled quicklime with a canister over the putrid pile of rotting compost and he did not look any happier for it. The man walked over to her, still covered in flies. He reminded her of the pigeon-covered tourists she saw in National Geographic of photos of St. Mark’s Square in Venice, Italy although these were hardly pigeons.
“Where do you think you’re headed?” He barked at her.
“I’m looking for Armando.”
“Not another one.” He sighed and rolled his eyes. “You are not allowed back here.” He growled. “Get out!”
Horrified, she turned and ran off around a blind corner, past the concessions, into the menagerie area where the bulls were kept in strong steel stables and right into Armando, sitting on the straw floor.
“Marquetta?” He exclaimed in the dank and stood.
“Armando?” She half-smiled, half-grimaced. “What’re you doing here?”
“I was about to ask you the same. This is where I always come before the match. I come here to make peace with those that I must kill.”
“That’s very noble of you.” She said in a somber tone as he patted the head of a young tan bull.
“I think I owe it to them. I believe it sets their spirit free and sends them onto the next world and the same if they should kill me-”
“No, please, let me finish. If I am to be killed then my spirit too will be at peace. Some of the others think that I am dimwitted for sitting here with the bulls before I kill them. But I think I owe it to them and explain to them that I do not do this out of hate, but duty, the very same way they must do their part. Maybe in the next life, I will be the bull and they will be the matador.” He smiled forlornly as he scratched the docile bull behind the bars of the holding cage. “My friend will not kill me, anyhow. We have an agreement. Besides, they do not give me the biggest bulls yet, just the young ones.” He smiled.
“The reason I came today, I wanted to know why…why you never showed that night?”
“Because it would have been useless. In the ring I am this fearless matador, but with you I am the bull.”
“How come you never told me about the doctor’s daughter?”
“”Those are lies. They say so to sell tickets. I am nothing but an image. How come you never told me about Señor Ruiz?” Armando scolded her.
“I have no answer.”
“What sort of life can I offer you? If we were to carry on where we left off, Señor Ruiz would make sure I never worked another day as a matador again.”
“But then you could do whatever you wanted, Armando.”
“I know nothing else.” He said solemnly. “We would be as poor as monks.”
“But you could be anything.” She argued. “Whatever you wanted would be fine by me.”
“We are bound by our stations. Maybe in a season or two, when I am the greatest bullfighter of them all, then we can marry, no?” He smiled hopefully.
“I am to be married to that pig when I turn eighteen.” She cursed. “He belongs here amongst these animals.”
“Why did you allow me to kiss you, if you knew all along that would marry Ruiz?” He asked, exasperated.
“I don’t know.” She said and turned away.
“Marry me, Marquetta. I know this is not the best time and place to ask, but I will make that up to you, I promise. Say yes and we can leave after my match today and not tell anyone.”
“I have to go.”
“Stay, Marquetta.” He implored. “Please watch me fight my friend here. It would mean much to me. I would be very honored. I will do something very special, just for you.” He said and kissed her cheek, sending her into near ecstasy. It was this reaction that told her that she was not through with Armando and would never be through with him. Before she knew what she was saying, she nodded she would stay and wouldn’t miss it for the world.
Armando beamed proudly and patted the coffee-colored bull. “Well, my friend, the lady awaits. We have a date.”
Before Marquetta knew it, she was sitting in the noisy, crowded stands and the orchestra to her left struck up and began to play. Armando came out a few minutes later to the roar of the afternoon crowd. She smiled, thinking how his overconfident statement of being the most handsome man she had ever seen was actually true. She was just not comfortable with the fact that many other women in the stadium seemed to concur and weren’t as lady-like in their approach as she. They shouted and screamed their approval of his finely-hewn features and the way he his outfit wore like a second skin. Many roses and inscribed handkerchiefs were thrown into the ring even before the competition began.
Armando strutted along the sand, in much the same way he did in the cantina, as if fully drinking in the admiration but did not acknowledge it, save for a bemused smirk. He raised his hand. The crowd quieted. He then did something unheard of for a bullfighter; he spoke to the crowd.
“Amigos, you have come here today to witness man’s triumph over certain death; for today I will stare into the eyes of death and will be victorious. I have a powerful ally on my side. Do not worry, amigos, I will give you what you have come here for, but I assure you today it will not be a fair fight. Please, do not look so insolent.” He said waving his hand, misusing the word, but smiling at Marquetta. “I have to fight against the hatred of the toro whom I consider my friend. But I have a powerful ally to fight this hatred and that is love. I dedicate this fight to a certain female in the arena. You know…” He bowed. “…who you are.”
In an unprecedented move and perhaps upset by Armando’s usurping and showboating of the introductory limelight, the picadors did not emerge into the arena as was customary. Some bullfight aficionados, already affronted by the bullfighter’s breach of protocol, saw this as the unconditional final straw and threw their programs into the ring as they left the stadium in a show of contempt. Those who stayed buzzed nervously in their seats. Even a novice knew that the picadors played an integral role in preparing, tiring and wounding the enraged animal, therefore weakening the bull and making it easier for the kill. Without them, a matador even if an expert, would stand a nearly insurmountable chance of beating the toro unless he was exceptionally skilled.
Armando looked anxiously around the arena as a roar went up behind him to the left. With a start, he turned to greet the clamor. Instead of being relieved to see the picadors finally galloping out, a chill ran up his spine as he saw a large black bull charging into the ring. It was the wrong bull, not tan like the one he had been petting and this greatly troubled him. This bull was much larger and clearly not drugged like most of them. As the bull frantically trotted the circumference of half the arena, Armando scanned the stands for Ruiz. He caught glimpse of him angrily gesturing into the ring and shouting at those around him and saw him stomp down the stairs and finally out of sight. Clearly furious, Ruiz would get to the bottom of the mix-up, Armando knew and maybe put a stop to the match at once.
He wondered if he could just stop the bout himself, but knew if he did his reputation could be tarnished or worse, he’d be seen as a coward. Although, he mused, if he could kill this enormous beast, he just may very well be more popular than ever and got into his classic matador’s stance.
Armando dug his foot into the sand and focused on the bovine who was snorting and promenading almost as boastfully as the bullfighter before it. The bull slowed and began to ready itself for the attack. As it stopped, the sun glinted off of its sweaty black hide as it inhaled and exhaled in quick repetitions. The crowd hushed to a whisper as matador and bull locked eyes. Armando gave a short hop as the animal charged, which Armando skillfully avoided and stabbed at the creature with the sharpened banderillas at his disposal, hitting the ungulate’s neck and shoulders.
It was unheard of that a matador should perform the entire faena by himself but those that stayed were unaware or astounded that a bullfight, instead of being fought in tandas or stages, would be fought in such a manner that the matador would have to skip right to the tercio de muerte, as there had been no cuadrilla to assist him. If he could indeed pull it off, he might very well make a legend for himself and be seen right alongside the likes of Juan Belmonte, the greatest toreador who ever lived.
Like many before him, Armando emulated the great Belmonte in his style and his dramatic daring to stand so dangerously close to his opponent. This was seen as an unwise homage by some and as the ultimate gesture of machismo by others to face certain death and stand tall and brave as a man while doing so.
The mammal, enraged by being pierced by the banderillas that still hung from its torso, doubled-back immediately as Armando played to the crowd. In the nick of time, Armando caught sight of the bull and corrected his footing, but not before being thrown in the air and gouged beneath his arm. The crowd gasped as he fell, but applauded as he got back to his feet. Marquetta cried out as she watched him lift his arm in disbelief and look at the growing pool coloring the side of his colorful traje de luce a deep maroon.
Armando dusted himself off, bravely raising his wounded arm to wave to the crowd, then compressing the wound with his other hand and doubled over to breathe.
The toro charged him again, but this time he was ready. He pierced the animal twice more with the razor sharp sticks, which confused the bull. This gave Armando the opportunity to reach his estoque y muleta, his sword and cape, as he was down to his last two banderillas.
The animal turned again, tore at him and ripped a horn into his leg, turning its head in quick machine-like precision in the same way a boxer would fight, pounding him right and left, right and left, as Armando cried out and tried to scramble away from the lumbering beast, an attendant finally rushed out and took the bull’s focus temporarily away, allowing Armando to escape to the center of the ring.
Armando raised the red muleta, raising his sword too and smiled as he thought how silly people were in thinking the color made the bulls angry when the animals were, in fact, color-blind. The capes were dyed red to mask the blood. It was the movement of the cape that transfixed the toro and made them charge and that was a skill one had to learn or better still, be born with, he knew. The bull glowered at him with hellish, red eyes as it scratched at the sand floor of the arena, wavering its head wavered to and fro, getting ready for the final moment.
Armando steadied himself in the sand as the orchestra percussionist began to bang out a drum roll. All eyes were upon the bull, except for Marquetta’s, whose eyes were on the matador in concern, her mouth agape as the bull performed a short leap and charged. Armando instantly stabbed the bull between the shoulder blades with his estoque, the bull stumbled, sliced Armando again in the leg, dispensing the already bloody wound to rip deeper, causing Armando to drop. The bull then pinned and gored him repeatedly in the neck as the crowd shouted in horror.
Armando was dragged away from the dying bull, his blood mixing with that of the animal’s in the grains of sand and the matador was carried out of the arena back to the dressing room. As the crowd slowly dispersed, a group of picadors finally emerged amidst booing and debris being thrown from the now-hostile crowd. For the bull, there would be no indulto, no reprieve as several of the crowd had to be held back from butchering the helpless and already half-dead animal as it was unceremoniously dragged by picador’s ropes out of the arena. Some later swore they heard the sound of a gunshot, but this was never substantiated.
Marquetta fought her way through the confused, milling horde, back to the dressing room where Armando lay on a table profusely hemorrhaging. He was in serious condition, she assessed.
“Armando! Armando!” Marquetta cried as she reached him.
“Get that señorita out of here at once!”A man yelled as he compressed the neck wound with Armando’s muleta.
“Yes, doctor.” An gray-haired man said and pushed at Marquetta. It was the very same old man she had seen washing the cadavers before the tauromachy. She pushed back at the weak old man and broke free and raced again to her dying young lover’s side.
“Armando, Armando, please don’t leave me!” She cried. “I love you! I love you!” She sobbed, saying the three words she had always been too terrified to say to him for fear of not hearing them returned. For some inexplicable reason, she felt the freedom to say it now. “I love you, Armando, please don’t leave me.” She wept. Tragically, it was too late. These were words he could now never return.
“Señorita, he is dead.” The doctor said as he relieved the pressure on the boy’s neck and wiped his hands on the cape. Marquetta was taken out of the room wailing and hysterical, brought across the street, inapproachable in her grief.
Armando was ceremoniously buried with great splendor and event by the town and a plaque was erected upon the bullring in remembrance by the grief stricken pueblo of the young man who faced death with refinement. Women wore black in the pueblo for an entire year, it was said, but none with more passion or dedication than Marquetta who wore it devotedly for the rest of her life.
Although it was never proven, many suspected Ferdinand, his cousin that worked the bulls and Ruiz were all in league and that they were somehow behind the tragedy that occurred that day by switching the bulls and having the picadors stand down. Ferdinand got his wish to be the star attraction at Ruiz’s stadium, but only played to less than half-packed houses as the mark of his culpability continually weighed heavily against him and he was never able again to gain the same renown as the ghost of his predecessor who lived on in the minds of the people as the greatest bullfighter since Belmonte.
Ferdinand began to drink even more heavily, until his bloated and drunken appearances pushed away even his most ardent of aficionados. He was fired by Ruiz and found dead from alcoholism and more than a little bit of guilt it was said, as was his cousin who was run over by the delivery truck he drove as it backed over him one day. Some said it was Armando’s ghost handing out retribution, but Marquetta never believed such stories. She knew her young love was never capable of such acrimony and believed that his gentle spirit had moved on to a more peaceful venue.
She never married Ruiz or provided him with any heirs as she could never do that to her beloved’s memory. Nor did she did not think much of it when the bullring across the street fell on hard times from the lack of attendance, causing Ruiz adversity and having to sell the stadium to be used as an open-air shopping mall shortly before his death.
Marquetta can still be found in the cantina, playing guitar and singing songs of a love she once knew, long ago. And so she sings, in remembrance of her youth, of a life she once knew, of family members now sadly gone and to remember a boy she once loved named Armando to whom she gave her heart one summer of her youth and so she sings, if only to return to his arms once more; if ever so briefly in memory for that is all she has now. It is all that remains of a life once so openly assured and she remembers him, with her Canción de Amor.
Joseph Grant is a Los Angeles-based writer and a Pushcart Prize nominee.