by Patricia Patterson
There’s this game I used to play with my kid sister when we were as far from death as we could be, before she went off to college and learned how to put distance between us. Before I worked construction. Before I got a girl pregnant. Before my sister, Sandra, learned I was just the same as the dirt I worked with, the dirt I breathed in, treaded, spread across the earth.
The game was called La Corrida. I was the bull. Sandra was the matador. The crowd was a band of Sandra’s stuffed animals. The other bullfighters were invisible. It was more fun this way. The bull could never guess what was coming.
“¡Atención, damas y caballeros!” Sandra would call out, and the stuffed animals would turn their beady eyes to the ring we had created in the middle of the living room with empty shoe boxes and stacks of books. “¡Bienvenidos a la corrida de toros!”
I knew this wasn’t the way a real bullfight began, but I was much older than Sandra and this was the way we bonded. Our grandfather had been an actual matador in Mexico City. We never met him, but Mamá told us stories.
“We are entering el Tercio de Varas,” Sandra would say, and el partido would begin.
When I miss Sandra, I put myself in that ring again. I watch the bull enter the ring. The matador, the banderilleros, and the crowd watch. The bull strides slowly, his body strong from years of care. He has led a quiet life on a ranch, distant from the commotion of human activity. The bull sees sunlight for the first time in hours. He sees the crowd, the matador, the banderilleros. The matador approaches the bull, then moves a magenta and gold capote in circles, in jagged lines, in movements the bull can’t keep up with. The bull follows the capote. He charges. The capote disappears, then reappears again. He charges again and again. The matador observes the bull’s weaknesses, his quirks, and his strengths. The capote stops moving. The matador disappears. The bull stays his ground, kicks dirt. He waits. Then comes the sharp pain in his back. Then comes the blood. The picador hovers over the bull on horseback, lance in hand. The crowd cheers. The bull bleeds. He lowers his head.
“Stand up, Ernesto,” Sandra would whisper, so the crowd wouldn’t realize I wasn’t actually a bull. “You’re not done yet. You have to trick them into thinking you’re tough.”
Then she would call the next stage, el Tercio de Banderillas.
When I sit at a bar after a long day of work, when I watch a stranger beat the shit out of another by the jukebox, when I walk home stupid drunk and kick up dirt with the soles of my boots, I think of the bull. He kicks at the dirt below his feet. He grunts. He searches the ring for the capote, for the matador who commanded the capote, for the picador who pierced him. A banderillero advances with a banderilla in each hand, flags wrapped in colorful paper, their ends sharp and pointed like arrows. The bull charges. The banderillero strikes. The crowd shouts, Olé olé. The bull trembles. He kicks. He bellows. Another banderillero approaches. The bull charges. The banderillero stabs him between the horns. The bull bleeds. He shakes his horns, his tail, his whole body. The crowd chants louder. Olé olé olé olé. A third banderillero approaches. The bull kicks and kicks until he’s cloaked in dust. He charges, but this time faster, with more force. Blood drips from his body, leaving traces in the dirt. The banderillero strikes between his horns. The bull spills blood. He huffs and kicks and bellows and huffs and huffs and kicks and bellows.
“You’re giving in too easily,” Sandra would say.
“Too easily?” I was giving my sweat and blood and breath for this.
“Yes,” she would say, “you have to make it harder for the matador.”
The stuffed animals would chant, Make it harder for the matador!
“You want to live in the end, right?”
“Sure,” I would say, then Sandra would call out “¡Suerte Suprema!” and we would enter the final stage.
When Mamá tells me your tía is in the hospital, she tried to set herself on fire pero todo estará bien, I’m in the ring. When Mamá tells me your tía in Manzanillo got hit by a truck, your abuela on your father’s side has lung cancer, your bisabuela is dead, I’m there, waiting, as the matador re-enters the ring. He carries a muleta in one hand and an estoque in the other. The muleta passes over the bull, then disappears, then returns again. The movement is too quick for the bull to follow. It’s red, red, red, though the bull doesn’t see it this way. Doesn’t see red. The bull charges the muleta and misses. He searches for the man behind the muleta. The matador steps forward, steps back. The bull follows the matador’s footwork. They enter the faena, their final dance together. The matador stabs the bull between the shoulders with the estoque, but no blood spills. The sword is fake: plastic. They continue dancing. The bull grows weary of the dance. He lowers his head into the dirt. The matador reaches for another estoque—real this time—and pierces the bull in the heart. The bull bleeds. His breaths are ragged. His vision fades. So this it, he thinks, then lays his head to rest on grass from a pasture that is not there, a pasture on the ranch where he was born. The bull lays down in a pool of blood that is not red but another color uniquely his own.
“Wake up, Ernesto,” Sandra would whisper, shaking my shoulders. “The fight is over. You can live now.”
I would stand slowly, my legs wobbly.
“It’s time for the alternate act,” she would say, “el Indulto.”
They call this rare act el Final Suerte because it’s a stroke of luck. In this version, the bull doesn’t enter el Tercio de Muerte. His fate is altered. He lives on.
When I tell myself I can bear my own history—I can live on, be a better brother, be a better father to my unborn child—I make a new future. The crowd roars. The matador steps forward, his estoque in hand. It has yet to make contact with the bull. The crowd waves white handkerchiefs; the arena is an ocean of white. The bull rises from dirt. The crowd chants, a rhythm that pulses like a heartbeat. El presidente de la corrida de toros raises his arms and quiets the crowd. He tells them the bull has fought honorably. A rare gift will be given. The matador bows to his competitor. The bull is pardoned. The matador leads his equal out of the arena, tells him it was un buen partido. A good match. The bull returns to the ranch where he was bred, which is far from the arena but worth the distance: he consumes good feed on the ranch, grazes soft grass. The bull spends the rest of his days in the sun, which is not red but yellow. He doesn’t have to see it to feel its truth.
Patricia Patterson is a Mexican-American writer and editor based in Central North Carolina. Her work is featured or forthcoming in PANK, Pithead Chapel, wildness, and elsewhere. When Patricia is not writing or crafting, she enjoys hanging out with some of her most loyal companions: the birds.