The Suit of Lights

Behind closed doors and drawn blinds,

In the midst of this man-made twilight,

I’m putting on my suit of lights*,

My fragile armor;

/

Woven of silk thread, decorated

With pearls and diamonds,

It is designed not to protect the wearer

But to challenge darkness;

/

It will not stand the test of steel

Nor this of fire,

And through the fine skin-like fabric

Pain and desire

/

Hurt, wound and scar the one, who calls

Upon herself the evil of the world

And, like its axis, stands alone

Inside the whirlwind;

/

Behind closed doors and drawn blinds

In front of a mirror,

Dressed in my suit of lights, I check the fit

Before the devil sees me;

/

Its fabric glows, its diamonds shine,

Its white pearls glimmer;

It will be torn; I will be killed,

Yet, my heart sings as if I were the winner

*Suit of lights or traje de luces[1] is the traditional clothing that Spanish bullfighters (toreros, picadors and rejoneadors) wear in the bullring. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traje_de_luces)

Bullfighting 101

It is summer 2000-something; I am, I think, 19. My love of learning is still alive and well, so I am spending the holidays in Malaga studying Spanish. Yes, actually studying and not lying at the beach all day and going out every night. I am enjoying the unfailingly sunny days and the proximity of the warm Mediterranean after a cold and stressful winter at university in the Netherlands. I love the taste of the new language in my mouth, the random conversations with the friendly locals and shopping for colourful things I don’t need.

We were talking about corridas de toros – bullfighting – the other day in class. Today, when I open the morning newspaper and spot an article about a bullfight in the town of Rincon de la Victoria, I am suddenly curious about experiencing the ancient, questionable tradition first-hand.  None of my Northern-European girlfriends want to join me, and it takes all my power of persuasion to finally convince a girl from Germany to come along. She is fair-skinned, shy and kind-hearted, and only agrees to go so as to ‘support’ me in this ‘terrible’ experience.

We take a bus to Rincon de la Victoria and arrive at the entrance of the small bullring about forty minutes later. The town is decorated generously for its annual feria and the streets are swarming with people in traditional dress. The environs of the plaza de toros are dusty, and smell of horses and cigar smoke. My friend and I get in line for the tickets and I buy the ‘best’ ones, Barrera Sombra – front row on the shady side of the ring, right behind the bullfighters’ main burladero. We still have an hour or so before the fight begins at 6 pm, so we go to the beach and walk in the warm waves. Little is said between us about what we are going to see, or about whether we ‘should’ see it. My unhealthy curiosity is the answer to all possible questions and doubts, and I take the liberty of answering for my friend, too.

The bullring is full: full of laughter, and fluttering fans, and bright lipstick, and of hoarse voices of seasoned aficionados. I see no foreigners except us, seated in the most conspicuous of spots and drawing quite a few stares and chuckles.

‘Te gustan los toros?’ Do you like bullfighting, my neighbour, a grey-haired senor with a thick cigar between his teeth asks me.

‘Pues, aun no lo se,’ I reply, I don’t know yet.

My friend and I are both feeling uncomfortable, and relief only comes when music, un pasodoble, announces the arrival of the trio of bullfighters. In their shimmering trajes de luces, ‘suits of lights’, they walk across the arena slowly, proudly and deliberately. I am amused by this display of outdated masculinity: by the tight satin suits with pink stockings, the Mickey-Mouse-like hats, the ballerina shoes, the too much gel in the black hair… I point out all these ‘funny’ little details to my friend, and we giggle, relieved, certain now that nothing too terrible could possibly happen.

The small plaza seems to shake when the gate opens and the first bull of the evening storms out into the ring. The bullfighter receives it with a less than smooth wave of his heavy magenta capote. Clouds of dust rise from the sand again and again, following the bull and the torero: a big cloud, a smaller cloud. I am unimpressed but the man, who, satisfied with his performance, hides behind the burladero above which we are seated.

Next, two horses dressed in floor-length leather armour appear in the ring carrying portly riders armed with lances – they are the picadores, I recall from the class. ‘Hey, toro, hey!’ one of them, closest to us, calls out. When the bull, lowering its muscular neck, attacks the horse, the picador drives his lance into the flesh above and between the bull’s shoulder blades, pushing and twisting until a pool of blood forms where the metal meets the flesh. It feels as if the same lance has been thrust into my eyes, drawing hot liquid from them. My eyes are wide with terror, then, anger, when I realize that the noise in my ears is applause and cheering. I look around the plaza and cannot for the life of me comprehend how one creature’s suffering could bring such joy to others.

When my gaze returns to the arena, I see the ‘tercio de banderillas’ unfold there: three men, the bullfighter’s assistants, each take a stab at the same spot in the animal’s neck with two colourful sticks, their tips – sharp metal hooks; they are called banderillas. Unlike the lance, the vara, banderillas stay inside the flesh, pulling on and stretching it. When they hit muscle, I hear it; I can all but smell the blood as I watch it gush out of the wound. We are too close to this; I can’t watch, and I can’t look away.

Again the bullfighter emerges, a red cape, muleta, in hand, his steps slow and calculated. The bull’s head is now hanging low on its broad neck. The man calls his adversary, who follows the voice and the muleta’s teasing movements: the muleta is the animal’s whole world, demented as it is by pain and rage. I feel them, and shame, too, such great shame.

When the beast begins to stumble, the ‘maestro’ changes his sword and manoeuvres the bull into position for the final blow – the estocada. He aims and, moving swiftly, drives the estoque into the flesh and through the aorta of his opponent. In a minute or so the enormous animal tumbles to the ground, dead, eliciting more applause for its killer.

With dry and itchy eyes I watch one of the ring workers cut off both of the dead animal’s ears and present them as a trophy to the bullfighter. With them in hand, the man, smiling, walks around the ring, basking in his strange triumph. He throws one ear, then, another, into the crowd: it is a great compliment, my neighbour’s hoarse voice explains, to be given one of the trophies. I turn to the voice and follow it back to the man’s old, leathery mouth. It is smiling.  

‘Let’s go,’ I tell my friend but she looks completely lost. I try to persuade her to leave but she just sits there. Finally, I get up and begin to pull gently on her arm, but I must stop when the plaza falls silent: the next matador is in the arena, ready for his challenge.

‘Sientate, guapa,’ my neighbour says and, pointing at the bullfighter straightening his capote in the ring, adds, ‘este es buen torero.’ I comply and sit back down – my emotional exhaustion is such that I can do no more. In the course of the next hour I witness the slaughter of five more toros de lidia – fighting bulls born and bred to die in the arena. My whole being is saturated with such suffering that my mind shuts down and I simply stare. When the corpse of the last bull is dragged away from the ring by two horses and the last of the applause die down, I am swept off my seat and out of the bullring by the crowd. Out the main plaza gate the three heroes of the night are being carried on their assistants’ shoulders to the sounds of more cheering…

‘Como te ha gustado?’ a familiar voice sounds behind my back – it’s my neighbour, again.

How did I like it? I nod and smile weakly in response and wave good-bye.

My friend seems to be in a worse state than I; complacently she follows me I don’t know where. It is getting dark as we approach the beach. The town feria continues on the promenade to the sounds of traditional music and smells of food and candy.

‘Shall we walk back?’ I ask my friend.

‘It’s a long way,’ she says, and then, ‘yes, let’s…’

We walk quietly for the first hour. The beach is now empty and quiet – we are far away from everything.

‘I’m sorry,’ I say.

‘No, I wanted to see it, too,’ she lies graciously, ‘it’s fine.’

We have now said what needed to be said and can continue on is silence. I don’t know how long we walk for in the hot, humid night. The sound of waves and their warm touch against my feet is beautifully relieving, but I still can’t chase out of my head the sound of metal hitting bone, mixed with the roar of applause. I don’t understand how two such sounds could have come together.

About two hours later I find myself in my room at the language school, sitting on the bed. My new dress smells of smoke, and dirty sand, of human and animal sweat. Of blood, too? Do I smell of the blood I have been drinking with my eyes? Could one tell by looking at me what I have seen: what I paid to see and stayed to see? Curiosity was what brought me to the ring but what was it that kept me in my seat? Am I – in my pretty dress, with my big tearful eyes – really the ‘nice’ person I think I am? What is it about me that up until this evening I have been continuously failing to acknowledge? Am I crying and hurting now because I should be or because I’m truly touched by what I’ve seen? Could there be a cruel, savage something in me that may have enjoyed the corrida? I spend the night torturing myself with such questions as I’d never had to ask before. I try to be brave and honest. Still, I don’t understand…

A year after the day of the corrida in Rincon de la Victoria I will return to Andalucia for answers to my questions and a ‘suit of lights’ of my own.

The Good Student

‘It’s just a paper, Lilya! It’s not worth getting hurt for!’

‘I know, mum, but it’s not just a paper. Well, it is now but after I’ve done this – actually participated in a bullfight – it will be so much more than just another ethics dissertation!’

‘I can’t be there, you know. I can’t stand the sight of you killing animals like that.’

‘I’m glad you can’t make it. I really don’t need another pouting, judgemental PETA-face in the audience.’

‘I love you, Lil, but you will regret what you’re doing now. You’re nineteen and you’ve got your whole life ahead of you. Important as your dissertation might seem now, you will never forget that you had to… kill to write it. It is just a bull, an animal, but we both know how you are. You won’t ever forgive yourself if…’

‘Eat your stake, mom, and let me do what I’m here to do!’ Lilya growled at the phone, ‘it’s not even a proper bullfight, just a novillada!’ she added quietly, after hanging up.

Her capote, muleta and sword resting on the rooftop terrace floor, she realized she’d never felt more alone. The eccentric Finnish girl. The people at home could never understand why she wanted to be part of what they called a ‘barbaric tradition of killing animals for fun’; the local bullfighting aficionados disliked her for being a female and, in addition, a foreigner; the boys she attended bullfighting classes with couldn’t stand her for having to pose in the background while Lilya would be interviewed for TV, magazines and web-sites. ‘She shouldn’t even be here, let alone be famous! She’s not that good at bullfighting – she doesn’t deserve to be where she is! This is just a study for her – she doesn’t care about it.’ Lilya couldn’t help agreeing with these and other countless accusations being showered on her: she knew as well as anybody that a bullring was the last place in the world where she should be. Yet, every evening she stubbornly climbed the stairs to the rooftop terrace, gear in hand, practiced for at least two hours and then stared blankly at the roofs of Seville, the traffic in the busy Jose Laguillo steet, the windows of the hotel next door, the dust on her shoes; very rarely did she dare look into herself. Now, the night before her first real fight in La Algaba, she felt she owed it to herself to do so.

‘Good evening, professor!’ she greeted her dissertation supervisor on the phone, ‘I must speak with you about tomorrow.’

‘Thank you, sir; I’ll see you there in an hour.’

***

Sitting alone on her bed, barely able to breathe in her stiff suit of lights, de catafalco y oro, Lilya, was staring at the floor.

‘Vamonos, torera!’ one of her bullfighting teachers called cheerfully, knocking on the door.

Lilya’s eyes glistened in the dimly-lit room but didn’t move; her hands were shaking a little.

‘Vamos, mujer! Que llegamos tarde ya!’ Hearing no answer, he carefully pushed the door open.

‘No tienes porque hacerlo, Lilya, si no lo quieres de verdad,’ his kind whisper sounded next to her. Lowering his grey head so as to see into her eyes, he put his heavy leathery arm around the girls’ shoulders, noticeably fragile under the armour she was wearing.

Tu no tienes porque hacerlo,’ he repeated, ‘ya has demostrado que tienes mas cojones que nadie!’ She laughed quietly.

‘Tiene Usted razon, tenemos que darnos prisa,’ Lilya said resolutely after a moment’s pause, tension spreading down her body.

***

She had to hit that exact spot between its enormous black shoulder blades. Banderillas sticking out of the bull’s ravaged back helped her focus and aim. The girl took a deep breath.

‘That’s it, it will never be this hard again,’ she thought, hearing the deafening applause of the audience as a distant, dying whisper. When the black novillo stumbled and rolled in the sand of the ring, Lilya threw her head back and lifted her hands high in the air – like a bullfighter, a real bullfighter –still, all she could hear was the sound of her sword sinking into the muscular flesh of her now dead opponent. ‘Nothing will ever be this hard again.’

***

‘Well, you did it, Lil,’ her mother’s voice sounded from thousands of miles away, so far away that Lilya could barely hear it, her whole being full of that other sound. It was late in the evening after the fight and the girl was sitting cross-legged on the floor of her rooftop terrace. She listened carefully but couldn’t understand what her mother really meant.

‘It’ll pass, sweetheart! Just finish your paper and come home, and it’ll pass, I promise,’

‘I had known it wouldn’t pass before I walked into the ring,’ Lilya mused in response, ‘and it won’t.’ ‘You see, I forgot I was the researcher, not the subject of the research.’

‘You can be both, Lil. You can be anything you want to be – I think you’ve proven this much today.’

Slowly Lilya got up from the floor and stumbled to the edge of the terrace. Her blank stare wandered among the dark roofs, and cars, and people in the windows of the hotel across the street till it paused on a girl of about fifteen, reading behind the glass.

‘I fear I have proven the exact opposite,’ she replied.

Matadora (The Bullfighter)

The afternoon sun, the thirsty gray sand
The bullring is ready, it’s time to begin
My suit’s made of fire, my sword’s made of steel
I’m fearless, I’m heartless, I know how to kill

I soak in applause and thick smoke from cigars
As the giant I’m fighting obeys my commands
My silky muleta* hovers over its wounds
I bare my estoque**, and we both know we’re doomed

We both lower our necks and prepare for the blow
As we aim at each other; it will miss, but I won’t
In a second – one movement of my merciless hand
It’s aorta is cut and my conscience is dead

My pray rests at my feet while I look in its eyes:
It’s not often one sees how their human heart dies
Black and gold, it and me, we’ve both paid our price
For this fight with no winners which so resembles life

When my suit is peeled off, my estoque washed clean
I will look in the mirror at the scars from my ‘win’
They don’t bleed anymore; they’re as soft as the dusk,
Which won’t pour its warm light into my bullfighter’s arms

They are covered in blood which I couldn’t wash off
I am one blow too late – that cannot be undone
Thus, tomorrow once more I will cross the same ring
To be where I belong – where I kill, where I’m killed

* a muleta is a piece of red fabric used by the bullfighter to attract and keep the bull’s attention

** an estoque is a sword