The Stance of the Toro Bravo

In the midst of the Iberian summer one glimpses a sharp, fleeting black form, one so full of passion it makes us shiver.

— Federico García Lorca, The Poem of the Bull

The crowd’s roar lulled into a hushed “Oooooooooh,” and rolled over my head as I hunched over my notebook in Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas in Madrid one warm July evening. Teeth clenched, I shaded in a series of arches while stuffing imaginary cotton in my cochlea.

There had been only one other time in my life I had so fervently wished to be elsewhere.

Four months previously, while planning this trip to Spain, where my college-aged son Kellan would be studying for the summer, I had announced to my husband John and him that under no circumstances would I go to Pamplona to watch their running asses grazed by horns.

“We’ll go to the bullfight in Madrid instead,” I pronounced, blithely unaware. In my reading about Spain, I had been mesmerized by poet Federico García Lorca’s description of what he called the duende, the painful cry of longing that we all struggle with, the dark thread that runs through our lives. Lorca had said this was most impressive in traditional guitar music, flamenco, and the bullfight, which he called “the terrible play.” I, like Lorca, was in search of duende, and had found it lurking in a cave in Peru, screaming out of a painting in the Louvre, and cowering in the crypt of a cathedral in Vienna. Now, I’d go straight to its source.

“Really? Okay.” Kellan gaped, then quickly moved on to other plans: We’d watch the World Cup Tournament playoffs in a bar in Madrid, and then go to the Costa Brava, east of Barcelona. We could hang out on the beach …

Ahhhh, España! Madrid’s iron balconies presented its pastel buildings with a flourish, and the Prado and Reina Sofia museums rivaled any I’d visited — El Greco’s paintings dripped with duende. The daily siesta inspired me to begin writing a screenplay. The evening of the Corrida de Toros, the Spanish Bullfight (literally “running of bulls”), as we approached the arena, I felt a spring in my step at the anticipation of learning more about the Spanish culture.

“You know they kill six bulls, right?” John asked, in falsetto.

I stopped. “What?”

“Come on Mom, you knew that,” lied Kellan.

“You brought me here to see death? How dare you; how insensitive,” I snarled, for since my sister had died three years previously, I had avoided all mention of death.

John and Kellan had failed to act as my protectors. But, I could see from their eyes that the only reason they had kept this from me was that they’d wanted me to come, and I was brushed by a feeling of foolishness.

Inside the arena, determined not to watch the barbaric ritual, I sketched. I could hear John’s click of the camera, and ignored his attempts to get me to look up. Trumpets blared, applause rippled.

Kellan, a double major in English and Spanish, had studied up on the bullfight and gave me a whispered commentary.

“The matador’s marching around with his toes pointed. The other name for him is torero. Now here come some guys with long lances called banderilleros, some more on padded, blindfolded horses, called picadors. Here’s the toro bravo, the fighting bull.”

I know now that there are three stages in a Spanish bullfight. During Stage 1, Tercio de Varas (the Lances Third), the torero watches the bull as it charges the banderilleros’ capes, noting its weaknesses. They say that when the beast lowers his head and appears most threatening, he is, in fact, the least dangerous. It is when he seeks out and heads for his querencia, his turf, that the bull is most ferocious. In Spanish, this word describes a place from which one’s strength of character is drawn, where one feels safe, or at home. It comes from the verb quere, which means to desire, to want.

“Now the matador’s waving his cape. Whoa, that bull’s mad!”

During this stage, the picadors stab the bull’s neck, which induces the beast to attack the horses.

This Kellan described in gory detail, and would have been what caused the crowd’s “Oooooooooooohhhhhh.”

Training my eye across the arena to the top without looking at the scene on the sand below, I examined the way the fading sunlight fell upon the ground beneath the arches. The crowd surged into another wave.

“God, this is really sick. I can’t believe you didn’t tell me they kill SIX bulls. We have to sit through this six times? You knew I’d hate this. Maybe I’ll just go back to the hotel.” I seethed, staring at my drawing through a curtain of curly hair.

“Did you see that, Kellan? They’re stabbing him with those darts. Yeow!” John. Click, click.

Stage 2, Tercio de Banderilleros, was occurring then, in which three banderilleros (“little flags”) plant darts in the bull’s shoulders, causing blood to spurt, and spurring the bull to charge.

“That poor bull. No, I’m not looking.” I twisted away from John’s tap on my shoulder, wondering if the toro bravo felt alone and afraid.

The crowd exploded.

“The matador’s back, he’s got a sword,” breathed Kellan, who, by age four had developed a lifelong fascination with swords, and had smacked everything from our shrubbery to his tricycle with his gray plastic weapon.

This is an odd part in the bullfight. The matador enters with his cape and a sword and teases the bull into making a few passes. But he is not yet going to use the sword; it is as if he’s revealing what destiny has in store for the creature.

Stage 3, the “Death Third” of the Spanish bullfight, is Tercio de Muerte. This time the matador enters with a small red cape which hides the sword. He lures the bull into passing closer and closer to his body, demonstrating his control of the animal. The color is meant to hide the bloodstains that glob upon the fabric as the bull brushes against it.

The crowd began to chant “Olé!” — which I deduced from John’s “Wow, that was close!” to mean they were thrilled with the proximity of the bull to the matador’s side. I felt dizzy and angry, wishing I was in Pamplona after all, watching John and Kellan’s backsides careen down a narrow alley.

In the final moments of the Tercio de Muerte, the matador maneuvers the bull into a position where he can plunge his sword between the bull’s shoulder blades and into its heart. The only thing that can save the bull is if El Presidente, the President of the event, is particularly impressed with its fighting spirit and gives the signal to spare its life. It is intriguing to note that once a bull has been spared, it can never again enter the ring because it knows. It has learned the way of its fate in this scenario, and will now be wise to the ways of the bullfight.

“He’s down.”

“Blood everywhere, Mom, don’t look.”

“Don’t worry, Kellan.” I couldn’t wait to get to Catalonia, the northern area of Spain, where they adamantly opposed this absurd tradition.

Cheers, clapping, accolades for the murderer. After the bull topples over, its heavy carcass is dragged out by a team of mules.

“Here comes the next one.”

Another bull! I stared at my lap and realized I should have anticipated this killing when I had read Lorca’s famous Poem of the Bull. I’d thought it a bit dramatic, but aren’t all poems? Now I understood the real meaning of Lorca’s bellow of pain. . . it comes from the bullring, from an ancient temple, and it zigzags across the sky . . .

How clueless I’d been. As the stomping thunder raged on, I was startled to discover that I had envisioned this event based on that beloved matador-and-bull scene I’d watched so many times over the years. One in which the triangular-shaped bull, ring in nose, puffs smoke, stomps the ground, and hurls himself at a thin, gray, floppy-eared matador in a turquoise traje de luces, and races into a TNT explosion. I’d fallen victim to Warner Brother’s version, and had been ill-prepared for the reality.

The spectacle continued, the actions repeated (I gauged by the sound) two more times. The cacophony was a sinister moan from the dark, a chaotic anthem to duende, a concept I was beginning to loathe.

My artistic eye focused again on the top tier of seats, which were dotted with spectators. I wished I had more colors. How was I to endure? Time dragged on. We were toward the end of the third repetition, the “Olé! chanting well underway, when I saw that my drawing was starting to resemble a real work of art. I held it up and squinted at it, examining my shading technique.

At that instant I saw, beyond the upper right hand corner of the white paper, the black bulk of the bull.

His side heaved as he breathed, shaking the long, red darts embedded in his flank, their tissue paper streamers fluttering. His tail switched. Scarlet streams trickled down his black mountain of a back. The creature’s eyes glowered with a desperate gleam, but his lowered brow gave him a menacing mien. With nostrils flaring, he lowered his head almost to the ground, showing a startlingly strong instinct to fight with every cell in his body. This bull would not die easily.

Several feet in front of the bull, late afternoon sun deepened the torero’s fuchsia jacket, flashed on its gold curlicue design, and softened the jet black of his two-cornered hat with the little dip in the middle. His head was tilted down, chin on his chest, which curved out in the shape of a question mark. His tie was a line down the middle of a blindingly white shirt. A green sash was tied around his tiny waist and his legs were spread and straight all the way down pink knee-length socks to black ballet-style slippers.

The small red cape turned over and over in hypnotic waves, revealing the flashing point of the sword’s blade.

The bull’s stance straightened, his back a hulking mound, his hooves planted firmly on the ground. He teetered a fraction, then seemed to gather into his body every bit of dignity that existed in the world. So slowly the motion was almost imperceptible, he raised his magnificent head and looked at the torero, facing him head-on. All was still.

I saw this moment in the terrible play as if through a grainy haze, and it annihilated me. But the tears that ran down my cheeks were not for the bull.

Three years earlier, inside of a room with windows overlooking the jagged snow-capped peaks of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, I stood at the end of a bed in which lay my sister’s 42-year-old body, a skeleton out of which her eyes blazed feverishly, registering nothing. My hands twisted a pink cashmere cap I’d brought because it was soft and her favorite color, and which I now knew was useless. Allison was beyond sensation.

A nurse beckoned me out into the hall, where Allison’s husband Steve stood ruffling his hair absently, eyes wide, mouth grimaced.

“Her internal organs have shut down and are no longer working,” the hospice nurse said. “She’s been like this for a day and a half now. Technically, she should be gone, but she is resisting. We’ve never had a patient hang on so long in this state.”

I wasn’t surprised. My little sister had always been the sweet one, the red-haired girl who minded her manners, got good grades, and was considerate of the feelings of everyone from the handicapped girl across the street to our pet basset hound. I was the bossy, rebellious daughter.

During our outwardly idyllic childhood, I was the serious observer, brooding in my room writing stories, and she was naturally cheerful. Each Halloween, my carved pumpkin menaced, hers beamed. Between the two of us, we achieved a balance between light and dark, which made our days flow, as both are essential for grasping the sublime beauty of life. As years passed, radiance plunged in and out of gloom like high-speed landscape photography, but also the unlit was set alight by our connection.

We were inseparable, and she was my most ardent cheerleader. But when we tangled, she showed a stubbornness that startled me.

The time I sprayed Right Guard deodorant toward her head, she refused to speak to me for two whole days; I sneaked a late-night viewing of Batman without her, and she set up a courtroom drama in which my parents found me guilty; another time, when I yelled at her, she put tape across the floor of our shared room, barricading herself on the side away from the door for hours, staring at me above crossed arms. Allison was sweet, but she was feisty.

Every once in a while, in the middle of the night, at one of those moments when fear burns a path through dreams and ignites the body with terror, I would imagine a world without Allison in it. I’d grasp the size, the density, the capacity of this earth to hold people, and I’d feel the horror if it were minus one. The black would engulf me then. My eyes would stretch wide, my heart boiling. If Allison was not in the world, I did not want to be in it either. Eventually, I’d look across the room at her sleeping form, and discern, across the grainy gray, her small head of tangled hair upon a white pillow. Safety would seep into me, and I’d fall back to sleep.

Through the years we remained close — played tennis and went sailing together; were sorority sisters in college; when married, lived a half-hour apart; had our sons within months of each other — always intertwined. When she and her family moved to Colorado, we gabbed on the phone for hours, continuing to balance each other.

She’d endured, in her gentle, trying-to-be-good-natured way, two years of diagnoses that tumbled downhill from “most aggressive form of breast cancer” to “nothing more we can do”; chemo and radiation; discovering its metastasis to her brain the day of her 42nd birthday; the fear that she’d never see her son, Jack, graduate from high school. She had absorbed blow after blow.

She and I had said many goodbyes, for during her last six months — since our visit to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston — the two of us were the only ones who knew her dire prognosis.

By the time she ended up in the hospice, I knew that she was mostly out of this world, with dwindling moments of presence. One by one, I had seen her let go of each person she loved — our closest friends, our parents, and even Jack. Only Steve remained, and I knew Allison’s stubborn streak had held out until she was ready to let go of him.

She died with silent dignity when and only when she was ready.

After my trip to Spain, I became a bullfighting aficionado with a new affinity for the Corrida. I told everyone that I had not grasped its significance until I’d seen it. The doomed bull’s dignity had reminded me of my sister. The pageantry, the three stages that showed the inner workings of a creature as he faced his tormentors and killer, the wonderful idea of killing six bulls: another bull, another chance! I argued with animal-rights-activists, and urged anyone traveling to Spain to partake of the pantomime at Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas. As I am always anxious to spin a good story, this comparison between the stance of the bull and Allison’s death begged to be written.

I could not write it.

One year passed, then another. I wrote a bullfighting scene in the Siesta screenplay, and a short story about a character who identifies with the anger of the bull, but my pen froze when I tried to write about Allison. I was not afraid to evoke a bit of duende, so I had no idea why this story stopped me in my tracks.

I had not yet grasped the second analogy of the toro bravo.

At times in life when I need help, books are the places I find strength. After Allison’s death, I immersed myself in hopeful titles: Healing Your Grieving Heart, A Journey Through Grief, and Five Stages of Grief, but the only book that made sense to me was, oddly enough for a then-practicing Catholic, When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön, a book which shares traditional Buddhist wisdom. I was particularly struck by the idea of embracing grief, of welcoming it, as the Buddha’s teaching seemed to suggest.

In the months after Allison’s death, I cancelled river rafting trips and weekends with friends and family, cultivating a bring-on-the grief bravado. I spent time alone sensing the pain, then zigzaging out of it. I’d weep, then distract myself with a movie; look at an old photo album, then write some poetry about Leonard Cohen; reminisce, then make bruschetta. I appeared a normal, functioning adult who only privately lapsed into crying jags and barely said two words on each anniversary of Allison’s death.

It was my secret that my world was black. I had not gone through all the stages of grief or arrived at the place of acceptance. I alone knew that I’d refused to contemplate the truth that my torch bearer was gone.

Still, I remained interested in this idea of embracing grief. One evening, I went to a talk by Dr. Mark Epstein, a psychiatrist who has written a number of books about Buddhism and psychotherapy.

Dr. Epstein read from his book, The Trauma of Everyday Life:

“ The Buddha took a different approach, one that seems more realistic. There need be no end of grief, he would say. While it is never static — it is not a single (or even a five-stage) thing — there is no reason to believe it will disappear for good and no need to judge oneself if it does not. Grief turns over and over. It is vibrant, surprising and alive, just as we are.”

Grief is vibrant and alive, I thought. And it holds a red cape under which hides a sword.

Primitive feelings, Epstein went on, continue to be stirred. Understanding them does not turn them off. But we can cultivate what the Buddha called The Realistic View: examining feelings rather than running away from them, acknowledging rather than pretending normalcy. The Buddha, said Epstein, managed to make trauma tolerable by easing people into the burning nature of things.

Buddhist wisdom has been preserved in a collection of koans, which are paradoxical questions meant to challenge the mind as trauma does, asking us to make sense of the inconceivable and to explain the unexplainable, and to transform the way we orient ourselves in the world.

I began to see the moment in Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas as my own kind of koan, albeit one that would have appalled the Buddha, with his admonition against killing.

The tableau beyond the edge of my notebook had struck much closer to home than I’d realized. It had shown me that if I looked up, I’d face full-on the reality of a world without Allison in it: the shiny point of a blade aimed straight at my heart.

How pretty it would be to write that I am now a devout Buddhist, liberated from within, opening myself fearlessly and calmly to the tumult of the sublime, gathering all of the brightness in the world with abandon. But I still resist. When I travel I search for her, absurdly surprised that she is not in Brazil, or Ireland, or Africa. I look at old photos of us and hate the piercing pain that turns over and over inside my chest. I search out places to hide from it, and fight instinctively against it. Only one person would still admire me, even though I’ve skipped out on the stages of grief, broken down on the journey, and remain unhealed. I want my cheerleader back.

But every time I acknowledge this grief, I feel a little wiser in the ways of loss. In trying to embrace the burning nature of everything, the glow within the flames eases my vertigo, and I am changed slowly, almost imperceptibly, into a person who seeks less often to be spared. One who looks up.

The inconceivable terrible play continues. I remember the sharp, fleeting black form of the toro bravo, and I shiver.

In loving memory of Allison Ames (far left)



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Erin Byrne

Erin Byrne

Erin Byrne is the author of Wings :Gifts of Art, Life, and Travel in France, editor of the Vignettes & Postcards series, and writer of The Storykeeper film.