9 Days of Spain #5: Bullfighting (Part 3)

Warning: this series contains descriptions and images of graphic violence

Charging the wall

To our utter confusion, the matadors would walk over to the wall of the plaza while the bull is occupied, once again, by his entourage of fellow toreros. He hands his sword over to some assistants waiting behind the safety of the wood, only to be handed another, seemingly identical sword. He might take a quick drink of water, but within maybe ten seconds, he’s back in the spotlight, his banderilleros running for cover.

And once again, the spinning dance of monotony begins. The crowd still cheers with each flourish of the cape, but the bull is getting tired. It starts to stand there, just staring at the matador as he taunts it with his capote. Spit is dripping from the bull’s mouth, and you can see its tongue lolling out as it pants. The matador starts aiming his sword at the bull.

This is the climax.

Once the matador decides to kill the bull, it all happens very quickly…if he does it right. If he doesn’t—if he lunges at the bull but the sword only goes halfway through, only to fall out onto the ground a moment later, the process of teasing the bull with the red cape starts over again.

The sword is supposed to go through the bull’s heart. A “good job” on this is when the sword goes all the way into the bull’s body on the first try. If the matador fails on the first attempt, he gets to try again. And again. And again. Until he’s successful.

Once he is, it’s a mad flurry. The matador lunges and plunges his sword into the bull. The bull starts bucking desperately, suddenly encircled by a handful of toreros that are waving the pink-and-yellow capes at it again. They’re here to expedite the bull’s end…and so that the matador can spend a few peaceful moments blowing kisses at the hysterical crowd. The bull might charge them a few times. But then it collapses to the ground.

Final sword
The matador lunges at the exhausted bull, stabbing his sword through its heart

The bull lays there, alive, in a normal resting position you’d see from any ordinary barnyard bull. It pants, staring at the humans around it. Then a torero steps up, a small knife in hand, gauging if there’s any fight still left in it. There isn’t. The man plunges the knife into the back of the bull’s head, normally digging it into the brain as quickly as possible for a swift death. The bull’s body seizes, immediately going still and falling over, limp.

Final knife
A torero finishes off the bull with a knife to the brain while the matador drinks in his applause

Two donkeys decorated with ribbons and bells are led onto the field. The bull’s body is chained to them. As soon as it’s secure, two men with whips cracking at the ground run just beside the donkeys to get them to stampede. The donkeys and the body make a partial circle of the arena before running at full throttle out of the gates, leaving a faint swirl of red behind them. Meanwhile, the matador has been standing before the crowd, victorious.

Men whip the ground as they run alongside the donkeys, dashing out of the arena gates

And that is a bullfight.

There are two particular fights in the corrida I’d like to highlight: the best fight…and the fight that broke me.

The best fight was the best in virtue of its matador, the oldest and most experienced of the three, the man who sat in the middle of the arena as a bull charged him. In his second fight, everything went perfectly for him. Not a single torero was downed by the bull or chased out of the arena, all three banderilleros managed to plunge their banderillas into the bull’s back, and the matador himself danced with the bull flawlessly to a roaring crowd before managing to thrust the sword through the bull’s heart on the very first try. The crowd went insane. People were standing and waving whatever they had: their handkerchiefs, their playbills (yes, they gave us playbills), their tickets, all calling out something indiscernible to the judges. I have to say, it was a real privilege to witness this in my very first corrida. The judges gave the word, and the matador was declared the best fighter of the night, and awarded his trophy: the ear of the bull he had slain. We spent the next few minutes watching as he slowly make a round of the plaza, waving the ear in the air for the crowd to see. He was so celebrated that the younger matador who followed his act cried in frustration when he couldn’t perform at the same level. Vanity and ambition aren’t scare resources among matadors.

Trophy Ear
The best matador of the corrida waves the trophy ear as he makes a victorious lap around the plaza

But there was a fight that, for lack of a better phrase, took all the fight out of me: the fight with the brown bull. When it was being worn down in the first stage, we could tell that there was something different about this bull. It was not easily baited. It bucked more than the other bulls. It stood and stared at the toreros more often than the others had. “It’s so smart,” we said. “It’s so patient. That bull’s going to give the matador a run for his money.” At first, it did. The bull wasn’t cooperating, wasn’t giving into the toreros’ ploys. But then it began to stumble. Remember what I said about rooting for light-colored bulls? This was the first light-colored bull I’d seen, and the blood dripping down its back was all the more prominent. It made it to the final showdown with the matador and his red capote, retaining its seemingly patient stare. And then, all of the sudden…the bull lay down. It lay down at the edge of the arena, staring at the matador with the sword. That bull wasn’t smart or patient: it was tired. So tired that it was willing to lie down in front of a human with a sword.

But that just wouldn’t do! The matador’s banderilleros rushed out onto the field, waving their capes in front of the bull to try to put the rage back in it. The bull just stared at them, all energy gone. All will to live gone. Finally, they decided that the bull would not budge, and to let it catch its breath would be to let it bleed to death. A torero approached with the small knife. The bull resisted when the torero grabbed at it, but after a few tries, the human stabbed the knife into the back of the bull’s head. The bull, perfectly lucid and without a sword through its body, convulsed horribly, blood dripping from its mouth, its hind legs kicking out. The toreros, still wary that the bull had enough resistance to avoid being stabbed in the head for so long, had backed off, and had to approach again to finish the creature off. Just a few more seconds before they could put it out of its misery.

Bullfight Stages

I’d been rooting for the quiet one, the one whose blood I could see rolling off its shoulders in waves. But that end just took it all out of me. Whatever bloodlust I had was gone. I wanted to go home.

Everyone who came with me to the corrida said they loved it and would definitely want to go again, but I thought that once was plenty.


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