I couldn’t really say why I hadn’t killed the bull. Not right away, when everyone kept asking. I struck at it several times in the exact spot I should, but I could not sink the blade. I couldn’t say to my friends inside the vehicle what had happened, after the bullfight, but I knew. I knew exactly what had happened. It was the bull’s tear that paralyzed me. Although my body seemed to move, to make its attempt at killing, the sight of the bull crying pierced me instead.
I had never seen such a thing before, not in all my years of bullfighting, and my years had been plenty. My father started me early, so early that many of his friends, men and women alike, spoke behind his back of how Antonio was surely trying to live the life of a matador through his only son.
It was true. But what of it? I have enjoyed my career in the ring, dressed handsomely in the suit of lights. My love affair with the bull had been my only, an affair even my wife had understood and endured. But that afternoon, the eve of my retirement, I walked just as a man would walk to the car where my friends waited and sat down as any human would in the passenger seat and thought of the bull and his single tear, how it dropped fast and oval from his right eye while he continued to glare at me.
The bull’s gaze, the way its body of brown velvet remained tense and rigid, the raised and defeated position of its horns, all of this, the same as usual, until that fast tear. Then I could see the pain inside the black circle of its eye, unblinking pain, the kind of hurt only a beast can experience standing so still and so menacing. The emotion in that single drop of salt water crushed me.
And when I say crushed, friends, I mean crushed as the mountain can crush the climber, as the daytime sky can feel full of God’s own weight at a certain point on afternoons of intoxicating success.
Everything in those last moments, the attempt to thrust the blade between the bull’s shoulder blades, watching the banderillas spreading out from the its flanks like bone-exposed wings sheared of feathers, the tercio de muerte itself, its entirety, was swallowed up and then rearranged as a kind of spiritual vision. And all of this was sparked in the millisecond it took for the bull’s emotion to manifest in its crying.
I wanted in that millisecond to turn to the presidente, imitate the estocada with the palm of my hand, and be done with bullfighting forever. All my earlier dreams of collecting trophies — an ear, the tail, both ears perhaps, the imagined or real breeze from a thousand handkerchiefs waving me into a lap of victory around the ring — all of these dreams had fallen away.
It was not pity! When they worked to severe the bull’s spinal cord after my third failed attempt, I felt nothing, not even embarrassment while I stood and watched. As the bull, colourblind, charges the moving object, not the color red, what happened to me when the bull’s tear fell can only ever be misunderstood. As the true reason the cape is dyed red is so that blood stains will be less noticeable, so too was the mystery of my failure, a truth hidden within a truth. It is true! I have the blood of a matador for all time. My heart is perfectly cold enough.
Sheldon Lee Compton is the author of three books, most recently the novel Brown Bottle (Bottom Dog Press, 2016). His stories can be found in WhiskeyPaper, decomP, Gone Lawn, PANK, Monkeybicycle, DOGZPLOT, and elsewhere. He was cited in Best Small Fictions 2015 and Best Small Fictions 2016.