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Authors: James A. Michener

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Mexico (10 page)

BOOK: Mexico
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It was therefore with heightened emotion that Victoriano rode to the plaza on Sunday, the old man gabbing at his elbow, and when he saw the austerely beautiful bullring, builder and destroyer of reputations, he crossed himself with extra fervor, kissing the fingernail of his right thumb. "Virgin Mary, help me to succeed," he prayed.

Guadalquivir bulls are, by some accident of breeding, among the most deadly in Spain, and through the years they have killed almost as many matadors as the Miuras; yet they have also been the bulls most likely to provide the matador with dramatic opportunities for triumph, as if the bulls were saying to their human adversaries: "Triumph or die."

That afternoon Victoriano triumphed, but it was a triumph mostly of the spirit and not of the right arm. True, he fought exceptionally well and cut one ear from his first Guadalquivir and one from his second, so that the reputation he had carried from Mexico was confirmed. But his more important victory involved his father, Veneno, as the opponent. Up to this time the old picador had masterminded all his son's fights. While Victoriano was occupied with his opening cape work, Veneno obviously had to remain astride his horse in the corrals, unable either to watch the progress of the fight or to direct his son's next moves, but once the cape work ended and the bugles sounded, the old man would spur his horse into the plaza and from then on instruct his son in tactics. There was, of course, a second brief interlude while the picadors were retiring from the ring, but as soon as Veneno dismounted, he would dash back into the alleyway, from where he called out instructions to his son.

And even during the opening passages, when Veneno had to remain in . the corrals, he would exercise his will through the person of his older son, Chucho, who inconspicuously advised Victoriano what to do. So in a very real sense, Victoriano rarely took any action in the ring that was not supervised by other members of his family, and he had become a kind of fighting machine, competent, cool and conditioned. But in Seville this changed.

Before the entrance of the second bull, a typical fierce Guadalquivir, Veneno instructed Chucho, "I size up this bull as dangerous. Keep Victoriano away. He's already cut an ear and the papers will have to say so. Let this bull have its own way."

So while the old picador waited, Chucho advised Victoriano, "Diego and I will handle this one. You stay back."

But the young matador had tasted the thrill of triumph in Seville, and was determined to cap his first performance with an even better display, so after Chucho had run the bull in the preliminary investigations, he, Victoriano, leaped forward with his cape and executed four extremely dangerous passes that launched the fight on a high emotional keel.

Veneno, listening astride his horse in the corrals, knew by the gasping oles that his son was disobeying his instructions, and when after the first series of triumphant shouts he heard another series begin, only to end with a collective agonized gasp, he dropped from his horse and ran to an aperture in time to see Victoriano sprawled on the ground, his pants ripped, with a savage Guadalquivir trying to kill him. By some miracle Chucho got hold of the bull's tail and by brute force restrained the animal from further attacks on his brother. Diego lifted Victoriano from the sand and was about to inspect the wound when the matador shoved him aside, grabbed his fallen cape, and dashed forward to meet the bull again. Veneno, transfixed with fear, stayed at his peephole to watch his son launch a second series of superb passes. Blood was coming from his right leg, but not in gushes.

'Thank God!" the old picador whispered as he remounted.

When he rode into the ring he was as lead picador required by custom to ride counterclockwise along the barrier, but he did so at unaccustomed speed in order to reach Victoriano, to whom he cried, "Make no further close passes with this bull. He's not reliable. He hooks."

Victoriano, looking up at the austere white-haired figure on the horse, said with unprecedented independence, "I'm the matador. I'll bring you the bull." And with deft, dancing steps he led the wild animal into range of the pic, whereupon Veneno leaned with furious vigor on his lance, driving the steel shaft so deeply into the bull's back that the Seville men began to shout, "Swine, dog, butcher! Are you trying to kill the bull?" One infuriated spectator began to throw something at Veneno, but police rushed up to intercept him. The crowd continued hurling insults at the white-haired picador, who now swung his horse across the bull's path of escape, thus giving himself opportunity for an even deeper thrust of the lance.

"I will kill this bull," he muttered, bearing down with all the* force of his ironlike body. His left foot broke loose from its stirrup, but he pressed on. The bull's left horn, wet with Victoriano's blood, drove against the metal that encased Veneno's right leg, and the picador, seeing his son's blood, drove the lance deeper and deeper. A gush of crimson spurted out along the sides of the pole to which the steel tip was fixed, but still the infuriated old man pressed on.

He was interrupted in his unbridled attack on the bull by his own son. Daringly, Victoriano swept into position between the horse's head and the bull's, and with his cape close to his knees led the bull away until he found a chance to furl the cape spectacularly over his shoulders, teasing the bull away into a series of majestic passes, slow, sweet and marvelous to the eye. Veneno, watching the evil manner in which the bull hooked to the left, prayed.

The dazzling passes ended, a breathless and perfect creation that brought the audience to its feet with ecstatic cries. A man could attend a dozen fights and not see a series of passes like this. One such performance once a season kept a fighter's reputation alive.

The final portion of the fight threatened to be a typical
Victoriano retreat from the excellence of his cape work, and Chucho, mindful of how this bull hooked at the man and not the cloth, issued directions, 'Three passes and kill him, or he'll kill you." But Victoriano felt that the moment had come when he must declare his independence from his family's domination, so after giving the mandatory three passes to prove he was a real matador, he proceeded to try a fourth and a fifth, but a Guadalquivir bull is not like others and this one knocked him down and might have killed him had not the Leal brothers swept in with their whirling capes to lead the bull away.

Veneno, rushing in from where the horses were kept, tried to prevent his son from attempting to kill, for it was obvious that the bull had brought blood to the matador's other leg and he could be excused if he allowed himself to be carried from the arena, leaving the bull to the other matadors. But on this day Victoriano refused that honorable escape, for he was after a greater honor, the kind for which his grandfather had been distinguished. Grabbing sword and muleta, he ignored the warnings of the three other Leals, marched directly to the bull, and dispatched him with the kind of perfect thrust he had used years ago when starting in his profession.

It was masterly. The bull dropped almost instantly. The crowd cheered and demanded that he march around the arena as they applauded, but when he started to do so, the pain from his wounds caused him to weave, so the three other Leals caught him, lifted him in the air and took him to the infirmary, where his wounds were cauterized.

He was brought home by his two brothers, followed by a crowd of cheering men who stormed into the hotel room where Veneno sat, solemn and silent. As soon as the matador was placed on the bed, smiling and flushed with triumph, Veneno cried to the mob: "Get out!" One man, who hoped to get a photograph of himself and the matador, tarried, and felt the picador's powerful arms close about him, throwing him into the hall. And then Veneno said to Chucho and Diego: "Get out!" He had not spoken to them in this manner for many years, and they hesitated, whereupon their father with frightening deliberation grabbed each in turn and threw him into the hallway. "What are you going to do?" Chucho cried.

"I am going to explain what it means to be a matador," the old man said. He slammed the door shut and locked it.

In the next ten minutes the awed crowd in the hall heard voices and the sound of smashing furniture. Then there was only Veneno's terrible voice rasping in short sentences: "We created you." . . . "You will not destroy our chances." . . . "You will fight as we direct." After a long time there came a sound of running water. And then silence.

That night Chucho and Diego slept with friends, for it was apparent that the door was not going to be opened. Next morning Victoriano Leal limped down Sierpes to the little plaza of the Cafe Arena. His left leg was stiff from the bull's sharp horn thrust. One of his eyes was closed and black, and his nose was seriously distended as if it might be broken. But he was a matador. He knew at last what discipline meant, but he also knew that he had faced a major test of manhood and failed.

Mexico City,
1
960. The Leals returned from Spain the most famous bullfighting family in the world. They worked together with a cohesion that was almost frightening. Veneno handled contracts and struck extortionate deals, but as he pointed out; "When the Leals fight, the crowds come." Chucho and Diego now performed almost automatically in the ring because of their perfection in their respective arts, while the old picador continued to blast the power out of even the most difficult bulls. Victoriano, of course, was the disciplined matador, a poetic evocation of all that the school of Seville stood for. The critic Le
o
n Ledesma, who had traveled to Spain to observe the young man's triumphs in that country, reported back to Mexico: "This golden youth, the creation of a notable taurine family, has gained all the laurels Spain has to offer, and if we seek the reason it is because he is a complete matador: at once the essence of lyric poetry and the soul of harsh self-control." Understandably, his countrymen were excited about his return, and when his inaugural fight was announced one Monday, by noon on Tuesday all the fifty-five thousand tickets for Plaza Mexico had been sold.

I did not see the fight, but I did a good deal of reading about it and talked with many who had seen it. Preliminary publicity, of course, had featured the fact that Victoriano Leal, El Triunfador de Espana, would kill three "noble and exemplary bulls of Palafox," but no mention was made of who the second man would be, and there was no flurry of excitement when it was subsequently announced that the program was to be completed by the routine Mexican hack Juan Gomez.

Since Gomez had been a matador longer than Victoriano, he was entitled to fight first, and with his initial enemy accomplished nothing, as usual. Leal, inspired by the huge crowd that had come to greet him as one who had upheld Mexico's reputation throughout Spain, was brilliant with the cape, fine with the banderilla and poetic with the muleta. If he had killed well, he would surely have won ears and tail and possibly a hoof, too, for his performance was emotionally charged, and no one begrudged him the two ears he carried in triumph three times around the ring while the band played the frenzied Mexican music known as the diana.

The trouble started when Victoriano completed his third turn and, accompanied by Chucho and Diego, who picked up the flowers that were thrown at him, moved to the middle of the plaza to acknowledge the continuing cheers. Intoxicated by his magnificent triumph, he succumbed to an urge to glorify himself. Handing the two ears to his brothers, he raised his index fingers: "I am number one."

The crowd roared its confirmation of his claim, but the effect was dampened by the unexpected intrusion of Juan Gomez, who, in his faded blue suit with its tarnished decorations, left the barrier where he should have stayed and shuffled awkwardly to share the middle of the arena. Stopping three feet from Victoriano as the younger matador started to leave the ring,
Gomez
waited till his opponent had passed, then raised himself on tiptoe, leaned far over imaginary horns, and drove his right palm, as if it were his sword, home. Then, sneering at Victoriano's back, he raised his own forefingers in the air and shouted, "I am the real numero uno!" and when cushions began to rain down on him, he maintained his position, his wizened face staring up at the mob, his fingers still aloft, his cracked voice still crying, "I'm numero uno!"

A silence fell upon the arena, for this was not an idle gesture. By making it, the bowlegged Indian matador Juan Gomez stripped all the glitter from the afternoon. Victoriano's manipulations of the cape, the dandy's work of placing the banderillas just so, the slow, beautiful movements with the cloth, and the semi-adequate kill at the end--all these were swept away. Juan
Gomez
, a little Altomec Indian, ignored the triumphant one from Spain and looked across the arena toward the door behind which the four remaining bulls of Palafox hid in darkness. Pointing solemnly to the fateful gate from which his next enemy would soon burst into the arena, he profiled again with his right arm extended forward as if it were a sword, and seemed to be boasting, Thus will I kill my bull! And the crowd waited.

The third Palafox bull of the afternoon weighed thirteen hundred pounds, had a vicious chop to the right, and charged like a fire engine for two thirds of his run, then stopped abruptly to seek his man. With this deadly opponent, Juan Gomez made only four cape passes, but they were close, slow, pure and brimming with emotion. They contained not a single flourish, but they caught at the throats of fifty-five thousand people, and anything Victoriano Leal had accomplished that afternoon was cheapened.

According to his habit, the bowlegged little Indian did not place his own sticks, for he lacked the grace for this part of the fight, but his peons did acceptably, and when the time came for his work with the muleta, he moved slowly, keeping very close to the dangerous bull. With a minimum of passes, the sturdy fighter chopped his huge enemy down to manageable proportions. "His work," wrote Ledesma the next day, "was filled to the brim with classic agony. We waited in silence for the bull to kill him."

BOOK: Mexico
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