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from the June 2004 issue

A Clean Kill

In Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway says: "The only place where you could see life and death, i.e., violent death now that the wars were over, was in the bull ring and I wanted very much to go to Spain where I could study it. I was trying to learn to write, commencing with the simplest things, and one of the simplest things of all and the most fundamental is violent death."

R. hadn't yet read Hemingway's book that exhausting afternoon when she'd lost her way and ended up at the hotel Sultan, a different hotel than the one in which she had made a reservation earlier, before her arrival in the city. She secured a room for the night, dropped off her suitcase, then left the hotel and headed for her destination. She returned at six in the evening. She took off her clothes, bathed, settled down in front of the television, and watched a live broadcast of a bullfight on its screen. That was in the beginning of the nineties. R. watched the bull as it charged into the ring. She took note of its weight, its power, the arch of the taut muscles swelling behind its neck. She followed the team of bullfighters as they overcame it: The picador on the back of his horse pushing, with force, his spear into the bull's upper back. The three banderilleros leaping one after the other, each of them embedding colored arrows in its neck. The bull's repeated attempts to injure the bullfighters while they provoke it, tricking it with their bicolored capes. And finally the matador and the red cape, he plunges the sword deep into the bull's neck. She turned off the television and held her pen; she wrote "maqam 'iraq," then crossed it out and replaced it with "maqama 'iraqiyya." She wrote several lines. She read them. She muttered: "Bad writing, incomprehensible!" She tore up the paper.

She noticed that the air-conditioned room, virtually sealed shut, was filled with smoke. She put out her cigarette and carried the ashtray to the wastebasket. She emptied the cigarette butts in it and cleaned the ashtray. She walked to the window and opened it. The air was hot and thick in the summer evening, without the slightest breeze. She looked out the window and noticed that the outer courtyard of the hotel ended in a high wall with a drawing depicting the upper half of a turbaned man. Neon lights shone directly over the wall, illuminating the picture of the sultan. R. looked at the wall and saw a number of mice creeping over it with a settled slowness; they walked over the sultan's face, his beard, his chest, his turban. A few others crawled in succession over the edges of the wall, forming a dark-colored frame for the picture.

R. closed the window and got into bed, ready to go to sleep. Do bulls have a memory? How had she lost her way? That seemed to be an incomprehensible puzzle. She had found a hotel in the end, a four-star hotel and a room overlooking a battalion of mice! No matter, the important thing was that she had come here as she had wanted and seen what she had intended to see; nothing remained now but to spend the night in this hotel, to get up early in the morning to leave for the station, for the train to carry her to the capital, and for her to board the plane and return to Cairo.

2 She lost her way. She spent over an hour roaming the streets of Cordoba searching for the hotel in which she had reserved a room earlier. Then she spent another hour asking about another hotel that would have a vacant room. "One night," she said to the employee at reception. He took her passport from her and gave her the key and a small card on which the room number was recorded. "On the third floor." She went up. She put her bag down. She washed her face. She smoked a cigarette and went down. She asked the same employee for information about the way to the great mosque. He described the way to her. "Walking on foot?" she asked. "Twenty minutes," he said. He gave her a map. He pointed to a spot and marked it with his pen: "This is the hotel." Another spot on the paper near the first, another mark: "That's the great mosque."

She walked in a cramped twisting alleyway. From time to time she stopped to look at the map. The alley was surrounded by small shops displaying the traditional crafts of Andalusia: Damascene jewelry, pottery, porcelain, wood inlaid with mother of pearl, cotton shirts bearing the name Cordoba in Latin letters. The alleys led her to wide space, then the mosque. She was captivated by the magnitude of its presence in the place: it was tall, vast, its stones big and ancient, its scope greater than what she had expected. Her eyes remained fixed on its walls, then she entered from a small door on the side of the courtyard planted with orange and palm trees. She noticed that the arches that connected the outer courtyard to the mosque with its roofed courtyard were bricked up, changing them into part of the wall. As soon as she entered she noticed the effect of this on the place's smell and the amount of light in it: it had the architecture of a mosque but the smell and shadows of a church. She walked to the pillars with the paired arches. She walked between them while raising her head to gaze at the tops of the pillars and the arches and embellishments of the roof. She saw the mihrab decorated with mosaic work, then moved to the cathedral next to the mosque. She passed by the cathedral's treasures, then she left. She walked parallel to the fence. She searched for the statue of Ibn Rushd. She walked for a long time. Then she took the map out of her bag and prepared to return to the hotel.

3 After six years and by chance, she saw a bullfight on one of the satellite channels. She recorded it. The next day she rewound the tape to watch it again.

"How can you stand all this violence?"

"I want to be sure of all the details, and to see how," she murmured.

They were taken aback by her behavior. They left the room.

She fast-forwarded the tape through the first scenes, where the camera moves from the ring to the bleachers to the musicians. Then, "from here," R. said. She pressed the stop button. The scene stopped on a closed dark red door. She pressed the play button.

A man of medium build approaches the door. He pulls the metal bolt and pushes the door; it opens. He withdraws with brisk steps backward in the direction of the small side door to his right; he quickly proceeds from it to what is behind the fence. The bull will charge from the door. It doesn't happen. She looks across the open door. To her the place seems foggy; then she sees it approaching. It seems like an apparition out of the imagination; gradually it becomes defined. It advances. It stops. Is it afraid? She didn't know very much about the bulls used in bullfights. A minute, or two, then it charges through the door to the open ring. A black vigorous bull. Its name: Estudiyus. It is five years of age. Its weight is five hundred and ten kilograms. The camera moves, shifting its focus to an electronic board. "Half a ton," muttered R. The black bull charges into the arena, running. It widens its course. It stirs up the ground, hitting it with its hooves. It seems vicious, strong, confident. Its head and neck carry the tall dome of its upper back. Straight away, the bull rushes for the fence, ramming it with its horns. It retreats. It returns to run again.

The bullfighters enter: clothing embroidered with gold thread, black hats similar to skullcaps almost covering their foreheads. Each of them carries a folded cape on his left forearm. Each unfolds his cape: yellow on one side and rose red on the side pointed toward the bull. They take turns at the bull, they lure it, agitate it with a movement of their capes, spread out now to their full expanse. They approach it, then move away. One after the other. One of them waves his cape to the right while leaning his body to the left or leans to the right while waving his cape to the left. The bull charges at the cape positioned in front of its eyes, its target the bullfighter's body; it misses the goal. It aims, charges again. Nothing. It charges with its horns pointed toward another bullfighter. It retreats, unsuccessful. The sound of the brass section rises announcing the end of the first third of the fight.

R. drinks a glass of water. She drinks all of it.

Two picadors enter the ring, each of them mounted on a horse with covered eyes and armored with a thick lining of material covering their sides and legs. The picador is wearing a hat and brandishing a long spear. The bull charges toward one of the horses, leaning with his head to the ground, trying to upturn the horse; the picador pushes it-secure in the saddle of his horse-far away with his spear. The bull perseveres in his attempts. The picador leans on the spear with all his weight pushing its tapered point into the bull's upper back. He wounds it. The bull retreats. The audience applauds.

And now: the banderilleros. Each of them is holding several banderillas, pointed wooden shafts like arrows adorned with colored feathers. They throw the banderillas in its neck. She remembers that from watching it the day before. What is the meaning of these arrows? One after the other they approach the bull. They move away from him. The first succeeds in striking the bull's neck with one of the arrows, then runs, distancing himself. The bull leaps. With visible strain it moves its neck up and down, to the right and left, in an attempt to rid itself of the arrow embedded in it. Another banderillero advances. He stands facing the bull. He brings his feet together, fixing them firmly on the ground. The bull charges in his direction. The banderillero raises his right foot, and suddenly he leans his body to the left. A fleeting moment. He returns his foot to the ground and the bull passes on his right; as it charges, its horns directed toward the emptiness, he strikes it forcefully in its neck with his arrows. The banderillero withdraws quickly, the bull having already turned toward him, furious and bleeding. The banderillero runs. The bull follows him. He jumps over the wooden fence that separates the ring from the audience. He escapes.

In a side corner the third banderillero approaches the bull. He brings his feet together. He raises his arms high. He jumps. The arrows strike the bull's neck. R. rewinds the scene, she stops it: The banderillero 's body is as slender as an arrow. It flies through the air. It is suspended above the ground, as if gravity has no power over it. She plays the tape: from his elevated position the banderillero fixes his arrows in the upper part of the bull's neck and runs away.

The bull runs in the ring.

It is slower now. Less confident. Heavy, weighted. Its neck can hardly endure the burden of its head. It runs. The five multicolored banderillas in the sides of its throat move to the left and right. The background is blood red. Two broad crimson lines on the blackness of its skin.

Then the third and final act.

The matador: The star of the fight. An adolescent and gentle face. A thin body, slender, taut. His torso is poised, his stomach concave. In his neck, the blood rushes to his veins. His costume is of silk and gold: tight pants that reveal the muscles of the thighs and leave the last third of the leg for rose colored silk stockings and slippers that resemble dancers' shoes. A white jacket brocaded with gold thread, the embroidery becoming thicker on the sides of the pants, the shoulders, chest and sleeves.

With deliberate steps, the matador walks in the direction of the president of the fight sitting among the crowd of spectators in a box over the ring. The bullfighter takes off his hat. The president responds to the greeting. The music plays.

Now the bullfighter prepares to meet the bull bareheaded. He exchanges the rose and yellow colored cape for a smaller one, crimson red. He holds it in his right hand spread out on a pair of sticks or small swords. He approaches the bull. He brings his feet together. He plants them on the ground. He raises the cape in front of the bull's face. He inclines his torso to the right while leaning the cape to the left. The bull charges. It aims its horns for the bullfighter's body. It fails. It retreats. The bullfighter lures it again. He lowers his cape until its edges touch the ground. The bull charges toward the cape leaning its head to the ground. The bullfighter lifts his cape; it grazes the bull's back as it runs toward the emptiness. The bull takes notice. It checks its course. It stops. Its stands motionless. The bullfighter turns around, his back to the bull. His face is to the crowd of spectators. They applaud.

The fight proceeds. The bullfighter controls it. He manipulates it with a flick of his wrist holding the cape. He moves it to the right and the left, up and down. The vein in his neck grows; the lines of his shoulders slacken; he compels the bull to aim its horns toward the nothingness. The bull stops for a few moments, confused in the face of its unsuccessful attacks. R. presses the remote control: "stop." The bull fills the entire screen by itself. She looks at its stance: Angry? Humiliated? Confused? Torn between two roles, that of the fighter and that of the defeated? Does it want a renewed attack in order to defend itself? Is it conscience of the knowledge of its defeat? She presses the other button; the tape plays.

The bullfighter advances toward the bull. He approaches with steps like a thief. He drags his feet on the ground. He moves his foot forward so that it precedes the other foot by half a step. He manipulates the bull. He lures it into approaching. He increases the proximity between them. Its shoulder touches the bullfighter's chest. One of its horns touches his thigh. The bull's head leans to the ground in the direction of the cape - the bullfighter leaves it lowered, touching the ground - the bull charges. It turns. It strikes the emptiness and turns. The scene is slow, like a slow tape. What is it that happens now? Why is the bullfighter leaving the bull and turning to the fence? He exchanges the small sword for a large one, the killing sword. They give it to him. Now we approach "the moment of truth." More preparations. The bullfighter has to make the bull stand with his four legs together so that the muscles of his shoulders will spread out and relax. In a split second, the bull leans with his head lowered to attack anew; the bullfighter jumps like an acrobat, avoiding the bull's horns. The audience applauds. The music of the brass section rises. Someone else approaches the bull and leans over its head. He finishes its slaughter. "I must see the fight again," says "R." The bullfighter circles the ring haughtily. The audience waves to him with white handkerchiefs. They want the president of the fight to give the bullfighter both of the bull's ears, not just one. Again, the same person approaches the felled bull: He had, then, already cut off one of its ears, the other ear now. The bullfighter holds them in his right hand, circling the ring, announcing his victory.

Three stately horses enter the ring followed by six drivers. They pull the bull's horns and head to the horses with iron chains. The horses move in the direction of the door, dragging the slaughtered bull behind them. Cleaning men descend into the ring. They are carrying brooms. They smooth the sand. The traces of blood are wiped out.

In his book mentioned above, Hemingway writes exhaustively about bullfighters and bulls. R. reads it and remembers the questions that had preoccupied her that summer night six years ago in Cordoba. The bull, then, is intelligent, extremely intelligent, with a powerful memory. It doesn't forget at all. It doesn't forget anything. All its knowledge and abilities are concentrated in its horns. It is, therefore, stipulated that it be barred from any knowledge of the fight prior to its entrance into the ring. They prevent it from having any experience that the memory could evoke in the moment of confrontation. "The ideal bull for the bullfight is a bull with no memory. It has not been to a fight before, it will learn everything about it in the ring." The memory then, the memory is everything!

It is not a sport, says Hemingway, it is, rather, a tragedy that carries inevitable death for the bull, and certain danger for the bullfighter.

Hemingway speaks at length about "the pleasure of the kill" (his words); it is a pleasure that "the great murderer" (his words also) must feel in the moment of the kill.

R. reads these words. She is startled. She rereads them. She watches the tape again. She studies "the moment of truth," as they call it. The bullfighter brings his feet together. Slender as a spear. The lower part of his torso withdrawn to behind. His head leaning forward. His left leg extended. His right knee lightly bent. His right hand raised with the sword pointed in front of the bull, its four legs planted on the ground in a square, its neck inclined, its head ready to attack. The bullfighter aims the sword; it is perpendicular to his face, straight as his eyes' gaze. The bullfighter's face is elongated. Its lower half stretched to his now open mouth, his protracted lips protrude to the front like a snout. His eyes are narrowed. The muscles of his jaw are contracted. Beads of sweat swell on his face. The bull charges in a straight line. The bullfighter lifts his left foot from the ground and leans his torso to the left; he cranes his body over the bull. He thrusts his sword deeply into the hollow between the shoulders; he pushes all of it in. He plunges it in completely. Moments pass. The bull remains standing, motionless. Moments pass. It collapses, falling to the ground.

A new bull enters the ring.

Read more from the June 2004 issue
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