The Bull's Eye
The bull ran into the ring and stopped, blinded by the glare. A roar went up from the crowd. Their shouting filled his ears, the tumult of a world clamoring for action.
Earlier that morning his keeper had oiled his skin before injecting the drug which made the lights go on in his head. He had stayed in his pen until noon, restless and yet lingering over a dream of half-eaten food. There’d been a quiet cough, and two men had come and pushed him out. His keeper had leaned over the swinging gate, a look of pride in his eyes as he murmured farewell.
Rahul watched the bull come out. He liked the stadium, the energy of the crowd, the smell of food and animals. He sat in the front row, from where he could see the bull up close, its black back gleaming, its red eyes shining. Around the bull, heat shimmered up from the sand. A bare-chested man sat down heavily in the seat next to him, an arm sporting a mermaid tattoo, face creased, eyes a startling green.
Clara’s eyes were blue with flecks of grey. The day before, she and Rahul had walked together on the Rambla, past the mimes who posed immobile for hours covered in silver paint. They had passed a Neptune holding a trident, then entered the flower market, where Rahul took a picture of her sniffing chrysanthemums. They had strolled by the beach, surrounded by surrealist sculptures, fantasies of tangled fish and sea monsters. At a seaside table, where a Greek waiter brought them chilled sangria, he had kissed her, tasting her mouth for the first time.
He had been living in Barcelona, in the Gothic Quarter, for two years now. When he first saw Clara, she had been smoking at a table, wearing a denim jacket with the collar turned up even though it was warm. She was from the north, a small town near Guadalajara. Yes, he too had grown up in a small town, in India. No, he wasn’t married, not any more. Was she? She had a friend in Canada whom she saw now and then. Her body was thin, and her tongue tasted sweet, with a whiff of tobacco. She pushed hard, her eyes closing, while he lay prone, spent and amazed, trying to keep up. The Spanish had so much more energy. Afterwards, his jaw kept twitching.
“Your eyes are the deepest, most extraordinary blue.”
The American couple at the next table sniggered. Rahul spoke his lines in his most polished United Nations voice, a blend of gentle Indian breeding and consummate internationalism. He was ashamed of his pickup line, of the ring of inauthenticity in his accent, but it reflected who he was. He was a small-town boy who had come from India with nothing and worked in administrative jobs at the UN in Geneva for twenty-five years -- how the years had flown, especially the final five as a Section Head! -- before the symptoms that had been lying dormant for years finally flared up into a full-blown disease. The WTO had let him out early, at fifty, along with a severance package that allowed him to make his final break, leaving behind the certainties of family life and escaping to Barcelona to try to make the best of the time left.
Rahul had first had the symptoms as a boy, when he had seen the bull in the bazaar in Kailashpuram, the small town outside Bangalore where he had been raised. He was returning from school one afternoon, wearing his khaki uniform and swinging his satchel, when the bull came charging out of an alley and stood barring the way. The bull eyed him quickly, its dark red eyes making Rahul’s heart race. He wanted to run, but found himself hypnotized by the creature pawing the ground angrily. There was something familiar about it, about the knowing look it was giving him. A man appeared, accompanied by an unbearably strong animal stench. He was tall and dirty-looking, with a dark curled moustache, wearing a woolen cap that had two large flaps that looked like horns. The man prodded the bull with a stick, then spoke quickly to the boy, pointing. As Rahul lay down, trembling, he saw blood smeared on the man’s face. The stench was overpowering, and Rahul could hear the wind rustling the rubbish on the street, then growing stronger, culminating in a clap of thunder.
His parents took him to doctors in Bangalore, as the incidents recurred every few months. A physician, Dr. Ramaswamy, diagnosed them as epileptic in nature, even though they lacked the syncopated convulsions characteristic of grand mal seizures. Another doctor, a homeopath, told him that the episodes revealed imbalances in the flow of animal and spiritual energy through his system. He recommended salts, especially calcium sulfate. None of the experts could offer much help. The bulls in the streets of India had red eyes shining like embers, and Rahul was told to stay away from them, as well as from temples and shrines, where the figures of animals and even ancient stone figures might trigger an attack. He tried to follow the advice, but the bull was hard to avoid, its familiar snout and eyes intruding into his presence in waking moments as well as dreams.
* * *
He heard triumphant music, and the flash of steel. The picadors were aiming their lances. He surged towards the horses in their boxy armor, and struck, repeatedly, but all he could feel was a dull metal thud, the horses shaken but standing still. Then a lance came close and pierced him, making him catch his breath and turn, feeling an icy tingling and throbbing in his hump. The cheering rose to a crescendo. He could feel the human smells floating up to him, and he drank them in. He knew from the way the smells came one on top of the other that he would get close to a man and tear him to shreds like an insect. He had gored men before, and he knew how to quickly twist his tusk in a man’s soft belly, before tossing him aside. He pranced across the damp hot sand, his body bleeding from the bandilleras, the blood dissolving on the flapping cloth of the muleta.
He saw a dark-skinned man detach himself from the crowd and approach the ring, The man smelt of dung and a sweet incense-like fragrance.
* * *
Rahul had risen up from humble beginnings. He was born in a small flat in Kailashpuram. The flat had neatly made beds, a gas stove, a refrigerator, a radio, a collection of Victorian novels, and a Western-style toilet. His father owned a small toy shop, but had studied English literature in college, and had high aspirations for Rahul. He spent hours reading to Rahul, instructing him in the mysteries of English pronunciation.
On Sunday mornings there was a grand bazaar in the alleys of Kailashpuram, where vendors came to sell garments, perfumes and knick-knacks of all kinds. It was there, while Rahul was demonstrating a battery-operated toy that made ping-pong balls hover mysteriously in the air, that a friendly white face, grey-haired, with thick spectacles, peered down and noticed him.
“Hello, little fellow!”
“Hello, Madam, how are you! Good Morning, Madam!”
It was a Miss Dianne Williams, an American lady who worked in the Peace Corps. Rahul practiced his best English with her that day, and a friendship developed. Miss Dianne declared that Rahul was naturally curious, even brilliant, and that she loved his dark eyes and curly hair. His parents made sure he was dressed smartly whenever she came, but did not embarrass him by importuning her for favors. In a few weeks’ time, she took Rahul along as an interpreter on a trip in her Chevrolet station wagon to a village on the Mysore Road.
Rahul enjoyed the business of interpreting. Eventually, Miss Dianne arranged for a bursary to Bishop Cotton Boys’ School in Bangalore. He took the bus to class and back, keeping a stiff upper lip as the sons of privilege ridiculed him -- Slum Boy! -- for his rustic ways. He often stayed over after class in the old classrooms with their high ceilings, finishing his homework and preparing the next days’ lessons before heading home. Once or twice a term, he would succumb to a seizure, at which point the boys would disobey orders to insert a spoon between his teeth, seeing if he would bite off his tongue. The humiliation of soiled clothes, the horrible stench, and the open hostility of the boys made school almost unbearable, but he resolved to get far ahead through relentless study and self-improvement, aided in part by encyclopedias that extolled the wonders of Western civilization, and a marvelous American how-to book that stressed confidence and a positive attitude.
Upon graduating from college in Delhi, Rahul looked eagerly for work. He heard of an opportunity in the State Tourism department, and another in the Air India office, but nothing came of it. It was 1972, and India had not yet come of age; an ambitious boy with brains needed to come from a good family and have many contacts before any doors could open. Meanwhile, the drug companies had come out with methylprozamine, which managed to control his seizures. And by that time, too, the boys from Bishop Cotton had started leaving in droves for America, from where, according to their relatives in Bangalore, they relayed news of extraordinary success.
After years of helping out in his father’s tiny toy shop, tired of long hours dispensing brightly painted toys from the shelves, he wrote to Miss Dianne care of the Peace Corps. She was by then retired, a white-haired old lady living in Geneva with a younger man. Though she had not been in touch since his Bishop Cotton days, she responded graciously to his letter, and looked around for jobs in Geneva. The UN quota for India was full just then, so she urged him to bide his time, meanwhile arranging for him to take on an entry-level clerical job at the UN in New York. He labored there for a few years, before landing at his final destination, the WTO in Geneva.
When he saw the tall flags of the Palais des Nations waving against the backdrop of Mont Blanc in the distance, he knew the place was made for people like him. It was as if he had dreamed all along of those flags waving for him. He felt completely at home in Geneva, even though the clean and orderly northern city was in every way different from the crowded chaos of India. There followed a long sequence of exams and promotions through the UN system, along with careful cultivation of superiors, before he reached the rank of Section Head. Another two promotions, and Rahul Ravindran could have become a Director.
Miss Dianne passed away in 1990, and at her funeral, Rahul choked back his tears and said a few kind words about her. Afterwards, back in the flat, with his wife Anjali at his side still dressed fetchingly in black, he wept. Over the years, he and Anjali had dropped in now and then to Miss Dianne’s place, talking about old times in India, and Anjali would sometimes prepare a South Indian dish for her. Now, wiping his eyes on Anjali’s black chunni, he reminisced about his days in Kailashpuram. He and his parents had been so obsequious in Miss Dianne’s presence; she was the first Westerner they had ever interacted with, and they treated her like a goddess. Now, he had the same status as Miss Dianne; back in India, he could lord it over the natives, if he wanted, but no, he would never even consider a servant from India, because keeping people in servitude like that didn’t help at all; it was far better for them to get an education and then come up in life.
Anjali and he talked on late into the night about India, Miss Dianne, and the business of coming up in life. He fell asleep in Anjali’s arms, dreaming of his childhood days in faraway Kailashpuram.
* * *
They said the luck came from his having his mother’s name. He had come forth from slime, and then had suddenly blossomed when still young, tested in the hazing and tumbling trials at the big ranch near Seville, where the other heifers jostled with him, locking their horns. On those fields he had sensed a promise that came wafting over in the wind, a premonition of a future where he would prove himself, over and over. At night, after the trials, his muscles worn out, his brain fatigued after exercises, he had made his way back under the shimmering lights of the night sky, to lie in his pen by his mother’s side, hearing the trees trembling, whispering his name in a strange tongue, different from the name his keeper used, and yet familiar to him. He lay there dreaming of fights, of ancient calls to arms that started with a drumming in the blood. Men came and called him by his name, tall, dark men he had never seen before with skins on their heads and blood on their faces. They made him walk in a tight circle, guiding him towards a white temple. There, a man, dark like them, lay prone on a slab of stone, with incense burning around him.
When he was finally picked while still a yearling, he knew he had the spirit for the corrida. He left his mother and went on to the national trials, where he met his keeper. He had the eye, the keeper said. He was given special food to make him strong, and now and then they gave him the drug, which made the lights go on in his head.
* * *
His flat in Geneva had books, reproductions of Buddha paintings from the Ajanta caves, a Shiva statue, and a bar in the loft, where he would drink in front of the big television screen as Anjali sat by the bed already dizzy on Alsatian wine, impatiently turning the pages of a Bollywood magazine.
“You’re always so competitive!” Anjali said a little while later.
She made it sound critical, but she was flattering him, the Section Head; as he pressed on inside her, he forgot what he was doing and reveled for a moment in the thought that he had made something of his life; it was tangible, there for anyone to see, achieving something that he could never have dreamed of in India, but at the same time he knew it was a lie, his whole life was a lie.
Anjali was fair, with dreamy eyes with long lashes, a secretary he had been introduced to at a party in Bangalore while on home leave. She was from a middle-class family in Cox Town in Bangalore; her father had retired as an inspector of schools. In their first years together, she had been completely captivated by the novelty of Geneva, the summer evenings on the lake, the fine cars, the shopping, the restaurants. She prided herself in her ability to please him, as her own mother had trained her to do, carefully ascertaining his preferences in terms of food, and making sure the flat was sparkling clean, for he had retained his mother’s instincts for tidiness. In turn, he was attentive to her needs, surprising her with flowers and small gifts, even whispering quips in her ear that made her giggle.
She learned about his disease soon after marriage, which allowed her the satisfaction of ministering to him, making sure he took his pills on time. She was proud of his intellect, his smooth voice, his confident locutions; she treated his UN work as something sacred, giving him all the time he needed for it, which was never quite enough, for Rahul had to spend a great deal of time on weeknights revising accounts and double-checking facts to impress his superiors and get ahead.
But over time, even with a secretarial job Rahul arranged for her in UNDP, Anjali realized that her life could not completely revolve around his.
“Let’s go away somewhere,” she said, one Friday evening. “Just for the weekend, to Verbier.”
“But what will we do about the Kapoors?” They had planned to meet them late in the evening at their usual haunt, Pakeeza, a sumptuous Pakistani-owned restaurant in Ferney-Voltaire.
“Oh, you’re great at excuses – and Nita’s too stupid to care, anyway. Just tell them I’m under the weather.”
In fact, it was Nita Kapoor who had suggested the whole plan.
“A second honeymoon,” she told Anjali. “It’s just what you need, my dear. Trust me -- Nitin loved it, and he changed completely after that!”
They drove to Verbier and stayed in a stuffy room in a chalet where he drifted off to sleep after making love, exhausted after the week’s work. Then she caught a stomach bug, and they came hurrying back on Saturday night instead of Sunday evening.
She tried to get him to stop obsessing about his work and career.
“So what if they don’t promote you in November?” She ran a finger through his curls, twirling them. “It’s not the end of the world. Look at Shaukat Khan -- Pakeeza’s minting it, and it’s all happened within three years of leaving UNDP!”
“Anju, if a fellow deserves to come up in life, he should make sure nothing stands in the way, don’t you think? The raise, the new office -- those aren’t the things that really matter. You know I don’t really give a damn about that stuff. No, it’s about reaching for goals, and the satisfaction of achieving them.”
Even as he said these words, though, he only half-believed them; the promotions gave him no satisfaction. They were only a way of proving that he could do it, after which he had to move on to the next target.
“But what about chance? Don’t you believe in luck?” She believed in fate, in chance acquaintances, in horoscopes: she took very seriously the fact that she was a Scorpio and he a Gemini. “Just imagine,” she continued. “What if Miss Dianne hadn’t seen you that day? How different things might have been!”
Who did one have to thank for the successes of life? As a self-made man, Rahul was not unaware of his own role, but he was of course conscious of his debt to his parents, now long deceased, for molding him and inculcating the right spirit; certainly, he owed a lot to Miss Dianne, who made it all possible; and finally there was Anjali, who had fed him and shared his life along the way. Yet, he was all too aware of the contingent nature of his success; and then, too, he had to remain vigilant because of his disease. The Swiss doctors had warned him that his body would develop a tolerance for methylprozamine, and that eventually his luck might run out.
The Kapoors, Navin Patnaik -- all from the UN -- and the Shaukat Khans -- this was their circle of friends. Rahul was fond of them, but secretly despised their smug laughter, the way they munched and gobbled Indian sweets while watching Bollywood films. They met these friends on weekends for dinner, for badminton, for drives in the summer holidays to towns on the French side of the lake, Evian, and Thon-les-Bains, and in winter to Chamonix and Lake Cuomo.
Like their friends, Rahul and Anjali spent lavishly, but were able to live within their means, for the UN was generous with its perks, including the six-figure tax-free salary that even Anjali enjoyed, along with the comfortable living and travel allowances. As middle-level administrators, the Rahuls and their UN friends were not directly concerned with the crises and problems that erupted around the world; there were enough problems in the administrative jobs in themselves. Anjali would sometimes murmur sympathetically when she read some internal bulletin about dying refugees, but she knew, along with the others, that solving the world’s problems was best left to the UN specialists who had a sense of how to address them.
The children accompanied Rahul and Anjali on their trips, a boy Nagaraj and a girl Uma, whose very name made Rahul go soft inside. The kids were adorable, especially when they were young; there was a photo Anjali had taken of Uma riding on his shoulders in a chair car near Jungfrau. Uma seemed like a tiny angel in her frilled white dress, sitting there perched on his shoulder with the icy towers of Jungfrau visible through the window. Then, as the kids grew into young adults away in college, they became independent, with distinctive character traits, but with nothing very much to say to Rahul, though they were close to their mother, who seemed to snap out of her boredom when they were around, working around the clock to get them equipped with all the right gear, spoiling them with a half-proud smile on her face. Rahul liked to see Anjali that way; he felt a glow of satisfaction as they exchanged a look at something clever one of the children had said or done, which brought back a memory of a moment they had shared years earlier: a milk bottle heated in the middle of the night, a tap run at full force to help Nagaraj pee, and Uma incanting “Mango juice! Mango juice!” -- her first fully-formed phrases.
“I’ll be yours again when they’re gone,” Anjali whispered on one of their visits from college. He found her presumption rather far-fetched, for he no longer regarded her as a prize, a precious porcelain madonna that was his to adore, but as a friend, someone one could count on, whom he knew in every detail of character, in some ways no different from Nita or Nusrat Khan, all of whom they had interacted with regularly for over two decades. Like them, Anjali had aged, grown heavy with the lack of exercise and a fondness for Haldiram’s sweets. Though he was no longer sexually aroused at the sight of her body, he continued to sleep with her. He still found her face beautiful at times, its lines hovering at the edge of tragedy, accentuated by her slightly flared nostrils and the dreamy look in her eyes.
When the kids visited, they would respond warmly to the mention of some consumer good, a new watch from Tissot, the latest designer outfits, and, in time, everything great and small that had to do with computers. But when alone with him, they seemed nervous, uncomfortable as he tried to explain to them about his past, his own childhood, and Miss Dianne. They loved him without showing it; they were perhaps in awe of him, admiring his intellect but also fearful of his moods, for he had been a strict parent, requiring pin-drop silence while he worked. Nagaraj, in particular, was especially scared, as he had also seen his father during the seizures.
When Uma brought her friend from college to visit, a freckled redhead from Boston, Rahul must have been staring absentmindedly, but very hard, at her cleavage, for she kept nervously clutching at her blouse.
“Get out a bit,” Shaukat Khan advised him. “The ladies need their own space, and the gents too!”
Soon after, very discreetly, when he was alone in a Zurich hotel, emboldened by the champagne that he had drunk all by himself in the hotel bar, he had summoned a call-girl. Her globular breasts with their pale brown nipples and her well-padded pink buttocks had caused him to get an enormous erection, but after he climaxed, he could not bear his betrayal of Anjali, so much so that he wouldn’t even look at the call-girl as she left with a farewell wave, a lighted cigarette between her lips.
Anjali had sensed that things were coming apart. She noticed how he stared coldly at her as she sat transfixed by a Bollywood epic, but she tossed her hair and boldly watched on. She had reached a point where she was determined to satisfy herself with all the harmless pleasures of the world, to indulge all her desires though she was married to a man who was flawed by his seriousness, a husband who could never let go and make her relax. But she did not give up on him.
“How close we have become,” Anjali told him once as they were strolling one Sunday afternoon to the cinema to watch a Hindi film. It was a mild spring afternoon, and a she leaned her head back, he nuzzled her cheek. But it was just a passing emotion, a bird’s wing moving across the sky. He felt something then, but it was too small, a little flicker that he didn’t have the energy to fan into a larger flame.
Later, his old revulsion returned, towards himself, but also towards his wife, his two children, not as individuals, but as symbols of his personal failure. He had everything, but his life seemed empty, even though he had tried hard and made all the right moves to keep it full. The pay was good, his appetite was good; he drank, took his pills, went for long walks; he was in control -- but none of it felt right.
“Why can’t you be satisfied, Rahul?” Anjali asked. “One would think that just looking at the kiddies would be satisfaction enough! We’ve raised them to be such fine people!”
He stared at a photograph of his children in the picture-frame on the living room mantelpiece, both children marked with Anjali’s features as well as his own, Nagaraj with his curls, Uma with his eyes. His heart stirred, and he sighed. Yes, they were fine children, handsome, elegantly attired, with good moral foundations. In his own reckoning, he had been a great father, and not a bad husband -- all in all, with a nice wife, the good things of life, the satisfaction of seeing children grow into fine young things, seeing one’s plans come to fruition -- but in spite of all that, there was a dryness in his soul. There had to be more to life than this; here he was, about to hit fifty; what about freedom?
One evening in Geneva, while walking alone by the lake in the Jardins des Anglais, when the reflection of the moon and the trees created a shimmering faraway world in the water, he stared into the slowly spreading ripples on the lake. A lone bird called twice, then flew off. He felt very sad, and emptied out his pockets; he found a crushed credit card stub from Pakeeza, an administrative note to a clerk at WTO, and a handkerchief of Anjali’s. He set them quietly aside, and then he walked into the lake. The water was freezing, and he caught his breath. It was then that he saw an immense white bull. It came riding out of the evening sky, in a manner which was by now so familiar, at once frightening and thrilling, and then there was an unbearably strong animal stench, and Shiva appeared, tall and dark, with a headdress of horns. Shiva rode up close and bent down and said something in a low voice. As Rahul lay down flat on the water, trembling with fear and cold, kicking his feet feebly, he could see blood smeared on the god’s face.
“It’s just nerves, the stress of work,” Anjali explained to her friends. But then there were other episodes at the office and at important administrative meetings, where Rahul seemed to everyone to be withdrawn, preoccupied with some troubling internal problem. One night he came home frothing from the mouth and calling out Shiva’s name over and over again. Anjali was terrified. She sent for the kids from college, but it only made matters worse. His Swiss doctors tried increasing the dosage of methylprozamine, and then experimenting with the new serotonin uptake inhibitors, but the image of the bull and its master was now lodged deep in Rahul’s brain like a knife inserted between the eyes.
* * *
Barcelona had been an awakening. He hadn’t believed a different life was possible, but it was. He had felt guilty at first, but any misgivings he had were quickly canceled out by the overwhelming sense of relief. He loved it, the crazy Gaudis, the dirge-like music, the sun, the palms, the sitting in the cafes listening to the excited chatter of Spanish girls at the arms of darkly romantic men. He drank in the blue of the sea and the bronzed faces of old people, the bare-breasted old ladies washing themselves in the open shower at the beach.
His flat was around the corner from the cathedral, which he entered on a Sunday morning. In the cool dark interior, he sat cross-legged on a bench, watching the women come up to kiss the face of Christ. He crossed himself, feeling that even though the seizures were more frequent, he was in the presence of something that would give him peace.
“Is this the way we say goodbye, in this awful place?” Anjali had asked him. They’d been sitting in a cafeteria full of Ecuadoreans munching on ceviche. Her makeup had been stained from crying the night before, and she was smoking, something she did only when she was furious. He had given her all their savings, keeping only the severance pay, but she told him she didn’t care about that; it was how he had used her; she had stood by him as a loyal wife, supporting him all through his goddamn WTO career, keeping the volume down so he could bloody well work, hearing about his blasted constipation, making sure he took his fucking medicines, I feel strange, I think I’m going to have a seizure -- have your fucking seizures, you motherfucking loser! -- and now he had given it all up, destroyed what good there was and hurt the children deeply, the poor things, their eyes were so scared and their faces became this small when they heard about it. All this madness and destruction – for what? What better life was there in the world?
He knew the answer to that now. The Mediterranean had taught him about sensuality, not just the nights with Clara and the others, but the sensuality that the inhabitants, young and old, displayed in their bodies, in the movements of their hands, their eyes, their lips. In the museum he had seen the bull, the image like those on the Indus seals, along with the warriors and dancers moving silently on the sarcophagi; he understood where they came from, the satisfaction of the dance, the pain of blood sacrifice. He knew that the secret lay in the eye, in the ability to see the blue water tinted with the white-winged froth of the wave, in the eye that could linger over a bronzed body, loving its contours while knowing full well that all would fade with the end of the day. He had the eye; and so he was blessed, as all are who enter the ring in their final hour.
* * *
The heat and the incessant yelling of the crowd were getting to him. He wanted to leave the ring, to be back in the cool of the pen, but it was too late now. The cape whirled as he struck with his horns at the world that swiveled around him. He could see a gaggle of people waving, a young fellow posing beside stout old men sitting bare-chested swilling food and drink. Above them the Iberian sky stretched hot, clear, and hard. The marks on the sand were like lines of fate. A small dagger, obscene with its little waving pennant, pierced his haunch, cutting into his liver, as the bandillero danced away, just out of reach. He was tired now, and ready for the finish.
* * *
He vomited into his handkerchief. The bare-chested man with tattoos stared at Rahul for a minute.
“They are better off here,” the man said. “The Spanish slaughterhouses are terrible. And sometimes, if the bull has a real spirit, he will be spared by the matador, given the indulto.”
Only a very special bull was spared, allowed to go quietly into his old age, to die in peace of natural causes. For the young ones who lived fast and died young, the rules were all laid out. You went out in the sun, where in your final moments you gazed upon the visage of Shiva, his three faces, a headdress of horns, his body striped with the marks of animals, his third eye marked by three horizontal lines. As a child in Kailashpuram, the day he had met Dianne Williams, Rahul had worn those streaks of cowdung ash on his forehead.
“You crazy bastard,” he said to himself, whistling softly, as the tears clouded his vision. You charge through life chasing the flag, and then suddenly, the flag’s gone and a man is waiting patiently for you with a dagger behind his back. He thought of the dancers on the sarcophagi, and laughed through his tears. The man with tattoos stared hard at him.
* * *
He turned, remembering his training, dancing towards the cape with the flapping tongue, smelling the human sweat behind it, but he was unable to adjust the angle, to pierce and lacerate the flesh of the human whirling in front of him. A mirror flashed in the crowd, reflecting the sun.
He had a sense about the place when he arrived; he knew that this was where he would spend his final days, that his last hours would be spent turning outward, like a plant reaching towards the sun, the ancient sun that shone so hard now on the sand. Things were getting hot, everything was moving faster, and he longed for a gurgle of water. He twisted his head back quickly towards the gate he had come from but knew it was closed.
The bandillero struck again, the hump now burning, a ripcord of fire that seared through his veins. His head was now filled with blood, swimming with fishes and flies, the misty awareness of a sea pounding on his ear drums. The torero approached with the muleta, this time slowly, with great style and deliberation. The bull felt suddenly calm, part of the dance, in harmony with the man; he was now able to gaze down into the stands, where he saw the boy and the girl, leaning over the rails, smiling at the dark-skinned man with the smell of dung.
The torero readied himself with his sword which caught the glint of the sun, a short blade, smooth, fine metal honed in Catalonia, destined to sink smoothly and mercifully between the eyes. But the bull was still able to dance; meanwhile, the Korean boy was turning, and gesticulating to Rahul, who took the camera and hesitantly sat on the railings, waiting for the honeymooners to position themselves. Rahul sat uncomfortably; he was unsteady; the afternoon’s sangrias had done him in; he was woozy. If only he had listened all along to his inner voice, how much time would have been saved. But he had listened instead to his mother and father: work hard and success will come by itself -- he had rejected all that in the end, even the few nice things, the kiddies and Buddhas and evenings by the lake -- now it was all gone.
He understood what those blue eyes and ancient seas promised him: that if you looked hard enough, there would always be a place set aside at a table, a table under the palms with a view of beautiful women stepping on the beach, a place where a man could look far out and track an approaching wave. He wobbled on the railings, as the crowd shouted. The bull hesitated, and then with a final snort, rushed towards him.