In the ring was the bull, its coat glistening in the sun. It didn’t know its destiny, and perhaps would not have cared if it had, would not have believed it. What animal, healthy, young, full of anger and intent, could imagine itself lying in the sawdust, the black flies gathering round its corpse like excited spectators anxious for a glimpse of death?
Sidney Franklin eyed it from behind the fence, watching as it snorted, ran a short distance, pranced up on its hind legs, shook its horns. Around him the crowd had fallen silent, curious to see what the Americano could do. Armilla, a local bullfighter grafting his way up the rankings, had worked the first bull, and the banderilleros had done the preliminary cape work with Franklin’s. Now everyone waited for him to walk to the centre of the ring, and as they became impatient bottles and cushions began to rain down along with insults and curses. Franklin sent for the promoter Don Ramon, who came rushing from the stands, breathless and sweating, terrified that the Americano was going to pull out at the last minute.
‘What’s the problem?’ he asked. ‘You know they will tear you apart if you don’t get out there.’
‘You said you’d tell me the right way to do everything,’ Franklin said.
‘What is there to tell, except go out and face the bull?’
This wasn’t the first time Franklin had worked with a real bull rather than practising the movements in an empty ring with the other novellos at Gaona’s school. When the little master had gone on tour, Don Ramon had arranged for him to go up into the mountains to try his hand on some young bulls that the rancher Abelardo couldn’t sell.
But this was different. This was Mexico City, the bulls were fully grown and much more dangerous, and the crowd was expecting things to be done properly. Franklin knew after his trip to Abelardo’s that there was more to bullfighting then he had supposed, and that bravery and a few months training were not nearly enough to prepare him to face the animal in the ring. Yet he also knew Don Ramon was right, he had agreed to the fight and there was no way he could back out now even if he wanted to.
It had been like that during the war. He had volunteered thinking it would be the making of him. But it was nothing like he had read. After the ten days of the crossing, he’d expected to be sent to the trenches almost immediately, but there had been training and then months of hanging around, which made the expectation even worse. And by the time his unit was boarding the train to the front line, it would have seemed ridiculous to suddenly say you’d changed your mind. You’d agreed to go, so backing out was simply unimaginable.
He took his cape and walked out into the middle of the ring, where a young banderillero had scored a cross in the dirt with the heel of his boot. The bull had stopped moving and was staring at him. Its sides were glistening, and Franklin was reminded of the girls in the bars with their olive skin and silky skirts. For all its muscle, the great hump at the back of its neck, and the horns that could do such terrible damage, the bull was lithe and beautiful. Franklin held the cape out and walked forward, but the bull stood its ground and didn’t make a move towards him.
The crowd was silent, watching to see what would happen now that Franklin was in the middle. He remembered what he had been taught, and backed away to the edge of the ring and then strode forward so that he was much closer to the bull. Before he had time to register it the bull had bolted towards him and it was only after it had passed that he realised his hands had done the work that they were trained to do. But he didn’t have time to think about that, or hear the explosion of sound from the crowd. The bull had turned in a tight circle and come back towards him and this time it passed so closed that its sides touched his chest and he almost fell back.
It didn’t return straight away for a third attempt, and Franklin had time to take in the shouts from the stands, the people on their feet, and he imagined Don Ramon wiping his face with relief. There were sometimes these pauses in the middle of events when you got to look around and wonder at the thing and the fact that you were caught up in the middle of it. In France there had been a battle in a deserted town that had gone on for days. At times there would be intensive fighting with both sides firing volley after and at other times there would be a lull for no apparent reason, as if both they and the enemy had silently agreed to a temporary ceasefire. Then you had time to have a cigarette or snatch something to eat and to look around at the village rapidly turning into rubble.
There had been a man there, an Italian, who he had got to know. In one of the lulls he had turned to offer him a cigarette and found him smiling, like he had been breathing laughing gas, except the side of his head was all caved in and half of the back was missing. He was called Roberto, and he had a wife and two children back in Rome and a girlfriend in Milan who he was going to see when they next got leave. Franklin wondered if she would ever find out why he never turned up.
When the bull charged again, Franklin was ready for it. He moved the cape and brought the bull past him and knew he had done it well, except then he found the sky spinning round him, and he was in the dust. There were the bull’s hooves, and he rolled to the side and heard the shouts of the banderilleros as they came in. He got up and picked up the cape, which he must had dropped though he couldn’t remember doing so, and the crowd gave a great roar. He backed to the fence where Don Ramon was watching.
‘I thought I had brought him past me,’ he said, still breathing hard.
‘You did,’ said Don Ramon. ‘He turned at the last minute. Sometimes it happens.’
‘Does that mean he’ll do it again?’
‘No, you should be all right.’
Franklin walked back out into the middle and the crowd greeted his return with wild applause and incoherent shouts. He held the cape down, shaking it to attract the attention of the bull, which dropped its head and kicked up the dust with its right foot like you see in the movies but didn’t charge towards him. He moved closer, completely focussed, looking at its head, trying to sense when it would move. He remembered what Gaona had said, that you would start to know when the bull would charge before it did and angle your body and move the cape slowly and precisely, so it seemed you and the bull weren’t enemies but instead working together to create a beautiful spectacle. And that was how it was for a few moments, Franklin knew when the bull was about to move and positioned himself for it and brought the bull round, and round again, and then he was turning over and found himself on the floor once more.
He got straight up this time. He knew that was what you had to do sometimes, give yourself up to the flow of events. That time in France, he couldn’t do anything about Roberto before the next phase of the battle began, and while he was shooting and being shot at, Roberto was still lying next to him, and that was all part of what was happening. The battle had ebbed and flowed, they would have some success, some part of the enemy would go silent and stop responding with volleys of their own, and then the enemy would have some success. It was hard to tell who was winning, but it was clear both sides were losing men and at some point one side would lose too many and it would be over. But there was no time to think about that either.
Franklin demanded his cape from the banderilleros and went back to work. The roar from the stands was even louder than before, though his form was terrible and his uniform in tatters. The sword handler had tried to patch it up, but there were flaps of the braided jacket hanging down and holes in the trousers by his right thigh and at both knees. His body was battered all over, and he would feel every blow in the morning, but while he was out in the ring he couldn’t feel anything just as he couldn’t hear anything. There was just him and the bull, as if they existed in a bubble all on their own.
After a few more passes the bull caught him again. Not only was he large and powerful, he was cunning and had seemed to catch on to what Franklin was doing so that when he didn’t bring the cape round quite right, the bull took the opportunity to turn into him and throw him into the air. Franklin came down between the bull’s horns and grabbed on round its neck. The bull tossed its head to try and shake him off and get at him, but Franklin held on tighter and wrapped his legs round its muzzle. Not being able to see properly the bull slowed down, and a banderillero grabbed onto its tail and shouted for Franklin to let go. It was the end of the second act.
When he got to the fence, he was relieved that it was all over. He had done as much as he could and apart from all the bruises he had come away without any broken bones nor been gored through the face like a matador had been the previous week. While he was catching his breath he watched the banderillas being placed in the bull’s shoulders and he wondered who was going to come and kill the bull. He was sorry it had to end that way, it had been a good bull. But he knew that was the way the ritual had to end, and he supposed they would get Armilla to come back and do it. Then the sword handler came up to him and tried to give him the sword and muleta.
‘What are you doing? What do I need with those,’ Franklin said.
‘You must kill the bull,’ the sword handler said simply.
‘What do you mean? I don’t know the first thing about that. I don’t even know which end of the sword to hold. That’s not for me, brother.’ Franklin was appalled. He had agreed to go into the ring and work with the bull, but hadn’t said anything about killing it. They surely knew he didn’t have the faintest idea about that part of the fight. Seeing the discussion, Don Ramon came over again, and the crowd, despite shouting itself horse in appreciation of his efforts just a few minutes ago, quickly became nastier than ever.
‘Now what are you doing?’ Don Ramon asked angrily. ‘Why are you messing around? Go out there and kill the bull.’
‘I never agreed to that,’ Franklin told him. ‘I know nothing about it.’
‘Don’t you hear them?’ Don Ramon said, indicating the crowd. ‘Do you think they will let you leave here in one piece if you cheat them out of the proper end?’
Franklin looked from Don Ramon to the crowd and realised he didn’t have any choice. He took the sword and the muleta.
‘First go over to the mayor’s box, bow and dedicate the bull to someone,’ Don Ramon instructed him, and Franklin did as Don Ramon had said, dedicating it to Gaona. At this, and seeing that he was going to continue, the crowd quietened down to watch the last act of the fight. He’d wanted to say ‘fallen comrades’, but knew enough to know that the crowd wouldn’t have understood.
When he got back, he asked the sword handler to show him what to do. He took Franklin out into the ring and showed him how to move the muleta.
‘Next you sight down the length of the sword,’ the sword handler said.
‘Yes, and then?’ Franklin asked.
‘Then you just place it at that spot where the neck and shoulders meet, right in the centre.’
Franklin walked further into the ring and faced the bull, which had its head down. They were both tired, he and the bull, but the end would be coming soon whatever the result. He moved nearer and held the muleta as he’d been told to and the bull came to life, finding some new source of energy and bore down on him. He took the bull past, but he didn’t turn and adjust himself quickly enough, he could feel it. The weariness was catching up with him and he wasn’t moving as fast as he had been or needed to. The bull caught him, and he was up in the air, and then on the ground. And the bull was over him, and he was staring up at the dark black muzzle.
It had been like that in France, right at the end, staring up into the muzzle waiting for the shot to come. The battle had continued, each side unwilling to back down but not able to score a decisive blow. Each day there were fewer soldiers, and then they had run out of men and ammunition and the battle had been over. Franklin had been shot in the leg. It was not so bad, and he had made himself a tourniquet to stem the bleeding. But he knew there was no point trying to run. The Germans were coming into the town from several sides, working their way through it before going on to their next objective.
There were bodies everywhere, and as the Germans passed through they were checking to see if any soldiers were still alive and finishing them off if they were. Franklin could see it happening, laid on his back, his head half propped up on the remains of a brick wall. He could hear the captain barking out orders, urging his men to keep moving. He watched a young soldier making his way towards him, checking the bodies on his way, once or twice letting off a shot to make sure a man was dead. As he came closer, Franklin could see him clearly, the blond hair, the blue eyes in the dirty, hollowed out face. You might have said that he and the soldier were the same age, if it had been possible to say what age either of them were.
As the man with his rifle came towards him, Franklin realised that all of his life he had been afraid and that the fear had stopped him from grabbing the chances life had offered. From the girl in seventh grade he hadn’t asked out, whatever her name was, to the chance to do a play on Broadway because a friend of a friend had dropped out and the director thought he was a nice-enough-looking boy. All the things he had thought were impossible he realised weren’t impossible at all, you just had to be brave enough to take the chance when it was presented to you. What a thing to figure out, when it was too late to make a blind bit of difference!
The German was standing over him, those blue emotionless eyes looking into his. Franklin looked back up at him, knowing that if their positions were reversed he would be going through the town doing the same thing. He knew he had no right to feel disgusted or angry.
‘Komm, schnell, schnell!’ the captain shouted.
The young man raised his rifle and Franklin looked up at the black hole of the muzzle. When the shot came it made his ears ring and he felt the impact as the bullet buried itself in the ground beside him. The soldier didn’t look at him again as he walked away.
It seemed once the bull had him, it didn’t know what to do to him, and in those few seconds of inaction, the banderilleros had come in and taken the bull away. Franklin staggered to his feet and retrieved the sword, which was bent from being trampled on. He went over to get another one, and the sword handler handed it to him without saying a word. He turned and once more walked to the centre of the ring. He stumbled slightly but caught himself and remembered to walk carefully and to uphold the dignity of the profession.
The bull was standing near the fence on the other side, watching Franklin approach. It was bloodied and beaten but not broken and Franklin felt it knew what was at stake and was ready for the fight. He held out the muleta and sighted down the flashing shaft of the sword once more. The sun had now sunk to the point that the shadows of both him and the bull stretched out along the ground, their legs long and spindly.
He moved the muleta to draw the bull forward. His arm felt heavy and his whole body weary, and he longed for the thing to be over, one way or another. The bull still didn’t move, but stood waiting for the right moment when Franklin was close enough that it could devour the distance in its greedy strides and be on the man before he knew it. So they both waited.
Then from out of the stand came a handkerchief, the white fabric catching the sun as slowly, almost painfully slowly, it floated down to the ground. Franklin looked at it not understanding what it could mean. Then another appeared and another and soon the sky seemed to be filled with the squares of white and the sand all around the edge of the ring began to be covered with them, like a freak snowfall.
Franklin turned and walked towards the sword handler looking for an explanation.
‘They are calling for the bull to be pardoned,’ he said. ‘You have both done well. It is enough.’
Franklin looked back at the bull, which was being herded out of the ring, while crowd rose to its feet to acclaim it. Don Ramon was beside him.
‘This is just the start. You’ll see, my friend,’ he said triumphantly to Franklin, the sun glistening on his face. Then Franklin was swallowed up by the people who had flooded into the ring to congratulate him and clap him on his back and to carry him out on their shoulders as if he were a conquering hero.
Published in the 2016 Bristol Short Story Prize anthology under the title ‘Ring of White Handkerchiefs’.