Duende

Bullfighting man holding red textile
Photo by Giovanni Calia on Unsplash

In Seville, I’d booked a room in some lady’s apartment, two American girls down the hall on exchange. They were like twenty and I saw, based on the distance they kept from me when I asked them about themselves, how old and creepy I was.

The duende was strong here; the river was greener than in Córdoba, and my drinking had picked up—I was really into the fino—sherry, cold and dry, with a plate of olives or almonds as tapa. Every time I sat down in a cafe I had one, so sometimes it was three a day.

My nose ran, tone it down, man.

I didn’t listen—I was searching, I was close.

In the Triana, a man swept up shrimp shells before siesta. Empty narrow streets of white houses with yellow shutters. Young people, dark and handsome, stood around tables drinking beer, or sat with gin and tonics in fishbowl glasses.

A woman entered the cafe and ordered a coffee. She was tall and of an uncertain ethnicity, and her Spanish was basic with a terrible accent—clearly American. She did not smile back. Her French manicure on the bar.

Is there an economy of metaphysics? Do a hundred casual smiles equal a kiss and do twenty kisses equal one night together and do ten nights with different lovers equal one night with a true love and a hundred nights with a true love equal the divine grace Dante knew when he saw Beatrice for the first time?

How manly and bohemian you are, I told myself. Hemingway would approve of your drinking sherry at two in the afternoon while she—ha!—orders coffee.

Or perhaps love is purely qualitative. Is it possible to ignore essences attracted to each other when their substances carom? What is at stake if you do? How many chances for metaphysical meaning had I abandoned without knowing? How many versions of myself had I destroyed through my own ignorance? Are certain meetings—casual or intimate—stitched into consciousness to afford us a chance to flower? At what cost are such opportunities ignored?

“Hey, where are you from?”

She dropped her hand. “Minneapolis, originally. But I live in New York now.”

“I was from New York. Once.”

“Oh. Really? And what do you do now?”

“Gad about, I guess.”

“First time here?”

“Yes.”

“I studied here fifteen years ago,” and for the first time she broke her seriousness and said, “God, I shouldn’t make it so obvious how old I am.”

“It’s no problem. I’m older than I look.”

“So are you having fun? Here’s what you have to do while you’re here…”

I thought of her phone number as she spoke and when she was done with her bitter coffee, she shuffled her bag from one shoulder to the other, left the change on the plate as a tip, and looked at the floor, anticipating goodbye as all Americans do.

“Will we rely on fate to bring us together again, Liz?” I asked.

“I’m going to a bullfight tomorrow. I suppose we could meet there.”

I took her number and dreamed about her that night. I dreamed that we kissed and I said, “I’m so thankful to be with such a pretty woman.”

“Pretty? Beautiful is more like it, mister.”

The rain in Spain it rains all day not only on the plain but also here in my brain.

“Chill,” the Guadalquivir said as I crossed her in the drizzle, crew rowers pulling their sleek craft through her green waters below. She had her golden age in the eleventh century, well before the Alhambra’s tessellations hinted at decadence. Even in the thirteenth century, Arabic was the language of science and mathematics. Islam carried the philosophical mantle birthed by Greece in the West. Only what happens matters. And even then it passes into oblivion.

In the Jewish quarter, a man waited for his scruffy dog to finish sniffing and catch up to him. The mutt had a brown spot over its eye and looked up at me as I smiled. How many men had staggered down this street in the seventeenth century after visiting a brothel and drinking too much fino, past wrought-iron chains, gothic steeples and gargoyles, bells tolling riches from an America five thousand miles away? Clematis, periwinkle, dogshit smeared on flagstones, rainy days in Seville and chill nights in Córdoba, Guadalquivir old girl you’ve seen it all.

A few days earlier, I had stared into the Guadalquivir from the Roman bridge in Córdoba and reflected on how that city was one of the biggest in the world a thousand years earlier, how the river’s navigability had been one of the main reasons for that, and how over the past ten centuries, she had silted up. That was when I first heard her.

“Pity me not—I’m only dying,” she’d said. “I gave birth to the Renaissance—Averroes, Maimonides, Cervantes, duende—it all started here. Now I purl on, silting up, but I still give pleasure, and will for thousands of years more. God is everywhere in Andalusia. The circumference does not exist. Revelations come through shifts of faith.”

Yes, I thought, and a life spent on the path to knowledge leads to Paradise.

God, I was going crazy writing shit like this. Maybe it was just the impending pressure of having to return to the U.S. that was leading me to kick around the Guadalquivir’s words in my brain again, her metaphysical equations, my nose runny from all the fino—I was developing a cold in mid-June.

The rain had stopped and it was growing warm. I sat down for a creamy, chilled Andalusian tomato soup, a salmorejo, to cool off—no wine—and Liz texted me that she was sick and would not make the bullfight.

Fine, I thought—then I’ll follow in the steps of another American and see if he really was full of it. And after my soup, I went into an Anglophone bookshop and picked up Death in the Afternoon. Seemed old Hemingway knew bullfighting was all evolved gladiatorial theater.

But I was not expecting it to be such a cultural event. Nor was it a tourist trap—I saw as many big cameras and ugly hats as I did pearls and ties. It was like a night at the opera. And then, La Maestranza was the oldest bullring in the world.

The bulls are expensive to raise; they need a lot of grass and space to run and become aggressive. They live like princes for three years before they meet their noble, bloody end.

I waited with the crowd for the rain to stop, for seventeen men to fold the tarp. One forklift was not enough to pull it away, and this was the first time in nine months I wished we were in America, where a hemi would roar onto the field instead of these sissy little beeping micro-trucks.

When they finally got rid of the tarp, the alguacils, or mounted bailiffs, came into the ring wearing black gowns and white ruffs. They both doffed their hats to expose bald pates, and ceded way for the banderilleros, the matador’s team, who danced with pink-and-yellow capotes.

I can’t believe Hemingway’s bull lasted for five hundred pages in Death in the Afternoon; I doubt even those who are really into bullfighting can slog through that—though he does have a nice chapter about how the dry mountain air is so good for the paintings in the Prado.

Then the brass sounded some quarter notes that were probably arranged five centuries ago, and the first bull was released.

He charged out, massive head swiveling, and the crowd laughed. Then he noticed the pink capes and charged. Just before he could gore them, the banderilleros hid behind a burladero, a wooden panel built out of the corral. The bugles sounded again.

The picador emerged on horseback, the banderilleros distracted the bull until he was close, and then when he charged at the horse, the picador stabbed him in the withers.

Now, in Hemingway’s day, he noted that this part of the bullfight was a matter of taste. Though if six horses had been disemboweled in addition to the six bulls that were killed, I’m not sure I would have been as approving. Prior to 1930, the horses were unprotected; now they wore heavy foam pads, though after the picador stabbed the bull one hundred and eight millimeters deep, thanks to a little steel guard on the shaft of the pica, banderilleros caught his attention and, colorful harpoons in hand, ran at him to strike, and the picador’s horse limped away.

Bullfighting was already in a decadent era in Hemingway’s time—bulls were bred smaller with shorter horns and used at three and a half years instead of five. Emphasis was placed on how close the matador could bring the animal to him without moving his feet.

Each of the three banderilleros had stuck their two harpoons in the bull’s withers, receiving a round of applause—six spears stuck out from his back and flopped as the bull ran at the men and they hid behind the wood panels, the animal’s chocolate coat wet with blood, tongue lolling.

The duende had begun.

The matador, Juan Varea, handed his hat to a boy and taunted the bull from close. “Vamanos! Hey!” he shouted. No olés.

The stadium was hushed and here, for the first time, I saw the art that Hemingway described—it was as if Juan and the bull were the only ones there.

When the bull passed, horns inches from Varea’s groin, the crowd cheered.

Juan Varea did this twice more, turned his back on the panting bull and opened his arms to applause. He exchanged his sword for a clean one and plunged it into the bull’s neck. It went into the hilt, the bull folded his legs under himself and died.

A man ran into the ring and with a short knife, stabbed the bull’s spinal cord to make sure he was dead, and then the mules came out, the carcass affixed to the carriage they pulled and, bells ringing, the corpse was dragged away, mud-spattered, tongue out. The entire process, from the emergence of the bull to its gruesome, efficient death, took less than fifteen minutes.

The brass played that ancient death-tune and the second bull entered the ring.

More bulls emerged to fight to their death while the rain fell and the cathedral’s spires blurred and refocused through the passing clouds.

On the fifth bull, the least skilled and proudest of the three matadors lost a shoe during his passes. He ignored this, made another pass, and slipped and fell and tried to use his cape as a shield, but the bull picked him up with its horns and tossed him into the air so that for a moment, he was horizontal in space. He fell in mud and scrabbled to his feet while the banderilleros distracted the beast. Then he resumed his veronicas and the death proceeded. The matador was not visibly injured, but I hoped he was or would be, later.

The final bull, the largest at nearly five hundred kilos, emerged into the ring dumbfounded. He chased no capes, nor the picador. He stood in the ring in the drizzle, tail swinging. Brown and white cows emerged and circled him, but the bull did not follow them out of the ring.

Cigar smoke floated on the cool damp air from below, where the young man smoking stood with a closed umbrella, arms akimbo, in a mood of celebration. The rain began to fall harder. He opened his umbrella.

I asked a young man next to me what was happening.

“This bull is sick,” he said. “He has a bad leg. They will bring out another.”

“Is it possible that a bull goes free?”

“Yes. Last month a bull was so noble that he only charged at the matador instead of the capes. The president pardoned him to return to the country to make more good bulls. Not like this one. This one is very stupid.”

“Or perhaps he is very intelligent,” I said.

We laughed. But still the bull did not follow the cows. His leg seemed fine. Finally the herd of cows was rounded up and led out of the ring.

“No, you were right. It is a stupid bull.”

“Yes, they wanted to give him a chance but he is not good; they will have another.”

I was conscious that the Spanish we were using was Hemingway’s Spanish, that we reduced the animal to dialectical terms of good or bad depending on how it met the people’s ideal, and I partook of this with great enthusiasm.

The picador stabbed the bull, and the matador Lorena, the best one that night, emerged and with no ceremony stabbed the bull with his estocada. The bull vomited blood and would not let the man with the short knife come near him, but bucked until finally the man with the short knife stood astride him and finished him. It was ugly and not the right way to finish a bullfight, so I imagined.

I was ready to leave, but as my friend said, this was not the end. A seventh bull was brought out to make up for the ignobility of the sixth, and I felt a duty to remain.

It took Lorena three attempts to stick him, the penultimate one resulting in the estocada hanging at an angle out of his neck. By this point, everyone had seen enough death for one day, and when the bull lay down to die, my friend and I looked at each other and said at the same time, “Bueno.”

The crowd, sobered now and ready for sleep, or to reflect on all the death they’d witnessed over dinner and drinks, filed out of the arena, and I crossed the Queen Isabel II bridge thirsting for a beer the way one does after a bullfight. So I imagined.

At Los Geronidinos, I ordered a salt pork steak sandwich with green beans and peppers and a caña, a little glass.

The rain had stopped.

“Accept people moving in and out of your life,” burbled the Guadalquivir on my way home. “Be open and don’t ask for anything in return. You’re moving closer now, but rivers only flood when we have no other choice.”

The next day I went to the Guadalquivir’s main course, not the canal that flows through the city. The channel lay under a highway that a palm-lined path led me to, where, nestled among the bulrushes, a couple of Roma women sat noticing me. The bridge’s concrete pylons and the urban planning in general seemed very nineties, park on one side, highway as divider, neighborhood on the other. I was reminded of the good parts of my childhood in cities like Stamford and Santa Monica. I stood in the high wet grass watching the water, thinking about the phrase “slow waters run deep” and what exactly it means.

An empty Coke bottle, crushed milk carton, partially empty five liter of water, and a fresh-looking single Nike running shoe lay around a tree. You can always tell a place by its trash, the same way a person’s face reflects their fate and a river’s luck is its downfall. Everything in life is arbitrary yet changeable, unfair yet necessary, and the straightest line between two points is the fastest and least interesting. A river declines to the sea. It’s a leveling.

Birds called and I wondered if they had any sense of life having existed for millions of years before them. Then I heard the Guadalquivir again.

“You have seen duende yet you crave more. You forget what you’re made for, what you’ve known and will know. In forgetting you become a mere specialist. You only know when you no longer have to ask, when you carry around in your skin and eyes a knowledge of reality. More times like this will come when you are alone, full of doubt, shedding youth. Remember me and the others, how we will outlast you. If you trust us, you will flow among us.”

Are you really listening to a river talk to you?

Shh, self, questioning the gods is never smart.

So I stood meditating, wondering if I’d stayed long enough there on the riverbank. I wanted to end on the right thought. Which was that it had been about eight minutes since the river spoke, and now it was time to go.

Up the palm-lined path, through a section of the Triana that used to be rough before the highway was built, I entered a cafe where two men wore dusty pants and gossiped over a dish of olives and caña in s-less Andalusian accents, removing pits from their mouths and setting them in a white dish. A white-haired man called the young bartender’s attention and signaled to me with his eyes. I felt unwelcome, and after I ordered a caña, I wondered if they were going to overcharge me. But one-ninety seemed fair. Any unfriendliness and suspicion gave way to indifference. A chubby girl—the granddaughter—argued with her grandfather about how much to pay for oranges. Surreptitiously, I photographed the wooden bar and beside it on the fake-wood-paneled walls, the commemorative plaque with the bar’s opening date a few months before my birth. Its name, Casa Javi, and its framed patron saint, are blurry in the photo.

I wandered to Calle Betis, across the Real Parroquia de Señora Santa Ana. In a cafe full of middle-aged people, I ordered another beer and a fake crab salad.

I wondered where the young people were.

Nostalgic for the cigar smoke from the bullfight, I bought a Vega Perla from behind the counter. The barkeep marked the total in chalk on the aluminum bar. “Pay later.”

“Lighter?”

He handed me one and I moved outside, beside the red tent that covered the tables full of patrons chattering noisily in Spanish.

It was dry today and the clouds were slower.

I bit off the end of the cigar with my incisors, which hurt, though I felt virile. A humid saltiness hung in the air, mingling with the smoke, which tasted like silver and became woody and thick in my mouth. I wished for a glass of amontillado.

The people’s chatter rose on my exhalation, and I imagined the smell imparted a sense of celebration for them as it had for me the day before at the bullfight.

Swallows looped overhead. Dark-eyed passersby stared at me, and I felt suddenly like a guiri, a German here for the weekend—where’s your guidebook and mini-umbrella attached to your belt?

The flamenco bars still weren’t open. I didn’t care to wait, wiped my nose with the back of my hand. Another beer might lay you in bed for a few days.

The other part of me wanted to pay to attend a flamenco show, but the kind of duende paid for twice a night at seven and ten to a room full of guiris wasn’t what I was after. If I went to the show out of a duty to “see flamenco,” it would be to give way to entrancement. The show would be good—for forty euros it would have to be—I’d leave satisfied and convinced I’d done the right thing by paying for a tourist version of duende. On the way home, I’d grade the performance against those I’d seen in the street in Granada, or onscreen—Carmen Amaya throwing back her head and dancing her knuckles on a table—I’d give in and say you had to, when in Seville!—and resigned, anticipate sinking into bed in the quiet apartment I had to myself—the American girls had left this morning—out of the cold drizzle, well after midnight, when the damp streets take on that oily Old-World look…

This fantasy struck me as so likely, so accurate and enactable that I could not fulfill it. There was no duende in that—García Lorca would not approve.

No, you’ve already had your duende for the day.

“Don’t worry,” whispered the Guadalquivir. “There’s more to come.”

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