desensitize, tr. v. To make emotionally insensitive or unresponsive, as by long exposure or repeated shocks.
—American Heritage Dictionary
LAS VENTAS, MADRID, SPAIN
I enter the stands at Las Ventas to find the crowds of seated aficionados punctuated by arena officials in the most ridiculous hats I have ever seen worn in earnest. Las Ventas is a place of relentless Mediterranean heat.The ring itself is covered in dry, blowing dust, which must be hosed down to keep the arena from being obscured in its own private dust storm.The question defining the quality of seats is “sol o sombra?” “Sun or shade?” There is no right answer. We are all sweating. Everywhere, old women are fanning themselves, and young men are watching them jealously. But we are not here for comfort.
We are here for the bulls.
To tell the truth, I’m anxious about their arrival. It’s not just that I’ve never seen a bullfight. I’ve never seen anything bigger than a spider die. I’m squeamish in medical settings—I famously flee upon hearing the opening theme to “ER”—but as a longtime video game enthusiast, I’m supposed to be desensitized to violence. In most games, casual murder is less remarkable than a parking ticket. But a real death? I don’t know what it will mean.
CROSSROADS, BOWA-SEKO, UNNAMED CENTRAL AFRICAN NATION
I pull my Jeep off the road and let out a sigh. All the time with these stops. The guard stations are everywhere, and the guards never even bother to ask who I am, where I’m going or whether I’m on their side. These days, they shoot on sight. I kill my engine.
This game, “Far Cry 2,” is by far the most immersive I have ever played. All video games face the same dilemma: Providing gamers with the tools and information necessary to play reminds us we are, in fact, only playing. The health bars, the ammo indicators, the mini-maps—all that stuff on the screen is a reminder we’re sitting on the couch, holding an Xbox 360 controller and watching a screen. “Far Cry 2” interferes as little as possible. Most of the time, there is only the world on the screen—no ammo or health indicators, no fancy scrollwork on the sides of the screen, no radar circle floating in one corner. If I need to look at my map, my character pulls out a folder with a map in it. My location is provided by a dash-mounted GPS unit, not unlike the one in my real Honda in the garage. In most games, characters “heal” with a flash of light and a friendly sound, but if my character in “Far Cry 2” is seriously wounded, he will dig out a bullet with a pair of pliers or painfully wrench a dislocated appendage back into place.There is nothing between me and the world of the game.
I push the button on my controller instructing my character to exit the car. My hands come off the wheel to support my body. My view shifts as my head tilts. I see exactly what I would see if I slid over into the passenger seat of a real Jeep and climbed out the door.
Once on foot, I run, crouching, for the weeds and climb over a crest that, according to my map, should overlook the guard post. I pull out my rifle and sight toward the shanties that make up the checkpoint. I see two men, armed. They vary in armament, ethnicity and attire, but these variations are akin to the fancy costumes sometimes found on novelty range cutouts. They’re just targets.
My first dart takes down a black man with a headband, and his companion jumps, confused and alert. I use a dart rifle not because it is any less deadly than other sniper rifles, but because it is silenced and does not give away my position. If anything, the dart rifle is more fatal than most rifles. One shot, no matter where it hits, will kill. The darts also produce the same puff of blood as a bullet strike, but circumvent the screaming and writhing that the guards will do when winged by a bullet. (Their screaming doesn’t trouble me, but they will sometimes claw themselves back to vertical and start shooting again, which is inconvenient.)
I reload and draw a bead on a Slavic-looking man with an elaborate mustache, but I just miss. He jumps into a battered yellow hatchback to pursue me.
I stop to watch him. I’m being peppered with small-arms fire, but I don’t much care. My enemies are terrible
shots, and I am difficult to kill. I toss a halfhearted grenade toward a propane tank near the shanties so I can be freed to watch the car.The shooting stops for a while as my enemies try not to catch fire.
The hatchback begins turning.The work that “Far Cry 2” does to make me forget I’m sitting on a couch is largely successful: I easily accept the hundreds of screaming deaths as part of the fictional dream, and I appreciate the elegance of my injuries. But the thing that most reminds me I’m playing a game is the artificial intelligence’s abysmal driving algorithms.The yellow junker sways like a pendulum, back and forth, reverse, drive, reverse, drive, turning incrementally with each iteration.The driver backs up, pulls forward and to the right, hits a boulder. Backs up, pulls forward, hits the boulder again. Back, forward, boulder. Again. The movement is hypnotic.
My Jeep explodes, dragging me back into the world. Shaken, my vision goes blurry, and I run behind the cover of a rock and try to locate the asshole with the rocket-propelled grenade. He’s off on a promontory above the shanties, reloading. A dart ends him.
The hatchback nears the end of its 417-point turn. My Jeep burns happily behind me. The wildfire my grenade started is spreading toward me through the dry grass. Time to leave. A four-cylinder roar tells me the hatchback is approaching. They always try to run me down, even if I’m just walking down the road, even if they’ve never seen me before. I pull out my grenade launcher. He does nothing to evade me. The man with the mustache dies in the fire.
There is one more I haven’t seen yet, the one with the submachine gun who was shooting at me earlier. He probably didn’t burn. He’s probably hiding in the shed. Without my Jeep, I must face him on foot, armed with a few sharp barbs and the strength of my legs. He will probably come flailing his MAC-10 at me when I approach.
He will die, like so many faceless others.
LAS VENTAS, MADRID, SPAIN
My Spanish rates somewhere between awful and morally reprehensible, so here in the sol of LasVentas, much of the opening ceremony is lost on me.There are lots of men and horses in elaborate costumes as well as someone dressed like a turn-of-the-(18th)-century librarian, sporting an academic’s robe, a dour sobriety and a black satin Stetson with a preposterous feather. There are donkeys. I have no clue what is happening.Then they depart, leaving only a few elegant- looking guys in the ring.
And then there is a bull.
Because I am so useless with Spanish at the sentence level and beyond, I am completely wrapped up in the intricacies of words.There is no word for bullfight in Spanish that I have ever uncovered.The Spanish call it “la corrida de toros,” the “running of the bulls,” or more often simply “la corrida,” “the running.” As the bull charges in, the phrase seems exquisitely appropriate. Everyone is running. The bull charges at the men in the ring, who either turn the bull with a flick of their capes or run away themselves, darting behind barriers or gaps in the ring.The men are “toreros,” which translates literally to “bullmen,” as with “postmen” or “policemen.”They work as a team to prepare the bull for the matador—the last torero, the one who will face the bull alone at the end, life to life. (In English, we use matador and bullfighter interchangeably, but my dictionary shades the Spanish word. “Matador,” as a noun: “murderer.” As an adjective: “mortal.”)
The corrida is comprised of movements, like a symphony, and I watch the toreros lead the bull through each stage. Each phase sounds like a sci-fi novel.
“Tercio de varas”: the “Third of Lances.” The mounted “picadors”—or “piercers”—with their lances and their armored horses, dart their blades into the meat behind the bull’s head. They move their spears like Novocain shots, the way the dentist moves the needle to make sure all the right places are treated.The picador’s spear carries no anesthetic.There is some blood.
“Tercio de banderillas”: the “Third of Flags.” The “banderilleros” hold small, tasseled javelins, “banderillas,” which they will place in the bull.They carry no capes. They have only their own bodies to protect them from the bull.Today, the matador is placing his own banderillas. He faces the bull with the incredible posture that toreros wear, so erect that his spine seems to loop back on itself, his arms spread strangely batlike as he begins his charge. He approaches the bull with a great many tiny steps, moving with incredible quickness for his strange gait, and as the bull begins to run at him, he brings his hands together and down. He darts away before the bull can strike. Bull and man repeat and repeat until the bull is festooned with a half-dozen little flags. A second banderillero draws the bull away, and the matador sneaks off to the side of the ring. Shoulders heaving, the matador speaks in breathy sentences to a man who hands him a Diet Coke. He drinks, dabs at his forehead. He seems weary.
“Tercio de muerte”: the “Third of Death.” This phase belongs to the matador alone.
He hands the soda back and straightens into his glorious torero’s mien.The sun glints off his “traje de luces,” his “suit of lights.” He takes up his “estoque”—a marvelously singular word; it has no English translation and no other uses I can find in Spanish. It is simply itself: the “killing sword of the matador.” In his other hand, his “muleta,” the cape he will rely on to control the bull’s movements. (Muleta: “support”; “crutch.”) It is time for the “faena,” literally the “work” of the corrida.
Now, he will dance the bull to death.
The ring is full of wordlessness. The faena is the string of charges, flourishes and evasions that most Americans think of when we think of bullfights. The matador commands the bull with unshaped utterances, shouted grunts that brook no understanding. He stomps his foot and wills the bull toward him. The bull does as he must. He charges the matador, each time to find no man between his horns. Only another shout. Only another stomp. Only another undeniable demand.
Charge, turn. Charge, turn. Charge. This time, there is no evasion.
Now, the matador points his estoque like an iron invitation. Now, the bull accepts. Now, the tip of the estoque finds its home. Now, the force of the bull’s momentum draws the estoque into his body, severing his aorta. Now, he slumps to the ground.
My first death.
SAVANNAH ROAD, BOWA-SEKO, UNNAMED CENTRAL AFRICAN NATION
The downside to the incredible veracity in “Far Cry 2” is the fact that to get anywhere, I have to drive in real time.This means, usually, stealing a Jeep, staring at my map, starting off in the wrong direction, driving off the road twice, stopping four times to blow up oncoming traffic and twice to blow up guard stations, and then discovering I made a wrong turn two kilometers (and one guard station) back.
One alternative is the long, lovely route circumscribing the map: empty roads that lead nowhere in particular but can get you closer to anywhere. There are fewer guard posts, little of interest, less to slow me down. And because these roads are on the outskirts of the map, driving them means experiencing some of the game’s best scenery.
I judder over the moguls of the old dirt road in a battered red pickup, staring out the window at a vast expanse of savannah. Here, at the edge of the map, what I see has nothing to interest me as far as gameplay is concerned. It’s simply beautiful. Dust makes the sky almost khaki, contrasting against the strange paradox of desert verdigris. I watch a family of gazelles caper in the brush—until my vision heaves and my truck’s suspension squeals. My head snaps forward, looking for more people about to attack me for no reason. The road is clear, but I stop and scamper from the car anyway. (Probably 40 percent of the coroner’s reports in this place list “exploding vehicle” as the cause of death.) Still nothing.
As I turn back to the car, I see what happened: I hit a buffalo. It’s lying in the road behind my car, twitching. I run toward it, my stomach already starting the acid churn that always accompanies a car accident, my mind the empty litany: nonononononono.
It’s in the middle of the road, and I’m not sure what’s happening. I’ve never run over a buffalo before. I’m not sure how they’re supposed to act. It’s still moving. Its rear legs are still, but its head and front legs spasm uncontrollably. It’s still alive.
There’s only one thing to do. I pull out my dart rifle, line up the buffalo’s head, and take a shot. The body jerks. It’s still moving.
I fire again. Still twitching. I empty my clip.The animal is festooned with a half-dozen barbs, twitching in its need for the coup de grâce.
I step back and pull out my grenade launcher, and only then do I realize the animal isn’t alive; the twitching is caused by a glitch in the game’s physics. On the heels of that thought comes the memory that it was never alive, that it is not even an animal, that it is nothing but a pattern of light on glass.
I sigh and climb back into the pickup, hoping I can make it to my destination without another death.
RAPTURE CENTRAL CONTROL, RAPTURE, BENEATH THE ATLANTIC OCEAN
Yesterday, I was on an airplane. Business class. I sat calmly and flexed my hands, the tattoos on my wrists stretching. I inspected a gift my parents sent with me. I glanced at the note penned in my mother’s hand: “To Jack. Would you kindly not open until. …” I set it down, stared for a while at the seat in front of me. And then everything went black.
There were screams.
“BioShock” has immersed me in death since those first moments. When my plane crashed in the middle of the Atlantic, I was the only survivor. I was lucky to land by a small island, lucky to see a building there and lucky to find a small submersible inside.
The submersible brought me to Rapture, the city at the bottom of the sea. As I docked, two figures approached. A man begged a stalking, angular figure: “Please, don’t hurt me.” The figure opened his gut with two rusted sickles.The man coughed viscera and collapsed.The killer saw me, screamed madly at the sky, and slashed at my submarine. Something scared her off.
“Would you kindly pick up that shortwave radio?” an Irish accent called from the radio.The man sounded charming, safe, sane. Paternal. Unlikely to try to exsanguinate me. I picked up the radio. (I take direction well.)
“I’m Atlas,” the friendly voice said, “and I aim to keep you alive.”
Atlas explained that between me and escape from the fallen city stood hundreds of people like the woman with the sickles: violent, drug-addled, superpowered sociopaths called “Splicers.” There was nothing for it: I set out into the city, killing them.
That was less than a day ago. I’ve been making my way through the bloodied metropolis, looking for a way out. The game’s interface labels everything for me. Amid the “ashtrays” and “crates,” I see, over and over, “corpse,” “corpse,” “corpse.” These date from the city’s fall, before my arrival. I have made new corpses, too, but the game calls these what they had been in life: “Thuggish Splicer,” “Leadhead Splicer,” “Rosie.” In this way, I am always aware of which death is my doing.
The game’s premise affords me moderate superpowers—I can shoot lightning from my fingers, freeze a man solid with a thought—and since my arrival (under Atlas’ ever-present, impeccably polite instruction), I’ve killed probably hundreds to get where I am now, making my way to the office of Andrew Ryan.
What I know about Andrew Ryan: He is the man who built Rapture, a city of orgiastic capitalism. “BioShock” is a response and exploration of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, and Ryan is an avatar of Objectivism. His unyielding faith in the Market has brought the city to ruin. I’ve been immersed in his rhetoric the whole game, through short films and radio messages and old diary entries: “Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow?” Most pressingly, he controls the last way out of Rapture. If I am to live, he has to die. (Atlas, also hoping to escape, says it simply: “Now would you kindly go to Ryan’s office and kill the son of a bitch?”)
What I suspect about Ryan: He is my father. The game is full of hints and mysteries around my own provenance. I know little of my own family. I’ve discovered Ryan sired an illegitimate child who would be about my age. And, damningly, I’ve learned the submarines I’ve been using the whole game are genetically keyed to Ryan’s family.
His office complex is strangely empty. No bodies, no splicers. Nothing to kill here. I explore the vacant rooms, looking for anything of value. I find a cassette recorder. It is labeled “Mind Control Test.” I push play.
“Is that your puppy?” a voice asks. I recognize it: Dr. Suchong, one of a troublingly large number of mad scientists who worked in Rapture before the city fell. “She’s very pretty.”
“Thank you, Papa Suchong.” A child’s voice. Earnest.
“Break her neck for me,” Suchong says.
“What?” the boy and I ask in harmony.
“Break that sweet puppy’s neck.”
“No. …” The young voice is plaintive, begging. “Please.”
I’ve stopped dead. I’m as horrified as the kid. My dog Moxie is curled up on a pillow across the room. I call her name, wanting her near. She shoots me a disapproving glare and settles her head on her haunches, sighing heavily.
“Break that puppy’s neck,” Suchong instructs. “Would you kindly?”
At this point, my character is just staring at the floor. I’m staring at Moxie. We’re listening.
“No. … No. …”
A snap and a yelp. Moxie’s brow twitches. I flinch.
“Very good,” Suchong says.
I call Moxie’s name. She stands, stretches, and crawls under a blanket.
HANFORD, CALIF., UNITED STATES
My last week or so in Spain, I was trying to figure out how to make it onto my flight without having to sell my legs. I had, of course, acquired a great many useless, heavy things in my travels, in addition to my expansive library. The airline’s rates for excess baggage were exorbitant, so I dragged my books to the post office, filled out the paperwork, and passed my box and form to the welcoming man behind the counter. He glanced at my form, squinted at it, then turned his puzzled gaze toward me.
“And what are you shipping, sir?” he asked in exasperated English.
“I wrote it there,” I said, pointing to the neatly printed word, rent mightily from the increasingly spent mine of my Spanish vocabulary. “Books.”
The man’s bafflement fell like a dropped curtain, and he scribbled a note on the form. I didn’t realize until the next day that I had botched a letter. I had written “libres” for “libros.” Libros means “books.” Libres is not a word. If it were, it would mean something like “freedoms.” I had tried to ship my liberties home. I hoped the guy at the post office took it as some sort of roundabout political commentary.
Even that level of Spanish competency—i.e., less than none—is a few years distant from me now, and from there, I have gotten rusty. My Spanish vocabulary was left behind in some Madrileño bar with a pitcher of sangria and a box of libres, and so I am now Googling extravagantly, recovering the language of the corrida as I retread my steps, looking for lost meanings.
As I wander through my Spanish dictionaries, I stumble upon the verb “cazar.” Some online dictionary throws it up as the word of the day, with a staccato burst of infinitives for definition: “To hunt. To shoot. To catch. To grasp. To understand.” Such a beautiful gradient of implication. Violence as a way of knowing.
Cazar reads like a story of truth chased hard through rough woods and brought down with a rare arrow. Cazar moves gently to the still form of knowledge and embraces it, callous palms on rough hide. And thinking it life-giving, or thinking it a delicacy, or thinking it welcome sustenance in an uncertain world, cazar, at last, tastes the truth and takes it in completely. Cazar feels like the faena, an elegant dance toward inevitability.
RAPTURE CENTRAL CONTROL, RAPTURE, BENEATH THE ATLANTIC OCEAN
I lower my weapon as I enter Ryan’s door. The game’s interface fades, leaving nothing between me and the gameworld.
“The assassin has overcome my final defense,” Ryan says, “and now he’s come to murder me.”
I see him in person for the first time, on the other side of a window. Clean shaven, sturdily built, in a double-breasted brown suit. Every bit the dapper industrialist. He’s putting, for crap’s sake, on an AstroTurf green.
As he rants characteristically about agency, a series of snapshots edges me toward revelation: an image of a boy, covered in electrodes, sitting with a man in a lab coat; the gift of a gun, from my family, way back on the plane; me, hijacking my flight and bringing it to the sea. I begin to suspect my mind, or my memory, has been tampered with.
“Was a man sent to kill?” Ryan asks, carrying his putter to the door. “Or a slave?” He opens the door. I approach.
“Stop, would you kindly?” Ryan asks. I do. The game has taken control of my character, disabling my controller—a common trick when it has something to show me. “Would you kindly,” he says. “A powerful phrase. A familiar phrase?” And it is. It echoes in my head in Atlas’ ubiquitous brogue. His conspicuous courtesy seems suddenly sinister.
“Would you kindly run? … Stop. Turn.” Without volition, I charge. I stop. I turn.
I try frantically to assemble the pieces of information I’ve stumbled across. They were studying something about mind control. The recording. The puppy.T he boy would be about my age now. The man in the lab coat, in that flash memory: Was that Suchong?
The knowing comes on me like flame:The game hasn’t taken control of my character; Ryan has. “A man chooses,” he says. “A slave obeys.” He hands me the golf club.
“Kill,” he says.
The putter hits him in the face, sending him to one knee. A fine mist of my father’s blood. I can’t stop.
He rises unsteadily. His voice is rougher this time, but he forces the words past his damaged jaw. “A man chooses.” I try to back away, to put down my weapon. Instead, I hit him again. Ryan’s legs give out. He is a ball on the floor. He tries to stand, makes it only to his knees. His voice is a desperate gurgle. I can hear him drowning in his own blood.
“A slave obeys,” he sputters.
I don’t want to. I can’t stop. I hit him again. The club is bent and bloody in my hand.
He crawls to me, claws his way up my body. My God: his face. There’s almost no flesh left to see. A deep gash on his forehead, blood everywhere, his jaw sickly loose.
“OBEY!” he howls.
I bring the putter down into his forehead. Thick, fluid gouts of blood fountain from the wound. My father is dead.
My controller reactivates, and my movements are my own again. And even as I want to mourn, to stop and stare at the cost of my own actions, and even as I am full of loss and hate and confusion and guilt, Atlas’ voice comes over my radio, and when he asks me—would I kindly?—I can’t help but obey even though I am (at least superficially) in control again.
HANFORD, CALIF., UNITED STATES
In the last few moments, I’ve watched Andrew Ryan’s death maybe eight times on YouTube. It is one of a very few moments in my gaming life that I see as part of my own experience, not the character’s. Mostly, video games are fun, or interesting, or challenging, or frustrating. Mostly, video games do not make me feel. I’ve come back—tentatively, anxiously—to face my actions in Ryan’s office, wanting to get the details right. I’m watching other players’ recordings of the scene, but each time the character swings (not even that; say, instead, that each time the colored pixels that represent the golf club intersect the colored pixels that represent the fictional, digital construct “Andrew Ryan”), I am beating my father to death. When I hear Atlas urging me to move on (when I hear the digitally reproduced waveform of a voice actor’s recorded lines written to represent the words of the fictional, digital construct “Atlas”), my hatred is visceral and immediate, and I want to crush the radio, to kneel beside my father and weep, to take his ruined head into my lap and let Rapture die around me.
Anti-video game litigant Jack Thompson has called video games “murder simulators.” It’s always seemed a ridiculous phrase to me. In “BioShock,” I once killed a Splicer by throwing a ball of goo on him, which caused a giant, lumbering man in an old-timey diver’s helmet to attack him with a huge arm-mounted drill. I am familiar with no real-life murderers who have employed this method. Likewise, it seems probable that even the most conservative jury would accept “he repeatedly teleported behind me and tried to set me on fire using balls of flame that he conjured with his mind” as a justification for self-defense.
For Ryan’s death, though, the term fits. In that moment, I felt like a murderer. Sure, there was a small machine somewhere in the back rooms of my mind that kept spitting out reports—“This is an amazingly well-crafted scene,” “What an elegant way to govern the player’s actions”—to remind me this was “just a game,” but I wasn’t reading them. I was too busy hating Atlas. Later, when the game was off, I would come back to flip through those reports, trying to convince myself that remorse is a ridiculous feeling to have about a video game, that it’s absurd to feel betrayed by a fictional character, that I had no obligation to defend myself or justify my actions or come up with excuses. I needed those reminders because the anger, the fear, the loss I felt were real even if the situation that produced them wasn’t.
The game’s developers took advantage of me, of course, and of every other gamer who has played “BioShock.” Gamers are accustomed to the voice of the guide, the person who turns up at the beginning of the game to show you the ropes. The “BioShock” designers knew we would all do everything Atlas told us to do. They knew we would slaughter Splicer after Splicer in horrific (but, perhaps, not horrifying) ways—that we would electrocute them and smash their faces in with a wrench, that we would pin them to walls with crossbow bolts, that we would drown them in swarms of wasps and nonchalantly photograph their agony—just because Atlas asked us to. They trusted us for these easy deaths, and rightly so. Splicers are monstrous, and we killed them in monstrous ways. They attacked us on sight; we attacked them on sight. It’s these unexamined killings that convince people like Jack Thompson that gamers are “desensitized” to violence.
Andrew Ryan was just a man. I killed him like a man would. Almost three years later, I still can’t watch a video of someone else playing the game without wilting at the sound of his mangled voice, without finding shame in the kinks of the bloodied putter, without wanting to drop the club and run, without raging at Atlas for forcing this on me.
LAS VENTAS, MADRID, SPAIN.
After that first death, the dance repeated. The corrida at Las Ventas usually features three matadors, each facing two bulls.Within an afternoon, I saw six deaths. Some were easy, some hard. Some bulls felt the deep bite of the estoque more than once. Some suffered.
Some of my friends lamented the bulls’ fates and the many cruelties perpetrated upon them. I found a different story. Each move, each cut, has purpose. At the heart of the corrida is a simple calculation: Bulls are larger, faster and, above all, pointier than humans. A fair fight between one bull and one human—what, I think, the faena hopes to be—is impossible to obtain without some handicapping. A bull that can look a matador in the eye can ignore the cape and charge the man.
The picador’s surgical strikes wound the muscles the bull uses to hold up its head, focusing its attention downward, on the cape. While the picador works, the matador is watching the bull, learning how it moves, when it leans: He turns easiest toward the sun; he charges men, but slows for the horse; he listens for my voice. Maybe the matador’s mind is the only place the bull is truly an individual, the study revealing his fears, his loves, his history.
Those who look for cruelty would likely find it most in the banderilleros. After their work, the bull is hung with tiny spears, the bright green and yellow decorations standing out, ghoulishly gay. It is this image—the bloody, worn bull stuck with banderillas like cocktail toothpicks—that is most often used to bemoan the brutality of the bullfight. But the banderillas slow the bull. Gifted banderilleros can use their banderillas to shape a bull’s charge, to teach the bull to favor one side over the other. Capeless, banderilleros face the bull body to body, two tired creatures armed with nothing but a pair of sharp barbs and the strength of their legs.
And in the end, la faena. The work. Matador and bull, in as even a fight as they could make. Each dance I saw was different, but there was always a grace, always an intimacy. Always the ending was welcome. Always the bull was proud.
I am not a Spaniard, nor an aficionado. I am an American, an estadounidense idiot, so clumsy with Spanish I once tried to ship a box of freedoms home to my mom. I know I make simple things noble with a foreigner’s distance and naiveté. I cannot conjure truth about the bullfight, or say if it’s cruel, or if it’s art. I cannot hope to understand the intimacy between matador and bull, the learning of each other, the finality of their parting marking the loss of a relationship. What exists between a matador and a bull is beyond my speculation.
I wish it wasn’t: I wish I could imagine my own suit of lights, that I could take up the crutch of my cape and my sword of singular purpose, that I could stand on the line between sun and shade, and dream myself a man of the bulls. If I could, I would tell you of the bull—how the thunder of his hooves is overpowered by the soft smell of dust rising from his fur, how the glimmer of the sun on my suit reflects on his horns so they seem to have a thousand points, and how with each pass I allow my hand to brush against his side, and how he, too, allows this.
If I could, I would tell you how, in the last pass, I let my estoque linger in the air until I see myself through the bull’s eyes, see the clarity of the path his horn will take, entering just below the sternum—how he will flick his neck to sever my aorta, so I will feel as little pain as possible—and then, knowing it needful, I dip my sword into his heart and let him fall into my arms. I could tell you how I take his ruined head into my lap and how the short huff of his last breath sounds, in my ears, like the word cazar. In that embrace, with my callous palm on the bull’s rough hide, I could answer the question of what that death costs.
These years later, I can remember only my awe at the weight of the moment, my hunger for the knowing of that solitary thing that lives between toro and torero, and the hollow feeling that understanding was beyond me. Dreaming the quiet, guilty nights of a matador’s remembering is not enough to tell me what death means. This violence is the province of stronger men than I.
One bull was braver than the others, prouder. During the faena, he and the matador belonged to one another. In the stands, people waved handkerchiefs. A small gesture of pride and gratitude.They were asking for an indulto, a pardon for the bull. It was not granted. I can’t say what they felt—this arena full of people, who came each week to live these deaths—but I will not say they did not feel. And I will not call it cruelty.
As I hold an ending in the arms of my imagining, I am less certain still of what the matador felt. Maybe simply matador: one part mortal, one part murderer.