It was a simple phrase, invitación a una tienta, a chance to visit a Spanish bull ranch where I would be allowed to face an animal that wanted to kill me. Yet the words, delivered casually by my Spanish landlady, promised more than an exercise in violence and danger—they were an invitation to experience a personal "moment of truth" and the fulfillment of a dream.
In 1964 I was an exchange student at the University of Salamanca, 110 miles northwest of Madrid. Salamanca is one of the major districts in Spain where brave bulls are raised. It had taken me nine years, from the time I saw my first corrida, to get this close. During those years I learned and endlessly practiced the beautiful, complicated movements of la fiesta brava and I longed for the ultimate confrontation.
I had been very lucky to live with the family of Se√±orita Concha Infante, a tall, spare woman in her mid-fifties who was infinitely patient with me and my severe case of bull fever. She understood the passionate attraction of the bullfight, man's domination of a wild animal, with its heady combination of art, danger, bravery and death. While I admired the formal bullfights in the big rings, I sought a more personal satisfaction.
I had pleaded with Concha to wangle me an invitation to a tienta, at which fighting stock is tested. Concha had several cousins who owned bull ranches outside Salamanca and it was one of them, Carlos Sànchez Rico, who agreed to let me participate. Carlos looked like the model of a Spanish grandee: black hair combed straight back, strong features and a thin mustache beneath the sharp promontory of a nose. He met me at Concha's house and as we drove through the unyielding landscape, bright with February sunshine, he explained that today's event would be a retienta. Several cows would be retested to verify the results of a previous tienta and, in some cases, to assess the effect of motherhood on their bravery.
May 18, 1986
Brave cattle are highly specialized bovines, a separate subspecies whose breeding is as exacting as that of thoroughbreds, except that the desired quality is not speed, but ferocity. The tienta, in which aggressiveness is judged and evaluated, is the basic tool in the raising of fighting stock. These are wild animals, not forced or trained to charge; they do so by natural instinct. Only the fiercest animals are chosen for breeding or, in the case of bulls, for the ring. Bulls are caped only briefly when they are very young, since it is their innocence of the cape's deception that is the foundation of the bullfight. Sometimes bulls are caped illegally in the fields by young aspirants, and when they enter the ring years later, they are murderously dangerous, having already been exposed to the lure.
Since the bulls inherit much of their brave spirit from their mothers, the cows are worked exhaustively, both with capes and against a mounted picador, who holds a lance with a small steel tip. Those cows that charge the picador and the capes repeatedly, without provocation, are chosen to further the line. The rejects are destined to become beef. Fighting bulls have been raised on the Sànchez Rico ranch since the beginning of the century, but the bloodlines of the stock can be traced back to 1790.
About an hour out of Salamanca, Carlos turned the car off the main road onto a wide dirt track marked only by two large stones. A few minutes later a low stone ranch house with a red tile roof came into view. Some 300 yards farther down the lane I saw the curved wall of the practice ring; it sent an electric jolt through me.
Once introductions were made among the 10 or so participants, someone suggested we inspect the cattle to be tested after lunch. At the ring we climbed stone steps to the top of the walls that overlooked the corrals where the cows were waiting. It was a mistake. All I could see were horns, a thicket of them attached to half a dozen fighting cows. These were not snuffling 2-year-olds with buds for horns but animals whose armament had grown fully forward. Brave cows are as dangerous as bulls, only smaller. They are strong, extremely fast and virtually udderless. These cows were black and menacing as they stared back at us. The most formidable were two big 5-year-olds with plenty of weight and widely set stiletto horns. The old range mothers, called machorras, would be handled by the professional torero among us, a workmanlike but moderately succesful matador named José Luis Barrero.
The other members of the party were mostly experienced amateurs, family members and friends who liked to be part of the fun, tradition and danger of the tienta. The tienta is less formal than the ritualized structure of the corridas in the big plazas. All aspirants are given chances to cape the animals, but in no particular order. And while the work is directed by the professional, in this case Barrero, there is little rigid form to the action.
I'm sure that the lunch was delicious but I remember practically nothing about it, having left my appetite up on the plaza wall. All I could think about was what would happen after lunch. I knew I would face one of the smaller cows, but that was little consolation when I remembered that writer/aficionado Barnaby Conrad had received an eight-inch horn wound in his thigh at a tienta just like this one, a gash inflicted by a cow smaller than those in the corrals down the lane.
I was conscious of a tense good humor all around me, the wisecracking repartee that occurs when danger is imminent. It was a privilege to be part of this exciting, strangely anachronistic tradition. Would I be accepted as more than a foreign curiosity? Most of all, was I really ready for this confrontation? Sure, I knew the passes. I was good at what is called "living-room bullfighting," but what would I do when the element of danger was introduced? I was not unlike a fighter who can shadowbox like a champ but who has not yet faced an opponent who can hit back.
All these doubts and questions flickered through my mind as we took our places in the ring. The first cow tested was one of the big 5-year-olds. I watched with awe as the young matador, Barrero, worked smoothly but cautiously with a cow that had been tested before and was wise to the capes. Until the cow was released back into the pastures, all but the most experienced amateurs stayed safely behind the wooden shields built out from the ring walls.
Then one of the ranch hands atop the wall pulled on a rope and the door from the corrals opened. The instant the next cow, one of the smaller ones, blasted out into the ring I sensed my moment had arrived. The air was cool and crisp, but I was sweating. It seemed suddenly that with all the waiting, the anticipation, the passionate longing, the moment was coming too soon. I did not feel ready. What I did feel was afraid, ice-cold, jelly-in-the-knees afraid. From my spot behind the wooden barrier, the animal seemed to have grown by a foot and her horns by at least six inches. I heard someone laugh, and then Carlos called my name. On the walls above me, cowboys, corral workers and hangers-on waited to see what the norteamericano would do.
For my first encounter I had a big pink-and-yellow capote, a heavy, two-handed cape used at the beginning of the fight. I would try to do a verónica, the basic maneuver with the big cape. The pass is named for St. Veronica because the bullfighter grasps the cape the way the saint allegedly held the cloth to wipe Christ's brow on His way to Calvary.
I slid from behind the shield. The cow was to my right, hooking at a shield where another fighter had hidden himself. I tried to call her, but the only sound that came from my parched throat was a hoarse croak. I moistened my lips and tried again. "Whuh hey, vaca." She whirled, head up, searching for the source of the annoying sound. I profiled, holding the cape in the proper manner, then shuffled forward and shook the cloth. I saw the animal's haunches gather and she charged.
Reflexes saved me, years of practicing the same movements of arms, legs and hands, flaring the cape outward to accept the horns and to draw them safely past my legs. So hard was I concentrating on that first pass that I had no time to savor what I had done; the mystery and symbolism of the mystical "moment of truth" escaped me. The cow skidded, turned and attacked again. This time, after completing an acceptable verónica, I was filled with a kind of galvanic wonder, a rush of emotion and pleasure as strong as any I have ever felt. I wanted that feeling again, so I set up a third time, trying now to plant my feet and keep my hands low in order to give the pass some depth and grace. I recall ending the series with the proper finishing pass and scurrying behind the shield. I was breathing hard, and my jaws were stretched in an idiotic grin. Next to me Barrero nodded gravely, and from his place in the observation box, Carlos called down. "Not bad," he said with a wink, "for a norteamericano."
I can think of few other times when self-awareness was so clear, so joyous and overwhelming. Having overcome fear and danger with some semblance of acceptable style, I was simply no longer the same. I knew I had to have that sensation again. I had to have another chance, so I asked Carlos. He laughed. "Calm yourself, chico, let the others have some fun. Wait for another animal."
So, chafing with impatience, I watched the others cape the next few cows. Then Barrero, who was trying to get himself in shape for the coming season, took on the second old machorra. Her attack was sporadic and crowded the man's terrain, making close and stylish work impossible. When she was finally released to rejoin her sisters, everyone, especially Barrero, breathed more easily.
Then the last one exploded through the gate, "looking for war." From his vantage point, Carlos indicated that I could cape her when one of the others had finished his turn. The cow was about the same size as the first animal I had faced, but as she was being tested by others, it became clear that she was "smart" to the capes, so smart that someone yelled down the old warning from the walls, "Look out, she knows Latin."
"And Greek and probably la àlgebra, too," Barrero said from his place beside me. He handed me a muleta and a wooden sword to spread it. "Keep the cloth low and wide," he warned.
While the big capote is showier, a bullfighter's reputation is based on his work with the muleta. It is fundamentally a one-handed cape, much smaller than the capote, and is made of heavy red serge. The cloth is folded over a wooden dowel that is used as a handle. If I was to prove anything to my companions, it would be with the muleta.
When the others were through, I stepped from behind the shield into the cow's line of vision. She eyed me balefully, backed up a step or two and shook her horns. I approached her slowly, the cape extended in my right hand. Low and wide, I kept telling myself. I shook the muleta, and she lunged forward at the movement. I set my feet and swung the cape low and away from my body. She turned quickly and went past again. This time I lengthened the pass and tried to slow it down. My adversary cooperated nicely, and I began to feel more secure as I completed another pass. Above me, dimly, I heard someone shout, ¬°Olé! An unquenchable fire filled me again. I was filled with the thrill and pleasure of what I was doing. This is easy, I thought in my semidelirium, she follows the cape like a train on rails. The cow whooshed beneath the folds of the cloth. Another olé. Then, as she came back, I confidently swept the muleta up into a chest pass. When the lure was removed from the cow's vision, she put on the brakes and cut in toward my body. I stepped back, but not nearly fast enough. Her left horn hooked under my right leg and I went up into the air as though I'd bounced off a trampoline. I landed on the cow's head, between the horns, and she tossed me again. This time, as I came down I felt a heavy, numbing bump on the outside of my right thigh before I hit the ground. I lay there listening to the horns chop the ground next to my ears. An eternity later, others lured the animal away from me, and I struggled to my feet and looked down at my thigh. No blood was showing.
"You're lucky she didn't cut meat," one of my rescuers said. The flat of the horn had struck me, and by the next day the bruise looked and felt as though Dave Winfield had swung at a third strike, missed the ball and hit me.
As others finished with the last animal, I brooded, wondering if I had made a fool of myself. We folded the capes and made our way back to the house for a round of brandy. My thigh was throbbing like a drum. The others were polite and congratulatory, and I began to feel lightheaded, as much from the afterglow of the excitment as from the brandy. I wanted to ask them what they really thought. Had I made a good impression? Was I still the outsider with an anomalous case of bull fever?
Before we left, I limped into the enormous tile bathroom. José Luis Barren) was standing at the sink, wrestling one-handed with one of the faucets. The horn tip of the last old cow had slashed open his hand below the thumb. I turned on the water and he rinsed the wound. Then, while he held it open, I poured iodine into it from a bottle he gave me. I heard him suck in his breath.
"A good day today," he said from between clenched teeth. I shrugged. "And you did fine, as well as anyone for the first time."
I smiled and thanked him.
"It's a beautiful thing we have," he said, "this brave festival."
My God, I thought, he said "we." I said I thought it was the most beautiful festival of all.
Former newspaper editor Timothy Mahin lives and writes in Pound Ridge, N. Y.