“Tell me about the fight, Luis,” I said. “I didn’t go to the ring that afternoon and it is one of the biggest regrets of my life. Was it as great as they say?”
Rafael de Paula (photo from Gente y Habitantes de Jerez de la Frontera)
Luis just nodded. “He (Rafael de Paula) had us all crying—I mean it. The whole damn plaza was out of their minds. I remember jumping up and the guy beside me gave me a hug and there were tears in his eyes. Then that made me cry. I don’t think anyone even remembered to wave a hanky. We all just kept shouting and congratulating each other. Nothing mattered. We knew we had seen IT—do you know?”
“I wish I did,” I said. “Can you describe what you saw?”
“There was a strange and free atmosphere. It’s often like that at one of those despedidas [farewell] or benefit fights. The toreros wear their campero outfits instead of those clownish suits of lights. The pressure is off and they have a hell of a good time. They seem to forget about the public and fight to please themselves and each other, as though the fight were only a fun capea [a playful picnic-bullfight with young bulls] on one of their farms. Vista Alegre was a small ring and that helped too: everyone felt like part of a party.
“It was Antonio Bienvenida’s good-bye fight. He was one of the most famous bullfighters of the fifties and sixties.
The other toreros were younger than Bienvenida and maybe they tried to show the master that they had learned how to fight a bull.
“Paula had a hell of a reputation and fewer and fewer people believed in him. You saw him bad, I saw him bad, everybody had seen him bad. The last time he was good was so long before that most of us concluded that he had lost his angel. He was old—forty-something. He had been pretty mediocre twenty years before and had given up bullfighting. Now he had come back and the myth started. ‘He’s a wizard,’ they told you. ‘Maybe today he won’t feel like it and tomorrow he won’t feel like it. But the day he does, you will want to build an altar to him.’
Fine. But how long do you wait for him to feel like it?
“The faena [the bullfighter’s work, his performance],” I said. “What was so special about it?”
“It was very slow. The bull was good and cooperated, as though he were trying as hard as Rafael. You could see that Rafeal had made up his mind to fight well. You know that part: we had both seen him entregado [concentrated and trying hard] during the opening moments of a fight. But then when the bull came in wagging its head or refused to charge or passed him too closely, Rafael’s resolution always wavered. You saw him get scared. From then on he just flopped the muleta [the torero’s red cloth] at the bull from a safe distance instead of standing there straight and provoking a true charge.
“Well, this time the bull was a nice guy. It charged straight. It had come to the muleta neither too tired nor too wild—just right. So Rafael could actually go ahead with the rare Stage Two of his fantasy fights. He might have been practicing beautiful passes in his living-room. They were infinitely solemn, deep, and slow. He kept his feet tightly together. There were molinetes [a pass during which the bullfighter revolves as the bull goes by] where he seemed to forget where he was. He spun around ever so slowly, wrapped in the muleta. Fortunately, the bull seemed lost in the same dream and returned only when Rafael was ready for him.
“The olés began early because we could all see what was happening. We also wanted to encourage Rafael too. Please don’t chicken out this time! Please, God, let Rafael have his way!
There were just the right number of passes, probably because Rafael was getting ready to fall off the bike. But this was good. How many faenas are ruined because the torero, seeing his success, draws them out excessively! How many were there? Maybe twenty, twenty-five—just like in the old days of bullfighting, when killing was the aim, not pretty passes.
“Yes, but Rafael was a lousy killer, wasn’t he?” I said. “You must have been very worried he would ruin everything.”
“I think the whole plaza prayed when he went to get his sword. He did look more confident than usual. And the bull squared up right away—it kept helping all it could, that blessed thing.
During that long ten or fifteen seconds when Rafael stood in front of it with his sword in the air, raising and lowering his muleta to see if the bull’s eyes were fixed on it, the plaza was absolutely still. His subalternos at the burladeros were cocked ready to run into the ring and quickly pull out the sword if it ended up scandalously in the wrong place.
“Rafael ran forward in his light way and drove in the sword. The bull horned at the muleta and didn’t even seem to notice the sword. It had landed just in front of his shoulders, where it belongs, but it was only half-way in. ‘Is that going to be enough?’ we wondered. ‘If he has to get the descabello sword and try to kill in his helpless way, adiós, adiós.’
“But then, just when everyone was beginning to philosophize that you can’t have perfection in this life, the bull suddenly lifted its muzzle as though in prayer, backed up a few paces, and fell over dead.
“All kinds of things happened in the ring and in the grandstands then. I will always remember Sebastián Miranda, the 90-year-old sculptor, getting up in his seat and throwing his old hat into the ring. He was a famous aficionado who never missed a fight and he always sat there in his privileged seat in the callejón [the passageway between the fence and the grandstands] without making a sound or showing any emotion except an old man’s worry or grumpiness. He had seen the work of the greatest bullfighters of the twentieth century. You always pictured him saying to himself: ‘These kids nowadays don’t know a thing about bullfighting.’
But on that day and for that “kid” and his faena he took his hat off.”