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El Indultado

by Alexander Fiske-Harrison about a month ago in Short Story · updated about a month ago

'The Pardoned One'

A pardoned bull at Finca El Grullo, Núñez del Cuvillo, Andalusia (Photo: Nicolás Haro)

.... And God made him die during the course of a hundred years and then He revived him and said: "How long have you been here?" "A day, or part of a day," he replied.

The Koran, II 261

He woke to the dark. He had been in the chamber for some time. The grind of steel on concrete had woken him although it was not an unfamiliar sound: he had bad memories of it - of restraint, and of interference.

Earlier, among a flurry of movement and metal, he had lost his brothers. So he had found the dark chamber and put his back into the corner and stood sentinel. After a while, when nothing happened, he slept.

Now, there was a sense of something building around him: motion and smells that were alien. The atmosphere of unrest grew slowly and steadily over some time.

Then, suddenly, there was the screech of metal nearby, and the sound of a brother's hooves upon straw and stone.

The next thing he heard was a shock to him, a throng of voices, greater than all the herds calling together over the hills and forests.

"¡Olé!"

It repeated. And a pause, and repeated. This continued.

He waited his turn, for somehow he knew his turn would come.

Eventually there was the a slapping sound as of leather upon leather, but repeated thousands of times, all at once, and again and again. It seemed to mark the end of something.

The silence that followed brought fear. However, in his powerful body and forthright brain fear was never just fear, it was also fury.

The Minotaur by George Frederic Watts (Courtesy of Tate Britain / Wikimedia Commons)

When the sounds finally came for him, he was ready, charging at its sources, until a last crash came from the end of a tunnel where he could see light. He charged towards it, following an odour-trail rich with a brother's scent.

However, once there he realised that this was not the pasture - the floor was sand - and there was no brother, nor freedom there. The space was bounded by a great fence beyond which was a slope which rose in all directions. On that circular hillside there milled and massed a pack of creatures the like of which he had never seen before.

He raised his head to show his armaments to this multitude, defying all challengers as he had done countless times. He trotted purposefully to the centre of the ring so he could better see them, and they him.

It was standing there that he heard the full version of the noise from before: it was not leather on leather, but more like the flapping of wings of great birds: thousands upon thousands of them.

Then, silence, and then a strange, alien creature stalked out onto the sand, balancing on its two legs.

Whatever this was, it had begun.

He drew a great breath and lowered his horns before exploding to a speed which he knew he would destroy any opponent. Had not he defeated the largest of his herd-brothers? Had he not defeated one so savagely that he had ended unmoving on the grass?

However, as he approached at his gallop, the creature did not flee, but instead extended its wings out towards him.

The Statue And The Storm (Photo: Nicolás Haro)

He aimed for limb closest to him and, to his surprise, he sailed through it as though it were no more than a pile of leaves. He reared his horns upwards in the hope of finding something solid to injure, but it was mere mist, briefly blotting the light from his eyes as he passed.

He pressed his hind-hooves into the sand and, as he thundered to a halt, he heard that other sound again.

"¡Olé!"

He turned and there remained the tall, thin figure, profiled against the early evening sun; and he bunched his vast muscles and sprang again.

Again the figure reached out towards him, and again his horns and vigour poured into some shapeless, formless occluding space.

"¡Olé!"

He turned, he charged.

"¡Olé!"

He turned, he charged.

"¡Olé!"

With one last great effort, his hind legs aching from his massive shifts of momentum, he leapt again, and this time the wings pulled back into the centre of the creature and as he followed them he could feel his flank finally press something solid as he passed.

So there was something there after all, he thought.

Matador José Marí Manzanares (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

His breathing was ragged now, and, since no true attack had come - only empty, formless threats - he stopped himself and stood, rolling his breath out in long blasts that echoed across the ring.

For the first time, in his life - a life marked by his victories - he was at a loss. He had always met novelty and confusion with his rage and strength and had always triumphed: storms passed, sun abated, rain came after drought, grass was plentiful.

However, on this sand, surrounded by this crowd, and faced with this intangible beast who stepped among and around his charge like a calm and elegant ghost, he was hesitant of his next move.

He stood and rested and restored his strength. Whatever came next, he knew he would be victorious only through his one magnificent resource: his power.

It was then that a familiar and hated creature from his past stepped onto the sand to challenge that power.

Tall and thin-legged, aloof, with its head ever up and away from his fearsome horns, this was the one beast whose voice signalled a greater disturbance in his life than the clang of iron.

(Photo: Nicolás Haro)

He stood his ground as this four-legged foe walked calmly around the fence towards him. This one was bigger and heavier than usual, its hide seeming to hang down in great folds on its sides.

At the same time, the space began to fill with more two-legged creatures, all moving as though by some hidden plan. One, two, three... the number kept growing, all in different colours.

Aware of each of the threats around him, it was the large one he kept his focus on. And, when it issued its challenge, he ignored the others and threw himself at it with all his might.

When he had once caught a brother with that level of force both his horns had sunk deep and satisfyingly into its side, and he had felt the hot rush of blood over his face.

This time, though, it was different: the great hide over the side of his enemy allowed neither penetration nor purchase, and his horns skittered over it. So, he adjusted downwards to use the beast's weight against it, but it was like trying to lift a mountain.

In the midst of this struggle, and despite his mind being blood-hot with anger, he felt a stabbing pain above his shoulders which seemed to drill into him. He persevered for as long as he could, but after a while the fatigue and the pain were too much and he turned away from the battle.

He knew now that he was losing.

Exhausted, even as the great opponent moved away from him, and the smaller figures filed off the sand and out of sight, he did not pursue them. He had to recoup what little power he had left.

Now a series of the lesser adversaries formed strange groupings on the field of conflict. One raised its arms above its head and formed a shape that was as familiar to him as the wind or the rain: it was the shape of a pair of horns raised in challenge.

Matador Juan José Padilla (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

He did not even think: he charged.

This time, though, the opponent stepped around his charge, and as he passed he felt a wound like the sting of a scorpion between his shoulder blades.

Twice more he charged the challenging bull that was not a bull, and twice more the wounds came. Despite this, he felt himself somehow grow stronger again, and angrier, which was to him like another form of strength.

By the time these little animals left, he felt ready for what was to come.

The creature from the beginning of this strange world walked out again with a slow, measured tread which told him that it had no fear of him. Then it extended itself towards him in a manner slightly different - only one limb, one wing - placing itself into his terrain. It the extended this part of itself and spoke in a way that sparked a long dormant memory from his own distant past.

"¡Toro heh! ¡Toro heh!"

He began his charge.

This time, partly from tiredness and partly from caution, he charged slowly, at an unflagging canter, and angled his horns into the lure, searching for the body he remembered feeling somewhere in there.

Each time he passed - because he passed slowly - he could turn hard and come back again almost immediately. And each time he found the same extended lure.

His head dipped lower and lower - partly from fatigue, but also from focus - and as he circled and circled his enemy again, he felt himself entering into a hypnotic trance.

He was no longer trying to destroy, he felt, he seemed to be merely following an ever-present invitation to move. This dance became his universe. He did not even hear the chanted olés, only his own ancient instinct and his own blood in his ears.

Matador Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez (Photo: Nicolás Haro)

How much time had passed he did not know: the rest of existence was gone from him now, past and future melded into an eternal present.

Until, for some reason known only to itself, it stopped.

Barely able to see or think, he felt a touch upon his back as though it were the hand of some great deity, a touch that reached over his horns and pressed upon the most injured part of his back. The sound of the thousand beasts in the hills around him was a roar now.

What came after was a blur: the closed circle of sand somehow opened and he followed a series of signals - he did not know how or why - outwards and then he was touched in ways alternately painful and healing. He remembered vaguely another chamber, a moving one like the one which had brought him to that place a hundred years before. And then he was home again.

He slept.

Some time later he was back in the fields. His brothers had gone, but he did not mind, there were many females of his kind around him, and the grass was green, the sun kind, the water clean. He lived a long time but never forgot that world he had entered, fought, defeated and left. He had many children and saw many seasons change, but he remembered those two legged creatures, and still allowed the great four legged ones to move him from pasture to pasture. Because, deep down, he knew he had beaten them all once. He had won.

When a bull, due to its fine appearance and excellent behaviour is worthy of pardon, for the purpose of breeding, the President may grant a pardon when the following circumstances concur: that it is requested by the majority of the public, that the matador expressly requests it and, finally, that the breeder does so as well. The acting matador must, however, simulate the execution of the kill. To this end, he will use something else to replace the sword, such as his hand.

Spanish Law (Royal Decree 145/1996, of February 2. Article 83)

The Author, right, watching the veterinarian heal the pardoned bull (Photo: Nicolás Haro)

Short Story

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

An immersive writer, his books include Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight for which he became a bullfighter The Bulls Of Pamplona, for which he became a bull-runner & his latest The Feldkirch Crossing & Other Short Fictions

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Alexander Fiske-Harrison
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