Torera

an excerpt



Prelude

Interview for Corrida Magazine, 1981



When Lucretia Maria Calderon completed her career as a torera and matadora, a unique chapter in the corrida de toros-the ancient art of bullfighting-came to a close. Unbowed by situations of derision and prejudice, undaunted by wounds, Senorita Calderon, who last fought nine years ago before retiring at the age of twenty-seven, agreed to this interview at her small ranch outside of Sevilla.



Thank you, Senorita Calderon, for allowing us to speak with you in your home.

I'm glad to.

Are you enjoying your retirement?

Do you want an honest answer?

Of course.

I would rather right now be dirty and bloody in the sand.

So you embrace the old maxim about matadors...

Yes. "The true matador never retires, just becomes either wise or dead." I was wise, I suppose, to know the day when I had slowed enough for the bull to catch up to me.

Well, we can go back in time, at least in memory, for an hour or two here on your sunny veranda.

I'll do my best not to bore you, but you must promise me the same. Fair warning. Foolish questions will get short, profane answers.

I suspect you've been asked a lot of foolish questions in your time.

My share.

Such as, "Why become a bullfighter?"

Yes, that is the stupidest of all. I warned you, ask better, or put down your microphone and margarita and fuck off right now.

(Laughs) I'll phrase it differently. Tell me about the things that drew you to the ring in the beginning. Better?

Bueno.

The thought of doing dangerous things always appealed to me even as a small girl. Risk taking and challenges inspired me. Watching my grandfather and the other men in the corrals test the animals, I began to wonder about what a matador in the bullring consciously experiences while confronting the charge of a beast weighing nearly a thousand pounds with lethal horns. After all, the toro bravo, or fighting bull, is said to be faster than a racehorse for the first few hundred feet of a sprint and can turn more quickly than a polo horse.

Of course my mama and even my papa were less than overjoyed when I announced how desperately I wanted to be a torera. They placed obstacles in my path hoping that I would change my mind. My mother demanded that I finish my studies in the arts. She always dreamed that I would follow in her footsteps to become a prima ballerina. My father, though a former matador himself, never openly encouraged me.

In the end, it was a lot of hard work, determination and my grandfather's connections which facilitated the pursuit of my dream. The men in my family spent countless hours and days learning and practicing to be bullfighters. The more I watched and learned, the more I desired to master the art. I like to think that my years of dance prepared me for being one of the best matadors in the ring. When you look at the positions matadors are assuming when twirling and luring the bull in with cape, it's almost art, like a ballet, but really in a woman these are more graceful, more feminine and more natural positions.

Let's talk about the dirt and the blood, and your legacy there. Your arena name. La Encarnado Beso.

Yes. The Red Kiss.

I know red became your signature color. But the kiss?

Well, I delivered the kiss of death with honor to many bulls, did I not? Many brave, many difficult and cowardly. But La Encarnado Beso? It was nothing quite so mythical or profound as that.



Chapter One

July, 1965



Lucretia stood before the bullring stands, sword lowered, its point just above the sand. She shifted her booted feet, then became very still. In the other hand she held the muleta-her brother's-the red cloth frayed a little on the fringe, the stick holding it bent from the time he was tossed and gored, ending his career before it had begun. She inclined her head, requesting permission from the ring president to perform the kill.

Permission was granted with a nod of the man's head, but with a hint of amusement in the president's eyes and around his mouth. Indulging the dilettante woman torera-no doubt wondering if she would blanch when it came time to put the sword in.

Just watch me, senor.

"Viva La Encarnado Beso!" Some fool shouted it from the stands, and though she'd brought that signature on herself, she wished the idiot would shut up.

After the bull is down, shout all you want.

Lucretia raised her gaze to sweep the stands, taking in the blur of expressions on the faces of the spectators, ranging from gaiety to frowning disapproval, but most of all excitement. It didn't matter if the watcher wore colorful and expensive clothes or the plain shirt and trousers of a peasant, a thrill and a madness rested on their features. Other cheers and catcalls rippled through the air, threaded through with music in the background as trumpeters and other players high above the ring added their strains of drama and festivity.

She wanted to turn and show her total lack of fear to Diego, who had fought well earlier today. He would be standing somewhere near the barrera, the red-painted wooden fence that circled the arena, ready with the day's other matadors and banderilleros to lure the bull away from her if she should go down.

What a night we had last night, and what a morning. I wonder what he is thinking, seeing me here on the sands where he has triumphed so many times?

She wondered if perhaps he secretly wanted to see her fail, so that he could swoop in with the other full matadors and be her rescuer. She knew his reputation-hard and driven, living up to his arena name, El Diablo, The Devil. But she also remembered the stubborn, fiercely determined boy he had been when they had first met, so many years ago. How she had admired him!

Men. Her grandfather Raul, who could have had a decent cheap seat as her manager, had paid far too much for a seat in the first row of the gallery. Would he be watching her intently now, feeling the fear that she could not allow in herself, perhaps? Yes, perhaps. But also wanting to see her display style in the climactic moment.

Before driving her from her hotel room here in Pamplona to the Plaza de Toros and the day's fight, her grandfather had pestered and primped her, and gone on and on until she thought she would go crazy, tipping the Córdoban hat on her head to the right, then to the left, seeking for the best angle atop her blonde hair, which had been braided tight at the back of her neck. He'd made sure the Spanish leather chaps tied properly so that the tassels at her waist hung at the front in a dignified manner.

He had looked at her with emotion in his eyes-those eyes that she had so often looked to for the affection that had come to her so rarely at home-and perversely it had made her feel rebellious and petulant.

"Basta, Abuelito! I look like shit, and you know it."

"For one day keep the devil out of your mouth, Luci," he'd admonished. "Today you are a torera. Wear the moment with pride."

"Screw that!" Lucretia had brushed him back-gently, despite the outburst.

He'd simply smiled.

"You are champing for your bull." He had reached forward to arrange the tassels again. "Your blood is rushing. I may have just been a picador, but you think I don't remember?"

"Look at me, in this black and white costume," she'd gone on, "while the matadors will be glittering in their traje de luces. No suit of lights for a woman! Doesn't it make you laugh, Grandpa? While I was dancing in France, I'd go on about bullfighters, and the others in the troupe would laugh at me. ‘What pansies in their pretty sequins!' I used to tell them to screw themselves. So here we are, and my reward for defending the honor and machismo of the fighters is to go into the ring dressed like a tradesman."

She had tugged the black Andalusian jacket down farther over her plain white shirt. Affixed only by the top button, it hung over the shirt in an open triangle.

"What does that matter? Your muleta is worn, but only because it's been held bravely so many times before. And your sword is sharp, since you've been going at it nonstop with a whetstone for a week."

Still steaming, she'd stormed across the room to where she had left her everyday things, rummaging for the small cosmetics case her mother had insisted a lady should never be without. She'd pulled out a bright red lipstick and flourished it before her grandfather.

"Now, Luci..."

Turning away from him toward the mirror, Lucretia had applied the sanguine color to her lips with angry slashes, until satisfied that the vivid red leaped out in contrast to her drab-colored costume.

"It's a woman who fights today." She had favored him with a fierce smile.

"Now, Luci, I've told you. Dignity. Having that on your mouth makes you look like a..."

"Puta?" she had offered. "If someone in the stands calls me a whore, Grandpa, I'll tickle his balls with my sword."

"Your mother," he'd answered doubtfully, "is going to regret having made you carry those cosmetics around."

"Good." Lucretia had continued to smile, tipping her hat so that it tilted the other way. "Now I am ready to go."

Lucretia brought her eyes down from the stands, returning her attention to the moment at hand. The fight had gone moderately well to this point, with the first act, the trial of the lances-that of the picadors on horseback spiking the bull-having produced only one gored horse, to the delight and horror of the crowd. The picador had escaped unhurt. How many times had Grandpa been unhorsed in his day, she wondered? A hundred? More? And yet he sat in the gallery today, smiling and cheering. A picador, like a matador, ended up wise or dead. But Lucretia had seen his wounds when the old man washed. One fine day, she would bear equal badges of bravery. The horse, which could not be saved, had been covered in canvas. She could see it easily from where she stood, the canvas shroud no disguise to the presence of death. Her own brother's specter might be hovering above that lifeless form, a ghost in the ring even now. But she would not think such thoughts.

For the second act, the driving in of the banderillas-harpoon-shaped sticks with steel points placed into the humped muscle at the top of the bull's neck-Lucretia had insisted on doing it herself, though her grandfather had hired good banderilleros to place them for her. She had seen during the work of the picadors that the bull favored his right horn, hooking constantly with it, and she wanted to correct that with the placement of her sticks just so-preparing the bull for the final act, which had at last arrived. The bull had bumped her as she had worked the sticks, raising bruises she would not fully feel for hours yet, and the crowd had roared, again wondering if she would display cowardice.

Never. Let the bull be as difficult as it can. If he gets me, it will be my own damn fault. But he will not get me.

The salutation made and permission gained, Lucretia turned to the bull, which had moved into the center of the ring in the brief interval after the placing of the sticks. A difficult beast, yes, but one which she felt immense gratitude toward, as he had shown courage from the outset, charging into the ring with the power of a conqueror, wanting to fight. Lucretia had dreaded the embarrassment of a bull who would not charge, who only wanted to stand still or to escape. For all the careful breeding and choosing of fighting bulls, you could never be sure how they would react to the ring and the crowds, the attacks of the picadors.

Now he stood there waiting for her, wanting nothing more than to hook her on his horns, toss her, trample her, gore her and destroy her.

Yes, you are a worthy one. I salute you.

Lucretia inclined the sword in that salute, then walked gracefully to the center of the ring, showed the muleta, and shouted "Huh! Huh!" to capture his attention, and draw him in for the final passes. Adrenaline rushed through her as she raised the muleta held in both hands with the sword supporting it. The pase de la muerte, the classic pass of death. For an instant, the crowd, her memories, the men in her life, all of that vanished from her thoughts, as the bull thundered to her. The smell of sweat and blood poured over her, along with the intense animal scent of the enraged bull itself. Going high on her toes, she raised the sword and muleta straight up, and the bull followed, plunging past right under her arms. He hooked at her toward the right, just as she had expected. She had placed the sticks perfectly, so that even protruding from the bull's neck muscles she could evade them with a turn that would have given pride to her old ballet teacher. A roar, the exhale of the frustrated bull mixed with cheers that erupted from the stands, cascaded over her.

Ah! Come at me, toro.

From the band up in the stands came the sound of Dianas, the music played to applaud a good pass. No specific words or phrases could be heard among the crowd now-they had merged into a single throbbing cry and shout, like the sound of the sea.

The bull turned. She stood waiting in the position of another pass of death, her feet together and unmoving. Some toreros, and even seasoned matadors, would shuffle their feet in anticipation and uncertainty, but she would not be so weak. Only strength and grace.

The bull came on, and she rose again, but the bull had learned from the first pass and went higher as he passed her, hooking the bottom edge of the muleta and dragging her in close to his body. Even though his horns had passed her, he thrashed his head right and left, seeking to catch some part of her body on their points. Lucretia pirouetted and actually rolled herself standing along the length of the bull's form, scraping the sticks and scratching her face. Blood appeared on her Andalusian jacket-not her blood, but the bull's. There indeed was a badge of honor. A fighter who walked away at the end of the conflict un-blooded had surely kept a coward's distance. She stumbled slightly as the bull passed her fully and the dubious support of its body was gone. The slip made her angry at herself, but the crowd sent another cheer to high heaven, and more Dianas showered down from the band.

Now they will see me work!

Shifting the muleta to one hand and the sword to the other, she performed a high pass, the pase por altos, and then in succession did three low naturales, causing the bull to turn and pivot in circle after circle. Lucretia worked close-dangerously close, her grandfather would no doubt tell her-but she didn't care. She had entered what the matador called the State of Grace, where her body seemed to move of its own volition, as if turned on a string held by God himself. The plunging, charging, twisting bulk of the bull passed her in what seemed slow motion. She knew she must not become giddy in the moment, but at the same time the feeling of invulnerability made her laugh and shout again and again, taunting the bull with each miss.

The moment is here. Watch me, God, if you are here, for I will be an instrument of death with honor.

She performed a remate, which turned the bull and fixed him in a dead stop. Without hesitation Lucretia raised the sword and went in right between the horns, aiming the point at the one tiny spot between the bones of the bull's neck where it could penetrate. A fraction to the right or left, and it would grate on bone as hard and unyielding as concrete. It went in as if passing through butter. For a moment the beast stood stock still, then he tipped, and over he went, crashing into the sand.

The whole stadium stood, sending roars of approval that Lucretia thought would deafen her. The band played Diana after Diana. She wanted to roar right back at them, but Grandfather's favorite word returned, calming her. Dignity. Turning, she bowed, then stood straight and raised her sword to the crowd.

Flowers, among them a multitude of roses, Panama hats, coins, and God only knows what other tokens, rained down onto the sand. Lucretia ignored them all, conscious only of the fact that someone pressed one of the bull's ears into her hand, symbol of a fight well fought. The exhilaration of it all brought wild joy into her-she blew a kiss from her crimson lips to the stands, which made the crowd delirious, shouting "La Encarnado Beso! Viva! Viva!" This time she didn't mind the nickname. A rose fell right at her feet, and she picked it up, raising it as she had raised her sword in salute.

She looked for Diego...where was he? Ah, leaning against the red barrera fence, lounging there as if he never had a doubt.

El Diablo and La Encarnado Beso.

Shall we celebrate, Diego? The Devil and The Red Kiss?

She took off her Córdoban hat and sent it spinning up into the crowd, then shook out her braided hair to let golden locks tumble down to her shoulders, which raised the crescendo of the cheers to an even greater fever-pitch. A wild extravagance-buying another hat would cut into what would be meager profits from a woman torera's pay. But what did she care? Today a woman fought! This day belonged to her.