You have to wonder what really goes through your mind when you see a bull get killed for the first time. It’s been so long that I can’t quite recall, but I think I was almost excited by the idea, which disturbs me somewhat. It wasn’t horror. It wasn’t pleasure either. I know it wasn’t pretty since it was a regular Sunday afternoon off-season bullfight, which is sort of like going to a Friday night welterweight bout in Poughkeepsie, New York. You keep your expectations low and even then you are let down. It was butchery. It explained why those guys aren’t in the big time.
The importance of the kill can depend greatly on how well the bullfight has gone so far. That is, if the bull has responded well and the toreador performed well and, here’s the key, there is a chance for prize to be awarded, then we can say that everything rides on this moment, because to earn a prize (I’ll get to that in a second), in a bullring as prestigious a Madrid’s Las Ventas, the matador has basically got one chance and one chance only to get it right.
He steps over to the wall and switches swords; then he returns. The reason for this has little to do with some ancient tradition and more to do with an everyday problem known as weight. The muleta, or cape, is no wafer-thin silky flag, but rather a thick cloth resembling something along the lines of a drape, a curtain suited for a palace. It weighs in at around 10lbs. To that you can add the pole that supports and a steel sword. That’s a lot to tote around, so they tend to lighten the load with an aluminum substitute.
Anyway, the man comes back, makes a round or two more to get us in the mood and then lines up for the kill. He lowers the cape before him, squares himself with the bull, lines up the handle of the sword before his face, with the rest of the blade aimed in the direction of the animal’s back, bends one knee and lifts the foot so that the toe touches the clay earth…and waits. If there is a moment when silence can reign over an arena filled with 20,000 spectators this is it. Especially if the bullfight has been interesting and there is a chance for a prize to be had. Honest to God, you can hear the toreador’s footsteps on the dirt ground. You could literally hear a pin drop.
Then the two lunge at each other. The key here is to keep the cape low so that the head stays low and allows the matador to get at the back where he can plunge the sword known as the estoque into the right part of the back and kill it quickly.
Oh, if only these things really went as well as we hoped. More often than not, the sword doesn’t go through the right spot, which is through the heart, at least very close by. In many cases because the man is trying to keep a sword from smashing his heart, and the weapon ends up doing a number of different things like…strike a bone and bouncing off, or stopping halfway there and doing little else but cause pain, or, and this is the ugliest of scenarios, puncturing the heart and having the bull cough up gallons of blood before keeling over. That doesn’t always happen, but I tell you, that really gets the tourists filing out and looking for something else to do that evening.
Speaking of the crowd, let me make it clear from here on in that what everyone wants is for the bull to be killed quickly and cleanly, for the bull’s sake more than anything. Four or five stabs can get a round of jeers and protest whistling. The inability to perform this task effectively is an insult to the bull. If the sword doesn’t go in the right way and the bull stays on his feet, or the is down and unable to die…they go for a solid pole which looks like a fire stoker and poke at the back of the neck until they snap the nervous system. Sometimes they have to do this with a dagger at the very end.
When done the right way, the killing can be impressive, a kind of crowning moment. When done the wrong way it can get pretty gruesome, when not horrific.
A team of horses come out to drag the dead animal off the stage. Even though the crowd may applaud as a show of appreciation for the bull’s bravery, the final scene is a pathetic sight and a wholly undignified way of going, especially considering that up to that point has been hanging out in a lush field for four years and had no choice about the matter.