Spanish bullfighter Cristina Sanchez shows her skills in the Campo Pequeno bullring in Lisbon.
Spanish bullfighter Cristina Sanchez shows her skills in the Campo Pequeno bullring in Lisbon.
Spanish bullfighter Cristina Sanchez shows her skills in the Campo Pequeno bullring in Lisbon. (Associated Press)

La Matadora Revisa Su Maquillaje (The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup)

In the 500 dusty years of refined yet raw Spanish ritual, one young matador stands quite apart from the others

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I went to Spain not long ago to watch Cristina Sánchez fight bulls, but she had gotten tossed by one during a performance in the village of Ejea de los Caballeros and was convalescing when I arrived. Getting tossed sounds sort of merry, but I saw a matador tossed once, and he looked like a saggy bale of hay flung by a pitchfork, and when he landed on his back he looked busted and terrified. Cristina got tossed by accidentally hooking a horn with her elbow during a pass with the cape, and the joint was wrenched so hard that her doctor said it would need at least three or four days to heal. It probably hurt like hell, and the timing was terrible. She had fights scheduled each of the nights she was supposed to rest and every night until October—every night, with no breaks in between. It had been like this for her since May, when she was elevated from the status of a novice to a full matador de toros. The title is conferred in a formal ceremony called “taking the alternativa,” and it implies that you are experienced and talented and that other matadors have recognized you as a top-drawer bullfighter. You will now fight the biggest, toughest bulls and will probably be hired to fight often and in the most prestigious arenas. Bullfighting becomes your whole life, your everyday life—so routine that “sometimes after you’ve fought and killed the bull you feel as if you hadn’t done a thing all day,” as Cristina once told me. 

When Cristina Sánchez took her alternativa, it caused a sensation. Other women before her have fought bulls in Spain. Many have only fought little bulls, but some did advance to big animals and become accomplished and famous, and a few of the best have been declared full matadors de toros. Juanita Cruz became a matador in 1940, and Morenita del Quindio did in 1968, and Raquel Martinez and Maribel Atienzar did in the eighties, but they all took their alternativas in Mexico, where the standards are a little less exacting. Cristina is the first woman to have taken her alternativa in Europe and made her debut as a matador in Spain.

There was a fight program of three matadors—a corrida—scheduled for the Madrid bullring the day after I got to Spain, and I decided to go so I could see some other toreadors while Cristina was laid up with her bad arm. One of the three scheduled to perform was the bastard son of El Cordobes. El Cordobes had been a matador superstar in the sixties and a breeder of several illegitimate children and a prideful man who was so possessive of his nickname that he had once sued this kid—the one I was going to see—because the kid wanted to fight bulls under the name El Cordobes, too. In the end, the judge let each and every El Cordobes continue to be known professionally as El Cordobes.

The kid El Cordobes is a scrubbed, cute blonde with a crinkly smile. Outside the rings where he is fighting, vendors sell fan photos of him alongside postcards and little bags of sunflower seeds and stuffed-bull souvenirs. In the photos, El Cordobes is dressed in a plaid camp shirt and acid-washed blue jeans and is hugging a good-looking white horse. In the ring, he does some flashy moves on his knees in front of the bull, including a frog-hop that he times to make it look like he’s going to get skewered. These tricks, plus the renown of his name, have gotten him a lot of attention, but El Cordobes is just one of many cute young male matadors working these days. If his knees give out, he might have nothing.

On the other hand, there is just one Cristina, and everyone in Spain knows her and is following her rise. She has gotten attention far outside of Spain and on television and in newspapers and even in fashion magazines; other matadors, even very good ones, fuse in the collective mind as man-against-bull, but every time Cristina kills a bull she forms part of a singular and unforgettable tableau—that of an attractive, self-possessed young woman elegantly slaying a large animal in a somber and ancient masculine ritual—and regardless of gender she is a really good matador, and she is being painstakingly managed and promoted, so there is no saying where her celebrity will stop. This is only her first season as a full matador, but it has been a big event. Lately El Cordobes or his publicist or his accountant has been igniting and fanning the rumor that he and Cristina Sánchez are madly in love, with the hope that her fame will rub off on him. She will probably be more and more acclaimed in the four or so years she plans to fight, and she will probably be credited with many more putative love affairs before her career is through.

I asked if bulls ever haunted her dreams, and she said, “I don’t dream much at all, but a few times I’ve dreamed that a bull was pursuing me in the ring, up into the stands. And the night before my debut in Madrid, I did dream of bulls with huge, twisted horns.”

Before the fight in Madrid, I walked around to the back of the bullring and through the patio de caballos, the dirt-floored courtyard and stable where the picadors’ horses and the donkeys that drag away the dead bull after the fight relax in their stalls and get their hair combed and get fed and get saddled. I was on my way to the bullfighting museum—the Museo Taurino—which is in a gallery next to the stalls. It was a brilliant day with just a whiff of wind. In the courtyard, muscle men were tossing equipment back and forth and unloading a horse trailer. Another 20 or so men were idling in the courtyard in the few pockets of shade or near the locked door of the matadors’ chapel, which is opened before the fight so the matadors can stop in and pray. The idlers were older men with bellies that began at their chins and trousers hiked up to their nipples, and they were hanging around just so they could take a look at the bulls for tonight’s fight and see how they were going to be divvied up among the three matadors. Really, there isn’t a crumb of any piece of bullfighting that goes unexamined by aficionados like these men. I lingered for a minute and then went into the museum. I wandered past the oil portraits of Manolete and Joselito and of dozens of other revered bullfighters, and past six stuffed and mounted heads of bulls whose names were Paisano, Landejo, Mediaonza, Jocinero, Hermano, and Perdigon—they were chosen for the museum because they had been particularly mean or unusual-looking or because they had killed someone famous. Then I stopped at a glass display case that had in it a picture of the matador Juanita Cruz. The picture was an eight-by-ten and looked like it had been shot in a studio. Juanita Cruz’s pearly face and her wedge of a chin and her pitch-black hair with its tiny standing waves were blurred along the edges, movie-star style. She looked solemn, and her eyes were focused on middle space. In the case next to the picture were her pink matador knee socks and her mouse-eared matador hat and one of her bullfighter suits. These are called traje de luces, “suit of lights,” and all toreadors wear them and like to change them often; Cristina has half a dozen, and Juanita Cruz probably owned 20 or so in the course of her bullfighting career. This one was blush-pink with beautiful gold piping and sparkly black sequins. It had the classic short, stiff, big-shouldered, box-shaped toreador jacket but not the capri-like trousers that all matadors wear, because Juanita Cruz fought in a skirt. There is no such thing as a matador skirt anymore—Cristina, of course, wears trousers. I looked at the skirt for a while and decided that even though it looked unwieldy it might actually have been an advantage—in a skirt, you can bend and stretch and lunge with a sword unconstrained. On the other hand, a skirt would have exposed so much fabric to the bull that in a fight it would have gotten awfully splashed and smeared with blood. Every matador has an assistant who is assigned to clean his suit with soap and a toothbrush after every fight. Juanita Cruz was popular and well accepted even though she was an anomaly, but late at night, as her assistant was scrubbing her big bloody skirt, I bet he cursed the fact that she had been wearing so much fabric while sticking swords into bulls.

I went to visit Cristina at home the morning before she was going to be fighting in a corrida in a town called Móstoles. It was now a week since her injury, and her elbow apparently had healed. Two days earlier, she had tested it in a fight in Cordobes and another the following day in Jaén, and a friend of mine who reads Madrid’s bullfight newspaper told me Cristina had gotten very good reviews. It turns out that I was lucky to catch her at home, because she is hardly there during the bullfighting season—usually she keeps a rock star schedule, leaving whatever town she’s in with her crew right after she fights, driving all night to the next place on her schedule, checking into a hotel, sleeping until noon, eating lunch, watching some television, suiting up, fighting, and then leaving again. She was going to be at home this particular morning because Móstoles is only a few miles from Parla, the town where she and her parents and sisters live. She had come home the night before, after the fight in Jaén, and was planning to spend the day in Parla doing errands. The corrida in Móstoles would start at six. The assistant who helps her dress—he is called the sword boy, because he also takes care of all her cutlery—was going to come to the apartment at five so she could get prepared and then just drive over to the bullring already dressed and ready to go in her suit of lights. Parla is an unglamorous place about 40 minutes south of Madrid; it is a kernel of an old village that had been alone on the wide open plains but is now hemmed in by incredibly ugly high-rise apartment buildings put up in the midsixties for workers overflowing the available housing in Madrid. The Sánchez apartment is in a slightly less ugly and somewhat shorter brick building on a busy street, on a block with a driving school, a bra shop, and a bank. There is no name on the doorbell, but Cristina’s father’s initials are barely scratched into a metal plate beside it. These days it is next to impossible to find Cristina. The nearly unmarked doorbell is the least of it. Cristina has a magician press agent who can make himself disappear and a very powerful and self-confident manager—a former French bullfighter named Simon Casas—who is credited with having gotten her into the biggest bullrings and the best corridas in the country but is also impossible to find and even if he were findable he would tell you that his answer to your request to speak to Cristina is no. He is especially watchful of her international exposure. Simon Casas didn’t know I was coming to see Cristina in Parla and he might have disapproved simply to be disapproving, and after I saw him later that afternoon in Móstoles, prowling the perimeter of the bullring like an irritable wild animal, I was that much gladder I’d stayed out of his way.

Anyway, Cristina wasn’t even home when I got there. I had driven to Parla with my translator, Muriel, and her bullfighter husband, Pedro, who both know Cristina and Cristina’s father, Antonio, who himself used to be a bullfighter—if it sounds like just about everyone I encountered in Spain was or is a bullfighter, it’s true. We needed to see Cristina for my interview and then get right back, because Pedro had a bullfight that night in a town on the other side of Madrid. No one answered the doorbell at the apartment. Cristina’s car wasn’t around, so it looked like she really was gone. A car is the first thing matadors seem to buy themselves when they start making big money—that is, when they start getting sometimes as much as tens of thousands of dollars for a major fight. The bullfighter car of choice is a Mercedes, but Cristina bought herself a bright red Ford Probe, which is much sportier. She also bought her mother a small business, a gift store. We decided to wait a bit longer. Pedro killed time by making some bullfight business calls on his cellular phone. Just as we were debating whether to go looking for Cristina at her mother’s store, Mrs. Sánchez came around the corner, carrying a load of groceries; she said Cristina was at the bank and that in the meantime we could come upstairs. We climbed a few flights. The apartment was tidy and fresh-looking and furnished with modern things in pastel tones, and in the living room there were a life-size oil painting of Cristina looking beautiful in her suit of lights, two huge photographs of Cristina in bullfights, one of her as a civilian, a large photograph of the older Sánchez daughter getting married, and a big-screen TV. On almost every horizontal surface there was a bronze or brass or pewter statuette of a bull, usually bucking, its withers bristling with three or four barbed harpoons called banderillas, which are stuck in to aggravate him before he is killed. These were all trophies from different corridas and from Cristina’s stint as a star pupil at the Madrid bullfighting school. Lots of Cristina’s stuff was lying around the room. On the dining table were stacks of fresh laundry, mostly white dress shirts and white T-shirts and pink socks. On the floor were a four-foot-long leather sword case, three hatboxes, and a piece of luggage that looked like a giant bowling-ball bag, which is a specially designed case for a matador’s $20,000 suit jacket. Also, there was a small black Kipling backpack of Cristina’s, which cracked me up because it was the exact same backpack that I was carrying.

Mrs. Sánchez was clattering around in the kitchen, making Cristina’s lunch. A few minutes later, I heard the front door scrape open, and then Cristina stepped into the room, out of breath and flustered about being late. She is 25 years old, and has chemically assisted blond hair, long eyelashes, high cheekbones, and a tiny nose. She looks really pretty when she smiles and almost regal when she doesn’t, but she’s not so beautiful that she’s scary. This day, she was wearing blue jeans, a denim shirt with some flower embroidery, and white slip-on shoes with chunky heels, and her hair was held in a ponytail by a sunflower barrette. She is not unusually big or small. Her shoulders are square and her legs are sturdy, and she’s solid and athletic-looking, like a forward on a field hockey team. Her strength is a matter of public debate in Spain. The weakest part of her performance is the very end of the fight, when she’s supposed to kill the bull with one perfect jam of her sword, but she often doesn’t go deep enough or in the right place. It is said in certain quarters that she simply isn’t strong enough, but the fact is that most matadors mess up with the sword. Later, when we were talking, I brought it up, and she shook her head and said, “People who don’t understand the bullfighting world think you have to be extremely strong, but that’s not the case. What is important is technique and experience. You have to be in good shape, but you don’t have to match a man’s strength. Besides, your real opponent is the bull, and you can never match it in strength.”

Her mother came in and out of the room a few times. When she was out, Cristina said in a low voice, “I’m very happy with my family, but the time comes when you have to be independent.” The tabloids have reported that she has just bought a castle on millions of enchanted acres. “I bought a small piece of property right near here,” she said, rolling her eyes. “I’m having a house built. I think when I come back from my winter tour in South America I’ll be able to move in.”

The bull came out. He was brownish-black, small-chested, wide-horned, and branded with the number 36. Cristina, the other two matadors of the day, and Cristina’s picadors and banderilleros spread out around the ring holding hot-pink capes, and each one in turn would catch the bull’s attention, tease him into charging, and then the next person would step forward and do the same.

What I really wanted to know was why in the world she decided to become a bullfighter. I knew she’d grown up watching her father fight, so it had always been a profession that seemed normal to her, even though at the ring she didn’t see many girls. Plus she doesn’t like to sit still. Before she started training to be a matador, she had worked in a beauty parlor and then as a typist at a fire-extinguisher factory, and both jobs drove her crazy. She is a very girly girl—she wears makeup, she wants children, she has boyfriends—but she says she could only imagine doing jobs which would keep her on her feet, and coincidentally those were jobs that were mostly filled by men. If she hadn’t become a matador, she thinks she would have become a trainer at a gym, or a police officer, or perhaps a firefighter, which used to be her father’s backup job when he was a bullfighter, in the years before he started advising her and became a full-time part of her six-person crew. She didn’t become a woman matador to be shocking or make a feminist point, although along the way she has been shunned by some of her male colleagues and there are still a few who refuse to appear in a corrida with her. Once, in protest, she went to Toledo and instead of having a corrida in which three matadors each killed two bulls, she took on all six bulls herself, one by one. She said she wants to be known as a great matador and not an oddity or anecdote in the history of bullfighting. She simply loves the art and craft of fighting bulls. Later that day, when I saw her in the ring, I also realized that besides loving the bullfight itself she is that sort of person who is illuminated by the attention of a crowd. I asked her what she’ll do after she retires from the ring in three or four years. “I want to have earned a lot of money and invested it wisely,” she said. “And then I want to do something in the movies or on TV.”

She mentioned that she was eating early today because she had a stomachache. With a fight every night for months, I suppose there would be nights when she felt crummy or wasn’t in the mood. Cristina laughed and said, “Yeah, sometimes you do feel like, oh God, I don’t have the slightest desire to face a bull this afternoon!” Personally, I’m not a huge coward, but the phrase “desire to face a bull” will never be part of my life, any afternoon, ever. I figured that nothing must scare her. She shook her head and said, “Failure. My greatest fear is failure. I’m a woman who is a fighter and I always think about trying to surpass myself, so what I most fear is to fail.”

Just then, Mrs. Sánchez came into the room and said the sandwiches were ready, so Cristina started to get up. She paused for a moment and said, “You know, people think that because I kill bulls I have to be really brave, but I’m not. I’m a sensitive person, and I can get super-terrified. I’m afraid of staying home by myself, and I get hysterical if I see a spider.” I asked if bulls ever haunted her dreams, and she said, “I don’t dream much at all, but a few times I’ve dreamed that a bull was pursuing me in the ring, up into the stands. And the night before my debut in Madrid, I did dream of bulls with huge, twisted horns.”

I had seen the first bullfight of my life a few days earlier, on that night in Madrid, and it was a profound education. I learned that I should not eat for several hours beforehand and to start looking away the minute the picadors ride in on their stoic-looking blindfolded horses, because their arrival signaled that the blood and torment would begin. At first, in Madrid, I had been excited because the Plaza de Toros is so dramatic and beautiful, and also the pageantry that began the corrida was very nice, and when the first bull galloped in, I liked watching it bolt around the ring and chase the matador and his assistants until they retreated behind the small fences around the ring that are there for their protection. The small fences had targets—bull’s-eyes, actually—painted on them. The bull would ram into them with its horns and the fence would rock. The more furious bulls would ram again and again, until the matador teased them away with a flourish of his cape. The bulls were homely, with little heads and huge briskets and tapered hips, and they cornered like schoolbuses and sometimes skidded to their knees, but they had fantastic energy and single-mindedness and thick muscles that flickered under their skin and faces that didn’t look vicious at all and were interesting to watch. Some of the fight was wonderful. The matador’s flourishes with the shocking pink and bright yellow big cape and his elegance with the small triangular red one; the sound of thousands of people gasping when the bull got very close to the cape; the plain thrilling danger of it and the fascination of watching a bull be slowly hypnotized; the bravery of the picadors’ horses, which stood stock-still as the bull pounded them broadside, the flags along the rim of the ring flashing in the late-afternoon light; the resplendence of the matador’s suit in that angling light, especially when the matador inched one foot forward and squared his hips and arched his back so that he was a bright new moon against a sky of sand with the black cloud of a bull racing by. I loved the ancientness and majesty and excitement of it, the way bullfighting could be at once precious and refined yet absolutely primal and raw. But beyond that I was lost and nauseous and knew I didn’t understand how so many people, a whole nation of people, weren’t shaken by the gore and the idea of watching a ballet that always, absolutely, unfailingly ends with a gradual and deliberate death. I didn’t understand it then, and I doubt I ever will.

In the little brick bullring in Móstoles, Cristina killed two bulls well but not exceptionally—for the first kill the judge awarded her one of the bull’s ears, but for the second she got no award at all. A once-in-a-lifetime sort of performance would have earned two ears, a tail, and a hoof. After that second fight Cristina looked a little disgusted with herself, and she hung back and talked for several minutes with her father, who was standing in the crew area, before she came out and took the traditional victory walk around the ring. She was clearly the crowd favorite. People wave white handkerchiefs at bullfights to indicate their support; in Móstoles it looked like it was snowing. As she circled the ring, men and women and little kids yelled, “Matadora! Matadora!” and “Olé, Cristina!” and tossed congratulatory sweaters and flowers and shoes and blazers and sandwiches and a Levi’s jacket and a crutch and a cane, and then a representative of a social club in Móstoles stepped into the ring and presented her with an enormous watermelon.

After the fight, Cristina left immediately for Zaragoza, where she would have her next fight. I went back to Madrid to have dinner with Muriel and Pedro. Pedro had just finished his fight, and he looked very relaxed and his face was pink and bright. The restaurant, Vina P, was practically wallpapered with old and new fight posters and photographs of bullfighters and some mounted bulls’ heads. Its specialty was slabs of beef—since the animals killed in bullfights are butchered and are highly sought after for dining, the specialty of the house might occasionally be straight from the bullring. Pedro said Vina P was a bullfighters’ restaurant, which means it is the rough equivalent of a sports bar frequented by real athletes in the United States. Before I got to Spain I imagined that bullfighting was an old and colorful tradition that was preserved but isolated, a fragile antique. Cristina Sánchez would be honored, but she would be in the margins—it would be as if she were the very best square dancer in America. Instead, she looms, and bullfighting looms. There are tons of restaurants in every city that are bullfighter- and bullfight-aficionado hangouts, and there are pictures and posters of bullfights even in the restaurants that aren’t, and there is the bullfight newspaper and regular television coverage, and every time I turned around I was in front of the headquarters of some bullfight association. At a gas station in a nowhere place called Otero de Herreros the only bit of decoration I saw was a poster for an upcoming fight; it happened to have a picture of Cristina on it. The biggest billboards in Madrid were ads for Pepe Jeans, modeled by Francisco Rivera Ordóñez, Matador de Toros. Mostly because of Cristina, bullfight attendance is up and applications to the Madrid bullfighting school are up, especially with girls. The Spanish tabloids are fat with bullfighter gossip, and they are really keen on Cristina. That night while we were eating dinner, Pedro noticed a gorgeous young man at another table and whispered that he was a Mexican pop singer and also Cristina’s old boyfriend, whom she’d recently broken up with because he’d sold the story of their relationship to the celebrity press.

I had planned to leave Spain after the fight in Móstoles, but when I heard that Cristina was going to fight soon in a town that was easy to get to, I decided to stay a few more days. The town was called Nava de la Asunción, and to get there you head north from Madrid over the raggedy gray Sierra de Guadarrama and then onto the high golden plain where many fighting bulls are raised. The occasion for the fight was the Nava town fair. According to the local paper, “peculiar and small amateur bullfights used to be done in the fenced yards of local houses until for reasons of security it was recommended to do away with these customs.” The bulls were always chased through the fields in the morning so the townspeople can see what they were like. The paper said, “Traditionally there are accidents because there is always a bull that escapes. There is maximum effort put out to be sure that this does not occur, even though it is part of the tradition.” It also said, “To have Cristina Sánchez in Nava is special.” “The Party of the Bulls—Cristina Sánchez will be the star of the program!” “Cristina Sánchez will show her bullfighting together with the gifted Antonio Borrero Chamaco and Antonio Cutino—a great bill in which the star is, without a doubt, Cristina Sánchez.”

Nava is the prettiest little town, and on the afternoon of the fight there was a marching band zigzagging around and strings of candy-colored banners hanging along the streets, popping and flapping in the wind. Just outside the bullring a few vendors had set up booths. One was selling soft drinks, one had candy and nuts, one had every manner of bullfighter souvenir: T-shirts with matador photos, pins with matador photos, photo cigarette lighters and key chains, autographed photos themselves, and white hankies for waving at the end of the fights. Of the nine photo T-shirts, seven were of Cristina. Six were different pictures of her either posing in her suit of lights or actually fighting. The other one was a casual portrait. She was dressed in a blue blouse trimmed with white daisy embroidery, and her blond hair was loose and she appeared to be sitting in a park. A nun came over to the souvenir booth and bought a Cristina photo-hankie. Big-bodied women with spindly little daughters were starting to gather around the booth and hold up first one Cristina T-shirt and then another and finally, sighing, indicate that they would take both. Skittery little boys, sometimes with a bigger boy or their fathers, darted up and poked through the stuff on the table and lingered. After a while, a couple of men pushed past the throng, lugging a trunk marked C. SÁNCHEZ toward the area under the bleachers where the matadors and picadors were getting ready. Now and then, if you looked in that direction, you could catch a glimpse of someone in a short sequined jacket, and until the band came thundering by you could hear the hollow clunking of hooves and the heavy rustling of horses and donkeys.

The tickets were expensive whether you bought one for the sunny side or the shade, but every row was packed and every standing-room spot was taken. The men around me were smoking cigars and women were snacking on honey-roasted peanuts, and every few minutes a guy would come through hawking shots of Cutty Sark and cans of beer. Young kids were in shorts and American basketball-team T-shirts, but everyone else was dressed up, as if they were going to a dinner party at a friend’s. At 5:30, in slanting sunlight, the parade of the matadors and their assistants began. Each of them was dressed in a different color, and they were dazzling and glinting in the sun. In a box seat across the ring from the entrance gate were the sober-looking judge and three girls who were queens of the fair, wearing lacy white crowns in their hair. Antonio Borrero “Chamaco” fought first, and then came Cristina. She was wearing a fuchsia suit and had her hair in a braid and had a look of dark focus on her face. When she and her assistants entered the ring, a man stood up in the stands and hollered about how much he admired her and then an old woman called out that she wanted Cristina to bless a little brooch she had pinned on her shawl.

It seems that bullfighting is such a strange pursuit and the life bullfighters lead is so peculiar and the sight and the sound and the smell of the whole thing is so powerful and so deadly that it could only exist where strangeness is expected and treasured and long-standing and even a familiar part of every day.

The bull came out. He was brownish-black, small-chested, wide-horned, and branded with the number 36. Cristina, the other two matadors of the day, and Cristina’s picadors and banderilleros spread out around the ring holding hot-pink capes, and each one in turn would catch the bull’s attention, tease him into charging, and then the next person would step forward and do the same. It was like a shoot-around before a basketball game. Meanwhile, the matadors had a chance to assess the bull and figure out how fast he moved and if he faked right and passed left or if he seemed crazy. This bull was a sprinter, and all around the ring the capes were blooming. Then two picadors rode out and positioned their horses at either end of the ring, and as soon as the bull noticed one, he roared toward it, head down, and slammed into the padding that protected the horse’s flank. The picadors stabbed the bull with long spears as he tangled with the horse. After he was speared several times by each picador, he was lured away by the big capes again. A few moments later, the ring cleared, and a banderillero sprinted into the ring carrying a pair of short, nicely decorated harpoons. He held them high and wide. Eventually the bull lunged toward the banderillero, who ducked out of the way of the horns and planted the banderillas into the bull’s withers. Then a second banderillero did the same thing. The bull was panting. The band burst into a fanfare, and then Cristina came out alone, carrying a small red heart-shaped cape. She stood at attention and tipped her hat to the judge—asking permission to kill the bull—and then turned and glanced just slightly toward her father, who was standing between the seats and the ring. The bull stood motionless and stared at her. For ten minutes or so she seduced him toward her, and just as he thought he was about to kill her, she diverted him with dizzying, rippling, precise swings of her cape—first a windmill, then a circle, then a chest pass, where the bull rushes straight toward and then under the cape. As the bull passed her, Cristina’s back was as arched as a scythe. When the bull was swooning, she stood right in front of him, rubbed his forehead lightly with the flat of her sword, and then spread her arms, yelled something, and dropped down on one knee. The bull looked like he might faint.

Then she started getting ready to kill him. She walked over to her sword boy and traded him for her longest, sharpest blade. The band was toodling away on some brassy song, and after a moment she glowered and thrust her hand up to stop it. She drew the bull toward and past her a few more times. On one pass, she lost her grip on her cape and her father shot up from his seat and the crew raced in to help her, but without even looking up she waved them away. Then the bull squared up and she squared up. His fat beige tongue was now hanging out, and a saddle-blanket of blood was spreading from the cuts that the picadors and the banderilleros had made. Cristina’s eyes were fixed with a look of concentration and command, and her arm was outstretched, and she lined up the bull, her arm, and her sword. She and the bull had not seen each other before the fight—matadors and bulls never do, the way grooms avoid brides on their wedding day—but she now stared so hard at him and he at her that it looked as if each was examining the other through and through.

When it was over, she got flowers, wineskins, berets, bags of olives, loafers, crutches, more wineskins, hundreds of things shoved at her to autograph, and both of the bull’s black ears. The bull got two recumbent laps of the ring, hauled around by a team of donkeys, and there was a butcher with a five-o’clock shadow and black rubber hip boots waiting for him as soon as the team dragged him through the door. When the whole corrida was finally over, a leftover bull was let loose in the ring, and anyone with nerve could hop in with him and fool around. Most people passed on that and instead filed out of the stands, beaming and chatting and slapping backs and shaking hands. Just outside the front gate was a clean white Peugot van with CRISTINA SÁNCHEZ stenciled in script on the front and the back, and in it were a driver and Cristina and Cristina’s father and her crew, still dressed in their sumptuous fight clothes, still damp and pink-faced from the fight. Cristina looked tremendously happy. The van couldn’t move, because the crowd had closed in around it, and everyone was waving and throwing kisses and pushing papers to autograph through the van’s windows, and for ten minutes or so Cristina signed stuff and waved at people and smiled genuinely and touched scores of outstretched hands. It was such a familiar picture of success and adoration and fame, but it had a scramble of contradictory details: Here was an ancient village with a brand-new bullring, and here was a modern new car filled with young and able people wearing the uniforms of a sport so unchanging and so ritualized that except for the fresh concrete and the new car and the flushed blond face of Cristina it all could have been taking place a hundred years in the future or a hundred years ago.

At last Cristina whispered “no mas” to the driver, and he began inching the van down the driveway and then out toward the highway, and soon you could only see a speck in the shape of the van. The town of Nava then returned to normal. Cristina was going on to fight and fight and fight until the end of the European season, and then she planned to fly to South America and fight and then to Mexico and fight and then to return to Spain and start the season again. Once someone suggested that she try to get a Nike contract, and once she told me that she would love to bring bullfighting to America. But it seems that bullfighting is such a strange pursuit and the life bullfighters lead is so peculiar and the sight and the sound and the smell of the whole thing is so powerful and so deadly that it could only exist where strangeness is expected and treasured and long-standing and even a familiar part of every day.

It was now deep evening in Nava, and the road out had not a single streetlight. Outside town the road cut through huge unlit pastures, so everything in all directions was pure black. No one was on the road, so it felt even more spooky. Then a car pulled up behind me, and after a moment it sped up and passed. It was a medium-size station wagon driven by a harried-looking man, and there was a shaggy dappled-gray pony standing in the back. The man had the interior lamp turned on, maybe for the pony, and it made a trail of light I could follow the whole way back to Madrid.

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