Bucket List Worthy
By Jeannie Mark
“I felt I was a fool to be going back into Spain. In Spain you could not tell about anything.” ~ Ernest Hemmingway | The Sun Also Rises
The guidebooks said many things. Breathe in, out. Move nimbly. Don’t drag your heels. Leap. Breathe again. Look backwards. No, don’t look backwards. Pump in a temporary state of madness until you collapse. The most uttered advice – don’t do it at all.
I consider this – a blip in sanity, as bodies shift then press against me. Dawn has burned away to reveal a coppery sun, yet my bare arms are chill. The Old Town’s walls box us in, allowing little room for escape. My eyes hurt against the sea of white uniforms, blood red cloths tied to their throats. Blood is the colour of the heart. This is the regalia of a corredor. Wearing white, the purity of our souls, the scarlet bandanas adopted to mourn a long deceased saint who is now bones and dogma. My fingers trail along my bandanna, recalling how I tightened mine in wake of the news that a Japanese runner was snagged by a horn the day before, at the delicate point of his Adam’s apple.
The warnings were extreme. Diario de Navarra’s headline permanently etched in newsprint called today’s run the worst, the scariest. Cebada Gago is a strange name for a bull. My tongue tries the intonation, rolling its syllables against a sore inside my cheek. It does not register except the memory of black ink from the newspaper smudging my fingers, the translation spinning like a rolodex to reveal words I want to reverse. Cebado means to prime, excite or provoke. This breed of savage cattle from Cadiz, Andalusia, from hinterland and crisp air will be my master for three minutes. Hold mortality in their muscular legs and curved horns. Launch their enormous torsos to a thousand people willing to receive them.
A song rises from the dead, cold cobblestones into the heat of the crowd – it’s dusty – as ancient as the stone walls surrounding us. They sing to Saint Fermin for a reprieve from danger. The song turns into a chant, rippling from the rear until it travels to the front, where I wait.
A sharp smell of sweat, beer and sangria mingles with the chants of the corredors. Underneath these human smells is something bestial – the pungent odor of men. These men emit rawness, the razor edges of testosterone primed and firing, ready for anything. I cite the statistics in my rattled brain: a 20-to-1 ratio of men to women. My earthy, female essence unsettles them. They stare and stand too near, inspecting my smooth skin and curves.
Men embrace, and then huddle in small groups, belting out Spanish songs. They are amigos bound together by a pact to balance on the tightrope of risk. A restless yearning to advance forward and yawn muscles grips the runners, but a formation of police officers holds us back. They are so near I can trace their stubble, feel their breath on my face. They wear sunny yellow vests, contrary to their commanding presence. Nerves ricochet in my intestines when I catch glimpse of runners holding rolled up newspapers, used to connect with a bull’s nose, yet it’s the words that make my knees soften and nearly crumble. Reports of injuries from the previous day in bold serif are unsettling. Go. Don’t stay. Why did I come? To prove my mettle. Be a worthy lover to a man that extols adventure, the man I left a few blocks away tangled in bed sheets and unsaid words. I invent my own chant repeating it over and over – I came for him. I came for him.
The policemen bark at each other, finally moving aside in unison like a chorus line in the middle of a choreographic change over. Giddy with newly anointed freedom, we spill onto the broad avenue of Calle Santo Domingo, flanked by the historic city hall. I take in the ornate columns, the marble statutes, and the baroque carvings decorating the shuttered windows. My eyes rest on the tip of the building; a statue clothed in robes, his cherubic mouth closed around a horn, heralding the call to justice, heaven, perhaps even death. This guardian stands atop the only clock in the town square and its hands tick off time and fate.
Remember: two days ago, at the train station. Anxiety at our first meeting makes me fidget with the straps of my bag. I speak too fast, in gasps of false starts and stops. An eggplant coloured ball cap shields him from the unrelenting sun, obscuring his cobalt eyes and tanned and weathered face. He stoops down to kiss each cheek. I turn up my face to receive him. Now it’s dusk, he guides me, but won’t take my hand into his. We walk past the city hall and it’s glowing – a golden treasure for the senses. Enthralled, I marvel at the sensual statues. Down Estefeta, I want to run my finger across the exterior structures, soak in the slate grey, emerald tones, pale yellows, the Renaissance, the medieval era of God and empires gained or lost. We sip dry wine at Café Iruña, giggle at the cast iron statue of Hemingway, put there as almost an afterthought. By nightfall, his eyes shimmering with lust, mine cloudy with confusion, fright. Run, oh how I want to when he slips his tongue in my quivering mouth. I take him, knowing it will hurt.
I survey Estefeta now, a street where many runners will gamble their lives. There’s nowhere to slip through. Just narrow, crowded in buildings, six stories high with balconies wide enough to only support human bodies, not the detritus of modern consumption. I feel exposed to the balconies. Their twisted wrought iron and dense doors are heavy lidded eyes, following my movements, maybe even trying to intimidate. It’s terribly true as I peer up, the balconies groaning with voyeurs, their hands clutching sleek black cameras, hoping to capture the madness. Suddenly the Old Town feels artificial, constructed of cardboard, just a set piece for this story to play out. A once military stronghold of the Pyrenees, with most of its walls dismantled is now an obsolete war animal.
My eyes wide open, with wonder. Fifty runs, he confirms. He’s done fifty and lived – almost unscathed. The last one stripped flaps of his scalp away. That’s when he retired from the run, enceirro, as the locals call it. His mouth moves – talks about Africa – Masai scarification on his chest that went awry, six magazines demanding his words and pictures. I think of him as a person. For too long a pixelated image of his bare skin, his hands sliding down his abdomen, touching where I wanted to touch. Making me smudge the computer screen. You’re so fascinating. My thong is damp with want. We talk like this for stretches, leaving me aching and excited, fantasizing about our initial meeting. He keeps no secrets. There are other women. I look the other way. This is the first fib I tell myself.
The first horn sounds, which cracks the back of my legs, making them move. My limbs animated by adrenaline, move past Estefeta, then turn left towards Telefonica, a wider street. I gulp air. Anticipation electrifies the crowd – their screams are little explosions – flaring wildly to the sky with no direction, just deafening sound. The police are pulling away interlopers, anyone with improper shoes or the staggering drunks reeking of stale sangria. Runners jump up and down; I jump with them. They stare down the street. I do the same. I mimic their movements out of desperation, not knowing what else to do. Any knowledge that was once in my grasp is a ripped page from a notebook. I know nothing now, except the second horn blasting – pounding at the innards of my skull. The bulls are out.
Every person, every body intent on this run and refusing to comply with common sense jolts forward. I run, because I have to. Because if I don’t, my body will be toppled, buried beneath a pile of jutting arms and contorted legs, that trickling sweaty panic followed by intense pain.
I force my elbows out to protect against invasive hands, hands that shove. My body fights propulsion that might cause a fall or push me towards the middle. There’s nothing to see except the peripheral, blurs of white, dashes of red. Body parts flail at me, striking my ribs, breasts and arms. A hand clasps my bicep – I cry out and turn.
Somehow he’s here, the man I came for. His sun kissed hair flops about casting his middle-aged face in youthful bloom. His blue eyes are striking beneath the shadows of the buildings. He smiles, and then begins speaking, “Yeah, thought it would be a good time to tell you, I’m on the verge of a relationship. Completely out of character.” That bright flash of teeth, on the brink of snickering.
What do you mean! I’m screaming at him, but my chest is heaving so rapidly that the words can’t be coming from my vocal chords. We are foot-to-foot, equal in form and step. I cannot shake him. Something is piercing me – a sharp horn coming from behind. The beasts are overtaking me, will trample me into pulp with their blackened hooves. This punctured feeling won’t dissipate and I look for him beside me – to help me. But he’s gone. A mounting nausea nearly sends me through a gap in the barricades, where I can huddle and brace myself against the wooden planks. This agony is shredding at my heart, tightening my guts, undoing me. What comes is a horrible white light of knowing. You told me this five days ago. Before I set foot off that train. But I came anyway, a kicked puppy desperate for attention. When you led me down Pamplona streets, acted the tour guide at Café Iruña, brought me to your room, pointing out a makeshift bed for me. I am relegated to the floor. When for months, your desire was protruding rudely from your faded jeans. You emerge from the hallway; I spot an erection poking from your waistband. Teasing me, touching between my legs. You confound me. My thong is bone dry.
My head flies backwards, but it is only another runner’s elbow grinding into my back. His mouth is black and cavernous, bellowing fear. We can hear them. I summon my muscles to catch and release, keep alert, but my sides are throbbing, my lungs at a steady burn. Hooves are approaching, their power slamming the cobblestones. The earth beneath quakes, that’s when I catch his scent. Notes of gunpowder and fingers stained with ink from writing into the rosy dawn of day – of whiskey, wood chips and musk. Even at a run he’s swaggering. Such precise movements, watching him makes me feel thirsty. And ravenous, a hunger taking hold, one I can never satisfy. To touch him is the chill of ice in a rocks glass – vibrating and stinging. His moustache is wiry and lush, promise of what his mouth could do to please. I itch to rake through his thick, black hair – muss that slicked back style. We’ll check into Hotel LaPerla, and late in the night, when the town is dead, he’ll chain me to the desk, feed me his stories. I’ll beg for more.
“What did you think? You would come here and he’d kneel before you? Forget himself? That you could be the only one? Don’t be stupid. You’re not a young lass anymore.” His voice is forthright, enunciating the ‘d’ in ‘stupid’ adroitly, in that distant manner of a journalist – delivering what’s necessary.
He continues running with no exertion, like he’s skimming the surface of the pavement, ignorant of the terror and confusion enveloping him at all angles. His forehead is wrinkled but dry, free of perspiration. “A prime bull does what he does, what he’s bred to do, just as man should accept his nature. Holding life and death in our hands, one or the other will win. There’s no room for love. Months before enceirro, the breeders whisper, ‘You will chew on the finest peat, make love to yielding sows all day long. For you, no spears to the throat.’ We don’t lie to you. We tell you what you want to hear.”
Above the din, the snapping cameras and the white and red chaos, is only him. Screams echoing from the balconies freeze. My legs are sailing and trapped in the air, a thin layer of sweat covering my body.
He growls at me, eyes obsidian, radiating disdain. “Look behind you, goddammit!”
I do and two bulls buck towards me. One brother behind the other, their expansive bodies bulging with pure brawn. Dread that’s hot and acidic focuses on the zone – those mollusk shaped horns protruding from their juggernaut heads, swinging uncontrollably.
My shins connect to an immovable object and nearly snap in half, I look down to see a man and woman twined together like newborn twins shivering and afraid of a world that is all noise and illumination.
I wrap my arms around my head and vault over the pair sprawled beneath me. I strain ligaments and cartilage till my skin is in flames. Seconds crawl – achingly slow – giving me time to see what’s next to me. It’s not him, all sandy blond, faded jeans and lies. It’s not my messenger, jet-black hair, and a snarl at his lips, ready with the truth.
His coat is caramel and glossy. So beautiful and dangerous – a feral, untamed creature. If you woke him from slumber it could begin with a stab and end in nothingness. I want to feel what a beast is yet I already know. I accept lies. Build barricades around myself, unable to let anyone in, but desperate to allow it. He stays with me; we connect eyes. Embrace your nature. If I plunge to the right, my fingers could almost brush his woolly fur, to briefly touch the end, when it feels like the beginning. He leaves me, surging past to catch his brother. My eyes follow his hefty rump as runners close around the vacuum left in time and space.
I see myself. Rushing from his apartment with twenty pounds on my back. He’s in the shower and can’t hear me. Doesn’t know, I’m glad for this. I shut the door. Stand against it, wait for violent tears to sting my cheeks and make my lips tremble.
I see myself. Running down what looks to be a chute, directly towards the bullring. I can’t veer off and avoid it. This must happen. There is one last straggler left; I dare not turn back and face him.
The roar of existence, of breath, of what love can be, of what it never was with him – it all floods me. Drives me harder, into oblivion, and for once I don’t care. The bullring is a dome, the shape of a womb and it’s overflowing with thousands of frenzied spectators, banging at the sideboards to witness runners bleed out – all their relief, gratitude and joy dripping in rivulets to the sand. I lose footing, nearly stumbling into a small tower of bodies at the entrance. Their limbs are twisted and unnatural, a grotesque scene from a grainy black and while film of a concentration camp, but they twitch with life and disentangle in fast motion, the film speeding up to a happy ending. Everybody lives this time.
Time culminates, the remaining bull is raging close behind. I swerve within inches and make it inside. Commotion meets anarchy as the chute’s opening spits out a mouthful of dazed runners. They bolt in wild directions as the very last bull explodes through. It is Fugado. 1,000 pounds of muscle fuels those mighty legs, his onyx coat is glistening and writhing and those beady eyes search for more humans to toy with. Pastores descend, coaxing him to a corral, where he and his kin members will wait for the matadors.
Confused runners wander the ring, coming down from the rush. Fighting this eerie sense of floating outside our bodies. We are shell shocked and wild-eyed. The spectators watch us. Pointing fingers. Gawking, judging or photographing. Their voices swell and dip, shouting ole ole, a finely tuned choir serenading the mayhem.
Every cellular compound in my body is sizzling, making popping noises. The urge to dissolve is seductive and my joints nearly succumb. But a pair of hands is keeping me upright. I don’t know him, will never capture his face again, but here he is – gasping, damp and alive. This stranger embraces me, kisses my left eyelid, forcing it closed. His lips are soft and pliant, a warm ocean of intimacy, and then my knees do give way and I arch into him. He wheezes out a lengthy sigh and releases my shoulders, walking away. I stand alone.
An eruption is rising from my gullet; my hand clamps over my mouth, trying to push it down, stop the flow. It comes – an outburst of giddy laughter. Inappropriate. Uncontrollable. Clutching at my stomach muscles, foaming at my mouth, but such a relief. I escaped – free and unscarred. Then I know how Hemingway’s wives must have felt when they flew, threw a plate at his head, put a door between them and him.
I cheated death in Pamplona.
Jeannie Mark is a traveler, writer, and former corporate cog in the wheel who broke free in 2010 to explore the world. She’s been putting the gypsy back into travel and life on her blog, Nomadic Chick, for years.