José Gabriel Bernillo knelt at the altar of his youth—his mother’s faith assaulted his senses. There above him was la Virgen María, the mother of Jesúcristo. Her blue gown glowed in the dimness of the chapel. Golden stars encircled the veil draped over her brow and smoke from votives surrounding her feet wafted heavenward. José inhaled the heavy incense, remembering the warmth of his mother’s eyes, the softness of her breasts cradling his head in an embrace. It had been so long.
Today, he would debut at Sevilla’s Real Maestranza. So, he lit the adoration votives just as his mother had done many times before for his father. Now they were both gone and it was José’s time. His whispered prayers for safety seemed to linger somewhere in the damp recesses of the old chapel unable to find their intended target. He wondered who would witness his struggle today in the plaza. Who would truly care?
And, then just as he was rising to leave this place, something powerful drew him across the iglesia and toward the main altar. The massive retablo told the story of Jesúcristo in finely crafted handcarved scenes. Golden gilt decorated the retablo giving it a glow in the darkness of the gothic Catedral de Sevilla.
Perplexed, José drew closer transfixed by the images before him. It was as if he had never seen the sorrow, the pain, the passion before, despite having frequented the catedral for Mass and confession since childhood.
Figures moved in the candlelight; he witnessed a mother’s sorrow beneath a cross. A battered body, crimson droplets seeping from a fatal wound. José gasped. Crimson red upon the gilt. It couldn’t be. Yet, here within the medieval walls, there were always whispers of miracles. Dare he hope a miracle awaited him as well?
At four o’clock in the afternoon, José stood steadfast in the center of Sevilla’s Real Maestranza circular arena; his spring-like legs flexed inside taunt light golden jodhpurs. Bejeweled in gold opulence, el traje de luces glimmered in the late afternoon sun. Bold epaulettes trimmed his shoulders and a wide cummerbund bound his ribs in some semblance of protection. Shoulder-length mahogany hair was drawn back and bound at his neck. His dark eyes darted about the ring as the heat of his adrenaline sought out another heat-seeking missile standing just behind him.
A musky scent of sticky animal flesh reached José’s nostrils just as a furious breeze erupted from the red silk and José’s left arm skirted a ragged horn. Metallic threads unraveled, beads flew, and fabric meshed with torn flesh. Crimson droplets cried out.
A deafening chorus rang out from the Sevilla mob that encircled the arena. “Olé, olé, olé, olé – the chant was deafening. The heightened drama at the center of the ring ensnared their sense of propriety. Aggression and a thirst for death captivated some. But it was more than that to José for the audience represented a holy fellowship encouraging him on in his faith. His was a sacred mission—a journey towards redemption and healing.
José danced the volapié with his four-legged partner as they left frenzied footprints in the sand. Bursts of color and a sense of purpose spiraled out of control in the Sevilla wind.
As the dance with death reached its climax, José’s heart raced in anticipation. Every paseo brought him closer to overcoming; nearer to the sweetness of redemption that only El Cristo could bestow.
The animal bowed to the man. The man dropped the muleta, revealing his ultimate weapon—the estoque and with it the opportunity to master the beast. The sword of truth was on his side.
Both knew the moment had come. No turning back. The charge came and with one graceful lunge and arms raised high, sword and man became one. The weapon sliced the air delivering a swift strike.
José knelt beside the downed bull. Three colorful banderillas protruded from the beast’s neck along with the fateful sword and a blaze of crimson. He finally understood.
As the audience erupted in praise, José closed his eyes, tilted his head heavenward and murmured a prayer of thanksgiving.
The bull was all the pent up anger of the ages. He was pride and ugliness. He was despair and regret. He was the tortured soul of sin; the tortured soul of a matador; the tortured soul of man.
In el Cristo there was victory.
El traje de luces – suit of lights, a matador’s unique, embellished garment
Volapie – final act of a bullfight
Paseo – walk, pass
Muleta – red cape
Estoque – small sword
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