The crowd is brutal, and under the stifling heat, at Madrid's Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas, spectators stand and throw their hands up and unload insults in the direction of the arena. Things are not going well.
The bull has just stumbled after its second charge at the matador; its buckled front legs forcing one long horn to dig into the ground, pitching all 607 kilos of its weight into the air in a sloppy, undignified summersault. The matador struts away from the struggling animal and adjusts his sparkly suit. The observers in the cramped stadium ridicule the bull, which now has a fuchsia-colored nose from a mix of sand, blood and frothy snot.
The matador turns around quickly, shakes his capote -- the famous red cape -- and points his chin to the ground. Because of the novelty of the show, I find myself gawking in morbid fascination, but the crowd is wholly unimpressed with the bull talent.
Throughout the event, the collective emotion of the crowd swings like a pendulum, from near mob mentality to sheer silence, and back again, as if following some strict protocol. I try to keep up.
"Now he's about to go onto a plate of rabo de toro", says the man next to me, chomping on a cigar, and waxing slightly romantic and sarcastic, as the Spanish often do, especially about their food.
Just after the bull is killed, a dressed up cleaning crew of men in teal shirts and red sashes quickly brushes away the blood in the sand with wooden rakes. In the spring evening, just at sunset, I am reminded of the tranquil moments just before a baseball game, as keepers groom the sand of the infield under the lengthening shadows of the stadium walls. And apart from the carcass, the whole scene smacks of sentimentality and perpetuated tradition, almost anachronistic enough to qualify as a historical reenactment.
The next matador steps out, wearing his intricate, tightly fitted traje de luces, or suit of lights, a sequined garment that is presumably meant to accentuate the broadness of shoulders and clenched buttocks, to formalize the glamour and pride of the man. The crowd cheers in obligatory approval as the second act begins.
Probably the most spectacular sequence is at the very beginning of each act. The bullfighter kneels at the gate, at the start of a ritual known in Spanish as larga cambiada, when the bull moves directly at him, suddenly released from his holding chamber and already suspiciously pissed off. The kneeling torero whisks the bull to the side with his capote, prompting loud, approving cheers from the crowd. As I hear the whip of the cape, I blurt out a boyish "Cool!"
But overall, my giddiness is quelled. It is unreasonable to expect that there is any serious effort to minimize the harm done to the bull while at the same time accentuating the appearance of danger to the matador. In fact the opposite is true. It must be a show, with the likelihood of disaster strictly curtailed. Coming at the bull are men on horseback wielding long lances, and others approach from the side and in front; agile men brandishing colorfully decorated, barbed banderillas, which are stabbed two at a time and afterward hang from the bulls flesh.
"What a disaster of bulls today", a seasoned, sun-dried old woman behind me mumbles. She flicks her fan and takes a swig of a cold beer. "Beautiful weather though."
The aficionado would like to consider the bullfight a national celebration, something that is uniquely Spanish. And although bullfighting's following in Spain is by no means universal -- in fact it is almost non existent in Galicia and the Canary Islands, and outlawed altogether in Catalonia -- every day I hear the vernacular that has bled into Spanish speech.
In Madrid and in the south of Spain, bullfights are reported and critiqued in the arts sections of major newspapers and recorded live by TV cameras. Matadors have Facebook pages and tweet updates and appear in gossip magazines. Tickets to bullfights are sold at travel agencies alongside cruise packages and group tapas tours. But I can't help but wonder how long all this will last.
After a few minutes, the second bull now seems to have given up; it gasps in heavy, uneven breaths, the flowery banderillas hanging from its neck. And even though a bull is not easily personified, like a furry meerkat or a baby grizzly bear, still, I feel terrible. When it moves, it simply trots in slow circles. Its vigor has been taken. The matador approaches closely and taunts the bull. But even at this moment, surely, behind the sweaty face of the matador is a fear of tripping, of being condemned by the fickle crowd, of being gored to death. He raises his sword for the final kill, and it is difficult to watch.
I suspect it is the deliberate spectacle that is so appalling about the bullfight. The haughty show of killing an animal so easily provokes contempt and protest. But it is the show that most come to watch. And although some matadors disappoint die-hard aficionados with flamboyance, this crowd is not gathered to witness the practicality of a farmyard slaughterhouse. The matador remains a professional of embellishment; what he does, and it is almost always a man, is nothing short of prancing, like a cat when it notices itself in the mirror.
But in the context of contemporary culture, perhaps he is becoming a pretty relic, a nod to the ways of the old world. It is an antiquated idea, to pit animal against man in an orchestrated spectacle, complete with music, adornments and beautiful coliseums. The modern notion of killing animals has evolved into a more standardized process in the environment of an assembly line, away from the eye of the public, something that is done simply to put packaged food on plates in large quantities. It is not stylized, and it is less debated. The bullfight does not hesitate to put itself in the most visible place possible -- at the center of the arena.
Today, these bulls in Las Ventas are not killed in a rural warehouse or pasture, rather they will die in urban Madrid, by a long shiny sword held by a man in a glittery suit, in repeated moments of truth. And even if the end result is simply packaged meat, it is the matador's existence that has a questionable future.