Editor’s note: We continue our series of short fiction this month with a contribution about a desire to run with the bulls. The path is a bit beaten, but I’d class this as “adventure.”
By Kyle Owens
Phillip poured himself a cup of coffee and went over to the other side of the room, sitting down on the window sill. He felt a light breeze flow through the opened casement windows as he sipped his coffee before he sat the cup down on a nearby table. He took out his cell phone from his right pant pocket and cartwheeled it between his right thumb and forefinger against his thigh. He glanced over at the black circular clock on the wall and it was 7:58AM.
He looked down at the crowd from his first floor room and they seemed to have changed from earlier in the morning. Then they were rowdy and loose, but now they seemed tenser and quiet like a boxer about to face a superior opponent.
Suddenly, the still morning erupted. The sound of a rocket being fired chased by ringing cowbells and a crowd’s roar punched the air. Phillip straddled the window sill and then leaned out as far as he dared, using his left hand to hold the window frame like a safety strap. He aimed the camera phone to where the street curved back to his left and began to record the events as they happened.
He focused on a crowd of men, mostly themed in red kerchiefs and white shirts and slacks, whom looked intently down the street at something out of sight of Phillip’s camera. Then the crowd turned forward with their heads still looking back and they began to run at different times as if their fear was beginning to force them to run before they were willing.
As the group of runners advanced down the pale, narrow street around the corner came twelve bulls running at full speed. People shouted as they made their way down the hard cobblestones and men with large sticks ran behind the bulls to keep them running in the right direction.
The bulls and runners made their way past Phillip’s window, and he filmed the participants for as long as he could see them until they became a pageantry of echoes in the unseen distance.
Phillip, still straddled across the window sill, played the video back several times as the sunlight streaked across his face at a steep angle. He observed each runner. How they moved. How the bulls reacted. What path the runners took. He watched it over and over until his thoughts and features hardened in disgust with himself.
Phillip had come to Pamplona for one reason: to run with the bulls. He got in last Sunday and each day he had planned to make the 8AM run. However, every time he thought this was going to be the day that he does it, he talks himself out of it and decides to video the event instead with the built-in lie that he was doing research for the safest run strategy.
But his excuses no longer worked.
All he wanted to do was experience the beautiful feeling of facing his fears and conquering them. That’s why he’s here. To run with the bulls. That’s what he supposed to be doing. But all the trip has become in his mind was a dereliction in courage to be a man.
He put his phone into his pocket and got up and went about the day. He visited shops and cafes and then sat on a wall and watched the city, the people, and the day pass him by as if he had no substance of purpose until the Spanish night veiled down quietly giving rise to stars positioned so tightly together they appeared to touch.
Being Friday night, the crowds were larger than the previous ones and a little more boisterous. They huddled together in their self-imposed cliques and talked in loud tones as cigarette smoke ghosted about their heads. Shafts of light spewed out through the cafes and bars pooling copper tones along the streets. Silk dresses rippled in the ebony air. A dog barked in the distance. People modeled up and down the boulevard fashioned in pretend grandeur. Laughter, degreed thick and thin, met the curves of faces.
Phillip took no enjoyment from the night’s festivities and made his way back to his room as the city clocks melted down the far side of midnight. He opened his apartment door and went inside, then closed and locked the door behind him. He walked over to the window and sat on the sill. He pulled out his phone and played back all the recordings of the bull runs from the previous days.
The street’s yellow lights faded as the morning sky, blindfolded grey, composed Saturday morning into a falling drizzle of rain. Phillip sat staring at the street below. He would be leaving for home this afternoon and he knew that if he was going to live his lifelong dream to run with the bulls then it was going to have to happen this morning.
He dressed in a comfortable white shirt and white slacks, as tradition states, for purity. He put on some running shoes and then stood in front of the mirror. He took a red kerchief in reverence for Pamplona’s scared saint whose name he had forgotten and tied it around his neck and stared at himself long and hard.
Then he headed downstairs.
The street was covered in rain puddles and mist. Phillip worried about the traction of the surface, but then attempted to put it out of his mind.
He used the corner of a building as a stretching assistant as he placed his foot up as high as he could on its rough surface and reached toward his toes with his hands. When he felt sufficiently stretched he jogged lightly in place and twisted side to side.
He took in a few deep breaths and made his way up to the most difficult part of the course which was called “La Curva,” where the bulls had to make a ninety-degree turn. All the books he read about the run said to stay away from this part of the course because the bulls could slide into the runners and pin them down.
But Phillip stood dead center in “La Curva” all alone. He went over his tactics in his mind: Stay in the center of the street. Don’t look back once you begin to run. You’re more likely to trip over a runner if you keep looking back. The crowd will separate for you as you run. Everyone eventually moves to the side of the street to avoid the bulls from goring them.
And these bulls were not simple cattle that graze the mountainside in quiet solitude. They have more in common with the great African cats of the scalding tundra than the common bulls on ranches around the world. They are fighting bulls bred for one objective, that if you get in their way they will kill you.
These thoughts poured through Phillip’s mind, but before he could process them fully, the familiar whoosh of a fired rocket rioted fast through the morning air and Phillip knew the wooden doors were being opened to release the bulls and the run of his life was about to begin.
The crowd could be heard in the distance shouting as the bulls approached. The ringing of the cowbells from the six steers sharpened the air.
He could see the bulls now. It appeared four had separated from the herd and were making their way toward him with the fury of a Roman god on a bad day.
“Wait, wait, wait…” he told himself. The bulls came around the steep curve of “La Curva” when their feet splayed out from under them on the slick surface causing them to crash into the wall and lie momentarily stacked atop each other. Phillip began his run straight down the center of the street without looking behind him.
The bulls wasted no time in righting themselves and stormed forward. The bulls got up on Phillip quickly as he ran toward a crowd of runners ahead of him that were confused on when to begin their run. They began to take off in bunches with those behind pushing those in front in a mad scramble to get going before they all finally made their way down the street.
The rain pelted his skin. The sounds of the bull’s breath and hooves on the cobblestone street peppered the dank air. Phillip could tell without looking that he was running only a few feet ahead of a large bull which everyone referred to as riding the horns.
The crowd of runners would thicken for a few seconds as he made his way down the street and then thin as they ran to the side to allow the bulls to pass, but Phillip continued his dead run right down the center of the street.
On his left two men fell by running into each other. He saw the flash of one man being tossed upward into a violent somersault in his peripheral vision from a bull’s black head with the crowd reacting in voices of horror.
Phillip stumbled momentarily on the weather glazed street, but regained his balance. He glanced ahead and saw the entrance to the arena and knew the event was about to come to its finish when his feet slid out from under him and brought him to the wet street hard. The chasing four bulls ran over top of him as he made his way into a ball with his knees brought into his chest and his arms wrapped around his head.
But his wrapping of his arms around his head was one second too slow and several hoof steps collided with skull causing him to enter a stunned panic. He laid there for a few seconds when the survival urge to rise back up flashed his senses. The taste of blood from a small slit above his right eye jagged a blood trail down his face, mixed with salt and cuts of rain, and seeped into his mouth. He looked back and saw three more bulls making their way toward him. He got on the horns again and ran into the arena as the bulls chased him with a crowd of men on both sides of him to a rush of approval from the crowd.
Matadors ventured toward the bulls and waved their capes to bring the bulls into the opened corrals. Phillip stood to the side and draped his hands over the bleacher railings with his head down before he raised it back up to see the rest of the bulls storm in and be quickly corralled.
Phillip was exhausted and his face glowed in sweat. He paced slowly around the enclosed confines of the matador’s stage and tried to catch his breath. He wiped the blood from the cut above his eye and stared at it stained across the flesh of his bourbon colored hands.
From the grounds of the bull ring he absorbed it all in. The display of colors. The spectators in the stands. The sounds of applause. The angry bulls. The moment of accomplishment. The instant relief. The drops of rain. The grey swelled sky.
All of it imprinted itself into his memory and then he laughed, pushed his clenched fists into the air and walked into the beautiful.
About the Author:
Kyle Owens lives in the Appalachian Mountains and his work has appeared in several publications and anthologies.