The earth is baked as hard as Neolithic pottery now, curling up at the edges, golden and done. The mountainous bones of the land stick out in the terrible, sleepless light like the ribs of a starving pariah dog. Even the olive trees, which seem not to need water, maintaining their uniform silver-green year round, are muffled for the moment in a gritty layer of fine yellow dust. The soft green pelmets of wild fennel began to show short weeks ago; already the Levante wind hisses through their hollow, desiccated stalks, ghostly liquorice pan-pipes.
How our ancestors must have feared the sun. It starts life; warms and coaxes crops from the inert, chill soil; and yet at the last, kills it. How short the cycle must have seemed to them, that takes living things from seed, sapling, and fledgling, to hay, chaff, and ant-cleaned bones. Imagine how, long, long ago, before writing or memory, maybe even before we had speech or names for each other, a group of terrified creatures made their first, clumsy attempt to slake the vengeful drought, pouring a libation onto the dead ground for the pitiless, insatiable Thing in the sky to gobble up.
Fast-forward to today. For today, in more than a hundred miniature Coliseii across Spain - at this very instant, perhaps - a man decked in a suit as fey and fantastical as any of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes costumes will step out into the ruthless sun and the still-clean sand, to challenge a monster from a primal nightmare, with a scrap of pink cloth and a skewer.
High summer is the season for Bullfighting. In Malaga in August, every day a death, till the season ends in Ronda in September with the authentic, splendid barbarism of the Corridas Goyescas. The ceremony opens with the procession of the Damas, rolling up in a cavalcade of picturesque, picaresque "carrozas" and meticulous, flounced and fearsomely corseted eighteenth century finery, to occupy the most expensive seats in the country. And the killing begins - and ends, for another year.
Goya, he for whom the "Goyescas" are named, loved to draw the Toros, his cruel pen quite at home in the Plaza. Picasso, too, though as a lifelong, elective exile from the Land of Bulls, he can't actually have seen a proper "Corrida" after the age of twenty-five. It might be on its way out now; Barcelona has banned it; but the images created by Miquel Barcelo to commemorate his city's last ever five o'clock massacre have been amongst the most stolen event posters in history. It takes longer than that to convert the collective soul of a people.
I've never been to the "Toros" en vivo. Paying a month's salary to sit in the cheap seats at a culturally sanctioned crime-scene doesn't hold much appeal. But it's hard to spend a summer here and avoid the images of carnage coming live from the ring on the tv screens of every little bar and "venta" in the Andaluz community. So I've seen hundreds of helpless, predictable brutes topple silently into the dust, following a play - which the innocent victim doesn't know is only a play - of life, death and sacrifice on the little stage that, for two or three bloody hours, stands for a world.
I saw, once, a bull refuse to fight. It does happen. Not a Little White Bull was he, though, but a huge black beast with grey splotches, straight from a Cretan fresco.For ten minutes he stood, motionless and emotionless, a monument of Assyrian stone, immune to taunts, goads, the spirited capering of the Toreadors or the murderous looking Banderillas embedded under his hard leather, letting blood like springs on the hillside. At last, the gates to the bull-pens opened, and in came the half-dozen cows, to lead him, victoriously garlanded in his revolt, to a better life, one hopes.
And I have seen a terrible thing.A young matador, hardly more than a Novillero, hacking away at a poor creature for some fifteen minutes without being able to finish it off. The crowd roared in disgust, they booed, they threw things. Just as it seemed the stalls were about to explode - the young man desperately attempting to maintain the correct expression of noble unconcern as he lunged for the animal's heart with the wicked curved sword, again and again failing to strike true - an old bullfighter ran into the ring.
He wasn't an impressive figure. He strained at the seams of his Traje de Luces; his short jacket barely covered his respectable paunch. His friendly, unheroic face would have looked more at home dealing out Pints than Death.
With an imperious gesture, that would have seemed comical from such a prosaic form as his in any other circumstances, he ordered the younger man away. He walked straight up to the exhausted bull, now standing with blue tongue protruding, panting great, heaving breaths, unwilling to fight on, unable to die, and took its colossal head between his hands. Staring back into his eyes, the animal sank slowly to its knees, and he lowered himself to the ground with it as it fell. It lay, finally, with its head in his lap, and he stroked it and spoke soft, quiet words to it. I do not know what the old matador said to the dying bull. But three hundred sangria-fuelled, riotous fans of blood and adrenalin fell silent around them, Sol y Sombra alike.
At last, he quietly brought out a small knife with his free hand, the one that wasn't cradling the great primeval skull, and with one slight, firm movement, severed the spinal cord. The short-sighted, uncomprehending eyes went dark. The bellows movement of the vast, straining lungs gently subsided.
When the Matador finally stood up again, the crowd also stood. They clapped, slowly and sonorously, heads bowed in respect, as he left the ring.
Death in the afternoon.