Friday, November 10, 2017

Bullfight by Jonah Kruvant

Jonah Kruvant's character, a blue-eyed blonde-haired Texan child, struggles to be accepted into small town Colombian life.

Lajambra is one of a series of villages that dots the landscape of the Jalapa Valley of Colombia. The rolling hills of the Jalapa Valley are different shades of color, from mango orange to salamander green. In the rainy season, they become a limitless mist, and during the dry months, the heat is so oppressive that the señoras of the village never leave their houses without umbrellas to shield the tops of their heads from the rays of the sun, which shoot out of the sky like daggers. Small houses, square and built of wood, with roofs clustered with satellite dishes, and walls painted pink and peach, sit at the base of the mountains that separate the village from the volcanoes beyond. Lajambra has no bank or post office. The villagers need to go to the city, eighty kilometers north, if they want to cash a check or mail a postcard. The only way into the city is by bus, which storms through the village at six in the morning and two in the afternoon daily, but since the simple villagers have more medicinal herbs than coins in their pockets, they rarely leave Lajambra.

There is a park directly in the center of the village, a perfect square that is used as a reference point for any and all places in Lajambra. Community life is centered around Parque Central: parents bring young children who play in the fountain that sprays water up to the heavenly sky, old men in age-old sombreros and plaid button-down shirts leaf through the local newspaper for that day’s lottery numbers, young single mothers walk with babies in stomachs and strollers, and everyone attends church, in the center of the park, the tallest building in the village, with its two angel-white minarets visible from all corners of Lajambra. If a villager did not attend mass, everyone would know, and gossip would pass through the pews like a secret among schoolgirls. Did he leave Lajambra? On a Sunday?

The villagers are accustomed to small town life; they are accustomed to Lajambra. Although each person leads a different life, they all wake up at five-thirty, work during the weekdays, stroll through Parque Central on Saturday, and attend mass on Sunday. No one had ever moved to Lajambra. No one other than a Colombian had ever lived there. Not until I came.

The teenagers of Lajambra can either be seen at the park where they breakdance, do flips in the air, or attempt 360s on their skateboards on the soccer field, at school, or by the creek, which trickles through the trees along the edge of the soccer field, where they sneak a cigarette, a beer, or a puff of marijuana. You won’t see the teens of Lajambra anywhere else but these places. I would know. I’m one of them.

My mother was one of the few ambitious villagers who left Lajambra in search of a better future. At the age of sixteen, she crossed the Mexican-US border into the state of Texas. It was there that she met my father. He employed her in his factory, told her he loved her, and then took her virginity on top of the cluttered desk in his office. Three months later, she found out she was pregnant; and the day after she told my father, she was fired. After I was born, my father begged my mother for forgiveness and offered her old job back, but it was too late; she didn’t want anything to do with him. He sent her checks each month and she tore up every one of them. She refused me from seeing him, except once a year on my birthday. It was then that he’d tell me stories about the rodeo. At times, I could barely listen, I was so filled with anger and resentment, not for his infrequent visits, but at his indifference to the happenings of my life. At other times, I was mesmerized by his tales of manhood and courage. On my ninth birthday, he came to the house with dried animal blood on the tip of his black, leather boots, with golden buttons along their sides. He had fallen off the bull and was trampled, but he got up and rode it again. He looked at me with such fierceness in his eyes when he recounted the event that I never questioned its veracity. Then he leaned his shoulder across his body and pulled down his shirt to reveal a deep scar on his upper arm, from the bull’s pointy horns. During the long nights in those days, when I’d lie in bed wishing for a man in my life to show me the way, writing feverishly in my journals, I’d conjure up the scent of dried blood that stained my father’s black boots with the line of golden buttons.

My mother swore that once she earned enough money on her own, she would return to Lajambra. She got a job as an accountant’s administrator, and fourteen years later, she quit. She took me, my five-year-old sister, and $5000 in cash to Lajambra, without telling my father. This was two weeks ago.

My sister has dark complexion, like my mother, and midnight hair. Not me. I’m white. I have my father’s deep blue eyes and sandy hair. When we moved into our new home, walls painted pink, wooden chairs that creaked when you sat in them, with a colony of ants that inhabited our kitchen long before we did, my sister adapted fine. She laughed at my groans when I woke up at five AM from a chorus of cock-a-doodle-doos. She stood in our front yard, attempting to complete more than one rotation on her hula-hoop, and would stop the villagers who walked by with the sound of her squeaky voice, “Vea! Watch!” The villagers would smile and clap, exclaiming, “She looks just like her mother!” before giving an awkward glance at my face peering through the window. The villagers treated my mother, who was sharing her knowledge of money management and Microsoft Excel with them during weekly seminars, as if she’d never left, and considered my sister her proper lineage. Juliana looked like them, she had a name like them, she even spoke Spanish better than I did. To the villagers, she was as Colombian as my mother – and me? I was as gringo as my father, the man I despised yet strangely revered.

It was at school that I was met with the most outward disgust. I was reticent. To my classmates, I was like a wall, silent and unresponsive. I felt a blockage in my throat, and no matter how I tried, Spanish refused to come out. Only in English class, where I knew more than my teacher, could I express myself, in the story I am writing here. But in speech, I was helpless. While at first my classmates took an interest in my otherness, especially the girls, when I tried to speak, I got stuck, stammering or saying nothing at all, so after the first three days of school, no one knew what to make of me, and they left me alone. Everyone except Adriana.

Perhaps it was my white complexion, my enigmatic nature, or the simple fact that I was something different (that’s right, something), but Adriana could not get her eyes off me. She felt such an unbearable compulsion that she pulled me aside during lunch, took my hand, and led me to the creek. It was there, with the sound of the soft trickling water against the rocks, that I kissed a girl for the first time, taking in her jasmine perfume, the wetness of her lips. I was the only person in the village who didn’t know she had a boyfriend.

Jorge Sancho has a protruding forehead and the body of an elephant. When he heard that the gringo was stealing his girlfriend, he broke my nose with a single punch. Then he told the rest of the boys in the eighth grade that I was not be trusted ever and that I should either be ignored or mocked for the rest of my existence. Although Jorge was not the most popular kid in school, he carried enough weight among the student body (pun intended) to convince them that I was the gringo devil. He and his friends would mock me with gringo stereotypes: that I smell, my breath stinks, I think I’m better than everyone else. I wouldn’t let their mockery affect me, just as the scar on my father’s upper arm never affected him.

Adriana went back to Jorge and wouldn’t say hello to me in the halls, or even look at me with those dark, pained eyes. On Friday, after my first week at a new school, and as I walked out into the oppressive heat of the afternoon, a hand pressed down on my shoulder. Jorge Sancho turned me around to face him with his chubby fingers, and said, “You’ll always be a gringo.”



Amidst the humidity of the dry season, every February brings a fiesta to the sleepy village of Lajambra. Citizens of neighboring villages in Jalapa Valley come to Lajambra to watch performances by magicians and clowns, to sing karaoke to Alejandro Fernandez and Celia Cruz, and to dance to the rhythms of Vallenato, salsa, Merengue, cumbia, and bambuco, while sipping cervezas until the wee hours of the morning. But most of all, people come for the bulls.

The bullfights became a tradition in Lajambra when Ernesto Salazar was crowned a professional torero and was quickly known throughout the land. Señor Salazar was the most entrepreneurial citizen Lajambra ever had. He moved to the capital at the age of eighteen, and returned six years later clothed in a shiny silver shirt, sparkly lime green pants, and a prominent sombrero, the same dark color as his tall leather boots. An aura followed Señor Salazar wherever he walked in Lajambra. He gathered the villagers together in the Parque Central on the day of his return. He told them that he had seen the volcano, the mighty Galreas, erupt in front of his eyes. The people who lived at the base of the volcano displayed such tremendous bravery that day that he had to discover their secret. He learned that several of the men were toreros and quickly realized that this was it: the men were raised to face savage bulls in a yearly competition from a young age. This instilled an impenetrable fearlessness in the people. Yet Señor Salazar did not possess the courage to enter the competitions until he visited the gold and platinum mines of Chocó. It was there, seeing how the miners, simple and content, risked their lives to make money for their families, that Señor Salazar realized you must enter the darkness if you want to earn gold.

So Señor Salazar asked the villagers for their approval to hold a bull fighting competition, once a year, right in Lajambra. He would build an arena, in the empty plot of land beside the soccer field, which would hold enough seats for every villager to attend and more. In the competitions, he would both perform and invite others into the ring to face the bull, if they so desired. All of this, he would only do, por supuesto, with the unanimous approval of the village. If one villager objected, he claimed, he would leave Lajambra the next morning and return to the city. Although the villagers had always been resistant to change, the inexplicable aura that surrounded Señor Salazar had enraptured them. So the stadium was built, and the bullfights, faster than anyone could have expected, became known throughout the land.

Each year, the villagers would reminisce on Señor Salazar’s latest tricks, on the fierce characters of his newest bulls, and most of all, on those villagers brave enough to enter the ring during the “free-for-alls”. No one could forget the time when Señor Chavaria, the fattest man in the village, was hit from behind and trampled, limping out of the arena with a broken leg. They’d recall the time when Señor Cortes, at the age of seventy-five, used his cane to lift himself up over the bull, and then how he landed, like a cat, on his own two feet. Perhaps most memorable was the first time Señorita Gabriela, with her thick, sunlight curls bouncing against her back, entered the ring, and with a single glance into the bull’s eyes, tamed it like a dog. With the touch of her fingers along its neck, the bull succumbed to her like a baby to its mother. Señorita Gabriela was the only villager besides Señor Salazar who could ride the bull, and no one would forget the day that she did. That was three years ago, and it was the most vivid picture of the bullfights in the minds of the villagers. Until this year’s event, when something happened that no one could expect. Not even me.

My mother, sister, and I, sat in one of the back tiers with a full view of the arena, with its rusty metal seats, so near each other that your legs touched the backs of the people who sat in front of you, and the knees of the people behind you dug into your spine. No one seemed to notice that but me. Across the arena, I could make out Jorge Sancho, with his bulging forehead and inflated body, sitting with his equally gigantic father, both munching on churros, dripping with dulce de leche. I could also spot Adriana, sitting beside her seven siblings in a row from tallest to shortest, reminding me, and me only, of the Von Trapp family in “The Sound of Music”.

The crowd cheered as Señor Salazar entered the arena. The golden buttons that lined his black boots shone under the bright lights and his silver cape sparkled. Then they released the bull. With one grand, sweeping gesture, Señor Salazar removed the cape and held it out in front of the bull’s eyes, tempting it to strike. The bull, its eyes black and wild, used its only weapon, its sharp, pointy horns, to attack the silver garment. Folding up the cape, Señor Salazar pretended not to notice the presence of the bull, and the bull seized the opportunity and charged straight at him. He dodged and grabbed the bull by its horns. The crowd burst into applause.

Then five men, who everyone knew in the village, including Señor Salazar himself, stood on crates in the center of the arena, waiting for the bull to attack. Each man stood on five crates; once all five were knocked over by the bull, you were out. The crowd screamed in a mix of terror and excitement as they watched the bull hitting the crates, the men struggling to keep their balance, jumping to the ground before the bull charged at them. In the end, Señor Salazar was the last man standing.

Next, Señor Salazar stood across from the bull on the opposite side of the arena. Then, simultaneously, they ran at each other. As the eyes of the audience were glued to the confrontation, the moment Señor Salazar was just inches from the bull, he jumped into the air, flipped over the bull, landing on his hands, and then flipped again onto his feet. He bowed to a shower of applause.

Before the final event, when Señor Salazar would ride the bull, was what many of the villagers had been waiting for all year: the free-for-all. Señor Salazar climbed up and out of the ring, to a seat not far from me, next to his refined, fair-skinned city wife, leaving the bull to run its course. As villagers slunk into the ring, my fellow classmates gathered together on the tier next to mine. It was Jorge who pointed to the empty seats a few feet from my right, and my cheek, where he had punched me, began to ache as the other eighth graders sat down with awkward glances in my direction. Nearly the entire grade was sitting together but me. Then Jorge looked in my direction, and seeing my mother, gave her a wide, toothy, superficial smile. Some of the other kids snickered, and Adriana covered her face from me with her hand. My mother mistook Jorge’s smile as genuine and encouraged me to sit with them. I stared forward, watching the dance of the bull in the ring.

Jorge and the other boys started to challenge each other to face the bull. Some of the boys who weren’t “pollos,” or in Jorge’s case, “lleno… way too full,” went into the ring. They swung their legs over the banister and hung on the edge above the bull’s reach. A few of the brave ones jumped to the ground, hitting the dirt so that a blast of air rose to their knees; but when the bull approached them, they scurried back up, safe from the animal, the tips of their shoelaces grazing the sharp points of the bull’s horns.

In fact, few of the men were willing to approach the bull at all. It was as if the absence of Señorita Gabriela, who had left Lajambra on a journey to explore the world, which the locals thought of as “locisimo”, had triggered a plague of fear that spread throughout the crowd. Soon the people became restless. Jorge, bored, beckoned to his father to bring him more churros, and then looked over at me. He gave a quick, furtive glance at the villagers around us, and then, dropping his act of artificial amiability, he held his nose, saying, in a squeaky voice, “Ewww el gringo smells!” At this, not only did the kids laugh, but so did some of the villagers. My mother paused, taken aback, and after a moment of realization, the lines of her face tightening with intensity, she exclaimed, “You leave my boy alone!” My sister eyed me up and down, waiting to see what I would do. Even Señor Salazar had heard, turning his head to see what was happening. I found my eyes wandering to his black, leather boots, with the golden buttons. Jorge’s father stumbled toward his son with a box of churros and I looked down at his shirt, stained with streaks of dulce de leche, and then back at Señor Salazar’s boots. The smell of dried blood suddenly reached my nose and I stood.

The villagers turned their heads to look at me. My mother asked, “Que pasa?” My classmates went silent. I remained fixed with my eyes on the bull, standing completely still. The scent of blood had flooded my being. Then I moved forward like a ghost, not realizing that my body was gliding over my sister’s kneecaps, and down the metal steps, not feeling the stares of the people on my back as I swung my leg over the railing, and let my momentum carry me as I fell to the sandy floor, a dust cloud forming at my feet. I paused, reality hitting me, as my eyes looked five feet ahead where the bull was searching for a new challenger. Remembering the fierceness in my father’s eyes as he told me how he faced the bull, I stepped forward, and when the bull turned, I locked my eyes into his.

There was no crowd. There was only me and the bull. I stepped forward. It kicked up the dirt with its front hoof. I moved closer. It tilted its head, pointing the tips of his horns at my heart. I moved even closer. And he attacked. The patter of his feet against the dirt reached my ears, his savage eyes growing larger as he charged, and then the breath from his nostrils hit my face, and I swerved, avoiding his horns, then turned, and grabbed him by the neck. He struggled to move, gasping like a drowning man, as I gripped him tighter than ever and with all the strength I had, I pushed him to the ground. I wrapped my legs around his body, and stood over him, moving my hands from his neck to his horns. It was then that I heard the crowd, erupting like a volcano. From that day on, I was no longer a gringo.

17 comments:

  1. A rite of passage in a world of machismo. It raises many questions as it progresses to its point of deliverance of the 'gringo' teenager. Thanks, Ceinwen

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    1. Thank you, Ceinwen. I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment on my work.

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  2. I enjoyed this, in order to gain acceptance and respect the central character has to enter this macho world at the same time fulfilling his destiny
    Mike McC

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    1. Thank, you, Mike. I appreciate your comment on my work.

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  3. A multi-layered story of complexities as limitless as the mists of the rolling hills of the Jalapa Valley. Why should a sandy-haired factory-owning Texan father be so full of tales of his brushes with the bulls, have animal blood on his gold-buttoned shoes? Is Vea the narrator's sister and is she calling attention to herself?- it is after all, a girl's name. Who is the narrator? A mesmerizing tale taking the reader from place, to family, and toward the all-powerful symbol of the bull - the ultimate disguise of Zeus. It's billed as a 'real life story' but to me redolent with magic realism.
    B r o o k e

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  4. Thank you, Brooke, for such an insightful comment on my work. Can I use it for my social media campaign?

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  5. A colorful portrayal of life in a small town in Columbia, a place most of us will never know. The outsider takes on the town bully and wins. Good for him! Good for you!

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  6. Shades of Hemingway and Marquez. Very nice!

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    1. Both are big influences of mine! Thank you!

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  7. Loved it! The entire story was narrations and I must say very good. Very little dialogue. The beginning description was captivating holding my interests without a waver. As the story developed my interest did increase which doesn’t happen in many story. Usually a good beginning that gets my interest keeps it throughout the story, but with this story my interest kept increasing up till the end.

    It sounds like the author is familiar with Columbia, the customs of it, the language and bullfighting. The Spanish words used give us a true sense of being there. I like how the author used sensory input. I like how he connect each event to the next without any jumps that would cause confusion. The ending was predictable but that’s only a minor point. The true worth of this story is the descriptions, the narration and the captivating interest.

    This is one the best stories I’ve read on this site!

    Good job!!

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  8. captivating storytelling and sheer joy to read. thank you!

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  9. A powerful story about acceptance and overcoming perceptions -- set in a village that feels both magical and recognizable.

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