Read Fragile Beasts Online

Authors: Tawni O'Dell

Fragile Beasts

ALSO BY TAWNI O’DELL

Sister Mine

Coal Run

Back Roads

For Tirzah and Connor,
my fragile beasts

PROLOGUE
The Quiet One
Villarica, Spain. June 24, 1959
.

M
anuel Obrador knew that he was dead but understood he had not yet finished dying.

He lay in a haze of yellow dust on a carpet of glittering sand beneath the blinding white disc of a setting Spanish summer sun. The sky was the same fierce yet tender blue he remembered from as long ago as his boyhood spent in this same town and from as recently as this afternoon when he left his contented cuadrilla smoking their cigarettes after a fine lunch and strolled from the restaurant to his hotel to have his siesta. Grilled fish, cold partridge, lamb chops, a hard, salty Manchego cheese, cake and ice cream, and more than a few bottles of
vino tinto
for him and his men: many toreros found it impossible to eat before stepping into the ring, but the anticipation always made him hungry. He didn’t know at the time that it was to be his last meal, but if he had known, he probably wouldn’t have requested a different one.

Calladito had been an excellent bull, the kind many toreros spent the better parts of their careers hoping to meet. Manuel had known he was going to be such a bull when he first chanced to glimpse him at Carmen del Pozo’s finca more than a year ago standing with a group of five others in an endless field of lavender, his coat a sleek black that shimmered with glints of blue each time a muscle twitched. He was easily over a thousand pounds, his body thick and compactly powerful, his legs slender and delicate in comparison: a heavyweight fighter with a ballerina’s grace and speed.

Manuel and everyone else in the Jeep had sat perfectly still so as not to attract the attention of any of the bulls but despite this, Calladito noticed them.

While the rest continued to graze with the tufts of silky hair at the ends of their long tails flicking lazily at their backs, he raised his head and sniffed the air, and the great mass of muscle on his neck rippled with agitation. Without
warning, he began to gallop stiff-legged across the grass toward them, then lowered his head and chopped with one horn at an imaginary foe before coming to an abrupt stop.

For Manuel, it wasn’t merely the bull’s size, or strength, or majesty that caught his attention. It was his eyes. Usually the eyes of bulls were impossible to read. They were still, black, and depthless like pools of night water. All toreros agreed that toros were thinkers, but no one could ever know what they were thinking about.

Calladito’s eyes held a special light. It wasn’t intelligence exactly. Something more basic. Something deeper. It was knowledge.

His hand had been resting on the bare skin of Candy’s shoulder, and he moved his fingertips to the lovely curve of her neck where he could feel her pulse beating madly with fear as she watched the bull, too, trying to anticipate what he’d do next and suddenly realizing that if he chose to ram into the side of their vehicle, it would be no different than being hit by a truck but a truck armed with sharp curved horns as thick as a man’s forearm and a will to survive.

“Éste es para mí, y yo para él,” he whispered to her, not caring that she didn’t understand much Spanish yet.
That one is for me, and I’m for him
.

Where are you now, Calladito? he wondered.

By law, another torero would have been responsible for killing the bull since he could no longer do it, but this had been a one-man corrida, a special event held in his honor in his hometown of Villarica on the eve of his thirtieth birthday. There was no other torero.

Instead the bull would be taken to a small enclosure where he’d be dispatched by a silver-knobbed knife with a thin blade called a
verduguillo. The little executioner
. He would be denied the glory of dying in the ring that he deserved and be slaughtered anonymously, without dignity, for food.

He tried to turn his head to look for Calladito, but he was no longer capable of any movement other than the gagging reflex that continued as his body struggled to clear his throat and prevent him from drowning in his own blood.

His hearing was still fine. He could make out the sounds of moaning and crying and shouting and a few women shrieking, but his vision was beginning to fade. The people crowded around and above him had dulled into indistinct black shadows against the brilliant blue sky.

When he had first fallen and his men had rushed to him, he had been able to make out some of their faces.

One of the first to get to him had been his senior banderillero, Paco, a whip-thin leathery man of impressive speed and indeterminate age who rarely spoke or smiled but whose devotion to Manuel was unquestioned. He was the only member of his cuadrilla who had been with him since the very beginning of his career.

Paco had knelt over him and placed his hand on his wound, and Manuel had glanced down the length of his body and seen scarlet blood spurt between the old man’s long brown fingers.

He had felt the pressure but no pain. Even when Calladito’s horn had plunged beneath his rib cage, he hadn’t felt pain.

In his mind he could still see Paco’s lined face looming over him twisted into a rapture of anguish so keen it could have been mistaken for joy.

“Maestro.” The word came from his throat as a sob. “Manolo mío.”

He had known then for certain what he had only previously guessed. His prestigious title and the intimate usage of his name would only be uttered together in the ring in a moment of desperation: a soldier’s last chance to speak to his leader, an old man’s offering of comfort to a young man he loved. Paco was saying, “My prince. My son.”

They were not going to be able to save him.

Once he fully understood this, he almost felt like laughing. He felt the giddy relief of being let in on a particularly good secret.

For most of humanity, death was a vague terror that constantly stalked them. How a man would meet his end was an overwhelming, distracting concept because there were literally thousands of ways for him to die; but for a bullfighter, there were only two ways to die: in the ring and out of the ring.

Now Manuel knew his fate and it was a good one, but it had come much too soon. This was the only thing he would ever know for certain about his own death.

He would never know the exact cause, which would appear over and over again in newspapers around the world the following day along with photos of him stretched over the back of the colossal bull with its massive head buried in his lap looking like he was giving it an awkward hug: Manuel Obrador, the
great matador El Soltero, had been gored by the bull Calladito. The bull’s right horn had split one of Obrador’s ribs and pierced a lung. He had died instantly, the Spanish newspapers would go on to say out of respect for his memory, in an effort to get people to concentrate more on the man and his deeds than the grisly details of his death and also because people wished it for him, but the firsthand accounts from people present at the corrida would spread like fire. These would be the facts the international papers would report, and soon it was all the Spaniards talked about as well.

How the blood sprayed from his nose and gushed from his mouth and bubbled from the long ragged rip in his gold-encrusted jacket with each of his gasps for breath. How he managed miraculously to get to his feet after the bull had been distracted by the other capes, and how he clamped his mouth shut, covering it with his hands, trying to keep back the blood, but he coughed and more red poured from his nose and mouth. How he fell and his body jerked and shuddered from shock before it finally came to rest.

Even then he was still alive. Even now he was still alive. If someone had told him that this was considered dying instantly, he would have told them it wasn’t as desirable an end as people made it sound.

His eyesight was gone now. He could hear noise but not distinct sounds. He continued gagging helplessly on the blood that kept filling his throat. He was suffocating and the lack of oxygen to his brain was making it impossible to focus his thoughts anymore.

He tried to recall again that first time he had seen Calladito. It was the first time he had taken Candy to a breeder’s ranch, and the only time he had ever taken a woman along with him.

People who knew him well had been surprised by the gesture. Was it merely part of his seduction of a foreign beauty? they wondered; an attempt to impress her by showing her the size and savageness of the animals he was going to dominate with nothing more than a cape and a suit of crystal and beads? No. This didn’t make sense. She had already seen him perform in one of his better corridas. In Sevilla. She had witnessed not only his bravery and his skill but had been exposed to the glamour and pomp of one of Spain’s grandest bullrings and had heard the worshipful shouts of “Olé!” given to him by the crowd, building slowly in ecstasy and intensity like chants in a religious ritual.

Could it have been simply because he enjoyed her company and her obvious
female charms and wanted to spend as much time with her as possible? This was true, but he had pursued and been pursued by countless stunning, exciting women and had never felt compelled to take a single one of them to a hot, dusty ranch to be jostled along rutted dirt roads in an old Jeep in order to view animals that could potentially harm them.

He rarely allowed any woman anywhere near the more personal aspects of his life. His nickname El Soltero—the Bachelor—was well deserved.

The reason was very simple. Of all the women he had loved—Spanish and otherwise—he had never known one who understood and enjoyed bullfighting the way she did: a milky-skinned, copper-haired American rich girl whose wealth came from coal mines she said her brother had stolen and who she claimed to have left recovering in a private hospital bed after barely surviving an attack in his office by a starving miner during the height of a particularly long, ugly strike. She talked primly but thought radically, traveled with a friend she claimed she didn’t know, and made love with a complete attentiveness and sweet earnestness that reminded him of his own devotion to bullfighting during his apprentice days as a
novillero
. That’s how he teasingly referred to their steamy siestas—her apprenticeship—although he often felt that he was the one who was finally being taught something new.

Unlike most of her countrymen and other Anglo-Saxons he had known over the years, she didn’t regard bullfighting as a sport or a contest or disregard it disgustedly as a barbaric form of bloody entertainment. She immediately embraced the almost carnal pleasure and the horror of watching a lone man using elegance and restraint to control a dangerous wild animal, to take the creature’s fear and anger and his own fear and anger and turn it into something solemn and beautiful and for one brief shining moment, something heroic for both man and beast. She realized it was a dance but a dance to the death.

Luis had told him the rumors were true. He had seen her in the stands sitting with the breeder, Carmen del Pozo. She had come back to him. She had come back to Spain.

He had decided the moment she left him that if she ever returned, he would make her grovel and beg before he would take her back; but when Luis caught his arm tonight before he paraded into the ring and said her name, all the pain and loneliness of the past months flew away. His wounded pride, his
need for vindication, the heartache he had carried around inside him because he knew he had been unfair to her, because he knew the sacrifice he had asked her to make was one he could have never made himself: none of it mattered anymore. He was going to get a second chance.

The bullring in Villarica was especially dear to him because it was the place he had seen his first fiesta de toros. As a boy, his father took him many times, and the times he couldn’t go, he’d pause during his work and look in the direction of the ring whenever the band played and the crowd cheered or jeered and he would think:
This is what a man’s life should be: extremes
. He should be adored or hated but never simply tolerated.

The ring was one of the most distinctive in Spain, not because of its splendor but because of its age. It was known for its roof over the last section of seats made of ancient blue, yellow, and white tiles set on top of pink stucco columns, and the rich, golden quality of its sand brought in from a special quarry miles away on the banks of the Tago River. From where he stood in his father’s highest field, the town was a honeycomb of tiny orange clay houses clustered up against the ring with the overflow spreading away from it with seeming reluctance. The pale stone church stood on a hill directly behind it. In the setting sun it had a bright coral glow, almost as if God knew it should wear a festive color this time of day in honor of his two favored beasts: hombre y toro.

As he had stepped into the ring tonight, he’d been flooded with memories of his past and expectations for his future. Never had he felt such potential for the extremes he had always craved. He would succeed with this woman and this bull and know love and adulation or he would fail and know loneliness and shame. Either way Death would be standing nearby, a presence as familiar as the heat and one whose interference he had learned to ignore long ago as completely as he did the nosy old neighbor ladies of his youth shouting after him to put on his shoes.

He had planned on dedicating the last bull of the night to her, an unusual chestnut beauty with a coat the same color as her hair. Later he would ask her to marry him again, but this time he would do it on his knees in his suit of lights, and he would promise they could visit this land of Pennsylvania she loved so much yet needed to escape.

He thought he heard her voice calling his name, sobbing.

“Manuel!”

He felt a weight on top of him and knew it was her. Her hair brushed against his cheek and got caught in the sticky mask of blood on his face.

“Manuel, no!”

Her breath against his ear.

“Manuel.”

No longer sobbing. Trying to remain calm. Thinking she could stop him from dying if only she could talk sensibly to him.

“I was stupid. So stupid.”

Her voice, high-pitched with grief, shaking uncontrollably but a voice nonetheless forming coherent words while all around him he heard crying, nothing but crying. The screaming and shrieking and wailing was over. The shouts for the doctor were no longer needed. All that was left to do was cry. Men crying. The most defeated sound in the world.

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