My Friend the Bull

 /   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
May/June 2001

By Rachel Johnson, Illustrated by Jane Westrick

Our power was gone again. The house was at least sixty years old, I say sesenta, but we moved in a few weeks ago. The rain was slamming into the earth like a fist. Trees outside bent their heads in awe of the storm. I thought, this was the kind of weather when my abuela, or grandmother, once sang songs and drank hot black coffee. But in the family room my parents and two older brothers sat around the newspaper like mosquitoes to a light with no words shared between them.

I stepped out into the rain. The water met my skin in a burst of coldness, past the jacket and pants to the tender skin. Rain always makes me feel alive and I hear my heartbeat through the pattern of drops. But then I go back inside to the air-conditioning and rock ‘n’ roll music, and I am not so sure.

My father calls himself a man of the times. He works in a city job and must watch the politics and the local events on the television or read of them in the papers. My abuela said that it is a changing world, but we must not forget those before us who were born and lived their lives in Cuba. Also she said that of the many things that will make me a man, one is conscience. One day I broke a mug while washing and, remembering this thing, I went to tell my father, but instead of thanking me for my words as I had hoped, he paddled me. Telling does not matter much anymore. Now my brothers always uncover what I have done wrong and tell for me.

My Friend the Bull looking at grandparent

“Recuerdas, remember what I have taught you, my nieto. Adios”

My brothers, they are the strong and handsome names of Juan and Padre, just as my father is Miguel. But me, the last child, I am only little Gabriel. But I remember my abuela always calling me her little nieto, which is grandson, but from the ways she spoke it with her heart in her lips and eyes I always imagined myself as loved one. Whenever I was with my abuela I was the loved one but now I am only Gabriel. I look back and see the yellow evening when she died. I sat on a chair beside her cheek but my parents and the doctor stood frowning far away at the foot. In the window above her head the sun settled like an old bird into its nest with a halo of red clouds, the sign of clear skies tomorrow. I heard her say in a voice as thin as a fallen leaf, “El sol sets on me today, my little nieto. But en la matiana, you will rise and see him, my darling. Many more of him you will see. Recuerdas, remember what I have taught you, my nieto. Adios.”

“Adios, mi abuela,” I whispered. Her lids fell lightly across her cheeks and I knew the end.

I sat for many hours memorizing each wrinkle of her face until my father called for me, “Gabriel!” Then I kissed her cheek and left her forever.

*          *          *

I went in for la comida, but I thought it did not deserve the Spanish name because it was pizza. The taste of grease rose in my throat with the taste of bile and I thought of my abuela’s fish and yellow rice. We are in her house which was given to us when she died, a few miles from Miami. My parents much prefer city life, but this house was all paid off and with much furniture, and they came for the cheapness. But they tore down all her paintings and memories and put up wallpaper with seashells. Think of it, I tell myself, trading a lifetime for seashells!

“So,” my father told us, “the bull will be delivered tomorrow.” A sign was up for a bull for sale and my brother Juan saw it.

“I want to be a matador,” he told my father. Juan has the temperament of a fighter. He is mean and cunning and has no mercy, and he played the games of fighting when a child.

“Very well,” said my father, “but besides strength you must get education too.”

Now the bull is coming. Probably Juan will try to ride its horns into me.

*          *          *

The bull was young and medium-size. His nostrils flared and he pranced near the walls of our pen. His name was Diablo, which is devil; however, as soon as I saw his hide I called him Rojo. His skin was red as blood or pepper. I liked to think of him as my own age and circumstance, only another prisoner in this great big world.

That morning Juan stepped into the pen with his bullfighting cap and a red cloth and all his proud anger. Maybe it is angry pride; I do not know which.

“Bull!” he shouted in an ugly voice. “Come and fight!” The bull in response charged across the dirt to him and he stepped aside just in time from the pointed horns. Then he ran and vaulted the fence. Now he is inside telling tales of how he conquered the mighty bull, on his first attempt. Only I saw him.

Then I opened the gate and approached the bull. A sugar cube rested on my open hand, which showed my good intention. The bull, or Rojo as I thought in my private mind, pawed the ground anxiously. I thought, you are just scared and lonely like a lost kitten.

Soon his curiosity overcame fear. Rojo approached me and consumed the sugar into his great mouth. I reached out one hand to pat his great horn. He was not afraid and he leapt away and did a bull dance all around the pen. The dirt was packed by his prancing hooves. When he returned he begged for more and I fed it into his mouth, and then I seated myself upon his broad back and wrapped my legs around his muscled sides. This was the first time that Rojo and I did the bull dance together. Days passed and the poisons of my life became more bearable. I did not mind the pizza nor my brothers’ loud rock ‘n’ roll music. The bull had become my friend. I told him all my sorrows, of my abuela’s death, and my family who did not respect me or the old ways of Cuba.

From my journal I read him stories. These I had created with my knowledge of the old tales and songs. The journal containing my stories was a gift of my abuela, whose heart was good and full of the oldness. At one time it lay beneath my bed, having no eyes to see it nor ears to hear it. Now the bull Rojo would stomp when he liked my stories and flick his tail when he did not. And some days when my family went to the city I would ride him on long journeys through the boggy country. I did all this in secret from my family. Thus the bull became my friend.

*          *          *

One day I was teaching the bull Rojo to jump over the fence into the grass beyond. He had just completed one leap and was standing proudly on the other side. Then a flash of movement caught my eye. Juan had seen me and surely he would tell my father. Now I did not know what was to come.

My body jumped from the bull. It ran to the house in its haste and in the bathroom it vomited up its fear through my sweat and tears. I screamed at my body inside my mind. Body, I cried, you are a traitor to me! It was then that I remembered. The bull Rojo was free from the pen with no hand upon his horn to guide him. My fears mounted like the fish eggs or the islands of golden seaweed floating in the sea. I thought, my abuela said that it is manly to weep but never to be afraid and above all else that would make me a man.

You are afraid, I told myself.

Of what? said my mind.

I am afraid for the bull Rojo, I answered.

You are not afraid for the bull Rojo, spoke my mind. You are afraid for yourself. You are afraid of your father.

Yes, I thought in a voice that would whisper if it spoke. I am afraid of my father.

You must not be afraid, answered my mind. Remember the lines of your abuela’s face and the taste of her yellow rice. Remember all you have been taught. Only then can you become a man as was your abuela’s greatest wish, of the old ways, as your father has forgotten and cannot remember.

I will do as I must, I thought. I will not be afraid.

I strode from the bathroom. Beyond the door, beyond my fears, was all I must face. The hands of the old ways pushed me out into it.

In the sides of my eyes were the empty pen, the garden all trampled, the lawn mower like a smashed fruit. But I did not have sight for these things. I saw only my father. His eyes glared with the fury of thunder and in them I could find no mercy. In his hand was the leather belt. Still I walked forward. I heard my abuela’s voice whispering, “Recuerdas, remember what I have taught you, my nieto.” The loved one.

My Friend the Bull riding the bull

. . . and the sun rose before us through the trees

My father bore down on me and the belt was raised like lightning behind his back. “That bull alone cost me one hundred dollars,” he spat.

Even as the first strike came down upon my back I stood to meet it like a man. The great fury rose in my throat. I cried, “You are not a man!” Still I stood to meet it until the blackness came before my eyes.

*          *          *

Once I dreamed that I rode my brother the bull Rojo. His muscles rose in waves like the sea. It met my legs and in that cycle I became one with him, and together we crested many hills. Then in the distance I saw the face of my abuela. Behind her were all the old ones from before. They stretched back to those who lived their lives in Cuba like the sea reaching to meet the sky. As one they nodded and I watched their silent mouths make the words, “You have become a man.”

Then I woke. I lay on my stomach across my bed. The night was slippery with my sweat. When I rose I felt the pain like fire across my back, but I thought, it does not matter now because I am a man. I crept beyond my family who were full of paper and pizza and city noises. Outside were the moonlight and my brother the bull Rojo.

He waited beyond the pen and pawed the dirt as if it were the first day. I fed him sugar, although he did not need it now to be my friend, and mounted his great redness. Then it was just as in my dream. We became each other and he was my warmth, my heart, my wholeness. It was after many hills and fields that I realized.

I thought, I am a man and you are a bull, and when we are alone I am just Gabriel and you are just Diablo. But then we come together in the world and when I feel you inside me, you are Rojo and I am your brother. Then the mighty bull stomped his hoof and tossed his head, and the sun rose before us through the trees.

My Friend the Bull Rachel Johnson

Rachel Johnson, 13
Winter Springs, Florida

My Friend the Bull Jane Westrick

Jane Westrick, 13
Mechanicsville, Virginia

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