It is damnable hot, this scarf is sticking to my neck, and I cannot find her. She said I would find her here. At least I think it was here. Santo Domingo. Was this the bar from last night? Everything looks different in the light. Somewhere nearby, too close, a horn is being played. A giant stumbles past before I realize that it is a saint in effigy, hoisted on someone’s shoulders as they march through the parade. People cheer, and the horn breaks into a song that dips and bends in the way that all Spanish music does to my American ear. It is beautiful, and last night I would have danced, but now it is early and the music is so loud. My head pounds. How many cervezas did I have? And late into the evening, when Emilia poured Spanish wine like water, I drank like a dehydrated man.
I scan the crowd, and walk towards where it is all supposed to start. Everyone around me is dressed the same as I - white shirt and pants, with a stark scarf of red - and yet I feel I stick out. I re-adjust my scarf, as the way it is tied feels off. Not like when she had draped it over my shoulders last night, tying it behind my back while she looked at me straight in the eyes.
“Run fast my American boy.” She had said, her nose almost touching mine. “Adelanta el toro, make it to the bullring, and tomorrow we will celebrate.”
My feet slip on the unfamiliar cobblestone, as I push back through the crowd and take my place near the middle of the crowd. Maybe she changed her mind? I wipe at the sweat that is beginning to bead on my forehead, and can feel my shirt sticking wet to my back. Around me the crowd swells and unfamiliar men bump into me, stretching their necks and legs and speaking to one another in flurries of Spanish too quick for me to understand. In the distance the horn wails, and in that moment I see her. In the front of the crowd, just as the police begin to form their line, she sneaks in, dragging her friend by the hand. I see her laugh, and I begin to push towards her, but the crowd is thick and unrelenting.
“Emilia!” I call out, waving my arms. I place my hand on the broad shoulder of the man in front of me and use it to push my jumps higher. “Emilia! I am here!”
My message fails, as the crowd, on some queue I cannot follow, begins to shout:
“¡Viva San Fermín!”
Over and over they shout, drowning out my blasphemy in singular benediction. I push forward, turning sideways to slide between shoulders as around me the chant carries on. Finally I get close enough that she must have heard me because she turns, and we are looking at one another. She makes a gesture with her hand - come here - and she winks. I must catch her. Just then, the first rocket explodes and the crowd surges forward, and my feet are barely able to keep me standing as I’m swept up in a river of humanity. My head is still ringing with echoes of the first blow when the second explodes overhead. The encierro has begun.
I press forward, swimming with my arms to push others out of my way as I give chase. Everyone is dressed the same, and I lose her in the sea of red and white, but there are few women in the crowd and in a moment I’ve found her again, her long black hair bouncing as she looks back - at me, or at what chases us I don’t know. Smoke from the rocket fills my nose, and I take the first turn faster than anyone around me. I’m gaining on her. She looks back again, and now I know she sees me. Her cheeks are flush, and her eyes wide with adrenaline. She mouths something but I cannot hear over the hollers from the crowd around me. Above me the balconies are lined with people and their cheers fill the air above the crowded street before falling heavy to the runners below until I feel like I am wading thick through Spanish jubilation. A runner faster than I bolts past on my left, knocking my shoulder and causing me to spin a full circle, but I do not fall. It feels as though my mind is still spinning but I must press on. My feet finally find the rhythm of the cobblestone and I gain speed, never losing sight of the dancing mane of black hair in front of me. I see nothing else. I am gaining.
I am so close. I reach my hand out to her, and when she turns to look back her hair strums across my fingers and above the din I swear I can hear its song. She looks at me and smiles and I know that I have won. The chase is done, I have caught her. The last strand falls from my hand as her gaze continues up, past my eyes and behind me. Her smile falls, and she turns, grabbing the shoulder of her friend and pushing harder onwards, out of reach. Another body shoulders its way between us and I lose sight of her. From behind me I hear shouts, their urgency immediately distinguishable above the cheers. Below even those shouts I hear - as much as I feel - the thunder approaching. The rumble grows into a staccato drumroll, and I cannot put it off any longer. I must look back.
Behind me, closer than I imagined, I see the lead bull. He snorts, and a long line of thick snot slicks the stone. His muscles ripple as he plants his hooves and dips down before bursting off in an oblique angle. Behind him his tail whips like a lash. The horn in the distance is screaming now, and the bull rocks in turn and I can tell he and the horn are playing the same music. My feet drag as I stare at him, but I cannot bring myself to turn and run. Looking at him now, I feel how old he is. As he swings his neck, conducting such violent music with his cuernos, his head seems to be made of stone; his body: bronze. He is a part of something ancient, and as I look down at my own arms, thin and relatively hairless, I realize that I am just an infant against this thing. I am running, backwards now, down the street as the crowd thins in the presence of the beast. Spaniards jump to the fringes, pressing their bodies hard against the makeshift fences until they begin to bow outwards. From above the fence dozens of arms hang outstretched, ready to pull me out of this chasm, but I cannot bring myself to grab them. That is not the way out.
The bull rumbles closer and it looks directly at me. His eyes are an inscrutable black, but stillI I know what he intends to do. His two horns directed at me, he begins to pick up speed. I try to shout at him. “Stop, please” I beg, but he doesn’t speak my language so he does not stop. At once he is upon me, dipping his head in the last moment as if in apology, in reverence. I feel his horn puncture, my fragile body merely clay for his art. I can do nothing but give way to his undeniable strength as I am lifted up into the air and tossed against the fence, my vision a blur of red and white. Raising my hand, I shield my face from the next blow but through the gaps in my fingers I can see him already receding down the street, tail flicking as he trots. He will reach the bullring, this I am certain.
People begin to crowd around me. I see the lines - red on white - of a medic, hunched over my torso, shouting something I cannot understand. My vision begins to tighten and darken at the sides, but ahead of me I see Emilia approaching, worry on her face as her hair swings behind her.
“Va!” I say, waving her away. “Termina la carrera.”
As she turns my arm remains hanging in front of me. Cutting through the warm air, the horn continues its unbroken song, and my arm begins to dip and waggle in time with its music. I feel strangers begin to lift me up, carrying me away, as I look up past the buildings into the clear blue sky above, my hand unbroken in its rhythm, and I begin to understand.