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  • Writer's pictureWriters In The Mountains

La Corrida by Sue Sparrow

"Damn it, Sue, wake up! We overslept! We gotta go right now!”


My eyes snap open and sweep the unfamiliar hotel room. I focus on Ted hopping up and down, trying to get his long stork legs into his white pants. This could be my least favorite way to wake up. What, no Good morning, sweetheart. Here’s your darjeeling and a cinnamon scone?


I struggle to sit up, to remember why am I being awakened so rudely in this Spanish hotel, and why is my head pounding? Oh yeah, all that sangria we drank last night while we scoped out the route of the run. 


The run! 


Today is our last day in Pamplona, our last chance to do what we came here for. I roll off the bed and onto the floor.


“What time is it?” I croak while crawling in circles groping for my white pants, white shirt and red sash. 


“Twenty to eight. I’ll get the taxi and meet you downstairs. Hurry!” 


Too sleepy and hung over to acknowledge the fear I should be experiencing, I dress, groaning as I bend over to tie my sneakers tightly to my feet with double knots. This trip had been my bright idea, after all, the predictable outcome of reading too many of Hemingway’s machismo exploits.


I had to twist Ted’s arm to get him here, but now he seems into it, thank God.


I grab my sweatshirt and the newspaper I had rolled up and chased Ted with the night before, when we were play-practicing. I slam the hotel room door behind me, bound down the stairs two at a time, sprint through the lobby and jump into the taxi where Ted is miraculously already waiting. 


“!La corrida, por favor, muy rapido!” I beg the driver. He looks at Ted first, but then decides to obey my directive. Fifteen minutes later we’re jostling hundreds of still-drunk-from-last-night Australians, Germans, Italians and Spaniards in a narrow, cobblestoned street lined with high wooden barricades. I’m more awake now than I’ve ever been, the lack of morning tea notwithstanding, my sangria headache forgotten.                                  


This is it, down to the last few minutes. Almost eight o’clock. Showtime. 


Our shaky breaths steam white in the cold, thin mountain air. I glance over at Ted. He looks stern and determined, but also kind of debonair with the red sash at his waist, his rolled-up newspaper in a death grip. 


“Hey, toro!” I’m taking a few practice swipes at him with my newspaper when la policia start herding everyone in our section of the route off onto a side street. 


“?Que pasa?  ?Porque no pudemos corrir?” I ask frantically. What’s happening? Why can’t we run? The police look me up and down, mumble unintelligibly and continue herding the people in our vicinity off the street. Ted grabs my hand, and we race up a side alley, down another, under the barricade and back onto the route at a different spot. 


“Shouldn’t it be eight o’clock by now?” Ted’s rolling and unrolling his newspaper. I’m biting on a fingernail, waiting to hear the firing of the rockets that signal the opening of the corral’s gates.


I can’t think about what comes after that. 


Two more policemen materialize suddenly and begin clearing people off only our section of the route again. We turn to each other with wild eyes. My shouted questions this time are not in the polite form of Spanish I learned in school, but rather in the street Spanish I’ve learned since. The police ignore me. I wonder, if Ted spoke Spanish, would they answer him?


Again, we do our side street skedaddle, this time forcing our way under the barricade and onto the wide main plaza. Then it hits me. 


I turn in circles searching the crowd and cannot find another woman among the runners.  Ted is staring at me, “Wha…?”


Boom!  BoomBoomBoom!  The rockets shoot straight up into the cold clear air and all around me the crush of runners erupts. Ted and I lose each other immediately in the sea of white and red, each to our own experience. My world shrinks to this moment, right now, right here. My brain records impossibly minute details; the slick gritty texture of the cobblestones under my sneakers, the goosebumps on my forearms, the close, warm grip of my socks around my ankles, the sickly sour smell of last night’s spilled wine in the street.


The mass of spectators on the other side of the barricades—the cheering, safe people—immediately disappear from my reality.  Grim-faced men run past me, defenseless but for their rolled-up newspapers, their eyes wide. I wonder why they’re running already. Surely it will take a few minutes for the bulls to get to this plaza from the corral? 


Dancing backwards on tiptoes, I squint up the narrow winding street, straining to see over the onrushing men.


Where are the bulls? 

Then I hear it. The sound of fast, hard, heavy hooves on cobblestones. Men sprint past me faster now, blurred, and I turn and begin to run in the same direction, away from that terrifying, clopping clatter.


Suddenly an enormous pitch-black beast is in front of me how did that happen I didn’t see it pass me I can’t take my eyes off it to see where the other five bulls are I want to run forward to get away from what’s behind me but this enraged black big-as-a-tow-truck thing is in front of me hey they really do snort now it’s thrusting down danger-tipped horns at a guy who has fallen or was thrown ass over elbows onto the cobblestones now it’s running over him! 


I find myself up off the ground clinging to a barricade post and hear people urgently shouting, “Suba la barricada!  Aqui vienen los bueyes!” Get over the barricade!  The steers are coming!  I look over my shoulder, back up the narrow winding street to see the last of the behemoths, three spectacularly long-horned steers running towards me. I never even saw the other five bulls. I throw myself up and over the six-foot-high barricade and find myself on the other side with the roaring spectators.  I stand there, safe now, my legs trembling, my heart pounding, and note I’ve still got my rolled-up newspaper clutched in one sweaty palm.


Ted and I somehow find each other again in the crowd and babble excitedly, alternately both erupting at once and both falling silent, remembering, savoring, picturing yet another detail of our separate experience to share with the other. Laughter bubbles up in my chest, “Oh my God!  Did you see…?” On an adrenaline high, peacock-proud to be alive, warm now under the Spanish sun, caught up in a lava flow of excited humanity, we runners all surge towards the plaza where the cafes are, for a celebratory pitcher of sangria and discover it’s only breakfast time.


Later that afternoon, we stroll the same cobblestone streets and discover a photographer’s shop with time-lapse photos of the morning’s run. Squinting through the window, I easily spot my red hair and hilariously terrified face in the middle of the pack of runners. There I am, two huge, angry bulls I never even saw close behind me. 


But where is Ted within the pack? I pull him into the shop, the better to scrutinize the photos.


“Come on, let’s look for you, then we’ll have the best souvenir ever!” He seems oddly reluctant.


I scan dozens of pictures before I find him.                                      


There he is, already on the other side of the barricade, the safe side, well away from the sprinting runners and the stampeding beasts. 


I don’t know what to say. He’s embarrassed and I’m embarrassed for him, my macho former-Marine. I buy a copy of the picture anyway and neither one of us ever mentions the run again.


We break up shortly after returning to the States. Later, I heard that he got a bull tattooed on one shoulder.


From Travel Writing class with Rachel Dickinson

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