Thursday, 10 November 2011

The Minotaur in Pamplona (2004)

I wrote this story in a hotel room in Toledo during a cloudburst; I had just returned from a hiking expedition in the wild obscurities of the Montes de Toledo, where I had been baked to a crisp by the sun. It was published in 2005 as the title story of a double chapbook project which included an original contribution that I managed to inveigle from Brian Aldiss, one of my literary heroes.

He knew for certain, or imagined he did, how to deal with bends and twists in any maze, and the narrow streets of this city had not been designed to deliberately confuse anyone. He was strong and fast and his courage could not be doubted, nor did he suffer from excessive pride at his qualities. His confidence was justified but his manner was modest.
         Arriving before sunrise on the first day of the Fiesta de San Fermín, he noted that already a band was rehearsing in a public square. The celebrations would begin at midday and continue without pause for more than a week. He waited for a café to open and ordered a coffee, the steam from the cup blending with his own dawn breath as he crouched over it. Finding accommodation here at this time would be impossible, so he planned to sleep on the citadel ramparts with the other lonely, unlucky or romantic visitors. But he was more than a spectator.
         He stood and walked the route from the Plaza Santo Domingo to the bullring, familiarising himself with the peculiarities of the streets. Then he wandered sedately among the parks, conserving his energy for the following morning, performing gentle exercises, stretching his huge muscles, nodding at the people who had started to gather in groups. Mostly he was ignored for his trouble and the few smiles he collected on the way were thin and dismissive.
         A clock somewhere struck noon and music came from ahead, always around the next corner, a phenomenon he regarded as supernatural until he realised he was accidentally following a parade. He increased his pace and caught up with the musicians, who now stood in a circle and played wilder songs at a faster tempo. The first dancers swirled into the soup of notes, followed by others until the whole street was gyrating, he alone a static object, a point of reference. He waited to be asked to dance so that he might decline, for he wanted to be fully fit for tomorrow, but he was never given the chance. And of course this suited his needs perfectly.
         When night fell he decided he had rested enough on his feet and walked to the citadel to sleep. He was the first to bed down but as the hours passed he was joined by others. It was cold under his rough blanket. He drifted from dream to dream and woke often, confused and blinking at the stars, the crescent moon toppled on its side like a pair of disembodied horns above a tide of strangely shaped clouds.
         Once he opened his eyes because a stealthy thief was robbing the sleepers in his vicinity, moving in time with the wind from one prone drunken body to the next, searching through pockets and in the folds of blankets. The thief stepped over him without making any attempt on his possessions. At first he believed the thief had been daunted by his obvious strength and he was pleased, but then it occurred to him he might simply look too poor to steal from, or that he had not really been noticed at all. Far away music still played, softly with laughter.
         The first to stir and rise when the stars dimmed, he walked with considerable grace across the city to the appointed place. Other runners converged from every direction and soon the bustling and jostling of competitors and watchers was intense and oddly relaxing. He inhaled deeply. This was living with passion, dangerously, intoxicatingly, the only way for any sentient being to thrive, heart pounding, sweat sprouting like dew on limbs and torso! He enjoyed the communal fear and excitement, the idea that people were sharing sensations with him.
         He knew what to expect and the sound of the first rocket being launched was not startling but in fact caused him to relax even more. This was proof of his mental strength, a result of his preparations, his research and respect for process and tradition. The long whistle and detonation overhead was a signal the bulls had been released and the more timid or enthusiastic competitors started running, far too early in his view. Better to wait for the second rocket, which signalled that the entire herd of bulls was free. That way it would be easier to run with the animals in the true spirit of the Fiesta, rather than ahead of the dust and danger.
         The second rocket spat into the sky and he tried to tense his muscles, to spring forward, to realise his dream of being an active part of this famous, or notorious, event, but suddenly it was no longer possible to move. Direction and desire were abstractions. Around him men hurried forward, but not one of them even brushed against his arms, which were slack at his sides. There was no bite in his mouth, no swell of blood in his head, nothing meaningful.
         He simply stood and waited to be crushed by the herd, the heavy beasts with frightened eyes and dawn breath just like his, smoky, thick, almost blue in the long early shadows of the Plaza. He waited but he did not watch, for they were behind him and he faced only the sweat soaked backs of runners and a corridor with walls made of spectators and music. He waited and thought about the different types of waiting, uneasy, ignorant, gloomy, resigned, and understood that no variation matched his own particular style of not moving, remaining fixed at this precise instant. He waited and slowly his whole body sagged.
         Nothing touched him, no horn or hoof, not even the erect hairs of each hot flank. The bulls surged around him while he continued to wait, leaving him unscathed with drooping shoulders and hollow stomach, and he watched the living thunder and organised confusion pass on both sides. Ignored again, even by stricken beasts, as if there was something in his very existence which could not be acknowledged by the most primitive physical contact.
         Now he was standing alone and the event had come and gone without him, even though he had inserted himself into the centre of it. He remained for perhaps another hour before walking away, his mind struggling with old memories, seeking a clue as to why he was a permanent outsider in everything. He wondered if the stories were true, if he had really been murdered in his own house in the distant past and could not be here, but it did not feel like that. He suspected the answer was different at every stage of his long life, a life of travelling, waiting to be perceived and recognised. But this particular case was simple.
         If his inner self was not sure who to run with, the bulls or the men, and the people did not know, how could the city care?