Bright rays of sun bore down on sharp young shadows at the break of dawn. The light soon found its way through an old cave in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of southern Spain. Painted upon the stone walls were faded drawings from long ago.
“This is your family,” said a voice, clear and strong. “This is your fate.”
Don Murciélago Cortés, a gray Spanish bull who weighed six hundred kilograms, slowly trotted deeper into the cave. His voice echoed with pride. The scars around his neck and his hind leg limp passed largely unnoticed, for he carried himself like a mighty king with his horns held high. He was followed by his eight bull-calf sons and only heifer-calf daughter, who had been named after her mother, Alicía Catalina Cortés.
“This is our tradition,” Don Murciélago continued as his children looked at the imagery, “a sacred and time-honored tradition.”
Alicía pored over picture after picture of the most magnificent cattle she had ever seen. Their hooves and humps and horns were extraordinary. Alicía’s large brown eyes widened with awe, and the drawings seemed to come to life when her father went on, “Each summer, the city of Pamplona hosts the fiesta of San Fermín, also known as Feria del Toro—the Festival of the Bull—which is held in our honor. The celebration always begins at noon on the sixth of July and lasts for nine days and nights.”
Soon Alicía turned to a painting of the city’s Old Quarter by Plaza Consistorial in front of the town hall where swarms of people gathered for an opening ceremony.
“The heart of the fiesta and our rite of passage is the encierro,” said Don Murciélago, “the running of the bulls. It’s one of the most exhilarating and spectacular events around the world.”
Alicía stared at drawings of hundreds of men dressed all in white with red waist sashes. They waved pañuelos, red scarves, over their heads as they ran alongside a herd of charging bulls hurtling through Pamplona’s narrow cobbled streets.
“The running of the bulls is the greatest of all 800-meter marathons. It’s your heritage, inescapable and written in the stars. For a long time, the House of Hernández had prevailed at the races, then our ancestors—the Cortés caste—had come to find victory, but in recent years the Del Toro bloodline has proven triumphant.” Don Murciélago trotted ahead, his hooves clacking steadily in his wake. “Every summer six bulls are chosen from our ranch to run with the men in Pamplona. I hope that one day you, my children, will restore glory and honor to the Cortés family name.”
Alicía now faced another work of art, a strange sight that she had never seen; a sand-covered ring, encircled by a red wooden fence called a barrera. Cheering crowds filled two tiers of stands in a circular structure that surrounded the open central space. Carved columns and railings separated the upper and lower levels of Plaza de Toros, the famed bullring in Pamplona.
“After the event, there’s a grand ball—an age-old tribute to our lineage—set in a giant ring of sand where we dance with matadors,” said Don Murciélago, his voice deep and stately.
“Matadors?” asked Alicía, who was far more enthralled than her brothers.
“Men dressed in lavish suits of lights,” replied Don Murciélago and, for the first time, he noticed his daughter. “What are you doing here, Alicía? I told you to remain in your stable.”
“I’ve already eaten all the grain I could eat today. I wanted to be here with you, Papá.”
Don Murciélago shot Alicía a sidelong glance and continued, “Following the festival, most bulls go to a great ranch in the sky where they live out their days on an evergreen pasture with their forefathers, heroes forever praised.”
“What about you, Papá?” asked Alicía. “You once ran in Pamplona and won the event.”
“I am a rare exception, my child. I’m one of few bulls who had been returned home to raise my family.”
“How come?” she wondered, but her question lingered unanswered and her tiny ears lowered as her father brought his attention back to Alicía’s brothers.
“To be noble y bravo is the best we can hope for in this life,” he said. “A fast bull with good breeding who gracefully accepts his fate, always maintaining strength and fearlessness, willing to charge forthrightly, and rising with honor to face whatever challenge presents itself … that’s what it means to be noble y bravo, which is noble and brave.”
Don Murciélago gazed over his children, all with sleek gray coats identical to his own, and he prayed that his sons would one day run as he had in the past, noble y bravo. Only he failed to see the longing on his daughter’s face or the desire born in her eyes.