My Father’s Sword
Those hooves, those hammering, ruthless hooves pounding down, down, down. I cursed the dust clogging the air, hiding everything but those hooves and the occasional flash of color from a glimpse of my father’s costume. A pulsing heat was invading the left side of my face, casting a blurred shine to everything I saw. I was running, calls of warning missing my ears completely. I was wrapped in a silence punctured only by the frenzied tattoo of my own heartbeat. I reached my father just as the handlers got the bull penned. His body was surprisingly straight, lying still on the ground. His cape was lying twenty feet away in a crumpled heap. I knelt and gripped his hand, staring, my eyes desperately trying to suck a sign of movement from his chest. His mouth twitched, and a whisper pierced the deafening drumbeat flooding my head.
“Manny.” My name, gurgled past his lips. I leaned in closer. “I love you.”
“Papa, don’t go! Please-” Another thundering whisper cut me off.
“Please, son. Just listen. Take care of your mother. Treat her like the goddess she is.” A rivulet of blood crawled out of the corner of his mouth. “Remember to live with passion, as I taught you. We are Spain.” He coughed, sending another crimson snake slithering out of the other side of his mouth. “I will always be with you.” The medics were there, trying to take my father from me, trying to pull his hand from mine. I couldn’t let go. It took three men to pull me away from my father. I didn’t scream. Not with my mouth. I just stood there, listening to the agonized, tortured symphony pouring from my heart, the blood of my shattered soul leaking from the corners of my eyes. The hilt of my father’s sword was burning in my other hand, welding itself to my fist.
That was when I woke up. I didn’t wake up suddenly, or all at once. Tears were still slipping down my face as I crawled out of slumber. Every night I had gone back. Every night, I was back to that moment. Stuck, reliving those infinitely long seconds when my father had been ripped from my life. The scar on my face was burning as though it had reopened, and I brushed it with my fingertips, a raised pink line sitting on my cheekbone. I didn’t need to look at the clock. I knew I had awakened at the same time as every night before, and that there were still a good 4 hours before daylight would even consider oozing over the horizon. I turned over in my bed, not wanting to let sleep steal me back. I started school tomorrow, and I knew that I needed rest. But I couldn’t. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t close my eyes. I sat up and turned on my lamp. Reaching into the gap between my bed and the wall, I pulled it out. It had become part of me in those moments when I watched the EMT’s covering my father on the stretcher and hoisting him into the ambulance, the white and red hearse that drove my father away. I pulled it out of the scabbard, staring at the light that danced along its edge. I pulled off my covers, and got up. An idea had struck me, and I started rummaging through one of the many unpacked boxes sitting of the floor of my room. I found what I was looking for, and sat on the edge of my bed.
As I opened the cleaning kit, I thought back to when Papa and I used to clean his sword, both before and after his fights. We talked about everything, school, sports, especially bullfighting, and simply about life in general. It was a time when just the two of us were together, and we weren’t just father and son. During those times, we were friends and equals. I would tell him about girls at school, or things that bothered me, and he would tell me about work, stories about when he was my age, and about things he and Mom did when they were younger. I started running the oiled cloth over the blade, and a few leftover tears began to leak out again. One landed on the handle, but I ignored it.
“You know, saltwater isn’t good for the blade.” I looked up, startled. “Over here, son.” I looked at the end of my bed, and saw my father, sitting there in his matador costume, clean and whole, but still surrounded by that shiny blur he had had when I held him in the ring.
“Papa?” I decided that I was in a new dream, and hoped that this one wouldn’t turn into another nightmare. “You’re gone Papa. What are you doing here?”
“Obviously you need me more now than heaven does.” His reply was soft and warm, but tinged slightly with a wistfulness that I understood more deeply than anything I had before.
“You’re not real, are you?” It wasn’t completely a question, but not a statement either.
“It doesn’t matter whether I am or not. You need me, and I told you I’d always be with you.” He came over closer to me. “I’m not a ghost, or an angel really. Now what’s going on?”
“I can’t sleep, Dad.” I kept cleaning the sword as I spoke, and it was just like it used to be. “I keep seeing you die, over and over. I miss you.” The tears threatened to return, but I kept them dammed.
“Did I ever tell you about the day my father died?” He hadn’t, and I realized then that he had only been a few years older than I was now when Grandfather and been gored to death. “I wasn’t there, because I was resting from a fight I had just finished. I rushed out, and rode with the ambulance that took him to the hospital. I kept wondering, asking myself, why couldn’t I have stopped it.”
“Dad, you weren’t even near him or the bull. There was nothing you could have done.” And it was my fault in the first place that you fell. If I hadn’t gotten hit by that rock…
“Manny, I know that. But grief does things. For weeks, I blamed myself, dumb though it was. I kept seeing him under the bull, or gored by the bull, or lying broken on the field. I told myself, if only I’d been there, if I’d been one of his lancers. It was his only match that I’d missed, and all because I was too damn tired to go watch it.”
“Dad? Do you still think it was your fault?” Because it wasn’t his fault. He hadn’t been there. He hadn’t gotten hurt and made his father turn away from the bull, hadn’t made him trip and get trampled and trampled, and trampled…I had finished cleaning the sword, and was sliding it back into its sheath as sobs vibrated my body. I couldn’t look at my father. Suddenly I felt his hand on my head.
“Manny, you have school tomorrow. You need to sleep.” I felt him gently pull back my covers, and I laid down. The blankets slid over me, and I heard his voice, softly singing an old Spanish lullaby that he had sung me to sleep with until I was seven years old. The last thing I felt before I dozed off was his kiss on my head. I wasn’t crying anymore.
I pulled my sandwich out of the vinyl bag that had housed my lunch for the past week. As I was about to take a bite, a girl came and sat next to me.
“Hey, you’re Manny, right?” I had seen her in a couple of my classes. Her name was Jenny, and she was very outgoing. “Aren’t you in my American Government class?”
“And your biology class.” I hadn’t really gone out of my way to make friends yet. Though I hadn’t worked very hard to establish myself as the creepy loner kid either. I wasn’t about to blow any people who actually wanted to get to know me. “You’re Jenny, right?”
“In the flesh. Do you mind if we eat with you today? All the other tables are full.” I looked around, seeing several empty tables, but decided not to mention it. Shy as I was, I needed any boost that came my way socially.
“Sorry, but you said ‘we?’” As if on cue, 2 other people dropped their trays across from us and sat down.
“Manny, this is Fern, and Ben.” Fern was in a few more of my classes. She was very pretty, and flashed a brilliant smile. She was pretty quiet in class. I wondered how she was with her friends. Ben wasn’t in any of my classes, and I was pretty sure he was a grade below us. He stuck out his hand.
“Nice to meet you. Aren’t you that new guy who moved here from Spain?” I shook his hand, slightly surprised that anything about me had gotten around the school this quickly. I hadn’t exactly been verbose about where I came from. But it seemed to be a pretty significant point of interest to everyone.
“Yes. It’s nice to meet you.” He smiled, and started tearing into his food. I glanced quickly at Fern, and took a bite of my sandwich.
“So tell us about Spain.” Jenny seemed determined to make me talk about myself. I quickly swallowed my bite of food.
“There’s not a lot to talk about. It’s a beautiful place, especially in Toledo, where I lived. There’s a lot less rain than there is here.” I took another bite. Fern finally spoke up.
“I hear there’s a lot of bullfighting around Toledo.” A sudden terror started building in my chest. PLEASE don’t go there. Fern must have seen something in my eyes, because she looked away, and fell silent. Too bad Ben wasn’t as observant.
“Sweet! Bullfighting!” He looked pretty excited. “Did you ever see any toreadors get gored or trampled?” He went there. Why does humanity hold such a sick passion for violence? I tried to think of something to say that might turn the conversation around. Before I could pull anything out, I felt that shameful seizing up in the back of my throat, and a burning started to crawl up my sinuses to the corners of my eyes. No way was I about to blubber like a baby in this place, in front of these people who I barely knew. I got up suddenly, grabbing my lunch sack and book bag.
“Sorry!” That was all I managed to squeeze from my mouth before I was gone. I went to the nurse, still battling myself, refusing to let the tears come. I must have looked pretty bad, because she gave me a pass to sign out and go home. As soon as I had slumped behind the wheel of the Honda Civic my grandparents let me drive, all the thoughts and emotions that had begun welling up in the cafeteria escaped. Sobs silently wheezed from my lungs, and tears coldly trickled down my face. I managed to regain some control, and drove home. I stumbled to my room, ignoring my grandmother’s surprised hello, and collapsed on my bed. Surprisingly, now that I was alone, I didn’t cry. A deep, throbbing ache had settled like pneumonia into my lower chest. I felt bad for a moment, leaving Jenny and Ben, and Fern so suddenly. A powerful wave of homesickness pounded into me. More than home, more than the sun of Toledo, the clear skies and my old friends, I wanted Papa. I had completely forgotten about the visit of my father nearly a week before. I stood, and noticed the cleaning kit I had been too lazy to pick up since that night. I picked it up, and pulled my father’s sword out from under the bed where I had hidden it, afraid my grandmother might come in to clean and take it away. Gingerly, I pulled off the scabbard. I began to clean it, and as the biting tang of metal polish filled my nostrils, the memory of that night flooded back to my mind.
“You aren’t going to make any friends if you keep running like that.” Almost as if the memory had brought him, my father was sitting by my side, nonchalantly watching the cloth in my hand slide up the blade.
“Papa?” I briefly wondered if I was going crazy, and then decided not to care. He was here with me, and it didn’t matter to me if schizophrenia was what had brought him. The ache in my chest was suddenly gone. “I wasn’t about to cry at school, in front of people who I barely know.”
“You can’t blame a boy for being curious. He was just trying to have a conversation.” He hand gripped my shoulder softly. “You are Spanish, Manny. You cannot hide that, and the world knows what Spain is. They can see who you are.”
“Maybe I need that part of me to go away for a while. Bullfighting stole you from me.” The ache started to settle back in.
“Manny.” I heard the love in his voice. His hand found mine. “I will always be with you. But you need more than me. You need your mother. You need your grandparents. And you desperately need friends. Let them help you.” His hand let go of mine, and he pulled me into an embrace. I closed my eyes, trying to freeze time, trying to lose myself in his embrace. When I opened them again, I was the only person in the room. But I knew I wasn’t alone.
“You two can leave early today.” Our boss at the library smiled at Fern and I. “We’re pretty much done for the day. I can handle locking up.” Marge was one of the coolest people I knew. She was a lit major at the university, and mildly crazy. She was about five feet tall, and made up for every inch she lacked with an exuberance and passion for life. She had helped Fern and I get our jobs at the library, and we often spent the long, generally empty hours discussing her favorite books with her. Fern and I were currently in AP Lit, and her deep grasp of many of the books we had to read had saved our grades more than once.
“Thanks Marge!” I grabbed our coats, and handed Fern hers. “Are you sure you don’t want us to stick around? You could get attacked or something all alone here.” I was only half joking.
“Because I’ve got so much to get attacked for.” Marge’s sarcasm was unmistakable. “You crazy Spaniards and your misguided attempts at chauvalry.” Marge was big into women’s liberation, despite my constant reminding her that it was pretty much over. She constantly teased me about my “gentleman’s attitude” toward women, saying that chivalry and chauvinism were only different by a few degrees, hence her term chauvalry. Not wanting to lose an opportunity to get home early, Fern decided to chime in.
“We’ll see you tomorrow, Marge!” She turned to me. “Manny, do you think you could give me a ride home?” As if I could tell her no.
“Of course!” I pulled her hood over her eyes, and ran off. “Race you to the car!” I beat her by a good four seconds.
“You cheated!” Fern playfully hit my arm, and got in the passenger seat. We talked casually as I drove to her house. In the year since my move here, Ben and Jenny and Fern had become my best friends. After that fateful first lunch, I told them about my father, and Ben had been completely mortified. It took him another couple of weeks to quit apologizing. As the year progressed, we grew closer and closer. Fern and I had gotten our jobs at the library together, with the help of Marge, who we had taken to the moment she interviewed us. After I dropped Fern off, I headed home, thinking how well my life was going, and how lucky I was to have the friends I did.
My mom is a reporter for the Seattle Times. Since news was kind of her thing, it was fitting that she was the one who broke it to me that night. I was watching Wheel of Fortune with my grandparents when she came in.
“Manny, can I talk to you in the kitchen?” No greeting, no hug. I knew something was up. I wondered briefly if she had found out about Ben and me spinning cookies in a church parking lot last weekend, then dismissed it. Mom wouldn’t really care about that kind of thing unless someone got hurt, which no one had. I got up and went into the kitchen warily.
“What’s going on, Mom?” I was trying to read her face. I wasn’t enjoying its story.
“I’m sorry Manny. It’s about Marge.” A cold feeling started to spread like a fog inside my chest. “She was mugged a couple of hours ago, and she was shot three times.” The freezing sensation immediately took over my body completely.
“Is she…is she-” I stopped, and tried to catch my breath. I couldn’t force that little word out of my mouth. Luckily my ever perceptive mother caught it.
“She’s not dead.” She put her arm around my shoulder. Which was hard for her, seeing as she was a good eight inches shorter than me. “She’s in the hospital, in critical condition. They shot her in the lower abdomen and shoulder. No one knows which way she’s going to go yet.” Her arm tightened around my shoulders, and then she pulled me into a hug. “Oh Manny, I’m so sorry. Are you ok?” The cold had turned into a numbness that permeated my head and chest.
“I’m going to go call Fern.” I pulled out of her embrace softly, and took the cordless phone into my room and closed the door. The click of the latch was like a switch being flipped inside myself. It hit me. Marge was hurt, maybe dying or even dead. I barely noticed my thumb, dialing Fern’s number seemingly on its own. I heard one, two, three rings, and then Fern picked up.
“Hello?” Her voice pulled me back into reality.
“Fern? It’s Manny.” I wondered how I could be doing something so ordinary as calling someone on the phone when something so huge was going on. I somehow told Fern what had happened. She cried. Somehow through her tears, we managed to simultaneously plan with each other over the phone and with our parents to skip school the next day to go visit Marge in the hospital. After Fern tearfully hung up on her end, I slumped back onto my bed and let the numbness that had been drifting through my body engulf my mind, and fell asleep. The phone awakened me the next day. I groggily picked up, still semi-conscious.
“Hello?” My voice was covered in the layer of gravel that is always present after directly waking up. Fern’s voice jolted my foggy brain completely alert.
“Manny?” Her voice was still a little shaky, and the memory of what had transpired the night before suddenly crashed back into my head. “I called the hospital. They said that Marge is still unconscious, but if we still want to visit her, their visiting hours are from one until six in the evening.” I glanced at my alarm clock. It was nine o’clock now.
“Why don’t I pick you up at around noon, and we can get some lunch and maybe pick up some flowers or something before we head up to the hospital.” Our parents had agreed the night before to call us both in sick, so school wasn’t an issue at the moment. She agreed, and we hung up. My mom was at the newspaper office, my grandfather at his law firm. Grandma had left me a note, saying that she had gone out to run some errands and would be back around two o’clock. After a shower and some cereal that may well have been cat food (I wasn’t paying real close attention to what I was doing. Mostly I was just following routine since I had nothing else to do), I tried to watch some television until it was time to go. Mostly I just sat numbly on the couch, wondering if Marge would be alright.
I picked Fern up a little after twelve o’clock.
“Where do you want to go for lunch?” I knew neither of us was really hungry, but it gave me something to say.
“I don’t know.” Fern wasn’t crying, but her voice reflected the emptiness I was feeling. We spent a few minutes driving around, having a hollow conversation where we argued who had to decide where to eat. Eventually we just decided to stop at the next place we saw. Which turned out to be an Arby’s. We ordered our food, and ate it silently. It wasn’t a painful silence, but it felt necessary. Neither of us had anything really to say. What did the issues of teenage life matter when the life of someone we both loved was possibly about to expire? I didn’t taste anything I ate this time either. After lunch, we went to the florist and bought a bouquet of carnations, which we knew were Marge’s favorites. We had gotten her some for her birthday too.
The hospital was bursting with the typical medical feeling. A hushed up feeling, like it’s a crime to whisper, mixed with the clean yet nauseating perfume of disinfectant. We looked up Marge’s room number at the front desk. She was on the third floor. The elevator was leaking out some fuzzy muzak, but I couldn’t tell what tune. Suddenly I was off the elevator and we were standing at Marge’s bedside. Her face was pale, and completely still. If I hadn’t heard the faint but constant beep…beep…beep…of her heart-rate monitor, I would have thought she was dead. I felt Fern’s cool, dry hand slip into mine.
“How can someone who’s so full of life look so quiet?” Her voice was barely a whisper, but it cut into my ears like a gunshot. I searched around my head desperately for something to say to comfort her.
“This sucks.” Classic me. So tactful. Even as I was yelling at myself mentally, I heard words passing out of my mouth. “Why did this have to happen to someone so kind?” Suddenly I was out of words. Fern’s grip tightened on my had, and I felt her shaking as she silently cried. I felt that familiar tightness in my throat, but I didn’t care this time. I wasn’t going to fall apart. Even as the thought tumbled through my mind, I felt a tear escape the corner of my eye. Memories of work started flooding through my head, and I suddenly recalled the night before, vividly as if I was back there, living it again. Shame and anger filled me. This was MY FAULT! I hadn’t stayed to help Marge, I had left her alone, and she had been attacked. She had been robbed and shot because she was alone. And I should have stayed the full shift, instead of selfishly leaving early. Fern and I sat there, me steaming away at myself, filling with shame and anger, she crying openly, but quietly, simply holding my hand. I wanted to pull her to me, to hug her tightly and comfort her, but I couldn’t. After a year, or just an hour, or even thirty seconds, we got up, Fern bending over to kiss Marge on her frozen cheek, and left. The car ride home was as silent as the ride to the hospital. When I dropped Fern off, I walked her to her door. She hugged me there, tightly.
“Thanks Manny.” A whisper, straight into my ear but still so soft it was barely audible. Her face was dry now, but her eyes were red and puffy. And beautiful
“No thanks needed, Fern.” There I was, typical stoic male, refusing to show the slightest emotion despite the fact that inside I was still raging at myself for leaving Marge alone. We let go of each other, and she went inside.
As soon as I got home, I went up to m room. My grandmother was still gone. I fell back onto my bed and cried for real. Marge was maybe dying. She was definitely hurt. And it was all my fault. MY FAULT! I slowly started slipping off the bed until I was lying flat on the floor. I opened my eyes and say my father’s sword and its cleaning kit hiding under the bed, right where I had left them almost a year ago. I pulled them out, and soon had fallen into the comforting and nearly hypnotic rhythm of polishing the blade, trying to lose myself just for a little while in the old habit, inhaling the tang of the polish like it was the greatest scent in the world.
“You know you almost look like a junkie getting his fix.” I started, and was almost surprised to see my father sitting beside me again for the first time in almost a year. He looked amused at my expression. “Yes, I’m here again. Wanna tell me what’s upsetting you?”
“My boss, Marge.” My throat was coated with a film left by the crying. “She was shot last night and is critical in the hospital.”
“Sounds bad.” Truly my father, saying so much with so few words. “Think she’ll be all-right?” I drew a short, shuddering breath.
“I hope so Dad.” I balanced for a second between whether I should explain my shame to him or not. I think he caught something in my face.
“Something more you need to say, hombre?” He looked questioningly into my eyes, and I made up my mind.
“Dad, it was my fault.” The words burned my tongue as I spat them out. Dad looked at me, but I couldn’t read his expression. Shameful tears started to slip down my cheeks. “I left her alone, even though I knew this could happen.”
“Manny, Manny, Manny.” I could hear the disappointment in his voice. “How dangerous is bullfighting?” What kind of question was that?
“Deadly. You know that better than anyone.” Images of that awful bullfight started flashing though my head again.
“Then why did we do it?” Maybe it wasn’t disappointment I was hearing his voice.
“I don’t know anymore.” It was true. “Ever since you died, I asked myself over and over again how we could have thought such a dangerous and barbaric sport was okay. It killed you!”
“Manny. You know exactly why. The rush, the glory of a fight well done, the thrill of having brushed so close to death, the adoration of the fans.” I could feel the nostalgia in his voice starting to infect me. “It was part of Spain, Part of who we were, and it brought us closer to each other.”
“What the hell does that have to do with Marge?” I was getting annoyed, and I couldn’t tell why.
“Manny, everyone takes risks. Every time you drive a car, or even just walk down the street, there’s a chance something could happen.” I started to catch what he was trying so hard to tell me. “Risks are part of life. Getting hurt is part of life. Dying is part of life. And no matter how hard we try, we can’t save everyone. It’s not our fault, and Marge wasn’t your fault.” Okay, maybe he had a point. But I still killed you, Dad. He looked up sharply at me, as if he’d caught the thought. “Manny, you don’t think my death was your fault too, after all this time?”
“It is, Dad.” In a flash I was back in those horrific moments before my father had died. The bull’s hooves flashed, and a rock was suddenly flying straight at me. I didn’t have time to react, and instantly there was a blinding pain shooting through the left side of my face. I cried out, and saw my father turn towards me, distracted. The bulls’ horns caught him in the ribs, and he was flat on his back, at the mercy of those deadly, cruel hooves.
“Manny, Manny!” My dad was shaking me, pulling me out of the nightmare again. I gasped, and sobs began to wrack my body.
. “I killed you, I didn’t duck, I couldn’t control myself and I shouted, I distracted you…” I was babbling, trying to finally tell him how I’d killed him! Dad shushed me.
“Manny, you and I both knew the risks I took every time I entered that ring. I made my peace with man and God before I went into every match. I made sure I was ready to die, in case I actually did.” He took my cold, clammy, guilty hand in his own warm dry one. “I knew the risks, and you and your mother knew them as well. Dying never really concerned me as much as what would have happened to you if something had happened to me. When you were hit by that rock, I couldn’t ignore it. I saw it happen even before you cried out.” He squeezed my hand. “You were my sword page, and more than that, you were, are my son. That rock hitting you was not what killed me, Manny. The bull, and my own lack of concentration caused my death. It wasn’t your fault, and it wasn’t mine or even the bull’s. The fault was nobody’s but mine for ever choosing and accepting the enormous possibility of death when I took up bullfighting. Please, Manny. I’m not going to be able to rest and move on as long as I can see you ripping yourself apart for my death.” He tilted my head so I was staring into his eyes. “It was not your fault.” And I saw the truth in his eyes. Something opened inside my chest, and new tears started falling from my eyes.
“Thank you, Padre.” A whisper was all I could force past my lips. He pulled me into an embrace, and I held him tightly, crying, not from sorrow, but from the sense of freedom that had suddenly dropped onto me. We held each other for what seemed like hours. When I finally let go, he was gone. I sat on my bed, feeling my father’s lingering presence and love that was hanging in the air of my room like a fog. The phone rang suddenly, and I picked it up. “Hello?”
“Hi Manny.” The soft voice thundered out of the phone. It was Marge.