Wednesday, February 20, 2008

My Father's Sword (edited and updated)

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 surrounded by 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 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 moved, and a whisper penetrated the deafening drumbeat emanating from my chest.
“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 bursting 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 pulled out of my 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 cut on my face was burning as though it had reopened, and I brushed my fingertips over the scar, 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 coming. I turned over in my bed, not wanting to let sleep take me back. I started school tomorrow, and I knew that I needed to sleep. 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 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 2 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 hit the handle, but I ignored it.
“You know, saltwater isn’t good for the blade.” The voice wasn’t mine, and I looked up, startled. “Over here, son.” It came again. 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 another 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 held them in.
“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. “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 soon. You need to sleep.” I felt him gently pull back my covers, and 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 dissolved into sleep was his kiss on my head. I wasn’t crying anymore. The next morning I awoke, refreshed, and the memory of my dream was clear in my head. I got up, and my foot brushed the cleaning kit, neatly packed up and laying beside the sword. I knew at the moment, that whether it had been reality or not, my father had been with me last night.

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. “You’re in my American Government class, right?”
“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. I wasn’t about to turn away a chance to maybe get to know some people. Shy as I was, I needed any boost that came my way in that department.
“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 with people 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! I didn’t know it was still practiced.” 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 crawling up my sinuses to the corners of my eyes. I didn’t want to be seen doing that. 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. I 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 especially Fern so suddenly. A powerful wave of homesickness pounded into me. More than home, 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 to 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. Gently, I pulled off the scabbard. I began to polish it, and as the biting tang of metal cleaner 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 to me. The ache in my chest was suddenly gone. “I know I shouldn’t have left like that. But that Ben kid caught my by surprise. He shouldn’t have asked that.”
“You can’t blame a boy for being curious. He was just curious, just trying to have a conversation.” He hand gripped my shoulder softly. “You are Spanish. Remember what your friends used to sing with you when you were small?” It was a childish, silly chant, but I chanted along with him in Spanish.
“We are Spain. Spain is Bulls, Spain is Beauty. Spain is matadors, and Spain is Passion. Spain is us, we are Passion!” I smiled. My father looked me in the eyes.
“You are Spain, Manny. You cannot hide that, and the world knows the chant as well as you or me.” I chuckled a bit at the thought of a huge crowd chanting the childish verses. Papa caught the thought. He had always been able to catch that sort of thing. “Oh, they might not know the words, but they know what Spain is. They can see who you are.”
“Papa, 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.”
“What if they bring it up again and this happens all over again?”

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