End of the Carnival

End of the Carnival

Through the endless night the red rockets exploded overhead while the crowd of people laughed and kissed and made love to the music of the mariachi bands that had left the small cantinas and cafés to play in the street until the early morning when the sun had already begun to warm the backs of the peasants who, in the shrub-covered hills to the east, worked tirelessly to bring in the last of their crops to load onto their worn out pickup trucks and mule carts to begin the long procession to the kiosks and stands that surrounded the Plaza Machado during the long week of Carnaval de Mazatlán. Kant slept through the morning and through siesta so that he’d be well rested to enjoy the night’s festivities. On the afternoon of the first day of the bullfights, Kant drank beer and mezcal at the Blue Iguana with the patrons who, well before the beginning of the bullfights, well before the sun set over the Pacific Ocean, would stream out of the Blue Iguana to join the long procession to the coliseum outside of town to revel in the spectacle that pitted the courage of the bullfighter against the brute strength and instincts of the bull. Kant had been here before, each of the last seven years, and though his stomach was always in an upheaval from his strong aversion to bullfighting, his abhorrence was overcome by his curiosity, not so much with the outcome of the bullfights as with the bloodthirsty reactions of the spectators. Each year he’d become more puzzled by the ravishing screams from the crowd calling for the bloody death of the bull – or the bullfighter, he never could be sure which.

Like the precise blow from a glaring ax across the top of his head, the blinding sun, mixed with the mezcal, splintered his consciousness as he joined the long procession that led to the coliseum, the buzzing from the crowd reminding him of the gurgling, shuffling buzzards waiting indignantly to plunge their ugly raw red heads into the bloated carcass of the sea lion washed ashore by the tides. The buzzards were always there, wherever death was.

The procession became shrouded in the stifling dust of late afternoon, while the exalted buzz of the crowd grew more palpable. Kant pulled his wide-brimmed hat down to shield his eyes and his bandanna up to cover his nose. He recalled the three years that he’d spent in Bolivia, flying mail planes from Arcopongo, high in the Andes Mountains, to La Paz. During the rainy season, he’d fly from memory through the thick soup of clouds at Yabalo, pulled to the edge of his seat, waiting anxiously for the glimmer of lights from Palca, never knowing with any certainty if he was even flying in the right direction. He felt alive then, in the relentless rains of the Andes, but now he felt dread gurgling in the pit of his stomach, overcome by the fear of being out of place in the stifling dust outside Mazatlán, carried along by the inquisitive awkwardness that is always present before an execution. He’d once seen a man executed in Columbia; he’d never forget how the man shook his head when the lieutenant offered him the blindfold, but how even this last act of compassion had been denied him as the lieutenant hurriedly tied the blindfold over the man’s eyes to conceal from his view the discomfort expressed in the faces of the firing squad. The man faced his execution with undeniable courage – or shock, Kant couldn’t be sure. At least, Kant thought, this man had had a last insight, a final glance into the void of his future.

Kant wondered about the direction of his life, and why he was being pulled along by this hungry throng on its way to the coliseum to witness certain death – or bravery, however one wanted to look at it; maybe there was a collective desire to see the bravery of a man pitted against the wild instincts of a brute, but the bull wasn’t a willing participant in any of this, rather his fate had been predestined by his ancestry. It occurred to Kant that maybe all our fates were more or less predestined by our ancestry, and even though he’d never known his father, he was convinced that his wanderlust was the flower of his father’s seed.

Stifled by the heat and the anticipatory hum from the spectators, most of whom had arrived early to see the bulls, raised on the large ranch in the foothills of Durango, unloaded into the corrals outside the arena, Kant felt overwhelmed as he moved unsteadily along the narrow passage between the rows of stone seats built on the steep slope of the coliseum. Once settled in his seat, with a long pull of the invigorating wine from the wineskin slung across his chest he hoped to flush the heavy dust from his throat and clear away the tangled cobwebs and turbidity from his mind. His seat was directly over the west gate through which the team of mules would drag the killed bulls from the arena; he looked across the inflamed expanse of the arena to the east gate through which the bulls would enter, and into the squirming, unrestrained faces of the spectators seated there, squinting against the glare from the bright sunlight. He took another long pull from the wineskin, the sweet, poignant wine temporarily blurring his uneasiness.

In Bolivia the grounding of the planes from the relentless rain brought on an unbearable languor, and the pilots were willing to risk any danger just in order to break the tedium of camp. Kant begged Reemy to let him go up, it didn’t matter the degree of risk involved, but Reemy was steadfast in his denial of Kant’s repeated requests. Besides the risk to the pilots, there was also the costs of the planes to be considered. “But if you go on like this, you’ll be broke anyway,” Kant argued. “It is the chance I have to take,” Reemy replied. “To go broke is one thing, to be responsible for the death of one of my pilots is another thing altogether; I won’t put anyone’s life at risk, no matter the cost to me personally.”

“But what is a man’s life worth if it is lived in inexorable agony?” Kant argued.

“I don’t give a damn about your inexorable agony,” Reemy told Kant. “Life isn’t supposed to be fair, so get the hell out of my cabin, I don’t want to hear any more of your pleas.”

Kant left the cramped cabin, dissatisfied with Reemy’s explanation. What in hell was that supposed to mean? Life isn’t fair? And to this day, Reemy’s words rattled around in Kant’s brain; he never was able to reconcile Reemy’s philosophy with his own; to Kant, life is supposed to be fair, that’s all it’s supposed to be. Of course, Reemy was right about one thing: the rain – and the dangers it gave rise to. Loratio Smith, one of the pilots, and a good friend of Kant’s, was killed when his plane, in the inscrutable fog and rain, hit a precipice on Yabalo Pass; it would take weeks to find his remains in the thick jungle of the Andes Mountains. Reemy never forgave himself for relenting to the pilots’ desires, and, soon after Smith’s fiery death, he sold what was left of his planes and left for the States. Kant moved to Peru, but became disillusioned with the unworthiness and instability of the Peruvian government, and soon afterwards moved to Mexico, where, as it turned out, things were worse. Maybe Reemy was right after all: life isn’t fair.

The sharp, sweet wine from the wineskin helped settle Kant’s uneasiness, and by the time the first bull charged into the arena, the cobwebs in his brain had cleared away, and the glare from the hard sunlight had softened. The first bull was young and, after it had been severely punished by the picadores and banderilleros, was easily and gracefully killed by the torero during the tercio de muerta. Kant watched as the quiet, blood-soaked bull was dragged by the team of mules through the west gate, and up above in the fierce afternoon sky the buzzards had already begun their dance.

The next bull was not so juvenile and presented a greater challenge to the cuadrilla, and the enraged bull’s death was prolonged and cruel. Kant watched the bloody debacle in horror before Alvaro Torrado, the old torero, left the arena in disgust; Estevia Ruiz, one of the younger matadors, after the enfeebled bull ignominiously collapsed at his feet, and after several failed attempts with his muleta to arouse the bull to its feet, finally and mercifully made the kill without encouragement or cheers of approval from the spectators. Alvaro Torrado was assailed intolerably by the scornful clamor from the spectators and refused to reenter the arena for the final faena. In the world of bull fighting, this was unthinkable, and a great sense of dismay and pity for the old torero overcame Kant. He could not suffer through anymore of this bloody spectacle and wriggled his way along the narrow walkway between the hard seats to the steep stairs that led down to the main entrance and out into the quiet dust that surrounded the coliseum. He wanted to get away from the coliseum, but the burnt orange glare of the setting sun paralyzed him. With the stream of the sweet, poignant wine from the wineskin, he hoped to clear away the dry disgust in the back of his throat. What he’d witnessed left him weary, and he knew that he’d be unable to rinse away the sadness he felt for Alvaro Torrado.

For another two hours, as the sunlight grew dim, Kant sat forlornly on a hard wooden bench outside the coliseum, transfixed by his melancholy, even as the raucous crowd after the final corrida poured from the mouth of the coliseum. Through the growing darkness, he had decided that he would wait for Alvaro Torrado, regardless of how long he would have to wait, and he would walk with him back to a café in the plaza where they would engage in meaningless and spirited conversation, just as any other two people in close camaraderie might sit over coffee and brandy, even though Kant knew that they weren’t just any other two people. Kant thought about a matador’s life, realizing that it is one of solitude, inspired by solemn reflection, and Kant knew that more than ever before Alvaro Torrado needed a friend. Kant would be his friend, even long after the carnival had come to an end, and had become only a dying memory on the bleak landscape of the everyday lives of those who had been there but would never understand what Alvaro Torrado had understood, standing unmasked and alone in the middle of the arena, veiled only in his own thoughts, staring with deep remorse into the black eyes of the bull, vanquished, but staring back defiantly, still striving to live. Alvaro Torrado had been more than a mere participant, he had lived inside the carnival, and had come away with that rare opportunity to take one final glance into the void of his future. Kant knew that it was from a special courage that Alvaro Torrado chose to leave the arena, and out of the disgust and shame he saw in the blood of the bull, and Kant would be there for him, holding the imaginary blindfold that he knew Alvaro Torrado would refuse to wear so that he could look defiantly into the bleary eyes of his firing squad.

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