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The Old Men Who Row Boats and Other Stories
Literary Short Stories
By David Joseph Posted in Fiction 11 min read
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She would reach for my hand beneath the crisp white sheets and say nothing. She would lock her fingers inside mine and simply breathe, with her eyes closed, morning upon us, the birds calling outside our window, and the sun warming the room. There was nothing she could possibly do to enhance the beauty she displayed at this moment, and no mirror would ever be able to capture the sheen that rowed across her face at daybreak with her hand intertwined with mine and another twenty-four hours before us. Ava was unconvinced that this was the pinnacle of her beauty, that this was as high as one could ascend, but I knew better.

By the time we walked outside and stepped into the streets, Granada had awoken. Since it was springtime, the school year was still in full swing, and we enjoyed watching the children walking in their school uniforms each morning. The youngest children wore what looked like art smocks and they were adorable. The older children were dressed in polo shirts, skirts and pants and dress shoes and looked very well put together. It was quite an impressive ensemble.

We noticed the youngest children were often accompanied by fathers, and we were surprised by the number of men taking their children to school in this patriarchal country. “I like seeing the dads with their kids,” said Ava. “It’s nice.”

We walked to the center of the city to see the Cathedral. Inside the holy building, we sat and marveled at the tremendous girth of the marble pillars, which looked more like sequoia trees. Although neither of us were religious, we sat in the pews, stared upward at the monstrous dome, and paid homage to El Greco’s paintings. “I can see why Catholicism was such a powerful force,” I said.

“Yes,” said Ava. “Almost makes you want to convert.”

The scope and scale of the achievement were immense and awe inspiring. It didn’t seem possible that something so glorious could possibly have been built on the backs of men. There was a divine quality to the cavernous construction that embodied both the Renaissance and the Reconquista.

We had lunch near the cathedral and then returned to the apartment for a siesta. Andalucía continues to employ the siesta. Stores close their doors and bring down aluminum shades in the afternoon. Restaurants stop serving food and people generally head indoors to escape the heat of the day and rest. Most everyone in the streets during siesta is a tourist who can’t quite figure out what to do with themselves. We didn’t want to appear like tourists, so we headed inside to lay down. It was just as well, since we were still adjusting to the time change. We were tired, and we drew the blinds and then closed our eyes until we woke up when the sky was dark.

Ava felt rested and said, “Let’s head out for tapas!” In Granada, restaurants and bars still serve a free tapa with every drink that is ordered. We both ordered glasses of red wine. Ava loved red wine. I didn’t love it, but Ava did, and I tried to develop a taste for it. I realized my palate was less sophisticated, but we were in Spain. We were drinking wine and eating tapas in Spain al fresco style at a table pulled out into an old stone street in Granada under the night sky.

“I am very excited for tomorrow,” said Ava. “The bullfights will be very exciting.”

“Yes,” I concurred, with some hesitation. “The bullfights should be exciting. They say the sun will be unusually hot tomorrow for this time of year, and the matadors will be very warm in the Andalucían sun.”

There was a time when I wanted nothing more on earth than to see the bullfights. I read every Hemingway novel I could find, and I wanted to see the bullfights in Spain. I had seemingly already traveled the country, with Hemingway, as he followed the great matadors he befriended. Death in the Afternoon and The Dangerous Summer became like old friends, connecting me to tradition, culture, bravery, and a level of masculinity to aspire to. Bullfighting, in Hemingway’s capable hands, was both sport and art, life and love, revelry and shame—wrapped in a linguistic romanticism. I became enamored with the most subtle movements of matadors, moved by the ceremony and pageantry, and awed by the courage summoned in the face of being gored. Those matadors! Those majestic, stylish, charming, dashingly handsome matadors!

Ave was excited to see the matadors too. “Have you noticed they are all so good looking,” she laughed.


The bullfight began with a bit of pageantry, but it felt superfluous—more like a clumsy stultification of what all of the people had gathered for and were waiting to ensue. Once the bull ran into the ring, everything changed.

Ava didn’t like the beginning of the bullfight when the focus was squarely on tiring the bull out. She didn’t enjoy seeing the bull outnumbered and she was fearful of the horses being injured or worse. The sun was hot, and the horses galloped lethargically, but they survived. The true depth of their suffering, of course, was unknown to us, circling the ring in the hot sun, and they did absorb some blows.

“This doesn’t seem fair,” said Ava.

“I am not sure bullfights are meant to embody fairness,” I responded dully.

However, after a few minutes that seemed like much more, there was the matador, alone in the ring with the bull. Alone in the hot sun, with the jewels on his clothing glistening beneath the Spanish sky. Alone in front of thousands of fans, staring down the bull, with the sweat pouring out of his body, seeping into the fabric, and increasing the weight of his clothing.

For a moment, time seemed to stand still. The bull had already begun to tire, and he now slowed and sized up the matador. He appeared to catch his breath and measure the distance to the man before him. At the same time, the matador slowed his movements after the initial roars of the crowd. He seemed to check his feet, almost to ensure they were not embedded in the dirt and that they were capable of sauntering delicately, like a ballet dancer, once summoned. It is only a fraction of a second’s time, but lifetimes pass, are considered, and the sun burrows down into the bullring. Yes, the sun is the best matador as Hemingway said. In Spain, in the south, in the late spring and early summer, the sun was even more formidable, and it only makes sense to acknowledge this. Ava leaned forward. I heard her take a deep breath. She looked at the matador in the hot sun. She watched the bull pull the dirt back and begin to charge forward, and I wasn’t sure she even knew I was sitting next to her anymore. She slid forward toward the edge of the old wooden bench that supported us.

The bull was very powerful. He was powerful, and he thundered forward toward the matador. Ava gasped, but the matador was very calm, and he was very experienced. He was one of the best matadors in the world, and he seemed tranquil, moving elegantly in the hot sun. He made no sudden movements. His pace never changed, and it appeared as if an orchestration was taking place. The tempo was his, the conductor of the symphony. He worked very close to the bull, dangerously so, and Ava placed her right hand over her heart. The bull charged, over and over. Despite the spell that had been cast, he kept coming, lowering his horns, and propelling himself forward to whatever end awaited him. In the hot sun, he remained unrelenting. His will was unwavering. For as easy as the matador made things the look, the bull’s movements were in stark contrast. They were the result of heart and fortitude rather than art and teachings. They were the offspring of indomitable will, labored, instinctual, working against the odds under the hot sun. Even when the blood flowed and soaked the great animal’s torso, he remained steadfast. The people cheered. His nobility was recognized, while the matador continued to dance to the same rhythm and Ava remained breathless.

I always wondered what could make a man stand in front of a bull. What could possibly make him confront life and death time and time again when mine was so precious to me? I couldn’t understand the gravitational pull of the danger, the weight of generations of bullfighters in a single family, or the tradition that ran through this country’s blood. Although the scales were tipped in the matador’s favor, every matador had felt the horns of the great animal at some point, the animal they admired most, their only worthy adversary. They had absorbed his sharp point, almost invited it to pierce the surface of their skin and plunge into the body. This, of course, was inevitable, and yet the matador continued to forage, to pursue his calling, and perfect his art. On the morning of every corrida, he wakes up with the sun pouring in the window, a different sun than the one that will fill the bullring later, wondering if it will be his last. He wakes wondering, considering, perhaps even worrying, and he gets dressed, fastens the buttons of his glistening clothes, and stands before the bull and all the world, knowing this, feeling this, and yet somehow willing, resolved to give himself over to it. Magnificent.

I sat in the stands. I sat on the hard benches and watched Ava. I watched her body inch forward toward the edge of the seat. I saw beads of sweat emerge from her body and drip down her white skin, fall slowly, beautifully between her breasts. I saw her chest rise and fall, and I heard the vulnerable sounds escape from her body as the bull charged, the matador worked meticulously, and the sun beat down upon us. And when the matador leveled the bull with the blow that would finish him, she leaned into me. She leaned in forcefully, tenderly, brought her hands to her face, and she cried what seemed like ten thousand tears when the bull fell to the ground and the earth shook.

It was then that I knew, that I understood what it meant to be called by a force so strong, to be summoned by something that shatters everything in a man’s head that is rational or practical or makes even a shred of sense. It was a feeling of powerlessness and empowerment all at once. To have a purpose so clear that it could defy all reason, that it could sweep every lesson taught into a wild abyss and turn the world on its head. It was hopeless, so spectacularly hopeless. It was hopeless, and I was happy. I was happy to feel hopeless, to feel my heart inside my chest, to feel the blood cut off from my brain in such a primal way.

Although I was still young, I had been waiting to feel this way all my life. All my life, I had been waiting to feel this, this feeling of what it felt like, not to think, but to know. I had always wondered how on earth a matador could ever summon the courage to stand before those bulls, feet in the dirt, motionless before the bull when the very act was an afront on human beings’ basic instinct for self-preservation. I was no matador, but now I knew. I knew and it felt good to know what could make a man do something like that. It was a compulsion so strong that it preyed upon the most savage instincts a man can possess, and I knew that I would only ever stand in front of a bull … for her.

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