I had a friend once.
He was a bullfighter. A slender man with sad eyes, a sad smile and a long deep scar on his face. There were other scars, but you only saw the one on his face.
His name was Manuel. He was known as Manolete. But I called him Manolo, and he liked that, because that's what his mother, Do√±a Angustias, called him when he was a boy and lived in a poor house, on a poor street, in a rich land.
Manolete was killed by a Miura bull, the fiercest animal known to man, a breed of wild bulls with an inbred hatred for all living things.
A Miura bull killed Manolete's granduncle, Pepete, April 20, 1862. A Miura bull killed Espartero, May 27, 1894. A Miura killed Llusio in Madrid, Manuel Sanchez in Sevilla, Domingo del Campo in Barcelona, Pedro Carre√±o in Écija.
And in Linares on Aug. 29, 1947, a Miura bull killed Manolete.
His death turned Spain into a nation of mourners; everybody wept.
The country was a solemn funeral procession of genuine grief and unashamed tears, no practiced melancholy or mock hysteria, just a long trail of sadness.
Manolete dominated bulls with a graceful stoic elegance.
He was a proud man with quiet dignity.
One Spanish word is necessary.
Pundonor. Without pundonor you are nothing in the bullring, or with a woman, or with yourself.
Manolete had it, and died of it.
Bullfighting is an art. The art of Spain. A spectacle of life and death.
And the closer a man fights to the horns, the closer he is to the grave.
Manolete had a down payment on an open grave in every town he fought in.
He risked his life in the arena to make the fiesta what it should be: the fiesta brava of Cuchares, Guerra, Joselito, Gaona or Belmonte.
I saw Manolete's corridas with Antonio Moreno, that hidalgo and true.
aficionado from Spain who had seen them all, even saw my father.
He was guest of honor at my father's presentation in the Tijuana bullring in 1920.
My father, a brave matador, his mouth always dry on the day of the bulls.
Sixteen horn wounds in his body, the last one....
We followed Manolete through Mexico the season he fought with Silverio, Procuna, Solorzano, Armillita, Garza; a brave season, no theatrics or primadonna postures; a rare, fine thing to see.
We saw the pure classical style of the man: graceful, esthetic, defiant.
We saw the bull tear the gold embroidery from his taleguilla, the horns closer, giving the bull every chance. Then the goring, a brutal goring, his suit soaked in blood. They tried desperately to carry him to the infirmary. He fought them off, told them to get the hell out.
He stood alone in the middle of the arena, blood running down his leg to the sand, and with a perfect sword thrust dropped the bull dead.
Then he took a short step and fell next to the bull.
It was something we had never seen before, would never see again, would remember always.
Manolete admired a gold ring I wore on the small finger of my left hand. On the face of the ring were engraved my mother's last words to me before she died.
One night at The Reforma in Mexico City, after a triumphant corrida, we drank a few glasses of wine. He kept looking at the ring. I took it off.
Slowly he read the inscription written in Spanish: "Hijo mio, no te apures, no te asustes."
He looked at the ring a long time.
"Beautiful words," he said.
"Mothers always say beautiful things, Manolo."
I gave him the ring. He wore it until the end of his days.
He was killed when he was 29 years old and left a fortune of four million dollars.
The Miura bull that took his life was named Islero and hooked to the right, erratic, hesitant.
That afternoon in Linares, Manolete knew he was in trouble, he knew bulls better than he knew women.
Came the moment for the kill, El Momento Supremo, when a matador risks everything—money, honor, family, life.
All he had to do with the difficult, cunning animal was to go in on the run from the side to avoid danger, but his pundonor demanded he kill with honor; going in slow, muleta down, body following the sword over the horns.
The bull waited and hooked.
The horn penetrated deep into Manolete's right thigh, blood spurted like a pump, gushed.
Manolete saw the tremendous goring and tried to stop the torrent of blood with his hands.
In the infirmary they gave him four transfusions.
He knew he was going to die, smiled, asked for a cigarette, took two puffs, that was all, he could not smoke.
The poor priest from the poor church gave him the last sacraments, made the sign of the cross and went out the door.
Early in the morning, at exactly 5:12, he kissed the holy medal around his neck, mumbled a prayer and died.
He died with a silent prayer on his lips in quiet dignity in a poor hospital where poor people die.
He did not live long, 29 years is not a long time.
But it is no secret. Manolete knew how to live, and how to die.
Years later I went to Cordoba to see his mother, Do√±a Angustias. She was quite old now, losing her eyesight. She was still dressed in black, mourning; Manolete's sisters in black.
We sat in the sala of the home he built for her. We had a glass of manzanilla, and she wept and said in Spanish:
"You are the man who gave my son the gold ring with your mother's words?"
"I have the ring. Do you want it back?"
"My son, Manolo, loved you much," she sobbed.
"And I loved him, Doha Angustias." We sat in silence as she wept, then I kissed her wet cheeks, went out the door, got in the car and drove back to Madrid.