Los toros de Guisando, pre-Christian Celtic stone bulls, Avila, Spain.

Invisible Scars

            Our minds absorb words as blotting-paper soaks up ink. Phrases carve beehives deep in our inner circuits. No te preocupes / don’t worry. Yet tone and carry are different in each language and the comfort-blanket serenity of no te preocupes does not translate easily from Spanish to English. The verbal vibes are just not the same.
            Nor do the catcalls from the soccer, aimed equally at opponent and referee, and tumbling raucous from the stands where people sit. Shrill whistles sound in the bull ring: a matador who seems afraid to approach this particular bull for reasons only known to him, yet his shakiness visible to all who watch and understand what they are seeing.
            The Cordobés answers the telephone he places on the bull’s nose, yet fails to approach between the horns and his sword rebounds off bull bone: pincha hueso. Each one wounds, the last one kills. El Viti, stately, graceful, an elderly churchman proud of his vocation and always willing to perform to perfection the weekly ceremony of the sacrifice. The boos when the bull enters the ring, stumbles, and comes up lame and limping. The cheers that accompany the arrival of the seventh bull. The refusal to eat meat that has been slaughtered in the bullring, even though it is advertised outside the butcher’s: tenemos solomillo de toro de lidia / we have tenderloin steaks from fighting bulls. Bulls who have led the best of lives, fed on the tenderest pastures, watered by flowing streams. Bulls grown for slaughter and public sacrifice.

The real thing: young fighting bulls (novillos) on a bull farm in Salamanca, Spain.

            Guernica. The bull fight in the sand-filled square. Except it wasn’t a fight, it was more a circus. The slippery pig. The hens and chickens. The rabbits and hares. All the animals running scared. The animals released, one by one, and the spectators jumping into the ring, really a sand-filled square, one by one, and chasing down the animals, taking them home for dinner, if they could catch them.
            Then the bigger beasts. The mule, ferocious, jumping into the air, kicking four tormentors, one with each leg, and biting a fifth with his teeth. No fearful, clucking chicken this, nor the cow who came after with her padded horns. Participants moved more carefully now. She watched them from her querencia, the where she chose to fight, not die. She knelt, scraped off the rubber balls that covered her horns. Re-armed, she charged and the crowd scattered, all but one young kid, caught, falling to the ground, the cow standing over him, ready to gore again.
            Sixteen years old, an outsider, I jumped with others over the barrier, twisted this away and that, thumped the cow’s side, smelled her fury, her fear, the whole soured being that emanated from her. Together, we hustled her, bustled her, dragged her kicking, butting, from the ring, backwards, pulled by the tail.
            Visible scars of damaged animals. Scars of the participants. That young man who broke his leg. That old man, inebriated, stuffed with food and drink, who loosened his belt to move more freely. We watched as his pants slipped from his waist to fall around his knees and trap him, just as the cow charged. He survived but will bear the scars forever, some visible, many not.
            Long summer days, on the Sardinero, the Segunda Playa, playing soccer. Different rules, different skills, different swear words: I carry a dictionary tucked into my bathing trunks and refuse to play while I look up the words spat at me by my opponent. Good heavens, I think, is that anatomically possible? The ball bounces away on the hard, sand ridges. I chase it and steadily dehydrate under the hot sun. A sea-salt wind desiccates my body. My mouth fills with salt water when I swim out to retrieve the ball from the sparkling sea. My tongue sticks to the inside of my mouth. When I spit, I spit dry and everyone laughs. Now I am totally dry, shiver, and no longer sweat.
            On the way home, we get off the trolleybus early, at Jesús del Monasterio and enter the long string of bars that lead past Numancia towards Perines. Red wine in glasses, in porrones, with tapas and raciones to soak up the alcohol, morcilla, mariscos, callos, patatas bravas, wine consumed until our blotting-paper bodies are ready once more to sweat. Bread soaks up the wine that relieves the oil that now filters through our skins and who needs suntan lotion when the oil is inside us and bodies are oiled, well-oiled, from the inside out?
            These excursions are all male, just like the soccer teams. I have four friends and I know them by their nicknames and the way they play soccer. I also know them from the way they try to trick me and laugh at my mistakes, or the way they treat me as a human being and help me to understand this new world into which, sink or swim, I have been thrust. Total immersion in another culture does not come with a set of instructions and the rules of soccer change from grass field to beach sand. Pedro plays centre-half, loves heading the ball, even when it’s laden with sand. I watch him playing field hockey one day, out at La Albericia, and when a low shot heads for the corner of the goal, he dives and heads it away. They carry him off on a stretcher, blood everywhere, and you wonder if his scars will ever heal.
            Tennis on the clay courts, also at La Albericia. I play so slow but they play so fast. I learn top spin, side spin, back spin, cutting the racket beneath the ball and learning to bend it sideways off the clay that is not clay really, but a fine-packed Italian sand on which I can slide and glide, and commit to a shot running one way then turn and commit to another in the opposite direction. I try it on a hard court, after the immersion period ends, when I get home, and my foot sticks on the tarmac (or whatever that hard, non-slip surface is) and over I go, skinning my knees, creating more scars.

Comment: Another Golden Oldie reclaimed from the reject file. I remember the scenes so well, even though I have moved deliberately in the piece from Elanchove and Guernica (Basque Country) to Santander (now Cantabria). I got lucky and was able to attend a series of workshops on memoirs run by Brian Henry of Quick Brown Fox. Taking his workshops, I realized that most of what I write is more akin to Creative Non-Fiction (CNF), rather then memoir, though much of what I write is rooted in memory. What thrills me in this style of writing is the rhythm that emerges, the word patterns I knit with my pen and a skein of ink, the remembered brightness of the Spanish sun, the sparkle of the waves, the warmth of a people, still grieving after their losses in a bitter civil war, their willingness to accept me, a foreigner, and take me to their hearts. The Other: we talk so much about The Other. But when we ourselves have been That Other, have been dependent on Other Others for food, drink, warmth, care, and love it is so much easier to understand what The Other is lacking and what we can give. Warmth, not scars; a hug, not a punch; open arms, not a fist… so easy to say. I have been there. I know. But can we, deep in our hearts, find it in ourselves to make the sacrifices for The Other that other others have made for us? Only time will tell.

Monkey and the Bean Counter


Monkey and the Bean Counter

An acolyte in a charcoal suit runs by.
He neither stops nor speaks
but slips on slippery words
dripping from another monkey’s tongue.

This other monkey has eyes of asphalt,
a patented pewter soul,
ice water flowing in his veins.
“Hear no evil! See no evil! Speak no evil!”

The hatch of his mind is battened tightly down.
Nothing gets out nor in.
The acolyte’s fingers grasp at a khaki folder,
his manifesto for success.

Senior monkey stalks to his office
and turns on the radio.
His favorite music:
the clink of mounting money.

Disturb him at your peril:
this monkey is very important,
and very, very busy.
He’s also clever:
a real smarty.

First, he empties all the chocolate candies from the box
then he sorts them into little piles:
green with green, brown with brown,
blue with blue, red with red.

Then, like the Good Shepherd checking His flock,
he counts them again and again,
to ensure that none have been stolen
and not one has gone astray.

Comment: Another Golden Oldie, this time from Monkey Temple. I have updated it slightly so it won’t be exactly the same as it is in the printed text. Senior Monkey has, of course, built a bigger box into which he can place all his chocolate candies and tuck them away for ever and ever. I guess if he were a bull and not a monkey, he would have tucked them away for heifer and heifer. Such is the sad state of reality in the Monkey Temple. But if monkey were a bull, he would be living in the cow shed, not the Monkey Temple. Oh dear, oh dear: and oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive with fiction, flash fiction, creative non-fiction, and all the other sugar and spice which goes into the spinning of spider-webs and fairy tales. Speaking of which, did I ever tell you the story of the… well, maybe next time. So tune in again tomorrow. Same thyme, same plaice, and I’ll sing you a song of the fish in the sea… and a fishy tail that will be.

A Sacrifice to Mithras


A Sacrifice to Mithras

“What is this sound?”
“It is your own death sighing,
groaning, growing
while you wait for it
to devour you.”

“What is this feeling”
“It is the itch of your own skin
wrinkling and shrinking,
preparing to wrap you
in the last clothes you’ll wear.”

“What is this taste?”
“It is the taste of your life,
bottled like summer wine
once sweet tasting,
now turning to vinegar.”

“What is this smell?”
“It is waste and decay,
the loss of all you knew
and of all that knew you.

“That carriage outside?”
It is the dark hearse
come to carry you
to your everlasting home.”

“Look on us in our darkness,
help us to seek and see the light.
Keep us strong, keep us brave.
Mithras, always a soldier,
help us to die aright.”


Comment: I am re-reading Puck of Pook’s Hill (Rudyard Kipling). It was given to me for a Christmas present (1955) by my father’s younger brother, my Uncle Frank. His signature is there, on the fly leaf, and his hand writing is as I always remember it. As I write these words, I can still hear his voice. The Song to Mithras, on which this poem is based, can be found on page 191, my edition (MacMillan, 1955), as a prelude to The Winged Hats. Without these clues, the poem operates in another space, more personal and more morbid, perhaps. The rites to Mithras were associated with the sacrifice, at midnight, of the black bull. The upper photograph shows one of the Bulls of Guisando (Los Toros de Guisando), which have stood in the province of Avila, in Spain, since time immemorial. So old are they, that the Roman legions left their mark on them in Latin, as you can see from the photo, when they conquered Spain after the Carthaginian wars.  The lower photo shows fighting bulls on a bull farm in Salamanca, Spain. Born from generations of fighting stock, these animals have been bred for thousands of years to die in the bull ring, as the bulls dedicated to Mithras were bred to die in the Roman temples. This is not a defense of the cruelty of bullfighting or the sacrifice of animals. It is rather a statement regarding the longevity of cruelty, of sacrifice, of the natural flow that leads men and women from birth, through childhood, to maturity, and on to old age, and death. My father is long gone now, as is his younger brother. Who will have access to these memories of mine when I go? Who will remember my family when I am gone?



(29 August 1947)

heavy snow all winter
starting in November
continuing through

neighbor plowed us out
arriving as each storm left
sometimes he came in for tea
we became good friends

now he is moving out west
to be with his grand-kids
when he moves we may
be forced to sell up and go
winter snow too much for us
summer grass too much to mow

it’s a bull-fighting thing
there’s a spot in the bull ring
where each bull chooses
to make his last stand
it’s his chosen place to die
like this is mine





The vaquilla charges the picador, bravely,
receiving her wound, then returning for more.

Braveness in the stance, the head erect,
eyes open, watching the teenage torero,
suit of lights sparkling, sequined sequences,
feet dancing, cape held low, the vaquilla
on train tracks, gliding past.

¡Olé! ¡Olé!

The vaquilla charges at shadows,
plays her role in this meta-
theatre of cape and sword.
But it’s only make believe.
The vaquilla pauses at centre stage,
flanks heaving heavily, baffled, mocked.


The farmer leaps the barricade, grabs her tail,
tugs her to the ground, stands on her neck,
and shears her horns.
The maiden, mocked and marked,
escapes through the gate:
the scent of the fresh blood flowing
arouses the waiting herd.

¡Olé! ¡Olé!

Capella dos Ossos


(Chapel of Bones, Evora )

They drew blood from the bull’s body, stretching him,
broken, over golden sand: a playground for the gods.
His one horn, splintered, plowed into the arena,
his other horn pointed skywards: a finger of wrath.

Cannibal red and carnival yellow, his blood and urine
spilled for the drunken pleasure for which we had paid.
We had also paid for bands and martial music; a Mexican
wave swept rhythmically over the bullring to enliven us.

Later that day we gave warm coins to the tour guide.
She counted the whites of our astonished eyes and divided
the total by two as we stepped from the air-conditioned bus.

The chapel’s slaughterhouse stench overcame us.
Bone after human bone thrust out from the ossuary walls:
a generation of tarnished hands held out to greet us.

This poem is a golden oldie, published way back when, not only in the last century, but in the last millennium, courtesy of the Nashwaak Review. Sometimes, it’s fun to explore that past and see where it led us. This is from my Milton Acorn, almost about to rhyme, Jackpine Sonnet mode. The poem does have 14 lines.




Not So Fast Fiction

…at the beginning of the end, when more things have gone than are with us and the summer’s sun withers the grass and wrinkles our faces baking us bright red – como un cangrejo te has puesto, hijo mío, en el sol de Somo, como un cangrejo – and — pulpo en un garaje — you grasp at the new words, the new colours, the new delights, your tongue trapped clumsily in your mouth like a red rag doll and the midnight bull charging the spectators who gather and olé, au lait … as the drunken bullfighter climbs the bull and kills the post.

The red cape flutters in our memories as we go to the slaughterhouse now where the open body hangs loose like a flag and the red meat of him held out for all to see and some to share … and this is his body and this is his blood, sacrificed in a circle of golden sand for our drunken amusement … for whatever I did, I never visited those bull fights when I was sober … at five thirty, they began, and at 3 o’clock we would gather in the city centre and slowly wend our way from bar to bar, up the Calle de Burgos, past the street where you lived and upwards, ever upwards, towards the bull ring at the top of the hill, from bar to bar, I say, and the bota, the wine-skin filled and re-filled with that dark red fluid that will set us all baying for the bull’s blood, or the matador’s blood, it doesn’t matter whose blood, as long as someone bleeds and the bull is butchered, torn from this life by a man on horseback, armed with a lance, and he thrusts the heavy blade between the shoulders of the bull, the blood first dripping red, then gushing, a small stream over the rock of the

bull’s shoulder, and down the bull’s front legs, to slither on the sand, and the bull still ready to charge the horse, and the bull’s head steadily dropping as the muscles in the back and neck are gashed and torn and there’s no purgatory any more so this must be hell, this gaping wound between the bull’s shoulders and the blood flowing freely and vanishing into the sand, the golden sand, once pristine, stained now with blood, and soon to be further stained with feces and urine, and the picador, his job done, walks his blind-folded, armored horse out of the ring, and the bull, un-armored, un-enamored of this process that turns his torment into a spectacle staged for our drunken delight, as we pass the bota round, and the blood red wine travels from hand to hand, and we squirt the bull’s blood squarely between our lips and it dashes against tongue and teeth and we swallow the body’s sacrifice hook, line, and sinker, as the banderillero runs in, harpoons in hand, waving his banderillas and plunging their arrowed barbs into the gaping wound that flowers on the bull’s back, and the bull stands there, twitching, wriggling, saliva and drool slipping down, sliding stickily into the sand, as the matador doffs his hat, takes his vorpal sword in hand and treads the light fantastique in his laced-up dancing pumps, his Waltzing Matilda feet so swift, so sure, eluding the lumbering rush of the charging bull, the load of bull, that tumbles down the railway track towards him as he stands there, the matador, poised like a ballerina, as stiff and as steady as a lamp-post around which the bull circles, a drunken man, staggering a bit, but still bemused by the red flag tied to a stick which waves before his eyes and goads him onwards, ever onwards, in his plunge towards a brilliant death, as he pauses, feet together, and the matador makes his move, one, step, two steps, tickle you under … and the bull lurching forward to impale himself on three or four feet of curved, stainless steel, and the matador immaculate in his reception of the bull – and what is happening? What will happen next? Sometimes, the sword pierces the spinal cord and death is instantaneous. Sometimes, the sword pierces the heart, and death is more or less swift, but definitely certain. And sometimes the sword pinches against the bone and flies from the matador’s hand, and the matador must bend, and pick it up, and try, try again, the red rag below the bull’s nose, the bull drawn forward, to impale himself, yet again, on the sharp end of the sword, and this time, the sword goes in, but the wound is in the lungs and the peones, the pawns, the workers, the drones, the little men help, turn the bull round and round in ever tighter circles so the sword will open and even larger wound, sever the main arteries perhaps, and the bull, blood spurting through nose and mouth, lurches now, then falls to his knees, and lies there, bleeding, and the matador chooses the descabello, that little sharp sword with the razor blade at the end and he tries to sever the spinal cord, there at the back of the neck, and sometimes he does, and sometimes he doesn’t, and if he can’t then it’s the little men again in their colourful sea-parrot suits all gleaming with sequins and stars and they carry a sharp little instrument, with a pointed end, la puntilla, that short, double-edged, stabbing knife which is plunged into the occipito-atlantal space to sever the medulla oblongata in the evernazione method of mercy killing, and the puntilla is plunged again and again into the bull’s neck at this atlanto-occipital joint, until it severs the medulla oblongata, and when it is severed, in this glorious neck stab, then finally the bull drops dead, and the show must go on and the horses come in, black funeral horses with colourful feathers on their heads and they loop a rope around the bull’s horns and away he goes, trailing blood, and urine, and excrement, all across the sand and other little men appear to sweep the sands clean, though if seven maids with seven mops, swept it for half a year, do you think, my neighbor, the local carpenter, asks, they’d ever sweep it clear, and I doubt it, says the little man on my other side who wears a large walrus moustache stained red now and purple with the wine that he has splashed about, and shaking the wine skin he finds it as not as full as it was, so he sheds a bitter tear, and since the death was slow, the crowd and my neighbours all whistle and boo the matador and his merry men, but when the death is swift and quick then the crowd is aroused and they wave white hankies at the presidential box and the president awards the matador an ear, a salty, smelly, sticky ear which the peones cut off the bull before he is towed away, and then the matador throws the ear in the direction of his current sweet heart, the fairest lady in the crowd although she be as black as charcoal or as brown as the beauties baking daily on the summer sand where the sea horses dance and there are no bulls, and no bull shit, and no seven maids with their seven mops, just the scouring sea, and sometimes the president gives away two ears, or two ears and the tail, dos orejas y el rabo, though this I have seldom seen, and what does the bull care that he dies bravely and well, for now he is dead he hasn’t a care in the world, and the butchers in the butcher’s shop are carving him away, carving him to the skeletal nothingness of skin and bone that awaits us all, the nothingness of this more or less glorious death, with our tails cut off and our ears hacked away to be pickled or smoked or other wise kept in the fridge as the butcher’s trophy … and who now will walk stone cold sober into that magic circle of sun and shade and stand there, unbowed, before the might of the untamed beast, the untamed bestiality that drives us wild as it wanders through our nightmare cities and our wildest dreams … and now the crowd call música, música and the band strikes up and martial music plays as the bullfighter and his troupe march gaily round the ring, their trophies held high for all to see then thrown to the ravening crowd who bay like dogs as they taste fresh, bloodied meat …


Mythras: Flash Fiction


Bistro 16

In the pearly morning light, before the sun had burned off the mists from woods and fields, Jim contemplated the breakfast potential of the mushrooms pushing their stubby skulls through the damp grass. Jim refrained from gathering any until he came across a mushroom as large as a stepping-stone. He lifted it up with great care and placed it in the canvas bag he carried. Then, casting his glance from side to side in search of the best of the crop, he continued to wander along the faint path that led downhill to the field below.

Dai Jones, the farmer, was plowing a neighboring field into earthen waves that disappeared in the morning mist. His sheepdogs, Floss and Jess, ran free between the furrows of fresh-turned earth.

“Watch out for that bull,” Dai called to Jim, as he turned the tractor by the dry stonewall. “He’s loose in that lower field. He’s in a bad mood this morning.”

The roar of the tractor accelerating out of the turn swallowed Dai Jones’s last words.
Jim bent to collect another mushroom. Downhill he walked, following the path as it led him through the mushroom patch and toward the lower field. He stopped at the gate and gazed towards the trees where the mist gathered its folds. Night still dwelt in that woodland temple and the field seemed empty. Jim opened the gate and walked through, closing it behind him.

Jim wasn’t afraid of Dai’s bull. He had met bulls before and had never had any problems with them. He had holidayed in Spain one year and at the village bullfight he had vaulted over the protective barrier with two of his drinking friends and found himself face to face with a fighting bull. It wasn’t really a fighting bull. It was a young bull, a novillo with padded horns, all the village could afford, but he well remembered how the animal sensed his presence, raised his horned head, pawed at the ground, and charged.

Jim recalled the elation of flying, of side stepping, of turning aside from the novillo‘s uncontrolled rush. The villagers, aficionados all, began by laughing at that teenager thrust into a sacrificial, prehistoric culture. But Jim stood his ground, unafraid, and allowed the novillo to come towards him, again and again, before dancing merrily away.

The novillo became furious. It charged with less and less control, and, as it tired, Jim’s two friends combined with the villagers who jumped the barrier to catch the novillo by its tail and drag it snuffling and snorting from the ring.

Later, after the bullfight, Jim met another bull. Its horns and head were fixed to a wooden frame crammed with fireworks and carried on the backs of six large men. When the village clock struck midnight, this carnival bull charged into the square where the villagers were dancing. The bull’s wicked glass eyes flashed, the fireworks exploded, and sprays of bright sparks spurted from the bull’s wooden back. The six men whooped and bellowed, and everybody, except Jim, pretended to be afraid and ran.

As he knelt to gather another large mushroom, Jim remembered the holes burned in his sweater by those bright sparks. He knelt there and the early light cast a luminous spell around him. It was as if he knelt at prayer, just like a bullfighter, en capilla, kneels and prays in the bullring chapel before his entrance into the ring. But Jim wasn’t afraid. He wasn’t affected by any mystery or myth, what he called ‘the bullshit of the bull’.

Within the mist, his bulk enlarged, his horns sharpened and curved, Dai’s black bull also knelt, snuffling gently, sensing Jim’s presence. Then the bull heaved his bulk slowly upwards until he reached a standing position. He couldn’t see Jim through the mist, but he sensed him, heard him breathe, and knew exactly where the young man was. The bull scraped his horns in the mud and pawed the ground.

Lost in his memories, Jim picked his last mushroom.

He looked up with astonishment when the black bull charged.

Jim’s world ended in a whimper as the bull’s sharp horn drove into the young man’s chest cavity, lifted him from the ground, severed the aorta, and pierced his heart.