Oyster Boy Review 20  
  Summer 2012
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» Levee 67


Under a Green Sky

Ryan Mecklenburg

The disappearance of the bulls began when Fortuno offered to buy the stadium at the center of the market. It was actually the old fort from which their grandfathers fought and won their independence from Europe, and where the town celebrated that independence each year with a spurious bull fight. The townspeople thought Fortuno crazy to make such an offer. But the wealthy did such: they bought what they did not need. The town sat at the center of the rich cornucopia-shaped land of Mexico which belonged to them all and which nobody would invade again. So yes, he could purchase the old fort. The people thought little of Fortuno until the following Independence Day.

After a day of eating and dancing, the people gathered at the entrance to the old fort. The gates were locked; but nobody had ever locked the gates. Fortuno made his way through the crowd. He stood in front of them and waved his arms. He was an old man with money the townspeople said he had tricked from them. Now, he announced, they would each pay him five centavos if they wanted to celebrate their independence. The crowd tried to protest, but Fortuno held up the deed that had been drawn up many months before.

Some whispered. How could a piece of paper be so strong? Without money, some turned from the crowd and walked away with their chins in their chests. Others dropped the coins into Fortuno's open palm.

Inside, Fortuno welcomed the crowd to stand around the corral. Since he owned the stadium, the people would celebrate their independence in the manner he dictated. Rather than a chaotic mess of men daring to enter the ring and tease the bull by tugging its horns or slapping its rump before letting it back into the pasture, Fortuno presented El Matador, The Killer. The tall, thin man, dressed in a shiny red suit made up of a short jacket and pants, bowed to the applause.

El Matador came from Mexico City, but, Fortuno informed the audience, he was a Spaniard. His skin was too dark, and there was a hesitation in the crowd to accept him as completely Spanish. His nose was too wide, the Spanish had more narrow, Roman noses. But he was closer to Spanish than any of the town's people, which gave him first right to fight the bull.

Though the animal was not painted with vulgar statements about the French and Spanish; and El Matador wielded a red and yellow satin cape, rather than the Mexican flag of an eagle trapped between bands of red and green; each time the bull reappeared from under the cape, the crowd still cheered, "Ole! Ole!"

Some in the crowd, bored with the repetition and not being allowed into the ring, made their way through the stadium to leave. A whisper, like a breeze through a cornfield, went through the crowd. Those leaving turned to find El Matador swinging a sword over his head; they melted back into the crowd. Never had the people used a sword in their celebrations.

The bull emerged once more from under the cape. The crowd cheered, "Ole!" El Matador raised the sword as if to plant a flag on newly conquered soil. A sliver of the setting sun came over the wall and the sword glinted as it fell. Under El Matador's weight, the sword pierced where the neck met the shoulder. It slid down and stabbed out the bull's throat with a burst of blood. The first of the blood poured and the last dripped like rain from eaves. The bull fell, slowly. The front legs gave. He bowed. His hind legs buckled. He lay on his side and gave one last breath from his wet snout into the dust. The crowd slapped the corral railings, whistled and screamed, "Ole! Ole!"

Those without money walked the streets and sat at home in the quiet dusk. The silence, like a dam, broke. The screaming flooded down the streets and out to the surrounding homes. A celebration had never caused such excitement before. Unaware of El Matador and his ways, the people wondered who had entered the ring to cause such a celebration.

At the end of the week, the market around the stadium jostled with business. One man, with his cart full of chickens in wire cages, plucked the birds for his customers and sold eggs by the dozen. A woman sold lengths of woven cloth in an array of colors. Under the shade of a tarp, one man sold whittled marionette puppets, which danced under the smooth rock and bend of his wrist. Others sold corn, tomatoes, bags of rice and avocados. Tortillas were sold in stacks of twenty-five. A woman sold pan dulce for five centavos a slice.

Through the bartering and haggling, where the people still talked about the week's bullfight, Fortuno walked. He informed each merchant a fee would be collected at the end of the following week. If unpaid, the merchant would be forced from the market. At each merchant's protest, Fortuno held up the deed, his right to the old fort and the surrounding land.

When the day arrived to collect the payment, Fortuno brought three men with him. The first to resist him was a woman in a booth who assembled brooms from straw her husband worked in their field and handles her son whittled from tree limbs.

"I have nothing to pay you," she told him.

Fortuno ran his fingers down the bristles of a brush hanging from the booth's overhang. "You have nothing?"

"All we have are brooms," she said. She held one out as if to pay with it.

He took it and bent the handle over his knee until it snapped. The three men came from behind Fortuno and overturned the booth. They threw the straw into the street and beat the handles against the side of the old fort until they snapped. The woman went away with her son.

Each week, Fortuno collected fees from the merchants. Those who could no longer pay had their merchandise tossed into the street or burned. The second year of the bullfight, he charged six centavos. The next year, when he built wooden stands around the corral, he charged ten centavos. The year he whitewashed the stadium the price rose to twelve. When El Matador needed new vestments, the fifteen centavos was said to have paid for it. Each year the price rose, twenty, twenty-five, thirty.

With the market fees and entrance fees, the national taxes increased. The government established out of the people's independence had many problems. The more difficulties it had, the more taxes it collected. The humble farmers and merchants, instead of money, gave chickens, a wagon, a bushel of wheat, and when there was nothing left to give, a bull. The taxes rose until they could not pay with wagons or bulls, but only small partials of their land. Without money or land, the people had no liberty but to pay taxes.

Few saw hope for change or refuge from the oppressive government, except Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, who led forces against the Mexican government. Many men died in those battles. Some belonged to Pancho, some Zapata, and some the government which referred to it all as rebellion and thievery. Villa, Zapata and their men referred to it as La Revolucion.

One of the men who died in battle had a wife and son who lived in the town where Fortuno had his stadium. Rico and Melina lived alone. After breakfast, they often painted together in the mornings at the kitchen table. One morning, with the annual bullfight approaching, Rico told his mother about the poster hung in the market. It was of El Matador sweeping a cape over a bull with the stadium behind them.

Rico dipped his brush in the yellow. "Why don't you go to the bull fights?"

"Your Papi and I used to go, but stopped when El Matador began killing the bulls. Such a waste and all that senseless blood. It used to be something fun."

He filled in the sun in the upper corner of his picture. "Why does he kill the bulls?"

"I don't know, mijo." She dabbed white in the shape of a rose bud stuck in a woman's hair.

"Did Papi like the bullfights?"

"He used to jump in the ring before El Matador. He was a brave man."

Rico studied the little cups of paint between him and his mother. Yellow, red, blue, white and black. They were the only colors his mother knew how to make. He wanted to paint green pastures instead of red deserts.

"Would Papi be mad if I watched the bullfights?"

It seemed a long time to the boy before his mother said anything. "No mijo, I don't think he would mind."

As they painted there was a knock at the door. The boy answered. It was his friend holding a short stick wound with fishing line.

"Mami," Rico asked, "may I go fishing?"

"Clean up your paints and you may go." Then to the boy in the doorway, Melina said, "Tell your mother to send me another broom."

The boy nodded. He was used to this. Women called him over to doorways and windows, looked up and down the road, then asked for one of his mother's brooms. So often the boy handed a broom through a window or doorway in exchange for eggs, corn, or a few coins.

Rico and his friend walked through the reeds, each with a wound of fishing line. The reeds opened and the two came to the silver water stretched out reflecting the sky. At the water's edge, each tied a short twig above the hook as a floater. Rico's friend pulled a piece of cheese from his pocket and broke it in two. They each ran their hooks through the cheese. Rico and his friend twirled his line then cast it out into the water. The lines ran from their hands to the floating sticks then disappeared.

Rico brought up the poster in the market.

His friend said, "My Papi says there won't be a bullfight this year. The government took all the bulls and dumby Fortuno killed the rest."

"What about the posters? There's always a bullfight. Always."

"Guess what else my Papi said?"

Rico tugged on his line, but there was not the pull of a fish. "What did he say?"

"Emiliano Zapata is coming to town. He said everyone will be happy when he comes.

Rico's memory of Zapata was vague. The name reminded him of many dirty men on horseback. He and the other boys ran alongside the men and waved up to them. The men suddenly in the market, kicking up dust made everyone happy. The people and merchants alike shouted as the men passed. "Viva La Revolucion." "Tierra y Libertad." "Viva Zapata!"

Fortuno walked through the market with his hands behind his back and his chest stuck out. He stopped at a poster on the wall of the stadium. He studied the sketch: a stocky bull running into the bullfighter's red and yellow cape. Two weeks until the bullfight. In that time, El Matador would arrive and Fortuno still had no bull. At the bottom of the poster it read 75 centavos, the most charged, ever; the most profit, too. He couldn't imagine losing all that money.

With the bull fight approaching, the market jostled and traded in anticipation of the fiestas. Two men at the table with clay pots, rested on their forearms and discussed the importance of celebrating the upcoming festivities and remembering the sacrifice of their grandfathers. A young man examined a woman's cart of fruits and vegetables, and swore he would provide a better fight than El Matador if only he were given the chance. At the cart stacked with chicken cages, a small group gathered and argued over who would run the country better than Venustiano Carranza, Pancho Villa or Emiliano Zapata. To Fortuno, La Revolucion was only for Mexico's poor farmers, a hopeless dream. Fortuno watched Rico trying to buy a slice of pan dulce priced at ten centavos for only five as the large woman shook her head.

One of Fortuno's men approached and asked to speak in private.

"What is it?" Fortuno asked.

"Don't get mad for saying this here, but we may have a bull."

"A bull? Where?"

The two men ran off. With Fortuno out of the market, the woman waved the flies from the pan dulce and traded a slice for Rico's coin. The slice was larger than his two hands. He went home excited. He had overheard Fortuno's conversation. There would be a bullfight.

Crumbs at the corners of his mouth and between his teeth was what remained of Rico's pan dulce when he arrived home. He stopped just inside of the doorway at the sight of a man eating soup at the table. This was the first man to come into the house since his father. On one of the man's knees was a sombrero. His hair was short and his skin bronze. His thick mustache reminded Rico of a bird flying into a sunset. With teeth white as eggshells, the man smiled. Melina came in from her bedroom.

"Mijo," she said, "I'm glad you are home. This is Senor Zapata. He knew your father very well. He will stay with us for a few days."

When Zapata stood, Rico recognized him from a long time ago. Off of his horse, Zapata seemed shorter. The two shook hands. Then Rico remembered why he had ran home.

"Mami, Fortuno went to see a bull. There will be a bullfight."

Melina looked down at her son and wiped away the crumbs from his lip with her thumb. "You've been eating pan dulce. I told you none before we eat. You ruin your food that way. Go wash your hands and face, the soup is ready."

Out the back door at the well, Rico dropped the bucket down the dark shaft. The rope pulled taut and the bucket was full. Hand over hand, he brought up the bucket and splashed water on his face then scrubbed his hands with soap. He used the brush with hard bristles to scrub his fingernails. If he didn't scrub sufficiently, his mother would send him back out. He fantasized about the bullfight as he dumped the rest of the water over his sudsy hands. His friend's father knew nothing. The town would see a bullfight. Rico held up his hands. They glistened. Clean, he went in to eat.

Fortuno followed the man to an open field. In the clearing stood a small house with a window on either side of the front door. Over the windows were nailed wooden planks. The two stood a good distance from the cottage. The man pointed to the house and said,

"It is in there."

"Why did you put the bull in a house?" Fortuno asked. "I have plenty of corrals."

"Look through the window."

The man motioned Fortuno to look inside. Fortuno walked slowly, as if the ground under his feet might give at any moment. He peered in through the space between the planks. Inside it was dark and difficult to see anything. Rays of light cut through the chinks in the poor construction. He had to go to several other small openings before he saw anything. Something dragged across the floor. Several poles of light bent over dark fur. Fortuno stepped back, unsure what it was. He looked back in. It was certainly not a bull. Whatever it was was large and hairy. He couldn't get a good look through the small holes. He walked back to the man and asked, "What is that? What kind of bull?"

The man smiled, "Not a bull, a bear."

"A bear? Por favor, don't waste my time."

Fortuno went to walk away, but the man grabbed his arm. Fortuno looked down at the hand and the man pulled it away quickly.

"Listen to my idea. We dress the bear up as a bull."

"What are you thinking," Fortuno said, not amused that he walked out here for this. "People in town are stupid, but not that stupid."

"Well," the man began, "We can hold the bullfight at night. Under the light of torches it will be difficult to see. Then we can explain the bull is a special bull. One from the U.S. or Spain, that nobody has ever seen the likes of."

Fortuno stared down at his boots. There was still a shine coming through the dust. He asked, "We can't find a bull anywhere?"

After dinner, Zapata spoke with Rico and Melina late into the night. He told Rico about his late father who was one of Zapata's best men. He entertained the mother and her son with stories about ambushes on government soldiers. When it was time for sleep, Zapata went out to sleep on the porch.

The next morning, the three ate rice with milk and sugar. Zapata and Rico discussed fishing; what was the best bait, the tastiest fish. Rico had only ever eaten fish from the lake. Zapata had visited both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. He held out his arms to describe the size of the fish he had caught. Zapata had tried everything for bait, even pan dulce which fell apart in the water. Some men swore by cheese or meat. Those worked, but Zapata revealed that tortillas brought in boatloads.

After breakfast, Melina brought in the paints and brushes with paper as she did most mornings. Rico wondered what Zapata would paint. Rico decided on a picture of the lake with himself fishing. In the sky, he put white clouds. Off to the side stood a tree with a black trunk capped with red and yellow leaves. As Rico dabbed a sun next to the white clouds, Zapata asked, "Is your person fishing in the fall? That's the worst time to fish."

"I have no green," Rico said.

"What?" Zapata asked. He pointed his brush at the boy's painting. "Look here at your sun in the sky."

There, where the yellow crossed the blue, a sliver of green. Zapata pushed aside the half done portrait of Melina and placed a new sheet in front of himself. He dipped his brush in the blue and dabbed the new sheet. He wiped the brush then dipped it in the yellow. The streaks of yellow and blue circled around one another until neither existed, only green. With a big circle of new color, he set the brush down and pushed the paper toward the boy. "It works for a lot of colors."

Rico followed suit. He discovered orange, found his own green, and mixed together purple. The colors lightened or darkened with black and white. The more colors he found, the more pictures he thought to paint.

When they finished painting, Melina put on her blue dress with white lace at the hems. The one she wore to weddings and fiestas. Zapata was going to take her and Rico to the market for the day. On the way, Melina held Rico's hand and kept her other hand around Zapata's arm. In the market she allowed Rico to wander and play, but kept her arm hooked through Zapata's. The merchants and poor farmers offered Zapata pan dulce, ears of corn, new boots, a poncho, everything they had, for free. They shook his hand and cried out his name, "Viva Zapata!"

A man with pottery called Zapata over. He spoke in a confidential tone. "How are the big cities?"

"I can't stand them," Zapata said. "I always trip over the sidewalks."

The man looked up and down the street. "Where are your men?"

"Vacation," Zapata said.

"And La Revolucion?"

"I'm not on vacation. I'm heading North, on my way to see a man, one of Carranza's men, who will help in our struggle. Along the way I thought I would stop to see some people."

The man looked at Melina as if she had suddenly appeared. He smiled and understood that life was not all about La Revolucion. The whole day Zapata spoke with the people in the market. They were sad to hear he would not attend the Independence Day celebrations, but were elated by his visit now.

That night Zapata ate soup with Rico and Melina. He told them more stories. One particular night they tied up a watchman and raided a government camp. Rico's father stole the uniforms from the clothes lines. When the soldiers woke, all of Zapata's men ran for their horses. As Rico's father rode up an embankment a gun went off. The horse defecated and reeled back, sending Rico's father into the pile of dung. At the end of the story, Zapata slapped the table and laughed, "He was covered in shit . . . chased that horse two miles . . . wouldn't let go of those uniforms."

Again, the next morning, Melina set three places for breakfast. And again, they had rice with milk and sugar. After breakfast they painted and Zapata showed the boy how brush strokes in certain directions better defined where the nose came into the cheek on the painting of Melina. Objects in the distance should be painted smaller and those closer, larger. Objects cast shadows depending on the direction of light. Shadows cast on objects wrapped themselves around those objects. All the while, Melina listened and finished the red rose in a woman's hair.

After they cleaned up the paints, Zapata and Rico went out to fish. Melina waved to them as they walked into the reeds. The green shafts came up to the boy's chin and Zapata's waist. Zapata followed the boy to where the reeds opened and the water rolled out before them. There by the lake, not even the stadium was tall enough to intrude above the horizon. Looking out on the lake, Zapata said, "It looks just like your painting." The boy smiled, flattered. They used tortillas for bait and fished beside one another until the late afternoon.

The fish Rico caught, Melina served that night for dinner.

"I have eaten fish from the Atlantic and the Pacific," Zapata said. "I have eaten the best from the North with Pancho Villa and had the best here in the South. Of them all, this tonight was the best."

"Those tortillas do catch some good fish," Melina said.

"No, it was the cook," Zapata said.

Like the nights before, Rico and his mother were entertained by stories of the government's asinine soldiers. When they went to sleep, Rico and Melina to their rooms, Zapata to the porch, Rico could not sleep. He looked forward to what more Zapata would teach him about painting. There had to be other things Zapata had learned of fishing he had not yet shown the boy. Zapata had said he would not stay for the bullfight. Rico hoped he might.

The next morning, Rico found two bowls of rice with milk and sugar at the table. One for himself and one for his mother. Zapata was gone. After breakfast, they did not paint.

Rico turned from counting the days until Zapata's return to the day of the bullfight. Playing in the market, he heard clips of conversation. Women talked about the foods they would prepare for the celebration, and the men the expense of a bullfight. For that price, 75 centavos, the bull better stick El Matador good this year. In the dusty streets, the children played Toro. One boy held his fingers out from his forehead and charged the other boys. The others did their best imitation of El Matador pulling a cape over the mock bull.

The time on the posters had been crossed out and replaced with a time just after dusk. Fortuno told the people that it would make the celebration more exciting under the stars, in the light of the torches. Such conditions were appropriate because this years bull was special, was from the United States.

The day of the bullfight, the people gathered around the stadium gates at dusk. They were full of food and tired from dancing. While they waited someone hung a piñata, the shape of a soldier, from a tree. When someone pointed out its similarity to Fortuno, everyone laughed then wanted a turn to swing at it. Rico stood in the crowd and ate a slice of pan dulce. He looked up at the faces in the crowd and hoped Zapata would appear. Then Fortuno yelled for everyone's attention at the stadium gates where he had the large timber lifted that held the doors. As the people funneled through each dropped 75 centavos into Fortuno's palm.

The people filled the stands. Rico found a space and sat alone, but kept room at his side in case Zapata returned early. Around the stadium he noticed all of the things Zapata taught him about painting. Torches, hung along the interior walls, lit the corral and stands with a yellow glow and wrapped the shadows up the walls and across the people. The people on the other side of the corral were no bigger than his thumb, and those who sat closest towered over him. All of these faces would require a different slant of brushstroke to get them right. Where the yellow torchlight ascended up to the blue moon light, Rico expected a brilliant green, but it wasn't so. There was nothing, not a cloud, a haze, or sliver of green over the stadium.

It was vague, but Rico understood a difference existed between a painting and life. He could paint whatever he wanted, though it was not really so. Anything was possible on paper. He knew how to paint himself in that very moment. He saw it perfectly: him with a slice of pan dulce, larger than any sold in the market, sitting between two men in the stands, Zapata and his father, under a green sky, waiting for the bullfight.

Fortuno came to the center of the ring and called for the crowd's attention. He welcomed them and introduced El Matador. As the crowd screamed and whistled, the bullfighter bowed in every direction. Fortuno left El Matador at one end of the corral. At the other end was a large wooden box. Atop, a man pulled up on a rope that slid open the front side.

From the dark interior stepped a bull unlike any the crowd had ever seen. It was hairy, fat and shuffled along. It didn't prance like a bull or run straight at El Matador, but it had horns and a long tail and an odd, disproportioned snout. Twenty meters from El Matador, it sat down, its hind legs stretched out in the shape of a V. The crowd laughed. This bull was drunk or too fat for a fight.

El Matador stuck out his chest and walked straight to this odd breed. He pulled the cape over the animal. A gruff roar. El Matador jumped back, never having heard such a noise from a bull. Once more he threw the cape over the animal's head. The horns bucked and pulled the cape from the fighter. The animal stood on its hind legs, thrashed its head until the horns came undone and arced over the rails into the stands. El Matador ran from the animal which chased after. The mock hooves came undone and fell from the paws in cartwheels. The bear stopped. With another thrash of its head, the bear flung the gold ring from its nose. Only a thin strip of leather hung from the bear's nub of a tail remained of the costume.

El Matador jumped the corral rails and ran for the gates. Those in the stands followed. Rico did the same. He was pushed from behind and fell on the plank walkway. There were screams that this creature was climbing the rails. It's growl echoed off the stadium walls. Rico was trampled. The weight of feet pushed him down at every attempt to lift himself. He was scared. There was a monster bull that would eat him. He couldn't get up. The screaming. He felt like screaming himself, but the wind was knocked out of him and he couldn't breathe. The weight of these people on his back was too great.

All around him the torch light went blurry as his eyes swelled with tears. Then the weight and rumbling of the stands was gone. He felt weightless. He was suddenly taken up in arms and held close to a body. The face, he couldn't recognize through the tears. As quickly as he had been knocked down, he was set outside the stadium. Men slid a timber across the gates and locked the bear inside. Rico looked around for who had saved him. His first thought was Zapata. But he was nowhere around.

With the gate secure, the people crowded around to look in through the cracks at the animal. It was a strange creature Fortuno had found, one that turned from bull into bear. All they could see of it was its backside as it sat there in the center of the ring. There was no telling if it was asleep. There was no telling what it did. It could be licking its paws. It could be saying Ave Marias to a clutched rosary. They could only guess what it did and what it might do.

The questions then went to Fortuno. Where was he? Where was El Matador? Or even Fortuno's men? They vanished like sightings of the Virgin. Fortuno's home was found abandoned. Some guessed he went North on horse back. Others said they had heard him in the market talk of a ship, one that would take him east.