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short story

 

 

 

 

 

A Fear of Bulls

I stood transfixed, the silence ringing in my ears. From the field of wild grasses; cocksfoot, tufted hair, wild oat, tall fescue, reed canary and perennial rye, their subtle shades of green, ochre and pink softly patching and blending in rustling movement, suddenly rose a small flock of starlings that had been feeding quietly unseen among the tall waving stems, the swish of their glossy wings startlingly loud in the stillness of midday. Heat held me captive. It rose from the earth and pressed heavily on my head and shoulders, and emanated throbbing from the piles of hay, binding me in its fierce embrace. But it was not only the lassitude of the mid-summer heat wave that rendered me immovable. It was the bull. He regarded me now from dark and liquid eyes, the slow flick of his tail back and forth across the shining red flanks the only movement in that monolith of muscle and bone.

So, I thought. At last. When did it begin, this fear of mine? I cannot remember a time when I was free of my dark companion. Perhaps it passed into my genetic make up from my mother, a farmer’s daughter. She had tales enough to feed the nightmares that found me clawing at my eyelids in an attempt to prise them apart and release me from the terror of limbs that refused to work.

The picture plays yet again in my head. Imagine a girl, a dress of flowers in a sea of blossoms. She’s crossing to the stile at the far corner of the field when for no reason at all – unless a sixth sense – she looks back over her shoulder to see the bull coming towards her at a steady trot, lowering his great head as he approaches. Fear strikes her witless for a second, the stile is still some way off and she knows she’ll never make it. She starts to run, eyes seeking wildly for some sanctuary, but there’s no hiding place, no tree to hold out welcoming arms as she scrambles gratefully out of harm’s way, heedlessly tearing clothing and scraping knees. Then she sees the cows. They’re her only chance.

The bull is almost upon her now and the sound of her heart in her ears echoes the thud of his hooves on the ground. With a superhuman effort she flings herself gasping among them, using their bulk as cover and moving quietly to the centre of the herd. The huge beast stops and looks about. He seems puzzled, confused. Where has she gone? He lingers for a while, tossing his head and snorting gently before trotting off. My mother stays among the cows until she can reach the stile in safety.

Now he stands not twelve feet away, blowing gently through gaping nostrils from which hangs a dull brass ring. One velvet ear swivels as if searching for a sound in the sleeping weight of noon, and twitches to repel the relentless horseflies intent on blood. His eyes hold mine. Does he see the fear? It grips my chest like a vice and pushes my heart upwards to pulse madly in my throat.

Should I turn and run? It would be useless to try. I’ve been here before so many times that I know what would happen – my strength would be unequal to the task of moving limbs atrophied with fear. And yet… and yet in all my nightmares I’ve woken myself before my obliteration at the will of the bull.

But this is no night terror – the sweat trickling down my neck is real, and the skin tears as dry lips part to cry silently for help.

The bull escaped into the yard once. My grandmother and the four sisters flew through the kitchen door and barricaded themselves behind its oaken solidity, peering through the window with white faces half concealed by unconsciously protective fingers, and praying that no one would enter the yard until my grandfather returned. Would the door hold if he charged? He had killed a man, this bull. He stood in the centre of the yard pawing the ground, his breath issuing in short visible bursts in the cold air. The muscles in his powerful shoulders stood out like tractor tyres, and the huge twin orbs hanging loosely in their fleshy sac swung gently against his rear legs as he swayed slightly, turning his head from side to side.

There was a collective gasp from the figures concealed behind the window’s reflection, and they reached out wordlessly to clutch at each other as my grandfather stopped the tractor at the gate and descended. He was a big man, and afraid of nothing, yet the bull was unconfined, and he had killed a man, and my mother looked towards my grandmother for reassurance to see her lower lip caught between her teeth and a line of red trickling down her chin.

A bellow, a great blast of incoherent sound that caused the watchers to start violently and cry out. But it came not from the throat of the fleshy mountain that stood foursquare and waiting for trouble, but from that of the man who was approaching from the rear emanating absolute certainty of his own superiority in every step.

The great creature turned its head at the sound, and its eyes rolled revealing a flash of white, but my grandfather was upon it, grasping the rope that hung from the brass ring through the animal’s nose and raising it until he and the bull were eye to eye. For a second the vast body stiffened in protest, but my grandfather laid a hand upon its neck and spoke some words in its ear. The beast seemed to relax, the man slackened his hold upon the rope, and the bull allowed itself to be led away to the byre. When my grandfather entered the kitchen he found the women weeping with relief.

The skin of black flies rises suddenly from the dark liquid mass at my feet and the air is filled with a dense buzzing like static on a screen. The bull lowers his head slightly and tosses it to one side with patient irritation, powerless against such small foes, and the static lessens as the iridescence settles once more, and the hot silence is restored. Moments pass.

A lone robin starts up his song from a hawthorn bush. I want to turn my head, find the fragile form among the blur of leaves and seek solace in the empathy I’ve always felt with this small creature, but destiny is calling. The bull snorts and waggles his ears. His size is awesome. His coat is the colour of horse chestnuts newly released from their spiky nest, and flashes flame red as the sun reflects restless small movements of the deep muscles below its surface. He gazes inscrutably at me. What is he thinking? He cannot fear me – is there anything he fears? Are his dreams invaded by monsters that hunt him down with weapons of steel, and pierce the thick hide until its natural red becomes indistinguishable from the dark liquid that stains it?

We are old acquaintances, he and I. He has haunted my dreams for millennia – pursued me to the brink of the Styx and across the plains of heaven, and echoed balefully behind me in the dark labyrinth. I have run gasping and terrorised from him in Crete and felt his hot breath on my neck in Pamploma, and his hooves have thundered in my wake over the western prairies. He is Zeus, he is Bata, Nandin, Poseidon, Dionysos; he is the Brown Bull of Cooley and the Whitehorned Bull of Connacht. He is Taurus.

Taurus, my nemesis. Taurus, my destiny, fate, kismet – call him what you will – my soulmate. This I truly believed, long ago, in my innocence, my inexperience. Slow to anger but with a rage that sent me fleeing for sanctuary only to be ordered forth to repair the devastation, trembling. A bull has appetites, an urgent throbbing of juices demanding release. He guards his harem with a watchful eye, jealous of any stray male who may be circling his domain, and sees them off with awesome aggression.      

But the herd is safe; protected by his power and vigilance, the calves may suckle in peace. Those calves were not mine, although I knew nothing of them, remaining in guarded isolation with only my creative impulse to sustain me, those muscled flanks, that noble head, appearing like magic beneath my brush over and over again. For all my fear I can recognise beauty when I see it.

His eyes, fringed with deep lashes meet mine and something unspoken passes between us. For a fleeting second something stirs in my belly and I wonder if this is how it all began for Pasiphae. 

Enough. He is lowering his head and stamping the dry earth. My time is near. Hurry, let it all be over.

I close my eyes and shiver in the baking heat. Deprived of one sense the others intensify. The sound of his feet shifting restlessly bridges the space between us. His breath comes in short blows. The male animal smell of him is so pungent I can taste it in the air as my body waits for the impact of his flesh upon mine. Quickly now. Let there be an end to it.

The light explodes behind my eyelids in a kaleidoscope of whirling yellow, orange and red, then all is blackness and oblivion for time immeasurable. When I open my eyes the white light blinds me again before resolving slowly into yellow and blue. The sky, the blessed sky. But this is not heaven. I am lying deep in the feathery grasses and I can hear him breathing softly somewhere nearby. I remain still, invisible. Where is the one I fear above all others? Where is the bull? Why has it not ended?

Moments pass before curiosity vanquishes fear. I mentally check my body for damage, amazed to find it intact, then tentatively move the extremities – a toe, a foot, an arm, and slightly raise my head to look for blood on the pale summer clothes. Nothing. Still that soft breathing somewhere near.

Braver now, I turn quietly, carefully on to my belly and raise myself on one elbow to peer through the slender stems. I can see him. He stands nearer me than before, but slightly to the right of his original position, and his head is turned towards the trees at the other end of the field. I can see a movement there, among the shattered sunlight, and as I watch a shape detaches itself from the deep shadows and ambles slowly in our direction like a laden ship in a sea of green. She approaches without fear, and drifts to a standstill next to the bull, nuzzling him with her neck. I watch in fascination as he licks her muzzle, then her ear and strokes her neck with his. She turns slowly, languidly, seemingly presenting herself to him, and with one miraculous heave the bull raises his enormous bulk and mounts her, standing almost vertically like some barbaric monument to fertility.

All at once it is over. I feel the impact of his great weight through the ground as he dismounts.

Moments pass before the pair turn and wander slowly back towards the shade. An indescribable emotion moves me as I watch them disappear into the cool darkness. I search for my fear without success. It seems to have deserted me. Rising stiffly from the grassy bed I turn towards the stile and retrace my steps. Tomorrow I will begin to put my life in order.

 

                                              

 

 

First published in Writers' Forum, February 2004

Links to more published short stories on the links page: Burnt, No Man & Old Men