There's what we know…and what we assume. Read “Running of the Bulls,” a new original short story by Harry Turtledove.
This short story was acquired for Tor.com by Tor Books editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden.
You are all a lost generation, she said back then. And anyone who looked at them as they spun their dizzy way through life would have had a hard time telling her she was wrong.
But one generation passes away and another generation comes along. This generation sticks its snout against the grindstone of work and never takes it away. That one plays instead. Or it marches off to war. Or it wanders aimlessly. There is one way to shape a lost generation, though not all who wander are lost.
Or a generation can march off to war and then wander aimlessly. After fighting a war and saving a world that probably does not need saving, a generation may find it lacks the strength and will for anything more. Her lost generation hatched that way.
So did mine. Even before the fighting ended, the docs were busy putting me back together again. They promised I would be almost as good as new when they got done with me. They were almost as good as their word, too.
When you talk about things like that, the little word almost covers a lot of ground. Most of the time, you do not even notice that word, especially when they aim it at someone else. But when they point it at you . . . Oh, yes, you cannot help but notice it then.
Good old Baek Jarns—which is who I am—did not sail home to Dubyook once both sides signed the treaty, then. I could not face it. Sympathy from my family would have been bad enough. Sympathy from my girl would have been a thousand times worse. And all the sympathy from everybody in the world would do nothing to set things right, to set them back to how they were before the war. When the docs almost at you, you take what you can get. You do not take whatever you want. That choice is no longer on the table.
On this side of the ocean, my money stretches a lot further than it would back home. They took a beating over here. Even the winners over here took a beating. No one has any money to speak of. Anybody with even a little can pass for rich as long as he takes a few pains.
I know how to do that. And I know how to bring in some more even if my draughts from Dubyook do not come. People over there read the stories Baek Jarns writes about what things here in Ecnarf are like these days. And people in Ecnarf read the stories Baek Jarns writes about what things in Dubyook were like before the war.
I bet that sounds crazy to you. To tell you the truth, it sounds crazy to me. But that is how things work right now. If you take your pains, if you work your angles, you can do fine for yourself.
One way to work your angles is to be sure you know which places have the name for good grub and which places you can really eat at without spending every slug you have and without making your tongue want to curl up and die. They are two different lists, believe me. A few joints go on both of them, but only a few.
I am sitting in one of these eateries, going through a plate of eggs scrambled with sliced mushrooms. That is what they would call it on the side of the ocean where I grew up, anyhow. Here in gay Sirap, in most joints they call it an omelette. The fancy name lets them charge three times as much for the same thing, or they think it does.
On the menu behind the zinc-topped bar in my place, they bill it as an egg-and-mushroom scramble. In Ecnarfish, of course, not the king’s Dunlinese or even the kind we talk in Dubyook, but they do. They do not give it a highfalutin name or a highfalutin price. They do not draw a highfalutin crowd, either. The place is full of touts and shopgirls and clerks and a couple of sweepers. A fellow who cannot be anything but an off-duty snoop reads the evening paper while he eats eggs and mushrooms just like mine.
A skinny working girl pauses by my table. She puts her hands on her hips, in front of her nice, round tail. She has painted her claws red. “You don’t take me out anymore,” she complains in a shrill voice.
“It would help if I’d ever set eyes on you before,” I tell her. “What’s your name?”
“Jajett,” she says. “What’s yours?”
Her eyes narrow. “That’s a foreign name.”
“Well, I’m a foreigner. Will you stop caring if I buy you dinner?”
Jajett sits down across from me, so I guess she will. The waiter comes over. “What’ll it be?” he asks.
“Give the lady what I’m having,” I say. “Oh—and fetch a couple of brandies.”
“Fetch me a couple of brandies, too,” Jajett exclaims.
The waiter looks a question at me. “Take care of it,” I say. By the way he sketches a salute, he put in his time during the war. Not many Ecnarfish men his age—my age—missed out on doing a hitch. A lot of them did not live to see the end of it. Remembering dead friends and wondering why you are not dead yourself is not the smallest part of what goes into making a lost generation lost.
When her egg-and-mushroom scramble comes, Jajett digs in as if she has not eaten for days. For all I know, she has not, though she is pretty enough to make you think she would have scared up a little business somewhere.
She finishes fast. The dishwashers will not need to do much with her plate before they push it out again. She sends me a bright, hard smile. “Now what?” she asks.
If things were different, I might take her back to my flat, and you can draw your own pictures of what would go on after that. But things are the way they are. I am almost as good as the docs said I would be before the ether-soaked rag came down over my snout and they starting carving on me. Since things are the way they are, almost as good is not quite good enough.
Besides, those brandies buzz like wasps inside my head. I give back a smile just like hers, only I have better teeth. “How about we go for a ride, doll?” I tell her.
Jajett smiles some more. “How about we do?” she says. She does not even ask where. I pay the bill. I leave a tip over and above the service charge they tack on hoping you will not notice. We walk out into the night together as if we have known each other for years. Flagging a cab is the easiest thing in the world.
Some places, you go to eat. If you want to do some drinking, too, you can. Other places, you go to drink. If you want to do some eating, too, well, again, you can. The food will not be so good as at a proper eatery. But if you have already been drinking for a while, you do not much care.
We go from the first kind of place to the second kind. As we are about to walk in, they throw a drunk out. He already has blood dripping from the corner of his mouth, so he is a disorderly drunk. When he staggers to his feet—they really give him the bum’s rush—he looks ready to tangle with anybody he can get his hands on.
I am the closest anybody handy. I have been known to fight a drunk or three in my time. It settles your supper and aids the digestion. But I do not get to tangle with this one. Jajett yells something at him so filthy that I understand only a quarter of it, and I speak Ecnarfish pretty damn well, let me tell you. The bit I do get is the nice part, too.
If a man said anything like that to me, I would kill him. I would have to, or break every mirror I own. No judge, no court, could blame me. Chances are they would hang a gong around my neck on a red ribbon to show I committed a public service.
You cannot go around killing women, no matter what they say. It gets you talked about. The disorderly drunk shrivels up and lurches away, all his pride and temper blown to hell and gone. We stroll into The Gilded Peasant. Or maybe it is Pheasant—I never can remember.
Already inside are half a dozen friends and acquaintances of mine. I am anything but surprised. I always expect to run into people I know there. The place caters to expatriates, and to their money.
I am still saying hello and how are you and what have you been up to when Jajett gets into a screaming row with the proprietor’s daughter. Unlike the disorderly drunk, the daughter gives as well as she gets. She knows a working girl when she sees one. She is not shy about going into detail on that score, either. Jajett points out that an innkeeper’s daughter is not like to be able to brag about her virtue.
Things quickly roll downhill from there. The daughter and Jajett both seem to be having a rare old time. Since they do, I get the proprietor to pour me a brandy. Then I go back to my friends.
Pointing toward the two gals still slanging away at each other, Ett Brashli says, “You always did know how to liven up an evening, didn’t you, Baek?”
“Never a dull moment when I’m around,” I agree, and knock back half the brandy at a gulp. I did not look for Lady Ett to be here tonight.
She is a noblewoman from across the Sleeve, which is what they call the channel between Dunlin and Ecnarf. She likes it better here than she does in Dunlin. That is what makes an expat, I suppose. I sure like it better here than I do back in Dubyook.
When I first came to Sirap, right after the war ended, I felt lower than if I were still in a trench. I had just found out that the sawbones’ almost was not good enough, and that it did not look as if it ever would be good enough. Not the kind of thing to lift a man’s spirits.
But when I met Ett Brashli, it did not seem to matter. She did not seem to care. She cared about me, not about the almost. The way I was then, that seemed a bigger miracle than any of the ones the preachers go on about in the temples. That she cared about me made me care about myself, which I had quit doing. Ett Brashli is one of those people who are good for other people. There are never enough people like that, dammit. Never.
If you meet somebody like that, you want to keep her forever. I would not have been able to keep Lady Ett forever even without the almost. I understand that now, though I did not then. No one ever keeps Lady Ett for long. She is one of those people, too. It is sad, but there you are.
And here I am, knocking back brandy at The Gilded Peasant. And there is Ett Brashli. And there is the guy she is with now, another Dunliner. His name is Kime Kelbam. The only thing wrong with him, aside from his having her when I do not, is that money dribbles through his fingers like water. He is younger than I am, and he has gone through more cash than I will ever see.
Kime knows Lady Ett and I were tight not so long ago. He cannot very well not know. Ett has never been good at keeping secrets, and she never will be. You need to understand that from the start if you want to have anything to do with her. If knowing bothers him, he has never shown it. He always treats me like an old chum, and he is no different now. He is a good egg, Kime is.
He treats Obert Ohn like an old chum, too. Obert came over here to make something of himself that he could not in Dubyook. He has done a little writing, which is how I know him. Some of it is not too bad. Some of it, I must say, is not too good.
What he has made of himself since he met Ett Brashli is a nuisance. He moons after her as if he just now discovered women. If she told him to take a long hike off a short pier, he might leave her alone. Or he might go and do it—you never can tell. But she will not tell him anything like that. She is too kind. And how many people can resist being worshiped as if they are gods?
“What’s your friend’s name? Do you even know?” Without Ett’s smile, the question would be snotty.
As is, I smile back. When Ett Brashli smiles at you, you cannot help smiling back. “She’s Jajett,” I say. “So there.” I stick out my tongue at Lady Ett like a little kid.
She laughs at me. No, with me. Obert Ohn sends me a look that should stretch me dead on the shabby carpet. I think he must have had his sense of humor surgically removed along with his tonsils when he was small. Naturally, he resents anybody who managed to grow up with a whole one.
Something smashes, back near the bar. Sweet Jajett and the proprietor’s daughter do not get along at all. Two large, burly waiters hustle Jajett to the door. She bites one of them. He slaps her. She bites him again. She has spirit, that one. They throw her out, spirit and all.
“Sirap is getting dull,” Kime says.
“How drunk are you?” I ask him. “They put on a show like that, and you say it’s dull?”
“Maybe it’s getting too exciting,” Ett Brashli says. “They really are the same thing when you look at them the right way, aren’t they?”
“No,” I answer.
She shakes her head in mock sadness. “Poor Baek. Always so literal. What Kime means is, we want to get out of Sirap for a while. Out of Ecnarf altogether, in fact. We’re thinking of taking the train down to Astilia and watching the bulls in Amblona. You’ve done that, haven’t you?”
“Yes,” I say. “Are you sure you want to? It’s not all pretty, you know.”
“That’s the point,” Ett says. “The whole point.”
I look over at Kime Kelbam. As far as I know, he has never gone to Amblona. But he was in the war. He will have a notion of what I mean when I say it is not all pretty. Lady Ett does not seem to.
But he just shrugs. “It will be something different, anyhow.”
“Yes! It’ll be something different!” For Ett Brashli, that is the only thing that matters. She goes out of her mind when things stay the same for long. Even aside from my almost, we would not have lasted as a couple. Nothing she does ever lasts. But we would have had one hell of a time for a while. We did have one hell of a time for a little while.
“I studied Astilian at the university,” Obert Ohn says. “I’d like to get the chance to speak it.”
“Well, come along, then, for heaven’s sake,” Kime says. “You may even end up useful. Who knows?”
“Who knows anything for sure these days?” Lady Ett says.
There are an awful lot of things I do not know for sure. Ask anyone. He will tell you. You can count on that. If the anyone you ask is a woman, she will tell you even more. You can count on that, too. But I do know the chance Obert Ohn wants is not the chance he talks about.
Kime has to know the same thing. He says what he says even so. It is not that he does not care. But Ett will do what Ett will do, and you can either get out of the way or stay there and get smashed. With her like that, Kime already understands the running of the bulls. He may want to see it, but he does not need to.
Lady Ett and Kime get their tickets to Amblona and go on down with some other people they know. Obert Ohn and I follow them a few days later. No one is in any tearing hurry. Ett has some side trips she wants to make. Kime does not mind. It would not do him any good if he did, but he does not. And Obert and I plan on getting in some fishing. Northern Astilia has some good trout steams.
I do not know a better way to travel than the train. There are faster ways, but a train is plenty fast. Someone else does the driving, so you do not have to pay attention to what is right in front of you. You can read a magazine article if you like, or write one. You can lean back in your seat and close your eyes and let everything go on without you.
Or you can look out the window. The countryside in Ecnarf is fine. South of Sirap, the war did not hurt it badly. And Astilia stayed out of this latest round of madness. The scars there are old. Most of them have healed over.
Even high up in the mountains that mark the border between Ecnarf and Astilia, the meadows stay green and beautiful. Animals graze on them. From a train window, the animals look like dots—small gray ones, bigger ones brown or black. Herdsmen, themselves as brown and wizened as tree trunks, stump across the grass or sit in the shade of the boulders as they keep an eye on their beasts.
Some of the herdsmen carry shotguns. One, I notice, has a businesslike army rifle. They say a few tyrs still prowl the upper reaches of the mountains. I do not know whether that is true, but they say it. I know pters of prey wheel in the cloud-dappled sky, because I see one every now and then. Without the herdsmen, the flocks would take bad losses from them. They lose some animals as things are, but not so many.
We stop at the border to clear customs. An inspector looks through our luggage. Then, with great formality, he stamps our passports. Obert Ohn tries to talk with him in Astilian. The look the inspector gives Obert says he is not there to chat. He gravely goes on to the next compartment.
“Not a very friendly fellow, is he?” Obert Ohn sounds crestfallen.
“No, not very,” I say. If anyone is less likely to be friendly than an Astilian customs inspector, I cannot imagine who he might be.
A few minutes after the train starts up again, we roll past several bulls cropping grass near the tracks. Their tails switch back and forth as their beaks open and close, open and close. Their horns are long and sharp. They have crests along the ridges of their backbones. One raises his when the train goes by, as if the engine were a rival.
Obert Ohn stares at them. He might never have seen a bull before. “Do you suppose they will be at Amblona for the festival?” he asks after they are out of sight at last.
“They may,” I answer. “But even if they are, how will you know them among all the others?”
“That big, tough fellow will stand out in a crowd, don’t you think?” he says. “The one whose crest went up.”
Maybe he never has seen bulls before. “He’s not a bad animal—not half bad, in fact,” I say. “He’s nothing special, though. Plenty bigger. Plenty meaner, too. They don’t have to be big to be mean, you know. They’re like people that way. Sometimes a mean one won’t just raise its crest at a train. Sometimes it will charge.”
“What happens then?” Obert Ohn asks in a small voice.
“About what you’d expect. Once in a while, the train gets derailed. Whether it does or not, the bull winds up dead.”
“I guess he would,” Obert says. He is a good guesser, Obert Ohn is.
Late that afternoon, the train pulls into Ganelon, the little town where we are going to fish. No one would ever have heard of Ganelon if they had not fought a battle there a long time ago. Knights in armor hacked away at one another till one side won and the other side lost. Years later, someone wrote a famous poem about it. So now next to no one has heard of Ganelon.
The hotel is across the square from the train station. It is not a fine hotel, but who needs a fine hotel to fish from? If we were after fine hotels, we would stay in Sirap. But you cannot fish in Sirap. Old men do drop lines into the Neise, the river that runs through the city. They drop in their lines, and they sit in little folding chairs waiting for a bite. I have never seen one of them catch anything.
We hike to the trout stream the next morning. Our luck is better than decent. I catch more trout than Obert does, but his are bigger. You cannot beat the eating they make. You cannot beat getting away from everything but the water and the grass and the trees and the sun and the sweet mountain air, either.
After a couple of days, Obert Ohn takes off on his own side trip. I go on fishing. Being by myself never bothers me, and Obert is not the best company I could have. These days, the best company I could have keeps company with Kime Kelbam instead.
I will say that Obert is better company when he gets back. I have never seen him so happy. He does not dance in the square or sing silly songs or anything like that. But the little annoying habits he has because he usually cannot stand himself have gone missing. I cannot decide whether I like him more or less because of that. He annoys me now in different ways.
By the time we are supposed to head on to Amblona, we have eaten as many trout as we will hold. We pay off the hotelkeeper and go back to the station. The southbound train is late. Obert Ohn grumbles. I just buy myself a glass of rough red wine. Everything in Astilia always runs late. If you cannot get used to that, the country will drive you wild. A while ago, a general seized power and promised to make the trains go on time. Making promises is easier than keeping them. He could not do it, so the Astilians threw him out.
I am halfway down my third glass of wine and Obert is back to being annoying in all the old ways when the train chugs up at last. We climb aboard. “On to Amblona!” I say gaily.
“On to Amblona.” Obert does not sound so gay. Yes, he is back to his old self, all right.
Most of the year, Amblona is as sleepy a place as Ganelon. When the festival comes, though, it swells like a boil. If we had not reserved our rooms—and if I had not made friends with the hotelkeeper the year before—we would have had nowhere to sleep and to stow our trunks.
Ett and Kime Kelbam are in the hotel dining room when we get there. Kime waves to us. Lady Ett smiles and flutters her fingers. “Come eat with us!” Kime calls.
“I want to freshen up first,” I say, and start for the stairs. Obert stands there gaping at Ett and Kime as if he is turned to stone. I wonder if I will have to kick him in the ankle to get him moving. He unfreezes just before I haul off and do it.
He is in room 102. I am in room 101, across the hall. We have to go up the stairs to get to them because what would be the second floor in Dubyook is only the first floor on this side of the ocean. What we call the first floor is the ground floor over here.
I toss my trunk in a corner and take a fast shower. Nothing wrong with the hotel’s plumbing. It is as modern as next week. But when I slide back the curtain and start to step out of the tub, the first thing I see is a rat sitting on the sink by the faucet.
I have always hated rats. They disgust me more than anything else I can think of. I do not say there is anything special about this. Of course most people feel the same way. Men and rats. Rats and men. We are of two different kinds, and foes forever. The beady black eyes, the gnawing teeth, the skinny tail—anyone will shudder at just a glimpse.
For me, the hair is the worst. It sticks out all over them, but sometimes you can still see their soft, pink skin through it. The idea of having hair touch me . . . I cannot begin to tell you how chilling that is.
And it has happened to me. You always have trenches in war, and where you have trenches you will have rats. Rats are made for trenches, much more than people are. They feast on scraps and rubbish. They feast on the dead, too, and they will start to eat wounded soldiers. They scramble over you while you sleep, not that you can stay asleep after you feel that skittering touch and the furtive brushiness of their horrid hair.
We used to hope the enemy would gas us. We truly did. That put down the rats when nothing else would, for a little while anyhow. Rats have not figured out gas masks. When they do, we are all in trouble.
This flashes through my head in a lot less time than it takes to tell you. I look around like a wild man for something to smash the rat with. I throw a little bottle of liquid soap at it. If I catch it square, I may stun it long enough to let me grab something bigger and kill it.
But I miss. I suppose I am lucky not to smash the mirror over the sink. The rat jumps down and disappears. When I look under there, the hole does not seem wide enough for it to squeeze through. It does, though.
So before I go to the dining room, I call on the hotelkeeper. His name is Tonmoya. He is a fine fellow. In Dubyook, a man in his job would deny that rats could ever get into his hotel. In Dunlin, a man in his job would deny that rats exist. He listens to me. He sighs. He says, “Under the sink, is the hole? I’ll send a man to plug it up. Enjoy your supper, sir. He’ll fix it by the time you finish.”
And the man does. No more rats bother me while I am in Amblona. Other things, yes, but not rats.
Obert is already sitting with Kime and Lady Ett when I get to the table. Ett is, well, Ett. She wants to hear about Ganelon. She wants to hear about the train ride. She squeaks when I tell her about the rat. Kime pulls a face. He is drinking hard. He often drinks hard, but he is drinking harder than usual.
When Obert gets his supper, he only picks at it. With the magic that comes out of the kitchen here, that should be a crime. He keeps staring at Lady Ett. She does not give him any special notice. No one who knows Obert Ohn ever gives him any special notice. That must be part of the reason he is the way he is.
But the way he stares at Ett says she ought to notice him. It says she has noticed him before. It makes me wonder where he went on his little side trip from Ganelon, and what he did there. So does the way Kime is drinking. I feel like drinking that way myself.
I have had suppers I enjoyed more, then. I am not sorry to go up to my room. When I see the workman has taken care of the rathole, I go downstairs again to thank Tonmoya.
“It is nothing,” he says. “I am only sorry the miserable creature troubled you. I hope you rest well tonight. In the morning, you will go and see the bulls?”
“Oh, yes,” I say. We smile at each other. The bulls are the reason we are friends, Tonmoya and I. He had trouble believing a foreigner could be an enthusiast for the bulls, the way he is and so many Astilians are. Bulls are in their blood, they say.
It took some doing, but I convinced him I am also an enthusiast. I know a good bull from a bad one, and I know why each is as he is. Just knowing is not enough, though. Caring counts for more. When Tonmoya saw I cared, that was when our friendship hatched.
He makes a certain sign with his hand. If you have been to Amblona, you will know what it is. If you have not, I may not tell you. “The god watch over you in the running,” he says. “Thimras watch over you and your friends, if they run.”
I return the sign. I have earned the right to make it, as I have earned the right to see it. “May he watch over you and yours, as well,” I say. “I don’t know if my friends will run. We’ll see on the day.”
“On the day, we always see,” Tonmoya says gravely.
I go out early the next morning, before the sun rises. The hotel is quiet as an urnfield. No one sits behind the desk. I cannot grab a quick coffee no matter how much I want one. Most Astilians go to bed late and rise the same way. They often nap in the afternoon, when the day is hottest. They expect visitors to do likewise.
Most Astilians rise late, but not all. I start toward the holding pens by the train station. Workmen are already putting up the plywood sheets that will channel the runners and the bulls in their dash to the arena. One of them nods to me. Astilians have great dignity. It leaves them poorly suited to our modern world. I wave and walk on.
At the temple, a preacher and some acolytes ready the statue of Thimras for a procession through the streets. Bull-headed Thimras is an old god in these parts. The statue is nowhere near so old as the cult, though it is ancient next to anything in Dubyook. They have given the dark-blue-and-red stripes on his arms and torso a fresh coat of paint. The horns above his eyes and on his beak are freshly gilded. His frill shines silver in the lamplight.
The preacher wears a red that matches the god’s. The acolytes are painted dark blue. Seeing me go by, the preacher uses the same sign Tonmoya had. He smiles when I give it back.
A train pulls in just as I get to the station. Yard men wrestle heavy ramps into place by the freight cars. They shout back and forth in Astilian and Skeuaran. Next to Skeuaran, Thimras is a newcomer in these parts. It is the oldest, hardest language in the world. Even demons cannot learn to speak it. If you do not believe me, ask a Skeuara. He will tell you more than you want to know.
Plywood barriers go up between the freight cars and the holding pens. The bulls could break through them, but hardly ever do. To a bull, something that looks like a wall is a wall. He does not think to test it.
A freight-car door creaks open. The yard men shout again, in warning this time. A bull thunders out of the car and down the ramp to the ground. The ramp groans under his weight, but holds it. They are made to get bulls down, and do the job well.
One more shout says the bull has gone into his pen. A gate slams shut behind him. He makes a noise—half bellow, half deep grunt. Then he finds the manger full of hay. He settles down to eat. The yard men open the next freight car.
I walk over to the holding pens to study the bulls that are already in them. Several other men pace the narrow walkways between the pens. They look over the bulls with an educated eye. Sometimes they talk to the handlers. Sometimes a handler will ask one of them what he thinks. When they exchange words, both sides show great respect.
I stop by the pen with the bull just down from the freight car. I admire the surge of muscle under his brown, scaly hide. I like the way the black-and-white feathers of his crest run all the way from his frill to the tip of his strong tail. Enthusiasts say that is a sure sign of a brave bull.
A handler comes over to me. “What do you think, sir?” he asks.
“He looks like a good one to me,” I answer. “He has wide shoulders and big feet. The horn on his beak is long and curved. His crest is first-rate, too. He should put on a fine show in the arena.”
The man stares at me in surprise. I speak Astilian about as well as I speak Ecnarfish, but no one in either place ever takes me for a native.
Sure enough, the handler exclaims, “The gentleman is a foreigner! He is a foreigner, but he knows bulls!”
“Thank you for thinking so,” I tell him, and I mean it. A handler in Amblona at festival time cannot give higher praise.
“It is true, sir. You see what stands before you.” His own gaze sharpens. “Are you the foreign gentleman who also came here last year?”
“I was here then, yes.”
“I heard there was a foreign gentleman who was a true enthusiast. I had trouble believing it—you will excuse me for saying so. But now I see it was no lie.”
“You do me too much honor.” I would never talk about honor in Dubyook or Dunlin or Ecnarf. In Astilia, it is as natural as water to a trout.
“Not at all, sir. Not at all. And because you are an enthusiast, I want to tell you to watch out for Moremo when you go to the arena. Amblona has not seen a bullfighter like him in a heap of years.”
“I’ve seen his name in the sporting papers,” I say. “He was still an apprentice last year, wasn’t he? I don’t think I got to watch any of his fights.”
“You would remember if you had. He was something to see, even then. And he’s better now. The chances he takes! But when he does it, they don’t seem to be chances.”
“They never do, till one goes wrong.”
He nods. “You know how things work, all right, sir. One is all it takes. Remember the name, though. Moremo.”
“Thanks. I’ll do that.” I go on to look at some more of the bulls. I like one of them even better than the first one I saw. He looks mean and smart and full of muscle. Anyone in the arena with him had better stay on his toes if he wants to come out with a whole skin.
Other handlers talk up Moremo, too. They call him the real thing. They sound pleased when they do it. The real thing does not come along very often.
“In bullfighting or anything else,” I say. The handlers nod. Some seem sad when they do. For others, that is just the way things go, and you cannot change it no matter how much you wish you could.
It is still early in the morning when I get back to the hotel. Obert Ohn is mooching around outside. He looks like hell. His shoulders slump. His tail is down. When he sees me coming, he runs over and grabs both my hands. “It’s no good, Baek,” he says. “It’s no good at all.”
“What’s no good?” I ask, though I have a bad feeling I already know the answer.
He kicks at the ground. The dirt is hard and dry, but his toeclaws furrow it all the same. Looking away from me, he says, “When I took that side trip out of Ganelon, I—I went to meet Ett.”
“Yeah, I pretty much figured that out.” I hold my voice as steady as I can.
“Just the two of us,” Obert says, so I cannot have any doubts. “And it was wonderful!” He sticks his snout in the air and shows his teeth. He is defying me to call him a liar.
I do not want to call him a liar. I am too damn tired. Besides, I remember how he was when he got back to Ganelon. Not like Obert Ohn at all, not hardly. I say, “Yeah, I pretty much figured that out, too.”
He grabs my hands again, like a drowning man this time. “But you saw how she was last night! The whole thing might as well never have happened!”
I am not the chunk of driftwood he is looking for. I have enough trouble keeping myself afloat, let alone anybody else. “That’s probably how she feels about it,” I tell him.
“But it meant something. It had to mean something!” Obert Ohn sounds as if he is trying to convince himself along with me.
“To you, maybe. Not to Lady Ett.” Why am I the one who gets stuck explaining the facts of life to him? He has been over on this side of the ocean for quite a while now. Hell, he should have learned that kind of thing before he ever left Dubyook.
“I love her!” he cries.
“Welcome to the club.”
“What am I going to do, Baek?”
“It’s over.” I shake my head—that is not right. “It never got started. She decided she’d spend a little time with you, so she did. And now she’s decided she’ll do something else for a while. Rough, I know, but that’s how things go. You can remember or you can try to forget. Whichever hurts less.”
“They both hurt,” Obert Ohn says.
“What do you want me to say? A moth flies into a candle flame. The flame can’t help being what it is. The moth can’t help doing what it does. It can’t help getting burned, either. And the flame just goes on shining.”
He looks as if he hates me. I bet he does. If somebody gives you the straight goods, how can you help but hate him? “I’ll make her notice me again!” he says. “You see if I don’t.”
“Maybe you will. But even if you do, it won’t do you any good.” Well, I end up right about that—righter than I know then. I go on, “I’m here to tell you, she doesn’t come back to yesterday.”
Obert’s face gets ugly. He is not handsome, but most of the time he is also not too bad. You would forget him an hour after you met him, if you know what I mean. You would not forget him now. “I’ll make her notice me again!” He forgets he has already said that once.
I set my hand on his arm. The scales on his skin feel hard and tight. I give him the best advice I have. “Go to the bar. Drink some wine. When you start to buzz, switch to brandy. Get good and tight. Stay tight all day. In the morning, you’ll feel too rotten to care about Ett Brashli or anything else.”
“I can’t do that,” he says impatiently. “The bulls run tomorrow morning, and I’m running with them.”
A band starts up—drums and lutes and horns. It is a dreadful noise unless you are used to it. It may be a dreadful noise even if you are used to it. It means they are parading the statue of Thimras through Amblona’s streets. They always do that the day before they run the bulls.
Obert Ohn pushes away from me. He is off to watch the parade. I go into the bar myself. I take some of my own advice—not all of it, but some. Fool that I am, I aim to run with the bulls tomorrow, too.
I am up too damn early one more time the next morning. The bulls run at sunrise—they turn them loose when the sun touches the topmost spire on the temple roof. I hope Obert sleeps through it. Dinner last night was grim. He drank a lot, and said a lot of stupid things. He has it bad, all right.
But there he is, down in the lobby ahead of me. The morning the bulls run, Tonmoya serves rolls and coffee on the house. It is not what I call breakfast, but I come from Dubyook. It is what they eat in the morning in Astilia. In Ecnarf, too, come to that.
Ett and Kime are also down there. Ett seems cheerful, the way she always does. Kime looks as if he wishes he could tuck into a big plate of eggs and hash browns. Dunliners also believe in real breakfasts.
I am pouring down my coffee, trying to wake up, when Obert Ohn goes over to Lady Ett and says, “I want to tell you—”
“Whatever it is, it will wait till after the bulls run,” she breaks in.
“No, it won’t.”
“Yes, it will.” Ett Brashli seldom sounds impatient. When Obert starts whining, though, he can make the statue of Thimras fidget. Whatever he wants to tell Ett, she does not want to hear it.
Even Obert gets the message. “All right,” he says, and then again, “All right. You’ll see soon enough anyway.”
He is saying all this in front of Kime Kelbam, of course. Kime puts up with Lady Ett better than anyone else in the world. Better than I do—I will tell you that. Either he really is not a jealous man or he hides it mighty well. He must know Ett went off for that fling with Obert. But all he says now is “Let’s finish eating and go to the run.”
Near the gathering place stand blue-painted acolytes of Thimras with brushes and buckets. They whitewash the runners from head to foot. I close my eyes to keep the stuff from getting in them. The whitewash shows Thimras we are pure. It also drips on the cobbles from our arms and legs and snouts and tails. The street is all white close by the buckets, and splattered less and less thickly as we move farther away.
We are close to the holding pens near the train station. We will run ahead of the bulls and with the bulls all the way to the arena. You are supposed to feel the god’s might when you run with them. What I feel waiting for the handlers to open the pens is that I am an idiot. I thought the same thing last year, too.
When I came back from the war, I swore up and down I would never put myself in danger on purpose again. Danger finds you whether you look for it or not. Why look for it, then? The question seems better and better as the time gets closer and closer.
I cannot see the temple of Thimras from where I stand. Other buildings are in the way. But a bell rings when sunlight touches the temple. The handlers open the gates then. Out come the bulls. They charge down the lane with the plywood walls toward the arena.
The bell sounds. The note is surprisingly clear and sweet. I cannot hear the gates open. I am not close enough to them for that. But I hear the thunder when the bulls rush out. Everyone in Amblona must hear it, and feel it through the soles of his feet like an earthquake.
A bull weighs five tons or so. I do not know how many of them they turn loose at once, but it must be dozens. No wonder the ground shakes when they begin to run.
They round a corner a quarter of a mile behind us. “Here they come!” someone shouts in Astilian. I have never heard words less needed. Seeing them is our signal to start running, too.
Bulls grazing in a field, even bulls pacing in a pen, seem smaller than bulls on the loose. When they are rushing straight at you, you feel in your belly how big they are. Each one will go thirty feet from his beak to the tip of his tail. That is three times as long as a man is tall. I mean a man standing up straight to reach something high. I do not mean the usual kind of man, with his torso leaning forward and his tail stuck out in back to balance him.
I run with everybody else. The bulls gain. I hear them gaining over the noise of the running whitewashed people. Even with our head start, we will not outdistance them. Bulls always run faster than you think they can. And outrunning them is not the point of the ritual anyhow.
Lady Ett and Kime and Obert and I stick close together. We pull ahead of some people. Others pull ahead of us. Some bulls also run faster than others. They are not shoulder to shoulder and frill to frill when they start catching up with us. The street has room for bulls and people both. Not a lot of room, but room. That is the point of the ritual, or part of it.
“Thimras!” a woman behind me yells. She is running alongside a bull. She reaches out and slaps its flank with a whitewashed hand. That sound can be nothing else. I am sure of it through all the din. What you do while you run next to a beast that may kill you is also part of the point of the ritual.
The first bulls pound past my friends and me. If one of us gets in the way, or if a bull lowers its great head and hooks with a horn . . . I try not to think about that. The bulls’ smell is half-musky, half-grassy. Smell it once up close and you never forget it. Nothing else comes close.
I reach over to touch a bull on the side. I do not slap it the way the woman did, but I touch it. Just in front of me, Ett Brashli does slap it. She lets out a whoop a moment later. Like me, Kime only touches the bull. Obert Ohn keeps running beside me. His face is set and harsh.
Up ahead, a runner suddenly turns and springs up onto a bull’s snout. He grabs one of the horns above its eyes with each hand. The bull does not like that any better than I would. It tosses its head. The runner is waiting for that, though. He flips up and over the bull’s frill and lands on its back. Then he pulls a feather from its crest, slides to the ground, and starts running again.
Lady Ett whoops once more. I almost whoop myself. That took nerve and skill. It reminds me of the ancient frescoes they have found on the island of Erket. And, for a man who follows Thimras, what could be grander than to pluck a bullfeather in the running at Amblona?
I turn my head to say as much to Obert. But I cannot, because he has sprinted out ahead of us. I did not know he had such strength in his legs. While I was thinking my thoughts about the bull-vaulter, he must have been thinking his.
When he is far enough out in front, he turns on a bull the way the other man did. I can read his mind, poor sap. If he makes his vault, he will impress Ett. She will see what a brave fellow he is. Then she will drop Kime Kelbam and take up with him some more.
“No, Obert! No!” I shout. Like so many smart-seeming schemes, this one has not a prayer of coming off. Lady Ett does not work that way. I ought to know.
Besides, the vaulter will have practiced hundreds or thousands of times with a nice, tame steer. He is not just showing off for a woman he wants. He knows what he is doing.
I have no idea when Obert Ohn was last near a bull. I do not know whether he was ever near a bull before. He tries to jump up onto this beast’s snout, the way the vaulter did. One hand gets a grip. The other slips. Instead of jumping up, Obert slips to the cobbles.
“Ett!” he wails in despair, the instant before the bull’s left front foot comes down on him. I can hear him break. I hope it all ends fast for him. In case it does not, the bull’s left hind foot smashes him, too.
Ett Brashli shrieks, once. But all we can do is keep running. Hardly a year goes by in Amblona when people do not get trampled or gored.
We run past what is left of Obert Ohn. Most of him is only a red smear on the street. Some of the rest still twitches a little. People are harder to kill all at once than you would think. That is sometimes a good thing. About as often, though, getting it over with comes as a release.
A man presses himself against the plywood barrier. Both hands clutch at his lower leg. In spite of that, blood pours down over the whitewash on his scales and puddles under his feet. He is gored. I wonder how he got away before a bull stepped on him.
“Horrible!” Ett says. “This is horrible!” If you hear her voice but you cannot make out her words, you will guess she has called it thrilling.
Another bull thuds past us. I can reach out to touch it, too, but I do not. Once is enough. Once was once too often for Obert Ohn. So many people who try so hard to do something bold, something wonderful, wind up squashed on the cobblestones. Doing something like that is harder than it looks. Otherwise, everyone would be bold and wonderful all the damn time.
Just running along is plenty bold, as far as I am concerned. I want to get to the arena. I want to get off the course. I want a brandy, and then another brandy, and then another brandy after that. Then I want to start drinking.
I feel as if I have been running forever. In fact, I have been running for about twenty minutes. I am not in the shape I should be. I am not nearly in the shape Obert was. But I am in better shape than he is now, or ever will be.
A last turn. The arena looms ahead. It is a great limestone bowl of a building. It looks as if it has been sitting right there for hundreds of years. It looks that way because it has. People on the other side of the ocean cannot hope to understand what a place like that means. Nothing in Dubyook has earned the right to look so old.
At the arena, there are people-sized gaps in the barrier. It is not plywood there. It is stone. Lady Ett ducks through a gap. Kime follows. I am right behind them. The gaps are too small for bulls. They pound on to the pens where they will wait to fight.
“Move away!” a blue-painted acolyte calls to us in Astilian. “Move away so others can get through.”
Ett and Kime do not speak the language. Panting, I herd them down the alley. “Well,” I say, “now you’ve run with the bulls in Amblona. How do you like it?”
Ett’s look says she thought I was cold-blooded, but not so cold-blooded as that. Kime says, “It’s a good thing to have done once.” I nod. It is a better answer than I expected.
People keep squeezing through the gaps. On the other side of the barrier, handlers with long goads persuade the bulls to go where they want them to. I understand how the bulls feel. My conscience pricks at me like the point on the end of one of those goads.
“I don’t want to go back to the hotel,” I say.
“Why not? You can get drunk there,” Ett says. She knows me too well. She knows that is what I want to do most.
“They’ll stuff what’s left of Obert in a sack and bring him back there,” I answer. “And then they’ll ask me what to do next.”
“Quite,” Kime says. “That’s what you get for being his countryman. This far from Dubyook, you might as well have hatched from the same clutch. The Astilians will think you did.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” I say.
And that is how things work out. “I am very sorry, sir, but we know nothing of how you deal with death in Dubyook,” Tonmoya says. Yes, he is apologetic as hell, but that does me no good. He is telling me I am stuck with it, as if I cannot see as much for myself.
“He’s here. He died because he wanted to join your ritual. Give him the kind of funeral you’d give one of your own. He’d like that,” I say. Whether or not Obert would like it, I neither know nor care. All I know is, he is not going to argue with me.
Tonmoya bows. Astilians are a formal folk. “As you say, sir. But how shall we pay for the rites?”
“Let’s see what he’s got in his room. That will cover some of it.”
“Do you have the right to take it?”
“The right? Of course not,” I say frankly. “But nobody here will complain if I do, which is all that counts. If we’re still short, I’ll kick in some myself. It’s the least I can do.” It is also the most I can do. I go on, “Maybe Lady Ett and Kime can add a little, too.”
Tonmoya looks grave. “I would have to doubt it, sir. The gentleman asked me to lend him a hundred sepetas yesterday morning.”
“Oh.” I leave it there. Anything more would be too much. Kime Kelbam is broke a lot of the time. When he has cash, he is the most generous fellow you would ever want to see. That is not the smallest reason he is broke so often.
The hotelkeeper takes a key off a hook. “Let us go see what the poor dead gentleman has.” He invites me along as if I hatched in the same sandbank as Obert. What an awful thought!
I would rather find another dirty, hairy mammal on my sink than go through a dead man’s things. Thanks to the war, I have done it before. I never thought to do it again in peacetime. Just because you do not think of something does not mean it cannot happen to you.
Obert Ohn has more cash than I figured. I knew he had some. He never lived like a poor expatriate. But he brought a nice chunk to Astilia—almost enough to pay for his own last rites. I chip in the rest, the way I said I would. “The crematorium will be satisfied,” Tonmoya tells me. Chances are he will also keep a bit for himself. He is a good hotelkeeper, but he is a hotelkeeper all the same.
And I would much rather find another dirty, hairy mammal on my sink than get grilled by an Astilian captain of police. Captain Sargia questions me and Ett and Kime about Obert and the bull as soon as we have cleaned off our whitewash. “The death of a foreigner requires an official investigation,” he says.
To make things even better, I have to translate for the two Dunliners. Captain Sargia speaks only Astilian. We talk about what Obert did. We try not to talk about why he did it.
At last, Captain Sargia closes his notebook. “Death by misadventure,” he declares. “It is quite plain. Put a fool with a bull and soon you have only a bull.” He says that as if it is a proverb. If it is not, it should be. Sighing, he continues, “I am sorry your holiday was spoiled. You may go on with it, though.” He heaves himself out of his chair—he has not missed many meals—and leaves us alone.
I go on with my holiday in the hotel bar. Now I can drink. Sooner or later, I will have to let Obert Ohn’s kin know what has happened to him. Later will do better than sooner, or so I think as I get outside of some brandy.
I do not drink alone. Lady Ett and Kime sit next to me. They are also busy getting tight. It is that kind of afternoon. You may think we are holding a wake for Obert. More likely, we are holding a wake for ourselves, and for the parts of us that have died up till now. We have not finished the job, but we are on our way.
Whatever we are doing, we do it up brown. “I can’t feel the tip of my tail,” Ett says after a while.
“Piker!” Kime laughs at her. “I can’t feel the tip of my snout.” He turns toward me. “How about it, Baek? What can’t you feel?”
“Me? I can’t feel anything.”
He thinks that is funny as the demons. I only wish I did.
After a while, we go from the bar to the restaurant. It is better to put down some ballast before you start drinking. Just because it is better does not mean you always do it. We will pay come morning. Morning lies on the far side of tonight, though. We care nothing for it now.
We order something. I do not remember what—too much brandy under the bridge. Whatever you get at Tonmoya’s hotel will be good.
At a nearby table sit three bullfighters. They are new in town, here for the next part of the festival. I recognize two of them. I saw them in the arena last year. They have been in the trade a long time. The fellow who was gored during the running of the bulls will sport a big scar once he heals. The veterans both sport several scars like that. It is a hazard of their line of work.
Their friend is much younger. After a bit, I realize he has to be Moremo, the bullfighter the handlers were talking about. He is not an apprentice anymore. He is a killer in his own right. Killer—that is what the Astilian word for bullfighter means.
Killer or not, he is still a kid. I did not think he would be so young. Everything about coming here for the festival excites him. He is out to make a name for himself. He is also out to have a great time.
The other two bullfighters watch him. Every so often, when he is not watching them, they smile small, sad smiles at each other. They remember when the world stretched out ahead of them, too, all wide and welcoming.
I remember those days myself. They were not so very long ago. But once you leave them behind, you never get them back.
I probably take longer than I should to see I am not the only one at our table noticing Moremo. So is Ett Brashli. And Moremo is noticing Ett. Well, if you are a man, you cannot help noticing Ett. She is older than he is, but not too old. Oh, no. Not too.
Sometimes you think you can get the wide, welcoming days back if you keep company with someone who still has them. By the look in her eye, Lady Ett is thinking that now. Not one who thinks such things has ever been right since the world hatched from its egg, but people do it all the time.
And besides, Moremo is a handsome fellow. You can have a grand time with somebody like that for a little while. Till you need something more than a handsome face, anyhow. By the look in her eye, Ett is thinking about the grand time, not about the till you need something.
She always does. I should know. Hell, I do know. Nobody knows better. And when it goes sour—and it will go sour—who will help her pick up the broken pieces? I will. I know that, too. It is not as if I have never done it before.
When they are almost as good as their word about fixing you up almost as good as new, what else can you do?
“Running of the Bulls” copyright © 2013 Harry Turtledove
Art copyright © 2013 Greg Ruth