The Blind Faith of the One-Eyed Matador

October 10, 2012

GQ:

Last fall, one of Spain’s greatest matadors took a horn to the face. It was a brutal goring, among the most horrific in the history of bullfighting. Miraculously, Juan Jose Padilla was back in the bullring—sí, fighting bulls—a mere five months later. And in the process of losing half his sight, he somehow managed to double his vision

I. Zaragoza, Spain—October 7, 2011

What does the bull see as it charges the matador? What does the bull feel? This is an ancient mystery, but it seems like a safe bet that to this bull, Marques—ashy black, 5 years old, 1,100 pounds—the bullfighter is just a moving target, a shadow to catch and penetrate and rip apart. Not a man with a history, not Juan Jose Padilla, the Cyclone of Jerez, 38 years old, father of two, one of Spain’s top matadors, taking on his last bull of the afternoon here at the Feria del Pilar, a hugely anticipated date on the bullfighting calendar.

When Marques comes galloping across the sand at Padilla, the bullfighter also begins to run—not away from the animal but toward its horns. Padilla is luminously scaled in fuchsia and gold, his “suit of lights.” He lifts his arms high above his head, like a viper preparing to strike. For fangs, he has two wooden sticks with harpoonlike barbs, two banderillas, old technologies for turning a bull’s confusion into rage. Padilla and Marques are alone in the sandy pit, but a carousel of faces swirls around them. A thousand eyes beat down on Padilla, causing sweat to bead on his neck. Just before Marques can gore him, he jumps up and jabs the sticks into the bull’s furry shoulder. He brings down both sticks at once, an outrageous risk. Then he spins around so that he is facing Marques, running backward on the sand, toe to heel.

A glancing blow from Marques unsteadies Padilla; his feet get tangled. At the apex of his fall, he still has time to right himself, escape the bull. His chin tilts up: There is the wheeling sky, all blue. His last-ever binocular view. This milestone whistles past him, the whole sky flooding through the bracket of the bull’s horns, and now he’s lost it. The sun flickers on and off. My balance—

Padilla has the bad luck, the terrible luck, of landing on his side. And now his luck gets worse.

Marques scoops his head toward Padilla’s face on the sandy floor, a move that resembles canine tenderness, as if he’s leaning down to lick him, but instead the bull drives his sharp left horn through the bullfighter’s jaw. When Marques tusks up, the horn crunches through Padilla’s skin and bone, exiting through his left eye socket. Cameras clock the instant that a glistening orb pops loose onto the matador’s cheek. A frightening silence descends on the crowd. Nobody knows the depth of the wound.

Marques gallops on, and Padilla gets towed for a few feet, pulled by his cheek. He loses a shoe. Skin stretches away from his jawbone with the fragile elasticity of taffy.

Then Padilla’s prone body is left in the bull’s dust. He springs up like a jack-in-the-box and hops around. His face is completely red. As the blood gushes down his cheek, he holds his dislodged eye in place with his pinkie. He thinks he must be dying. I can’t breathe. I can’t see.

Marques, meanwhile, has trotted a little ways down the sand. He stands there panting softly. His four legs are perfectly still. What unfolds is a scene that Beckett and Hemingway and Stephen King might have collaborated to produce, because this is real horror, the blackest gallows humor: the contrast between the bullfighter crying out “Oh, my eye! I can’t see! I can’t see!” and the cud-chewing obliviousness of the animal.

In the bullring, other bullfighters spill onto the sand and rush to Padilla’s aid. They lift him, hustle him toward the infirmary. Meanwhile, the bullfight must go on. Miguel Abellan, another matador on the bill, steps in for Padilla. He kills Marques in a trance-like state that he later swears he can’t remember. Tears run down his cheeks. He’s survived twenty-seven gorings himself, but what he sees in Zaragoza makes him consider quitting the profession.

Cornadas—gorings—are so common that every plaza is legally required to have a surgeon on site. Bullfighters now routinely survive injuries that would have killed their fathers and grandfathers. Good luck, now, excellent luck: Carlos Val-Carreres is the Zaragoza surgeon, one of the best in Spain.

“I’m asphyxiating,” Padilla gasps as they bring him in. Many hands guide him into the shadowy infirmary. Someone scissors off his clothing. Someone inserts a breathing tube into his windpipe. Val-Carreres understands instantly that this is a potentially fatal cornada, one of the worst he’s seen in thirty years, and one they are ill-equipped to handle in the infirmary. Padilla, now tracheally intubated, is loaded into an ambulance.

Pronóstico muy grave, Val-Carreres tells reporters.

At 7:52 p.m., half an hour after the goring, Padilla arrives at the emergency room. He presents with multiple fractures to the left side of his face, a detached ear, a protruding eyeball, and hemorrhage at the base of his skull. A five-hour operation saves his life. The surgeons rebuild his cheekbone and eyelid and nose, with mesh and titanium plates. But they are unable to repair his split facial nerve, which has been divided by the bull’s horn, because they cannot locate the base of the nerve. Padilla wakes up from the anesthesia to discover that he can no longer move the left side of his face. It is paralyzed.

When he comes to, his first words to his manager, Diego Robles, are: “Don’t cancel any of my contracts in South America.” Padilla has November bullfights in Venezuela, Peru, and Ecuador.

His first words to his youngest brother, Jaime, who is also a bullfighter, a banderillero, and scheduled to perform in two days’ time: “Don’t cancel your fight. You have to do it for us. You can’t let this get the best of you.”

His first words to his wife, Lidia: “Where is my eye?”

The eye is back in its proper place, but sightless—the optic nerve has been elongated and lesioned by the horn. He’s also deaf in his left ear, and the entire left side of his face is purple and bloated, like something viewed underwater. His eyelid is sealed shut. His mouth curls inward like a wilted leaf…

Read it all.

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