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A Formidable Joy by Stephen V. Ramey

A Formidable Joy by Stephen V. Ramey

Fiction, Vol. 5.4, Dec. 2011

Fever is a woman coaxing him to climax, tugging insistently at self, pulling it out of him. He seems to hover above the sweat-glazed carcass in the hospital bed. Chrome is his vision, the wheezing thump his new heart.

I’m alive he thinks. Free. And then he sees the IV bag, the clear tube descending. That is him drip-dripping, the clarity of his soul falling to that arm, one drop at a time. He is not free, but tethered to that body, bound to that bandage. Gravity pulls him back.

*

He hears voices. “Pablo? Pablo, can you hear me?” “Oh, Pablo, please try!” “I love you, Pablo. Come back to us.”

Who is Pablo? he thinks. And then he is running with the bulls again. He never remembers until he is running and then he recalls with perfect clarity. The musky smell, the press of muscle and bone from all sides, the panicked surge of adrenalin goading him to run faster, ever faster. It is a formidable joy, a sense of stampede and drifting all at once. He is content.

The stadium stands ahead, mouth open to receive him and his fellows into its vast ring. There will be peace there, an end to exhilaration. He feels bricks beneath his feet, the friction of them, the gaps in their surface. He becomes conscious of the breath tearing in and out of his lungs, the heart pounding at his chest. “Pablo!” someone shouts, and he is slowing, slowing…

*

He walks hand-in-hand with Natalia. The street is clogged with people following the eight dancing Giants and their big-headed heralds. Everywhere there is red. Red capes, red lips, red scarves. Offset by the white of other garments, the off-white of the buildings’ facades. He wonders if God looks down upon this celebration and sees an artery filled with blood, red corpuscles and white cells surging to the heartbeat of this music. He is happy. The running of the bulls will be tomorrow. Is he truly ready? Has he made peace with the life he leaves behind? Switching jobs, marrying Natalia, kissing her boy’s head as if he had some part in the boy’s life. These are barricades too.

“I wish you would reconsider,” Natlia says, squeezing his hand. “It is dangerous to run with the bulls. They do not differentiate between good and bad men when choosing whom to gore.”

“Of course they do,” Pablo says. “That is the entire purpose. Why do you think I run, if not to prove my worthiness to you?”

“There is no need for that,” Natalia said. “You are worthy in my eyes.”

“Yes, but do I deserve it?” Pablo waves to a Big Head who looks like a pirate with a tri-corner hat, curling mustache and curled wig, all carved in painted wood. That is how he has been feeling, like a statue going through the motions of life, waving and waving and laughing loud inside his hollow head so that his thoughts will not be fully heard.

“You are brave,” Natalia says, kissing his cheek. “A good example for my Ramone.”

Pablo waves the comment aside. Her son is a bookish boy, pale-skinned and pouty. Still, he loves Natalia, so he must love Ramone as well. This is the future he has chosen.

He hopes the bull run will cauterize him from his wild past, the impulses that drove him to Natalia in the first place. She was married, but so sexy, so forbidden. Other women he had consorted with were able to drink him under the table, but Natalia had been the drink itself.

*

Why did he stumble? He doesn’t know. The bulls are almost on him when he finds his feet. Fear flashes. Heat courses through his veins. He dodges for the side barricade, but it is already too late. Pain, as the horn gores his buttock, an agony as if someone has stuck a red hot poker up his ass. He cries out. A second pain, this one less intense.

Black.

Grey.

Storm clouds above him. The day is cool, if humid.

“Do you want to go back?” It is a woman’s voice, deep and scratchy in its tonal quality. A heavy smoker, perhaps.

He sees her, standing on an endless shore. Long grey waves lick the beach and recede. Hiss, slide. The breath of the world. He listens for its heartbeat, but all he can hear is his own.

“Who are you?” he says.

“Do you want to go back?” she says without blinking.

“Of course I do.” The bull run flashes, intense, alive. He feels the horn again, again, again, the pain like a new pulse.

In both hands, the woman lifts a curved horn to the sky. It crumbles to ash, which drifts down.

*

Ramone looks up from his birthday cake, eyes resentful. With full might, he blows out candles.

Pablo feigns a smile, Ramone’s wish hanging between them like a pestilence. I wish you dead. Natalia’s smile is a beacon in the dim room. She does not see this subtext.

*

“I am the way,” the woman says. Pablo’s eyes fix on the ash at her feet. Waves slide closer with each cycle. Her meaning is clear. He must eat of the ash before the tide claims it if he wishes to return to his life. Does he?

He pushes to his feet. He walks to the woman and kneels. He reaches down, uncertain.

*

“The church has granted the annulment,” Natalia says. “Once it is final, we can be married.”

They lie in bed, sheets wet with their sweat and wrinkled around them. Pablo wonders what God sees. Passion? A pastry?

Natalia’s fingers play down his ribcage, skittering, dancing. His skin leaps at her touch as it always does.

“Do you love me?” she whispers, kissing his mouth, his neck, his chest.

He feels passion rising, a fever throughout his body begging to be stoked. Stirred. Released. He stares at the mirrored ceiling as Natalia’s hand folds around him.

A wave hisses close, a voice he cannot understand.

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