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  • Saint Blaise, San Blas, the patron saint of wool-combers, is the patron saint of Valdemorillo, a village nestled in the foothills, halfway between Madrid and Segovia. The fiesta for his day in early February marks the start of the Spanish bull-fighting season. When I walked into town last weekend for groceries I saw the posters and the carnival rides set up around the dome roofed plaza de toros. As I walked the narrow streets through the village to the cash machine by the central plaza I noticed posts wedged into place along both sides of the streets. Heavy, red beams were bolted to the posts. The post and beam fence made the street into a sort of chute. I got some cash and checked out the chocolata y churro wagon, the inevitable hams and chorizo, almost gave in to the fatty delight of a pancetta boccadilla (imagine slabs of super thick bacon dusted with salt between crusty fresh bread), the displays of candy, dried fruit and nuts, jumping castles, and trinket stalls set up in the plaza and then walked back.

    Isn’t that odd, I thought.

    Sheets of heavy particle board leaned beside doors and heavy metal gates were fastened wherever people might need access.

    Isn’t that strange, I thought. It’s like they are getting ready for some sort of siege.

    I rounded the corner and saw the dome of the plaza de toro below and finally point a and point b connected. The bulls. They were going to run the bulls through the streets.

    So, on Sunday we walked into town for the final running of the bulls.

    I wasn’t sure we’d find where to go but it turned out not to be an issue. We just followed along. The usually silent streets were thronged. People were in the trees, on their balconies, and perched thick as birds on a wire along the rungs of the barricades. We found a vantage point in the sun and climbed up.

    A rocket went off with a bang and the crowds in the street slipped over and through the barricades until just the younger men were left. Some bounced up and down on their toes, others stretched.

    A second rocket went off and the knot of men by the curve in the road up the hill broke like a wave and ran toward us, looking over their shoulders suddenly tense and alert.

    The bulls were rough and winter shaggy. The sun glinted off their wide horns. By law, a first class fighting bull in Spain has to be at least four years old and weigh 460 kilos, more than one thousand pounds. The nine bulls, swinging along at a canter through the narrow way, looked scruffy and rough and not nearly so massive as I had imagined they’d be but there was nothing big enough to stop them on that street. The ambulance and the squad of Guardia Civil just up the way were there to pick up the pieces.

    After the last run, we followed the crowd down the hill to the plaza de toro. Inside, families thronged the sandy ring. Young men trundled practice bulls, horned heads mounted on wheels, through the crowd, swinging the horns to menace kids and young ladies. The kids waved souvenir capes at the practice bulls and then ran screaming to hide behind the scarred shield walls set around the perimeter. The ladies made a little ole and checked them out as they ran by.

    In the Museo there was an exhibition. Paintings of famous bulls and their matadors. Tranquil scenes of bulls in the high sierra pastures, or silhouetted, dark and brooding, against sunset skies. Matadors in their finery, slim and menacing and bulging in all the right places. A strange and heady mix of sand and sun, sex and death, of grace and glamour and raw unbridled power.

    “It isn’t like Pamplona.” I heard someone explain as we walked home.

    I wondered about that. Centuries of breeding for the classic heavy shouldered, quick to turn, quick to anger strain. Quiet years in the mountain pastures for the bulls. The crews of municipal workers tapping wedges into place and tightening bolts. All the day to day of a village doing what it did and had done for decades and centuries. All of this for the few seconds as the gang of bulls rumbled by.

    I thought of the old men perched on the rails across the road when the bulls ran by. How they must have been here on this day since they were boys and their fathers before them. How their mothers might have called them out of the street when the first rocket sounded. How they tensed and sprinted, glancing back the first time they stayed with the men. And, for a moment, I had a glimpse of the small and homely myth that is life radiating from this point on a sunny Sunday on the last day of the Fiesta de San Blas.
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