The festival of San Fermín in Pamplona was like nothing Holly had ever seen before.
Yesterday, she had stood in an ocean of white shirts and red scarves, crushed by stranger’s bodies, jabbed at by their elbows, breathing in their smell of their skin. She had been one of half a million people packed together against the old stone walls, jostling and pushing, singing and shouting and happy. She had been drunk. They had all been drunk, and most of them had been throwing wine over each other. The wine throwing had taken some getting used to. The being sweated on by strangers had as well.
But that had been yesterday.
Now Holly was in a narrow cobbled street, between high wooden fences, looking up a hill, through a crowd, waiting for the bulls.
Here in this street, in this place, with the rest of the brave and bored and boastful. The brave, and also all those too afraid to tell their friends no.
The morning was cool. Yesterday had been hot and muggy. Yesterday she’d ended up damp from other people’s sweat and sticky with spilled wine, but now, this morning, was better. She felt better. The air was cooler, and the crowds not nearly so dense.
She had been up early, because her guidebook had told her to be. She had gone with the crowd, and prayed to a statue of the saint who would keep them all safe. They had gathered and shouted and then spread out down the route, and that, apparently, meant they were ready.
Now they were all going to run.
There were a few hundred people near her, many more up and down this short stretch of street. Most were looking in the direction Holly was, the direction the bulls would come, quietly anxious. Anxious, or excited, or drunk with fear. Or just drunk. There were police among the crowd, removing people who were too obviously intoxicated, but not everyone who’d been drinking was giving themselves away. There were a few people, Holly noticed, who didn’t seem to be anxious. A few who were stretching, and laughing, and seemed to be catching up with friends. Those were mostly older men. They probably ran every year, and for them it was a reunion. For everyone else, the wait was just silence and anxiety.
Holly waited, wondering how sensible this was.
Yesterday, in that crowd, she had been sure. Yesterday, packed together in the hot sun, smelling wine and sweat and incense, this had seemed to mean something. Yesterday, everyone in the crowd had been fervent, each person in their own way, and Holly had been fervent along with them. There were different fervors for everyone, for the devout and the drunk, the lonely and horny, the backpackers and robed Catholic priests. Some had prayed, some had laughed, some simply had fun. Each was different, but all were lost in a passion, and that passion had decided Holly. She had wanted to feel too, and had joined in, and decided she would run.
Once she’d decided she had got tipsy. She’d got more than tipsy. Strangers had kept handing her wine. She had been in the crowd for hours, watching some kind of ceremony. She still wasn’t sure if it had been religious or just a parade of town councilors. There had been important people being solemn, but also giant puppets and masks. Holly didn’t quite understand, but she had watched, and taken wine from stranger’s hands, and drank enough she’d become dizzy and happy in the hot sun. At sunset, long before the party was over, she found her way back to her bed in the city of tents on the outskirts of town, and had slept, listening to distant drunks and songs and fights, wondering if she should go through with this after all.
Wondering if she should do what she was about to do. What she was doing now, here, this morning.
She looked up the cobbled street, towards the bulls, and waited.
Holly was here because of Hemingway, and because she hadn’t gone to a war, and because she needed to feel like she’d lived before she went home to a career and a mortgage and settling down and children. She was here because she’d broken up with Rachel right before she left on this trip, and she still hurt so much inside she that sometimes she couldn’t bear it. She was here because she was six months into her post-uni, post temp-work, mid-recession trip through Europe, and it had seemed like a good idea at the time, a week ago, in Berlin, when someone said that Pamplona was about to happen.
She had come because she wanted to do something, and this was the most memorable thing she could do.
She felt brave. She thought she was brave. She wasn’t completely sure why she was here, but it was to find something, or to find out something, and that seemed good reason enough.
Holly looked around. She tried to find something to look at to take her mind off her fear.
There were a few women running, but not many. Through the crowd, past people’s heads, Holly saw someone else. She was dressed like Holly, in white and red, the proper colors for the festival. She was dressed in white and her skin and hair were dark enough that the white clothes actually suited her. On her those clothes looked right. On Holly they just looked like a costume.
She looked at the way the other woman was standing, patient, brave, waiting calmly, for all the world like someone about to start a marathon or waiting in a supermarket queue. She was calm.
Holly wished she was that calm. She wished she had that self-control.
The other woman was calm, and was also somehow alive, standing there in the crowded street. Alive, and deeply herself. There was something slightly magical about her, in that street, standing that way.
Holly wanted her. For the way she stood, waiting. Holly wanted her, and knew it, and was almost embarrassed.
The woman looked up, and they met each other’s eyes.
Holly raised her hand, almost waving, and the woman raised her hand back.
It was enough.
San Fermín wasn’t what Holly had expected. She’d thought it was religious, something almost sacred. A party, but a calmer one, like a twenty-first birthday with the grandparents still around.
Instead, it was sordid.
It was a sordid, tourist-trap, binge-drinking party that reminded her of the Greek islands. It was being too drunk to stand, and passing out in doorways and gutters, and the perpetual smell of spilled, stale wine. It was the midnight roar of street-cleaning machines as often as happy crowds, and it was constant hammering as fences were taken down and then rebuilt each day. Mostly San Fermín was death, not the noble death of bulls and dueling in the sun, but a slow death by greasy food and too much drink. It was a disappointment, and just a little shameful.
It was unbearably noble, too.
It was old. Holly was from Australia and didn’t often see old. This was old, from before churches and saints and city councils and civilization. It was so old that everyone had forgotten why they were doing this, and yet they still were. It was a thing from a time when bulls were gods, and sacrificing yourself, or risking yourself, mattered more than who you were. It was something important that the world had almost lost, and ought to keep, and Holly didn’t quite understand why. It had bothered her at first, that she didn’t understand, but then sometime the night before, in the seething crowd, she’d realized. She didn’t need to understand to take part.
It was enough that it mattered. Some things just mattered, even if she couldn’t explain them with words. This mattered enough that she was standing in the street, where bulls where about to run, and waiting.
And trying to stay calm.
She’d taken some care where she stood. She was halfway down the street which led to the arena, and so away from the worst of the crowds. She was in the middle of the street as well, away from the most frightened people, who felt safer close to walls. Holly understood that need, she wanted to be standing against a wall as well. She wanted to, but didn’t allow herself. She knew what she had to do. She stayed out in the open, deliberately and obviously, and noticed other people who were too. The little groups of older men, and the woman Holly had noticed earlier.
The woman was down the street a little way, out in the open. She was watching Holly again. She looked at Holly, at where Holly was standing, and nodded and smiled.
I know, Holly wanted to say. I understand as well.
This crowd, these people, they didn’t understand, but Holly did, and she wanted to explain. She wanted to say that to the woman down the street, but she couldn’t move, not now.
Not this close to the start of the run.
She waited instead.
Holly had talked to a Spanish man on the train on the way to Pamplona, an older man who’d told her how to run. It might have begun because he was trying to flirt, Holly thought. She wasn’t completely sure. He might just have been trying to help.
He’d been sitting opposite her on the train, and she’d been reading Hemingway, trying to learn what she needed to know from a half-century old book by a suicidal drunk. The Spanish man had known enough English to read the cover, and Holly knew enough Spanish to understand him when he spoke. He’d asked if she was going to Pamplona, and she’d said yes, she was going to run. He’d seemed surprised, and then not. As if a world where women ran with the bulls surprised him, but not so much that he especially cared. He said he ran too, that he had every year since he was twenty, and did Holly want him to tell her what to do.
Holly said yes. Because he had asked, instead of just starting to tell her. Because he didn’t assume he could, or that she needed to know. And because a half-century old book by a suicidal drunk might not have been the best way to learn how to do something this dangerous.
“Please,” she’d said, and put the book away, and the Spanish man had told her.
He’d told her to stay in the middle of the street, where she could run freely, and avoid the walls where the terrified hid. Scared people grabbed at each other, he said, and held each other back, unthinking, suddenly panicking because a bull was near them, and that taken by surprise like that, she could be caught, and helpless, and die.
“People will grab me?” Holly had said, a little surprised, and the Spanish man had nodded, and told her yes, they would. And that a goring was worse against a wall because she would be trapped between the bull and the wall, as if between two colliding cars, and would be crushed and die against the stone. Out in the middle of the street, if she was lucky, she would bounce away and the impact would be less and she would live.
“Oh,” Holly had said, taken aback.
The Spanish man kept talking. He told her where to run. He said Estafeta Street was safest, because the bulls slowed to turn, and that Telefónica before the arena was the most dangerous, because it was a funnel, and crowded, and people tripped and slipped and fell and then twenty others were down too. He told her not to take a rolled-up newspaper even though many people did because it just filled her hand and got in the way if she suddenly needed to climb. He told her to remember she couldn’t outrun a bull, that no-one could, and she had to stop somewhere and let them pass. He told her she didn’t need to actually run, that she could stand still, on the inside of the corner, and simply let the bulls pass her. But stay still, he said, so she didn’t catch their eye, and they didn’t stop and turn, because when a bull turned, people died. People always died. Just stand at the corner and let them pass. That was enough, he said. Unless Holly wanted to actually run.
“I want to run,” Holly had said, and he’d looked at her for a moment, very grave.
That moment had seemed odd, Holly thought afterwards. As if she was on a quest, in a magical forest, surrounded by castles and elves. Not here, on a high-speed train, racing through suburbs and market-gardens. Not air-conditioned, behind tinted windows, watching motorways and orange groves slide past. As if there had been a test she hadn’t known about, and she had passed, and was to learn something important.
The Spanish man had nodded, and said in that case she should be in the middle of the street. Stay in the street, he’d said, and stay on her feet. That was all, he said. That was all he could tell her.
“Okay,” Holly had said. “Thank you.”
And the Spanish man had shaken her hand, quite solemnly, and wished her luck, and then stood up and walked off down the train. That was the strangest thing of all, Holly had thought, watching him go. They way he just walked away. It probably meant nothing. He was probably just going to the bathroom, or to find the service carriage and get a drink. Probably they all did this to tourists, just to give them chills, but Holly had chills. She felt like she’d been given something. Something had been passed to her, something she now needed to carry.
Probably it was her imagination, she thought. Probably reading Hemingway on a train on the way to San Fermín was a terrible idea, exactly because of this.
Because she hadn’t been sure she was going to run, when she left Berlin, but now she utterly was.
She was going to run.
She was going to run because both Hemingway and a stranger on a train wanted her to. So she would, even though one was dead and the other she’d never see again, she would run.
It didn’t need to make any more sense than that.
Holly stood in the street, and waited, and thought about what the Spanish man had told her. She stood out away from the walls. She looked at the people around her, and edged away from those who looked drunk or afraid, those who might grab at her and get in her way.
She waited, and looked at the woman standing near her, and wanted to explain that she knew. She understood, she wanted to say. She might not look like she belonged here, but she knew the secrets too.
She stood there, and waited, and tried to stay calm.
She was calm. She was ready.
She looked over at the other woman, and smiled again, and knew it was almost time. The woman saw her looking, and shouted something.
“Find me later,” perhaps, but Holly didn’t quite hear.
There was a bang in the distance. The firecracker announcing the gates of the bullpen had been opened. The crowd stirred, and shifted, and began to look up the street.
In the distance, as a howl growing nearer, the crowd began to cheer.
And Holly began to run.
Running was nothing and it was everything.
Holly ran, and people pushed her, and she pushed them too. It was desperate. It was terror. It was shoving others out of her way so she could get past and they would be hurt instead of her. It was knowing she was doing that and not caring. Not caring what happened to anyone else, right then, in her fear, because she was worried about herself. It was as much what this was as anything else, she decided, and she only understood it once the run began.
She ran, and saw that the Spanish man on the train had been right. Already, to either side of her, hundreds of people were scrambling and shoving and pulling each other off the wooden fences. But out here, in the middle of the street, she had no-one in her way.
She ran a short distance, a few seconds, fifty steps. She heard something behind her, loud and clattering, and didn’t need to look. There were shouts, and a scream, and a heavy thudding like she’d never heard before.
She didn’t wait. She went sideways, towards a doorway. She pushed past a man who seemed to be motionless with fear. Pushed past rather than helped, which was monstrously heartless, but she didn’t care. She shoved, and got him out of her way, got her hand onto the edge of the doorway, and pulled herself inside, pressing against someone who was already there.
The woman she’d been looking at earlier.
They stared at one another, breathing fast, standing still. A bull went past, but Holly hardly noticed.
“Two,” the woman said. “Don’t move. Don’t draw their notice.”
They were on the inside of a slight bend. It was a good place to be. The bulls were going past at full speed, not needing to slow down, looking ahead at other runners, not at them. They’d be safe unless a bull skidded and fell and then stood up looking at them, confused. Holly knew that from her guidebook, and from Hemingway, and from the man on the train.
Another bull went past.
“That’s four,” the woman said.
More thudding hooves.
“Five,” Holly said.
The woman shook her head. “A steer.”
There were steers running with the actual bulls, to keep the herd moving. Another animal passed, and Holly didn’t know which, and didn’t know how the woman in the doorway with her could tell.
“That’s five,” the woman said.
Holly waited, watching the woman, not looking sideways at the street. If a bull fell here she would die, and if she was going to die she didn’t want to know until it happened.
“Six,” the woman said, and reached out as the bull went past. She stroked it, brushed the tips of her fingers along it’s side, smiling strangely, looking at Holly as she did.
Looking at Holly, not at the bull.
Then the bull was gone, and the crowd was running after it, and the bull-herder in green with a long thin stick was past too, and then they were alone.
In their doorway they had a little privacy, despite the crowded, shoving, bustling street.
The woman looked at Holly, still breathing hard. She had her hair tied back, and sweat on her face, and was grinning, inanely, about nothing.
As Holly probably was too.
“I’m Ana,” the woman said, and Holly said she was Holly.
Holly was scared and relieved and surprisingly, still alive. She was still alive, and she suddenly realized she was aroused, too. More than aroused, she was so wet she could feel herself. Her nipples hurt, and her skin felt flushed, and she was breathing far too much for the short distance she’d run.
She wanted to fuck Ana.
She started to grin. She didn’t know why, but she was alive and she wanted Ana, and that was enough to be happy about.
Ana was looking back at Holly, and smiling too. As if she knew. As if she was feeling the same. Ana was breathing the same way, and smiling the same way, and had just done what Holly had. Probably Ana was horny too.
“Do you want to go to the ring?” Ana said. “We could go together.”
Holly shook her head.
“It is a part of this,” Ana said. “We should go.”
Ana just looked at her, knowing. She could hear Holly’s breath, see her skin. She could probably smell Holly, they were so close together.
“We should go,” Ana said again.
“I know we should,” Holly said. “But I don’t want to see them die. Not after that.”
“Oh,” Ana said, and nodded slowly, as if she understood. “Yes.”
Holly stood there for a moment, wondering if Ana did understand. Wondering she understood what this ought to mean. That this ought to be more than just being drunk and running fast. She decided Ana probably did.
Ana probably did, so Holly kissed her.
It didn’t quite make sense, but it did. Holly was horny and scared and glad to be alive, and she hadn’t kissed anyone she actually wanted to kiss in a long time, not since she’d left Australia, and she missed it.
And she was alive.
She kissed Ana. And Ana kissed her back.
They kissed, and then Holly was grabbing Ana’s clothes, grabbing Ana, trying to get her hands inside the fabric, trying to reach Ana’s skin.
“Wait,” Ana said, breathless. “Not here.”
Holly looked around. They were in crowd, in the street, but no-one really seemed to be noticing them. Probably they were all still too caught up in themselves, and their own survival, just as Holly and Ana were.
Holly looked at Ana, desperate, needing her.
Ana held out her hand and took Holly’s. “Come on,” she said, and pulled Holly out into street. And Holly went with her, still smiling.
They walked. There was kissing on the way. There was aching to be touched so much that it hurt. There were open mouths and soft lips and hands squeezing together as they kissed. There was the taste of hot sweaty skin, and gasping breaths and there were fingers inside Holly’s shirt, down the front of her trousers, grabbing and touching and pressing. There was being pushed into walls, and pressed against, and being bumped by passing crowds while they kissed.
There was people pushing wine into their hands, and drinking it as they kissed, and Ana talked to someone, a friend, someone she knew, while Holly kissed her neck. There were people calling out to them, rude things, awful things, which they ignored, too involved with each other to care, and there were people pulling the men shouting away because Holly and Ana had run, and people knew, and that meant something. Holly only vaguely noticed the name-callers leave, but she was glad when they had, and felt safer.
There were narrow alleys, away from the thinning crowd, and privacy and quiet. There was hard cool stone against Holly’s back, snagging and scratching at her hair, and Ana holding her wrists, and a subtle grinding, the pressing of legs between Holly’s. There was fucking against a wall, glancing around, making sure they weren’t seen. And Holly’s sighs, and Holly’s need, and Holly’s touches of Ana’s skin.
Eventually, in the end, there was an apartment building and a dark narrow stairwell and a creaking wooden door on the third floor. They were still close to the centre of the city. The was a roaring hum in the distance from the crowd. Then the apartment door swung closed, and Holly was undressing Ana.
“In here,” Ana said.
Ana’s mouth tasted of wine and her skin tasted of salt and sweat and she was warm and smooth against Holly’s body. She was loud. She moaned and gasped and whispered breathless pleas for Holly not to stop, or to go faster, or to slow down. While she did she had her mouth on Holly, her tongue inside Holly, her breath whispering over Holly’s thigh. She sucked on Holly. She licked Holly’s lips, she spread Holly with her hands, and sucked parts of Holly into her mouth. She held Holly’s breasts, and hips, and scraped her nails down Holly’s tummy. She tasted of wine, and sweat, and in the end of Holly, and Holly couldn’t think for how much she wanted her.
It was the excitement and danger, Holly thought. It was almost a panic, fucking themselves into unconsciousness in case this went away.
Ana was on her side, pulling Holly close, so they could curl together and reach each other with their mouths. They licked each other until Holly’s jaw hurt, and her tongue was numb, and the back of it was aching where it joined her mouth and the wriggling happened from, and her mouth was dry and her cheeks sucked hollow and she just couldn’t lick any more. She tried to use her hand, to give her tongue a rest, to pretend she wasn’t, a little embarrassed because Ana seemed to have an untiring mouth. Or perhaps Ana ate pussy more, and Holly’s mouth wasn’t in practice. Eventually Holly’s mouth hurt too much, and she had to stop. “I’m sorry,” she said, so Ana turned her over and fucked her.
Holly hadn’t ever been able to do this herself. She’d never practiced enough to get the hang of how to move. She lay there, impressed. Impressed for a moment, then just into it, feeling pleasure, wanting. She tipped her hips back, and hooked her legs around Ana, and tried to pull Ana against herself.
When she came, she was fairly sure she bent herself upwards so much only her ass and the back of her head were still on the bed.
Holly came, and Ana kept going. Ana was close too, and Holly watched. Ana fucked her, and started going slightly cross-eyed, and breathing in little pants, and whispering something that might have been, “Don’t laugh at me,” like she thought Holly might, but Holly’s Spanish wasn’t quite good enough to work it out. Then she came too.
Ana came, and kept going. Holly was a little surprised.
Ana had obviously come. She’d closed her eyes and gasped and moaned and gone all floppy, all over, for a second. And then started fucking Holly again.
Excitement, Holly thought. Danger. Holly wanted more too, and didn’t especially care why.
Ana shifted a little, like she wanted to fuck Holly with a slightly different part of herself. Like she was getting chafed, even though she didn’t want to stop. She unhooked one of Holly’s feet, and lifted the other one higher, and started moving again. Kissing Holly, stroking, sometimes sliding down and licking Holly out and then sliding back up and fucking her again, kissing Holly with a mouth that tasted like them. Holly wasn’t sure why that was so hot, but it was. Wine and Ana and the taste of herself, all mixing on Ana’s mouth.
Ana slid down, and licked Holly for a while, then slid up and kept sliding. She sat herself across Holly’s face, her knees on the bed, and held Holly’s hair, and pressed herself onto Holly’s mouth. Hard, so Holly couldn’t breathe for a moment, so her lips were squashed against Ana. Holly opened her mouth and let her. She drank the taste of Ana. She was surprised at herself. She’d usually have been furious if someone did that without asking, but she didn’t mind now. Because Ana was Ana. Or perhaps because it was today. She felt like someone different to who she’d been this morning, which didn’t quite make sense. She couldn’t be someone that new, running in a crowded street with a handful of bulls didn’t change anyone that much. Except it seemed to have.
Holly lay under Ana, and drank Ana in, and let Ana hold onto the bed and fuck her mouth until she was done, and didn’t care about a thing except the taste and smell and feel of sex. And the pleasure of sex. And of being alive.
Later she did it to Ana, although she asked if she could first.
Later, Holly lay in the bed, too exhausted to move. She was still sore from running, and from being bumped into in the crowd. All of her ached. They had found bruises on each other from hitting walls, and a scratch in the small of Ana’s back she didn’t remember getting, or what had caused it, or how.
Ana said she needed food, and went to look for something, and once she was up, Holly heard voices and realized someone else had been home, and probably listening the whole time.
Holly didn’t especially care.
The voices were loud, though, and getting louder. What had seemed like teasing was suddenly arguing. Holly wondered if she should get up and make sure Ana was all right. She worried about an angry girlfriend, or a disapproving mother. She lay there listening, trying to work out what was being said. She couldn’t follow the Spanish, it was too quick and angry. The argument didn’t end, so Holly got up and wrapped the sheet around herself and went out to look.
There was another woman out there arguing with Ana.
“Hey,” Holly said.
Ana jumped then said something in Spanish about see what the other woman had done.
Then there was more shouting.
“Is everything okay?” Holly said.
Ana nodded, but the other woman kept talking. Holly waited, feeling awkward, wearing a sheet.
“What’s wrong?” Holly said. “Should I go?”
“No,” Ana said, but kept arguing in Spanish.
Holly stood where she was, helpless.
“We’re housemates in Madrid,” Ana said, after a moment. “We came here together. But she does not approve of the bulls, and wishes to spare them.”
“It’s cruel,” the other woman said suddenly, in English.
“And she won’t stop telling me because I disagree.”
“Oh,” Holly said, unsure what to do. She didn’t care that much about bulls. She ate steak enough it didn’t seem to matter if a few more died. “Come back to bed,” she said. “Please?”
And Ana looked smug, she glared at the housemate smugly, and then she did.
Later, they got up. They got dressed, and their clothes got mixed up because they were both wearing too much white. Holly ended up with Ana’s shirt, and then decided not to say, to keep it, as a souvenir. A souvenir because Holly was assuming this wasn’t going to last, that if it wasn’t only for tonight, it was only for the festival. That once San Fermín was over they’d each go their own way. Neither of them had actually said, but Holly was assuming, and the knowing made it special and sweet and a little sad.
They got up, and went to the Struendo, the Roar, and watched people beat drums and shout and scream to the sky. They bought food from people in the street, and started to eat, and then looked at each other, and couldn’t wait, and went back to Ana’s apartment to fuck.
And later they ate the food with their fingers, now cold. They ate, and then had sex again, and then Holly slept.
Much later, in the pale light of the next early dawn, Ana whispered, “Wake up, you should come and see.”
“What?” Holly said.
They got up, and dressed again, and went out to the edge of the city, past the last wandering tourists, sleeplessly drunk, and past the cleaners and the police and the builders making fences for the day’s bull-runs. They went to the edge of the city and watched as a new group of bulls were taken into the pens. They were run, as they were in the streets later. A group of bulls came clattering along a quiet street. A man in green with a stick chasing them in the pale light.
It was still, and quiet, and very ancient.
“This is always how they move them,” Ana said. “Before the run. Before everything. This is what the bullrun is, really. What it means. What started it.”
It was odd, and quiet, and strangely important, after the chaos in the street near the arena. What started it, Holly thought. Bulls and running and cities and gods. Everything it was and had always had been.
It felt old and important and strangely touching. She reached out and took Ana’s hand.
They walked back slowly, holding hands, ignoring people’s stares. They were runners, still dressed in red and white. They could do as they wished. They stopped and kissed on a corner near the arena and ignored the builders’ hammering.
“Are you going to run again today?” Ana said.
“I think so, yeah.”
Ana nodded, and squeezed her hand, and they walked back towards her apartment as the sun rose.
They had sex, touching, poignant sex, until Holly felt different, made anew. And after that until they slept for a while, exhausted. And then they woke, and it was time to run again, and this time they ran together.