"I don't feel bad about killing," Michelito says, "because the bull fights for his survival." Besides, he says, there's always the possibility of an indulto—whereby the bull's life is spared when the crowd and the judge deem the animal valiant enough. "If the bull does well in the ring," Michelito says, "he wins his liberty." But that happens to just a few of the thousands that enter the ring annually.

For the millions who flock to the arena each year, watching a master matador like José Tomás is truly a wonder, blood sport become art. But, at 12, Michelito isn't able to conjure the grand spectacle every time out—and today, not at all. His second bull, El Catorce, keeps losing its footing in the dirt and flopping onto its stomach. Michelito takes a knee just a couple feet away and bares his teeth, trying, it would seem, to taunt his partner into a better performance, but to no avail. Only when Michelito, pulling from his bag of tricks, starts to do a twirling, tippy-toed dance in front of the bull does the crowd get back into it, cheering and whistling and roaring with laughter. "Anda, Michelito. Anda!"

The first time Michelito tries to thrust his sword into the bull, the animal falls to the ground and appears to be dead. But it isn't—El Catorce simply doesn't want to get up. Eventually it does, but it keeps to the walls. One of Michelito's cuadrilla gets right up behind the wounded creature, the sword still stuck in its hide, and tries to nudge it toward the center of the ring, but it responds with a couple of errant back kicks. Diana's voice rises up from the stands. She's rooting for the performance to be over, yelling, "Take the sword out! Let some air enter!"


While the grounds crew rakes the blood-stained dirt, Michelito walks out into the street, where he's surrounded by a large crowd of fans, weathered old men, kids of all ages, and girls—lots of girls. Michel can't hand out Michelito postcards fast enough; they all want a picture and an autograph. Michelito gives an armless man a hug. He poses with a pretty teenager as her friend takes multiple photos, then the two girls switch places and he does it all over again. An eager father, standing on the outskirts of the crowd, says to his 12-year-old son, "Why didn't you get an autograph? It could be worth a ton of money one day!" As the son gets Michelito's signature, the father can scarcely contain himself, saying, "He was amazing. It's like seeing Baby Ruth when he was young."

The crowd thins out as the Lagaveres slowly walk back to the hotel. Michelito's eyes, telegenically bright only moments before, are watering. No matter how hard he tries, he can't staunch his disappointment—in the toros, sure, but more in his failure to transcend them. Michel pulls him aside and with his arm around Michelito, whispers into his ear, attempting to console him.

"It happens, Michelito," he says. The boy is looking straight ahead. It's unclear if he's listening to his father's words. "You're only as good as the bulls you get."

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