The words popped out like a champagne cork. And that was partly it: the champagne. At the head of the long table with its starched white tablecloth and suckling pig, in the balmy air of the orchard adjoining the official residence, the newly-elected mayor, head fizzing with ceremonial grape, cried, “I’ll do it!”
And yet it was not just the bubbles that intoxicated him. As a boy, he’d promised himself that he would one day live in this house. Cycling past it on his way to school, he would stop, press his nose up against the gates, and sniff the light, fruity breeze that wafted across from the orchard. The mansion was a faded pistachio with oak- brown shuttered windows. A golden gravel driveway swept around the marble fountain at the front of the building. He imagined the pleasure he’d feel when the tires of whatever fine car he’d have crunched there, felt faint as he imagined himself entering the front door of the residence and gliding through its many cool, dark rooms.
When he had to move away to further his education, to study Engineering at the fledgling University of Navarra in Pamplona, he kept his walls bare except for a drawing he’d made of the mayor’s residence. Beneath drafts of decreasing complexity lay his first, childish outline.
After graduating, he served an apprenticeship at an engineering firm in the city for two years, before returning home to Villa Sorgo to work for the council. He married a local girl, Mariela, winner of the Miss Villa Sorgo beauty pageant every year since turning nineteen, and soon after started a family. His firstborn was a girl and, four years later came the son he’d hoped for. Meanwhile, he rose swiftly through the political ranks, aided in part by the deaths of some of the more senior ministers, and was promoted to deputy mayor on the day his boy emerged from the womb.
Four years later, after the incumbent died at the ripe old age of ninety-six, he swept to victory on the back of a campaign that championed his youth and promised to put a bullet in the heart of the former administration’s complacency. Villa Sorgo was in decline— indebted to the state, its buildings crumbling, the smell from its drains increasingly sour—and he would be the one to rescue it. He campaigned under the slogan ‘A Man of Action’ and was voted in by a huge margin, the youngest man ever to take the position. He was thirty-five.
His first priority was to build a tourism industry that would enrich the area and put Villa Sorgo on the map. This would generate funds for infrastructure and development. He pictured gleaming buildings and new roads conveying business their way. Success here could lead to opportunities for him at the provincial level, or even, the young mayor thought with a gasp, the state. What, though, could be the seed of his greatness? What could they capitalise on? They had their sorghum wine, Villa Sorgo Sorgo, but in truth it was barely drinkable. They made olive oil, but then who didn’t? They had a local ham that they were rightfully proud of, but was that enough? Probably not. The town needed to be kicked back into life, and for that it would take some excitement.
“Hold a bull run,” his wife suggested. “Everybody loves bull runs.”
The mayor went cold. “Yes. I suppose they do.”
As a student he’d visited Pamplona during the Fiesta of San Fermin. With a clogged throat and quivering bowels he’d watched the river of muscle flow beneath his balcony, the white-clad men in their blood-red neckties tumbling through the streets, vaulting over the barriers in their frantic attempts to escape the horns of the onrushing beasts. He hadn’t dared to leave the apartment until the evening of the day after. The thought of mad animals running loose in the streets of his own town made him gag.
“Or,” he said, “we could hold one of those festivals where people throw food at each other. Like the tomato one.”
“And what will we throw?” scoffed his wife. “Olives? Ham? That wouldn’t look like much. And imagine the mess. The sticky, stinking streets. Think of the waste. All that food just thrown away. Think of the cleaning! A horrible idea. No waste with a bull run, and no need to clean up afterwards.”
“Dung,” replied the mayor.
“Free fertiliser,” said his wife. “The real cleaning we’d do with our teeth.”
“I don’t follow.”
Mariela sighed. “The run would end in the bull ring. Where there would be matadors. Who would produce meat. Which we would cook.”
“A festival of flesh,” said the mayor.
“Exactly, my love.” She rewarded him with a luminous smile. “At the end.”
Inebriated and swaying under the boughs at the head of the table, the young mayor revealed his plan. Some of his guests began to grumble. The town would come to a standstill. Traffic would be disrupted.
“What traffic?” the mayor retorted.
There were more complaints. No one would come.
“They will come,” Mariela said. “They will want to practice for Pamplona. And those who cannot go to Pamplona will come to Villa Sorgo.”
“I think it’s a fine idea,” said a young woman. The mayor saw some of the older men stiffen as she spoke. “We need something new, powerful.”
“That’s the spirit,” said the mayor. “That’s more like it.”
“Everyone loves a bull run,” said a young man sitting opposite Mariela.
“That’s exactly what I said,” she said to him, nodding.
A voice climbed above the murmuring. They would be overrun by drunken English. Or perhaps worse.
“What’s worse than that?” someone said.
“We can’t use the same saint,” said someone else.
“We’ll find one,” said the mayor, who was beginning to see how deep the previous administration’s torpor had gone. Too many old men. An entire new staff, that’s what was needed. Like this one, the young woman, who was now saying, “I think it’s exciting. I think it’s a very exciting idea.”
More moaning. “It will be hard to find animals of a high enough calibre around that time, so near to San Fermin.”
The mayor looked at his wife, who was regarding him with an expression of encouragement or dismay, he couldn’t tell which. He took another gulp of champagne. “Does anyone have another idea?” he snapped.
In the silence that followed he felt for the first time the power of his position, sensed those gathered bend towards him. He felt the authority of the house behind him settle over his shoulders like a cape. He took a deep breath, and as his lungs filled with an ease and volume he’d not experienced before, he felt himself expanding, as if the air was carrying him high above them.
“We’ll make our own bulls,” he said. “I’ll take care of that. You,” he gestured around the table, “take care of the rest.”
One of the older men, a sullen look on his face, said, “Well, I’m not going to run.”
“Why not?” The mayor asked, affronted.
“I don’t want to be trampled,” replied the man. “How about you? It’s your idea after all.”
The cheek of it! The mayor’s champagne-soaked mind skipped to his campaign slogan. Very well, he thought, I’ll show them what a true Man of Action is. He raised his glass and said, “I’ll do it!”
They clapped and cheered and he thought perhaps they loved him.
In the following months, the Mayor travelled frequently. Whenever he returned he saw with satisfaction the developments that had taken place in his absence. The route was set, pennants were being made, posters designed, and caterers organised. He was assured that hotel bookings for the days around the festival were up. Mariela had put herself in charge of the post-run ceremony, and was often to be found in the kitchen, licking a delicate finger to test a new combination of herbs in the stew, spooning sauce into their children’s mouths.
Too busy to do it himself, he’d given the task of selecting the bulls to his chauffeur Raul, whose family, Raul hinted, had some history of animal husbandry. They would have plenty of bulls, Raul told him, plenty of time to make them strong. All around the residence was an air of excitement and renewal. His staff looked at him with eyes that sparkled and it made him breathless.
Suffused with the pleasure of seeing his plan grow legs of its own and enamoured by his powers of delegation, the mayor had virtually forgotten his promise. Yet there were times when something seemingly innocuous and unrelated— a misheard word in conversation, the sun gleaming on cobblestones—might take him out of his body and set him down on that balcony in Pamplona. His heart would lurch, and his breath catch in his tightening throat. He reassured himself that he would be at the head of hundreds of runners, the first to reach the stadium, no doubt long before the bulls. He probably wouldn’t even see the bulls until they were being cooked. Sometimes thundering hooves woke him in the night and he would lie awake, staring at the ceiling and the waving silhouettes of leaves thrown there by the streetlights. He saw in these patterns horns, bovine faces. If he was home, Mariela would wake, tugged from sleep by the sensation of her husband’s anxious breathing.
“Sleep,” she would murmur, laying a warm hand on his shining forehead, and when he groaned she’d ask, “What is it?”
A strangled sound.
“Everything will go well. It’s understandable. The pressure.” She would start to drift off.
“I just want it to be a success,” the mayor would lie in a small voice.
“There, there.” Her hand would lay on his head as she returned to slumber, and beneath its soothing curve he might finally, before the dawn, get a few hours of fitful sleep.
Winter and spring came and went. The following May, Raul asked the mayor to inspect the bulls. In the purring black Audi, Raul chattered about the purity of their breeding, the awesome power of the beasts. “Like trucks,” he crowed. The mayor’s throat was drying up, and his fingers shook on the brim of the hat he clutched in his lap. He did his best to sound enthusiastic, to keep the shake from his voice, while trying to convince himself that Raul was exaggerating. A shrivelled old man like his chauffeur would likely see the animals as more imposing than they really were.
When they arrived, Raul led him to the fence and the mayor looked into the enclosure at a snorting, jostling mass of muscle, a forest of horns. Rising from them was a hot, sharp, animal stench. Their eyes were furious. Raul reached over and patted one of the beasts on the nose. The mayor swallowed a scream.
“What are you feeding them?” he asked Raul. Steel bars, fire, and children, he thought to himself, while Raul’s response floated somewhere nearby, unheard. The mayor struggled to maintain his composure. His thighs felt hot. Surreptitiously he patted them for moisture. Some of the animals seemed to be staring directly at him, brimming with hatred. He tried to avoid their eyes, not wanting any of them to remember his face.
Back at the house the mayor locked himself in the bathroom and sat trembling on the edge of the tub. Perhaps they should just cook the bulls, he thought. No run, go straight to the meal. He sucked at the inside of his cheeks, desperate for moisture. His breath came in gasps and his skin was slick with perspiration. He removed first his tie, and then all of his clothes until he was naked, but this didn’t stop the sweating. He patted at himself with numb, clammy hands, unable to tell if he was hot or cold. The patterns on the tiles swam before his eyes and he felt sick,
but when he closed his eyes there loomed the face of a gigantic bull, its eyes blazing. He thought his heart might explode.
He ran himself a bath and sank into the water up to his lips. All he needed, he thought, was to sink a fraction lower and breathe in. This was the first time he’d ever had such a thought, and he wasn’t sure how he should feel; glad it had taken so many years to arrive, or sad it had come at all. “Coward,” he muttered to himself. Some time later, his skin deeply wrinkled, he got out of the now cold bath, wrapped himself in a towel, lay on the floor and looked at the ceiling. He stayed there until dinnertime.
That night, when the claws of a nightmare dragged him from sleep, he slipped out of bed, dressed quietly, and crept in stockinged feet along the hall to his study. There, he pulled the encyclopedia from the shelf, took it to his desk, and pored over the entries on bacteria and plagues. Was there some way he could organise for the herd to sicken and die? A poisonous plant in their feed, an injection, a spore, one bull sneezes and infects the rest. His mind reeled.
Then, with a start, he realised that all he needed to do was to unlatch the gate and they would disappear. The mayor put on his shoes. As he approached the front door his butler materialised.
“Trouble sleeping señor?”
“No, I just…”
“A glass of milk will help.”
The butler slid away on oiled soles. The mayor, with a sick feeling, reached for the door handle. His hand hovered by the cold brass.
“Señor.” A glass was placed in his hand.
“I’m going back to bed,” said the mayor.
The following night, the mayor let himself out of a side door and padded over the dewy grass of the orchard. He moved from tree to tree, concealing himself behind their trunks until he reached the perimeter wall. As he jumped and took hold of the branch he would use to scale it, a white light flared on his face and a voice said, “Freeze.”
The mayor hung from the branch, squinting in the glare.
“It’s me,” he said.
“Oh.” The light snapped off, and in the dark the mayor heard a rustle and saw a figure move towards him. “Mr Mayor. I apologise.”
“It’s ok,” the mayor replied, “I was just…” He groaned.
“Chin-ups?” said the guard. The branch creaked and shook. The guard was now hanging next to him. “Great way to stay strong.” He raised his chin over the branch and exhaled loudly, lowered himself, crunched, exhaled. The mayor followed, trying to match the other man’s pace. His arms began to ache and he gritted his teeth. With a quick glance at the mayor, the guard moaned suddenly and dropped to the ground. Panting, he said, “You’re much stronger than I am, Mr Mayor.”
The mayor did one last chin-up then let himself drop. With some effort, he tried to breathe evenly.
“Fit too I bet,” the guard continued. “Have to be to outrun those bulls.”
“Quite,” replied the mayor. “Quite.”
“I don’t know about you, Mr Mayor,” the guard said, “but I can’t wait.”
“Me neither,” croaked the mayor, weakly returning the salute the guard gave him before walking back to the house.
The morning of the festival found the mayor sitting before the wide windows that fronted the house. Neither the sleeping draught nor his wife’s palm had worked, and he had spent the night here in his study, gazing out through the glass. Except for the lone guard by the fountain, he’d seen not a soul but for a beggar dragging his trolley of belongings past the gates around the first gasps of dawn.
As the sky greyed his butler arrived with a pot of coffee. The mayor drank it at the window. His eyeballs were shrivelled and filmy flecks of dust floated in his vision. His eyelids felt like loaves of bread and his body raw, as if layers of skin had peeled off during the night, leaving his nerve-endings flapping outside his body like coral. The coffee didn’t help.
Oddly enough, at that moment, he wasn’t frightened. Nothing seemed real, not even the approaching bulls. He crossed himself, murmured, “Praise be to God,” and drained the dregs rom the cup. But God, though praised, made no reply, and as the house began to stir, the reality of his situation dawned anew and his terror returned at a greater pitch.
The opening reception was held in the orchard. By lunchtime, just a few hours before the bull-run, he was a wreck. He could not eat. The calm exterior he was trying to maintain was tested as visitors pumped his hand and slapped him on the back and told him to do them proud. Whenever someone touched him, he feared his skin might burst, releasing his encased screams. Beneath the shade of an apple tree Mariela smoothed the fabric of his festival shirt.
“You did it,” she said. She kissed his cheek. Her breath warmed his ear as she nibbled the lobe and whispered, “Mr Mayor.”
As more guests approached, she gave him a lingering look then returned across the thick green lawn to the house. The mayor looked up, willing one of the branches to break off and knock him unconscious. The tree did not obey. He endured the men’s praise and chummy ribbings beneath the unfeeling plant. One of them was holding a chicken leg, and the mayor had to look away as the man’s teeth tore the meat from the bone. “Excellent spread,” he said, voice muffled by his mouthful.
“The run!” said another, rubbing his hands together, his eyes shining ecstatically. “Finally it comes!”
“Yes!” said the mayor, and gave a laugh that came out as a squeak. He suddenly felt rather disorientated, as if someone had let off a flash in his eyes. He took a gulp of air. “There will be beef, much beef,” he said through lips he could barely feel. “Steak, patties, ribs, stew for everyone.” His eyes darted from face to face, locking their eyes to his, mindful not to allow the twin terrors of silence and thought to arrive. But the thoughts came anyway: himself, other fallen runners, becoming meat to be sliced up and cooked in a pot. “And Villa Sorgo Sorgo, of course,” he continued, “so much. Rivers, rivers of it for all.”
Then, though it seemed to the mayor that the reception had just begun, it was time. Raul drove the mayor to the centre of town. As the car pulled out of the residence, he tried to practice the speech that had been prepared for him, but the words swam before his eyes. His mouth was a desert and his breath came in shallow, jagged clumps. “No speech actually,” he said in a cracked voice to Mariela.
“No. No speech.”
She touched his arm and he looked at her. She raised an eyebrow.
“I’m fine,” he said, pulling his arm away. “Just want to get on with it.”
His son sat opposite him, holding hands with his sister. The mayor looked away.
Crowds flanked the car as it passed through the narrow streets, their muffled cheers brushing the ears of the young mayor who leaned awkwardly against the leather trim of the door, fiddling with the lock as stealthily as his trembling fingers would allow. It seemed that Raul had locked him in.
“Huge crowds,” exclaimed Mariela. “What a success.” The mayor gave her a wobbly smile.
As the way through the crowds narrowed, hands pounded on the roof and windows like charging hooves. Grinning teeth shone through the glass. He closed his eyes. His Adam’s apple bobbed like a cork on the ocean as he fought down wave upon sulphurous wave of bile.
The car drew to a halt before the steps of the town hall, where a wide area had been cleared for the start of the bull-run. Raul got out and walked around the car to release the mayor, who toppled out onto his hands on the swept flagstones. He sprang to his feet to stand proud before the mass of people. They fell silent. He raised a hand and they erupted, cheering, some of the townsfolk waving placards that read ‘We Love You Mr. Mayor’, ‘A True Man of Action’, and ‘He’ll Do It!’ The mayor followed Raul to the cordon holding the crowd back where he kneaded outstretched palms and kissed the infants held out to him. A woman wept. The mayor thumbed a tear from her cheek and, in a choked voice, said, “My dear child.”
Gradually, the colour seeped back into the mayor’s face as he fed on their adulation. For the first time in what felt like a very long time, he could breathe, really breathe, and he took great gulps of air. Moving slowly, smiling, touching, nodding, receiving praise, he entered the course. The crowd closed behind them, and a policeman ran the cordon across. At last the mayor turned to Raul and said, “I’m ready, bring in the others.”
“Others?” said Raul as he knotted the red cloth around the mayor’s neck.
“Mmm, the others,” the mayor murmured dreamily.
“What others?” asked Raul.
“The other runners. Send them in.”
“Oh no, no señor. You are mistaken. It is only you.”
The mayor’s temperature soared. His heart hammered in his ears. “What do you mean ‘only me’?”
“No one else wanted to run,” said Raul. “You were the only one who did.”
The blood drained from the mayor’s face and his eyes welled with tears. He grabbed at Raul, rasping, “But in Pamplona. The young men.”
Raul detached the mayor’s shaking fingers from his lapels and backed away, his palms facing upwards, as if to say ‘What can I do?’
The din swelled and over it the mayor heard the report of a rocket, then another. Raul ducked under the cordon. The crowd began to chant. “The bulls! The bulls!”
The mayor shouted at Raul, “This is a terrible mistake!”
Wildly, he looked around. Over the heads of the crowd he could see Mariela and the children on the town hall steps. He tried to raise an arm to wave at them but it wouldn’t move. A grimaced cry spat from his throat. Panic writhed in his facial muscles and his eyes bulged.
He moved towards where Raul had been but he was gone, and the crowd pushed him back. They were chanting, delirious. “Run Mr Mayor! Run!”
He looked left, to where the course stretched out through the streets. The houses lining the avenue, normally so beautiful, now leaned over him like witches, darkening the sky. He felt as if he were shrinking. A gasp from the crowd. The first line of beasts slammed around the corner towards him. A puff of straw and sawdust. His legs went numb. The crowd was deafening now. He screamed and ran for his life.
There were no smells now, no sounds, only fear. He couldn’t feel his muscles working. He couldn’t feel a thing. He had no body, only a shrieking soul. Glancing over his shoulder he saw the wave of rolling muscle and swaying horns bearing down. He tried to jump over the railings to the left, then to the right, but each time the crowd denied him. Their faces shone, cheering with a savage, lunatic intensity. The bulls were close now, too close, and he could hear their snorting, their skittering hooves, smell their hair and the stalls and warm animal waste. He could feel their breath; they were about to devour him. He didn’t dare look behind again. He strained, teeth bared, skimming the ground. Through eyes blurred with tears he saw the ground rush towards him as he tripped on a cobblestone. He skinned his palms, banged his chin and bit his tongue. The taste of blood. The strange heat of his trousers. Now he had his body back and didn’t want it. He tried to regain his feet but a hard blow to his hip sent him sprawling. He rolled twice and came to a stop. Something glanced off his head and for a second he thought he might black out, but there was to be no mercy. Sprawled on the hard and roaring cobblestones of his town, the young mayor of Villa Sorgo brought his knees to his chest, and as the monstrous animals thundered over him, began to weep.
“The Young Mayor of Villa Sorgo” by Dominic Blewett appeared in Issue 39 of Berkeley Fiction Review.
Dominic Blewett was born in the UK and now lives in Berlin, where he makes a living as a photographer. His short stories have appeared or are upcoming in Existere Journal of Arts & Literature, Skive Magazine, Icebox Journal, and the Blue River Review, among others.