The Bullfighter’s Daughter

by Susan Frith

It was hard to reconcile the mother I knew growing up—cautious, often cloistered in her bedroom beneath a cabbage rose canopy—to the secret I found tucked in her closet one rainy summer afternoon.

I was nine and bored, with no sibling to entertain me while my mother bent over the stove, scrubbing away splatters of spaghetti sauce. (During the school year she worked in a high school cafeteria. Always she scrubbed.)

“Not now, Valory,” she kept saying. Tired of waiting for attention, I snuck down to my parents’ bedroom closet to look for a pair of white satin heels she sometimes let me play in. She kept them in a box, wrapped in tissue paper that whispered each time I pulled them out. I had almost given up my search when sparkles of gold and green caught my eye.

Thinking of Christmas surprises, I squeezed past her line-up of sensible clothes to what I was after: A short, green silk jacket, adorned with gold and white roses so tiny they must have been beaded by a child. Draped on hangers next to it were a matching vest and pants.

A throat cleared. My mother stood in the doorway with her cleaning rag. She said, “I was a bullfighter once.”

Then she took to bed, and I could not rouse her for the rest of the afternoon. I tried on the costume in front of her mirror. Swallowed up in brocade, I waved around her damp dishrag and taunted an imaginary bull. I leaned this way and that to dodge the beast careening around the room.

When my mother finally awoke, I demanded to know more. She sat up, gathered her long brown hair in one fist and let it fall down her back. She did this several times as if she was trying to think of what to say, or stalling so I would leave her alone. Finally, she pulled out a shoebox from under her bed. It contained dozens of black and white photos taken a few years before I was born.

I couldn’t even tell the matador was a woman. Her hair must have been shorter then, or pinned back. But the person in the picture had the same pointy chin as my mother.

“These were all colors of the rainbow,” she said. “My suits of lights.” My mother. My mother, the bullfighter.

“You looked so brave. Why did you stop?”

“Oh, Valory,” she said. “I could have been gored in the stomach. Then where would you be?”

It was the first time I had considered the idea of not existing. I was quiet for a while. Then I asked if I could take the suit to school to show my class.

She shook her head. “There’s no point in going over that again.” Then she walked back to the kitchen to make dinner for my father and me.

I expected things to change after my discovery, but they didn’t. My mother still drove down our driveway to get her letters from the mailbox; so afraid she was of the neighbor’s Irish setter charging after her. For my birthday I begged for a trip to a local alligator park. She got as far as the egg hatchery before dashing back to the car.

I tried to quiz my father about her matador days. “Oh, that was long ago,” he’d say. “You wouldn’t really want your mother to be a bullfighter.” And he’d spoon into his ice cream like it was all settled.

I began to pity my mother. What was she doing working in a cafeteria, wearing a hairnet, when she could have the matador’s montera? I was not going to lose my courage like she had. I cut school to go surfing, snuck out to reptile shows. I was the kid who volunteered to hold the 14-foot-long python, a snake as thick around as my thighs. On weekends, I slipped my mother’s suit of lights out of her closet (covered up with a sweatshirt and jeans just long enough to pass inspection), and then went cruising with my friends, admiring how I sparkled under every stoplight.

During my senior year I began to dream about lions chasing me home from school. I’d be steps away from the door with one of them bearing down on me before I woke up whimpering. Finally, in one dream I dropped my backpack and whirled around to face the animal. It knelt at my feet and let me stroke it. I took this as a sign.

My first two years in circus school my mother wouldn’t speak to me. My dad said I should think of what I was doing to her. But I was too busy with Hodari, my cub in training. He gave me such hugs. I fed him with a bottle, ran my fingers through his mane, and whispered poetry that I wrote just for him.

I met my husband after one of my shows. He was a scientist who studied earthworms. “No teeth,” he said to me, almost apologetically. “But they do have strong mouth muscles.” He was much more interested in what I did. “What’s it like to have your head in the lion’s mouth?”

“Indescribable,” I said, knowing he would have to hear more.

Hodari came to the wedding. My mother did not.

Things were fine until I dislocated my shoulder and had to step out of the ring for six weeks. I passed the time by helping my husband count earthworms in soil samples. Worms bored me. It was hard not to mock those toothless creatures.

But when I approached Hodari’s cage on my first day back, something in the tilt of his cold yellow eyes made me pause. Suddenly I was terrified. Had he grown savage in my absence, or was I just now seeing him for the cold predator he was? I never said goodbye.

Soon afterward, I learned I was pregnant. We had a baby girl. There were complications, and I knew we’d never have another child. But I was safe; we were safe. I named our daughter Kira, which is what Hodari’s sister was called. (I simply liked the name.)

My mother sent me a card that said: “You’ve chosen the better path.”

As a baby, Kira was never out of my sight. Sometimes I dreamed that lions stalked our yard, which made me fearful of going outside with her. We once considered adopting a kitten, but when it opened its mouth to yawn, all I could think of were Hodari’s fangs.

My daughter was thirteen when she found my whip.

I tried to shrug it off. “I used to train lions.”

Her eyes grew large. “You were a lion tamer?”

“The correct word is train,” I said. “I never struck one.”

She drew back the whip and slashed it against the wall with such force that her baby picture fell down. I snatched it from her. It had been a mistake to keep it.

“Show me how you hold it,” she said.

I refused, but I showed her the one picture I kept from those days. Mugging for the camera, I stood with my bare foot poised in Hodari’s mouth like I was receiving a special pedicure. I could still feel the cat’s tongue scrape over my toes. It made my skin prickle to see his face again.

Kira got A’s in school and would have made a very good teacher or scientist. Instead, she dropped out to become a stuntwoman. When she called from the academy where she was learning to jump off roofs and moving cars, my husband had to hold me so I wouldn’t thrash about.

I went to see my mother. I gave her the news. She was bed-bound at this point, more by choice than necessity.

“We have all been extremely lucky,” she said. Then she told me about the other women in our family. “We know when to stop. That’s why I forgave you for circus school.”

“You forgave me?” I was incensed.

“Now could you close the windows? I don’t like so much light in here.”

Kira is eighteen now. She has invited us to her first student show, which falls on her birthday. Her father won’t go; he’s still angry about the good grades she’s squandered on stunt school. But I force myself to watch her perform. For her final act she dives off a 30-foot tower. I hold my breath as she twists like a satin ribbon in the air before coming down, feet first, on a stack of cinder blocks.

I’m feeling weak at the after-party, so I have a seat across from the bar. Kira comes over to check on me. She sips a mocktail that matches her shiny blue costume. I want to say to Kira: I was a lion trainer and your grandmother was a bullfighter. The line goes back: crop-duster pilot, bounty hunter, pearl diver, spy.

“None of us have lasted,” I want to tell her. “You’ll have your time, but it won’t last. And it will frighten you to think of where you’ve been.” But I can’t do this to my daughter, not on her birthday.

She twirls her straw, ready to return to her friends. “What did you think of the show?”

“You were amazing,” I say.

Kira’s eyes reflect such love and pity, I can barely swallow.

The next day I call the circus and ask what happened to the old lions. I was sure that Hodari had died by now, but they tell me he lives a few hours away in a refuge for big cats. His eyesight is weak, but his appetite is stable.

When I arrive, I explain my connection. They make me sign a waiver before they let me inside Hodari’s enclosure. He’s asleep in the shade. For a few moments I stand there watching his chest rise and fall, wondering if the black tufts on the back of his ears feel as soft as they once did. I recite my old poems to him, the lines I can remember. Hodari wakes, stretches. He runs toward me.

Then he springs. His paws encircle my neck. I feel his breath on my face like a gust from an African sandstorm. And I hope, after all these years, he knows who I am.

Susan Frith is a freelance writer in Orlando, Florida, who occasionally dreams about lions. Her fiction has appeared in publications including Raleigh Review, Phoebe, Sycamore Review, and Potomac Review. She is working on a novel set in 19th-century Philadelphia.