Luiz came to consciousness, standing in the middle of the ring, dressed in a tight suit that glowed with curlicued embroidery, surrounded by hundreds of bulls bleeding from the eyes and frilled with thousands of banderillas that were on fire instead of flagged. The stands were filled with silent, slit-mouthed women with lace veils. The bulls snorted out blood in unison.
"Why?" A woman appeared behind Luiz. She wrapped her arms around his waist and chest, squeezing, and pressed her body into his back. A pain radiated out from his spine and he gasped.
"No..." said Luiz.
The woman released him, then spun him around and slapped his face. He fell to his knees and saw droplets of bull's blood in the sand.
"Look at me," said the woman, "face me."
Luiz sat back on the heels of his feet and put his hands between his knees. He looked up and saw her deep eyes and shining skin, her dark long hair animated in the wind, and her suit, the same as his, but with black embroidery that sucked in the surrounding light.
"Good," said the woman.
"I have not killed these bulls," said Luiz.
"You did not see the people you killed as people, so I made them bulls."
"I did not kill anyone," said Luiz.
The woman walked to him and pressed her knee against his shoulder, and put her hand into his hair.
"The ones that have the most blood on their hands are the ones that think that."
The bulls snorted again, peppering Luiz with mucousy blood.
"You could have been a better man," said the woman.
She released her knee and stepped back towards bulls, and leaned against one of them, caressing its cheek.
"I didn't have any choice," said Luiz. "I did what I did for duty...for honor...because it had to be done."
The woman smiled as if to laugh, then frowned, tears forming at her eyes.
"I cannot even punish you," she said. "You have no capacity to learn, no ability to see clearly, no empathy except for yourself, and no way to forgive yourself. I will leave you here instead, with the knowledge that there is a way out."
"What?" asked Luiz, his eyes pleading. "I thought I was done! What is this?"
"You cannot return to life," said the woman, "but you have another power. Return these people to their lives."
The woman turned her back and walked between the bulls until she disappeared. The crowds in the stands evaporated, their veils fell into the air and swirled above the ring like circling vultures.
Luiz stood slowly, took a few stumbling steps then stopped. He felt his heart beating in his chest, and confused, he pressed at his chest with his hands to feel it through his skin.
"Why?" he asked.
He looked around at the bulls and they blinked back. he dropped his hands.
"You are dead! You are all dead! I am dead! What is this?"
He held up his hands and cried out, screamed until his throat was raw and all the while the bulls stared at him, eyes, hundreds of pairs of eyes, brown and liquid and bleeding. He quieted and felt terrifyingly alone.
"If I had the power to bring you back to life, I would bring myself back to life instead. None of you deserved your lives. You squandered what you had." The words came out weakly and he didn't quite believe them himself. "I...I will not try."
The bulls stared, breathing evenly and together. The banderillas on their backs were burning down and becoming ash that swirled up in the air with the veils.
"I don't know how to be better," he said, letting his hands and shoulders droop.
A young bull took a step forward presenting one blood-stained hoof to Luiz. It began to breathe out of rhythm of the others. Luiz looked at it, his eyes glassy, and straightened his posture. He walked towards it and hovered his hand over its head. He laid his hand down and touched the warm skull. He let his hand run down the bulls face until he touched the wet bloody nose.
"How can you be a person?" he asked. "Were you loved like I was loved? Were you hated like I was hated?"
The bull gave no response. Luiz looked up at the banderillas in the bulls back. They were half spent now, the fire hot against the bull's skin. Luiz reached up and pulled at one of the banderillas, his hand in the fire, and pulled it out of the bull's back. The bull snorted in pain, dripping blood over Luiz's suit. The fabric soiled but the embroidery remained clean and glowing.
"It is in me, isn't it? I can free you."
He pulled at all the remaining banderillas, and when the last one was removed, the bull became a boy in a ragged t-shirt. The boy looked up at him, still silent, then reached out to Luiz's forearm, grasping it with a gentle squeeze.
"I remember you," said Luiz. "I took you from your mother and made you a soldier. I knew you wouldn't be any good, your gun was even too heavy to hold, but I took you anyway, and you died five minutes into your first battle." Luiz started to sob. "I did that. I killed you."
The boy nodded and released Luiz's arm. He walked past and then between the bulls and disappeared as the woman had. Luiz looked at the remain bulls.
"So many of you."
The bulls snorted again. The banderillas were now burned three-quarters of the way down. Luiz exhaled a short gasp, then turned to the nearest bull and pulled out the banderillas and the bull turned into an old woman. He did the next and it turned into the man who was his best friend when he was twenty-five. There were more, men and women he didn't recognize, native villagers his men had slaughtered, there were more children that he took from his enemies in the most desperate hours of the campaign. He worked furiously to remove the burning banderillas, to acknowledge the deaths and let the people move on, until the ring was nearly empty and there was one last bull.
The banderillas in the bull's back were burned to half an inch, not much to grasp. As Luiz approached the bull stepped backward, lowering its head.
"No, I will free you. Do not worry," he said.
The bull stilled itself, but kept its head lowered. Luiz pulled at the banderilla nubs, carefully extracting them with his other hand pressed gently against the bull's hide. When the last one came out the bull changed to a human form dressed in the woman's suit, and slumped forward onto his feet.
Luiz kneeled and pulled up the person's head and looked at the face.
"You are me," he said.
The other nodded.
"I have freed myself, but I cannot still be free."
The other grabbed him by the shoulders and hugged him tightly as the veils and the ash in the sky fell to the dirt in the ring.
The other got up and and walked to the edge of the ring where he turned, waved at Luiz, then disappeared.
Luiz let out a choked sob, then wiped his eyes.
"Why?" he asked.
Note this is another substitution from the original list (the original songs have been moved to my second list, so I will still have to face them).