The Paradise of the Flesh

epito preferred to scrub his chopping-boards out
on the pavement. They dried quicker that way and the smell of bleach couldn’t overwhelm customers who were planning forthcoming meals. Pepito was very particular about the aesthetics of his profession, in which hygiene was as crucial a factor as origin of livestock or quality of merchandise. The display counter at Triana’s famous butcher’s shop was kept spotless. Chops, fillets, steaks and other cuts were neatly laid out in matching trays. Sausages of different varieties were tidily coiled and tubs of various types of lard, including bright orange manteca colorá dripping were regularly smoothed over with a spatula. Salted bones of varying size and shape adorned the shelves. Legs of cured ham, hoof intact, swung at eye level from the hooks overhead. Abundant plastic foliage and miniature flags decorated the tantalising array of goods that gave the Paraíso de la Carne, or the Paradise of the Flesh, its renown as the meat-eater’s Mecca.

At the Paradise of the Flesh, nothing was left to chance where stock was concerned. Only the very best chickens from Morón de la Frontera were allowed in the door. Five-star rated Jamón Serrano arrived by express courier from the Portuguese border town of Jabugo each Monday. Every type of organ and entrails, freshly excised from diverse carcasses, was readily available. The range even extended to rabbit, quail, partridge, chicken blood and bull’s tail. Customers from other neighbourhoods made veritable pilgrimages to Triana, to acquire superior victuals from the Paradise of the Flesh. Even the gypsies came in regularly, though they normally avoided payo, or non-gypsy establishments. However, even they agreed that this one was immaculate. Besides this, they believed that when it came to the pig, even its ‘oink’ was edible. Pepito’s gift for public relations and friendly banter were unparalleled in the area, so the majority of customers preferred to be served by him, rather than by the proprietor Lorenzo or his wife Nieves. Pepito was a paragon of patience with the choosiest of clients, encouraging them to be adventurous with offal or creative with giblets when they weren’t feeling inspired by the prospect of lunch.

By midday, the streets in the vicinity of the Paradise of the Flesh were always fragrant with the dense aromas of simmering pots. Base notes of mint and bay-leaf, saffron and paprika, nutmeg and cumin wafted in the air, carrying subliminal messages of enticement. Those who didn’t eat lunch at home ate at bars serving home-cooked food, but a bowl of something spoon-able always constituted the first course. From a sociological point of view, the ability to produce a milky white puchero broth with chickpeas and pork-fat, or a sufficiently hearty lentil hot-pot with spicy morcilla sausage had come to represent a sense of self-worth for housewives in Triana. Men boasted of their mothers’ and wives’ skills in the kitchen, taunting each other with detailed reviews of recent dishes, though at home they might only proffer grunts of approval.

It was just after Easter and people were back off the meat wagon now that Lent had passed. Consequently, the shop was full all day. Seasonal changes, such as the advent of Spring, appeared to produce certain maladies in Triana, mostly to do with the nervous system. The dangers of the East wind and the benefits of not removing vests before May were also frequently discussed in the shop during that time of the year. Yet, to everyone’s surprise, Pepito had been obliged to take sick-leave for the first time in over twenty years. His unprecedented absence caused a furore in the neighbourhood and provoked constant, hushed musings about the state of his health. Patrons of the Paradise of the Flesh were unashamedly curious as to the motive of Pepito’s malaise, speculating on numerous possible afflictions including tapeworm and kidney stones.

But the general consensus was that Pepito had suffered some sort of anxiety attack during the televised bullfight. This theory was stranger still, since Pepito was certainly accustomed to blood and guts. Lorenzo himself was a great follower of the corrida and had installed a TV in the upper corner of the store so that he and Pepito could keep one eye on the box, while they chatted to the regulars. Fanfares and shouts of “¡Olé!” rang out over the bustle in the Paradise of the Flesh all throughout the bullfighting season. Nieves didn’t rate the bullfight though, since the barbaric finale made her queasy, or so she said. However, she willingly sold the bull meat – the prized carnage the corrida produced – to those who could afford the costly delicacy.

The day Pepito was sent home to his mother’s in a cathartic stupor, the Paradise of the Flesh and its customers had witnessed a dramatic scene unfold at the Maestranza bullring. The revered Jesulín de Triana was headlining that year’s programme at the arena, in a tobacco and gold ‘suit of lights’ A sudden clamour, followed by momentary lapses in the running commentary, preceded close-ups of the matador, lying limp on the arena, covered in blood. The bull had driven a horn though his lower abdomen and his suit was being cut away from his body by paramedics, while everyone watched in horror. A cogida, or goring, was a rare occurrence at the bullfight, but it happened, occasionally, that the beast triumphed over the man. A misjudged movement of the cape could be fatal, especially if the mounted picadores hadn’t weakened the animal sufficiently with their lances beforehand.

Pepito had been completely, but covertly infatuated with Jesulín de Triana since the young matador had begun his career at Las Ventas in Madrid, several seasons ago. He had never met his idol in person. He could only adore him from afar; on television, in magazines and maybe once or twice from the back row of the Sol section of the Maestranza bullring, when a wealthy customer had given him tickets. Pepito worshipped Jesulín, who was said to be singularly gifted with extraordinary talent and style. Of pure gypsy descent, Jesulín’s lineage had conferred an even deeper passion for his chosen métier of matador, the grandest and most quintessentially Iberian male figure. According to the experts, gypsies had an innate understanding of the bovine mindset and could communicate with the species using mysterious bull-whispering techniques. But although Jesulín de Triana had risen to stardom practically overnight, as the dusky young darling of the corrida, his future was now uncertain.

For days afterwards, afternoon chat-shows achieved record audiences by repeating the goriest of the clips and offering early tributes to Jesulín’s aborted career. Reporters were sent to hound his family at the clinic, though visitors refused to comment on the calamity. Meanwhile, Pepito lay enduring his own convalescence, morose and tearful, on his mother’s settee, unable to contemplate normal life. His mother tried in vain to cheer him up with dishes of puchero broth and had the priest round to give a pep-talk. The G.P. diagnosed exhaustion, but the medication he prescribed only induced a semi-comatose state. Lorenzo and Nieves visited, but could not communicate with the uncharacteristically apathetic and anguished Pepito. As a last resort, Palmira from the bakery brought round her statue of the Virgen de la Esperanza, which was placed atop the television set to offer succour, but to no avail.

Though no one suspected it, Pepito was suffering from a ‘mal de amores’, a lovesickness which stems from long-term suppression of emotion. Not a soul knew of his true feelings for the young Jesulín de Triana, for he practiced restraint at all times, carrying the burden of his love deep in his consciousness. It ate away at his sanity like a self-inflicted, insidious torture which would never produce a confession. He had no particular desire to mingle with the élite of the bullfighting sphere, nor even to become part of Jesulín’s faithful entourage. He was content – given the impossibility of any form of union – to succumb to martyrdom of the soul and to silence the roar of his ardour in the face of gossip or ridicule.

Nearly two months had passed, and mornings were increasingly fraught and chaotic at the Paradise of the Flesh. By mid morning, Lorenzo had become short-tempered with indecisive customers. Nieves kept short-changing them in the frantic rush to serve everyone in time to get their pots on. Stock was running short too, now that Pepito wasn’t checking deliveries or carrying out his weekly freezer inventory. Pepito’s ongoing absence already threatened to jeopardise turnover. No suitable substitute materialised, in spite of Lorenzo’s continued endeavours to find an experienced stand-in.

Nieves had a Mass said and brought flowers to the Blessed Souls shrine, in the hope of divine intervention. When that didn’t work, she called on La Sabia, a local fortune-teller, who invoked healing powers from the beyond with the help of yellow candles and cloves of garlic. In desperation, Nieves was forced to telephone her sister in law, who operated the switchboard at the John of God mental hospital, though they had not spoken for years on account of an inheritance feud. They spoke between incoming calls, for over an hour. There was mutual reproach then repentance on the part of each, but Nieves managed to obtain details of a specialist who had supposedly cured numerous personality disorders. The man in question was an eminent authority who, by coincidence, was especially partial to fine Jamón Serrano.

Lorenzo accompanied Pepito to the psychiatrist’s practice as soon as a late afternoon appointment could be arranged. Pepito was reluctant to see anyone about his complaint, let alone a shrink. It took great diplomacy and insistence to coax him out of his hideout at home. His mother helped him dress and he shuffled out to the car, praying none of the neighbours would see him. Once they arrived, Pepito took the leg of ham out of the car, insisting that Lorenzo return to the shop. He had not forgotten that Fridays were especially hectic. The waiting room was empty, mercifully, so Pepito sat down to leaf through the gossip magazines while the previous case was dealt with. Before long, another patient was shown in and took a seat opposite. Pepito noticed he had a limp and wore sunglasses. As was customary, the newcomer greeted the earlier arrival with a whispered “buenas tardes”. Both squirmed inwardly at the ensuing discomfort of and embarrassing silence between two head cases awaiting deliverance from an all-knowing luminary.

Over the top of his magazine, Pepito glanced at the young fellow, wondering what kind of madness or obsession he might be suffering from. He didn’t look like a psychopath or a drug addict, in fact, the face was familiar. Holy Mother of God! Pepito felt his blood run cold and his palms become clammy, upon realising that it was none other than his beloved Jesulín, here in the flesh, in person, in the psychiatrist’s waiting-room incarnate. He hid himself behind the open pages, trying to order his thoughts, in spite of a sudden tachycardia that made him feel faint. There was no telling how long the awkward situation would have to be endured. At any time, the doctor might emerge from his den and usher Pepito in. He was in no fit state to even speak to the psychiatrist, let alone discuss his symptoms. Pepito had begun to consider making a run for it when Jesulín broke the weighty silence by asking Pepito if he had been waiting long. Hearing Jesulín’s husky voice for the first time, Pepito immediately felt as if he had been set free. His heartbeat steadied as the cloud of gloom he had been carrying inside his head miraculously dispersed.

Social interaction was second nature to anyone from Triana, hence two trianeros in one room, by default and despite being strangers, would automatically instigate a mutual interrogation about each other’s life and times. The ensuing dialogue gathered momentum and became a full blown heart to heart confabulation, as Pepito began to revert to his former jovial self. They chatted about their respective ailments, the bullfight, the cattle rearing trade, the meat industry, the dreaded arrival of Spring and of course, the cogida. As a result of that gruesome moment, Jesulín had completely lost his nerve, and not, as his family feared, his mind. Courage had simply abandoned him, as he lay prostrate in the clinic, and he could no longer consider returning to the ring. His Apoderado manager had insisted he see a ‘nerve’ doctor before he officially announced his retirement to the afición and the media. Although his wounds had healed fairly quickly, thanks to the expertise of the payo surgeons, Jesulín had no intention of baring the secrets of the gypsy soul to another payo who charged hefty rates for prescribing mind-bending medicine. Nevertheless, he had been pressurised into acceding to his Apoderado’s plea and had at least turned up for the appointment.

Pepito was devastated at Jesulín’s confession. His heart constricted at the tragedy of such a renunciation. The loss of this talented prodigy would be a serious blow for many. The shame of Jesulín’s cowardice would be borne by him for life. Other matadores would be asked to comment in the press and the whole issue could have potentially disastrous effects. Pepito knew a great deal about gypsy protocol, superstitions and general outlook on life. He was aware that dishonour to the bullfighting profession would signify financial and social ruin for Jesulín and his clan. But the specialist, Pepito agreed, would be unlikely to induce an about-turn in Jesulín’s current state of mind. Something far more miraculous was needed. That instant, he decided to take control of the situation and go out on a limb. Gypsies specialised in emotional blackmail and stopped at nothing to elicit sympathy from others. Pepito took action, intending to use a similar method.

As the conversation veered towards Pepito’s expectations of the “nerve” doctor, he feigned an impromptu, hysterical crying fit and admitted, head bowed, that he intended to commit suicide. There were plenty of sharp knives at the Paradise of the Flesh with which to do the job. The payo psychiatrist, wailed Pepito, would not be able to convince him that there were other solutions to his despondence, since he himself had no idea why such thoughts tormented him. Jesulín looked horrified and started to bless himself repeatedly and kiss the gold crucifix he wore round his neck. He got up to touch the wooden door-frame in panic. The concept of suicide was completely alien to Jesulín’s culture. Even allusion to it signified ill luck. After his own brush with death and subsequent survival, for a thoroughbred gypsy, it was inconceivable that someone should voluntarily bleed to death. Pepito dabbed his eyes with his handkerchief, certain that the reaction he had intended to provoke could save both of them.

Trembling, Jesulín sat down beside Pepito and took his hand. In the anonymous, neutral, soundless enclosure of the psychiatrist’s waiting-room he proposed a pact. His offer of an agreement between two tormented men of different race, one having given in to his fears and the other about to demonstrate limitless bravery, was the ultimate act of union between strangers. He swore on the life of his mother, and that of several other relatives, that he would return to the ring and fight again, if Pepito committed to staying alive. He pleaded with Pepito, looking into his eyes, urging him to take the vow. Pepito was so overwhelmed by his proximity to his idol and the intense poignancy of the moment, that he could only blubber his assent. They embraced and patted each other’s back and with that, the receptionist came bustling in to the waiting room, to announce that the doctor had been called away urgently to give evidence at court. An infamous arsonist was to be tried and the ‘nerve’ doctor was required to report on the treatment his ex-patient had undergone. Leaving the leg of ham on a vacant chair, Pepito and Jesulín marched out triumphantly, arm in arm. Jesulín wished all kinds of evil on the ‘nerve’ doctor, enunciating a series of gypsy curses. Pepito remarked that the building would be burnt to the ground as soon as the fire fiend had served his term and come back for revenge.

It was still daylight when they parted, in front of the statue of Juan Belmonte at Triana Bridge. Jesulín approached the statue and kissed his fingers after touching it. Belmonte, also a gypsy, had not only suffered a near-fatal cogida in Murcia in 1914 but had shot himself at the age of seventy, tired of a life spent tempting fate. The serendipitous encounter between the butcher and the matador ended with no further exchange or hint of continuity. They shook hands, as Jesulín hailed a taxi and Pepito started to walk towards Calle Trabajo. He arrived at the Paradise of the Flesh, unlocked the door and stepped inside eagerly. He took his folding table out on the pavement and went back in for his chopping boards. Then he went to the sink to fill his bucket and started to whistle a pasodoble as he picked up his bottle of bleach. Back outside, he savoured the scent of orange blossom from the trees for a moment, before he set to work.

Jesulín’s come-back, at the Goyesca fair in Ronda that September was spectacular. The event made headlines in all the media. Lorenzo poured free plastic sherry-glasses of fino for his customers, while they took in the televised corrida at the counter of the Paradise of the Flesh. The triumphant Jesulín was carried out of the bullring, this time, on the shoulders of his fans. The camera captured his handsome face as he kissed his crucifix. Pepito knew instinctively, that the severed bull’s ear Jesulín waved at the camera in salute to viewers, was the matador’s anonymous, yet very personal gesture of gratitude to him, for taking the bull by the horns.

* * * * *

Debora Garber was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1962. She is the daughter of the Jazz pianist Ian Henry and has lived in Spain since 1977. Her musical background and lifelong interest in ethnic music gave rise to a penchant for flamenco. She has written extensively on the subject of flamenco for publications, record labels and cultural bodies worldwide, becoming involved professionally from 1989 onwards. At present, she produces and tours work by top artists. 

Currently compiling a collection of short stories in English and Spanish, under the working title of “Triana: A state of mind”, the series is based on memoir, anecdotes and the unique mindset of the inhabitants of this neighbourhood of Seville. The Dublin Library Service included her story “The Clappers” in its Anthology, The Workshop. In 2008 she won the In the Write Light Award and recently took 2nd prize in the IV Certamen Literario Emasesa.

This is her first contribution to Snake-Oil Cure.