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Matador for a Day

It's a dreamy, relaxed place, quiet and windless. Inside the ranch's main compound, everything is dedicated to the bull; on the walls are posters from famous fights with Pablo's animals, huge maps of legendary bloodlines, and grainy black-and-white photos of matadors. Students stay in large, comfortable rooms with windows overlooking the ring, but we don't spend much time in them. Rather, we're out on horse rides through the surrounding area, paying visits to neighboring ranches, or, above all, lazing around the green central courtyard, protected by the high stone walls that surround Pablo and Paulina's lovely orange and blue Mexican ranch-style house, where we eat and talk late into the night.

I drink a lot of tequila.

It's not just that I'm anxious about the animal bred to kill me. I'm worrying as well about the fact that this is not a vanity project. The ganadero is working. He is testing the animals, and we are responsible for showing him what he needs to know: Is she brave?Is she smart?Will she charge from a distance?Pablo's great-grandfather, Manuel Ygueravide Barrenchea, founded Espíritu Santo in 1888, and the family has been breeding toros bravos ever since, for four generations. They have produced the bravest, the strongest, the most beautiful fighting animals imaginable. And one of them is coming to get me.

When the first vaca enters she bursts into the ring like a cat on fire, tearing from one end—some 40yards across—to the other. After the ganadero has gotten an initial sense of how she moves and charges, the passes with the muleta begin. It's encouraging. The other students make it look possible. They approach her until she paws the ground and charges, and, magically, she does what they want, passing back and forth, chasing the cape. Then it is my turn.

Something's happened, though, while I've been waiting; the other students and the instructors have shown me the spirit of bullfighting. Now and then the ganadero calls out commands—he wants to see her use her left horn, he wants her approached from a greater distance. The students give him what he is asking for. You can also see them thinking: I love this like nothing else. Above all, Santiago is extraordinary to watch, a realized example of the link people talk about between flamenco and torear: his dance with the vaca is so precise and gentle, so exquisitely and imperturbably full of grace, that watching him, it seems as if he and the vaca have been given a brilliant, detailed choreography to practice together, and he is leading her in a perfect culmination of the steps.

Watching him do this—watching him think, This is the moment I have been waiting for—is extraordinary.

It makes the instant when the vaca charges at full speed and plunks me in the hip with a considerable and alarming force pretty much worth it. I've forgotten my technique! My wrist was weak! My feet may or may not have been apart! My knees were definitely bent. I forgot about throwing out my chest and walking with my balls altogether. I wasn't expressing my essential being, unless my essential being is: dumb enough to stand there and get hit.

"Get away from her!" Coleman shouts. "Move back!" The vaca considers me from a distance. "Now go straight at her!" Coleman yells. "Go straight at her!"

Go straight at her?It seems to me she's figured out that one of these people is not like the others. She knows what she's doing, and the other students know what they're doing, but this one is a dopey bull's-eye.

Still, the dopey bull's-eye goes straight at her. And here she comes! And this time, I think, my back is straight, my left hand is on my hip, my arm is locked and extended. Maybe they're not, but I feel right, I feel straight and almost, well, proud. I sweep the muleta back, and instead of my body, she chooses the cape and sweeps past me and under it. She wheels around and comes back almost without pausing; I offer the muleta backhand, and she follows it again.

Good God! Or, I mean, Olé! What a feeling! Over the course of the afternoon, she—and a few of her sisters—will get a piece of me more than once, tossing me triumphantly. Only a few more times will I take a vaca from here to there to here. But I have, if sloppily and without style, successfully guided a charging cow where I want her to go, and blood is thumping through my heart as I exit the ring.

The ganadero is there, and gives me a brief, kind smile. Paulina, his wife, is standing next to him. She has an earthenware shot glass waiting for me, and it's filled with tequila. "Tome," she says. Drink. I don't hesitate.

The California Academy of Tauromaquia (619/709-0664; www.bullfightschool.com) offers weekend courses in San Diego from $300, and three- to five-day sessions in Mexico and Spain from $1,340 per person, all-inclusive.

DAN HALPERN has written for magazines including the New Republic and Colors.

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