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Arena do Battaglia just before dawn on the longest day of the year. The place is heaving, every seat and every standing space is taken. People are chanting, and screaming, and eating chilli dogs and churros.
The marching band sweats under the arc lights as it plays songs of the revolution and marches in perfect time. Troupes of mostly naked gymnasts prowl and leap and perform feats of near-impossible balance. There are fire eaters, lion tamers, maestre with their estudas strung behind them collared like dogs, and cages containing every form of maimed and malformed human life are being paraded for the delectation of the baying mob.
Oh yes, all of the starry universe is here, but the multi-tentacled monster that fills the seats from stadium floor to the heights from which the arena seems peopled by ants is barely aware of any of it. It is the main event the crowd wants, and, although it waits good-naturedly now, let the battle commence just one second late and the riot will be unstoppable.
Under the banked seating, the elite competitors wait, oiled, half-naked, and sweating in the sultry air. Every province has sent its best: the golden-haired, golden skinned inhabitants of el norte towering over the swarthy smiling southrons with their gold teeth and elaborately braided hair. Where they have a sisterhood, though is in the breadth of shoulder and massive upper body development. That and the multiplicity of scars on their arms, shoulders and ribcages. The softness of their clean carefully manicured hands, then, is all the more surprising.
The light in the tunnel is reddish and dim and the competitors eye each other unsmilingly. They wait in silence.
As the clocks crawl towards sunrise, the tension in the tunnel becomes so magnified that there is a tang of iron in the air that almost smells like blood. Even the hulking guardsmen with their nerve whips seem uneasy, and watch their charges with care.
A deep-toned bong tolls once, and it is as if the crowd in the stadium is turned to stone. The arena floor empties and there is silence. Then the gong tolls twice.
Two massively muscular guardsmen carry a strange contrivance into the mathematical centre of the arena. It is a tall thin column topped with what looks like a ball of gold. As soon as the men have positioned the column the lights in the stadium go out, save only for one spotlight trained precisely on the ball of gold which now looks as if it is suspended in mid air by magic.
The gong tolls thrice and the entire mob holds its breath, watching the golden ball as a snake watches a hummingbird.
Then a great voice filled the air.
The ball falls with an ear-splitting crash and the door to the athletes’ tunnel crash back. As the lights in the arena come back on so brightly they all but blind, a hundred battle-scarred women jog out onto the sandy floor.
The crowd bays its appreciation as the women take out their pointed steely weapons.
La batalla de los tejedores* begins…
*The battle of the knitters