In honor, here's my short story "Los Empujadores Furiosos," in its entirety.
Where does it go?
That's what you ask of doors, isn't it, assuming they go somewhere; they're there for a purpose--the purpose of getting you from this place to that place and possibly back again. If you're very lucky, or very careful, that is. Over the course of my life, I find I've never had much luck with them.
This particular door was outlined in arches that made me think of triangles, even though they weren't triangular. A long proportional curve in nut-brown, mottled stucco rose into an airy frame, inviting thoughts of peace and meditation. Of progress. The air smelled of mission summer--eucalyptus and bougainvillea. Of sunheated sand. And blood.</span>
And beyond the door, I could hear the rustle of a crowd that had come to watch a man fight for his honor, and the honor of a woman as well. La Tauromaquia. The battle of the bull.
There was no handle on this side, just a bar of brass running across the equator of the not-quite-pointed not-quite-gothic shape, just below two windows too bright with sunlight to see out. It looked heavy.
You look at doors, and you wonder every time. Where does it go? Where can it take me? And always, of course, when you're lost--is this the right one? Finally, the right one? And if not, where does it lead this time?
The metal was cool to the touch; the wood was warm. How do I get myself into these things. A thought that stopped having a question mark on the end of it fifteen years ago.
I laid my hand flat against the wood and shoved with all my strength, and came into the Plaza de Toros at Puertofuego blinking against the glare, the heat ruffling the fine hairs at my nape. My cloak was in my hand. My ancestral sword was left behind, along with my ancestral name, but I smiled at a cheer that rose to meet me: the first such I had heard in many years. At least my cause was better loved that day than I, myself.
On an expanse of dazzling sand, my bull waited for me.
How do I get myself into these things.
Quartz crystals glittered white as salt underfoot. Where my boot pressed them down, sometimes I could see red stains they had been raked to cover. I kept my eyes on my opponent as I advanced, and on the portly black-clad master of ceremonies who stood beside him. The roar of the crowd, glare-hidden in the towering seats, the heat of the sun oppressing my head--and still I had eyes for nothing but the bull.
The bull that was a legend: roaned like a cliff of red granite, thirty-nine gilded notches in his steel-shod horns, and I could see by the gleam in his eye that he expected me to be the fortieth and the price of his freedom. The insipidly wealthy Don Antonio wouldn't buy anything but the best.
El Zorro Rojo. The reddest red fox of them all.
"Toro," I said, bowing low.
"Señor Benedicto," el Zorro said. The master of ceremonies stepped away to permit us speech. "I'll kill you if I can."
"You're but Antonio's champion. You know I've been in many wars, el Zorro. There's no shame in it if you yield."
"There are rumors," he answered, "that you have not always acquitted yourself so well." His cleft hoof harrowed the sand, turning over grains mottled red and white, roan as the massive wall of his side. I raised my head like a galled horse and fixed my gaze on Antonio over the bull's impassive shoulder. Antonio--sitting in the lowest tier, where hot blood might even splash him--turned his head and spat upon the sand. "If you do not wish to die, you may still apologize to my master. If I win today, or if you yield--" he turned his head, those horns gleaming like halberds on a level with my breast "--I am released."
It didn't happen often. Only a dozen gladiators in any generation might survive to retire and father the next generation of warrior bulls. Even when the bull usually wins, forty wins are a great many to collect when one loss ends a career. There were no seconds here, in the Plaza de Toros. Just a man and a bull and the skull-throbbing roar of ten thousand voices, and a decision.
Another insult, I might have let slip past. But not what Don Antonio had called me--not for a thousand reasons. Not the least of which was the loss of the glory that was my home when I was young and bore a name. I might have failed a brother on the battlefield. I might have shown weakness that should have been beneath my blood, and been called a coward for it.
All that, yes. I might. And had Antonio called me a coward I would have swallowed it. But I have never lied, and I have never broken my word.
So I had chosen to stand on my honor and fight. Perhaps to recollect this day the name that used to be mine. I drew a thick breath redolent of clotted gore and the sweat of the bull. "Your master called me a liar and his sister a whore. I'm here to win his apology."
"I'm here to take yours," the enormous gladiator, my enemy's champion, said. Stately and magnificent. "Shall we begin?"
I allowed the cloak to unfurl in my right hand, the edge brushing the sand like a waterfall of blood. The master of ceremonies handed me a lance and ran to the wall.
The shaft dripped bright with ribbons. The roan bull tossed his head in salute. I bowed, concealing my body behind the cloak.
The thunder of the host around us, so like the thunder of the sea, crested and faded to a whisper. Over the back of the bull, Antonio smiled, and the glossiness of his black hair in the sunlight made my lip curl in disgust.
The dance began.
The bull moved first, head slung low under an Alp of shoulder, feinting on ridiculously dainty forehooves. He lunged, the head-bob sharp as a striking snake followed by an avalanche of flesh. The cape was an illusionist's toy: it hid the matador's body, gave dancing feet a chance to elude the warrior beast beyond. There are bulls, and there are bulls.
The slave showed courage, a beast's nobility: I did not want to kill him in the place of the man whose bidding he did.
I whirled aside as he came by me, my lance a sad little stick in my hand. Ideally, the point should go deep into the muscle of the neck: barbs hold it there, and the matador comes back with another. And another. Until the bull, exhausted, permits a coup de grace with a blade.
Ideally. But in Puertofuego, the matador often does not win. The black bulls are canny; the red cannier still.
El Zorro Rojo's shoulder brushed me aside like a toppling wall. The earth broke away from my boots and slammed my shoulder and the side of my head. I tasted blood and sand. The dirt trembled under my palms. I rolled, scrambled on all fours, no time to rise. Sand flew and stung as quartz-hard hooves plowed through the earth where I'd lain, and a razor-tipped horn drew a line in fiery ink across my thigh.
I yelped and dodged, somehow finding the cape as I rolled to my feet. El Zorro hauled himself to a stop, grit spraying, whirled like a cattle pony and eyed me, snorting, across thirty feet of sand. He could turn like a snake, within the length of his own stride.
The bull wasn't interested in showmanship, either.
"First blood," el Zorro said. Antonio sat perhaps twenty feet away over my left shoulder, cheering as I minced one testing step. The leg would bear my weight.
"Lance," I said, and another lance was pressed into my hand. I concealed it behind the cloak, and we began again.
Pass and pass again--parry and stroke, push and retreat. Twice I wounded him--low on the neck and in the meat of the shoulder--and one more time he let my blood. We drew crimson spirals on the ground as the afternoon grew weary and the spectators panted in the heat, my hair as dark with sweat as the red bull's hide. Slow red trickles crusted us. I swayed on my feet on the blood-rich sand, and el Zorro Rojo circled--clever, wary, never quite ready to come within range of the lance.
We were evenly matched after all.
I heard Antonio cough into his hand--growing bored as the sun encroached on the shaded side of the Plaza, no doubt. A ha. And then I smiled, letting the cape drag behind me like a bloodied wing, my lance held loosely in my right hand, and I turned my back on the bull.
Casually, dismissively. As if I thought el Zorro too tired and bloodied to fight further. I raised my eyes to Don Antonio, straining for the sound of hoofbeats. "Apologize for the words with which you dirtied your sister," I called up to him, "and your servant can leave the Plaza alive."
Antonio wouldn't so much as meet my eyes, but I saw him fight a smile and knew the bull must almost be upon me, although I hadn't heard him move. No time to breathe--no time to think--I spun on the ball of my foot, threw the cape aside, and braced the lance with both hands, couching it like a pike. Standing within--between--the span of his horns.
The shock of the bull striking the tip plowed me down and to the side. It savaged his hide, rent muscle, skipped along bone. A blow to my belly like a roundhouse kick; a knifeblade piercing my shoulder. I lost the lance and landed hard, covered in the bull's blood, my own blood, wiping gore from my eyes.
The earth rattled as the red bull went to his knees astride me, but I don't remember a sound from the crowd.
I pushed myself up, dragged myself back, ribs creaking agony, left arm dangling. I looked down at a torn shoulder, thought it might be dislocated, and looked away. "Sword."
A torero put it in my right hand; I walked to the bull.
Dark blood rippled slowly down the shattered lance, drenching the ground under his knees. He swayed but did not topple, got one foot under him and then went to his knees again. His blood stung my eyes. I laid the tip of the sword against his massive throat, under the angle of the jaw where ran the pulse of his splendid heart.
"Well-fought," he whispered.
His blood filled my boots while I stood there, listening to the cheers and the silence of the crowd. By the smell and the color I could tell the lance had missed his aorta. He could live: it wasn't a mercy stroke I offered him, but a deathblow. "And you, el Zorro." The sword--not my father's sword, but a sword of cheap modern steel--pricked his hide. He shuddered as if stung by a fly. I looked up into the booming crowd and found my libeler's regard. "Antonio, apologize."
He met my gaze for a moment while the sunlight glittered in his jade-black eyes, and for that moment I thought he would stand and buy mercy for the gladiator at my feet. But then he did--stand, I mean--and he turned his head once, slowly, and spat onto the bloody sand. Again.
"Buy it," he ordered, and turned to climb the stair.
My hand clenched on the blood-slick hilt. I could feel my left arm again, and regretted it. I looked down at the bull, and the bull did not close his eyes. "No blame," he whispered.
I closed mine. "Antonio!" He didn't look back. "Antonio!" Still climbing. Being booed, and climbing, while I waited for a chance not to kill.
Ah, Benedicto. My father's voice. When will you learn to kill when you should?
Not today, Papa. A defiant gesture completed, the hilt slid from my numb hand. I threw back my head and shouted as the sword tumbled end over end. "Antonio! I am sorry! Antonio!"
He did not turn. I did.
I turned and walked away in the sudden, comprehending silence from the stands. The hurled sword rang against the stone wall long before my hand found the waiting door, the plain looped handle on the outside. I heard running footsteps: the chirurgeons coming for me, for the bull.
The bull, whose honor was as stainless as Cecelia's. The bull, who would live to father another generation of gladiators to bleed in the corrida.
The bull who would live.
Another failure I cannot regret as deeply as I should.
I stop in the cobbled street, my arm aching in a sling, and look up. At first, all I see is a white wall. And then I see the wall isn't white, not really. Not white like an eggshell, or white like a dove. It was whitewashed once over yellow glaze, but the rain and the sun have baked the limestone paint off, peeled the mustard-colored ochre beneath, exposing the browns and auburns of stucco. There's a window on the second floor, the shutter hanging open on a crippled hinge, a bluebird's wing broken and healed askew. Geraniums red as fairy-tale heart's-blood--and as sharply scented--pulse in the window box. Below, just as crooked, a poorly-hung wooden door.
I hear voices within. Cecelia. Who was my friend--only a friend, nothing more, and I had few enough of them. Who was Antonio's sister, in whose defense I spoke. She lives here now. She is no longer welcome in her brother's home.
I should go inside. I should make amends, if she'll permit, for my failure at the corrida. I close my eyes against the sunlight and place my hand on the warm wood of the door. It's bright outside, but I can smell the cramped poverty within.
If I were adequate to the nobility of my name, I would go inside and I would bite down on my pride and I would apologize to her, as well. I would beg her to plead with her brother and see if he would take her back.
But if I were adequate to the nobility of my name, I would not have been a man too weak to kill a fallen enemy, and I would not be here to think this: How do I get myself into these things.
Which is not a question. Because I know.
It's bright outside, but it's a small, dark window. Too small for looking out. Too dark for looking in.
The wood is splintery, peeling paint, warm with sun. My pride won't wedge through the doorway. I'd have to scrape it off to get inside. I cannot ask Cecelia to plead with her brother; her stainless honor could not support it.