A short story by Roger Zelazny.
An auto-da-fé or auto-de-fé (from Portuguese auto da fé, meaning “act of faith”) was the ritual of public penance of condemned heretics and apostates that took place when the Spanish Inquisition, Portuguese Inquisition or the Mexican Inquisition had decided their punishment, followed by the carrying out by the civil authorities of the sentences imposed.
The most extreme punishment imposed on those convicted was execution by burning. In popular usage, the term auto-da-fé, the act of public penance, came to mean burning the convicted person at the stake, although that was a punishment for only the most serious offenses. (Wiki)
by Roger Zelazny
Still do I remember the hot sun upon the sands of the Plaza del Autos, the cries of the soft-drink hawkers, the tiers of humanity stacked across from me on the sunny side of the arena, sunglasses like cavities in their gleaming faces.
Still do I remember the smells and the colors: the reds and the blues and the yellows, the ever present tang of petroleum fumes upon the air.
Still do I remember that day, that day with its sun in the middle of the sky and the sign of Aries, burning in the blooming of the year. I recall the mincing steps of the pumpers, heads thrown back, arms waving, the white dazzles of their teeth framed with smiling lips, cloths like colorful tails protruding from the rear pockets of their coveralls; and the horns—I remember the blare of a thousand horns over the loudspeakers, on and off, off and on, over and over, and again, and then one shimmering, final note, sustained, to break the ear and the heart with its infinite power, its pathos.
Then there was silence.
I see it now as I did on that day so long ago….
He entered the arena, and the cry that went up shook blue heaven upon its pillars of white marble.
Viva! El mechador! Viva! El mechador!
I remember his face, dark and sad and wise.
Long of jaw and nose was he, and his laughter was as the roaring of the wind, and his movements were as the music of the theramin and the drum. His coveralls were blue and silk and tight and stitched with thread of gold and broidered all about with black braid. His jacket was beaded and there were flashing scales upon his breast, his shoulders, his back.
His lips curled into the smile of a man who has known much glory and has hold upon the power that will bring him into more.
He moved, turning in a circle, not shielding his eyes against the sun.
He was above the sun. He was Manolo Stillete Dos Muertos, the mightiest mechador the world had ever seen, black boots upon his feet, pistons in his thighs, fingers with the discretion of micrometers, halo of dark locks about his head and the angel of death in his right arm, there, in the center of the grease-stained circle of truth.
He waved, and a cry went up once more.
Manolo! Manolo! Dos Muertos! Dos Muertos!
After two years’ absence from the ring, he had chosen this, the anniversary of his death and retirement, to return—for there was gasoline and methyl in his blood and his heart was a burnished pump ringed ‘bout with desire and courage. He had died twice within the ring, and twice had the medics restored him. After his second death, he had retired, and some said that it was because he had known fear. This could not be true.
He waved his hand and his name rolled back upon him.
The horns sounded once more: three long blasts.
Then again there was silence, and a pumper wearing red and yellow brought him the cape, removed his jacket.
The tinfoil backing of the cape flashed in the sun as Dos Muertos swirled it.
Then there came the final, beeping notes.
The big door rolled upward and back into the wall.
He draped his cape over his arm and faced the gateway.
The light above was red and from within the darkness there came the sound of an engine.
The light turned yellow, then green, and there was the sound of cautiously engaged gears.
The car moved slowly into the ring, paused, crept forward, paused again.
It was a red Pontiac, its hood stripped away, its engine like a nest of snakes, coiling and engendering behind the circular shimmer of its invisible fan. The wings of its aerial spun round and round, then fixed upon Manolo and his cape.
He had chosen a heavy one for his first, slow on turning, to give him a chance to limber up.
The drums of its brain, which had never before recorded a man, were spinning.
Then the consciousness of its kind swept over it, and it moved forward.
Manolo swirled his cape and kicked its fender as it roared past.
The door of the great garage closed.
When it reached the opposite side of the ring the car stopped, parked.
Cries of disgust, booing and hissing arose from the crowd.
Still the Pontiac remained parked.
Two pumpers, bearing buckets, emerged from behind the fence and threw mud upon its windshield.
It roared then and pursued the nearest, banging into the fence. Then it turned suddenly, sighted Dos Muertos and charged.
His veronica transformed him into a statue with a skirt of silver. The enthusiasm of the crowd was mighty.
It turned and charged once more, and I wondered at Manolo’s skill, for it would seem that his buttons had scraped cherry paint from the side panels.
Then it paused, spun its wheels, ran in a circle about the ring.
The crowd roared as it moved past him and recircled.
Then it stopped again, perhaps fifty feet away.
Manolo turned his back upon it and waved to the crowd.
—Again, the cheering and the calling of his name.
He gestured to someone behind the fence.
A pumper emerged and bore to him, upon a velvet cushion, his chrome-plated monkey wrench.
He turned then again to the Pontiac and strode toward it.
It stood there shivering and he knocked off its radiator cap.
A jet of steaming water shot into the air and the crowd bellowed. Then he struck the front of the radiator and banged upon each fender.
He turned his back upon it again and stood there.
When he heard the engagement of the gears he turned once more, and with one clean pass it was by him, but not before he had banged twice upon the trunk with his wrench.
It moved to the other end of the ring and parked.
Manolo raised his hand to the pumper behind the fence.
The man with the cushion emerged and bore to him the long-handled screwdriver and the short cape. He took the monkey wrench away with him, as well as the long cape.
Another silence came over the Plaza del Autos.
The Pontiac, as if sensing all this, turned once more and blew its horn twice. Then it charged.
There were dark spots upon the sand from where its radiator had leaked water. Its exhaust arose like a ghost behind it. It bore down upon him at a terrible speed.
Dos Muertos raised the cape before him and rested the blade of the screwdriver upon his left forearm.
When it seemed he would surely be run down, his hand shot forward, so fast the eye could barely follow it, and he stepped to the side as the engine began to cough.
Still the Pontiac continued on with a deadly momentum, turned sharply without braking, rolled over, slid into the fence, and began to burn. Its engine coughed and died.
The Plaza shook with the cheering. They awarded Dos Muertos both headlights and the tailpipe. He held them high and moved in slow promenade about the perimeter of the ring. The horns sounded. A lady threw him a plastic flower and he sent for a pumper to bear her the tailpipe and to ask her to dine with him. The crowd cheered more loudly, for he was known to be a great layer of women, and it was not such an unusual thing in the days of my youth as it is now.
The next was a blue Chevrolet, and he played with it as a child plays with a kitten, tormenting it into striking, then stopping it forever. He received both headlights. The sky had clouded over by then and there was a tentative mumbling of thunder.
The third was a black Jaguar XKE, which calls for the highest skill possible and makes for a very brief moment of truth. There was blood as well as gasoline upon the sand before he dispatched it, for its side mirror extended further than one would think, and there was a red furrow across his rib cage before he had done with it. But he tore out its ignition system with such grace and artistry that the crowd boiled over into the ring, and the guards were called forth to beat them with clubs and herd them with cattle prods back into their seats.
Surely, after all of this, none could say that Dos Muertos had ever known fear.
A cool breeze arose and I bought a soft drink and waited for the last.
His final car sped forth while the light was still yellow. It was a mustard-colored Ford convertible. As it went past him the first time, it blew its horn and turned on its windshield wipers. Everyone cheered, for they could see it had spirit.
Then it came to a dead halt, shifted into reverse, and backed toward him at about forty miles an hour.
He got out of the way, sacrificing grace to expediency, and it braked sharply, shifted into low gear, and sped forward again.
He waved the cape and it was torn from his hands. If he had not thrown himself over backward, he would have been struck.
Then someone cried: It’s out of alignment!
But he got to his feet, recovered his cape and faced it once more.
They still tell of those five passes that followed. Never has there been such a flirting with bumper and grill! Never in all of the Earth has there been such an encounter between mechador and machine! The convertible roared like ten centuries of streamlined death, and the spirit of St. Detroit sat in its driver’s seat, grinning, while Dos Muertos faced it with his tinfoil cape, cowed it and called for his wrench. It nursed its overheated engine and rolled its windows up and down, up and down, clearing its muffler the while with lavatory noises and much black smoke.
By then it was raining, softly, gently, and the thunder still came about us. I finished my soft drink.
Dos Muertos had never used his monkey wrench on the engine before, only upon the body. But this time he threw it. Some experts say he was aiming at the distributor; others say he was trying to break its fuel pump.
The crowd booed him.
Something gooey was dripping from the Ford onto the sand. The red streak brightened on Manolo’s stomach. The rain came down.
He did not look at the crowd. He did not take his eyes from the car. He held out his right hand, palm upward, and waited.
A panting pumper placed the screwdriver in his hand and ran back toward the fence.
Manolo moved to the side and waited.
It leaped at him and he struck.
There was more booing.
He had missed the kill.
No one left, though. The Ford swept around him in a tight circle, smoke now emerging from its engine. Manolo rubbed his arm and picked up the screwdriver and cape he had dropped. There was more booing as he did so.
By the time the car was upon him, flames were leaping forth from its engine.
Now some say that he struck and missed again, going off balance. Others say that he began to strike, grew afraid and drew back. Still others say that, perhaps for an instant, he knew a fatal pity for his spirited adversary, and that this had stayed his hand. I say that the smoke was too thick for any of them to say for certain what had happened.
But it swerved and he fell forward, and he was borne upon that engine, blazing like a god’s catafalque, to meet with his third death as they crashed into the fence together and went up in flames.
There was much dispute over the final corrida, but what remained of the tailpipe and both headlights were buried with what remained of him, beneath the sands of the Plaza, and there was much weeping among the women he had known. I say that he could not have been afraid or known pity, for his strength was as a river of rockets, his thighs were pistons and the fingers of his hands had the discretion of micrometers; his hair was a black halo and the angel of death rode on his right arm. Such a man, a man who has known truth, is mightier than any machine. Such a man is above anything but the holding of power and the wearing of glory.
Now he is dead though, this one, for the third and final time. He is as dead as all the dead who have ever died before the bumper, under the grill, beneath the wheels. It is well that he cannot rise again, for I say that his final car was his apotheosis, and anything else would be anticlimactic. Once I saw a blade of grass growing up between the metal sheets of the world in a place where they had become loose, and I destroyed it because I felt it must be lonesome. Often have I regretted doing this thing, for I took away the glory of its aloneness. Thus does life the machine, I feel, consider man, sternly, then with regret, and the heavens do weep upon him through eyes that grief has opened in the sky.
All the way home I thought of this thing, and the hoofs of my mount clicked upon the floor of the city as I rode through the rain toward evening, that spring.
This is the first time I’ve had a chance to address the readers of one of my stories directly, rather than through the mimesis game we play. While I go along with the notion that a writer should hold a mirror up to reality, I don’t necessarily feel that it should be the kind you look into when you shave or tweeze your eyebrows, or both as the case may be. If I’m going to carry a mirror around, holding it up to reality whenever I notice any, I might as well enjoy the burden as much as I can. My means of doing this is to tote around one of those mirrors you used to see in fun houses, back when they still had fun houses. Of course, not anything you reflect looks either as attractive or as grimly visaged as it may stand before the naked eyeball. Sometimes it looks more attractive, or more grimly visaged. You just don’t really know, until you’ve tried the warping glass. And it’s awfully hard to hold the slippery thing steady. Blink, and—who knows?—you’re two feet tall. Sneeze, and May the Good Lord Smile Upon You. I live in deathly fear of dropping the thing. I don’t know what I’d do without it. Carouse more, probably. I love my cold and shiny burden, that’s why. And I won’t say anything about the preceding story, because if it didn’t say everything it was supposed to say all by itself, then that’s its own fault and I’m not going to dignify it with any more words. Any error is always attributable to the mirror—either to the way I’m holding it, or to the way you’re looking into it—so don’t blame me. I just work here. But … If anything does seem amiss with visions of this sort, keep on looking into the glass and take a couple quick steps backwards. Who knows? Maybe you’ll turn into the powder room….