Facing Fears

by Linda Bindner

Can you believe his audacity? asked Diego rhetorically as he buttoned the last button on his ebony shirt. When he was finished, Zorro stood before Felipe, without the mask but with his hands incongruously on his hips, shaking his head. The Alcalde really is despicable.

Felipe knew Diego just needed to talk, that he didn't really expect an answer. In fact, he preferred no reply. He was simply rambling, clearing his mind to be ready for the task ahead. For tonight, Zorro would ride out on his black stallion, Toronado, again. The Alcalde, Ignacio DeSoto, had initiated a new set of taxes just that day that even Felipe thought were ridiculous. Not only was there a new serving tax, aimed solely at the tavern, which would be enough to make Diego confront the Alcalde as Zorro, but there was also a new cattle wage tax, aimed at the caballeros, who were forced to keep their earnings on cattle separate so they could pay this new tax. It was graduated as well, so the wealthiest landowners paid the most. The only good thing about this new tax law was that at least it wasn't aimed at the poor farming families in the area, who were already taxed enough.

Felipe held up the black mask and the hat with the silver trim, trying to be of some assistance to the master he had known for so long, and the man who had promised to soon become his adopted father.

But Diego shook his head, walking over to his desk in one corner of the secret cave instead. No, Felipe, I want to look up one last thing before I go. He sounded vague, as if he had something else on his mind, and Felipe knew what he was looking for. Once at his desk, Diego searched the bookcase behind it for a moment, then pulled a volume of poetry off the shelf.

Felipe had been right; Diego was looking up lines of poetry to quote the next time he saw Victoria, the tavern owner and the love of his life. He was always trying to hint at his identity with poetry, hoping that someday she would figure him out so that he wouldn't have to tell her his secret. That was Diego's biggest fear, Felipe knew, for Diego was afraid that if he told her of his identity, she would first laugh in his face, then be so angry at him for not telling her at the outset of the charade that she would refuse to forgive him for the rest of their lives. It was a foolish concern, Felipe thought in his honest opinion, but it was a cold stone that had been at the center of Diego's heart for years. It wasn't likely to be solved by simple lines of poetry. Still, Diego tried, and he had to get some amount of praise for that. Even Zorro, that mighty dueler for justice, could be afraid of something, Felipe thought in his mute manner that both Diego and Toronado understood so well.

Diego slid into his desk chair, attempting to commit the lines to memory, hoping against hope that Victoria would uncover his identity this time. It had been many years since he and Felipe had started this disguise, and Diego was very ready for it to be over so he could start his life again, preferably with Victoria as his wife. It was Diego's greatest dream, even if he dreaded the day he would have to tell her who her best friend truly was.

But that day was somewhere in the future. Even with the help of poetry, Diego had made his other self, the one Victoria and his father saw the most, so timid that it was ludicrous to think of him as the masked avenger, the legend who championed the poor and fought off the government troops even while he romanced the beautiful tavern owner. He had made sure that it was too impossible to even consider, leaving both him and Felipe free to go about their daily business, when being caught and discovered actually meant death by hanging for the two of them and anyone else knowing of the secret identity, including those who Diego loved the most. Knowing the secret might be some people's biggest wish, but it also meant death at the end of the disclosure of the secret. So Diego refused to tell anybody but Felipe, and the cave was the only place on earth that Diego was able to be himself. It wasn't the perfect way to live, but the price was too high for the truth, so Diego continued to act, doing his best to protect himself from eventual discovery and certain death.

The biggest downfall to maintaining the status quo was that Diego couldn't be with Victoria. But he continued on, purposefully misquoting a line of poetry here, correctly quoting another there, and went on having adventures and fighting the fights of the poor, hoping that someday she would figure him out anyway against all odds. It was a long shot of hope, even for the man known as Zorro, but it was the only thing he could do for now. Diego made the chair squeak as he sat back, muttering to himself, hurrying to memorize the familiar lines so he could finish getting ready to ride out as the defender of justice once again.

Thus his father's sudden appearance in the cave came as a complete surprise.

Astonished, and a little awed at being in the last place he expected, Don Alejandro could only glance around at first, mumbling a confused, What..?

Stunned, Diego sat unmoving in his chair, too panicked to think. He couldn't possibly explain his way out of this scene, since he was already dressed as Zorro and Felipe held the black mask and hat in his deft fingers. No, the time for divulsion was at hand. But Diego continued to sit, not knowing what to do.

It was Don Alejandro clearing his throat and saying, I just wanted to start a fire and leaned... that pushed Diego past the initial stage of numbness.

Diego turned to the young servant. Can you please leave us alone for a while, Felipe?

Glad of a chance to escape the roomful of flying emotions, Felipe ran for the exit after first dropping the mask and the hat on the coatrack near the arsenal of swords and whips that Diego kept to practice with. The silence after his departure was particularly profound.

Still looking in hushed awe around the room, Alejandro could finally speak a coherent question, What is this? He looked at the arsenal, then at the work table that held pieces of Diego's most current experiment, on to the desk and Diego, who was clearly dressed as the masked legend. His quick eyes jumped to Toronado and back, and his fast mind started whirling with questions, according to the expression in his eyes. He went from stunned awe to red-hot anger in that instant.

Diego sighed, unable to look his father in the eyes. Instead, he glanced across the cavern and decided to begin his explanation there. This is Zorro's secret lair, he said, somewhat hesitantly.

Alejandro laughed curtly. I can see that. What are you doing in it, and dressed like that? He gestured at Diego's black clothes.

Diego sighed again, but couldn't say the two little words that would have explained everything. I would say that is obvious, Father, he finally settled on.

Alejandro came down the steps and crossed to the desk. You're Zorro? he asked incredulously once he got there.

Slowly, mutely, Diego nodded.

Alejandro turned, an explosion of motion in the otherwise still cave. I can't believe this. My own son... He whipped around again, making his silvery hair dance against his shoulders. Felipe knows. It was a statement, not a question, and sounded accusatory in the solitude.

Again Diego nodded.

Does Victoria know?

Diego straightened in the chair to say, No. The volume of poetry caught his eye, and he shoved it to the farthest corner of the desk that he could reach. It didn't look like he would be memorizing any more lines that night, anyway.

Glancing also at the poetry book, Alejandro gave a mocking laugh. Well, that's something. He turned again to look around the cave. He shook his head.

Once more Diego sighed. I was going to tell you... someday. I never meant for you to find out this way.

Alejandro faced Diego again. When were you going to tell me - when you were captured and the Alcalde unmasked you?

Well, that eventuality is always a possibility, Diego pointed out, looking for any humor in this situation. When Alejandro refused to laugh, he rose from his chair behind the desk. Look, Father...

No, you look. Do you realize you could have been killed? he asked.

Diego snorted a laugh. Of course I realize that. I have the scars to prove it.

That statement humbled Alejandro a bit. Scars came from wounds gathered in battle, the many battles Zorro had fought and won. But even Zorro could not come from every battle unscathed. That idea was enough to make him draw a sharp, audible intake of breath. But I am still angry at you, he declared stubbornly.

Diego laughed again, a hollow sound that reverberated humorlessly off the cavern walls. I was afraid this would be your reaction. That's why I didn't tell you.

Don Alejandro stood rooted to the stone floor. Then that's why you never mentioned this secret life? It wasn't because you didn't trust me, but that you were frightened?

Diego stood, unbalanced, one finger on the desk for support. At long last, he nodded again, admitting to one of his biggest fears.

Don Alejandro's attitude instantly changed. He grew softer, less accusatory, more open. I'm sorry. This is all just quite a shock... He trailed off and took another look around the cave.

I'm sorry, too, Father, Diego whispered.

Alejandro looked shocked again. No! Don't be. After all, he said, gesturing to the black outfit with his hands, you... you've risked so much...

Not really.

Yes! Surely even you can understand that. Suddenly Alejandro's face lightened further. Just think of the son I have! he said quietly, his voice hushed now that the anger had been replaced by astonishment. He thought of all Zorro's adventures, of all the times he'd ridden fearlessly into Los Angeles to be the champion of the people. He stopped as a new thought struck him. Victoria doesn't know?

Diego shook his head once more and repeated, No.

Alejandro was amazed. All these years, and you haven't told her?

No.

Alejandro couldn't believe what he was hearing. He gaped. Don't you think she, at least, has the right to know?

Once more the sound of Diego's sigh washed the cave walls. Don't you think I've wanted to tell her, more than anything? But I'm trying to keep her alive by not burdening her with the danger of my identity. When I proposed...

Alejandro halted his rambling son. You proposed? You're engaged?

Diego nodded again.

Slowly a smile lit Alejandro's features. He laughed. Son! I didn't think you had it in you!

The laughter was infectious. Diego was forced to chuckle. But he sobered quickly enough to say, A lot of good it does us. She'll probably run away, shrieking, the first chance she gets if she ever finds out.

Alejandro was surprised to have his own flesh and blood admit to these newer fears. It was as if Zorro was too mighty for fears. But, he reminded himself, Zorro is my own son, just a regular man with regular anxieties. Except these anxieties weren't quite of the regular variety, he realized after the thought. Then, in a flash of inspiration, he grasped all that Diego had sacrificed to become Zorro. His admiration soared. You have to tell her, he said urgently. You have to let her see...

I don't have to tell her anything! Diego responded, now angry himself. What you're suggesting could get her killed.

Alejandro jumped at first to hear his quiet, studious son in a temper, but then he calmed enough to say, She might be killed anyway.

Suddenly, just as fast as it came, the anger disappeared and Diego put both hands to his face. I know, he whispered. I know, and on the bad days that thought makes me despair that I'll ever be with her.

Alejandro was suddenly chilled at Diego's abrupt declaration. We both know when to keep a secret...

But don't you understand? Diego's words were ragged, as if he was fighting off hidden tears. You can be used against me now. Just knowing who Zorro is can bring on you any number of evil things that the Alcalde can devise.

For a moment, there was complete silence in the cave. Then Alejandro said in a quiet, soothing voice, We have already been used against you, and we will be again. That's our choice. But the Alcalde is responsible for his own actions; don't take that load on as well.

What do you mean?

I mean don't take responsibility for another's decisions, Alejandro reported. The jailings, the floggings... those are thrust onto us because we have an unjust Alcalde. If you really want to make a difference, lead the citizens in revolt...

You can't be serious. A revolt would be an action against the Spanish Crown, and I thought you always taught me to be loyal first, Diego argued, his hands now moving into his hair in his confusion.

Alejandro's smile became wolfish in its intensity. I also taught you to be a fighter. He gestured again at the black outfit his son wore. You apparently took that lesson to heart...

Father! Diego warned, not without humor.

No! I'm being serious, here! Listen to me, Diego. Alejandro paused to put some order to his galloping thoughts. You've been fighting for justice a long time, and may have to fight a lot longer, now that you've started this legend. If the Spanish Crown puts dunderheads and idiots in charge of our garrison troops...

I won't kill anyone, Diego retorted with finality.

Alejandro paused. You may have to, eventually.

No. When I had the chance to kill my own brother and didn't, I said that killing was a coward's solution, and I meant it. There is always another way. Always. He didn't know who he was trying to convince, his father or himself.

Alejandro was quiet again. Finally he said, You think about it, Diego.

Diego lowered his hands in acceptance. I will, he promised on an exhaled breath of air.

Alejandro turned to leave, but as a parting shot, said in a low voice, And you have to tell Victoria. She deserves to know.

I'm not sure I can do that.

Tell her, Friday night, after the dinner party, urged Alejandro. Not knowing is worse, much worse, he emphasized, then calmly bound up the steps and disappeared in the anteroom that led to the fireplace and the library. He left Diego alone with his words for company.

Quietly, as was his style, Diego resumed his seat when Don Alejandro didn't reappear, asking for help out of the cave. He assumed that as sharp as Alejandro was, he could figure it out for himself. Instead, Diego found himself thinking about those words from his father, especially the urgings to tell Victoria his secret. The thinking soon devolved into daydreams, and Diego found himself indulging in thoughts he hadn't allowed himself to consider for a long time. And scary as those idle ramblings were, Diego found himself looking at them logically for the first time. And, oddly enough, he felt hope.


P.S. Read Confession next. It's a sort-of sequal to this story.


Back to [Zorro Stories]. Send comments to linda.bindner@gmail.com.

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