This story is by Robert Burns and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Juan Ponce de Leon was relentless and drove his men without mercy. The band of soldados would sail up the coast for several days, travel many miles inland by foot and by horseback, and then back to the sea to sail north again. The men marched hard through the sweltering Florida days and slept in swampy mosquito infested bogs at night. Juan’s younger brother Miguel was his top Lieutenant.
The soldados had landed in La Florida in February 1521. Officially, they were in search of gold and land to conquer, and peoples to subjugate in the name of their King. Unofficially, Juan was in search of the legendary Fountain of Youth. La Fuente de la Juventud was Juan’s obsession. He was certain that he was on the right trail.
Long weeks passed until late one blindingly hot afternoon the exhausted troop broke through the dense green jungle wall into a clearing, many miles north of where they had started. There they found a pristine waterfall, cascading musically into a deep pool. The men fell into a reverent silence, staring in awe, motionless.
“Get out of my way!” someone cried suddenly and the soldados broke at once into a mad dash for the pool. They pushed and shoved at each other, vying for position. Falling upon their stomachs, they dunked their leathery faces in the cold, refreshing water.
Juan’s horse picked its way carefully through the throng of men to the water’s edge. As the conquistador’s shadow passed over them, the soldados squinted up and moved aside. Juan dismounted and pulled a golden chalice out of his tunic. Dipping it into the cold water, he put the chalice to his lips and drank deeply.
“This is not La Fuente,” he proclaimed after a long pause and spit the water out onto the ground. “You will all stay away from this pool!”
Miguel stood in disbelief. “But, Juan! How can you be so sure? This must be La Fuente!”
“I feel no magic in my bones, mijo,” Juan replied, “This is just a beautiful waterfall. We will rest here awhile and then continue our quest. You must not disobey!”
Miguel couldn’t understand. His brother may not have felt anything in HIS bones, but Miguel certainly did. Even after only a few sips of water that afternoon, he was convinced this had to be La Fuente and over time, Miguel felt it more and more, something growing deep in his soul, something fundamentally life-changing. He wasn’t sure exactly what it was, or even how to describe it, so he told no one, but Miguel knew then that Juan’s obsession had become his own.
Decades later, Miguel would muse that he alone had been cursed because he alone had disobeyed his brother and had continued to drink and bathe in the waters of La Fuente. All of the other men had been good soldados and had stayed away from the pool after his brother’s decree that day.
It was true. By the time the troop was ready to move on, six weeks later, Miguel was drinking only water from La Fuente and nothing else and had taken to bathing in La Fuente every night. He swam secretly, after dark, to avoid the other soldados and the wrath of his brother. Any guilt he felt over disobeying Juan’s strict orders, however, couldn’t stop Miguel from filling as many vessels as his horse could carry before moving out.
By July, the troop reached the place the natives called Caloosahatchee. On their first night, the local Calusa surprised the soldados and waged a fierce attack. Many Indians were killed by the conquistadors’ guns and Juan himself was hurt badly by a poison arrow through his thigh. The next morning, Miguel ordered the retreat back to the sea the way they had come. Stopping of course at La Fuente, Miguel was able to replenish his stock of the life-giving elixir. The rest of the men were indifferent and anxious to get home. After another grueling three days’ march, the band finally reached the sea and set sail for Cuba.
Every day on the voyage home, Miguel sat with his brother and struggled with his demons as he pondered sharing some of his precious water to maybe save Juan’s life. Every night, the demons won.
Juan doesn’t really believe, it wouldn’t work on him anyway. I can’t let my brother know that I disobeyed him. Such an act of betrayal!
So many excuses.
Juan Ponce de Leon died in Havana lying in the shade of a tall banyan tree holding his brother’s hand. As his beloved older brother’s life force drained away, Miguel felt more alone than ever before and desperately regretted not giving Juan any of his water. The shame of his cowardly actions would haunt him for the rest of his life, and Miguel would one day realize that the painful loneliness he felt then was just the beginning.
Miguel turned 55 in 1540, but saw a man half that age in his mirror. He had always been a soldado, and so joined Cortez to conquer the Aztecs in New Spain. In 1570, the conquistador travelled to South America to help Pizarro vanquish the Incas. After Peru was the journey into northern New Spain in 1650, the Chickasaw Wars in 1763 and the Brazilian Slave Revolts of 1807 and 1814. In between were countless other wars, each brutal campaign bloodier than the last. After each, Miguel returned to Havana to rest and recuperate, sometimes to marry, hoping to settle down. Each time he returned with another war “souvenir,” a broken bone or jagged scar, once a punctured eardrum. Another time, three missing teeth.
In 1835, now 350 years old, Miguel returned to La Florida to live and, seeking to transfer some of the guilt he still felt for his brother’s death, joined up with los yanquis to exterminate the Seminoles. This time his souvenir was a lost left hand. Despite his injury, Miguel still managed to find his way back to the ancient, overgrown, La Fuente to refill his canteens.
Returning to south Florida, Miguel settled at Fort Dallas and married a local girl. That marriage lasted until his wife’s death of malaria in 1862. Grief-stricken and alone once again, the widower traveled north and joined the Confederate army to fight in the southern campaigns. He was rewarded with an amputated leg after the Battle of Olustee in 1864, ending his soldiering career forever. The old soldado now useless and alone.
The grizzled war veteran sat in his usual spot on Calle Ocho in Little Havana. Now calling himself Mike, the prosthetic limbs he had collected over the years were all gone, lost to the ravages of time, and never replaced due to the ravages of his pocketbook.
The scars and stumps are better for business anyway, Mike de Leon reasoned. More sympathy from the tourists.
Mike would set his ragged fedora out on the sidewalk each morning and squat on the curb, watching the passing sightseers. Each night he would hobble back to the rat-infested boarding house he called “home” with a pint of Bacardi and an empanada that he had bought with his day’s “wages.” The days were long and hard, but the nights were longer and crueler. Mike spent his tortured life exhausted and alone. He was 497 years old, but had long ago stopped counting. His heart ached constantly for the loss of his brother, for the loss of everyone he had ever known.
On that fateful October Thursday in 1982, Mike looked up into the Florida sun and watched a man scramble out of the Bodega Matanzas across the street. A gunshot rang out, then two. Three. The stray bullet ricocheted off the pavement and struck Mike in the temple.
About time, Mike thought, just before everything went black.
When he woke up, Miguel’s eyes were having trouble focusing. Shaking out the cobwebs, he realized he was back in the jungle. A soldado stood over him.
“Miguel! Wake up! Vamos! We’re shipping out!”
Miguel smiled when he considered the possibility that his long, agonizing life, the whole excruciating thing, might just have been only a twisted dream.
Could it be?
Luis Fuentes was an orderly at the Ralph Bunche Home for the Indigent in the Overtown neighborhood of Miami. He wheeled the comatose new resident into his room and settled him into his bed. Luis was sympathetic. His papers said the man was 85 but he only looked to be a hard-lived 50.
“Poor bastard can’t even move or speak,” Luis pointed out to another orderly, “With the part of his brain that they took out, he probably won’t even be able to remember anything either”.
“Probably a blessing,” the second orderly suggested. “Look. His eyelids are moving.”
“At least he won’t be with us for long,” said Luis naively, unaware of the irony. “Poor bastard.”
The contented smile on Mike’s dreaming face spoke volumes.