Recalculating yet again, what is the value of having his blood mixed with my own? Alexander the Great is, after all, in spirit, the godfather of all conquistadors. In The Romance , as he and his army travel across the deserts of India, Alexander is depicted as an imposing, awesome sovereign, a person of enormous ambitions; and such a man, according to the rules of mythology, must frequently be tested.
First, he encounters strange savages, and wrestles from them extraordinary information—about a prize he could never have anticipated. There are a few kinds of waters, they explain, but Alexander is especially interested in the spring that they promise will make him young again.
He and his army head out on the hunt. Next come trials and tribulations. For days, he and his men search the desert without luck. All night, they ride to escape this place, while snakes of every size rise up from the dirt and attack the horses. But the king jumps from his horse, falls to his knees, and prays—until the storm ends. Having passed this horrible test, his ambition is rewarded. Alexander and his men emerge into a beautiful, placid place, a grassland covered in flowers and small trees heavy with fruit.
They pitch camp, and Alexander sends a few of his knights out to explore the territory. Apparently, they believe there are healing waters somewhere north of Cuba, in that place they call Bimini—at least according to a rare history of the Indians of that period. Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda, a next-generation Spaniard, survived a shipwreck onto the coast of Florida, where he was then forced to live among the Calusas for the next seventeen years.
Many Indians from Cuba went searching for such waters, he says, and word spread to the tribal leaders in Florida. But if anyone had rejuvenation on the brain it would have been King Ferdinand himself: While Juan Ponce was only thirty-seven when the king first encouraged him to seek out and settle Bimini, Ferdinand had just turned sixty and had taken a new queen thirty-five years his junior.
And as the decades and centuries have passed, the legend has taken on the gravitas of an epic, an obvious fiction that many would like to will into truth. If only you were a pure, complete explorer—our most romantic, outsize imagining of what it is to be a conquistador —you could push your way into unclaimed territory. You could sail for weeks, past the edge of the known world, encounter naked people with tattooed faces, ride through storms of blood and swarms of snakes, and eventually find yourself in a tangle of trees guarded by gold lions.
And there you would find it: an answer to death, a way to trick time. His search for the fountain—and the smallest chance that he might have found it, unreported, before his death—became the most magical strain of his DNA. It elevated him above conquistador-as-hustler and into the metaphysical realm. It raised him above death, beyond the mundane fear of our own mortality. To soften the knowledge that each of us is built from one strip of time, finite.
To soften that hard fact through the use of memory—through the construction and the echoing and the exaggeration of memories that are often, at best, half-true.
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This is also why some or many? To extend ourselves—some idea of ourselves—into a future when the tangible us will already be gone. For some reason, they agreed to her request to take her aboard. Perhaps she offered to act as their guide; perhaps she claimed to have information about the fountain. Would magical waters have had a natural appeal for her? Or did she know more than these ambitious Spaniards, and find their hunting and their dreams of gold and land ridiculous, beside the point?
Did they frighten her, the Europeans with their bloody reputation? Had her life in this swampy, tropical terrain conditioned her to assume, to accept, that the forces of the land were greater than any four-legged or two-legged animal and would eventually swallow every one of us up, leaving very little—or nothing—behind? I was raised in Manhattan, with many more comforts than La Vieja though she might have disagreed and without the fear of marauding cannibals, on the one hand, and marauding Spaniards, on the other.
But I did have the experience of losing family as a child, and then, after college, losing very young friends to illness and freak occurrence. If you can feed yourself and pay your rent and your life is not in immediate danger, it seems that the next human imperative is always this: to figure out if how you spend your days has any meaning, any lasting value. Working in the visual arts then, I started to obsess over the impermanence of the work—large, heavy pieces of sculpture, complicated installations, drawings I could already imagine fading on the page.
I began to fear that I too might disappear, that I too would remain site-specific, never universal what human is? And then I returned to words. Words , I decided, were the easiest things to pass down—the lightest, the simplest to transport, the most durable, the most replicable.
I could send them out across time. I put my stock in words—and this overwhelming existential anxiety was transformed, once again, to the far more manageable, more mundane, anxiety of the now. But, at least on the surface, it is everyday ambition that leads to his end. If he succeeds, the governorship is his. With the sudden energy of a man given a last chance, he loads up what he can—about a hundred men, a dozen horses, farm animals, planting seeds, and just enough Catholic missionaries onto two ships—and sails once again to Charlotte Harbor.
Once again, the Calusas surge forward in their canoes and attack. Once again, the Spaniards are forced to retreat.
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They sail to Cuba, where he dies in the first week of July from a festering wound. Some years later, it is moved to rest below the high altar of the Dominican Church in the city of San Juan. This brings to mind the church in La Isabela. Half a century later, that town was also abandoned after it was destroyed by an earthquake.
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About three hundred years passed, and then this happened: locals saw the bell emerge from the ground, carried in the branches of a growing tree that had pushed it up and out of the buried ruins. It was as if the dirt had given birth to a relic of a very different time. F ixation on our ancestry is a fantasy of personal survival—the idea that something intrinsic to us-and-only-us has survived down a bloodline, captured in the strands of our DNA. This something makes us uniquely equipped to act, to create, to master, to conquer. This is our secret advantage. This is part of what makes our story more important, more special.
What is the story, and how does it take shape? What part is earned, what part imagined, and what part if any will be passed along later, repeated long after the proof of us is used up?
As complicated as is his world of associations, he gives my life a dimension that spans centuries, through the ultrathin, imagined thread that connects us. Whenever the sand runs out, a page, respecting superstition, calls aloud:. Over and over the glass is turned. At first the sand is packed into the head, pure potential; eventually it runs to the bottom. The glass is set upright again, and it becomes a series of such glasses, filling up and running out and filling up again. Deadline Hollywood. The Hollywood Reporter. Toronto Star. Rotten Tomatoes.
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