The sound of her name drifts melodiously from my tongue. My heart gives a faint quiver as she approaches; it feels as if a great amount of time has passed since I had last seen her close. And yet, she is walking towards me, as young and as beautiful as the first day I met her. As she gets closer, a once dormant fire that lives in the pit of my stomach is reignited, and for the first time I begin to fully realize how much I love her.
We are close now. My skin burns with anticipation to embrace her; I reach out, but my hands fall on nothing. She looks into my eyes, and it feels as if something very sharp is piercing through my chest. Her features sharpen, and the world around us seems to darken.
My spine spasms as I jerk jarringly upright, the sound of my scream causing a few men around me to jump. My body shakes as cold sweat trickles down my cheek, steaming with the permeating heat and humidity. My head falls into my hands as my senses begin to return…and then I remember. I have awoken from one nightmare to be reunited with another.
I cannot remember how many days it has been since we set out from Quito…time is lost in this jungle, where the trees hang amongst the clouds and block out the sun. There are so few of us remaining…of the nearly four thousand native men, there remain less than a thousand. Of the original three hundred and forty conquistadores, only two hundred remain. How much longer will we wander on? The question lingers on my mind, haunting me. How much longer until I meet death in this place, so far from home, in search of a city that might not be there?
To think that at the outset of the expedition, I had been brimming with readiness. To be amongst the group of men who discovered the legendary El Dorado, to become immortalized in history, had had a greater appeal to me than even receiving a share of the City of Gold’s treasures.
Alas, now, El Dorado seems as far away as it has ever been. Instead, I crave the warmth and shelter of my home…the scent of my wife, the laughter of my son…I would give all the gold of the New World to be with them again just once more.
Grief overwhelms me, and quietly I begin to sob. A brief amount of time passes before I am interrupted.
I twitch at the sound of my name, trying hard to refocus myself from my swirling misery to the man approaching me. My brain is still clouded with what seems like a dense fog as the man grabs me by the arm and hoists me away to a more secluded area.
“Sucio Aguirre, I tell you this because you are my friend and I am concerned for you. You mustn’t cry, especially not in front of the other men. If my uncle sees you in this state, he’ll surely punish you severely.”
“Is this how you treat an old friend, Francisco? You come at me with empty threats as I weep? I have served for your uncle; I have witnessed firsthand the atrocities he has committed. I’ve seen him torture men, rape women, and kill children. What do you think he could possibly do to me now? I am face to face with certain death, as are you. Open your eyes, Francisco. We’re going to die out here in this wicked jungle!”
Francisco frowns at me. The lines etched on his face would lead one to believe he is much older than he actually is.
“You came with us of your own accord, Sucio. You knew what we were looking for.”
Fury builds in me like rising steam, but I have to repress myself in front of my superior, even if we have been friends since childhood.
“Francisco…we departed Quito in search of a golden city, and we’ve found nothing but despair! We searched for great civilizations, but found tribes of warrior women who threw their spears at us! We’ve fallen victim to the many traps of the jungle, from its heat to its beasts. Sickness has overcome us and we have no medicine. The stores of food for the collective conquistadores are almost completely eradicated, and the natives have had to fend for their own food for almost two weeks! This quest is doomed!”
There is a long silence. Francisco stares at me, his gaze inquiring, as if he were trying to decipher me as though I were a cryptic message. I look away, not wanting our eyes to meet. Finally, he breaks the silence.
“You are hardly recognizable from the Sucio Aguirre I once knew. Why has the flame of your spirit dwindled so? Where is the childhood friend I had, who spoke with me of glory and immortality? I do not recognize you anymore, Sucio. I’m going to traverse this River and find El Dorado, with or without you, and history will remember me for all eternity.”
He turns swiftly and walks away. I spend what seems like many moments staring blankly at the ground before returning amongst the rest of the men. As I sift through the remaining outfit, my eyes catch the gaze of one of the natives who had been forced to come on the expedition. Time seems to slow as I stare into those deep brown orbs. For some strange reason, I feel connected with him, even if he is an un-baptized heathen. I realized then that it was our sorrow, misery and pain that was being shared. I recognized in him the same hopelessness that was encompassing me. I wish to say something to him, but before I can, my shoulder is grabbed.
I turn around to see the last face I could’ve possibly wanted to see at that point in time. My body becomes rigid as I make the appropriate gestures of respect.
“Yes, Governor Pizarro?”
“I have grown impatient with our lack of progress. I am not going to stay here and wither with the Indians!”
My spirit soars at these words. Triumph is ringing in my ears and my eyes dart back and forth for Francisco, but he is not in sight. I look instead into the eyes of Gonzalo Pizarro. They give the appearance of being overly glossed and unmoving, similar to that of a shark. My fingers shake with excitement as he opens his mouth to continue speaking.
“I am returning to Quito with most of the men. Francisco and a few of the strongest remaining will carry onward down the river.”
My heart sinks a little at the news that one of my dearest friends would continue aimlessly into the jungle towards his death, but it couldn’t have mattered less, as the prospect of being able to return home was filling me with ecstasy.
“Your orders are to continue on with him. I need a good, loyal, unquestioning soldier by his side. You have served me very well, even in my darkest hours. Now is the time for you to serve for my nephew during his most dire.”
If my heart had sagged but a brief moment before, it absolutely plummets now. There is a thick ball of an unknown substance caught in my throat that renders me incapable of speech. I stare blankly into those dead, fishy eyes, as he claps me on the shoulder and turns away.
Whatever glimmer remained of my soul died at that moment. I am grateful that it should have its release now, so that it wouldn’t have to be with my body in its last agonizing moments, starving somewhere in the jungle with a small band of cadavers surrounding it, amongst them the body of Francisco de Orellana, my childhood friend and nephew of the vicious and callous Gonzalo Pizarro.
Dealing with the extreme injustice and cruelty of the world is much easier when soul-less, as I come to learn. I am so removed from my own despair that I manage still to function, as Pizarro departs with the majority of the men back towards Quito. I remain mostly silent despite my autonomous leap to second in command, as Francisco gives orders to the other men.
We drift on for what seems an eternity. Francisco and the other men’s determination remain unwavering, but with each passing hour my resolve gets a little weaker. Suddenly I find myself with only one desire: to flee.
Alas, where would I go? Francisco is the navigator, not I. I am not skilled in many things that do not include a musket. Surely I would die trying to find my own way back…
A heated internal debate rages inside me, as I weigh the pros and cons of deserting the mission, as so many others before me have…
Ultimately, I decide that my death is certain, and therefore my last act should at least happen of my own accord, and not on the whims of some ruthless leader who abandons his most loyal servants to die for the sake of vanity. Francisco may have been my childhood and adult friend, but I lack his iron resolve for this mission, and without it there is no point in having me along. I decide to try and follow the River back to the trail that would lead me to Quito, and beyond Quito, to the place where my family is waiting for me.
I leave sometime during the night when the rest of the men are sleeping. The way is dark and I worry that the rustling of my feet against the ground might rouse someone from his slumber, but I successfully escape out of earshot without waking anyone. I move onward for many hours, wanting to put as much space between myself and my abandoned party as possible.
When daylight breaks, I find myself in an unfamiliar portion of jungle that I cannot recognize. I’m not entirely sure how I got here, as I really hadn’t stopped or paid much attention to where I was headed during the night. The flora is thick and vibrantly colorful. The effect is a bit dizzying, and on more than one occasion I could have sworn that I saw something move in the corner of my eye…
Paranoia mounting, I break into a sprint, wanting to escape the tightening grip of the foliage. I’m in a full run now, but the plant life seems to be holding me back. I gasp with terror as I look down and see a massive constrictor snake wrapping itself around me, hissing softly as it eerily slithers up my legs. I struggle to free myself, but it’s useless. I try to relax my muscles, hoping that if I do the crushing of my inner organs might happen with less pain.
I can feel the air being pushed out of my lungs as the snake tightens itself around my chest. My vision is becoming darker, and gradually I begin to drift into the void. I close my eyes, and they remain shut, until I am startled by a faint, hissing whisper.
“You don’t belong here”
I’m lying on the ground, in a place I wasn’t before. I sit up, worried that I might discover the constrictor coming out of hiding to end the cruel joke. What I saw instead took my breath away.
I’m on the shore of a dark lake, with my hands on my knees, watching in awe as a shimmering golden raft drifts towards me. On the raft is a giant man drenched in a golden powder, adorned with a massive and elaborate headdress. On either side of the man are fierce and powerful looking warrior women similar in appearance to the ones we fought in skirmishes on the banks of the River, except they are armed with even more intimidating spears that have barbed hooks tied to the dagger heads.
I stare, dumbfounded, unsure of where I am or what is going on. Before I know it, the three oddities are upon me, lifting me from the ground as if to examine me. I am helpless, too in shock to move my muscles. They bind my hands together and place a rag over my eyes, rendering me blind. I’m suddenly lifted off my feet by very strong hands and thrown onto what is undoubtedly the same raft I had just seen reach the shore where I was lying.
In the darkness it feels as if the raft is gliding of its own volition, cutting across the black waters. I am unsure whether to feel fear, or excitement, or both, as the shock of the events being transpired haven’t yet subsided. I lie still upon the raft, blind and bound, waiting to see what was to happen next.
I am lifted from the raft after some time, and carried onto solid ground. My arrival seems to incite bedlam, as there is an influx of mixed cheers of disgust, confusion, or happiness. Wherever I am, there are many people around me.
I am lifted and carried up many stairs. Finally my blindfold is removed…
I am nearly blinded again, as the glint of the sun off the golden perch from which I am standing is very powerful. I look out into an awestruck crowd; they are familiar in feature to the natives near Quito, but they speak in a language that is unfamiliar to me. My hands still bound, a wave of vertigo knocks me to the ground, as the realization that I was standing atop an enormous golden pyramid hits me.
I have found it! I am the sole discoverer! History will not remember Francisco de Orellana, but instead Sucio Aguirre! My chest swells with pride, and I have the sudden desire to be freed from my bonds.
I turn to the golden chieftain, who is standing near with his female bodyguards, and say quite tersely, “Cut my bonds at once!”
Instead, my jaw is given its first introduction to the merciless power of a punch delivered from one of the chieftain’s bodyguards. I fall to the ground again, this time being lifted upon a table.
I look up into the sky, and the clouds are engaged in a dance, swirling about happily, indifferent to the world below them.
I hear the voice of the chieftain, seemingly amplified over the clamor of the crowd. He says words I do not understand, and leans over me with his hand curled into a fist in front of his mouth. He begins moving his feet, and lowly chanting something very melodic.
Then, all of a sudden, a thick red smoke erupts from the fist he held in front of his mouth, and he screams. The red vapor quickly fills my lungs, and I feel a most unnerving sensation course through my body. The scream of the chief is constant, but growing dimmer and dimmer, as the sky and clouds become blurred until I see nothing but the red vapor that had just exploded in front of my face.
I feel no body. I see nothing. Yet my mind is intact. I try to move an appendage, to which end I discover I cannot. I become instantly weary of this sickly sensation, not knowing what is happening to me.
There are wisps of red smoke continuing to swirl about. I can see them, but not my body. I try to look down to see the bridge of my nose, but it was not there. Suddenly, the smoke begins to ripple, and I hear a sickening, unnatural cackling noise.
“What are you?” I try to shout, but then remember I do not have a throat from which to broadcast my voice.
“I am no one, and I am everyone.”
I am taken aback. This otherworldly voice I hear speaks to me in a language I understand. How can that be possible?
“What do you want?” I plead, wanting to end this horrid experience as quickly as possible.
“Why do you diminish me? Why have you upset the balance?”
“What are you talking about? What balance? Where am I?” I cry out, though no words are formed.
The red smoke undulates into an indistinguishable shape. It continues to contort itself repulsively, and for a brief moment it resembles a coiled snake…
“YOU COME HERE WITH YOUR BANNERS OF WAR, LEAVING NOTHING BUT A WAKE OF DISEASE, DISTRUCTION AND DEATH TO MY LAND, AND ASK ‘WHAT BALANCE’?”
The voice is deafeningly loud despite my lack of ears to hear. I am petrified with terror, as the continually undulating mass of smoke continues to gyrate.
“I’m sorry!” I cry, desperate to appease this creature, whatever it may be. “What can I do? What can be done?”
There is a great, heaving sigh. The mass seems to be exhaling, wheezing as it deflates. This time, when the apparition speaks, it returns to its original voice.
“The balance has been disturbed. It can only be steadied with time. The balance will be restored on its own, I cannot interfere… how long it will take, only you will know…”
There is a sinister snicker, and though I have no body, I feel terror seize me once again.
There is another sound like a long, wheezing exhale. The red vapor swirls into a cloud, and then forms a ghostly passageway. I step into it, not knowing what to expect.
There is a brilliant flash of light, as the disassociation from my body ends. It was then that I saw her.
She is at the end of a corridor, holding our baby son in her arms.
I sprint towards her at full speed, not caring how either I nor she nor my son got there. I run toward her, wanting nothing more to embrace her.
Yet, no matter how hard I pump my legs, she remains as far away as she was to begin with. The features of my loved ones are blurred and unnatural. I continue to sprint onward, my legs beginning to tire, still not gaining any ground.
I cry out to her, hoping in desperation that she’ll see me, awake from her hypnosis, and come to me. I don’t slow the pace of my run; I continue to towards a goal I can never reach.
I’m still chasing her.