by Matt Leibel
From the Journals of
Notes for a Voyage to the New World, Number Five Hundred and ----
Im no longer a Discoverer. Now Im merely a man.
And barely one, at that. Im increasingly irrelevant, a curio, an antique. I am no longer a Conqueror: merely a figurehead, as meaninglessly emblematic as any modern monarch. I tire of my continuing role: my legs are creaky, my back aches no end. My Voyages now lack novelty: the trip from the Continent to the New World is chillingly commonplace, with Concordes speed-sailing the Atlantic in seconds. New frontiers have eclipsed me. Theyre mapping craters on Pluto these days. Theyre landing football-playing robots on Jupiter. Theyre colonizing Antarctica and pushing penguins back into to the Sea. And yet, I continue to sail.
My destination: America. What a shock: America, again. Ive discovered the New World hundreds of times. As an obscure provision of the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, I was sworn to do the bidding of the Spanish King in the way of Discovery, in perpetuity. I had no idea it would come to this. The Spanish government now uses me for National Pride, crass commercialism. A public relations agency in Madrid milks my annual pilgrimages for what theyre worth. Each year I stand in port upon my arrival, the photo-op, the press conference. I hawk what they tell me, the newest Columbus-themed product, be it theater or tapas bar, cologne, condom or cerveza. I am an eternal explorer, a Quincentennial sailor, charting once-new courses at the whim of the winds and currents, on and on, until the end of time
I shout directions to the crew, the crusty and trusty minions of the Santa María. Yes, that venerable ship is still navigating the stormy Atlantic all these years hence, albeit now decrepit and nearly unsailable after countless renovations. And, to satisfy the needs of the Voyages sponsors, I have been asked to plaster the outside of the hull with those most incongruous of modern monstrosities: Advertising Banners. Now, the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa María sail under the flags of Coke, IBM, El Pollo Loco, and Dr. Jiménez Foot Powder. So be it.
I will arrive, by design, on Columbus Day, a day of dubious Honor. My route: so familiar to me that my navigational chart is little needed. Catch a tailwind to the Canary Islands, across the Tropic of Cancer for a stop at the Cape Verdes and re-tack Southward, on to Brazil (I detest the Panama Canal: I have my reasons; I am loath to rehash them here) to the Falklands, Cape Horn, up along the Chilean Coast, Juan Fernández, the Felix Islands, the Galápagos, a reunion with old amigos in San Salvador, up to Guadeloupe and finally, my destination: California...America.
America... My navigation had netted the World this Imperial land mass, this bounteous treasure chest, land of liberty, arable soil and trees tall enough to tickle the underbellies of clouds. My explorations cleared the way for the Dominicans, those monks who brought to the New World the news of the one true God. My conquests gave the Spaniards half a world: the Portuguese kept the rest. And yet, when it came time to Christen the place, the German cartographer Waldseemüller, seduced by false claims and fanciful maps, had the gall to name it after Amerigo Vespucci, a liar and cheat, a leech and a drunkard, a minor figure in the annals of Discovery, a pinprick on the Grand Map of History.
In (ha!) America, I am a faded legend, my shine has worn off. The rust on my textbook image is pervasive and palpable. I am a whipped and lacerated myth: you can see the bruises all over me. They call me an Imperialist, they call me a Johnny-Come-Lately. Leif Erickson beat me to the punch by 300 years. The Siberians skated in on glacial walkways and beat me here by 3000. But I have never laid claim to originality. God is the only one who can claim that: the Map is His, the Land is His. The Vision and the Master Plan are all on His lustrously divine shoulders. I only lay claim to revealing a land for King and Country (for the country that was paying me, not the country that was Mine). The expectations of me were too high: no one could possibly meet them. In the harsh and lasting judgments of History, I was the victim of Hype. I took the historical fall for a series of injustices and uprisings oceans beyond me. I was supposed to have discovered that the world is Round: as if, during my four initial junkets, I somehow feared falling off the edge, into some kind of empty, black, layered space, some starry-nighted Oblivion at the Edge of the Sea. I can tell you this with Textbook certainty: I feared no such thing. No educated Iberian of my time could believe such a thing: Archimedes, in his wisdom, suggested the spherical nature of the World centuries ere. Although, I must admit, the concept has a certain fascination, a kind of flattened charm: I find myself wondering about this edge, what is there, what is beyond it. I suppose that is why theyve moved on to Space, these days. I suppose theyll always want to chart the blank spaces. I suppose theyll always want to Discover Oblivion. But not me. Fie! Im finished with all of that. Its a young mans game, and Im a weary sailor, with the creased lines of faded sea-charts etched into my face.
Scouting in the distance the outline of a Coast, a curved mass. Hearing the seaman atop the mainsail shout out Land Ho! We dock at the Pier, greeted by the relentless flashes of these cameras, mechanized fireflies that record my Visage, the dubious chroniclers of my increasingly tedious Celebrity. I find it of interest that Camera sounds so much like Chimera, the lion-goat-serpent Monstrosity of ancient times: the two Beasts may find themselves meeting someday, in the Hereafter, perhaps. Perhaps one day I will be there to greet them.
Instead, I greet the other twin-beasts, the Press and the Tourists. I am trained to wave: to mimic the harsh thunders of the sea with my enfeebled, arthritic hand. I smile with my rotten teeth, yellowed with age, gritty as sea-salt. A fat Spaniard in a sleek, silvery suit - a costume, I imagine, of a distant, mythic land I have yet to Conquer - puts his arm around me and whispers cursory congratulations in broken, patronizing Italian. Local dignitaries, including a Mayor, black as coal in a suit white as the Moon, shake my hand and present me with the Key to the City. It seems a ludicrous gesture, and yet the idea intrigues me, revives my fanciful explorers whimsy: is it possible, a key that unlocks the Portals of the City, that opens glistening chests of Gold, that frees an Underworld of pirates and heathens, that tunnels down to a hidden Harem? Could I truly explore such a place with such a Key? The Drift of my mind is stemmed as the Spanish man hands me a box of what he tells me is Dog Food (the shiny-shaggy luminous creature shown on the box in no way reminds me of the mangy mutts who scuttle about for discarded fish-bones amidships during my own arduous Journeys...) The man asks me to smile: he even uses his fingers to manipulate his lips as if to model the gesture for me. I oblige.
I see the others, there to greet me. The ones who truly interest me, the Contrarians. They hold up placards, denouncing me. GO HOME, IMPERIALIST, one reads. The faces that hold up the placards are white, black, brown. It is, I know, what the land I discovered has become: it is what they call the Melting Pot. They scream at me and spit and they pelt me with whatever they can grab: rocks, apples, baby bottles.
The fat Spaniard and two of his henchmen guide me safely through the crowd. I am put into a taxi and taken to a hotel. The hotel: what strikes me about it is the sheer towering height, and the glassy, silvery sheen of it against the emerging noonday sun. I am told to wash. My aroma is gamey as seals breath, my skin slimy as sturgeon, and I crave the landed luxuries of the hotel bathroom: the packeted soaps, the scented oils, everything of the Khans Palace of lore save the servant girls to fan you and rub you down (aye, I miss the rose-petal feel of Femininitys touch, I miss the aqua-blue bloom of youth...)
From my balcony I spy the Contrarians. They continue their march, with their placards, their megaphones (the amplified foghorns of a particularly loud and insistent God) their chanted slogans and their flags featuring my own defaced Visage. They detest me. I am Europe to them: I am all Europes atrocities, all its bombastic claims to transcontinental sovereignty, all its idle treachery and luxurious arrogance. It is easy, I expect, to cast someone whom you have never met as a Metaphor. I find it indeed difficult at times to avoid the Devils trap of seeing myself in such a manner. But alas, I am flesh and blood, if decaying flesh and cooling blood.
I hear a voice, booming through the megaphone. Lilting, lovely. I take out my binoculars (a sailor would be remiss in neglecting such a navigational advance, would he not?) and focus my attentions on the bearer of this voice. It is a woman, barely more than a girl. A dark vision: her skin Indian-brown, her hair a stunning black, like silk dyed in liquefied charcoal. Her lips full, her face as soft and round as the words she is saying are rigid and flat. A sign behind her reads INDIGENOUS PEOPLES DAY: CELEBRATING THE ORIGINAL AMERICANS. Theres that name again: America. Somehow, this time, it doesnt make me cringe. She has said my name with scorn, time after time. But she does say my name. Ah, the sound of my name! I feel a current rushing through me: a wave, pushing me forward. I feel like a sailor once more.
I rummage through the room for a scrap of paper. I cannot let her labor under the misapprehension that I am this terrible thing. Nay, I cannot! I cannot let her think I am this 'Dead White Man' she continues to refer to. I say: I AM NOT WHAT YOU THINK I AM. I AM NOT THE SYMBOL YOU SEEK. I MUST SPEAK WITH YOU AT ONCE. YOURS, CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS. And in my ever-adventurous mind, I am hers, for her to do with what she will (O, would that she Would!!!).
I call for the fat Spaniard: he sends one of his henchmen. I hand him the note, sheathed in an envelope, stamped with the Royal Seal of the Spanish Court. I command him to find her, to give her this, to request the honor of her presence. Perhaps it is in vain, but I hold out Hope that she will oblige me. Hope, the only elixir that can truly give sustenance over centuries. Hope, that witches brew of Delusion and Faith, the only way to continue sailing after days and weeks and even years of flat blue nothingness.
She enters the room, arms folded across her ample chest. She has the tight-lipped scowl of a Wronged woman. (Aye, I know this look.) "Whats this all about, Columbus?" She begins. There is no Awe in her, to be in the presence of a great Explorer. There is not a lick of sycophancy to be found anywhere on her body (O, to be the Cartographer who would map her Coasts!) I am, quite simply, mesmerized.
"Please have a seat, take some tea
wont you Señorita--?"
There is something in her face, as much as she hides it behind her brazenness, something that is sweet as sugar, delicate as silk. She is close now: I can smell her, and she is more fragrant than all the spices in the Indies. My heart skips a beat like a wave forgetting to break: she is Beatriz, my Beatriz. And she leans over to press her lips against mine...except she doesnt. She doesnt lean over for this purpose, but to ask me something. She asks me, "Why do you do it, Cristoforo, why do you still sail?" And I look away, I cant bear to look at her. I know that I cannot give an answer that will satisfy her. "I do it, my dear lady," I say, " because I lack the courage to embrace Death."
And our eyes meet again for a moment. But in that nanosecond (Time is foreshortening as it passes, sailing off with every quick tick of the Clock toward the distant Horizon) I can see an Ocean within her Visage. A new Ocean, a sea-passage to the Undiscovered. If it be Romantic Delusion on my part, so be it: were it not for Romantic Delusions, the World as we know it would never have extended its boundaries beyond the pale horizons of Europe.
My evening is spent, in full garb and regalia, reliving History. I am the keynote speaker at a meeting of an organization called the Columbus Foundation. Their mission is to promote my legacy: they see themselves as an antidote to the Beatrizes of the world. They fancy themselves my Moral Support. I give them what they want: a blow-by-blow account of the first voyage, complete with all Sailings violent zigs and zags, the storms, the mood swings, the foodstuffs of Adventure that used to so thrill me and fill me, but which now leave me empty and dry. I am speaking the words but I am not hearing them: I am only hearing the sound of Her voice, denouncing me so delectably. Did I earn her Respect (albeit unspoken)? Did she leave with the impression that I am a Man, not an Icon? A man once vital, virile, and real? Did I pierce her Dogmatism and make her bleed Feeling? She is certainly a thousandfold more capable of understanding me than are these contemptible sycophants I find myself preaching to now.
After my speech I am approached by autograph seekers, hangers-on, historians of minor import: Gibbons distant shadows, Herodotus afterthoughts. They ask a series of inane questions. "What is it like to be the true Father of our Country?" ("I dont know," I fancy telling them, "why dont you ask Vespucci?") "Describe San Salvador, as it truly was when you first came upon it." ("Brimming with Savages, begging for the tiniest scrap; an amalgamation of legless Lepers, toothless Stutterers and diseased Whores...") I dismiss their questions with the utmost haste: I desperately want to leave this place.
And as the crowds file out, I am led from the auditorium: I envision Death, the undiscovered land, the one place none of our esteemed cartographers have dared to map. And now, as I envision it - aye, even almost welcome it - Deaths talons seem less sharp somehow. Almost, dare I think it, inviting. And, in a paradox more perplexing than all the anachronisms of my ungodly existence rolled up into one, the more I embrace Death, the more alive I feel.
The fat Spaniard and his security team escort me back toward the pier. Chimera-flashes bombard me: I gallantly ignore the indignity of it. As my first officer and his crew drag up the anchor from the murky green sea-floor, I stand and wave good-bye to America. I am satisfied: I know this is the last time I will see this Land. I am satisfied that they do not know this. Let them labor under an Ocean of Illusions.
The crowd grows smaller and smaller as we sail away, out into the blank blue promise of the Pacific. I can barely make out their individual Visages, but I spy something. A woman with dark hair, running, toward the pier. Pushing her way through Security, feverishly, hoping for one final glimpse. Stopped only by a thin rope-chain from plummeting into the algaed water. I know, in my gut, that it is not Her. And yet it comforts me, finally, to believe that it is, to believe that she would chase me to the edge of the Earth.
Sixty miles out to sea. Gods blue infinity seems the only discovery that matters: land, taking up less than a quarter of the earths surface, seems an afterthought, a tithe tossed in at the last moment, purely for Gods pleasure and at his capricious bidding. The first mate stares through the binoculars, out into the watery distance: the look upon his face tells me that he cannot believe what he sees. I snatch them away from him with a little more Violence than I intend, but he does not resist. And I see, finally, what I have always dreamed of seeing.
At a not so daunting distance the blue sky turns to black. The waters of the ocean appear to plummet, diving over into the Abyss beyond the Horizon, like a waterfall into Oblivion. It suddenly strikes me: the curvatures, the roundness, it was all merely an illusion. The sight of a circular earth from space was one of Gods greatest gags. I command the sailors to re-tack, to take advantage of the converging winds, to hasten the approach towards the Black. My crew, as they do but rarely, question me as they see for themselves what lies ahead, but I insist we press on, undaunted. And I find myself wondering, for the first time in more than five centuries, where I am headed: what, and who, will I find there?
|© 2000 Matt Leibel
This story may not be archived or distributed further without the author's express permission. Please see our conditions of use.
Matt Leibel lives in San Francisco, California where he makes a living as a freelance copywriter. His short fiction has appeared in print and online journals such as Pif, Parting Gifts, Cafe Irreal and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. He is currently writing a novella inspired by his experience working for a toy company. He can be reached at: email@example.com
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