El Dorado

“Vous voyez”, dit Cacambo à Candide, “que cet hémisphère-ci
ne vaut pas mieux que l’autre; croyez-moi, returnons en
Europe par le plus court.” from Candide, by Voltaire

Bedraggled lancers on their ruined horses,
the priest whose mud-encrusted Bible’s held
to bless this long and purposeful invasion,
the straggling troops in rags, bearing muskets
whose bores, for lack of oil, are filled with rust,
the officers still regal, from their boots
polished by an Aztec slave, to uniforms
made brilliant flowers by gold braid and medals —
they can’t believe what they’ve encountered here
beyond the Magdalena Valley. Pizarro
dismounts, his jewel-festooned saber rattling,
and walks into the ruined city, swearing
as he encounters children offering bodies,
not gold, to celebrate the new arrivals.
Lake Guatavita glimmers beside Omagua,
“as beautiful as a woman,” Pizarro mutters,
“whose lover’s a demented wreck onshore.”

And there, floating just beneath the surface,
Pizarro sees a spectre of the dream;
the swollen body of Omagua’s chief
bobs near. Pizarro calls a sergeant over:
“Let’s have him out!” and ropes are fastened round
the dead man’s ankles. Soldiers drag him up,
splashing in the chest-deep water, cleaning themselves.
Bloated by days of rotting in the water,
The dead chief lets a loud posthumous fart,
the master of El Dorado shrinking before
astonished eyes. The soldiers step back and pinch
their noses, struck by the sickly stench of death.
The chief’s mouth opens, belching a minnow,
a wad of mush green weed and bloody water,
but not a word of why these broken towers,
the temples on the stony boulevards,
the court for bloody games of ball, the tombs
and monuments to fallen chiefs stand empty
and gouged of everything within. What robbers
had done such things as steal a city’s fame
and all its gold while fables of its glory
still drew such expeditions?
                                                Pizarro spits,
staring into eyes whose only vision is
a hope for God. Holding his nose, Pizarro
draws out his saber, brings it near the chief,
and next, holding it in both his hands,
scrapes it gently over the dead man’s skin,
lifting the saber from time to time to look
for traces of the storied powdered gold.
“Mother of God,” he cries, finding the edge
as clean as if he’d washed it in a spring.
He issues a commandment. “Search the water!”
But when the second man has drowned in pits
so deep a hundred yards of hemp have missed him,
the great commander shakes his head and puts
aside his order. “Better to let it go
than sacrifice our lives to satisfy
this lake,” he softly tells a lean lieutenant.

The young man glares into Pizarro’s eyes.
What will he tell him of his shattered hopes,
his men who lie in graves along a trail
so far removed from Spain he wonders if
their god is even near enough to pray to.
Santa Maria Astra del la Mar,
the church in Barcelona where his brother
had christened him in 1517, looms
in memory, prayers that he once had said
echoing in gold and silver vaults
before the endless sail across an ocean.
It was a voyage into hell, he thinks.
So careless in its fury! He had once
bent down and prayed to pagan gods for help,
Poseidon, Neptune, Zeus, Pallas Athena,
calling them up from depths to soothe the waves
that battered the caravelle. They washed to sea
old friends and new, all searching for the answer
of where great El Dorado might be found.
How lucky they’d been, to die in such rich hopes,
not seeing this ruin, broken, overgrown,
a history whose pages were torn out,
a future emptied out in babies crying,
women in their ecstatic mother rages,
and beaten men, sweating beneath the trees,
all duties of their fathers as forgotten
as this dead chief they’d pulled onshore. For what?
To prove in scrapings from a drowned man’s skin
that gold and glory that they thought they’d find
had been a dream?
                                           He gazes toward the General,
who seems exasperated by his silence,
as by the lancers staring, by the priest
whose Bible’s fallen to the ground and useless,
as by soaked troops, whose mouths are gaping now,
and even by the officers who seem
to be insulting him with wordlessness.
But, holding back his rage, perhaps in fear
that death’s own lake might claim the rest of them,
Pizarro turns away, and from his breathing
someone might begin to think he cries.

Arthur Mortensen of Brooklyn has appeared in many journals and has three collections: A Disciple After the Fact, a novel in verse (Kaba Press); Life in the Theater, sequel, and Why Hamlet Waited So Long (San Sebastian Press). Upcoming is After the Crash, currently in submission. He has been editor & publisher of Somers Rocks Press, Pivot Press, and is Webmaster of www.expansivepoetryonline.com.