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Michael Behrens decorative flourish Sixteen Roads to El Dorado

“Resolve to be thyself: and know, that he Who finds himself, loses his misery.”

– Matthew Arnold

I was waiting for a bus when the old man told me he knew the way to El Dorado. It was a Tuesday, and having nowhere good to be, I cast the day’s fate with public transportation. After a tangled route of end-of-line runs, I found myself in the middle of the desert, ready for the next leg, but unsure which way it led. An eastbound bus came and went, then a west and another east. Unable to decide on a direction, I leaned back into the bench, hoping—or maybe only wishing—for a direction to decide on me.

As the morning’s last bus pulled away, a pungent brew of brine and timber laced the desert air. I turned. Beside me an old man sprawled across the concrete bench as though basking beneath his own personal sun. His eyes were gray-blue like quarry water, wet and instantly deep, perhaps the only part of him not parched and ancient. My attention seemed all he wanted.

“Have you ever heard of El Dorado?” he asked. I pretended not to hear.

“I said, have you ever heard of El Dorado?”

“Wasn’t Coronado looking for it?” I said.

“Yes,” he replied significantly. “He sought the golden city until the day he died.” I made no further comment. “Coronado kept a journal, a secret journal which he hid from his crew. He was convinced they were trying to steal it, kill him, and seek the city for themselves. And so they were.

“The journal was filled with every shred of information he found during his quest—every wrong turn, every hopeful omen, every half-baked story from every blind Indian chief he met. Towards the end is the transcript of his encounter with an old man living alone in a deserted village.

“Coronado asked the man if he knew the way to El Dorado. The old man said he did. But then he added, ‘There is not one way to El Dorado—there are sixteen. Fifteen are decoys. Only one will bring you to the city.’ Coronado asked if the man knew where these paths were. Again, the man said he did. Every path? All sixteen. And do you know the correct road?

“The man said, ‘I do not. I have walked but two of the roads and neither was correct. Every road is long and winding, riddled with tricks and traps. The wisest and mightiest of men will be pressed to complete three wrong paths in a lifetime, and I am neither wise nor strong. I will not walk another crooked road.’

“‘I will walk it for you,’ Coronado exclaimed. ‘Tell me the roads. I will run them all! I will find the city.’

“The old man agreed to tell Coronado of the sixteen roads, where they began, how they might be followed. But no matter how hard he was pressed, he would not reveal which roads he himself had walked.

“Coronado was disappointed, but grateful for the bounty of information. He thanked the man for his assistance, and turned to leave. But as his foot crossed the threshold of the hut he heard the old man say these words: ‘I have spent my life seeking streets of gold, but in the end found only that which I most sought.’ Coronado was intrigued and turned back to look again. But the old man had vanished.”

I turned myself, looking for anyone with whom to share a get-a-load-of-this-guy glance. Then I remembered we were alone. The old man smiled sweetly.

“Would you like to know what happened next? Coronado set off at once. From what the old man had told him, he was able to piece together the starting points of the sixteen roads. His determination was endless.”

He paused for a long delayed breath, and ran his fingers along the bench’s backrest. It was my turn to speak. “Did he succeed?”

The old man grinned once more. “I suppose that depends on your definition of success. If you mean, did he find the city, it is difficult to say. Coronado does not mention finding anything. He left only descriptions of the roads he traveled and a final, puzzling quote.”

“What does it say?”

“One day Coronado set off alone on a walk, leaving the crew to relax in the shade. While he was gone, they conspired to mutiny. The next day, he staggered back to camp, eyes distant and shimmering. He opened his mouth to speak, but before a word escaped his lips, he was shot through the heart by his plotting first mate. They left him to die in the desert and fanned out in all directions, seeking the secret journal which they knew to be buried.

“So fevered and anxious were they to find its contents and continue the quest for El Dorado that all but one man perished in the heat. The one who survived died a week after the others. He had found the secret journal buried in a mound of earth at the foot of a giant cactus.

“Frantic, and desperate for food and water, he wandered for days, finally reaching a settlement of natives. He traded the journal for a meal and night’s lodging, and then died in his sleep. Unable to read the English, but respectful of its power, the Indians held it as a cursed treasure, ultimately trading it generations later to a group of Spanish settlers. One such settler, an avid archaeologist, leafed through the pages and immediately grasped what he held in his hand.

“The archaeologist decided to follow the described paths, but only completed one. Upon returning, he determined to pass on the journal to someone who seemed worthy. He would instruct the recipient on its contents and offer his suspicions as to which road was correct—but never reveal the path he took. Finally, an oath would be taken that the new owner would do the same.

“And so the journal passed through many hands. Perhaps some found the correct path. Most, I suspect, did not.

“Some years ago, a society was formed to divine the origin of the true road to El Dorado. Careful note has been made of those roads which were traveled. I walked the fifteenth road. Only one road remains.”

“And you want me to take it.”

“There are fifteen society members, and each of us has traveled a decoy. I believe we are cursed for breaking the oath. I believe the solution is to be bound by honor once more. And so I am here.”

“You want me to go out and walk some sort of road, and I’m going to find the lost city of El Dorado.”

“If you are very fortunate.”

“And what will I do if I find it?”

“When our society received the journal, the last page had been ripped out and placed in an envelope. On the envelope are instructions stating that it must not be opened until the city is found. Each of us has sought the city carrying only this.” The old man took a brown envelope from his pocket. It could have been made from his own skin, or perhaps it was that his skin was made from old envelopes.

“I’m leaving it with you,” he said. “Follow the road. If you find the city, open it. The founder of our society was told by the man who gave it to him that the contents are the puzzling final words of the journal, supposedly penned by Coronado himself moments before he was killed. Vow to take this envelope, and open it only if you succeed.”

“Why me?” I asked. For once, the old man held his silence.

I headed south.

The desert sky was vast, but the sun had not yet reached its full heat when I set out. I walked for what seemed hours, surrounded by mesas and circled by stirring vultures. Occasionally, I spied a lizard skipping from shadow to shadow.

The air was stifling, and my pace slowed. I slid in and out of concentration. After an unmarked stretch of time, I fell to the ground and slipped from consciousness.

I awoke lying on my stomach. Before me was a hole in the ground, slightly wider than my shoulders. I stood slowly and peered into the opening. At first, I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me, that I was dazed from the sun, perhaps losing my mind. What I thought I saw was this: the walls of the hole were sparkling.

As my eyes adjusted and I could see farther, it became clear that I was standing at the lip of a tunnel. Marveling, I felt a light tap on my shoulder. I turned to find not a finger, but a slow drizzle that intensified as I stared. Before long, the drizzle grew to a steady rain, then to a downpour. But here is a strange thing: The water did not make me wet. Only the roar and the crush of cold convinced me I was there at all.

After some time, the rain stopped, and the water slowly drained down the hole until only a drizzle lingered. I looked down, and the tunnel was filled, the surface perfectly flat and still. At that moment, the noon sun shown deep into the hole. The reflection on the golden walls caused the water to dance like a crazed dervish, illuminating the depths with revelry.

I saw what seemed to be miles of gold lined walls, and somewhere toward the bottom, the merest suggestion of a wider opening. A crevice? Something more? I cannot say. The sun moved on, and the glimmer faded. In its place was the glass-clear reflection, and on that watery mirror, my own face appeared awed, and though I’d hardly noticed, smiling. Behind me was blue sky speckled with a lingering golden dust. The afternoon, boundless and inviting, seemed draped over the sand like a make-shift children’s tent waiting to be infused with whatever beauty I chose to supply.

It was then that I remembered the envelope the old man had given me. I pulled it from my pocket and carefully ripped it open. Inside was a scrap of paper, and on it was written a single sentence in Spanish. Below was another note in English, this from a different hand. It read:

‘I have spent my life seeking streets of gold, but in the end found only that which I most sought.’

Sometime later, I returned to the bus stop. The old man sat just as I had left him. With a look at my face he spread his toothy grin like a winning hand. “You found it!” he said.

As he spoke, a bus pulled up. Though I turned to look as I climbed the first step, I knew already what I would find. The old man had vanished.

I scanned the other passengers as I made my way down the aisle. With only a glance, I knew who it would be. I sat beside her, and with a trembling hand offered up the tattered envelope.

“What’s this?” she asked.

At last, a direction decided by me.

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Michael Behrens is a writer and programmer from Hershey, Pennsylvania—which, for the curious, actually does smell like chocolate. He is currently seeking publication for his first children’s book, entitled "Miles". He may be contacted at mrandre@gmail.com.