Juan Ponce de Leon
“Here I sit,” the weathered old man said. He was lanky and his hair, once black as night, was now white as summer clouds. His threadbare, colorless clothing hung on his bones like tattered sheets in a breeze. He was alone.
“I am Juan, Juan Ponce de Leon, a Spanish knight and famed explorer,” he professed in a raised voice. “I’ve seen it all. You hear me?” he asked the air. “No matter,” he muttered. “It is time I tell what I know.”
He stretched his leg, long and too thin, and hitched up his trousers before resting his foot back on the polished, stone step. Behind him, the waters in the rectangular, white stone fountain lay calm and still. “When I came to this place, some five hundred years ago, the locals called it ‘ooki ungach haasi,’ the water of the sun. They warned us to stay away. Said it was only for the old ones. My men refused to go near it, but I was drawn in. It pulled me. ¿Entiendes? You understand?”
He rubbed his jaw, tilted his head to one side, and waited for a confirmation that only he could hear.
“This place was old even then,” he continued. “The trees surrounding it were thick and tall. Their fallen leaves covered the ground. Their branches were dense enough to block out the sun. I remember making my way down the narrow path for the first time. My sword held at the ready, I paused after each step and listened, expecting something to spring from the shadows and challenge me. It felt as if something was there, close, but just out of sight. I don’t remember breathing until I stepped past a gigantic tree trunk and saw the stone structure in the clearing.” He closed his eyes and smiled at the memory. “The sight of it brought a gasp from my lips. I let my sword fall from my hand. There was no need for it. This place was so full of peace. I’d seen great buildings, the finest cathedrals built by the greatest stone masons, but nothing could compare to this simple fountain. Look!”
The old man turned his palms up and spread his arms. “Look at them. Look at the stones that surround this well. See how they appear seamless, white and smooth as fresh linen on a fresh-made bed. They’re ancient, but look as if they were laid only this morning.”
“Over five hundred years I’ve been here. I’ve seen it all. I’ve watched each new arrival and I’ve waited for my story to play out as each of theirs has. But, yet I remain.”
He nodded to no one. “The trees are long gone. The first of them went less than fifty years after I arrived. I remember when the men came with their axes and saws. They cut down and cleared everything in as much of a direct line as you can imagine, right up to the well. At first, I feared they had come to destroy this place. I heard their whispers about how they hated it. No man among them, save their leader, Pedro and the woman that came with him, would even dare get close. I watched their arrival on that sunny day. I saw it all and understood none of it at the time.”
His eyes closed slowly. There was a slight quiver in his bottom lip and he sat for a moment before continuing. “After she was gone, that man, Pedro would walk up these very steps and sit on the edge. He stared into the fountain for hours at a time. He never drank and did not disturb the stillness of the waters. He just gazed into their depths.”
A grin eased onto his face. “It was by force of that man’s will that construction began on the first building here. His men worked day and night, driven by the promise that once the great hall was completed, they could leave. They used the lumber from the trees and the local stone. It took them two years and most died of fever before the task was complete. The few who lived to see the building finished, disappeared into the swamp soon after the last beam was notched into place. Only the man who led them, Pedro, remained.”
The old man’s brown eyes were softly unfocused as he looked toward the cracked and crumbling wall. “There were many others before I arrived. I have no doubt of that, but the leader of those men is the first I can speak of. I watched him die here.”
His grin faded for a solemn moment. “Funny how a man can have a fond memory of a death.” He blinked the thought away and smiled, “Pedro lived in the great hall, but after what happened to the woman, he spent an ever increasing amount of time sitting and looking into the waters. He’d sit for days, not even leaving to eat. He just sat, grinning happily down at the water like he was staring into the face of his lover.”
With a strong rocking motion, the old man pushed himself up and stood. Cautiously, he stepped down and walked a few steps forward before he stopped at the flat wall. He lifted his hand and patted it gently. “This wall, nearest to the fountain, is all that remains of that first structure. The rest is newer, added to and torn down as residents came and went. But it’s the fountain that makes this building more than it appears. I know the truth of it. I know what it is and of late, I’ve learned why it summoned me all those years ago.” He laid his head against the wall and spread his arms out wide. “Forgive me for the years I spent hating my circumstance and wishing I could leave,” he pleaded. “I didn’t understand then, but I do now.”
Inhaling deeply, he pushed back and turned around. He lifted his face upwards and called out, “I am Juan Ponce de Leon and I must now speak of this place.”
A sudden, hard breeze whipped dust into the old man’s face. He raised his arms to shield himself until it had passed. With one hand, he shaded his eyes and scanned the horizon. “These words on the wind will reach their intended ear,” he declared. “My purpose will be fulfilled. I will tell what I know.”