In the early sixteenth century, Ponce de León led several expeditions to Florida. He was searching, according to legend, for the Fountain of Youth. He never found it, of course. One of his men did.
Lazaro Valdés was a sixteen-year-old sailor from Asturias. Against his mother’s wishes, he joined Ponce de León’s final expedition. She wept for days, but Lazaro knew she would cry with joy when he returned with his arms full of gold.
Two ships sailed from San Juan. On the first night at sea, the experienced soldiers told stories about the swamps of Florida and the poisoned arrows of the Calusa warriors. One of the soldiers had lost an eye on the last expedition, and he forced Lazaro to put a finger into his empty socket. Lazaro vomited, and the soldier laughed and laughed.
Lazaro did not want to have an empty socket for an eye—or, worse, to die, with a poisoned arrow in his chest, knee-deep in a swamp. He did not want his mother to be right.
And so one night, in the middle of the second watch, he stole a jug of water and a handkerchief full of biscuits, crept above deck, lowered one of the boats into the water, and watched as the two ships sailed toward the setting moon. When they had passed over the horizon, he took up the oars and rowed in the opposite direction.
He hoped to return to San Juan, and from there, find a passage back to Spain. But the next morning, his boat was caught in a current, which pulled him toward a small rocky island. He heard a long scrape, and soon the water was pooling at his feet. He took off his boots and swam to the shore of the island, and watched his boat break on the rocks.
Lazaro sat on the beach for hours, squinting at the horizon until it was too dark to see. He knew that the ships would not pass by—but then again, what if they did? Perhaps another sailor had deserted: Lazaro would swim out to him, kiss his hands and face and feet, and row them all the way back to San Juan himself. Or maybe Ponce de León had noticed his absence, and sent a rescue party. Lazaro would wave them down too, and accept his punishment. No amount of flogging would be worse than dying here on this rock, alone.
He waited on the beach until sunset, and then he continued to wait.
He woke up wet—the tide had come in. He retreated up the beach, and ate a few bites of wet biscuit. His mouth hurt with thirst.
He walked inland. The island was flat and hard—gray limestone and brownish grass. It had a few trees, which bore small unripe figs. Lazaro picked one, but neither his fingers nor his teeth could break its thick green rind.
At the center of the island was a long narrow opening in the rock. Lazaro bent over it, and heard water splashing on stone. He lowered himself into the opening, kicking until he felt the rock below.
It was a cave. Water trickled out from one of its walls, and collected in a little pool. Lazaro scooped some of the water into his hands and sniffed it. It smelled like nothing, so he drank it, and became immortal.
Lazaro didn’t know this, of course. But that hardly mattered: the Fountain worked anyway.
He drank again, and washed his face. It was now the hottest part of the day, so he lay down against the wall of the cave, out of the sun, and listened to the water dribbling into the pool. When he woke, the sun had just set, and the sky was purple and orange.
He had eaten nothing all day except a few bites of wet biscuit, but he was not hungry. Still, he knew that he should eat, so he left the cave and searched for food. As he was walking across a plain of rocks at the northeast corner of the island, he felt the ground shuffle beneath him. He had stumbled into a colony of iguanas. When he realized what they were, he grabbed the nearest iguana by the tail and whipped it against the rocks until he heard its back snap.
He brought the iguana back to the cave—his cave, as he had already come to think of it. With dry grass and sticks, he built a little fire, and in an hour, the iguana was roasted. He decided to start with the tail, which seemed meatier than the rest. But when he raised it to his mouth, the smell repulsed him. There was something dead in it.
He told himself that he would try to eat again when he woke, but he wasn’t hungry in the morning, or the morning after that. And yet he felt perfectly fine. Another few days passed without any hunger, and he understood that he no longer needed to eat.
The island was a few miles long and few miles wide. Lazaro could walk from end to the other in less than an hour. Sand, iguanas, grass, figs, cave—that was it.
Lazaro spent his days at the southern tip of the island, which was, he guessed, the closest point to San Juan. He kept a little smoky fire burning on the beach as a signal to any passing ship. The island’s grass burned poorly, so Lazaro had to feed the fire every few minutes. This annoyed him for a few weeks, but later, he was thankful: it was something to do.
And so he lay on the beach and tossed grass into the fire and thought. What had happened to him? He had not eaten in weeks, and did not want to eat. He looked at his reflection in the pool, and found it was still the same. His hair or nails did not seem to grow. To test this, he bit his right thumbnail—three days later, it was still ragged.
Was God punishing him for deserting? Was he in hell? Or maybe he really had found the Fountain of Youth. But wasn’t it supposed to be a grand fountain of gold and silver? Where were the naked deathless girls that were supposed to play in its waters?
These and other explanations flitted through his mind. But what did it matter? He was here.
Sometimes, he swam out from the island, but he never let it out of his sight. The only thing worse than being stuck on the island was being lost on the sea.
After a few months, he decided that he was on the wrong side of the island, and moved his signal fire to the western shore. Another few months passed. He convinced himself that he had been right the first time, and returned to the south.
Then the rainy season came, and the hurricanes. He was driven into the cave for days at a time. He lay on a little bed of grasses, listening to the rain and the trickling of the fountain, somewhere between sleep and waking. He had long pleasant dreams that he never remembered.
The rains ended, and he returned to his fire. But what was the point? No one would come. Why sit in the hot sun and wait and worry? Why not dream in the cool of the cave?
When the rains returned, he found he was almost content.
By the fifth year, he no longer kept the fire. He spent most of his days now in the cave, neither asleep nor awake. His drowsy thoughts blended with the faint drip of the water from the wall, and for hours at a time, he drifted somewhere between his body and the water, dispersed and suspended in the cool still air.
For the first decade or so, he talked to himself and sang and hummed. But as the years passed, his words ran together, and his humming became slow and tuneless. Ideas and questions receded. More and more, his life was like that of the iguanas—still and silent.
By the end of the century, language had died out in him. He had spent sixteen years hearing and using it, and seventy without.
He had not aged. The face that was reflected in the pool when he drank looked the same as it had when he came to the island. This should have shocked him. But to be shocked at his appearance required him to recognize that the thing reflected in the water was him. And he did, sometimes, if he stared long enough. But more often the face in the water appeared to him as a strange watcher—some other who darts and looms and stares.
He was not entirely alone. Besides the iguanas and the migratory birds, the island had a few human visitors. In the middle of the seventeenth century, a Taíno woman escaped the hacienda in a little canoe—she had dug it herself, in secret, and hid it in the roots of a mangrove. She rowed as far from the hacienda as she could, hoping to find somewhere that the Spanish had not yet discovered. She stopped for a few hours on Lazaro’s island, but decided it was uninhabitable and continued west. Lazaro was asleep in his cave.
Sixty years later, the most feared pirate ship in the Caribbean was Prince Charlie’s Fancy. Its crew mutinied, and voted that the old captain should be marooned on the nearest deserted island, which happened to be Lazaro’s. The captain was left on the shore with a jug of water and a pistol with a single bullet, and Prince Charlie’s Fancy sailed into the sunset. Lazaro woke to the sound of the shot. He found the captain’s body on the shore, stared at it for some time, returned to the cave, and slept.
By the nineteenth century, the island appeared on maps. Haiti called it Dessalines; the United States and Britain called it Georges Island. All three countries claimed it, though none very vigorously. The U.S. asserted its claim under the Guano Islands Act of 1856, which gave it sovereignty over all Caribbean islands with significant guano deposits. A Coast Guard ship briefly visited the island in the early twentieth century, but they found little guano, so the U.S. did not pursue its claim.
No—Lazaro’s island did not matter. For all the world cared, it might sink into the sea.
Which, of course, it would.
In the early twenty-first century, a U.N. report identified Dessalines/Georges Island as “imminently threatened” by rising sea levels. Even if warming was limited to two degrees Celsius, the island—and thousands of others—would be underwater by 2050.
The U.N. report was the top story on major news sites for almost two hours; in the afternoon, however, it was preempted by even bigger news: the president had called Portugal as a “dump.” Nonetheless, the report was not forgotten. Important organizations noted its findings, and began to work with speed and alacrity.
A month later, Duchess Cruise Line announced an “intriguing and ground-breaking opportunity.” Soon, it would offer a new experience, which it called the Sunset Tour. The Sunset Tour would visit only locations that the U.N. report deemed “threatened” or “imminently threatened.” These included many of the most beautiful spots in the Caribbean, and they were only available for a limited time.
Duchess’s promotional materials stressed the Sunset Tour’s social value. The cruise would be an act of witness, and Duchess would donate three percent of each booking to resettlement efforts for those affected by climate change. In addition, the Sunset Tour would provide its guests with a holistic approach to wellness, including a spa, fitness center, and at least four onboard yoga instructors. At sea, there would be countless opportunities for personal growth, including painting and poetry classes, wine tastings, and mindfulness workshops. In short, the Sunset Tour would a powerful, once-in-history experience, done in style and comfort.
The Sunset Tour was contentious. The New York Times and The Atlantic debated the ethics of climate change tourism, while Fox accused Duchess of succumbing to political correctness. #BoycottDuchess rose and fell. But as Duchess anticipated, demand was strong, and within a week, the Sunset Tour had sold ninety percent of its bookings.
The cruise’s route was determined in large part by the existing cruise infrastructure; many threatened locations, such as Key West and Grand Turk, were already well equipped to accommodate large ships and their passengers. But for the more adventurous guest, Duchess offered day-trips to smaller islands, some of which were entirely untouched by human hands. These off-the-beaten path excursions could be added to any Sunset Tour package for only $90.99 for adults and $85.99 for children.
One of the excursions was to Dessalines/Georges Island. A team of Duchess associates had scouted it one November morning. They rated it poorly in terms of natural beauty, though the iguanas were seen as a “plus.” However, the island had the advantage of being entirely untouched, and its location made it ideal for a day-trip from Grand Turk. It was evaluated against several other possible excursions, but its convenience ultimately outweighed their more scenic qualities. The Sunset Tour brochure called the island “a paradise of unspoiled nature.”
And so, on the fifth day of the inaugural Sunset Tour, a boat carrying the excursioners left from Grand Turk, and landed in the late morning on the shore of Dessalines/Georges Island. Many of the guests wore hiking boots, and some carried collapsible trekking poles. Before they left the boat, a Duchess associate gave a brief natural history of the island—when it was formed, what kind of stones and trees and wildlife it had, when it was expected to be underwater—and warned the guests to walk with care, reminding them that they had signed waivers indemnifying Duchess for any injuries received during the excursion.
At first, the guests hung around the shore. They took pictures of the iguanas and the horizon and their feet in the sand, and plucked figs from the trees and asked each other if they were safe to eat. A group decided to hike inland. Soon enough, they found the mouth of a cave, and took pictures of it. The flashes of their phones and cameras lit the cave, and several guests swore that they saw an animal—something long and hairy. One of the guests—the owner of two New England Subaru dealerships—turned on his phone’s flashlight, lay on his stomach, stretched out his arm, and shone the light into the cave. Some of the guests told him to move to the left, others to the right, and then there it was—a young man, naked, sleeping. Someone shouted, and the owner of the two New England Subaru dealerships dropped his phone into the cave.
A portion of the group returned immediately to the shore, their hiking poles left scattered around the mouth of the cave. But the owner of the two New England Subaru dealerships had lost his phone—the new iPhone 10X. His wife turned on her phone’s flashlight, and pointed it into the cave, and she and her husband shouted—first in English, then in half-remembered high school Spanish—at the naked man, asking him to give them the phone. The naked man blinked and squinted.
Eventually, a Duchess associate arrived at the cave, and he too shouted in English and half-remembered high school Spanish at the naked man. The naked man continued to blink and squint.
The owner of the two New England Subaru dealerships wanted to climb into the cave and retrieve his phone, but the Duchess associate discouraged it, fearing the media nightmare that would ensue if a guest were attacked by a confused or hostile presence. No, the island had now become an unstable situation, and Duchess Cruise Line guidelines were clear: the excursion had to be cut short. The owner of the two New England Subaru dealerships protested—it was the new iPhone 10X—but nonetheless, they returned to the boat, which left thirty minutes before its scheduled departure time.
The Subaru dealer’s wife had taken a video of the naked man, and when she returned to the cruise ship’s reliable wifi, she posted it to Twitter (along with several other posts alleging that Duchess had “allowed” the naked man to steal her husband’s iPhone 10X). Within an hour, the video had been retweeted 3,500 times.
Duchess’s rapid response team went to work. It promised to buy the Subaru dealer a new iPhone 10X, and apologized, noting that the naked man’s behavior did not reflect the values of Duchess Cruise Lines. But the team also noticed that many of the replies to the video were positive, describing the naked man as “cute” or “hilarious.” A still image from the video soon became a meme: the naked man’s confused face was paired with captions such as “Me when I wake up before 9:00.”
Duchess’s team was nothing if not professional, and recognized the potential for positive brand associations. The naked man provide an opportunity to demonstrate the social values that motivated the Sunset Tour and Duchess Cruise Line more generally. And so the next day, Duchess announced that it would personally arrange for the naked man’s resettlement.
A team of Duchess associates and a translator were sent to the island. They found the man sleeping in the cave. The translator spoke too him in English and Spanish and Creole, but the man did not respond. One associate climbed into the cave, and the man remained calm and gentle. The associate placed a rope around the man’s waist, and the rest of the team pulled him up. The man allowed himself to be led to the boat, and before the island was out of sight, he was asleep again.
The team brought the man to Grand Turk, and from there to Ft. Lauderdale, where Duchess’s headquarters were located. He was taken to the hospital for evaluation. Doctors pronounced him perfectly healthy.
There were, however, two problems. Duchess had hoped to find a translator for the man so he could be interviewed by the media and express his gratitude for the life that awaited him in the U.S. But the man would not speak. His vocal cords were, the doctors said, undamaged; he simply didn’t use them. Several of the doctors compared the man to a cat—he looked at you when you spoke, but with no real interest.
The other—and more concerning—problem was food. The man refused to eat. His body did not exhibit hetosis or any of the other signs of malnutrition, but the doctors and Duchess worried, and counsel for the hospital warned of enormous potential liability. And so it was decided: if the man continued to refuse food, a feeding tube would have to be inserted.
The doctors explained this to the man. He continued to stare at them, and pushed away all the food they offered. They were left with no choice: the man was sedated, and the tube installed. When he woke, he could not or would not understand the doctors’ explanations, and at great pain to himself, he tried to remove the tube. Accordingly, he was connected to an IV, which kept him in a state of moderate-to-deep sedation.
In the meantime, Duchess released a media kit about its efforts to resettle the man and its commitment to sustainability and global citizenship. The kit included pictures of the man’s rescue from the island and statements from the Duchess associates who had helped him. A press release noted that despite a language barrier, the man had communicated how happy he was to be a member of the Duchess Cruise Lines family, and he looked forward to sharing his inspiring story with the world.
Journalists converged on Ft. Lauderdale. Dozens waited in the lobby for daily press conferences with the man’s doctors. A New York Post photographer rented a hotel room that overlooked the hospital, and from there, snapped pictures of the man sleeping in his bed, which the Post ran under the headline JUAN DOE. CNN gave hourly updates, and the Huffington Post offered full Juan Doe coverage—“Kylie’s Reaction to Juan Doe is On. Point.” Buzzfeed published an article that used Harry Potter GIFs to speculate on the mysterious man’s origins, and a Colbert clip in which Paul Rudd played Juan Doe amassed several million views.
On YouTube, a user called theodosius1488 uploaded an eighteen-minute video about Juan Doe. theodosius1488 analyzed the hidden messages in Duchess’s media kit, and proved that Juan Doe was not from an island at all: he was from El Salvador, and a member of a gang, probably MS-13. Juan Doe thus represented the newest strategy for illegal immigration—infiltrate the country in the guise of helpless climate refugees. This was the endgame of the globalist conspiracy of “climate change:” cultural Marxists like Duchess Cruise Line could use the supposed crisis to help illegals enter the country and undermine American values.
theodosius1488’s video received more than 300,000 views in twenty-four hours, and topped YouTube’s Trending tab. The site removed it, but other accounts reposted it, and soon #BoycottDuchess was rising again. Politifact rated the claim that Juan Doe was an illegal immigrant “mostly false,” and major media outlets published fact-checkers and explainers on the theory. It continued to spread. The hospital began to receive angry phone calls and death threats against its employees. The president tweeted that Duchess was “very stupid” and “very bad” for helping illegal immigrants enter the country. Members of his own party expressed their surprise and disappointment, while liberals noted that immigrants like Juan Doe were hardworking and patriotic—many of them became entrepreneurs or served their country in uniform.
And so on.
The man remained in a state of moderate-to-constant sedation. Each time the doctors tried to reduce his level of sedation, the man attempted to remove the feeding tube, even breaking the restraints in which he had been placed. The situation was untenable: Duchess had already amassed nearly $900,000 in medical bills, far more than it had allocated for the man’s resettlement.
Duchess had planned to offer the man a loan to finance career training and the down payment on a home, but in light of the medical debt, it began to reconsider its strategy. Ultimately, it decided to offer the man a position with Duchess. Such a position would give the man both a supportive community—the Duchess Cruise Lines family—and the opportunity to repay the costs of his treatment a little at a time from each paycheck. Despite his lack of training and language, Duchess was confident he could serve as a custodial associate on one of the ships—the company was proud to say that it did not discriminate on the basis of culture or disability.
The president tweeted about Juan Doe on a Tuesday. On Wednesday, everyone expressed his or her shock or disappointment. On Thursday, the president referred to the Japanese prime minister as a “chinaman.” Members of his own party expressed their surprise and disappointment, while liberals noted that Asian-Americans were hardworking and patriotic. #JuanDoe and #BoycottDuchess no longer appeared in Twitter’s trending topics; only a few local journalists came to the doctors’ press conferences. And so it was hardly reported that on Saturday morning, the doctors removed the man’s feeding tube and brought him out of moderate-to-deep sedation.
The man woke, and the doctors noted a change: the cat-like indifference was gone. His eyes now darted and glared. The doctors began to explain that he would soon be discharged into Duchess’s care, but before they understood what was happening, the man was out of the room. His IV stand trailed behind him—he tore the wires from his arm, and ran.
Nurses and doctors followed, shouting, but it didn’t matter. He could smell the sea now. The automatic doors of the hospital slid open, and the man sprinted down Las Oslas Boulevard, onto the beach, and into the water. With long chopping strokes, he swam past the bobbing children and the paddleboarders, beyond the sandbar, toward the horizon. The blue hospital gown slipped from his body, and the waves carried it back to the shore.
For five hundred years, he had avoided swimming out of sight of his island because he feared being lost at sea. But now he knew that there was something worse than death, so he swam and swam.
The lights of the city disappeared behind him, and still he swam. He grew tired, but not hungry. The sun rose, and set, and rose again, and then he saw land. He came out of the water and onto the beach, and slept for fifteen hours in the roots of a mangrove. When he woke and looked around, he understood that this island was not his island, so he returned to the sea.
That was the northern tip of Bimini. From there, he swam east, and in a few days, landed at Gold Cay. He continued southeast along the coast of Andros Island, and then to Cayo Cruz.
But none of these were his island. Under the anesthesia, he had dreamed of it. The island had been drowned in cool, searing light, and in the air, he had heard an almost silent humming—a thousand soft voices twanging from the bottom of the cave to the tops of the figs trees. The island had appeared to him then as it never had before—bright and sweet, a home.
So he continued on, swimming along the coast of Cuba, avoiding the lights of cities and towns, past Baracoa, toward the Atlantic.
The odds were against him: he had never known where his island was, and now he was alone on a great sea. He knew this. But he continued.
He was, in a way, happy—much happier than he had ever been on the island. For the first time since the sixteenth century, he was not entirely hopeless. He did not know what he was doing, but he had forever to do it. It might take him another five centuries, but he knew that it would happen eventually: one gray day, after thousands and thousands of failures, he would see the island in the distance, and recognize it as his own.
After a few years, Duchess stopped offering Dessalines/Georges Island as an excursion—the sea level had risen and risen, and there was hardly anything to see. The saltwater had choked the fig trees, and the colony of iguanas had dwindled to four or five solitary males. The excursion from Grand Turk was moved to another island, which had recently been deemed “imminently threatened.” Fortunately for the Sunset Tour, there would be no shortage of these.
And so the tide came in, a few inches further every day. The remaining iguanas retreated to the cave, and were safe for a little while. But the tide kept coming, always further than before, until one day, it spilled into the cave, and the water of the fountain mixed with the salt of the sea.
RYAN NAPIER's stories have appeared in Entropy, Queen Mob's Tea House, minor literature[s], and others, and his chapbook Four Stories about the Human Face will be published by Bull City Press in 2018. He lives in Massachusetts. Twitter: @ryanlnapier.