|Don Quixote and Candide Seek Truth, Justice and El Dorado in the Digital Age By Stefan Soto|
I reached the outskirts of this exclave just as the sun disappeared behind the mountains and by chance stumbled on an inn while roaming the cityâ€™s narrow streets. A weather-battered sign out front exhorted tourists to, â€œMeet the One and Only Don Quixoteâ€”In Person!â€ My parched throat and the sounds of laughter lured me inside where I saw a tall, gaunt gentleman with a long, white beard and matching shoulder-length hair regaling an audience of German tourists with tales of high adventure from days past.
â€œAnd that is how I defeated the black knight and thus avenged the matchless and peerless princess, whose very name I dare not sully in public drinking establishments such as this.â€
Of course, I knew that the woman in question was none other than Dulcinea del Toboso, in truth a common peasant girl. And although I had only heard the tail end of his story, I knew it well from reading El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha, or, as it is translated, Don Quixote: The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha.
â€œDon Quixote, at your service,â€ he said to me with a deep bow after the crowd of tourists dispersed. â€œI perceive you have traveled far and are in need of a restorative.â€
â€œI am known the world over as Candide,â€ I replied, returning the bow, imitating the archaic gesture with good humor. â€œI could, indeed, use a restorative, for I have been wandering the back roads of southern France for what seems an eternity. A good stiff drink is a fine antidote for heat and dust.â€
â€œProprietor, two brandies!â€ he called out.
â€œStiffer,â€ I replied.
We sat and drank not just those two whiskies but two more after that and a third round for good measure. During that time, Don Quixote recounted well-worn tales of adventure, tales I knew from having read the book and that, frankly, did not improve with the telling by their author. In wine, there is truth. In whisky, far more information than one may wish to know.
An evening chill had descended on the place, and we sat at a table next to a roaring fire.
â€œItâ€™s strange,â€ I said after ordering something to eat, â€œthat we should meet here, the two of us.â€
â€œWhy do you find that strange?â€
â€œWellâ€¦you know, your being famous for your adventures and my having celebrity for mine.â€
â€œCelebrity? You? What adventures do you claim?â€
I bolted upright in my chair. â€œSurely youâ€™ve read Candide, ou l'Optimisme, which by translation means Candide: or, The Optimist.â€
He shook his head. â€œNever heard of it.â€
â€œIt was a bestseller! Never out of print. You can go into any bookstore in Germany or Franceâ€¦â€
â€œFrance!â€ he huffed, rolling his eyes dismissively.
â€œIt garnered international acclaim!â€ I countered.
I pulled out my smartphone to access the Internet and prove my point, but the inn had no Wi-Fi service.
â€œWhen was this self-proclaimed best seller published?â€ he prodded.
â€œIn the year 1759.â€
â€œHa! Mine was published in 1605.â€ He leaned in closer and lowered his voice as if sharing a deep secret. â€œIt is common knowledge that nothing worthy of reading has been produced since 1615 when the second part of my chronicle, which the public demanded, came out.â€
I leaned toward him and was just about to tell him what I thought about that statement when a server delivering my stew interrupted us. Being famished from the dayâ€™s journey, I deferred a response and focused on my dinner.
â€œNot hungry?â€ I said at length, noticing my companion sitting quietly across the table staring at the fire.
He didnâ€™t answer for some time. Then he looked up and spoke.
â€œI do hunger.â€ He paused, glancing at a tiny laminated menu on the table. â€œBut my hunger canâ€™t be sated by a serving of paella.â€
â€œTry some of this escudella. It is to die for.â€
â€œYou misunderstand me. I have been a wanderer throughout this land lo these many years since my last adventure, roaming from inn-to-inn, delighting anyone who would listen with reminiscences of my many quests and exploits. Over the course of four centuries, I have known intimately every public house in every city, town, and hamlet throughout the land, and countless places without name. I have grown weary of recounting the past and my travels with Sancho Panza.â€
He stood and called out to a room full of astonished patrons.
â€œWhat I hunger for is truth! I hunger for justice and righteousness! I thirst for hope! I thirst for knowledge!â€
The room erupted in applause.
â€œBravo!â€ the German tourists called out, thinking his remarks part of a performance by a Don Quixote impersonator.
Then he turned and stared at me.
â€œBut most of allâ€¦I hunger and thirst for adventure!â€
I stared back at the ancient knight withâ€”Iâ€™m sure of itâ€”my mouth wide open. The words he spoke were the very thoughts weaving through my mind as I traveled that day. For years (How many? Too many!) I had wandered the highways, back roads and side trails of Europe, recounting in ever-increasing detail my adventures to whomever would listen, pay for my meal, or give me shelter. Even to me the stories became stale after the first fifty years: How I was raised by a German baron and placed under the tutelage of Professor Pangloss who espoused that no matter what happens in life, we live in the best of all possible worlds. How I fell in love with CunÃ©gonde, the baronâ€™s young daughter and was expelled from the Westphalian castle for displaying my affection. How myself, CunÃ©gonde, Dr. Pangloss, an old woman we called â€œthe old woman,â€ and my valet, Cacambo, endured many sufferings and adventures. How Cacambo and I explored the land of El Dorado where gold and jewels littered the streets like the stones and pebbles on a mountain road. How my fortunes rose and fell at the hands of Fate, and how all of us gave up adventurous lives to tend gardens on a farm outside of Constantinople, which these days is called Istanbul. How at the close of my journeys I realized that contrary to Professor Panglossâ€™s assertions, all is not for the best, evil does exist, and it is our lot in life to deal with what destiny hands us the best we can. After many years, I left the farm and returned to the German village where I first drew breath only to move further south for the warmer climes and the less fanatical populace of France, where I learned the language and wandered from village-to-village, recounting my past glories.
I, like Don Quixote, desired more than anything to travel abroad once more, to seek adventure, come what mayâ€”fortune, misfortune, riches, poverty, elation, failure, gain, lossâ€”all of which is irrelevant. What counts is to be in the game, in life, on the hunt, on the quest. It had been far too long since I tasted anything of sweet victory or sour defeat, though either is preferable to the bland diet of a pointless existence I had come to know. Suddenly, I lost all interest in the dish I had a minute before devoured with relish. I wanted to taste disaster and savor success. I wanted to feast on life!
â€œDid you know,â€ I said at length, â€œthat there is an enormous landmass many times the size of Spain and France called America? A land filled with forests, swamps, deserts, grasslands, and mountain ranges running north, south, east and west?â€
A light long dormant flickered in Don Quixoteâ€™s eyes. He wet his lips. â€œThis sounds like a place where men might find adventure,â€ he said. â€œAre the people there as civilized as we Europeans?â€
â€œIf by civilized, you mean they have had many wars, oppressed whole peoples, and embraced social status based on wealth, then the answer is a decided Yes! In addition to all that, they have theme parks.â€
He rubbed his beard in deep thought. â€œWhen Fortune taps you on the shoulder, stop and turn around; give her your full attention, for she is a shy mistress who rarely makes her presence known.â€ He spoke these words in almost a whisper, as if encouraging himself.
â€œDid you further know,â€ I continued, sweetening the pot, â€œthat the only thing standing between that land and ours is the Atlantic, an ocean fraught with storms, leviathans, and dangers so great a thousand ships a year once perished there?â€ I may have exaggerated slightly, but it achieved the desired result. The knightâ€™s nostrils flared.
â€œOf course,â€ Don Quixote informed me, leaning close so as not to be overheard by the others in the tavern, â€œwe must leave precisely at dawn, if we are going to do this properly.â€
â€œIs that an ironclad rule for beginning a quest?â€
â€œAbsolutely. This is common knowledge among knights-errant.â€
I pushed the bowl away from me and stood, lifting my glass. â€œIn that caseâ€¦a toast!â€
He raised his. â€œTo adventure!â€ he said.
â€œTo adventure!â€ I repeated.
We drained the last of our drinks, smashed the glasses in the fireplace, and shook hands.
â€œTo America?â€ I asked.
â€œTo America!â€ he cried.
The next morning we met outside the inn. A mist still blanketed the town as the sunâ€™s leading tendrils searched the eastern horizon.
â€œNow, my friend,â€ Don Quixote said, â€œhow do you propose we begin our journey? On foot, by horse, by cart, or by carriage?â€
â€œBy rail. A bus leaves in an hour for Toulouse, where we catch a train to Calais. From there, a ferry to Dover, and from Dover, another train ride into London. We should be there this evening.â€
â€œAnd how do you propose we pay for this mode of travel?â€
â€œDonâ€™t worry. Iâ€™ve got it covered.â€
â€œHow is it you have monies to cover these expenses?â€
â€œItâ€™s a long story, one which in former days would require hours in the telling. The long and short of it is that after my return from El Dorado, my compatriots and I took to farming a plot of ground, which over the years yielded not only robust crops but, far more importantly, sat atop a geologic goldmine known as crude oil. That meant nothing until 1910, when the worldâ€™s navies lost their insatiable appetite for coal-powered ships and converted to oil. Immediately, our land was worth a fortune. After 150 years of toil, we agreed to sell the farm and part ways. The money I carry on me now is all that is left of that sale, but I gladly share it with you on this final adventure.â€
â€œFinal?â€ Don Quixote cried, grasping my shoulders. â€œThis is only the beginning! Youâ€™ll see. Before our quest is over, our names will be upon the lips of every king and peasant in every land. We will have riches beyond our wildest imaginations.â€
At that moment the proprietor stepped forward.
â€œHey, you! Yes, you! You owe me two Euros for the glassware you broke last night. I donâ€™t mind you play-acting Don Quixote to draw the tourists, but Iâ€™m running a business here, and thatâ€™s an expense!â€
My companion turned on the man. â€œFirst, I am not Don Quixote, the play-actor! I am, in fact, Alonso Quixano of La Mancha, known to you and the rest of the world as Don Quixote, the original. Secondly, you and I know that tonight you will recount how Don Quixote flung his glass into the fireplace, and you will sell tickets to a gullible public to view the artifacts. Nay, you will sell enough shards of broken glass to fill the Fountain of MontjuÃ¯c. Thirdly, and finally, the customers I have attracted to your establishment have kept this miserable, hole-in-the-wall you are pleased to call an inn afloat lo these many months. They come to see me and to hear my tales, not to drink your watered-diluted wine.â€
â€œTwo euros, or I call the policÃa!â€ the innkeeper cried.
Donâ€™s eyes narrowed. He threw back his shoulders and stuck out his chest. I sensed my traveling companion-to-be was about to do something regrettable, so I fished two bills from my money belt.
â€œHere,â€ I said, shoving the money forward. â€œAll square. We have a bus to catch. Letâ€™s go!â€
â€œAnd donâ€™t come back!â€ the proprietor called out.
â€œWeâ€™ll come back when you get Wi-Fi!â€ I shouted. I meant it to sting.
â€œI must return here after our quest,â€ Don confided. â€œI left behind a portmanteau which contains my worldly possessions.â€
We walked toward the station while Don Quixote stroked his beard, deep in thought. â€œYou see what I have had to put up with for 400 years. Mean, little men fretting over every peso that falls into and out of their pockets, as if life is about counting coins.â€
I, too, had been up most of the night counting. Counting the minutes before we got on our way. My head swooned with the thought of travel overseas once again.
â€œDidnâ€™t get a bit of sleep knowing I will soon see El Dorado once again,â€ I informed him. â€œWhen I was abroad, I longed for the comforts of home. Upon my return, I yearned for the excitement of being in another land.â€
â€œThis El Dorado, how does one get there?â€ he wanted to know.
â€œI stumbled upon it in my youth and have poured over maps and manuscripts ever since. No one seems to know where it is anymore. Scholarly texts now place it with other lost worlds like Eden, Atlantis, and Hy-Brasil. I was sure it was in South America, but I now have my doubts. Sometimes, after all these years, it seems like the whole thing was a dream.â€
â€œWhere, then, do you propose we begin looking for it?â€
â€œAha! Iâ€™m glad you asked me that, for I have read of an exceptional man whose mind was created to solve problems. I propose we seek him out.â€
â€œWho is this person?â€
â€œA detective. He lives in London.â€
A visible shudder ran through Don Quixoteâ€™s body. His shoulders went limp, and his head fell forward.
â€œMerlin!â€ he gasped, almost inaudibly.
â€œThe magician of King Arthurâ€™s Court. The wizard who casts spells from afar. He has placed many an enchantment on me and my valet, Sancho Panza.â€
â€œSurely heâ€™s dead by now,â€ I said, hoping to lend some measure of comfort.
â€œDead? Merlin? Dear boy, the moon may turn to dust and fall from the sky. Stars may lose their flames and go dark. Oceans may dry up. But Merlinâ€¦dead? Never!â€
â€œSo youâ€™re afraid to go there then?â€ I asked with all sincerity. â€œAfter all this talk about hunger and thirst for adventure, one magician with a bag of tricks up his sleeve is going to stop you?â€
The knight said nothing until we reached the depot. I purchased two InterRail tickets and led him to the Toulouse bay where our bus idled. He hesitated, muttering Merlinâ€™s name, I presumed to muster courage.
â€œTell me,â€ I said as we stood there sucking in diesel fumes. â€œThis Merlin. Didnâ€™t you thwart all of his best efforts?â€
He stopped rubbing his beard. His eyes lit up.
â€œCome to think of it, ultimately I did.â€
â€œThen what do you have to be anxious about? He threw his best at you when you werenâ€™t expecting itâ€”a coward in my bookâ€”and you survived and bested him in each instance.â€
â€œYes. Yes,â€ he said, screwing up his courage. â€œThe age of wizards has past. The age of reason won out. I am the victor!â€
â€œWell, climb aboard this bus, Victor!â€
As we pulled away from the terminal, I fired up my phone.
â€œYes! Wi-Fi! Iâ€™ll check the ferry schedule for Calais.â€
The ride to Toulouse is a mere 172 kilometers from LlÃvia, which in theory should have taken a little over two hours to traverse by bus. Not so! Our driver seemed compelled to go out of his way to find every hamlet that might produce a paying customer. I passed the time setting up a blog for our journey and was able to connect to the Internet most of the time, while my companion, Don Quixote, entertained himself with various games of his own invention. We had just passed a billboard stating that Itâ€™s All Good! in reference to some product or another, when he cleared his throat.
â€œDid you know,â€ he said, pecking at my arm with his bony finger, â€œthat one can derive no less than twenty-two different words from the word Toulouse?â€
I replied that I did not know that.
â€œIt is a mind trick I picked up standing in long postal office lines during the Franco era. You give me a word, any word, and I will find other words within it. For instance, please by itself produces no fewer than thirty-seven separate words.â€
â€œOkay. How many other words can you derive from the word Spain?â€
â€œTwenty-six,â€ he replied without batting an eye. â€œThat was one of the first I tried my hand at. Whereas France, which has one more letter than Spain, scarcely produces a dozen additional words.â€
He recited the variations and, stone me, he was right. I gave him several other words to break down, but when I handed him â€œknight,â€ his face assumed a very serious expression. His air of levity vanished, and I knew our word game had ended.
â€œYou are, of course,â€ he said, â€œfamiliar with the old saying, Velitibus iunctis equites ad bella parantur.â€
I was not.
â€œIt means, â€œKnights are prepared for wars when the foot soldiers are alongside them. You,â€ he said, again jabbing his finger into my breastbone, â€œwill be my foot soldier on this quest.â€
I poked his chest with my finger.
â€œAs I am funding this expedition, I will be the one calling the shots. Not you!â€
He seemed taken aback at first but soon regained his composure and smiled.
â€œSo be it. You shall be my squire and patron. But regardless, I must dedicate this quest to a deserving maiden of noble birth. That is a hard and fast rule that must be observed!â€
He looked around the bus but spied no candidates to his liking. For my part, I found the vehicle crammed with a surfeit of attractive ladies, for my adopted country is known for producing nothing but beautiful women.
â€œPerhaps we will find one worthy further on,â€ he said.
At that moment we entered a long tunnel, which ran beneath a mountain named SacrÃ©, meaning â€œSacredâ€ by translation. We had no sooner entered it when the interior bus lights flickered on and off in a bizarre and eerie fashion. Then everything went completely dark. Oddly enough, no one said a word, or at least I heard nothing. When the bus finally emerged from the dark on the other side of the mountain, all of the lights instantly came back on, accompanied by the usual cacophony of noise by the passengers. It was as though an auditory and visual barrier had been lifted, and I could see and hear once again. The odd thing is that I had the sensation of being exhausted, as though I had just returned from on a long journey. But the tired feeling quickly dissipated, and I soon felt my normal self once more.
â€œWhat was that?â€ I asked Don.
â€œWhat was what?â€
â€œWhatever just happened in that tunnel!â€
â€œI observed nothing.â€
â€œThe darkness? The lights going out? It was quite the paranormal event.â€
â€œTunnels are dark,â€ he said. â€œLights sometimes go out.â€
â€œBut the sound died.â€
â€œSometimes people are quiet when lights go out.â€
â€œBut. . . .â€
I decided to drop the matter and attributed my tired symptoms to temporary sinus pressure.
Don glanced at the laptop I pulled from my backpack and observed as I began to type.
â€œWhat is that you are doing?â€
â€œIâ€™ve decided to write a blog about our escapades, starting with this odd incident. With a little luck, we can generate funding for our journey by crowdsourcing.â€
Don Quixote cleared his throat and said nothing for several minutes.
â€œThese terms you useâ€”blog, website, crowdâ€”â€
â€œYes, yes. What do they mean?â€
I was dumbfounded. â€œDonâ€™t you keep up with the times?â€
He seemed taken aback. â€œOf course! I pride myself in staying abreast of all the modern terms.â€
I decided to test him to discover the exact era in which his knowledge of current terminology ended. I began with the 1960s. â€œWhat does â€˜groovyâ€™ mean?â€
â€œGroovy, as every schoolboy knows, is a woodworking term referring to tongue and groove joints. For instance, parquet boardsâ€”â€
â€œNot even close. How about â€˜LOLâ€™â€œ?
He paused and thought for a moment. â€œThis is, of course, the well-known Latin phrase, laudatoryâ€”â€
â€œThis is an Italian wordâ€”â€
I shook my head. â€œNot in the ballpark, and please donâ€™t make me explain what â€œin the ballparkâ€ means. Now, surely youâ€™ve heard the texting phrase, â€˜OMG.â€™â€œ
â€œAh! I know this! It is common knowledge that inhabitants of the Polynesia islands worship the deity named Omg.â€
â€œIt stands for â€˜Oh My God,â€™ as in, â€˜OMG, he couldnâ€™t be more behind the times.â€™â€
After more prompting, I realized his idea of staying abreast of things meant being up-to-date through about the mid-1800s.
â€œI can see you need an interpreter on our journey, a role I am gladly willing to perform. If you donâ€™t understand something, just ask. And I beg you,â€ I added as an afterthought, â€œno charging after windmills!â€
He made the sign of the cross across his chest. â€œI solemnly swear to that. The scales have fallen from my eyes as regards windmills. You see before you an older and wiser variation of the man portrayed by my biographer in the manuscripts. May I add that he chose to omit all of my successes but did not fail to cover in some detail my failures, which he embellished ad nauseam!â€
I typed some more, trying to recount details of our first encounter the night before.
â€œWhat was the innkeeperâ€™s name?â€ I asked him.
â€œI donâ€™t know. Julio. Possibly Pedro. One innkeeper is the same as the next. They come and go, you know.â€
â€œHow long did you take up residence at this one?â€
â€œI was thereâ€¦oh, possibly only seven years.â€
â€œAnd you donâ€™t remember his name?â€
â€œIs that important?â€
â€œYes. Iâ€™m working on the first blog, which I hope will one day be the first chapter of a book that recounts the exploits we are about to experience.â€
The knight sat up straight in his seat, cleared his throat, and in all seriousness said, â€œMay I propose that we name the first chapter, The Questâ€”In Which We See The Resurrection Of Don Quixote, Otherwise Known As The Man Of La Mancha And Hero Of Great Deeds, His Meeting Candide, A Self-Claimed Frenchman Of Dubious Notoriety, As They Embark On A Most Perilous Journey Fraught With Dangers, Intrigues, Battles With Sorcerers And Giants, Seeking Untold Treasures In The Mythical Realm Known As El Dorado, Beseeching The Guiding Hand Of Providence To Lead Them As They Encounter Enchanted Persons, And Many Other Excellent Adventures Yet To Be Named, Notwithstanding The Perils They Will Face, All The While Searching For Truth, Justice!â€
I stared at him, my mouth ajar, before regaining my senses.
â€œI was thinking of calling it Chapter One.â€
We entered Toulouse later that morning. The bus passed a Jewish school where a few years before an Arab shot dead a rabbi and several school children. I recalled the billboard we drove by earlier and could almost hear Dr. Pangloss saying all is for the best and that God orchestrated the tragedy to remind us how fortunate we are not to be a Jewish rabbi, a child attending school, or a radicalized Arab. There was once a time when I would have nodded my head in agreement, but I now know that evil exists in the world and that staying on my farm ignoring it was unacceptable.
As we entered the bus station we saw a news report on one of the televisions explaining that a plane carrying a group of German tourists visiting Spain had just crashed into a mountainside.
â€œGod rest their souls,â€ Don Quixote said. â€œI pray none were in the party we saw last night at the tavern, for they seemed like decent people.â€
â€œDr. Pangloss would say the mountain was created by Godâ€™s hand solely to absorb the impact of that airliner,â€ I told him.
â€œWho is this Dr. Pangloss?â€
A sigh of exasperation escaped my lips, as I had been telling Don Quixote about my experiences for the last hour of our bus ride.
â€œHeâ€™s the one who accompanied me on my travels, captured for the ages in the book about me. Werenâ€™t you listening?â€
â€œI must admit I drifted off somewhere between Lisbon and El Dorado.â€
Since we traveled light, me with a backpack and he with only the clothes on his back and what meager possessions fit into his pockets, we immediately left the bus terminal and rode the underground metro to the Toulouse-Matabiau railway station where I purchased tickets. We soon boarded a train bound for Paris and the northern coast of France.
I did some online searching and calculated that the nine-hour train ride prevented us from making it to Calais in time for the last ferry to England that day. I then searched for a hostel near the waterfront.
I didnâ€™t notice at first, but my companion had attracted a small audience who hung onto every word as he recounted his adventures with his sidekick, Sancho Panza. At one point I attempted to tell one of my stories but was rebuked by the knight, who once more took over the conversation, and I returned to my blog, posting my experiences almost in real-time.
After several hours even my loquacious travel mate needed a breather, and his audience faded away, except for one person, a man in his fifties with a bushy beard and thick glasses. He introduced himself as Dr. Archambault, a professor of literary studies at de l'UniversitÃ© Paris-Sorbonne.
â€œI couldnâ€™t help but overhear your descriptions of Cervantesâ€™ masterwork, and I must say you were true to the text in every detail. I myself lecture at conferences around the world. I have written three books, which are taught in the major schools, and I have published dozens of papers. In a word, I am recognized as an expert on the subject of Don Quixote. Yet I have never met someone who has such an intimate grasp of the character, such understanding of time and place, such feel for plot nuances. You are without a doubt the most believable impersonator I have ever met. What, sir, may I ask, is your secret?â€
I rolled my eyes and muttered, â€œHere we go.â€
To my surprise, the knight didnâ€™t puff himself up with indignation and verbally assail the professor. Instead, he calmly proceeded to enlighten him.
â€œI have intimate knowledge of Don Quixote because I am Don Quixote, the original,â€ he said.
The professor laughed and shook his head. â€œBut that cannot be. First of all, the Man of La Mancha is a fictional character. Secondly, he would be over four-hundred-years-old. And thirdly, he was killed off in the sequel book. What you say is quite impossible.â€
I, too, had wondered the same thing. How was it my companionsâ€”CunÃ©gonde, Cacamboâ€”and I were still alive after two hundred years. Surely it is not the natural order of things.
â€œDid not the early patriarchs, Adam and Noah, live to be nearly one thousand years old?â€ my fellow traveler asked the professor. â€œDid their children not live many hundreds of years? Surely youâ€™ve heard of Methuselah? Why is it so hard to believe man cannot still attain great life spans?â€
â€œI concede it is conceivable, though not likely,â€ the professor said. â€œBut come now, sir, everyone knows Don Quixote is pure fiction.â€
Again, I expected for my friend to erupt, but he maintained his composure.
â€œWhy do you assume I am fiction? The stories I tell correspond to known events in history, do they not?â€
â€œOf course they relate to true events, but the stories themselves are fantastical tales, very inventive I grant you, but beyond belief.â€
â€œThose were fantastical times, my friend. It was one of many ages mankind has known. There was the Golden Age, the Age of Prophets, the Age of Miracles, the Age of Wizards, the Age of Reason, the Age of Exploration, the Age of Discovery, and on it goes. I lived during the age of adventure. It was before your time. The land has now been tamed, the dragons slain, and all the knights have long since returned to their castles, which have turned to dust. I can see how you would be hard pressed to believe they ever existed. But had you been there, you would not say such things. No doubt you will one day fail to make the next generation understand how things were in your time.â€
â€œSir, that day arrived with my first grandchildâ€™s fifteenth birthday,â€ the professor replied. â€œI donâ€™t understand him. He doesnâ€™t understand me. So, on that point we agree. But tell me, if you are indeed Don Quixote, then I guess you also knew Cervantes?â€
Even I perceived this to be a trick question.
â€œI never met my chronicler,â€ Don Quixote replied. â€œIn fact, he is not my real biographer, for I first related my stories to the Arab historiographer, Cid Hamet Ben Engeli, a Moor. This Cervantes fellow somehow gained access to Ben Engeliâ€™s archiveâ€”omitting my many successes and portraying me as the court jester, I might addâ€”and published it as comedy for a fickle reading public to consume. Not only have I never received a dime from the royalties, but I have been marginalized as a figment of Cervantesâ€™ fertile imagination. In sum, Cervantes is not the father of The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, the book, but a step-father at best!â€
The professor nodded in agreement.
â€œAgain, you are absolutely correct. How is it I have never met you at any of the literature conferences?â€
The knight pointed to the sky.
â€œDoes the sun attend astronomersâ€™ lectures? Do the stars consult astrology charts? Does the moon care if poets praise it in verse? If you wish to be illuminated on the subject of Don Quixote, you must orbit around me!â€
â€œBut what about the fact that Don Quixote died in the book? And yet, you are alive?â€
Of course Iâ€™m alive! It is my chronicler who is dead. All men of importance have their biographer. Mine was, by accident, this Cervantes fellow. It is in manâ€™s nature to realize his own mortality and in doing so see doom for the rest of the world. Witness the many cults that come and goâ€”each believing life on this planet must die with them. As the proverb has it, if you are planting a tree when those around you say the end is at hand, finish planting that tree! Cervantes obviously saw his end and so thought it only natural to envision mine. But a Greater Author than heâ€”I of course refer to the Great and Sovereign Architect of all that existsâ€”saw fit to extend my days beyond the allotted three score and ten.
â€œAnd what is your secret to longevity?â€
â€œNo doctors!â€ the knight said without hesitation. â€œIt has been my experience that the surest and quickest means to bringing oneâ€™s life to an abrupt halt is to put oneself into the care of physicians.â€
â€œThatâ€™s it?â€ I said, joining their conversation. â€œNo doctors? I have found that putting my self into the care of a trusted man of medicine has extended my life on numerous occasions. Had it not been for them I would not have survived the great earthquake that devoured Lisbon in the year 1755.â€
â€œNo doctors, and a glass of brandy,â€ he added.
â€œThat's the secret? No doctors and alcohol?â€ the professor asked.
â€œIt helps to have a history of longevity in oneâ€™s family as well.â€
â€œGenes and brandy, I will accept,â€ I said. â€œI must disagree with you on the issue of doctors. The advances in medicine since you first sallied forth on horseback are beyond comparison.â€
â€œYes,â€ my learned friend replied, â€œbut one never knows who wields the healing balm. The wrong medical treatment prescribed by a fool is worse than none at all.â€
â€œYou know,â€ I said, â€œcome to think of it, I havenâ€™t received a penny from the book about me either.â€
â€œAnd what book has been written about you?â€ the scholar asked.
â€œCandide. My chronicler went by the name of Voltaire. I, too, never metâ€”â€
The professor threw up his hands in despair and stood to leave. â€œThis is too much,â€ he said with a heavy sigh. â€œI can see I am wasting my time attempting to get straight answers from either of you. I bid you both good day!â€
â€œWell,â€ Don Quixote said after we were alone again, â€œour quest for truth is off to a poor start. We say what we know to be true, yet it falls on deaf ears and blind eyes.â€
â€œYou may make truth ring like the bells of Notre Dame,â€ a voice said, â€œbut deaf ears will not hear it.â€
It was the trainâ€™s conductor making his rounds. He seemed to be about Don Quixoteâ€™s age, perhaps younger, with soulful eyes and an air of authority. His one distinguishing feature was a long nose, which extended horizontally above his white mustache like a gargoyle jutting from an ivy-covered medieval tower. The nametag on his coat lapel read Cyril.
â€œYou speak as one who has known bitter loss,â€ Don Quixote said.
The conductor leaned in and pointed to his badge. â€œMy real name is Cyrano. I was once a soldier and a poet who slayed hundreds by the sword and thousands with the pen.â€
â€œThe verses were that bad?â€ I asked.
â€œNo! They were that good! My sonnets won the hearts of women and seared the consciousness of men. I was aptly known for my rapier wit, for I was also the finest swordsman in France; hence, in all the civilized world.â€
â€œTo subdue with the sword is noble,â€ said Don Quixote, â€œbut to conquer with the pen, that is sublime.â€
â€œThat is so,â€ Cyrano replied, â€œbut it is hard to do with the likes of that professor you were talking to. I once wrote a masterpiece revered by all of Paris until learned scholars like him began their analyses of the work. The meter didnâ€™t adhere to their established structures. The phonaesthetics were not what their ears were accustomed to hearing. The metonymy was above their understanding.â€
As he spoke my eyes darted from his eyes to his nose, a proboscis so long and enormous that it was all I could do not to point at it and make comments, and I hoped my tongue would not betray my thoughts.
â€œThe public raved for my work,â€ Cyrano continued, â€œuntil the academicians dissected it at length, convincing the people it was a modest attempt at best. I had released the genie from its bottle, and a thousand poets saw what could be done with pen and paper. The scholars put the genie back in the bottle and sealed it shut.â€
â€œYou must have had an unusual nose for verse,â€ I said.
Cyrano stared at me. His eyes narrowed. â€œWhat are you implying?â€
â€œI meant to say, it is a gift to sniff out a good rhyme.â€
His nostrils flared. â€œAre you making reference to my nose?â€
â€œNo! What nose? Oh, that. I didnâ€™t even notice it until just now.â€
â€œIt is rather obtrusive,â€ Don Quixote observed matter-of-factly. â€œGargantuan even. At once hideous and grotesque, yet strangely pleasing. It is a majestic snout.â€
â€œYou speak the truth,â€ Cyrano replied. â€œIt is a mark of distinction. A divine covenant! A nose like mine is both scepter and orb, a monument to my superiority. Marvel at it all you want, but ridicule it, and I will introduce you to the heel of my boot. A great nose is the banner of a great man, a generous heart, a towering spirit, an expansive soul!â€
â€œIf thatâ€™s the case, then you must have the heart of a dozen men, for you certainly have the nose of twelve,â€ said the knight-errant.
â€œIndeed! I have the heart of twelve and the right arm of twenty! My nose and my sword speak for themselves.â€
â€œWere you one of the famous Musketeers?â€ I asked.
â€œMusketeers?â€ Cyril sneered. â€œDandies. Cream puffs. Fops! They were not worthy of carrying my scabbard, for I was a stormâ€”a flame! I needed to fight whole armies alone; too strong to war with mortals. â€˜BRING ME GIANTS!â€™ That was my battle cry.â€
â€œHear, hear!â€ Don Quixote said, applauding. â€œYou are cut from the same cloth as I, though perhaps by a different tailor, for I, too, have battled many a giant. As for me, my strength comes not from my right arm but from the divine inspiration of the matchless, unrivaled Dulcinea del Toboso, whose beauty, even today, shines so brightly as to blind the beholder.â€
â€œMatchless?â€ Cyrano said. â€œYou jest. Is it possible that you have never heard of Roxane, an immortal among women, a goddess worshipped by all fortunate enough to cast their eyes on her? Can one weigh clay in the scales against gold?â€
â€œAre you inferring, sir, that this Roxane, this flickering candle, begins to compare to the inimitable, unsurpassed Dulcinea, a blazing sun whose light turns night into day, thus blotting out a million puny stars?â€
â€œYou dare refer to Godâ€™s inspired creation as a candle?â€ Cyril responded. His eyes flashed red. â€œThis celestial soul who expresses herself in the tongue of angels? One inadvertent brush of her hair intoxicates like a thousand casks of wine. One pout of her lips, and a thousand daggers penetrate the heart. My happiness is to see her happy, my joy to see her joyous. You shall not sully her name and live to tell about it!â€
â€œBy all that is holy, sir!â€ Don Quixote cried. His face turned crimson. His hand instinctively reached for a sword. â€œIf you demand satisfaction, you shall have it! Let us step outside and conclude the conversation like true gentlemen. That is to say, with the blade!â€
â€œIâ€™ve never met anyone so eager to meet thy Maker. Enjoy your last moments in this world!â€ Cyrano said, bowing and extending his arm toward the exit.
â€œI hope you have an appetite, for you are about to taste Toledo steel!â€ replied the knight.
â€œMy appetite tends more toward Spanish blood!â€
They stormed out of the car together, each red-faced and ready for battle.
I sat there counting off the seconds before they returned. It didnâ€™t take long, for they soon shuffled back into the car, downcast. Dejected.
â€œFinally realized the train is still moving?â€ I asked.
â€œWe shall settle this at the next station!â€ Cyrano said.
â€œAgreed!â€ Don Quixote replied.
â€œWith what?â€ I asked. â€œWhat weapons will you use? Broomsticks and mop handles? Oh, how far our great warriors have fallen when they must take up pretend arms to settle a score. Will you resort to using your fists? That is hardly becoming of gentlemen.â€
They were silent for a full minute.
â€œHeâ€™s right. What will we duel with?â€ Cyrano said at last. â€œThere are no swords, for no one values swordsmen these days.â€
â€œAnd I shall not strike a worthy opponent with my hand,â€ the knight-errant answered. â€œFlesh-on-flesh combat is the domain of rabble.â€
â€œIsnâ€™t it possible,â€ I began, â€œthat He who gives life might propagate creation with more than one manifestation of splendor? Could God not simultaneously raise two maidens of equal beautyâ€”one in Spain, one in Franceâ€”just as He made two valiant warriors, one for each kingdom?â€
The two men contemplated for a few moments. Cyrano was the first to speak.
â€œI once beheld a magnificent rose while traveling abroad,â€ he began. â€œI recall thinking it rivaled the finest flowers of the ChÃ¢teau de Versailles. I suppose, God in His infinite wisdom might be pleased to grow such a rose in Spain as well.â€
â€œAnd I am willing to concede that the Maker of all things might place such a flower in France so that its people may enjoy her fragrance,â€ Don Quixote answered.
â€œExcellent,â€ I said. â€œAnother war averted. Now tell me, Cyrano, how does a poet and a soldier become a train conductor?â€
He let out a long, wistful sigh just as my phone began to vibrate. â€œTime moves on,â€ he said. â€œTastes change. Royal courts turn over. Revolutions beget new rulers. You knowâ€”the usual. There is no time for poets and no need for swordsmen. People are too busy,â€¦ I'm sorry. Do I bore you?â€
â€œNo,â€ I said, putting away the smartphone. â€œIt was a junk text message. Please continue.â€
â€œAt my core I am a people person. I took this job over a hundred years ago. See! I have my hundred-year pin.â€
Indeed, I could see â€œ100â€ etched beneath his nametag.
â€œIn a few more years Iâ€™ll reach the 125 year milestone. The railroad provides a rocking chair with oneâ€™s name inscribed for that achievement.â€
â€œBut why do you call yourself Cyrano when your tag says Cyril?â€
He leaned closer. â€œI don't want it to get out that Iâ€™m Cyrano de Bergerac. Some people with long memories might ask questions, and Iâ€™d rather have them remember me as I once was. I even staged a death scene with Roxaneâ€™s assistance to seal my legacy.â€
â€œI know, too well, about staged death scenes,â€ Don Quixote replied. â€œMy biographer killed me off in the last manuscript. The fool!â€
â€œSometimes it is best to be remembered for what you once were, not what you have become,â€ Cyrano said. â€œNow you must excuse me, for I have other duties to perform.â€
He got up and left us alone.
â€œHe raises a good point,â€ I said after he had left. â€œMaybe we should travel incognito. You know, change our names and appear to be European tourists traveling the Americas.â€
Don Quixote thought for a few moments, stroking his beard meditatively.
â€œAs we are going to England, and as the sorcerer, Merlin, is ever on the vigil to ensnare decent men of moral courage such as you and me, I agree that we should assume pseudonyms. But what will we call ourselves?â€
â€œIâ€™ve already thought about that. We will call you Victor, per our earlier discussion regarding courage.â€
â€œI donâ€™t look like a Victor.â€
â€œHow do you know? How do you know what someone named Victor looks like?â€
â€œI have not the slightest idea what someone named Victor should look like, but I do know what I look like, and it is not a Victor!â€
â€œThen what do you suggest?â€
â€œHow about Don Coyote?â€ he said, brightening. â€œYou see? Itâ€™s a play on Don Quixote!â€
â€œOh, brilliant,â€ I mocked. â€œMerlin will never see through that guise.â€
â€œThatâ€™s exactly what I was thinking! Now, to make things even simpler, why donâ€™t you just call me Don?â€
â€œBut youâ€™re already called Don.â€
â€œThatâ€™s precisely because I look like a Don!â€
â€œFine. Weâ€™ll call you Don.â€
â€œAnd you can go as Candide, for no one other than scholars seems to have ever heard of you.â€
â€œThatâ€™s because you wonâ€™t let me get a word in edgewise!â€
â€œYou should learn to speak up!â€
â€œYou should learn to breathe between sentences!â€
â€œHold on there!â€ he said. â€œDo you see what is happening? At the mention of Merlin we begin to quarrel. I propose we keep that sorcererâ€™s name under our hats, so to speak, as the mere thought of it awakens his senses from afar.â€
Neither of us spoke for some time. In the silence, I recalled his conversation with the professor of literature. His questioning of our existence weighed more heavily on my mind with each click of the railcar wheels on the tracks.
â€œIt seems odd,â€ I said, â€œthat we seem to be passing through places that are either a hundred years behind the times as regards technology or a hundred years ahead.â€
â€œWhy does that seem odd?â€ Don said.
â€œWould that occur in the real world, and if not, then do we truly exist? Sometimes I feel like Iâ€™m an unproven theorem, a hypothesis in search of supporting evidence, in short, a mere character in a novel.â€
â€œWhat are you going on about? Of course we exist. Weâ€™re talking to one another, arenâ€™t we? When someone says they can â€˜read you like a book,â€™ or â€˜the plot thickens,â€™ or that â€˜they have begun a new chapter in life,â€™ it does not mean you or they are characters in a novel. These are simply common expressions. Itâ€™s quite simple.â€
â€œYouâ€™ve obviously never read Kant or Descartes or Freud.â€
â€œDo these men exist?â€
â€œOf course! At least, they did.â€
â€œIf youâ€™ve read their works, then I would suggest that means you exist, too.â€
â€œNot necessarily. I could have dreamed the whole thing.â€
â€œYou canâ€™t dream unless you are asleep. You canâ€™t sleep unless you were once awake. And you canâ€™t have been awake unless you were once alive. The ancients debated their existence and the existence of God as has every generation since then. This is nothing new. You do believe in an All Powerful Deity donâ€™t you?â€
â€œI have doubts that I exist, much less a supreme being!â€
Don rolled his eyes in exasperation.
â€œI blame the Age of Enlightenment for this endless self-examination by todayâ€™s youth. When one is battling giants and wizards, one does not pause to question oneâ€™s existence. Personally, Iâ€™m in the â€˜yes, here we all are on this planetâ€™ camp. If you wish to be in the â€˜Iâ€™m not sure I existâ€™ school of thought, then that is certainly your choice. A choice, by the way, that only an existing person can make.â€
â€œThat may or may not be. But how then do you explain the technology thing?â€
â€œNothing could be simpler. Donâ€™t you know that some provinces are archaic in comparison to others? Such places make you feel as though you are stepping back in time. Others are thoroughly abreast of the latest advancements. The same holds for entire nations. It has always been thus.â€
I sat and pondered these things for the remainder of this leg of our journey with doubts as to whether or not to continue. Although I have come to distrust the opinions of others after serving under the mentorship of Dr. Pangloss, I concluded there was hard-won wisdom in Don Quixoteâ€™s words, the kind that comes at the end of a lance and carefully aimed arrows.
I decided then and there to press on.
As fortune would have it, our train was delayed in Paris due to mechanical problems with one of the engines. Cyril told us we could catch another train still en route and due to arrive in two hours. I spotted a cafÃ© near the station, which is where we spent the next hour and a half at an outdoor table beneath a canopy.
While I checked e-mail and blogged about our journey, Don, as I had begun calling him, occasionally arose from his seat and escorted women across the busy intersection. He did this with great pomp and flair. Once they successfully reached the far curb, he bowed as if addressing a princess and kissed the womanâ€™s hand. After several such escorts, he purchased flowers from a street vendor, put one in his lapel and began handing the rest to passing ladies.
â€œYou know,â€ I told him once he sat down again during a lull in pedestrian traffic, â€œyou have missed your calling in life.â€
â€œHow so?â€ he asked.
â€œYou would have made an excellent boulevardier.â€
â€œWhat is a bouleâ€¦this thing you suggest?â€
â€œA boulevardier is someone who frequents a boulevard and is known in all the better establishments thereon.â€
He gazed off into the distance and contemplated what I said.
â€œYes,â€ he said, â€œI believe I would be quite good at this profession, helping ladies in need about town. It does pay, doesnâ€™t it?â€
â€œIt does not. If it did, you would be called a gigolo.â€
â€œIs that a profession?â€
â€œOne of the oldest, so I am told.â€
I continued entering information into my blog.
â€œWhat are you doing on that infernal device?â€ he asked, sipping a glass of brandy.
â€œBlogging about our trip. We haveâ€¦â€ I paused to check the analytics, â€œthree subscribers so far.â€
â€œThree people are reading about our adventures.â€
â€œDo they have names, these three admirers?â€
â€œLetâ€™s seeâ€¦there is someone named I-Heart-New York, and another calling herself FreedomGirl112, and a person simply named Limner.â€
He leaned over and read a few lines.
â€œWhat does LOL mean?â€
â€œWeâ€™ve been over that. It means â€˜laugh-out-loud.â€™â€
He went silent for a few moments as I proceeded to type.
â€œPerhaps if you wrote in a genuinely humorous manner you wouldnâ€™t need to command the reader to laugh aloud.â€
I tried to contain my rising frustration.
â€œIâ€™m not commanding anyone to do anything. Itâ€™s an expression.â€
â€œWouldnâ€™t they know when to laugh and when not to laugh?â€
â€œOf course they do. Itâ€™s just something you type when youâ€™ve been ironic or witty.â€
â€œAnd yet you feel compelled to remind them to laugh. This might explain why your book never sold well.â€
â€œMy book sold fine! Itâ€™s still selling. Never out of print. Itâ€™s in all the bookstores.â€
â€œThatâ€™s good to hear, because there is a book purveyor just over there on the corner. Let us go and inquire about your biography. I would like to read it.â€
I looked up, and sure enough, La Vieille Librairie, which translates â€œThe Old Bookshop,â€ stood on the corner. We crossed the street and entered. The wood floors, which looked like something from the deck of a three-masted ship, creaked beneath our feet. Thousands of books lined shelves from floor to ceiling, requiring rolling ladders to reach the upper decks. The works themselves ranged from the very latest to antiquity. One bin contained free books no one wanted to read, which Don immediately gravitated to.
â€œA tome gathering dust in a library or on a booksellerâ€™s shelf makes me sad,â€ he said. â€œI like this one with the puce cover. A good book is a friend well-met. Iâ€™ll take you home, my friend,â€ he said, lifting it from the rest.
Just then a young store clerk walked by.
â€œWeâ€™d like to speak to the proprietor,â€ Don told him.
â€œHeâ€™s not in just now. Can I be of service?â€
â€œYes. What titles on your shelves does the public clamor for these days?â€
The young man typed on a keyboard and read from a computer screen.
â€œHorror, young adult, young adult horror, gothic, gothic-horror, sci-fi, sci-fi horror, young adult sci-fi, and erotica. Also memoir in which someone has been abused or anything to do with werewolves, wizards, zombies or has the word â€˜bonesâ€™ in its title.â€
â€œDo you perchance sell in this establishment a book whose title is The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha?â€
The young man typed a few more strokes on the keyboard.
â€œYes, we have several in stock.â€
â€œDo you sell many of these books in the course of a year?â€
Again, the lad entered the data into the computer. â€œQuite a few.â€
â€œNow then, and this is important,â€ Don Quixote said as a preamble to the big question. â€œI would like to purchase a certain book whose title is Candide. Do you have this title on your shelves?â€
The clerk keyed in the inquiry and replied, â€œNo, sir. Not at this time.â€
My companionâ€™s face flushed. He turned to me with sad eyes that conveyed disappointment and embarrassment on my behalf.
â€œI see,â€ was all he said, turning away.
I stood there stunned and speechless for several moments before regaining my wits. â€œDid you type Candide correctly?â€
â€œC-A-N-D-I-D-E. See,â€ the clerk said, swiveling the screen toward me. â€œNothing.â€
â€œHow long have you worked here?â€
â€œThis is my second day.â€
At that moment the proprietor, a stocky, bearded fellow, rushed in through the back entrance, breathing hard.
â€œSir,â€ I said, â€œwhy is it your store does not carry Candide, the national book of all forward-thinking republics?â€
â€œNot carry Candide?â€ he stammered. â€œWeâ€™re sold out! Canâ€™t keep it in stock! They donâ€™t print the damn thing fast enough now that the schools are back in session. An overseas shipment was on the way here, but the cargo container in which the books were sealed was swept overboard in a gale. All the bookshops are pressed to keep it on the shelves. Iâ€™ve just been to several booksellers to purchase their overstock, but there is no such thing for this unrivaled masterpiece.â€
â€œHah! Did you hear that!â€ I cried out. But my companion had already left the store.
I ran outside and caught up with him as he headed for the train station.
â€œDid you hear what the store owner said?â€
â€œNo, and if we donâ€™t hurry, weâ€™ll miss our train!â€
â€œHe said my book has sold out!â€
â€œYes, yes. Whatever you say.â€
â€œNo, really. Itâ€™s on back-order. They canâ€™t keep it on the shelves.â€
â€œAll right. I believe you, Candide,â€ he replied in an impatient and dismissive manner. His pace quickened as we neared the train station entrance.
â€œNone of the Paris stores can keep it in stock!â€
â€œIâ€™m happy for you. Now, please, letâ€™s speak no more on this subject.â€
I could see he was not convinced, and neither would I have been were our roles reversed.
â€œLook, Iâ€™ll pull it up on the Internet. Youâ€™ll see how many have been sold.â€
I walked briskly beside him and accessed the data online.
â€œSee?â€ I said, holding my table for him to view. â€œOne hundred thousand downloads this year alone.â€
He glanced at it perfunctorily.
â€œI see. And yet only three people read your log.â€
â€œItâ€™s called a blog.â€
â€œPlease, let us move on from this topic. I believe our train has arrived.â€
The train had, indeed, pulled into the station and was busily disgorging and ingesting passengers. We found our seats and were soon on our way again. After a few more futile attempts to convince Don of my biographyâ€™s success, I let the matter go.
We reached Calais later that evening and stayed at the Centre EuropÃ©en De SÃ©jour youth hostel. The next morning we caught the first ferry to Dover and from Dover boarded a train for London. A cab took us to Baker Street where I hoped to find the gentleman who could help me pinpoint the location of that elusive place I once knew as El Dorado.
We got out of the cab on Baker Street and looked around.
â€œThere it is,â€ I said, pointing across the busy road to 221B.
I was just about to cross when Don grabbed my arm. His eyes grew wide as if alarmed by an unseen force.
â€œWhat is that?â€ he asked.
â€œI donâ€™t hear anything,â€ I replied.
â€œNo, no! What is that delicious, irresistible aroma?â€
I sniffed the air.
â€œI donâ€™t smell anything.â€
He turned me around and motioned to a nearby food truck with the words â€œMilnerâ€™s Meat Piesâ€ emblazoned on its side. I thought it a bit odd as the truck seemed out of place there. But then, when one is in a foreign land, one sees strange things.
â€œI have an overpowering desire for one of thoseâ€¦pies,â€ he said, licking his lips as if we hadnâ€™t eaten in three days, which we had, because I shelled out good money for food in Calais that morning and later in Dover on our arrival in England.
â€œWe just ate,â€ I reminded him.
But he drifted away as if on a cloud toward the truck.
â€œDonâ€™t wander off!â€ I called after him.
I thought nothing of this strange behavior and pro-ceeded across the street. The information I needed could be obtained with or without his presence.
I knocked on the door, which an elderly woman soon opened.
â€œYes. Can I help you, young man?â€ she said with a slight Scottish accent.
â€œIâ€™m here to see Mr. Holmes, the great detective.â€
â€œDo you have an appointment?â€
â€œNo, but I have come a great distance to seek his advice.â€
â€œYou could phone, you know. Or Skype. Or e-mail.â€
â€œYou can Skype Sherlock Holmes these days?â€
â€œOf course, if you can afford his rates. Ever since his exploits with Dr. Watson were syndicated on television, the consulting fees have become exorbitant.â€
â€œHow much does he charge for a face-to-face meeting?â€
â€œOh, no one can get face-time with him now,â€ she said, rolling her eyes. â€œHeâ€™s much too haughty for that. Makes my Scottish blood boil. Mr. High-and-Mighty. Well, we shall see about that. You come with me!â€
She ushered me to the door of an upstairs apartment and gently rapped.
â€œGo away!â€ a voice from inside boomed.
â€œA gentleman to see you, Mr. Holmesâ€ she said.
â€œIâ€™m not in!â€
â€œHeâ€™s right here on the landing with me.â€
â€œIâ€™m engaged at the moment!â€
She turned to me and smiled.
â€œOh, never mind what he says. Go on in. Iâ€™ve got chores to tend to and donâ€™t have time for his shenanigans.â€
I opened the door and entered. Three men were seated inside a large room cluttered with furniture, newspapers, and magazines. A small chemistâ€™s lab was spread out on one table.
â€œDo come in,â€ one of them said as he stood to greet me. â€œIâ€™m Dr. Watson. This,â€ he said gesturing toward the other two, â€œis Inspector Lestrade and Mr. Sherlock Holmes.â€
I bid each of them hello and thanked them for taking time to see me.
The inspector glanced at me and grunted something unintelligible, clearly annoyed with the interruption.
Sherlock, the very man I had traveled across the English Channel to see, barely acknowledged my existence.
â€œPlease be seated,â€ the doctor told me. â€œWeâ€™ll be with you shortly.â€
â€œNow, tell me, Mr. Holmes,â€ the inspector said, â€œhow did you know it was the viscount who committed the murder when all the evidence pointed to the butler?â€
â€œRule number one,â€ said the detective, â€œthe butler never commits murder. The parlor maid, yes. The gardener, perhaps. Maybe even a valet. But never a butler. Not an English butler that is.â€
â€œAnd rule number two?â€
The detective winced.
â€œYou donâ€™t want to know rule number two.â€
â€œOh, come on. Tell us. Iâ€™ve got a robbery up the West End to investigate and canâ€™t sit around here all day. It has all the hallmarks of your old nemesis, Professor Moriarty.â€
â€œMoriarty,â€ Holmes said, â€œis the sole reason I arise from bed each morning. Without his brilliant mind to challenge mine, life on this spinning lump of clay called Earth would be unbearable.â€
â€œYes, we know all about that,â€ Dr. Watson said. â€œNow, tell us about rule number two!â€
â€œYou might not like what you hear. Are you sure you want to know?â€
â€œOf course!â€ the doctor and inspector said in unison.
Holmes shifted in his chair and took a long draw on a meerschaum pipe.
â€œRule number two is the fact that weâ€”you, and you, and Iâ€”are being controlled by another. Our thoughts are not our own, neither are our words. I am merely spouting what our creator dictates.â€
A long pause followed before Dr. Watson spoke. â€œI believe I see what youâ€™re getting at. We are the products of an omniscient being who created the universe.â€
â€œThatâ€™s not what Iâ€™m saying at all.â€
â€œI see now,â€ said the inspector. â€œYouâ€™re saying the world is a stage and we are merely actors playing our parts.â€
â€œNot even close, gentlemen. What Iâ€™m saying is that we are fictional characters in a plot written by someone we can neither see nor hear.â€
â€œI knew it!â€ I said under my breath. â€œWait â€˜til Don hears this!â€
â€œYou see,â€ the detective went on, â€œduring one of my drug-induced statesâ€”â€
â€œHere we go,â€ Dr. Watson said. â€œHow did I know drugs were somehow involved?â€
â€œAs I was saying, in a drug-induced state, I achieved what the mystics refer to as ultimate enlightenment. I became fully self-aware. That is to say, I saw outside the realms that bind us to what we perceive as reality and peered over the other side.â€
â€œThe other side,â€ the inspector repeated. â€œEast London?â€
â€œThe great divide, Lestrade. The other side of the great beyond!â€
â€œAnd what did you see, pray tell?â€
â€œI saw a bearded man with a pad and a writing instrument creating this very conversation.â€
â€œYou mean to tell me some man with a beard is putting these words into our mouths.â€
â€œThat is exactly what Iâ€™m saying.â€
â€œAnd does this bearded man have a name?â€
â€œI could only make out the monogram on his sleeve. The letters were A-C-D as I recall. Of course, youâ€™ve read my monograph on monograms.â€
â€œYour who on what?â€
â€œNow let me get this straight,â€ said the doctor, â€œyouâ€™re saying we are the figments of ACDâ€™s imagination?â€
â€œIt would appear so. How else is it I, and I alone, always have the answers to unsolvable mysteries?â€
â€œWhy, through your exceptional power of observation and deductive reasoning, of course. Youâ€™ve taught me how to deduce things for myself.â€
â€œThatâ€™s what I once thought, too. It appears Iâ€™m a mere errand boy for this ACD person.â€
â€œDonâ€™t let your public know,â€ said Lestrade. â€œTheyâ€™ll stop reading your stories in the papers.â€
â€œStories is right!â€ Holmes scoffed. â€œDr. Watsonâ€™s romanticized versions of what should otherwise be instructive cases based on reason and sound logic. Thatâ€™s what they are.â€
I sighed, having heard this refrain from Don Quixote about his biographer. No one believes their chronicler does them justice.
â€œNot that it matters what drivel Watson thrusts on an unsuspecting public,â€ the detective added. â€œItâ€™s all really the imaginings of this ACD fellow, including the so called cases my colleague thinks he writes.â€
â€œBut surely, Holmes,â€ the doctor countered, â€œno author would allow us to have this conversation. How does it advance the plot? How does it develop the characters?â€
â€œHow the devil should I know?! I told you that you wouldnâ€™t like what I had to say.â€
â€œWell,â€ said the inspector rising from his seat, â€œmy wife is going to be amused to hear about this little theory of yours. I will bid you gentlemen good day. Lord, what next?â€
â€œYouâ€™re having cold cuts and steamed broccoli tonight,â€ Sherlock informed him. â€œThatâ€™s what is next. I read ahead in the script.â€
â€œNice try,â€ said Lestrade, making his way for the door, â€œbut we always have cold cuts and steamed broccoli on Thursdays. You would know that because you have eaten with us on several occasions.â€
â€œYou will purchase the evening paper on your way home. Thatâ€™s on page 45 of the script.â€
â€œI usually do purchase a paper on the way home. No mystery there.â€
â€œThe headline will scream, â€˜Murder! Read All About It!â€™â€
â€œThe headline usually does. Good evening, gentlemen.â€
â€œYou wife is with child again! Page 46!â€
â€œI should hope so. Weâ€™ve been trying for ages.â€
The doctor turned to me after the door closed behind Lestrade.
â€œNow, sir, I apologize for making you wait. What can we do for you?â€
â€œNo need bothering to ask what he came here for, Dr. Watson, I can answer that.â€
Sherlock ran his eyes over me several times.
â€œWatson, we are in the presence of a very distinguished personage. May I introduce you to none other than that man of renown known to the world as Candide.â€
My jaw fell open.
â€œHow did you know that?â€ I asked.
â€œI suppose Holmes knew that by your clothes and manner of speech,â€ Dr. Watson answered.
â€œItâ€™s true I detect in his voice a hint of Westphalian accent, and his clothes bely origins on the Continent, but thatâ€™s not how I knew he is Candide. Recall rule number two. See above.â€
â€œWell, by whatever mental acuity it is you use to discern my identity, I congratulate you,â€ I said. â€œI am indeed the man of whom you speak. As it happens, I am traveling with another distinguished gentlemen who goes by the name of Don Quixote.â€
â€œWhat can we do for you?â€ Dr. Watson asked.
â€œI believe I can answer that,â€ said Sherlock. â€œLike most flotsam and jetsam that wash up at our door, you are looking for something or someone. In the case of that ingenious man of La Mancha, he is either seeking the whereabouts of his former colleague, Sancho Panza, or recapturing the life of adventure he once knew. As for you, Candide, that fabled youth of yore, what else could you be searching for but the mythic land you knew as El Dorado?â€
â€œYou are right on both accounts!â€ I said. â€œYour reputation does you justice. Do you know this place? Do you know the location of El Dorado?â€
â€œWhere did you last leave it?â€
â€œBy my recollection it was in South America, near Peru.â€
â€œYes,â€ Holmes said, â€œwell, the peculiar thing about mythical places, like Camelot, Shangri-La, and the River Sambatyon, is that they have a tendency to geographically shift over time. I give you Atlantis.â€
â€œYou know where Atlantis is?â€
â€œNo. Thatâ€™s what makes it a prime example. Cartographers have a good idea of its approximate location. But, as the East Enders have it, it â€˜ainâ€™t there no more.â€™ There are many such examples. Wind current, ocean current, plate tectonicsâ€”they all have a hand in moving things around. However, the Fates have favored you today. Ever since I posed as a high-stakes player to infiltrate Professor Moriartyâ€™s gambling network, I have received invitations to stay free-of-charge at the finest casinos, legit or otherwise, around the world. Several days ago I received in the mail that brochure lying by your left foot. It might be of use to you. Please read it aloud.â€
I looked down and saw on the floor a four-color, glossy pamphlet and picked it up. I opened it and began reading.
â€œâ€˜Visit the world-famous El Dorado Casino in glittering Las Vegas. What happens here, stays here!â€™ Yes! This sounds very much like the El Dorado I knew. Impregnable from the outside world. Itâ€™s inhabitants never left. This could be the right place.â€
â€œWell, then,â€ Sherlock said, â€œI suggest you get a move on before El Dorado shifts to another location.â€
I humbly thanked the great detective and offered him payment for his services, but he refused and declared I was doing him a favor by getting rid of some of his unwanted mail. He then picked up a book and began reading while Dr. Watson checked the shipping schedule.
â€œThereâ€™s a White Star boat leaving for the states today. If you hurry, you can be on it.â€
â€œI thought heâ€™d never leave,â€ Sherlock said, referring to me.
â€œHe hasnâ€™t left,â€ Watson informed him. â€œIn fact, heâ€™s still standing here.â€
â€œReally, Holmes. Your interpersonal skillsâ€”â€
â€œAre abysmal? I knew youâ€™d say those exact words.â€
â€œHow? How could you possibly know Iâ€™d utter those precise words?â€
â€œDidnâ€™t I just inform you about rule number two?â€
â€œOh, letâ€™s not get started on that again.â€
I left 221B Baker Street a wiser and more informed man than when I had entered, though I was somewhat distressed at having the issue of my existence come up again so soon after our encounter with the learned professor on the train to Paris. However, when one is in a hurry to catch a boat about to cross an ocean, one doesnâ€™t stop to ponder such things.
Don sat on the curb across the street next to the pie wagon. His face was the picture of contentment as his teeth bit into what appeared to be pie number three, judging from the discarded tin pans at his feet and the crust fallout on his beard.
â€œReady for another?â€ asked the elderly man inside the food truck. A bushy mustache failed to hide the sly grin on his face. A long ponytail hung down his back.
â€œOf course!â€ Don said. â€œIn all my travels, this is the most delectable food I have ever had the good fortune of consuming.â€
â€œI put my most special magic ingredients into these pies just for you,â€ the man said with a wink of the eye.
â€œWeâ€™ll take it to go,â€ I told the proprietor.
â€œWould you like a taste?â€ he asked me, presenting a free morsel.
I declined and helped Don to his feet.
â€œLetâ€™s go. We have a boat to catch!â€
We got as far as the corner when I realized I hadnâ€™t paid for the pie. When I turned to go back, the truck wasnâ€™t there. I didnâ€™t have long to think about where it went for Don quite suddenly seized his head with both hands and declared, â€œWe canâ€™t board the ship!â€
â€œOh, now what?â€ I asked, knowing full well I wouldnâ€™t like the answer.
â€œI canâ€™t go on an adventure without first dedicating my quest to a worthy noblewoman.â€
â€œIt isnâ€™t done.â€
â€œItâ€™s done all the time! Look at me, Iâ€™m doing it now.â€
â€œI donâ€™t speak for others, but for meâ€¦.â€
I hailed a cab and directed the driver to take us to the nearest location where there was heavy foot traffic. Before long we were at Piccadilly Circus, the hub of London street life, searching for the perfect woman to whom Don could dedicate his adventures.
â€œThe boat leaves in two hours,â€ I informed him. â€œGrab a gal, and dedicate your fealty.â€
He looked at me in disgust, refusing to dignify my comment with a response. The minutes ticked by.
â€œWhat about her?â€ I asked repeatedly as women of all walks of life passed us.
â€œNo,â€ came the stern reply to each inquiry.
After an hour I began to fear we would be left at the dock. I was about to lose all patience when I heard a gasp escape Donâ€™s lips. I turned and saw a young woman in her mid-twenties approach. Her hair was colored a bright blue, as were her lips and fingernails. Her outfit could be best described a something a ballerina who joined a circus might wearâ€”all scarves and fluffy material.
â€œDulcinea del Toboso incarnate,â€ he uttered awestruck, his voice barely above a whisper.
I, on the other hand, found her to be the least attractive, least noble or worthy person for whom our journey should be dedicated. Truly, I thought, the ancients were correct in saying De gustibus non est disputandum, which loosely translates into â€œthere is no disputing about taste.â€
Donâ€™s eyes grew moist as he moved toward the woman and took her hand in his.
â€œDear lady!â€ he said, bowing so low his beard touched the ground. â€œIt is to you, and you alone, that I, Don Quixote, dedicate my quest for truth and justice.â€
â€œOy! Bugger off!â€ she snapped.
â€œIn your name, I vow to sally forth to slay malice, right wrongs, and restore honor.â€
â€œIâ€™m warning you, granâ€™pa!â€
â€œMost noble woman. Your radiance will light my path on the darkest nights and warm my weary bones against the chill of winter. Your humble servant begsâ€”â€
She pulled a can of mace from her purse and held him at bay, threatening to unleash its contents.
â€œA name! But tell me your name, and I go happily to my death.â€
â€œRight! Iâ€™m calling the police!â€
She pulled out a cell phone with her free hand.
â€œThatâ€™s our cue to leave,â€ I said, taking Don by the arm and dragging him away.
â€œBut the dedication!â€
â€œYou dedicated. We all heard it.â€
â€œIt wasnâ€™t according to protocol. Her nameâ€”â€
â€œHer name is Sheila. I saw it pop up on her cell. Now, letâ€™s sally-the-hell forth before Londonâ€™s finest arrive. Otherwise, your first adventure will be making bail.â€
I flagged another taxi and stuffed my friend inside. As we drove away, he rolled down the car window and cried out.
â€œDulcinea! Divine, creation!â€
She looked up from her phone and gave him the â€œV for Victoryâ€ sign, only I think she got it backwards.
He fell back into my lap in a swoon.
â€œMy Dulcinea! Every romantic verse ever written until this moment is but a pathetic attempt to describe her beauty. Isnâ€™t she the most incomparable vision of loveliness?â€
â€œIncomparable? I would compare her to a plucked ostrich for starters,â€ I said.
He looked away to some foreign, distant place, clutched his chest, and sighed.
â€œShe had me at â€˜bugger off.â€™â€
The White Star wharf was crowded with stevedores loading traveling cases and passengers walking up the gangway to board the ship. Fortunately for us, only two tickets were available. The ticketing agent serving us looked like he could have been the twin of the fellow on Milnerâ€™s pie truck.
â€œDo you know, you could be his double,â€ Don told him, filling in details about the pie wagon.
â€œNever heard of Milnerâ€™s,â€ the man claimed.
But when we turned to go, I got the distinct whiff of meat pie emanating from behind the counter.
â€œNow listen to me,â€ Don said as we slowly made our way up the gangplank. â€œThere are more rules for questing, as participating in quests is known. One of them is that you, too, must dedicate your journey to a worthy lady of noble birth.â€
â€œAs opposed to just any street urchin who happens to wander by?â€
â€œExactly. But you must be able to discern her true beauty, not what the world sees.â€
â€œWhat happens if I donâ€™t dedicate the mission to someone?â€
â€œThen the quest is in vain! How do you not know this simple rule?â€
â€œBecause Iâ€™m not a knight-errant!â€
â€œYes, yes. Point taken. You are not a knight and therefore would not be aware of our rules. Nonetheless, should you honor a particular lady by dedicating your travels to her, you will find it most rewarding.â€
We displayed out tickets to the shipâ€™s officer at the top of the gangplank, and he directed us to our cabin on a lower deck. We hadnâ€™t been inside the room for five minutes when I noticed Donâ€™s hands begin to tremble.
I couldnâ€™t put my finger on it, but it seemed to me that my traveling companionâ€™s whole demeanor had changed since we arrived at Baker Street, and I began to have reservations about our trip. But like most people, I dismissed the warnings intuition equips us with and reasoned that Don was just a little off his game, having not gone on adventures like this for many years.
At the same time I was distracted by my ongoing insecurity about being a dime store novel character versus a real person, which had resurfaced after visiting the great detective. I kept telling myself, â€œI think therefore I am!â€ as a coping mechanism.
My misgivings became even more pronounced on the fourth day out to sea. Don had been particularly jittery that evening. His left eye involuntarily twitched on occasion, and his hands shook at dinner when he raised a wine glass to his lips. Later, I could not fall to sleep and took a walk around the deck. There I met Don who seemed to be on full alert, scanning the horizon for hidden dangers.
â€œHush!â€ he said before I uttered a word.
We stood there in the cold North Atlantic, both watching the water. His fingers visibly trembled, though not necessarily out of fear. The look on his face was that of a man spoiling for a fight.
â€œThey will attack tonight,â€ he said in a low voice so as not to be heard by other passengers. Even at that late hour, the deck was full of partygoers. A band played nearby.
Then, out of the night loomed an immense object.
â€œIceberg!â€ I called out.
Donâ€™s eyes grew large.
â€œThatâ€™s no iceberg,â€ he said. â€œIt is a giant come to slay us. A lance! My kingdom for a lance!â€
A general panic spread across the deck as passengers and crew scrambled ahead of an imminent collision with the massive wall of ice quickly closing in on us. Don disappeared into a ballroom and soon emerged with a coat stand, which he improvised for use as a knightâ€™s lance.
â€œClear a path!â€ he shouted. â€œDo not fear. I am here to protect you!â€
To his credit, the knight of old plunged ahead against a current of people fleeing for their lives toward me. Though I was swept up in the tide of humanity lurching sternward, I distinctly saw Don attack the iceberg with his makeshift lance, plunging it with all his might into the behemoth, creating large frosty plumes that sprayed skyward. As he did this I could hear the sickening sound of hard ice gutting the ship below the waterline.
I must have been knocked down and trampled by the fleeing passengers. When I regained my senses I was covered in bruises and being quickly lowered into a lifeboat. I lost consciousness several times but came to in time to see a crewman throw a life ring to someone in the water. They pulled in the survivor, still clutching a shattered coat rack and shivering from the effects of the freezing water.
â€œI have failed,â€ Don bemoaned through frozen lips. â€œMy first battle in centuries.â€
â€œThe poor man is out of his head,â€ a woman in dinner attire said.
â€œNever mind that,â€ another replied. â€œWe just lost the Titanic.â€
I looked up and witnessed the calm Atlantic swallow our magnificent ocean liner, the largest man-made structure many of us had ever seen, like a whale inhaling an insect.
The next morning before dawn a Cunard ship arrived and took aboard survivors. There was no Wi-Fi on that ship either, and had I known we would be without Internet service before leaving England I would have booked airfare, though that would have considerably depleted my funds.
During our three-day voyage to New York I whiled away the hours performing mind games, one of which was Donâ€™s favorite, anagramming, or rearranging letters in words to form new words. It was during one such moment of reverie that I embarked on words related to our journey. â€˜Sherlockâ€™ became â€˜her locks,â€™ and â€˜Watsonâ€™ was made into â€˜was not.â€™ But when I touched on â€˜Milnerâ€™ as in â€˜Milnerâ€™s Meat Pies,â€™ I bolted upright.
â€œMerlin!â€ I shouted.
â€œQuiet down! People are trying to sleep!â€ a shipâ€™s steward scolded.
I tried to find Don, but he was absent, probably wandering the deck.
Then I recalled the names of the people following my blog. The one named Limner was also Merlin.
Of course, Merlin has been following my blog, I reasoned. Thatâ€™s how he knew we were coming to England and where we would be. I recalled the vendor on the pie wagon informing Don that his pies had special magical ingredients just for him. Then I remembered the man who sold us the last two tickets for the ill-fated ship looked and smelled just like the man in the pie wagon.
My friend and traveling companion, Don Quixote, was under a spell cast by his old nemesis. Under the influence of that hex, young maidens of dubious backgrounds appeared to be women of high birth, and icebergs became white giants. It all began to make sense. I didnâ€™t know how long Merlinâ€™s enchantment would last, but I knew I needed to find a way to undo the spell before reaching El Dorado.
We arrived in New York three days later to much ado over the sinking, but Don and I managed to slip away from the hordes of reporters looking for stories.
â€œKnights do not seek monetary gain from the misfortune of others,â€ he solemnly informed me.
I agreed in principle but managed to squeeze in a few interviews behind his back to boost my blog readership. Several stories with my quotes appeared in the local papers. I knew Don would be none the wiser since he seemed to be more engaged with the past than the present. That is, until he returned to our room from breakfast carrying a complimentary newspaper. He placed it in front of me.
â€œWhatâ€™s this?â€ he said, pointing to a lead article with my picture.
â€œAll right. I talked. I admit it. But itâ€™s to help our cause.â€
â€œHow does this pandering to the masses at the expense of those engulfed in tragedy help our cause?â€
â€œFirst of all, the paper paid good money, which is why we can afford this nice hotel overlooking the park.â€
â€œSecond of all, it has dramatically boosted the number of people reading my blog.â€
â€œIs that so? How many?â€
I checked the latest count.
â€œWeâ€™re up to seven!â€
â€œYou were at three.â€
â€œItâ€™s a 233% increase. Thatâ€™s huge!â€
â€œYou would sell your soul for a free room and four new subscribers?â€
â€œIf youâ€™re asking, am I a capitalist? Yes. Do I believe in free enterprise? Yes.â€
â€œIâ€™m asking neither of those things. Iâ€™m attempting to discern which direction your moral compass points: true north or due south?â€
â€œI can assure you itâ€™s true north. But at this moment we should be traveling due south.â€
I didnâ€™t want to get into a deep discussion on this subject and tried to deflect the topic. Itâ€™s just as well I didnâ€™t tell him Iâ€™d sold the remains of his lance to a memorabilia collector for enough money to purchase a used automobile.
My plan was to drive to the bayous surrounding New Orleans where it is said voodoo practitioners lived. There, I hoped to find one capable of lifting Merlinâ€™s spell.
The car I had purchased was well worth the $700 I spent on it for about the first hundred miles. At mile 110, I began to have my doubts about its road-worthiness. By mile 125, we were hitchhiking.
â€œThis is most humiliating,â€ Don said as one vehicle after another zoomed passed us. â€œA knight should have his own steed!â€
â€œPerhaps if you remained still instead of waving your arms like a maniac, someone might stop.â€
â€œI want them to see us!â€
â€œOh, they can see us. Thatâ€™s why they keep speeding up. Letâ€™s try my method for a moment and see what results we get.â€
I stood by the road with my arm extended, thumb up, a technique I picked up from hostellers traveling through France. Within a minute a minibus with dark tinted windows came to a stop. The front bumper sported a sticker that declared, â€˜Itâ€™s All Good!â€™ The passenger window came down, and a man with a Russian accent stuck his head out. â€œDo either of you know the way to Cape Canaveral?â€ he asked.
Having kept abreast of events, unlike my traveling mate, I was well aware of NASAâ€™s space program.
â€œYes,â€ I said. â€œI can map it on my phone.â€
â€œGood!â€ the man said. â€œPermission to come aboardâ€¦that is, I meant to say, get in.â€
Don and I climbed in through a sliding side door and took two seats at the rear. There were six other people inside the vehicle, which was well appointed with comfortable bucket seats and large viewing windows. The Muscovite in the passenger seat we spoke to was named Chekov. Sitting in the driverâ€™s seat was a man with distinctive Japanese facial features whom they called Sulu. The captain of the crew, named Kirk, sat in a large swivel chair directly behind Sulu and Chekov.
Two people were positioned behind the captain. One was an attractive woman, Uhura, with dark skin. A fold-down table in front of her held a radar detector and a citizens-band radio. A thin cord ran from the radio to earphones so that she could listen to transmissions. Across from her sat a thin man whose ears, which I immediately noticed, rose to sharp points half way up on either side of his head. This person they referred to as Spock. Don surmised Spock to be of Mongol and Slav extraction. I couldnâ€™t put my thumb on his origins, but he was obviously a foreigner.
Behind them sat a paunch-bellied Scot. I could tell the country of origin by his accent and the fact they called him Scotty. The last man sat in the back with us. He went by the name of Doctor McCoy or Bones depending on who did the talking.
After some time had passed the captain turned in his chair and looked me over, noticing the bruises still visible from the calamity aboard the ship. â€œBones, this one appears to be in need of medical assistance,â€ he said.
â€œDamn it, Jim! Iâ€™m a doctor, not aâ€”â€
â€œIâ€™m aâ€¦Oh, all right, Iâ€™ll examine him.â€
McCoy held a small whirring device over me and declared that I was sound in mind and body. When he did the same for Don, a puzzled expression came over him. â€œWhat the?â€ he said.
He shook the device and scanned Don Quixote once more.
â€œSon of a gun. Same reading. Sound in body. Slightly elevated temperature. But the mindâ€¦â€
I didnâ€™t want to alert Don to the fact that he was under Merlinâ€™s spell and risk causing alarm, so I kept my mouth shut. But the doctorâ€™s findings confirmed my suspicions.
â€œCaptain,â€ the pointy-eared man said. â€œIf we are to rendezvous on time with the NASA craftâ€¦â€
â€œI hear you Spock,â€ Kirk said. â€œFull speed ahead, Mr. Sulu,â€ he instructed the man at the wheel.
Sulu floored it, and we shot down the interstate highway like a rocket, passing other cars as though they stood still.
â€œScotty, we need to reach the cape before the shuttle launches,â€ the captain remarked to the engineer.
â€œIâ€™ve done everything I can with the technology they have down here, Capâ€™n. Sulu and I modified the engine, the transmission, and the suspension as best we could. We even slapped on high performance tires. Now, you get a hold of some jet fuel, and Iâ€™ll make this baby really fly.â€
â€œYou are exceeding the speed limit,â€ a voice above the dashboard repeated every few seconds.
â€œChekov, disengage whatever noise that is,â€ Kirk commanded.
â€œAye, aye, sir.â€
â€œCaptain!â€ Uhura called out. â€œIâ€™m detecting an energy pulse emanating approximately two kilometers ahead.â€
â€œSpock?â€ Kirk said.
â€œIf memory serves me, speeding laws were once enforced on highways with the aid of devices utilizing radar technology. Our speed is very likely being monitored.â€
â€œThere are no such things as speed limits!â€ the doctor said.
â€œIn space no. On Earth, yes.â€
â€œWhat do you think those road signs with numbers are for?â€ Scotty asked.
â€œI don't know,â€ the doctor replied. â€œI thought they were elevation markers.â€
â€œThose are speed limits,â€ Chekov informed him.
â€œSir,â€ Uhura said, â€œIâ€™m overhearing reports of what is referred to as a â€˜Smokeyâ€™ in the vicinity.â€
â€œThat doesnâ€™t sound good,â€ Kirk replied.
By then an automobile with blue lights gave chase and started to catch up with us.
â€œI see him, Spock. Shields up!â€ Kirk instructed.
â€œWe have no shields, Captain,â€ Sulu said.
â€œEngage tractor beam.â€
â€œWe donâ€™t have that either.â€
â€œDamn it, what do we have?â€
â€œI found a bottle of scotch in this rear cabinet,â€ said the engineer.
â€œAny wodka?â€ asked the Muscovite.
â€œScotty, got any other tricks up your sleeve?â€
â€œWell, I have been saving one special surprise for wee emergencies like this. I mounted a modified turbocharger on the engine. If Mr. Chekov would be so kind as to press the button marked EMD on the panel in front of him, you will see what I mean. I just hope the tires and the suspension can handle it. Sulu, you might want to grip the wheel a little more tightly.â€
By then the patrol car was almost on our bumper.
â€œMr. Chekov,â€ said Kirk, â€œengage EMD.â€
â€œAye, aye, Captain.â€
An instant later we exploded down the road like a cannon projectile.
â€œUhura. Status report.â€ Kirk said.
â€œThe pulses are getting fainterâ€¦ Weâ€™ve lost them.â€
â€œChekov, disengage EMD.â€
The captain turned in his swivel seat toward the engineer.
â€œScotty, what exactly does EMD stand for?â€
The engineer smiled.
â€œIt means, Eat My Dust. It's the name of a movie from about this time period.â€
â€œOh, I have that one!â€ Sulu said. â€œDirected by Ron Howard.â€
â€œLittle Opie?â€ Uhura chimed in.
â€œYes. His brother was in the movie, too.â€
â€œHis brother is always in Ronâ€™s films. I have the box set.â€
â€œPeople, people,â€ Kirk interrupted. â€œWeâ€™re on a mission to save the planet and possibly this solar system, and our ride leaves in a few hours.â€
â€œCaptain, with all due respectâ€¦â€ the science officer began.
â€œWhat is it, Spock?â€
â€œIt seems to me we spend an inordinate amount of effort breaching the space-time continuum and returning to Earth just to save mankind from yet another threat of self-annihilation.â€
â€œHeâ€™s right, Jim,â€ the doctor weighed in. â€œThere was that London smog rescue mission followed by the germ warfare folly. Then there was that time nuclear destruction was imminent. Then climate change. And the whales.â€
â€œOh! I forgot all about those whales,â€ Scotty said. â€œAnd that cigar looking thing in low orbit signaling them. What the hell was that?â€
â€œAnd your point, Spock?â€ Kirk said.
â€œIt would be logical to let the life forms on this planet destroy one another. It would be best for the galaxy.â€
â€œI hate to agree with this green-blooded Vulcan,â€ Bones said, â€œbut heâ€™s right, Jim.â€
â€œHow many times do I have to remind all of you?â€ Kirk said, raising his voice. â€œThese are our ancestors. Without them, we donâ€™t exist. Without us, the Federation falls apart. We are just a link in a chain that stretches back to this very moment in time. If we donâ€™t save them, we destroy ourselves.â€
â€œSo,â€ the doctor said, â€œif we donâ€™t save this planet, then we were never born?â€
â€œCorrect,â€ said the captain.
â€œBut we were born. Ergo, the planet was already saved.â€
â€œNot until we saved it!â€
â€œYou mean, all that growing up we did, going to school, having families, going on these expeditions through time and space never occurred unless, later in life, we came back here multiple times and saved Earth from destruction?â€
â€œYou got it, Bones.â€
The doctor rubbed his temples.
â€œJim, Iâ€™m having a hard time wrapping my brain around that.â€
â€œMe, too, Capâ€™n,â€ Scotty chimed in.
â€œThen let me make it easy for all of you,â€ Kirk said. â€œI'm the captain, and Iâ€™m ordering you to complete this mission! End of discussion.â€
My traveling companion and I could make little sense of their conversation, but one got the idea that the fate of mankind was in their hands.
â€œSo,â€ I said to the doctor, making conversation, â€œyour crew routinely travels through different time periods?â€
â€œYes. All the time. It was fun at first but gets to be old after a while. You know how it isâ€”once youâ€™ve seen Paris. Plus your attire is always out of fashion, so you stand out like a sore thumb.â€
â€œIs it possible to accidently travel through time? Perhaps sail on a doomed ship that was sunk by an iceberg a century earlier and return to the present soon after?â€
â€œOh, sure. There are all kinds of time warps, rifts, wormholes, and alternate universes. Some of them we go looking for in our travels, others just sort of swallow us up. Then we pop out on the other side like nothing happened. We even entered a convergence once.â€
â€œWhatâ€™s a convergence?â€
â€œItâ€™s a topological interchange in the space-time continuum where occurrences from the past and the future merge. You can be in one time period and a minute later in a completely different era a hundred years apart. Theoretically, you could meet an ancestor and a future descendant at the same point in time. It can be very disconcerting at first.â€
â€œHow does one enter a convergence?â€
* * *