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from the June 2016 issue

The Right Path

Centuries ago, on the vast plains that extend between the coasts of the Black and Caspian seas, was a kingdom founded by General Poltrov. Poltrov was the product of a life of military discipline: tyrannical, cruel, and rational to the extreme. At the pinnacle of his glory, he enjoyed absolute power over his subjects, a few thousand farmers and artisans.

There were only two cities on Poltrov’s territory: Lalandia in the east and Falstria in the west. But communications and transportation between them were slow and arduous because there were no paths to connect them. Because of the symmetry and uniform appearance of the landscape, caravans of travelers would often get lost and take one or two days longer than they should to complete the journey.

Aiming to put an end to this situation—the shame of the kingdom—General Poltrov decided to build a cobblestone path to connect the two cities. He drew a straight line on the map and summoned Espiralov, the royal engineer, to lead the construction work.

Espiralov, who was from every point of view an eccentric man, patiently listened as the General presented his project and finally said:

“General Poltrov, the desert is so incredibly boring that you would do well to add a few curves, bridges, and rest areas along your path, small details that attract the attention of the travelers and are pleasing to the gaze. A thicket of trees here, a soft hill there, a hanging bridge over a creek . . .”

“I thank you for your advice, Espiralov,” said the General. “I have already drawn up the most perfect plan possible: a straight line. It is not only the shortest way to get there, and the least expensive, but a straight line represents order, clarity, and efficacy. This conversation is over. Build my straight path as I have ordered you and return before me upon its completion.”

Espiralov wasn’t stupid. He knew that disobeying an order from the General was as good as putting his neck to the guillotine. So he built Poltrov’s path straight, very straight, extremely straight. And deceptive. The desert was so vast that the longest, softest curve would be perceived as a decidedly straight line. As workers marked the rectilinear route, Espiralov would sneak in and move the markers a few inches, always to the right. No one suspected anything, but a handful of men were surprised every time they noticed the sun rising in a different place on the horizon. They blamed the phenomenon on the machinery of the heavens, and not on the machinations of man.

In early spring, Espiralov announced to the General the completion of the road. Poltrov organized a big celebration and gathered a convoy of trusted men who would travel behind him as he made the return trip on his new path. His horsemen departed among trumpets and horns, proud and jovial as they faced the imposingly straight cobblestone route. The king greeted Espiralov and gave him a sack of poltrovies, the gold coins used as currency in the kingdom, as recognition of his work.

The men and the horses disappeared into the horizon. For long days, people awaited their return. Seven weeks later, Poltrov, eyes bulging, entered the areas in the back of the city, followed by his exhausted entourage.

“Did you enjoy your voyage, General?” his people asked.

Confused, Poltrov replied:

“We never arrived in Falstria. We are still in Lalandia. But the path was straight . . .”

“How is that possible?”

The General reflected for a long time, then exclaimed:

“It is not possible!”

After replenishing their supplies, Poltrov and his men set out on the path. Seven weeks later, they entered Lalandia once again.

Many times Poltrov traveled the straight path, which was, in fact, an enormous circle, until he turned into a gaunt vagrant, repeating “It’s the right path, it’s the right path . . .” like a madman.

The kingdom plunged into anarchy. In the end, a long series of internecine struggles, wars, and revolutions destroyed the cobblestone path, which, as a result of military upheaval and spooked horses, saw its original trajectory erased and wound up twisted around itself.

Over time, another path appeared. Sinuous, somewhat chaotic, and full of imperfections, it connected Lalandia to Falstria, at last.

 

Le chemin droit © Diego Creimer. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2016 by María José Giménez. All rights reserved.

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