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Portrait of Dija as St. James

by Susan L. Miller

I.

At the northern border of Spain, D wakes
to sunrise, lying quiet for a minute. Enric’s
still sleeping between two trees, his fine-boned face

her first human sight of the day. Even in sleep
he palms his scallop shell. She sneaks
her fingers to hers, tracing the ribs to their neat

origin. Their rays, she thinks, mimic the risen
sun, shot through clouds in the Pyrenees,
her four-weeks’ home. But home’s not what she calls

any single place these days: New York, Mallorca,
California, all home, all not home. This dawn
will serve for a while, its pink and orange aura

a blessing, a peace. It’s all peregrination
anyway: like her namesake Khadija’s caravan,
D’s paths follow a wandering plan.

But this morning’s meditations
unlace themselves from her obligations,
and she yawns, stretches, loosens the tendons

in her ankles, tight from bicycling in the mountains.
She teases knots from her short hair, scans
the track of today’s ride in her guide, hops down

from her perch. “Buenos dias, Enric,”
she grins. He groans, throws the closest stick
at her, but she’s already untied her hammock.

II.

“So what might make me cross the line,” she says,
“is this notion of redemption. I was raised
with rules for judgment: if you steal, you lose

a hand. Adultery: you’ll be stoned to death.
As for me, being a lesbian, I’d be stoned and then
buried in sand. No way of coming back from

that. Yet in Catholic doctrine, you can sin
and be forgiven, sin and be forgiven again.
I wouldn’t have to be perfect, only repentant.”

“But in many religions, we have the last judgment,
no?” asks Enric, passing her the bread.
“And doesn’t the Lord resurrect even those turned to iron?”

“We all have two angels guarding us, yes,”
D admits, slicing a hunk of cheese, “but on this
earth, we’re marked forever, visible to those

around us as transgressors.” She sighs.
Taking her lunch in hand, she chews,
passes the water to Enric, who’s

plotting their trail on laminated maps spread out
on the hard ground. He smiles. “You know, it’s not
as if we Catholics have got it all right.

Cariña, there’s no comfortable spot
for us gays in any religion. We have to plot
our own courses, follow our own stars.”

III.

Under the Basque dark, D’s not sleeping.
Light from the star-riddled sky is keeping
her attention, her eyes wide open. Not weeping

but sighing, not drowning, but waving, she prays
to a God she doesn’t know how to name:
Allah, the Holy Spirit, YHWH,

in all the religions He’s the same. But how
to call that wisdom up? Enric’s asleep just now,
and she’s alone with her confusions. No

allegiances, no illusions, just a soul in pain:
the muscle twinges from the bike trail
secondary to her chronic heartache.

Lord, have mercy on me, she mouths,
then twists her hands into a wreath,
staring at the sky. Saint James’s body was unearthed,

she knows, beneath a star that revealed
its message for the faithful on this road.
Compostela: the star above the field.

Yet this night is dark, the stars no clearer
one from another, and no light makes her
path more sure. Of course the bikers

know which trail to ride, but where can she
go to find her own way? “Help me
to be good,” she prays. “Grant me humility.”

IV.

In an old story, Saint James’s body was ferried
from the Middle East to Galicia, carried
back to his mission, and lost in the waves

only to wash ashore immaculate and mailed
with an armor of scallop shells. Another legend
claims a man and horse rode out toward

the ship that bore poor James’s body back,
and horse and rider slipped under the dark
engulfing bay. Though those on shore expected

sure demise, horse and man rose up crowned
with scallops, baptized, not drowned.
These stories passed from believer to believer down

through centuries. Now D’s reading them
in a well-thumbed guidebook, mixed in
with practical advice for what to bring

(a canteen, a stone to lay at the Iron Cross
in Foncebadon, good walking shoes)

and local lore, like the miracle St. James

bestowed on a prisoner condemned to death:
after his parents returned from their quest
to Compostela, the judge promised

to lift the sentence if the cock and hen
roasted on his plate would crow. As one,
they cackled, and saved the thankful man.

V.

In Foncebadon, it’s not what she had imagined,
more like a spot on the road than a village,
and the Iron Cross very tall on a mountain of stones.

Also unlike the rest of the trip, they’re surrounded
by other pilgrims who approach the growing mound
one by one, praying, most without a sound.

A nun in grey fishes through her bag for a pebble.
A boy with backpackers’ dreads drops a granite chip.
D watches at a distance. Enric steps

up to the cross and lays his agate down.
D’s got two rocks in hand, one sharp and brown,
her own, and a white quartz that’s come

all the way from Brooklyn, where a friend asked her
to bring it on her behalf. A year of disaster —
a miscarriage, her brother in a bicycle accident —

and of course she isn’t able to make the Camino.
D’s happy to carry her friend’s memento,
to take the burden for a while for another, too.

Easy to read the hand-written prayer on the paper;
easy to lay the smooth-edged quartz there.
But when it’s time to lay her stone, she falters,

wondering exactly what she’s come here for.
She can’t decide which language to pray in, which prayer.
“Forgive me for what I have failed to do,” she says.

VI.

After weeks of riding, D’s grown lean,
her muscles often in pain, but strong,
her tricky hip less often tricky, her arms

so defined the veins bulge under her skin.
In her hammock at the end of the day, a thin
slice of moon allows the light to skim

her tan lines, a narrative marked on her flesh.
How little, she thinks, we really need.
Plush body, you served me in the life before, flushed

at times with wine, lax and loose,
and now each kilometer drops more of the kilos
I used to carry. The spirit too—how much

we think we ought to prove, to show
our worth in the eyes of others—and now
I have no need beyond a friend, a true

word or two, food and shelter for the night.
She turns to peek at Enric, turned tight
in his hammock, fast asleep, she thought,

and he asks, “Cariña, are you all right?” Smiling,
she nods, then reaches across the divide
to find his hand in the dark. “Just thinking

how lucky I am you asked me to come,”
she says, “and how much I still have to learn,”
and Enric laughs and kisses her palm.

 

 

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