by Ruth Linnea Whitney
The shell is hollow inside, the empty grave of an animal long dead. The shell foretells the journey ahead, my pilgrimage, and the miles I’ll collect like coins dropped into a child’s piggy bank. The shell invites a question gnawing at the chamber of myself: What are you doing here, really?
The question comes again in the voice of the pretty young hospitalero at Auberge de Orisson, a hamlet on the eastern slope of the Pyrenees in France. She’s asking the twenty-four of us seated at tables, self-sorted into language groups. My companion, David, and I sit across from Brian and Elaine, from Buffalo. We’re in the Basque country and all are served the same dishes—veggie soup, pork cutlet, cassoulet, and red wine—which is the Basque way. Some eat more than others. David eats more than most. Men like watching this lean eater and reporting his prodigious intake to their wives. After the last bite, Brian turns to Elaine. “You see there? That’s his fifth helping.”
It’s now that the question comes in English and in French, “What brings you here to the Camino?”
We’re French, Australian, Danish, German, Irish, Scottish, Canadian, South African, and American at the tables. We’ve come to find ourselves or lose ourselves, to wear off an old boyfriend, or break in a new life. A forty-something Irish lass tells us she just broke up with her boyfriend, sold her house, quit her job. How deftly she warms the crowd. The mike moves on. It has me in its sights. My larynx begins a slow freeze. “You were the quiet blonde girl in the back row who never raised her hand,” my old American lit professor recalled of me years later. A group of sharing strangers with a hot mike is an alien country to me. Still alien, though I’ve mastered some of the vocabulary in my middle years—and trending beyond—because if not now, when? But the tongue spoken in these circles is not my own. An accent comes through, a dis-ease. My way is to tell the story to the blank page, which lies there, inert, dispassionate, not unkind, and lets me re-view, re-hear, and re-write. This is what I do. But the hot mike is snaking its way toward me and I want to duck.
Not so David, who has no unease as he stands for both of us and says that we’ve come from the Olympic Peninsula on Washington’s Pacific coast, to do the Camino for “spiritual reasons.” He doesn’t elaborate, but he could go on and on and people wouldn’t squirm. Something about his timing. It’s one of the reasons I married him, believing it would rub off on me. It has not.
I lean in now and say, sotto voco, “Martin Sheen played a part, too.”
We’d talked for a decade of “doing the Camino de Santiago de Compostela.” Someday. Then early the year of this story, 2012, Martin Sheen came to our town in The Way. I watched him as a father walk 500-miles in honor of a son who lost his way in fog and died. Someday turned trifling and improbable. It’s not forever this life. What are you waiting for? After the credits, I turned to David and said, “Let’s just do it.”
“I’m sitting there, watching Martin Sheen,” David said, “and I think, when the movie ends, she’s going to look at me and say, ‘Let’s just do it.’ And here you are.”
Here I am on Day Two, stepping out into a soft mist, sharing the narrow asphalt with six brown and white ponies, low to the ground like their Basque keepers. Off the asphalt to the southeast clumps of sheep chomp green mounds. A half-kilometer up from the auberge, centered on the asphalt: a circle of blood. A beautiful red fox lies just off-road, a tire bump away, flaccid and still. No one else mentions the fox. As I shoot past the beautiful wild creature flattened by speed, blindness, or, worse, indifference, a second question joins the first: Now that death has come to the day, what will follow?
The scallop shell rides shotgun on my backpack and bears the legend of its origin, the one about James, brother of John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” This James was shipped to Spain, headless, the story goes, and his boat reached the northwestern coast, covered in scallop shells. The shell’s image litters the pilgrimage that’s grown from the legend and serves as a way marker, a simple GPS. From the start in St. Jean Pied de Port, I scan the strangeness ahead for the shell, not white like the shell on my backpack, but sunflower-yellow, with rays fingering a deep blue background. So I read the earth, the city brickwork, the village post, for signs of change and direction. A pilgrim pays attention.
I move on up the road through groves of purple heather, fields of fern. The miles collect. A rain starts. Hardens. Hunger slips in. White bread doesn’t carry you far in this terrain. My feet cramp. My fingers are frozen. I place my left foot strangely to relieve a cramp in my left glute. At the unmarked boundary where France ends and Spain begins, a white wagon emerges beside the pavement. Two Spanish men stand under a tarp offering reinforcements: croissants, apples, orange slices, hot drinks. We’re strangers at the wagon, clustered as compadres, refreshing ourselves, and blessing our Good Samaritans. I leave three euros and “Muches gracias.” One of the Spaniards says, “Buen camino.”
Col de Lepoeder, 1450 meters, is the highest point on the Pyrenees stage. The path takes a steep drop through a beech forest and beyond to an open sky, and David, who mingles with a clutch of pilgrims eating bread and cheese and arguing about a fork in the path:
“Straight is short and steep.”
“But right is longer and gradual.”
“How do we know that right ends up where we want?”
“It’s asphalt. That’s good.”
“I have a blister starting, and straight is shorter.”
“It looks treacherous.”
Where is the shell?
The shell has abandoned us. I’ve abandoned my Camino and regained the life I know, a life of we, our, us. I’m not strong enough to be me when us comes with arms outstretched. “Let’s go this way.” David fingers the straight steep path to Roncesvalles, through pelting rain: bumpy, stone-pocked, hell on the knees, thick with muck, slick.
Four French women skitter and slide on the path ahead. One bumps down to the muck, flaps her red poncho like floppy dragon wings, and pushes upright. “Ca va?” I call.
She sends up a nonsense curse and thrashes onward. Non. Ca ne va pas. It’s not going well at all.
David and I slog into Roncesvalles, population 100. Our plan is to stay in the monastery albergue, a dormitory with 110 to a room. Two Irish sisters from last night flag us inside. “Check in at the desk,” the younger one says. Elijah Wood, or his handsome deep-eyed double, greets us at reception, takes our US passports, stamps our pilgrim credentials, and leads us upstairs to a private room with two beds and silence. A mercy. Who are we to question a hobbit?
A sign beside the N-135 telegraphs the journey we face: Santiago de Compostela – 790. In miles it’s 490.8. Today it’s 13.6. Today an auberge becomes an albergue in Zubiri, population 500. We’re eight in Room 207 of the private albergue, “a terraced brick house” having “all facilities,” John Brierley writes in our favorite guide book. Brian and Elaine from Buffalo, check into Room 207, too. Then they head out for the pilgrim Mass. “Sure you don’t want to come?”
I’ve told her I’m Protestant, a Presbyterian, but I love reading Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr, and other contemplative Catholics, and, after all, it’s the same faith. She nods coolly. I don’t tell her that my desire for God was born outside of church, on a patch of sidewalk, where the girl I once was stands alone, except for the air holding her. Ripples of spirit. Someone. She’s seven, still wearing those ugly high-top shoes for falling arches. But she’s not thinking of shoes. She’s caught by the moving air, incited to stillness, a stirring of leaves, a humming inside her, a whisper of her name. Ever after, when she feels a strange menace underneath her bed, she lets the night fill with leavings from those ripples of spirit, the One she knows will keep her safe in the dark.
But as Elaine eyes me from the door, I’m remembering the previous night when David and I sat through a mass led by five ancient priests dirging in a tongue we couldn’t understand. A public gathering so different from that early moment with the welling presence who whispered my name. “Guess not. But thanks,” I tell Elaine.
Once they’ve gone, anti-Catholic tales bruise the walls of Room 207. Pat opens the tirade in South African-accented English. “I was a good Catholic girl. Until I got divorced and was no good to the Church. I had a hard time, at first. Then God told me ‘You’re doing fine, honey. You don’t need a priest to bless you.’”
“I was an altar boy,” Serge says in Quebec-laced English. “Every chance, I help the priest. I had a best friend who was an altar boy, too. One day, he came and say to me the priest was writing love letters to his girlfriend. She was in high school, like us. My friend, he showed me a letter. I quit going to mass. My father asked didn’t I want to go to mass. Non. I told him why not. My father, he believe me. He quit going, too.”
“The church was closed,” Elaine says when they return. They waited with ten others outside the locked church. After some minutes, Massimo, a young Spanish priest, appeared. He had no key but invited everyone to sit on the steps outside. The rain had stopped. He led them in a Mass, said a homily. “It was lovely,” she says.
On my bunk with my daypack, I flip the shell revealing the hollow inside, and a memory opens in me. A son’s voice on the phone from Harborview Hospital, year before last. My children, two sons grown big, are so embedded in my heart pocket that chronology and geography cannot touch them. The voice of Mark, our first-born, from December 2010 is as clear as the next bunk: “They’re taking me into the operating room. I was in a crosswalk. She didn’t stop, Mom. I took a bus to the hospital.” He hobbled to a city bus on a broken tibial plateau. A hit & run. What was he thinking? But these things happen. This is Mark’s life. Like the early precipitous trip down the birth canal in another hospital forty years earlier, his immature lung, his oxygen deficit, the doctor’s voice afterward: “Something’s wrong with your baby. We have him on oxygen.” Too late. The missing oxygen molecules left a region of his brain bereft, the region responsible for spatial organization and visual perception—the part that delivers homework assignments complete and on time, not lost or—oh, joy—found on the walk home. Or the part that judges distance. A new memory surfaces. His sixteenth birthday. A gift from a father who sees a car as a boy’s rite of passage. But on the way to school next morning, the boy misreads the distance between his own ’49 Chevy hatchback and a Buick parked beside the road. The impact destroys the Chevy and the Buick. Empty, thank God. But the baby blue hatchback is gone. Like his own tibial plateau, nailed by a hit and run driver. Not so, those old words—”Something’s wrong with your baby.” They remain to shadow me through years of calamity and relief, odd setbacks and sketchy fixes, questions without answer: How can the One who keeps me safe in the dark deprive my son of a faculty so essential, the one that sees a catastrophe walking straight for him and steps aside?
We leave Pamplona with the sunburst shell, on city walkways until we cede our focus to a small group of pilgrims enveloping us, lose the shell and stray onto another course. But the Spaniards love their Camino, they know the route, they recognize a peregrino asleep on her feet. A cyclist approaching from behind sends up a whistle. His raised hand signal tethers us back on course.
The morning takes us along fields of brushwood, blackberry shrubs, Mediterranean oaks with their holly-like leaves, pebbled pathways. “I am so happy. My camera’s working. The day is perfect. I’m walking with a beautiful woman.” A husband’s hyperbole, to be sure. At my age, attractive more than covers my looks. Or, as David likes to joke, “there’s youth, middle age, and ‘you’re lookin’ good.’” Warmth suffuses my breast as David stops to catch an image with his camera and, alone, I ease along fields of harvested wheat, rock-strewn and brown, rows of sunflowers, blackberries.
The path takes an upturn. I climb, climb to a high ledge of tall wind turbines spinning in gale-force winds and a wrought-iron sculpture depicting medieval pilgrims on foot or on horseback, impervious to wind and time and the western panorama of valley and distant Pamplona, and unmoved by me snugged against the concrete base of an information placard far from the edge and from the albergue we’ll call home tonight. Where in the heck is David? I feel abandoned—and not only by David, I realize on this Alto de Perdon. Abandoned by my own good nature. Legend says all who ascend here are forgiven. But penance must precede forgiveness, mustn’t it? I regret hurts I’ve done to others, kindnesses that have died before I gave them birth. But my penance bumps up against the ache of my foreshortened hope for Mark’s life, and my pique at God who permits it. Can a pilgrim be forgiven for not forgiving God?
Inside the four-bunk cubicle of our next accommodation, Albergue Jakue in Puente la Reina, David lounges on his upper bunk as I remove my shoes and discover an oval wound bathed in goo on my left big toe. “I’ve got a blister.”
David trains a frown on the naked wound. “This could be a Camino-stopper.”
“No. It can’t be.”
He slides down and crouches at my bare foot. “Put on your shoe and let’s see exactly where it’s rubbing.”
I test-walk it through dormitory aisles and back, and finger the friction point. Wearing his orthopaedist hat, David performs a surgical procedure seldom described in the literature: He saws a hole through the big toe side of my Brooks running shoe, removing friction and creating a window for my toe. He gives me a tube of Polysporin.
A husky Dutchman has been listening from the next cubicle. He comes to the edge of our alcove holding out three small strips of Second Skin. “This will help.”
“But how will I find you if I don’t need them all?”
“Take what you need and pass it to another.”
If another pilgrim offers you a gift, you must accept it. Even a pilgrim husband.
One floor up, David and I join a pair of strangers for dinner. This is the Camino way. We exchange introductions and walking anecdotes with Ron and June from Minnesota. On impulse, I ask if they noticed the Basque graffiti in that last tunnel, Death to Capitalism.
“Ha. People who criticize capitalism need to remember where their money comes from,” June says.
“Capitalism isn’t perfect.” David’s voice is wired, cautious. “Some companies could care less about people. Or, the world’s resources.”
“And I could care about that. We won’t be here anyway when they’re all used up.”
“What about our children? And their children?”
“I-care-about-morality.” She forks her fish filet and bites the white flesh.
Ron lowers his gaze to the bones of his supper. He’s been here before. “I think we agree with . . .” He clears his throat. “With much of what you’re saying.” His instinct for consensus mirrors my own.
But June’s voice, high and round with authority, leaves little air for consensus. “I’m a Roman Catholic. We have all truth.”
“You have all truth for all the world?” I say.
“There’s only one truth.”
“Judaism, Christianity, Islam—they’re all Abrahamic faiths,” David says.
“So, you think it’s fine for Islamic terrorists to blow up little children,” says June.
“It’s not fine and it’s not Islam,” David says.
“It’s-in-the-Koran,” says June.
“Have you read the Koran?” David says.
“I have a Master’s Degree in theology,” says June.
David doesn’t often go AWOL from a dinner foursome, but tonight he snaps back his chair with a terse, “I’m out of here.”
My desire, like Ron’s, is for harmony, not discord. Especially on the Camino, for God’s sake.
“What about Protestants. Don’t we have any truth?” I ask.
“They have half the truth,” says June.
Stretched out on my bunk afterward, waves of shock continue to play out in me over our dinner exchange. Who are these people? What is it in me that wants harmony with a Catholic fundamentalist? Except that we are all pilgrims, and pilgrims are meant to be living on a higher plane. I turn to the scallop shell and consider the convex surface with its glossy ridges in contrast to the concave interior whose rays shimmer like pearl, the light soft and luminescent as if reflected from another source. Two surfaces as different as sun and moon, though both started life at the umbo. I try joining this contrast to our exchange: June’s I-care-about-morality and my embrace of the One who keeps me safe in the dark. Of course, living a moral life and consenting to the divine presence have a common source: Yeshua and the empty tomb. Still, I can’t help thinking that June’s version corresponds to the shell’s exterior while mine mirrors its interior luminescence.
I know. I sound like a smug overlord deigning to acknowledge an underling. Where’s the luminescence in that?
We pace ourselves through the Navarre and cross into the Rioja region of low-hanging grapes and olive trees, soft brown fields of wheat, barley, and sunflower patches. Dust and stones, asphalt and soft dirt, rises and descents. The odd pause to eat a grape. I engineer placement of my left foot to avoid the big toe window and repel sand. New socks. The feet feel good. A bit cooler. No rain.
A steady climb with shade cover into one of several Villafrancas on the Camino. This one is de Montes de Oca, Goose Mount, in English. Our upscale albergue has no top bunks and a cubby for each sleeper and a semblance of privacy. Hours after lights out, I wake and make my way to the restroom. On my return, I step into the dark channel of sixteen beds with no top bunks. No light. Not a ray. I stand frozen, terrified of touching a stranger, especially a strange man. Dear God, will I stand here all night? Blindly, I calculate the halfway mark and and move barefoot and gorilla-backed, touching bed ends, half walls. No shell to point the way inside an albergue. In darkness. Here. Turn here. I touch a bed end on my right. Is this my own polypro top? I turn in and pat my way along soft covers. No body lies sleeping herein. My bed. My very bed. A pilgrim learns to count her steps as she heads out.
Day Fourteen, in Bourgos, we splurge for a hotel room, and pare down. I have strong legs and puny shoulders. I ditch the extra pants, extra shoes, heavy rain poncho. My pack slims down to 15 pounds, David’s to 18. We send the excess to Barcelona, where we’ll fly out. A pilgrim learns to prune the excess.
The shell calls me out of the Rioja and into the region of Castilla Y Leon, fields of grain, light brown and crew cut. A morning stop for Spanish tortillas and café con leche. My blister has healed, giving my feet the bliss of neutral sensation. The rest of me sags under the sun. Two kilometers from the albergue, vastness strikes with force. Fatigue crosses my body like a shadow. No trees on the Meseta, a high plateau, and no shade. Only my wide-brimmed red hat, the sun climbing, heat closing in like armor. I breathe slow conscious breaths and contemplate heat stroke and retinal detachment.
Just ahead of collapse: a mound with a large shade tree and a gathering of pilgrims swilling water and shade, including David, who calls from the hilltop. “There you are. Almost here. I was about to go back to find you and carry your pack.”
Two kilometers after my near collapse, Boadilla del Camino: a swimming pool emerges like a mirage in the desert. We step into a scene from Palm Springs, pilgrims lounging on green grass or bathing hot feet in blue waters. Inside, we’re assigned two upstairs bunks and two lockers. As we move through our paces—removing shoes and boots, unpacking, laundering, resting, journaling—pilgrims pour through the open door to reception. Eduardo, the hospitalero, greets each one, and, before long, tells them there are no remaining beds. Distress and fatigue shadow their faces. He revises his response. “Pero. We see what is possible.”
We see, we see, and more beds emerge. Toward evening, a bearded, wild-haired guy, not Eduardo, opens the attic hatch and pulls mattress after mattress through an attic porthole and shoves them down two flights of stairs. Pilgrims claim the mattresses and drag them to the green lawn where, earlier, they lounged like tourists on break from the roulette table.
The albergue has a kitchen, run by Eduardo’s mother. Kitchen and mother are both small and getting on in years. How will they feed us all? The dining room has three long tables brimming with starving celebrants. Phillip, a big charismatic Irishman of fifty, has his tablemates singing Beatles songs, punctuated now and then by all-stand-up-and-raise-your-glass. Five minutes in Phillip’s company, you learn of the sores on his feet, of the brother sent packing after a drinking spree, and of the Camino mystery unveiled to him. Though not religious, he prayed for peace on the Camino and received peace “straightaway.”
Our table is all Roger from Paris—Roger’s hateful divorce from cigarettes, Roger’s 40-kilometer days, Roger’s run-in with Italian-Canadian Gian, who lugs a movie camera, tailed everywhere by a young Korean filming Gian filming his Camino, Roger’s words for Gian, “I told him, the Camino is for parking one’s ego, which he has neglected to do.”
So, Gian spends his days listening to other pilgrims tell their Camino stories whereas you’ve been talking non-stop for twenty minutes, I want to tell Roger but do not.
When all have been served fish and pasta, bread, red wine and salad, and pastry, David stands and raises his glass. “The guide books say this albergue sleeps 48. We’re way beyond 48 tonight. They’ve turned no one away. They’ve found a place for everyone to sleep and food for all. Let’s have a toast to our hosts. To Eduardo and his family.”
“To Eduardo and family,” we cheer. Eduardo pops in with an it’s-nothing-grin.
It’s the loaves and fish again: the one miracle told in all four gospels. All ate and were satisfied.
We walk from the night with headlamps toward a new dawn, five pilgrims circling round and round the village block for the way markers. A second symbol has joined the ancient shell, a yellow arrow first painted in the 1980’s by a parish priest, Don Elias Valina Sampedro. We make our forays and returns until a local surfaces. “Donde esta la concha? Donde la flecha amarilla?” He points the way and bids us, Buen camino. The yellow arrow materializes, pointing toward a dry river bed that evokes my thirst and recalls my scrimping spirit. It’s forty-plus years since those words in the delivery room—‘Your baby’s in trouble.’ When will I make room for forgiving God? If not now, when?
Behind us, the sun spreads its red palette. Light eases us into morning, into heat and, always, the last two kilometers glom onto my energy. We hit Our Lady of the River, built on the remains of a 12th century chapel, and stop to rest. The hemitage is cool inside. I light a candle for Mark. David lights a candle for Obama.
The way into Leon City stretches long inside the hour of heat. At last, we reach the ancient Benedictine monastery and join hordes pressing for entry. Slowly, volunteers take registrations, and, in a half hour, even ours. David and I agree to meet at a given hour in the afternoon and retreat to our dormitories—Yes, plural. Okay, I think. I have a hunger for quiet and a single bunk to shed the miles and the decibels collected in my body. The female dorm has forty bunks, but rules will be observed. No excess of revelry, as happens, at times, teenagers bloating an albergue dormitory in the pre-dawn with giggling and randy hook-ups. But here is convent calm, and female voices bubbling around my bunk. I give in to my drowsiness and wake an hour late for our casual—I thought—appointment and spot-on for our first Camino quarrel. David stands in the common area, swollen with pilgrims, and lobs loud complaints about my selfish disregard of our agreement and of him, How could I? and storms upstairs. Perfectly at ease with exposing the raw veins of our argument to strangers.
Stuck in a marketplace of strangers masquerading as a monastery, I want to disappear. I’m in exile.
Michael, a diminutive Spanish volunteer, has a few blankets. I approach him about reserving one for my bunk tonight. “Okay, but I have only six or seven. Others may ask. You must hide it. Come.” Perhaps he notices my blush, for he asks, “Is everything okay?” My husband, I tell him. He got a little angry. “Los hombres. Ils son difficile. Muey difficile,” he says in his gentle rasp. Men, they are so very difficult. His lightness and comraderie release some knot in me, and I laugh freely from my gut.
His lightness carries me to our afternoon meet-up, David’s and mine. At a table outside, we serve up coolness and diffidence, as if we’re strangers. At times, oddly we are. Even at this stage of us, itinerant parts of him and of me show up to unnerve the other. But I lead with my desire for harmony that he knows. “I got so sleepy you know?”
“I’m aware of that. I waited an hour. I felt like an idiot. Can’t imagine what people must have thought.” So he cares very much what they think. I see him now. He’s not the other. He’s like me. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to forget . . .”
In a wise little book, aptly named Short Course on Wisdom, Cynthia Bourgeault tells about the heart and its role in the sacred traditions. Not as “the seat of our personal affective life,” but as an organ that detects signals and orients us toward the divine. I’m thinking of this new way of seeing while morning coolness and rumors of rain usher us from Leon by another path, away from the N-120. I think of Michael’s gentle rasp, his lightness, and how they showed me a way home from exile. A sign to Mazarife appears, along with the shell as David warms to his memory of the men’s dorm: “A medley of snores.” “That father and son pair from Denver moved out and slept in the reception area.” “Someone shit on the toilet seat, anonymously, and left it unclaimed.” “Loud partying of Spanish youth through the open windows. One girl never quit talking all right. I pity the guy who marries that girl with the voice.” He recounts all with humor. We’re strangers no more.
On Day 33, we leave our albergue by a steep forest track. Islands of land in a white sea of fog to the north, a full moon. A striking, painful beauty that I feel even in my queasiness. I’ve taken a sick. I send David off on his own and make it on foot as far as a village bar, where I down mineral water and vomit in the bathroom. The barkeep must hear, for, afterward, he brings me a cup of herb tea, which stays down, and he helps me find a cab. The promise I made to myself back in St. Jean, to take every step on my own steam, withers. The taxi delivers me to the farmhouse in Pintin. I eat a pear, a soft forgiving food. I lie under under the thickest wool blanket I’ve hugged in my life and, drowning in sleep, I dream. Once I dreamed of a way to fill the hollows imparted to Mark in my womb. Now in my dream I’m handing a baby across a fence to a strange woman, who walks away taking my dream of wholeness with her.
The Iron Cross stands at 1504 meters, highest point on the Camino. A two-kilometer walk in semi-darkness from the albergue, a slow ascent on the gravel bed of a dry stream, a push through rain and gale-force winds to a small iron cross atop a tall wooden pole steeped in small stones brought by a world of pilgrims. By tradition, leaving a stone brought from home represents penance and a return to wholeness. “All these stones. I forgot. I only have the shell. And I don’t want to leave it,” I tell David.
“We don’t need any stones. Or a shell. Let’s say a prayer for Jim.”
Jim is our friend from home, an Irish transplant. It’s fitting to pray for him in a place of wild and terrible beauty. Jim’s wife, Noreen, sent an email yesterday that he’s been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. “Almost always fatal,” David says. He stays below, holding the perimeter, as I climb the mound of stones. The wind pummels the iron stem, the mound, my makeshift rain poncho/plastic bag, my breath as we send up silent prayers. Mine are heartfelt and unoriginal: “In your mercy, God, please heal Jim. And Mark. Heal him of the chaos that is his life, please.” Then in a moment of supreme mystery the wind stops. Silence breaks over the stones. The storm takes a breath. Be still my heart.
At the next Wi-Fi hot spot in a village cafe, each of us opens an email from home: David’s is from Jim’s wife, Noreen, who reports a change in diagnosis for Jim. It’s not pancreatic cancer, they’re saying it’s a lymphoma. “Much more curable,” David says. “Choose a lymphoma over pancreatic any day at all.” Mine is from our younger son, Troy, who writes that he talked to Mark yesterday. “He’s good. Doing well. Try not to worry, Mom.”
Walking again, I murmur a thanks to Yeshusa, the one to whom I pray. Words from Matthew’s Gospel come, where Yeshua is chastising those who came asking for a miraculous sign. That would be me, I think. But who cannot love a miracle?
Day Forty at dawn in the dark of a eucalyptus wood, our headlamp batteries begin to fail. No sunburst shell. No yellow arrows. Only dark trees lining the path and the shadow of a human figure ahead at the far end of the forest tunnel. We make our way without markers, yet guided, nonetheless. Somehow. We emerge to daylight and the shell’s stand-in, the yellow arrow, and the spark of knowing we’re close.
From the lookout at Monte del Gozo: Santiago incarnate. The city long desired. So close. Might it still elude me? I step, shedding doubt, and descend into the unholy sprawl and move in a fever of desire to a plaza abutting the cathedral where St. James rests. And where, in a few minutes, the botafumeiro will swing the width of the church and a priest will bless pilgrims in each of our languages. I turn to David, fellow pilgrim, soul mate, and, in the shadow of tall spires, we embrace and weep.
We follow the last yellow arrow into the line-up to the pilgrim’s office for our compostella certificate. A woman steps from the office, clutching her certificate. She and I exchange a look.
“Oh,” she says. We embrace, weeping.
“Yes, you made it,” I say.
“Thank you,” she says.
Do I know you?
She could be any of a number of Northern European women of sixty-something, white hair, flushed cheeks, bright eyes. A stranger, yes, but known to me somehow. And me to her. “Gracias,” she says again.
For marking this moment with her, she means, and she with me. Si. Gracias.
David and I wait for our pilgrimage to be stamped complete. Our Camino is complete. But the shell is incomplete. The one that rode shotgun 500 miles on my back is a half-shell, broken. Like me. Like my son. Like pilgrims walking this and other Caminos not named or celebrated. It’s in this brokenness where quarrels and blisters fester and turf wars over God wage, where hearts and fear burn, where a mindless driver bumps a red fox—or a hapless young man—and leaves them bleeding beside the road.
The question that came for me back in those Pyrenees comes round again: What are you doing here, really?
I have come to see. A pilgrim comes to see that she’s broken. And that her shell is broken, her way finder, incomplete. She knows their brokenness, and still she walks, attending to the heart’s signal. The heart is the shell gone deep inside, deeper than the sea she heard as a child, when she held the shell to her ear to listen.