SHORT STORIESMarch 12, 2016
The following short stories are coming soon. Below are the categories you will be able to choose from.
Once They Called us Brothers
Beyond Cursed to Gifted
Hello…I’ll Shoot You – A Taxi Trip from a Russian Airport
The Curious Eyes of a Child – An African Safari
The Nike Pilgrim – Stumbling along the Camino de Santiago – Spain
The Nike Pilgrim – Stumbling along the Camino de Santiago
Okay. I cheated. But I wasn’t the only one.
At six in the morning, the hospitalero flicked on the dormitory lights of the two-hundred-bed monastery in Roncesvalles, Spain. Then the monk began walking up and down the aisles bellowing, “Alleluia,” at the top of his lungs. After a symphony of snoring kept me awake the entire night before, his blatant nudging fell on deaf ears. I wasn’t ready to ‘pack-up and ship-out’ on a 780-kilometer walk to Santiago Compostela. But like everyone else, I had no choice.
On your mark. Get set. Go.
I put on almost every stitch of clothing I’d brought with me, stuffed the rest in my pack then plunged into the freezing October morning. All around me, the faithful stampeded into the lightless dawn with headlamps and walking poles. It was a sporting manufacturer’s fantasy. Every day, two hundred more pilgrims (peregrinos) needed sleeping bags, boots, rain gear, pants, shirts, you name it.
Nose to the ground, I began my journey, stumbling down deeply eroded ravines, crossing medieval stone bridges, and ignoring the sharp shards of shale from the Pyrenes foothills that dug into my boots. Finally, after a couple of hours, a pale light seeped through the forest. No more racing in the dark. But with the dawn came the question, “What did I get myself into?”
A similar question had been on the registration form at the monastery the night before. Why are you walking the Camino de Santiago? I marked the box for spiritual because the honest answer was, it sounded interesting, and that wasn’t an option. Pushing ahead, I dug the tips of my poles in between the rocks and thought back to last night’s pilgrim dinner, where others confessed why they were there.
“Just retired,” Judy announced. “Never done anything like this,” she added, took a sip of wine, then looked across the table at her cousin, Susan, for assurance. Susan nodded.
“I’m looking for something, but don’t know what,” a thirty-something Kiernan had admitted. Then he went on to say he wanted to write children’s books but was uncertain that was his calling. Guess we were all a little unsure of ourselves.
Pulling myself out of my thoughts and back to the path, I glanced around and saw the peregrino parade had dwindled. Still, I charged down the rocky foothills at a quick clip. I passed other early risers with a nod of my head and a greeting of “Buen Camino.” Thus began a day of leap-frogging with other pilgrims until there wasn’t a soul in sight.
There it was, soul. Is this really a spiritual journey? If not, why am I here? Like a rock in my shoe, it pestered me that I didn’t have a solid reason for walking the Camino.
Ahead, the toll of a church bell rang. I marched to the steepled chapel’s wooden door and pulled on the brass handle. But it was locked: like the door at the house of worship in the town before, and the one before that. Had God gone on vacation? I shook my head, wondering how I could learn if this was a spiritual journey when all the churches were closed. Perplexed, I stabbed my poles in the ground again and headed towards the hill at the far side of town.
Counting one one-thousand, two one-thousand, I pulled myself up the steep incline with my trusty cork-handle poles. Along the path, tufts of wild anise sprouted like a line of soldiers. Its licorice scent infused the air. I leaned-in closer to admire their lavender flowers, then glanced over the steep drop-off. Quickly I stepped back.
“Break time,” I told myself and set my pack down next to a thicket of stinging nettle. “Ouch! What the…” I rubbed my hand as a woman sporting a day pack, short skirt, and purple hair cruised past as if I wasn’t there. “She’s hardcore,” I muttered.
The woman slowed, turned, then, in a high-pitched voice, asked, “What?”
“Buen Camino,” I answered. But her troubled face told me she wasn’t satisfied, so I added, “You’re a fast walker.”
“Ah yes,” she said. “But I have done this five times before.”
Uncertain as to why I was doing it even once, I asked, “Why do you keep coming back?”
“I am from the Netherlands. The Camino is very close. I have a week off work. So, I do what I can in that time.”
“Are you traveling alone?” I asked.
“Yes, it is best that way,” she answered, shrugged her shoulders, and pushed on.
When I finally topped the hill, all was quiet. Eager brown sparrows hopped from one wild rose bush to the next. Sweat dribbled down my spine. So I stopped to rummage in my sack for a lighter-weight sweater. It wasn’t there.
“What a moron,” I said, realizing I’d left it on the back of the restaurant chair last night. “Too much red wine,” I told a cow grazing nearby, then swung my pack over my back and tried to convince myself I didn’t need it and stomped on.
Town after town greeted me with picturesque cobblestone streets, ancient flagstone buildings, and gardens lush with ripe tomatoes. It was like walking through a postcard, but I was unable to soak in the beauty. Instead, my hand throbbed from the stinging nettle, and with each step, my muscles screamed in pain. By the end of my first day, I could barely move.
At that night’s hostel, I found a bunk, flopped on the mattress, and began massaging my legs. They burned so bad I wanted to cry. In the bed next to me, a square-jawed, fair-haired girl peeked over in concern. She dug in her sack then handed me a plastic bottle.
“Spray it on your skin,” she said in a strong German accent and motioned towards my shins. “It helped me.”
With that simple gesture, the spirit of the Camino took hold and the cycle of giving began. Each morning I’d swing on my pack, not knowing what I’d find, but sure there would be kindness along the way. Unable to change the past or predict the future, I immersed myself in the moment, with its immediate joy and pain, including a fresh batch of bleeding blisters.
“I always use Vicks-vapor rub at bedtime and have never had blisters,” a bubbly New Zealander shared at dinner one night.
“Shoe inserts for an extra layer between your foot and the rocks is the trick,” a Canadian told me matter-of-factly.
“Listerine dries them out,” suggested a woman, swaddled in a poncho, hiking next to me one rainy day. As she explained her blister treatment in an Italian-English dialect, a spray of water from the pine needles above showered us. When the drizzle turned into a downpour, she stopped to wait out the storm under an old oak canopy, and like many pilgrims along the way, I said goodbye almost as soon as we met.
Eventually, the rain stopped. A cold wind swept in, pushing the mist out of the treetops and my hair in my face. I caught a whiff of ozone intermixed with the heavy terpene odor of dead wood and winced. Surrounding me, a fire-charred forest, denuded of needles, stood naked. The stark landscape made me feel lonely. I shivered, then reached in my pack for a pair of dry socks.
After pulling everything out, I visualized my gray knee-highs slipping out in my mad rush to throw on raingear. “Another one bites the dust,” I moaned. Just then, the sun peeked through the clouds, and a beam of warmth settled on my face. I took the hint and brushed off the self-reprimand, then strode on.
That night, my hostel roommates and I commiserated about our unexpected setbacks.
“Your feet must be killing you. Take the lower bunk,” a backpacking guide from Alaska said and climbed the ladder to the upper bed.
“Let me dry your wet clothes. I have a free dryer token,” a soft-spoken Spanish woman suggested.
“Wax earplugs, anyone?” I offered. “They’re a real treat,” I said. And the giving went on.
The following morning, I stepped out just as the sun was rising. To make the most of my two-week journey, I had to use every minute of daylight and cover as many kilometers per day as possible. So, I cheated and bumped my luggage by taxi to a hostel in a town 20 kilometers away, blaming my pack’s weight for my blisters. With my load lightened, and feet slathered in every ointment I could buy, I felt invincible.
An hour into the day, finding myself at a crossroad with two yellow Camino arrows facing different directions, I checked my mapsme app and followed the path on the left. After an hour of walking in the boiling sun, I saw a placard telling me I was on a peregrino detour.
“Now you tell me,” I said, sinking inside at having taken the longer ‘scenic route.’
My trusty technical gear may have shown me the fastest path as the crow flies—but it said nothing about the switchbacks. Mumbling, I trudged on, wondering how much time my mistake had cost me. Ahead, a church stood atop a shrubby hill. If I climb that, I told myself, God better not have fled with the summer.
When I reached the peak, the chapel’s door was opened ajar. I walked in, dipped my finger into the dry holy water basin, then quietly knelt in a pew at the back. To the right of the altar, two stone masons spoke quietly as they restored a sculpture. Then, abruptly, the younger man left through a side door.
At first, the older, white-haired craftsman just stood there studying the carving from different angles. Then he started chiseling and began singing a soft hymn. Keeping a vigilant eye on the statue, he cut this way then that, unconcerned that his dark polo shirt was flecked with chips and that I was watching him while his tender voice resonated up the rock walls.
The lilting melody climbed past stain glass windows and around wooden beams. I followed the sound to the ceiling of the church, where, paint-chipped cherubs peeked out from billowing clouds, eyes mischievous. And in the center, streaks of light radiated from a blinding-white dove. Then, in the twinkling of an eye, the mason stopped singing. The younger man had returned, and business resumed as usual.
Sighing softly, I pocketed the memory of a stone-flecked mason singing as sweet as a morning robin and stored it in my heart for another day when I needed inspiration.
Days later, after cresting a seemingly never-ending hill, I found myself standing next to a chain of four-hundred-foot tall whirling windmills. Above them, serene clouds sailed past. Kneeling at the base of the whirling blades, a photographer with a red bandana tied tight over his head took photos. I stepped closer for a peek at what he was photographing.
From behind, a voice observed, “What a bummer. Short legs.”
The subject of the photograph was a 3-CPO LEGO figurine. Yeah, one of those interlocking plastic block toys.
“Guess life’s the luck of the draw: genes, country you’re born in, and what you’re made of.”
It was often like that on the Camino, talking to strangers without reserve or reason.
One hiker that stood out from the rest was twenty-one-year-old Frans from South Africa. In white leggings, long tan shorts, a canvas boy-scout pack that flopped from one side to the other, and frizzy-brown dreadlocks, he was hard to miss. I met Frans after I had cheated by taking a train from Burgos to Sarria and was punished by forgetting my warm hat under the train’s bench seat.
Unlike me, Frans was one of the few purist pilgrims. He spurned the convenience of a phone. Carried his backpack instead of bumping everything ahead in a taxi. Stayed only in the municipal hostels, tolerating the stinky feet and farts from a sea of strangers. And walked the entire 780 kilometers. His pilgrimage was a true one.
“My mother, an Afrikaner, was cast out by her family when she married my father. They’re artists. We had little money growing up,” he said. Then seeing me ogle the peeling Eucalyptus poles he was toting in his right hand, he went on to explain. “I’m going to carve these once I get to Portugal.” Sheepishly he added, “When someone told me about the Camino, I said, yes, I want to do that. But now that it’s almost over, I’m not ready to go home. There aren’t any jobs waiting for me. So, I’m staying here to make euros rather than rand.”
Above us, a waterlogged branch cracked then dropped to the ground, barely missing our heads. We walked on unconcerned.
“I had no idea where Rhode Island was until I got to Brown University,” he said. “At eighteen, I was left on my own to learn how to face my mistakes then pick myself up.”
We walked together companionably, sharing stories. “Did you know the Afrikaners were the best sharpshooters during the Boer War? But we were outnumbered five to one.” He spoke with genuine emotion. “Us Afrikaners have it no better than the Cape Coloured from India and Malaysia. But I was one of the lucky ones. I got a full college scholarship.” We talked about segregation and The Apartheid in his country. “Do you know how many subtribes of blacks there are? That doesn’t include Bushmen. There’s got to be a way to govern us all as one.” I discovered Frans was open to everything and anything. ‘No’ wasn’t a word in his vocabulary.
On our last day together, it felt as if we’d been painted into a canvas of scarlet sumac and thorny yellow gorse. It was a warm fall day, and as we walked, he told me about an unscheduled burning of incense the following evening at the Cathedral in Santiago.
“Noon mass,” I corrected him. “I started the rumor…based on a reliable source.”
Five kilometers outside of Santiago, I yelled out to another pilgrim, “The path is this way.” I thought she was lost and had missed the yellow arrow. Peregrinos were always looking out for each other, and I was grateful to those who had steered me in the right direction along the way.
“This is a shortcut to one of the last albergues before the Cathedral,” she said.
I turned to Frans and said, “I’m staying here tonight.”
There was surprise in his eyes, and he hesitated. “I’m not ready to stop. Will I see you at the pilgrim mass tomorrow—at noon?”
I nodded even though we both knew we’d never meet again. It was like that on the Camino, making intense connections, then having to let go, forever. But for that brief moment, I saw myself in him. When my life was just beginning. When everything was full of promise. And a surge of joy filled me for what lay ahead of him. Yes, he would be returning home to racism and a life of uncertainty, but there was also the promise of something better to come.
On the final day of my journey, I practically skipped into Santiago with the two Dave’s from Ireland.
“Did you frame your pilgrim certificate from the last time you walked the Camino?” I asked tall, pony-tail Dave. He looked at me, perplexed.
“It’s much too personal for that,” he said quietly.
Of course, I thought. You walk the Camino for yourself. Not others.
Peregrinos had been walking the Camino searching for a sign from God since St. James’s bones were placed in the Cathedral during the Middle Ages. But, unlike them, I hadn’t expected or seen any miracles. Instead, following Frans’ example, I learned that saying ‘yes’ held so many more possibilities than saying ‘no.’
Arriving at the Cathedral early that day, I slipped into an open front-row seat. When the mass, with all its solemnity, ended, an excited murmur spread through the crowd. Red-robed tiraboleiros marched down the aisle to the altar and formed a circle around a wheel of eight cords dangling from the dome. Then, in unison, they pulled down on the rope, and an enormous silver incense burner lifted to the church rafters.
Like a pendulum, the botafumerio swung back and forth, blessing purists and cheaters alike with clouds from the sweet-smelling coals. Watching the ornate vessel sway from one side of the nave to the other, I found the answer to a very profound question posed by a gregarious Australian woman many nights before.
“What’s been your thorn, and what was your rose on the Camino?”
Even though my blisters had almost ruined my journey, they weren’t my thorn. Instead, they kicked my butt into gear to look at things differently. No, my thorn was bumping my luggage ahead to a hostel that was closed for the season where I almost lost everything I’d brought.
On the other hand, when I had given up all hope of discovering why I came to the Camino, I found my rose in a church atop a solitary hill. Mistakenly, I had been looking for a sign instead of listening for one. I thought back to the stone mason’s fleeting aria and how, like fireflies in the night, I had grabbed the magic before the glow died.
Still, I felt guilty for walking only 300 kilometers. Then I remembered a conversation I’d had one night with a spitfire Argentinian woman. Her grief was too deep to discuss, so we just drank mugs of beer together.
“Do you know the right way to walk the Camino?” she asked, startling me with her question.
I shook my head, no. I wasn’t a purist. I’d cheated—used a taxi, took a train, and lost half my gear. I still wasn’t even sure why I was walking the Camino.
She took another sip, silent while I thought. Then, finally, she enlightened me.
“There’s no right way. The only way to walk the Camino, my friend…is your own way.”