What follows here is my short story Helen Finds Her Way to After, which won 2nd Place in the 2017 Writers’ Community of Simcoe County’s Short Story Contest. Unfortunately, the WCSC has since become defunct. My short story had been published on their website, which no longer exists. So, I’m sharing it here.
HELEN FINDS HER WAY TO AFTER
Both of Helen’s feet bled steadily as she walked. She fought to ignore the blisters making a nasty soup of blood and puss in the heel of each of her merino wool socks. It was nine a.m. With each passing hour she lost a little more of her will to carry on. She held on to the memory of her ex-husband’s laughter at the folly she displayed in thinking she could make this journey. She carried her daughter Meagan’s doubt, freely given when she had told her of her goal. Their lack of support was perhaps the only thing left to propel Helen forward to Santiago de Compostela. And to the apostle James, whose bones lay waiting for her there, whether she made it to the cathedral or not.
Must keep walking. It had become a mantra Helen hated just as much as she needed. Must keep walking.
Helen’s left baby toenail had fallen off two days earlier, somewhere between Sarria and Portomarin. She had mourned for a moment before bandaging up what was left and carrying on. Must keep walking. Rationality had left her long ago.
“Buen Camino,” a couple mumbled in tandem as they passed her by on a narrow dirt pathway leading to a cobbled bridge. Their walking sticks click-click-clicked as they walked by without looking up from the uneven ground.
“Buen Camino,” she said before reentering her gloomy thoughts.
Her tested spirit persevered. Much like her lost toenail, Helen had also been abandoned mid-journey. The nail was cast aside on the road to Santiago de Compostela, as she herself had been cast aside along the road of life. The pilgrimage walk across Spain was her way of proving she didn’t need a man for the rest of her life’s journey.
At sixty-three, Helen had convinced herself she was still young enough for this walk. What she hadn’t prepared for was the sheer physical endurance required. Sure, she trained. But mostly she talked about how spiritual the experience would be, how contemplative and restorative. How she would set stones on the mile-markers, meet pilgrims from the world over, drink café con leche with strangers until they became friends. It was so romantic and dreamy, so spiritually uplifting.
Yesterday had been her shortest walk yet. From Melide to Arzúa. The guidebook had said three hours. Helen had walked it in five, which was only half the time she normally spent on the road each day. Every day dwindled closer to nothingness, to failure, to quitting.
Also, to the cathedral,she reminded herself.
Helen cursed the Google at her fingertips as much as she once praised it. An hour into her walk from Arzúa, she spotted a cafe and decided to stop. Already. Her phone told her she was seven hours from Santiago, but it may as well have been a year. Yesterday’s defeat threatened today’s goal of reaching the Promiseland of the cathedral. Had she not given up early yesterday, she’d be so much closer.
She clicked on the car in Google Maps that would switch the journey’s time from walking to driving. Half an hour. It would be so easy. Who would even know she cheated?
She entered the cafe to a round of, “Buen Camino.” She smiled andreturned the now deeply ingrained salutation. She feared she wouldcontinue using it long after her walk was over and she as back home in Canada.
Helen got her café con leche, along with a Camino stamp for herpassport booklet, sat at the first available table and put her head down and cried.
“Miss Helene. My, my.” She knew the voice immediately. Mathieu, the ‘profit’ from her evening in Ponferrada. That evening’s group bestowed the nickname upon him. That was so many days ago. She had aged a decade since Ponferrada. He sounded twice as chipper now and filled with a sympathy she much appreciated.
She lifted her head and looked up into his generous face.
“Certainly, it isn’t as bad as that, no? Whatever it is, Helene, we can get through it together. Today, we reach Compostela. The beauty at the end of the journey. The sun awaits. As does its pretty sister, the moon. The Milky Way will shine on the cathedral tonight, Helene. No more pointing the way for the tired galaxy that brought us here, no?”
“Oh, Mathieu,” Helen began. “You make everything sound beautiful. I just want to punch you in the face.”
Helen smiled to show she was kidding, then joined in with Mathieu’s laughter.
“This is my fifth Camino. I have been where you are. How are your feet taking you?”
Helen smiled at his broken English, took a drink and motioned to an empty chair. “Please, sit. I’ll tell you my story of woe.”
“We are on the journey’s joyful day, Madame. The woe, we leave it behind. In our dust, as they say.” He sat down with his own cup of café con leche.
They spoke for several minutes while Helen regained her courage to walk. She knew Mathieu would not sit idle long. She rose first,inviting him to join her. The reunion of their companionship made her lighter on her feet. Anything to forget the throb of her angry blisters and the simmering howl that now resided where the toenail once lived.
They walked in silence for an hour then two and then three, breaking it only for light chit-chat and the odd “Buen Camino” offered to their fellow peregrinos. With Mathieu at her side, Helen was able to continue. She sensed the ramping excitement in her fellow pilgrims. Exhaustion dissipated as she approached the journey’s end, her earlier tears fading into Camino memory.
“What is after this, Helene?”
“I concentrated on this for so long, I never thought of an after.” She hadn’t realized her lack of a plan until that very moment. After a lifetime with David, and of raising Meagan, she had come to a complete standstill. She had mourned the end of her marriage as she had planned her walk to Santiago. She hadn’t had the energy for anything else. David’s affair—and his eventual departure—had zapped her of everything. “How utterly foolish of me.”
“Not foolish at all, my Helene.” Their pace had quickened. They now passed others where earlier others had passed them. “The Camino calls. We listen. We go. What happens later may depend on what happens now. You will find out in Emerald City, yes?”
She turned to catch his wink. She recalled the lively discussion she had begun back in Ponferrada about how the Camino mirrored The Wizard of Oz. The group had excitedly agreed with her. They had sat at a table in a piazza beside a 12th century Templar’s castle, eating stone-oven pizza. The yellow brick road, the journey to Oz. A heart. A brain. The nerve. The movie reflected their journey. She had confessed then that it was nerve she sought. Courage.
“We walk in silence,” Mathieu said. “While you find your after.”
“I like you, Mathieu. You are the profit we teased you of being?”
“I am just an old man with the luxury of walking outside the busyness of life. I am happy, but I would trade this to have back my wife. I’d share with her this magic, yes.”
“Indeed,” Helen said, shaking off the last of that morning’s misery. Rather than sympathize with him, she dropped down into the silence he suggested and together they continued at their quickened pace.
Helen later thought, it’s happening today. Soon. Her earlier thoughts of cheating and hiring a car returned to her. She scorned that idea now as a kind of treason against her resolve. She knew the nerve she had hoped to attain upon reaching the cathedral already lived inside her. The Way of St. James wasn’t about receiving gifts at the end of the yellow arrows, just as the way to the Wizard wasn’t about receiving gifts at the end of the yellow brick road. Both were about the discovery of self along the way.
“There, Helene,” Mathieu yelled, awakening Helen from her reverie. “Above the building there. See? The spire. Helene, we made it.”
Through tears, Helen marched onward. The cathedral was now mere blocks away. After all those days. The pain in her feet dissipated as she glimpsed the spire. They soldiered on. About them, the streets began to fill, to clog with familiar faces. Marta and Gabriel from Brazil. Hans from Belgium. Miguel. Sarah from San Francisco. Marc from Montreal. They emerged from the crowds moving in a steady stream towards the cathedral. Despite Helen’s lack of support back home, she had found a way. She had found her way.
As Helen turned the corner that led to the piazza on which the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral stood, she became separated from Mathieu. The crowds of peregrinos shifted and began to swallow him up. Before turning towards the cathedral, she heard his parting words.
“From here your life begins, my Helene. Keep walking. Find your after.”
She didn’t know what her after would be, but she knew she would find it. Her newly formed courage was all she needed. She turned her gaze to the façade of the church and fell to her knees before it.
“I can do anything.”
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