A LONG short story for those in isolation looking for travel fiction! This short story is set on the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Read it now for free. Enjoy, share, be inspired…
Light Near the End of the World ~ A Camino de Santiago Short Story
By Kevin Craig
Copyright © 2018 Kevin Craig
Just a moment more in the shade to re-energize, Corinne thinks to herself. Just one more moment. That’s all I need.
She runs her beads through her fingers. She no longer expects miracles, but she is still put at ease by the mere physicality of the ritual. The prayers and faith had abandoned Corinne days ago, but the impulse to wind her rosary through her fingers remains.
She sits still for a moment and contemplates everything she has left behind in Canada. She thinks of Robert and how badly he had wanted to walk the Camino, of how much he had planned for it before falling ill, and of how much his death threw her own life into turmoil. She thinks about how much her life was still in turmoil when she set everything aside to make the journey herself, as if it would somehow fulfill Robert’s desire.
She knows the turmoil will be there awaiting her return, that she will still have to figure out a new way to live without Robert. Twenty-eight years of marriage. Eventually one forgets how to do things alone. And yet she has taken on this stupid journey by herself. Even after everyone tried to talk her out of it. Yes, it will all be back there waiting for her. Like prey waiting to pounce, she thinks.
Corinne wipes her tears with the purple hiking scarf she has kept around her neck for most of her journey. Then she prepares to get back on her feet and continue the morning’s walk.
Just walk, just walk, Corinne thinks. The two words have become her everything during the most difficult moments of her journey. It has been therapeutic to repeat the mantra over and over whenever she begins to think of nothing but giving up. These words are her new prayer. Just walk. Just walk. How easy it would be to stop walking, take a bus or a cab to the nearest airport and escape back to Canada. How utterly easy.
Or maybe she could end her Camino in a cab, take it all the way to the centre of Santiago de Compostela. Like a thief and a cheat. Corinne has thought of this scenario many times, even in her sleep as her aching body tosses and turns restlessly on those horrid albergue beds. She has often awoken in those hostels with escape in her heart. But now, these thoughts seem so strong they frighten her.
At times it’s the mere thought of giving up that drives Corinne’s forward momentum towards Santiago, her sheer stubbornness forcing her onward. And at other times she simply considers herself insane and wonders why she doesn’t throw in the towel. Since Ponferrada, it’s been the only thing she has wanted to do. Stop walking. Give up. Relent.
And yet, since Ponferrada she’s known she’s been so very close to her goal. Every day, closer. Just walk. Just walk.
Corinne stands. She puts her beads into the breast pocket of her windbreaker and harnesses her backpack onto her shoulders. As she tightens the strap across her belly, she waves to two fellow peregrinos who pass by the bistro table at which she has been sitting. The café is in a perfect location, just outside of town at the very apex of a steep and treacherous hill. Pilgrims are almost certain to stop here. And when they do, there’s always the Tarta de Santiago—the lovely Spanish almond cake—to comfort them. The cake of St. James. And café con leche to wash it down, of course. Having finished hers long ago, Corinne has only been delaying the inevitable.
Another peregrino passes as she adjusts her backpack. “Buen Camino,” comes the oft-repeated refrain from the weary traveller who clearly shows exhaustion from his completion of the steep climb.
“Buen Camino,” Corinne replies. At first she found this greeting a strange thing to say. It hadn’t come naturally from her lips. But after so many days on the Camino—weeks—it now comes without thought. It’s her new ‘hello’. You see a fellow peregrino—pilgrim—you say it, come what may. Morning, noon, and night. Wherever you may be. “Buen Camino.” It sometimes serves as the entire conversation between two passing ships. It says very little, and it says everything all at once.
Corinne stretches her weary limbs, feeling the ache of exhaustion in all of them.
“Well, St. James, prepare to meet this old girl in a few days. Almost there. Let’s continue this fight to stay on our feet, shall we?” Even as she whispers the challenge to herself, she doesn’t believe it. She fears she is only lying, delaying her inevitable failure.
Finally, Corinne pushes her chair in, scritching the pads along the cobbles as she does so. She enters the sunlight beyond her protective tree cover. As she does this, a shadow crosses over her. She looks down at the cobbles and notices a man’s bare feet walk past her sightline. She glances up just as the man turns his head in her direction.
“Buen Camino,” she says. The man’s face lights up, as though hers is the first voice he has heard all morning. He seems too refreshed to have just made the trip up the hill. There is no huffing or puffing coming from him. She returns the smile that had instantly blossomed on his face.
“Buen Camino,” he says.
As she picks her walking stick up from the table, the man motions with a flick of his head for her to join him. “Going this way, Madame?” he asks, pointing to the road before them. He speaks with a French accent. Everyone on the Camino has an accent of some kind.
“Aren’t we all?” Corrine says as she laughs a little and falls into stride with this new peregrino stranger. She wonders, not for the first time, at how easy it is to instantly begin conversations out here on The Way of St. James. No introductions are ever necessary. She feels as though she is somehow having one long—endless—conversation with a never-ending stream of strangers.
“All of us who have been lucky enough to be called, oui?” the man says. “We are so fortunate, non?” He turns and offers her a smile filled with bright white teeth and dimples. His face is a road-map of fine wrinkles that seem to spread away from the corners of his mouth. His is a kind face. She smiles back.
Corinne does not feel the same sentiment, however. Not now, anyway. She feels anything but lucky. Her feet scream defiance with every step and in the back of her mind she still plays out her alternate plans to finish the Camino in a car, or not at all. She imagines herself falling into the backseat of a cab, even as she says, “Yes. We are certainly blessed to be here.”
The man stops walking and extends his hand to her. Corinne halts and takes the proffered hand in her own, shaking it. After letting go, she can still feel his remarkable heat warming her palm.
“Jesse,” he says. “I am from Lourdes. France. The place of miracles, non?”
She immediately knows this stranger. Marta, whom she had walked with from somewhere around Burgos to almost all the way to León, had mentioned Jesse numerous times. She had, in fact, sang his praises as though he were a prophet. Corinne tingles from the closeness of the calming vibes coming off the man. She knows already he is just as Marta had described him.
“Corrine. From Huntsville. I mean, Canada. Ontario.”
It is as though his unheard voice had echoed in her head ever since Marta had told her about him. At the time, she had taken Marta for either a liar, a fool, a dreamer, or all three. Corinne knows how the heightened sense of wonder and awareness on the Camino turns every little story or experience into something more grandiose and wondrous than it actually is. But maybe this time Marta had been on the mark. There’s something about Jesse, something Corinne can’t quite put her finger on.
“Canada. It’s beautiful.”
“I like it,” she says. Now she can’t help but smile. They walk in silence for several minutes. Another lovely thing about the Camino, she thinks, strangers can be silent without it being awkward.
“My friend Marta mentioned you. At least I think it was you. She said you spent an evening together in Pamplona, that you had a feast with a large group of people. She said you held court. She spoke very highly of you.”
“Marta is too kind. Yes. I am the Jesse she spoke of. Marta is lovely.”
Corinne catches the slight blush that rises in Jesse’s cheeks.
“It was a fun night,” Jesse says. “I remember it well. We were filled with the wine and philosophy that night. The moon, Corinne, it was so full. It made madness in the piazza that night. Excitement. Electricity, non? It may have brought with it the dance, even. Or perhaps the dance came with the red of the wine and not with the shine of the moon?”
She tries to estimate his age. Surely he can’t be younger than seventy. But she remembers that Marta had told her he had walked the Camino three times. That this is his fourth pilgrimage in only two years.
“There have been many magical nights on The Way, Jesse. Nothing about the Camino ever surprises me anymore.”
“It is almost done now, though, Corinne,” Jesse says as they continue on. She wonders at his bare feet and makes a mental note to eventually ask him about his reasons for walking without shoes. She wants to know if there is a pair of shoes tucked inside his backpack, just in case. “Where from will you get your magic after Compostela?”
“That’s a very good question, Jesse,” Corinne says. “Today, I’ve been wondering if I even have enough magic to finish the journey. The closer I get to Santiago, the farther away it seems.”
“No. Do not say this. We are so close, now. It would be a shame. Today—soon—we will hit Portomarin. You do not want to miss that bridge, that staircase. It is a place of beauty to walk into. Keep walking. I promise you a picnic at the top of the world today. Just beyond Porto.”
“Believe me, that’s exactly what I’ve been telling myself non-stop. Just walk, just walk. It’s getting harder every day, even though I can almost see the finish line now. A picnic, though. This sounds promising.”
They fall back into silence, with nothing but the click, click, clack of their walking sticks and the muffled voices of strangers about them carrying on their own conversations. Corinne stretches her shoulders as she walks, relieved that her pack has begun to feel a little lighter since her rest back at the café. Perhaps her feet do not hurt as much. She appreciates the company of this new stranger. He’s a distraction from the despair she has been sinking into for most of the morning.
“Do you believe in The Way of St. James, Madame?” Jesse says after the two walk in relative silence for a number of miles.
“I’m here, aren’t I?” Corinne says, perplexed by the question. She looks at Jesse and decides it is okay to go deeper. One has to weigh what to share and what to keep to oneself on the Camino. It’s easy to give it all away, here. “My husband dreamed of walking the Camino, Jesse. He planned it out, he bought everything we could possibly need for the trip. We had matching packs, matching sleeping bags, matching everything. The house slowly filled up with guidebooks, walking sticks and hiking boots.”
Jesse smiles as Corinne lists off the items. But there is concern behind the smile. Corinne imagines he is working out the outcome of Robert’s planning on his own.
“And yet, he’s not here,” Corinne says, stating the obvious. “As Robert planned our Camino, fate planned a very different outcome for us. For him. Colorectal cancer.”
“Oh dear,” he says. “I am so sorry.”
Corinne sees the sincerity in Jesse’s expression. It makes her want to cry, but she holds herself together. She can’t believe how easy it is to talk to this stranger.
“So here I am, walking Robert’s beloved Camino. I know everyone says you should only walk the Camino for yourself. But honestly, it was always more Robert’s dream than mine. I have never been much of an adventurer, Jesse.”
“But you have found beauty, non?” They begin a rather steep incline and Corinne attempts to turn her focus to the road under her feet. The last thing she needs is to fall on this asphalt and get a bad case of road-rash.
“I would be heartless not to,” she admits. “It has changed my life. It’s just that somewhere along the way I think I lost my drive, my focus. I often wonder if I even had it to begin with. Maybe I was simply struggling with next steps, and avoided them all in coming here.”
“Perhaps you began the Camino for your husband,” Jesse says. “But it is time to finish it for yourself. Perhaps you need to change your focus, non? Do the rest for Corinne.”
“All I know for certain is that I don’t want to give up on Robert’s dream. I need to see this through, but every day it becomes harder and harder. It feels like someone keeps moving the goal-line while I sleep. It sometimes feels like the never-ending journey.”
“I have walked for others, too, Corinne. It is a weight in itself to do so. Maybe don’t walk for Robert, but walk with him. Know that he is with you. The dead, they are more present than you may think. They are with us, non? Here.” Jesse pats his chest over his heart. “They are here always.”
“You’re a sweet man, Jesse,” Corinne says. “Don’t let anyone ever tell you different.”
They walk in silence for several moments while Corinne ponders their conversation. Just as she goes to open her mouth to speak, Jesse puts up a hand to stop her.
“Wait. Don’t talk. Stop.”
She stands still in her tracks. Jesse puts a finger to his lips to silence her before she is able to ask why. The stillness that arises from the absence of the clicking of their walking sticks is almost deafening.
“We will turn this corner and the bridge to Portomarin will come into view. And downhill we will go, Corinne. The vista, it will be like magic. Prepare to meet the wonder.”
She smiles at Jesse and wonders when he will allow them to resume walking. It seems a pause is necessary, though. She fears the buildup will be too much, that she will feel let down when they finally continue on around the corner.
“We begin,” Jesse all but whispers, bringing a solemnity into the moment. “We’re off to see the wizard, non?”
Corinne smiles. She is more than familiar with the Wizard of Oz analogy repeatedly discussed along the Camino de Santiago. The yellow arrows of the Camino taking the place of the yellow brick road that led to Oz. The apostle James taking the place of the wizard. If I only had the nerve, she thinks.
They click onward. When they make the corner, the bridge and the water and the town beyond them come into view. Corinne gasps. The beauty is more than she had anticipated.
“It’s so…Jesse, it’s gorgeous.”
“Is it not beautiful?” Jesse says. “Come. It is downhill from here. And a bit of a zig and a zag. It’s further than it looks, though.”
“I believe in The Way of St. James,” Corinne says, newly inspired by the view of Portomarin in the distance. She cannot help but feel lifted while taking in this new vista. So much beauty on the path. She has long suspected beauty to be the thing that has kept her walking when every bone and muscle in her body has begged her to stop.
“Ah, but you have missed my meaning in the question, Corinne.” Jesse says. “I can see with my eyes that you believe in beauty, oui? Beauty is a religion of its own, one we share with all humanity. What I wanted to know is if you believe you are walking towards the apostle of Jesus. They say St. James is buried at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. Are you walking for the apostle? Toward the apostle?”
Corinne still, after all this time, does not know how to answer Jesse’s question. Instead of rambling through the confused and confusing state of her faith, she pulls the rosary beads from her breast pocket and shakes them for emphasis.
Jesse smiles. Corinne shrugs and returns the rosary to her pocket. The two peregrinos continue down the steep incline toward Portomarin.
“So you are a believer, then?” Jesse says. Corinne can tell he will not allow the beads to stand as her answer to his question. “And The Way is a religious experience for you, Madame? Was it to be a religious pilgrimage for your Robert, then?”
“Oh, Jesse,” Corinne says. She can’t help but laugh at the idea of Robert making this trek as a Catholic pilgrim. He had lost his faith long before she had. In all their years together, he attended church only for weddings, baptisms, funerals, and, perhaps, midnight mass on Christmas Eve. “Marta told me about your talks that night. I should have known you would suss out the truth from me. Eventually.”
Jesse winks. Corinne laughs, and to his credit Jesse joins in on the laughter.
“Robert was not very religious,” Corinne says. “By not very, I mean not at all. And I have no idea when or where I started to lose it. My faith, that is. I can rub these beads as much as I want, it’s not bringing me any closer to the faith I let go of, Jesse.”
“Perhaps this is why you walk the Camino, non?”
“Maybe?” she says. “I’m willing to leave it open for now. I’m not sure I know the reason, but I don’t think it’s required. Granted, I thought it may have started to dawn on me by now. I’m winding down, right. Not much further to go. And not a single epiphany. No magic. No miracles.”
“Perhaps you need to check in at Santiago and ask yourself, Finisterre? Many peregrinos continue their walk from Santiago on to Finisterre, to the ocean at the end of the world. They say the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela is merely the light near the end of the world. That Finisterre is the place to go to finish your journey. Or even after this, there is another end of the world, Corinne. Two ends. In Muxía, is the second. If you travel to the end of the world, perhaps you may find yourself. And with yourself revealed, faith will be restored. Non?”
“You make it sound so simple, Jesse,” Corinne says. “Even with your silly two ends of the world. Alas, I’m not sure that’s how it works. I don’t think faith works that way at all.”
“Mmmm. Maybe, Madame. Maybe. Then, perhaps faith is easy and to deny it is difficult? You say no miracles, no magic. But have you been looking for them? We often miss the miracles, non?”
They walk on in silence. The click click click of their sticks echoes in the near-tunnel in which they pass, made by the overlapping tree canopy that temporarily shelters them from the incredible view. Corinne indulges her sudden compulsion to touch the breast pocket that harbours her well-worn beads, and she feels comforted in knowing they are still with her.
“There are many reasons to walk the Camino,” Jesse says. They finally break free of the trees that had shielded them from the approaching vignette. The bridge is far closer than it had been the last time she had spotted it. “One need not have faith to walk The Way. It is no longer a pilgrimage only for the faithful.”
“Oh, I know that, Jesse. Robert made that perfectly clear while he planned our pilgrimage,” she says. “I met a man just this side of León who said the Camino was his weight loss plan.”
“He did not study the Camino beforehand, non?” Jesse says. They both laugh at this. “So much rich food and wine on the Camino. It is hard to say no.”
“He told me he came to a conclusion and that he wanted to re-brand the Camino The Food and Wine Tour of Spain. It would throw off less people that way.”
“He has his point.”
“Buen Camino.” They have slowed down on the incline and now a couple passes them by, both greeting them as they pass.
“Buen Camino,” Corinne says.
“Portomarin,” the man says, raising a walking stick above his head as a sign of victory. His partner looks back at Corinne and smiles.
“He is a little excited. We heard good things about the pizza here,” the woman says.
“Enjoy,” Corinne says as the couple motors past them. The woman waves and they are soon gone, lost to another zag in the road.
“I don’t think they know of the hill to the top of the world we must walk after we go through the town. Their pizza will be the rock that slows them down on that hill, Corinne. Come with me to the shops and we will pick out the best bits for a picnic after our climb up that hill.”
“Marta told me you have done the Camino before. I suppose you know all the secrets along the way by now?”
“A good many of them, my friend. I know the best place to picnic in all the journey. Perhaps in all the world.” He winks at Corinne. “Come with me. I will show you the way. We are almost upon it.”
“You haven’t steered me wrong yet.”
Soon they are near the bottom of their steady decline into the valley that holds the Miño River and the bridge that will take them over the river and into the town beyond.
Once they arrive at the foot of the bridge, Corinne stops and takes her backpack off. Jesse follows suit. Corinne does a few jumping jacks in appreciation of her temporary weightlessness.
“Oh, it feels so good,” she says. She takes a few steps out onto the bridge and stops to look out over the water. “It’s incredibly beautiful, Jesse. I don’t suppose you would humor me with a selfie together, would you?”
“Certainly,” he says as he joins her. They pose for a serious shot with the river sprawling out behind them, as it reflects the sunny cloud-speckled sky above. After Corinne takes the shot, the two look at one another. Jesse smiles and they turn back to the phone and make funny faces. Corinne captures the silliness and they both laugh.
Corinne feels light as air for the first time in days. She forgets her aches. She would skip across the bridge if not for their fellow peregrinos making their way down the steep hill toward them. They return to their packs, toss them back over their shoulders and continue on across the bridge.
“Oh my,” Corinne says as they arrive on the other side. There is a rather large stone staircase leading up to the town and it looks like the only way in. “Ever since they came into view, I’ve been trying not to think about these stairs.”
“They are not as bad as they look,” Jesse says. “Do you know about the ghost of this town that at times comes up out of the river?”
“I know nothing of this town but what you’ve told me. I’m afraid I’m a bad tourist.”
“They dammed the river, some years ago,” Jesse says. “Or flooded it. I’m not sure. The town was once in the bottom of the valley. Now the old town is under the river. What they left behind of it, anyway. Anything old and beautiful and wanting to be kept, they moved up the hill to the new town. Brick by brick, they say. The old church of San Juan of Portomarin was moved this way. One brick. Two brick, three brick, four. They numbered every brick so they could put it all back together again once they carried them up the hill.”
Jesse pantomimes moving one brick at a time for Corinne.
“Wow,” she says. She’s not sure if she has said this out loud or not. “Will we see this church?”
“But of course,” Jesse says as they arrive at the foot of the steps. “But first, the Spanish steps to the arch at the top. Fifty-two steps. I have counted them three times. This will be my fourth, and they will number the same, no doubt.”
“Wow,” Corinne says once again. This time she knows she has not made a sound as she mouths the word in awe of the man at her side.
“Once we are inside the arch, we will make our way to the piazza that holds the church. We will be at the shops, the square of town.”
“This is magical,” Corinne says as she begins to make her way up the steps. Her feet are as light as clouds. Her body soars as if the only thing holding it to the earth is the pack on her back. Thirty-six, forty-one…she counts every step. Fifty-one.
“Fifty-two,” she says as she puts her foot down on the last step. “That wasn’t so bad.”
In her singularity, Corinne did not notice that Jesse has not followed her up the steps until she turns back and sees him standing at the bottom. As she does so, he waves to her from where he stands on the first step.
“This will be my last climb ever of these steps, Corinne,” Jesse says. He shouts to be heard, with his hands cupped to his mouth. “Excuse me for taking my time.”
“No rush, my friend.”
Though he is not winded when he finally catches up with her, Corinne can see for the first time that he’s indeed an old man. His face seems to turn into a mask of sorrows between the bridge and the top of the steps. It somehow appears more sunken now. He has aged with each of the fifty-two steps.
“I am doing all the lasts on this Camino,” he says as they move away from the arch to allow other pilgrims to pass through.
“Buen Camino,” a woman with a cane and a bright pink bandana says as she pushes through the arch and continues on up the hill.
“Buen Camino,” Corrine replies, smiling. “We made it to the top.”
“That we did,” the woman says, turning back to offer Corinne a victory fist and a smile of her own before moving on into town.
“I am sad more and more, Corinne,” Jesse says, bringing her back to the moment. “I will not know what to do with myself after The Way.”
“Start again,” she says. She puts her hand on his forearm, squeezes. She all but says, there, there to him.
“This is my goodbye to the Camino. I feel my heart is full of The Way and I will be done when I get to Santiago. All the last times are piling up, Corinne. Last Ponferrada, last Melide, last Portomarin, last Burgos, last Sarria. Last everything.”
Because she really wants to know, and because she feels the man needs a change in the topic of conversation to bring him back to his cheerful self, she asks the question she has wanted to ask from the moment she first laid eyes on him.
“Do you have shoes in that pack, Jesse?”
“Oh no,” he says. “Not this time. I did not trust myself before. I carried shoes I did not use. Each time. I put my faith this time in St. James. No shoes for me.”
“Aren’t you afraid you will somehow hurt your feet? Cut them?”
“I was. Each time. And each time I walk, I am okay, non?”
“So, no shoes. I like that,” Corinne says. “I like you, Jesse. Marta was right about you.”
“Marta, she is the woman with her head in the clouds and her feet above the ground.”
“There may be a little truth in that statement.”
“Come, my new Canadian friend,” Jesse says. “We go now to that church with the bricks. And after, to the picnic at—”
“The top of the world? Yes. You have me intrigued.”
Corinne looks about for the next yellow arrow, spots it and moves in the direction in which it points. Always, the arrows have shown her the way. If she were to admit to having a modicum of faith in anything, it would be in the arrows. They will take her to where she wants to go. She only wishes the arrows would appear for her back in Canada. How easy it would be to follow yellow arrows for the rest of her life. Once again, she pats the pocket that holds her rosary beads. Just to be sure, she thinks.
“Yes, yes,” Jesse says. “Just some wine, some bread, some fruit and cheese. Simple things that will taste divine. To go along with the divine view. You shall see, yes.”
“Sounds good to me.” And it does. Corinne can sense the emptiness in her belly. She knows she’s overdue for a meal.
“It’s beautiful,” Corinne says. She stands right before the church and looks straight up at its looming presence. “The windows are stunning. Periwinkle, my favourite blue. It looks like a castle.”
“Every brick, they carried,” Jesse says, ignoring her comments on its aesthetic values. “One at a time, up from where the river now flows.”
“Wow,” Corinne says. She steps back and snaps a couple shots of the church, then waves Jesse in for a selfie with the monolithic façade in the background. “Say cheese.”
Jesse smiles and she takes the shot.
“This supermercado is the best in the village. The freshest plums, Corinne. That is the secret when picking your supermercado. Find the one with the freshest of plums.” They walk across the piazza and step inside the cool dark store.
Before they reach the top of the hill, Corinne once again wipes tears from her eyes with her purple hiking scarf. Jesse had told her it was a large steep hill. After the one she scaled just prior to meeting him, though, she thought it couldn’t be half as bad. It is.
All the way up the hill, they walk on sand that is almost orange. And the hill is so steep, all Corinne can see when she looks up to the peak is sky. A sky as blue as the sand is orange.
To Corinne’s left, there is a wall of rock and earth. To her right is what looks like a sheer drop into a deep valley below. The wide orange path she walks upon is clearly manmade, carved into the side of the massive hill.
“Look there, Corinne,” Jesse says. “That woman there, waving? She is at the top. We are almost there, yes. You can. Do it.”
“Oh, I know, Jesse,” she says. “I’m just tired these days. Too many hills. Too many miles. Too little sleep.”
“We’ll nourish ourselves at the top and you’ll feel new again.”
“I certainly hope so.”
“It will be so.”
They continue on in silence, conserving their energy for the climb. Soon they reach the peak and Corinne stops to remove her backpack. After tossing it to the grass just off the path, she crouches down low with her hands on her thighs, stands back up and stretches her arms in the air.
“Made it,” she whispers to herself. She looks down at her boots and notices that the sand has given them an orange tint.
“Now,” Jesse says, smiling at her. “Turn yourself around and look down the hill. You will see that we are now at the place of the top of the world, non?”
Corinne turns to face the hill she has just conquered.
“Oh my God, it’s beautiful. Jesse, it’s incredible.” She can see for miles. The entire town of Portomarin and all the surrounding area is spread out before her. It’s as breathtaking as any other place she’s seen along the Camino. “It really does look like the top of the world.”
“Come,” Jesse says from somewhere behind her. “We will sit here in the grass and nourish our stomachs as this view nourishes our hearts. Our souls. Oui?”
“Oui,” Corinne says. She blushes, feeling foolish for replying in French. She worries it was rude of her. “Yes. I mean, yes. Sorry.”
“No, no. It is okay, of course. Everything is okay here.”
She takes one last look at the panorama spread out before her. She then picks up her backpack and joins Jesse on the grass a few feet away. He has taken out a small camping blanket from his backpack and has spread it out on the grass. He’s already sitting on it. Absently, he pats the spot beside him while he takes out the food they picked up at the grocery store back in town. Wine, cheese, a baguette as golden as the sun itself, olives, crackers, grapes, sardines, and paté. And plums, of course.
Corinne slips out of her orange-stained hiking boots, sets them down in the grass, and sits down. She takes a small butcher paper wrapped package out of her backpack before casting the pack aside. She unties the string that holds the paper in place, and lays out the gorgeous selection of chorizos and sobrasadas she picked up from the butchers beside the supermercado. Her mouth waters as the spicy aromas of the sausage meats fills the air about them.
Jesse opens the wine after producing a corkscrew from an inner pocket of his jacket.
“You look for Ribeira Sacra on the label, Corinne,” he says with newfound solemnity. “This is the best. You see the river we crossed? The Miño?”
“Yes, the one into town.”
“That one, oui,” he says. “That river, it helps to feed the grapes that make this wine. The Mencia grape.” He brings the tips of the fingers of his left hand to his lips and kisses them. “Perfect wine.”
“You’re making me feel too happy, mister,” Corinne says. “I have almost forgotten how miserable I was before running into you earlier. What are you doing to me?”
“One just has to forget their feet to enjoy the Camino,” Jesse says. “When we met, you thought only of your feet. Only of your feet.” He laughs, pulls out two clear plastic cups from his pack and pours the deep red wine. He sets the bottle down in the grass, leaning it against the side of his pack, and passes a glass to Corinne. “Shall we toast?”
“To new friends and inspiration,” Corinne says. She raises her glass high and waits for Jesse to bring his up to join hers.
“To finishing the journey, Corinne. To Robert, who is with you always. To a promise to walk into the light near the end of the world. All the way to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. For him. And for you, also.”
Their cups meet, but Jesse holds his against hers and catches her gaze. He smiles. She knows what he wants from her.
“Yes, Jesse. Yes. I promise. I promise to walk all the way, to not give up. I promise.”
They laugh as they bring the cups to their lips and drink the wine.
“There you go,” he says. “See. It is easy, non? Your promise, it makes it official. No taxi.”
Jesse gives Corinne a look so stern and severe, she’s taken aback and unsure how to react. While she’s pondering her response, though, his face breaks into a wide smile.
“Oh my God,” Corinne says, “I thought you were serious. You horrible man.”
They laugh together and Corinne can’t shake the feeling she’s known this man forever. Marta was so right about Jesse. There’s something almost magical about the man. As Corinne eats and drinks her way through the best picnic she’s ever had in her life, she tries to remember the pain and defeat she felt before Jesse. It was almost like he came out of nowhere at the precise moment she needed a miracle to keep her moving.
“What do you do back in Lourdes, Jesse?” Corinne says. “If you don’t mind me asking.”
“Of course, of course,” Jesse says. “It is what I used to do, now, Corinne. I am an old man. I do not do much of anything anymore. I was a teacher.”
“Ah,” she says. “That seems apropos. You have that temperament. It makes sense to me.”
“It has been many years now since I have taught. I am now a peregrino only, non?”
“When was the last time you were home,” Corinne asks.
“Hmmmm? It seems so long ago. Impossibly long. I miss my home sometimes. Alas, my heart, it stays on the Camino for now.”
“But surely you’ve been home between your Caminos?”
“It’s almost like I no longer remember that place. Lourdes disappears when I walk, until it fades from memory.”
“I can almost understand that, Jesse,” Corinne admits. “Home seems so far away. But for me, it’s a love hate relationship. It’s so beautiful here. I just can’t seem to find inspiration these past few days. I’m so tired. I knew what I was doing this for in the beginning. Or, I thought I did. But I’ve kind of lost sight of things.”
Corinne takes a last sip of wine and sits the plastic cup in the grass just beside the blanket. She lets out a long sigh. With the sigh comes the realization the picnic may not have been enough to lift her spirits from the point of despair she had felt prior to Jesse’s arrival.
“Come, come, now.” Jesse stands up and takes a deep breath in, then slowly exhales. He steps off the blanket into the grass. “This,” he says, motioning towards everything within their sights. “This place. Don’t forget to see it. Come, Corinne. Stand up. Up. First, take off your socks. Join me.”
Corinne does as he says and slips out of her socks. Jesse reaches down and offers her his hand. She takes it and he helps her to her feet. “Do you feel that? The beautiful grass between your toes? Cool, oui? That breeze? That calmness. The air itself. Do you feel the tranquility?”
Corinne stands still as a statue beside this man who is calmness personified. She continues to hold his hand and she can feel the strength coming through it, the heat. She enjoys the coolness of the grass on her aching soles and between her toes. She doesn’t speak. She closes her eyes, inhales deeply, and listens to the silence.
“This, Corinne. This is inspiration. This place—all the places along the Camino—this is how you find the way. One beauty at a time.”
She stands still and breathes. She knows Robert will still be gone when she returns to Canada, and that she will still be on her own attempting to navigate life alone after so many years of being a party of two. She knows that the overwhelming sense of sinking and flailing she felt when Robert first passed will swallow her up again the moment she steps off the plane in Canada.
“What have I done?” Corinne manages in a little more than a whisper. She considers, perhaps for the first time, that her struggle to finish the pilgrimage might not be coming from her aching limbs and exhausted body at all. Perhaps she doesn’t want to complete the journey because of the things waiting for her at the finish line in Santiago de Compostela. “What have I done, Jesse?”
“No, no,” Jesse says. “You mustn’t cry, ma chère. It will all be okay in the end. You are a strong woman. You must convince your head,” he says, patting the top of his head. “Of what your heart already knows.” He pats his chest.
“How can you, a stranger, have more faith in me than I have in myself?”
“You are worried about your after. The world is a scary place, maybe, after the walk to Santiago. But the strength that brought you here will also bring you home. The courage you have collected along the way, it will take you to your new life.”
Corinne feels the truth in his words. She sighs once more, this time in relief. Because somehow she knows everything Jesse says is true. That she will fulfill her new promise to him, and walk all the way to Santiago. That she will find a way to carry on after the journey, to build a new life. A life without Robert. A life with something else.
“Can I hug you, Jesse?” she asks as she finally lets go of his hand and faces him. “I could really use a hug right now.”
“But of course, ma chère. Come,” he says, opening his arms to her. She falls into them and he wraps his arms around her. Her sense of peace is now complete. They stand in this embrace for several minutes as a gentle cooling breeze builds around them.
Her resolve is now fully strengthened. As Corinne slowly pulls away from Jesse’s embrace, she knows she has considered her last taxi and daydreamed her last escape. She knows she will use only her feet from this point forward, and that they will carry her all the way to the cathedral. And beyond.
Corinne realizes that, somewhere inside, she has known this outcome all along. She is Dorothy, who finally discovers she has held the secret to getting back home to Kansas within her during her entire journey to Oz.
She doesn’t know where this last surge of strength has come from, but maybe it’s not important how she found it. As long as it’s there.
“Come,” Jesse says. “We pack up our picnic. We are about halfway to Gonzar. You can walk to Gonzar before nightfall. An easy hike, oui. It is lovely there, Corinne. We are on the home stretch to Santiago.”
“The light near the end of the world, right Jesse?” she asks absently.
“That it is, Madame. That it is.” He returns to the blanket and begins to pack things up.
For a moment, Corinne is content to remain motionless. She feels such serenity, she does not want to move for fear of losing the sensation. She’s almost sad to see the end of the picnic, but knows she should get back to the path if she wants to get to Gonzar at a reasonable time. It’s exactly where she had intended to end the day’s journey. She joins Jesse in tidying up after their picnic.
After the food is packed away, Jesse shakes the blanket free of crumbs, rolls it up, and returns it to his pack.
“There. We are done. Almost time to walk,” Jesse says, triumphantly. “Gonzar or bust, non? You will soon be a pilgrim in the light, Corinne, near the end of the world. Four more days, maybe. But first, Gonzar. We go.”
“Let me just put these boots on,” Corinne says. She finishes what she’s doing and sits in the grass. She pulls on her socks and, after a heavy sigh, straps into her bulky hiking boots. She contemplates going barefoot tomorrow and wonders how it would feel to spend the day with nothing between her soles and the ground. As she rises to her feet, the weight of her boots make the decision for her. She’ll give it a go.
“Ready,” she says. As she surveys the field for any errant traces of their picnic, two pilgrims reach the top of the hill. They leave the orange sand path and approach the grassy area where Corinne stands.
“Buen Camino, peregrino,” the first young man says as he drops his backpack in the grass. He has long blond hair, pulled back in a ponytail. He’s shirtless and out of breath from the climb. “What a hill! Good God, I thought I was a goner.”
“Buen Camino,” the second young man says. His head is shaved and glistening with sweat from his efforts. He takes a bandana out of his back pocket and wipes the sweat from his head. He then sets a paper shopping bag down in the grass. It’s from the same grocery store where Jesse and Corinne had picked up their own supplies. “Looks like we had the same idea.”
“Buen Camino, pilgrims,” Corinne says. She smiles, knowing they plan to stop for a picnic of their own. “It’s a beautiful spot. Well worth the climb. I’m sure you’ll enjoy yourselves up here.”
“It’s lovely,” the young man with the ponytail says. “Are you Canadian?”
“How did you—” Corinne begins, but stops herself when she sees the young man point to the Canadian flag patch on the back of her pack. “Oh. Ha. Yes. I keep forgetting that’s there. Huntsville. Ontario.”
“We’re from Halifax,” the man with the shaved head says. He returns the bandana to his back pocket and shucks his backpack. “I’m Ryan. And the hippy here is Eric.”
Eric smirks and shakes his head, as though he has heard this teasing admonishment many times before.
“Nice to meet you,” she says. “I’m Corinne. And this is—” She turns to present Jesse to the new pilgrims, but he is nowhere to be seen. “Where’d he go?”
“Where’d who go?” Eric says as he unrolls his sleeping bag, unzips it, and spreads it out on the grass like a blanket.
Ryan kneels down on the bag, once it’s spread out flat. He starts to unpack the small bag of groceries. Eric flops down beside him with a loud groan.
“My new friend. Jesse?” Corinne says. She doesn’t like the panic in her voice as she calls out to him, but she’s powerless to turn it off. “That’s odd. He was just here with me.”
“You know pilgrims,” Ryan says, laughing. “Here one minute, gone the next. It’s a never-ending sea of faces. We’re all impossible to keep track of.”
“But we ate together. We only just now finished our picnic. We were preparing to set off to Gonzar when you arrived. We were tidying up and getting ready to leave.”
“Ma’am,” Eric begins. Corinne flinches at his choice of words, but says nothing. Before he continues, he removes a scrunchie from his hair, letting it fall out of its ponytail. He shakes it out while massaging his scalp with his fingers. “You were alone. I saw you standing there as we approached. I mentioned to Ryan that you were at the top, and that we had almost made it.”
Eric sweeps his hair back up, pulls it tight, and puts it back into a ponytail. He uses the same small scrunchie to hold it in place.
“But that’s impossible,” Corinne says. “He was with me the whole time. We walked together for most of the morning. Then we had our picnic. He was right here.” Corinne stamps her feet in the grass, as if to show Eric where Jesse should be. “I don’t understand where he could have gotten himself to so quickly?”
Eric examines Corinne with so much suspicion, she feels ridiculous. “Maybe he set off and you just didn’t see him leave,” he finally says. Corinne knows he doesn’t believe her. He can’t hide his skepticism. “Perhaps he—”
“You don’t understand,” she insists, her volume rising. She attempts to adjust it, so as not to come off so shrill. “We were speaking seconds before you arrived. Seconds.”
“I’m telling you, Ma’am, you were up here alone when we—”
“No. Eric,” Ryan begins. He looks up at Corinne and smiles, but she can’t tell if it’s genuine or if it’s out of some sense of pity or appeasement. He turns back to his friend. “You know the stories as much as I do.”
“Come on, man,” Eric says. “That stuff doesn’t happen in the real world, Ryan. The stories are just stories. Everyone wants this magical Camino story to take home with them. None of them are real.”
“I’m sorry,” Corinne says, “but what stories are you referring to?”
Ryan gets up off his knees and approaches her. “All along the Camino people talk about them. The pilgrims who aren’t really there. The ghost peregrinos. Apparitions. Travellers who appear and walk with other pilgrims. I thought it was bull, to tell you the truth. I’m not sure I believe it, still. But maybe.”
“Yeah. And maybe I’m not the hippy after all, you mean,” Eric says. “Come on, Ryan. You’re obviously freaking the lady out. Stop with the crap.”
“It’s not crap,” Ryan says, turning on Eric. “That woman from Ecuador. If her story wasn’t convincing, I don’t know what is.” He turns back to Corinne. “I’m sorry if this is something you don’t want to hear. But so many people have had encounters like what you’re describing. Things happening that can’t be explained. People being there and then suddenly not there. The woman from Ecuador told us a pretty convincing story about a pilgrim who helped her out when she was in danger.”
Corinne is too stunned to speak. She replays the day in her mind’s eye, tries to make sense of Jesse’s sudden disappearance. Why would he just leave her like this? She thought they were getting along so well.
“It was only a convincing story if you want to believe it. But that lady from Ecuador was off her rocker,” Eric says. He turns to Corinne. “She was twist-tying fortune cookie sayings to tree branches. She wore tie-dye leggings and had flowers in her hair. Listen, we can pack up. It’s Corinne, right? We can pack this up for now and eat later.
“Why don’t we all rush ahead together? Maybe we can help you find this Jesse guy. I’m sure he just decided to go on ahead. Everyone’s on their own schedule out here. We all walk alone and together. Even Ryan and I split up for hours at a time some days. We always meet up again eventually.”
“It’s not like that,” she says, finally able to speak again. She has an epiphany and feels relief wash over her. “Oh. Oh. My phone. We took pictures. I have pictures. Selfies. On the bridge over the River. Miño. Coming into Portomarin.”
“There. See,” Eric says, more to Ryan than to Corinne. “She has pictures. End of mystery. He just decided to move on and do some solo walking. That’s all.”
Eric looks relieved he doesn’t have to give up his picnic after all. He remains seated.
Corinne reaches for her phone. She desperately needs to see the pictures of Jesse. As she fumbles through the screen-lock and opens her photo gallery, she realizes she didn’t bother to look at any of the shots while she was taking them.
Ryan and Eric look on as Corinne scrolls through her photos, seeing them appear in reverse order from how she had snapped them. A couple selfies with the church in the background, followed by photos of the church by itself. Next, a goofy shot of her on the bridge, followed by a shot where she’s simply smiling. The surface of the river behind her in the bridge shots is a perfect mirror image of the blue sky above her. The sun glints off everything, making everything brighter than bright.
No Jesse. She swipes back and forth, looks at all the photos again and again. He is nowhere to be found in any of the shots. No goofy face shot, no smile shot, no Jesse in front of the church shot. No Jesse.
Corinne drops her phone in the grass and takes a step away from it, as though she fears it.
“What?” Ryan says. He is now at her side. He puts an arm around her shoulder. “What is it, Corinne?”
“I took pictures of Jesse.” She counts on her fingers, moving her lips as she does so. “Four. Four that I’m sure of. Maybe five.”
“Okay,” Ryan says. He lets go of Corinne and reaches for the phone. He holds it in front of her so she can unlock it. The gallery is still open. Corinne watches as Ryan swipes through the last twenty or so photos in the gallery. “Holy shit.”
“What? What?” Eric almost looks defeated now. He gets up off the sleeping bag with as big a groan as the one he gave when he first flopped down onto it. He takes the phone off Ryan and looks through the photos. “How can that be? Are you lying to us? Why would you make shit like this up? Are you crazy, or something?”
“Okay, okay, Eric,” Ryan says. “Let’s not get personal.” He takes the phone back from Eric and hands it to Corinne. She puts it in her back pocket.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” Corinne says. “I wouldn’t believe me either.”
They stand in silence for several minutes. A group of peregrinos trek past them on the path and they all simultaneously voice their greetings. It comes so naturally they don’t even need to think about it. “Buen Camino.”
“I was going to end my Camino today,” Corinne says. There are tears in her eyes. As they begin to fall, she swipes them away with her purple hiking scarf. “I was going to either find a way to an airport and fly home, or jump in a taxi and ride it all the way into Santiago. I swear to God, I was seconds away from giving up.”
“And Jesse found you?” Ryan asks. Eric sighs in exasperation, as though he’s had enough of the idiocy they’re suggesting. When Corinne looks at him and sees his expression, though, she can tell he’s undecided. Maybe even spooked.
“Jesse found me.” It’s all she says. It’s all she needs to say. She had given up and the Camino responded by giving her Jesse.
“Oh my God,” Ryan says. He holds out his arm. “Look. Goosebumps.”
“There has to be some kind of explanation?” Eric says, attempting to remain rational. “There’s no way this could—”
“He didn’t speak to anyone else,” Corinne says. She runs through the entire time she spent with Jesse in her head. Every time they confronted fellow peregrinos, he had only smiled whenever greetings were exchanged. He held back at the supermercado. He spoke about the pizza in Portomarin only after the couple had passed out of their lives. “Not a single person.”
As she wipes at her eyes, Eric says, “I’ll pack up these things. We’re going to walk with you. At least until Gonzar. Come on, Ryan. Help me with this stuff.”
Eric returns to the sleeping bag in the grass. He begins to pack their food away. Just as Ryan turns back to help him, Corinne grabs his arm.
“No,” she says. Eric stops what he’s doing and looks up. Ryan turns back to Corinne. “You know what? I got this.”
Eric steps away from their picnic once again and joins them. They wait for Corinne to continue.
“I got this,” she says. “For the first time in days, I think I got this. You boys have your picnic at the top of the world. That’s what Jesse called it. This place. The top of the world. You enjoy this. I’m going to take a walk.”
“But—” Eric begins.
“No. Really. This morning I was a wreck. I very nearly gave up on a promise I made to my husband months ago. Almost threw it all away. Am I spooked? Yes. Of course. But Jesse was a lovely man. I don’t know how to explain it. I should be screaming. I should be losing my mind. But I feel so…full. I feel full right now.”
Corinne has an epiphany, drops to the grass and begins to untie her boots.
“What are you doing?” Eric says. “I thought you were leaving?”
“I am,” she says. She slips out of her boots, rises and carries them to the edge of the path. She sits them down in the orange sand, pulls off her socks and stuffs them inside the boots and turns back to the two young men. “I am leaving.”
“You’re going barefoot?” Ryan says. “That’s dangerous, isn’t it? Shouldn’t you at least take them with you? You know, in case you change your mind.”
“I have changed my mind, Ryan. I have. Don’t you see? No. Barefoot was good enough for Jesse. It’s good enough for me.”
Corinne returns to their picnic area and picks up her backpack. She is filled with something like air. No light, something like light. And she never wants to lose this feeling. She slings her pack over her shoulder and straps it in place. The young men look on with similar expressions of uncertainty.
“Have either of you ever heard of Santiago de Compostela being referred to as the light near the end of the world?” she asks. She is smiling now, and it feels so good to be out of the misery she had slipped into earlier. Before Jesse.
Eric and Ryan look at each other. They scrunch their faces and shrug before turning back to Corinne. Together, they say, “No.”
Eric says, “I don’t know of any nickname for it. I know they call Finisterre the end of the world. And Muxía is the second end of the world. But I’ve never heard of that.”
“Neither have I,” Corinne says. “Until Jesse told me about it. I wonder what he meant by that. Perhaps the light of the cathedral guides pilgrims to the end of the world. Perhaps it is only a threshold, and not the end of the journey.”
Eric shrugs again.
“I like that,” Ryan says. He smiles, reaches forward and extends his hand. He reconsiders and opens his arms. Corinne gives him a quick hug. “I like that a lot.”
Corinne turns to Eric and opens her arms. He comes in for a hug. He seems overwhelmed, as though he’s still struggling to make sense of everything.
“I’m going to Gonzar now, gentlemen. And in a few days, I’m going to walk into Santiago de Compostela on my own two feet. No taxi. No bus. No donkey. I promise.” She raises a hand, as though she is swearing an oath to them. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but after I reach the cathedral in Santiago I’m going to keep going. To both ends of the world. To Finisterre and beyond, to Muxía. As God is my witness, I’m adding to my journey.”
“Well,” Ryan says. “It was lovely to meet you, Corinne.” He smiles and shakes his head. “I was not expecting any of this.”
“Neither was I,” Eric says. He looks as though he needs to sit down. To Corinne’s surprise, he comes in for another hug. “Buen Camino, peregrino.”
“Buen Camino to you both,” Corinne says. She holds herself together, knowing she is on the verge of both crying and of laughing uproariously. She knows she needs to move, to start walking. It’s the only way she’ll be able to keep herself together. “Enjoy your picnic at the top of the world.”
They smile and watch as she turns to make her way back to the path. As her feet leave the soft grass and she touches down on orange sand, she can feel the grit between her toes. It’s not an entirely unpleasant feeling. She could get used to this. In fact, she remembers doing this as a child. She remembers feeling the earth beneath her feet, between her toes. She’s surprised by how little she allows herself the sensation now.
Corinne turns and waves to the young men in the grass. They wave back before wandering over to their sleeping bag.
Before she returns her focus to the path, Corinne remembers something. She pats at the pocket that holds her rosary beads and feels comfort in knowing they’re still there. Then she walks off, looking over her shoulder only once. To see her abandoned boots one last time.
“Thank you, Jesse,” she says only to herself. “Wherever you are, whoever you are. Thank you. Buen Camino, my friend. See you in the light.”
Just walk, Corinne thinks to herself as her freed feet touch down again and again on the soothing warm sand, turning them orange in the process. Just walk, just walk.
In Loving Memory of Connie Grisley, a fellow pilgrim who helped me to find my way.