I was nearing the top of a ridge when I heard voices. Children’s voices, the first I had heard in more than two days of walking. The only children I’d seen had been in towns. This was rugged, isolated countryside. I picked up my pace. In the flat area below the ridge were picnic tables and a playground. Two women were there with their children. The little girl was on a swing. Her mother was behind her, pushing her and calling out words of encouragement. I stopped and watched as the girl leaned back and stretched her feet to the sky. Her laughter was light and clear.
Two boys were on the nearby teeter-totter. As I watched, the bigger of the two began to bounce the plank. Fear coursed through my body. I had a vivid memory of my father doing just that. I had been helpless to stop him. His laughter rang in my ears. I heard fear in the voice of the smaller boy as he lost his balance. His tormenter continued laughing tauntingly. Another woman ran from the picnic shelter towards them. Just as she arrived the little boy fell off and began crying. She picked him up, brushed him off and inspected his knee. Just behind her the older boy stood, hands behind his back. She turned to him, scolding him, pointing at the teeter-totter. She grabbed the boys’ hands and they went into the shelter with the picnic table. I stayed watching. One of the women looked up at me and waved. I waved back and started along the ridge. As I left the playground area, I looked back. They were putting the children in a car and preparing to leave. I wondered where they lived, as I hadn’t seen any farms or houses since leaving the village. It was hot and the horizon endless under the sun.
The afternoon heat defied movement. Each ray of the sun became a personal attack. The silence was oppressive and the air hung motionless. The crunch of my boots and the tap-tap of the stick were the only sounds. Suddenly, a man walked by me. I turned to him “Buen Camino,” I said, one pilgrim to the other. He said nothing and didn’t make eye contact. He was dressed in workman’s blue trousers and jacket, his hat pulled low on his head. He had no pack and I wondered idly where he came from since he wasn’t a pilgrim. There must have been a house in the distance. The path ahead of me followed the contours of the ridge and he soon disappeared from sight.
It was at the next turn that I saw him again. He was leaning back against the bank near some trees. His pants were dropped at his feet and he was holding his penis in front of him. He was moving his hand up and down agitatedly. In spite of the heat, I was instantly cold. My mind scrambled around frantically. His penis was flaccid and bobbled as he waved it. Were exhibitionists violent? Were impotent men likely to attack? How long was it since the playground? Fear quickened my heart rate. Sweat broke out under my arms. I didn’t break my pace. I grabbed the walking stick below the knob, balancing it in my hand. I had suddenly remembered being told that women don’t tend to go for the eyes or the penis, areas of vulnerability. I knew where I would strike. What if he didn’t attack as I walked by? What if he followed me? The trail was narrow barely a meter across I noticed distractedly. I would be so close to him as I walked by.
Would he attack me as I approached? Or would he hit me from behind? I kept on walking. All of a sudden I realized that I had passed him. I was on the other side, still walking down the path. The silence deepened. I could hear the sound of my breathing, shallow and rapid. I could not remember seeing him as I passed him. I couldn’t recall his face, what he looked like. Was he dark haired? I had no idea. Nothing. No memory of him. Did he say anything? No, I thought. He had been wordless. I had been so close and yet I had no memory of seeing him whatsoever.
The path turned to the left. I found my pace again. At a short distance past I turned and looked over my shoulder. The path was empty. It meandered along the middle of the ridge. I looked back again. No one. I picked up my pace. Maybe he wasn’t following me. Maybe just exposing himself was enough. The trail bent to the right, climbing steeply. I looked back again and saw him. His jacket was swinging over his shoulder; he was nude torso, striding down into the valley. Even at a distance I could see how big he was, the bulge of his hips, the slope of his shoulders. His hat was pushed back on his head. He was walking quickly, with a sense of purpose. My shoulders dropped. Thank God.
The emptiness of the fields floated around me. I saw several hawks circling above, looking for food. The bushes were dried out, the thistles skeletal. I tried to gather my scattered reality. Nothing happened, I reminded myself. You are safe. He isn’t coming after you. The moments of the day have been beautiful. Now is beautiful. Stay with the gift of the walk. Watch the shadows. Think of the patterns. My heart slowed down, the thumping quieted. On the horizon, I made out the outline of the next church and the huddled buildings around it. Time for coffee I thought and some conversation. The details of roofs and doors became clearer. A sense of urgency overwhelmed me. Yes, coffee and some talk, some company.
There were only a few people in the coffee shop. None of them were pilgrims. When I opened the door, they turned to me and smiled. My heart surged. We smiled at each other.
“How is the pilgrimage going?’ one of them asked in Spanish. “Do you like the walk? Where are your companions? Are you alone?” Their interest shone in their eyes.
I told them I was Canadian, from the Rocky Mountains, that I loved Spain, its people and their language. They nodded and told me that my Spanish was very good. We tilted our coffee cups in celebration of Hispano-Canadian relations. The smell of coffee, their dark eyes and the sound of warm voices stayed with me for the rest of the afternoon.
I arrived in the outskirts of Pamplona about 5:30, followed the flechas and finally a sign pointing to “Plaza”. I saw them sitting under the awning of a bar with another couple. I left the shade of the buildings and began to walk towards them. There was dead silence in the plaza, no movement, windows shuttered. The heat and glare of the sun were physical presences. The distance between my friends and me seemed to lengthen as I moved across the open, empty space. I walked on, heard each footfall, felt the pack hanging like dead weight. It seemed an eternity since I had left the comforting shade behind me. How would I ever make it to their table? “Hey, you guys, I’m here,” I shouted suddenly realizing that they had likely not seen me arrive. No one responded. Then they turned as though the sound of my voice had been in limbo. I walked faster. I got to the table, sat down hard and dropped my pack beside theirs.
“Pat, you’ve made it! We’re a beer ahead,” said Linda. “But don’t let that worry you. You won’t drink alone.” I joined in the sound of their laughter. God, it was good to see them I thought. For a while the eerie feeling that we were in different worlds lingered.
“You remember John and Eleanor, don’t you, Pat? We met them after mass last night,” said Ian.
I shook hands with them. “Glad to see you again.” I paused. “Actually it’s so good to be here with you”. We walked into the cool dark interior of the pub where polished brass gleamed on the counter top and the smell of tapas greeted us.
John was a tall, gray haired man with the ruddy complexion of a red head. His girth was sizable. Eleanor hung back a little. She had a pixie like face, turned up nose and plain glasses on. Her eyes darted back and forth from John, to me, to Linda and Ian. Her shyness was painful. I put my arm around her shoulder.
“We’ve been walking together since early afternoon,” John said. “It’s been just great. I’ve always liked you Canucks.” He and Ian exchanged a glance. I could sense their ease, their companionship.
My day stretched out behind me; the immense sky spilling out heat, the empty paths and cool bars where I had stopped on my own.
“How’s the day been?” I asked. “Say, did you see those kids in the playground? I just stopped and watched them for a few minutes. It was like revisiting our backyard where dad had built us a swing and teeter-totter. They were doing the same things.“
“There was no one there when we went by”, said Eleanor. “ I would have loved to see some kids playing around, doing ordinary things.”
“Do you remember how great it was when the swing buckled?” Linda asked. “And then I used to love leaning back until I could see the ground and the trees behind me”.
“Me, too,” I said. “I could nearly touch the top branches of the tree with my feet. My mother used to be so scared but I knew I wouldn’t fall. One of the kids squealed each time the rope buckled just like I used to.
There was a pause in the conversation. I swirled the beer in my glass, watching the reflections of those scenes in my mind’s eye. “And the teeter-totters? My dad used to bounce me until I was starting to fall off and was screaming at the top of my lungs. One of the big boys was doing that to his little brother. The little kid was crying for his mother. Nothing changes!”
“My father didn’t play with us,” Linda looked at Ian. “Every now and then, when he’d start to play with us, my mother would send him away.”
I sat my beer glass on the table, which was now covered with tapas dishes and empty glasses. “Now, on to more serious matters. Where are we staying?”
“Funny you should ask,” said Ian. He pulled the guidebook out of his pack and opened it to a folded page. “There’re a couple of places, small hotels, good prices. Now that you’re here, you can ask if they have any rooms.”
The sun was beginning to sink and the evening air was cooler when we moved into a small hotel. The corridor leading to our rooms was long and narrow. The linoleum was faded and cracked with age. John turned sideways and dropped his huge pack beside the door to let Ian and Linda pass. “That looks like quite a weight, John,” said Ian. “How are you managing?”
“I’m OK. Really. ” John replied his face lined with fatigue. He grabbed the pack and threw it into their room, turned and grabbed Eleanor’s bag, which was almost as large but bulkier. She turned to him, never taking her eyes off his face. “Gotta carry a machine for my sinuses or I can’t breath at night. And yeah, you’re right, Eleanor. Don’t say it again. I admit that I am tuckered out. It’s been a long day.”
“Me, too,” Linda’s voice floated out from the open door of their room. “I found that ridge climb long and tiring.”
The corridor was empty and we had left our doors open. I could hear the quiet in their voices as they set up their rooms and unpacked. My room was cramped. It had a single bed, which left very little space. The ceiling was high, yellowed with age and a bald lamp on a cord dangled from the centre of it. I went over and looked in at Linda and Ian’s. “You’ve got a palace compared to my closet. Come on over and have a look.”
They walked a couple of steps and looked through my door. “This really is minimalist,” said Linda. “Next time let’s check out the rooms before we register. You’re going to find it stuffy with no windows.”
I leaned down to do up my sandals and it happened. It all came back. The gross corpulent man strode by. He made no eye contact. He said nothing. I could smell the body odor. The image evaporated. Had it really happened?
“I almost forgot,” I said. “I had an exhibitionist about an hour past the playground.” I laughed shortly. “Not much to look at though.”
There was shocked silence and then Ian’s head appeared around my door. He was chalk white. “Did I hear you correctly? An exhibitionist? He exposed himself to you?”
“Yes,” I said.
“And you were alone?”
“Yes. I had walked with others earlier in the day but I’m usually alone in the afternoon. There was no one around – except him – and me of course,” I laughed again. My laughter sounded thin.
John stood in their doorway, Eleanor just behind him. “You’re ok? He didn’t – do anything?” Eleanor’s voice was squeaky.
“No. No problems. A little scared though.” I pulled my clean t-shirt out of my pack. “Well, where’s supper tonight?” I asked.
“Someone should have been with you, Pat,” said Ian. “You were in danger.”
“Well, I have to confess that I couldn’t remember the research on those guys. Whether they are violent or not. But he wasn’t, so I guess I wasn’t in danger.”
Ian shook his head. “What a terrible experience for you.”
“Trust you, Pat, to think of research on the topic,” said Linda said with a chuckle but her eyes were serious.
I looked into their concerned faces and met their eyes. The fear and loathing I had tried to forget after the incident came rushing back. But I was safe now I reminded myself. I was here with them. They cared about me. I felt my throat tighten. My tears began and I turned away from their concern knowing how close the sobs were. “I’m OK.” I gulped. “Let’s go eat. I’m hungry.”
The feeling of silk was sleek on my thighs and the bright blue t-shirt felt elegant. My feet in the soft sandals were moving easily over the cobblestones. “I tell you what, Pat, I’ll buy the first tapas,” said Ian as he put his arm around my shoulders. I smiled up at him. My tears had dried up but my body was still alive with deep fear and sadness. I had felt so alone and vulnerable after the incident. And still did. How I wished it hadn’t happened. Sadness hung around me.
As we passed a small noisy bar rich, fragrant aromas surrounded us.
“Let’s stop here,” said Eleanor. “It smells good.” The inside of the bar was full of people. They looked us over in a glance without missing a beat in their conversations. Behind the bar stood two men dressed in white shirts, their black hair slicked back against their heads. The one was pouring drinks as they were called out to him, the other serving steaming tapas. We stood transfixed by the sight of shrimp, sliced hams, olives.
“Do you know, I think I missed lunch today,” I said.
“How’s about some tiger shrimp?” asked Ian as he pointed to the pan. The barman served a dish of it sliding it across the counter in front of Linda before anyone could speak.
“What a feast,” said Linda biting her first shrimp in half. “My God, these are wonderful.”
I looked at my friends, beers in hand, eyes overly bright. We’re all a bit high I thought. We had burned up a lot of energy and hadn’t eaten enough during the day. The beer had gone straight to our heads.
Eleanor pointed to a pan where slices of something were bathing in a red sauce. “That looks yummy,” she said in her New Zealand accent. “What are they?”
I leaned over the counter and asked ‘que es eso”?
The dark eyes fixed mine. ‘These are pigs’ ears, senora” he replied, putting the ladle into the rich sauce. “How much would you like?”
“We’ll try a small serving,” I translated for Linda. Ian looked slightly ill. The barman reached over and set a square clay bowl arrived before us. The smell was distinctive and not very pleasant. I ordered more beer.
“OK, so who’s first?” asked Ian.
Eleanor picked up a small toothpick and jabbed at an ear. It slid out of her grasp. She plunged the pick in again, this time with success. What appeared before her was the tip of an ear, sliced away from the main part. The sauce was clinging to it, mostly along what looked to be hair or bristles I guessed. My stomach clenched in anticipation as I speared another slice of an ear. Once in my mouth, the taste of the sauce overpowered the taste of the ear. But nothing could disguise its rubbery texture and soft, marinated bristles. I chewed rapidly and compulsively. With a gulp it descended. A sense of relief filled my body.
“Have another one, Pat”. John encouraged me. “They’re really good, eh?”
I looked at his clean plate. I fixed him in a direct stare and asked, “So tell me how would you know?”
“Eleanor, how many have you eaten?“ asked Linda.
“Same number as you, of course” she replied, her lips pursed, some sauce on her chin.
“But I’ve only had two. I think you’ve gone passed me.”
“Come on, Eleanor”, said John. “We’ve been counting – and I’ll bet you won’t leave that last one either.” He folded his arms and stared at her. As if to prove his point she scooped the last slice of ear out of the sauce, took a slice of bread and wiped out the bowl. Her face was screwed slightly as she chewed hard. Her eyes were cold.
“What difference does it make to you?” she demanded. “You won’t even stoop to trying them. If you had ever been hungry, really hungry, you’d know that a person would try anything without turning up his nose like you do.”
He looked at her for a long time, not smiling, inscrutable. Eleanor put the toothpick on the edge of the pan. “Shall we go find a restaurant?” she asked. We paid and moved through the crowd which getting bigger and noisier.
“I don’t think we need anything more to eat,” said John. “That’s about done it, I reckon. It sure cost enough”.
I looked up at him. What kind of a guy was this? He apparently had no sympathy for his wife and was now offering a decision on dinner without asking for other opinions. Not my idea of a traveling companion I thought.
“Not for me – I want a meal – meat and veggies and red wine.” I announced.
“Me, too,” said Ian
Linda looked around the plaza and then pointed to the far corner and said, “I can see a restaurant sign on the other side of this plaza. Let’s give it a try.”
It was velvety black when we finally left the restaurant. As we walked beneath the arcades, passed the faint light of lampposts, the familiar feeling of sadness returned. It invaded my body and left me without words. A silence had fallen in the group. Our footsteps echoed slightly across the empty plaza.
“When do you want to leave tomorrow morning?” asked John. I waited for the answer. Linda, Ian and I had had this conversation again last night. “Remember how hot it was today? Well, I saw a weather map on the television. It looks to be another hot one. Well over 30 C. I think we should be on the Camino no later than 7:00,” he announced.
“I agree.” The sound of Linda’s voice was hushed as we passed under another arcade.
“John’s right. It gave us a couple of hours of cooler walking today,” said Eleanor.
“And we, on the other hand really slogged it out,” Linda’s voice was pointed.
I could feel my resistance building again. Why was I so stubborn about this? Why not just agree? Leaving early had advantages. I listened to the discussion going on between the two couples. Ian was maintaining his stand that 8:00 was still cool enough and plenty early. I opened my mouth to agree but changed my mind. No one noticed my silence.
“So we agree to leave by 7:00?” John sounded firm.
Ian paused audibly then said, “I guess I have to agree. If it’s hotter again tomorrow, an early start …” He looked in my direction. I nodded but said nothing.
I walked on in silence. How does one person, in this case the only single person, make a difference? Then it occurred to me that I had nothing to say against the decision, not really. I didn’t disagree. And in an awkward way I really had nothing to say in support of it either. I was in a void somewhere out of contact.
In any case, departure wasn’t the issue. Would departure time have made any difference this afternoon? It was just in the cards. The real problem was no one was with me. I faced it alone. So, for me the issue was being alone and scared. What were the chances I’d walk alone tomorrow? Barring something extraordinary, it would be a day like the others. I’d walk mostly on my own. Anything could happen. Today was proof. That’s the issue, I thought. The issue I refused to talk about before dinner back at the hotel rooms.
Then I recalled our morning. We had talked over coffee before Linda and Ian headed off at their own pace. It was couples’ talk, like a dance. They touched unconsciously, with the obvious intimacy and ease of daily habits, of knowing each other. That sense of everyday, taken-for-granted intimacy was missing for me. I was the outsider.
The plaza was inky black and I could just make out the silhouettes of my friends walking ahead of me. I picked up my pace to catch up, wrapping my arms around my body, feeling the chill of the autumn night. I sensed that the issues would dog me until I made sense out of them. On the other hand, perhaps it was an illusion, something rooted in the deep aloneness and sadness I felt tonight.
As we started up the winding staircase to our rooms, fatigue wrapped itself around my shoulders like a welcome friend.