Marni Berger holds an MFA in writing from Columbia University Cand a BA in Human Ecology from College of the Atlantic. Her short story "Waterside" was published in the Spring/Summer 2016 issue of Glimmer Train. Her fiction has been a finalist or received honorable mention in seven Glimmer Train contests and one New Millennium Writings contest. Her work has also appeared at The Common, The Days of Yore, The Millions, and Fringe Magazine. Marni has a new essay forthcoming in Lotus Eater.
Getting to the End of the Earth
I was always forgetting I was part of my surroundings, watching the world I walked through as though it were a movie. I watched the man like this for some time, hypnotized and entertained by his lead role in my life. I did not even know him.
The old man walked El Camino alone, along a road that was, in this part of the journey, bordered by acres and acres of shimmering wheat so golden they made Rumpelstiltskin’s fairy tale request reasonable.
Maybe it did not matter that his Texas accent was foreign in la meseta. By himself he would not have to speak much, his only distraction for hours each day – besides the occasional Hola from a passerby – a weathered cowboy hat that occasionally flung itself from the top of his head, brushing his pack, and poking its rim into the edge of his neck. He would often have to reach behind, readjust the hat to his head, and secure the drawstring in an unmanly way, tight to the bottom of his chin, before the occasional breeze loosened it again. It was in this way, I think now looking back, that he dialogued with the wind – a communication that surpasses the divides of human languages into a discourse with nature, simple: A person walks through a rigid breeze, arranges, becomes disheveled, rearranges.
While watching him I did not think this. I only wished I matched his speed.
“Buen Camino,” the man had called when he passed my boyfriend Leo and me, drawing out the Spanish sounds into extra syllables as only an American could.
“Buen Camino,” we responded in a similar way.
And then, perhaps noticing our accents, the old man stopped, smiled, and leaned against a gnarled walking stick that mirrored his posture. He said, “Don’t worry, you’ll catch up to me in no time.”
We stretched smiles across dry skin. Our calves had been periodically tightening into rocks, condensed and hardened as if clutched by small hands; our bodies had turned as knotted and dry as the old man’s walking stick. “I don’t know about that,” Leo responded softly.
The old man smiled; he shook his head. The handkerchief around his neck was darkened with sweat and the creases along his face, having collected dirt, suggested wear, but his eyes sparkled as he tipped his hat. He lifted the walking stick to move again.
“At least you don’t have foot problems,” he called after moving several meters ahead, waving a hand toward us. “I have terrible problems with my feet.” He swept forward along the rocky, red ground, his hat teetering on his head like a cowboy-themed lampshade. Unlike most pilgrims he moved with ease, as if gliding, strangely, like a penguin on ice.
Leo and I held hands while creeping along the trail, pacing ourselves and appreciative; although tired, we did not have problems with our feet.
The day was cool and the road flat. We clicked cameras at the gold and blue around us, while in sight of the old man, who slowly shrank into a cowboy figurine, and finally the speck in the distance we hoped marked our destination.
“I think we are almost there,” I said.
“So close,” Leo nodded.
As the man walked further, the distance between us stretched like a yawn until, when I sat down in the grass and began to untie my right boot, he, the speck, had disappeared into nothing, no one. He had walked safely beyond my sightline and into the throat of a world whose mouth snapped shut.
A rock must have wedged into the side of my toe. A pool of blood had stained the sole of my boot and nearly a third of my sock. I shook the boot upside down to relieve it of pebbles, but none fell out. I searched my hand beneath the sole, but felt nothing. I edged my foot back inside. I told myself if it was nothing, I could ignore it.
But soon I plunked myself once again into the grass, this time thrusting my forehead into my palms before releasing my foot from the right boot, flinging the laces apart. Bits of dust flew into the air. Again nothing. But now the blood had spread halfway up the sock, and so I began again to peel the fabric from my foot. A loose flap of skin, damp and crumpled between two toes, presented easy entry into the inside of my foot. But still nothing – no tiny rock wedged inside the flesh to make the wound grow, as it had definitely grown, bigger.
Edging into noon, I knew the sun would soon flex – hot – and there was no shade in sight so I slipped my foot back inside the sock, which by now had already dried, and laced my boot.
As we began again to walk, Leo distracted me by pointing out birds. Many times we thought we had seen something exotic, but mostly they turned out to be vultures – disappointing until the question presented itself: Why do things become less remarkable when there are more?
Leo and I alone on the road walked a precious journey. And yet there were travelers everywhere, lining different routes, somewhere ahead or behind, invisible. Not to mention those ghosts-walkers, if you believe in that sort of thing – a millennium-worth of feet, walking still, since history became legend, to witness what is now the third holiest site in Christendom, behind Jerusalem and Rome. It is the city of Santiago de Compostela. Some walk to partake in miracles. Others penance.
The legend of Santiago de Compostela is laced in the name. Santiago: Saint James. Compostela: from the Latin Campus Stellae. It means Saint James of the star field. The name, to me, even without the legend behind it, breathed magic. Even so, the legend is a large iceberg beneath its label-tip. It is a story of the miracle of James the Apostle’s dead body, lost until discovered when a hermit in the woods followed the directions of stars and angel songs one strange night – he was considered a nobody living nowhere, but he spotted a miracle, so that the nowhere he lived in grew in popularity until it became the city of Compostela. Now travelers like Leo and me still wander along the oldest route, following the Milky Way stars. The route runs over eight hundred kilometers long across Northern Spain from east to west.
Born so long ago, the story stands just at the divide between fairy tale and European history, a distinction of truth and lies that is necessary for some and not for others.
The relic of the miracle is a tomb. The tomb holds the remains of St. James (Santiago) deep within a cathedral of stars, a gigantic structure sheened with gold.
What would the correct word be to describe the sensation of viewing the relic of a miracle, I wondered. Was it revelatory? But in the sun, heavy thoughts shed like skin. Would it hurt?
I wanted to reach Santiago de Compostela simply to stop.
“Why do we hate vultures?” I asked Leo more loudly than intended, unused to my own voice.
“They are always searching to eat dead things.”
“Maybe they are looking for an injured pilgrim.” My toe now had gone entirely numb, which made it easier to move, but: “Imagine how fast we could get there if we only flew to the next town. Do you think it takes birds a lot of effort to fly?”
We caught up with the old man. He was sitting on a boulder and un-taping his feet beneath a sign for Castrojeriz. His jaws seemed loosened from the journey, and he began to illustrate the details of his foot procedure:
“First you gotta’ drain ‘em every chance you get. Then you gotta’ change the socks, then drain ‘em again until your final destination. That’s what the doctor said. When I went my feet were just black and blue. But that’s no matter. I found that just turning my jackknife and cutting until the skin bleeds a little allows the blister to constantly drain because leaving a needle and thread inside like some people say don’t work. The skin just heals around it. Anyway, that’s what my doctor said to do and are y’all stopping here? Because I think I could do another twelve kilometers. Didn’t think I could get done twenty kilometers in four and a half hours today.”
I unhinged a grimace and supposed these were words spoken with only the detachment of someone undergoing an out of body experience and I was envious. But I did not consider whether an out of body experience might necessitate an indifference to the skin. Or the danger in searching too hard inside yourself: cuts and bruises, perhaps nothing grander than holes.
The man sighed and began to rewrap his feet, smiling as the sun cut the cool air, illuminating the right side of his face and slowly heating the surface of the rock. Squinting in the half-light, he presented a wrinkled map. Leo nodded, trying to make out the names for the next small town, around sixteen kilometers away, the letters curled and scraped from the folds in the paper; the hostel was only large enough for ten and there was no certainty we would arrive before ten others.
My toe was beginning to release new streams of pain, half-awakened from its numbed slumber. I imagined my backpack a crab shell, swallowing. Leaning forward, I pressed my hands to my knees, nursing its weight. Blinks extended so that vision became a set of movie frames, divided by darkness.
Leo shook his head at the man.
“Alrighty.” The man remained perched on the rock, letting the soft breeze comb his now hatless hair, so that several tangled strands embroidered the sky behind him with the letters of a foreign alphabet. He looked as if he’d let the wind carry him away if it wanted. Maybe it sometimes did. “Maybe see ya!” he called and waved as we passed the rock and the sign for Castrojeriz, scanning the town for a place to eat, a place to untie my boot and inspect the damage.
I rested my bare foot on a plastic chair covered in Nestlé logos at an outdoor café (the toe grown almost too large to fit inside the boot) after having wiped away the blood with a piece of wet toilet paper from the bathroom. The numbness passed from a slow ache and into a throbbing pain that mimicked my pulse, and finally subsided into nothing once again – the problem’s cause.
And yet nothing could overwhelm the sweet relief of sitting down, not even the pain that came from nowhere. Leo and I swallowed food from greasy plates piled high with huevos fritos y patatas. Sweat that had dried to our skin like a layer of clothing seemed to peel away as we sipped sugary Cokes.
But of course later that afternoon, in the bottom bunk of the hostel, I examined my foot, afraid that the events of this day might repeat into the next. Because we had barely walked since arriving, the wound remained dry. I spread my toes apart and peered into the cave between them. I moved my foot in simulation of walking to see if I could witness the cause and found something the old man had forgotten to mention: how to hurt yourself by accident. A toenail that worked like a saw with the motion of my foot had cut into the flesh of the toe beside it, carving it like a tiny piece of meat. Of course the pain had not come from nowhere, because it had come from me.
Normally, I was a boomerang traveler. I traveled simply to return and I loved my home. But having just graduated college, I feared my duty was to learn to live outside of home immediately and that homebodyism was just a brand of hermitage, which was just a brand of hiding.
I had read that walking El Camino changed every pilgrim. I had read The Pilgrimage, a thin book with a confident title by Paulo Coelho, who also had followed the stars of the Milky Way; he was a man whose numerous publications sparkled across the universe in nearly every imaginable language, including whatever felt-sense must have hit me, while I tore between the book’s covers, in the gut. Age twenty-two, I readied myself for enlightenment.
Even suffering would lead to an appreciation for every day life, so that no matter where I lived, away from home, I could say, “At least it is not as horrible as El Camino.”
Nomadism as penance for homebodyism. Spirituality to excuse extremism.
Of course pain is a warning. I know this now and maybe knew it then. But I still understand how difficult it is to slow down when you do not prefer where you are.
La meseta marked the middle of the journey. My stomach was filled and my toe, in gauze, dreamed pins and needles. Lying in bed on the middle bunk of a triple bunk, I closed my eyes to initiate sleep. I kissed Leo on the mouth. I said, “I love you,” and I bottled his return. I plugged my ears with foam. I curled my eyelids shut. I slowed my breath. I used overused air, and with an alarming sensation that I was trapped inside myself, I opened my eyes and heard my heart beat fast, faster – a defiant metronome – and I unplugged the foam from my ears.
A white t-shirt and black shorts swayed before me, hanging to dry from the metal bunk bars above. A merciful breeze from a nearby window was breaking the room of the collision of dust and skin and mostly smell: a dance between body odor and wintergreen cream. From beyond the window to softly in, there flew something sweet, like honeysuckle or dogwood perfume.
Leo curled against me, asleep. Sweat glued my back to his stomach and chest. Snores rumbled around us. The room was a hive. The air was the honey. I sucked in to breathe. My heart slowed. Above, the mattress crunched. Hinges squeaked, and in the darkness I slowly began to make out the shapes of feet, hanging above, between the white t-shirt and the black shorts. Against metal bars, toes like grapes.
I had earned a small scholarship to walk this trail and a reference on the application was a professor of mine. Several months before the journey, and just before the received scholarship, the professor paused to sip from his signature tin coffee mug before continuing his lecture to me: “Religion, in this way, is no different than an abusive relationship between two people.” He had just finished equating unyielding religious stamina with battered wife syndrome. Bad things happen – G-d beats Man (or woman), Man cowers, Man still follows G-d, and G-d beats Man – Bad things happen.
This professor resembled a seventy-year-old blend of Ed Harris and Sigmund Freud, in personality as well as appearance, despite his faux (or not) atheism. Students liked to make fun of his eccentricities and addressed him casually, with adoration.
But he was a kind man who shot off ideas like blunt ropes that I often first dodged then later clung to; slippery as they were, they took some time to catch hold of.
I believed this particular statement was blasphemy. How could my kind professor degrade those whose mysticism was, although perhaps superseded by logic, mysticism nevertheless, and could not fully be understood by those who understand only logic?
“Religion is an abusive relationship.” He was self-assured. His logic was locked, hard.
What I needed to know was which was more important: the logical or the illogical, the brain or the soul. There must be a distinction.
He was sitting behind his desk in an office with a giant window that, like an oversized picture frame, presented the Atlantic Ocean and a rocky beach lined with sea heather and a few lupines for good measure.
This was my home. It was and still is a place where you can stand still and watch the ocean move for you. But then the ocean did not say anything about faith and the soul and the brain and where and when and if they interwove. The ocean wove and it rose and it fell.
He reclined in the chair, looking like Sigmund Freud or Ed Harris or both. How funny – how he looks to me now is like that old Texan with the worn skin, readjusting his hat in the wind, and skimming along a road rocky as mountain as though it were ice.
I decided to take his comment as nothing more than a form of pedagogy – say something provocative to get the student thinking.
The project’s aim was to collect outlooks on faith while walking El Camino, for me to ask those who believed in the legend of Saint James, or G-d, or something beyond the logical precision of the senses, what they believed in and why. How do you get by?
In short, I ignored my professor’s words: “Religion is an abusive relationship.” Religion, spirituality and the road to Saint James were all the same to me, me with the eye of the agnostic, poorly educated in any traditional religion and eager to find one that might relieve uncertainty.
I thought holy must mean something, must take me somewhere. It had for more than a millennium of others. When you do not know where to go, there is always this: follow a herd.
The man’s feet hovered above when I awoke, the toes lavender in the early light. My eyes broke into sand when I blinked and the feet pixilated before tipping away.
Leo and I stepped out of a packed wheat adobe hostel and into the sun. Beside us with a curly-haired, light brown giant poodle, the hostel volunteer tightened her bathrobe and yawned.
“¡Buen Camino!” she called as we made our way onto the road, the dog trotting along with us. It’s okay, she said in Spanish. The dog always leads pilgrims.
After two hours, I collapsed upon a large rock by the side of the trail. The dog, still with us, was panting, his lips pulled back into grin or grimace. My feet, despite last night’s revelation, ached as though bruised.
“What are we going to do about the dog?” Leo asked, removing his pack to stretch his body from 120 degrees into a straight line. His white t-shirt had become translucent in thick strips down his abdomen and back. I watched him while my feet pulsed. Then I removed my boots.
Blisters like jellyfish rose around my ankles, toes and heels. I counted eleven, some light like packing bubbles, some more difficult to pierce, maroon and filled with blood, thick as calluses. Released into clean air, away from the sock, they inflated. They ranged in size from pebbles to golf balls. Three encased toenails. I looked at the dog, ran my fingers through his silky hair. “Maybe he always comes this far.” Tongue hanging, eyes like marbles in the light.
“Should we take him back?” Leo asked, watching a sun wrapped in muslin.
“We can’t take him back” – pressing my feet into my boots gingerly. The decision was to move forward, not back.
The dog trudged behind, his breath soon quickened to shivers. We walked two kilometers within the next hour and a half. With each step, blisters suctioned toenails from the skin. “Leo,” I said. It took a lot to say this, “I am in so much pain.” And then once I said it, I could not cap the wound. “I hurt so bad. I hurt so bad.”
We sat down again. I pierced my heel with a hot needle and watched as the pus, like orange juice, oozed to the rusty ground. An odor like sulfur rose. The sun spilling from my foot. I panicked. “I think we should go.”
In that moment, a blue car skidded, stopped. The driver’s window sank in jerks to present a clear view of the hospitalera, and her cries now with volume: “¡Mi perro!”
She wiped her nose with her manicured hand and released the back door, which opened like an arm. Her hair was disheveled and we could see she had been crying hard, the emotional manifestation of our physical pain. The dog trotted toward her and jumped into the car, and all at once the woman’s tears were gone, as though they had never been.
The hospitalera sped away, too distressed to notice our distress, and we, too distressed to gather the nerve to speak, stood for a moment, watching her burn. Tires squealed. The dog’s ears flew through the opened window, and his tongue lolled from his mouth, flapping in the breeze like an unfurled flag.
“Maybe he was an angel,” I winced. “A guardian.”
“Maybe he was.”
Maybe humans depend on animals to cut complexity back to simplicity.
“Leo,” I said, as we passed a sign for a café, spray-painted in white against a stone wall that marked the entrance to a little village, “we have to call a taxi.”
“Are there any taxis way out here?”
But when we arrived at the café a bus was parked, pointed in the way we could not walk.
“It’s a miracle,” Leo said.
“It’s a miracle!” We chanted.
Just as easily it was relief and maybe miracles are simply tags we apply to those things that bring respite from an atmosphere of complications, like a breeze that breaks the sun when the sun is cruel enough to cook the flesh, before cutting the knees, the calves, the knuckles and shoulders, the skin like grated cheese, while all the while we refuse to seek shade.
I let the bus jangle me to half-sleep. Leo rested his head against the hard window. It clanked lightly against the glass and he did not bother to stop it. He had not spoken for most of the day, but now he said, “When we go home, let’s snuggle.”
“Can we snuggle and do nothing all day long?”
Soon, in the days to come:
We would place our walking sticks in front of our shoes, one shoe in front of a stick, and heave forward. Soon we would land in Compostela, near the ocean-side town of Finisterre, “the end of the earth.” After walking fifty kilometers we would find the cathedral doors locked. Leo and I would have arrived too late, despite doubling our average distance, to arrive early. It is my belief now that miracles have logic of their own. Some work long hours. Some take reprieve.
Later, we would see the relic of the miracle the next day with hundreds of sightseers, some praying, some barefoot, some children, some crying. Some wounded, some clean. Mostly those with purchased tokens from vendors, arms of trees we had clung to, those walking sticks that propelled us on our way while we hoped for a change. Here they stood, tall, shellacked and etched, unused and unmeant for use. Tourist trinkets.
All of these people, all of this commerce – none was disappointing. They were of the obvious. Miracles attract those who hope. Hope comes in droves.
The next day we would take a bus to the end of the earth. At the end of the earth we would watch the water, which is the same water that hung like a painting from my professor’s window, green grass and see heather, lupines, when he told me that day that G-d, or the idea of G-d, hurt people. It was the day I did not know if I believed him, or in G-d – and I still do not know much except how easy it is to hurt yourself trying to find G-d. Or trying to find yourself.
I think if there is a G-d, He or She or It might have told me I did not need to walk so far to arrive at locked doors, smooth boards and iron hinges molded by palms and fingertips of those who either prayed at the door because they could not get inside or prayed at the door for something special to happen when they did get in, or prayed at the door because, most simply, they liked to pray.
But that is not the point. The point is that it would have taken this long for me to want to come home, and like it. Perhaps enlightenment is only beautiful by contrast. Or perhaps it is not beautiful. In a spinning green globe, a lack of want, a stasis, repulsed. I moved. I moved.
I moved only to return. This was the reality that became clear when blurred motion paused – this was the revelation.
Because the world is not flat, we would see how the ocean at the end of the earth curved into the ocean outside my teacher’s window. This was where we were as well as where we had been, here as well as there, and nothing would have changed: Sea gulls cawing, breaking shells against the rocks, tide-rot and honey suckle cutting a wind that pierces bone with shards. Here and there, both, nothing more than a dialogue among nature, into which man or woman may walk. Perhaps the journey is this simple.
Walk through a rigid breeze, arrange, become disheveled, rearrange.