I see her again just outside of Pamplona. She walks on the shoulder of the road. Her stride meanders, wobbly and goofy looking, the toes of her boots scratching the back of her calves leaving dusty streaks. She’s maybe a hundred yards in front of me.
Besides us, the road is empty and straight forwards and backwards. It is raised, stone bricked, lined with wheat fields. It looks like a tear stain down a dirty patchwork cheek. The grasses are parched in the sun.
There is only one tree. The road is so flat I can see it a mile before I reach it. Its branches curve in a thick, low hanging dome and the shadow of it stretches out across the trail.
She reaches the tree first, tosses her pack down beneath it, lies back against its trunk. I make it a few minutes behind her.
“Hi,” I say. “Mind if I join you?”
She smiles at me. “Please, it’s the only shade for miles.”
I sit down next to her. Sitting feels like a luxury these days. I’ve walked ten miles already today, and a full eighteen the day before that.
“It’s Sam, right?” she asks. “We met yesterday at the albergue in Pamplona.”
“I remember,” I say. “Ally?”
“Yup!” Her voice has the false cheer people use when trying to start conversations but honestly I don’t mind, it’s been a little while since I’ve talked to anyone. She reaches out and touches her toes. “Where are you from, Sam?”
“The states,” I say, “Upstate New York, near Buffalo. You?”
She doesn’t answer right away. I look over at her. She has brown hair and pink synthetic shorts that go down to her knees. She flexes her feet in circles. She looks like she’s my age; a well worn thirty.
“You know,” she says, and her voice changes, I can’t quite place the difference, the cheer is gone but so is the falsehood, “fuck small talk.”
I laugh, half nervous, half genuinely amused.
“Alright,” I say. “What should we talk about?”
“What’s the worst crime you’ve ever committed?”
“That’s not small talk, I’ll give you that.”
“Come on,” she says. “Let’s hear it.”
“I’ve done an axe murder,” I say.
“No way,” she says. “That’s what I was going to say. What are the odds of two axe murderers meeting?”
“Higher than expected, I guess.”
“Well, that was certainly more interesting than small talk.”
I take a long drink from my water bottle, then pour some on my hand to splash my face. “Do you start lots of conversations this way?”
“No, first time.”
“Same for me.”
Ally stands, raises her arms over her head. She tugs at her ponytail and brushes bits of tree bark from it. “Well, Sam, I’m going to keep walking.”
“It was a pleasure to meet a fellow criminal,” I say.
I watch her form dwindle into the distance, it turns into a wavy black outline on the edge of the road.
Little things happen on the Camino de Santiago. It’s a long trail, six hundred miles, the whole of northern Spain, and I had expected it to feel long as well. I had expected a sense of grandiosity, of walking through a thousand years of history. But all I have are these little things. These little things, and Ally.
I see a dog with an injured paw on the side of the road. I look around me, maybe for help, maybe out of guilt, although I don’t know why I feel guilty, I didn’t hurt the dog after all.
The dog mewls. I reach to touch it and it draws back. I reach again, softer, holding out my hand for it to sniff. It lets me pet it. I bundle it up in my arms and carry it like a child against my shoulder.
A few miles down the road I reach a small stone building with a stained glass window that has a picture of Jesus embracing Mary Magdalene. The plaque on the side of the building says it is un hospital de peregrinos. I don’t speak Spanish but I translate that alright. The plaque says the Romans built it, that nuns have maintained it for centuries. That Santiago himself stopped here when he first made this pilgrimage.
I leave the dogs with the nuns, we don’t have a language in common but both of us understand the language of pain that the dog can’t stop speaking with. I watch as they bandage his paw and decide that the dog is in safe hands.
My pack lies against the side of the building where I left it. It’s grey with dust and doesn’t fit me right, and I’ve stuffed half a baguette in the pocket where I’m supposed to keep my water bottles. I hitch it on my back — two weeks ago I had bruises on my shoulders and hips but now I hardly feel its weight.
That evening I stay in a youth hostel. Fifty bunk beds fill a small room. Each is filled with a pilgrim, their packs, and their boots. The scent of us all together is outrageous. I wear ear plugs to block the snoring.
Unable to sleep, I take out my journal and I try to write a story. It goes, well, predictably, I guess is the favorable way to put it. Other more unfavorable descriptions might be, ‘miserably’ or ‘frustratingly’. I write a little bit about the stained glass painting. I make it a love story between Jesus and Magdalene. I can’t really get in the characters’ head. My wife used to say I was pretty good at writing, but she was my wife, it was practically in the marriage contract that she had to say I was pretty good at writing. I haven’t written anything worth reading in a few years now.
I see her again in the rain. She stands under the overhang of a garage roof, her jacket pulled above her head. She’s laughing to herself, jumping out into the downpour and then back into safety. The cobblestones of the road are slick and shiny. Rainwater gleams in the cracks.
“Sam the axe murderer!” she calls to me, waving, jumping. She beckons me over. I hurry through the rain. My shoes are soaked, I squelch with every step. I huddle under the cover of the garage and rub my arms.
“Nice day out.” She has to shout over the sound of the rain.
“Marvelous,” I say. I wipe the water from my face and splutter.
“Share my jacket,” she says. She grabs my arm and brings me next to her, holds the jacket over our heads.
One of the little things happens. The garage door groans open. A small old woman with wild hair and slippers and knobby legs stands inside holding the remote control for the door. Inside the garage are bins filled with umbrellas. Dozens and dozens of them. Muttering in Spanish, rapid and unintelligible, the old woman hands each of us an umbrella, when at first we don’t accept she grabs our hands and forces them around the wooden grip. The garage door closes.
Ally and I look at each other, at our umbrellas, and laugh.
“No way,” Ally says. “That definitely didn’t just happen.”
“I need a little surreality in my life sometimes,” I say. “Is that a real word? Surreality?”
“No clue. Want to get lunch?” she asks, cracking open her umbrella.
“Sure,” I say.
The cafe is small and rain pours down the windows. We sit in a corner. A buzz of conversation in a half dozen languages floats around us, we have to talk loud to hear each other. I have a muffin, she has a coffee.
Ally asks, “Why are you walking the Camino?”
“I don’t know,” I say. I bite my muffin to waste time before Ally will press me to answer the question.
Ally presses me to answer the question. “No, seriously.”
I wonder that though I’ve only known her for all of ten minutes I already knew what she would say. I wonder what that means. I wonder if this is alright, I wonder, I wonder…
“Sam,” Ally says, chuckling around her coffee. “Don’t leave me for the clouds.”
“Sorry,” I say.
“You’re dodging my question.”
I glance at her, a bit irritated, I want to say, maybe it’s personal. But the air between us has a certain eggshell quality that I don’t want to crack. So I take a risk, and I decide for honesty, and I say, “I’m walking because my wife left me.”
Ally looks at me, looks down, looks back at me.
“Are you going to say, I’m sorry, or something?” I say. Maybe that was rude to say.
“I was thinking about it.”
“Back home I would have said I’m sorry. But I wouldn’t have meant it.”
“How about here?”
“I’m sorry, and I do mean it.” She meets my eyes. I can tell that she does. I don’t know how I can tell, but I can.
“Thank you,” I say, and I mean it too.
“Why the Camino?” she asks.
“I needed to focus.” I set down my muffin. Her coffee grows cold. We’re just looking at each other. “I was drowning in all of this… all of this guilt, I felt like I had failed, and it was just a loop, it fed itself, quicksand. I needed to reset myself.”
“Are you still drowning?” she asks.
“Should we start walking?” I say.
In the distance are the galician mountains, a watery green against low hanging clouds. We walk alongside a river. The rain has stopped and has left an afterimage of mist behind it. The water hangs limp in the air, like time has stopped. The sound of boots against gravel has been my constant companion for the last month, but now I have another companion, the sound of someone else’s voice.
“How about you?” I ask. “Why are you walking the Camino?”
“I needed something to change.”
“I was married, too,” she says.
She grins, kicks a stone, watches it dribble off the path and plunk into the river. “He wanted two kids and a picket fence, he wanted me to have some corporate job and have corporate friends.”
“How did you end up here?”
She shrugs. “A whole bunch of plastic people to fill a plastic life, you know? Couldn’t take it anymore. So I left.”
“How has the Camino been so far?”
“Oh, you know.”
“Have things changed?”
“Still feels like plastic. Still feels like I’m faking a midlife crisis just for the attention.” She walks for a few strides in silence, then looks over at me. “Well, you’re not plastic, at least.”
That evening I cross out my story about stained glass love and I write about Ally who is walking the Camino to hide from the FBI as they chase her for axe murder. In my story I describe Ally as sprite. Like that soda, not like the faeries. I say she’s bubbly and maybe a bit abrasive, but sweet. It’s a dumb metaphor but I kind of like it.
I meet a man named John Frogley. Canadian, age seventy, surprisingly fit. We spend an afternoon walking together. He asks me what I do and I say I’m a writer. He asks me if I know how to diagram sentences. I say I don’t. He says, what kind of writer are you? He and I have lunch on the side of a hill, the bushes are scraggly but determined. He takes a stick and writes a sentence in the dirt. Spades is a fun game to play. Then he shows me how to diagram it. It looks like a stick bug, different limbs scattered in random lines.
I see her again in a small town outside Burgos. It’s been a couple of days since we last saw each other. Evening falls in orange streaks. Street lamps add electric stars to the sky. We find each other in a side street, each of us looking for dinner.
“Sam,” she says, waving one of her walking sticks. “How have you been?”
“What happened to ‘fuck small talk,’” I say, grinning,
She swats my legs with the walking stick. “Alright, wiseass. I was just being nice.”
“I’ve been well.”
“Want to get dinner with me?”
We find a place that sells pilgrim meals, three courses of ham and pasta and salad for ten euros.
“You know what I love about Spain?” Ally says.
She holds up her salad. “They use bacon bits as salad dressing.”
“And the wine came with the meal,” I say, raising a glass in a toast.
We sit on the edge of a narrow street. Pilgrims and passersby bustle about us. It feels like we’re a rock in a waterfall of people. The streetlights give gentle illumination. Ally’s face is half in shadow.
“What do you do, Sam?”
“Like as a job?”
“I’m a writer.”
A smile cracks across her face. She leans forward, hair spilling over her shoulder. “A writer! Are you any good?”
“What do you mean, how come, that’s like asking why someone isn’t good at baseball or math or-”
She raises an eyebrow. “I think you have an answer that you don’t want to say.”
Then she waits for me to say it. I take a bite of my salad. I swallow slowly, hesitant, afraid to say the truth but the words just spill from me, if only writing was as easy as talking to Ally, “Have you ever wondered how far you could go if you trusted yourself completely?”
“That’s not an answer.”
“I’m building to it. This is the preamble.” We’re both smiling.
“Yes, I have wondered,” she says, voice soft.
“Like, if you bet on yourself with everything you had. If you said to yourself, I’m the greatest there ever was, watch me do this. How far could you go? Is the confidence the only thing you’re missing?”
She watches me, I can see her thinking about what I’ve said, like my words actually mattered. “I think I could go pretty far,” she says. Her voice is almost a whisper.
“Me too,” I say. “But I don’t.”
“And that’s why you’re bad at writing?”
The street has emptied of people. We sit in a puddle of yellow light from the streetlamp above our heads. The food forgotten on the table between us.
Ally and I walk together the next day. In the afternoon I sit by a fountain while Ally buys bread from a baker across the courtyard. I write little details about her in my notebook. She can speak Spanish, a bit brokenly but with a pretty good accent. The baker seems to like her. He’s a heavy man with a red nose and sleeves rolled up to his elbows. His laugh carries across the courtyard. It disturbs the pigeons that had been clucking about my legs.
I write about how she can have a conversation with anyone. I imagine it’s a bit of a game for her, a challenge, to see how much of a person’s story she can extract from them. But then I cross that out, because it’s not a game. I think she actually wants to know.
“Tell me about your wife,” Ally says. The road is straight again before us. A perfect perspective shot, I can see it narrowing and dwindling to the smallest point. The kind of thing a child would draw in art class, with a blue sky and three improbably puffy clouds hanging above.
“Her name was Laura,” I say. “Met in grad school. She was a science teacher.”
“No, I mean really tell me about her.” She jostles my shoulder as we walk.
“She would sometimes tutor kids. She was so patient with them. But hard, too. They didn’t get any excuses. She knew they could learn the material, they just needed to focus.”
“Why did she leave?”
I glance at her. “You’re very inquisitive.”
She actually looks embarrassed. “You’re right, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be prying.”
“She left because I didn’t bet on myself.”
Ally waits for me to continue. She already knows that I take a few seconds to form my sentences before I speak and she knows that I am silent not because I have nothing to say but because I have too much. Or maybe she doesn’t know that, and she is just being patient out of kindness.
“She wanted me to get published, to go places, to all the author things I was supposed to do, she wanted me to finish a project and get an editor, and I was just… afraid, I guess. She trusted herself all the way, and I couldn’t do that for myself. She had all these ambitions of her own, she was going to open her own school, and she wanted me to match her stride for stride.”
We stop for a water break. Ally sets down her pack and looks at me. “But you can bet on yourself,” she says.
“I’ve got different plans for my life,” I say.
“You’re a good writer,” she says.
“You’ve never read my writing.”
“I don’t need to. I just know.”
I cross my arms. “I don’t want to hear about how I could be so much further ahead. I’m happy where I am.”
“Then why are you walking the Camino?”
I take a breath, I don’t have an answer. It’s irrational but I lash out back, I don’t know why I’m so angry, I wish I could take the words back, I say, “Why are you? What’s your plan now that you’ve left your old life behind?”
“I don’t know!” her voice is raised. “But I’m going somewhere, I have things I want to do and be. I’m going to reach for them.”
“I wish you luck,” I say, the anger has left my body, leaving nothing but emptiness and a vague jealousy.
“You don’t need to. You can come with me.”
“What if I’m not worth betting on?” I must sound like a petulant child. I don’t care. My foot taps hard in the dust. “What if I go all in, think I’ve got aces, and all I have is a two and a seven?”
“Every hand is worth betting on.”
“You’d be a terrible poker player,” I say.
“Maybe so.” She shrugs, tosses her hands up. “But at least I’m playing the game.”
“Well, I fold, then.”
Silence falls between us, sudden and abrupt. I notice the world around me again. We’ve been standing still for a few minutes, the trail ignored. Slowly, we close our water bottles and pick up our packs. “We should keep walking,” Ally says.
“Yeah,” I say.
We make small talk for the rest of the afternoon.
I see a man leading a donkey across a bridge. The highway streams hot and metallic beneath us. The poor donkey is terrified. It can’t see the stairs that lead down off the bridge, it thinks it’s going to fall. The man is patient, he takes a piece of bread from his pack and gives it to the donkey. Happily chewing its food without a care in the world, it clambers down the stairs.
Ally and I drift apart on the trail. It happens. We stay at different albergues, we have different paces. We don’t know each other well enough to make plans together. We don’t know each other at all. I didn’t notice how quiet the trail was until I didn’t have her voice to fill the silence. Now the emptiness thunders in my ear. Each night I fill my notebook with scratched out words. I worry that I won’t see her again.
But I do.
I see her again in the courtyard outside the Santiago cathedral. She stands with her hands on her hips looking up at the spires. I raise my hand to call to her, then I draw back afraid, then she notices me and waves. “Sam the axe murderer!” she says, jumping up and down. I’m glad most of the people in the courtyard don’t speak English.
“Thought I might not see you again,” I say. The tension between us is slight, but it is there. I think we both know to avoid talking about anything real. Something between us has broken, maybe a certain sense of innocence that can’t be found again. So we just banter.
“The trail is small,” Ally says.
“Enjoying the view?” I ask, looking at the cathedral.
“Eh. The construction gets in the way.” Up the sides of the cathedral are wooden scaffolds dotted with yellow-helmeted men repairing the stone.
“Yeah. Kind of disappointing.”
“Are you going to Finisterre?” she asks.
“I think I will.”
“Did you know it translates to the end of the world?”
“I did, yes.”
“I’ll try not to fall off,” I say.
“You’re a funny guy,” Ally says. “I’m going to go inside that building and watch the monks tell me things in Latin.”
“Will do. I’ll see you at the end of the world, then.”
“It’s a date.” I say the words before I have a chance to think about them.
She looks at me, an uncertain smile. “It’s a date.”
There are goats as the sun sets at the end of the world. I sit as far down as I can on the rocks. All around me pilgrims come to the edge of the sea and finish their walk. They leave mementos. A walking pole or a hat or their shoes or a note. A few of them cry, or laugh, or hug their family. I watch the goats, and the sun. It drips slowly towards the water. Sea spray from the waves a few yards beneath me mists my face.
“Hey,” Ally says, gentle. She takes off her pack and sits next to me.
“Hey,” I say.
We watch the sun for a while. We don’t say a word. It leaves a streak in the water as it sinks. A white mar on the perfect grey of the ocean.
“So this is the end of the trail,” she says, finally.
“I guess so.”
We talk for a little, or maybe an hour, maybe we talk for the rest of time, we talk about everything we can think of and more and when we’ve given mention to even the smallest thing in the universe she says, “I liked getting to know you.”
“Sam, my husband called me,” she says. “He asked if I would come back. If I would reconsider.”
“What did you say?”
“I said yes.”
“I don’t know, Sam.” Her voice is tired. “He’s a good man. I love him. He’s smart, I suppose.”
“And the plastic?”
“I thought the trip would change me,” Ally says.
“But it didn’t. I’m still who I was.”
Ally stands. “The view is pretty.”
She stands, takes her backpack, climbs back up the rocks. I want to shout to her, I want to say, Ally, I think I like you, I think I’m in love, I might not be able to bet on myself but I think I can bet on you.
The words catch in my mouth, my throat strangles around them, my lips are like the bars of the prison cell for my thoughts.
“Ally, wait,” I shout.
But she’s gone.