Robert Ward

The Pilgrim Statue of León (pg 205)A Sharing of Misery (pg 230)

The cold, dry wind blowing down from the hills has painted a skin of ice on the puddles. By the roadside just above the village I stop at a tiny, white cross, a hand-made thing adorned with wildflowers and the faded, pen-scrawled inscription: “la 22 de julio 1998 murió un peregrino suizo aquí” – a Swiss pilgrim died here. I heard his story – which had the ring of a parable – from my friend, peregrina Barbara Overby, who was the hospitalera in Rabanal that month of July, 1998. The pilgrim suffered a heart attack shortly after he and his wife left the refuge in the morning. By a stroke of good fortune, or so it seemed at the time, the first pilgrims to arrive on the scene were a nurse and a heart specialist. Alas, their skills were of no avail. The only pilgrim who got to ply her trade that day was the third to arrive, a grief counsellor…

I’ve just come in sight of the ruined village of Foncebadón when a few drops of rain fall from the blue sky. I pause and take out my now-dry notebook to record the event. A few more drops fall. Looking up, I see a cloud like a massive bruise drifting in front of the sun. The note-taking will have to wait. Before I know it, I’m running flat out through the teeming rain for the nearest shelter, a roadside restaurant known as La Taberna de Gaia. I can’t complain about my luck. There are only three places of shelter (three ocas!) in the eighteen kilometres between Rabanal and El Acebo. This is the first.

There’s already a young Spanish pilgrim standing outside the restaurant, talking on his mobile phone. I duck in to join him. The sign says the restaurant is only open Saturdays during the off season, but the roof jutting over the doorway provides shelter. The Spanish pilgrim puts away his phone. “Es muy malo,” I offer. He doesn’t reply. That’s fine. We’ll commiserate in silence. I note for the first time the components of the word “commiserate.” Co plus misery. A sharing of misery. How apt. A few minutes later a taxi rolls up. Without a glance my way, the Spanish boy tosses his pack in the back and climbs in. So much for sharing misery.

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