The Portico at the Foot of the Mountains
San Jean Pied de Port
THE NIGHT DESCENDING, I am alone in this dead street. Stinks of musty medieval stone walls; infested oak. Air, dank, permeating the town. My fist, clammy, opening to check the two talismans. The pearl caught the moonlight seeping through the mist:
In minuscule lettering, etched into the pearl’s surface, blacked for legibility. The other object, a medal hanging from a cotton necklace, was a christogram, a real oddity. On the medal a chalice with a host hovering above it. The host had the letters IHS written on it, it had been a gift.
I knew why I was here. A cure – pilgrims for a thousand years before me had asked for the same. Not a physical cure. So much still haunted me, a stillborn child, Conchi, the death of my parents, the dream, they had all led me here. This was my last effort, my last chance. I secreted both the pearl and the necklace into a side trouser pocket.
Red tiled roofs grasping at the night above the cobbled ancient street, Rue de la Citadelle. Grime filling its gaps. Stilled signs noting paltry accommodation hung unmoved. Pervading ethereal medieval-ness closing in. I tried the iron-studded oak door again. Steadfast – closed to me, locked. I reserved this bastard albergue. I told them I was going to arrive bastard late! No comfort and welcome, just the dead silence of this black saturated night. Grey mist enveloping. I sensed it. Feeling its presence again? This must be my mind playing tricks. I am tired and it is late. Since those dark winter days when he had first fed me his nihilism in the cottage, he had merely been a presence in the background, just a weight on my being, an idea, dark thoughts; demonic, working in the shadows. Yet here, he seemed manifest again, pushing at the oozing air – letting me feel his presence. I feared him still.
Damn colossus of a door, give will you – too fucking cold to wait out in this gelid air.
Stepping back into the midst of the street I checked again. The right albergue? It was – a small lichen speckled stone-slate sign by the door. I had reserved a bastard room – I rattled and thumped the door. So late now. The bell in the clock tower chimed – mockery peeling into the fog: gone midnight and I had no bed. That dread foreboding presence was closing in again… he must be here… this was a night when I would need to be inside.
I saw the shadows flicker, then a glimpse of movement and then the eyes. His face next to mine. What the fuck is this? Black onyx eyes staring into mine. ‘Mara,’ he hissed at me. The voice spitting and curdling into the air. I am losing my mind? Yet, unmistakably the same dread presence that had been there at the Church on Christmas Eve, and at the cottage when he fed me the seeds of self-destruction.
I smashed my shoulder against the door in panic, and then it moved; grudgingly it gave. Metal clunk – the door unlatched. I twisted inside the now slender gap between lintel and door, and shut the town out. This is all very eerie now. Must be lack of sleep.
A deep breath calms me. Still nobody here. A barely present light effusing from somewhere, dripping on me.
Deep guttural cigarette tainted: ‘Bonjour,’ plummeting into the foyer from the floors above. He was old, stubbly bearded, amicable looking, adipose; a familiar archetype. The ubiquitous landlord – the residence lacked the same warmth that he was generating. Neither hearty fire, nor generous feast awaited, that might have let me know that I was welcome, instead just stale dampness. Carrying an oily glass lamp that cast bewitching and demonic shadows into the vestibule, he was markedly separate from the house, out of place, atopic.
My merde French peppers and splatters; graceless and offensive to such an elegant tongue. It should have been mellifluous nectar poured into a beckoning ear – I was butchering it, cutting it out from its heart and then crudely revitalising it. A flurry of instructions concerning various domestic procedures, I barely half-caught them.
We ascended the few flights of stairs, crunching the unstable wood beneath. Barely sturdy enough to hold my weight, it seemed – precarious this existence at times. The handrail rotting and falling; stubs remained. Unsettling, that simply getting to the first room would leave me so full of fear.
The landlord showed me to the room. He handed me a large overwrought iron key, ludicrously large. No matter, I won’t be carrying it anywhere. The landlord muttered his ‘bon nuit’, then left and dropped back down into the darkness.
He had lit a lone candle, flickering near the windowsill. I was the only one here, only one bed.
Letting my rucksack drop to the floor, I started to repack for the next day. As I stood staring at it, I recalled that it took an intense thirty or forty minutes to prepare before I could start out each morning. I needed to do it faster, or I would not be able to set out in time on the more pressing days, when I would need to cover the long miles. That Mara thing outside, forget it, it’s your mind playing up – you’ve suffered a lot lately and it must have had an effect on your addled brain. All those drugs when you were younger. This is nothing more than a long walk.
I had tried to ensure this pack was the lightest it could be, as if that would provide a buffer against the tempest that I should encounter. Determined to carry on where others might be compelled to stop. I would learn, soon – la souffrance, c’est inévitable.
Taking in my surroundings: a panoply of various-sized framed paintings displayed around the walls; a veritable art gallery. The ancient cracked oil on canvas paintings hung against wood panelling. A smell that I recognised: the sweet scent and smooth depths of Lebanese cedar. Some of the paintings were labelled.
The painting above the bed a depiction of Solomon’s ancient temple, but I could not give the painting an era or painter. A sacrifice lit the centre of the painting, there burning in the Holy of Holies, Qodesh HaQodashim. The God of the Hebrews dwells amongst them.
Further along the wall, but at the same level, the Miracle of the Fishes. The divine-man casting a prayer over the nets. Lumen de Lumine. The Agenetos’ power over nature, or perhaps within nature? Was He, in this miracle, separate from that world, or working from within, pushing the sub-atomic particles around at the bottom of that sea to bubble up the fish into the nets? Odd things miracles, I thought. Why provide fish to a few followers and not stop holocausts?
At the left-hand side of the only window, plastered with the seeping blackness of the night outside, another framed painting: a vessel about to set sail from some ancient Greek port. The hero, illuminated in flowing robes and blonde locks, glanced back from the main sails to the women and hierophants there lamenting on the sandy quay. He held a sombre smile – he knew he had to do that journey and would return changed. Once Reason had set sail, it would not return, a world changed forever.
Below the Greek port, Steuben’s Bataille de Poitiers; two vast armies crashed against each other and at the centre, two great warriors met, their weapons aloft and ready to strike. Flanking that painting, another – Mehmet II entering Constantinople. Watching it from across the room, Boabdil before Isabella and Ferdinand, La Rendición de Granada.
Above the door, over the exit sign, a large faithful but faded copy of Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp. Our search for empirical knowledge as the foundation for understanding. The hope of the contemporary age. The intense stare of the observers, if you look closely enough inside, you will find truth. But this corpse is still dead. Life is somewhere else.
In the darkest corner of the room by the bathroom: Picasso’s Guernica. The bloody birth pangs of the modern age – unfathomable horror. What this event meant, along with so many that were inspired by it. They were practising for something even more horrific. Here, the first blood of the innocents. There were no more pictures.
I laid down on the bed. A small statue on the bedside cabinet beside the lamp, both bronze. The statuette was of a man pushing a stone up a hill. A perfectly formed muscular being, every sinew stretched to that endeavour. To find beauty in the process, but still pointlessness in the task? ‘Sisyphus’ it was labelled. A decision needed to be made.
I had been there these last few years, grafting for what? Crumbs of life maybe, or to find a distraction from the despair?
Scars on his body. He’d been dropped, and he was worn, bludgeoned and scratched. An alternative view, a depressing sense that history is nihilism, cursed, his endeavour a distraction. I recalled Mara’s conversations in the cottage, enticing me with his own Philosophy, carefully deconstructing the philosophies of meaning, then feeding my despair. I had barely survived.
I stripped and put my vestments out on the chair so that I could dress quickly in the morning. I went to the bathroom. A dry sauna, my blood shooting to the skin surface. Such a bathroom could be a godsend on a journey as this, drying one’s clothes for the next day. It could not fulfil that purpose on this first day, comfortingly warm nonetheless.
I caught a reflection of my back in the mirror. A loser’s thing to do, that night in Cambodia, high on drugs and alcohol, when I wandered into that seedy backstreet tattoo parlour. I told him I trusted him, to tattoo whatever inspired him. The command of a youth who no longer gave a shit.
Days went by before I examined it; I had little memory of it.
Around an empty circle in the middle of my back, three creatures tattooed, each following the other. A pig, a snake and a cockerel. Beyond that, mostly blank space, apart from an outer circle that in turn was encompassed with a parallel wider circle around it, leaving about a three- inch gap between the two. Just above those two outer circles, at the nape of my neck, an outline of a box, and a mirrored one, just below the circles, near the base of my back. What a fucking mess. I once promised Conchi I would remove it.
I washed. The ice-cold water from the basin refreshed and invigorated my limbs. It had the efficacy of some ritual spiritual washing, my Mikveh, Wudu, Holy Water.
The water, I found, too fresh for a shower. Turning the hot water tap, the water poured cold still. Vaguely recalling that the landlord told me something or other about the hot water system. A tank attached to the wall, beneath it a boiler thumping water out to both the tank and the clattering iron radiators.
Above me, two small ornate circular wheels on the pipes, valves, to
control the water, perhaps. Not obvious however which was hot and which cold. I turned one and the cold water stopped running into the basin. I took hold of the other tap but immediately jumped back. Bastard scalding hot!
The tap burned into my hand, searing a raw reminder of impetuousness. Cursing my own stupidity, I lowered my hand into the water and searched through my bag for a small sachet of gel from my first aid kit.
I managed to turn the valve, using a towel, and eventually took a hard- fought for warm shower. I dried off and retired to bed, the burning in my hand easing away, slowly, but keeping me from sleep.
I was exhausted, and yet anxious about tomorrow… then sleep. Again, the dream:
There in that numinous nebulous world, in there she appeared, ever youthful, Sofia. Enticing, yet distant. The same Sofia that visited that solitary prisoner at Pavia, the same of Proverbs, of the Orthodox tradition; a vision so beautiful, and other. She floats wispily over the land, and she draws me to her, to show me. Lithe, petite, clothed and yet enticingly bare-fleshed. Transparent, yet real existent body. A goddess, immortal and present. Pulchritudo tam antiqua et tam nova. Irresistible, I float with her. My attention moves to the landscape below us, and I follow a translucent azure line moving south over the Pyrenees, then flowing across the north of Spain towards the Atlantic coast. I can follow it wherever I look and wherever I choose to gaze: simultaneously, I can pick at a speck of dust floating away from a carpet beaten by an aged widow in her casa de campo and I can sense the vast lines of snow- capped mountain ranges and the atoms of incense in a 12th Century chapel in Castrojeriz. I can take in, at a gulp, the line of modern pilgrims on the Meseta, and feel the reflux of digestive acids inside a 10th Century hermit. I gaze skywards to The Milky Way which mirrors the same path on earth through the heavens above. I am ultra-lucid.
Sofia then points back at that line flowing westward over the North of Spain. Light emits from it, and it ends there at a tomb. But when I look inside the tomb, it is clearly not San Tiago’s face that I see.
I hear her voice, not with my ears but permeating me: ‘Walk, this eternal Way, anda y encuentra.’
And then I am awake, suddenly. Disoriented in the world, plunged back into the dark night, unsure of where I am.
I thought it would fade away and pass, yet it had become more lucid, increasingly potent, I could think of little else for days after. The old lady in the church that night had warned me to look out for the dream. Researching the map I saw in the dream, I discovered what that blue line represented. I made plans; only now, having given up my job, could I walk the path.
I needed to come to terms with my past and make some sense of it – search for answers along the old ways and in the old places.