Aengus waved off Lorenzo and Giulia, said he’d catch up with them the following night in Ponferrada. His tendonitis was bad enough he couldn’t push through it, and he couldn’t bear the thought of another hill, even a small one. He’d miss seeing the cross at sunset, but sunrise the next morning didn’t seem too bad a trade.
He limped into the first albergue he could find in Foncebadon – a grimy bar facing off to the anaemic town – plastic chairs outside, rusty bunks upstairs. Boots off, bag stashed, laundry hung, he flattened a twenty note on the bar and relaxed. More than enough to get more than merry. He was doing his inflamed shin no favours by getting drunk and dehydrated but, he reasoned, his shin hadn’t done him any favours. By nine it was true dark and the make-shift drinking buddies he’d found were shaping to get to bed. A Korean girl, In-Sook, shared a spliff with him and gave him a tube of Ibuprofen cream for his shin. He was going to ask if she wanted to walk out together the next morning, but without preamble she stood up, hoisted her backpack and produced a headlamp from its folds. She waved goodbye and walked off for the forest, on a path invisible in the night.
“She only walks at night you know.”
Aengus thought himself alone and was surprised to find a lumpy looking man sitting in the shadows to his right, only the glint of moonlight off his teeth visible. The man, speaking in an accent that was hard to place, went on: “She came from Korea by bus with friends. Six months she has been travelling. But never does she adjust to the right time. She leaves her friends behind and carries on. Sleeping at daytime, walking at night-time. The whole thing, whole Camino, alone and in dark.”
The man seemed pleased with himself and reached out a hand, “I am Almos”. Aengus, still finding it hard to focus on the man’s face, tried to blink away his drunkenness, thinking that the problem. “I didn’t see you before. You a friend of In-Sook’s?” Almos only smiled at that, his teeth enlarging in the dark. Aengus made his excuses and got to bed before they locked the doors.
He set off at half five that morning, knowing he’d be moving slow. In the trees around him birds were kicking up a fuss, unhappy with the phone-light Aengus was using to pick his way through the rocky path. He checked his pocket to make sure he still had the stone brought from home.
Tradition was you placed a stone, like a prayer, at the top of the giant cairn at the Cruz De Ferro. It embarrassed him, the naked religiosity of it, the sentimentality. Yet he’d brought a stone with her name on it anyway.
The birds quietened. A new light cast jagged shadows from somewhere behind. He turned to see In-Sook making her way up the forest path behind him. Pleased, he waved to her to join him. But as the light drew closer he realised it wasn’t In-Sook, but Almos. He couldn’t understand his mistake, but it was too late to do anything but wait. Irritated, he tried to walk slowly, to encourage the man to move on, but it only seemed to make Almos eager to chat. “You are Irish my friend?”
“Yep.” “You walk from where?” “St. Jean.” “Very good, a long walk, 1000km no?” “Yep.” And then, with reluctance, “You?”
“I walk from home. In Budapest. 3000km! I walk for three months. I sleep in forests. I sleep by motorways. I sleep in public toilets, and I walk, walk, walk.” Aengus was surprised the sun had not yet risen. That there were no other pilgrims, just him and Almos. The sun should surely have risen. Others should have joined the trail. He noticed the birds were silent, yet thought he could see pairs of eyes, gleaming with moonlight, throughout the forest.
“You Christian my friend?” asked Almos. “No.” “Me neither. I worship a true god. Old god. You know Mercury?” “The Roman god?” “These Christians they come to these places, they think they walk a Christian path. But many walk this way thousands of years. This Cross we go to, you know it was an altar for Mercury in old times? Even you Irish worship him.”
Aengus had avoided looking directly at Almos, but this was too much. He turned to him: “Romans never reached our shore pal, you’ve been misinformed.” He could see now, in the same weak light that brought out the eye-shine of the creatures in the trees, that Almos’ face was swollen, covered in bruises. Scratches and cuts surrounded his blood-red eyes. “You worship Lúgh no? Lúghnasadh? Almos knows. Lúgh is only another name. All Mercury.” The sun should have risen an hour ago. They should have reached the hill an hour ago. Aengus found himself wondering how far he could run if he had to, if he dropped his backpack. His shin spasmed at the thought.
Almos put an arm around Aengus, his breath sour on his cheek. Silence unfolded. The legions of eyes in the trees grew innumerably. “We will get there my friend. You will see. And we will drop like stones, all of us.” Words by Ciaran Milton. Illustration by hyperpictures.com