The Road from Santiago

Written in response to: Write about someone giving or receiving a gift.... view prompt



She knew she had reached the end when the idea of the gift came to her. It had taken years - she had needed years - to reach the point where IS was what mattered most. That referred to the IS of "This is where I am," Or "This is where I am now, at this moment."

Nothing lasts, nothing is finished, nothing is perfect. It was all so simple, so obvious, so slow.

To ask why it had taken so long to reach this point was not necessary. What mattered was that now, in this moment, instead of seeing things and people from a linear, sequential perspective, according to a chronological mindset that could do nothing but underline the passage of time as final, heading in one direction only, she had to find a different vision.

The effect of linearity on people is devastating. Fear of death, of oblivion, of what comes next. A need to compete, to get ahead while alive, to be successful in one's edeavors.

So capitalist!, she mused, almost laughing at what she's just thought. Still, she knew people kept acquiring more and more things of little value that were supposed to be measures of their wealth, then broke them, lost them, threw them away, or felt the obligation to give gifts to other people on special occasions. Wasteful.


Lavinia was in her bedsit on Rúa do Medio near the Museo do Pobo Galego and, as it was getting late, she was ready to turn out the light and go to bed. She was supposed to be leaving Compostela soon, and before she could leave there were things she had to do. One of the things was to write to him and tell him what had happened to her since the last time they'd met, years ago. She was imagining it as a conversation, although the words would never happen and she no longer recalled the sound of his voice. The words were a torrent, like the January storms in Galicia that could sweep the old city away if they were angry enough to use their full force. For protection, she used a name that wasn't his, pretending she was talking to an apparition, not a real acquaintance.

Xan, knowing you changed my life. Even though we only spent about thirteen weeks together, a lot happened. I learned a lot.

That wasn't how she wanted it to go, this conversation. It sounded like something out of a romance novel, and that was the problem.

When I went back home, I didn't know what had happened nor what was going to happen. I didn't know that we were - I was - going to be unable to unravel the threads of what had happened. Now I have to tell you what has happened, despite the time that has passed. Please take this as a gift, because by telling you this, I realize I am taking a risk: you might not know or care about what you did to me. What you also might not know is how the transformation occurred, why it did. If you were to laugh at me, it would be unbearable.

I am giving this explanation, telling you this secret of how I lived without you, so you can understand what I've only been able to figure out while here doing sabbatical research. You see, you never left me, nor I you. The sabbatical wasn't supposed to go like that, but it did.

We're not in love now, and as human emotions go, we probably never were. That's not relevant, because nothing lasts, nothing is finished, nothing is perfect. (I have read that now many times.) This does nothing to explain the need to tell you what you must hear before I leave, or at least what I will leave with you when I depart. This time I want you to have more than my absence.

Three months that were like three years. Or thirty. Or a lot more. Years that do not deserve to be numbered. Places that have mostly faded from sight but only to coalesce into tiny bright intervals along a path. Or into steppingstones. Because the path has been long. 

Somebody made up a list of examples for what those months - really were they only three? - hold in their arms. There are some I want to point out.

1. THINGS that are old. Rusty keys, hardware, tools. Worn-out furniture. An old stone house. Yellowed postcards.

Lavinia was thinking of the only stone house in Santabaia that she'd visited on at least two occasions. The house might have been from the eighteenth century. She'd noticed the enormous keys on a rusty ring, too heavy to carry at a person's waist. The furniture had never seen a good day, it seemed, and its colors had already been lost in time when she first saw them. There was the oddest shower hook-up, almost as if bathing were an after-thought, and she had been glad she was only looking, not using the contraption. 

Santabaia was where Lavinia had seen a little girl planting a red plastic piece of a toy, hoping to see a chestnot tree sprout. Where she'd learned the fields all had names, most houses had names, that an eira was an essential of rural life, because it was where the grain was threshed by hand.

Santabaia was where a walk around an abandoned two-room house of even older construction turn up a ghramalleira, used to weigh things at market. You held it up and it had a measuring device on the lower end. Lavinia loved having her own ghramalleira. She had no word for it in English, just as Ruth Matilda Anderson had had no words in Spanish for many things she described in her book on her travels through Galicia.

2. SOUNDS. A foghorn or the call of certain birds at night, over the water. The fading tone of a gong, or more accurately, of a cathedral bell. 

The air shuddering, holding out its arms to passersby in the Obradoiro in Santiago. There were no foghorns in the city of the saint, but Coruña certainly had its share of ships going in and out of port.

I remember it so well, Xan. Sounds that were born old and aged more every year. Syllables dripping with spirit, running down my face and arms like lovers' fingers.

3. NATURE. Beams of sunlight on a gray day. It happened so often that I knew if I just held my breath, the sun would come out again. Except sometimes I was happy when the sun went behind the clouds and began to tell stories of where it went when it was out of sight. Fallen petals, like the ones of the magnolia trees along the Alameda of Santiago. Rainbows, in galego, I learned, they were called arcos da vella, the old lady's arcs. That in turn linked to legends of mouros, trasnos, maybe even biosbardos, but not to leprechauns. Snow, rain, hail. There had of course been no snow during those three months of summer, but there had been stories of how once in awhile it had snowed and things always came to a stop when the half-inch of white covered the stones. Hard to walk, people said, and they wrapped their faces in woolen scarves as if they were being faced by the plague.

4. DAILY LIFE. Handwritten note in the mailbox. Gardening. Nobody left me any notes, nor did they need to. All my friends were in touch by phone or we made plans in person, often on the spur of the moment. Gardening was in the rural areas and, like the sounds of Santiago, all the country roads were - are - lined with fields where ruffled green flags of cabbage, couve, wave at observers. Some flags are lighter green and will go to feed the pigs; others are darker and much shorter, with no stalks. Those are for caldo galego, the best soup I ever had, even though it's not easy to find in the summer. The grelos, those iron-clad greens, belong to a different season, as I later discovered.

5. INNER LIFE. Sacred imagination. Meditation. Prayer. Seeing beauty in the impermanent. Practice making the unwanted wanted. Xan, you know I'm not a religious person, but even non-believers walking into a big cathedral or a church from the twelfth century begin to think there's something in the air besides incense. After all, the rituals and art must be seen as worthwhile. Going to Sir John Moore's tomb in Coruña with its view of the sea from a high point in the old city did make me think about Moore's sacrifice for a country that wasn't his. Old, weathered doors and their locks. Some, forever shut, had become works of art for all to see. Amazing what decades can do for the beauty of an old entryway, for the scallops carved on buildings of Compostela that had once belonged to the church.

It is hard to find anything impermanent here, but I'm sure it exists.

6. QUALITIES. Asymmetrical. Incomplete. Impermanent. Flawed. Authentic. Despite being centuries old, so many things were perfectly uneven, chipped, worn away, but not fragile. Time held them up to be seen. Streets that slanted or curved to fit the beds of rock beneath them, so that people out shopping or strolling could never igmore the geography of a city or town. Views of streets in Rianxo or the reconstructed circles of the Castro de Baroña would have been nauseating had they been manicured. Most asymmetrtical of all? Perhaps the Roman road down to the castro, with jagged ruts from the carts cutting into the stones. How many centuries were written there? Did you know I burst into tears when I saw that?


Lavinia wrote for hours, and dawn found her in the same place. She had retraced so many steps, all taken for the first time that summer, when she and Xan had met. She had made a list of the bright spots, but knew it was futile to write it all down. Any list she might come up with would be incomplete, although it would have the virtue of being authentic. The memories of having thick chocolate in a Bonilla a la Vista in Vigo, of getting up at three in the morning to reach O Berbés in time to see the sardine boats come in at daybreak, her first taste of reo, the steelhead trout that never tasted the same back home, the ache of the metal bell calling people to mass, and the way the market vendors - at least the women - called her raíña, queen, sweetie, dear, to make her smile and sell her the green flag grelos so she too could make a caldo. If she knew how.

Lavinia was unable to stop. Her fingers flew as if she were Penelope or Ariadne, or a simple spider. She raced to get everything written down, because time was speeding up as it hadn't done in years, and was rushing her through the maze of pale images as if it were the wing of a museum where the darkest, most boring, most religious paintings were hung. Except this wasn't a museum she was visiting; it was her life, the one that started that summer she had first come to Santiago de Compostela.

From there, from that city, things had slowly been gathering momentum. Brief thoughts like the restaurant Buxán Carbía in Anllada - or was it Arcos de Furcos? - swam by. (The lettuce, grown in a patch in back of the building, was the best in the world. Or had been, that summer. The wine, in bottles without labels. Impossible to find, nowadays.) Noia, its tomb covers standing in the elements in the courtyard, displaying all the trades practiced by the former tomb residents. Axeitos, the dolmen that was older than the hills or maybe just the same age, if its huge stones had been pulled from quarries up the slopes. Rosalía's Padrón, full of her, the legend of Santiago's arrival there, the courtyard in the church of Adina. They were all accosting her, clamoring to be noticed.

There was no need. She noticed and she remembered. The scary part was that she remembered as if it had been yesterday. The years meant nothing in a place like Galicia, a place she'd landed in expecting to learn Spanish and had left three months later painfully aware that it wasn't the language she needed. She would never enter the temple that was Galicia - which she now thought of as Galiza - without the other language, the one nobody talked much about back then. The one her sabbatical had begged her to learn this time and that she had, in fact, been learning. 

The one she was going to leave again, perhaps never to return.

Xan, I am running out of time and, in case you ever see this, I don't want to bore you or make you uncomfortable. You are responsable for the transformation. Well, not you, exactly, it is your place that is responsible. It is every imperfect, resonating cathedral tune (as Emily would call them), every gull flying over the beach called Tal near Muros, with crosses overlooking the sea like Moore's tomb, like Catoira's Torres do Oeste - the Towers of the West - that served as look-outs for Viking marauders. It is every evening watching the horizon to the right of the Pazo de Raxoi, across from the cathedral, looking down on the cobblestone streets of Poza do Bar where the poet sailor Manoel Antonio lived briefly and up toward Pico Sacro with its mouras and Raíña Lupa, and perhaps the former tomb of Santiago before he was interred - perhaps - under the altar in a silver casket. Ghosts under every rock, around every corner and behind every oak tree.

It is every step I took that summer, creating this cloth and creating the future that is buried alongside the past, but yet on top of it, refusing to be buried.

No, I don't love you, although maybe I did, but we were imperfect together. I want you to know that, but it is so hard to find you and I don't want to find you. I have all I need, including the gray, rainy, impossibly runny days when it drizzled forever. Once I hated them - but it was summer, after all and downpours were not welcome - and now, they are Galiza's gift. I live for the sound of rain.

You gave me that. You, the land, the people. It sounds like a nineteenth century novel, doesn't it?

This 'thing' I'm trying to write to you could be a kind of seique like Susana Arins has written, truth-forged fiction, violence and velveted granite. Toponyms that crowd my dreams, making me wish I had a thousand cats or cows to name them after villages like Trasalba, Faramontaos, Triacastela, Ulfe, Brión, Silleda, Amandi. 

No, I have no room for you in my own enormous room that is far vaster than the one built by ee cummings. That is why I am leaving these thoughts to the Graystockings instead of sending them to you to an address I do not know and don't want to find. They will become part of A Nosa Biblioteca, where thoughts are never lost. 

However, if I do that, if I leave these thoughts of a long-gone summer visitor to the library of the women who have been sorting things out for centuries and guarding them with their lives, I run the risk of becoming entangled. I run the risk of learning to descend beneath the surface, groping my way in the dark along corridors with pallid lighting and dark history, trying to say what I mean in a language I've never studied and never will.

I run the risk of not being able to leave because the threads of granite and gorse have given me the ability to walk through the unevenness of the rain, to cross tiny Fonseca Square without crying, and enter any wall of the city I want. Enter, not through a door, but directly through the walls, running the edges of my body along them like a cat with a thousand names, until I reach the gargoyle where already, that summer, I told you I wanted to be buried.

November 27, 2021 01:24

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Michael Regan
17:46 Nov 27, 2021

A lovely story. I must confess - I had to look up some (many) of the references.


Kathleen March
20:54 Nov 27, 2021

Good! As a former educator, I love it when people do their homework... I should note that the references aren't esoteric for people from that area. It's just that outside that area, not many know about those things.


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