Finding My Way 

Heather Bruce Satrom
  1. Atonement

    There are many ways to walk
    to Santiago de Compostela.

    One way: The French Way —
    Through the Pyrenees,
    A six-week slog through rugged terrain,
    Past stone crosses and cemeteries,
    Along ankle-twisting rock-strewn paths,
    Carrying your sins and your gear on your back,
    Listening to snores and grumbled confessions,
    Trying to sleep in barren rooms among strangers,
    So you can arrive, exhausted and drained,
    At the steps of the cathedral.

    Another way: The Portuguese Way —
    Along the Galician Coast,
    A ten-day stroll through sun-dappled woods,
    Past lemon groves and eucalyptus,
    Fields of foxglove, camellia, mint,
    Carrying hopes and sunscreen,
    Stopping in a village for café con leche
    And a slice of almond cake,
    Sipping albariño, savoring salty squid, padrons and pulpo,
    Listening to the voice of Rosalía de Castro,
    Whose very name is poetry,
    Falling into a dreamless sleep in a clean bed,
    To arrive, well-rested and supported,
    At the steps of the cathedral.

    I must admit it felt like cheating.
    Like that time I went to Confession with an Anglican priest
    Who told me I needed to forgive myself first
    And didn’t give me penance,
    And I thought: What kind of atonement is this?

    So I’m happy to report that by Day Ten,
    Right arm inflamed by stinging nettles,
    Blistered toes wrapped in gauze,
    Parched lips covered by balm,
    I’d covered a hundred miles
    And arrived, spent but hopeful,
    To joyful sounds of bagpipes and drums
    And pilgrims singing
    At the steps of the cathedral.

  2. Las Peregrinas

    On the first day we cautiously inquired
    Why are you walking?
    We hemmed and hawed
    Talked about the beautiful landscape
    Our desire to be strong and healthy
    How we wanted to practice our Spanish
    Learn about history and culture.

    But the truth came out on Day Three or Four
    When Rose spoke of the man she loved who drank too much
    And Emma spoke of the man she loved who didn’t want kids after all
    And Linda spoke of the man she loved who wasn’t walking with us
    And Mariela spoke of the man she loved who wasn’t responding to her
    And I spoke of the man I loved who didn’t miss me at all.
    I guess we were all just trying to walk them off.*

    So when we arrived at the Sanctuary of Santa Liberata of Baiona
    And learned the story of beautiful Saint Wilgefortis
    Who chose a life of solitude and study —
    Who prayed for a miracle to escape an impending marriage,
    Whose prayers were answered when she awoke with a full beard,
    Undesired but liberated,
    We all nodded quietly
    And lit some candles.

    (*with gratitude to Maggie Rogers and her song “Alaska”)

  3. La Casa de la Misericordia

    When we stopped on a cold clear morning
    at La Casa de la Misericordia
    Somewhere between Pontevedra and Caldas de Reis,
    To receive an optional blessing
    From a hermit monk called Father Carlos,
    I rolled my eyes and shrugged,
    Sure, why not?
    We stood in a circle as Father Carlos,
    Wearing a white fleece and sandals
    Greeted us quietly with a soft smile.

    Everyone grew quiet and still,
    Even the secular sinners among us.

    He prayed for God to bless us
    And he walked around the circle
    Quietly, softly, pausing to speak one-on-one.

    And I thought
    Oh no, I am not ready for this.
    Wondering briefly if I could slip out the back gate,
    Not wanting to cry in front of all these strangers.

    And goddamn it, he stopped right in front of me
    And placed his hand
    Firmly, forcefully, against my forehead
    And said, as if channeling the voice of God,
    I see your heart.

    My shattered heart, which softened a little
    That cold clear morning
    Somewhere on the way
    To the hot springs of Caldas de Reis.

    How interesting that misericordia
    Sounds like misery
    But tastes like mercy.

  4. Stones

    We met in a cold dark church in Padrón
    Ostensibly to see the Pedrón
    A giant Roman altar rock from the River Sar
    Where the boat carrying the headless body of St. James
    Was moored by his followers.

    And those followers – so they say – dragged that heavy rock
    From the River Sar to the altar of the church in Padrón
    Where now it waits, cold and heavy,
    And pelted by pilgrim coins.

    Frankly, I didn’t really care much about that stone
    Or the pilgrims tossing coins,
    And I certainly wasn’t impressed
    By the statue in that church,
    Behind glass,
    Depicting Saint James on a rearing horse,
    Trampling on the bodies of three Moors.

    And I had to laugh when I met you,
    In — of all places — the cold, dark church of Padrón.
    You, former hajii,
    Practiced pilgrim,
    Who had set down your own stone
    Days earlier, in a pile of rocks,
    To forget the past and lighten your load.

    You didn’t even notice the statue of St. James trampling the Moors.
    The heavy rock on the altar —
    The Pedrón in Padrón.
    You only noticed me
    And the hat I wore
    To protect me from the sun.

  5. Holy Communion

    After many miles
    And much conversation
    And some shared meals
    And a few glasses of wine
    We found ourselves at first
    In the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela,
    And we found ourselves later
    In a hotel room in Santiago de Compostela.

    And I, conflicted, said,
    I am here for spiritual reasons.
    And you, unconflicted, said,
    This is spiritual.

  6. Incense

    Leaning against a cold white pillar
    In the Cathedral of Santiago
    It was standing-room only at the Pilgrim’s Mass
    As I watched eight strong men
    Clothed in long red robes
    Hoist the botafumeiro, 
    Expeller of smoke,
    Nearly 70 feet in the air.

    Like Galician fishermen in a wild ocean
    These fishers of men
    Pulled two hundred feet of sturdy fishing rope
    On a mechanical system of ropes and pulleys,
    Lifting the brass burner
    To the heights of the cathedral.

    Thousands of pilgrims fell silent.
    Thousands of necks craned backwards.

    And the organ reverberated,
    Thrumming vibrations into hearts
    As that five-foot, 120-pound censer started to sway
    From one end of the cathedral to the other,
    Gathering speed, reaching more than 40 miles per hour.

    Glowing with burning embers
    Above our heads,
    Spicy scented resin of myrrh
    Wafted down on us in a cloud
    Of cinnamon, clove, pepper, and balsam,
    Like the wild breath of God.

    That feral speeding censer broke free from the fishing knots
    In 1499 when Catherine of Aragon sat here in these pews
    And it flew right out the window,
    It broke free once more in 1937,
    Crashing like a civil war bomb.

    Leaning against that cold, white pillar,
    I watched thousands of pilgrims in pews
    Refuse the bishop’s order not to record this moment.
    They were trying to capture the impossible:

    The fiery
    Spirit of the Divine.

    Our heads were not bent in prayer.
    They were tilted back,
    Gazing up in silence —
    In awe.

Heather Bruce Satrom teaches English Language Learners at Montgomery College in Silver Spring, Maryland and is working on an oral history project documenting the lives of immigrants and refugees in Montgomery County. A believer in the healing power of storytelling, she writes poetry and creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The Sligo Journal and WWPH Writes, the literary journal of the Washington Writers' Publishing House. Heather can be reached at @heatherbrucesatrom on Instagram.