The Camino Real
by Lothar J. Tuppan
She had been walking ceaselessly on the Camino Real, the day stretching past the road under her feet. The sky was a clear, bright, blue that promised to cover her for as long as she walked. Sounds came and went as she focused on different groups of scrub brush and rocks. She was tired but in a distracted sort of way. Her chest, right above her left breast ached. She stared at her Doc Martins as she walked down the cobblestones connecting the Spanish Missions of California. Rhythmically the cobblestones asked her who she was, and where she was going. She didn’t know.
“Where does this road lead?” she asked, matching the rhythm. “What cities lie ahead?”
“None,” answered the stones. “Only the Missions lie on this road.”
She rubbed at the pain in her chest. It felt like there was something inside of her, something hard and hot. A small sob escaped her lips but she looked down at her feet, and kept walking.
When she next looked up, she saw a Mission in the closing distance. The sounds of the wilderness stopped as she stepped through the gate of the outer wall. The sun shone down upon the courtyard from an interminable mid-day point. The shadows were small and weak, barely daring to step beyond their roots. She turned to the left and entered the main building.
The door led to a hallway, which led to more doors, leading to rooms. Rooms filled with statues of saints and angels, madonnas and martyrs. The rooms spoke to her. In the room-of-the-bleeding-Madonna, she heard her mother, telling her not to upset her father who, having had a hard day at work, was in a surly mood. She heard her mother’s panicked voice pray to Mary, and left the room, ashamed at the disgust she felt for the woman who gave her life.
In the room of the saint-with-the-axe-in-his-head she heard her father, asking her to forgive him while trying to convince her that it was her fault anyway. She didn’t like the way the saint looked at her. She hadn’t put the axe to him, and a daughter should never feel foul when her father looks at her.
One room had a statue of Christ, looking to the sky in his crucified state, waiting for his father to deliver him. The room echoed noises of the past. Of people walking on the street around her, people ignoring the dirty runaway, alone, without a friend.
She visited all the rooms, and calmly, albeit uncomfortably, left all of them after hearing what they had to say. There was no love here, no god of any kind. This place was not her destination. Sitting down in the hallway, she sighed. She would have to keep walking the Camino Real, and she would be even more tired when she reached whatever lie ahead.
Walking back out into the courtyard she noticed an alcove against the far wall. Within the shade of the alcove she saw a man sitting. She walked over, shading her eyes so that she could better see, and said “Hello.”
“Hello, young lady.” said the man. He wore dark clothes, smudged by the dust, a brimmed hat (for working the California fields), and a smiling masque, reminiscent of the Greek comedy masques. The toes of his bare feet wiggled as a light breeze passed through the courtyard.
“Why are you here?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she replied. “Why are you here?”
“Perhaps I was waiting for someone like you. Are you Catholic?”
“No. I don’t believe any of that.”
“Then why are you here?” He poked a stick into the mortar of the alcove and chuckled.
She felt the glimmering of a memory, of an old black man who wrote something unseen in wet cement with a stick. He had laughed too.
“Do you know my friend Elliot?” she asked.
“We’ve met before. Do you know God?”
“I… No. No I don’t.”
“What do you know? To what are you true?”
The hard thing in her chest burned. The pain made her double over and cry out softly, “Elliot.” A tear landed in the dust and within the wet margins she remembered a gun, held by a sharp dressed man. She remembered the old black man beside her saying run, his voice filled with love. She remembered feeling that love and choosing to step between him and the sharp dressed man. She remembered the freedom and peace of her choice. She saw in her mind an even earlier time: Elliot writing in wet cement, “Karen is my friend.” She remembered dying.
The man in the alcove touched her gently.
“Do you know who you are?”
“Yes. Yes I do.” She touched the pain in her chest.
“And do you know God?”
“Yes. If you want to call it that.” And she pulled out the bullet, feeling the warm flow of blood over her hand and chest.
“And where do you belong?” He said, tears running down the cheeks of his masque.
Gently, she placed the bullet in his hand, and touched the lips of his masque, painting them red.
She turned away from him and left the Mission. Back on the Camino Real, she looked south (where her previous life ended) and north (towards further Missions). She knelt down to the stones of the road and touched them softly before walking west into the shadows of the wilderness, away from the Camino Real.
“My name is Karen.”