I spent the entire Mass fascinated as always by the meticulous folding and unfolding of napkins by a bespectacled white-haired fellow in flowing green robes. It seemed that whenever he wasn’t busy lying creases to his serviette, he was using it to polish his large silver goblet to a state beyond glimmering. At any point during the service when napkins weren’t involved, the pilgrims and aging Spaniards in attendance rose and fell instinctively with the unspoken tide. It didn’t seem to matter if they could understand the words of the priest. This was all clockwork, standing and kneeling to the pull of the moon; automatic, indoctrinated, and generally without contemplation.
There was however, one rogue wave which, much to my discomfort seemed increasingly likely to crash upon my shore as Mass progressed. She had appeared a few moments tardy with a crack of sunlight through the large wooden doors followed by a blur of rapidly shuffling feet. Her dark, curly hair was covered by a blue bandana and her sun-baked skin seemed loosely wrapped in the feminist movement, if such a thing is possible. At an Ani DiFranco concert, she would have blended seamlessly into the crowd, only highlighted by those unfortunate boyfriends too polite – or scared – to say, “I’ll sit this one out, Baby.”
It must be said that against a crowd of dust-tattered pilgrims on the Camino, her appearance might have seemed rather ordinary. Her actions were that which drew her apart. It seemed that, unlike the others in attendance, she was not at all content to simply go through the motions. As the others stood and knelt idly by, her arms were outstretched; her palms were open. She was ready to capture it… whatever it was. Gravity pulled the others up and down. This bronze woman was spring-loaded. She stood before they stood, knelt before they knelt, and raced by everyone to the front to take the body of Christ, broken for you, but firstly for her.
In spite of all this, I couldn’t help but think that her focus wasn’t entirely on God. I first suspected as much during the visit-your-neighbors part of the program when she wandered a bit too far from her seat in order to grasp my hands a bit too hard for a bit too long. By the third or fourth time that she looked back over her left shoulder in my direction, I wasn’t sure where to cast my eyes. Most guys would be happy to have the attention of an attractive-enough girl after weeks of virtuous living, but there was something wrong here. In my head there was a familiar voice repeating one simple phrase: “Hello Clarice…”
And yet, this was the Camino, a place where my mind-wandered for hours each day into fantasy worlds. As the evening Mass drew to a close, I was content to dismiss her actions as part of the typical silliness associated with my mind’s daily ramblings. Who knows, I thought, maybe I was staring at her?
When the doors opened to the outside world I chose a careful course around this mysterious woman while attempting to gain ground on an older Bulgarian woman, Brigitte, whom I had first encountered in Sanguesa many stages before. As I crossed the threshold of the church through an arched doorway and into the descending light, I spotted the Bulgarian a few strides up the street and turned in that direction only to find the bronze woman surging into my path as if from nowhere. Such was my shock when she materialized that she might as well have burst forth from a flaming coffin while wearing a hockey mask and brandishing a chainsaw.
I actually said, “WOAH!” as I stumbled ever-so-slightly backwards.
She didn’t seem to notice any of this. “You’re a pilgrim?” she asked in Spanish.
“¿De dónde eres?
“Soy de los Estados Unidos.”
“Boston now.” In spite of the smile this conversation placed upon her face, I couldn’t help but wonder if I should I be ready to defend myself.
It was all innocent enough, but she was just far too excited as she related the fact that she too had lived in Cambridge – the neighboring city of Boston to which I was actually moving – for a period of six years before relocating to Paris. I followed her lips carefully as she delved into other periods of her personal history, but I didn’t absorb much. She was born somewhere. That tends to be the case with people. Perhaps it was Azerbaijan? She had lived somewhere else. Maybe Iran. It didn’t really matter. It all morphed together into a something quite different in my head: “Want some candy, little boy?”
“You’re Geoff?” she asked, bringing me back to the conversation.
Internal monologue: How the hell does she know this? That American woman I ran into earlier in the day correctly identified me on first sight as well. It’s as if my forehead is labeled as clearly as a Burger King.
“Do you know who I am?” I offered an uncomfortable shoulder shrug in response.
“I’m Katie Webster!” she added, clearly expecting a wave of realization to splash over me. I offered a blank stare in response, much like the one I had given her for the duration of our conversation.
“I stirred-up a bunch of trouble about the war… about how many people were going to get killed!”
Insert tumbleweed blowing across the desert.
Internal monologue: Really Katie? What in the world am I supposed to do with all of this worthless information given the fact that you make me so extraordinarily uncomfortable?
“Do you want to go get a beer?” She smiled, very friendly, very openly, and very graciously.
You’re going to kill me aren’t you, Katie Webster?
“I’m offering…?” she added after another strange silence.
I managed to produce a sound. It was something like an “Ummmmmbllrrrrr….” Bolstered by this return to audible sound, I crafted a carefully constructed lie. “My mom is expecting me to call now. We haven’t talked since I’ve been gone and it has been five weeks.”
“How old are you?”
“Ahhh. So young.” She followed this statement with a sigh and a deep smile.
I didn’t run away, but something about this simple encounter had left me seriously contemplating that type of action. Mass in a foreign language was baffling enough to this American atheist, but it had started to make sense over the course of a few weeks. The friendly approaches of a mysterious, bronzed, palms-raised-to-the-heavens international troublemaker, however, were far too much for me to process. I suppose I should have been more than happy to take advantage of the situation when the Lord’s guidance had given me the opportunity to get some Camino action. And yet, there I was, ducking away to make an imaginary call to my mother on a non-existent phone.
I’m not sure what this says about me or Katie Webster. But the next time she’s around, I might just skip Mass altogether. At the very least, I’ll find some of my own napkins to fold; Katie makes Mass feel kind of dirty.
Geoffrey Arthur drewyor
© Geoffrey arthur drewyor