The older woman looked disoriented.Robert held her arm and helped her to a place of shade where he gently lowered her to the ground.Dan immediately dropped to his knees and started examining her.Belinda held her hand and said a prayer.Mark was trying to figure out why he didn’t have much compassion for this woman.He could only stand there, looking at her and thinking that she was holding up their progress.Was it because she initially vocalized her disapproval of the family they had created?Did she remind him of his mother?
That was it.But she wasn’t his mother.
He looked at her and saw Robert watching him.Robert came over, put his arm around Mark’s waist.
“It’s okay, dad.I understand.”
Robert then leaned into his dad and held on.Mark brushed Robert’s hair back from his forehead.He felt the dam of emotion break a little, and a trickle of tears run down his cheek.Why wasn’t he walking the trail with his parents instead of an Irish widow?He knew the answer, but it still hurt that they rejected him.He and Dan had formed a family, but at times he still missed his parents.Even after their hateful actions, they were still his parents.
Dan announced they were taking a break from walking.He made sure everyone was hydrated and then looked at Mark and asked if he needed to talk.Mark wasn’t capable of talking at that moment, so he shook his head.Mark looked over at Erin, who looked frailer by the moment.He moved next to her and pulled her slight body to his and he held her in his strong arms.He whispered in her ear that she would be okay and for her to rest because he was protecting her.Dan saw what Mark had done and was immensely proud of his husband.Dan sat beside Mark and took Erin’s hand in his.He then turned and kissed Mark on the cheek.
“You are becoming the remarkable man I know you can be.I saw it in you from the very beginning.You have so much love to share with the world.”
Mark pretended that he didn’t know what Dan was talking about, so he just nodded his head and looked into the middle distance.Mark wasn’t sure how not to be strong – sure he was vulnerable when making love but that was the only time. The rest of the time, he was an alpha male.Dammit, Dan brought out the gentle, loving side of him.Mark looked down and saw that Erin was sleeping.He then turned to Dan, looked him in the face, and said, “I love you.I love you with every fiber of my being. Please, don’t give up on me.”
When they awoke from their naps, Dan put them through the routine of checking that they were ready to keep walking, only he didn’t ask Erin to squat in the bushes.She, however, said she needed to find a place to tinkle.Belinda grabbed her hand and led her away from the trail.The two appeared a few minutes later.Dan asked everyone if they were ready, and there were nods all around.Then Mark took Erin’s hand and asked her to walk with him.
Mark matched his walk to Erin’s pace.He reminded himself that they were not on a specific schedule.When Mark became very solicitous of her needs, Erin started blooming again.Mark realized that through his reactions, he had shut her down, and she had struggled not to disappoint.He didn’t realize he had such power over her until that moment.He promised himself he would encourage her the rest of the way.Erin vowed to herself that she wanted to make Mark proud of her and stopped whining so she pushed them forward.
At a late dinner that night, Dan asked Erin to tell them the story of her life.They did not know she had such a ribald sense of humor and was a natural story teller.They were all enthralled with her story of growing up on the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland.It was a hardscrabble life.She told them about hiking the entire peninsula each summer.That was where she met her husband, Padric.She was hiking by herself as was he.They agreed to hike together.By the time they finished the hike, they had fallen in love.They quickly married, and in less than a year their daughter, Patti, had been born.They knew they could not afford to rear more children, so they practiced their own type of birth control.It worked, but Padric was often grumpy, saying that he was a young man and needed some loving.She suggested that his hand was a good substitute.He was affronted that a woman would know such a thing.She laughed and asked if he knew that she satisfied herself.He was further aghast that a woman would take care of herself that way.He thought it was a man’s job to pleasure a woman.The times of the month when they made love was bliss.Finally, Erin took a bus into Dublin, then a ferry to England where she bought contraceptives.Her monthly trips coincided when she was most fertile.They enjoyed playing with them.Erin tried washing them out for re-use.Sometimes that worked, but Padric was afraid he would wear them out and that she would get pregnant.
Erin would return to their little stone cottage and immediately put the bedsheets into soak because they were covered with his needs while she was gone.Both had long released any inhibitions about their sexual needs.Neither was concerned about the Pope’s condemnation of contraceptives or enjoying sex.They often called each other Adam and Eve.They laughed and said they felt savage and needed to take care of their basic nature.Luckily, the need diminished as their daughter grew.It was a small cottage and there was no privacy for their rampant sexual desires.They also had many a hike on the Dingle Peninsula while a neighbor watched their baby, Patti.
It was late when Erin finished her story.Dan suggested they sleep late the next day but Erin said they needed to start early before it got too hot.She then said that they had to make up for time so they could stick to Mark’s schedule.She smiled at him when she said that.
“Besides, I may want a nap in the afternoon.Napping in Mark’s arms reminds me of being with Padric.Only, I don’t have sexual thoughts when you are holding me.”
Mark blushed from head to toe.
“That is for you and Dan.You are lucky to have each other and two wonderful children.Come, children, let’s go to bed so your daddies can have some time alone.”
Erin stood and took their hands.She then turned to Mark and Dan and told them not to be up too late because they needed to hike 20 miles the next day.And that is what happened.
They could see the steeple of the cathedral miles before they entered Compostela.The weary pilgrims joined others as they entered the city to find that the Cathedral was closed because of Covid19.Belinda was devastated.She had planned to wear her pectoral cross when they went to the Cathedral to be blessed.Belinda also wanted to see the giant hanging Betafumeiro, the largest censer at any cathedral in the world.She heard it was over five feet tall and took eight men to swing it from side to side.Robert was excited because he read that when the Tiarabeleiros started swinging the thurible, it sometimes would travel 50 mph.He thought that was way cool.They went to the pilgrimage office and discovered that another church was offering noon services each day for pilgrims. They would go there.
They were staying in a hotel, and Dan paid for Erin’s room as he didn’t think she didn’t have much money, especially if she had washed out condoms for another go-round with Padric.
Mark sank into the large tub of steamy water filled with bubbles.The tub was so long he was able to fully extend his body.His feet were in bad shape after hiking across Spain.What he needed was a pedicure.He sank down in the water and let his muscles relax.He soaked his hair.It was long and out of control.The sun had bleached out a lot of the color.He tried to wear his hat every day, but in the mornings, he would often strip to his waist without a shirt or hat.He loved feeling the breeze blowing around his body.Dan’s naturally curly hair looked like an afro.His lean torso was now skin and bones.Mark was concerned that Dan was too thin.They had all lost weight from the intensity of their walking.
Mark heard a noise and pushed his body up so he could look over the rim of the tub.Dan was standing there with a pedicure kit and scissors.
“Hi, my name is Daniel.I believe you ordered room service.I am here to take care of your every need.”
Dan knelt by the tub, grabbed a loofa sponge, and started scrubbing Mark’s back.The only sounds were Mark’s moan and groans as Dan man-handled his body.Dan then moved to the end of the tub and raised Mark’s feet out of the water.He used a pumice stone and worked on the calluses on Mark’s feet.He trimmed the nails and cuticles.He then opened a bottle of red nail polish.
“Oh, hell to the no.”
“Oh, yes to the heavens.We are all having red toenails, including the children and Erin.You don’t want to be the only one with unpainted nails.”
Mark was astounded as Dan perfectly painted his toenails.It made sense; Dan was a neurosurgeon and had fine motor skills beyond anything that Mark could imagine.Mark was good with a hammer and saw but nothing so delicate as a brush to paint toenails.
Dan helped Mark out of the tub and then crawled in.He turned on the hot water faucet as he refreshed the water.Mark leaned over the edge of the tub and scrubbed Dan’s back.He then spent time exploring Dan’s nether regions.He used the scissors to trim back some of the pubic hair.He didn’t want Dan shaved, but the jungle needed pruning.Then Mark worked on Dan’s feet, remembering what Dan had done to him.When it was time for him to paint Dan’s nails, he told Dan not to talk because he needed to focus.Dan was happy and said there was room for improvement, but they would work on that over time.
Next, Dan sat Mark in a chair and trimmed his hair.Mark was scared, thinking he was going to have to trim Dan’s hair.Dan laughed and said he found a barbershop off the lobby of the hotel with a barber who knew how to cut his hair.Mark was relieved; painting toenails was one thing but cutting his hair was something Mark thought was beyond his capabilities.
Dan dressed, excused himself, and said he would be back within the hour.When he came back, he looked like the handsome doctor Mark had first met.
Dan and Mark dressed for dinner.They were both wearing sandals so that their red toenails could be seen.When he and Dan met the kids and Erin, they were also wearing sandals to show off their painted nails.They laughed at their nails, and the kids were thrilled that their dad had agreed to have his toenails painted.Robert thought it would never happen, but Belinda knew better.Then Dan did the unexpected in the middle of the plaza in front of the hotel.
“We are here, and we are dancing.”
In his head, he heard the music, and his body started swaying.His hands were in the air, and his head was thrown back.Mark thought a whirling dervish had taken over the body of his husband.Dan opened his eyes, looked at Mark, grinned, and took his hand.Mark was hesitant at first but started dancing with his husband on the streets of Compostela.Robert and Belinda were thrilled and laughing.Belinda kept clapping her hands.Even Erin started swaying her hips.Dan grabbed Belinda’s hand and the five hikers danced in a circle.Someone in the crowd started clapping hands, and then they looked, and they were surrounded by people who were clapping hands, laughing, and swaying to imagined music.It felt so good.Soon everyone around them started dancing.The air was filled with the possibility of love.Dan grabbed Robert’s hand, and they formed a line of dancers meandering through the streets until they reached the restaurant where they had reservations.They bowed and peeled off to greet the Maître’ D.All of the diners were looking on with fondness at the joyful crowd of people who had passed in front of the restaurant.
Dan ordered a large green farmer’s salad and paella for the table and a bottle of wine.There were baskets of fresh-baked bread.Robert and Belinda kept giggling about their daddy wearing red toenail polish and dancing in the streets.They had never seen him so free of inhibitions.The group didn’t have to worry about getting up early in the morning, so they enjoyed the wandering musicians who stopped at their table and asked if they had a special request.Belinda whispered a request in the ear of the beautiful woman singer.The woman's eyes grew large as Belinda was whispering, and then a smile spread across her face.
Frederica, the singer, announced to her band and the people in the restaurant that the next song was about love.She started singing “Te Amo” while standing behind Mark and Dan.Dan stood with a grin on his face and extended his hand to Mark.Mark hesitated and then stood and swept Dan into his arms.They were dancing cheek to cheek.When Frederica finished singing to great applause, she grabbed both men and kissed each on the cheek.Mark and Dan then leaned in and kissed each other.The applause grew even louder.As Frederica walked away from the table, Erin reached out and put a banknote in Frederica’s hand.
“Thank you, my darling daughter.That was a wonderful gift.”
Dan suggested that Mark should paint his toenails more often.They all laughed and hugged.
“Well, it is hard to believe, but we have completed the pilgrimage.Tomorrow we need to go to the pilgrimage office with our Camino passports and get our certificates for completing the Camino de Santiago.Then we can go to the little parish church for the noon service.We now have to figure out how to get to Algiers.I heard someone at the hotel saying that the border at the Strait of Gibraltar is closed.”
The four sets of eyes looking at Mark were questioning.They were waiting for him to announce what they would do.
“Erin, have you thought about what you want to do?”
All eyes turned to look at Erin.
“Yes, I have.Now I am afraid to say it.”
Mark could see tears in her eyes and reached across the table to hold her hand.Dan put his hand on top of Mark’s.
“Say it.We will figure things out.We are family now, and families figure out what to do.”
The dam burst and Erin was fully crying.As Mark was getting ready to speak, Dan motioned for him to remain quiet.Finally, Erin collected herself.
“Alrighty, this is a fantasy, but hear me out.I would like to continue with you to Algiers.I have some money put away so I will have enough money to fly home afterward.You are my family and I am not ready to let you go.It doesn’t feel like our pilgrimage is over yet.”
The kids were ecstatic.
“Oh nan, that is wonderful.Please stay with us.”Belinda was practically climbing on top of the woman.Robert was grinning and rubbing her arm in affirmation. Dan looked at Mark, who nodded and then spoke.
“Of course, the pilgrimage is not over.We have miles to go and countries to see.We will work out details tomorrow, but we will figure out a way for you to go to Algiers with us, and then we will make decisions after that.”
They danced all of the way back to their hotel.Dan and Mark were drunk on wine, and the other three were drunk on life.
“You don’t like to make things easy, Dr. Lille-Oranaise.Tell me more about this Irish woman who needs a visa to get into Algeria.”
Dan explained everything he knew to Yonatan Ward-Jenner, his Avocate in Paris.
“This is complicated.You say she is carrying an urn of ashes also.Does she plan to bury them in Algiers? Give me a day to work on this.How was the pilgrimage?Remember, Matan wants to meet when you return to Paris.”
“Thank you, monsieur.My grandpapa had the utmost confidence in your law firm and now I understand why.”
At the noon mass, Erin had the ashes blessed by the priest.When they left the church, Erin asked if they could go to the Cathedral.They walked across the plaza in front of the imposing building to the Portico de Gloria.Erin suggested they sit on the steps.They all did, and then Erin said she would be back in a few minutes.When she returned, she was empty-handed.Mark looked at her and asked what she had done with the ashes.
“Padric always joked that when he died, he wanted to be interred in a cathedral.Well, he got his wish.There was a side door that workers were using, and I snuck into the church and headed to the undercroft.Padric’s ashes are now sitting at the foot of a bishop’s crypt.By the time the Cathedral reopens, no one will know where they came from, and my guess is the church will pretend they have always been there.Anyway, I buried him in a cathedral, if his ashes are moved, it will not be much different than St. James’ whose bones were transported from Jerusalem to Galicia and finally to Compostela.”
She started laughing and said she was glad to be rid of that box of ashes because they were damned heavy.
“I feel free.For the first time in years, I feel free.I can go anywhere and do anything I want.”
“Let’s go to the tourist office and find out how to get from here to Barcelona.I want to take a packet boat across the Mediterranean.”
Mark smiled as he pulled Dan up from the steps and led his troupe to the tourism office.The dancing from the night before was still in their minds, and they felt that anything was possible.They decided to take a train across Spain.They went back to the hotel for dinner and then to rest before heading to the train station in the morning.Dan said they also needed to send postcards to folks in North Carolina.He had bought a stack of picture cards and handed out ink pens.He handed one to Erin and told her to write to her daughter, Patti.Belinda then took all of the cards and drew hearts on them.Dan collected the cards and said he would take them to the post office.While he did that, Mark made sure the children had everything packed.
When the taxi dropped them in front of the train station the next morning, Erin immediately thought it could use a good cleaning.She chuckled to herself that after being on a dusty, hot trail for six weeks, she was now being judgmental again.She promised herself that she would do better and stop criticizing.It was exciting to Robert and Belinda as they had never been on a proper train.The sleek train was waiting for them, and they seated themselves as the engine slowly pulled them out of the station and headed north to La Coruna- San Cristobel.They saw beautiful views of the Atlantic Ocean.They picked up some passengers at the station at La Coruna and then headed southeast to Barcelona.It was a seventeen-hour journey and the five of them grew restless.Their legs wanted to walk.It was unusual for them to sit for so long.When the train pulled into the station in Leon, Dan exited, bought some magazines, and got back on the train before they departed.Dan had insisted they travel first-class and brooked no argument when Mark raised his eyebrows.After seeing the mass of people waiting to board the second-class compartments, Mark was happy about Dan’s decision.They were back in civilization and were wearing their masks.Luckily, the air conditioner system on the train was working as it was scorching outside as they crossed the great plain of Spain.They ate a light dinner and then settled in for a night of rest before arriving in Barcelona.Dan woke them the next morning when they arrived at the station in Tarragona.They washed up and ate some breakfast before they arrived in the beautiful city of Barcelona.Mark had made reservations at the Hotel Barcelona 1882.They loved the modern design, and the kids especially enjoyed the pool.They spent the day exploring the city.Dan wanted to go to the Getty Museum.The next day they wanted to tour the Cathedral designed by Gaudi but only got it view its exterior.Everywhere they went, people were wearing masks in the oppressive summer heat.That night they ate a late-night dinner when Dan provided the much anticipated news.He thought they might need to go to Montpellier, France, to cross the Mediterranean but then had found a boat that would take them across the sea.Dan arranged passage, and they would leave at 4 pm the next afternoon.It would be another 17-hour trip.
Yonatan Jenner-Ward had arranged for Erin to get the necessary visa in Barcelona.He let Dan know it would be no easy task.Erin and Dan crossed the city to go to the Algerian consulate to get the proper visa stamps in her passport.Dan spoke Arabic and introduced Erin as his grandmother, who was coming to stay with him for a few months.He explained that Erin would be taking care of the children while he was at the hospital taking care of patients with Covid19.When the consulate officials saw Dan’s Algerian passport, and that he was a physician and affiliated with the teaching hospital in Algiers, they expedited his request.Erin was impressed with Dan’s ability to get people to do exactly what he wanted.There was no loud talking, and there was no threatening; there was only the simple declaration of what he wanted to be done. Yonatan had reviewed the challenges of the request with Dan several times until Dan understood the nuance of what he was requesting and the right things to say to get it.When Dan pulled out U.S. dollars to pay for the service, he was met with smiles.This currency was highly valued in Algeria though Dan expected that the currency would never see its way to Algeria.The consulate officials probably kept it and reported that the visa had been paid with Euros.
When they arrived at the boat, Dan asked the kids if they got sea-sick, and they said they didn’t know.Dan took pills out of his traveling bag and gave them to his troupe.It was a windy day which promised a rough crossing.The kids wanted to go to the top deck so as not to miss anything.As the sun was setting, they were moaning as they put their heads in their dad’s laps.Dan had rented an interior cabin below deck at water level, which lessened the rocking motion.Finally, the children started sleeping.Erin was sitting in a chair sleeping as the boat rocked her.Dan went to purchase food and drinks.The kids weren’t very hungry, but when Dan insisted they eat and drink just a little, they did as the good doctor instructed.Dan gave them another dose of medicine before they settled in for the night.Robert and Belinda were nestled in their sleeping bags.Erin was doing the same.There was a narrow bed in the room which Dan and Mark used.Once during the night, the boat was hit by a wave that threw Mark off the bed.The boat shuddered and continued on its way; Mark did not sleep for the rest of the night, waiting for another rogue wave.He reflected on their lives over the past few months and could only smile at the memories they had accumulated.This trip was truly a once in a lifetime adventure as they created being a family and heading toward their new home.
They awoke the next morning and cleaned up while Dan got them food.They ate in the cabin and then went to the deck.All they could see was water.It was a sunny clear day with a slight breeze.Dan reminded everyone to use lots of sunscreen because the sun’s reflections off the water would burn them even though they were already tanned.Belinda had a difficult time managing her hat and finally grabbed a scarf and tied around her head.Her hair was in knots from blowing in the wind, and she knew it would take some time for her to brush all of the kinks out.
Robert was the first to spot land and pointed to the southeast.They were leaning over the railings trying to see the shore.Belinda squealed with delight when she viewed the lighthouse.She and Robert started dancing and pointing.Mark and Dan were holding hands and smiling.Dan was very excited to be home.He couldn’t describe how good it felt to be back where he had been born.He bounced on the balls of his feet, and Mark laughed at him.Even Erin had a smile on her face though she was still somewhat ill from seasickness.
As had been predicted, entry into Algeria was difficult.Dan had talked to Mark ahead of time and told him to stand back and not talk.Mark’s angst was rising as he watched Dan talk on and on.Dan would point out documents and in a quiet but authoritative voice, say what needed to happen.Mark was clearly distraught when Dan disappeared into an office with the custom’s official.It seemed they were in there for a long time.Erin kept talking to the children and telling them what a great adventure they were on.She recognized Mark’s distress and wanted to take care of the children so he wouldn’t have to worry about them.When Belinda said she needed to use the toilet, Erin walked her to a custom’s official and said her granddaughter needed to use the lady’s room.Erin didn’t wait for an answer but walked past the custom’s station to the toilets.The officers were scurrying around, trying to figure out what the woman had just done.When Erin and Belinda exited, they walked to Mark and Robert.She thanked the custom’s officials for their help.She bit her tongue and wondered if they recognized her sarcasm.
At last, Dan came out of the office.He motioned, and the troupe gathered their belongings.Dan led them out of the Customs House into the Square.Mark knew that Dan was angry but decided now was not the time to ask particulars.He knew of only one way to relieve the tension.Mark put down his luggage and started dancing.He tilted his head as far back as he could manage and walked backward to Dan.He kissed his husband’s lips.Dan started laughing.They were all dancing, laughing, and then hugging.Everything was right with the world again.
“Are you ready to see our home?”
They all shouted yes to Dan’s question.They were ready to start their new lives.Dan hailed two taxis.He put Robert and Mark in the first taxi and gave the driver instructions.Dan, Belinda, and Erin got in the next taxi.Dan grinned as they traveled across old Algiers to the seaside where his family home was located.He could barely sit still as the taxi pulled into the drive.Dan grabbed the door handle and bolted from the taxi before it stopped in front of his family home.