We headed out once again on the Way of Saint James feeling as if things were starting to go our way—the day before, the heavy rains subsided and the sun made a brief but welcome appearance. Shortly after, a small snack shop appeared along the Jacobean route which raised our spirits considerably. While our raincoats dripped puddles of water on the wooden floor, we savored the hot chocolate served in paper cups and engaged the young owner, his wife and a local customer in conversation. The sense of the place hinted at a hand to mouth existence for the young couple who, with an infant in tow, were doing their best to make ends meet during this, the pilgrimage’s peak season. Liberating some of their provisions prompted a heartfelt Buen Camino’ from the grateful owner. We were once again on our way. A few kilometers later, Aurora and I arrived at our gritty truck stop hostel on Route N-120 along the Camino to Santiago de Compostela.
But that was yesterday and this was today. The terrain was kind to us, essentially flat and gentle as we followed a thin, moist dirt trail running parallel to what the ‘Brits’ call a ‘dual carriageway’ and the Americans call a ‘divided highway.’ Although not the most picturesque section of the Camino, there was still the sight of several old churches with storks clacking and popping up then and again from their thatched nests in the belfries. The villages along this highway tended to transition in and out of small industrial enclaves. Either a little before or after the town of San Martin del Camino, the halfway point between the cities of Astorga and Leon, we came across a sight that still shakes me to the core.
It was on our side of the road—a cinderblock enclosure of a neglected field comprised of weeds, small rocks and pebbles strewn about and spotty patches of dirt. Through the iron bars of the chain locked gate, detritus could be seen in every corner—a pile of crushed cinderblock, rusted pipes and a stack of wood of little or no use. The place shouted ‘abandoned.’
I heard the creature before I saw it. Now I may be a city boy but I’ve been on a farm and I know the sound of a sheep when I hear it. However, this was not just a “baa” or a “meh” but a cry. And this was no ordinary sheep. It was the most pathetic, most woeful animal I had ever seen. It’s wool appeared to have been only partially sheared off, and so, the sheep dragged the other half of this coat, like an unwanted wedding train, on the damp ground leaving it mud stained and caked with all matters of filth.
My experience with these animals has been limited to abbreviated forays to the countryside and spiritual parables about lost sheep but, on the whole, I have found them to be diffident creatures, fairly aloof and unremarkable, except as they might relate to shepherds. But what I saw (and heard) changed all that.
This particular sheep made straight for the rusting, pitted entrance gate and poked its charcoal-black nose between the bars letting out a bleat that nearly moved us to tears. It is no secret people and even animals need some type of contact or touch, some might say love, which this animal so desperately craved. I reached in between the bars to pet its nose and the creature became even more animated, playfully butting my hand with its nose, attempting to lick me. It was so gregarious that, for a moment, I thought I was petting a dog which had been reunited with its master after a prolonged absence. I had never seen a sheep act in this manner. My guess is it was practically deserted by its owner—certainly left to the fickle elements of Spain’s spring weather and having no shelter that we could discern.
We shook our heads feeling sad we would have to leave him behind in this the loneliest of places. As we felt a pressing need to return to the Camino, we took a few steps in that direction which triggered a staccato of “bah.” I don’t know why, but I began talking to this sheep, reassuring him everything would be OK…that another pilgrim would be along shortly to spend some quality time with him.
Reluctantly and, as time dictated our movements, we turned our backs on him and resumed the trek west. The forlorn sheep continued sobbing; almost too painful to endure. It would take another ten or fifteen minutes before those mournful cries would die away. My wife and I pressed on in hurtful silence.
A few days later, we happened to converse with a young man, another pilgrim, who had recently been along the same route.
I was curious. “You didn’t happen to see a solitary sheep in an abandoned lot along the way?”
The pilgrim paused in solemn deliberation before replying, “Yes, as a matter of fact, I did pass a sheep like that. Was it the one dragging his wool coat on the ground?”
I nodded in doleful affirmation.
The young man paused, shook his head slowly and said, “I never saw anything like it. It was the saddest sheep in the world.”