We headed out once more along 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.
On that day, a small snack shop appeared along the Jacobean route raising 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 couple who, with infant in tow, were doing their best to make ends meet during 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 truck stop hostel on Route N-120 along the Camino to Santiago de Compostela.
Yesterday and Today
But that was yesterday and this was today. The terrain was kind to us, flat and gentle as we followed a thin, moist dirt trail running parallel to what ‘Brits’ call a ‘dual carriageway’ and Americans call a ‘divided highway.’ The villages along this highway tended to transition in and out of small industrial areas. Although a gritty section of the Camino, there were several antiquated churches with storks clacking and popping up then and again from their thatched belfry nests. Either a little before or after the town of San Martin del Camino, the halfway point between the cities of Astorga and León, we came across a sight that still haunts me.
It was on our side of the road—an enclosure comprising a neglected field of weeds, small rocks and pebbles strewn about 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 damp wood of little or no use. The place screamed ‘abandoned.’
I heard the creature before I saw it. Now I may be a city boy but I know the sound of a sheep when I hear one. However, this was not just a “baa” or a “meh” but a cry. And this was no ordinary sheep. In fact, it was the most pathetic, most woeful animal I’d ever seen. Its wool appeared to have been half sheared, as if the owner had been frightened away at that moment. And so, the sheep was condemned to drag the other half of this coat, like an unwanted wedding train, on the ground leaving it caked in mud and stained with all matter of filth.
My experience with sheep has been limited, but on the whole, I have found them to be diffident creatures, aloof and fearful, and of no particular attraction to me.. But what I saw (and heard) changed all that.
Forlorn and starved for affection, this sheep made straight for the rusting, pitted entrance gate and poked its charcoal-black nose between the bars. He then let out a bleat which nearly moved us to tears. I reached in through the iron bars to pet its nose triggering a heightened emotional response–it playfully butted my hand with its nose, then tried licking me. It was so gregarious that, for a moment, I thought I was interacting with a dog reunited with its master. I surmised it had been intermittently deserted by its owner—leaving the sheep to the elements and having no shelter we could discern.
We shook our heads lamenting the fact we would leave him behind in this decrepit paddock. However, 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 soon be along.
Reluctantly we turned our backs on the forsaken ovine and resumed the trek westward. It would take another ten minutes before the mournful cries would die away in our wake. We pressed on in hurtful silence.
A few days later, we happened to converse with a young man, another pilgrim, who had traveled the same route.
I was curious. “You didn’t happen to see a solitary sheep in an abandoned lot ?”
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 its wool coat along the ground?”
I nodded in affirmation.
Ruminating, the young man shook his head slowly and said, “I never saw anything like it. It had to be the saddest sheep in the world.”
Kenneth R. Strange Jr. (Spain 2018)