Short Story: The Pilgrim

The Pilgrim, or ‘Peregrino’ in Spanish, was some two weeks into his ‘camino’ to visit the resting place of St James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, northern Spain. The apostle James had been given the Iberian Peninsula as his missionary zone and spent several years there preaching the teachings of Jesus. Returning to Rome in 44 AD, he was martyred and beheaded by Herod Agrippa. His followers brought his body back to Spain in a stone boat, through the straits of Gibraltar, up the coastline and it was there where the boat was shipwrecked and washed up on the shores of Finisterre, Galicia. St James’s body and his two servants were recovered and buried in a forest on the headland.

Many years passed and in the early 9th Century a hermit called Pelayo noticed a bright light shining over a spot in the forest and uncovered the remains. The place in Latin was called ‘Campus Stellae’. The local Bishop was called and he interred the bones over which he built a small chapel. It is rumored the first pilgrim to visit was Alphonso II, King of Asturias and Galicia and he named for his Kingdom St James – Santiago – as the Pilgrim Saint of Spain. During the 11th Century, the foundations were laid over the old chapel for today’s Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, and so the legend of the ‘Way of Saint James’ began.

As Christianity gradually took hold, the Way of St. James became one of the three medieval pilgrim routes, the other two being Rome and Jerusalem. Once taken it would “free a person from the penance due from sins” and lead to spiritual growth – the Pilgrimage. Nowadays the route is regularly taken by thousands of people from all over the world, each with their own motives for taking the pilgrimage, yet all finding unmatched solace in the peace and tranquility of their own thoughts as they weave and stroll towards their final destination. The Way of St James, known as the ‘Camino’, originally initiated from France and whilst there are many other starting places, today the most popular, the French Route, is from Roncesvalle near the French-Spanish border, a distance of some 800 kms to Santiago de Compostela. Pilgrims can either walk, horse ride or cycle and at the end of each day they will receive a Compostela stamp in a passport, issued from either the local church, bar or hostel, which proves they have indeed been on the route. Upon arrival in Santiago the pilgrims are issued with a formal Certificate.
This Pilgrim, however, was taking a different route, one that started from Madrid in central Spain, a route that would take him through the famous medieval cities of Segovia, Valladolid, Leon and finally Santiago. And on this particular late summer morning he could be found on a woodland path by the banks of a small stream. The sun was high and hot and, keeping in the shade as much as possible, the crystal clear running water was becoming more and more tempting. When a suitable pool in the stream could be found it would be time for a welcome rest. Rounding a corner he spied the perfect spot – but it was occupied by the strangest figure he had ever seen.
Sitting on a rock in the middle of the stream was a small figure of a man. Dressed all in green with a lopsided top hat and orange colored waistcoat, the little man had a red beard and was smoking an old-fashioned clay pipe. His breeches stopped at the knees, his black buckled shoes were at his side and his legs and feet were dangling in the water. Cautiously he approached, the little man looked up and with a twinkle in his green eyes said: “Top of the morning to you sir and isn’t dis de best way to cool off on a hot day!”. Not a little taken aback, the Pilgrim could but only agree and with a beckoning gesture from the little man, removed his socks and shoes and joined him on the rock…now with now two pairs of legs and feet dangling in the water. A blissful silence descended, both the Pilgrim and the little man in their own worlds until, breaking the silence the Pilgrim enquired if the little man perhaps might be one of those Irish Leprechauns he’d seen in books and read about in folklore and fairytales.
“And aren’t you an observable fellow and here’s me tinking us Leprechauns are just a figment of your imagination”, came the reply.
“Then how does a figment of my imagination meet a real live Leprechaun sitting in the middle of a stream in the middle of Spain on the Camino to Santiago?”
“Well, first of all I’ve got a ting about Pilgrims and second I’ve been wanting, for over a thousand years, to see what youse been up to and what’s it all about. You see der’s been a vote and I’ve been chosen to come over and to join you on de walk – if you’ll have me.”
“I would love to have your company although I don’t know if you would be able to keep up with me with those little legs of yours” the Pilgrim replied.
“Dat’s no problem, dese legs could keep up with a ferret chasing a rabbit and if you see one give us a shout cus I’m getting a bit peckish.”
Now the Pilgrim was quite a knowledgeable man and from what he’d read about Leprechauns he understood them to be of a mischievous nature, prone to playing jokes and pranks and not to be trusted.
Stepping out of the stream, the pair of them put on their socks and shoes, the Pilgrim lifted his rucksack while the Leprechaun stoked his pipe.
“Now isn’t dat a nasty piece of vandalism in dese lovely woods” the Leprechaun said, pointing at the yellow arrow painted on one of the trees.
“Those arrows point the Way of St James” the Pilgrim explained, “and they are painted by volunteers to guide you all the way to Santiago.”
“By gore dese painters must be strong fellas carrying dem big pots of paint all dat way and what if someone cuts down the tree, tell me den what happens and how would you know which way to go?”
“And another ting” he said, “how do you get across the waters, coming from Ireland? You’ve got to cross de Irish Sea and der ain’t no trees you can paint your arrows on.”
Before the Pilgrim could reply, the Leprechaun said “I know, ye paint an arrow on de back of de boat – ha ha!”
This kind of banter went on and on, backwards and forwards, the Leprechaun never seemed to tire of talking and the Pilgrim was beginning to wonder whether he’d done the right thing in inviting him along. The peace and tranquility of being alone had evaporated.
He’d read that if you could capture a Leprechaun, he would have to give you three wishes to be released, although he thought one wish would do for a bit of peace and quiet. Searching his mind as to how you could capture one, for physically tying him up did not count and he realized that the Leprechaun never looked him in the eyes, always over his shoulder as though talking to someone in the distance.
That’s it! He remembered – the secret was to look into his eyes, hold his gaze and capture the mischievous spirit lurking behind.
Now the trouble was how to get him to look into his eyes, for Leprechauns were tricky little fellas and not easily fooled. Pausing for a rest he leaned against a tree trunk and then with a cry held his hand up to his left eye.
“Hell this hurts!” he cried, sinking down onto the floor. The Leprechaun came over and asked what the matter was. The Pilgrim said he had got something in his eye and asked if he could see if there was anything there and help remove it otherwise he would not be able to continue.
“Let’s have a little look den” said the Leprechaun, and taking the Pilgrim’s hand from his eye, stared hard and fast to see what was there. The Pilgrim locked eyes and the spirit, surprised and startled was captured!
“What a dastardly ting to do and me only trying to help, what’s de world coming to and how did you know about dat sneaky trick?” the Leprechaun said.
That’s when the tantrum started – jumping, spinning and stomping up and down, hat flying off, tearing his hair out, arms waving in all directions. Finally, exhausted and eventually calming down he said “and I suppose you now want de tree wishes?”
“How much time do I have to ask for these wishes, or will I run out of time before we reach Santiago?” the Pilgrim asked.
“All de time in de world” the Leprechaun replied “but don’t keep me waiting der too long caus dey might be calling me back any minute now.”
Mischievous little devil, thought the Pilgrim, for he knew he was up to trickery and any wish asked for could be turned and twisted.
“OK” said the Pilgrim, still not quite convinced this was for real.
“Let’s see just what you can or cannot do. How about this – whenever I see a bird flying in the sky it’s something I’ve envied and something I’ve always wanted to be able to do”
“My first wish therefore is to be able to fly”.
“Done and dat’s no problem” the Leprechaun said and putting his hand into his pocket, pulled out a return Ryan Air flight ticket, economy class, Gatwick to Malaga.
Sneaky. “I’ll have to be careful with this one”, thought the Pilgrim as he considered his next wish.
Power, now that would be something that politicians and the like crave and, while quite content with his lifestyle, why not see what it could feel like.
So his next wish was for Power – and out of the blue he was hit with a bolt of lightning, lifting him of his feet and throwing him fifty feet into the bushes. Stunned and singed he struggled to his feet and the Leprechaun with a twinkle in his eye said “And did you not like dat little bit of power you so wanted!”
It seemed that whatever wish he wanted and asked for the Leprechaun could somehow twist and turn into something totally different. This next and final one therefore had to be the undoing of the ‘little green fairytale fella’ from Ireland.
“I’ve got three wishes and used up two, you’ve been very crafty and I hold no grudges” said the Pilgrim “but I think my last wish will put paid to all your tricks”.
“Tell me den” said the Leprechaun “I’m all pointed ears”
“Then here is my final wish” said the Pilgrim “It is for an infinite number of wishes.”
“By gore dat’s clever and you’ve put me on me back feet. But you’ve got to know dat one last wish can’t grant you an infinite number of wishes widout one condition.”
“And dat’s dis – I’ll grant you your wish but you don’t get any of dem ‘till you first tell me what dey all are – ha ha”.
The Pilgrim was now frustrated and annoyed with the turn of events and the cockiness of the Leprechaun. There was an underlying nasty streak to him behind all the taunting and teasing.
All he really wanted to do was to complete the Camino and preferably on his own but at the same time get one over the little man and put him in his place.
‘Tic Tac Toe’
The game is a simple naughts and crosses, a grid of nine squares, one in the centre and surrounded by eight other squares. The game has two players and the object of the game is for one player to obtain a straight line of three X’s or O’s to win.
Taking it in turns to play, if both players are determined to win, the games can be endless and only a lack of concentration will produce a winner.
With only one player it is different and the Pilgrim recalled a sci-fi film called War Games in which a super computer had malfunctioned and was about to launch missiles that would start World War III and annihilate mankind.
To stop the computer it was fooled into playing Tic Tac Toe, taking turns to be both X and O, in which to win was an impossibility as you can’t defeat yourself, you can only draw.
After billions of attempts the computer overloaded and crashed.
And so the Pilgrim laid his trap.
“I can see you like to play games” he said to the Leprechaun.
“Oh I love games but what that has dat to do with youse tird wish?” he replied.
To which the Pilgrim said, “My infinite number of wishes are very simple, and each and every one of them are the same. My wish is for you to play the game of Tic Tac Toe and win. But see that if you win you would also lose and to lose means you can never win”.
“Enjoy yourself… you have an infinite number wishes and eternity to play them!”
AND alone at last, and with a smile on his face and a spring in his step the Pilgrim continued on his Camino on the Way of St James.

By Barry Haslam-Walker
Madrid October 2014

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