The Path and the Beast

tagIncest/TabooThe Path and the Beast

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*************************************1. Addy******************************************
Adelaide showed up to my graduation on an overcast day. She had sleepless hazel eyes. Eyes I remembered well and loved.
The misting rain slickened her bright blonde hair as she stood against a wall in a lonely corner to avoid the jubilant post-graduation crowd on the campus quad. It had been twelve years since I saw her last. She was eighteen back then. I was ten. She took off to New York City with a plane ticket she bought as a birthday present to herself and never looked back. Like a mother, she raised me caringly for as long as she could bare living under the same roof as our dad. He was a bastard to her, and she needed to escape.
Recently he died of sudden cancer. Throat cancer. Very late stage — the kind that surprised you then killed you before you could find the time to pity yourself or get your affairs in order. "Good riddance," she said over the phone when I told her the news.
His death gave her the opening to come back home.
When she spotted me, she ran over and gave me a hurried hug and a kiss on the cheek. she was starkly beautiful. She looked like an angel to me — just how I remembered.
Caressing my cheek, she declared, "Ez. It's so good to see you again."
A warmth like I've never known grew in my chest when I heard her say those words in her trembling voice. "You too, Addy," I replied and held her hand.
She felt most guilty about leaving me with dad. Truth is, he never treated me terribly. And I never resented her for leaving.
At thirty, Adelaide found success at a law firm in New York City. She was on an extended sabbatical to see me and to get our estate in order. We stayed together in the old Victorian house on the shores of Lake Washington in which we grew up and where dad lived out the end of his miserable life.
After dropping off her bags in her old room, we explored the house to reminisce.
"Still smells the same," she commented. "Like evil."
It smelled like oil varnish and mothballs to me. But I understood what she meant. She wouldn't ever forgive dad for the venomous torment in her formative years and now the bad memories flooded her every sensibility.
When we arrived at dad's cavernous library, Addy walked over to the massive bookshelf on the wall opposite the bay windows that looked out onto the lake. She ran a finger along the dust covers and when she reached a particular book, she looked to me and said, "did you ever figure out the secret room?"
Confused, I shook my head. I hadn't the slightest idea what she was referring to.
She curled a finger over the top of the book and tilted it forward. And like something straight out of a Victorian detective novel, the large oaken bookcase burst open with a ratcheting clank-clank-clank.
We both laughed at the incredulous device.
"I never knew about that!" I exclaimed. I peered inside to find a dark stone chamber. In the dim light, I could make out oil paintings on the walls, and in the very center of the room, a glass case on an obsidian-colored obelisk.
Addy and I stared at each other in wonder. "I feel like Indiana Jones right now," I said. "I can't believe I never knew about this."
Add responded, "there's a lot of secrets you don't know about dad."
"And how'd you find out about this?"
"I saw him take a woman in here once. I figured it was his sex dung-"
She shot me a guilty glance. "It's ok Addy," I assured her. Some things about him that she knew, she seemed to feel an obligation to protect me from. I didn't know about the sex dungeon, but I knew who he was as a person. Hedonist. Sociopath. Obsessive.
She walked into the chamber and flicked a light switch on. A wrought iron chandelier clicked on with an electric buzz, casting a dim orange light into the chamber.
"I figured it was a sex dungeon. If it is, it's not a very practical one," she said. She walked over to the obelisk and peered down into a glass case that held a single piece of tattered yellowed parchment.
"Papyrus," she stated.
I walked over to her and looked at it. The language was ineligible and ancient.
I brought my face in and squinted to take a closer look, revealing only more mystery.
A breeze blew in. Something rustled on the other side of the obelisk. Startled, Addy jumped and shouted, "oh God!"
I craned my neck over to investigate and discovered the source of the rustling noise. An open-faced journal on the floor behind the obelisk.
Addy grabbed it and turned the pages unceremoniously. "it's full of craziness," she said as she handed it to me. scribbles and sketches marked every page so that there was more ink than white. I turned to the first page to read the first line.
It was hard to make out.
Addy guffawed as she sounded it out. "Find the bitch…"
She read the next line. They were written with a heavy hand. "…on
the Camino…de… Santiago."
"Find the bitch on the Camino de Santiago?" I asked perplexed.
"Maybe some chick took his money and made for Spain. Doesn't surprise me in the least."
I took a closer look at the journal entry and laughed when I saw that the line did not, in fact, say 'The Bitch'.
"Addy. Look closer." I said pointing at the entry. "It says 'the beast', not 'the bitch'."
Addy chuckled and said, "oh yeah, you're right. But that makes even less sense."
I sat the journal gently on the glass case. I took the opportunity to gaze closer at the papyrus. There was a crude and faded drawing. I squinted to make it out: A lizard head with crazed eyes and flames that shot out in a radius like a mane and a flicking tongue. The beast in the journal, I thought.
I looked up at the paintings in the room. Dad's own work. Oil paintings. Dark and chaotic. Panicked renditions. One in particular caught my attention. I recognized it to be a copy of a painting I learned about in an art history class. A titanic old man with a wild white beard and manic eyes eating a human corpse. Saturn eating his son. In the style of Francisco Goya, a Spanish painter.
"Ez, Let's get the hell out of here. This place gives me the creeps," Addy said. I agreed wholeheartedly. Together we pushed the heavy bookcase until it slid into a latch with a satisfying clunk. The journal, I took with me.
***********************************2. Belén**************************************
Addy convinced me to sell it. We were better off without it, she assured me. With my blessing, we found a realtor, got it appraised and shortly after, found a buyer. We forgot to mention the secret room.
About a month later, over a celebratory dinner, Addy slid over a pair of plane tickets.
I grabbed it and read the destination — Madrid.
"What's this?"
"Well, I figured since I'm still on my sabbatical, and you're still an unemployed college graduate, we could do something together."
"Fly to Spain."
"Not just that."
She explained, "how about we hike the 'Camino'?"
My mind flashed back to the journal and to creepy secret chamber. I hadn't thought about that in weeks.
"Like the same Camino where dad said to find the beast?"
Addy gave me a sly smirk and a slow nod.
"Huh," was all I could think to respond.
"I did a little research on the Camino de Santiago. It's pretty fuckin' cool," Addy said. "And you love hiking. As do I. So, I figured it'd be a good brother-sister bonding experience."
"But — "
"Fuck him and fuck the beast," she said with a rebellious spite. In a strange way, I could see how this plan was a liberating sort of revenge for her. I laughed. "Ok, let's do it."
So, after months of making plans and building excitement for the trip, I found myself on a flight to Madrid with my sister. She passed out as soon as we got onto the flight and nestled her head against my shoulder to sleep. On account of this being my first trip ever outside the states, I was too excited to sleep.
To pass the time, I flipped through the journal. I've gone through it many times, but because of its mystery, it became an obsession to me. I skimmed through it now to try to put myself to sleep. After some time, and finding myself scanning the pages blankly, I noticed another single fluorescent beam of light a couple row ahead. Another person reading in the twilight drone of the airplane cabin while everyone else slept.
In the glow of the light, I could make out curlicue black hair draped over delicate shoulders and a feminine hand gingerly fingering the pages of an old novel. I decided, without further detail, that this was a beautiful girl.
My sister shifted in her sleep and started to snore lightly. I leaned my cheek against the top of her soft hair and continued my half-bleary gaze.
Eventually I got up and went to the lavatory in the back of the plane to pee.
When I finished, I stepped out, and to my surprise, I found the girl there, leaning against a window that framed a rust-colored sky outside. The red glow outlined her petite figure. Her hair was voluminous and draped like a wild black mane to below her shoulders. I couldn't help but glance down quickly at the curve of her breasts against her tight t-shirt and averted my gaze quickly in the fear of her noticing. Her face was turned to one side; her eyes fixated on the rosé clouds.
I stood there awkwardly in the lavatory door. She turned to look at me. Her eyes were a pale green.
She smiled warmly at me. I stepped aside to let her into the lavatory. She stayed leaning against the bulkhead.
In a soft and beautiful accent, she said, "I'm just here for the sunset. I don't have a window."
She glanced back out at the clouds. "It's beautiful isn't it?"
Though I didn't bother looking out the window, I agreed.
She turned back to me with her verdant eyes and said, "so are you visiting Spain?"
"Yeah," I said dumbly.
Smiling, she responded, "cool. Where are you going to in Spain?"
"Oh. We are going to hike the Camino de Santiago. Um. What about you?" I grimaced at the awkwardness of my freshman response. So smooth.
"I am from Spain. But coincidentally, I will be hiking the Camino as well," she said. She stuck a hand out to me. "I'm Belén."
"I'm Ezra," I replied with a grin and shook her hand.
"And I see you're doing it with… your girlfriend?" she inquired.
I stared at her blankly. "oh," I laughed. "That's my sister."
She laughed with me and twirled her hair.
"And what about you?"
"Alone."
I raised an eyebrow.
"Like. By yourself?"
She laughed again. "That's what alone means, no? Yes, more or less. But you never really do the Camino alone in truth."
I smiled at the thought.
"Anyways," she yawned. "I'm done with the sunset. And now I will sleep. Maybe I will see you out there Ezra," she said with a wink.
I watched as she strolled down the aisle to her seat. She moved her hips like a cat. I had an immediate crush on her. God, I hope we see each other out there, I thought.
At the end of the long flight, we stumbled out into the gigantic Madrid-Barajas airport and made our way to the baggage claim, my eyes darting left and right to see if I could spot Belén in the crowd of groggy travelers.
I spotted her at the baggage carousel by her curly black hair and a neon pink jacket, hoisting a backpack from the carousel. She left hurriedly through the customs gate. I hoped she would look back in time to catch my eyes before taking off and maybe stop to exchange numbers. But she did no such thing. Without pause she disappeared into the shuffling crowd.
Addy, noticing my fixation with the mysterious girl, bumped an elbow into me. "Hey lover boy, grab your bag before it gets away."
I came to my senses and snatched my backpack before it could make its snail-paced escape. I hoisted it onto my shoulders and swiveled my head back to where I last saw Belén. Gone. Two ships passing in the night.
**************************3. St-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Roncesvalles***************************
"Brrr!" Addy exclaimed in the morning crispness as she hopped off the bus.
St-Jean-Pied-de-Port was a traditional starting point on the Via Francés — The French way — of the Camino de Santiago. Sitting neatly in the piedmonts of the Pyrenees on the French and Spanish border, it was the first town on our thirty-day expedition, and from there, we'd climb the mountain pass to the monastery town of Roncesvalles on the Spanish side. We arrived there by an overnight train from Madrid to Pamplona, and then by a bus through dizzying mountain roads.
A thick mist hung icy and gossamer through the cobbled corridors in the river town. An old man sitting in a café terrace chair reading a paper and smoking a slow cigarette, peeked over the top to investigate the disturbance to the perpetual peace, quickly returning to the news of the day when he ascertained the source of the noise.
For our trip, we were constrained in time by our flight from Madrid back to Seattle, over a month from now. Otherwise, our task was simple: to hike as far as the day could take us and find a hostel, or albergue as they were commonly referred to here, along the way. This amounted to a traversal of between twenty-five and thirty kilometers each day.
"Well," Addy started, squinting her eyes through the milky fog to. "Let's get to Roncesvalles."
We wandered the street in a light-headed disoriented awe at the silent and simple architecture until we came across a tiny yellow scallop shell fixed neatly on a square dark blue background embedded into a mossy stone wall.
"Found a marker!" I called out to Addy. Our first waypoint. Adjacent the shell a spray-painted red arrow pointed in the direction towards the mountains.
"Onwards!" Addy exclaimed as she jumped into a pointer-dog pose in the direction of the graffiti arrow. The stoic man in the terrace stared at us again from the top of his newspaper.
"Ugh, stop that, Addy," I said, blushing as I walked past her. She chuckled and skipped along the damp street.
An incessant thick smoke-like cloud that chilled our lungs plagued the climb up the narrow mountain path, offering none of the stunning vistas that the picturesque travelogues promised. Nevertheless, we were more than excited to embark on our journey through the rugged Spanish countryside.
We passed by all sorts of other hikers — pilgrims or peregrinos in the traditional parlance — on the way up. Solo peregrinos. Old peregrinos. Peregrinos well-prepared with heavy hiking packs wielding dual walking sticks, and those with curiously small daypacks. We ran into Americans like us, and those from as far away as South Korea or India. "Buen Camino!" they would greet without exception as we passed by. We quickly learned to do the same.
I enjoyed the short huffing small talk we sometimes exchanged with the others who, like me and Addy, had just started their lengthy journey. No doubt we would encounter them again. I thought of Belén, who we might very well encounter. But as the day drew closer to a close, my hope of this waned.
On an empty stretch near the crest of the mountain passage, I noticed a pattern of a peculiar shape in the mud. I paused to study them. Addy stopped quietly beside me and stared at the same spot. Hoofprints, but curious blackened. I knelt down and touched one of the imprints. A dark gray, wet ash caked onto my finger in a thick slough.
"Weird," Addy whispered. The hoof marks walked in an uncanny straightness along the trail.
Addy shrugged and said, "Probably a sheep or something."
"Yeah I suppose so," I replied. And so, we continued along the path, following the prints.
Hours later we reached Roncesvalles just as the sun's golden luster diminished as it crawled into the western sawtooth peaks.
Other peregrinos that had started earlier than us or had walked at a more hurried pace were taking their siesta outside a large monastery — the same one we intended to stay for the night. The hamlet had a harsh, placid beauty about it. An expedient mountain fortress that, long ago, hid the locals from the Moorish invasion.
I was more interested in the hoofmarks that persisted. They continued onwards towards the monastery.
We followed the them like detectives until my sister let out a sharp yelp. She stared up the tall stone wall. I looked up in confused shock at her discovery. The hoof marks walked right up to the monastery then bent upwards and climbed up the perfectly vertical wall until they disappeared into an opened window.
I touched one of the marks on the hard-stone wall. It was scorched into the wall.
"It went into the fucking building," Addy emphasized. She looked at me with scared-horse eyes and thin lips, I could see the gears in her head whirring frantically.
"Come on, Addy. It could be nothing. Let's go check in."
She grabbed my shoulder and pulled me back as I tried to walk away.
"Find the beast on the Camino," she recited with a grim face. It took me a second to get the reference, but then I remembered dad's journal. I never took her for a paranoid person. And I never considered myself one either, but the inexplicable hoofprints caused my imagination to run rampant too.
We checked in with a gentle old lady at the monastery reception. She spoke no English, and neither Addy nor I spoke an ounce of Spanish, but we figured each other out quickly. In exchange for a few euro coins, we got bleach clean sheets and assigned cot in the common sleeping area of the albergue.
Upstairs, we found our two cots and left our linens and towels on the bed and our backpacks in the footlockers before we headed back out to enjoy the terrace of the tavern across the only street in the village. It was light out and the clouds had cleared enough to give us a clear vista of a lush mountainside. Pale gold sunrays beamed out from behind the distant craggy peaks, casting long shadows among the red and yellow clouds.
As we drank our first pint, someone popped into the chair adjacent to mine. I looked over and my heart skipped a beat when I registered that it was Belén.
"Hey you," she said. "Bienvenidos!"
She raised a pint glass to us.
Addy turned to me and asked, "Is this the girl from the airplane?"
Belén brushed her hair and gave a shy smile. She responded, "Could be the one."
"Addy, this is Belén. Belén, my embarrassing sister, Addy," I said with a red face.
"Encantado," Belén said.
"Encantado to you too!" Addy replied, then turned to me to say, "see I told you we'd see her again."
My face went redder. Belén inquired, "you were hoping to see me again?"
I scowled at Addy, who looked at me with smugness. I stumbled with my words. "I mean yeah. I just mentioned you were doing the Camino too. Thought we might run into you or something. And. Well, here we are."
"Here we are," Belén repeated. Her eyes met mine for a warm second before she blinked and took a sip of her beer.
The golden rays of light had diminished and dispersed into a deep crimson sky.
"How was your camino today?" I asked.
Before Belén could answer, Addy butted in with a shrill voice, "Did you see those creepy-ass frickin' hoofmarks?"
Belén's face turned into a look of amusement. She shook her head.
"Addy don't weird her out," I pleaded.
Ignoring me, she continued, "they climbed up a wall Belén. Up. A fucking. wall."
"I'm sure there's a perfectly obvious explanation," I said.
With a wicked face, Belén suggested, "or they're the footprints of the devil."
Addy shivered. "Ugh. You might be onto something. Is that no shit a thing on the Camino? Are there stories about the devil?"
Belén shrugged. "There are some good ghost stories about the Camino de Santiago. Usually they're about pilgrims who have committed unforgivable sins, and so they are condemned."

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