The day I caught up with Ludo was the day that Katherine got sick on the road. I won’t go into all the gory details, but let’s just say that it is always a good idea to walk with wet wipes you can use on your bum as well as your face.
Yeah. It was that bad.
As such, my leg had been feeling well. When I got into La Romieu, some ten kilometers from where I’d stayed an extra day to let my shin muscle relax, I heard my name being called out and I turned to see Ludo, whom I had figured was at least another ten kilometers ahead as it was 11:30am or so, and he’d claimed to be walking at a thunder speed from that day forth. Whether we could keep up or not was considered our problem. I was excited because this meant I could try to walk with him a bit further before he ran off into the wild.
After we had some lunch with a new friend, Ren, I’d met just before the city, we were talking about where we’d be going next when Katherine popped into our group, feeling loads better, but wanting to stay in the city.
Ludo and I left her. Ludo had said he was going to leave us eventually because he wouldn’t be able to handle parting if we kept prolonging the inevitable, and since my leg felt good, I wanted at least one last day with Ludo to say goodbye.
I wish I hadn’t.
Katherine washed up and slept and was kicked out early from her gite the next morning, so she got some coffee, only to meet a nicer, older gentleman in a sweater that only older gentlemen wear. He mentioned that he lived only five kilometers away, and that pilgrims frequently would help renovate his house in exchange for a night’s rest.
Thinking she could be good company, and do some good in the meantime, she went with him to his house.
The house was in shambles. The only livable portion was the kitchen, where one bed lay that she was told would be for her. She wondered where that meant he would sleep.
Different sorts of knives lay against the walls, machetes included. Nothing was clean. As she had come into the house, there had been a thick chain across the door.
“People who come here usually only stay for an hour and leave,” he told her. “I know the ones who can help me are the ones that stay.”
During her coffee, he had told her that he had small parties all the time. She thought about that being a real possibility.
She called Ludo just as he told her they would be making stained-glass windows. She spoke with Mallory, who asked whether the man was someone cute, to which she replied that he was old and ‘no’. She was passed to Ludo and Valerie.
I’m unsure what she thought when she hung up the phone.
They barely got through any type of stained-windowing projects before he announced that they should be getting lunch. Since he hadn’t really taught her a good method, and he said they’d be going into town, she agreed heartily. They ran into one of his friends in town, who came back with them.
They got food. The lunch was delicious. Wine flowed. A joint was brought up. She thought about how she didn’t want to be there, and she saw him starting a soup for dinner. Suspicious, she asked him what he was cutting up to put in. He wouldn’t answer. She thought, ‘Those are mushrooms. I need a solid plan to get out.’ He said he was thinking of inviting more friends over.
With so much wine and after smoking too much pot, the older man began talking as if someone other than them were in the room. He was mentally ill, at the least. And she’d spent too long ignoring what she knew from the beginning.
She pretended she had missed phone calls and stepped outside. When she came back in, she said her friends were upset she hadn’t made it to the next gite and needed a ride back.
Mercifully, she was brought safely to a random gite she chose, leaving behind the shambled shack that she knew was a part of some horror story.
She walked, shaking. She called Ludo and he was further away than she thought she could walk, especially at the time of day she was walking. She saw some tourists and she did her best to look desperate. It couldn’t have been hard.
They asked her where she was going and she explained. They said they could easily take her there after they were done.
When they got to the gite, I hadn’t realized everything that had occurred. I’d been simply giddy to meet up with her again, rushing to give her a hug. Taking a look at her face, I grabbed a bottle of wine I’d purchased and we walked out to a viewing section of the gite so she could tell me what happened.
When the story was done, most everyone I’d walked with that day had joined us, though not everyone had heard enough of the tale to know what happened.
It was difficult to stay where I was, sitting next to her. I felt my hands clench, my heart stiffen, and my mind kept racing. I did my best to keep calm as everyone else around us cracked jokes, all of us wanting to lighten the mood somewhat. Dinner had to be prepared, so they left, one-by-one, until it was just she and I, sitting in the chairs, watching the sun slowly set. Only Ludo hadn’t properly left, having gone down the hill to walk off steam, so I figured.
“Poor, naive, innocent girl,” Katherine was saying.
“No,” I said. “If you’d been that, you would still be there.” I paused as we both kept watching the sky change. “I’m so glad you’re you. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be here.” A tear crept down my cheek.
Ludo walked by us, clearly unable to do anything but keep his distance.
The sun was finally below the horizon. We both shivered and decided to go inside.
She hadn’t even been inside the gite, so I showed her where we put the shoes, bags, and where she’d be sleeping. As we walked out so I could show her where she could shower, I turned and gave her another hug, feeling so utterly thankful that I could.
“Tomorrow,” I said, “We walk together.”
“Thank you, Mallory,” she replied.
We stayed hugging for a while.
I brought her to the shower and she said she most likely wouldn’t eat anything afterwards, would maybe just go to sleep. I nodded, and after she closed the shower door, I went back to the room and made her bed. I went outside to apologize for being so long as I’d said I would make supper that night–they’d done it instead and waved me off. Normal conversation was occurring, but there was still a tension in the air for me. Ludo was quieter than normal, and I just couldn’t feel right being around anyone. I thought of the other bottle of wine and left to get the corkscrew and bottle.
As I passed through our room, I stopped and started to cry. I couldn’t stop the sobs, even though I covered my mouth so people wouldn’t hear.
Minutes passed, and I gathered myself to get the wine and bring it to everyone. We sat and I was very quiet as people spoke. Someone asked me what had happened, to which I replied in a cracked voice, “Someone took advantage of the good faith in the Camino to try and harm Katherine.” I couldn’t say much else.
I ate what was placed in front of me with a small glass of wine. Ludo came out a bit late as the main meal was served. I thought he had been talking with Katherine. I just ate while random talk of whatever being said was said. I slammed the last of my wine.
As I stood up, Ludo apparently had the same idea. I scurried away to clean my dishes and Ludo to somewhere else with his meal.
I cried as I scrubbed my plates.
Not wanting to see anyone, I went around the back way to get to the spot where Katherine and I had been before. More tears threatened to spill. It was very dark, so it took until I was almost to the chairs to see that Ludo occupied one of them. I immediately turned and walked away, apologizing that I didn’t know he was there.
Instead, I turned down to where the Camino was supposed to continue in the morning, right next to a wall of a small cemetery.
And I cried. Hard. Angry. Sad.
“Motherfucker,” I said, over and over. “That motherfucker!”
I was thinking of how magical the Camino was supposed to be. I was thinking about the terrible shit I thought I’d left behind when I’d gotten on a plane to France. That I’d gotten used to not reading about these stories by not being plugged into the internet.
That I’d just gotten my faith back in humanity.
I wanted to scream. I cried, for a very long time, sitting, curled, next to the wall that had that cemetery on the other side. I thought of when Kath stared at me and said, “You probably would have taken one look at that place and walked out, no questions asked.” Victim blaming shit. I’d replied that we all had those moments of staying just too long, believing the best of intentions in everyone.
I looked up at the stars and thought to myself, “I don’t recognize any of this. I don’t know this sky at all.”
Every time I thought of what could have happened to Kath, or that there were assholes out there thinking what they were doing was sane, okay, deserved even, I’d start all over again.
Since I couldn’t smash in the face of the person who thought they could do something to Kath like this, I slowly remembered that I had been gone a decent amount of time and just wanted to sleep myself. I avoided people as I went to the bathroom to wash my face.
When I got back to the room, Kath was still awake. She smiled at me, warmth in her eyes. “Thank you for making my bed,” she said softly, and I smiled back, feeling the warmth back in myself again.
We talked about our childhoods, jobs, and small parts of our life. We had talked before, but it had always felt as if the conversation was cut short, that we’d never really gotten to any full depth. I realized that while I’d helped her earlier, she was helping me feel okay, too.
She was safe now.
Ludo came in the room at one point, grabbed something, then left.
“Ludo hasn’t looked at me or said anything since I came,” she told me. I look at her in shock.
“Seriously? Nothing?” She shook her head. “I’ll bet he is putting this all on himself, as if he should have been there.”
I felt a pant of disappointment, but then I remembered how often people in general weren’t sure of what to do in these types of situations.
But the disappointment came further when the rest of the group began filing in to sleep. Ludo was drunk. And clearly ignoring Kath. I couldn’t understand it, especially when I told him to come in for a tall hug since I was on the top bunk.
“Hey, you need to talk to Kath,” I whispered in his ear.
“I can’t,” he slur-replied.
“Yes, but you need to,” I said firmly. “Tomorrow morning.”
“Every time I look at her face, all I can think about is going back to La Romieu to smash that man’s face in.”
I paused. “Me, too,” I said, fully meaning it. “But you need to say something to her. She’s noticed. Okay?” I kissed him on his cheek and he kissed back. We squeezed and he let go. But he wouldn’t look at Kath.
It was bad sleep for me. I always run hot, and they had closed the windows. I couldn’t get comfortable. I was seemingly exhausted, but no sleep would come.
I woke up early and began getting ready to go. I felt this odd thud when I thought of our group and how I fit into it. It had changed so much since the beginning, getting larger and less serious as time continued, a good thing, but I wasn’t feeling it. I hoped Kath and I could walk alone for most of the day.
At one point, Ludo put his hand on my shoulder and asked me if I was okay, if I’d slept okay. “Oh,” I said, “no. I don’t sleep well ever. I eventually just crash from lack of good sleep every few days.” I shrugged. He seemed surprised at this revelation, and I wondered why he was putting such attention on me when he clearly was still avoiding Katherine.
Before I put on my shoes, I played a few songs on my ukulele out at the viewing spot, far enough away from the gite that it would just be me. When I turned, shoes ready, Kath was ready to go, standing at the edge of the gite. We said goodbye, and Ludo still would not acknowledge Katherine. But he said, “Mallory,” and pointed to my water bottle on the table he sat at before I left.
I went back to grab it as Katherine turned the corner to the other side of the house. Valerie and Ren were there, not right next to us, but they’d overhear what I had to say. It was too important. I didn’t care.
“Did you talk to Kath?” I asked.
“No,” he said, turning away.
“Ludo. You need to talk to her.”
“No, she does not want to speak, I can tell,” he said, refusing to look me in the eye.
“That’s not at all true, and you know it. Go over there right now. I know you don’t like conflict-”
“This isn’t conflict. I don’t even know what I would say,” he argued.
“You don’t need to say anything, you give her a hug, you show her that you love and support her.”
“I do love and support her, but I cannot do that.”
“Yes, you can, you have to.”
“No, I cannot–”
“Ludo, you can, you have to.” My voice was straining at this point, threatening tears. My eyes began to burn. “You have to show her, Ludo, you have to.” I thought of how he said he would never open his heart again that first day the three of us sat down at a table to eat dinner, drinking wine and tossing stories back and forth, and I remember that idea toyed with even friendship. We had been through so much together on this trail. Was this really his choice in the end? “Please,” I said, gulping. “You have to show it, you just have to. You can say it all you want, but you have to show love.” My breath was short and I teetered on how I would leave things. Looking back, I was saying very dramatic things during the high emotions from then and the night before, but I feel they are all still very true.
“I just, I can’t–” He couldn’t seem to say anything but those words a few times, his own voice sounding as desperate and stern as my own.
“Please, promise me.” I must have looked the hopeful, hurt, pleading puppy, but he wouldn’t have known since he was looking almost everywhere but me. “You can, I know you can, you need to. Please.”
I was out of anything else to say.
“I will,” he said, not sounding at all happy, or sure of his answer, and I turned and walked away, wiping the tears and going to the faucet that I could fill my water bottle with. Katherine was walking down the path slowly, seeing what I was doing, and going a bit more forward. I turned to see Ludo taking out a cigarette and talking to Ren, back turned to us.
He wasn’t going to do it now.
He was waiting until gods knew when.
I shook my head, walking away myself. As I made my way to catch up to Kath, I gave one last thought to the situation. I probably shouldn’t have stuck my hand in the pot, but I couldn’t not say something, not on something this important. I felt like I couldn’t allow him to deny this connection we three had, whether or not he liked it.
Kath stopped so I could catch up, and we talked about life. I gave her more of my past, recent and long ago, and we really got good conversation going again as we had the night before. It felt so wonderful to talk normal again, as the days prior had been somewhat dry and not as full of depth, as I like them. They’d been full of laughter, yes, but less discussion and more surface talks. I’d also been unable to keep up with most since my leg hurt if I tried to walk too fast.
Kath and I had gotten about a good hour’s walk away when I saw something in the corner of my eye as I turned to look at Kath as she spoke.
Ludo took out his earbuds as we slowed to a stop. The rest of the group wasn’t with him, which meant he’d sped up to track us down.
I took a step back as Ludo reached out and grabbed Kath’s backpack, tugging. I stepped around them to give them room as she turned and they embraced.
As I continued the walk to Eauze, alone, I smiled, heart eased on the subject of our threes connection.