Erika went west by bus until the names on the signs began to look alien and the other passengers spoke in a lilting dialect that was hard to understand. The bus climbed switchback roads up from the dry steppe and into verdant hills, gradually emptying of people until Erika was the only passenger. The bus finally came to a stop in a little town at the top. The driver turned around and barked something at her and opened the doors. Erika climbed out. The bus drove off with a roar.
In the bus shelter sat a man in green outdoor clothing next to a large backpack. He was maybe middle-aged, skinny and tan, with a long face. He was eating little bread rolls out of a plastic bag. When Erika dropped her backpack on the pavement, he smiled at her.
“Afternoon,” he said.
“Hi,” Erika said.
“Are you on the trail?”
“Uh,” Erika replied. “No.”
The man stuck his lower lip out and nodded. He held out the bag. “Napolitana?”
The man smiled gently at her. “I won’t bite.”
Erika sat down next to him, face hot. She gingerly stuck her hand into the bag and took a roll.
“You’ll either love them or think they taste like factory,” the man said.
Erika bit into it. It was like a square croissant, except the center was filled with some paste that vaguely tasted like chocolate. She nodded. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome.” The man took another one for himself.
They sat in silence. It was an easy silence, without awkwardness, not like the tortuous silences in the apartment with Aidan or the short, nervous lacunae with her mother and father.
“So are you taking a bus or something?” Erika said eventually.
“Nah,” he said. “Just having a snack and waiting for some friends. I’m walking the trail.”
Erika nodded, although she didn’t understand.
“Sol,” the man said.
“Erika,” Erika said.
“So, if you’re not on the trail, what are you doing up here?” Sol jerked his thumb at the village. “It isn’t exactly a tourist resort.”
Erika shrugged. “I’m just traveling.”
“To any particular place?”
Sol grinned. “Would you like to?”
“To do what?”
“Go on a pilgrimage.”
“I don’t even know what that is,” Erika said.
Sol uncapped a water bottle and drank from it. “We’re walking to World’s End. It’s about a hundred kilometers to go. Five more days maybe, if we’re casual. After that we’ll continue to the bone plain.”
“Why are you going?”
“Well, it’s a pilgrimage. Traditionally it was to get absolution for all your sins. These days, a lot of people just walk to get some perspective on life. And then you have the history buffs. I’m in it for the perspective. Sold everything I owned and hit the road.”
“Really. So, would you like to come walking with us?”
Erika looked down at her black boots. “I don’t exactly have the gear.”
“You don’t need much. A pair of trainers and a jacket. Probably a hat.” Sol pointed at her face with a smile.
How can you go live with a man you’ve just met? her father had raged.
He’s safe, Erika replied. I’m just going to stay at his place until I find one of my own.
What if he wants something you can’t give him? her mother said.
You’re of age, her father said, we can’t stop you. But you’re making a mistake.
I know what I’m doing, Erika said.
“I don’t know,” Erika told Sol.
“Well, here come the others,” Sol said. “You don’t have to make your mind up just yet.”
He waved at someone coming up behind them, and the knot in Erika’s belly unraveled.
Stephen and Kim were ruddy-faced, in their twenties, dressed in weathered linen and floppy felt hats. They both looked extremely healthy and enthusiastic, and seemed delighted to meet Erika.
There was a hostel in the village, just a small kitchen and dormitory really, where pilgrims were allowed to stay for free. The volunteer gave Erika a small booklet that identified her as a pilgrim, and in which she was supposed to gather stamps from the hostels on the trail.
They all cooked a dinner of lentils and potatoes in the dingy kitchen and gossiped about others they’d met on the trail. The others quizzed Erika on her life, and seemed to accept that a lone girl in black had decided to see the countryside. The fact that Erika barely answered their questions didn’t seem to bother them; they loved to talk about themselves anyway. Stephen was an architecture student and wanted to see cathedrals on the way. Kim was a veterinarian and loved hiking. They were both believers. Sol had been a businessman before he left what he called his soul-crushing job. The three of them joked and teased each other. None of them treated Erika like she was too young or too strange. On the contrary, they seemed to genuinely like her. Erika found herself saying that she would join them.
In this country, shopping was a late affair. The village had one store that held everything from food to clothes and tools. Kim found a pair of knock-off trainers that didn’t fit Erika too badly, and a hat, and a raincoat, all in terrible bright colors. Kim laughed at Erika’s facial expression and assured her that she would probably not bump into any friends here.
Erika lay in the darkness of the dormitory, unable to sleep. Her sleeping bag was too hot and her scalp itched. The beds stood close together, and she could hear Stephen snoring at the foot of her bed.
With Aidan it had been the little things at first: long looks, an offer of massage, an arm around her shoulders. Unmotivated hugs in the street. Leaning in close while laughing. Erika’s new friends asking, Are you an item? Isn’t he a little old for you? Then one evening they were playing hangman for some reason, and he spelled out I L-O-V-E Y-O-U, and Erika tried to laugh it off.
Was he still in the flat? Had someone found him? Were the police coming after her yet?
They got up at dawn the next day. They walked through cold and foggy streets, through the graveyard outside town, and out onto the mountainside. The sun rose over the mountaintops, lighting a valley covered in fog like a woolly carpet. There was no distant roar of cars, only birdsong and the clank of sheep bells floating up from the valley. Erika’s head was still fuzzy from getting up so early. Her backpack already sat too heavy on her shoulders. The road snaked downhill ahead of them.
“Harder on your knees than you’d think,” Sol said, “but uphill would have been unfair to you on the first day.”
When they stopped for lunch in a little village at the foot of the mountain, Erika was already in pain: feet, knees, hips, back, shoulders. It got worse during the afternoon. When they were just a couple of kilometers out from the next hostel, and it felt like her right hip was on fire, the others drove her on with promises of chocolate and foot massages. Finally, with slow excruciating steps, she made it into the hostel, and the others cheered. Kim punctured fat blisters on her toes and ran sewing thread through them. They met a quiet group of Germans and a burnished old man who had marched past them on the way. He walked this route every summer, he said.
The pain was nothing compared to the soreness the next day. Getting her limbs into motion almost made her scream. Still, she walked on. They came to the lowlands and crossed a scorched plain, then into oak forests. On the fourth day, it wasn’t quite as bad, which Erika told the others. The pain was subsiding, giving way to strength. Sol said something about wanting to be twenty again.
During the long hours on the road, you tell people things. You’re in an in-between land, in a place where the rest of the world is far away. You become close with strangers. Stephen and Kim had known Sol only since they’d met him at the first hostel on the trail, but acted like they had known each other for ages. Stephen and Kim both had a crush on Sol, and had offered him a place in their relationship. Sol was flattered but thought he was much too old for them. Still, they remained friends. They told Erika about all this, and about their lives. Sol spoke about the heartless business world he had left behind, how he felt alive for the first time in years. Kim and Stephen, because they rarely spoke about themselves as individuals, talked about their faith, about how Stephen had had a spiritual experience in the great cathedral they had just passed.
Over a late dinner, Erika told them about home, how her parents were stupid and no one understood her and she had wanted to see the world. How she had taken her backpack and moved to the capital to stay with a man she’d met only once before.
“From clubbing to here in a week,” Sol said. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but when you showed up you didn’t exactly seem like the type to go adventuring in the mountains.”
Erika looked away. “I didn’t want to stay there.”
“Did he do something?” Kim asked.
Erika poked at her food. “I thought he was my friend, but it turned out he was in love with me. He had made me come all the way over there and move into his flat because he thought I would be his girlfriend.”
She didn’t mention how she had paid the rent with her savings, Aidan promising it’s just until I start the next job. She didn’t tell them about the filth settled in the wall-to-wall carpets, the dingy mattresses on the floor. About how they sat on empty propane tanks instead of chairs, how they could afford nothing but beans on toast, how she lost weight until she could count her own ribs. How she lied to her father in the urine-smelling phone booth on the corner, told him that everything was fine. She didn’t mention the other thing either. She could never mention the other thing.
“That sucks,” Kim said. “You must have been so disappointed.”
Erika nodded at her plate.
“Did he hurt you?” Kim asked.
Aidan’s hand reaching out to gently grab her foot in the night. Moist lips kissing her toes. Her leg shooting out on reflex. His temple under her heel.
“I think that’s enough prying,” Sol said. “We have an early morning tomorrow.”
As the others got up to wash the dishes, he turned to Erika. “If you ever need to talk,” he said.
Erika nodded. Sol smiled.
There was a payphone at the hostel. Erika spent her change on calling her parents again, telling them that she was on the trail, that she was fine, that she had left town not days but a couple of weeks ago. Yes, she was sorry she hadn’t called. She had been too caught up in the adventure. Yes, the cathedrals along the way were beautiful. She was in good company. Yes, she would send postcards from now on.
They arrived in town just before noon the next day. The cathedral of Our Lady of World’s End was a huge and lumbering thing, reaching toward the sky with bulbous spires, its stone streaked in grey and brown. In the square in front of the cathedral sat pilgrims of all ages, some of whom Erika had seen on the road: worn and scraggly men and women reclining on backpacks or sleeping in someone’s lap. Erika followed the others to a little office in the cathedral, where a stern woman wrote Latinized versions of their names on diplomas and stamped them with an official-looking seal. Erika had walked far enough to get one of her own.
The mass was long and entirely in Latin. It didn’t matter. For a moment Erika’s eyes stung and her throat caught. This was when they’d all be forgiven all their sins. She closed her eyes and waited. Nothing felt different. Next to her, Kim was teary-eyed; Stephen stared up at the ceiling in silence; Sol looked straight ahead, smiling.
They went to a cheap restaurant and had fried fish and the canned vegetables in mayonnaise that passed for salad in these parts. None of them spoke for a long time.
“I don’t know if I want to move on to the plain,” Kim said. “I feel… done. I’ve done what I came here to do.”
Stephen nodded. “Same. I want to go home.”
Sol turned to Erika. “What about you?”
Erika looked at him. He seemed very earnest and kind. “I don’t know,” she said. “Let me think about it.”
The next morning, Kim and Stephen said goodbye and boarded a train for home. Erika and Sol sat in the train station’s dingy café, having small cups of the local strong coffee. Around them, pilgrims in bright clothes smoked, read books, talked.
“Well then,” Sol said. “What do you want to do?”
“I don’t want to go home,” Erika replied.
“Do you want to come with me to the plain, then?”
Erika shifted in her chair.
“I’m not interested in you in that way,” Sol said. “I’m old enough to be your dad.”
“Aidan said he wasn’t interested either,” Erika mumbled at the table.
Sol took a deep breath through his nose, then let it out again. “I’m sorry for whatever he did to you. And I’m sorry it means we can’t travel together.”
“I’m sorry,” Erika said.
“Don’t be. It’s not your fault.” Sol gently patted her shoulder. “Whatever happened wasn’t your fault.”
Erika looked up at his long tan face, the sympathetic frown. For a moment she considered telling him everything, then changed her mind. He was a good man. He would tell her to turn herself over to the police.
Sol stood up. “Well, I’m going to pack my things. It’s still early enough that I can make it to the next hostel by nightfall.”
He held his hands out in the offer of a hug. He wasn’t trying to talk her into anything. Erika thought of returning home to a cold town and friends who had no idea, to parents who would be right.
“Wait,” she said. “I’m coming with you.”
“You’re sure?” Sol asked.
Erika nodded. “I’m sure.”
The road to the bone plain was supposed to take two days, through a landscape that gradually flattened and sloped toward the ocean. By now, Erika’s aches were old and slipped into the background.
“So what’s special about them?” Erika asked. “You can find bones like these all over the world.”
“They’re supposedly arranged along leylines. It’s very mystical.” Sol waggled his fingers. “New Age central.”
“But you don’t believe in that stuff,” Erika said. “So why are you going?”
“First, because I don’t want to stop walking,” Sol replied. “I have nowhere else to go after this, and I’m not sure what I want to do. Second, because when I was a kid I heard that if you sleep under the bones, you’ll have visions. I’ve always wanted to have one of those.”
“I don’t know if I want visions,” Erika said.
“That’s alright. You probably won’t. Like you said, I don’t believe in that stuff.”
The bones lay scattered all over the plain, the smallest one the length of a bus. Erika had seen these creatures reconstructed on TV: a circular spine from which sprouted ribs to form an almost perfect sphere. These creatures had been extinct for thousands of years, due to some reason the scientists had yet to discover; they were present in early rock paintings, then suddenly disappeared. Only their bones remained, scattered in the temperate zones all over the world. By some marvel of biology, the bones didn’t break down, just sank deeper into the ground.
This place seemed devoid of people. It looked like an abandoned music festival. The bones were full of scratched graffiti, prayers and names and curses; plastic bags, wrappers, and cans lay everywhere. Even so, even defaced, the towering structures made Erika uneasy.
“Not what I expected,” Sol said.
The sky was clear. They had a dinner of bread and cheese, then unrolled their sleeping bags on a patch of grass next to one of the less defaced ribs. Erika had never seen so many stars; there were so many that she couldn’t make out the constellations. The Milky Way was a fat, glistening band. A bright streak traveled across the sky.
“The Perseids,” Sol said. “I had forgotten it was time.”
They watched meteors flash through the atmosphere until Erika fell asleep.
The hand reaching out from the foot of the bed. The moist lips on her foot. Bone under her heel. Again, again, again.
The sun sat low on the horizon, warming the left side of her face. The air smelled of ocean. Sol sat leaning against the bone wall, face turned toward the sun.
“Good morning! Orange Crush and stale bread available in the cafeteria,” he said.
Erika reluctantly got out of her sleeping bag. The air was still cold. Her body hurt.
“I dreamed that I got back to work and everything was like before,” Sol said. “Bloody awful.”
“I dreamed that I had killed someone,” Erika said. “And I wasn’t sorry.”
“Was it that Aidan guy?” Sol said. “Good riddance.”
“What if I really had?” Erika asked. “Would you have said the same? If I had, and if I wasn’t sorry.”
“That would possibly make you a psychopath,” Sol said. “Unless he did something really horrific to you.”
“What if I was just angry?”
Sol squinted at her. “What did you do, Erika?”
Erika bit her lip. “Nothing. I was just asking.”
“I don’t think you can kill someone and remain unchanged,” Sol said. “Something happens inside you when you take someone’s life. And unless you were really justified, unless the other person was a monster… the only healthy thing would be to feel guilt. Or sadness. Something. If you don’t, you should consider who you are.”
The conversation petered out. They finished their breakfast, then walked among the bones for a while, tracing the vast curves, reading graffiti. They came upon a small camp of hippies who seemed to live there more or less permanently. By midday, they packed their things.
“What now?” Erika asked.
“I don’t know,” Sol said. “I’m moving on. Maybe north. You?”
“I think I’m done,” Erika said. “I think it’s time to go home.”
Somehow, an age had passed. It was autumn in a town she recognized and yet did not. She was unrecognizable herself, her skin tanned gold, her blonde roots showing, her clothing rugged. It was late evening. The streets were full of drunk people on the way to the next party. She saw a group of acquaintances in their black skirts swishing over the ground, high-collared coats and floating hair, like a delegation of fae come to visit. They walked right past her without a glance.
She had lost the key to the flat. Her father came to open. There was not an unkind word from him or her mother. They asked her for stories from the road. She told them of Sol, of Kim and Stephen, of the bone plain. What had happened to Aidan? She didn’t know, she said, truthfully.
Erika lay under the duvet in her room and stared into the ceiling for a long time. The smooth sheets felt unfamiliar against her skin, the walls too close. She missed Sol. He was out there somewhere, in a sleeping bag under the stars or on a train station or in a little hostel. Perhaps he’d send her a postcard and let her know where he went. Aidan? Maybe he was fine. Maybe no one would come after her. Maybe it had never actually happened.
When Erika finally fell asleep, she dreamed of crushing bone under her heel. Again, again, again.
(Editors’ Note: “The Bone Plain” is read by Stephanie Malia Morris and Karin Tidbeck is interviewed by Shana DuBois on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 19A.)
© 2017 by Karin Tidbeck