Roncesvalles, Valley of Thorns

For Anne Sexton, Camino de Santiago, Spain

Picked clean as a bleached sheet, a pony skull

nested in the grass on the side of the path,

eyes dull. On hill slopes, the ponies prance

and bleat, unaware they are alive only to be killed–

Viande de cheval, a common dish in this village.

In the monastery at Roncesvalles a row of skulls

arcs under a spotlight, bones of pilgrims

discovered in catacombs beneath the stone chapel,

an ancient hospital, as in hostel, or hospice,

a medieval clinic for bread and wine, respite

from vagaries of torrential rains, mud, late May snows.

At vespers, my new friend and I enter the church

with the others for the pilgrim’s blessing.

Two days ago, a man died of a heart attack

on the way down the valley–you never know.

Kerry’s strong from hiking the Himalayas

and the Pacific Crest. She tells me not to look

at the anti-abortion pamphlets with photos

of blurry fetuses on vestibule tables.

She tells me her wife is a rogue priest,

ordained in secret by three bishops who risked

excommunication. The basilica blazes

with tall white candles, armfuls of lilies,

carved effigies of saints lacquered in gold leaf.

Three priests in white gowns reach their arms

toward vaulted ceilings like bodily conduits of God,

amanuenses of the divine. They burn incense

and chime bells to conjure archangels.

They summon the holy ghost, pour it

into a gold chalice, and gulp. Above the priests

floats a gilded statue of Mary, Mother of God.

She is too innocent for me, untouched

as she was, or I am too sullied for her.

I need a blessing, but need is not quite belief.

Christine Swint

Christine Swint's first poetry collection is Swimming This (2015) with FutureCycle Press. A former high school Spanish instructor, she teaches English part time at Kennesaw State University and writes about pilgrimage, spirituality, and poetry at Balanced on the Edge, She holds degrees in English and Spanish from the University of Georgia, a master's in Spanish from Middlebury College, and an M.F.A. in creative writing from Georgia State University. Her current project is a travelogue in verse that chronicles a 500-mile pilgrimage she took from the Pyrenees Mountains in France to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, ending in Fisterra, in the region of Galicia.