Rowan Johnson – Fiction 

PILGRIMAGE


When the pilgrim sets off, the calm ocean glows in the burning early morning. The Mediterranean does not look far, but the Byzantine paths from the village of Kalkanli to Caretta Beach veer around smallholdings, ravines, through orange tree farms and vast olive groves.

In one of the groves he meets a beaming shepherd and his dog, beatific in the Biblical land. The pilgrim shares a few crusts of dry bread and some olives from his knapsack with the shepherd, because is it not true that out of the ground they were taken; they are but dust, and to dust they shall both return?

Further along, the road to the beach tapers, and soon the air is filled with the stench of a smoldering pile of burning plastic. Far in the distance, farmers throw plastic bottles on the pile, laughing manically, while a pack of stray dogs, hungry for human flesh, grow rabid with the increasing heat of the fire.

The pilgrim turns back toward the village, broodingly cursing the farmers and the dogs. But soon enough, a flock of a hundred marauding sheep appears in front of him, blocking the way and beetling down the dusty path towards him. He ducks down a narrow side road to avoid being trampled, and soon gets lost in a labyrinth of dense orange trees. Eventually, the trees start clearing, but then he notices a crumbling ruin and a soldier patrolling in full uniform, brandishing his rifle. The pilgrim ducks behind a large cactus to avoid being seen. All around him, fields of harsh brush and thorny nettles are scattered like landmines.

Far off his original course but just a few fields away, the spire of the Agios Nicolaos church in Yayla shines blindingly white here in God’s country. Which way to turn? Not through the burning trash and the dogs. Not through the flock of marauding sheep. Not risking being shot. Mutilation by thorns seems the only option. He bows his head, prays softly and crawls over the first cactus toward the church. Already, deep red gashes form along his arms.

In the brilliant distance, the calm waters of Caretta Beach still beckon. Maybe the turtles there are resting in the cool water by now. But the pilgrim will not know anything about it. He will not reach that place today. Perhaps he will never reach that place.

🍃

Rowan Johnson holds a doctorate from the University of Tennessee as well as an MA from the University of Nottingham, England. His work has been published in Two Thirds North, 4ink7, Passing Through Journal, Wordriver Literary Review, GFT Press, and the Writers’ Abroad Foreign Encounters Anthology. He has also written numerous travel articles for SEOUL Magazine.

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