This week, on an animal sanctuary in Southern Spain, I am surrounded by rock, and the nude, bare earth echoes the inner emptiness I feel. In England, all that green and growing doesn't match my insides. Here, this rock, this heat, this rugged blend of pine and desert wildflower, poking up from parched earth, speaks to my spirit. Here, amongst this rock, my heart feels at ease.
I awaken at early light and walk the dirt path to the pig run, and enter their space. Carmella comes to smell and nudge me with her snout, and I place my hand upon her coarse, bristled skin. I sit in the dirt and wait for her to realise that I will not hurt her, and, after a few moments, she lies down next to me. I stretch my legs around her so that I can rub her belly, and she rolls on her side so that I can get a better reach. She grunts her pleasure and closes her eyes. I breathe deep. I slow my breathing to match hers, in rhythm and depth, and I rub her until she's had enough, awakens from her brief slumber, and rises, moving on toward the back of the pen. Our encounter is a healing balm for us both.
In the morning hours, we stroke and feed and water the animals, or work in the garden. My skin bakes in the sun, from pasty white to the brown shade of rock that encircles this vast landscape. Here, my ears have a rest from the noise of city life. Here, I listen to the call of the birds, the neighing of horses, the barking of dogs, the grunting of pigs.
In the early afternoon, as the sun beats down hard upon the earth, we are summoned inside, to the cool of the dining room, where our generous host nourishes us with healthy and delicious vegan dishes. I gather with the other volunteers around the welcoming wooden table, and we eat and laugh and rest, together, with this family that has opened itself to strangers, and made us all friends.
They asked me to write down my next of kin as an emergency contact. Next of kin? My next of kin are all gone. Not really. I do have family. But they are far away, in America, and wouldn't be of much help, should something happen to me, here.
I am an orphan. Most of my family has passed before me. I have piled their deaths, one by one, like a pile of rocks, stretching up to this clear, clean, immense, blue sky. My father, my sister, my mother, and now. The love of my life, swept away from me in an instant, after it took me decades to find him.
I am awash in death.
I have friends in England. I have Stan's family, and I know they would be there for me. But I was only a part of their lives for a few years before Stan died. I wonder what they thought of me when I first came around. Perhaps they saw me as just another of his tenuous relationships, one of many he had had in his recent life, in his quest to find the one who understood him and loved him without condition. I like to think that I was that one.I like to think that he was able to settle in, a bit, when he met me, and realise that he had someone who would care for him and nurture his growth and spirit. I hope his children recognised the love and affection that passed between us. I hope they know how much he meant to me.
But next of kin?
My next of kin is dead. Gone with the wind.
These are the thoughts I have, as I sit here, my body warmed by the scorching heat. In this space, among these kind people, I have found a bit of reprieve from the relentless grief. In this vast, wild landscape, I unfurl my sorrow, and let it rest.
At night, I walk to my tent by the light of the full moon, to the song of the doves and nightingales. Some folks are bothered by their loud singing, and must close the flaps of their tents and plug their ears in order to sleep. But I keep the tent flaps open, shielded only by the screen. In the distance, the village church bells ring their signal every hour, on the hour. I count them. Twelve. It is midnight. The clanging bells are my only anchor to the time, here. I drift off to sleep with the sounds of the earth all around me.
There is a donkey here, named Nero. He is very social. He holds his head over the low fence so that I can stroke his forehead and ears. He loves to be touched. When I walk away from him, his bottom lip quivers, and he lets out a boisterous bray that echoes off these rugged rocks.
Every night, around three a.m., Nero awakens the world with his mournful wail. He calls out with all the strength he can muster. I'm alone, he says. He raises his brown face toward the moon. His cry is loud enough to startle the deepest sleepers. I'm alone. I'm alone. Come visit.
I find comfort in this donkey's wail. I love to hear it in the night. If I had the courage, I would rise, unzip the screen of my tent, and rush to his side. I would raise my face to the moon, open my vocal chords, and meet his wail with my own. I'd call out loud enough so that all those who have passed before me could hear it. My father. My sister. My mother. My love.
I'm alone. I'm alone. Come visit.