Museo Celtico y Pensión

Photo by juan tb on Unsplash. CC0/Public domain.

The museo is a lichen-flecked stone barn; its thatched roof resembles a capsized fishing boat. The pensión across the farmyard is a larger pile of stones with a roof of tile. It’s early, just eleven, but raining lightly, so Peter pulls over, hoping he can get a cup of coffee at the pensión. A small, bearded man standing in the museo’s doorway snags him. Peter pays the ten Euro entry fee. Why not?

The museo’s shuttered windows enhance the effect of overhead spotlights on the display cases: bracelets, brooches, rings, knife blades, and necklaces embellished with Celtic geometrical designs, labyrinths, and knots. The man says his collection represents the entirety of Celtic culture, not just in Spain.

“You could tell me anything about Celtic culture,” Peter says. “I’d have to accept your word.”

The man gestures toward a bookcase that contains several titles by Harry Connelly. “You can read what I’ve written about it.”

To be courteous Peter pages through a few of Harry’s books, one on jewelry, one on signs and symbols, one on mysteries. A lean woman limps out to join them. She’s dressed rough. Torn rain jacket, well-worn jeans. Hasn’t brushed back the thick auburn hair that clouds her face.

“I’m Billie,” she says, interrupting Harry. “Came out to say hello.”

“Peter,” Peter says. He shakes her slim hand.

“After you’ve finished here, would you like to come in for a cup of coffee?”

“That’s exactly what I’d like.”

Billie limps back to the house. Harry leads Peter to a row of weathered gravestones leaning against the rear wall, their surface designs scarcely indentations. Before Harry can start in on them, Peter asks if he is American. Harry says yes. Peter asks how long he’s been on the Camino de Santiago. Eight years, Harry says.

“Billie been with you all that time?”

“No, two years. She’s planning to leave,” he adds before taking up the curvilinear aesthetic of the gravestones.

After Harry appears done, Peter says, “Think I’ll go have that cup of coffee.”

“Hold on, one more thing. Are you doing a pilgrimage on your motorcycle?”

“I picked it up in Munich and just decided to ride it some place out of the way. Then I’ll see.”

“See what?”

“I don’t know. You coming in for coffee, too?”

“I’ll stay here on the lookout.”

“I haven’t passed a peregrino in a long time.”

“You never know. Sometimes they drop out of the sky.”

Peter walks over to the farmhouse and enters a bare kitchen, no decorations on its cracked plaster walls, the pinkish tile floor also cracked, a ham hanging from an exposed beam with an upturned plastic umbrella stuck into it to catch the draining grease. Billie gestures for him to join her at the table where she sits with her bad foot propped on a wooden crate. A young woman fixes them coffee and then takes her toddler, hair as black and skin as white as hers, somewhere back in the house.

“She’s Anna,” Billie says. “The toddler is Enrique.”

“Tell me about you.”

She says she was playing her fiddle around Europe when Harry’s old band picked her up to open in Stuttgart. She calls it Harry’s old band because he had left it years before and only rejoined now and then to make money and buy more stuff for the museo. When the tour was over, she came with him to Galicia.

“We did all right until Harry fell in love with Anna.”

“That’s inconvenient.”

“It’s probably what I wanted to happen when I hired her, not just pity for her, a single mother and all.”

“Harry mentioned you were planning to leave.”

“Not with no money and this ankle.”

“How’d you hurt it?”

“In the hills looking for artifacts. A doctor in Oviedo said I tore a ligament. What are you doing here?”

“All I knew was that this was far away, and I thought there wouldn’t be anyone up here.”

“You got that right. There never is in March.”

Peter looks out the window at the rain. “How much is a room?”

“A room and shared bath is 30 Euros. Meals are extra.”

Peter has stayed in three Spanish pensiónes so far. He pictures a room with a mattress on a metal frame, no closet, a single lightbulb, and a moldy bathroom.

Harry comes in and asks Peter if he plans to stay for lunch. Potato pancakes and blood sausage. Only six Euros.

And Fundador on the house, Billie says. “Let’s have some now. Come in by the fire.”

She takes a bottle and two glasses off a shelf, not including Harry in her invitation.

Peter wonders if Harry is offended, but Harry already is taking a mug of coffee back to the museo, so he follows Billie into the next room and sits on one of two wooden chairs facing the hearth. Billie pours a lot of Fundador into each glass.

“My problem is that when we became involved, I agreed to pay for half of everything we wanted for the collection. We took three trips out of Spain. One to Ireland, one to France, one to England and Wales.”

“Adding up to how much on your part?”

“Basically everything.”

Enrique crawls in from the kitchen. Billie smells his bottom and calls to Anna. After

Anna retrieves Enrique, Billie and Peter have a second Fundador. Given the effect it is having on him, he says maybe he should spend the night in the pensión. Billie says that would be an excellent idea, the museo and pensión are wonderful for a while.

“In my case, the idyll phase lasted about six months. I’m embarrassed by the thought of explaining what I’ve been doing here since then. Basically nothing.”

Peter says he will have an explanation problem when he has to go back to work.

“What kind of work?”

“I’m a lawyer.”

“Just up and left?”


“Leave anyone behind?”

“Yes, but that’s not why I left.”

“Why, then?”

Because Peter hated being a lawyer and could afford quitting. On his last day, he walked out of the building feeling great. It was early afternoon, he was walking down the street unemployed, and he was free.

“I’m going to be drunk soon if I don’t eat something.”

“We don’t eat until Harry closes the museo. Come on, I’ll show you your room. It’s mine, but I sleep with the others when we have guests. Not in the same bed, of course, and definitely not with Anna. She’s a prude. I’ve never seen her naked.”

The room is small. The plaster is in rough shape. Billie’s clothes are stuffed into a dresser whose drawers are open. No rug on the floor. The bed a thin mattress on the springs of a metal frame.

“What is it about nothing on any of the walls?”

“Everything worth looking at goes into the museum.”

He gestures toward her fiddle case. “Do you play it much?”

She eases herself onto the bed and opens the case. “I was playing it for Enrique last night.” She checks the fiddle’s tuning a moment, drawing its bow slowly over its strings.

“What is the difference between a fiddle and a violin?”

“The music you play on it. When I was a girl, this was a violin. Now it’s a fiddle.” She plays something slow and sad. “Brahms,” she says. “Now I’ll make it Celtic.” Sadness becomes longing. She returns the fiddle to its case.

“You play well.”

“I used to play well.”

They spend a moment contemplating each other. Peter breaks it off.

“Who do I pay?”


“I’ll go do it and tell him lunch is ready.”

“Don’t make it sound like you’re giving him an order. He doesn’t like orders.”

Peter crosses the barnyard to the museo. “I thought I’d stay the night,” he says, gesturing toward the rain.

“Good idea.” Harry takes Peter’s credit card and swipes it through the square card reader on his smartphone. “That includes spending as much time as you want in the museum. It’s all yours.”

The way Harry says this makes Peter feel obliged to look around again.

“What is all this worth?”

“I have $150,000 in it. Twice that if I sold it.”

“How did you get going?”

Harry says he fell for what he calls Celtica when he and his band were touring Ireland, their first gig in Europe. He bought a silver cross (“That one,” he says, pointing to it) and after that, he couldn’t stop himself. He opens a case and removes a bronze fibula in the shape of a raven. How could he not want it? And one day when they were touring Spain, he saw an en venta sign by the roadside.

“So, I bought this place,” he says. “I make out well from May through September. Every few years, I reconnect with the band and earn some money and improve the collection.”

Peter wants to say, “And then came Billie,” but doesn’t need to because Harry brings her into it.

“Billie is why all this became complicated. Part of what’s here is hers. We co-own a bunch.”

They go inside for lunch. Anna stays on her feet, breaking off pieces of potato pancake for Enrique, who sits in a yellow highchair. Peter accepts a glass of red wine from Billie. Billie has some, too. Harry and Anna abstain.

“Well, let’s think blue sky,” Billie says. “What do you think you could do to help us out, Peter? I mean, you’re a lawyer. We’re not married, but we still need a divorce.”

“I don’t do domestic law. I do corporate stuff.”

“What sort of corporate stuff?”

“For the last two years I worked on a dispute between two mining companies.”

“Did you win?”

“The object isn’t to win; the object is to bill lots of hours before settling.”

“Not very romantic.”


“So, you didn’t come here looking to rescue Dulcinea?”

Billie uses a rubber band she’s produced from somewhere to fashion her hair into a ponytail. This opens her face, dramatizing its prettiness.

Alert to the effect of Billie’s gesture on Peter, Harry says, “Billie wants to leave, but I don’t have anything to buy her out.”

Anna, alert to a change in atmosphere, isn’t comfortable. She disappears with Enrique into the house.

“Why not just let her take her share of the collection with her? Divvy it up?” Peter asks.

“Then I’d have holes in the collection, and no money to fill them. What we need is a buyer for some stuff—money she can use to take off and money I can use to fill the holes. Interested?”

“What would I do with it?”

“You could resell it in Paris at a huge profit. You and Billie would have no trouble turning ten grand into twenty in a week, just not in Spain.”

Me and Billie? he thinks. “Why not in Spain?”

“Because he wants me out of Spain,” Billie says.

“No, because you couldn’t get the best prices in Spain,” Harry corrects her.

Peter can’t say he doesn’t have ten grand, and he has a spare helmet in his luggage box for a reason.

“This isn’t what I was thinking about when I woke up this morning.”

“Probably not but let me show you what I have in mind.”

Billie studies him with less hope than urgency in her eyes—say yes.

“All right. Let’s have a look.”

They go out to the museum where Harry picks through his display cases choosing items he’d include in the deal: a bronze mirror, five silver crosses, two bronze rings, three warrior figures, a fertility figure, an amulet. He says this hurts, these are pieces of him. Billie tells him that’s all right, he has two big new parts of himself, Anna and Enrique. And the baby, she adds.

“Anna is pregnant?” Peter asks.

“Another reason I’m off,” Billie says. “Or am I? Are you going to do this, Peter?”

Peter wonders if this is a scam. Will Billie will disappear one night, taking the stuff with her? Or is it actually worthless junk, getting her ride to Paris and disappearing when they get there? Or is it real and would she cling to him whether they suited one another or not—two bent twigs from different trees?

“Not sure we could fit this and all your stuff on my bike.”

“Just my fiddle and my toothbrush,” Billie says. “Anna can have my clothes.”

Harry has produced packing tissue and begins wrapping things and placing them in a canvas satchel. He lifts the satchel demonstratively. “This will be heavy but not bulky.”

Peter thinks again about his last day at work. He can walk away from this, too. He doesn’t need it. He can split.

“I’ll wrap the fiddle case in a plastic bag,” Billie says. “I’ll wrap me in a plastic bag.”

You have to be practical touring on a motorcycle, something Peter learned a long time ago. Instantly regretting it because there is nothing practical about it, he says, “We’d have to get you a bike suit in Oviedo.”

“Oviedo’s not far,” Harry says.

“Not far at all,” Billie says.

Despite their stillness, they are close to panic. Peter feels it, too, how terrible it would be if they lost a chance to get out of the mess they’re in. Knows the feeling. Says okay.

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