Rescue in the Mystical Mountains

C.B. Heinemann

As soon as I saw them I felt in my gut that going up into them would somehow alter my life. Rising abruptly from the Rio Lebregat valley northwest of Barcelona, the gnarled teeth of the Montserrat mountain range seemed to hang from the clouds rather than spring from the earth. Monks and mystics once withdrew from the world to meditate and pray among those peaks. Today, more tourists than mystics visit the weirdly magnificent mountains that look like geological anomalies from another planet.

“I’ve never felt such an odd sensation about visiting a place,” said my wife, Annette. “According to legend, Parsifal found the Holy Grail up there somewhere, and Saint Peter hid a carving of the Black Madonna in a cave—the same Black Madonna they have in the monastery’s basilica.”

“I know, that’s one reason I want to go there—I’ve never seen one of those Black Madonnas. Nobody knows who made any of them, or even when.”

“You were certainly insistent about coming. Maybe the Black Madonna was calling to you.”

I laughed. “Maybe. Aren’t you glad now that we came?”

We corkscrewed up a vertical road and entered the village of Montserrat where it clings to the side of the mountains. We then parked and walked past the sprawling monastery to Plaza Santa Noria, where the basilica and one of Spain’s finest art museums, Museu de Montserrat, sit on the edge of the square. Following a string of pilgrims, we entered the vast basilica and approached the altar from a side aisle. From there we entered a dark viewing room to have a close look at the famous Madonna. With her solemn expression and dazzling gold dress, she gazed serenely across the centuries into my eyes. I experienced a subtle but distinctly odd sensation. “These Catholics love their dolls,” I said, trying to make light of it. “I guess all the wealth of Spain went into dressing them up while poor people went hungry.”

The Museu was a delight, featuring works by El Greco, Picasso, and other artists. But already I was beginning to feel the gravitational pull of the high mountains just on the edge of town. I always had problems with heights, but an inexplicable urgency prodded me to run over and buy tickets for the funicular that would take us high into the mountains. I ran back to the car to bring a couple of tins of lamb stew even though we already had sandwiches in my daypack. I had no inkling that we were about to embark on our own mystical adventure.

After drinking in the dizzying view from the upper funicular station, we followed a path past massive rock formations, through wooded areas, and along steep ridges with incredible views. After a look at the derelict Monastery of Sant Joan, we trudged uphill to the remote hermitage of Sant Jeronino, one of many scattered through the mountains. The lonely peaks around us had been sculpted into eerie shapes by centuries of wind and rain.

I decided to follow a narrow path that led us above the trees to the highest point in the Montserrat range. The fierce winds pounded us and an attack of vertigo forced me to sit down for a few minutes. “We can go back if you need to,” Annette said. “But I think you’ll regret it. These views are amazing!”

That internal sense of urgency compelled me to get up and keep going, ignoring my fear. We ascended a stairway cut into the stone, clinging to an ancient iron handrail to keep from being blown off the mountain. By the time we reached the tiny platform at the very top, I felt like I’d climbed a tower to the clouds, and couldn’t force myself to look down. I had to sit down again and stare at the ground to regain my composure.

A man sat reading on a nearby rock, and he greeted us in English. I glanced up and noticed that we shared the platform with two small beagles, a mother and her pup, who sat tied to the railing and huddled together against the wind.

“Are those your dogs?” I asked.

The man looked up from his book. “I don’t know who they belong to. I’ve come up here to read the past couple of days, and they’ve been here both times.”

“You mean somebody just left them up here?”

“It looks that way. I’ve brought them food and water, but I can’t get them to come down with me.”

Two little dogs, deserted on a windblown mountaintop! How could anybody leave their pets to starve there alone, especially in an area so steeped in spirituality? Annette and I petted them while they moved closer to get warm. We knew immediately what we had to do.

Annette turned to the man. “We’ve got to get them down. Otherwise they’ll just die up here.”

“But how will you get them down? They’re too weak to walk.”

My vertigo was forgotten and I stood up. “I’ll carry them if I have to. We can’t just leave them here.”

I took a tin of stew from my daypack, opened it up, and placed it on the ground. The dogs gobbled it up in a moment. We then untied the dogs and held out some more pieces of meat from the other tin. After some coaxing, they began to follow us.

Our hike back became a more arduous trek than I anticipated. The mother dog was too weak to walk, so I had to carry her in my arms. The pup was more energetic, and frisked around our legs. The only other hiker we encountered was an American who donated his bottle of water to the two dehydrated dogs after hearing of their plight.

By the time we reached the funicular station later that afternoon, the mother dog was completely exhausted and her eyes were lifeless. The driver told us that after he dropped the last passengers at the bottom, he would return and take us and the dogs down into town. He left a plate of leftover pasta for the dogs before he left. We waited for more than an hour, but he never returned. As darkness surrounded us, we realized that we would have to walk back. I didn’t know if I could carry the mother much longer, but I had to try.

Down and down we hiked as the sky became streaked with orange and purple. After some more food, water, and a rest, the mother was finally able walk on her own. We walked quickly to avoid becoming lost in the darkness. When we finally neared the town, the pup galloped ahead of us to stop and look at something. When we caught up with him, we saw that he was staring at a statue that had been built into a small grotto. A closer look revealed that he had been transfixed by a statute of St. Francis. The mother dog walked over to join her pup, and the two walked slowly and deliberately to the foot of the statue, their eyes on the face of St. Francis.

“Those two little dogs look like they’re praying to Saint Francis,” Annette whispered. “What do you think of the ‘dolls’ now?”

We all stood for several minutes while the dogs gazed into the face of the saint. It had to be more than mere coincidence—we had traveled a long way with those two, but that was the first time they did anything like that. The hairs on the back of my neck rose, and a chill squirmed through me.

As darkness completed its descent over the mountains, the dogs were ready to move on. We found the local police station and brought the dogs inside. An officer who spoke English took them, assuring us that the monks would adopt the two and take good care of them. He let us come with him to the monastery, where he put them into a large cage. Tears poured down Annette’s face, and my own eyes began to fill with liquid.

“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” the officer repeated. “They will be well cared for. My cousin runs a restaurant just around the corner. I’ll bring them food right away. They’ll only be in the cage for tonight.”

With heavy hearts we left our two new friends behind. We had to wonder if we had somehow been led there that day to rescue the dogs. Why did I feel such a compulsion to go up to the top of Montserrat that day in spite of my fear of heights? Why bring tins of stew along though we didn’t need them ourselves? Why did we climb to that part of the mountain and force ourselves to go on in spite of vertigo and strong winds? And why did the dogs stop to stand at the feet of the statue of St. Francis?

The mountains of Montserrat have long been home to mysteries, miracles, and legend, and after that day, they gave us something of a mystery of our own.


About the Author

A graduate of the University of Maryland, C.B. Heinemann's articles and stories have appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Fate, One Million Stories, The Whistling Fire, The Battered Suitcase, Danse Macabre, Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine, Spilt Infinitive, Whistling Shade, and Lowestoft Chronicle.