Last winter, I took a train to  Nice , a small town an hour south of Framce. Clusters of white rooftops poked above the trees, spindly pines scraping the pale blue sky. The air smelled of chimney smoke. Forests gave way to wide pastures, where cows and sheep grazed and starlings swooped low in search of seeds. Elke Hilbert picked me up at the train station in a wheezing stick shift and told me families took summertime boat trips on the nearby Main River. Her family took a boat there once, when her son Max was a child. She thinks about that trip often.

We took a roundabout route to Elke’s home. She showed me Max’s primary school, the traveler’s hostel where he worked as a teenager, the soccer pitch where he used to practice. Later, in the house, I sat at the kitchen table, and Elke brought me coffee and a tray of heart-shaped muffins she’d baked for Valentine’s Day. A neighbor rang the doorbell and gave Elke a basket of black and white cookies. “Please, eat them,” Elke said, pushing the treats toward me. 

I pulled out my recorder, and for the next five hours we talked about Max. He died in 2015 at nineteen, an apparent drowning in a Galician fishing village. When I visited Elke, he would have been twenty-three. My age.
I learned about Max after I walked the Camino de Santiago to Fisterra, a village on Galicia’s Costa da Morte. Fisterra means End of the Earth in Gallego, the local language. The landscape there is austere. Rugged cliffs cut into choppy water. During the wintertime, waves can reach up to forty feet high. The regional delicacy is a barnacle called percebe, and percebeiros risk their lives scrambling down rocks to collect them. Residents told me Fisterra saw a handful of drownings a year—most often pilgrims who underestimated the power of the current, but sometimes fishermen and percebeirostoo.  The rocky coast was also notorious for shipwrecks. With any tragedy on the sea, the first to arrive on the scene were fishermen, the people who knew the coast best. Later, a local poet would tell me, “We know death well here.”