THE sound of falling water drew Sam closer to the shrine at the foot of Mount Nantai. A twisted rope spanned the temple’s entrance. Four lightning-shaped streamers adorned the simple rope. Sam made an offering to bless his climb before starting up the wide stone steps. The path led to a steeper staircase with a metal railing up the center.
The ground soon turned rough, hewed by the axe of an ancient mountain god. Rows of stick trees seemed as unshaven hairs. But no blade could best the roots and rocks, stumps and shards which rose from the skin of this great volcano. No step was sure. And yet, in any second, an outstretched arm could touch the sky.
As the trail turned to pavement, Sam stopped to drink from his bottle. The water tasted sweet. Only forty-five minutes into a four-hour climb and he was ready to sing praises to filtered water. Sam bowed to the water before washing the sweat from his brow.
A few hikers were sprinkled on the edge of the road. A few more on a grass mound cresting along side a small building. Sam scanned the faces of the mostly young travelers. Had he hoped to recognize someone?
He noticed the marker for Station Four. He hadn’t seen the other stones. An auspicious entrance framed a set of concrete steps which shrank as they twisted up and out of sight. He wasn’t ready for all the unknowns that hid beyond that bend. He yearned for a bed but would gladly settle for a bench. He turned to face the lookout. The small square shelter rested on another square, an odd cement block foundation open on one end. An old man sat on a large nearby rock.
“Sir?” No response. “Sir-san?”
The man laughed without acknowledging Sam.
“I don’t have much to offer, sir, but I’d gladly give you all I have to sit on your rock.”
The man slid to his left and tapped twice on the now open seat.
“You offered me anything. I accept your shoes as a gift for the mountain god.”
Sam began to unlace his left shoe.
The old man laughed uncontrollably, looking at Sam for the first time. “You are quite suppliant and yet I am not a god.”
Sam tied his shoe.
“Do you not honor your word?”
“I haven’t lived long enough to know my worth.”
“I accept your honesty as payment for all debts.” As he studied Sam, the old man’s face grew more and more inquisitive. “Pardon my curiosity, but is it true you own nothing?”
“And you know nothing?”
“Such a man with nothing must want of something.”
“Somedays, a cup of water and a bowl of rice is enough.” Sam chuckled. “And, of course, a place to sit.”
“Yes, for a body this is good. But for a soul? Does your soul not toil for something?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“I am an old man. I have heard many things.”
“Yes, I’m sure you have.” Sam hesitated. Something about this man was oddly familiar. “Is it true there’s a blade at the summit? One which pierces through rock and points to heaven?”
“It is one of many, not the sword you seek.”
“I never said anything about a specific sword.”
“My apologies, Sam-san. You are a man in search of his destiny, so when you asked about the sword at the summit….” The man smiled. “Perhaps you have come so far across the world for exercise? Or to fix my television?”
Paperback Comedian: A Novella Trilogy
Copyright © 2020 E. C. Flickinger