Written by A. Scott Buch
Leaving the hotel that morning, he felt like his Chinese had become at least decent enough to win a basic argument. Although more than being able to speak and understand some basic words it was his persistence that had won it. Earlier, when his younger brother had turned on the water to take a shower that morning – it being held together to the pipe on the wall by a thin strip of yellow tape – the entire shower head had popped off immediately from the water pressure and crashed onto the bathroom floor. The clerk at the front desk of the hotel was trying to pin the incident on him, and deducted money to fix the shower from his deposit. But on this particular morning he was in no mood to take a fall. The awkward yet serious argument had then climaxed with the loss of nothing precious.
But feelings of both triumph and doubt still lingered like an unwanted guest in his memory as the foreigner and his younger brother approached the foot of Hua Shan, – where the sleeping immortal was blanketed in thick white clouds. Steady rain had been falling since the early morning. The two brothers were already feeling the weight of that bearing down on them. Their bags were heavy enough as it was.
He had insisted on bringing along books and a chessboard, despite warnings against it from his brother. But now, because they liked the idea of contemplation on the peak of a mountain, the old collection of essays by Emerson they’d never read felt like the burden he was obligated to carry.
There was plenty of mystery, but none in the reason why they chose to climb the mountain. The pathways made of stone that they were walking began to steepen and narrow with each stretch of distance they cleared through the swirling mists engulfing them. Dark forest green foliage amongst the smooth tan sheets of rock faces were hung with drops of rain that dripped down onto their bodies. Stopping to take a rest at any one of the many stations along the long and winding way, he would linger to catch his breath, while his more athletic brother grew impatient. It seemed the first leg of the climb went on and on like the tail end of a dream that, in going nowhere, rushes to a conclusion that is uncertain.
“We can’t keep stopping or we’re gonna be even more tired,” his brother said.
That made no sense to him. He was taking long drinks out of his big bottle of water.
“And don’t drink when you’re thirsty.”
He let out a gasp as he took the bottle down from his lips and twisted on the red cap. The endless stream of water that cascaded down the slopes of the rocky path was overflowing into bowls filled with fresh cucumber, just below the commercial shelters where overpriced drinks were stocked in abundance.
“You think you’re some kind of mountain climbing expert?”
“I just want to be sure we make it to the top.”
The brothers were engaged in an ongoing chess match that had not yet been resolved. He knew it was his brother’s intention to see the game finished once they reached the summit. But Emerson just seemed to be growing heavier with each successive ascent up another flight of steps. They were becoming longer, more vertical, even narrower and less predictable than before. It required the use of heavy black chains made of steel bound up the sides of the treacherous trail to bring one to balance, and the peace of mind necessary to maintain the pace of the climb. But then again, all around you were companions. Making the exact same movements as you, they existed in both your past and your future.
Then all movement came to halt in the middle of their passage through the Thousand=feet canyon. Confronting immediate vertigo, he lifted his head up and traced the line of bodies downwards from the thin strip of sky at the top of the passage. An elderly woman and her husband of around seventy years of age had paused to catch their breath. With one hand grasping the links of the chain, the woman was leaning on the hilt of her umbrella. She gestured for the others to pass her by, with an expression that showed the determination she had to continue the climb once her energy revived. The deep set lines of age and concern across her husband’s face were not unlike that of the mountain surface. And when they had finally reached the top of that difficult passage, everyone seemed to share in their achievement.
From the lower depths around the base of the mountain, where their dark passage had been a struggle to emerge from doubt and the rain and the fog; all of a sudden they were rising above the clouds into a world in the heavens. Sunshine started to pour in through the gaps in the mist, which was now breaking into wisps and swirling about like ocean waves, crashing against the majestic cliffs of Hua Shan. To finally see with clarity the North peak of the mountain, and to feel the sun on their skin for the first time that day – with an aura of steam surrounding their bodies from evaporation – it was to understand the eternal relationship between the day and the night. But only moments after the dawning of the beauty of that experience, they had to face the fact that their glorious sun would soon be in decline.
The two brothers now felt pressure mounting to reach the West peak before sunset. If they missed the last lift down to the bottom then they’d be trapped upon the mountain overnight. What lay before them were the hundreds of steps along the Canglong Ridge which wound up and down over the spine of the spiritual dragon. The pain in his knees was growing sharper, although the weight on his back had diminished with his water supply. Each step after painful step took more effort than before. But with the control of his breathing, in heightened awareness of his surroundings, he became less conscious of self. Recognizing a kindred spirit in each pilgrim streaming down next to him on the other side of the climb, it was as if the journey to the top of the mountain was a surging of power within his soul. Delirious from seven hours of exertion, rather than climbing the mountain, he felt like he was being lifted by it.
“I think we’ve almost made it,” he said to his brother in between deep breaths.
“Almost,” his brother said.
Just then, for barely more than a second, his memory and his imagination met to form the vision of a figure in his mind. There walking besides them was a friend from his past. And though rain no longer fell, there were water droplets shattering into specs of mist on the brim of his wide straw hat. Carrying his daughter in a basket on his back, he laughed in that pleasant and mischievous way that shook your body to the core – its most profound sense of happiness and wonder.
Then he was also gone in the passing glance of a stranger.
They were arriving at the Jade Mountain Summit with what must have been an hour of daylight remaining. Sitting down in a pavilion that had been constructed for this exact purpose, his younger brother was still darting around in excitement taking photographs.
“This is what they call the magic hour!” his brother said with wide eyes.
And to be sure, Hua Shan looked majestic in the setting sun. But even with the power of it lending a golden hue to everything under its domain, he could not shake the melancholy of what he was thinking about. It would come time to say goodbye to the brother he already missed.
“That’s the last of it,” his brother said.
Having spent his roll of black and white film, his brother was satisfied.
“I can’t wait to see how they turn out.”
“Me too,” his brother replied.
Then he put down his bag and unpacked a box that rattled familiarly.
“So do we have time to finish the chess game?”
The space around the pavilion was buzzing with the frenzied motions of people soaking up the majesty of that holy moment down to the last drop with the lens of their cameras.
“I don’t think so,” he said.
Admiring the sun reflected on his face before it passed into shadow, he went on:
“It’s almost time.”