The young man looked upward; he was not even halfway up the mountain. He groaned. He had already spent a week on this damned glorified hill, and he was not particularly thrilled about the rest of the ascent. He was unsure of his footing already, and he knew that the climb was only going to grow more dangerous, more unsettling, but he also knew that at the top of the mountain lay glory, immortality, perhaps even happiness.
The young man trod onward, his progress slowing day by day. He lacked the strength to traverse many of the obstacles, he quickly realized, but this revelation did nothing to stop him. Regardless of his own ability, he continued, nursing his inevitable wounds around the nightly fire, his progress slowing every day, eventually to a crawl; his pains grew nightly, his body wracked with bruises, cuts and gashes.
Time passed, and one morning he found himself walking through the thick fog. It was an incredibly stupid idea, he knew, but if he waited for the fog to dissipate, he would lose precious hours in the day, hours that he was unwilling to give up. He placed his foot down, sure of himself, but soon found that his foot was not as sure as him. His foot fell from under him, and he collapsed to his knees, an excruciating pain in his leg.
He tried to stand up, but the pain in his leg was unbearable. He knew it was the sort of pain that was unlikely to ever heal. He looked at the top of the mountain, and sobbed; throughout his whole life, the mountaintop was his dream, his entire life’s work. There it was, taunting him, taunting his infirmity. He crawled around for hours until he found a tree limb, and managed to fashion for himself a crude crutch. Leaving his belongings behind, he hobbled his way down to the valley and into the town, where he promptly collapsed in front of the home of a shopkeeper.
The shopkeeper came out and saw the young man, distraught, destroyed, and offered him a shoulder as he helped the young man into his house. The shopkeeper was an old man, although by his demeanour you would never know it. Unlike many of the elders of the village, he was spry, cheerful, and, perhaps most importantly to this story, kind.
The shopkeeper watched the young man for a few days, leaving him to himself mostly, only talking to him when the young man made the first remarks. The young man spoke little, and what he did speak of was of how his failure made him lesser. The old man remained silent, simply listening to the young man, pitying him. The old man had never climbed the mountain, but was happy with his life. In his youth, he’d started a family and watched his children grow up. In his old age, he was the doting grandfather, kind and loving despite the loss of his wife several years ago.
After a week, the old man looked at the younger and smiled. “I can’t help you climb the mountain,” he said gently, “but I can offer you a job in my shop.” The younger man, feeling ashamed, accepted the offer and began working in the shop. He was limited in his ability because of his leg, but the old man was understanding, having had a crippled child of his own.
The young man, through the window of the shop, had a view of the mountain that had stymied him; he looked at it every time he passed by the window, and the old man watched as the younger man grew tired. In the course of a day, the younger man, then the older, would feel that crushing weight at least once, if not more.
Slowly, though, the younger man became accustomed to his new life. He looked at the mountain out the window one day, and was surprised to find himself no longer wallowing in his self-pity. He simply felt a strange love for the mountain, its beauty, and what it represented. He smiled, and the older man, seeing this, smiled as well, albeit to himself, in the privacy of the back of the store.
Several years passed, and the young and old men became close friends, the older man viewing the younger as a new son, the younger viewing the older as a wise father. Both worked to improve the store, the younger man offering new ideas, the older man tempering them with decades of wisdom.
The young man, as all young men do eventually, noticed a girl. This one worked in the nearby shop, and he began finding excuses to visit her. The shop was out of flour, he told the older man one day, another time telling the older man that it was his birthday and that he was simply going over to get a cake for himself. The older man saw through it, but found it impossible to hate the man. After all, he himself had been smitten with a girl once, and he could see the effect it was having on the young man.
Several more years passed, and the old man fell ill. He continued to work as much as he could, his sickness slowly eating away at him. What had once been a healthy, well-built man was now a scrawny, sickly creature, but the young man never saw the older lose his love for the people around him or for the world at large. The young man watched as his friend slowly faded away. One night, finally, the old man slipped off this plane, and the young man grieved.
The old man, in accordance with his wishes, was cremated, and the young man placed the urn in a bag and set off up a damned glorified hill to spread the ashes. The woman from the bakery helped him pack, and, after several days, he made it to the top of the glorified hill. He looked out at the horizon, and spotted a familiar-looking tent on a smaller, nearby mountain. He took out the urn, said a prayer for his friend, and spread the ashes into the wind, kneeling down, weeping now. Here he was, on a taller mountain than the one that had nearly destroyed him, alive only because of his friend, the old man, knowing the old man only because of his fall. He looked at the tent he had slept in years ago, and said farewell to that dream he’d had since childhood, choosing now, at that moment, to go marry the woman from the bakery and start a family of his own.
Harold Schreckengost is 23 years old, and lives in a small town in Western Pennsylvania. He enjoys riding his bicycle and helping people he cares about, along with thinking about roughly everything. This piece is based on actual occurrences.