The question came in little gasps of breathy exertion:
“How…. much… longer…. is this….. going…. to take?”
He could barely get the words out, his body felt like lead, his breathing was so heavy, it muted the sound of his feet on the worn mountain path. Sweat covered his vaguely wrinkled forehead, the red shirt he wore had long since turned into a damp rag clinging to his shoulders. His heart pulsed, sending huge waves of blood through him, like dams about to burst. His heart was like a drum, pounding, pounding…
With each step, the muscles in his legs seemed just a moment away from ripping. It was pain, more pure than he ever remembered. He kept moving, as though tied to some sort of invisible rope that kept one foot following the other, endless, repetitive movement. He told himself that he couldn’t take it much longer, with each step he repeated the same thought within like a mantram. He imagined himself falling over, pushed too hard and for too long, soon the end would come.
There was a small laugh, it came a few feet ahead of him and traveled lightly on the wind till it found his ears.
“The path is the path. There is no end.”
Another light laugh followed, somehow finding its way to him over the sound of his heart and breathing and heavy footsteps.
His body reacted to the answer. He felt a sudden coldness, though he saw no wind moving the tree tops. Everything ended. There must be some mountain peak somewhere in the distance, there must be a point to the climb, something that they were trying to get to, something he was supposed to see.
Maybe a shrine? An old mountain hermit? A cave with paintings hidden within? Wasn’t there a point to this? There had to be an end, a place where he could rest his back against a tree and fill himself with slow deep breaths for hours and let his heart rest and his shirt dry.
“But I… can’t take…. much more of this,” his voice sounded desperate, “the… climb…. is almost… vertical… from as far…as I can tell… I’m… going to… fall… over… soon!”
Again the small laugh, almost like a bell, so light, filled with such melody. He didn’t feel offended when he heard it, it was not mocking or harsh, it felt like the sound of a child, innocent and open.
“Don’t worry, you’re fine. One step. Then another. Then you will need to take another. Feel the chain that binds us together and keep breathing. Keep moving.”
For a moment he felt nothing, no pain, no heavy breathing that burned his throat, just a calmness that seemed white and smelled of flowers.
“ahhhhh,” he moaned. A ripping pain in his legs consumed everything. He looked at the tall pine trees on either side of the path. He envied them. He wished he could stand still, adding his shape to their ranks. Just a moment of stillness, a moment to let a cool breeze wash over him and wipe away the rivers of sweat. He wanted to scream and turn around. He wanted to walk downhill, anywhere but up. Down to where he could find a car or a ride or a drink of water, perhaps a ham sandwich. He wanted to close his eyes and take a nap, to let his body rest and recover from this incredible strain. He wanted to do anything but this, but he felt the chain, he felt it wrapped around his heart, and he put one foot in front of the other, following the sound of bell-like laughter.
“Keep coming, the path continues this way.”