The Runner

The Runner

by

Phillip McCollum

A man is a god in ruins.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature

They call this the land of the rising sun, but as I soaked in the rays of a full moon, I thought it was beautiful enough to have equal claim.

Leaning against an uncomfortable boulder, I rubbed the sleepiness from my eyes and looked east over shimmering Lake Biwa. It loomed large, even when seen from nine hundred meters above sea level. In the humid summers, it’s one of the few sources of relief to those living below. But here, atop Mount Hiei, the air was crisp.

Behind me, down the mountain, sat Kyoto. After nearly seven years, I had almost forgotten the misery of day-to-day living on its sweltering blacktop streets and cramped office spaces.

Since then, I’ve been running.

The kaihōgyō is a mission of selfless devotion in search of enlightenment, practiced by the Tendai monks for a millennium. This mountain has felt my trampling feet for nine hundred and ninety-nine of the required thousand days.

Thirty kilometers a day, one hundred days each year, for the first three years. Then it’s two hundred days for years four and five.

Those first few years were difficult in many ways. My feet had been abused and molded into something resembling hard oak and whatever exposed skin, into the toughest leather. But that fifth year seemed to be a turning point. For seven-and-a-half days I went without food, water, or rest, forced to sit in a temple and chant. My fellow monks ensured I did not fall asleep and there were many times I felt that I was no longer in my body. I saw things I never wished to see again and I was happy to be running the trails once more.

The distance doubled in year six, though back to one hundred days. And now, in year seven, eighty-four kilometers for one hundred days, returning to thirty for the final hundred.

Each of the billions of steps I’ve taken up to this point have had the same result: one more step.

It would all end, soon.

The next several thousand will be more significant than any other. My fellow monks are waiting for me at Enryaku-ji.

Number forty-seven! they’ll cheer as I climb the carved steps to the central temple.

No one can remember number forty-six, but his name is recorded in a book somewhere deep inside the monastery.

I stood up, adjusted my oblong wooden hat, and stretched my legs before descending down the back of the mountain.

She was a simple silhouette in the middle of the trail.

Hikers aren’t an unusual sight on Mount Hiei, but never in the shade of night, and never one whose aspect matched that of this woman. She was facing the stones and shrubs that smothered the steep hill to my left, such that I could only see the outline of the left side of her body. A perfect gap in the trees filtered moonlight around her form.

Her hair was cropped close to her head. A hump rose over her stooped back. I expected her to have a cane or a walking stick, but her small hands hung low and empty at her sides. The dress she wore was thin and certainly not made for hiking. Except for a white cotton throw draped over her shoulders, she must have been freezing.

I didn’t have a watch, so I don’t recall the exact time, but I had become adept at reading the stars and knew that dawn would not arrive for some time.

“Hello,” I said.

She didn’t reply.

“Are you lost?” I asked.

Concerned, I walk toward her, hearing every crunch of my straw sandals on the packed dirt. I stopped maybe a meter from her and she still hadn’t moved or responded in any way.

I followed her line of sight and was not completely surprised to see a small, red-furred fox peeking its head out from a bush of geraniums. They tend to hunt this time of night, especially with the lack of foot traffic.

I tried again. “Pardon me, miss, do you need–”

She turned her head and I shrank back, losing my balance, waving my arms wildly to avoid a fall to the ground. My stomach felt as if it would drop out of my body. Her lips were twisted into a snarl on the right side of her mouth, connecting to a blackened cheek. One eye was fleshed over, missing an eyebrow and I saw now that her hair was missing on the right side of her skull–all part of a continuous flow of scarred skin that resembled melted cheese.

I recovered and felt ashamed at my behavior. Still, I kept a respectful distance.

“I’m sorry,” I said, stammering out an excuse. “There is usually no one else here at this hour.”

She tilted her head as if confused and slowly turned back towards the bottom of the trail which disappeared into a curve lined with cedar trees. Again, I followed her eyes and saw a group of strangers. It was difficult to separate them out as they were huddled together, but I guessed there were about ten or fifteen of them. Skinny and tall. Short and fat. Everything in between.

I admit I grew frightened again. I couldn’t tell you why. It seemed the explanation could have been as simple as a tour group left behind.

Yet I ran back up the hill. It’s what I did best. I decided I would catch the other trail that came down the side facing Lake Biwa and double back on a side trail to the monastery.

It wasn’t until I reached the apex where I had earlier been sitting that I stopped to catch my breath. I was used to keeping a steady pace when running, but the uphill sprint left me breathless and an old familiar pang radiated through my quadriceps. I paced slowly back and forth, my hands above my head so that I could take more air into my lungs, staring back in the direction from which I had come. There appeared to be no one following me.

Feeling the shame return, I thought that maybe I should go back and try to help them. Somehow, though, I convinced myself that it would be wiser to continue down the back trail and wind around the mountain to Enryaku-ji. I could alert the other monks and they would want to help.

They say that when you’re young, you dream of the future, but when you’re old, you dream of the past. I hadn’t dreamed of anything in a long time, but as I found myself coming around another corner and facing the old woman again, I had to wonder.

This time she faced me directly. The moonlight, again, amplified her frightful condition. She stood in front of a group of people. The same? Maybe.

Nineteen total.

I counted them quickly. I had always been good with numbers.

I noticed they all had a grayish look about them, like they were coated in dust.

This time they were lined up only a few meters behind her, hand in hand, blocking the trail like a human fence. I was taken aback to realize there were children there. Little girls in flowing blue kimonos and young boys with buttoned white shirts, their hands in their pockets. School uniforms.

Movement at the woman’s feet caught my eye. It was another fox.

A part of me knew it was futile to run back up the hill. I turned to do so anyway, but my legs lost their strength as the damned old woman was in front of me once again, this time a similar group of people behind her.

Twelve, now. Their flesh also faded and dirty.

“What do you want?!” I shouted. “Help!” came inadvertently after, useless since it was choked off by the lump in my throat. I could only hope another monk was taking a midnight walk, but it was unlikely this far up the mountain.

The fox walked through the old woman’s legs, brushing up against them like a cat, and sauntered forward. I was frozen. My mind calculated the possibility of jumping down into the steep ravine on my left, but the drops in between stone bastions were too steep. I’d never make it.

“You lost your hat.”

My hand went to my bald pate. I shook my head, first slowly and then quickly. My eyes focused on the fox. I don’t know that I could see its jaws moving or that it would have mattered. I was sure I was dreaming now.

I shut my eyes. “Wake up,” I said quietly to myself. A cold breeze stirred, chilling the sweat on my skin.

Something tugged at my white robe. I looked down and saw the fox with the bottom of it between her sharp little teeth.

“I said, you lost your hat,” the fox spoke again, slightly muffled by the material in her mouth.

After three hundred days of running with the hat under my left arm, like all Tendai monks, I was given the privilege to wear it on my head. Since then, it had rarely left, even at night when I used it to shade my eyes during sleep. It must have fallen off during my frantic run.

A disturbing realization swept over me.

“Am I dead?”

Was that why she mentioned my hat? Inside of it was a coin, a rokumon-sen, used to pay the toll to cross the Sanzu River should I perish before the end of my seven-year journey.

 

The fox let go of my robe and tittered, or what I think was a titter. Foxes make the strangest sounds.

“No, Kenichi-san. You don’t need your coin today. Unless you so choose.”

I looked up at the people again. All emotionless, staring at me with lamented eyes. Memories of childhood flooded my mind: stories of the wood spirits known to populate Mount Hiei. And Inari, that tricky goddess who often appeared in the form of a fox.

It had to be a dream. I convinced myself it couldn’t be anything but. So I played along hoping it would usher its end and I would wake on the top of the mountain, sleeping high above the lake, ready to complete my trial.

“You are Inari?” I asked.

In the blink of an eye, the fox was gone and I found myself facing a beautiful, and completely naked, woman, the likes of which I’d never laid eyes on. The moon revealed straight, black hair with a tint of red. Her eyes resembled terracotta, shaded slightly by long, thick eyelashes. And her lips. They were crimson against snow-white skin. I had a wife once who was pretty in her own way, but never like this.

I attempted to direct my eyes away in modesty, but her hand gripped my chin and gently held it in place.

“I am,” she replied. Her breath smelled of sweet mint leaf.

With her other hand, she turned my right arm over and pushed its sleeve up to my elbow. Her hold was gentle and every muscle in my body relaxed in her presence. She looked down.

“Pretty. What do these mean?”

I strained to look at my arm. Though I saw my flesh every morning, every time I bathed, every time I changed my robes, it had been almost seven years since I had looked at it.

“They are nothing,” I said and attempted to pull my arm back. The woman’s grip tightened like a snake around a rat.

“They are not nothing,” she said, this time quite forcefully. “Tell me what they mean.”

I really wanted to wake up. I did not want to look at those markings again. If I could have cut them from my body, I would have. I felt strangled by the presence of the others. Though they hadn’t come any closer, it seemed as if they were collapsing in on me like mahjong tiles.

I took a deep breath. My eyes traced the faded, but still intricate patterns which coated my arms and ran up into the hidden confines of my robe.

They were my irezumi–my inserted ink. My wrist marked the end of a series of vines that twisted together and wrapped around the edge of a samurai’s blade. Its honed edge sliced through the middle of a delicate pink lotus.

“They mean that I have lived another life.”

“What kind of life?” Her question was swift.

I looked at her light brown eyes and saw that she was already peering back at me.

“I was an accountant.”

“Things sure have changed in the world,” she said. “A money counter with such beautiful pictures pressed into his skin.”

“I don’t want to talk about this. Please, Inari, let me go. I need to return to the shrine.”

“You have been on a long journey, Kenichi-san. I’m sure you are tired.” She let go of my arm and it felt as if a hot iron had been pulled from my flesh. I still felt the sting of her grip.

“I will let you go, of course, but first you must answer some questions.”

I would have done almost anything to be free of the goddess and those who surrounded us now.

“Yes, anything,” I replied.

“What will you do when you return?”

The question struck me odd. I replied, “I will probably sleep for a very long time,” though I doubted I would ever sleep again after tonight.

“And then what?”

I hadn’t thought that far ahead. In all honesty, it was a question that had been in the back of my mind, but I was afraid of answering. Over the years, I had put all of my energy and thoughts into only one thing: the next step.

“I suppose that I will pray and tend to duties around the monastery.”

“I see,” she said. She backed up a little now and her companions seemed to follow in lockstep. It gave me full view of her body and try as I might to look away, I couldn’t. The goddess didn’t seem to mind.

“I’ve done my time, goddess.”

“Your time? For what? Have you committed a crime?”

Why did I say that? Her questions opened up old wounds. I straightened up and looked her in the eyes.

“I have committed no crime.”

Inari stretched her arms in indication of the people surrounding her. “There is some disagreement there.”

I stared at all of them. The life had been sucked out of all of their faces and their dead gazes made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. “You know who I am.”

“Tell us.”

I ground my teeth until I could finally force the words.

“I worked for the Yakuza,” I said, exasperated, “but I only kept their books. And I have not lived that life for many years!” My voice pleaded, “What do you want me to say?”

She stepped up to me again and laid her hand on my cheek. Her eyes were expressions of empathy.“I want nothing but for you to understand that which you already know.”

Now I grew indignant and crossed my arms. “Understand what?”

“Why you are on this mountain. Why you are responsible.”

That was the heart of things, then. A memory buried deep in my subconscious. I wondered when the last time was that I thought about the beginning of my journey. A lost soul arriving at the temple, looking to get away from something.

“I was simply an accountant.” It came out as a whisper.

“Simply,” she said with little emotion. Inari tutted her tongue as she turned and looked at the old woman. “Simply ensured that your bosses could pay the men who burned Yoshiko to death in her home because her son could not remit his gambling debts.” She looked at the small children covered in dust. “Simply ensured that the pockets of thugs were filled with coin so that they willingly buried an entire village alive because their elder had repeatedly refused protection in the marketplace.”

My heart constricted and tears streamed down my face, blurring my vision. I bawled like a baby while the goddess still had her hand on my cheek.

“You thought that you could run away,” she said. The gleam in her eyes still evoked compassion. “You can, you know.”

I looked at her and then at the dreary people behind her who shuffled and spread apart, leaving a gap to the trail.

“Run?”

“Either that or use the tools that were given to you at the beginning.”

I looked down at the short, sharp blade and piece of hemp rope that were attached to my belt. All Tendai monks are given these in case they cannot fulfill their thousand-day journey. Disembowelment or hanging–dealer’s choice.

“If you return to the monastery, you will die anyway,” she finished.

I finally understood. I looked at the people, then to the opening. Their eyes had turned away. Inari stepped aside, providing me an opportunity.

I wiped my tears away and ran through them all until I was out of breath and I finally collapsed onto the ground.

My back ached and I jumped up, realizing where I was. The moon was hanging over Lake Biwa. My hands went to my head. I felt the thin wooden slats of my hat and sighed.

I ran down the mountain and soon found myself standing timidly behind a grouping of cedars. Enryaku-ji was only twenty meters away. Red and white streamers hung across the gates and a pair of monks were busy standing up a large sign with the number forty-seven written across.

I looked down at the rope and knife. They felt heavier than I’ve ever known them to and I realized that I had already made my decision.

My sandals crunched on the packed trail dirt as I turned back, relaxed my shoulders, and took one step in front of the other.

9 thoughts on “The Runner”

  1. Woo hoo, Phillip! This one is a real gem. I love the way the puzzling scenario becomes clearer and clearer, and then the realization at the end is completely stunning — and perfect.

    Nice job. And you should definitely find a place to submit this to. Sooner than later.

    👏👏👏

    1. 😀 High praise coming from you Kevin, so thank you for taking the time to read and comment! As much as I would love to submit some of these, I’ve got a notion to compile them at the end of my 52-week journey and self-publish them in one form or another.

    1. So glad you liked it, Linda! No plans to send these out any time soon, but we’ll see where things end up at the end of my 52-week experiment.

  2. I’m a sucker for mysticism mixed up with the real world, and this one layered it all well – of all your stories so far this one nailed the pacing: at no point was my mind left to wander or question what I was reading; I was inside the story all the way.

    Also, have to call out the opening line. Cracking mate, absolutely cracking.

    1. Many thanks for the feedback and kind words, Col! Yeah, I can’t seem to write a “normal” story without some sort of supernatural element. Though the next one in the pipe is a bit of a departure as you’ll see. I’m loving how much these weekly short stories allow me to experiment and get outside of my comfort zone.

      How’s the writing going with you?

      1. Hit a bit of a frustrating lull on my own WIP. Day job has had me (WARNING! EXCUSES INCOMING!) travelling across Europe with some pretty intense work over last couple of weeks. I got my outline finished before I left, but the plan to write on various planes, trains and hotel rooms disintegrated into what became a blur of work, travel, very little sleep and self-pity (I hate being away from my family). Since getting back, I’ve been catching up by writing some absolute drivel, but managed to whack out 500 reasonable words yesterday. Hopefully getting into some routine will help.

        1. Hey, you’re talking to an esteemed member of the Royal Society of Excuse Makers, so no need to feel any shame there. I’ve been on that work/travel road many times and it really puts the routine to the test. Glad you’re back at it though. In my view, so long as you keep coming back to it, you’re halfway there.

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