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Historical Fiction East Asian Coming of Age

The great stone slab shifted into the earth with a heavy drum, fitting into the grooves as though it had always rested there, nestled against the mountain. Dried clay churned out from beneath it, small rocks scraped its underside. It groaned, stilled, and settled. 

The man released his grip, wiped his palms, peered down at the long gray stone. Beads of sweat shimmered across his dark forehead, sinews bulged from his forearms, breath filled his lungs, escaped, and caught the breeze. “One more step,” his voice resounded--deep, sonorous, gentle. “One more step, added to the many.” Behind him, curving down the shag rockface, patched with pale green grass amidst the sea of sunset-brown, the staircase coursed like a vein across the mountain. It followed his gaze, wound steadily downward through thin layers of cloud and swashes of mist. Wound to the base of the cliff. There, the stones were worked with lichen, pocked with the time-mark of rain, smoothed by the wind of centuries. 

It was a day's walk to the foot of the great mountain, a walk on slick earth and shifting gravel, a walk in careful avoidance of the steps. The man worked his way down, bare feet sliding along the loose dirt, catching and rebalancing in the clusters of thin-rooted grass with familiar ease. He did not look to the ground in his descent. Rather, his eyes were distant, watching the mountain range, the sun casting its watery light upon the jagged perch. His feet worked their way over small rocks, hardened clay, the cool stone of the bluff, leaving, all the while, the flat even slabs untouched. 

Night drew in. Wind lapped up the slope, over bald spans of stone, through tall wiry grass; with it came shadow, and the mountain was lost in darkness. The man found his bed beneath a thin outcrop, a plate of dark rock jutting up and out, pointing to the distant peak above. He cast his eyes along the stone’s path. The mountaintop was a silhouette cut from the moon. Light seemed to pool by its edges--pale and fickle. Seemed to find the lineal paths carved by ancient rain, pour down the cliff, catch and break like rapids over the rock. It found the steps, and cascaded from one smooth slab to the next. He slept. 

The sun climbed above the distant peaks as his foot met earth at the base of the winding staircase. He paused, looking for a moment to that first slab--that first stone laid lifetimes ago. Where time had eaten at its edges, where plants had found purchase at its base, where a beam of sunlight cast a long sheen across its surface. Unwalked, untouched beyond its initial placement, sacred as that to which it leads: the mountaintop--the unembellished holy place. 

His son was sitting a few strides away, shaded by the outstretched limb of a large tree, legs crossed, hands busy. With each swing of his arm the hammer bit into the flat of the chisel, tore a length from the coarse stone on which he worked. Shards of rock piled around his feet where the crude slab was propped. He swung again, the chisel dug in against the stone, echoed through the space--a high, metallic sound. He looked up, set down his tools, wiped the dust from his lap, and stood with gentle ease. “Hello, father,” he said. “How fared the mountain?” 

“It was kind,” said the man. He walked from the base of the steps, coming to greet his son. They met arms at the wrist and pulled together into an embrace, loomed back and peered at one another. Their black hair was mirrored, one shot with gray, the other sleek, shining in the sun. Their features matched: high cheeks, a long thin nose, a sharp jaw, soft kind eyes wrinkled slightly at the corners. 

“I have carved three more steps in your absence,” said the son, gesturing behind him to the base of the tree. There, between a tangle of roots, the stones rested side by side, shaded by the canopy of leaves. “The villagers have left you food, it is in the basket.”

“Thank you, my son,” said the man. He moved to the base of the tree, ran a hand along the smooth surface of the stones. “Danzin,” he said.

“Yes, father?” 

“How old is your son, my grandchild?” 

“Thirteen when next the moon changes. It is then time?” The son asked. 

The man nodded. “It is. You will leave for the mountain at nightfall. I will have your wife bring my grandchild, and I will teach him to carve the stone as I have taught you.” 

The son nodded. His mouth formed a flat line, a mix of sadness and satisfaction twisted across his face. This was the moment of facing one’s fate, one’s destiny. The moment of crude awakening, long awaiting coming to shuttering fruition. The father remembered it well, and he smiled at his son. 

“Walk in the night so you may lay the stone beneath the sun. Carry it well, as you have shown to carry yourself. You know the path, Danzin.” 

Soon, it seemed, the stars threatened the sky. The sun gave way, the moon rose. The man had left the small plateau--the landing from which the paternal staircase spiraled up, climbed steadily, carefully towards the peak. He made way to the village below, to his daughter, to his grandchild. He thought of his own son, of his father, of the steps--innumerous, ever-growing. He thought of his grandfather, his poba, and how he had learned the chisel, worked the stone. His lips curled, his eyes ached; the man whispered a silent prayer, and smiled at the future. 

The son lay foot to the shifting slope, the ancient stone braced upon his back--carved and chiseled by his hand, heavy in its holy opulence. His arms burned beneath the fading light, his head rang, his chest beat like a thousand drums. The steps disappeared above him, masked by cloud. The rocks slid beneath his feet, gritted and churned with each step. He thought of his son, of the day he was born, of the chisel now passed down to him as it had been so many times before. He thought of his father, of his strength, of how each of his steps yawned forward and planted, always sturdy against the earth. He looked to the stairs, to his purpose. He looked to the mountaintop, and saw what it promised. He smiled. 

The man reached the village as the last hints of day fell atop the distant mountains--a sheath of pale light pushed down by the cycle of time. The village rose from the foot of the hill. Humble houses stood small and pressed together. Children played as the man passed. He saw families, recognized friends of long ago. “Poba,” they muttered with bows, deep nods, smiles. The man nodded in return. He swept through the street, the dirt flat, steady underfoot, the weight missing from his shoulders; it now rested upon his son. “Poba,” a woman said; he gave a small bow, continued on. The door to his family’s home was open, cracked inward, the light cutting through, dashed across the floor. He entered. 

“I am here to see my grandchild,” the man said in his deep voice. 

Tara turned from the end of the room, where she worked to prepare a platter of tsampa and rice. “Father,” she said, smiling. “It is good to see you.” 

“Hello, Tara,” he returned. “You as well.”

“What brings you to the village?” Her face drew in, “Is Danzin well?” She asked. 

The man pursed his lips thoughtfully, paused. “He has taken to the mountain, to lay the stone of his ancestors, to set the path of his children and theirs.” 

She nodded slowly, hesitantly. “You have come for your grandson,” she said, her eyes falling to the floor. “He is not yet thirteen, father of my husband.” 

“He is old enough,” said the man. “Send for him, Tara. It is time.” 

She bowed. “Yes, Poba.” 

“I will be waiting at the mountain’s foot, bring him by first light.” 

“Will you not stay the night?” Tara asked.

“Too long I have slept without a roof . . . I find the stars are to my liking. Be well, my daughter. I will give Danzin your prayers.” He smiled softly, sourly, “Your son will be safe, do not fret.” 

She pushed a smile onto her face, however fleeting, nodded, and turned away. 

The man sat, cross-legged, eyes closed, hands touching the roots of the great tree. A dark blue seeped into the black of the sky, cast an antithetical veil of illuminant shadow upon the earth. He heard the brush of feet on grass--the padding approach of Tara, her son in step. She spoke. 

“Father,” she said. “I have brought your grandson, Yonten . . . as well as food, from the villagers.” 

The man opened his eyes, looked up at the wife of his son, her child--his black hair so alike to his father’s, his eyes the same green as his mother’s. Tara turned her face, so as not to meet his gaze. Her cheeks were red, lips curled into a tight line. 

“You cry, daughter?” The man asked.

She did not answer, her chin tucked to her chest, a silent sob shaking her body. 

The man stood slowly, pressed a calloused hand to her shoulder. “It is a great honor, sweet Tara, that the blood of your husband has gifted young Yonten. It is because of your family--because of you--that the people of our village shall one day kneel and pray atop our sacred mountain. It is the work of lifetimes. May your heart be full with this knowledge, my daughter.”

“Yes, father,” she said dully. 

The man frowned. “You are not losing a child, you are gaining a man. Your son will one day return to you, and through the streets he will be praised. People will call to him, Poba--wise one, grandfather--for he will have served them all in his selfless duty.” He looked down at his grandchild and smiled. “Come, Yonten, it is time.” 

The young boy looked to his mother, touched her hand, and nodded. “Yes, Poba,” he said softly. 

The sun reached its pinnacle in the sky. Heat blurred the edges of the plateau, wafting up in waves, etching its warmth upon the stones. There was no breeze cast down, broken and fierce from the mountainside. There were no clouds to shield the beams of light in their piercing descent. Sweat dripped from the young boy’s forehead, his chest heaved, and his arm swung, lofting the hammer. A long chip of rock came off with the metallic clang of the chisel. 

“Very good, child,” said the man from his place at the base of the tree. 

“Thank you, Poba,” said Yonten, breathing heavy. Then, after a pause, “Grandfather . . .” 

“Yes?” Said the man. 

“Is my father up there?” He asked, pointing to the mountain, to the winding steps. 

“He is, child.” 

“Laying the stones?” Yonten said, looking to his grandfather. 

“Yes,” he said. 

“Why?” 

The man smiled slightly. “One day you will have a child, Yonten. Perhaps, you will have many. Those children will father and mother their own. In the time of my grandfather, our village was a cluster of houses, a length of farmland. In the time of his grandfather, there was but a hut, shared by the few who chose to live in the valley--a small community, close and codependent. Since then--those many generations ago--your ancestors have laid these steps. One by one, carved with intricate care, the slabs were set into the mountainside; they have formed the staircase that climbs before us. All this, these centuries of labor, so that one day there may rest a temple upon our holy mountain. All this, so that your children’s children may one day find god within themselves, the god that lives within all. Do you understand, Yonten?” 

The boy looked to his grandfather, face thoughtful, one hand clasped to the other. “I do, Poba,” he said, voice quiet, unsure. 

“You will,” said the man. “It is on the path of servitude that one finds exaltation--the path to the mountaintop that one finds holiness. It is the greatest gift to build the temple, and the greatest honor to worship within. Now, return to your work.” 

The sun had sloped, the tallest of the distant mountains reaching up to touch the lowest of its points. Golden light floated gently down upon the flat, where the steps ceased, and the tree grew. Yonten set down his hammer, lay the chisel to its side, and wiped the sweat from his brow. His grandfather slept beneath the shade of the leaves, hands cupped in his lap, the breath coming in and out of his lungs. Yonten watched him for a hesitant moment, moved slowly through the grass, testing the man’s rest; he did not stir. The young boy cast his eyes to the stairs. His father was upon them, somewhere far above, veiled by the late day haze, and the low-set clouds. He walked carefully, quietly to the base of the stone slabs. Peered down upon that first great rock, carved when the village was but a hut, his grandfather had said. He brought his foot up and stepped upon it. He felt the grooves beneath his toes, the soft smooth lines left by weather and time. They reminded him of the lines on his grandfather’s face, the streaks of wrinkled age, the gaunt shallows of his cheeks. He lifted his foot, and stood upon the second step. Up and up he went, one stair at a time, just as they’d been set. The path to the mountain is where holiness is found, his grandfather had said, so why not walk it and return? What need is there for a temple when god should come to you through the stone? He did not doubt his grandfather’s wisdom, he merely saw the path more clearly. He need not do much more than walk and god would come to him. 

Yonten walked for a long ways. The steps changed beneath his feet, he felt the shift of one man to another, of father to son. Each stone was different, carved by an ever-shifting hand. Carved from adolescents to adulthood, from course to masterful, and back again. He could not feel the rain on these stones, the places where the wind lashed and tore--these were young. 

His legs ached from the climb, clouds passed him by, wind swept across his bones. He had not found any god hidden within the rock, he noticed. There felt nothing sacred about his walk beyond its cultivation. Was his grandfather a fool? His father? Spending their lives upon this cliff, laying stone to dirt for monotonous eternity. There was no temple at its peak, and he would die long before there could be. A meaningless practice, he thought. Why had his mother let him leave? 

Then, above him on the rockface, balancing on patches of sliding dirt and shifting rock, was his father. They met eyes, and Danzin yelped. “Yonten!” He said. “Off front the stones, they are sacred!” 

The young boy looked down, confused, then back up at his father, struggling along the side of the mountain. Hurriedly, he jumped from the rock, caught his balance on the side of the staircase. 

“What are you doing on the steps, Yonten?” His father shouted down. “Where is your grandfather?” 

“He is sleeping,” said the boy. “I did not know, father. I am sorry.” He looked as though tears may come, his eyes swelled red. “I did not know,” he repeated. 

His father reached him on the slope, catching himself with a hand. “You should not be here, Yonten. You should be working the chisel,” he said. 

His son looked to the dirt. “I do not want to carve the stone, father. I find it pointless.” 

Danzin gave him a long look, eyes soft, considering. “You have thought about his,” He said. 

The boy nodded. “I understand grandfather sees holiness in the path, in carving the stone and laying it to the ground. I do not. I will see no temple atop the mountain in my life. I will have no place for my prayers. God is distant here, I do not see him.” 

Danzin smiled slightly. “He is all around, my son, look.” He gestured in a sweeping circle. Yonten did not seem to understand. His father breathed and spoke gently. “You need not set stone upon this mountain, my son. But understand, you will always lay steps. You may choose where, and how, but always you will lay steps. With every action, every choice, you are building a path--a staircase upon which others may walk, or may leave to time’s decay. For generations, your ancestors have chosen to lay their paths as one upon this cliff. Hoping, one day, we may reach that enlightened peak. You have the choice to continue along their path, Yonten. But you may also begin upon your own. If god is what you seek, I say this is as good a place as any. However, you may seek what you will and where you will it. Do you understand, Yonten?” 

Danzin’s foot met earth at the base of the staircase. He paused, looking to that first slab--that first stone laid lifetimes ago. Untouched beyond its initial placement and the feet of his son. From under the tree, Yonten smiled up at his father, hands wrapped around the hammer and the chisel, a large stone propped before him. 

“It is time,” Danzin said, and Yonten smiled. 

June 25, 2022 03:19

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3 comments

Ayesha 🌙
22:27 Jun 28, 2022

This was a great story! It was very descriptive and really drew me into the world. One thing I would say is to establish the setting more -- is this happening in our world? What country. and what time? Otherwise, amazing job.

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J.D. Volpe
01:14 Jun 29, 2022

Thank you so much! That was definitely something I had intended to do; time and word count snuck up on me. I considered editing in order to add those sorts of details, but I figured the story itself /could/ exist in a sort of timeless, locationless place without too much detriment (could be wrong).

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N.R. Pierce
05:28 Jun 30, 2022

I really loved threw introduction of this characters into the intricately created world on the mountainside. The story really took off for me then.

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