Fiction Coming of Age

“They say when you reach the top, you can raise your hand toward the sky and shake hands with God,” Reverend Paul Hume said to Zack in fragments, broken up by large gulps of air. The trail was steep and dotted with roots and rocks which Paul had to take extra care not to trip over, as he would certainly tumble a long way down before coming to a stop. With each step of his right foot, he stabbed the end of his hiking pole into the ground, leaving a trail of uniformly spaced punctures in the dirt. He twisted his left ankle a while back and couldn’t put much weight on it. The doctor told him that a man his age shouldn’t even be climbing the trail with two good feet, but Paul was determined to meet his Creator no matter how much it hurt. Stubbornness isn’t one of the Deadly Sins, he frequently told himself.

Zack heard him, but chose not to say anything. Partly because he was concentrating on not dropping the tote bag full of supplies for the both of them, but mostly because this was the third time Paul brought up God and he was getting sick of hearing it. He had only agreed to go on this trip because his father, who was supposed to go along with Paul, came down with pneumonia the day prior, and Paul could not be trusted to go on the trip alone. Instead, he mumbled a limerick his grandfather liked to say to him when he was a child.

There once was a man from Nantucket,

Whose rear end got stuck in a bucket.

But try as he might, 

The thing was on tight.

He quit and then cried out “Oh—”

His mother always covered his ears before his grandfather could finish.

On the right side of the trail, a tree with a trunk at least one meter in diameter stretched two of its roots to the left side of the trail, forming a wooden staircase only two steps high. Zack made one large stride over both steps, then turned back to offer his hand to Paul, who took it and climbed the steps one at a time, jabbing his hiking pole into the small patch of dirt between the two roots.

“Thank you, my child,” Paul said. “God didn’t want to make it easy for us to reach the top. Only the truly devoted get to shake his hand, they say.”

“It’s the least I can do,” Zack said.

Once he reached Zack’s level, Paul pointed toward a comfortably-sized circle of flat earth covered in grass. “Let’s sit down over there. My foot is aching,” he said.

Zack took a picnic blanket out from the tote bag and laid it in the spot where the sun shone through the branches of the massive tree. Paul lowered himself to the ground, politely refusing Zack’s help with a shake of his head, though he relied heavily on his hiking pole to prevent him from dropping like a bag of rocks. Zack sat on the corner of the blanket, right where the sun bordered the shade, so he could cool his face and warm his legs. He rifled through the tote bag and handed Paul one of the two sandwiches they packed, and the pair enjoyed a well-earned break in the soft ruffle of the leaves in the breeze.

“How are your studies going?” Paul asked after some moments of thoughtful chewing.

“Good. Very good, actually,” Zack replied. “I only have a few more papers to write, and then I’ll have all the credits I need to graduate.”

“That’s wonderful news, congratulations. Remind me what you are studying?”

“Biology, with a minor in philosophy.”

“Ah, yes, very good.”

Zack looked over the side of the trail, down to where two deer and a fawn were drinking from a slowly-flowing river that originated from a hole in the side of the mountain and meandered into a cover of trees. Then he looked up toward the peak of the imposing mountain, fixing his eyes on the apex that scratched the clouds to shreds, and wondering, why would God hide in a place like this? Why did Paul want to go on this trip in the first place? And why am I so unlucky to be here? There once was a man from Nantucket, he repeated in his mind.

“Your grandfather is proud of you,” Paul said to break the lull in the conversation.

“Yeah,” Zack said, then sighed deeply. “I know.”

“No, you don’t understand,” Paul said. “He told me so. He said that he sees everything you are accomplishing and he is so proud of the man you’ve grown into.”

Zack plucked a dandelion from the ground and examined its array of thin yellow petals. In his botany class he learned how to identify each part of a flower and what its purpose was for reproduction. The stamen produce the pollen, which fertilizes the pistil—hopefully the pistil of a different dandelion, to ensure proper gene mixing—and turns the dandelion from flat and yellow to fluffy and gray. If he were to rip open the dandelion he held, he would see the unfertilized seeds tucked inside the fat green bulb at the top of the stem, though he refrained from doing so. Even though he killed the dandelion by tearing it out of the ground, he felt it deserved a dignified end, one where it stayed mostly intact. He laid the dandelion alongside one he didn’t pick, hoping that its friend could benefit from its pollen.

Sensing that the conversation would not progress further, Paul suggested the two of them continue their trek up the mountain. Zack agreed, and helped Paul to his feet, not allowing him to refuse his assistance. He neatly folded the blanket and put it back into the tote bag, then the two of them resumed their walk up the steep trail.

The air on the mountain was pleasant and fresh; Zack could almost taste the aromas of pine. He wondered if he was the first person to ever inhale some of the oxygen molecules in this air. It must have been probable, he reasoned, because there are trillions upon trillions of molecules in every cubic meter of gas, and since so few people had ever made it this far up the mountain, surely not all of the molecules had been previously claimed. He took comfort in this, knowing that even if he achieved nothing else, his grandfather could boast to the others that his grandson was the first to breathe some of the air atop this mountain.

The mountain was starting to take its toll on Paul. His breathing became labored and he frequently requested for Zack to wait so he could lean against a tree or rock and steady himself. Once they reached the penultimate turn before the peak, Paul broke into a fit of coughing that lasted long enough for Zack to be concerned and suggest the two of them head back.

“No, no, I’m—” Paul said, interrupting himself by hacking a few more coughs. “I’m not as—as old as you think. I can—can make it up.” 

“You’ll never make it up if you choke to death,” Zack said. 

He handed Paul one of the extra water bottles he packed. Paul sat on a rock that protruded from the side of the mountain and formed a small bench that could seat exactly one person. He drank slowly from the water bottle, coughing and gasping for air in between each sip, until it was half empty. He poured the remaining water into his hands and rubbed it on his face, which cleaned off a thin layer of dirt that he had not noticed was there until his hands came back muddy and sticky.

“I’ll be okay, really,” Paul said once he steadied his breathing. “This isn’t just about me, you know.”

“What do you mean?” Zack asked.

“Your grandfather. He wants you to do this, he told me. ”

Zack sighed and looked up the trail. The peak was just a short walk away; he could make it up there himself in only fifteen minutes if he didn’t need to keep Paul from pushing himself too hard. It was an easy trip, just put one foot down on the ground and swing the other forward. Then place that foot down and swing the other forward. Repeat until the peak is reached. It was simple. So simple that babies learn how to do it after only a few years.

The thing holding him back wasn’t physical. It wasn’t the steepness and it wasn’t Paul and it wasn’t the rocks and roots. No, it was what laid at the top of the mountain that repelled him and fixed his feet squarely on the ground where he stood. If he was a bird, he could fly up. If he was a snake, he could slither. But he was neither—he was plain old human, and humans had to walk to get to where they needed to be. So to reach the peak, all he needed to do was compel his feet to move. But try as he might, he repeated in his mind.

Zack extended his hand for Paul to grab, and the two started the last leg of their journey up the mountain. Something must have changed in Paul, however, because he no longer huffed and puffed, he stopped needing to catch his breath on a tree, and he even seemed to walk without the assistance of his hiking pole. It was as if he were being carried up the mountain by some divine force, one that Zack could not feel. And as Paul sped up, Zack slowed down. Zack slowed to the point where Paul suggested they take another break, at the last stretch of hill before the peak of the mountain.

“What’s wrong, my child?” Paul asked, placing his hand on Zack’s shoulder.

“Nothing’s wrong,” Zack said.

“Now, now, you can be honest with me. Is it your grandfather?”

Zack nodded without turning toward Paul.

“I understand. I know how hard it is to lose someone you look up to. But he is in a better place now, and I’m certain he is enjoying himself up there. He was a man of God, my child. I have no doubt that he is in Heaven with God right now.”

There they were. The words that Zack hoped would never be said but knew inevitably would. His commitment to his studies as a biologist prevented him from ever believing in such a God. The evidence was clear to him: Earth could not have been created 6000 years ago because the fossil record disproves it. Humans weren’t created with intelligent design, it was a process of trial and error over millions of years that resulted in a creature with a useless tailbone and a rupture-prone appendix. God couldn’t love each and every one of his creations because He punished their finite sins with infinite punishment. 

Yet his grandfather believed in God anyway. He believed the words of the Bible and Paul. He fully understood the biologists’ arguments, yet he deemed them insufficient for changing his mind. That’s why Zack hid his beliefs away from his grandfather, for the freedom of admitting his truth was undoubtedly outweighed by the fear of losing his grandfather’s respect. He thought, why am I still climbing? What will happen when I reach the top? How could my grandfather be proud of such a heretic! These thoughts and others ensnared him; they formed a ball and chain around his ankle that dragged in soft dirt of the trail behind him. The thing was on tight, he repeated in his mind.

“Let’s just go,” Zack said, holding back tears. “I think I’m ready to reach the top.”

Paul smiled and patted him firmly on the back. “I think I am, too.”

Paul led the two of them up the last leg of the trail. The top of the mountain was flat and dotted with small patches of foliage. The air, unobstructed by the trees down below, kept everything in perfect silence.

Zack looked down and all around himself. In each direction, the ground blurred and blended with the trail below; he could hardly distinguish the path he had just walked from the wilderness that surrounded it. The height made him dizzy; he tried to keep his weight directly below him so that he wouldn’t lose his balance and tumble all the way down. Yet being here, above the confusion and hubbub of everyday life on the surface of the planet, made him feel unusually grounded, and confident that his beliefs were the correct ones. It’s funny, he thought, how seeing the world from Heaven’s point of view would be the last thing I needed to know it isn’t even real. He looked to his right to see Paul, reaching out his hand toward the sun.

“Yes. Yes!” Paul shouted. “Can you feel Him? I can! Oh, it is so wonderful. It is truly a blessing, my Lord, to be shaking your hand right now. I’ve never felt closer to you than I do now, my Lord. All these years I’ve prayed for a moment like this and now it has finally arrived. To finally meet my Lord and feel him grasp my hand is simply divine. Try it now, Zack! Raise your hand to God. To your grandfather! Feel them shake your hand. Can you feel them? It feels so freeing, like a strong breeze blowing through my fingers and blessing me here and now! I can feel God. I can feel your grandfather! He says he loves you, my child. Can you hear him? He says he loves you and is so very proud of you! Raise your hand, Zack. Raise it and feel your grandfather and God!”

Zack, after a second of doubt, raised his hand toward the sky and felt the cool stillness of the air between his fingers.

January 21, 2023 01:56

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Stevie Burges
02:01 Jan 30, 2023

I loved the descriptions of the climb and the mountain, and I could definitely identify with Paul's difficulties with the climb. Well done.


Jacob Brown
17:41 Feb 03, 2023

Thank you very much! :)


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Wendy Kaminski
02:53 Jan 22, 2023

Very inspiring story, Jacob! Though Zack is filled with doubt, he's at least honoring his predecessors and elders. I think Paul would say it's a start; and given that he tries at the end, I'm not so sure he has convinced himself, after all. :) I loved this line: "Stubbornness isn’t one of the Deadly Sins, he frequently told himself." :) Was this inspired by real life? It was really good!


Jacob Brown
14:18 Jan 23, 2023

Thank you so much for your kind words! I'd say the message/theme was drawn from real life, but the plot was not. I recently finished James Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," and it made me reflect on myself and my views on religion/family. :)


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