The TV droned on with the soothing voice of the newscaster, but the old man had long ago nodded off, his head nestled on a cushion. His daughter-in-law, Kaori, gently opened the sliding door to look down on him, hesitating whether to let him know that lunch was ready, or let him be. But sensing her presence he blinked and opened his eyes wearily, smiling faintly but warmly in her direction.
“Father, why don’t you come and join us? Lunch is ready”, she tried. Propping himself up by his elbows, the old man seemed to be thinking for a minute. “Hmm, thanks, but I’m not so hungry right now. I see it looks nice outside. Let me go out just for a breath of fresh air.”
He was standing now, stretching his arms back and reaching for his nondescript brownish jacket, hung on a peg on the wall. Kaori looked on, a passing shadow of concern flitting across her brow. “Okay, father, be careful. Don’t stay out too long.” He slipped on his walking shoes, then running his weathered fingers through a few wispy strands of white hair still clinging to his scalp said sheepishly, “Hey, don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.” As he slid the outside door shut, a draft of cool November air swirled in the entry way, and then he was gone.
The hills surrounding his neighborhood still wore the lingering colors of autumn; their vividness seemed to reach out, compelling him to come closer. His legs weren’t what they used to be, so he usually didn’t venture far. But feeling invigorated by the brisk, crystal clear air, he gamely headed down the line of homes on his block towards the end of the street, where a spur of the hills came down. As he approached he could see the familiar steps leading up to the village shrine. He used to go up there almost every day, but that was in the old days when he was much younger. 94 years! Every time he thought about his age, he found it difficult to accept he could be that old. And the shrine? The sad fact was that since his operation almost a decade earlier, he hadn’t been up to pay his respects, no, not even once.
Standing at the foot of the stairs going up, he looked at them wondering. He felt much more energy than usual, and it was a fine day. “Surely, I can still do this!” he thought to himself. Just then, from a nearby house a couple of young boys burst out, laughing and jumping. Joking with each other about something he couldn’t catch, they suddenly turned and in a flash ran by him, racing up the stairs with the wild abandon of youth. Through the shadows of the trees lining the stairway he could see them pause about halfway up, panting, then laughing again disappear as they ran towards the top. A wave of melancholy and envy swept over him, but smiling wryly, he muttered “When I was your age, me and Sato, we would have left you in the dust!”
Ah yes, Sato. Glancing at a house a few doors down the street, it looked cold and empty, although he knew that Sato’s family still lived there. But since the day his dear friend had passed on six years before, to him the house always had a vacant, almost abandoned look about it. He paused to look up the stairway once more. “Okay, Sato, let’s go up these steps once last time together.” Placing his hand on the railing he slowly began his ascent. His knees were complaining, as they always did these days. He was surprised at how often he had to pause to catch his breath and let his knees rest, though he had barely started.
After a score of steps he paused on a small landing, and glanced at his watch. That had taken him more than five minutes. Why he used to run up all the way to the top without stopping! But Sato had usually still beaten him up, even if just by a whisker. Sato had always seemed to be one step ahead of him. He thought back. When was it he had met Sato? Yes, it had been when they were 6th graders, just after Sato’s family moved to the neighborhood. He could still recall a community race held that year. Fleet of feet, both of them had been chosen for the anchor portion of the relay competing for different teams. Previous to that he couldn’t remember any boy having ever beaten him in a race, but just at the end he had sensed Sato pulling up on his shoulder, and just barely surging by him to cross the line first. But they had become almost inseparable companions after that.
“Hey, my old friend. Will you let me win just this once?” Sato’s lean face seemed to pass before his eyes, playfully nodding his agreement. “Then, it’s a deal!” The old man gathered his energy and started up again.
Perspiring despite the chill wind, he carefully counted each step, while wayward leaves scurried away. He could feel his legs trembling. “Oh come on, dear friends, how could you become so flabby and useless? Don’t give up on me now.” As he strained with each step, the sound of his own belabored breathing seemed to transport him to a time and place far away. His breath hung like frost in the air matching the rhythm of his stride as he found himself running up a steep mountain road, flanked by snow-covered trees.
He could see ahead of him a group of three runners, each wearing proudly the colors of their respective universities. They were all that stood between him and taking the lead on this bitterly cold winter day. He knew his teammates were already congregated on the far side of the mountain, anxiously waiting for him to cross the finish line. With each step he could feel himself inching a little closer to his competitors in front. Despite his weariness, he sensed they were more tired, their legs even heavier than his. By the time they reached the summit of their climb, he could pass them.
Suddenly, he felt his right leg tightening. In the next instant a sharp flash of pain twisted through it, lancing him like a spear. The cramp spread up his thigh, as he struggled to ignore the pain. Limping as he ran, his heart sank as the runners in front began to pull away. No, he couldn’t stop; there was too much at stake! Utter misery and shame engulfed him as one runner after another passed him. Only the image of his teammates eagerly waiting to catch a glimpse of him somehow kept him going.
He shook his head. No, that was more than 70 years ago. But the cramp was real. His whole body quivering from the effort, he realized he had made it more than halfway up. “Sato”, he whispered, “Where are you, anyway? I thought you said you were coming with me. I don’t think I have the energy to go on alone.” But no answer came this time, just the gentle rustle of the breeze swaying the upper branches of the trees.
Looking up again, he could see the shrine gate where the stairs came to end further up. He had come too far, and his own stubbornness wouldn’t let him stop now. Luckily the cramp in his leg was beginning to ease somewhat. He took one step, then stopping to breathe heavily, another step, and the same. Again beads of sweat began to form on his forehead, and the trembling spreading from his legs through his body. Just like that mountain road decades ago. He remembered how he had kept going, despite the pain. Every now and then he would pass one or two onlookers cheering him and the others on. But he wasn’t sure how much more he could endure.
Suddenly up ahead there was a figure standing by the road who looked somehow familiar. As he drew closer, he realized. It was Sato! He looked strange dressed in his running clothes, with those crutches cradled under his arms, his leg in a cast. From a distance he was shouting “Kimura-san, Kimura-san! Keep going! You can do it!” Almost abreast of him now, he could see the tears streaking his face, as their hands reached out to touch each other for just a moment in passing. Looking back quickly, he again caught a glimpse of Sato waving one hand in the air. “Go, go, go!” he heard. Suddenly, he felt a surge of energy course through his body. The devastating cramp had cooled to a dull throb, lost in a newly recovered emotion and adrenaline.
The old man stopped again on the rock steps leading up. It was funny how this memory of the past wouldn’t leave him alone. His body felt completely drained of energy, his legs almost numb beneath him. Still, he was getting close to the top. Yet Sato wasn’t around this time to cheer him on. And besides, despite the cruel battering he had endured on that mountain road, his body had been young and resilient. Who was he fooling anyway? There was no one to give him a prize, and how did he think he was going to make it down again?
Carefully turning around, bracing himself on the metal railing, he looked over the town where he had spent his whole life. He stared at the stairs leading down. A surge of angriness at himself and his ridiculous situation came welling up. “Sato!”, he yelled. He thought he could hear his voice echoing off distant mountains. “Where are you, anyway? You were the one who egged me on to do this!”
He once again turned slowly to look up and blinked. For a moment it was as if he had seen the figure of Sato standing up near the top, smiling, almost taunting him. Funny thing the light this time of day! “Sato!” Another distant echo. “Don’t play around with me!” But his decision was made; up seemed the only way he could go. Sighing, he sought to gather whatever semblance of energy and courage he could muster, and started up once more.
Somehow, he heard the voice of his former coach whispering in his ear, “Kimura, it’s the end of the race that matters most. Are you going to be able to keep going till the end?” His teammates had looked at him solemnly in the face. They each had their own hour of agony to bear in the relay, but his was the greatest challenge of all-the mountain leg. And he almost hadn’t made it. But the sight of Sato, helpless with his injury, cheering him on, had made the difference. Now he was headed downhill, trying to avoid the icy patches on the steep descent towards the lake shimmering in the distance, and his goal, the town of Hakone. He wasn’t going to be first, but he would be able to hold his head up with pride when he crossed the finish line.
It was a quaint, picturesque town with throngs of onlookers waving flags as he and the other runners passed. He had passed a runner or two-it was enough. He rounded a corner and there it was, a white ribbon marking the end of the race! And beyond it he could make out the faces of his teammates. They were jumping up and down, waving him on wildly with their arms. Standing in the gate of the shrine, just above him they were all there. There was Nakamura and Ishii, both of whom had died in the Great War. Abe as well, who had succumbed to cancer almost 25 years ago. “Too much smoking” he muttered. What were they doing here anyway? He saw Kumagai, who had taken Sato’s place, calling out, “Kimura, just a little bit more!”
The old man squinted in the afternoon sun, as he struggled to mount the last few steps, but the images in front of him, or in his mind, wouldn’t go away. Where and who was he anyway? There they all were, even Sato-san. The finish line flanked by throngs of cheering people and the humble steps leading up the gate of a village shrine became as if one in his consciousness. His lungs were burning with an indescribable fire, his breath dry and rasping, he forced his legs to make the final step and … he crossed the finish line!
What a feeling! Drained of life, but surrounded by his old teammates and comrades, thumping him on the shoulders, cheering and embracing him-he could see tears in many of their eyes. They all looked so young, it was all so surreal. Slowly they led him, smiling, bracing him up, towards a stone bench under a tree to the side of the shrine. They all seemed so happy. Surely they would fade away soon like the morning mist. But still they were there, as he enjoyed the intense sense of accomplishment and the delight of letting his body rest. Sato-san beamed down into his face, “Kimura” he confided, “There are some more here to see you”.
The old man raised his head once more. The falling sun was nearly framed in the stone entry to the shrine, just above the mountains in the distance. The brilliant light illuminated from behind the silhouettes of several figures. They seemed to be beckoning him toward the light. Their faces were obscured, but their outlines were familiar-he knew intuitively who they all were-his father, his mother, and even dear Reiko, his wife of half a century.
“Sato-san”, the old man said, “I feel they’re calling me. But, I…I don’t think I can stand up anymore. Can you help me this one last time?” Sato smiled wisely. “Kimura, don’t worry. Just try. You already crossed the finish line. I’ll bet you have more energy than you think.” The old man felt unsure, but with all his teammates reassuring him and urging him on, he said “Okay, I’ll try, but don’t expect too much.”
The old man carefully pushed himself to his feet, and lifted each one tentatively. It was funny, they felt so light. He couldn’t remember the last time they had felt like that. He felt his breathing. It was smooth and normal again, and he could drink in freely the glorious air of this fall day. How could his body have recuperated so quickly? Slowly starting to walk, it felt as if with each step a decade of his life was shedding away. Quicker and quicker, until the last few steps he was practically running into the arms of his mother! It seemed that all around him was warm light, and the delicious sensation of being enveloped by loving hands and voices, as if he were living in a dream of his childhood…
They found him lying curled up on a bench beside the shrine, just as the boys had told them. “I think he’s sleeping”, one of them had said. Kenji looked at the gently smiling face of his father, while Kaori clung to his arm, her face flushed from the climb. “Dad” he began to say, but the lump in his throat seemed to swallow up his words. They both already sensed that the old man had departed for a destination far, far away.